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Smokey Joe and the Time Bandit: Chapter 7

Boston Red Sox right fielder Cody Ross (7) hits a walk-off home run Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park.  He wasn't the first player to clear the LF Wall either, that honor goes to Hugh Bradley. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE
Boston Red Sox right fielder Cody Ross (7) hits a walk-off home run Chicago White Sox at Fenway Park. He wasn't the first player to clear the LF Wall either, that honor goes to Hugh Bradley. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

Ryan O'Malley continues the story of his fateful trip back to 1912 and his time covering the first Red Sox team to bring a World Series title home to Fenway Park.

Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

With the home opener behind me, I fell into a steady routine at the paper. The Red Sox games began at most days. There were no lights in any stadium at the time and it was hardly unusual to have games called or suspended to darkness. The most famous game to be suspend for darkness and replayed had happened just a few years earlier, when Giants first baseman Fred Merkle had failed to touch second in a game against the Cubs that would have given the Giants the pennant in 1908. That game was never far from the mind’s of the other writers whenever a game would linger on toward sunset.

Typically, however, the games went by incredibly fast compared to the modern version. Aside from being lower scoring, there was also very little delay between innings without commercial breaks to hold things up. Relief appearances were limited as well and when they did happen, they did not slow things down much. That was my impression, anyway, but it was not the contemporary view. Up in the press box that first week, there was constant griping about the length of the Red Sox games. The team was sluggish, some of the veteran Boston men claimed, because of the cold- it was a damp, rainy and cold spring that year. The out-of-town writers were quicker to place the blame on the players and even speculate about tensions between Stahl and his players. Jake Stahl had been run out of Boston once, they mused and he would be run out again. It turns out they were right, but it didn’t happen until 1913 and so I would never see it. Whatever clubhouse issues there were, they stayed in the clubhouse for the one season I was there.

Even as "slow" as the games were I would generally get back to the Town Crier offices somewhere around if I went straight from the park. I had taken Hagerty’s advice and picked up a "portable" typewriter to use in the press box. The term portable was very much relative. The model I selected still weighted around 15 pounds and came enclosed in a bulky suitcase. I had a narrow selection to choose from, however, because QWERTY was hardly a standardized system in 1912 and was not about to try to adapt to the unfamiliar DHIATENSOR arrangement, even if it was "more logical" as the salesman claimed. Among my remaining choices, I picked the lightest.

Even as heavy as it was, it was still a god-send. I was able to type up a quick recap as the game progressed and, unless some late inning dramatics completely changed the narrative, I would need to do little more than clean up the story before handing it in. I could then rattle off a recap of the Braves games from the wire account and turn my attention to any "color" pieces that Ellis had requested.

Being the only baseball writer on the staff at the Crier meant that I was responsible for a great deal of material. I wrote at least four different "color" pieces on FenwayPark itself and profiles of every player on the team. The demands of the job meant that I had little time to follow up on what I got from interviews. If I was lucky I might be able to get someone on the phone from a local paper in a player’s hometown and confirm a few details, but this was a rare bit of good luck.

Many players, particularly from the South and Midwest, came from small towns where there might only be one or two telephones. The telephone networks were also a problem. The AT&T company was in the process of buying up all of the small networks that it could and it had virtually all the telephone business in the Boston and New England areas, but outside, many small telephone networks existed and it was impossible to place a call to a line on some other network. If I was able to reach a phone at a paper in someplace like Ness County, Kansas, where Smokey Joe Wood was from, I would be lucky to be able to make out half of what was said. This being the case, I relied almost entirely on what a player told me in writing up biographical pieces. I am sure more than one egregious error was made as a result, but that was the nature of the work.

And it certainly was work. As much as loved being at the games and spending every waking moment fixated on baseball, the volume of writing assigned to me was daunting from the start and it only got worse as the Red Sox took the town by storm over the summer. This was not unique to me either. Every newsman of the day lived a restless existence chasing down stories with little in the way of telecommunication or rapid transportation.

Our political team was easily the most harried. The 1912 election was gearing up to be the most dramatic contest in years thanks to a split in the Republican Party created by Teddy Roosevelt. The powers-that-be in Boston were almost entirely Democrats, including Mayor John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, who I had met through the Rooters (he was long time member and an extremely useful source if I could reach him) and this was the first chance for a Democratic presidential candidate in decades. Our owner, Rutherford Ellis, was nothing if not eager to please and so he ran his political team ragged, drudging up gory details of the battles between Roosevelt and President Taft. At the same time, they were preaching the virtues of various Democrats to the choir of Boston’s Irish working and merchant classes.

I was even somewhat relieved that the cost of travel was keeping me off the road. In the Fenway press box, I saw first hand just how tough road trips could be on a beat writer. I was responsible for the game story and often a shorter recap as well and I was assigned one or two additional pieces relating to specific match-ups or series on a daily basis, plus covering any team news that might come up. There far less access to trade rumors or injury reports in those days, but I still did my best to give our readers a daily look into the team and provide as much context as I could. The political connections of my friends in the Royal Rooters proved invaluable in that respect. Adding four and six hour railroad trips, hotels and the tedious process of wiring copy back to the office would likely turn my twelve hour work day into something closer to sixteen. So even as I was sorry to miss out on places like Hilltop Park and Shibe Field, I was relieved to have a little less work at the start and to stay close to the only sources I had developed down at the Third Base Saloon.

The first week of baseball at Fenway was hit hard by rain. Opening day had been delayed twice, which drove the front office crazy. The Red Sox also had to cancel the first game of the series with the Washington Senators due to rain. In two weeks of baseball, the team had already missed five games due to rainouts, packing the remainder of the schedule with doubleheader make-up games.

The Senators series gave me my first chance to see Smokey Joe Wood in the first game and a look at Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher of all time, in the second. I had gotten to see the great Christy Matthewson and a young kid named Grover Cleveland Alexander in that first week of Braves games, but nothing excited me more than the chance to see Walter Johnson.

Don’t get me wrong, Matty was something to see. He was as crafty as anyone I have ever seen on the mound and he threw more pitches than just about anyone else at the time, but at 31, he was starting to show his age. Even in his prime he did not boast a fastball like Johnson’s, or so I was frequently told by the crowd at Third Base. Alexander was only notable to people because he had lead the National League in wins in 1911, while pitching for the lowly Phillies. He was a draw, but no one then ever considered him in the same breath as Matty, Walter Johnson or even Smokey Joe. If I did not know he was on his way to a 20 year career and the hall of fame, I easily could have overlooked him as well.

Wood was a disappointment that first time. He lived up to his reputation as a hard throwing pitcher that lacked control. His fastball was electric, to be sure. I had the sense that there were far fewer pitchers that could average 90+ mph in those days and it had been confirmed by that first week of baseball.

Virtually everything about the game favored the pitcher. The ball went from a dull grey to soft brown color as the game progressed and by the ninth it was hard to see it at all from the press box. When hitters made contact, there was rarely a true crack of the bat, but rather a dull thump. Groundballs died on the thick, wet grass and fly balls almost never carried much beyond 250 feet. The ability to use spit, tobacco juice, or some other substance on the ball gave pitchers tons of movement and curves, sliders and other breaking balls were extreme as a result. All of this meant velocity was less vital to success. Wood was an exception.

The Boston ace threw harder than anyone else I had seen since I had had fallen back in time. He threw hard enough to pitch in today’s game by my eye, though I would guess that his weak secondary stuff would probably relegate him to the bullpen. That first game I was saw him, he looked like a hard throwing prospect- reaching back and throwing with little idea of where the ball would go. He missed the strike zone badly much of the time. Behind him, the Red Sox played terrible defense once again and lost 6-1 to the lowly Senators. I had bet heavily on Boston with Wood taking the hill and the loss set me back significantly. The fear that my presence would somehow change history for the worse was sneaking up on me after that game and I decided not to bet on the Red Sox as they faced Johnson the next day.

It was a good thing too. Even today, almost a ninety years after his career ended, you still have some people making the case that Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher of all time and with good reason. I don’t know if he threw harder than Wood- you would need a radar gun to settle that- but he was so far above Wood in every other respect that it could not have mattered less. Johnson’s fastball looked just as explosive as Wood’s, but Johnson could put it anywhere he wanted. He threw from a low slot, similar to Dennis Eckersley, and his motion was smooth and easy. Unlike Wood, he matched his killer fastball with a big 12-6 curve and probably the best change up of that time. He was far from perfect that first game I saw him pitch, but he was in complete control the entire time. Through speed, aggressive base running and the "small ball" tactics of the time, the Red Sox managed two runs against Johnson, but somehow it seemed like less. I decided that it was safest to avoid betting against Johnson, no matter how enticing the odds might get.

After the Senators, Connie Mack came to town with his $100,000 infield. Mack’s A’s were coming off a Championship and the series was a perfect opportunity for me to cover some of the losses I had suffered in the first two games against Washington. The A’s had split the two game series with Boston in Philadelphia and at 6-4 they were just one game behind Boston in the standings. The odds were against the Red Sox even though they were at home, so I made sure that I got in Sullivan’s book early for all four games. It paid off as Boston took three of four. I was nearly doubling my salary through these bets and it afforded me a good deal of luxury during those early weeks, but I quickly began to see it would not last. By the final game against the A’s, the odds had shifted back to Boston’s favor. I could see that as the Red Sox kept winning, the odds would keep falling.

Mack’s A’s were an interesting team to watch. Boston featured the best outfield in the game with Speaker, Hooper and Lewis and the A’s featured the best infield with Stuffy McGinnis at first, Eddie Collins at second and Frank "Home Run" Baker at third. Offensively, the A’s were a great match for the Red Sox. Both teams were patient at the plate and grinded out their at bats. Both teams ran the bases aggressively and played what the Rooters often referred to as scientific baseball, bunting, stealing, using the hit and run and other tactics we usually call "small" ball. Except for the heavy emphasis on drawing walks, which was vital to both teams success, tt was not the style of baseball I was used to back in 2011, but it made sense for that environment and both teams played it well.

The most memorable moment of that A’s series did not come from one of the stars, however. It came from a player I had never heard of and I would otherwise have just as easily forgotten. Jake Stahl sat out the series against Philadelphia after with an ankle injury and he played a guy named Hugh Bradley in his place. Bradley was a local guy and from what I could piece together, he had been with the team for at least two years, but played very little. He was well-liked by the Rooters, who always took a shine to local players, but no really gave him much thought as a ball player.

In contrast to most of the players around him, Bradley had a big swing and seemed to chase almost everything he saw. Although people nowadays tend to think people back in those deadball days people only cared about batting average and didn’t value on base percentage or walks and all of those things that we now associate with Moneyball, that was not the case at all. People didn’t mention on base percentage much and you couldn’t look up any statistic all that easily, but most fans back then recognized a player who knew what to swing at and what to let go. Speaker was as selective a hitter as you could find. So was Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins and just about every star player back then. If you just swung at anything you could never hit for much. The ball wouldn’t travel far enough for most weakly hit ball to fall in so you had to get a pitch you could really drive. Bradley didn’t have that ability and even his fans knew it. Compared to the hard hitting, Stahl, Bradley was a serious downgrade.

In the first game against the A’s, however, he managed to do something that no one could have ever anticipated. With two men on in the seventh and the Red Sox trailing 6-4, Hugh Bradley became the first Red Sox player ever to hit a ball over the wall. A’s relief pitcher Lefty Russell hung a curve. Bradley turned on it and crushed it well over the cliff and the wall to put the Red Sox up by one. It was a surreal moment. After more than a week of watching baseball in 1912, I had already fallen into the mindset of that time. I knew that thousands for home runs would clear that barrier in the future, but I had come to take it for granted that this was a different world of baseball. The time of the "Monster" shot seemed light years ahead. I watched the ball fly off the bat in stunned silence along with the other members of the sporting press and remained speechless even after the ball sailed over the wall and Bradley began his home run lap. The crowd, too, was stunned and needed time to fully understand what had happened before exploding with joy at the improbable turn of events.

After Bradley’s home run, the remainder of the series was unspectacular. Smokey Joe got the win in the second game despite pitching poorly and allowing five runs. I had once again bet heavily on both Wood and the Red Sox and this time it paid off, in spite of Wood’s struggles. April ended with Boston heading back on the road to play the Senators and I returned to the uninspiring task of covering the Braves, who were at home against the equally hapless Brooklyn Dodgers. I comforted myself with the knowledge that when Boston returned, they would be playing the Detroit Tigers. I would finally get to see Ty Cobb in action.