Away Flies the Boy

Muddy Ruel was a pretty good catcher, but he did some pretty other amazing things after he was done with the game. (via David Shapinsky)

Muddy Ruel was a pretty good catcher, but he did some pretty other amazing things after he was done with the game. (via David Shapinsky)

The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the boy
To the next destin’d Post
And then Home with Joy

It is a Friday afternoon in October. An Indian summer sun is beginning to cast a large shadow over a baseball diamond. The seventh and decisive game of the World Series is being played. The game is tied, 3-3, with one out in the bottom of the 12th inning. The contest has swung back and forth, straining the nerves of over 31,000 fans in a packed stadium, including the President of the United States. A young man, 28 years old, stands at second base. His name is Herold “Muddy” Ruel.

Muddy Ruel

Ruel grew up and learned to play baseball on the sandlots of St. Louis. His father was a police officer; his mother died when Ruel was only nine. Somehow, he acquired the nickname “Muddy” in his youth. Playing as a catcher for both his high school and a semi-pro team, the Wabadas, he came to the attention of one of Branch Rickey’s scouts, and signed at the age of 19 with the St. Louis Browns. He was small for a catcher – 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds. But Ruel was tough and had a fierce competitive fire. He made his major league debut with the Browns in May 1915. He was drafted into the Army in 1918 and joined the New York Yankees after his military service. After the 1920 season, Ruel was traded to the Boston Red Sox. In 1923, he was traded to the Washington Nationals (only occasionally then called by a nickname, the Senators).

In Washington, he became the catcher for Walter Johnson, who was nearing the end of his great career. Ruel helped the Big Train turn a losing season in 1922 to 17-12 and 23-7 winning records in 1923 and 1924. The Nationals won their first American League pennant in 1924, and played the New York Giants in the World Series. The Giants, managed by the redoubtable John McGraw, were then one of baseball’s preeminent teams, having played in three straight Series and winning two of them. The 1924 Series see-sawed, with the teams splitting the first two games at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, the Giants winning two of the next three games in New York at the Polo Grounds, and the Nationals winning Game Six back in Washington. Johnson had started two of the games and lost both.

Ruel had not done much in the Series. He had no hits until Game Seven. After receiving a telegram of encouragement and advice from the scout who had signed him, he got one hit in the eighth inning when the Nationals tied the game. Johnson was then brought in as the relief pitcher in the ninth. As Nats fans and, indeed, most baseball commentators of the time feared that he would fail again, Johnson escaped threat after Giants threat. In the bottom of the 12th with one out, Ruel got a double down the left field line after the Giants’ catcher, Hank Gowdy, stumbled over his catcher’s mask and dropped what should been an easy out on Ruel’s foul pop-up. Walter Johnson next reached first on a ground ball error by the shortstop, Travis Jackson.

Another young man, 26 years old, steps into the batter’s box. His name is Earl McNeely.

Earl McNeely

McNeely was born and grew up in Sacramento. His father was a cobbler, and McNeely was one of six children. He served 16 months in France during World War I, and upon returning to Sacramento began to pursue professional baseball at the age of 22 with the Sacramento Senators in the Pacific Coast League. A natural athlete who had played a number of sports, he was hitting .333 when he was sold to the Nationals.

McNeely played his first game for the Nats on Aug. 9, 1924, less than two months before the World Series began. The rookie was a center fielder, got 59 hits in 43 games, and had a .330 batting average. He was similar in size to Ruel – 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds. He contributed significantly to the Nationals’ stretch drive when they finally pulled away from the Yankees.

Also like Ruel, he had struggled at the plate in the World Series. He had only five hits in 26 at bats and none in Game Seven when he stepped into the batter’s box that October afternoon in the 12th inning of game seven. His daughter, Carol Cowden, recalled that he had been afraid he might be taken out of the game because he had not been hitting as he had in the Nats’ pennant drive.

McNeely fouls off the first pitch from Jack Bentley, the Giants’ pitcher. Bentley is one of the Giants’ best pitchers, with a record of 16-5 and an ERA of 3.78 in the 1924 season. In the World Series, he has lost one game and won one. The next pitch from Bentley to McNeely is a fastball, and McNeely swings.

The ball is sharply hit toward the Giants’ third baseman, 18-year old Freddie Lindstrom. It eludes him. (Did it hit a pebble and takes a bad hop over Lindstrom into left field? Maybe yes, maybe no.) With McNeely’s hit, Muddy Ruel is off and running – the ball once struck off, away flies the boy. He stomps on third base – his next destin’d post – and heads for home. The Giants’ left fielder, “Irish” Meusel, fields the ball but makes no throw. Ruel scores – home with joy. The Washington Nationals win the World Series – the first that the team has won. It still is the only World Series a Washington baseball team has ever won.

The Cup of Joy

The entire front page of The Washington Post the next day was devoted to the Nats’ victory. A huge headline proclaimed “JOHNSON IS HERO AS NATIONALS WIN DECISIVE GAME OF WORLD SERIES, 4-3; CITY IN CARNIVAL, CELEBRATES VICTORY.” One front page story began: “The whirlwind of joy which swept over Washington yesterday immediately after Earl McNeely had driven in the run that made the Nationals world champions continued to rage until well after midnight…In spontaneity and unadulterated enthusiasm the demonstration yesterday afternoon and last night exceeded anything of its kind in the history of Washington. It was an armistice day and mardi gras blended into one. It was the thrilling outburst of a city’s joy which knew no bounds. It was wonderful.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Another story in The Post recounted:

Within less than ten seconds after McNeely’s hit, scoring ‘Muddy’ Ruel, the Nationals’ catcher, with the deciding run, 35,000 men, women and children, delirious with joy, broke into a bedlam on the field that had never been duplicated in point of volume and intense excitement in the annals of sporting history. … Before the gallant McNeely could get to the dugout two policemen grabbed him trying to protect the new hero. The player’s buttons were pulled from his shirt and the upper part of his uniform was torn to shreds by souvenir hunters. Men grabbed and kissed him while women screamed for the same opportunity, fighting like wild cats to get near him. The police were forced to draw their clubs and beat back the mob in front of the dugout so that eventually McNeely could get through the aperture which leads to the dressing room.”

The Post editorialized:

The cup of joy spills its intoxicating bubbles over the Monument, the Capitol, the White House, the Griffith Stadium, and all over the town…Hail to Walter Johnson, champion of champions, maker of victories! … Congratulations to McNeely, the youngster who batted the critical ball that made the Nationals champions of the world! Congratulations to them all … The World Series of 1924 has no counterpart and is not likely to have one for many a year… The country is better for this experience. Americans are better Americans because of this purely democratic struggle, in which victory is pure and defeat honorable.”

The Post was not the only newspaper in Washington in those days. The Washington Star, under a headline, “100,000 FANS GO MAD AS RUEL SCORES,” asserted that “Time may erase the Solemn pages of history, fleeting ages may sink nations into the dusts of forgotten pasts. But nothing will ever dim the memory of that wondrous hour when Washington won the world baseball championship.” Famous writers of the day agreed with the notion that something unique, historic, and never-to-be forgotten had occurred. Grantland Rice wrote, “We have never seen anything in sport which quite equaled that moment.” Heywood Broun concluded, “I was never swept by the Easter story until I saw the seventh game of the World’s Series.”

The Nats themselves, while happy and excited about their victory, seem to have had a clear-eyed sense of the role that fortune and even irony play in the contests of man. Several noted that they had been cut loose before the 1924 season by other, better teams like the Yankees and Philadelphia Athletics, but now had played key roles for a champion. Muddy Ruel had this to say:

Don’t tell me the breaks of the game don’t either make you or break you. If Gowdy had caught my foul – and easy one – in the twelfth, I’d never have gotten a chance to double and later bring in the winning run. But he did, and I did, and that’s why we’re champs. Hot doggie.”

Earl McNeely said, “I wouldn’t trade places with President Coolidge today. I didn’t get but one hit, but boy, what did it mean. Yeh, I know it was a lucky one, but ain’t all hits lucky?”

And indeed, the Nationals, while repeating as American league pennant winners in 1925, would lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. This time, the decisive seventh game went against them. Walter Johnson was the losing pitcher, although he and Ruel believed that he had struck out Kiki Cuyler with a perfect strike to end a threat and preserve a tie in the eighth inning. Instead, the umpire called it a ball, and Cuyler then doubled in what proved to be the winning runs. Washington went to the World Series only one more time. In 1933, the Nats again played the Giants and lost in five games. By then, however, Johnson had retired, and Ruel and McNeely were gone from the team.

Away Fly the Boys

The mid-1920s were Muddy Ruel’s best years as a player. After hitting .316 in 1923, the year he joined the Nats, and .283 in 1924, when they won the pennant and World Series, his batting average was .310 in 1925, .299 in 1926, and .308 in 1927. Leading figures in baseball – Babe Ruth, Connie Mack and Miller Huggins – recognized Ruel’s value. Later in the ‘20s, Ruel’s batting average began to drop. The Nationals traded him to the Red Sox in 1931. There and subsequently in Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago, he saw less playing time. His final game was in August 1934 when he had a heart attack at age 38. He finished his career with a .365 on-base percentage and more than 1,200 hits, and he caught 45 percent of opposing base stealers. As his son, Dennis Ruel, recounted, Muddy Ruel saw the heart attack as “strike one.”

Ruel became a man of parts. He was admitted as a “special student” to the Washington University law school, and studied there in the offseason. He graduated in 1922, and was admitted to the Missouri bar in 1923 and to the U.S. Supreme Court bar in 1927. Except for a few months at the end of his playing career working in the trust department of a St. Louis bank, however, he did not practice law. Yet, he remains the only major league player ever admitted to the High Court’s bar.

Ruel’s intelligence and sophistication were widely recognized. Upon his return to Washington after his trade to the Red Sox, the fans held a day to honor him. The program for the event had on its cover a photo of him not in uniform, but in a coat and tie with a studious look on his face, and the caption, “Baseball Strategist – Lawyer – Gentleman.” In Boston, the mayor made him an honorary citizen and presented him with a volume of Longfellow’s poetry because, as Dennis Ruel noted, Muddy Ruel had the unusual habit of reading books.

Ruel loved baseball and made it his lifelong pursuit. As Dennis Ruel stated, “baseball made more sense to him than anything else in life,” and he regarded it as “the best mix of skill and fate, human talent and human error that we have ever been able to conceive.” After the brief interlude in the bank trust department, he became the pitching coach for the Chicago White Sox in 1935. He continued to surprise, revealing yet another dimension when the team was forced to train indoors, playing waltzes and classical music on the piano during an exercise session. In 1946, he became special assistant to the new commissioner of baseball, Happy Chandler.

But he could not stay away from the field, and he was hired to become manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1947. The Browns, however, never much of a successful team, were in their waning years in St. Louis (and subsequently became the Baltimore Orioles). After Jackie Robinson’s advent in the major leagues, the Browns did bring in several players from the Negro Leagues. It says much about Ruel that, when he was interviewed by Sam Lacy, a prominent African-American sportswriter, about the players, Lacy was impressed that Ruel spoke of them as “just two new men.” Ruel made the best of the situation and various management stunts to boost attendance, but there are some fights you can’t win. He was dismissed as manager of the Browns after the 1947 season. Ruel worked for two more teams, the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. In 1956, he took his family to Italy for their education and then left baseball for good.

Ruel married somewhat late, in 1938, when he was 42. He had four children. In Dennis Ruel’s wonderful memoir of his father, he called him a “charming mix of propriety and humor.” He noted that his father always wore ties, even at home, and that although baseball was central to his life, they never had a trophy room or baseball pictures on the wall in the house.

Muddy Ruel survived a second heart attack, but as a teenager in the late 1950s, Dennis Ruel sensed that his father knew he did not have long to live. Muddy Ruel died of a heart attack in 1963 in Palo Alto, Calif. – strike three, as Dennis Ruel noted. The New York Times published an obituary, calling Muddy Ruel “one of the smartest and hardest working catchers” and “soft-spoken and scholarly.” Red Smith, the dean of American sports writers, eulogized him as “cool, gracious, intelligent, dead-panned, and infinitely amused.”

Last fall, as the new Washington Nationals approached a postseason playoff series with the Giants, the descendants of the team that Muddy Ruel had long ago helped to vanquish, Dennis Ruel remembered saying to his father, “Dad, isn’t it amazing how baseball is so much like life – there’s so much failure.” In response, Muddy Ruel “just smiled.”

Earl McNeely played seven more years in the major leagues after the 1924 World Series. His career numbers were respectable — he was a regular from 1925-1927, and hit .303 in ’26 — but his best year was his rookie season in 1924. McNeely returned to Sacramento and became manager of the team that had been his springboard to the majors. After one year, he became president of the club. In 1936, however, the owner lost the team during the Depression. McNeely went back to Washington and was a coach until 1938. He then left professional baseball.

In 1959, McNeely recounted his life in a publication of reminiscenses of the residents of his community, Orangevale, Calif. McNeely said that in the 1920s, “I was very much involved in baseball – in fact, I made my living from it.” But he gives only the most skeletal account of his baseball career. And it was left to the editor to note McNeely’s winning hit in the 1924 World Series (although he garbled it, stating that McNeely hit the ball that the shortstop muffed that let in the winning run).

Most of McNeely’s recollections concerned his life after baseball and especially his civic activities. For most of his life, Orangevale was a rural community with fruit farming and ranching the basis of its economy. McNeely formed a partnership with his wife’s brothers to dry and ship fruit. He was also involved in cattle ranching. After describing these businesses, McNeely said that “[t]he educational progress in Orangevale has been of much interest to me through the years.” He served on the elementary school board, and said that “I wrote the checks, hired the teachers, hunted up the substitutes when necessary, worked on the matter of introducing school buses.” He was plainly proud of the growth of the schools. He also was instrumental in the founding of the American River Junior College, and was the president of its board. He went on at some length on how it was created and had grown – “It is a great satisfaction to me to see our present beautiful college, although it is far from complete.” McNeely had a variety of other civic involvements and was usually in a leadership role.

McNeely married a woman from Sacramento-Orangevale in 1926. But like Ruel, he became a father late, in 1939 when his daughter, Carol, was born. She remembered that although he remained a baseball fan and mentored younger players, his career and his role in winning a World Series did not seem to figure prominently in his life. He remained in touch with members of the Nationals (although interestingly, not Muddy Ruel, even though they ultimately lived not far from one another). He was mainly happy that he had been able to win the game and the Series for Walter Johnson. She recalled that everybody liked him because he was down to earth and had common sense. She also said that he never boasted or bragged – “He enjoyed people, and people enjoyed him.” Earl McNeely died in 1971 in Sacramento from lung cancer.

The Dreams of Youth

History informs baseball the most among our major sports. Yet, only the most dedicated baseball fans today probably know the story of the Nationals’ win in the World Series of 1924. And just a subset of those fans are likely familiar with Muddy Ruel and Earl McNeely. To them, Ruel and McNeely are mostly names associated with statistics in The surfacing of the newsreel footage of Game Seven of the 1924 Series in the fall of 2014 makes the point. It was treated as a kind of archaeological revelation – fascinating, but not something that revived memories in current baseball fans’ consciousness. For Washington, it prompted no recollection of glorious days of a past October when the city was “in carnival” and had “an outburst of joy … that knew no bounds,” and when local and national commentators gave themselves over to the most florid and portentous statements of the event’s significance. Contrary to what The Washington Star had asserted, “the memory of that wondrous hour when Washington won the world baseball championship” has dimmed and gone.

In The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter, realizing that many of the players of the early days of major league baseball were dying, set out to find those who were still alive and record their recollections of their playing days and era. The inspiration for the title came from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, 44:7 – “All these were honored in their generation, and were the glory of their times.” It is a wonderful book filled not only with accounts of long ago and forgotten contests, triumphs and failures, but also with wisdom, insights and articulate intelligence.

One of the men Ritter found, Bill Wambsganss, remembered a poem by an unknown author that he had seen in a newspaper during his playing career. He had cut it out of the paper and kept it until it finally fell apart. Aged as he was, Wambsganss was able to recite it from memory. Its concluding stanzas went:

So the laurel fades
In the snow-swept glades
Of flying years
And the dreams of youth
Find the bitter truth
Of pain and tears.

Through the cheering mass
Let the victors pass
To find fate’s thrust,
As tomorrow’s fame
Writes another name on drifting dust.”

The victors of 1924 did indeed have their names written on drifting dust, and so will the victors of this and future years, despite our own era’s propensity for hyperbole about the historic nature of transitory events.

Muddy Ruel and Earl McNeely also have something to tell us about the cheering mass and fate’s thrust. They got to do what every baseball-playing boy dreams of – drive in and score the winning run in Game Seven of the World Series. As sports often do, their moment can serve as a metaphor for any young person’s dream to reach some pinnacle of achievement. It might be politics, a profession, performing arts, or any other human endeavor that captures the public’s attention and offers some form of acclamation. Most of us fail to realize such a dream and are left to cope with falling short. Some react with bitterness and feel their lives have been spoiled. Others quest after substitutes like wealth and accumulate ever more items of conspicuous consumption. And still others come to accept fate’s thrust and may indeed take satisfaction in knowing that forgoing fame, doing one’s duty, and undertaking worthier pursuits were the better, more mature moral choices that their lives’ circumstances presented them. Away flies the boy, and the man takes his place.

While Ruel and McNeely did get to achieve the dreams of youth, once having attained those dreams, they had to face much the same choices that the rest of us do. Successful athletes are especially prone to trying to replicate their triumphs. The once-great pitcher or hitter who won’t hang it up and stays too long is almost a cliché. They could have let their lives be defined by that moment in the bottom of the 12th inning and ached for more. They could have become bitter that the cheering mass had dispersed and that the rush of ultimate victory would not happen to them again.

Instead, whether by staying in baseball or by giving it up and returning home, Ruel and McNeely seem to have accepted that there was much more to life. In fact, even in their moment of triumph, both appear to have had an understanding that they had been lucky and that fate had simply worked in their favor – a becoming modesty. As a “baseball strategist, lawyer, gentleman” with the “unusual habit of reading books,” a pianist of some ability, and someone with a smiling appreciation of how often we fail, Ruel had admirable qualities more important than crossing home plate with the winning run. And, as a man most proud about building schools and a college in his community, McNeely did too. The contrast is stark to the players in today’s dominant sport who punch out women in elevators, trash talk opponents, preen on the field over routine performance, and build themselves into physical freaks with drugs.

A new group of Washington Nationals is hoping for World Series glory. In some October, with fall in the air, perhaps one or two of them will have the opportunity to live out their boyhood dreams, and prove to be the equals of Muddy Ruel and Earl McNeely.

As for the rest of us who have not achieved the dreams of youth, baseball provides a way to imagine what such an achievement might be like and to share in it vicariously when it does happen. The fan is in a sense still a boy, and the boy has not yet flown away even as the seasons pass and “bitter truth of pain and tears” of life (and baseball) mount. For him, another poem – ironically, “Polo Grounds,” (the New York Giants’ home, now gone) by Rolfe Humphries – expresses how he feels:

Time is of the essence. The shadow moves
From the plate to the box, from the box to second base,
From second to the outfield, to the bleachers.

Time is of the essence. The crowd and players
Are the same age always, but the man in the crowd
Is older every season. Come on, play ball!”

References & Resources

  • John Newberry, Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)(first reference in print to baseball).
  • Dwayne Isgrig, “Muddy Ruel BioProject”
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Dennis Ruel, Memoir of Herold “Muddy” Ruel
  • Baseball Almanac, 1924 World Series
  • Dennis Ruel, video on life and career of Muddy Ruel
  • Mark Gavreau Judge, Damn Senators, 125-29 (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003)
  • Frederic J. Frommer, You Gotta Have Heart, 33-34 (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing 2013)
  • Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, 241-46 (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press 1995)
  • Carol Cowden, telephone interview, February 14, 2015.
  • Fair Oaks and San Juan Memories, “Orangevale Man, Formerly Big League Ball Player, Tells of Vale Growth”
  • Baseball-Reference Bullpen, Earl McNeely
  • Total Baseball (seventh edition), 1,341 (Kingston, NY: Total Publishing 2001).
  • N.W. Baxter, The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1924.“Griffmen Triumph in 12-inning Battle as City Goes Wild.”
  • Dan Steinberg, “Watch Rare Footage of the Senators Beating the Giants in the 1924 World Series”
  • The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1924, “Whirlwind of Joy Sweeps Capital in Big Demonstration.”
  • Francis P. Daily, The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1924.“Crazed by Thrills, Mad Mob Engulfs Heroes After Game.”
  • The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1924, “Champions of the World.”
  • Harold K. Philips, The Washington Star, Oct. 11, 1924.
  • Heywood Broun, New York World, Oct. 11, 1924.
  • “What Nats Say,” Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1924.
  • Robert M. Jarvis, Journal of Supreme Court History, March 2011, “And Behind the Plate … Muddy Ruel of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar.”
  • The New York Times, Nov. 11, 1963.“Muddy Ruel Dies; Former Catcher.”
  • Allen Abel, Toronto National Post/Postmedia Canada, Oct. 4, 2014.“Postcard from Washington.”
  • Bill Lee, “The Baseball Necrology”
  • Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times, xvii (New York: The Macmillan Company 1966).
  • Rolfe Humphries, The New Yorker, 1942, “Polo Grounds.”

Mark Pelesh was an executive with a nonprofit organization and attorney in Washington, DC. He saw his first baseball game at Griffith Stadium in 1961 -- the Washington Senators (2nd edition) v. Kansas City Athletics. He was a light-hitting shortstop, but good with the glove.
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6 years ago

fine writing – thank you, mark

Jim S.
6 years ago

Excellent writing. And thinking.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

Wonderful article. Athletes back then-and people in general-seem to have had a better perspective on life, perhaps because people endured more of the vicissitudes of life. Today, players never accept the role that luck plays. And, people in general, won’t recognize how random life often is. Maybe that explains why people are so often dissatisfied with their lives, and this is often reflected in the anger and bitterness that many fans bring to watching the games. Maybe they are seeking something in the success of their team that they find lacking in their lives.

Yehoshua Friedman
6 years ago

Great article. What years was the Washington club officially called the Nationals and when were they the Senators? Even when they were the Senators, they were often nicknamed the Nats, especially for newspaper headline shorthand.

6 years ago

Thanks. Had heard the Lindstrom (not Lindy) hop ever since I first read about the Big Train as a kid and had not known he was an 18 year old rookie at the time.

Jerry Murphy
6 years ago

Terrific article. Well written. Reminiscent of Jim Murray and David Halberstam’s musings on the national past time. When can we expect another?
Jerry Murphy