Thursday, January 5, 2012

Produced Before Steroids: Happy Felsch's Great Clouts in 1914

by Dennis Pajot

Oscar "Happy" Felsch was a Milwaukee boy who came to the American Association Brewers in August 1913, after playing with the Milwaukee/Fond du Lac Mollys of the Wisconsin-Illinois League. In the W-I League Felsch had hit .337, including 10 home runs, in 49 games—mostly as a shortstop. He only managed to hit .183 in for the Brewers in 26 games—with only two home runs.

The Brewers held spring training in 1914 at Owensboro, Kentucky. Wet grounds forced the Brewers to train at a local golf course that was next to a river. Felsch was showing some of his explosive power, which caused some concern for the Brewers' bottom line, as the Milwaukee Sentinel informed its readers:
Teutonin Felch [sic], the slugging north sider, caught a couple in the groove and shot them a mile into the small river which bounds one side of the course. As balls cost $1.25 per, Clark requested him to shoot them in the direction of Milwaukee, in which direction there is no river.
On a little more serious note the Sentinel's Manning Vaughan wrote: "Felch [sic], it seems, is getting wise to himself and if he cuts out the monkey work there is no reason why he should not be the sensation of the league this season. He is smacking the ball on the nose and while the pitchers are not using any hooks on him he is whaling the ball so hard that the leather almost peels off when he kisses one on the trademark."

Brewer manager Harry Clark believed Felsch was one of the most natural hitters he had ever seen, his only weakness being his inability to hit curve balls. As the spring went on Felsch was hitting a lot of balls out of the park. Sentinel writer A.J. Schinner scribbled down this quick poem:
Count that day lost whose low descending sun,
Does not witness Felsch uncork a home run.
But Happy was striking out far too much. Schinner also commented: "Happy is a great, very great, batter when he hits the ball."

On April 6 the Detroit Tigers played the Brewers' regular squad in Owensboro. The Tigers won 4 to 2, the Brewer highlight being a home run by Felsch over the center field fence—said to be the longest clout ever seen at Owensboro's south side park.

We must remember that home runs were a much rarer breed in this era than later eras of baseball. For example, the 1913 Brewers were second in home runs in the American Association, with 31 in 170 games. Of course, a number of these were inside-the-park home runs, so the news of Happy Felsch hitting long shots out of the park is much more newsworthy than it would be today.

As spring training progressed, Clark worked with Felsch's style of hitting. As the Milwaukee Journal put it: "Before Happy's one aim was to tear the cover off the ball, but under instructions he has been cutting away at the ball in a manner which has brought forth line drive after line drive and at the same time not robbed him of his healthy swing when the long ones are needed."

In the early part of the 1914 regular season, Felsch put on a long ball display that became legendary at the time. On April 28 the Brewers entertained the Cleveland Spiders at Athletic Park. With darkness setting in, Happy hit a titanic home run in the 10th inning to win the game 3 to 2. The Sentinel humorously reported the clout "cleared the fence by forty feet, traveled clear across Eighth Street, hitting the front porch of one of our best known German citizens. It then bounded through a perfectly good plate of glass and landed in the lap of Mrs. Herman Hassenfeffer, who was sitting near the window sewing a new button on her husband's Sunday pants. Incidentally it cost [Brewer President] Al Timme three bucks for a new pane of glass, but he should worry. Didn't it win us the game?" From the newspaper report it was obvious the hometown Felsch had a big following:
As soon as Happy hit the ball over the wall the bugs flocked out of the bleachers, and there was a reception committee of over a hundred fans at the plate by the time he had completed the circuit. They nearly shook his hand off, while a flock of kids followed him all the way to the clubhouse, patting him on the back and acting as only baseball bugs can act.
A direct result of Felsch's homer was that the Brewer management decided the 56 foot high flag pole in deep left centerfield, which was to fly the 1913 pennant, had to be raised to 75 feet, as not to obstruct Hap's long hits.

On the first of May Felsch hit another home run against the Spiders, in a 12 to 6 route.

Two days later, before a large Sunday crowd of 11,171, Happy hit another titanic home run. Usually his home runs were high, long shots, but this was a rifle shot that hit near the corner of 8th and Burleigh, then bounded on the sidewalk on the west side of the street, and continued over the vacant lot. The ball was picked up from the gutter on the north side of Burleigh by a kid who took off for parts unknown. The Sentinel's Manning Vaughan wrote it was the longest lick he had seen at Athletic Park. The Journal's Brownie agreed.

As with most legendary occurrences, stories varied and got bigger. The Milwaukee Journal said that the motorman and conductor on a passing streetcar heard something hit the side of the car and rock it from side to side. They got out to investigate and found a baseball flattened on one side. The passengers were dismissed and a crew was called to pry the ball from the side of the car.

A week later, on May 9, Felsch uncorked another home run, longer than that just talked of. This monumental smash sailed over the batter's screen—erected in front of the two-bit seats in center field to help the batter see the ball—into the stands, landing about ten rows up. The centerfield bleachers were exactly 485 feet from home plate. The screen over which the drive sailed was twelve feet high, and the ball topped this by ten feet. The Journal commented: "Happy's clout rose a mile in the air, and the ball did not start to descend until it was almost in the bleachers, It certainly was some smash."

The Sentinel was quick to point out: "His recent demonstration of batting a baseball over an unusually long city block will be a part of local baseball history so long as the present generation of fans exists."

Milwaukee Journal baseball writer Speck gave his readers this insight at the blast. With John Beall on base Hap came up to face Louisville pitcher Fred Toney.
The fielders moved back a bit. The crowd wanted a hit. There was a flash of white from the pitcher's box and a sound that resembled the swatting of an empty barrel with a bed slat. Away out in the center field bleachers there was a young man just about to open a bottle of brown soda pop. The neck of the bottle was pointed towards the diamond. Bang! The ball hit the bottle right on the nose, pushed in the plunger and the brown beverage flowed out. It was a home run and Beall counted ahead of him, the longest that has ever been made at the Eighth-st pasture. Some drive! It was.
That long drive certainly set an Athletic Park record. Sentinel sports columnist J.J. Delany said it went 497 feet and some inches. "How many inches no one will ever know, for some enterprising bleacherite grabbed the ball as it landed and now gives it the place of honor on his parlor mantle."

Oscar Felsch was not exactly a household name at this time, as in its game summary Sporting Life wrote: "French's home run in the second went into the centre-field bleachers, 485 feet away, and was the longest drive ever made at Athletic Park."

Felsch's long homers continued, as on June 4 he blasted a ball over the left field scoreboard in Minneapolis' Nicollet Park, said to be one of the longest hits ever made there.

In September Happy again put on a long ball display for the Milwaukee fans—this after he had been sold to the Chicago White Sox, although he finished the 1914 season with the Brewers. On September 15 he clouted a mammoth home run at Athletic Park against the St. Paul pitcher Harry Gardner. "The drive was a whale, for the ball sailed clear over Eighth street, and hit the top of Mrs. Herman Hassenfeffer's mansion. A couple of carpenters, who were on the roof laying shingles, were nearly hit by the ball, and every time Happy came to bat after that they made ready to duck." It was reported the ball cleared the screen on the left field fence—erected earlier in the season to stop 'cheap' home runs—by 50 feet.

Four days later, in Kansas City, Felsch hit a two run homer with two out in the tenth inning to propel the Brewers to a 6 to 4 win. The blast, Milwaukee's favorite son's 18th of the season, was one of the longest seen in the K.C. ballpark. Not to be outdone, the next day Blues' first baseman Bunny Brief hit a two run home run in the same location as Felsch's the day before, but only a little further.

Oscar "Happy" Felsch hit 19 home runs for the American Association Brewers in 1914, with a .304 batting average in 151 games. As we know he would go on to play with the Chicago White Sox, and gain a sort of ever lasting fame.

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