Sunday, February 28, 2010

1947 Pirates Tracer

I'm an unabashed fan of baseball anecdotage. There's something about hearing the stories of the men behind the game that gives me an extra appreciation for them. When I was younger I devoured books devoted to these old-timers' tales. My discovery of Retrosheet excited me for many reasons, one of which being that I could look up the box scores of old games I'd read about to see them for myself, learn more about what happened, and even confirm or deny their accuracy. It turns out I wasn't the first person to come up with that idea; Bill James made a habit of researching old anecdotes for his books and referring to them as "tracers." Other great baseball writers have done tracers independent of Bill James, and while I'm far from great, I thought I'd contribute a tracer to the vast array that already exists.

I'm currently in the middle of Hank Greenberg's autobiography, which was published three years after his death and edited by sportswriter Ira Berkow. Berkow's introduction to the book includes this personal recollection of Greenberg:
I remember sitting poolside with him at a Las Vegas hotel. He was entered in a celebrity tennis tournament, and I was there doing a story. He had just come from hitting tennis balls with someone and stopped to chat. He began telling a story about the 1947 Pirates, with whom he had played his last season. It was a terrible team, but, in retrospect, a very funny one.

"I wasn't used to this kind of team--this losing, and a lot of guys drinking and carousing," said Greenberg. "I had been with the Tigers for nine seasons, and we had won four pennants and two World Series and everything was serious and bent on winning.

"Not the Pirates. Billy Herman was in his first year as a manager. He was a nice guy, maybe too nice, and he just locked the door of his office and didn't want to know what the players were doing.

"Well, one afternoon, one of the players got married and a bunch of the guys attended and got looped. We had a game that night. I think Kirby Higbe was pitching for us, and the guys were making errors all over the place."

Now Greenberg stood, laughing, to demonstrate.

"And Kirby--" Suddenly, Greenberg grabbed one leg and began to hop around. "A cramp!" Greenberg groaned. "I have a cramp!"

He wasn't kidding. He grimaced, and yet still laughed--he was determined, despite his intense pain, to finish his story.

"Herman comes to the mound to get Higbe out of there," moaned Greenberg. "Oh! Oh! My leg--! And Higbe--Higbe-- Oh!" Greenberg grabbed his leg but kept laughing. "Higbe says, 'I can't pitch when they're drunk out there.'"

Greenberg was hopping around. "And Herman says, 'Who's drunk?'"

"And Higbe--Higbe--Higbe says, 'Everyone!'"

With that, Greenberg collapsed into a chair, laughing and moaning, as he ended the story.

Berkow noted that little moment to illustrate what a determined individual Greenberg was, but I enjoyed Greenberg's story too. I have no reason to doubt it happened, but I thought it'd be interesting to find out some more details.

Greenberg must have been fond of telling this story, as he included it in the body of his book. He also gives us an extra piece of information: the player who got married was Vinnie Smith, a catcher who spent the year on the disabled list. Well, if we could just find out Vinnie Smith's wedding date, it'd be pretty easy to locate this game.

Thanks to the miracle of Google News' Archives, we can. A simple search turns up the September 3, 1947 edition of the Pittsburgh Press. Click on that link and you'll see a picture of Smith and his new bride, with a caption announcing their nuptials earlier that day and a larger headline proclaiming "Pirates to Face Blackwell Tonight" (the Pittsburgh Press was an afternoon paper). That headline referred to Ewell Blackwell, the Reds' ace pitcher. Elsewhere on the page you can see that Blackwell's Pirate counterpart was scheduled to be either Kirby Higbe or Mel Queen. Thanks to Retrosheet's 1947 Pirates game log, we can see that it was Higbe who started for Pittsburgh that day, just as Greenberg remembered, and lost by a score of 13-6.

So it looks like we've pinpointed the date. Is there anything else we can learn? How about the situation or inning when Higbe and Herman had their chat?

Fortunately, Higbe himself recounted this story, and his version was reprinted on this website. It's quoted as follows:
Kirby Higbe once recalled a game in the 1940's, when the Pirates were also-rans, in which he pitched against the Reds and "five of our regulars were plastered." They kept blowing plays. It was a close game, Higbe remembered, "and the bases were loaded, like our fielders." A fly ball was hit to the center fielder, who stumbled in as the ball flew over his head. "Everyone scored," he said. "I couldn't take it no more. I walked off the mound. Billy Herman, the manager, didn't know what I was doing. He said, 'What's wrong, Hig?'
"I said, 'They're drunk.'
"He said, 'Who's drunk?'
"I said, 'Everyone!' "

Well, he certainly got their opponent correct, and the exchange is almost exactly the same as Greenberg told it, except in Higbe's version he walked off the mound, and said "They're drunk," while in Greenberg's Herman came to the mound and Higbe told him "I can't pitch when they're drunk out there." Minor differences, nothing that would invalidate the story. We also get more details about the situation. Higbe says it occurred after a bases-loaded hit where "everyone scored" in a close game.

Thanks again to the wondrous glory of Google News, we can find a box score and game summary. The September 4, 1947 edition of the Montreal Gazette is the most complete one I can find. The line score shows us that the Reds scored five runs in the second inning, which is the last time it could've been considered a "close game." We also see that Higbe lasted only an inning and a third, further placing this exchange in the second frame. The only mystery remaining is who got the hit that made Higbe give up?

If "everyone scored" on a misplayed ball with the bases loaded, that suggests at least a double. The only Cincinnati player with more than two RBI was catcher Ray Lamanno, who was credited with four of them, as well as both a double and a triple in the game. However, if Higbe pitched 1.1 innings that means he retired four batters while he was on the mound. Lamanno started the game batting in the seventh spot. Assuming Higbe retired the side in the first inning, the only way Lamanno could've come up with the bases loaded in the second is if there were no out. Perhaps Higbe was left in the game despite his protests and didn't fare much better from then on?

I unfortunately don't have a subscription to the New York Times' complete archive, but I've found a detailed game recap on their website that I can't read in its entirety. I can, however, cheat a little by customizing my keywords in a search and reading the previews. I found a telling section:
The Reds scored what proved to be the winning runs in the third inning as Eddie Miller hit a homer to score Ray Lammano (sic). Lammano drove in three of the four markers the Reds scored in the sixth, slashing a triple with the bases loaded.

Hmmmm. If that's the case, Lamanno couldn't have gotten a hit in the second under the circumstances Higbe remembered. Further customizing my keywords, I found mention of a two-run double in the second inning, though I can only deduce who hit it. We know it wasn't Lamanno, as three of his four RBI came on a sixth-inning triple. The only other Red with a double and two RBI was pitcher Blackwell. Perhaps Higbe remembered Lamanno's sixth-inning hit and confused it with the straw that broke his outing's back, and the one that drove Higbe from the game was actually a poorly-handled Ewell Blackwell drive that went for a double?

Let's see...the summary shows that Higbe allowed two hits and three walks (he probably shouldn't have complained too much about his fielders), so we know five batters reached base against him. What about errors? Funny thing, that. The box score tells us neither side was charged with an error, meaning Greenberg's memory of "guys...making errors all over the place" wasn't quite accurate. It appears the impaired Bucs were simply slower in reacting to balls coming their way, as Higbe recalled it. If Higbe allowed five baserunners and retired four batters, it makes perfect sense that Blackwell's hit knocked him out, as Blackwell was batting ninth.

One thing that jumps out at me is that the above website's source for Higbe's version is an April 7, 1986 New York Times article called "View From the Bottom: A Long Lost Season." The author? None other than Ira Berkow, Greenberg's editor. Higbe died in 1985, a year before the article was published, and Berkow had gotten his testimony from a previous interview. An article written by Berkow about Higbe's death, reprinted in the May 11, 1985 Montreal Gazette, closes with a mention of this game:
When he was with the Pirates, he said, "we had a real casino on wheels. Drinking, gambling, running around." He remembered pitching against Ewell Blackwell, then a star with the Reds, and, he said, "five of our regulars were plastered."

The memorial article cites a 1967 interview with Higbe for the ballplayer's recollections. Berkow's introduction to the Greenberg biography says he first met Hammerin' Hank in 1973. This leads me to wonder if it's mere coincidence that both players brought up the same game and quote. Higbe's interview came first, and Berkow quotes Greenberg as saying "I think Kirby Higbe was pitching for us," suggesting he didn't know Berkow had heard the story from Higbe years ago. Is it possible that two separate, unprompted ballplayers related this incident almost exactly the same way to the same writer?

Ralph Kiner has told this story as well. According to a commenter named "katherine" on this blog post, his book Kiner's Korner has it word-for-word the same as Greenberg's. Kiner, of course, was a young slugger in the second year of his Hall of Fame career in 1947, and is perhaps more famous today as a longtime Mets broadcaster. I've never read the Kiner book, but its lone customer review on is interesting:
Published in the spring of 1987, "Kiner's Korner" too often seems less a book than an attempt to cash in on the Mets' return to glory after winning the 1986 World Series. Chapters alternate between briefly-told episodes from Kiner's life (one about his home-run hitting, another about his friendship with Hank Greenberg) and much longer chapters where the story of the Mets unfolds in chronological fashion.

Could Berkow have been involved here? Kiner and Berkow certainly have ties to each other. Both worked in the world of New York sports and both (as this reviewer notes) were friends of Hank Greenberg. Kiner was also one of Berkow's interviewees for the Greenberg biography.

Of course, there's another angle here: Greenberg died on September 4, 1986, and Berkow published a written eulogy soon after that included the story from the top of this post, where Greenberg gets a cramp sharing the Higbe tale with a new generation. If Kiner's Korner was in fact an "attempt to cash in" on the Mets' success, is it possible that the story was worded as it was because it was still fresh in Kiner's mind from reading Berkow's article?

Perhaps it explains the wording, but it's clear Kiner had at least a vague memory of it. It turns out the Higbe-Herman exchange wasn't the only semi-famous anecdote to come from that day. On Kiner's Hall of Fame election in 1975, he didn't hesitate to thank his good friend Hank Greenberg for mentoring him in 1947. Suddenly in the spotlight, Greenberg and Kiner reminisced about the 1947 Pirates:
"Another time one of the players got married before a night game in Pittsburgh and [Billy] Cox, [Jim] Russell and Elbie Fletcher came to the ballpark in the tuxedos they had worn as ushers. They had been drinking champagne and now we had to play the Reds with Ewell Blackwell pitching for them."

Kiner had been listening and now he laughed at the memory of his three teammates in tuxedos.

"Before the game," Kiner said, "Elbie Fletcher went over to see Blackwell in the Reds' clubhouse and gave him six cigars and told him, 'Do me a favor, don't throw at me tonight.'."

That story has been retold in other articles as well.

Clearly this was a memorable day for the Pirate players; the sight of so many teammates playing drunk wasn't something they'd soon forget. Between Elbie Fletcher's antics and Higbe's immortal conversation with Herman, it's obvious that much of what transpired that night was a source of amusement. In that light, it might not be hard to imagine multiple players having almost identical memories of certain moments. It's possible they were a topic of discussion in the clubhouse long afterward. On a team full of revelers and hell-raisers, perhaps no game symbolized the 1947 Pirates' season better than that September 3 matchup with the Reds.


Berkow, Ira. "View From the Bottom: A Long Lost Season," New York Times, 7 April 1986, C12. Print.

Greenberg, Hank. Hank Greenberg, the story of my life. Ed. Ira Berkow. New York: Times, 1989. Print.

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