Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Grooved Pitch—Hall of Famer vs. Three Game Cup of Coffee Youngster

by Dennis Pajot

One hundred years ago this month the sixth-place Milwaukee Brewers opened a series against the second place Minneapolis Millers on Sunday, May 26, facing future Hall of Fame member Rube Waddell.

The eccentric Waddell is known to most baseball fans. Although on the downside of his career, he was still a pitcher to be reckoned with. During his major league career Rube posted a 193 and 143 record, mostly with Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. Of these 193 wins, 50 were shutouts. He led the league in strike-outs six straight years in the first decade of the 20th Century, including 349 in 1904. Unfortunately, much of this is overshadowed in some people's minds by the stories of his wrestling alligators, chasing fire engines, and drinking alcoholic beverage to excess. Minneapolis manager Joe Cantillon took in the believed washed up pitcher in 1911, and Rube responded with a 20 win season for the Millers.

On this Sunday in Minneapolis Rube struck out nine Brewers and allowed only four hits, two of them bunts, in route to a 6 to 2 victory. One of the hits he surrendered appears to have been a little tainted. According to the Milwaukee Journal:
In the ninth Capron was the first Brewer up. All afternoon his townsfolk and fellow students had waited for him to do something, and when his final chance came, Waddell's kindness overpowered him. He slipped one over the heart of the pan with nothing on it but the cover. Cape met it square and off it went towards center. Once out on the grass, the Minneapolis outfield became more interested in watching Capron run than in fielding the ball. Clymer stood still and allowed Rossman to do the shagging. In the meantime Capron kept speeding on and when the ball was finally started toward the home plate, he was well on his way and reached home with the Brewers' first run.
The Capron in this story was Ralph Capron, a left-handed hitter acquired by the Brewers about three weeks before from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 22-year old Minneapolis native was known to Wisconsin football fans as a star at the University of Minnesota, having scored a sensational touchdown against the Badgers the previous fall.

This was Ralph's first year in professional baseball. Pirate manager Fred Clarke saw he had plenty of ability, but needed seasoning. His ability included speed, as he could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat. Capron had quit school, not finishing his law degree and was wondering if he had made a mistake turning professional.

The young outfielder was hot so far with the Brewers. The morning of the game in question the statistics in the paper showed Capron was hitting a hefty .327. Ralph was having a pleasurable time in his home area. Against the St. Paul Saints two days prior, with his family in the stands, he had two hits, including a home run.

Back to the May 26 game. After Capron's suspicious home run, Jimmy Breen hit a slow roller into the infield. Waddell was slow getting to the ball and when he did he "hoisted it to the grand stand," and Breen went all the way to third. After a strike out, a bunt by Ray Schalk scored Breen.

Tom Dougherty certainly had not matched Waddell on the mound. The big Milwaukee right-hander gave up 12 hits and walked four. Every hitter in the Miller line-up had at least one hit, except second baseman Dave Altizer. Minneapolis lead off hitter Billy Clymer had three hits—one a double—but could not score a run. Clean-up man Red Killefer led the Millers in that category, scoring twice. Brewer second sacker Nemo Leibold had a particularly bad afternoon, striking out four times in four at bats against Waddell.

Ralph Capron would quickly cool off and was benched in favor of Jimmy Breen in early June. However, when used he showed his speed. In the first game of a doubleheader on June 13 at Columbus Capron had a bunt triple. He was sent up to bunt in the sixth inning, with outfielder Newt Randall on second. Cape came through with a neat roller, which bounded over first base and continued on its way into right field. With his blazing speed, Ralph reached third before the ball was finally stopped.

Capron continued to struggle as the season continued. On July 22 he was returned to the Pirates, leaving the Brewers with a .267 average in 51 games, which included four triples and two home runs. A week later he was sent to St. Paul, where he finished the season. Capron's troubles were apparently more mental than physical; late in the season the Milwaukee Journal's baseball beat writer Brownie wrote that Capron's speed was never in doubt, only that he "was solely lacking in grey matter. [Mike] Kelly in St. Paul has told his players no matter what sort of a bone headed play Cape pulls off to say nothing, but to 'con' him along." It was reported Capron had a guaranteed contract with Pittsburgh, so he would be paid his $2,800 for the season, if he played any more or not.

In August, the Brewers appealed to the National Commission to get back the $500 option purchase from the Pirates on Capron. When the Brewers notified Pittsburgh that they would not retain the player and wanted the money back the Pirate management refused. The commission ruled that releasing the player constituted a forfeit by the Milwaukee club for any reimbursement.

Ralph Capron played a total of three games in the big leagues with Pittsburgh in 1912 and 1913, unable to get a hit in his one at-bat, but scoring one run. He would play 63 games for Baltimore of the International League in 1913 and 1914, hitting only .258 and .195. Ralph Capron would live to the ripe old age of 91, dying in Los Angeles in 1980.

The other "person of interest" in our story, Rube Waddell, did not live the long life Ralph Capron did. In the spring of 1912, in Hickman, Kentucky, there was terrible flooding. Rube helped to sandbag the river, standing for hours in icy water. He came down with pneumonia, but pitched well in 1912. On February 20, 1913, Waddell was again a hero, helping out at a fire in Hickman. His illness came back, but he managed to pitch some in 1913. Later that year the big left-hander was diagnosed with tuberculosis and went to live with his family in Texas. He died on April 1, 1914, at the age of 37. In 1946 George Edward "Rube" Waddell was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Months before his passing the Cincinnati Times-Star wrote this about the great left-handed pitcher:
Rube Waddell, so the doctors say, is a victim of consumption. Sympathy will pervade the base ball world—for the Rube, absurd character though he may have been, did a lot of good as he journeyed on his way. The man who brings merriment instead of sorrow; who causes mirth instead of grief; who adds one smile and never adds one tear—that man is a benefactor and a worthy citizen. Judging him from such a point of view, Waddell was a doer of great good. His ridiculous adventures never bore a sting and never harmed a soul, while the stories old of the Rube's incessant pranks added to the gaiety of nations.
Perhaps instead of being remembered as much for chasing fire engines and for pitching shut-outs, Rube Waddell should also be remembered for his heroic actions in Hickman, Kentucky, and a little for his "gift" pitch to a young ball player, making that 22-year old a one-inning hero in front of his hometown fans and family.

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