Crushing It: How One Slugger Made Two Kinds of History in Six Days

Pat Seerey made history in Shibe Park in July of 1948, joining the four-home run club. (via Nathan Hughes Hamilton)

It was the start of the 1930 baseball season in Philadelphia, a time of gleeful applause and goodwill to all men. On the field at Front and Chew Streets, before Wentz-Olney beat the Lancaster Eighth Ward 12-5, Mayor Harry Mackey gifted Wentz-Olney’s popular manager, Charley Ziehler, a “large radio,” which we can only assume was a sign of great affection at the time.

“Community baseball is a wonderful medium,” the mayor announced. “It builds fine character and other traits which are invaluable.”

Several years later, community mainstay Ziehler had gone from having a radio handed to him to having mud slung at him. Acting as a football official on the same field in a 1934 contest between the Wentz-Olney football team and the Palmyra Red Devils, Ziehler didn’t have a whistle for some reason, which really cheesed off the visiting fans as he attempted to call penalties. This, as perceived slights and annoyances sometimes do at sporting events, eventually resulted in physical violence. It was still early in the first quarter when the mud slapped against Zieher’s cheek, setting off a brawl that, even after it was broken up, lingered on in the form of “several other battles” throughout the rest of the game.

By 1941, Ziehler was the ex-manager of the Wentz-Olney baseball team, but was still advocating for local stars to get a shot at the big time. A fellow named Dick Oliver Barrett had been a “sensation on the sandlots” in and around Philadelphia and, by Ziehler’s count, had won 107 games in five years. Barrett, whose real name was Tracy Souter Barrett, had been using “Dick Oliver” as a cover in order to pitch for both his college team and the professional Williamsport Grays in the ‘20s.

Why he was still being addressed as the pseudonym at this point is beyond me, given that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis yelled at him to stop using it in 1933. But Ziehler didn’t seem to care or mind the treachery. He just had some love for Barrett, who had pitched for his Wentz-Olney team—as well as any other team that would have him—until he’d developed thrombosis in his arm and almost had it amputated. Maybe it was Ziehler’s advocacy that helped, or maybe it was that fastball, but at 36 years old, Barrett wound up back in the majors, playing for the Cubs and the Phillies until 1945.

At this point, it’s fair to say Ziehler was an appreciator of sports, seeing the value and entertainment in grown men playing a child’s game. Over the years, he helped organize benefit ball games for his community, served as president of the Philadelphia Pocket Billiards championship organization, and often seemed willing to speak well of his former colleagues in the world of athletics.

He knew the highs of sports, certainly—the games his Wentz-Olney team had won, the local celebrity he’d gained as their manager, the large radios he’d been handed. And, of course, he knew the lows—the secret identities, the potential amputations, the fistfuls of Philadelphia sludge splattering dangerously close to his mouth. In the broadest sense, that’s all sports can offer us, especially in Philadelphia: a series of staggering low points as we chase that next dizzying high.

Sometimes, though, those highs need a bit of conjuring to come out. By 1948, Ziehler understood that probably better than anybody. Now a local businessman, he used his means to encourage the making of history at Shibe Park — history that seemed improbable until a man named Pat Seerey came to town.

***

Seerey, too, knew about the lows. For four years in the big leagues, he’d done only one thing better than anybody else: strike the hell out. His personal best was 102 strikeouts in 1948, but from 1944-46, nobody had swung at more and hit less.

This wasn’t the Pat Seerey they’d recognize back home in Arkansas, where he’d smashed through American Legion ball, crushing 400-foot bombs as part of a monstrous offense that seemed to routinely set the league on fire. His old coach would say that the corpulent Seerey made up one-third of “the best outfield he [had] ever tutored.”

At 25 years old in 1948, Seerey was still a large young man—5-foot-9 and 233 pounds—and he swung hard. The Indians had ordered him to both drop below 200 pounds before the season and to swing just as hard, but maybe also connect a little more than in his disappointing 1947 campaign. The Indians had tried their best with him, in their view: During spring training in 1947, they’d brought in Rogers Hornsby as a special instructor to exclusively deal with Seerey and one of his equally disappointing teammates.

“Considering the result,” one newspaper wrote, “the experiment was good only for the publicity.”

Seerey whiffed and bashed his way through the minors and five seasons with Cleveland, but by June 2, though he’d dropped over 30 pounds, he’d hit only one home run in 31 plate appearances, still appeared “erratic” in the outfield, and still couldn’t hit a curveball. So they flipped him to the White Sox.

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Those South Siders were a team doomed to finish with 101 losses, deep in last place. On the pages of the Chicago Tribune, one writer, after they’d lost every game from May 1 to May 15, referred to them as “deep-burrowing moles.” And that was probably the nicest thing anyone said about them all season. Seerey hit a handful of dingers for them, struck out a ton, and in general lived up to every insult Rogers Hornsby probably screamed at him. It was quite the drop-off for him from playing for Cleveland, which would finish 44.5 games above Chicago in first place.

By game one of the White Sox doubleheader against the A’s in Philly on July 18, Seerey hadn’t homered in 10 games, but it was the White Sox, so nobody cared. In 49 games, he’d amassed only seven home runs, so as far as output, he was on the right team: a bumbling crew that had a good shot at finding a new low point every night. But little did Seerey know that, for one blessed day, he was about to find the high point he’d been swinging for.

That day, Seerey didn’t hit a home run until the fourth inning, off Carl Scheib; a soaring blast that carried over the left-field pavilion. But thanks to an oddly productive White Sox offense, he came right back up in the fifth, and crushed another Scheib offering that landed on the roof. Chicago had sent 12 men to the plate that inning; in the sixth, to the surprise of everyone watching, the Sox sent more. Seerey was one of them, and while Scheib probably chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes somewhere, Seerey hit his third home run of the day deep into the left-field seats.

It couldn’t have been happening to a more beloved guy. “The People’s Choice,” one publication had called Seerey after a pair of slick catches earlier in his career. It was better than what some other outlets had called him: “Five-by-five” and “Fat Pat,” even though his SABR profile theorizes that his girth was the reason fans adored him—the John Kruk method, if you will. Anything he did after that was a bonus.

Charley Ziehler was manufacturing batteries at this point, a noble profession of the highest order in Philadelphia and nowhere else. An amount of time described only as “some time” before the start of play that afternoon, Ziehler had bought ad space in the Shibe Park stadium programs, issuing a $300 reward for any player who’d club three home runs in one game.

No one had thought much about four of them.

Four home runs in a game is an anomaly, one that had occurred only four times by July 18, 1948. It’s wrong. It’s not supposed to happen. It’s tempting fate to step in and slap you down. It’s throwing mud in the face of the baseball gods. But when you’re chasing that high, you’re not thinking about the low that comes later to balance it out.

Seerey was certainly not thinking about the future, either. But when Ziehler called the stadium to tell him that the $300 was his, he confirmed a fun little footnote from the ad he’d placed in the programs: hit a fourth homer, and he’ll make it $500.

Seerey returned to the plate in the top of the 11th inning of a tie game. With two outs, Seerey’s last chance to make a cool five hundo from a mysterious battery salesman with whom he’d had a single, likely very brief, phone conversation, was upon him.

Bob Feller said after his playing days that Seerey had a “blind spot high and inside.” Philadelphia pitcher Lou Brissie didn’t find it. But Seerey found Brissie’s pitch.

With one of his trademark hacks, Seerey hit his fourth home run of the day, earning the respect and money of Ziehler and joining four other men (at that point) who’d done the same, including the Phillies’ Ed Delahanty and Chuck Klein.

Something about Philadelphia really made guys want to hit something. Hard.

Four home runs: a feat that, after Rocky Colavito did it for the Indians in 1959, wouldn’t happen again in the American League for 43 years. It gave Seerey’s manager, Ted Lyons, a rare reason to smile after the game, throwing his arm around his slugger for a candid picture, before his White Sox went back out there and lost game two of their doubleheader.

Watching in the stands that day was a man named George Earnshaw, a Phillies official and former pitcher for the A’s. It was almost 20 years before that he’d pitched at Shibe Park himself against the Yankees, and Lou Gehrig had homered off him three times. Connie Mack yanked him from the game and forbid him from heading to the showers, sentencing Earnshaw to watch the next pitcher “handle” Gehrig.

Gehrig, being Lou Gehrig, hit a fourth home run.

“Is that what you mean, Mr. Mack?” Earnshaw had asked his manager.

Mack’s reaction is unknown, but given his reputation, we can assume he responded quite well to the sarcastic remark in the wake of getting his ass handed to him by the Yankees.

As Earnshaw watched Seerey match Gehrig blow by blow, he had a pretty natural thought: My god, what if he hits another one?

No one had thought much about five of them.

And no one should have. Seerey went 0-for-2 with a walk in the second game of the twin bill, and the game ended after five innings.

But just six days after Seerey was the talk of baseball, his next low point arrived: On July 24, he became the first major leaguer to strike out seven times in a doubleheader. He did still hit a home run, though.

***

The highs in baseball must be earned, but the lows will come and find you. In between, we can only hope to gain the invaluable traits we’ve seen that baseball can offer, like belovedness, or ownership of a large radio. Seerey, to his credit, always swung hard to find that high, always aiming for the fences, or the roof, or the street beyond the stadium wall.

They don’t play a lot of ball at Front and Chew Streets anymore, where a Burger King now stands. But around the corner from where Charley Ziehler was once celebrated, and another time, hit in the face with mud; where the city’s mayor touted the wonders of our pastime, and a man with a fake name pitched until they almost chopped his arm off, is the Ziehler Playground, where a mural simply reads:

“Dream Big.”

References and Resources

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 1928
Camden Courier-Post, November 5, 1934
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9, 1941
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 1944
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 1946
The Greenwood Commonwealth, August 9, 1940
Chicago Tribune, January 9, 1948
AP, February 3, 1948
Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1948
AP, July 19, 1948
Ibid
“Pat Seerey,” SABR, Fred Schuld
AP, July 19, 1948


Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs, a writer and editor for The Good Phight, and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an offseason tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.
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Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard

Excellent article; Thank you!

DDD
Member
DDD

That was a great read! The way you wrote it, I can picture it as a movie with a character narrating it similar to the way “Sandlot,” “Stand By Me,” “Big Fish,” and “Forrest Gump” were made.

ScooterPie
Member
ScooterPie

This was just a delight to read. Thank you.