Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 28th, 1916: Ferdie Schupp's Best Day

Adapted from my just-published first book, "26 In A Row, The 1916 New York Giants and Baseball's Longest Winning Streak," available on Amazon.

The New York Giants won game one of a doubleheader against the Boston Braves on Thursday, September 28th, 1916. Winning pitcher Jeff Teserau had two nicknames. His real first name was Charles, but one sportswriter called him “Jeff” as a rookie because he looked like the boxer James L. Jefferies. That stuck. Then, one spring training another sportswriter, Damon Runyon, called him “The Big Bear Hunter of the Ozarks” even though he was from Missouri, not Arkansas, and preferred hunting birds to bears. That nickname got shortened to “The Bear Hunter." He was known as "Jeff" the rest of his life.

Jeff’s win that day was New York’s 24th in a row, continuing their major-league record streak that lasts to this day (only one team, the 2002 Oakland A’s, has won at least 20 straight since 1935). “The Bear Hunter” won his seventh game of the streak. He had now thrown over 62 innings in September alone- seven complete games- and his only loss was his first game of the month. His ERA was 1.59 over that stretch, giving up just 13 runs, 11 earned. Any other time, he would have been hailed as the top pitcher for the Giants.

Thing is, the guy who pitched game two was finishing one of the most remarkable pitching streaks of the early 20th century. On Retrosheet.org you can find a lot of comparative stats. Tom Ruane, the founder, decided to look for pitchers who had allowed the lowest batting average over any stretch of at least 150 at-bats between 1914 and 1949. Number one on the list is Bob Feller. An obscure reliever for the White Sox, Reb Russell, is second. Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds- the only man to ever throw two consecutive no-hitters, in 1938- is third.

Ferdie Schupp of the 1916 New York Giants is fourth, with an .099 batting average in 172 at-bats, a total of 17 hits (he and Vander Meer are tied for the lowest amount of hits allowed in a six-game stretch of complete games ever- yes I know that's a very baseball-nerd stat). His stretch began on September 7th, and continued through September 28th, a span of six games. He remembered the sixth game the rest of his life for what didn’t happen, rather than what did.

Ferdie Schupp with the Giants in 1917.
That Ferdie Schupp even got to pitch for the Giants in September, 1916 is remarkable in itself. The Louisville, Kentucky native had pitched sporadically since being elevated to the majors in late 1913, but didn’t spend much time in the minor leagues. That was because of New York manager John McGraw. “Little Napoleon” was in his 14th year managing the club and was a legend even then at age 43, though he looks ancient in contemporary photos.

Because the Giants were the richest team around and there were no roster size limits, McGraw often signed players and stashed them. Some guys only played one game a year but never spent any time in the minors because McGraw kept them at the Polo Grounds- New York’s home park- watching and practicing with the veterans.

The left-handed Schupp was one of those stashed guys, and another was his best friend and fellow pitcher Rube Schauer. They were known in the press as “The Schush Twins.” While Schauer had been signed for $10,000, the third-highest price paid for a minor leaguer at the time, Schupp was signed for well less than one-tenth that price.

When 1916 began The Schush Twins had been warming the bench for nearly three years. After the Giants finished last in 1915 for the first and only time in a full season during McGraw’s managerial career, he began making changes. Schauer was allowed to dip his toe into the rotation but Schupp stayed on the pine. After a horrendous 2-13 start, New York won 17 straight games on the road in early May, still tied for the major league record with the wrecking crew known as the 1984 Detroit Tigers, but McGraw’s men did it all on one road trip.

In the train era, road trips of at least 20 games combined with homestands of at least 20 games were far from uncommon. In fact, they were the norm up until the 1960’s. When the westernmost teams in the majors were in St. Louis (the National League’s Cardinals and until 1954, the American League’s Browns) and it took a day by rail to get there, it made no sense to go that far just for one series. As a result, road trips and homestands were bunched together.

The Giants won the first 17 of that 21-game road trip in May (detailed more here, on my baseball history-only blog) and moved within a game and a half of first place. But then the malaise came back, and McGraw tinkered with his club.

Schupp finally made his season debut on June 13th. He had been excruciatingly wild as a minor and in his early games with the Giants (often Schupp would start a game and Schauer would finish it) but in that first appearance he didn’t walk anybody in two innings. In McGraw’s world, that earned him more work.

Ferdie pitched five more times in the next month, all in relief, and only allowed four runs, three of them coming in a six-inning appearance against Pittsburgh on July 10th, which upped his ERA to 2.00, the highest it would end up being all season. Schauer started that game and Schupp finished it, a reverse of the previous three years. The loss dropped the Giants nine games out of first, their largest deficit to date, and two games under .500 at 30-32, having gone 11-19 since the 17-game win streak.

Schupp finally made his first start on July 13th and pitched a complete game. Unlike Schauer, who lost his first start of the year, Schupp won. He gave up 11 hits to Cincinnati, striking out seven, walking four and allowing just one earned run in the 5-2 victory. Three days later, Schauer pitched five innings in relief, and Schupp pitched the 9th in a 3-2 loss in St. Louis. It turned out to be the final game they would both pitch in.

After many roster changes in July (which, ahem, are detailed in the book), the New York Sun thought Schauer would help the Giants right-handed pitching staff while Schupp would help the lefties. But McGraw was done with Rube Schauer, and Rube Schauer was done with McGraw. In late July, Schauer was sent to Ferdie Schupp’s hometown of Louisville to play in the minor-league American Association. Schauer later claim the demotion came at his request so he could play regularly. But since the Giants outrighted him to the club and would stake no further claim to the one-time $10,000 man, that story is hard to believe.

Schupp got better and better on the mound, and due to a lingering illness to new pitcher Harry “Slim” Sallee, Schupp became a permanent part of the rotation by default on September 7th. He gave up just one run, a home run to Brooklyn’s Zach Wheat in the second inning, as the Giants won 4-1.

As mentioned, long road trips at the time also meant long homestands. On September 28th, the Giants were in the final series of a 32-game stretch at the Polo Grounds. Their first game at home was September 5th, and their last would be September 30th- and they hadn’t lost since September 6th.

By the time game two of September 28th rolled around, Schupp had thrown five complete games and four shutouts and there was real belief that the Giants would not lose the rest of the season, and despite being 14 games out of first place when the streak began could actually take the pennant.

Schupp squared off against Braves starter Pat Ragan. Ragan was fair, but had missed nearly all of August for an unknown reason. In his last start, he had thrown all 13 innings in a 1-1 tie with the Pirates. Ragan and Schupp matched zeros for the first two innings. Schupp pitched a perfect third inning, and led off the bottom of the third.

Despite being left-handed, Ferdie batted right. He lifted a fly off Ragan to Sherwood Magee in left. Magee dropped it and Schupp was safe. After a foulout, New York second baseman Buck Herzog singled Schupp to third. Dave Robertson, the Giants right fielder and power hitter (he would tie for the league lead with 12 home runs) was intentionally walked to get to third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, who newspapers called “The Great Zim.” Zim, with a very healthy ego, would refer to himself like that as well. McGraw had traded for Zim, the Chicago Cubs’ best player, on August 28th, the final transaction that would result in the streak. (It also resulted in the first-ever trade deadline rule, passed after the season.)

Zim made the intentional walk look good by grounding to second for the potential inning-ending double play, but Robertson was safe at second and they didn’t bother throwing to first. Schupp scored to make it 2-0. Shortstop Art Fletcher then struck out, bringing up center fielder Benny Kauff with the bases still full.

Benny Kauff, 1916. The Giants wore purple-trimmed windowpane uniforms. Really
Benny Kauff got national attention by being the best player in the Federal League, the last real challenge to the major leagues. After the collapse of the Feds in the winter of 1915, he got a $25,000 contract from the Giants and declared he would tear up National League pitching. Despite his bluster, he had struggled for much of the season, as had the Giants. But he had also come alive during the streak like everybody else on the club. Today was no different.

Ragan ran the count to 3-2 on Kauff. Kauff then got one he really liked. The ball sailed over former Giant Fred Snodgrass’ head in center and hit the center field wall 433 feet away on the fly, a distance that in the deadball era was almost impossible. Snodgrass got to the ball and heaved it in as Herzog, Robertson and Zimmerman scored easily. McGraw, coaching third, waved Kauff through. Snodgrass’ throw went to Ragan, and he turned and whipped it to catcher Hank Gowdy at home.

Kauff and the ball apparently got there about the same time, but Kauff, sliding feet first, hit the corner as Gowdy applied the tag, and umpire Cy Rigler called him safe.

An inside-the-park grand slam on one of the longest balls ever hit at the Polo Grounds up to that time to essentially clinch the Giants 25th win in a row turned the ballpark of 35,000 into a madhouse. The New York Times writer basically wrote an Ode to Benny Kauff in the paper the next day as if he were some combination of a Greek God and the President.

All the same, Ferdie Schupp nearly topped Kauff’s feat on the mound. He walked Earl Blackburn, the replacement catcher after Gowdy got tossed for arguing a call (although it’s not stated which one, I think we can make an educated guess), but otherwise didn’t allow a man on base nor a hit through six innings.

At this point all bets were off. A grand slam and a no-hitter? They would have torn the place down had Schupp pulled that off. In later years Ferdie himself said that game was his most memorable of the streak. But he didn’t remember how good he pitched, he remembered what prevented him from joining the list of men who threw a no-hitter.

It was the 7th inning, and Schupp, like all pitchers at the time, worked quickly. Besides, he was in a groove, and wanted to keep it going. Even though Buck Herzog was arguing with Boston’s first base coach and maybe not completely ready for play to start, Schupp delivered anyway. As Schupp told Sports Illustrated some 40 years later, “So when Big Ed Konetchy, their first baseman, hit a dribbler Herzog didn’t even make a move for it, and I lost my no-hitter.”

It was his only blemish. Schupp settled for a one-hitter and his 6th win of the streak, the 25th straight win for the Giants. In those six games Schupp threw 54 innings (all complete games), allowing 17 hits and 3 runs- four shutouts and two 20+ scoreless inning streaks- for an 0.33 ERA.

The Giants would win one more time to make it 26 in a row (did I mention that's the title of my book?) before losing the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader to the Braves, their final home game of the season. The 1916 Giants, despite the 17-game win streak and 26-game win streak, would finish in 4th place.

After the season, Ferdie Schupp won the ERA title with an 0.90, still the lowest-ever mark for a qualifying pitcher.

Except the qualifying standard at the time was 12 games pitched. After baseball statisticians tinkered with the rules after World War Two, they went back and retroactively took away ERA titles for players who did not qualify under the new standards of one inning per game.

As Schupp had only thrown 140 innings in 1916, 14 innings short of the new requirement, his ERA title was taken away and given to Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Philadelphia Phillies, who had a spectacular 1916 season with a 1.55 ERA in 389 innings and 33 wins.

In 1916, Ferdie Schupp was the best pitcher on the team that won a major-league record 26 games in a row.

Today, he is virtually forgotten, along with the rest of his teammates.

When I was about 10 years old, I read a little blurb that the 1916 New York Giants had won a major league record 26 games in a row. I continually looked for a book on the subject but never found one. Many years later, it seemed like the streak was the only subject that baseball historians had not covered in detail. So I decided to write it myself.

There are many players involved in the streak that deserve better than to be on the dusty shelf of history, never to be looked at again. Ferdie Schupp is one of them. September 28th, 1916 was his best day as a major league pitcher.

P.S.- to read about the other 25 wins, to learn more about Benny Kauff, to discover John McGraw's favorite player who he couldn't stand and a lot more, like the wild uniforms the Giants wore that year... you know, get the book.

John McGraw, Buck Herzog and Christy Mathewson, Summer 1916

Photographs courtesy: Bain Collection/Library of Congress