Clint Courtney vs. Billy Martin

March 9, 2014

Part of why I like digging through old newspapers to research baseball history is that a find so many interesting rabbit trails to explore along the way. Among the things I found about the spring of 1956 was a blurb in The Sporting News in which Don Gutteridge named the five current players he likened to the original Gashouse Gang. It turns out there was a significant history between two of the five named players.

Courtney and Martin first got into it in 1952 when Courtney was a catcher for the St. Louis Browns. In the second inning of a game on July 12, Courtney slid spikes high into Martin at second base to break up a potential double play. Yankee players were also upset with a spikes high slide by Courtney at Yogi Berra in the sixth inning. The Yankees had enough, and Martin had his revenge in the eighth inning Courtney attempted a delayed steal of second base. Martin received the ball before Courtney reached the base, and proceeded to plant the ball between the catcher’s eyes.

After the ensuing brawl, Courtney claimed that it was the fact that his glasses broke that caused him to react in anger. He charged at the Yankee second baseman, who promptly threw his glove away and landed two rights to Courtney’s jaw. Benches cleared into what was described as a “quite interesting” brawl by reporter Dan Daniel. Three umpires hit the dirt in the melee. Despite the fact that by all accounts Martin was the only participant who landed a punch, Courtney was the only player ejected from the game. He was later suspended for three games and fined $100.

It took less than a year before the rematch. On April 28, 1953, Courtney found himself on the defensive when Gil McDougald slid hard into home and knocked the ball out of Courtney’s hand in the top of the tenth inning. The fiery catcher responded with a spikes-high slide into second in an attempt to stretch a single into a double in the bottom of the same inning. Courtney lamented after the game that it was shortstop Phil Rizzuto covering second.* The slide once again touched off a bench-clearing brawl.

*Courtney’s words as quoted in The Sporting News: “I’m sorry it happened – particularly sorry it was Rizzuto I ran into instead of that —– —— Martin.” I can’t tell from the scan exactly how many blanks the author left for the expletives.

Rather than being “interesting” like the first brawl, this one got particularly nasty. Umpire Bill Summers (one of the umpires involved in round one) said it was the most fist-swinging he had seen in his 20 years. It was reported that there were separate brawls all over the field. Courtney accused the Yankees of teaming up, with a few holding him while others got their shots in. When it was all over, a total of six players were punished with fines totaling $850, including $250 for Courtney, who, according to AL president Will Harridge, violated “all rules of sportsmanship.”

For more on “Scrap Iron” Courtney read Rory Costello’s biography at SABR Bioproject.

Spring Training Notes, 1956

March 8, 2014

Orlando, Florida

The Senators opened camp in 1956 coming off of a miserable 53-101 season. There might have been some hope that 1956 would look different, but it was the hope of the “wait ’til next year” variety that all fans feel in the spring when their favorite team is still undefeated.

Calvin Uses Technology

There was some buzz surrounding the team for an innovative use of television during the winter months. January marked the start of the 15-minute “Washington Nationals Show”* that aired every Sunday evening. The first episode showed highlights of Walter Johnson and the 1925 World Series. Later episodes included interviews with current and former players, discussions about the Hall of Fame, and a feature on the show Damn Yankees. The show was such a success that other clubs planned to copy it in their own markets.

*even though the team’s name was formally changed to Senators in 1955

Dressen Second Guesses Reporters

Manager Chuck Dressen, fresh off his first season managing the Nats, made some waves when he invited two of the reporters to manage opposite teams during an intra-squad scrimmage early in the spring. Burton Hawkins of the Washington Evening Star and Bob Addie of The Washington Post were required by Dressen to wear the uniform and coach at 3rd base. Addie’s report included a base running snafu* for which he took the blame. Addie’s team won, with the reporter claiming his best decision was having Ernie Oravetz deliver a pinch single with the bases loaded.

*His exact words: “one of my men singled into a double play!”

Four Eyes

The Sporting News included a blurb about 1956 spring training stating that glasses had become common for ballplayers league wide, but particularly for the Senators, who proudly boasted six bespectacled players. The six were pictured, with glasses and giant grins.

Get Off My Lawn!

White Sox coach and original member of the “Gashouse Gang” member Don Gutteridge mused about today’s players, claiming only five players in the league in 1956 had the “spirit” of the original gang. Among the players he listed was Senators catcher Clint Courtney (specs and all). Also on the list was Billy Martin and Hank Bauer of the Yankees, Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals, and Nellie Fox of Gutteridge’s own White Sox.


Wednesday June 17, 1959 (Take Two)

January 30, 2012


Senators 7, Athletics 2

Neither the Senators nor the Athletics figured to have much impact on the 1959 pennant race by the middle of June. Washington had lingered around the .500 mark until the last week in May when a 1-4 record on a five-game homestand against the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, the latter of which swept three games by a total run tally of 25-2, dropped them to 21-26, 6.5 games out of first place.

By the time the A’s came into town in mid-June, Cookie Lavagetto’s men had a 3-8 record in the month, dropping the overall record to 24-34. The Seantors hoped an 8-5 win in the first game of the series was a sign of things to come.

Camilo Pascual took the ball for the second game of the series at Griffith Stadium. Though he allowed eight hits, the A’s managed only two runs in the game. The Senators fell behind early, but a fourth inning triple by Hal Naragon plated Jim Lemon to even the score. Naragon later came home on a Reno Bertoia single to give Washington a 2-1 lead. Bob Allison’s two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning made the score 4-1, and Bertoia capped off the 7-2 win with a two-run shot of his own in the bottom of the eighth.

Washington completed the sweep the next day, and were able to climb back to two games under .500 by the time the A’s returned to D.C. on July 17. The A’s took three out of four in that series, starting the ‘Nats on a landslide in which at one point they lost 18 games in a row and totaled 2-24 over the course of a month of baseball. They finished the season in last place, 31 games out of first.

Elmer Valo

November 16, 2010

When Elmer Valo joined the Washington Senators in 1959, he was already a veteran of 19 baseball seasons. Though he spent his first 15 seasons with the Philadelphia/Kansas City A’s, by the time he was signed as a free agent by the Nats in May of 1960 he had spent the previous five seasons playing for six different teams in seven different cities.

It seemed that his major league career was over in 1959. After the Czechoslovakia native seemed to get no interest from major league teams in the offseason, he began the year as player-manager for the Seattle Raniers. He caught the eye of many during his short stint in the Pacific Northwest, including famous Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich who noted in a May roundup that Valo was leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting with a .340 average.

The Senators snatched him up when the 40-year-old became available after appearing just eight times for the New York Yankees before being cut when the rosters reduced in the early part of the season. The Sporting News report indicated that Washington was interested in Valo primarily as a pinch-hitter, which turned out to be an understatement. To make room for Valo, the team sent young first baseman Don Mincher to Charleston, though manager Cookie Lavagetto insisted that Mincher had a future as a major league player.

While he appeared in 76 games for the Nats that season, Valo started in a single game. By the end of the season, he had compiled all of 20 innings in the outfield. Of his 85 plate appearances, 75 came as a pinch-hitter. When combined with the seven pinch-hitting plate appearances with the Yankees, Valo still holds the single-season American League record with 82 pinch-hitting appearances.

Valo made the move with the franchise to Minnesota. He appeared in 33 games (all as a pinch hitter) before he was released in June. Valo was picked up by the Philadelphia Phillies for the rest of the season before retiring at the age of 41.

In 108 games with the franchise, Valo made just the one start. His batting line was .240/.372/.292 thanks to a patient eye at the plate.

1954: Harmon Killebrew’s Debut

June 21, 2010

Wednesday June 23, 1954

Take it away, Shirley Povich:

At long last, the Senators have taken the ice-cold plunge into the bonus baby market, in contrast to their refusal for years to dip even a gingerly toe into the heavy-money waters. Their prize, or what they hope to be such, is Harmon Killebrew, 17-year-old wonder boy from Payette, Idaho.

Clark Griffith, who separated himself from $30,000 to sign Killebrew, a semi-pro infielder from the Idaho-Oregon Border League, had a special sort of inspiration, perhaps. The last semi-pro the Washington club signed from the state of Idaho was in 1907, and he answered to the name of Walter Johnson.

The much hyped “bonus-baby” made his first appearance in a major league game as a pinch-runner. With the Nats down 5-1 in the fifth inning, Clyde Vollmer pinch-hit for the pitcher Chuck Stobbs. Vollmer was hit by a pitch, forcing Pete Runnels home with the team’s second run. Enter Killebrew as the runner at first base. He advanced to second on a wild pitch, but was stranded there.

Because of his bonus-baby status, Killebrew had to remain with the major league team, but he didn’t see much actio that first year. His next appearance was July 18. He made two more appearances in the month of July, both as a pinch-runner. He scored his first major league run on July 27th.

1959: Green for Pearson

May 26, 2010

May 26, 1959

Albie Pearson had made a name for himself as a rookie for the Nats in 1958. At 5’5″ 140 pounds, he was one of the smaller players in the league, but he had enough of a reputation that he won rookie of the year honors after batting just .275/.354/.358 in 610 plate appearances.

Another rookie center fielder came along for the Twins in 1959, however. Bob Allison had a handful of plate appearances in 1958, but inherited a lot more playing time in early 1959 when Pearson was struggling with injuries. Allison eventually earned the job with a .282/.333/.509 batting line with nine home runs as of May 24. He was basically Pearson with power at that point, meaning that the 1958 rookie of the year became expendable due to the success of the eventual 1959 rookie of the year.

Pearson didn’t help his cause, either. He batted .188/.309/.200 in 97 plate appearances through May 24. On May 26, he was informed that the Twins had made a move. Pearson was sent to Baltimore in exchange for Lenny Green.

Green, a corner outfielder, was batting .292/.346/.417 for Baltimore at the time of the trade.

It looked like it might be a lopsided deal on paper, and initially it turned out that way. Pearson did not work out for the Orioles, who let him go to Los Angeles in the 1961 expansion draft. It took Pearson a couple of years to become a decent hitter, primarily accomplished when he began to use his size to take walks. He had a few good seasons with the Angels, and ended his career in 1966 with a total of 103 OPS+.

Green paid immediate dividends for the Senators. After slumping his way to a rough finish in 1959, he was one of the team’s more valuable players in 1960. He was an above average player for the club in its first few years in Minnesota, but fell off a cliff in 1963. He lost his starting job because of a stacked Minnesota outfield, and didn’t really seem to take well to being a late-inning player. In the middle of the 1964 season, the Twins traded  Green to the Angels in a complex deal that netted the Twins Frank Kostro and Jerry Kindall. Green had one very good season with Boston in 1965, but that was his last as a regular.

1950: Griffith Moves the Fences Back

May 5, 2010

Sunday May 7, 1950

Griffith Stadium had always played as a pitcher’s park. Clark Griffith, in hopes that some new acquisitions might supply his team with some more power- something the Nats had historically lacked, had temporary bleachers installed in the outfield of Griffith Stadium. The bleachers covered left and left-center field and made home run distances an average of 19 feet closer to home plate. Perhaps as important, the addition allowed 854 more paying customers into the ballpark.

The temporary seats didn’t quite work out as planned. First, not a single person occupied the seats in their first ten games of existence. This couldn’t have been surprising to Griffith, who had been having trouble selling tickets for a long time in Washington. What was likely more disturbing to Griffith and the Nats’ office was the way the opposition was taking advantage of the shorter porch in left field. The Sporting News reported that, of the nine home runs hit into the temporary seats,  eight had been hit by the opposition, meaning that essentially Griffith’s new dimensions were helping the Nats to lose. The final straw might have been Gil Coan’s grand slam on May 7 that helped the Indians to a 10-5 win.

Griffith got rid of the temporary stands by the next day.

1953: The Longest Homerun at Griffith Stadium

April 23, 2010

April 17, 1953

In a 7-3 victory over the Washington Nationals, Yankees star Mickey Mantle hit the longest home run ever at Griffith Stadium. At the time, it was the longest recorded home run hit by anybody not named Babe Ruth.

The home run measured 565 feet. From Louis Effrat’s report in the New York Times:

This amazing 21-year-old athlete today walloped one over the fifty-five-foot high left-field wall at Griffith Stadium. The ball, scuffed in two spots, finally stopped in the back-yard of a house, 565 feet away from home plate.

The home run came with two outs in the fifth inning. The Yankees were leading in the game 2-1 at the time, and Chuck Stobbs was the Nats pitcher. There were two outs and the previous batter, Yogi Berra, had reached first base with a walk. The blast made the score 4-1 in favor of the Yankees.

10-year old Donald Dunaway (whose address was listed in the Times) recovered the ball. He was offered an “undisclosed sum of money” by the Yankees in exchange for the prize.

Here is Mark Hornbaker’s account of this and some of Mantle’s other feats against the old Nats.

1960: Nats Acquire Battey

April 2, 2010

Originally posted April 2, 2008

April 4, 1960

I wrote a bit about this deal last week when covering the 1960 season:

Calvin Griffith’s original request from Chicago in the Roy Sievers trade was Battey and SS Sammy Esposito. White Sox manager Al Lopez refused to okay the offer, saying that he wouldn’t part with Esposito. Griffith’s counter proposal still included Battey, this time with Don Mincher, a first-baseman with power potential but no major league experience. Esposito remained with the White Sox until 1964. As a utility infielder those seasons, he had OPS+ of 52, 39, 70, and 43. Though Griffith was almost universally panned for the deal at the time, Mincher and Battey both became cornerstones of the Washington/Minnesota franchise. This was Battey’s first season as a regular in the majors. Not only was Battey impressive at the plate, but he gave the Nats a force behind the plate shutting down the opponent’s running game.

The Senators had not been happy with their catchers for years. Those who could hit were liabilities behind the plate and vice-versa, so Calvin Griffith set out to fix that by focusing his trading effort on Earl Battey of the Chicago White Sox.

Roy Sievers had been the first real power threat in franchise history. At the time of the trade, he still held the franchise career home run mark. He had been rumored to be on the trading block before the 1959 season, but Griffith didn’t pull the trigger on any deals, so Sievers played with the Nats for 1959. Injuries contributed to a disappointing year, and quite possibly made him less attractive on the trade market.

Sievers’ performance wasn’t the only factor that changed his status after the 1959 season. Washington fans saw the emergence of other, younger power threats in Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, and Jim Lemon. Sievers’ role as the only source of power on the team was history, so it made sense for Griffith to trade him for young talent.

In a trade that worked out for both teams, Washington sent Roy Sievers to Chicago in exchange for Earl Battey, Don Mincher, and $150,000 on April 4, 1960.

Battey, as mentioned, worked out immediately for the Nats and became the long term solution to the team’s catching problem. Mincher blossomed into a solid power hitter, and both pieces of the trade were instrumental in the team’s 1965 pennant run (presumably the cash was as well..). On the Chicago side, Sievers had two of the best season in his career before he was traded to Philadelphia.

A few days after the trade, someone in the press box at Griffith Stadium played a gag on Calvin by sending him a telegram that was supposedly from Bill Veeck reading “The deal wasn’t really consummated, so it’s off. Please return Battey and Mincher, plus my money, immediately.” The telegram was delivered during an exhibition game in which Mincher had hit a pair of home runs. The other running joke among the press in Washington: when the question was asked on a Sunday whether Calvin was going to make another trade before the season started, a Washington reporter replied “I don’t think so. The banks are closed on Sunday.”

GOTW: 1959 Senators at Yankees

September 2, 2009

The lack of excitement for the 1959 Yankees was apparent from John Drebinger’s lead in the New York Times:

The Yankees returned to the Stadium for their long-awaited September home stand last night with nothing more exciting to offer a crowd of 15,010 than a battle for third place.

The Yankees, having dominated the American League for more than a decade, were in an unfamiliar spot to be sure. Though it was beyond disappointing in New York, it was a position that the Washington fans would have gladly traded to be in, having failed to get north of fifth place in the AL since the middle 1940′s.

Pedro Ramos 12-15 4.04 ERA 200.2 IP 46 BB 81 K
Duke Maas 12-6 4.50 ERA 118 IP 48 BB 58 K

More from Drebinger’s story:

With Pedro Ramos on the mound, the Nats waged a stubborn fight, taking the lead against Duke Maas in the fifth and not letting Casey Stengel’s bombers draw even until the seventh.

Yogi Berra finally put the Yankees ahead with a two-run homer in the eighth inning, the veteran’s 18th of the season. Washington wasn’t finished yet, however:

And even after Yogi’s number 18 with Tony Kubek on base had put the Yanks ahead in the eighth, the Nats still weren’t quitting. They ripped into Jim Coates for three hits in the ninth, the lead off shot being a two-bagger by Harmon Killebrew.

That, incidentally, was the Killer’s only hit of the evening. But it did pace on tally home and for a moment Stengel was in quite a dither, what with only one out and runners on first and second.

But Coates was allowed to shoot his way out of difficulty and this he did by retiring the next two, and he received credit for the victory.

The final score was 4-3 in favor of the Yankees, who evened their record at 66-66 with the win.


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