Once Upon a Time in Monessen

Monesen, PA ~ as it always shall be ~

Monesen, PA
~ as it always shall be ~

Most young men who play their first professional baseball game in the lower minors ever get good enough to even smell a cup of coffee in the big leagues. My guess, nevertheless, that they still come in new waves of hope for the reason I just posed. They’re hoping to be the ones that catch lightning in a bottle, or a firm grip on the tail of some suddenly exploding talent that powers them into notice in the skies of baseball as if they were riding their way to the Hall of Fame by the energy-thrust of their very own signature-signed bottle rocket.

What brought this prosaic wishfulness thought into mind was a nice note I received Sunday from Ron Paglia, a new long-time free-lance writing colleague I met through Ron Necciai, the legendary author of the 27 K no-hitter as a pitcher for Bristol, Tennessee back on May 13, 1952. After all this time, Ron Necciai is being inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 for doing something in baseball that no one else had ever done before him or has done since him – strike out 27 in one nine-inning no-hitter. To my knowledge, no one else has done it in a game than carried a variable spray of hits either – but that’s a story for another day that I’ve already covered in previous columns.

Ron Paglia is a resident of Charleroi, PA, a town located about thirty miles south of Pittsburgh. He is also the consummate historian of that special region in western Pennsylvania known as the Monongahela Valley. That’s that not-so- little, but culturally tied area in coal mining country that includes little towns like Donora – the birthplace of Stan Musial, and later, both generations of the Ken Griffey father-son tandem, among several others from baseball and other sports.

Ron wrote to let me know implicitly  that The Eagle’s  readership has spread to several new communities in the Mon Valley – and to remind me that Harry Craft, the last manager of the Houston Buffs and first manager of the Houston Colt.45’s, got his start as a rookie outfielder for the Monessen Reds of the Class D Penn State Association back in 1935. Monessen is located across the river, from that little town of Donora. This was, is, baseball country, folks., but they also like football, hockey, and basketball in the Mon Valley. How could they not? They live in the shadows of Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, Penguins, and several elite college bounce ball teams back east.

Of course, I had to research Monessen as best I could from home with my accessible print and digital resources. Not surprisingly, I learned that the Monessen Reds were a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds back in 1935. And that made sense that Craft would have spent his rookie season at Monessen. He later broke into the big leagues  and played for the Cincinnati  Reds in the 1939 World Series –  and was always most identified with the Reds by most serious fans, – Thank you, Baseball Reference, for making that kind of research so easy these days. The “BR” research time-saving act and the nudge from Ron Paglia set in motion the idea that the 1935 Monessen Reds, chock-full of rookies roster that finished first and also won the Penn State Association  pennant that year would always be a good place to research how many mainly rookies (and all the rest second year men) that became champions from a Class D League because they had enough talent, luck, and ability to get all the way from there to the big leagues?

monessen bend

In a nutshell, here’s what The Pecan Park Eagle found out about the 1935 Monessen Reds::

1) Roster Demographics: 23 men participated as players for the ’35 Reds. 15 were position players; 8 were pitchers. Their age range was 18-23. The average age for position players was 21.1 years; the average age for pitchers was 20.3. 18 player were in their rookie professional seasons; 5 were sophomores. The Monessen Reds finished in first place in the six-team Penn State Association and then took the pennant in a six-game series with the Washington Generals. Their season record was 68 wins, 39 loses, and a winning percentage of .639.

2) The manager was 41-year old Milt Stock, a 14-season (1913-26) utility infielder for the Giants, Phillies, Cardinals, and Dodgers. Stock finished with a respectable career batting average of .289 and 22 home runs.

3) The eight best performers on the 1935 Reds included: catcher Clyde Chell (.308, 1 HR); center fielder Harry Craft (.317, 14 HR); first baseman Joe Mack (.321, 12 HR); shortstop Ashley McDaniel (.325, 5 HR); third base/utility man Al Rubeling (.312, 11 HR); pitcher Ralph Williams (16-8, 2.81); pitcher Walter Purcey (16-6, 3.50); and pitcher James McMullen, 14-6, 4.11).

4) Four of the best Monessen Reds players also led the league in various categories:

Ashley McDaniel led the league in runs batted in with 87;

Harry Craft led the league in home runs with 14; and,

Pitchers Ralph Williams and Walter Purcey tied for the league lead in pitching wins with 16 each.

5) Only 4 of the 1935 Monessen Reds out of 23 total possibilities, a percentage of 17.4%,  went on to any playing time in the big leagues;

Harry Craft

Harry Craft

 5a) Harry Craft Made it to the big leagues with the parent Cincinnati Reds in 1937. He was there to play center field for the 1939 National League champions Reds in their World Series loss to one of the greatest New York Yankee teams of all time, and he also picked up an historical footnote in baseball history when his disputable, but lasting home run call down the right field line at the Polo Grounds led to the installation of the interior pole screen as an aide to close fair/foul calls down the line. Harry Craft played six seasons for the Reds (1937-42) as his total big league experience, hitting .253 and a career 44 HR in which he was mainly noted for his defense. Craft entered military service in 1944-45 and afterward returned to play three final seasons of minor league ball with Kansas City (1946-48). Harry’s intelligence, amiability and baseball savvy led him into a pretty good run as a coach and manager and, today, he is probably best remembered as the first manager of the new 1962 Houston Colt ..45’s. Harry never forgot -that his fine baseball life all started for him as a 1935 rookie for the Monessen Reds.

 

Joe Mack

Joe Mack

 5b) Joe Mack managed to squeeze in a 66-game one-season MLB career with the 1945 Boston Braves, hitting .231 with 3 homers in 260 official times at bat. Mack’s MLB time was helped or completely caused by the numbers of qualified big leaguers who were still on leave for military service in the wrapping up of World War II. Still, by luck or not, the  Monessen first sacker from 1935 did get to realize his dream, if only for a short season.

 

Al Rubeling

Al Rubeling

 5c) Al Rubeling went forth as a Monessen sophomore to a four-season MLB utility man career with the Philadelphia Athletics (1940-41) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1943-44). His career stats included a a .249 batting average with 8 HR in 747 MLB times at bat. Like his other minor league Monessen Reds teammates, Harry Craft and Joe Mack, Al Rubeling did his best to both fulfill his own big league dream and also help Baseball Commissioner Landis keep his promise to the letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requesting that MLB keep the major league seasons going for the morale of servicemen and citizens at home alike as we fought our way to victory over the Axis forces in World War II.

 

Gene Thompson

Gene Thompson

5d) Gene Thompson is the only 1935 Monessen Reds player whose abilities transcended the talent shortage created by WWII and still found some roster space for himself beyond the post-war talent return from service duty. In fact. Thompson was part of the talent resurgence, having served in the military between his his two tenures totaling 6 MLB seasons. He pitched four years for Cincinnati (1939-42), went in the service, and then returned to pitch two post WWII years (1946-47) with the New York Giants. Gene even had enough gas in the tank after he left the Giants to play minor league ball through the 1950 season. His MLB record included 47 wins, 35 losses, and an ERA of 3.26.

 

In Summary: What I learned about Monessen turned out to be what I already knew about my native home town of Beeville, Texas. That is, that the little towns and lesser players in little towns are just as important as the big stars and major cities of the big leagues. Beeville has produced five native major leaguers over the past 100 years, but look where the town of Monessen nestles. It’s right on the river and in that mountainous place in western Pennsylvania known as the Monongahela Valley. There’s the river of that hard to spell name bending all around the town and reaching out to places like the little town across the river they call Donora, the birthplace of Stan Musial and both generations of the great Ken Griffeys, as noted earlier.

Every one of these places are just as important to baseball history as Pittsburgh or Houston are today – and every member of the 1935 Monessen Reds is as important to the history of baseball as the stars of the 1927 New York Yankees or the 2004 Boston Red Sox ever will be. From the small backwater places that ever played Class D or town ball came the people, the nuances of change, and the pastime culture that remains the foundation of whatever baseball has become in its reshaping by our new technically-driven culture – the one we live in – the one that seems to care more about the business of baseball than the old foundational joy that brought the game to life just a few rural pasture and city street game generations ago.

If you doubt me, get involved in playing vintage baseball by 1860 rules. If you’re too old and infirm to play, just go hang out with those who can play. It’s the new Elysian Fields in my life. It’s like Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams although you don’t have to go to Iowa to feel that sandlot peace and joy again. And that anchors me to baseball in ways that the cold-blooded news about steroids and tv games blocked by greed ever will.

Come join those of us who have found the new old baseball joy. Too bad this isn’t 1935. We could have taken in a Monessen Reds game today.

——————————————————————————

Footnote: Two years ago, an 1800 word article of this scope would have been virtually impossible to research, write, and publish in a single day. Now, however, the minor league database provided by Baseball Reference.Com makes it possible for baseball writers to immediately access far-flung team and roster data on practically every man and team that has taken the field in the name of professional baseball, but the thanks don’t stop with “BBRef.Com”. Their minor league data is the product of SABR research and it was largely produced from the donated data collections of an iconic SABR baseball researcher named Ed Washuta.

Ed, thanks from me and all the thousands of others out here who are now benefiting from what you and your SABR colleagues have done.

Thanks too to my trusty old copy of the Minor League Baseball Encyclopedia, home library. – To all others, let it be known: “Don’t go back in baseball time without it!”

Tags:

3 Responses to “Once Upon a Time in Monessen”

  1. Cliff Blau Says:

    It’s good that Baseball-Reference.com displays that information, but let’s remember they get it all from SABR. In particular, we all owe thanks to Ed Washuta, who provided the bulk of the data on the minor leagues.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks for that information about Ed Washuta. I will now make sure that he and SABR get their just due. That minor league data has opened so many research possibilities for the rest of us that only a short while ago would have been immediately impossible and maybe too expensive to pursue about a distant subject without time, money, and travel. My 1800 word article today took root only this morning, but it was possible because of Internet resources and my personal library.

  2. Allison largent Says:

    Good read. Gene Thompson was my great uncle. Absolutely loved when he came to my ball games!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: