Happy Smith Goes to Brooklyn

brooklyn superbas happy smith baseball card

Chapter One: Lightning Strikes

The excitement throughout the stadium was palpable as Happy paced the dugout floor. The cranks were delirious and were cheering and groaning at every pitch despite Brooklyn’s poor standing in the National League (they were currently in 6th place, only slightly better than the St. Louis Cardinals and the last place Boston Doves) and the reality that this game on September 21, 1910 was meaningless for either team. Chicago, for the second time in three years was bound for the World Series (they won the series in 1908) and the Superba players were heading back to their day jobs for the off-season.

The score was tied at one run apiece in an exceptionally close pitching duel. The Cubs famous right hander, Three Finger Mordecai Brown was hurling yet another spectacular game which was not a surprise as he was the most dominant pitcher in the league. Brown already had 23 wins, the fifth consecutive season he had 20 or more. It was a surprise however, that Brooklyn’s Doc Scanlon was thus far keeping pace through the first seven innings, by mowing down the powerful Cub lineup.

Brooklyn’s second baseman, Silent John Hummel led off the bottom of the seventh and awkwardly swung through a high and hard, inside, first-pitch fast ball without making any contact. His swing was as much in defense to protect his noggin as it was an offensive statement. “Stee-rike One” roared home plate umpire Tom Connolly as if Hummel or anyone in the stands had any doubt. Hummel just scowled but quickly returned to the batter’s box where he resumed his crouched stance, tapped his bat to the dirt two times and then waved it slowly and deliberately to let Brown know he was not easily intimidated.

His next pitch was a repeat of the first only three inches closer to his head and this time Hummel wisely, but not particularly gracefully, bailed out and wound up sitting on his rump. Silent John was muttering to himself as he slowly picked himself up and dusted off his clay stained uniform. His return to the batter’s box was a bit slower and more deliberate. Meanwhile, Three Finger wasn’t paying him any mind as he had turned away from the plate in a half-hearted attempt to conceal his reaction from the umpire but his smirk was in full view of the Brooklyn dugout and their fans who immediately responded with a chorus of jeers and some choice comments about Mrs. Brown. The reaction was loud enough to drown out Connolly’s call of “Ball One.”

After taking what seemed like an inordinate amount of time before getting ready for his next pitch to allow Hummel some additional time to fume, Brown finally resumed his place on the mound and began his jerky wind up. This time he delivered an off speed pitch that so fooled Hummel his swing was practically complete before the ball was half way to the plate. His awkward swing practically screwed him into the ground and his muttering grew louder and more animated. Once again, Connolly’s call of “Steee-rike Two” seemed gratuitous but gritting his teeth and pounding the bat in the dirt a bit harder this time, Hummel resumed his spot in the box.

Instead of his usual stalling tactics Brown hardly even waited for a sign from the catcher as he quickly delivered the next pitch which seemed to arrive before Hummel knew what was happening. His bat sat in repose as the ball made a resounding thunk into the catcher’s broad leather mitt. “Stee-rike three…Yer Out!” bellowed Connolly in yet another obvious provocation. Happy thought the umpire was testing Silent John to see if he could ignite a spark. Sure enough Hummel felt obliged to register his discontent in a less than silent manner and he punctuated his statement kicking up the infield dirt and flailing his arms wildly before turning to head back to the dugout. His reputation as an outspoken critic of the umpires’ abilities, eyesight and sexual habits preceded him and earned him his satirical nickname.

Thus it was not surprising that Connolly tossed Hummel from the game in a matter of seconds. Happy wondered momentarily if he’d be summoned to replace Hummel but his manager minimized the suspense by immediately shouting at Tommy McMillan to get loose and be ready to go out there when Brooklyn took the field at the end of the inning. He didn’t really expect to get the nod – McMillan was a far better infielder and in the limited number of games he’d played in Happy roamed right field exclusively.

Next up was Brooklyn’s cleanup hitter Tony Smith. Although unrelated, he and Happy shared the relatively common surname and despite the fact that they were both beardless they were affectionately referred to by teammates as The Famous Smith Brothers after the upstate New York purveyors of cough drops. They both joined the team this year and had grown fairly close. Happy looked up to Tony who was an established major league veteran and often sought his counsel on both professional and personal matters. Tony took Happy under his wing from the start – in fact he gave Henry his nickname in an attempt to get him to lighten up after noticing how serious he was when he was trying out for the club in the Spring.

Tony fouled off a couple of pitches and patiently resisted swinging at the junk that Three Finger was tossing out of the strike zone. Finally with the count full, Tony got a pitch in his wheelhouse and lined a solid line drive to left just over the reach of a leaping Joe Tinker at shortstop. Happy joined the sold out crowd at Washington Park as they roared their approval.

So with one on and one out third baseman Ed (Eggie) Lennox stepped up. The crowd eager for instant gratification tried to stir a large rally and began to shout “Egg-ee! Egg-ee!” But in a close pitching duel and with the game tied, Brooklyn’s manager Bill Dahlen selected the strategy most likely to succeed. He tapped the brim of cap twice with his right pointer, rubbed the front of his jersey left to right, and gently tugged on his left ear to signal to his third base coach that the bunt play was on. Lennox stared intently at the coach who relayed the signs to make sure he understood what he was expected to do.

Back in the batter’s box, he quickly pivoted to face Three Finger, crouching low with his bat stretched across the plate. Brown let fly a tough biting fast ball that was dropping precipitously as it neared the plate. Lennox was already committed and knew he had to make contact but by the time the ball was upon him it was literally just inches off the ground. Somehow he managed to lay the bat on the ball before it bounced in the dirt and then jerked it backward to absorb as much of its momentum as possible and deaden its trajectory. The ball floated through the air in slow motion straight down the first base line landing about six feet away from home plate. It rolled slowly to a trickle and by the time catcher Johnny (Noisy) Kling reached the ball he had no play at second. He fired to first baseman Frank Chance missing Eggie’s back by inches as he sprinted down the line – his throw beat Eggie by a half step on his way to a successful sacrifice bunt.

So with a runner in scoring position and center fielder Bill Davidson at the plate, Chicago’s first baseman/manager Frank Chance joined Kling and Three Finger Brown on the mound for a strategy conference. When play resumed Brown was keeping a close eye on Smith who was taking a large walking lead off second. Before delivering the first pitch to the plate, Brown stepped off the pitching rubber, whirled around suddenly and fired a bulls- eye throw to Johnny Evers at second. Smith was leaning toward third and had to lunge in retreat causing his cap to go flying. His dive managed to get him back in just under the tag. Asking the umpire for time out, he retrieved his cap and dusted off his jersey. Brown began his wind up but again pulled his foot off the pitching rubber and whirled back toward second, only this time he merely faked a throw and held onto the ball. Smith went back to second standing up.

Perhaps it was the pressure of having a runner in scoring position late in a tie ball game, but Brown seemed distracted and started having difficulties finding the strike zone. Davidson walked on five pitches. Two on, two out and the seventh place hitter Zack (Buck) Wheat was the hitter. Sensing something might be up, Kling called for a pitch out and Three Finger grudgingly obliged but the maneuver was for naught as the Superba base runners held their ground. Brooklyn manager Bill Dahlen figured this was an ideal opportunity as it was unlikely they’d waste two pitches in a row on pitch outs. So he decided to turn up the heat and on Brown’s second pitch, which was low and inside, Smith and Davidson took off attempting a double steal. Kling fired a throw to second which sailed over second baseman Joe Evers’ head out into center field allowing Smith to continue home to score the go-ahead run but center fielder Circus Solly Hoffman held Davidson at second.

With a runner still in scoring position the Cubs corner infielders played close to the lines to reduce the chance of an extra base hit which could blow the game wide open. Brooklyn’s Buck Wheat worked the count to 2 balls and 2 strikes. Wheat then connected with an overhand curve and sent a weak grounder through the right side which went through the recently created hole. Brooklyn now had first and third, two out and the eighth place hitter, left fielder Jack Dalton coming to the plate. Still only down by one run and with the pitcher due up next, Chicago decided to grant Dalton safe passage to first base via an intentional base on balls to load the bases.

Dahlen countered this strategic move by calling Doc Scanlon back to the dugout in favor of a left-handed pinch hitter to face Brown. Happy was not surprised at this decision but was shocked when his buddy and back-up catcher, Tex Irwin sitting next to him on the bench kicked his cleats and shouted, “Hey, Hap! Get yer damn butt off the bench, grab some wood and g’won out there fer Christ’s sake! Bad Bill’s callin’ yer name, man.” Happy’s head had been in the game until that point but the idea that he’d be called upon to pinch hit in a crucial game situation was so foreign it hadn’t registered that it was his name Bill Dahlen had shouted out.

Like any kid who ever picked up a bat and ball, this was the kind of scenario Happy had day dreamed about from his first neighborhood sandlot game all through his time in amateur ball…to be injected in a critical situation where his performance could influence the outcome of the game… except of course in Happy’s fantasy it was a potential walk off appearance in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game in which a victory would clinch the pennant and not the 7th inning of a meaningless game where he was called upon for an insurance run…But Happy was a rookie with all of 32 plate appearances the whole season so this was a big deal. It was an especially interesting choice seeing as there were three or four other veteran Superbas who had considerably more playing time, acumen and overall baseball experience available on the bench and whom Dahlen usually called on in these situations. So in fact, his selection of Happy Smith as the pinch hitter had quite a few Brooklyn players in the dugout and thousands of fans wondering what Dahlen was thinking.

Somehow with Tex Irwin’s assistance Happy grabbed his favorite bat and found himself walking toward the on-deck circle, each step seeming to take an eternity. As a pinch-hitter Happy was afforded some latitude to take whatever time he needed to loosen up and prepare himself before stepping up to the plate. While taking his practice swings in the on-deck circle, he panned the stands quickly to see if he could see his landlady and new friend, Fanny Goldfarb. He knew she was there but the odds of seeing one in six thousand plus were pretty slim – especially since she most certainly hadn’t paid $1.50 for a field-level seat where he might have been able to pick her out. He thought of his family back in Oregon and his amateur league coach who helped get him this opportunity in the Bigs.

Just as people on their death beds are said to be able to see their whole lives appear before their eyes, Happy envisioned these past six months as he rubbed his bat with pine tar to get a better grip and swung two bats at once to loosen up. Finally, out of the corner of his eye he picked up an icy stare from the home plate umpire indicating that his patience was wearing thin and Happy’s trance was momentarily broken. At that point for the first time since Tex kicked him in the dugout he heard the chatter from the crowd. They were as nervous as he was but the wheels were in motion and he continued the walk out into the limelight.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Opinion8ed2 received the following comment from Barry, a true aficionado of America’s pastime:

    I like the opening chapter, very evocative of a game as it might have been played in Brooklyn. I feel like I’m listening to Vin Scully on a 1910 version of the transistor radio.

    Editor’s reply: Thanks Barry, Scully is one the all-time best. Unfortunately he left town with the Dodgers in search of richer pastures before I was old enough to be tuning in… but I fondly remember the post season games he used to do. And his call of the 65 Series between the Dodgers and Twins is memorable – just listened to Game 7 where Koufax pitched his 3rd game of the series and hurled a 3 hit complete game shut out after just 2 days rest. Entire game available on You Tube.

    Liked by 1 person

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