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The last swing of ‘Greek’ George

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Today, we acknowledge the final big league appearance of a Philadelphia A’s catcher who went down swinging.

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Today is not the day Charles “Greek” George was born.

That would be Christmas, 1912; a time when 6,000 women in New York, fed up with all the merriment of the holiday’s gift exchange, formed the The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

Nor is it the day Greek George died.

He lasted until August 15, 1999; a stretch of time incomprehensible to those of us who’ve lived merely a fraction of the eight and a half decades he spent here. In that period, he lived through the Black Sox Scandal, Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, Roger Maris setting a single-season home run record, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa resetting it, every MLB commissioner except Rob Manfred, and died before the the Curse of the Bambino could be lifted.

In between, he played 118 major league baseball games over the course of twenty years. The first one was on June 30, 1935, when his Cleveland Indians were hit by a six-hit singles barrage in the top of the sixth. In his debut, he had the thrill of replacing the Indians’ starting catcher, Frankie Pytlak, in last ninth inning of the second game of a double header, which Cleveland lost, 8-0.

It was August 22, 1936, when he knocked in his first run, via every little boy’s dream: a fielder’s choice with a run-scoring error when the catcher couldn’t hold onto a throw. Later that season, he caught nine innings of Bob Feller and set a single-game American League put-out record with 17. That same day, Feller and George allowed nine stolen bases.

No, today is the day, 73 years ago, when Greek George took the final swing of his career. He just—fortunately—wasn’t holding a bat in his hands.

A casual glance at George’s career numbers indicates that he was not worth a whole lot behind the plate. Or standing beside it. His seven games with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938 were the only time he was able to maintain a BA over .199 (It was .200).

But George was, at least to Connie Mack, worth $6,000 in May of 1945. George was shipped down from Toronto to Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Philadelphia was putting together a solid 98-loss season at the time, but for whom Mack must have thought George’s .156 BA from his last big league appearance four years ago was the key to turning the Athletics’ season around. He wasn’t too soft in the brain for this move; George was hitting .317 with an .874 OPS for the AA Toronto Maple Leafs. At Oglethorpe University, under vaunted coach Frank Anderson, George’s aggressive athleticism had allowed to join any team of his choosing as a fullback, a forward, an outfielder, a discus and shot-put thrower; whatever was available. Anderson, a man who “could watch a player plow a field and tell whether there was baseball in his bones,” had been cultivatinga powerhouse baseball program known as giant killers” since he had arrived at the school’s opening in 1916, and George became one of his best players. There was an athlete inside that 6’ 2”, 200 lbs. frame. You just had to ignore the frequently sub-.200 OBP. And all the insults.

It wasn’t his numbers that attracted Mack to George. It was his mouth. According to Mack, the A’s “needed a catcher with lots of chatter,” and had shipped out the previous man with the job, Frankie Mays, for being too quiet. George, meanwhile, had once “chattered” enough at an amusement park that he had “started a near-riot on a Ferris Wheel.” In fact, only two years earlier, George had almost gotten his team beaten to death and all he’d needed to do so was a baseball and a man named “Footsy.”

“The Grand Old Man of Baseball: Connie Mack in His Final Years, 1932-1956,” by Norman L. Macht

Through his career, George lingered mostly in the minors, but breathed gasps of big league air in 1935-36, 1938, 1941, and his longest stint in 1945 with Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. In those stretches, he played alongside the likes of Feller in Cleveland, Leo Durocher in Brooklyn, and Dizzy Dean in Chicago. With many teammates, including Dean, he forged lifelong friendships.

Playing the Yankees on Labor Day that year, Shibe Park saw the A’s draw their largest crowd of the season: 36,021 for a doubleheader. The second game went into the tenth inning in a 6-6 tie, a long game made even longer, in George’s opinion, by the wandering strike zone of home plate umpire Joe Rue. They had snapped back and forth at each other all day, and as George left the field at the end of the tenth, Rue muttered something that lit George’s notoriously short fuse. What it was, even George wouldn’t repeat; only explain that it was an insult “No man where I come from will take.” And so, he turned back to Rue, asked the umpire if he had heard him correctly, and when it was confirmed, struck him with the flat of his hand, drawing blood above the ump’s right eye.

History paints George as the aggressor here, and he was, but had the two not been separated by the other umpires, Rue, who had raised his mask over his head to beat George with it in retaliation, would have done even more damage.

The umpires weren’t finished eliciting insults no one wanted to repeat. George was, obviously, ejected from the game, and returned to the dugout, where Connie Mack asked him what the hell was going on. George relayed whatever mysterious trigger word Rue had uttered, and then it was Mack’s turn to convene the umpiring crew. Only he was Connie Mack, not some back-up catcher hitting .174. Mack sent out an emissary to summon Cal Hubbard, one of the umpires who had helped separate the two, but both men were locked in a momentary power struggle, each wanting the other to come to them. Hubbard told Mack’s representative, using a word author Norman L. Macht wouldn’t even repeat in 2015, when his chronicle of Mack’s final years in baseball was published,

“You tell that old [so-and-so] if he wants to see me to come out here.”

Well, you know Connie Mack wasn’t going to acquiesce to a smart-mouthed umpire’s demands, and by the time the quivering messenger had returned and conveyed Hubbard’s insult, a small fire had broken out in Mack’s brain. The meeting never happened, and everybody stayed mad.

George wound up suspended, despite Mack’s support in the proceedings.

“You’ll never play another game in the big leagues,” Hubbard had promised George during the brouhaha. And, with the confusingly impenetrable influence of the Cult of Major League Umpires, the league made his words true.

George stuck around in the minors until 1953, when he was 40 years old. In 1998, the year before he died, Greek George was 86, the oldest living Greek-American Major Leaguer. He eventually passed away at his home in Metairie, Lousiana.

As Brad Lidge once uttered after Dickie Noles told a story about hitting George Brett in the head with a pitch, “Boy; the game has changed.” And indeed it has. Baseball’s more tobacco juice-stained days are over, and with them went a lot of the brawling, threatening, and attempted murder to make the sport more family friendly. But we all know how Greek George felt that day; wronged by an umpire, helpless to defend himself, and overcome with primal rage.

Greek George displayed the fury on this day, seven decades ago, that most players and all fans have felt toward an umpire at some point in their lives, and he paid for it dearly. But at least you can say one thing of the weak-hitting catcher: He went down swinging.

Notes:

  1. The Grand Old Man of Baseball: Connie Mack in His Final Years, 1932-1956, by Norman L. Macht
  2. The Cleveland Indians Baseball Team, by David Pietrusza
  3. Baseball’s Golden Greeks: The First Forty Years, 1934-1974, by Diamantis Zervos