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Forgiving, Forgetting, And Bob Shawkey's 46-Year Yankees Exile

Bob Shawkey was one of the Yankees' first great aces during the team's golden age, and, for one year, a manager. He never quite forgave the team for the last part.
April 14, 2016, 6:42pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

Our relationships are anchored in expectations. The husband or wife expects fidelity. The friend expects loyalty. Both expect consistency, the same kindness today as yesterday.

The extent to which the aforementioned fail to live up to these expectations is also the extent of our disappointment and pain. Whether those people failed us when they did not honor our expectations, or, more troublingly, if we were wrong to have had those expectations of them in the first place is irrelevant, in the end. So is what the transgressors meant to do—we live and die on outcomes, not intentions. The only possible response for us, not them (we can't control them) is to change. A friend or lover cannot let you down if you place no hopes in them.

Read More: Sam Crane, Forgotten Major League Murderer

The problem, as Bob Shawkey found out when the Yankees terminated him as manager in the fall of 1930, is that once a relationship has no expectations it doesn't have any place to go. This week in 1976, Shawkey returned to throw out the first pitch at the renovated Yankee Stadium, the ballpark he had opened as its first pitcher in 1923. The House that Ruth Built had been closed for two years; Shawkey had for all practical purposes been gone for 46. Despite the cameo, he never did come back, not really.

Bob Shawkey was the Yankees' franchise pitcher before Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry, Andy Pettitte, and all the other guys you've actually heard of. Born in Pennsylvania in 1890, the right-handed Shawkey was armed with a good fastball, sharp curve, and a deceptive motion. This made him something of a strikeout pitcher in a contact hitting age. He came up with Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's in 1913, the second-to-last year of a run which saw the club win four pennants and three championships in five years behind something called "The $100,000 Infield," which today would not buy you three minutes of Manny Machado's time. After 1914, Mack went all Marlins on his club, stripping it all the way down. With Shawkey rumored to be jumping to the Federal League, Mack sold him to the Yankees for three grand.

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Sailor Bob—after 1918 Shawkey's nom de baseball was either "Sailor" Bob or "Bob the Gob" because he spent the first World War in the navy—quickly settled in as the ace of a rising team. He won 24 games in his first full year in New York, repeated at the 20-win level three more times, and won an ERA title in 1920. That was the year Babe Ruth showed up. Multiple pennants and championships followed, with Shawkey contributing. Injuries dragged him down in his early 30s, and he finished out his pitching career at 36 doing a bit of mop-up work for the 1927 champions. He stayed on with the Yankees, moving right into coaching.

A gentler age. A weirder age. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The manager of those pennant-winning Yankees teams was "The Mighty Mite," Miller Huggins, who was a cross between Willie Randolph, a dwarf, and, I like to imagine, Ned Sparks. Huggins was as hardnosed a ballplayer as anyone who ever lived, but by 1929 the pipe-smoking, JD-holding, five-foot-six and 140-pound manager was physically and emotionally exhausted from a decade of wrangling man-children like Ruth, who once dangled him off the back of a moving train. Late in the season a red mark appeared on Huggins' face. It wouldn't heal, became angry, infected. Huggins was slow to have it looked at. On September 25, he died of septicemia caused by erysipelas.

Shawkey's fellow coach Art Fletcher managed the last 11 games of the season as the Yankees finished in second place, far behind a Philadelphia team that was one of the best of the pre-integration era. Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert and general manager Ed Barrow failed in several attempts to find a permanent replacement, offering the job to Fletcher, Eddie Collins, and Donie Bush. Fletcher, who had managed the Phillies, had promised his wife he'd never do anything that stupid again. Collins, coaching for the A's, asked Mack's advice and was told he wasn't ready—which was strange because he'd already managed for a couple of years—and turned down the position. The Yankees didn't get to Bush until after he had agreed to manage the White Sox. So, by process of elimination, Shawkey, no one's first choice (especially Ruth's; he wanted the job) became the manager.

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When Shawkey was hired, John Drebinger of the New York Times reported, "That Shawkey faces one of the most difficult assignments of any baseball manager was an opinion shared by practically all in local baseball circles yesterday." The Yankees had finished 18 games behind the A's, but that was as much a reflection of how good the A's were as their own deficiencies. Still, their attitude apparently left something to be desired. Miller Huggins' last act was practically a plea to Ruppert to clean house because the players had stopped caring. "They're just tired," he said.

Despite Huggins' assessment, the 1930 team was still very good. The A's, though, were excellent. Though 1930 was one of the game's biggest offensive years, the Yankees weren't just a rabbit-ball mirage: They hit .309/.384/.488 as a team, scored 1,062 runs, and Ruth and Gehrig had two of their Ruth and Gehrig-iest seasons. The problem, as so often seems to happen when a pitching coach becomes a manager, was that the hurlers let down badly. Veterans Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt were done being Hall of Fame-type pitchers (Hoyt loved the nightlife, he loved to boogie, and he was traded in May after one too many hungover starts), while future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing—who Shawkey pushed to acquire that May—and Lefty Gomez hadn't yet reached that level. The staff tied for the highest ERA in the league.

When Shawkey accepted the manager's position, a friend sent him five lucky rabbit's feet. The Yankees lost their first five games. They never led the A's for a single day, but they stayed as close as two games out through the end of June, then played .500 ball the rest of the way. They finished third, 16 games back.

When hats were strange. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Shawkey struggled with discipline to some extent; as with Yogi Berra in 1964, he found it hard to be the boss of men who had recently been his teammates. He also experimented with position changes that annoyed some of the veterans. He made Gehrig cry once, but he was less mean than Lou was sensitive. Had the pitching been in less of a transition period, it might not have mattered. In fact, Shawkey was told it didn't matter. In September, Shawkey met with Ruppert and Barrow. The team had done good box office, setting a new Yankee Stadium record. He was told that would return the next season:

I wanted to sign the contract right then and there, but Ruppert said, "No, let's wait until the season is over. That's the way I always did it with Hug."

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Regardless of who has owned the team, loyalty has never been the Yankees' strong suit. It wasn't a priority for Ruppert and Barrow. When they were done with a guy, that was that. They had just lied to Shawkey: They were already communicating with Cubs manager Joe McCarthy through intermediaries. McCarthy had taken the Cubs to the 1929 World Series (where they lost to the A's), but he was in the process of losing a power struggle with his second baseman, Rogers Hornsby. New York's season ended on September 28; McCarthy signed on October 14.

At McCarthy's welcoming press conference, Ruppert was gracious about Shawkey:

I have the highest regard for Shawkey. He was one of the first players we purchased after I became interested in the club. I think he did very well this year. He was in a tough spot and I doubt if any manager could have done better… I believe that with a little more experience he will make a great manager.

It's likely that none of that made up for the fact that at that moment Shawkey still might not have received official notice that he'd been fired. This is how he claimed to have found out:

One day after the season had closed, I went up to the office to talk over some business. I was heading for Barrow's office when the door opened and Joe McCarthy came walking out. I took one look and turned around and got out of there. I knew what had happened.

That was the end of Shawkey's major league managerial career. He managed in the minors and at Dartmouth, and he bought a gold mine. In time, he reappeared at Yankee Stadium for special events. He was there in 1939 at the Gehrig farewell that doubled as a 1927 Yankees reunion, some old timers' events, and, at age 85, he came out to throw that ceremonial first pitch. One-off appearances don't require trust or commitment, and the man who retired holding franchise records for wins, innings, strikeouts, games, and more never returned to the Yankees in any real way. He preferred an independent path. He was not done with the fans, but he was done with the team. His expectations gone, they couldn't hurt him anymore.

Sources include Frank Graham's The New York Yankees; Donald Honig's The Man in the Dugout; Alan H. Levy's Joe McCarthy, Marshall Smelser's The Life That Ruth Built, and the SABR biography by Stephen V. Rice.