14 things you didn't know about baseball in Columbus

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Baseball plays a huge role in America’s shared past, and Columbus has played a huge role in baseball’s.

Clippers’ Historian Joe Santry doesn’t know everything there is to know about America’s pastime — but he’s getting close. From self-made millionaires to innovators of business, to a slew of “firsts” that changed the game forever, Columbus is rich in baseball lore. To get you pumped for the Clippers’ upcoming season (which opens Thursday, April 9 in Indianapolis), we chatted with Santry about a few of his favorite moments from Columbus’ baseball past and present. You don’t need to be a baseball fanatic to get into these stories. Movie stars, millionaires and local legends alike have graced the baseball diamond — many making contributions off the field. Read on for the most compelling Clippers’ moments, straight from Santry’s exhaustive mental archives.

First stadium with lights

Red Bird Stadium [which later became Cooper Stadium] was the first ballpark built with lights. For the first night game nearly 21,000 people showed up. Owner Larry MacPhail was known as a penny-pincher, and before the game he told the ground crew to shut the lights off as soon as everyone left the park. The game ended after midnight, and when they turned off the lights it was pitch black in the parking lot. All 21,000 people were trying to find their identical black Model-T cars in the dark.

First left-handed pitcher

Eddie “Cannonball” Morris was the first great left-handed pitcher. When he stood on what would be the mound at Recreation Park, he faced west, but his pitch came from the south. Some reporter called him a “Southpaw” and the name has stuck. Every lefty since then has been called a southpaw. That started in Columbus. Morris was also one of the first pitchers to pitch overhand. He changed the game forever.

First deaf-mute player

Eddie “Dummy” Dundon. The irony of his nickname (which wasn't politically correct) was he was the valedictorian of his class at the Ohio School for the Deaf and Dumb. The real hero is a teacher at the school named Parley Pratt. Seven of his nine players played professional baseball at the highest level. Dundon was the first to make it of the seven. When Dundon would slide into base he couldn't hear if he was safe or not, so he worked out hand signals with the umpires and teammates that are still used today.

“Get ’emwhile they’re hot!”

Harry Stevens was a bookseller from London who went to see a ball game while playing hooky from work. He wasn’t familiar with baseball, so he kept asking nearby onlookers about the rules and what was happening. He thought, “If I don't know the rules or the players, I bet a lot of people don't know them.” He went to owner Ralph Lazarus and offered him a princely sum for vague vendor rights. He interviewed people at the game, passing out peanuts in exchange for information. He only sold two of the make-shift programs at the next game, but people asked him about the peanuts, which gave him the idea to start a concession business. His family still owns concession rights with major league teams.

One particularly cold May when nobody was buying ice cream or cold beer, he sent out some of the concession workers to a nearby slaughterhouse and a bakery. He put the sausages into a vat of boiling beer, and told the concession workers to run around and yell, “Get ’em while they're hot,” essentially inventing the baseball hotdog. Now they are the staple food at baseball games. We aren’t sure if this happened in New York or Columbus, but the Neil Park used to be right by Schmidt’s in German Village, so it makes sense.

Step right up, ladies

Gus Schmelz (a grocer-turned-promoter) decided to have a Ladies Day where all the women could get into the game free. He figured if the women were there, the men would show up and maybe even act more civilized.

About those socks

Gus Schmelz was one of our best promoters. In the off-season he was the ringmaster in the biggest circus in America. He managed the Cincinnati Reds, and the Columbus team became known as the “red sox” because Schmels brought the socks with him from Cincinnati. I don’t know if he bought ’em or not, but they ended up in Columbus.

Tarzanswings through Red Bird Stadium

When movie stars would come into town to perform at one of the theaters, the ball team would invite them out to see the game and sign autographs. Johnny Weissmuller, who was famous for playing Tarzan in the original movie, attended a game. We were down by a run or so, and [Weissmuller’s] best friend on the team, Ray Blades, puts himself in to pinch-hit. With two strikes down, [Weissmuller] runs to the top of the grand stand and does his famous Tarzan call. When Ray didn’t respond, Weissmuller ripped open his silk shirt and gave the call even louder. This time, Ray saw him, and went on to get the winning hit. Occasionally when we need a big hit, we still use the Tarzan call.

FDR at RBS

Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first speech of his first presidential campaign at Red Bird Stadium.

Don’t quit your day job

There was a man named P.W. on one roster who never got a hit. I thought, “Certainly, he must have got at least one — they wouldn’t have kept him on the team.” One day the owner basically told him not to “quit his day job” because baseball wasn’t his strong suit. He re-dedicated himself to the bank job he had after giving up baseball. His last name was Huntington. One of the worst ball players we ever had now has his name above the best ball park in America. That makes me feel like I can make it.

That name looks familiar

A friend of mine found a bunch of box scores at the main library from our earliest seasons. I told him, “This isn’t a baseball team, this is a street directory.” The names were Thurman, Dennison, King, Chittenden; these were people who built Columbus. Jimmy Williams, who is considered the founding father of Columbus baseball, is probably my favorite because he started the water company and is responsible for indoor plumbing.

No-hitter

Tyler Cloyd had a no-hitter in 2011. Everybody was roaring for him and the stands shook. After the last out he pointed to his wife and motioned her to come on the field with their infant child and kissed her on the field. Every day more people tell me they were there at that game; at this point a quarter of a million people must have been there. We've only had 19 no-hitters since 1866.

Star Spangled disaster

The first time [the Clippers] played the “Star Spangled Banner” was opening day 1917 — before it was the national anthem. They had a band on the field and the governor gave a speech at Neil Park. There were about 15,000 people in this little stadium in German Village. The band was playing J.P. Sousa music — they topped it off by playing the “Star Spangled Banner.” All 15,000 people stood up and started singing along. After it was all done, the umpire said, “Let’s play ball!” When all those people sat down at the same time, the third base side of Neil Park collapsed.

Luckily, Ft. Hayes, which was a military triage training facility at the time, was right across the street, so military medical personnel started helping the injured people. A secretary called the ambulance, but the ambulances couldn’t get in because the parking lot was full. A player and Columbus native named Wally Gerber grabbed another player and they both started hacking at the fence with their bats like they were axes. It took them about 20 minutes but they got everyone off to the hospital. They still finished the game.

“Columbus has restored my faith in professional baseball.”

Willie Stargell was one of the greatest ball players of all time. He played in Columbus as a young man on his way up. He played for many small towns in the Deep South before moving up the tier system to Columbus. In his biography, the writer asked him what he thought of Columbus. He responded by saying, “When I arrived in Columbus, I discovered a big, beautiful, non-racist city. African-Americans, Whites, Latinos and several other races meshed together on the streets and in the business world of Columbus on a daily basis. Though I never complained about racism to anyone, I breathed a sigh of relief when it finally disappeared in my life … Columbus had beauty, style and class. Columbus has restored my faith in professional baseball.”

“Thanks, Pops”

The last time I was in Cooper Stadium, I walked down the main corridor and could see all the people who had sat in each section. Each one held a memory. I walked past the seats my dad and I sat in on my first game. I won two tickets from our barber, and my dad took me. He bought me popcorn and taught me how to whistle down a vendor. He taught me how to keep score. I remember he bought me a media guide and I read it cover to cover. I saw my dad as a very young man and it made me smile. I just said, "Thanks, Pops," and walked out of the ballpark for the last time.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Courtesy of Joe Santry and the Columbus Clippers

Home opener

Columbus Clippers vs. Toledo Mud hens

Huntington Park

330 Huntington Park Ln., Arena District

6:05 p.m. Saturday, April 18

clippersbaseball.com