Sons of Eli played pros as rite of spring

He was not yet known across the country as “the Splendid Splinter” or “Teddy Ballgame.” He had not yet batted .406 over the course of a season or slammed even one of his 521 career home runs. But when Ted Williams, a 20-year-old rookie for the Boston Red Sox, stepped into batting practice at Yale Field on April 17, 1939, his opponents — the members of the Yale varsity baseball team — saw that he could hit.

“We watched him in batting practice and saw these screaming line drives go down the first baseline,” said Roger Hazen ’41, who played first base that day. “So I said I’d play about 20 yards in the outfield when I got out there.”

The game was an exhibition, the last tune-up for the Red Sox before they played their season opener against the Yankees later in the week. Like many major league teams in the first half of the 20th century, the Red Sox ended their spring training in 1939 by barnstorming across the country and playing college and semi-pro teams.

When the Red Sox — or the “Millionaires,” as they were nicknamed — arrived in New Haven, some fans thought the team might win its first World Series in 21 years. Boston had finished second to the Yankees in 1938, but the Bronx Bombers seemed like they might be past their prime. A New Haven Register headline on April 17 announced “1939 World Champions (?) Oppose Yale Varsity Nine Here Today.”

Boston’s starting lineup that rainy April afternoon suggested that the hopes of the Red Sox faithful were warranted. Player-manager Joe Cronin and second baseman Bobby Doerr made up one of the best-hitting middle infields in baseball history. Batting third, Jimmie Foxx, who drove in 175 runs a year earlier, struck an imposing presence. And preparing to make his major league debut in right field was a young Californian named Ted Williams, who had dominated the minors in 1938.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, had finished the 1938 season in the middle of the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League. Yale had several talented players — captain Eddie Collins, Jr. ’39, for example, would go on to play briefly with the Philadelphia Athletics — but the team was nothing special.

While Boston’s stars had been practicing for several weeks, Yale’s starting pitcher, Al Stevens ’40, had just wrapped up the basketball season. Although Stevens, a starting guard, had missed much of spring training, he was unfazed by the prospect of facing the Red Sox.

“I wasn’t worried about them,” Stevens said. “I figured I’d do the best I can, and that’s that.”

In the first inning, Stevens’ nonchalance paid off. The Eli hurler started off the game by forcing Red Sox centerfielder Doc Cramer to pop out. Following a walk and a fly out, Cronin hit a single. After Stevens delivered another walk to Boston third baseman Tom Carey, Ted Williams came up with the bases loaded and two outs.

But Williams struck out swinging. With “the finesse of a master,” the News reported, Stevens — who had earned a reputation as a wild pitcher — fanned Williams “decisively.” In the bottom of the inning, Yale’s hitters managed to do what the mighty Red Sox could not: score three runs.

With Yale coach Smoky Joe Wood, like Cronin, determined not to tire out his players, Stevens pitched only two innings. The Elis extended their lead to 4-0 in the third on a single by pitcher Dud Humphrey ’39, but the Red Sox came back with one run in the fourth and another three in the fifth.

By the top of the ninth, the score was tied 5-5. As darkness approached, Williams came up with Carey on base again. Although he had scored once on a walk, “The Kid,” as he was later known, had struck out three times against Yale pitching.

Williams smacked a pitch from John Crosby ’39S towards the right-field fence. The ball, the hardest hit of the day, looked like it was headed for a home run. But rightfielder Gregory Doonan ’39 snagged it as it neared the wall. Williams ended the day 0-for-4.

But Yale was unable to escape the inning with the game tied. A single from Doerr scored Carey, giving the Red Sox a 6-5 lead. In the bottom of the ninth, Collins managed to reach first on an error, but the Elis were unable to bring their captain home. Boston escaped with a win.

Boston would again finish in second place in the American League, and Williams would finish his rookie season as a genuine star, earning a .327 average with 31 home runs and 145 RBIs. But Yale, a mediocre Ivy League team, had nearly defeated a World Series contender. It was only an exhibition match, but it left many Yale players pleased with their effort — and unimpressed with Williams.

“Williams was a little sloppy in the outfield,” said Ronald Cooke ’40S, who came in at first base for Hazen and hit a single. “Everyone shook their head and said, ‘He’ll never make it.'”

Playing against legends

The 1939 game against the Red Sox was one of the most exciting exhibitions in Yale’s history, but it was not particularly unusual for the Elis. Beginning in the late 1860s, Yale played as many as 150 exhibitions against professional teams, according to records kept by the Yale Athletics Department.

In many cases, the games were local affairs against squads like the New Haven White Wings and the Mansfields of Middletown. But especially in the early 1900s, exhibitions against major league teams like the New York Giants, the Boston Braves or the Philadelphia Athletics were often held as spring training came to a close, either at home or in cities across the East Coast.

Sam Rubin ’95, who recently published a book on the history of baseball in New Haven, said the Elm City offered major league teams an opportunity to pick up an extra paycheck if they were willing to play against Yale or other local squads.

“New Haven, in general, with its position between New York and Boston, was definitely a pretty good baseball town,” Rubin said. ” If you’re bringing the Yankees into New Haven at Yale Field, that’s definitely going to attract a lot of attention.”

Yet the Yale players who took the field against the major league teams said the contests were still only exhibitions — nothing more. As thrilling as it was to strike out Ted Williams, Stevens said his bigger concern in 1939 was beating other college teams.

“The team I wanted to lick was Holy Cross, because they were one of the best college teams in the east,” Stevens said.

In addition, newspaper accounts of the exhibitions often lamented that the major leaguers “didn’t want to play ball.” Pitchers for both Yale and its professional opponents usually only worked a few innings, as managers did not want to risk injury to their players in a game that meant nothing in the standings. In these low-key contests, Eli players sometimes found themselves closer to their senior competitors than they expected.

“We always liked to play the big league teams,” Hazen said. “We never got snowed over. I don’t know if they pulled punches or what.”

Nonetheless, the Yale players appreciated the experience of facing top competition and the thrill of sharing the field with their idols. In many cases, the Bulldogs received friendly advice or even praise from their opponents. For example, when the Red Sox came, Boston left fielder Joe Vosmik complimented Stevens on his pitching, while Cronin offered words of encouragement to fellow shortstop Shepard Krech ’41.

“I remember talking with him about the shortstop position,” said Krech, who turned two double plays in the game. “‘Stick with it, kid, and you may be a big leaguer yourself,’ he said. Foxx and Cronin and Williams — they became legends in my life as a youngster.”

But since the games were early in the spring season, many Elis were not only out of practice — they had not even begun their first season of college ball. As a result, Yale often struggled against major-league pitching. When the Yankees came to New Haven in 1933, former Harvard pitcher Charlie Devens pitched a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts.

“I had played in high school, and [major-league pitching] was so far superior to the high-school pitching,” said Tom Smith ’45WS, who played against several professional teams in 1943. “The control was so good. They could cut the corners.”

In an age when batters still did not wear helmets, the experience of facing a big-league fastball could be quite frightening. Ken Raynor ’45 said Boston Braves pitcher Al Javery, who faced the Bulldogs in a 1943 exhibition game, tried to intimidate the Yale players.

“We used to only wear a little cloth hat,” Raynor said. “He said, ‘I’ve got you, you lousy college kid. I’m going to put this right in your ear.’ My knees started to wobble a little bit.”

Trick 1849

In most cases, Eli teams came up short against the big leaguers. According to Yale records, the Bulldogs went 1-20 against the New York Giants between 1887 and 1911, losing at times by scores of 17-4, 11-3 and 14-0. But on April 10, 1901, Yale defeated the Giants, 5-4, and it did so by accomplishing two almost unthinkable things: successfully using the “hidden ball trick” against a major-league team and pounding one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history, Christy Mathewson.

The Elis arrived at New York’s Polo Grounds towards the end of an Easter trip that kicked off their season. Yale was a competitive team, but a rainy spring had kept it out of practice. At the start of the trip, the News editorialized that the team could “hardly be expected to be well prepared” for a difficult schedule that included games versus three major professional teams as well as two collegiate squads.

Yale’s starting pitcher Al Sharpe MED 1902 was a renowned halfback on the football team, but he had never before pitched in a college game. Despite his inexperience, he threw a brilliant game. With Sharpe on the mound, Yale jumped to a 1-0 lead in the first inning. After four unearned runs, however, Yale was down 4-1 entering the bottom of the seventh.

In that half inning, Yale managed to keep the game within reach only through a combination of ineptitude on the part of the Giants and cunning by the Elis. After singling to lead off, Giants shortstop Sammy Strang was run down off of first base. With a double from right fielder Charlie Hickman, however, the Giants threatened to extend their lead.

But then shortstop J.S. O’Rourke LAW 1904 and second baseman L.D. Waddell 1901S pulled a maneuver they called “trick 1849.” After Hickman’s double, O’Rourke hid the ball. As Hickman took a lead off of second base, O’Rourke threw to Waddell, who tagged Hickman out. The Giants managed another two hits off Sharpe in the seventh, but they were unable to score.

As the Bulldogs entered the top of the ninth, they still trailed by three runs. On the mound was Christy Mathewson, a 20-year-old pitcher who had just dropped out of classes at Bucknell College. Mathewson had a disappointing rookie season in 1900, but he was about to begin the first of 14 seasons in which he won at least 20 games.

“At that point, in 1901, he was still a pretty raw pitcher,” said Marquette University journalism professor Philip Seib, who recently published a book on Mathewson. “But if you were facing Christy Mathewson in 1901, and you were a college player, he was probably throwing harder than anybody you had ever seen.”

In the coming years, as Mathewson became the first baseball superstar, he did so partly due to his image as a “college boy” in a sport largely populated by less wholesome characters, Seib said. But on April 10, 1901, Mathewson was not only a college boy — he played like a college pitcher.

The first batter against Mathewson in the ninth was C.P. Cook 1901S, who managed a single and then stole second base. Cook’s hit was followed in short order by three hits, a sacrifice and then a two-run single by captain F.M.C. Robertson 1901. By the time Mathewson finally retired the side, he had given up four runs and lost the lead.

Unlike Mathewson, Sharpe was a slow pitcher, and he had been tagged for 13 hits throughout the day. In the bottom of the ninth, however, the Giants went down in order against Sharpe. Out of practice and playing away from home, Yale had beaten Christy Mathewson and the Giants.

“Yale’s victory cannot altogether be charged to luck, for her playing was very good,” the New York Times reported. “The fielders were always wide awake, their throwing was accurate, and advantage was taken of every play.”

‘Dem Bums from Brooklyn ain’t great’

By the end of World War II, the exhibitions against the professionals had ended. When major league teams came to New Haven after the war, it was usually to play spring-training games against each other or against local professional teams. Yale would advance to the first-ever College World Series in 1947, but it would never again face off against teams like the Giants, Yankees or Red Sox.

According to Athletics Department records, 1943 was the last year in which the Elis took on major league competition. In the midst of World War II, the University had been nearly taken over by the U.S. military. The baseball roster that year not only included the ages, heights and weights of the Yale players — it also noted what service they were enlisted in.

Professional baseball, too, had been superseded by the war. A few days before the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town on April 7, 1943, two of the team’s better players had been called up for military service. Still, with future Hall-of-Famers Joe “Ducky” Medwick and Paul Waner in the lineup, the Dodgers — despite being called “Dem Bums” by their fans — expected to compete for the National League pennant after winning 104 games the prior year.

Given the activity surrounding the war, baseball drew less attention on campus, said Tom Smith, who played left field in the Dodgers game. Yet the game still drew 5,000 people in what one report called “football weather.”

Over the first eight innings, starter Bill “Looper” Cahill ’44 and Bob Brutcher ’45 held the Dodgers scoreless on only five hits. The Elis, however, struggled even more at the plate, especially against Dodgers’ starter Kirby Higbe.

“It was over the plate before I swung. He was just fooling with me” said Paul Johnsen ’45W, who played first base. “The umpire came up to me afterwards. He said, ‘For God’s sake, Paul, why didn’t you swing? It was right over the plate.'”

In the top of the ninth, the Dodgers finally scored, as Waner — nicknamed “Big Poison” — drove in a runner with a long single to left. After Waner scored on a fielder’s choice by Medwick, the Dodgers held a 2-0 lead.

With one last chance in the ninth, Jim Bracnaro ’45, a local boy from Shelton, came up to the plate as a pinch hitter with nobody out and Tom Smith on first. Bracnaro had not yet played in a college game, but he, and the local crowd, had confidence in his ability.

“They knew me,” Bracnaro said. “They knew that if I were up to the plate, I’d hit somebody.”

Bracnaro smacked a single to center, advancing Smith to third. After a strikeout, Smith scored on a throwing error. But with runners on first and third, the Elis were unable to score again.

Like the Red Sox, the Dodgers had won — but they did so in an embarrassing fashion. “Dem Bums from Brooklyn ain’t great,” a columnist in the News wisecracked.

Later that spring, the Elis hosted the Boston Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, losing 18-0 to the Braves and 7-0 to the Phillies. The Phillies were the last major league team to play Yale, according to the University’s archives.

With the rise of television, barnstorming began to lose its appeal for major league teams, who could reach a larger audience without playing exhibitions in cities like New Haven and Norfolk, Va. Even though it would compete for College World Series titles after the war, Yale’s baseball teams seldom earned national attention, either. The games against pro teams — occasionally close, often blowouts — were over.

But veterans of the pro games said that even if they felt overmatched, the games were among the highlights of their Yale careers. For a brief moment, these college kids had an opportunity to share the field with players they idolized.

“It was great. It was a real thrill,” said Ken Raynor, the third baseman on the 1943 team. “We felt ourselves very inferior. But we’d get out there and try to put up a good battle.”

The 1939 squad, led by captain Eddie Collins, Jr. ’39 (above), faced Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox, losing 6-5 at Yale Field.
YDN
The 1939 squad, led by captain Eddie Collins, Jr. ’39 (above), faced Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox, losing 6-5 at Yale Field.

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