1926 One Hell of a Hangover

A memorable finish to a seven-game World Series involves a terrific relief performance from a barely prepared—and hungover—Pete Alexander, and a historic, ill-fated stolen base attempt by Babe Ruth.

At age 39, Pete Alexander had lived a life of fame, torture and an addiction to the bottle. Such demons failed to derail a magnificent, historic—and unexpected—relief appearence in Game Seven of the World Series against the New York Yankees.

Pete Alexander thought he had thrown his last pitch of the 1926 season. Having tossed his second World Series victory over the New York Yankees the day before, Alexander celebrated the only way he knew all too painfully how—by drinking. He would then stumble into the bullpen the next day, wishing his St. Louis Cardinals teammates luck in Game Seven.

Little did “Old Pete” realize that he wasn’t yet done for the year.

As a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies fifteen years earlier, Alexander served instant notice to the baseball world that he was a force to be reckoned with by winning 28 games. His best was yet to come; he won 30-plus games three straight years during the 1910s, upgrading an otherwise decent Phillies team to contention and, in 1915, a World Series appearance.

Then came World War I. Drafted straight to the front lines of France, Alexander became rattled from the intense amount of shelling, resulting in a partial loss of hearing.

Upon his return to the States—and his new ballclub, the Chicago Cubs—Alexander discovered one more unwanted side effect from his wartime duty; a growing number of epileptic seizures. Additionally, Alexander’s reliance on alcohol—something of a problem for him before the war—dramatically increased to numb the physical and psychological effects of the experience in the trenches. It slowly began to unravel his personal life, but not his pitching. In his first seven years back after World War I, Alexander averaged nearly 18 wins a season for the Cubs and maintained a healthy earned run average in the face of the expanded offense of the 1920s. All this, and he was fast approaching 40 years of age.

Then came Joe McCarthy. The rookie manager of the Cubs, though highly touted for his success piloting in the minors, had no major league experience as either player or manager. That gave Alexander, the hardened 39-year-old staff ace, immediate reservations about an untested skipper.

Quickly asserting himself as a disciplinarian that would help lead his teams to numerous pennants and World Series titles over the years, McCarthy clashed with Alexander—and vice versa. The new manager was especially concerned with Alexander’s intensified drinking habits, and when Alexander started the 1926 season in subpar fashion—he was only 3-3 by late June—it was enough for McCarthy to justify a move. He released Alexander—not even bothering to trade him—by putting him on waivers.

There was one taker: The St. Louis Cardinals.

Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ crafty vice president, had made a name for himself by building up his team from within, not from purchasing or trading for established players. But then again, he had no choice; the Cardinals he came to a decade earlier were a financial mess, never a winner, and playing in one of the majors’ smaller marketplaces—a two-team one at that—which handicapped Rickey’s options of finding a more profitable solution.

That solution—the creation of a farm system—wasn’t entirely without precedent; Rickey merely perfected it into an art form. The Cardinals expanded their minor league network and collated them by classification so that players could move “up the ladder” to the parent club. Rickey, a master of eyeing the right talent, had enough minor league teams under his belt by the early 1920s to bolster his basic argument for the farm system: “If you dig up enough rocks, a small percentage of them will become gems.” And what of the lesser gems? He could sell those to other teams for decent money.

Though other team owners, and commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in particular, frowned on the idea of the farm system by calling it an imperialistic, “chain store” concept, Rickey’s innovation was a justifiable way to combat the high-priced spending of the “haves” in baseball.

The inner-growth philosophy of the Cardinals began to pay off, dwindling their long-term debts while producing long-overdue results on the field. At the outset of the 1926 season, every player in the Cardinals’ starting lineup had spent his entire major league career in St. Louis.

As the Cardinals slumbered into June trying to stay above .500, Rickey had to look for “outsiders.” It was then he saw the name of Pete Alexander on the waiver wire, and nabbed him at marginal cost.

Alexander couldn’t have enjoyed a more satisfying first week with his new team. In his first start for the Cardinals, he faced McCarthy’s Cubs—and beat them, 3-2, allowing just four hits. At the same time, the Cardinals began to take off in the standings.

Alexander’s rebirth at St. Louis didn’t ignite the Cardinals at first, as the team continued to play average ball through July. But in August they found their groove, winning 22 of 28 to end the month—capped by a doubleheader triumph over the fading Pirates that pushed St. Louis into first place. September gave the Cardinals new competition from the Cincinnati Reds, sporting a league-high .290 batting average and a star-studded rotation that included Carl Mays, Eppa Rixey, and 20-game winner Pete Donohue. Yet a six-game Cincinnati losing streak in the season’s waning weeks killed any hope of a Red celebration.

St. Louis took its first-ever pennant with second baseman Rogers Hornsby at the helm. In his five previous years, the “Rajah” had stunned fans with an overall batting mark of .402, while averaging 29 home runs and 120 runs batted in per season. His numbers slumped in 1926 to .317, 11 and 93, but he could be forgiven; he dealt with recurring thigh and back injuries, losing 15 pounds as a result. Off the field, Hornsby was also likely consumed with the failing health of his mother in Texas. When she died on the eve of the World Series, Hornsby—always known for making few friends with his blunt and icy disposition—was softly grilled by the press for prioritizing baseball over a funeral. However, the fact was that his family had told him to carry on, so he did.

Completing a swift and impressive rebuilding program, the New York Yankees rebounded to face the Cardinals in the World Series.

Powerful new blood had injected itself into the Yankees lineup. New faces included 22-year-old second baseman Tony Lazzeri, who the year before had obliterated Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of 60 home runs and 222 RBIs at Salt Lake City, elevation 4,000 feet. Facing tougher pitching and sea level conditions as a rookie in New York, Lazzeri still applied enough punch to produce 18 homers with 114 RBIs.

Seven times over his career, Babe Ruth led the AL in two of the three categories needed to win the hitter’s triple crown. On three of those occasions, he finished runner-up in the third category—and barely.

In his second season as an everyday regular, Lou Gehrig further established the Yankees’ return to championship normalcy. For his part, Gehrig would bat .313, rake out 83 extra base hits (including an AL-leading 20 triples) and score 135 runs.

But most of all, Babe Ruth was back after his sickly, strife-torn 1925 effort. The Sultan of Swat recaptured the AL lead in home runs, RBIs, walks, and runs scored.

The Yankees went from a team of question marks to one of exclamation points in 1926, tearing into first place early and coasting to their fourth pennant in six years. New York received a brief scare after Labor Day from the Cleveland Indians, managed for the last timeSpeaker would be brought down after the season by rising accusations that he and Ty Cobb fixed a game in 1919. by Tris Speaker. But the Indians’ last-minute rush was too little, too late. The Washington Senators’ two-year rule over the AL ended with a fourth place finish; aging pitchers Walter Johnson and Stan Coveleski shouldered too much of a burden for a depleted staff that played musical chairs with its starting rotation.

Babe Ruth made for a public sideshow days before the World Series by visiting a New Jersey hospital and promising an 11-year old named Johnny Sylvester—reportedly dying from a case of blood poisoning—that he would hit a home run in the World Series just for him.

Legend has it that 11-year old Johnny Sylvester lay near death when he was “saved” by Babe Ruth, who made good on a promise to hit a home run for him at the World Series. Sylvester went on to live a long life, though it took him three years to fully recover from the blood poisoning that led to his fame. He served in the Navy during World War II and later became president for a package machinery manufacturer; he died in 1990 at the age of 74.

The kid’s condition must have deteriorated after hearing about the Yankee offense, limited to a total of four runs and 15 hits through the first three games. Fortunately for New York, they got one win out of it when Herb Pennock outdueled Bill Sherdel in Game One. But Alexander shut the Yankees down in Game Two, 6-2—retiring the last 21 batters he faced—and Jesse Haines shut them out in Game Three, 4-0.

In Game Four, Ruth awoke—and Johnny Sylvester started improving dramatically, so they said. Ruth crushed three home runs, a career first, in his first three at-bats at Sportsman’s Park. The 10-5 rout gave New York the momentum to take the series lead when Pennock again outlasted Sherdel in a come-from-behind, 3-2 Game Five win in 10 innings.

Back home at Yankee Stadium—and needing just one win to clinch the Series—New York ran into Alexander not once, but twice. In his scheduled Game Six start, Alexander remained sharp, and he was well supported by the St. Louis lineup during a 10-2 romp.

For Game SevenThe 1926 World Series was the third straight to go the seven-game distance., the Cardinals took early control when they sneaked three unearned runs off Yankees starter Waite Hoyt in the fourth. But the St. Louis lead was cut to one in the sixth, and an inning later, Cardinals starter Jesse Haines ran into bigger trouble. Though he had gotten two outs, the bases were loaded—and worse, a blister had developed on the index finger of his pitching hand. The dangerous Tony Lazzeri was at the plate. Hornsby came over from second base to play manager, looked at Haines’ finger, then peered toward the St. Louis bullpen.

He wanted Alexander.

Alexander looked in no condition to enter into this critical moment. He had quelled his celebratory drinking binge of the night before as only an alcoholic could—by continuing to drink. Pitching mate Flint Rhem claimed to see Alexander alternately napping and taking swigsSt. Louis third baseman Les Bell insisted, in a 1978 Sports Illustrated article, that Alexander was not inebriated. from a pint of whiskey kept hidden under his jacket. Nevertheless, Alexander answered the call.

On the mound, Alexander told Hornsby he was fine and refused to throw any warm-up tosses—Lazzeri might catch on to his state of being. To work he went. The first pitch missed; the second nailed the strike zone with Lazzeri looking. The Yankee rookie didn’t watch the next offering; he launched a drive that keyed in on the left-field foul pole—then curved just foul for a second strike.

The long strike, it turned out, was Lazzeri’s best shot. He swung and missed at the next pitch, and Alexander completed a bailing out of one of baseball’s most historic bases-loaded jams.

Tony Lazzeri strikes out to end the famous sequence between him and a cold, hungover Pete Alexander. Just one pitch earlier, the impressive 22-year-old Yankee rookie had missed a home run just feet from the foul pole.

Alexander’s day was far from over. He impressively retired the side in order in the eighth inning; in the ninth, he got the first two out. Then came Babe Ruth to the plate. Drawing the count full, Ruth received ball four and trotted to first as the tying run.

With Bob Meusel at the plate—and Lou Gehrig on deck—Ruth sensed Alexander’s condition and figured he could get a terrific jump on him. So Ruth tore for second on the very first pitch. Cardinals catcher Bob O’Farrell was keeping a close enough eye on the situation, and fired to Hornsby at second—who applied the tag successfully on Ruth, ending a most memorable Game Seven.

The Cardinals’ triumph was the successful terminus of a decade-long road from neglect to respect, giving the Mound City its first world title in 40 years.

Pete Grover Cleveland Alexander, for better or worse, would surely drink to it.

1927 baseball historyForward to 1927: The Yankee Juggernaut The 1927 New York Yankees—the team often considered as the greatest ever—sweeps away the competition.

1925 baseball historyBack to 1925: An Intestinal Excess The good life—or too much of it—finally catches up with a bloated Babe Ruth.

1920s baseball historyThe 1920s Page: ...And Along Came Babe Baseball becomes the rage thanks to increased offense and the magical presence of Babe Ruth, whose home runs exert a major influence upon the game for ages to come.

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1926 Standings

National League
St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs
New York Giants
Brooklyn Robins
Boston Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
American League
New York Yankees
Cleveland Indians
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators
Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
St. Louis Browns
Boston Red Sox

1926 Postseason Results
World Series St. Louis (NL) defeated New York (AL), 4-3.

It Happened in 1926

Goin’ Dutch
Cleveland Indians pitcher Dutch Levsen starts, completes and wins both ends of a doubleheader on August 28 against the Red Sox at Boston. He allows a run on four hits in each game—and doesn’t strike out a single batter. Twenty-three previous doubleheaders had been swept by the same pitcher, but none since—and here’s likely why: Levsen’s career goes into a downward spiral following the double win, and many suspect that’s because he never recovers from the overuse of his arm on the day.

A Lofty Plateau
Earl Sheely of the Chicago White Sox ties a major league mark when he collects extra base hits in seven consecutive at-bats at Boston against the Red Sox, May 20-21. Six of Sheely’s hits are doubles, one a home run; in between he lays down a sacrifice hit, which officially does not count as an at-bat.

Oasis of Power
Shortstop Tommy Thevenow, in his third year for the St. Louis Cardinals, hits his first two career home runs five days apart in September, and adds one more less than a month later during the World Series. Thevenow will then come to bat 3,347 more times over 12 years without hitting another. It’s the longest such drought in major league history.

Getting a Grip
Answering to the cries of pitchers overpowered by increased batting and slugging percentages, all major league mounds will now come equipped with rosin bags to help give pitchers a little extra help in gripping the ball. The American League initially rallies against the idea, but ultimately allows it.

Closin’ Up With Firpo
Firpo Marberry, baseball’s first true closer, becomes the first pitcher to save over 20 games in a season when he earns his way to 22 for the Washington Senators. Marberry had held the previous record of 15, which he set in 1924 and tied in 1925.

The Fifth Time is the Charm
It was first called North Side Park, followed by Weeghman Park, Whales Park and Cubs Park. Now, for its 13th year of major league use, the ballpark at 1060 West Addison in Chicago finally gets a name that will stick: Wrigley Field. It’s named after current Cubs owner William Wrigley, who obtained majority interest in the club in 1921.

Brooklyn Babylon
The Daffiness era of the Brooklyn Robins is beginning to take shape. On August 5, 40-year-old Zack Wheat cracks a home run that will be his last—and most painful—at Brooklyn; both legs go out on him before he can finish half of his home run trot and, after sitting on second base for five minutes, gets up, refuses a courtesy runner and hobbles in agony the rest of the way home.

Ten days later, the defining moment of Brooklyn’s daffy days takes place when Babe Herman attempts to stretch out an extra-base hit against the Boston Braves and winds up at third—along with two other Brooklyn runners, who were either confused by the ball’s whereabouts or the third base coach’s commands. Two of the runners are tagged out and Herman is credited with doubling into a double play.

Blowing Off Bubbles
Cincinnati’s Bubbles Hargrave becomes the first catcher ever to win a batting title when he hits .353 for the Cincinnati Reds—despite officially coming to bat only 326 times. Because catchers rarely played everyday in the 1920s, the qualification rules were more lenient for them. Under today’s guidelines, the 1926 National League batting champ would be Pittsburgh rookie Paul Waner, with a .336 average.

Praying for Sunday Baseball
In a merciful move, Sunday baseball is allowed in Pennsylvania for one day, on August 22, after the Philadelphia A’s sit through three consecutive rainouts at home against the Detroit Tigers. Although the rain sticks around on Sunday, it’s light enough to allow the A’s and starting pitcher Lefty Grove to defeat the Tigers, 3-2. State law will not give into Sunday baseball on a permanent basis until 1934.

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