Spears of wild asparagus will soon point toward the warmth of Old Sol along the Monon Line. Robin Redbreast will twirl red worms from our Indiana soil like marinara-stained spaghetti noodles. And that familiar chant of heybattahheybattah will precede the crack of a bat...
Baseball. Not only a harbinger of spring, but a part of Americana since 1839.
South Lake County’s early pioneers had already settled by then. That was the year a mustachioed chap with a crop of black wool planted atop his noggin plotted out his creation in the middle of Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture. Said pasture was located in a burg known as Cooperstown – part of New York state. Abner Doubleday named his gem a baseball diamond.
Some historians argue that Alexander J. Cartwright should be given credit for the invention of our National Pastime. Who was first, Al or Ab? Two things for certain. One: It was Colonel Abner Doubleday who fired the first shot of the Civil War in defense of Fort Sumter. Two: It could have been Hoss Cartwright who brainstormed baseball as far as the hardy folk along the Kankakee River were concerned – they took to the game like pine tar to a good piece of ash.
By the turn of the 20th century the Lowell Tribune was covering baseball games between local teams like the Foresters and the Knights of Pythias. An incredible athlete by the name of Albert Webb played for the "Knights" during the 1905 season. Twenty years prior, Webb had the distinction of running twenty miles in two hours time. Albert would train by running behind trains, steam engines that is, from Shelby to Lowell. The ballgames were held at Oakland Park which is now the site of Tri Creek School Administration headquarters on Oakley Avenue in Lowell. These baseball games could be viewed from a splendid grandstand built by American Legion Post 101.
Baseball was quite the rage during The Roaring Twenties. In the majors, a pudgy ragamuffin from the seedier side of Baltimore eventually set up shop in the Bronx. They called him The Bambino. George Herman Ruth began swatting home runs like no player before him. After hitting 60 round trippers in 1927, reporters asked him his thoughts about the fact that he made more money than the President of the United States. Babe Ruth quipped, "I guess I had a better year."
There was another great major leaguer at that time playing for the Washington Senators by the name of Edgar "Sam" Rice. The natural left-handed hitter collected 2,987 hits during his stellar nineteen-year career and finished with a .322 lifetime batting average. On the base paths, he was one of the fastest men in the game and possessed a cannon of an arm from the outfield.
Edgar "Sam" Rice is probably best known for the play he made in Game Three of the 1925 World Series. With the game on the line, Rice lunged for a ball headed into the stands. He appeared to make the catch but went hurtling over the fence. He remained out of view for several seconds. Rice eventually emerged with the rawhide sphere tucked safely in his glove. The batter was called out. For years Rice was hounded by fans, reporters, and even the commissioner of baseball as to whether he had made the catch. His answer was always the same, "The umpire called him out." Sam Rice eventually wrote a letter to be opened only after his death. At the end of the letter were the words, "At no time did I lose possession of the ball."
Early in his career, while on the road playing in the minors, Rice lost his wife, two children, two younger siblings, and parents, along with the hired man, when a tornado destroyed the family farm. Edgar joined the United States Navy. He lost most of his of buddies in the Battle of Veracruz in Mexico while aboard the battleship USS New Hampshire.
A farm boy at heart, Sam raised chickens while retired in Maryland. He employed Japanese-Americans who had been unjustly locked up at a WWII internment camp. Sam Rice was elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1963. The ill-fated farm town where Edgar Charles "Sam" Rice was born and raised? Morocco, Indiana.
Closer to home, the Southern Lake County Baseball Association was being formed in December of 1922. Shares in the club were sold for $50. Bart Moxell was elected president of the association. Dr. Iddings became the team physician of the Lowell Stars. The Town Board allowed the Stars to play their home games at Oakland Park every Sunday and Holiday, except for Labor Day or when the Chautauqua rolled into town. The players on the Lowell Stars were paid anywhere from $10 to $150 per game. Some members of that 1923 roster were: John Clancy, Tim Murchison, Dorsey Kight, Fox Taylor, Bob Stevenson, Delbert Hayden, George Hayden, Hal Kroupa, Charles Minninger, and James Sullivan. Stevenson, a third sacker, served as a player coach. Murchison was a big guy with quite a fastball who liked jawing with the umpire. The association only lasted a few seasons and dissolved. The Lowell Stars played teams from Elgin, Hammond, St. Viators College, Gary, Kouts, Beecher, Peotone, Kankakee, Pullman, and Valparaiso.
The breakup of the Southern Lake County Baseball Association did not slow down Lowell’s interest in baseball. Many other teams took over the diamond through the years. In the 1930's a popular team was the Lowell Sears, so called because it was sponsored by a local department store. A local attorney by the name of Victor J. Roberts was the star pitcher for the Lowell Sears. He also pitched for Indiana University for three years. For a time, Roberts’ battery mate was Lowell’s own All-American full back, Corby Davis. Roberts told the older of the two reporters (Schmal, whose byline appears at the top of this story) that he only remembered losing one game, that to the House of David, a religious community founded in 1903 at Benton Harbor, Michigan.
The House of David players were known to sport long hair, beards, and were vegetarians. The younger of the two reporters (Manes, whose byline appears at the top of this story) remembers his great-uncle, Lyle Sypult, telling him how he played against the House of David in the late 30s. At the time, the sect had hired a down-on-his-luck once-great pitching ace by the name of Grover Cleveland Alexander. Not of the faith, Alexander was not asked to grow a beard.
Early in his big league career Alexander suffered from epilepsy after being beaned (no batting helmets in those days). While playing with the Chicago Cubs, Grover Alexander was drafted into WWI where he served as an artillery officer. Upon his return from France, Alexander suffered shell shock, partial hearing loss, and increasingly worse seizures. Lyle Sypult swore that he could not pick up the ball (see it) until after it hit the catcher’s mitt when batting against the flame throwing Alexander. Grover Cleveland Alexander was 50 years old at the time. Future President of the United States Ronald Reagan portrayed the man named after a former President of the United States in the less than memorable1952 film The Winning Team.
During WWII the pickings were slim in the major leagues as our able-bodied men were doing their part trying stop Adolf Hitler. Pete Gray was not asked to suit up against The Fuhrer, but he did take the field for the St. Louis Browns back in ‘45. Pete Gray was born in the coal mining town of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. He was also born right-handed. Pete lost that right arm at the age of twelve. He did not lose his love of baseball. The one-armed outfielder played major league ball with determination and grit. Gray was fleet of foot. During one particular game he hit a ball in the gap that would have been a triple at best for most players – Gray went for the elusive inside the park home run. There was a violent collision at the plate. The ball was jarred loose. The opposing catcher dusted himself off and told Gray, "You’re lucky you’ve got that handicap, or I’d –" Gray reciprocated by positioning his remaining fist between the burly backstop’s eyeballs. The ump called the catcher out – cold. Pete Gray muttered, "What handicap," and then trotted back to the dugout.
On April 15, 1947, a young man by the name of Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped up to the plate for the Brooklyn Dodgers – and a whole bunch of other people. Robinson experienced harassment not only from opposing fans and players, but suffered verbal abuse from some of his teammates as well. His teammates’ harassment came to end a week later when Brooklyn traveled to The City of Brotherly Love. The Phillie players called Jackie a "nigger" and told him to go back to the cotton fields. Pee Wee Reese put his arm around his teammate. The Phillies’ blatant bigotry solidified "Dodger Blue" from that day forward. Reese would later say, "You can hate a man for many reasons, color is not one of them."
Another close-knit ball club could be found right here in South Lake County from the town of Shelby. Their 1936 team was managed by Lath Head. His nine players were: Darrell Luchene, Red Luchene, George Davis, Ralph Hammersley, Willard Curtis, Wilford Curtis, Phil Brown, Joe Collis and Gabby Hall.
It was Gabby Hall who took the helm from the mid-forties through the mid-fifties. These Native Hoosiers played some of the most exciting baseball ever witnessed in this area. The Shelby Merchants played on Sundays mostly. They held other jobs – many of them steelworkers, farmers, or local businessmen as their team name implied. Down through years a large portion of their roster was comprised of siblings. None were more prominent than the Brothers Hall. Gabby was eldest and played the least, but even as a player/manager, past his prime, Claude "Gabby" Hall still put up some numbers. His lifetime batting average for the Merchants was .309. His younger brothers Sparky and Chub hit .312 and .315 respectively for their careers. Chub was quite an outfielder and Sparky was a force when he took the mound. Also on the team were the Mannos (Vito, Vinnie, and Joe), Carlsons (Butch and Willie), Knights (Dick and Red), and Pritchetts (Gene and Jim). Other players of note were Beanie Adams, Jim Corten, Roy Delano, Don Ekern, Elmer Gerner, Dick Hanley, Bob Hayden, and Max Korth. The highest career batting averages by any Merchant who played at least 50 games were Roy Delano (.366) and Red Knight (.362). During the ‘52 season Max Korth hit a blistering .432. When Willie Carlson wasn’t behind the plate he tossed no-hitters.
The Shelby Merchants barnstormed across Indiana and Illinois playing teams hailing from Lake Village, Lowell, Merrillville, Schererville, St. Anne, St. John, Wheeler, Wheatfield, Whiting, Winamac, Hebron, Kniman, Cook, Demotte, Reynolds, Rensselaer, Kankakee, Crown Point, Gary, Hobart, Hammond, Valparaiso, Morocco, East Chicago and New Chicago.
The Shelby Merchants drank a little beer and they had a lot of fun. They played hard. Chub Hall broke his foot sliding into second base during the ‘51 season. Sparky Hall unlaced his spikes and pulled up a pair of Mickey Mouse boots when shipped to frigid Korea. Sparky returned to the diamond after fulfilling his patriotic duty. In that nine-year span the boys of summer from Shelby, Indiana, compiled an incredible record of 90 wins and 44 losses. The Shelby Merchants played for the love of the greatest game ever invented...
This article appeared on page 10 of the March 13, 2007, Lowell Tribune. Background material came from Shelby Merchant's Baseball, 1946-1954 by Kris Hall, a copy of which can be found at the Lowell Public Library.
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