Baseball fans can read about a largely forgotten 1920s pitcher in Steve Steinberg’s new book “Urban Shocker: Silent Hero Of Baseball’s Golden Age” (University of Nebraska Press).
The author first became aware of the pitcher in the 90s at a memorabilia store. “I noticed a card that said Urban Shocker on it,” Steinberg said. “I thought it was a description of an event in a city. Then I realized it was the name of a ballplayer.”
Shocker was a Yankee from 1916-17 and 1925-28, while having four consecutive 20-win seasons for the Browns in between.
When Miller Huggins became New York’s manager, he unloaded Shocker to St. Louis, thinking that he could be a problem in the clubhouse. In reality, Yankee pitcher Ray Caldwell had a drinking problem and Shocker happened to be friends with him. “Huggins really had insight for personnel,” Steinberg said. “It was rare that he got rid of anyone that was great somewhere else.”
Shocker became somewhat of a Yankee killer. He certainly wanted to make them pay for trading him. If the Browns were to play a four game series with the Yankees, Shocker would ask to start the first and fourth games. On one occasion, he started two games in a row and wound up in the hospital with an arm problem. Shocker wound up as a less remembered member of the iconic 1927 Yankees, but in St. Louis he was one of the bigger names.
“With the Browns he was one of the most colorful personalities,” Steinberg said. “He was arrogant, temperamental. He had incredible showdowns with Babe Ruth.”
On one occasion, Shocker told his outfielders to play shallow and threw a strike to Ruth. Then Shocker called them in even more. Strike two. Then Shocker called them in to the point where they were almost on the back of the infield dirt. Strike three.
Shocker went 20-10 in 1920. He followed it up with a league-high 27 wins in 1921. In 1922, St. Louis threatened for the AL pennant, finishing just one game behind the Yankees. Shocker went 24-17 with a league high 149 strikeouts in 348 innings of work. (Guessing that no pitcher will reach that mark in 2017.)
Shocker had his own method of advanced scouting in the 1920s.
“He would buy a newspaper in every city and study the box score,” Steinberg said. “With only seven other teams in the league, it was possible to know everyone you’d face without a computer.”
Huggins reacquired Shocker and after the pitcher went 12-12 for the 1925 Yankees, Shocker went 19-11 as New York took the 1926 pennant. The good feelings were somewhat erased as Shocker struggled in the World Series against the Cardinals, which included surrendering a critical home run to Billy Southworth.
Shocker’s health was deteriorating because of a heart valve issue, something that is fixable now but was akin to a death sentence 90 years ago. Still, Shocker went 18-6 for the Murderers’ Row Yankees that went 110-44, although he didn’t pitch in New York’s World Series sweep over the Pirates.
Shocker pitched in one game for the 1928 Yankees as his health got worse. He finished his career with 187 wins, although the author wanted to explore more than just ‘Shocker pitched a five-hitter on such and such day’.
“I tried to stay away from making it a daily pitching log,” Steinberg said. “I wanted to get my arms around the person and what made him tick.”
Shocker died on September 9, 1928 at the age of 37. Because his best years came with the Browns, he is somewhat overlooked compared to Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock. “With Shocker dying in 1928 and Huggins dying in 1929, it was like the end of an era,” Steinberg said.
Now Shocker gets an in-depth look and a long overdue one.