Stealing First and Other Old-Time Baseball Stories Book Review

Stealing First and Other Old-Time Baseball Stories

Chris Williams, Stealing First and Other Old-Time Baseball Stories . Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press, 2020. Pp. ix +135 pgs. Paper. $14.95.

Chris Williams has given us an interesting and highly entertaining collection of fourteen pieces which, he says, is “an eclectic group of statistical historical baseball essays that utilize some of the old methods to make a point (or points)” (vii). In our times, “the number of categories created by the sabermetrics community seems endless” (vii). So, Williams goes “back to basics” in using traditional baseball statistical categories. He brings to life engaging reflections on baseball players and personalities, teams, and seasons as a way of stoking our imaginations and giving us some new perspectives. Throughout, “nostalgia reigns” as we remember—or are introduced—to forgotten or “unknown” players who had a significance we didn’t realize. A series of great photos conclude each chapter and add an additional, personal dimension to each of Williams’ presentations.

Among the intriguing essays here are: “The Great Collapse of 1964 Revisited;” “A Headache Had Nothing to Do with It;” “What a Difference a Hundred Years Make;” and “How Do You Win 111 Games and Then Get Swept in the World Series?” Throughout, Williams keeps statistics alongside us. But these do not override the genuine interesting narratives of each chapter which are rich in baseball history and appeal.

The book gets its title from its first chapter—which does everything to whet the appetite for the pieces that follow! Chapter one is titled: “The Man Who Stole First Base.” It begins: “You’d have to be a real grump to not like Germany Schaefer . Even grouchy web trolls might have cracked a smile watching this guy play ball” (1). Yes, the player is: “ William Herman Schaefer . Nicknamed ‘ Germany ’ because of his heritage.” Says Williams: “ Schaefer was quite the clown during his 15-year engagement as a player and coach. Among other antics, Schaefer attempted to steal first base during a game on two different occasions!” (1).

Among Schaefer’s capers: On July 4, 1906, when Germany thought the game should be canceled because of rain and the soggy conditions of the field; and the umpire decided to go ahead with it: “ Schaefer took the field wearing a raincoat and galoshes, umbrella in hand” (2).

The umpire thought he was being mocked and threw Germany out of the game. When he once came to bat wearing a “monstrously big fake mustache,” the home plate umpire was offended—and tossed Schaefer from the game. Then, “on numerous occasions, Schaefer would walk the left-field foul line as if it were a tight rope in-between innings” to the extreme delight of the fans! (2).

Williams tells us:

Schaefer didn’t limit his fooling around to the ballfield. Once, the zany player noticed umpire Jack Sheridan asleep at a table in a tavern one evening. Schaefer then proceeded to speak into the top of a drainpipe that ran down the wall next to the ump’s table.

‘Jack Sheridan—your time has come!’ he ominously moaned.

This startled Sheridan, jarring him out of his alcohol-fueled slumber.

The umpire sprung up and darted out the door. Schaefer thought this was hilarious but wasn’t quite done with Sheridan. A few weeks later, Sheridan was working home plate during a game when Schaefer approached the batter’s box.

‘Jack Sheridan-your time has come!’ the player intoned.

Instantly incensed, the umpire cursed Schaefer , calling the player a ‘German so-and-so!’ and threw him out of the game (3).

Germany Schaefer ‘stole first’ in a 1911 game. Williams quotes Schaefer’s teammate, Davy Jones , from Lawrence Ritter’s, The Glory of Their Times :

Jones recalled the first of these comically unusual happenings:

. . . we had men on second and third . . . with a blood-curdling shout, he took off like a wild Indian back to first base and dove in headfirst in a cloud of dust. He figured the catcher might throw to first—since he evidently wouldn’t throw to second—and then I would come home same as before. But nothing happened . . . Everybody just stood there . . . with their mouths open, not knowing what the devil was going on.

The umpires were just as confused as everybody else. However, it turned out that at that time there wasn’t any rule against a guy going from second back to first. So, there we were, back where we started, with Schaefer on first and me on third. And on the next pitch, darned if he didn’t let out another war-whoop and take off again for second base. By this time, the Cleveland catcher evidently had enough, because he finally threw to second to get Schaefer , and when he did, I took off for home . . . (4)

While some baseball scholars have doubted the truth of this account, Williams notes that “two major newspapers, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune , have documented a day in 1911 in which Schaefer pulled the almost-exact same stunt in a game against the White Sox. Major League Baseball later instituted a rule that said a runner would be ruled out if they tried to steal a base they already had advanced from. Germany’s mad dash back to the first-base bag undoubtedly helped precipitate the implementation of the new directive” (4-5).

Germany Schaefer was a decent player, offensively and defensively. He just, writes Williams “seemed to have embedded in his DNA a strong desire and natural ability to make folks laugh” (6). He concludes that “they may have buried the body of William Herman Schaefer in a Chicago cemetery a few days after his passing, but the man’s legacy of bringing laughter and smiles to the sometimes-stuffy world of Major League Baseball is there for everyone to enjoy over a hundred years later” (6).

This rich, initial essay is a “preview of things to come” with the following pieces. After analyzing the players and the Phillies and Cardinals teams in “The Great Collapse of 1964 Revisited,” Williams concludes: “As you can see, even in the handful of statistical areas that St. Louis ranked behind Philadelphia, they weren’t that far behind. After examining the statistics, I believe the better team ended up winning the 1964 National League pennant. Rather than blame Gene Mauch , or injuries, or the fates, it might be more truthful to face reality” (34).

Williams provides a similar type of analysis of the 1954 World Series where the Cleveland Indians—winners of 111 games in the American League—got swept by the New York Giants, led by the phenomenal Willie Mays . This series is especially remembered for one of the greatest outfield catches ever— Mays ’ fantastic eighth inning catch of Vic Wertz’s monster drive to centerfield at the Polo Grounds in the opening game on September 29, 1954 .

Willie Mays

In his statistical analysis of both teams, Williams says, “I do agree with most experts at the time who thought that Cleveland had the better team going into the World Series. But I don’t see them as being a lot better. I base this largely on what I see as an edge in overall pitching (lower era, hits allowed, and earned runs allowed). Historically, good pitching has often been a deciding factor in the World Series” (109). But Williams also points out:

Something that few were paying attention to at the time was the fact that Indians racked-up many of their wins against teams in the AL that finished below .500 (89) and played just .500 against the second and third place clubs (Yankees and White Sox). Conversely, the Giants compiled a winning record (25–19) against their two closest competitors (Dodgers and Braves). Cleveland got ‘fat and sassy’ feasting on their league’s also-rans while the Giants were proving their mettle by doing well against their league’s best. Had more of the experts thought about Cleveland’s so-so record versus the AL elite, they might not have been so quick to believe that the Indians were going to roll over what they thought was an over-matched Giants club (109-110).
In the end, Williams concludes:
So why didn’t the Indians win at least a game or two? Besides the obvious answer that the Giant outscored them in four different contests, that’s almost impossible to answer with certainty. However, allow me to offer a couple of possibilities:
    • Hubris. After winning 111 games with great hitting and a pitching staff that ranks among the all-time best, they may have thought they’d easily roll over the denizens of the Polo Grounds .
    • A simple slump at the absolute worst time it could happen. The Indians had exactly one extended slump during the regular season, experiencing a four-game skid in July. As good as they were in 1954, they may have been due for another dry spell.
If I was forced to choose, I’d pick #2 as the most likely explanation. But I also think a degree of cockiness might have played a role in Cleveland’s demise. There are almost assuredly other possibilities not discussed here. However, one thing is sure about the 1954 World Series:
A talented New York Giants club bested a fine Indians team to win it all (111).
This book is a treat for baseball fans, especially those who love the history of the game with all its many dimensions. You will be delighted with Williams’ easy style, his use of statistics to illuminate—but not dominate—his narratives, and his bringing to life familiar—and unfamiliar—players, teams, and baseball history. What a pleasure it is to read this book! Thank you, Chris Williams!
Germantown, Tennessee

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