Turkey Day, Turkey Tyson and a Reason to Give Thanks

The Red Sox acquired Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell on Thanksgiving Day in 2005. (via Keith Allison)

Type Turkey Gross into Google, and you might learn pouring turkey grease down the kitchen drain can produce disgusting sewer clogs. You might also learn that raw turkeys can be photographed in poses you’ll never unsee. Type Turkey Tyson into Google and, thanks to information provided by Tyson Turkey Food Services, you might learn turkey is “ideal for sandwiches and entrees.” You might also learn the trademarked tagline for Tyson Products is this: Keep It Real. Keep It Tyson.

Type each term into Player Search, however, and you’ll definitely learn that Turkey Gross and Turkey Tyson were neither sewer clogs nor turkey casseroles but rather a pair of human beings who played major league ball. Today, on the cusp of Turkey Day, we honor both men by giving sincere and heartfelt thanks that they existed, and that they set foot on major league fields. Correction: In efforts to Keep It Real, and to Keep It Tyson, we must now acknowledge that Turkey Tyson set foot on just one field.

And he set foot on that field just once.

On April 23, 1944, at Braves Field in Boston, the 6-foot-5 North Carolina native watched from the Philadelphia bench as Braves starter Jim Tobin held the Phillies hitless through five innings. He watched further as Tobin held them scoreless through eight. Of course, for the 29-year-old Tyson, an absence of big league action had become the norm. After emerging from tiny Elm City, the big first baseman had played minor league ball from Trenton to Tallahassee.

Now, after six seasons in the sticks, he’d finally made a big league roster.

Still, he sat and watched.

Finally, in the top of the ninth, Tyson got the nod. Pinch hitting for reliever Chet Covington to open the frame, he stepped in to face Tobin. Coming off a 1943 season in which he’d posted a 2.66 ERA in 250 innings, Tobin was dealing. He had yielded just one hit and one walk. And he would continue to deal. Just four days later, Tobin would pitch a no-hitter against the Dodgers. His weapon: a wicked knuckleball.

Poor Turkey. He had waited six years and eight innings for his big league debut and now had to face a knuckleballer at the height of his expertise.

This, perhaps, is what Tyson muttered to the fates: “Thanks a lot.”

If so, it might have been heartfelt but certainly wasn’t sincere.

***

Thanksgiving, like Halloween, is not often associated with baseball. What it’s associated with is football, during whose on-field operations we scream for pass interference and during whose halftime interludes our crazy Uncle Ray lectures at length on the politics of ethnic identity. In fact, the NFL will stage three games this Thanksgiving, giving Uncle Ray ample time to register his outrage and the rest of us time to ignore him.

Baseball? It’s not on the slate.

Still, if you search hard enough— if you move past pictures of uncooked turkeys sitting on the toilet while reading a newspaper — you can find connections between the national holiday and the national pastime. In the bottom of the third inning of the Yankees’ 2003 season finale, third baseman Drew Henson stepped to the plate and hit a weak roller that trickled into center field for his first and ultimately only major league hit. Fourteen months later, on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, Henson stepped onto the field at Texas Stadium for his first and ultimately only NFL start. Playing quarterback for the Cowboys, he botched his big chance by going 4-for-12.

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So that’s a connection, right? Loose, but still a connection.

Less loose, or at least more serious, is that on Thanksgiving Day, 2016, two-time 20-game winner Dave “Boo” Ferriss passed away at age 94. On a brighter note, at least 13 big leaguers were born on Thanksgiving. They include the holiday battery of Lefty Gomez and Mike Scioscia. Reliever Yusmeiro Petit can handle the leftovers.

A more meaningful Turkey Day moment came in 2005, when the Red Sox announced the acquisition of starting pitcher Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell. Two years later, Beckett yielded one run en route to a Game One defeat of the Rockies in the 2007 World Series, and Lowell earned MVP honors by posting a 1.300 OPS in Boston’s title sweep.

Boston, in all sincerity, said thanks a lot.

Even more meaningful is the event that occurred at the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago on Thanksgiving of 1887. On that day, a man named George Hancock grabbed a boxing glove and tightened it into a ball. Next, he and other club members used chalk to draw a diamond shape on the gym floor. The men then snapped a broom handle in half to use as a bat. What transpired is now considered the first game of indoor baseball and the forerunner of softball. What it affirmed is the desire among Americans, and perhaps even the need, to play ball. In fact, upon fashioning the glove into a sphere, Hancock is said to have shouted, “Let’s play ball!”

Even in the chill air of Thanksgiving, and in places as northerly as New York and New Bedford, it’s what Americans had done for the four decades preceding that day of gratitude and brown gravy. They had played ball.

***

On Thanksgiving Day, 1848, members of the New York Knickerbocker Club took time away from turkey and gravy to play an intramural game. By 1855, the holiday spirit of baseball had spread throughout the city. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, no fewer than 10 clubs suited up for games. The Spirit of the Times reported the Continentals played from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and that the Putnams “commenced at 9 o’clock with the intention of playing 63 aces”— aces were outs — “but found it impossible to get through.”

News traveled far. The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel reported that games were staged “every where” (sic) despite the fact that players were “looking blue and miserable.” Added the Sentinel, “Every vacant field in the out skirts (sic) was filled with Base Ball Clubs; a wonderfully popular institution the past season, but vastly inferior to the noble game of Cricket in all respects.”

Inferior? On evidence, few agreed.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1858, roughly 1,000 spectators watched a game between the Bristol County Club and the Union Club in New Bedford, Mass. The New Bedford Evening Standard reported that after the Thanksgiving dinner that followed, members of the two clubs played a series of “‘scrub’ games, that is games which the various Clubs unite and play together.”

Beginning on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Union and Confederate states did the opposite of unite. This was war, in one divided country, with the treatment of black people at its heart. But on each side of the divide, soldiers did play together — even on Thanksgiving.

On that day in 1862, members of the 39th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry took a break from wartime anxieties to play ball. “The baseball game was between the men of Sleeper’s Battery and those selected from the 39th with the honors remaining with the infantry, though the cannoneers were supposed to be particularly skillful in the throwing of balls,” reported Alfred S. Roe in a 1914 book titled The Thirty-Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865.

It made sense, and plenty of it, that soldiers favored baseballs over cannonballs on this day of giving thanks. Even in the war’s opening year, the New York Clipper reported that Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, “was a ball playing day.”

In 1863, just months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln issued another proclamation: that from this day forward, Thanksgiving would be a federal holiday. Its stated purpose: that “these great things” — and here he listed the plow, the shuttle, the ship and the ax, in addition to the expectation for a “large increase in freedom” — should be “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.”

Some 21 years after Lincoln’s proclamations — one emancipating black people from slavery, the other giving Americans a day to give thanks — folks at Eclipse Field in Louisville weren’t in such a giving-thanks mood when Moses Fleetwood Walker stepped onto the major league field. As John R. Husman puts it in his SABR biography of Walker, “(N)ot all Kentuckians and game participants appreciated having a black man playing with and against white men.”

***

It’s good to take a break from the serious stuff and just have fun for a while. That’s what the 39th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry did on Thanksgiving, 1862, and it’s what we do now. What follows is our All-Thanksgiving Team.

Just as enjoyable are the backstories. Turk Lown got his nickname because he enjoyed eating turkey. Spud Davis got his because, as a boy, he liked to eat potatoes. Pie Traynor? Yep, he liked pie. After boyhood ballgames he often asked for a slice at the corner store.

Lost to time are the reasons behind the Turkey nickname shared by Gross and Tyson. Less obscure are the reasons behind the nicknames of Ham Wade and Sweetbread Bailey. As any foodie knows, sweetbreads aren’t breads that are sweet. They are the thymus and pancreas, both edible, of lambs and calves. What do sheep and cattle have to do with Bailey?

Well, according to some sources, Bailey had an affinity for chucking his pitches directly into the batter’s gut — i.e., his sweetbreads. According to others, that tale is hogwash. Working in favor of this argument is that Bailey also went by Shortbread.

As for Ham Wade, his nickname derives from his first name: Abraham. It bears mention that his middle name was Lincoln. As such, Abraham Lincoln Wade shared a given name with Abraham Lincoln Bailey. The baseball world knew them as Ham and Sweetbread, but their parents knew them as namesakes of that towering American who had given strength and voice to the expansion of human liberty and to a time to give thanks…one day.

***

Walker Did It

Thus read the cryptic headline in the Toledo Evening Bee on May 2, 1844.

It came one day after Moses Walker, nicknamed Fleet, stepped onto the field at Eclipse Park to become the first black man to play major league ball.

Make that the second black man.

In recent years, researchers have discovered that a black man by the name of Bill White preceded Walker by playing one game, for Providence, in 1879. But White passed, as people said. Though born of a slave, and perhaps a childhood slave himself, White lived and played as a white man.

Walker, by contrast, walked into Eclipse Park as a black man, born free in Ohio but a victim of the bigotry that still festered in the aftermath of the war.

Three years earlier, as a catcher for a semipro team in Cleveland, Walker had attempted to play in the same park against an Eclipse team so talented that it would join the major league American Association the following year. However, as the Louisville Courier-Journal reported one day later, “Members of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color.”

In response, the Cleveland team held Walker out of the lineup. But following a first-inning injury to his replacement at catcher, Walker stepped onto the field and began warming up to take his customary place behind the plate. Several Eclipse players still objected. Two, John Reccius and Fred Pfeffer, left the field in protest. Cleveland capitulated. Walker stayed on the sidelines.

Two years later, in 1883, Walker left the University of Michigan to play for a minor league team in Toledo, but soon thereafter a representative of the Northwestern League made a motion that “no colored player be allowed in the league.” After the executive committee rejected the motion, Walker joined the Blue Stockings and later prepared for an exhibition game against the major league Chicago White Stockings and player-manager Cap Anson.

Anson, as proud a racist as ever there was, told anyone who would listen that his team would play ball “with no n—–.” So reported the Toledo Daily Blade. The paper went on to report that Toledo management pushed back.

“(T)he order was given, then and there, to play Walker,” wrote the Blade, “and the beefy bluffer (Anson) was informed that he could play or go, just as he blank pleased. Anson hauled in his horns somewhat and ‘consented’ to play, remarking, ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the n—– in.’”

Now here he was, Walker, having barged through bigotry and abuse to set foot on the same Eclipse Park field where first he had been denied. Even now, however, he suffered indignities from fans and players — even his own teammates. As the season wore on, Toledo ace Tony Mullane would deliberately throw curveballs when Walker called for fastballs, and vice versa.

“One day he signaled me for a curve and I shot a fast ball at him,” Mullane told the New York Age in 1919. “He caught it and came down to me…He said, ‘I’ll catch you without signals, but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of that season he caught me and caught anything I pitched without knowing what was coming.”

Bigots like Mullane and Anson soon got what they wanted, and what they wanted was a whites-only league. In September of 1884, Toledo manager Charlie Morton received a letter from Richmond, home of the rival Virginians.

“Dear sir. We the undersigned, do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the evenings that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes to the ground in a suit. We hope you will listen to our words of warning, so that there will be no trouble: but if you do not, there certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much blood shed, as you alone can prevent.”

Three weeks later, the Blue Stockings released Walker. He would be the last black player in the big leagues until 1947, when Jackie Robinson famously broke the racial barrier. But Robinson, as brave as he was, did not break it.

He rebroke it.

In the seven-plus decades between Jackie’s debut and Fleet’s denouement, thousands of black players were denied an opportunity to play major league ball. True, many did set foot on major league fields. But unlike Turkey Gross and Turkey Tyson, they did so only when major league teams had gone on road trips and left their stadiums available to Negro National League clubs.

One such player was Turkey Stearnes, and were it not for the de facto prohibition Anson and other bigots put in place, he would have captained our All-Thanksgiving Team. Instead, when you type his name into Player Search, you’ll definitely learn that he was denied a shot in The Show.

***

After retiring from his 20-year career in the Negro Leagues, Turkey Stearnes would often sit in the outfield bleachers at Briggs Stadium in Detroit to watch the Tigers play major league ball. Stearnes had played roughly half his career in the same city for the crosstown Stars, the bulk of it while Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann played the final few seasons of their Hall of Fame careers and while Heinie Manush played the first few seasons of his own.

In 1926, when Manush forged a breakthrough season by leading the major leagues with a .378 batting average, fellow left fielder Stearnes was batting .387 for the Stars. His OPS of 1.164 compared favorably to Manush’s .985.

In the offseasons, Stearnes worked in a factory owned by Walter Briggs. Briggs also owned the Detroit team Stearnes had no hope of joining, a team that played its games in a stadium that would later bear the Briggs name. What separated Stearnes and Manush was very little, but also very much. Both were born in 1901, just two months and 135 miles apart. At 17, an age when Stearnes had left school to begin working in the aftermath of his father’s death, Manush transferred to Massey Military Academy in Pulaski, just 75 miles south of the Stearnes home in Nashville. Pulaski, of course, is where Civil War veterans organized the first chapter of the KKK.

By all accounts, Manush had no connection to the Klan or to the ideology it wielded as a weapon. His presence in Pulaski was only a coincidence of geography. What it points to, though, is the proximity Stearnes and Manush shared in nearly every facet but for the field of play. That final separation, born of the bigotry that emerged from places like Pulaski to poison men like Anson and Mullane, had bound ballfields just a few miles apart.

Indeed, while Manush was making a name for himself at Detroit’s Navin Field, Stearnes was making a different name for his own self at Detroit’s Mack Park. So talented was he that at one point he notched seven straight hits off Satchel Paige. Legend has it that when Stearnes came to the plate in search of his eighth straight hit off the ace, Paige stepped off the mount and rolled the ball toward home plate. “See if you can hit that!” he shouted.

He could hit everything.

“He was one of the greatest hitters we ever had,” said Paige. By career’s end he had proved it by batting .344, with at least 202 home runs, in 4,002 at-bats.

After that, he sat and watched — at a field he could not set foot on just once.

***

Without the war, Turkey Tyson never would have stepped to the major league plate. He’d have remained in Trenton, or Tallahassee, or some other outpost that played host to players whose dreams were bigger than their talent. The fact remained, however, that America’s involvement in World War II had drained manpower from the majors and redirected it to the fight, and baseball abhors a vacuum. So there he stood, a 29-year-old rookie pinch hitting for a 33-year-old rookie, facing a pitch that moved like a feather.

He hit it. He did.

History records that in his one big league at-bat, Turkey made contact. He sent a soft pop-up to Braves third baseman Connie Ryan, who settled under it for the first out of the inning to help secure Tobin’s complete-game shutout.

Almost exactly three years later, while playing second base for the Braves, Ryan would field a throw from shortstop Dick Culler and fire it to first baseman Earl Torgeson to complete an inning-ending double play. The batter: Jackie Robinson, in the third at-bat of his first major league game.

Baseball players are connected through time and bound by circumstance. Without the Civil War, whose opening salvos had come in service of slavery and whose final shots had been the first big blows on behalf of civil rights, Robinson might never have gone to the major league field or plate.

But unlike Turkey Stearnes, and just like Turkeys Tyson and Gross, he did.

Jackie Did It

Today, on the cusp of Turkey Day, we might find reasons to give thanks. Me, I’m thankful I can watch in super-slow-motion as the ball comes spinning off Jacob deGrom’s magic fingers, and that I can watch at really fast speeds as the ball goes exploding off Giancarlo Stanton’s bat. I’m thankful for Nolan Arenado’s leather, and Mookie Betts’ blitzkrieg hands. I’m also thankful that on Thanksgiving Day, 2018, girls from across the United States tweeted their gratitude to a woman named Maria Pepe. In 1972, a 12-year-old Pepe became the first girl to play Little League Baseball.

Make that the second girl.

In 1950, 71 years after Bill White took the field as a white man, a girl named Kathryn Johnson took the field as a boy. She had to. She just wanted to play.

The following year, after her ruse was discovered, Little League banned girls from participation. Then came Pepe, who stepped to the field at Stevens Park in Hoboken and, in a manner of speaking, became just one of the guys.

In response, citizens of America went mad.

And soon, just as baseball had instituted its longtime de facto ban in the aftermath of Fleet Walker’s debut, Little League issued its own de facto ban.

Pepe was pushed to the sidelines, and there she stayed.

But then something else happened. American citizens went mad at the madness of other Americans. They fought back. In a liberal democracy whose Constitution pledged freedom and whose proclamations vowed deliverance from the constraints of second class, they recognized the cruelty in denying human beings an opportunity by virtue of the outcomes of birth.

In 1974, two years after Pepe’s debut and subsequent denouement, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that girls must be allowed to play Little League.

That same year, a girl named Bunny Taylor tossed a no-hitter.

Today, more than 300,000 girls set foot on Little League baseball or softball fields each year. One, a girl from Maryland who in 2018 played in an organization called Baseball For All, tweeted to Maria Pepe on Thanksgiving, “It’s an amazing opportunity that I could not be more grateful for.”

I’m grateful, too. I’m grateful for the opportunity to watch the world’s best players play major league ball, and strictly on their merits. Less than one century back, a player as ordinary as Tyson got a shot, but one as extraordinary as Stearnes did not.

Now, thanks to civil efforts, it’s changed. If you can play ball, you play ball.

In all sincerity, let’s say thanks a lot. Let’s “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledge” this “large increase in freedom.” As Plymouth colonist William Bradford wrote after the first Thanksgiving, “All the summer there was no want.”


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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Jim
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Member
Jim

Excellent. Thank you.

CL1NT
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CL1NT

Awesome piece!

Joe Distelheim
Editor

Fine writing.