On the cloudy and chilly first day of March in the year Nineteen Hundred and Ten, Henry Joseph Smith left his home in the river city of Coquille, Oregon aboard the small steamship Echo piloted by his dad. As they departed, he stood at the stern and waved to his mom. He watched for several minutes as she slowly receded on the dock, fading into the past. He then walked to the bow and focused his gaze straight ahead into his future. The oncoming wind whipped the hair that jutted from beneath his baseball cap pulled tightly across his head.
Four hours later they landed in the port city of Bandon, Oregon and the next day he bought a steerage ticket to Seattle on the Independent Steamship Company’s J.R. Stetson. This large ocean-going commercial vessel was making its way from San Francisco to Juno with numerous stops in between picking up and delivering lumber and fish along the way.
The following morning he made his way to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad station to purchase a one-way ticket bound for Chicago and begin the first leg of his journey east. It was only after arriving at the Seattle rail station did Henry learn of the catastrophe that occurred just the previous day and took the lives of 96 passengers and crew aboard another CB&Q train.
Since passage of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which took effect in 1900 and mandated several important safety features like air brakes and safer coupling devices, the number of rail fatalities dropped dramatically and made railroads the safest and most reliable mode of long distance travel. Henry had assured his mom who supported his decision to head east but worried for him nonetheless, that he’d be perfectly safe. So his first thought on reading the headline was of his mom and the anxiety it would cause her when she heard the news.
Getting past the headline Henry learned that the accident was not directly related to an operational or technical issue with the trains at all, but rather occurred at the hand of Mother Nature. The train from Spokane to Seattle had just exited the Cascade Mountains tunnel at Stevens Pass near Wellington, Washington heading west (the very same route he was about to traverse in the opposite direction) but was stopped on its tracks for six days waiting for several feet of snow to be cleared from the recent blizzard.
Then on March 2, a thunder-storm erupted and unleashed torrential rains, which combined with the effects of deforestation from the clear cutting of forest lands, created a perfect synergy of conditions to initiate the most devastating avalanche in U.S. history. The cascading snow and debris gathered energy as it swept down the mountainside. It quickly descended upon the train, effortlessly lifting it off its tracks and sent it plunging down a 150 foot ravine. Miraculously, 23 survivors were rescued from the twisted wreck buried deep beneath the snow. Henry read a powerful and eloquent eye-witness account from a railroad employee, Charles Andrews in the newspaper:
“White Death moving down the mountainside above the train. Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping — a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of ten thousand freight trains. It descended to the ledge where the side tracks lay, picked up cars and equipment as though they were so many snow-draped toys, and swallowing them up, disappeared like a white, broad monster into the ravine below”
Wow, thought Henry, this railroad employee might have had a successful career as an author! Despite the fact that the accident was triggered by “natural’ causes, he wondered to what extent the logging in the area set the stage so that ultimately the cause of the accident could be traced to human negligence. He realized too, that whatever the direct or indirect cause it would rekindle his mom’s fears and the pang of guilt he initially felt was reinforced. Then, in light of the magnitude of this recent tragedy and its potential to derail his dreams, the excitement of anticipation Henry felt having started his journey quickly vanished.
The railroad didn’t know how long it would take to clear the snow, repair the tracks and restore service so Henry now found himself with an unexpected and depressing delay. His enthusiasm turned to apprehension and dread that he’d arrive late and miss his opportunity to make the team. He thought about turning back to Coquille but the idea of going back home even for a couple of weeks was depressing.
So Henry continued thumbing through the same paper in which he read the disappointing headline until he found listings for inexpensive housing in the classified ads. He was able to locate a suitable room with a daily rate not far from downtown Seattle. After checking in and dropping off his suitcase and gear, he grabbed dinner at a saloon nearby.
It wasn’t clear if the bartender was making conversation because it was good for business or if he was genuinely friendly, but he soon had Henry recounting his exciting but frustrating saga in great detail, listening as he continued to work. “We sure love it around here,” the bartender offered in response, “…but under the circumstances I reckon yer not so keen on being waylaid in Seattle for God knows how long.”
There was a momentary lull while he paced to the end of the bar to pick up a stack of clean glasses but continued on his return without missing a beat, “Damn shame ‘bout that train wreck… Guessing yer pretty lucky though…” He paused again to put some glasses up on the storage shelf behind him. “…seein’ as how it coulda been you, but for a couple a days” he continued. Henry hadn’t thought of it in that light. Doing so put things in a considerably different perspective.
Still, he was pleased when the barkeep changed the subject to baseball. “Ya hearda our local ball club?” Henry knew that Seattle was one of the few west coast towns that was able to support a minor league ball club but confessed he didn’t know anything about them except that they were known as the Turks. “Naw, that ain’t exactly right – used to be the Turks last year and was the Siwashes year before that, but this here year they’s callin’ themselves the Giants. Don’t ask me what for – reckon it’s that they got sold again and new owner’s lookin’ to start fresh. Take more’n a new name to change up their luck though. Haven’t had a winning record in years… Say, seein’ as ya got some time on your hands ya might wanna go check them out – they’re jest startin’ their warm up time and they practice right down the road in Yesler Way Park, just a half mile down the road.”
Next morning Henry walked over to the ball park to watch the players working out and tossing some baseballs to begin loosening up. As he approached the field the sounds of balls on leather and cracking off wooden bats instantly rejuvenated his spirits. Not wanting to call attention to himself he was content to sit and watch the Giants work out from his seat mid-level on the first base grandstand such as it was. It was constructed of only six rows of rough cut pine planks supported by two-by-fours, clearly indicating the team’s modest aspirations when it came to drawing fans. During their training sessions they weren’t officially open for business so Henry was the lone spectator and felt a bit more conspicuous than he would have liked… but he sat the whole day without drawing much notice.
On the next day however, manager Mike Lynch spotted Henry in the exact same spot and came over to talk with him. “Pretty young to be a scout…what team ya working for?” he shouted. Although they were not a high level minor league team, the Seattle ball club did occasionally get a talent scout or two searching for the next Ty Cobb or Walter Johnson. Not that he took any effort to hide, but Henry was a bit embarrassed to have been noticed so all he managed in response was “Not a scout, sir.” Lynch knew immediately Henry was telling the truth – no scout would have addressed him as “sir.” “So whatta ya doin sittin’ up there anyway?” And without waiting for an answer, “Ain’t ya gotta job?”
Henry realized he would have some explaining to do so he scrambled down to the field level. “Actually, I hope to have one soon…that is, I hope to be playing in the Bigs…”
Lynch burst out laughing, almost choking on his chaw and then turned toward right field and let fly a big juicy wad of brown chaw spit without skipping a beat, “Yeah, I know kid. Everyone thinks they can be a pro – there’s nothing to it – just a simple game, right? Figure ya jest wander over and join up, take off as an overnight minor league sensation and then get called up to Majors”
“No sir, it’s just…”
“Hey, cut the “sir” crap – name’s Mike Lynch, formerly of the Chicago National League Baseball Club. So I know what I’m talkin’ about. Played with ’em for one season before they ‘came known as the Cubs – they’s called The Orphans back then. Did pretty well too ‘till I got my leg busted slidin’ into home one game in ‘02. That was it. End of the career jest like that.”
“Wow, sorry to hear you…”
“And you can cut that sympathy crap – wasn’t tellin’ ya so you could get all teary-eyed about it. Jest a fact, plain and simple. But I do know what I’m talkin’ about as far as playin’ ball.
“Sorry sir, uh I mean Mr. Lynch, uh, I mean Mike.”
“Didn’t say you could get that familiar!” snorted Lynch slyly.
And Henry turned red realizing this was not going anywhere like he’d planned…Laughing again, “Jest messin’ with ya kid. We’re all pretty friendly round these parts. So, you any good?”
“Well I hope so, uh I mean I think so…” Henry stumbled. “Coach Howard from Coquille Oregon where I’m from thinks so. He got me a tryout lined up with the Brooklyn Superbas and I’m headin’ to…”
“Holy Shit kid! Why the hell didn’t ya say so? Invitation from a Major League team? Now that’s somethin’!! Why ya hangin’ round here then, watchin’ this bunch of misfits, half-wits and wannabes? “
Henry was feeling a little less intimidated and gradually told Lynch his saga about getting delayed. “Well, in that case, ya don’t wanna jest be sittin’ on your rump gettin’ soft. Show up tomorrow mornin’ at 9 with yer gear and ya can work out with us. Let’s see what ya got. Help keep ya sharp while yer waitin for the CB&Q to start rollin’ again.”
Henry just grinned and let out another “Yes sir!” before he could help himself. As Mike walked away shaking his head as if to say “what a piece a work,” it was Henry’s turn to burst out laughing, thrilled with his stroke of good fortune, relieved his delay wouldn’t be a total waste of time.
Over the course of his two weeks with the Seattle Giants, Lynch took Henry under his wing. Not many of his players were ever going to make the Bigs and Henry’s raw talent was clear. So helping to mold Henry into a pro ball player was a challenge and source of pride for Lynch.
One day after batting practice he called Henry over for a private session. “Henry, yer gonna find there are lots of talented ball players all tryin’ to make it jest like you. Ya gotta give it all ya got and I know you’ll be doin’ that and then some. But sometimes it takes a few extra little skills to weed out the ones who make it from the ones goin’ back home to driving steam boats like your dad – no offense. So I’m gonna teach ya one of those special skills that ain’t easy to do… but if ya master it, it can give ya a leg up when ya really need it.” Henry was a wide-eyed and eager student. “Gonna teach ya how to steal signs.”
Henry was visibly taken aback, “Geez, I don’t want to cheat – if I can’t make it fair and square I’ll happily go back to being a river boat captain. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Now see here kid, just ‘cause it’s called stealin’ don’t make it wrong. Ain’t any different than stealin’ bases far as I’m concerned. You got any problems stealin’ second base from time to time?” Lynch asked.
“Of course not, it’s just part of the game,” agreed Henry.
“Eggs-Actly son, so grabbin’ a little sneak peek at what the catcher wants his pitcher to throw next ain’t no different. Ya still gotta hit the damn ball! Hell, I know some catchers even tell ya what’s comin’ ‘cause they know you ain’t got more’n a one in a million chance of hittin’ it anyway. You wanna learn it or what?”
“Well, when you put it that way, it seems ok. Heck yeah, I’d like to learn!” said Henry.
“So the trick’s in the timin’. Ya gotta be smooth and can’t let the other team have any clue ‘bout what yer doin’. Soon as they think yer peekin’ they’ll be aimin’ fer yer head, sure as shit. So don’t ever be turnin’ yer head ‘round while yer in the box or yer askin’ fer a beanin’. What ya wanna do is wait for when the catcher’s givin’ the signs. ‘Course you get that information by watchin’ the pitcher’s eyes and body language. It takes a bit a watchin’ to get the timin’ down jes’ right. You can practice from the dugout or on-deck circle and even when yer battin’ for the first few innin’s. OK, so’s I was sayin’… when ya think the catcher is just startin’ the signs, ya put yer arm up to ask the ump for time out and step outta the batter’s box. While yer doin’ that, ya glance back, real casual and quick-like to make sure he’s givin’ the time-out signal. With me so far?”
Henry nodded in response. ”That’s when ya gonna get the sign… ya can’t be lookin’ at the catcher or nothin’ and it ain’t easy seein’ the sign outta the corner of yer eye for a jest a half a second. That takes loads of practice too. Plus the icin’ on the cake is to finish up with some kinda real natural-like actin’ job… maybe ya got somethin’ in yer eye or maybe ya gotta cramp that needs attention. And there’s no guarantee the catcher’s gonna keep the same sign when they set up again, but if he really ain’t suspectin’ ya, chances are he won’t bother changin’ it.
Henry tried to practice these skills each day and learned the mechanics of Mike’s secret art of stealing signs but never really got good enough to pull it off without getting caught.
So the next two weeks flew by quickly as Henry worked out every day. He was in good shape when he left home but was feeling he had even more energy when it came time to finally board the CB&Q for his long journey.
It was painstakingly slow in sections especially when the train had to climb the steep grades and switchbacks through the mountains. When they arrived in Wellington the engineer stopped the train for 96 minutes in memory of the recent victims of the avalanche, many of whom were his fellow workers and a couple he considered good friends. The first leg took three days as they continued to wind slowly across the Olympic, Cascade and Rocky Mountains, each with their incredible vistas and then on across the vast plains that seemed to stretch forever.
Since he chose the more parsimonious second-class day-coach fare and didn’t fork out the extra $10 for a Pullman sleeping berth, Henry slept in fits and starts and was beyond exhaustion by the time they rolled into Union Depot in Chicago. The earliest connecting train to New York wasn’t until the morning so he set out in search of affordable lodging for the night. Despite his best efforts at frugality he passed up the flop house on the corner as being unsuitable and opted to pay a couple of bucks to stay in a decent hotel above a saloon on West Madison St. He napped for a couple of hours and then had the best damn steak he’d ever tasted.
Ironically, he was originally planning to end his trip in Chicago at try outs for the Cubs, who after winning the World Series in ’08 finished in second place in the National League last season. His coach Shep Howard contacted the Cubs, sang his praises without hesitation and miraculously (from Henry’s perspective) they sent him a short-term contract to facilitate a tryout appearance.
However, before he could even pack his bags he was notified that along with fellow prospect Tony Smith (no relation) and aging veteran Bill Davidson, he was traded to the Brooklyn Superbas for pitcher Harry McIntire. Of course being traded from the mighty Cubs to the lowly Brooklyn club might be viewed as a step down but as Shep reminded him, it greatly enhanced his chances to actually make the Bigs. So as it turned out, both his career and layover in Chicago were short- lived and he’d soon be back on the rails.
But before leaving town Henry wanted to get his first glimpse at a Major League baseball stadium even if it was potentially “enemy turf.” So after dinner he strolled around downtown and headed for Wolcott and Polk Streets on Chicago’s West Side to check out Westside Grounds, home of the National League’s powerhouse Cubs.
The two mile walk from Union Station felt good after having been cooped up on the train for so long. When he arrived he walked around the outside but since the stadium was walled on all sides he never did get a glimpse of the field. However, the tall wooden grandstands and bleachers stood proudly and quietly in the light of the practically full moon, waiting patiently for the start of the new baseball season. Henry stopped for a moment to imagine the roar of the crowd that would be heard when those stands were filled to capacity. Westside Grounds was one of the largest ball parks in the major leagues – it held up to 16,000 spectators- so compared to the amateur league parks he was used to playing in, it was downright cavernous. The outfield fence in center field was a daunting 560 feet from home plate.
Of course, if he was successful in making the team in Brooklyn he’d have several opportunities to come back and play in Chicago as a member of the visiting team. The detour to Westside Grounds whet his appetite for the pending adventure and he looked forward to completing his journey… so Henry made his way back to the hotel where he slept another 10 hours before catching the early morning departure for New York aboard The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Pennsylvania Special.