The Arms of August

Bob Feller was one of the best pitchers in 1940, but August was his worst month of the season, statistically. (via D.B. King)

The dog days of summer are so called because of the rising of Sirius, the dog star, in the Northern Hemisphere. Typically, people associate the dog days not with astronomy but with peak heat and humidity. This is the time of the year when summer wears out its welcome for most folks. If you are savoring your annual hiatus from school, or if you use the word summer as a verb and spend the month of August in Bar Harbor, Taos, Vail or La Jolla, it would not occur to you to hit fast-forward and bypass the dog days of August.

Now put yourself in the position of a baseball player in 1940. By August it’s pretty obvious how your season is going. If your team is destined to be a tail-ender or mediocre, then August is a drag. Your motivation is flagging, and virtually every city you play in will be hot and sticky. No indoor baseball in 1940, remember.

In fact, even night baseball is still something of a novelty. It’s been around in the majors only since 1935, when the Reds introduced it, but by the 1939 season, only Ebbetts Field, Shibe Park, Comiskey Park and Cleveland Stadium have added illumination. During the 1940 season, the Polo Grounds, Sportsman’s Park and Forbes Field will come on line. Unlike today, however, night baseball is more the exception than the rule and day baseball and its attendant heat and humidity are the norm.

In 1940, baseball on the radio is mainstream, as some 30 million American homes have receivers. Though the first baseball telecast took place on August 26, 1939, television is still the stuff of Buck Rogers. Nevertheless, numerous ballplayers have seen demonstrations of TV at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Corona Park, just a short walk from where the Mets play today. Though popularly known as the 1939 World’s Fair, it is still open for business in August 1940.

If you are a starting pitcher in August of 1940, you are pretty well assured of working up a good sweat no matter which major league city you appear in. The prevalent four-man rotation means more hot, humid encounters than it would today. And, since pitch counts are not paramount, as long as you are effective, you stay in the game. Hitting the showers would feel great, but the better you pitch, the longer it’ll take you to get there!

Given the payoff for World Series participants and division winners, pitchers on contending teams at least have motivation. If your team isn’t contending, you might want to boost your stats for next year’s salary drive, but chances are you’re just playing out the string.

In August 1940, the front pages of the nation’s newspapers are dominated by war news (the U.S. would enter World War II the next year) and politics (the conventions in Philadelphia and Chicago were bigger than those cities’ four mediocre baseball teams). On the sports pages, the story of the baseball season is told to a large extent through those flannel-suited, every-fourth-day pitchers.

Hopes were high in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers began the season with nine straight victories, culminating in Tex Carleton’s no-hitter against the Reds on April 30. The Dodgers were undefeated in April, but the Reds caught them and the two teams dueled for NL supremacy over the next three months. The addition of slick-fielding rookie shortstop Pee Wee Reese had been a blessing to Dodgers pitchers; conversely, his season-ending injury in an August 15 contest against the Phillies dealt a blow to the staff.

One Dodgers pitcher, however, held up all through the season. Southpaw Freddie Fitzsimmons started August with a 10-1 record and finished the month at 13-2. He won three more games in September to finish with a 16-2 record, translating to a league-leading .889 winning percentage. Not bad for a 38-year-old nicknamed Fat Freddie.

By August, the best of show in the NL appeared to be the Reds. At the dawn of the month they were 61-29. Thanks largely to the strong arms of Bucky Walters (22-10) and Paul Derringer (20-12), they were cruising to the pennant (the Reds would finish 12 games ahead of the second-place Dodgers). Walters led the league in wins (22), ERA (2.48), complete games (29) and innings pitched (305).

Missing from the Reds’ staff was Johnny Vander Meer, two years removed from his famed back-to-back no-hitters. Like Dizzy Dean of the Cubs, he was back in the minors regaining his mojo. He did return in September, however, and pitched the pennant clincher against the Phillies on the 18th.

The Reds finished with 100 victories and a league-leading team ERA of 3.05. But the Cincinnati pitching staff faced one significant obstacle in August that could not have been foreseen.

On July 31, Bucky Walters suffered a rare meltdown, giving up four runs (two-run homers to Burgess Whitehead and Harry Danning) to the Giants in the bottom of the ninth, giving New York a 5-4 victory. Surely, Walters took it hard but not nearly as hard as his batterymate, Willard Hershberger, who blamed his own pitch-calling for that loss to the Giants. Worse than that, he could not let the game go.

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The Reds moved on to Boston, where they lost the first game of a double-header to the seventh-place Bees on August 2. Rookie Bill Baker caught the first game but Hershberger got the start in the nightcap. He went 0-for-5 in a 12-inning walkoff loss. Perhaps more disturbing, he made no effort to field a bunt in front of the plate. As it turned out, this was the last game he ever played.

Despite assurances from manager Bill McKechnie and his teammates that the team’s losing skid wasn’t his fault (he was hitting .309 at the time), he continued to spiral downward. Remaining in his Copley Plaza hotel room on August 3 while his teammates were at the ballpark, he committed suicide by cutting his throat. He had been listening to the first game on the radio but expired before the second game started.

It’s hard to say to what extent Hershberger’s death affected the play of the Cincinnati pitching staff; the human loss was also incalculable, albeit for different reasons. The first-string backstop was Ernie Lombardi, a future Hall-of-Famer, so the loss of Hershberger didn’t create a void on the field that could not be filled. Nevertheless, August turned out to be the team’s worst month, at 16-16. But the Reds lost no ground to the Dodgers, who also played .500 ball in August.

In the American League, the pennant race was too close to call in August, but as in the NL, having an ace in the starting rotation was a must. The undisputed ace in Cleveland (and the AL) was Bob Feller, a veteran at age 21, who had begun the season with a no-hitter against the White Sox. He would finish the season with a 27-11 record. There were other capable pitchers in the Cleveland rotation (Mel Harder, Al Smith, Johnny Allen and Al Milnar, who tied Feller for the league lead in shutouts with four), and the staff led the league with a 3.63 ERA, but the Tribe finished in second place, one game out of first. They held their own in August (17-12), but a .500 September did them in.

The Yankees, after four consecutive World Series championships, had gotten off to a poor start in 1940, prompting all sorts of theories about what was wrong with them. (The most bizarre was that the affliction that felled Lou Gehrig was contagious). In fact, at one point in May, they were in last place.

By the end of July the Yanks were 48-45, but they caught fire in the heat of August. Indeed, it was their best month of the year, as they went 20-10. The momentum continued into September with a 20-12 record, but they finished in third place, two games off the pace.

A look at the pitching stats shows why the Yanks fell short. The team ERA of 3.89 was third in the league, but their ace, Red Ruffing, had an off year (15-12). Marius Russo chipped in 14 victories, but no one else was in double figures; 11 different pitchers started games for them. Clearly, a normal year from Ruffing, or someone else stepping up his game a bit, would have made the difference in the pennant race.

The Tigers, who would prevail in the AL pennant race, began August with a record of 57-38. Lucky for them, they had an ace, albeit an unlikely one, in Bobo Newsom.

Before Newsom arrived in Detroit at age 31 in 1939, he was a reliable innings eater but no more. While he somehow managed to win 20 games for the lowly (55-97) Browns in 1938, his ERA of 5.08 made it appear a fluke. He was, however, durable and hence marketable, and since the Browns had no realistic hopes of competing, he was dispatched to the Tigers as part of a 10-player deal. He did well for the Tigers in 1939, but the best was yet to come.

While Feller was tossing his Opening Day no-hitter on April 16, 1940, Newsom suffered a loss to his old team, the Browns. After that, he was almost unbeatable. He finished July with a 13-2 record. Like the Reds and the Dodgers, the Tigers went just .500 in August. Newsom, however, kept winning. His record stood at 17-2 at the close of the month.

The AL pennant race went down to the end, with the Tigers (90-64) just barely prevailing, and the redoubtable, 33-year-old Newsom enjoying his best year as a pro, finishing at 21-5 and notching his third straight 20-win season. Likely he would have won more, but he spent three weeks on the disabled list with a broken thumb.

His World Series topped even that story. Newsom won the first game by a 7-2 score at Crosley Field with his father in the stands. What seemed like a great beginning for the Tigers was turned on its head as Newsom’s father died after the game. Newsom returned in Game Five in Detroit and shut out the Reds 8-0. Given the circumstances, that in itself was remarkable, but Tigers manager Del Baker asked him to come back on one day’s rest for Game Seven in Cincinnati.

Newsom appeared to be up for the challenge, holding the Reds scoreless for six innings, but he gave up two runs in the bottom of the seventh. That was all the Reds needed. Final score 2-1. For the Series, Newsom was 2-1 with a 1.28 ERA in three complete games.

Oddly, the Tigers’ staff ERA of 4.01 during the regular season was only a bit better than the league average of 4.38. Newsom and Schoolboy Rowe, who led the league in winning percentage (.842) with a 16-3 record, carried the team. No one cared much about saves in those days but Al Benton led the league with 17. That was the major league record to that point.

Notably, a couple of young hurlers, who would later register high in name recognition, were gaining valuable experience with the Tigers. Neither had outstanding results in 1940, but sophomore Fred Hutchinson was only 20 years old, and 19-year-old Hal Newhouser was a rookie. Hutchinson would gain more fame as a manager than a pitcher, but Newhouser wound up in the Hall of Fame. Highly unusual for a pitcher, he was twice voted AL MVP (1944 and 1945).

In August of 1940, it wasn’t just the contenders producing pitching moments worth recalling. That season, the sixth-place Browns were dominated by the Tigers, who won 18 of their 22 games. Yet even the Browns’ pitching staff had a couple of noteworthy achievements.

On August 5, “Silent John” Whitehead pitched a six-inning no-hitter against the Tigers in the second game of a rain-shortened double-header in St. Louis. The next day, another Browns hurler, Willis Hudlin, wrote his name in the record books simply by taking the mound for the team.

Hudlin had spent 15 seasons with the Indians as a pretty much .500 pitcher. He was beginning to show his age, so the Indians released him in May. He was signed by the Senators, who released him in July. His next stop was with the New York Giants, but it was brief; in fact, it consisted of just one ineffective start (six earned runs over five innings). Signed on July 15, he was released on July 28. On August 3, he signed with the Browns. Thus he played with four teams in one season, tying a record now shared by 12 other players. (The most recent was Jose Bautista in 2004.)

This was not the first time Hudlin had made baseball history just by showing up. On May 13, 1929, Hudlin beat the Yankees in the first major league game in which both teams played with numbered uniforms.

Curiously, two of the greatest hitters the game has ever known were working off the mound in August 1940. One of them thought his future was as a pitcher; the other knew differently, but he thought it would be a lark.

Stan Musial was finally getting the hang of pitching and starting to attract some attention in the Cardinals’ minor league system. In his third season in Class D, the young left-hander went 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA. True, his walk rate (310 in 425 innings over three seasons) was off the charts, but he was only 19. And he was a left-hander. Hey, the wildness comes with the territory.

A promotion appeared to be warranted, but just when everything was going Musial’s way, he injured his left shoulder on August 11, effectively ending his pitching career. Fortunately, a Plan B was available. His manager, Dickie Kerr, still renowned for his integrity during the 1919 Black Sox scandal, had been playing him in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching (his .311 average was 10th best in the league). In fact, the injury occurred not when he was pitching but while he was playing left field.

Musial’s pitching career was over, but he still had a secure offseason job, working in his father-in-law’s grocery store. So if this baseball thing didn’t work out… but of course it worked out very well. He was called up by the Cardinals late in the 1941 season and played through 1963, setting a plethora of records along the way.

Meanwhile, one of Musial’s s contemporaries, Ted Williams, was in his sophomore year with the Red Sox in 1940. He had led the league in RBI with 145 as a rookie and was showing no signs of a sophomore jinx. Though he would go on to spend his entire career with the Red Sox, in August 1940 he was not happy in Beantown, where the team was just 50-44 at the outset of the month.

On August 17, he asked to be traded to the Tigers. The next day he opined that he was woefully underpaid at $12,500 per year. He was probably right, but to baseball fans who had lived through a decade of economic depression, Williams might have seemed like a greedy young punk.

The outspoken Williams had been badgering Bosox manager Joe Cronin about being allowed to pitch in a blowout. In truth, he had enjoyed some success on the mound at Hoover High School in San Diego. On August 24 he made his one and only major league mound appearance, with Boston trailing Detroit 11-1 after seven innings in the first game of a double-header at Fenway Park. Clearly, it made no sense to waste a bullpen pitcher on a lost cause.

The results were neither good nor bad, but they were interesting. Williams gave up three hits and one run in two innings. The highlight of his appearance was a three-pitch strikeout of Rudy York, who had gone 4-for-5, including a three-run homer off starter Joe Heving. Reportedly, Williams struck him out on a sidearm curve.

As if the two-inning stint wasn’t an interesting enough footnote in Williams’ career, there was another anecdote involving a backup catcher – and this time it was a happier story than Willard Hershberger’s.

Williams’ batterymate was an obscure backup catcher by the name of Joe Glenn, then in the final season of his eight-year major league career, mostly as a second-stringer to Bill Dickey for six season with the Yankees. But in his sophomore year Glenn was behind the plate for the final mound appearance (a complete game 6-5 victory over the Red Sox) of Babe Ruth on October 1, 1933. Thus Glenn went down in history as the only catcher to serve as batterymate for both the Bambino and the Kid. Glenn thus became a walking trivia question.

The pitchers mentioned above had varying fates after August 1940, but hanging over many of them was the possibility of conscription. For almost all, August was the last month they didn’t have to worry about their draft status. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 – the first time in U.S. history that conscription preceded a declaration of war – became effective on September 16, 1940.

In fact, the first player to be drafted was Phillies pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, who had been enjoying a good 1940 season until August arrived. Named to the NL All-Star team, he was 12-10 at the end of July. But in August the Phillies went 7-23. It was their worst month of the season – and that’s saying something for a team that went 50-103.

Mulcahy did his part, going 0-7 that month. Having played with bad Phillies teams from 1935 through 1940, Mulcahy joked that by joining the military, he finally had a chance to join a winning team. As it turned out, he was right; unfortunately, when he returned to the Phillies after the war, they were still at the bottom of the NL.

Whether they were drafted or enlisted, pitchers gave up valuable career time to the war effort. A number were given relatively soft duty but others saw combat. Feller enlisted in the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor, the first professional athlete to sign up. For most of the war, he served as captain of a gun crew on the U.S.S. Alabama. He gave up almost four full seasons of his youth but returned in 1946, and resumed his Hall of Fame career.

Consider the experience of a young left-hander who signed with the Braves on June 6, a date that would go down in history as D-Day four years later. The 19-year-old spent the 1940 season with the Bradford Bees of the Class D PONY (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York) League. At the outset of his big league career (he pitched four major league games in 1942), he enlisted in the Army and gave up three seasons of baseball. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge, a conflict in which nine former minor league players were killed. He earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a presidential citation. He started as a buck private and finished as a lieutenant. After the war Warren Spahn returned to the Boston Braves and pitched for 20 years till age 44, winning 363 times and making his enshrinement in Cooperstown a foregone conclusion.

While no major league pitchers lost their lives during World War II, countless of them lost their effectiveness to battlefield injuries. Even those who returned physically unscathed gave up precious career years. A fact of baseball is that there’s always someone waiting in the wings to take your place. Indeed, major league baseball soldiered on during the war years, though the talent level was lower. There were plenty of young men who were too young to participate in the war but who graduated from high school just in time to sign pro contracts after V-J Day, thus re-stocking the minor leagues. In fact, future pitchers were born every day.

In fact, one of them was born on August 13, 1940. He had a decent 12-year (1961-1972) career, enjoying his best season in 1965, when he went 24-11. He appeared to be fulfilling his promise as the successor to Warren Spahn as the Braves’ ace. On April 12, 1966, he threw the first pitch in Atlanta Braves history. Three months later, he clouted two grand slams in one game. To date, Tony Cloninger is the only pitcher in baseball history to do this.

Of all the Arms of August 1940, Cloninger was the youngest and the smallest. At that stage of his life, it was probably not apparent whether he would be right-handed (he was) or left-handed. Of all the pitchers mentioned in this article, he was the last to pass away; he died last Tuesday at age 77.

In baseball as in war, the beat goes on, though individual ballplayers and soldiers may end up as casualties. This was never more apparent than in the months after August 1940.

References and Resources

  • Hal Newhouser SABR biography by Mark Stewart
  • St. Louis Cardinals 2013 Yearbook; “Stan Musial: the Man and His Times”
  • Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by James Webb, Broadway Books, New York (2004).
  • >Memories of a Ballplayer by Bill Werber and C. Paul Rogers, SABR, Cleveland (2001)
  • The Baseball Timeline by Burt Solomon, DK Publishing, Inc., NewYork (2001)
  • The Chronicle of Baseball by John Mehno, Carlton Books, London (2000)
  • The League of Outsider Baseball by Gary Cieradowski, Touchstone, New York (2015)
  • The Timeline History of Baseball by Don Jensen.
  • The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of Baseball by Jim Charlton, Barnes & Noble, New York (1999)
  • 20th Century Baseball Chronicle by Andy Cohen, Thomas W.Gilbert, Joe Glickman, Danny Green, Stephen Hanks, Dick Johnson David Nemec, and David Raskin, Tormont Publications, Inc., Montreal (1992)
  • “Though Night May Fall, Play Ball!” by Frank Jackson, Hardball Times, December 20, 2013
  • “The Kid Takes the Mound” by Frank Jackson, Hardball Times, August 23, 2013
  • Tony Cloninger SABR biography by David E. Skelton
  • “Warren Spahn, Hall of Fame Pitcher, Was Seasoned by World War II,” by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, October 25, 2014,
  • Warren Spahn SABR biography by Jim Kaplan
  • Willard Hershberger SABR biography by Charles Faber

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Barney Coolio
Barney Coolio

When did baseball clubhouses regularly start to have showers? Did the 1880 Reds have showers in their clubhouse?