Smokey Joe and the Time Bandit: Chapter 12

Back in 1912, RBIs were not an official statistic and thus there was no Triple Crown, but even Miguel Cabrera's monster season couldn't top Tris Speaker 188 OPS+ - Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan O'Malley is right there reporting as events that would forever shape Fenway Park play out in the distance world of 1912.

Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Though Joe Wood had been offended by my comments about Stahl resting him more, there was no doubt he could have used the time off. By early August he was already passing 200 innings and the strain was visibly having an effect on his fastball. I was careful never to mention it directly to the hot-headed young hurler, but he seem to acknowledge it, even if only in his pitch selection. Throughout August, he relied more heavily on his off speed stuff, keeping hitters off-balance with his curve and change and only dialing up his best fastball when he was really in a jam. In this way, the arm fatigue may have been a positive. He became a more complete pitcher as the season went on. Without being able to rely on his ability to throw the ball by hitters, he was forced to learn to outsmart them. So he kept winning.

By mid- August, everyone baseball fan, writer and casual observer was fixed on the dual pursuit of Rube Marquad’s consecutive win streak. Joe Wood and Walter Johnson added some much needed intrigue to a season that had nothing much going on in the way of pennant races. The Giants had stumbled some but they were never less than five games ahead of the next best team after the month of May. The Red Sox had taken longer to assert their dominance, but as August wound down, they were eight games up on Johnson’s Senators and they seemed unlikely to falter with so many games remaining against St. Louis, Cleveland and New York. For the Senators to have any chance they would need to sweep Boston in the early September series that was rapidly taking over the focus of every baseball fan in America.

As appealing as a Wood versus Johnson match up might be, as August wore on, forces began moving against that possibility. I was in Detroit with the team for the final leg of a long road trip when Stahl once again hinted that this match up may not take place. I had been asking him about his rotation and whether or not the emergence of Ray Collins and Charlie Hall might let him rest Wood a bit more.

"Why the hell would I do that?" Stahl chuckled, "Wood is as close to a guaranteed win as you get in this game right now"

He was right. Wood was looking unbeatable, even when his fastball was lacking its usual pop.

"It’s just that you seem to have five strong options, why not add an extra days rest while you have the breathing room?"

Stahl gave me a long look before turning away from me to watch the struggling Harry Hooper’s batting practice.

"It doesn’t work that way. Pitchers are creatures of habit. They don’t pitch every fourth day, they get thrown off. You ought to know that," he scolded. "Right now, we have a sizable lead in the pennant race and we don’t want to lose it. If we do win, we are going to want Wood pitching every fourth day in the World Series, so you don’t mess around things. It just isn’t done."

I pressed on; "you’re not worried he might get hurt? I asked.

Stahl gave me a coy smile. "You always have to worry about that," he said. "We’re taking steps to ease your concerns"

It was an odd comment. What could Stahl possibly mean by that? I let it go. "If the match up between Wood and Johnson does happen…"

Stahl shook his head. "IF," he said, highlighting the uncertainty. "If that match up ever happens, I’ll be happy to talk about it all day" He walked away shouting something to Hooper about his hands.

It still baffled me that Stahl would consider holding Wood back against Johnson. If the chance came up, it was sure to be the biggest ticket of the season. GM Jimmy McAleer surely would not let Stahl rob him of that. In fact, the duel would be so high profile, league president Ban Johnson might even insist that Stahl allow it. With pressure from Johnson, Stahl would have no choice. His response seemed oblivious of all of that.

I ran it over and over in my head as I made my way to the press box. As I entered the room, I saw Tim Mulholland puffing a cigar as he leaned out over the crowd, his eyes focused on the man in the batter’s box taking his practice swings.

"You think Wood and Johnson will match up this season?" I asked him, trying to sound as casual as possible.

He glanced over at me out of the side of his eye, suspicious. "So I guess your mystery source doesn’t have a line to the front office," he grumbled. "Or the league for that matter."

I cursed myself for being so transparent with my question. A buzz was starting to build and I was behind Mulholland and the rest. His snide remarks hid some valuable information, however. If the league was involved, that likely meant one thing: the Red Sox were making a play for Walter Johnson. It made sense. I had never spoken with Ban Johnson , but his reputation for meddling in the affairs of American League teams was the stuff of legend. He had built a rival to the National League by making sure that major cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago fielded winning teams. He was not above bullying a less successful franchise into selling off its stars to a team making a pennant run. Johnson’s Senators were in second place, but they had little hope of catching the Red Sox. Pairing Joe Wood with Walter Johnson would make the Red Sox virtually unstoppable. In a short series, even the mighty Giants would have little hope against those two and that was just what Ban Johnson wanted. Long before 1912, the American League President had tried to court John McGraw to his junior circuit and, predictably, the courtship ended badly. The combative McGraw was too stubborn for Johnson to control and the falling out between them, which had led to McGraw taking over the Giants, had left both sides bitter. The boycott of the 1904 World Series had cemented Johnson’s hatred for McGraw and even eight years later Johnson was eager to see McGraw defeated.

It might have been a leap, but Mulholland had basically confirmed things in my mind. Everything Stahl had been saying began to make sense. Wood and Johnson may never need to square off because Johnson would be pitching for Boston.

Except that he would not. As exciting as the rumor was, I knew would not happen. Johnson played his career with the Senators. As tough as Ban Johnson might have been, he could not force Senators owner Clark Griffin to part with the greatest pitcher since Cy Young. I turned my attention back to the field and stood silently next to Mulholland. It did not matter if I knew the outcome, I would have to investigate the rumor anyway.

When the team returned to Boston I began a steady harassment of General Manager Jimmy McAleer. The Red Sox GM had never been very open with me or with anyone else. He had floated the idea of acquiring Hal Chase with a few of us to see what the reaction would be, but this story would be different. There was no reason to gauge the reaction of Red Sox or Senators fans. The deal would be tantamount to surrender for the Senators and even the most cynical Red Sox fan would have to admit they were unstoppable with the Big Train on board. Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to get McAleer to confirm my suspicions, but as the Senators-Red Sox series approached, I still had little more than innuendo to go on.

Meanwhile, Wood and Johnson kept winning. The streak rose to 14 games, then 15, then 16 games with the match up at Fenway Park coming ever closer. On August 26, Walter Johnson was called in to pitch in relief, something he did a shocking number of times considering he also pitched ever fourth day. Whether he was fatigued or he just didn’t have it, he failed to strand the two runners he inherited and the Senators lost. I hardly took notice of this when I first read the wire report. Under our current rules, this would have meant absolutely nothing. Johnson would not be responsible for inherited runners and the loss would have gone to the starter Tom Hughes. However, this scoring subtlety was not so clearly defined in that time and to my surprise, this became a minor controversy.

It didn’t take long for Ban Johnson to rule that the loss should be charged to Walter Johnson. It seemed ridiculous to me, but few of the men at Third Base or in the press box had an issue with the ruling. Johnson had failed to prevent the winning runs from scoring as he was suppose to. The matter was that simple for most fans. Around the time that Johnson’s streak was snapped, the whispers of a trade for the ace also died out. Clark Griffith must have rejected McAleer’s final offer and proved himself immune to the pressure the American League president was putting on him because all chatter about the Big Train joining the Red Sox ended. Now, Stahl might not have to put Joe Wood, with his own streak possibly on the line against Walter Johnson. The end of Johnson’s pursuit of might allow him to follow his typical practice and hold back Wood to face a lesser pitcher. That is almost certainly what Stahl would have done and it would have been a bitter disappointment for fans, but Clark Griffith intervened.

Wood’s winning streak was still alive as the Senator’s arrived to play the Red Sox in a four game series at Fenway. I was hoping to get a chance to speak to Walter Johnson about Joe Wood before the series started so I did what I would usually do in such situations: I simply went down to the Copley Square Hotel where the visitors were lodged to wait for the Senator's ace.

The Hotel was well known to me by that point. It was the most convenient upscale Hotel to the Red Sox new ballpark and most of the visiting teams’ players would stay there. The team arrived on Tuesday, August 3 and there was no game that day so I was fairly certain this would be my best shot to speak with Johnson. The Hotel was protective of guest privacy, but typically if a writer arrived before dinner time and waited at the bar, he could get a few questions in while a player was waiting for their meal, if the player was in a good mood, that is. The staff of the hotel knew me and most of the other writers at this point and as long as we spent money while we waited and avoided creating any disruptions, they tolerated us. So I was surprised that when I entered, a concierge greeted me right away.

"Hello Mr. O’Malley," the man said as he stepped between me and the path to the bar. "Mr. Griffith has asked that I invite you to join him in his parlor," he explained with some force. I was caught off guard. Why would Clark Griffith, who I had never even seen before want to speak with me?

"Alright," I muttered as the man directed me to the elevator.

"Sixth floor," he instructed the elevator operator as he waved me into the lift. I nodded a meek affirmation and lit a cigar. I was nervous. I had never even considered that a man like Clark Griffith would know I was alive, let alone be requesting my presence.

When the elevator stopped and opened up, I finally understood. Griffith had not asked for me at all; he had called a press conference. Just inside the door to his suite, the majority of Boston’s beat writers were milling about, smoking and jotting down notes in their small pads. I was relieved to know I would not be alone with the baseball magnate, but just as curious as ever about what was to come. I found Mulholland and asked if he knew anything about Griffith’s intentions.

"It can only be two things, right?" he asked rhetorically.

He was right. There were only two reasons we would be asked here. Griffith could have sold Walter Johnson to Boston after all. That was the obvious answer. That would certainly be newsworthy, but it was a poor explanation for the gathering. If that deal had been made, Griffith would not be gathering Boston writers to him. It would be coup for the Red Sox and an unconditional surrender for him. You would hardly call a press conference on your own terms to announce it. This would be something else.

The lean ex-pitcher entered the room and asked the men to listen up. "This won’t take long," he said. "I intend to hold Walter Johnson back until Stahl decides to pitch Joe Wood, He announced. "I want to give fans a chance to see those pitchers hitched up and feel sure that my man can win the honors."

The brief pause that followed this announcement was filled with the rush of pens scribbling the quote down.

Giffith continued, "Johnson’s record this season was against all comers and I want to see Joe Wood tied up with our man." It was an obvious dig at Jake Stahl. Wood had yet to meet Johnson, thanks to Stahl’s strategy and Griffith knew this was a sore spot for many fans, who had wanted to see that battle all year. The "Old Fox" did not stop there though. He had called this press conference to ensure the match up happened and he did not get his nickname for nothing.

"Tell Wood," he went on, smiling deviously, "that we will consider him a coward if he doesn’t pitch against Johnson."

An audible reaction from the group helped punctuate the word "coward." Griffith would have his way, there was no doubt about it. He had not mentioned Jake Stahl once in these few brief sentences, but the target of this challenge was clear. By questioning Wood’s courage, Griffith ensured that the young ace would force Stahl’s hand. It was brilliantly done. Griffith would have his match up and Wood would have to risk his streak against the game’s bet pitcher. For his part Griffith would not only get the match up he wanted, but a share of what was sure to be a record setting box office.

He thanked the writers for their time and made his exit, satisfied with his devious maneuvering.

As a group, the writers spilled out of the Copley and took to the streets of Boston, intent on finding Jake Stahl.

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