Day 25 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Wait, come back … we’ve got a couple more comeback stories … it says so in the titles

“Comeback Pitchers: The Remarkable Careers
of Howard Ehmke & Jack Quinn”

The authors:
Lyle Spatz
and Steve Steinberg

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
512 pages
Released April 1, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website (Steinberg)
At The Last Book Store in L.A.

“One Line Drive:
A Life-Threatening Injury and a Faith-Fueled Comeback”

The author:
Daniel Ponce de Leon
With Tom Zenner

The publishing info:
224 pages
Released March 9, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At The Last Book Store in L.A.
At Barnes and Noble (signed edition)
At Target

The reviews in 90 feet (or 60-feet, 6-inches) or less

We found ourselves up at about 2 in the morning recently, somehow  drawn again to Jimmy Stewart limping around in “The Stratton Story” on Turner Classic Movies. At least it wasn’t Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander. We had enough of that one.

The lure even at this very late hour was as much a recall of how much the story had been Hollywood-ized as our amusement trying to guess how, for the life of us, George Bailey, 10 years removed from “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was going to throw on a Chicago White Sox wool jersey and strike out the Yankees’ Bill Dickey in a dicey situation.

Monty Stratton, a 6-foot-6 right-hander out of a Texas cotton farm, had just  put together back-to-back 15 win seasons for the Chisox during his age 25 and 26 seasons in 1937 and ’38. But then he done shot himself by accident over a Thanksgiving weekend visit to the family sted.

In the movie, Stewart plays Stratton as someone who trips over a twig, you hear the rifle go off, and he’s nearly bleeding out while sending his dog off to get him some help. The way we read about it really happening, according to his SABR bio, Stratton spotted a rabbit, took out his .22 caliber pistol, fired, then put the gun in his holster and thought he had it on safety, but it wasn’t. The gun fired and hit him in the right thigh behind the knee. He crawled home and was eventually driven 50 miles to Dallas, by which time the leg developed gangrene and eventually had to be amputated.

It necessitated a comeback.

Not to the White Sox, or even the bigs. It was with a Class-C East Texas League, for a team resumed playing in 1946 after World War II. Now in his late 30s, Stratton then went up to Class B in Waco in ’47. A year later, he was given $100,000 to sit on the set at MGM in Hollywood, as an advisor to Sam Wood (who also oversaw “The Pride of the Yankees”) as they re-directed Stratton’s story as much more of a loving relationship he had with his wife. All according to formula.

It’s not likely anyone will ever feel compelled to make a movie about the lives of Howard Ehmke or Jack Quinn, and how their careers intersected at various times, reaching a climax as two reclaimed surprise participants in the 1929 World Series for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics — once called by Sports Illustrated the “greatest team in history that time forgot.

If one were to ever happen, however, there’s now this ultra-thick starting point fashioned by longtime SABR researchers Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg.

Ehmke grew up in New York just outside of Buffalo but followed his older brother to Southern California and played his senior year at Glendale High, studying to get into Brown University.

It was actually ’29, not ’26, right?

Playing hard to get for Major League teams, he started his pro career as a “fuzzy-chinned” teenager with the Los Angeles Angels, playing their Pacific Coast League games at Washington Park. He’s compared in the local newspapers to the great Walter Johnson, another SoCal native (that the authors don’t seem to make the connection).

Ehmke’s meteoric rise led to even more bidding wars, and, with his brother as his agent, he took up an offer by the outlaw Federal League’s Buffalo Blues, in what would be the league’s last season of existence in 1915.

After six years in Detroit (brawling with player-manager Ty Cobb) and four more in Boston (a 20-game winner in 1923 with 83 complete games in 120 starts), Ehmke might have thought his days were numbered.

On the other side of this tandem, there was the mysterious Jack Quinn, whose actual age was only one of the several things few could pinpoint.

The spitballer’s eventual 23-year career would start in ’09 with the AL’s New York Highlanders (the name change to the Yankees didn’t come until 1913). He also jumped to the Federal League in ’14 and ’15, playing for Baltimore, and once opposing Ehmke on the mound. Three years for Vernon of the Pacific Coast League and winning 53 games, Quinn found his comeback to the bigs happen with the AL’s Chicago White Sox at age 35.

He would post decent years for the Yankees and Red Sox from 1919 through 1925, again crossing over with Ehmke.

At age 41, Quinn was someone Mack wanted to claim off waivers for his Athletics. The next season, Mack worked a trade with the Red Sox to add Ehmke.

So now we land at the 1929 World Series. The 35-year-old Ehmke, who only threw 55 innings in the regular season, is Mack’s soft-tossing surprise starting pitcher in Game 1 against the Chicago Cubs, picked over future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove.

In the first World Series game played at Wrigley Field, the side-arming Ehmke strikes out 13 and the A’s steal a 3-1 win in the opener.

With the A’s up two games and the series at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Mack makes another bold move: The 46-year-old Quinn gets the start. It’s not quite as quaint as what Ehmke pulled off, but the game non-the-less one of the most memorable in World Series history. Quinn gives up seven runs in six innings, and the A’s trail 8-0 going into the bottom of the seventh.

One of the most epic comebacks happens — and you know how we adore comebacks — with a 10-run seventh, sparked by Mule Haas’ inside-the-park homer on a fly ball that Cubs center fielder Hack Wilson lost in the sun.

For Game 5 and a chance to clinch, Ehmke is called on again. He exits with a 2-0 deficit in the fourth. But before the term “walk-off” was even considered, the A’s win the World Series when Bing Miller doubles home Al Simmons to cap a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth.

The A’s have the title, their first in 16 years.

The July 1, 1930 edition of the Sandusky (Ohio) Register

Ehmke would get released by Mack in the middle of the next season, his career done with an equal number of wins and losses — 166 –to go with a 3.75 ERA.

The Mighty Quinn, released after the ’30 season, had a comeback that just kept going. Brooklyn took him for the ’31 and ’32 seasons, and while he was the Dodgers’ Opening Day starter in his first year – still the oldest pitcher to ever have that honor – Quinn led the league in games finished and saves in both those seasons.

He even squeezed one more year out, with Cincinnati starting the year at age 49, and turning 50 in July of ’33 before his release. He ended at 247-218 with a 3.29 ERA and 1,329 strikeouts, one of only a handful to play in four decades. When that ended, he was pitching for the PCL’s Hollywood Stars in ’34. “But there would be no more comebacks for Quinn,” as noted on page 349. “He appeared in only six games and was released in early May, two months before his 51st birthday. A Sporting News reporter noted that the aging Quinn had difficulty covering first base on ground balls hit to the right side.”

A minor problem, really.

Both Ehmke and Quinn, who figured out how to keep persevering despite doubters, except for the confidence instilled in both by Mack, were still getting Hall of Fame votes until 1960.

In the last collaboration by Spatz and Steinberg, length and depth should already be assumed.

Spatz, head of the SABR Records Committee, is a devoted Dodgers fan and a 2017 winner of the organization’s Henry Chadwick Award to honor baseball’s great researchers — historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists — for their invaluable contributions to the sport.

With the Seattle-based Steinberg, Spatz fleshed out a piece for SABR’s 2015 Fall Research Journal and created a 570-plus-page book for University of Nebraska Press, “The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership that Transformed the New York Yankees” about owner Col. Jacob Ruppert and manager Miller Huggins during the team’s 1920s transformation.

That follows up their epic “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York,” a 500-plus page project also for University of Nebraska that was awarded SABR’s 2011 Seymour Medal as the best baseball book (history and biography) of 2010. It came out of a story they did for the 2009 Fall Research Journal.

In the Ehmke/Quinn project, they dedicated it to “people everywhere who face obstacles and barriers in their chosen careers and find the strength to push ahead. May the stories of Jack Quinn and Howard Ehmke provide inspiration to carry on.”

Inspiration may no doubt be the intent, and Spatz and Steinberg seemed inspired to prove it. But as if we couldn’t see this coming — no matter how interesting the subject, or reviewing a time in history that is worthy of re-examining, the volume created by such a barrage of research is asking a lot of the reader, already invested or otherwise. Information is occasionally repeated, and can often be condensed. The writing may be also clean, but a little more flair in the prose (aside from pulling out quotes from sportswriters of the time) could also enrich the process. With more than 90 pages dedicated to chapter notes, plus a bibliography and index, the heftiness of the project may outweigh its usefulness. It is often the byproduct of such a venture, but practicality could be taken into consideration a swell.

There is value in wanting to earnestly pursuit how an athlete can show value in overcoming injury, a feeling of uselessness or even age-ism, in bridging a period from the Deadball Era into a whole new approach of avoiding giving up homers. In overcoming the challenges of playing for an outlaw league, to winning a big-league title for a Hall of Fame manager. Quinn and Ehmke are undoubtedly fit to examine and celebrate. Perhaps with just fewer trees sacrificed in the process.

Jumping ahead many decades and uniform changes later, there’s the life-changing story of current Cardinals pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon.

The La Mirada High product dreamed of playing football at USC or UCLA, but his college baseball life starting at Arizona and weaving back through Cypress JC, the University of Houston at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University eventually got the St. Louis Cardinals to take him in the ninth round of the 2014 draft.

The pivotal moment is when Ponce de Leon is at Triple-A Memphis in May, ’17. A line drive off the bat of Iowa’s Victor Caratini hits Ponce de Leon in the head. Recovery was needed for a large epidural hematoma, skull fracture, brain swelling and hemorrhaging. Here’s what happened (video below):

He somehow came back for spring training 2018, and a couple months later, the Cardinals called him up. His Major League debut in July ’18 was memorable — seven innings of no-hit ball against the Reds in Cincinnati.

Then, five relief appearances later, his second start was at Dodger Stadium in late August, going four innings and striking out eight.

The prism of Ponce de Leon’s honest story is telling it through finding Christian faith, largely inspired by his dad, Ramon, giving him strength to come through his minor-league near-death experience to where he finds gratitude in what happened afterward. It’s a quick, uplifting read, one perhaps especially intended for those young adults who question faith. For those who are into audio books, having Ponce de Leon as one of the narrators gives it a far more personal connection.

In the fourth year of his big-league career, the 29-year-old has been in five games with two starts and three finishes, and an ERA north of eight. If his career ended tomorrow, it seems he would be OK with that, all things considered, and all blessings bestowed on him. Including this:

How they go in the scorebook

True grit.

Kindness has made a somewhat nice comeback. So, it seems, has vinyl, mustaches, Pokemon cards, jig-saw puzzles, Eddie Murphy, Necco wafers and “Space Jam.” The Toronto Maple Leafs, Utah Jazz and horse racing controversy.

Why not more meaty stories about baseball players – make that, pitchers – who bob and weave through all that’s thrown at them to making a honest living?

Maybe a more catchy comeback themed review could have been had by including Cam Perron’s “Comeback Season” about bringing living Negro League players back into the spotlight.

More to cover

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