2018 SABR Baseball Research Award Winner Baseball in the 1920s is most known for Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, but there was another great Yankee player in that era whose compelling story remains untold. Urban Shocker was a fiercely competitive and colorful pitcher, a spitballer who had many famous battles with Babe Ruth before returning to the Yankees. Shocker was traded away to the St. Louis Browns in 1918 by Yankees manager Miller Huggins, a trade Huggins always regretted. In 1925, after four straight seasons with at least twenty wins with the hapless Browns, Shocker became the only player Huggins brought back to the Yankees. He finally reached the World Series, with the 1926 Yankees. In the Yankees’ storied 1927 season, widely viewed to be the best in MLB history, Shocker pitched with guts and guile, finishing with a record of 18‑6 even while his fastball and physical skills were deserting him. Hardly anyone knew that Shocker was suffering from an incurable heart disease that left him able to sleep only while sitting up and which would take his life in less than a year. With his physical skills diminishing, he continued to win games through craftiness and well-placed pitches. Delving into Shocker’s baseball career, his love of the game, and his battle with heart disease, Steve Steinberg shows the dominant and courageous force that he was.
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About the Author
Steve Steinberg is a baseball historian and coauthor with Lyle Spatz of The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees (Nebraska, 2015), research award winner from the Society for American Baseball Research, and 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York (Nebraska, 2010), winner of the Seymour Medal.
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Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age
By Steve Steinberg
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Steve Steinberg
All rights reserved.
Passing By and Drawn In
I am the start and the beginning, I am the first and the final inning, Soul of the ancient game; I take them raw and I show the way That leads in promotion and to pay, The road that leads to fame. I catch them young and I send them far Where great crowds welcome the coming star, And I am forgotten then; And when they are old, on the outer rim, When their arms are gone and their eyes are dim, I take them back again.
— from "The Bush League Speaks Again" by Grantland Rice
Rennie Heydt had never been to a funeral. He had not seen so many people in one place, except at baseball games at Sportsman's Park here in St. Louis. He watched as a hearse slowly drove past the gates and the archbishop's summer home at St. Louis's Calvary Catholic Cemetery. The hearse wound its way past the small lake and headed north, traversing the road closest to the cemetery's stone walls. It was followed by dozens of automobiles and hundreds of people alighting from streetcars and streaming through the gates of the vast burial grounds.
Rennie, his curiosity prodding him, shoved his bike under a bush and fell in with the somber crowd. They slowly made their way through the rolling green hills, shaded by the majestic oak, gum, and poplar trees.
Rennie was just shy of his tenth birthday, and death was the farthest thing from his mind. Growing up in a row house in St. Louis's Baden neighborhood nearby, he had mixed feelings about his "neighbors" in Calvary Cemetery. Over the years he had not gotten used to them, and they still gave him the creeps. Between this Catholic cemetery and the adjacent nondenominational one, Bellefontaine, there were almost eight hundred acres of land for the dead. Land that could have been a park with ball fields, bike paths, and trails, Rennie thought.
A hush came over the crowd as the casket was lifted out of the hearse. Six well-built young men in dark suits carried the shiny wood box to its final resting place. Archbishop John Joseph Glennon began chanting in Latin:
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine
(Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord)
et lux perpetua luceat ei
(And let perpetual light shine upon him)
Rennie worked his way through the mass of people, squeezing toward the front of the gathering. There must be at least a thousand people here, he thought. A couple of these men looked vaguely familiar, but where had he seen them?
Then, with a start, he realized he was looking at New York Yankees stars Lou Gehrig and Waite Hoyt. He had seen them only in their baseball uniforms, either at the ballpark or in newspaper pictures. They looked different so dressed up. They were somberly leading the other pallbearers to the pit of freshly dug earth.
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
(From the depths I have cried unto thee, Lord, Lord hear my prayer)
Domine, exaudi vocem meam
(O Lord, let my prayer come unto thee)
He could hear the sobbing of the women nearest to the casket and the murmurs and hushed remarks of the men nearby. This was the final farewell to St. Louis's great pitcher Urban Shocker, a man the city called one of its own and a man who called St. Louis home, even after he was traded to the Yankees.
In paradisum deducant te angeli
(May the angels lead you into Paradise)
In tuo adventu, suscipiant te martyres
(May the martyrs greet you at your arrival)
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem
(And lead you into the holy city of Jerusalem)
A chill went down Rennie's spine. He had discovered Major League Baseball in the last couple of years. He knew about Shocker, winner of almost twenty games for the Yankees in each of the past two seasons and a star for the St. Louis Browns a few years earlier, before Rennie had become interested in baseball.
Many questions were spinning through Rennie's mind, as he listened to the comments of mourners as the funeral was ending. Was Shocker really as good as these people surrounding the grave were saying? Was he sick while he played for the great Yankees teams of 1926 and 1927? Why did he die so young?
Requiescat in pace
(May he rest in peace)
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen
(In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Rennie went on to learn much more about Shocker. One of St. Louis's leading sportswriters, James Gould, had written, "Shocker's death removes from the world of sport one of the greatest pitchers in the game and one of the game's most colorful figures."
Rennie Heydt never forgot that day in the cemetery. More than seventy years later, the memory was still clear in his mind's eye.
I met Rennie Heydt, the "Candy Man," an eighty-year-old fixture in St. Louis baseball circles, at a spring 1999 St. Louis Browns reunion dinner. Rennie shared his memories of Shocker's funeral. A longtime employee of the Peter Paul Candy Company, he was so welcome at Busch Stadium that when he invited me to a game that year, we were admitted on sight. In March 2000 Rennie was killed in a car-pedestrian accident on I-270 outside of St. Louis.CHAPTER 2
Urban Shocker was born into a large Cleveland family on September 22, 1890.1 The surname's spelling of "Shockcor" was retained by his siblings. He was the only one to adopt the simplified spelling of "Shocker," probably because newspaper reporters did not get the more complicated spelling right.
He was the fifth of nine children of William Henry and Anna Katherine Shockcor. William was born in Pennsylvania (as were his parents) in 1852 and moved to Cleveland as a young adult. It was here that he met Anna Spies, who was born in 1859 in Ohio. They married on October 8, 1879, and had their first child, also named William, a year later.
William Sr. was a cooper by trade, working at a factory that produced wood barrels. Another William Shockcor, a cousin and also the head of a large family, appears in Cuyahoga County census records and Cleveland city directories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Two of the many mysteries surrounding Urban Shocker revolve around his name and date of birth. Some baseball records list him as Urbain Jacques Shocker, suggesting a French lineage. There has been some mention among his descendants that the family's "French connection" is to the Alsace-Lorraine region on the French-German border. It is not clear where these French names originated, but they appear to be made out of whole cloth. Urban's birth record and 1900 census record both list him simply as "Urban J." He may have created the mystery himself (he had a wry sense of humor) while he played for Ottawa in the Canadian League.
Urban's paternal grandparents, William and Mary, appear in the 1860 census record in Philadelphia and were both born in the United States. While Urban's maternal grandparents, Jacob and Elizabeth, were born in Germany, the 1860 census (when they were already in the Cleveland area) records their birthplace as Hesse, a German state far from the French border, in south-central Germany.
A related question is why he was referred to as "Herb" early in his Minor League career. The most logical explanation is that reporters heard him being called "Urb," an unusual moniker, and assumed it was "Herb." Once he came to the Major Leagues, the name "Herb" vanishes from newspaper accounts.
The mystery of Shocker's date of birth is more readily explained. In his baseball career, as he got older, he grew younger. In baseball's Who's Who directories, his birth date was listed as September 22, 1891, until the 1923 edition. From 1923 on, it jumped to September 22, 1892. His 1918 World War I draft card lists the 1891 date, and when he later listed his wife as a beneficiary on a military benefits form, he again used the 1891 date (after crossing out 1890).
Shocker got a late start in his baseball career. It was common for ballplayers to lie about their age, in a time when it was hard and inconvenient for management to confirm the actual dates. A younger player appeared more attractive to a club, with the reserve clause giving that club control over the player for his entire career. And if a player was good at age twenty, his manager could expect him to be even better a few years later.
Sporting News columnist John Sheridan addressed the topic in a 1915 column. The baseball guides, which published "Facts for Bugs [Fans]," should really be called "Fakes for Bugs." He wrote, "Every ball player is from two to ten years younger than he really is. ... The younger the player the greater future he is supposed to have. Hence the younger he is, the more he is worth. ... As the player approaches 28, he begins to drop two years for every one he gains. At 30 he is 26. At 33 he is 27. He never goes beyond 33."
There is no question that September 22, 1890, is the correct date. That shows up on his birth record. And the federal census enumeration taken in June 1900 states that he was born in September 1890 and was nine at the time. On his marriage license, where Shocker was asked to fill out his age and not his date of birth, he answered accurately, based on the 1890 date. Ironically, his death certificate and most obituaries cited 1891. Is it possible his wife thought that was his birth year?
Shocker attended Dennison Grade School and started playing baseball on the sandlots of Cleveland at an early age, including the largest "sandlot" of them all, Brookside Park. He played for a milk and ice cream club and then for the Leisy Brewing Company team. Before his twentieth birthday, he started spending time in Detroit, living with his older sister, Cora. He is still listed as part of his parents' household in Cleveland in the 1910 census, but he begins to show up in the Detroit city directory in 1909.
Shocker was a handsome young man, well-built and broad-shouldered, with reddish-brown hair. There were regular references to him during much of his career as "stocky" and even "chunky." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch once described Shocker as "roly-poly waist-line and all." While he is listed in baseball databases as 5'10" and 170 pounds, his weight was often mentioned as 180 and even 190.
The baseball opportunities for a youngster were comparable in major midwestern cities at that time. When Urban left Cleveland for Detroit, it was likely to move away from his parents and become independent. His self-assurance, bordering on cockiness, which would become a signature trait, was already evident.
He began working as an electrotyper in a newspaper printing plant in Detroit. Reporters later wrote that this craft demanded precision, not unlike that required of a professional pitcher. Both demanded artistry and accuracy with his hands. Yet while the former paid the bills, the latter was his passion. The fact that baseball paid little or nothing was not important. He loved to play the game.CHAPTER 3
Sandlots and Love of the Game
Before the movies and the automobile became widespread, sandlot baseball games were a big form of entertainment in the Midwest. What better way to spend a summer day than at the ball fields on the edge of the city? The air was clean and refreshing. Streetcars were cheap and convenient, though often crowded. They shuttled thousands of players and fans from the inner cities of Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit out to these ball fields. As one example of the popularity of these games, the first weekend of September 1909, more than a thousand semipro and amateur games were played in the Chicago area, and the combined attendance was estimated at five hundred thousand.
Fields were open and games were free, and there were literally hundreds of them each summer weekend. Spectators drifted from one ball field to another in these enormous clusters of fields called parks. Fans passed the hat to raise money for the players. Sometimes it went only to players of the winning team. Other times, when the money was in short supply, it went only to the winning pitcher, the man who controlled the flow of the game, and to his catcher, who called the game.
At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Detroit seemed like the center of the baseball universe. Ty Cobb and his Tigers, led by manager Hughie Jennings, had won three straight American League pennants between 1907 and 1909.2 There was no place Urban Shocker would rather have been than Detroit, and there was no team he would rather play for than the Tigers. It was here in the greater Detroit area that he began to make his mark and crossed paths with future Major Leaguers, including future teammates.
Details of Shocker's early career are hazy, in part because accurate records were not kept for semipro games. Many of these sandlot teams were not part of Organized Baseball. And players drifted quite freely from one team to another, even during the same season. They often played three or four games each weekend.
Shocker, who started out as a catcher, first shows up in baseball databases in 1913, when he played for the Windsor Canucks (just across the Detroit River in Ontario) of the Border League. But he was already playing for Windsor in 1911, and he played briefly for Bay City and Saginaw of the Southern Michigan League that year. He probably played against future Yankees teammates Frank Gilhooley and Wally Pipp, who were on Adrian and Kalamazoo, respectively, that season. Because Shocker was a pitcher exclusively after 1913, his statistics as a position player were not preserved.
Glimpses of Shocker's early play can be seen in the local papers. In 1911 he was called "one of Windsor's heavy sluggers," with a batting average of .400.5 When he left for Bay City a month later (a promotion, since Windsor was in the semipro Public Utilities League that year), the reporter for the Windsor paper lamented, "'Shock' was one of the squarest and brainiest players that ever donned a Windsor uniform."
The following year, when Windsor was in the professional Canadian League, Shocker was suspended and fined for not showing up for three weeks. One report said he was upset the club had added another catcher, who would compete with him for playing time. This is the first documented case of the headstrong Shocker being disciplined by his club. It would not be the last.
In 1913 Shocker split his Windsor season between pitching and catching. He started the season behind the plate, but when the club was short of pitchers in May, he volunteered and quickly developed a reputation not only for effectiveness but also for durability. After he pitched eighteen innings in a doubleheader, the Windsor paper noted, "Shocker has been trying to do all the work for the past month, and the strain has been too much for him." Yet three days later, he tossed a three-hitter against Pontiac.
After the close of the Border League season, Shocker pitched all three games for the S&S Clothing team in the Detroit city championship series, spread out over three weekends. He dominated the Packards, striking out more than thirty men in the series. These performances solidified the position he would play for the rest of his career. He would move permanently from behind the plate to the mound.
His stint as a catcher would contribute to his success as a pitcher: a broken middle finger he suffered in 1913 while catching did not heal properly and left a permanent crook. As Shocker explained years later, "It enabled me to grasp the baseball a little more firmly than ever before. I would fit the baseball in my right hand against the bent finger and then throw. The crooked finger gave the ball an odd twist which fooled the batters." He explained why the pitch was hard to recognize and why reporters would misidentify it throughout his career. "I can get a slow ball to drop just like a spitter."CHAPTER 4
An Emerging Star in the Minors
I saw him first as a kid —
A hard, free-swinging devil in the Bush;
Fast as the winds that sweep the open plains,
As fast as the lightning flashes down the sky.
With rippling muscles wrought of tempered steel,
Steel springs within his arm
And in his legs and in his face
The burning glow of youth.
— from "There — Up — and Back" by Grantland Rice
The relationship of Major League teams with those in the Minors was murky in the early twentieth century. Byzantine, changing rules and no rules at all — governed by informal deals finalized with a handshake — carried the day. Frank Navin, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, had such relationships with clubs in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Ottawa, Ontario.
After the 1913 season, the Border League disbanded, and Shocker was declared a free agent. Perhaps because of the pitcher's success in the 1913 City finals, Navin made an agreement with him and sent him to Fort Wayne of the Class B Central League the following spring. Shocker, who had played indoor baseball that winter, appeared on the Railroaders' roster in late April. But the club released him shortly thereafter, before the start of the 1914 campaign. They had a veteran pitching staff (three twenty-game winners had led them to the 1913 Central League pennant) and instead wanted Shocker to play in the outfield, which he refused to do.
Excerpted from Urban Shocker by Steve Steinberg. Copyright © 2017 Steve Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations Preface Acknowledgments 1. Passing By and Drawn In 2. Midwest Connections 3. Sandlots and Love of the Game 4. An Emerging Star in the Minors 5. False Start 6. A Magical Summer on the Island 7. Motor City Mischief 8. The Returned Prodigal and the Coming Phenom 9. The Dream Team 10. The First Trade 11. Love and War and a Little Baseball 12. A Summer to Remember 13. The End of an Era 14. Challenging the Great One 15 The Showdowns Continue 16. The Underdog Arises 17. Good but Not Lucky 18. A Lost Season 19. Free Agency in 1924? 20. The Temperamental Spitballist 21. Back Where I Belong 22. Clouds Approaching 23. The Season That Wasn’t 24. Hope Springs Eternal 25. The Comeback 26. Moment in the Sun 27. The Master at Work 28. Promises and Secrets 29. A Star Surfaces and Crashes 30. A Day of Death and Rebirth Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index