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The Pitch (Part Two)
2004-12-12 09:43
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.


Book Excerpt

From Yankees Century

By Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson

(For Part One, click here)

As the two teams embarked on the midnight train back to New York, their moods could not have been more different. Boston, having finally broken through on Chesbro, believed he was done for the year. They were confident they could beat whomever Griffith chose to pitch in either game on Monday. The Yankees, on the other hand, knew it would take a miracle to win both games.

Neither the Yankees nor their fans were deterred by the odds. The Giants refusal to play in a postseason series had cost them and the Yankees had picked up thousands of converts that victory could make permanent. Anticipation built during the off day. On Monday afternoon nearly thirty thousand zealots turned out at American League Park hoping to witness just such a miracle.

Jack Chesbro took the mound for the final time that season, and the fourth time in eight days. If it were true that he had nothing left, after 445 innings of pitching, it was equally true that he had nothing left to lose. He had told Griffith the previous day "I'll trim 'em on Monday if it costs an arm."

After Chesbro set down Boston in the first, Dougherty worked Dinneen for a walk. Keeler bunted him over to second, but he was left stranded. Boston tallied two singles off Chesbro in the top of the second, but then the pitcher held firm. The game was still scoreless when Chesbro came to bat in the bottom of the third with one out.

As he stepped to the plate, a delegation of fans from Chesbro's hometown of North Adams, Massachusetts broke from the stands and embraced him. They presented their hero with a sealskin coat and matching cap as the crowd stood and cheered itself hoarse. Then Chesbro really gave them something to cheer about.

He drove the ball deep to right field, past Boston outfielder Buck Freeman over Keeler's Hollow. By the time Freeman retrieved the ball from near the exit in the right field corner, Chesbro stood on third, a lead only ninety feet away and Patsy Dougherty coming to bat.

But Boston's Big Bill Dinneen had gained a reputation as a money pitcher during the 1903 World Series. He earned his salary by striking out both Dougherty and Keeler.

The contest was still scoreless with two out in the bottom of the fifth when Yankee catcher Red Kleinow singled to right. Chesbro was again greeted with pandemonium as he stepped to the plate.

He ripped the ball up the middle off Dinneen's pitching hand then beat the throw to first. Dougherty followed with a single and New York led, 1-0. Dinneen then walked Keeler on purpose to load the bases, but Elberfeld made him pay, working another walk to plate Chesbro and put New York ahead 2-0.

With a two-run lead and Chesbro on the mound, the New Yorkers were confident. But in the seventh, LaChance reached first when Williams couldn't come up with his slow hopper. As he berated himself for the play, Ferris followed with a line drive that skipped between his legs.

Lou Criger, no offensive threat, did as expected and sacrificed both runners. Dinneen then strode to plate as his teammates pleaded with him to win his own game. He did the next best thing, which in this inning was to hit a ground ball to second baseman Jimmy Williams. The lumbering LaChance decided to take one and headed home. A good throw would have nailed him by twenty feet.

But this was not Williams' inning. He threw low and the ball skidded past Kleinow. LaChance scored and Ferris dashed in behind him as Williams' goat horns grew.

The extra pitches exhausted Chesbro. When he returned to the bench at the end of the inning he told Griffith he was finished. The manager asked his catcher what he thought.

"He hasn't got anything," Kleinow catcher responded, "but he's getting along all right. It's a toss-up." Griffith chose to stick with Chesbro's heart.

Chesbro teetered through the eighth as he looked over his shoulder. Stahl, Freeman and LaChance all cracked line drive base hits, but Elberfeld's relay cut down Stahl at home and preserved the tie. The game entered the ninth inning with the score still knotted.

Chesbro took the long walk from the bench to the mound for the 454th time that season, greeted by momentous cheers. Criger led off with an easy ground ball to Elberfeld.

The Kid was near automatic on such plays, but on this day the Invaders failed to defend their turf. Elberfeld's throw was short and Criger was safe, the potential winning run. Dinneen, as expected, bunted him to second. Then on Selbach's groundball to Elberfeld, Criger alertly dashed to third as the shortstop took the sure out at first. Chesbro was one out away from escaping the inning, but Boston was one base away from taking the lead.

Boston shortstop Freddie Parent stepped in, already twice the victim of Chesbro's spitballs for strikeouts. Chesbro threw three more, getting two strikes.

There is an old baseball adage that says a pitcher shall not get beat throwing anything but his best pitch. Even in 1904, that stratagem was standard fare. And the spitball, for most of the 454 innings that Jack Chesbro pitched in the season of 1904, had not only been his best pitch, but perhaps the best pitch any pitcher has ever had.

Throwing a spitball is best described as akin to squeezing a seed out from between one's fingers, made even more difficult by the fact that it must be done amidst the usual throwing motion. It is a difficult pitch to learn, and nearly impossible to control precisely. But no pitcher in baseball has ever been better at it than Jack Chesbro.

Yet even Chesbro, despite all evidence to the contrary, was not superhuman. He stood on the mound, wet his fingertips, gripped the ball, wound up and threw, pulling his right arm down violently, his wrist and forearm stiff, as the ball left his hand.

But this time, perhaps from fatigue, the seed squirted out wide and high. One newspaper described the pitch as "ten feet over Parent's head." Kleinow reached for the ball - too late, according to some - but he missed it. Elberfeld later said the catcher would have needed a "step ladder" to get it. The ball reportedly soared fully seventy-five feet in the air past him, all the way to the stands, where it was variously described as either striking the chicken wire backstop that protected the fans or thudding against the wooden fence that supported it.

Criger trotted home as Kleinow scrambled after the rebound. Chesbro looked shocked. He turned away and wiped his face as if to remove the saliva from his hand. Clark Griffith fell prostrate in front of the Yankee bench and buried his face in the dirt. Boston led, 3-2. The New York crowd sat in silence as Boston's Rooters sang and cheered and hooted for all they were worth.

A moment later, Parent singled, then was forced at second. The stunned Yankees were but three outs away from the end of the season.

Chesbro returned to bench and collapsed, alone and in tears. Over thirty years later long-time Yankee employee Mark Roth told a reporter, "Some day I'll tell you how Chesbro cried like a baby after that wild pitch. But that always makes me sad. I'll save it." Chesbro barely looked up as Dinneen tried to put the Yankees away.

They didn't give in. John Ganzel led off and made Dinneen work. But after fouling off six balls, he struck out.

The effort exhausted Dinneen. Conroy walked on four pitches, but Kleinow was too anxious, and popped to second.

Chesbro, who already had two of New York's six hits, was scheduled to bat next. But Griffith looked at his pitcher and for the first time all year saw a beaten man. He called on forty-year old Jim "Deacon" McGuire to pinch hit. The veteran did his job, and worked Dinneen for another walk.

Victory and defeat stood side-by-side as Conroy led off at second and McGuire perched on first. To the plate strode Patsy Dougherty, as much a difference in the pennant race that season as any man on the field. Boston rooters, cognizant of the way he'd beaten them every chance he had since the ill-advised trade, reportedly hid their eyes with each pitch, afraid to watch.

Dougherty took a strike, then a ball, then swung at a low curve for strike two before taking the fourth pitch to even the count.

Dinneen looked in at the plate and squinted. He then flashed two fingers twice to the umpire to confirm the count at 2-2. Sheridan nodded. Then Dinneen threw.

Dougherty swung. A roar came up from the third base stands but elsewhere there were only groans. Strike three.

The pennant was Boston's. There was no joy in Washington Heights.

The Yankees were out.

Copyright 2002, Glenn Stout and Richard A. Johnson. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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