Wednesday, January 04, 2006

1918, Part Two

The Year the PCL Threw in the Towel, Part Two

© 2004 by Carlos Bauer

Nevertheless, there were other signs that all was not well financially in the PCL.   Salt Lake City, which had put a good team together, saw its attendance drop off so badly that the club instituted “twilight games,” with the first pitch at seven in the evening, in order to attract enough fans to Bonneville Park to keep the club solvent.
The Coast League was not alone in facing the very real specter of financial disaster  Up in the Pacific Coast International League, Portland and Seattle appeared to be well supported by their fans, but after seeing almost nobody show up for a Saturday game in Tacoma on May 26, owner Russ Hall— a former Coast League infielder and manager, who also had a brief trial in the majors, and who went on to be one of the founders of the Association of Professions Baseball Players of America and its first Secretary— told the other owners in the league that he would not be able to continue after the scheduled Sunday doubleheader. Tacoma ownership was not to blame, as the club was in second place at the time and in a real battle for the flag.  
In short order the league notified Spokane that they would be dropped to make the league a four-club circuit.  The new configuration, however, only limped on through July 7, when the league gave up the ghost.  The Portland franchise of Judge McCredie lost $5,000 in the endeavor, quite a large sum at the time.  

While turmoil was constant off the field for the PCL, a great pennant race was taking place on the field.  Through much of May, Salt Lake City remained atop of the standings, but the pennant race tightened up, with the last place San Francisco Seals only six games out of first place.  The Los Angeles Angels, which held down second place for much of May, pulled into a tie with Salt Lake on June 2, after which the two teams battled one another for first place throughout the rest of that month.  
The last week of June proved to be the undoing for Walt McCredie and his Salt Lake City club.  On Tuesday, June 25, the Bees began a seven-game set with the Angels for first place at Washington Park in Los Angeles.  Los Angeles finished the previous week with a one-game edge over the Bees.
Things started off splendidly for Salt Lake, as the team took the first contest 5-1 behind the seven-hit pitching of Tim McCabe.  That pushed the Bees into first place by percentage points.  Then the Angels reeled off five straight wins against Salt Lake, leaving the Bees 4½ games out, and in third place behind the Vernon Tigers.  
While the five-game win streak give the impression that Los Angeles wiped the floor with the Bees, that was not the case.  It was an extremely hard-fought series.  Game 2 featured a pitching battle between Walt Leverenz and Paul Fittery, both mainstays in the Coast League.  Through seven innings, Leverenz led by a 2 to 1 score.  In the eighth, the Angels got to Leverenz for three runs, pulling out a 4-2 victory capped by Rube Ellis’ home run.  The third game turned out to be the only game that was not close.  Doc Crandall— a former star pitcher with the New York Giants, who would eventually win 230 games in the PCL— pitched a four-hitter, winning 7-1.  Game 4 was another heartbreaker for Salt Lake, as Bill Pertica, another long-tenured Coast leaguer threw a two-hit shutout over Ed Willet who gave up the lone run of the game in the second inning.  On Saturday, the two clubs battled to the end.  Los Angeles moved out to a three run lead in the early going, then in the fifth, the Bees scored three runs to tie it up.  With two out in the ninth, the Angels drove a man over to win.  In the morning game on Sunday, Doc Crandall and Tim McCabe hooked up for what turned out to be another seesaw affair.  LA jumped out to 1-0 lead, then the Bees tied it up in the third.  The Angels took a 2-1 lead in the sixth, only to be tied up once again in the top of the seventh.  In bottom half of that inning, LA pushed across the winning tally.  That afternoon, Salt Lake City finally put it all together, taking a 7-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh.  Walt Leverenz, on the mound for the Bees, pitched airtight ball up until then.  He yielded five runs in the last three innings, but managed to hang on for the win.  After that series, Salt Lake fell completely out of the race, winding up at .500 and in a three-way tie for third place by then end of the season.
During that same week, Vernon moved up into second, 2½ games out, by taking four out of seven from the Oaks up at Emeryville.  Bill Essick’s Tigers, after a surprisingly strong start, fell back to fourth in early June, before starting a slow climb back into contention.  And up in San Francisco, Jerry Downs quit as manager of the Seals on July 1, and Charley Graham replaced him with Charley Graham himself.  Graham had not been satisfied with Downs as manager from the moment he took over the club.  Downs, who brought the Seals home first the previous season, finally had enough of Graham looking over his shoulder, and announced his retirement from the game to go into the automobile business.  His retirement lasted a week, until he signed with the Angels to become their new second baseman.  
Following the Salt Lake City-Los Angeles series, Vernon and Los Angeles met for the second first place battle in a row.  Both clubs shared Washington Park, though Vernon did play the occasional Sunday morning game at Vernon Park.  
Vernon took the first two contests, and then split the Fourth of July doubleheader.  All except the first game, decided by an 8-2 score, were hard fought one-run affairs.  The game on July 5 produced another one-run game, with Vernon coming out on top 6 to 5. On Saturday, Tiger veteran Wheezer Dell pitched a shutout into the seventh inning, but then ran out of gas, losing 3-1.  Vernon, however, came back strong against the Angels on Sunday morning, trouncing LA and their star pitcher, Doc Crandall, 7-1.  In the afternoon game, Paul Fittery of the Angels and Roy Mitchell battled for 13 innings before Vernon pushed one across in the top of that inning, the deciding run scoring on a wild double steal.
In what turned out to be the final week of the season, Vernon traveled to Salt Lake City, and the Angels remained at home to face the Seals.  Both teams took four out of seven games, and so the Angels finished the same 1½ games behind the Tigers as they had been the week before.
The demise of the league had been unforeseen even the previous week.  On Tuesday, July 9, the league office adamantly squelched rumors that the league was about to fold.  It became known, however, that Vernon owner Tom Darmody was lobbying other owners to reduce the rosters to fourteen players, though most clubs by then weren’t carrying the full complement of sixteen players anyway.  
On Friday the July 12, Darmody called for a special league meeting in Los Angeles the next day.  At that meeting, Darmody told the other owners that— financially— his club could not continue, no matter that his Tigers stood atop the league standings.  
With that, the dam burst.  First, the league owners confronted the fact that they would have to drop one team to maintain a balanced schedule.  That meant Salt Lake City had to go, but that was completely unacceptable to owner Hardrcok Bill Lane and one or two other owners.  Finally Charley Graham of the Seals stood up and told the other owners that his Seals did not want to continue.  With the prospect of no San Francisco team in the league, the other owners decided it was time to throw in the sponge, and they quickly voted to suspend operations until the war ended.
The release to the press stated that the league would play all scheduled doubleheaders the following day, July 14, and then disband. The resolution made no mention of Darmody’s plight, but rather stated: “Exemption boards in the two states in which the league operates— California and Utah— ruled that the players are subject to the “work or fight” rule, and the league decided to abide by the decisions of the boards rather than appeal to higher authorities…”
Additionally, in an effort to help Tom Darmody’s out of the financial hole he found himself in, the league proposed a post-season championship series for the league pennant, rather than awarding it to the team that finished atop the standings at the close of play.  The league announced that Los Angeles and Vernon would square off at Washington Park in a best-of-nine game series.  Historically, the cross-town rivalry drew well, and all— especially Tom Darmondy— hoped that it would do so one more time.
After Sunday doubleheaders across the league, the regular season wound up with Vernon ahead in the standings by 1½ games at the close of action on July 14, 1918..

The final chapter of the pennant race began on Wednesday, July 17, when the Angeles and Tigers met at Washington Park in the first game of what was billed as the Championship of the Pacific Coast League.  Both clubs starting lineups had remained pretty stable throughout the season, and sported only two new faces in the playoffs.  Bob Meusel, on furlough from the Navy, joined the Vernon club, playing first base.  He replaced Babe Borton, who only hit .265 during the season. And the aforementioned Jerry Downs, who took over second base for the Angels two weeks before the close of the regular season.
In Game One, Curly Brown faced Roy Mitchell of the Tigers.  Mitchell, who had been with Vernon for four seasons, finished the 1918 season at only 7-7, but had a sterling 1. 82 ERA.  The opposing pitcher, Curly Brown, had an even better 1.56 ERA, and he finished the season with 12 wins against 7 losses.  The Angels jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead, and then increased that to 7-1 by the eighth inning, knocking Roy Mitchell out of the box in the process.  In the top of the ninth, the Tigers attempted a comeback, but fell just short, letting the Angels escape with a 7-5 victory.
Game Two featured the two pitching stars of their respective clubs: Doc Crandall and Jack Quinn.  Quinn set the all-time PCL season record in 1918 with 1.48 ERA, while Doc Crandall led the league with 16 wins.  Both starters pitched complete games, Quinn giving up seven hits and three runs; Crandall one run on six hits.  With that, the Angels took a 2-0 edge in the series.
On Friday, Wheezer Dell and Paul Fittery both pitched shutout ball for the first six-innings.  The top of the seventh brought in the first two scores of the game, both notched by Vernon.  The Tigers added two more in the eighth, while the Angels only managed one tally, making the final score 4-1, Vernon.
Saturday had another pitchers’ duel, this time between 40-year-old Charlie Chech— who began his Coast League career in 1912— and Angel veteran Paul Fittery, who had won as many as 29 games in the league, but had an off year in 1918 (11-13 2.66).  Chech didn’t have much of a fastball left (attested to by his meager 24 strikeouts in 141 innings), but didn’t walk many either (18 BB), and all in all wound up the season with a 9-11 record and 2.11 ERA.  The Angels tallied the first score in the sixth, adding another in the eighth, after which Bill Essick removed Chech for a pinch hitter.  When the counting was done, Los Angeles had 2 runs and Vernon but 1.
Going into the Sunday doubleheader, the Angels held a  3-1 series edge over Vernon.  The morning game featured Roy Mitchell, who had been knocked out of Game One, against Doc Crandall who pitched brilliantly in Game Two.  This outing, however, had Mitchell come back to pitch a 2-hit shutout.  Into the eight inning, Crandall had held Tigers to one run,  but gave up 2 in the eighth, and Ralph Valencia replaced him on the mound in the ninth.
The afternoon contest pitted Jack Quinn against Curly Brown in another low-scoring one-run affair.  The two veterans battled down to the wire, with the Angels’ Curly Brown picking up his second win of the series, mainly because he scattered the 13 hits he gave up.  The 4 to 3 win left Los Angeles needing only one more win to clinch the championship.
Because there was no need for a travel day, a rare Monday game was played.  Wheezer Dell and Paul Fittery hooked up for the second time in the series.  Both pitchers had been wild at times that season, and both walked 7 men in the game.  Wheezer Dell gave up one hit less than Fittery, but bunched too many of them together in the eighth inning, and Los Angeles brought four men across the plate.  Up until that inning, the crafty veteran had pitched shutout ball.  The game ended  with a 4-2 victory for the Angels— giving them their second PCL Championship in three seasons—, and with that brought the curtain down on the war-shortened 1918 baseball season.  

In the aftermath of the Coast League shutdown, shipyard and service baseball came into its own.  In the two primary Coast League centers, Los Angeles and San Francisco, strong leagues were formed. Stocked mainly with Coastleaguers, these leagues played ball on par with any that had been played that season.  In the Los Angeles area, the Southern California War Service League was formed by Angels owner John Powers, who wanted to provide an entertainment for the people of Los Angeles, and to provide some income for his Washington Park.  It boasted of six teams, of which two were military teams.  One team, the San Pedro Sub Base team, even boasted two future Hall-of-Famers in Bob Meusel and Harry Heillman. The defense industry teams picked up players such as Sam Crawford, Ken Penner, Red  Killefer, and even future Black Sox infielder Fred McMullin.  Up in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Shipbuilder’s League put on an even better class of ball on the field, attracting the Seals, Oaks and Sacramento players, plus a number of major leaguers, including Swede Risberg, Joe Gedeon and Ossie Vitt.
The San Francisco based league played every Sunday up through the Armistice on November 11, 1918, when— magically— players discovered they no long needed a draft deferments.  
The Los Angeles based War Service League began as a Saturday and Sunday league, but as the demand on war industries grew, Saturday shifts changed the league into a Sunday-only affair.  After games played on September 1, the league announced that it would suspend operations “for a month” because players on service teams were being deployed overseas.  Supposedly the league would resurrect once new teams could be formed, and hopefully stocked with major leaguers enticed west, now that the major leagues had closed down.
The War Service League’s hopes never materialized.  Shortly after suspending operations, the Los Angeles area was hard hit by the Spanish Influenza, forcing health officials to prohibit any large gatherings of people throughout that fall and winter.  The pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans over the fall and winter of 1918.  World-wide, some 40 million lives were thought lost.
The PCL’s final championship series turned out to be well attended, and did much to solve Vernon’s financial woes.  And that gave a somewhat better ending to a difficult season.  
But when the league officially ceased operations “for the duration” of the war, neither fans, nor players, nor owners knew when the PCL would play their next season.  Many secretly feared that the Coast League had stepped out onto the ball field for the very last time.
The following statistics were compiled after the above article was written, so there are some discrepancies, which I will deal with tomorrow, when I post my notes on compiling the 1918 Pacific Coast League season that come from the introduction to my book, The Early Pacific Coast League Statistical Record, 1903-57.


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