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Sport: Baseball: New Season

10 minute read

(See front cover) In 1886, famed “Cap” Anson created a furor by taking his Chicago baseball team (including Evangelist Billy Sunday) to Hot Springs, Ark. to get ready for the opening of the season. Since then, spring training has been a baseball institution. Main purpose of spring training is not to recondition baseballers but to recondition baseball addicts, by reminding them that a new season is about to start, reviving their interest in the game. By last week, baseball addicts had had six weeks of training-camp news to assure them that the 1937 major-league season would start in Boston (Bees v. Phillies) and Washington (Senators v. Athletics) April 19, one day before the other teams start functioning. Meanwhile last week, 16 major-league teams, moving north from their camps in Florida, Cuba, Texas, Louisiana. Mexico and Southern California, were winding up their series of exhibition games while baseball experts, governed by ancient tradition, predicted how the teams would stand when the 1937 season ends Oct. 3.

In Fort Smith, Ark., the New York Giants beat the Cleveland Indians 9-to-2, on expert pitching from veteran Hal Schumacher. In Philadelphia, the American League Athletics and the National League Phillies, both rated as likely tail-enders in their respective leagues, began a three-out-of-five-game series for their city championship. In Tulsa, Okla., the world champion New York Yankees won their 13th straight game, 8-to-3, against the Tulsa Oilers. In Daytona, Fla., the St. Louis Cardinals started north via a miserable record of four victories in 14 exhibition games.

By comparing spring statistics with last year’s records, baseball experts, polled by The Sporting News, last week picked the major-league teams to finish the season as follows:

American League National League New York St. Louis Detroit Chicago Cleveland New York Boston Pittsburgh Chicago Cincinnati Washington Boston St. Louis Brooklyn Philadelphia Philadelphia

The New York Yankees were even-money favorites to win the pennant. Odds on the St. Louis Cardinals were 8-to-5.

Main feature of baseball’s annual predictions is unvarying from year to year: they are always wrong. Certainties of the forthcoming season last week were exactly two: 1) in 1937 players, managers and umpires will get more money out of the game than they ever have before; 2) in 1937, major-league baseball will furnish the U. S. public with the most extraordinary character it has produced since the War.

Biggest yearly salary ever paid to a baseballer was $80,000, to Babe Ruth in 1930 and 1931. This year’s top is Lou Gehrig’s $36,000, but baseball’s total major-league payroll will be over $3,200,000, an all-time record, like the Yankee payroll of $332,000. Last season was major-league baseball’s best since the Depression. This year, even umpires’ salaries have been upped.

Babe Ruth made his big-league debut in 1914. The character who, 23 years later, seemed highly likely to develop into an even more prodigious figure upon the U. S. scene is Cleveland’s Robert William Feller, who last year made his big-league debut at the age of 17. This year Feller is not only the youngest regular pitcher currently functioning in the major leagues, but also the youngest in big-league history. This alone would make him a noteworthy figure, but it is only one of Pitcher Feller’s qualifications for baseball immortality.

In addition to being the game’s youngest pitcher he is also, to all appearances, its best. Strikeouts are to a baseball pitcher what home runs are to a batter— the most spectacular possible evidence of skill. In his first regular major-league game last year Feller struck out 15 batters, one less than the American League record, set by Rube Waddell 28 years before. Modern major-league strikeout record is 17, made by Dizzy Dean in 1933. In his third week of major-league play, against the Philadelphia Athletics, Feller broke the American League record, equaled Dean’s. When the 1936 season ended, Feller’s earned run average—roughly equivalent to a batter’s batting average as a test of all round efficiency—was 3.34, second in his league only to that of 37-year-old Robert Moses Grove. Last winter, during a complicated controversy in which it appeared that Feller might be declared a “free agent,” rival club owners bid as high as $100,000 for his services. This spring Feller’s efficiency has been, if anything, more spectacular than it was a year ago. In three appearances against the National League pennant-winning New York Giants, Feller had last week pitched a total of eleven innings. In them, he struck out 16 batters. Out of 43 Giant batters, not one made a hit. Last week, Feller’s record for the whole spring season was 29 strikeouts and four hits in 18 innings.

Major explanation of the phenomenon of Robert William Feller is his father, William Andrew Feller of Van Meter, Iowa (pop. 410). Frustrated in his own ambition to be a professional baseballer, Father Feller decided to realize it vicariously in his son. When Robert Feller was four, he and his father played catch behind the barn on the 360-acre Feller wheat farm. At 9, Robert Feller could throw a baseball 275 ft. At 13 he could do better than 350 ft.* At 14, he could pitch so fast that his father had a hard time catching the ball and once when the son’s curve ball missed his glove, it cracked three of the father’s ribs.

By the time Bob Feller was 11 he was playing with American Legion teams. Father Feller, well aware by this time that his son would justify his hopes, decided to equip him with a team of his own. He scraped a Feller wheatfield, organized a team called the Oak Views on which, when he was not pitching, young Bob Feller was the shortstop. In 1934, pitching for Oak View, Bob Feller struck out 161 adult opponents in ten games. That autumn he and his father went to the World Series. Said Bob Feller after the games: “I can do as well as that.”

In 1935 Pitcher Feller was called to the attention of Cyril Slapnicka, assistant to the Cleveland Indians’ president, who, in accordance with baseball law which forbids a major-league club to hire an unattached amateur player until he has served an apprenticeship with a minor-league team, gave him a contract for 1936 with the Fargo-Moorhead Club of the Northern League. Last winter’s uproar (TIME, Dec. 21) about what club was entitled to Pitcher Feller’s services arose principally because his minor-league apprenticeship was so sketchy that there was some question as to whether it had occurred at all. Fargo-Moorhead had promptly assigned him to New Orleans. New Orleans had placed him on the retired list last spring so that he could attend high school. Last summer Cleveland drafted him from New Orleans. When he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings of an exhibition game, Cleveland’s Manager Steve O’Neill decided he was ready for active service.

Last winter, while major-league clubs were bidding up to $100,000 for his services, Pitcher Feller was still attending high school at Van Meter. Riding in the school bus, he wore his Cleveland Indians baseball cap. At the Cleveland training camp this spring, he had a tutor to help him keep up with his class, in which he hopes to graduate in May. Pitcher Feller sleeps twelve hours a night. He has not yet taken up smoking or attending dances. His salary is $10,000 a year. Technically, his only weakness is a lack of control but even this sometimes works to his advantage. The phenomenal speed of his deliveries, combined with uncertainty as to where they are going, cause batters to shy away from the plate. Last fortnight one of Feller’s fast balls hit Giant Outfielder Hank Leiber on the head. Stunned, Leiber was removed from the game, could not play again for a week. Feller’s speed and his occasional wildness sometimes have unfortunate consequences of another sort. His lack of control results in many bases on balls. His speed means that a batter who does hit the ball is likely to hit it a long way. The fourth hit made against Feller this spring came last week when, after he had struck out seven batters in the first three innings of a game against Little Rock, a recruit third baseman named Jim Tabor came to bat with two out and three on base. Tabor hit a homerun, Little Rock won the ball game, 5-to-0.

Although at 18 he was a $10,000-a-year veteran, Pitcher Feller this spring was still enough of a novelty to distract baseball addicts’ attention from the recruit players who usually make most training-camp news. Most remarkable rookies of the year appeared to be Giant Pitcher Carl Hubbell’s young Brother John, who showed promise while the Giants were mysteriously losing a string of early games to semi-pro teams in Cuba; Yankee Outfielder Joe Di Maggio’s older Brother Vince who tried out at third base with the Boston Bees; and a 19-year-old St. Louis Cardinal catcher named Arnold (“Mickey”) Owen. About Brother Di Maggio one school of thought says that he is a longer hitter than his brother; another says that he lacks competitive “guts” and that the Bees’ President Robert Quinn hired him mainly because his name should have box-office value. Of the three rookies, Owen attracted most attention by impudently remarking of his team’s best pitcher, Dean: “I’ll get along swell with Dizzy as long as he doesn’t try to tell me how to catch. . . .”

Baseball is the U. S. National Game. As such, it appropriately suffered this spring from the current national ailment of labor trouble. First symptom was a conspicuous number of “holdouts”—players who threatened not to play unless their owners paid them what they thought they deserved. Only remaining major holdouts last week were Yankee Pitcher Charles Ruffing who was demanding $1,000 more than the $16,000 Owner Jacob Ruppert thought he was worth, and First Baseman Adolph Camilli of the Phillies. Second symptom was a request by Representative Raymond J. Cannon of Wisconsin to U. S. Attorney General Homer Cummings to start anti-trust proceedings against owners of all organized U. S. baseball clubs on the grounds that they were operating a monopoly in restraint of trade.

Representative Cannon’s indignation about organized baseball dates from 1920 when he was attorney for the Chicago White Sox players in baseball’s most famed scandal. A onetime professional baseballer himself, he usually pitches in the annual House v. Congressional Press Gallery game. Basis of his complaint to Attorney General Cummings was that “if a player’s contract expires and the . . . club owner submits a new contract… the player must either sign the contract… or he is forever barred from playing organized baseball. . . .” Since the existence of organized baseball depends on the existence of some form of agreement between club owners to prevent the richest club from hiring all the best players, few baseballers hoped that Representative Cannon’s appeal would do much to improve their status. Last week, the U. S. Department of Justice found in a 1922 Supreme Court decision written by Oliver Wendell Holmes grounds for not conducting the investigation. Justice Holmes declared that major-league clubs did not engage in interstate commerce.

*Longest recorded baseball throw: 426 ft. 9½ in., by Sheldon Le Jeune of Evansville, Ind., in 1910.

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