They may say baseball is the same in the minor leagues that it is in the big leagues, but any old ball player or manager knows better. Where the difference comes in, however, is in the greater excellence and unity of the major players, a speed, a daring, a finish that can be acquired only in competition with one another.
I thought of this when I led my party into Morrisey’s private box in the grand stand of the Chicago American League grounds. We had come to see the Rube’s break into fast company. My great pitcher, Whittaker Hurtle, the Rube, as we called him, had won the Eastern League Pennant for me that season, and Morrisey, the Chicago magnate, had bought him. Milly, my affianced, was with me, looking as happy as she was pretty, and she was chaperoned by her mother, Mrs. Nelson.
With me, also, were two veterans of my team, McCall and Spears, who lived in Chicago, and who would have traveled a few miles to see the Rube pitch. And the other member of my party was Mrs. Hurtle, the Rube’s wife, as saucy and as sparkling-eyed as when she had been Nan Brown. Today she wore a new tailor-made gown, new bonnet, new gloves—she said she had decorated herself in a manner befitting the wife of a major league pitcher.
Morrisey’s box was very comfortable, and, as I was pleased to note, so situated that we had a fine view of the field and stands, and yet were comparatively secluded. The bleachers were filling. Some of the Chicago players were on the field tossing and batting balls; the Rube, however, had not yet appeared.
A moment later a metallic sound was heard on the stairs leading up into the box. I knew it for baseball spiked shoes clanking on the wood.
The Rube, looking enormous in his uniform, stalked into the box, knocking over two chairs as he entered. He carried a fielder’s glove in one huge freckled hand, and a big black bat in the other.
Nan, with much dignity and a very manifest pride, introduced him to Mrs. Nelson.
There was a little chatting, and then, upon the arrival of Manager Morrisey, we men retired to the back of the box to talk baseball.
Chicago was in fourth place in the league race, and had a fighting chance to beat Detroit out for the third position. Philadelphia was scheduled for that day, and Philadelphia had a great team. It was leading the race, and almost beyond all question would land the flag. In truth, only one more victory was needed to clinch the pennant. The team had three games to play in Chicago and it was to wind up the season with three in Washington. Six games to play and only one imperatively important to win! But baseball is uncertain, and until the Philadelphians won that game they would be a band of fiends.
“Well, Whit, this is where you break in,” I said. “Now, tip us straight. You’ve had more than a week’s rest. How’s that arm?”
“Grand, Con, grand!” replied the Rube with his frank smile. “I was a little anxious till I warmed up. But say! I’ve got more up my sleeve today than I ever had.”
“That’ll do for me,” said Morrisey, rubbing his hands. “I’ll spring something on these swelled Quakers today. Now, Connelly, give Hurtle one of your old talks—the last one—and then I’ll ring the gong.”
I added some words of encouragement, not forgetting my old ruse to incite the Rube by rousing his temper. And then, as the gong rang and the Rube was departing, Nan stepped forward for her say. There was a little white under the tan on her cheek, and her eyes had a darkling flash.
“Whit, it’s a magnificent sight—that beautiful green field and the stands. What a crowd of fans! Why, I never saw a real baseball crowd before. There are twenty thousand here. And there’s a difference in the feeling. It’s sharper—new to me. It’s big league baseball. Not a soul in that crowd ever heard of you, but, I believe, tomorrow the whole baseball world will have heard of you. Mr. Morrisey knows. I saw it in his face. Captain Spears knows. Connie knows. I know.”
Then she lifted her face and, pulling him down within reach, she kissed him. Nan took her husband’s work in dead earnest; she gloried in it, and perhaps she had as much to do with making him a great pitcher as any of us.
The Rube left the box, and I found a seat between Nan and Milly. The field was a splendid sight. Those bleachers made me glow with managerial satisfaction. On the field both teams pranced and danced and bounced around in practice.
In spite of the absolutely last degree of egotism manifested by the Philadelphia players, I could not but admire such a splendid body of men.
“So these are the champions of last season and of this season, too,” commented Milly. “I don’t wonder. How swiftly and cleanly they play! They appear not to exert themselves, yet they always get the ball in perfect time. It all reminds me of—of the rhythm of music. And that champion batter and runner—that Lane in center—isn’t he just beautiful? He walks and runs like a blue-ribbon winner at the horse show. I tell you one thing, Connie, these Quakers are on dress parade.”
“Oh, these Quakers hate themselves, I don’t think!” retorted Nan. Being a rabid girl-fan it was, of course, impossible for Nan to speak baseball convictions or gossip without characteristic baseball slang. “Stuck on themselves! I never saw the like in my life. That fellow Lane is so swelled that he can’t get down off his toes. But he’s a wonder, I must admit that. They’re a bunch of stars. Easy, fast, trained—they’re machines, and I’ll bet they’re Indians to fight. I can see it sticking out all over them. This will certainly be some game with Whit handing up that jump ball of his to this gang of champs. But, Connie, I’ll go you Whit beats them.”
I laughed and refused to gamble.
The gong rang; the crowd seemed to hum and rustle softly to quiet attention; Umpire McClung called the names of the batteries; then the familiar “Play!”
There was the usual applause from the grand stand and welcome cheers from the bleachers. The Rube was the last player to go out. Morrisey was a manager who always played to the stands, and no doubt he held the Rube back for effect. If so, he ought to have been gratified. That moment reminded me of my own team and audience upon the occasion of the Rube’s debut. It was the same only here it happened in the big league, before a championship team and twenty thousand fans.
The roar that went up from the bleachers might well have scared an unseasoned pitcher out of his wits. And the Quakers lined up before their bench and gazed at this newcomer who had the nerve to walk out there to the box. Cogswell stood on the coaching line, looked at the Rube and then held up both arms and turned toward the Chicago bench as if to ask Morrisey: “Where did you get that?”
Nan, quick as a flash to catch a point, leaned over the box-rail and looked at the champions with fire in her eye. “Oh, you just wait! wait!” she bit out between her teeth.
Certain it was that there was no one who knew the Rube as well as I; and I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the hour before me would see brightening of a great star pitcher on the big league horizon. It was bound to be a full hour for me. I had much reason to be grateful to Whit Hurtle. He had pulled my team out of a rut and won me the pennant, and the five thousand dollars I got for his release bought the little cottage on the hill for Milly and me. Then there was my pride in having developed him. And all that I needed to calm me, settle me down into assurance and keen criticism of the game, was to see the Rube pitch a few balls with his old incomparable speed and control.
Berne, first batter for the Quakers, walked up to the plate. He was another Billy Hamilton, built like a wedge. I saw him laugh at the long pitcher.
Whit swayed back, coiled and uncoiled. Something thin, white, glancing, shot at Berne. He ducked, escaping the ball by a smaller margin than appeared good for his confidence. He spoke low to the Rube, and what he said was probably not flavored with the milk of friendly sweetness.
“Wild! What’d you look for?” called out Cogswell scornfully. “He’s from the woods!”
The Rube swung his enormously long arm, took an enormous stride toward third base, and pitched again. It was one of his queer deliveries. The ball cut the plate.
“Ho! Ho!” yelled the Quakers.
The Rube’s next one was his out curve. It broke toward the corner of the plate and would have been a strike had not Berne popped it up.
Callopy, the second hitter, faced the Rube, and he, too, after the manner of ball players, made some remark meant only for the Rube’s ears. Callopy was a famous waiter. He drove more pitchers mad with his implacable patience than any hitter in the league. The first one of the Rube’s he waited on crossed the in-corner; the second crossed the out-corner and the third was Rube’s wide, slow, tantalizing “stitch-ball,” as we call it, for the reason that it came so slow a batter could count the stitches. I believe Callopy waited on that curve, decided to hit it, changed his mind and waited some more, and finally the ball maddened him and he had to poke at it, the result being a weak grounder.
Then the graceful, powerful Lane, champion batter, champion base runner, stepped to the plate. How a baseball crowd, any crowd, anywhere, loves the champion batter! The ovation Lane received made me wonder, with this impressive reception in a hostile camp, what could be the manner of it on his home field? Any boy ball-player from the lots seeing Lane knock the dirt out of his spikes and step into position would have known he was a 400 hitter.
I was curious to see what the Rube would pitch Lane. It must have been a new and significant moment for Hurtle. Some pitchers actually wilt when facing a hitter of Lane’s reputation. But he, on his baseball side, was peculiarly unemotional. Undoubtedly he could get furious, but that only increased his effectiveness. To my amazement the Rube pitched Lane a little easy ball, not in any sense like his floater or stitch-ball, but just a little toss that any youngster might have tossed. Of all possible balls, Lane was not expecting such as that, and he let it go. If the nerve of it amazed me, what did it not do to Lane? I saw his face go fiery red. The grand stand murmured; let out one short yelp of pleasure; the Quaker players chaffed Lane.
The pitch was a strike. I was gripping my chair now, and for the next pitch I prophesied the Rube’s wonderful jump ball, which he had not yet used. He swung long, and at the end of his swing seemed to jerk tensely. I scarcely saw the ball. It had marvelous speed. Lane did not offer to hit it, and it was a strike. He looked at the Rube, then at Cogswell. That veteran appeared amused. The bleachers, happy and surprised to be able to yell at Lane, yelled heartily.
Again I took it upon myself to interpret the Rube’s pitching mind. He had another ball that he had not used, a drop, an unhittable drop. I thought he would use that next. He did, and though Lane reached it with the bat, the hit was a feeble one. He had been fooled and the side was out.
Poole, the best of the Quaker’s pitching staff, walked out to the slab. He was a left-hander, and Chicago, having so many players who batted left-handed, always found a southpaw a hard nut to crack. Cogswell, field manager and captain of the Quakers, kicked up the dust around first base and yelled to his men: “Git in the game!”
Staats hit Poole’s speed ball into deep short and was out; Mitchell flew out to Berne; Rand grounded to second.
While the teams again changed sides the fans cheered, and then indulged in the first stretch of the game. I calculated that they would be stretching their necks presently, trying to keep track of the Rube’s work. Nan leaned on the railing absorbed in her own hope and faith. Milly chattered about this and that, people in the boxes, and the chances of the game.
My own interest, while it did not wholly preclude the fortunes of the Chicago players at the bat, was mostly concerned with the Rube’s fortunes in the field.
In the Rube’s half inning he retired Bannister and Blandy on feeble infield grounders, and worked Cogswell into hitting a wide curve high in the air.
Poole meant to win for the Quakers if his good arm and cunning did not fail him, and his pitching was masterly. McCloskey fanned, Hutchinson fouled out, Brewster got a short safe fly just out of reach, and Hoffner hit to second, forcing Brewster.
With Dugan up for the Quakers in the third inning, Cogswell and Bannister, from the coaching lines, began to talk to the Rube. My ears, keen from long practice, caught some of the remarks in spite of the noisy bleachers.
“Say, busher, you ‘ve lasted longer’n we expected, but you don’t know it!”
“Gol darn you city ball tossers! Now you jest let me alone!”
“We’re comin’ through the rye!”
“My top-heavy rustic friend, you’ll need an airship presently, when you go up!”
All the badinage was good-natured, which was sure proof that the Quakers had not arrived at anything like real appreciation of the Rube. They were accustomed to observe the trying out of many youngsters, of whom ninety-nine out of a hundred failed to make good.
Dugan chopped at three strikes and slammed his bat down. Hucker hit a slow fly to Hoffer. Three men out on five pitched balls! Cogswell, old war horse that he was, stood a full moment and watched the Rube as he walked in to the bench. An idea had penetrated Cogswell’s brain, and I would have given something to know what it was. Cogswell was a great baseball general, and though he had a preference for matured ball-players he could, when pressed, see the quality in a youngster. He picked up his mitt and took his position at first with a gruff word to his players.
Rand for Chicago opened with a hit, and the bleachers, ready to strike fire, began to cheer and stamp. When McCloskey, in an attempt to sacrifice, beat out his bunt the crowd roared. Rand, being slow on his feet, had not attempted to make third on the play. Hutchinson sacrificed, neatly advancing the runners. Then the bleachers played the long rolling drum of clattering feet with shrill whistling accompaniment. Brewster batted a wicked ground ball to Blandy. He dove into the dust, came up with the ball, and feinting to throw home he wheeled and shot the ball to Cogswell, who in turn shot it to the plate to head Rand. Runner and ball got there apparently together, but Umpire McClung’s decision went against Rand. It was fine, fast work, but how the bleachers stormed at McClung!
Again the head of the Quakers’ formidable list was up. I knew from the way that Cogswell paced the coaching box that the word had gone out to look the Rube over seriously. There were possibilities even in rubes.
Berne carefully stepped into the batter’s box, as if he wanted to be certain to the breadth of a hair how close he was to the plate. He was there this time to watch the Rube pitch, to work him out, to see what was what. He crouched low, and it would have been extremely hard to guess what he was up to. His great play, however, was his ability to dump the ball and beat out the throw to first. It developed presently, that this was now his intention and that the Rube knew it and pitched him the one ball which is almost impossible to bunt—a high incurve, over the inside corner. There was no mistaking the Rube’s magnificent control. True as a plumb line he shot up the ball—once, twice, and Berne fouled both—two strikes. Grudgingly he waited on the next, but it, too, was over the corner, and Berne went out on strikes. The great crowd did not, of course, grasp the finesse of the play, but Berne had struck out—that was enough for them.
Callopy, the famous spiker, who had put many a player out of the game for weeks at a time, strode into the batter’s place, and he, too, was not at the moment making any funny remarks. The Rube delivered a ball that all but hit Callopy fair on the head. It was the second narrow escape for him, and the roar he let out showed how he resented being threatened with a little of his own medicine. As might have been expected, and very likely as the Rube intended, Callopy hit the next ball, a sweeping curve, up over the infield.
I was trying to see all the intricate details of the motive and action on the field, and it was not easy to watch several players at once. But while Berne and Callopy were having their troubles with the Rube, I kept the tail of my eye on Cogswell. He was prowling up and down the third-base line.
He was missing no signs, no indications, no probabilities, no possibilities. But he was in doubt. Like a hawk he was watching the Rube, and, as well, the crafty batters. The inning might not tell the truth as to the Rube’s luck, though it would test his control. The Rube’s speed and curves, without any head work, would have made him a pitcher of no mean ability, but was this remarkable placing of balls just accident? That was the question.
When Berne walked to the bench I distinctly heard him say: “Come out of it, you dubs. I say you can’t work him or wait him. He’s peggin’ ’em out of a gun!”
Several of the Quakers were standing out from the bench, all intent on the Rube. He had stirred them up. First it was humor; then ridicule, curiosity, suspicion, doubt. And I knew it would grow to wonder and certainty, then fierce attack from both tongues and bats, and lastly—for ball players are generous—unstinted admiration.
Somehow, not only the first climaxes of a game but the decisions, the convictions, the reputations of pitchers and fielders evolve around the great hitter. Plain it was that the vast throng of spectators, eager to believe in a new find, wild to welcome a new star, yet loath to trust to their own impulsive judgments, held themselves in check until once more the great Lane had faced the Rube.
The field grew tolerably quiet just then. The Rube did not exert himself. The critical stage had no concern for him. He pitched Lane a high curve, over the plate, but in close, a ball meant to be hit and a ball hard to hit safely. Lane knew that as well as any hitter in the world, so he let two of the curves go by—two strikes. Again the Rube relentlessly gave him the same ball; and Lane, hitting viciously, spitefully, because he did not want to hit that kind of a ball, sent up a fly that Rand easily captured.
“Oh, I don’t know! Pretty fair, I guess!” yelled a tenor-voiced fan; and he struck the key-note. And the bleachers rose to their feet and gave the Rube the rousing cheer of the brotherhood of fans.
Hoffer walked to first on a base on balls. Sweeney advanced him. The Rube sent up a giant fly to Callopy. Then Staats hit safely, scoring the first run of the game. Hoffer crossed the plate amid vociferous applause. Mitchell ended the inning with a fly to Blandy.
What a change had come over the spirit of that Quaker aggregation! It was something to make a man thrill with admiration and, if he happened to favor Chicago, to fire all his fighting blood. The players poured upon the Rube a continuous stream of scathing abuse. They would have made a raging devil of a mild-mannered clergyman. Some of them were skilled in caustic wit, most of them were possessed of forked tongues; and Cogswell, he of a thousand baseball battles, had a genius for inflaming anyone he tormented. This was mostly beyond the ken of the audience, and behind the back of the umpire, but it was perfectly plain to me. The Quakers were trying to rattle the Rube, a trick of the game as fair for one side as for the other. I sat there tight in my seat, grimly glorying in the way the Rube refused to be disturbed. But the lion in him was rampant. Fortunately, it was his strange gift to pitch better the angrier he got; and the more the Quakers flayed him, the more he let himself out to their crushing humiliation.
The innings swiftly passed to the eighth with Chicago failing to score again, with Philadelphia failing to score at all. One scratch hit and a single, gifts to the weak end of the batting list, were all the lank pitcher allowed them. Long since the bleachers had crowned the Rube. He was theirs and they were his; and their voices had the peculiar strangled hoarseness due to over-exertion. The grand stand, slower to understand and approve, arrived later; but it got there about the seventh, and ladies’ gloves and men’s hats were sacrificed.
In the eighth the Quakers reluctantly yielded their meed of praise, showing it by a cessation of their savage wordy attacks on the Rube. It was a kind of sullen respect, wrung from the bosom of great foes.
Then the ninth inning was at hand. As the sides changed I remembered to look at the feminine group in our box. Milly was in a most beautiful glow of happiness and excitement. Nan sat rigid, leaning over the rail, her face white and drawn, and she kept saying in a low voice: “Will it never end? Will it never end?” Mrs. Nelson stared wearily.
It was the Quakers’ last stand. They faced it as a team that had won many a game in the ninth with two men out. Dugan could do nothing with the Rube’s unhittable drop, for a drop curve was his weakness, and he struck out. Hucker hit to Hoffer, who fumbled, making the first error of the game. Poole dumped the ball, as evidently the Rube desired, for he handed up a straight one, but the bunt rolled teasingly and the Rube, being big and tall, failed to field it in time.
Suddenly the whole field grew quiet. For the first time Cogswell’s coaching was clearly heard.
“One out! Take a lead! Take a lead! Go through this time. Go through!”
Could it be possible, I wondered, that after such a wonderful exhibition of pitching the Rube would lose out in the ninth?
There were two Quakers on base, one out, and two of the best hitters in the league on deck, with a chance of Lane getting up.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” moaned Nan.
I put my hand on hers. “Don’t quit, Nan. You’ll never forgive yourself if you quit. Take it from me, Whit will pull out of this hole!”
What a hole that was for the Rube on the day of his break into fast company! I measured it by his remarkable deliberation. He took a long time to get ready to pitch to Berne, and when he let drive it was as if he had been trifling all before in that game. I could think of no way to figure it except that when the ball left him there was scarcely any appreciable interval of time before it cracked in Sweeney’s mitt. It was the Rube’s drop, which I believed unhittable. Berne let it go by, shaking his head as McClung called it a strike. Another followed, which Berne chopped at vainly. Then with the same upheaval of his giant frame, the same flinging of long arms and lunging forward, the Rube delivered a third drop. And Berne failed to hit it.
The voiceless bleachers stamped on the benches and the grand stand likewise thundered.
Callopy showed his craft by stepping back and lining Rube’s high pitch to left. Hoffer leaped across and plunged down, getting his gloved hand in front of the ball. The hit was safe, but Hoffer’s valiant effort saved a tie score.
Lane up! Three men on bases! Two out!
Not improbably there were many thousand spectators of that thrilling moment who pitied the Rube for the fate which placed Lane at the bat then. But I was not one of them. Nevertheless my throat was clogged, my mouth dry, and my ears full of bells. I could have done something terrible to Hurtle for his deliberation, yet I knew he was proving himself what I had always tried to train him to be.
Then he swung, stepped out, and threw his body with the ball. This was his rarely used pitch, his last resort, his fast rise ball that jumped up a little at the plate. Lane struck under it. How significant on the instant to see old Cogswell’s hands go up! Again the Rube pitched, and this time Lane watched the ball go by. Two strikes!
That whole audience leaped to its feet, whispering, yelling, screaming, roaring, bawling.
The Rube received the ball from Sweeney and quick as lightning he sped it plateward. The great Lane struck out! The game was over—Chicago, 1; Philadelphia, 0.
In that whirling moment when the crowd went mad and Milly was hugging me, and Nan pounding holes in my hat, I had a queer sort of blankness, a section of time when my sensations were deadlocked.
“Oh! Connie, look!” cried Nan. I saw Lane and Cogswell warmly shaking hands with the Rube. Then the hungry clamoring fans tumbled upon the field and swarmed about the players.
Whereupon Nan kissed me and Milly, and then kissed Mrs. Nelson. In that radiant moment Nan was all sweetness.
“It is the Rube’s break into fast company,” she said.