Part of the fun of being a baseball fan is the knowledge that otherwise ordinary players sometimes become legends overnight. Howard Ehmke was one of those players. Though he had been a very effective pitcher for the Red Sox in the early 1920s, by 1929 he had run out of steam, and Connie Mack was ready to let him go that August. But the 35-year old sidewinder convinced the Tall Tactician that he had one more great game left in his arm, and he remained on the roster.
Mack shocked the baseball world when he went with Ehmke as his starter before Game 1 of the 1929 World Series against the Cubs. Even Al Simmons was reported to have said to Mack when he saw Ehmke warm up, “Are you going to pitch him?” It was one of the greatest hunches in baseball history. Ehmke mowed down the Cubs right-handed heavy lineup, striking out 13 and leading the A’s to a 3-1 win (You can read the full story here). They would go on to win the Series in 5 games. Only three pitchers have ever struck out more than 13 in the 84 Fall Classics since then.
That winter, he decided to approach Mack with an idea. Baseball fields turned into such a mess when it started to rain, Ehmke thought it would be a good idea to maintain the integrity of the infield by spreading a large canvas tarpaulin over the diamond when it started to rain. Mack decided to invest in the company. It paid off. Both the tarp and Ehmke Manufacturing were born, and the company still operates out of Northeast Philadelphia (though they now make military gear instead of baseball gear).
With the first game of the World Series only minutes from beginning, Connie Mack just shocked players on both sides by sending out little used Howard Ehmke to warm up to pitch! The 35-year old Ehmke has been kicking around the majors since 1915, when he debuted in the old Federal League. He only pitched 11 times this season, and actually missed a late season road trip because Mack didn’t think he’d be useful. He’s pitched less than 13 innings in the past two months! What on earth could Mack be thinking? Will he use the submariner to confuse Cubs hitters, then bring in Lefty in the 2nd inning? Or has the old man lost it, and think his best chance for Game 1 victory is with a pitcher who’s started one game since August 7th? I can tell you one thing…Joe McCarthy has to be every bit as confused as we are. Just a few days ago, he said, “The Athletics have four pitchers who have earned the respect of their own league’s batsmen, and…they are Grove, Walberg, Earnshaw, and Quinn. If Connie Mack’s calculations take in any other pitchers than these four, save for relief duty, no one has heard about it.”
First pitch is at 2 p.m. Oh boy, this should be interesting! As former umpire and current sportswriter Bill Evans just turned and said to me, “Surely Mack is kidding. He wouldn’t dare tempt fate by using a lame-arm pitcher with a half-dozen able-bodied stars sitting on the bench.” *
*Quote from Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years, which I will be using quite heavily as a source throughout this project. An excellent book.
Two months ago, in the midst of his season-long struggles with his health and his pitching, 35-year old Howard Ehmke was called into Connie Mack’s office, located in the spire above the main entrance to Shibe. He saw the 15 telegrams on the desk of Mr. Mack when he walked in the room. He had cleared waivers. No team wanted him. “Howard,” said Mack when Ehmke had taken a seat. “I am going to let you go. I am sorry.”
“Mr. Mack,” pleaded Ehmke. “Please give me a chance. My arm hasn’t been right, but I’m trying all the time to get it into shape. I’ll even let you suspend me without pay until such time as my arm improves and I can pitch again. I’ve been in the league for a long time and I never have been on a championship team. Just let me go into the World Series and then you can do anything you wish.”
Mack thought it over, then said, “All right, Howard, we’ll just let this rest between ourselves…I’ll give you another chance. And when you tell me your arm is right I’ll take you up.”*
It was a beautiful day for baseball yesterday in Chicago, and that glorious young ballpark they have in Chicago was packed to the gills with over 50,000 fans. Most of them were expecting to see a heavyweight bout between Charlie Root and Lefty Grove. Instead they watched in shock as a few minutes before gametime as sidewinder Howard Ehmke, so close to being released two months earlier, started to warm up. Two months earlier, not a single team wanted Ehmke on their team. And yet here he was, starting Game 1 of the 1929 World Series. Apparently, he thought his arm was right.
The fans were indeed treated to a pitching duel, as Root was every bit as good as advertised. Ehmke, meanwhile, struggled a bit in the first. He allowed a single to Woody English, then Rogers Hornsby caught a hold of one that brought the whole house to its feet, but was snagged just in front of the bricks in right by Bing Miller. Ehmke found himself in trouble again in the 3rd, as the Cubs got runners to 2nd and 3rd with only one out and Hornsby and Hack Wilson the next two at the plate. Disaster seemed eminent. But Ehmke calmly struck out the mighty Hornsby, then did the same to Wilson, and the scoreboard continued to fill with aughts.
Ehmke got stronger as the game went on, striking out the side in the 6th. Root was every bit as effective, keeping the mighty A’s to a mere two hits through 6 innings. But in the top of the 7th, the Beast went into Beast mode. Jimmie Foxx (right) delivered a shot into the left field bleachers, and the A’s took a 1-0 lead.
Ehmke got into trouble again in the bottom of the the 7th, as the Cubs had runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. But Ehmke coaxed pinch hitter Cliff Heathcote to fly out to shallow left, then struck out pinch hitter Gabby Hartnett.
The game went into the 9th inning with the A’s holding that slimmest of margins. Reliever Guy Bush was on the hill for the Cubs. MIckey Cochrane led off the inning with a single. The Cubs should have then gotten a double play, but young shortstop Woody English booted the ball, and the A’s had runners on 1st and 2nd. Up came Jimmie Foxx. He too hit one right at English…and English flubbed it again! Now the A’s had the bases loaded with no outs, and a Bing Miller single knocked in two. The A’s took a 3-0 lead into the 9th with Ehmke still on the hill.
In the bottom of the 9th, Kiki Cuyler reached 2nd on a throwing error by Jimmy Dykes, and scored on a Riggs Stephenson single. Charlie Grimm followed up with another single, and now the Cubs brought the winning run to the plate in the form of pinch hitter Footsie Blair. But Mack stood by his man, and Ehmke got Blair to groundout. Up came another pinch hitter, Chick Tolson, standing in for the pitcher. And Ehmke ended this most memorable Game 1 by doing what he had done all game…earning a strikeout. It was a World Series record 13th strikeout, and the A’s victoriously headed back to their clubhouse with a 1-0 Series lead.
*quotes come courtesy of an October 9th, 1929 article in the Milwaukee Journal.