Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sarge Bagby (James Charles Jacob Bagby)

I wrote a long article for the Newport Plain Talk that was published in three parts shortly before the 2007 World Series; this is the second of the three parts to be published. For my latest research and full details, see James Charles Jacob Bagby in my Family File.

James Charles Jacob Bagby (1899-1954) was not from Newport; instead, he married a Newport native, Mabel Margaret Smith, who had moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and was a sister to Clarence Ossie Smith. Jim would have a successful career in the majors, and the couple would have a son who did as well.

Jim Bagby in 19211

Jim was born 5 October 1899 in Barnett, Georgia,2 the son of William H. Bagby and Minerva Rocker. He started playing professionally a year before Clarence Smith, in 1910, for the Augusta Tourists in the old South Atlantic League, but the same season was transferred to the Hattiesburg Lumberjacks in the Cotton States League. Under manager Link Stickney, he won five games and lost eleven. In 1911, though, for the renamed Hattiesburg Woodpeckers, he led the league with wins, twenty-two, while losing sixteen under managers George Moore and Carlos Smith.

After that performance, he was called to the majors, playing in 1912 for the Cincinnati Reds under manager Joe Tinker and owner August Herman. He played his first game on April 22nd and pitched reasonably well that season but pitched only 17.3 innings and failed to impress the Reds management. He was sold for $750 to the minor league team in Montgomery, Alabama, on August 17th that year.3

Presumably sometime while playing for Montgomery, he met Clarence Ossie Smith who was playing for Birmingham, and he would marry Clarence’s sister, Mabel Margaret, a native of Newport, Tennessee, on February 10, 1913,4 about two months before Clarence got his first chance in the majors with the Chicago White Sox.

By 1913, Jim was playing for the New Orleans Pelicans. In his first season with New Orleans on August 19th, he was trying to catch a fly ball and crashed into his own second baseman, breaking Jim’s left arm;5 thankfully, he was a right-handed pitcher, but he missed part of the season due to his injury.

He signed again with New Orleans the next season6 at a time when his brother-in-law was abandoned in California. In 1914, he achieved twenty wins and nine losses, and, in 1915 when Clarence Smith joined him in New Orleans, he won another nineteen games, with Clarence winning twenty for the Pelicans that year.

His performance got him called up to the Cleveland Indians on July 22, 1915,7 with him reporting to the Indians after the end of the Southern League season. His brother-in-law Clarence Smith would join him on the Indians in the middle of Jim’s first season there.

By the time that Clarence arrived, Jim had already established himself as a strong starting pitcher, pitching in forty-eight games, winning sixteen and losing sixteen, with an ERA of 2.61, and three shutouts. By the end of the season, Jim was fifth in the American League in terms of the number of games pitched, fourth in the number of saves, and second in the number of games finished. He was a very controlled pitcher; he rarely struck out batters, but he very rarely walked them.

While 1917 finished his brother-in-law’s major-league career, it proved to be a very good year for Jim. He won twenty-three games, including eight shutouts, with thirteen losses and seven saves and an ERA of only 1.96; he even managed to bat .231. He ranked in the top five in the American League that year for the number of wins, games played, inning pitched, games completed, and batters faced. His ERA was fourth best in the league even though he was first in the number of hits allowed and was second for the number of home runs allowed.

In 1918 and 1919, he continued with very solid performances. In 1918, he pitched in a league-leading forty-five games, winning seventeen and losing sixteen with six saves, two shutouts, an ERA of 2.69, and a batting average of .212. In 1919, he pitched thirty-five games, winning seventeen and losing eleven with three saves and no shutouts, an ERA of 2.80, and a batting average of .258, including the first of his two home runs in the majors.

About this time, he picked up the nickname “Sarge”, not because of any military experience but because of a character, Sergeant Jimmy Bagby, in the Old Judge Priest stories by humorist Irvin S. Cobb. Some of the players had seen a show on Broadway, which quite possibly was Boys Will Be Boys, which ran in October and November of 1919 at the Belmont Theater on West 48th Street.

1920 would be the high point of his career. He led the league in innings pitched and games played; in fact, he won 31 games; since 1920, two other pitchers, Lefty Grove (1931) and Denny McClain (1968) have tied that total, but no one has beaten it. He lost only twelve and pitched thirty complete games with three shutouts and an ERA of 2.89; he batted .252.

In 1920, the Indians were on track for their first pennant win ever in one of the oddest races ever. On August 16th, with the Indians in first place and playing the third-place Yankees, the Indian’s shortstop, Ray Chapman, was hit in the head by a pitch by Carl Mays; he died the next morning and remains the only major league player killed during a game. The Indians suffered a slump after the game but were able to recover.

1920 Cleveland Indians; Jim Bagby is seventh from left.8

Then in September, Chicago White Sox were challenging the Indians in the pennant race when the Black Sox scandal of 1919 was exposed, revealing that a number of the White Sox players had participated in a scheme to throw the 1919 World Series. Despite the pennant race, Sox owner Charles Comiskey immediately suspended the players who were later banned from baseball for life, ending the White Sox challenge.

The same day that the Black Sox players were suspended, September 28th, Jim got his 30th win, against the Saint Louis Browns; on October 2nd, Jim won his 31st and last regular season game, clinching the pennant for the Indians.

The next week, the Indians were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. The first three games were played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Stan Coveleski was credited with the Indians win in the first game, but the Dodgers took the next two games, including game two, when Jim was credited with a loss against opposing pitcher Burleigh Grimes, a legal spitball pitcher who was, in fact, the last person allowed to throw spitballs when he retired in 1937.

Moving to Cleveland for game four, Coveleski again delivered a win for the Indians, and game five was a rematch between Jim and Grimes. The game became legendary. In the bottom of the first inning, Jim’s teammates Charlie Jamieson, Bill Wambsganss, and Tris Speaker, were on base when Elmer Smith hit the first grand slam home run in the history of the World Series.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Jim himself was at bat with Doc Johnston and Steve O'Neill on base. Jim knocked a home run into center field, becoming the first pitcher to hit a home run in a World series game.

And, in the top of the next inning, Bill Wambsganss, the Indian’s second baseman, made an unassisted triple play; not only was it the first triple play in World Series history, he made all three outs himself.

Jim pitched the entire game while Grimes was relieved in the fifth inning. Jim actually gave up thirteen hits but only allowed one score, when, with one out remaining in the ninth, Dodgers player Ed Konetchy got that thirteenth hit and drove in a run. Cleveland had also managed one more run in the fifth and won the game 8-1 in front of a hometown crowd. With Duster Mails and Stan Coveleski throwing shutouts in the next two games, the Indians won the World Series five games to two.

Jim’s career never again achieved the same heights. In 1921, though, he did have another brush with fame that was barely recognized at the time9 . At this writing (2007), Barry Bonds is rapidly closing in on Hank Aaron’s record 755 career home runs. In 1974, Aaron had beaten with much fanfare the previous record set by Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth himself took the title in a nearly-forgotten game in 1921 – with Jim Bagby on the mound.

The record prior to Ruth is somewhat in dispute; to many, including the New York Times in 1921, the relevant record was held by Gaavy Cravath, who had achieved 119 home runs in his career in the modern, post-1900 era. Historically, three other men had higher numbers, but the ball parks, the balls, and other aspects of the game were very different before 1900.

In any case, at Yankee Stadium on June 10th, 1921, Jim Bagby threw to Ruth when Ruth hit his 120th home run, breaking Cravath’s record. The New York Times mentioned the record only as a small blurb.10 In total, Jim would be pitching for three of Ruth’s 714 home runs.

Overall in 1921, Jim performed reasonably well but gave up considerably more runs than in prior years; he won fourteen games and lost twelve with an ERA of 4.70. In 1922, his ERA leaped to 6.32, and he won four games and lost five in a season that was cut short for him by appendicitis in August.11

In December 1922, the Indians sold him for an unannounced price12 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitched only occasionally, winning three games and losing two with an ERA of 5.24. In September of the next year, he was released as a free agent and signed first with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League.13 He continued to play in the minors for Atlanta, Rochester, Jersey City, Newark, Monroe, and York. He retired after the 1930 season as manager of the Monroe (Louisiana) Drillers in the Cotton States League.

For the most part, he spent the next several years managing his cleaning and pressing company in Atlanta, and he also owned a gas station. In 1941, though, he returned to baseball – as an umpire in the Coastal Plains League.14 He suffered a stroke in 1942 and suffered bad health for the rest of his life,15 although he recovered enough to work in a couple of department stores in Atlanta.

Jim had another stroke and died July 28, 1954, at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia; he is buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.

A year after Jim’s death, his widow, Mabel, had an association with one of the most controversial television game shows in history. “Strike It Rich”, hosted at the time by Warren Hull, invited destitute people on to answer a few questions and win some money. If they failed to win, they could appeal directly to the home audience, who could call in with donations. The show received substantial condemnation but lasted for a number of years. In 1955, Mabel, a diabetic, had lost both of her legs, and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch agreed to play in her stead so that she could afford a better wheelchair and a sewing machine. He won her $300, and the Indians donated $100 and an Atlanta clothing company, $200; another Atlanta company donated a portable sewing machine.

Jim Bagby, Sr., was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. In August of 2007, he will be inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.

Footnotes (omitted when this article was published):
1 Library of Congress
2 World War 1 Draft Registration Card, James Charles Bagby, Augusta, Georgia.
3 The Atlanta Constitution, “Bailey and Waldorf Are Now Property of Crackers; List of Optional Players”, 18 August 1912.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball, Revised and Expanded Edition, A-F, David F. Porter, editor, 2000: Greenwood Press, West Port, Connecticut
5 The Atlanta Constitution, “Thompson Wins Fourth Straight By Trimming Birds In Saturday’s Game”, 20 July 1913.
6 The Atlanta Constitution, “Catcher Yantz Sold to Toledo Ball Club”, 28 January 1914, page 7.
7 The Atlanta Constitution, “Jim Bagby Sold to Cleveland Team”, 23 July 1915, page 8.
8 Library of Congress.
9The Virginian Pilot, “A Record Homer from a Long-Ago Era That Hardly Anyone Noticed.”
10 The New York Times, “Curves and Bingles”, 11 July 1921, page 10.
11 Danville [Virginia] Bee, “Bagby Has Appendicitis”, 23 August 1922, page 7.
12 The New York Times, “Landis is Firm on Meeting Date”, 6 December 1922, page 25.
13 The Washington Post, “Indians Release Bagby”, 12 September 1923, page 14.
14 The Washington Post, “Old Sarge Becomes one of the Boys in Blue”, 1 June 1941, page SP2.
15 Atchison (Kansas) Daily Globe, “Sports in Brief”, 29 July 1954, page 7.

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