The Pitcher from Out of Town

Family legends abound across the plains, because people set off for new lands with a variety of persecutions, complaints, opportunities, law problems, poverty, and whatever other direness in their condition drove them to pack up and head out to what amounted to Outer Space in the late 1800’s. In my case, Davy Crockett had a pretty good life in Tennessee, even went to Washington as a Congressman, but finally decided he would throw in his lot with those at the Alamo. He was my great, great, great grandfather and I actually knew his granddaughter Mary Crockett, who became Mary Crockett Tharpe and married Pap with whom she raised a family near Seminole, Oklahoma.

For me, the only great grandparent I ever knew was the meek but dignified Gamom. She had a soft Southern woman’s lilt with no whine. Gamom lived with my grandparents in Tulsa and when I visited from Seattle it was fun to hear her say “payuhs” when we had pears for desert.

Gamom married Pap in Tennessee before they decided to come by covered wagon to homestead in Oklahoma in the late 1800’s when the government was handing out acreage to encourage settlers in what was then Oklahoma Territory. Their farm was near Seminole, Oklahoma, a town named for the Indian tribes which had been forced from their homes in fertile Florida to march all the way to the hinterlands of Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Pap loved to hunt foxes and bet on anything…what day it would rain, how late the train from Tulsa would be, whether a newborn colt would be cross-eyed, and baseball…especially his town’s baseball team.

Oil was starting to be very important to people’s lives by the 1920’s, and there was oil in Oklahoma. Starting an oil company then was about as easy as starting a software company now. You just had to be drilling for water and hit oil instead. Not everyone did, of course, and my family, though lucky in a lot of ways, did not locate atop any oil riches. However, by the 1920’s towns with oil prospered and had sturdy young men – roughnecks from the oil fields — running around causing sturdy-young-men problems, but also playing baseball. Burn-off gas from the wells lighted the first night games in the world, when people could go to the ball game after work. Natural Gas was considered a useless byproduct of petroleum at the time.

So there was a lot of oil money around, and even more pride swelling when your baseball team met that of another town. The boasting doubled down and the bets burgeoned and doubled and tripled in the days leading up to those oil town night games. Pap had lost a fair bit on the Seminole team that year. He was becoming the butt of jokes from most of the neighboring towns. The wealthy elders of those towns considered betting against poor Pap and the Seminole team the best investment they could make that year. Not hard to imagine the egos involved… the same as now or any time people bluster about their luck with the unknowable future.

Baseball was a national passion as well, but there were a few baseball publications back East which reached Seminole. Any picture of any player on the cheap newsprint was generated by dull inky runny metallic engravings that were of limited value in reproducing in black and white any faces or actions from the relatively new photographic methods of the day. There was no Sports Illustrated (and certainly no swimsuit edition) in the early 1900’s. When Pap realized this, he hatched his plan to get even with the mockers and detractors from the various towns.

You’ll have to bear with my vague recollections of this event from Gamom and my grandmother, who were not baseball people, but remembered the occasion for sure. Apparently another oil town, Holdenville, was the bitter rival of Seminole, and had won so many games that they nicknamed the Seminole team after the best-selling toilet paper of the day. It was into a crowd of these mockers and detractors — at a political gathering in a local hotel — that Pap walked in and laid down his bets, big bets, on the upcoming game with the rival town. The bet money came flying at him from the men of means who saw this as a way to silence Pap for good, and in the process become men of even more means. Not that they were mean men, but spirited and sporting and full of vices, like all of the men who built the West.

What they didn’t know was that Pap had traveled to Chicago to make a proposition to Walter Johnson the month before. Walter Johnson pitched for the Washington Senators and is generally considered one of the ten best pitchers in history. Some say his fast ball beat out Nolan Ryan’s, but there was no way of measuring speed in his time (, or you can be sure someone would have bet on it). Pap’s proposition was that he pay Walter Johnson $10,000 to pitch one game. Johnson would not be pitching in the rotation during the St. Louis series, and could clandestinely take the midnight train down from St. Louis to little Seminole. Pap had already told the league that he had a cousin he would register to play and bringing in relatives who were not on other teams was apparently a fairly regular occurrence.

$10,000, by the way, was the modern day equivalent of about a quarter of a million, not a small bet for a local farmer, and a good one night’s payday even for the great Walter Johnson.

So the day of the big game came in Seminole, with Holdenville visiting the fourth time in the season. They had won all three games in Seminole, and 3 more in Holdenville. With good reason, the sluggers from Holdenville were supremely confident of knocking the whole Seminole team out of the park.

The Seminole pitchers had given up 10 runs a game to Holdenville, and even they were glad to hear the team had a new pitcher, a cousin of Pap’s from up in Shawnee named Walter Smith, who hadn’t played this year. No one was expecting much from the new pitcher, but there were a few raised eyebrows in the locker room as he put his Italian leather suitcase in a spare locker and changed from his tailored suit into the Seminole team uniform. When he was warming up, he was careful to throw very slowly, and try a couple of curves, anything put show his fast ball.

The Holdenville players were raucous with confidence that tonight they would blast homers into the gaslights and maybe meet a few of the Seminole girls after they had won game convincingly. However, Walter Smith’s first pitch to the first batter was faster than anything that batter had seen. It was a sneaky side arm and it was a strike. Smith fanned the first three batters, who had never seen a ball come so fast from down so low. The next inning their coach had called the Holdenville batters cowards, so they swung at all pitches in that second inning. And missed. Luckily for Holdenville, no one on the Seminole team could hit. Except tonight.

After six Seminole players had fanned out, Walter Smith himself got a double in the third inning and made it home on a couple of bunts. So the score was Seminole 1 , Holdenville O. Then Smith really got to work. The constantly stunning sheer swish of speed in the passing pitches now seemed to panic the Holdenville batters. They stayed so far back from the plate that strikes were easy for Walter Smith. He was able to carefully “paint” the side of the strike zone and save his arm. Any time the Holdenville batters got brave, he would brush them back with a bullet much much closer to their young bodies than they could have imagined before that game. The Holdenville team actually seemed to give up at the end, and the Seminole team held on to win 1-0.

Pap was collecting his money from bets as Walter Smith showered and put on his tailored suit. In the car to the train station, Pap handed him the $10,000, which was almost exactly what his bets had won. Pap hadn’t made a cent, but what he won was priceless.

As he was driving Walter Johnson to that midnight train to St. Louis, where he would rejoin his traveling Senators, Pap carefully took backroads so that no bettor would see them. Johnson complained that Pap wasn’t paying him to hit, and that his winning run should have been worth another $1000. Pap said Johnson had better get on the train before the betting people of the town started to question who he was.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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