Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #37

This is the thirty-seventh in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, we learn the strange tale of how Cy Young and Amos Rusie changed the life of Zane Grey, whether Deion Sanders played professional football and baseball on the same day and discover the time Rick Honeycutt oddly hurt his forehead in a game.

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Amos Rusie and Cy Young helped to keep Zane Grey from becoming a major league pitcher.

STATUS: True (in a roundabout way)

Pearl Zane Grey (better known as just Zane Grey) was one of the most prolific and popular pulp novelists of the 20th Century. His books have been adapted countless times for films and TV (he even had a TV series in the late 1950s based just on his stories), with perhaps his The Riders of the Purple Sage being his most popular story (both in terms of popularity with fans and with amounts of times adapted into other media).

Grey’s path to literary stardom was a circuitous one, though, and it was one that might have gone an entirely different way had it not been for the abilities of the best pitchers of the early 1890s, Amos Rusie and Cy Young in particular. How did these two future Hall of Famers alter the path of Zane Grey’s life? Read on to find out!

In the early days of professional baseball, the official rules of the game were more than a bit nebulous. In a lot of ways, they were making things up as they went along. Heck, until 1894, foul balls did not even count as strikes (imagine the tedium of watching an at-bat with today’s batters if foul balls did not count as strikes! Bobby Abreu’s at-bats would take two hours!)! Mostly, as was the case with the foul balls as strikes rule, the rules would change in response to what was seen as a negative situation (in the case of foul balls not counting as strikes, it was the annoyance of batters just sitting there fouling ball after ball just trying to get the pitcher to eventually throw four balls for the walk). In the original official rules of baseball that was agreed on upon the formation of the National League (NL) in 1876, the pitching mound (it was barely even a mound back then, perhaps best to just call it the pitching rubber) was 45 feet away from home plate. This worked for a few years, but by 1880, pitching had developed to the point that 45 feet was just way too close. The batting average in the National League dropped to .245 as a league, down from .265 in the first year of the NL. So in 1881, the mound was moved five feet backwards to 50 feet.

This, too, worked out well for awhile, but through the 1880s, things began to change once again as pitchers adjusted to the new distance. Batting averages actually dipped below .245 in 1885, and in 1887 the rules were changed again. The pitching rubber was, in effect, shaped like a box. Pitchers were allowed to pitch from the front part of the box (50 feet away) but in 1887 that was changed so that they had to pitch from the back end of the box (55 feet 6 inches away).

Batting averages skyrocketed, but very soon, they began fluctuating again. Heck, in 1888, the league batting average dipped under .240 entirely!!) In 1892, after the league batted .245 once again as a whole, the rules committee decided to change things again. However, this time around, it was not just the league’s batting average as a whole (because, after all, as I mentioned, they had hit below .240 just a few years earlier), but rather because of the physical capabilities of some of the current crop of pitchers, most prominently the aforementioned Amos Rusie and Cy Young.

Rusie and Young were both dominant fastball pitchers (although no radar guns existed at the time, it seems believable enough that both men were hitting 90 miles per hour). Rusie reached the National League one year ahead of Young, in 1889, and he was an instant sensation. Hailing from Indiana, Rusie was quickly dubbed “The Hoosier Thunderbolt,” and by the end of the 1890 season (which he played for the New York Giants) he was a pop culture phenomena. There was even a book released about him titled Secrets of Amos Rusie, The World’s Greatest Pitcher, How He Obtained His Incredible Speed on Balls.

Denton True Young joined the NL the next year for the Cleveland Spiders, and became a sensation himself. While there is a bit of a debate over the origin of the “Cy” nickname, Young believed (and I think I tend to believe it, as well) that it came from the speed of his pitches, as they seemed like a “cyclone,” which became his nickname before being shortened to “Cy” (the alternative theory is that he was nicknamed “Cyrus” by his teammates because of his rural upbringing).

While there had been plenty of dominant pitchers in the National League ever since it began, Rusie and Young stood out not just for their pitching acumen, but for their physical size. Rusie was second in the league in strikeouts in 1892 (Young was tenth). Take a look at the dimensions of the other four pitchers in the top five in strikeouts:

5′ 9″, 175 pounds
5′ 10″, 145 pounds
5′ 10″, 175 pounds
5′ 11″, 170 pounds

Rusie was 6″ 1′, 200 pounds and Young was 6″ 2′, 210 pounds!! They were imposing physical specimens for the time.

So it was largely the fear of these lumbering pitchers with their blazing fastballs that led the league to push the mound back even further. Rusie’s beaning of future Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings in 1892 also led to the natural level of concern over their fastballs – Jennings was comatose for four days before recovering – this only strengthened the belief that batters were being put in harm’s way to have the pitcher stand so close.

So the league announced the pitching rubber to be pushed back 60 feet 6 inches, which is where it remains to this day. Amusingly, to counter this effect, the Giants began to raise the rubber into the air (as there was no rule saying how high the rubber could be) to give the towering Rusie an even bigger advantage. Other teams with tall pitchers followed suit, and eventually a standard height for the pitching mound was forced to be determined by the league (decades later, the next time the rules were changed to adjust for pitching dominance was a lowering of the height of the mound in the late 1960s).

What does this have to do with Zane Grey?

Well, Grey was a fine baseball player himself. Born in Zanesville, Ohio (named after an ancestor of his), Grey and his brother Romer were athletic young men who played a good deal of baseball. It was while playing summer baseball for the semi-pro team the Columbus Capitals in the early 1890s that Grey was first discovered by baseball scouts. He was offered a baseball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, which he began attending in 1892 in the pursuit of becoming a dentist (like his father before him).

Grey was a decent hitter, but his primary skills were as a pitcher. He had a great curve ball that had a lot of break to it, and it would often fool hitters. Grey did not have a particularly strong arm, so he would have to fool hitters to get them out, but he was very good at it. Well, two years into his college career, the changes to the professional baseball rules came into effect in the Ivy Leagues, as well. The new 60 foot 6 inch distance was too much for Grey’s arm, and he was finished as a pitcher. He was moved to the outfield, where he was still a decent enough player. He was good enough that he did still consider the possibility of trying to pursue a major league career upon graduating from Penn in 1896, but he eventually deemed it impractical and became a dentist instead. His brother Romer continued to play professional baseball and even made it to the Majors for a cup of coffee in 1903!

While working as a dentist, Grey began to explore his boyhood love of reading and writing, and he had his first story published in a magazine in 1902. Up until this point, he had continued to play amateur baseball in the summer, but when his writing career began to develop he dropped the sport. By the end of the Aughts, Grey had slowly but surely begun to see more of his work published, including his first few novels. In 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage was released to widespread popular acclaim and high sales and Grey became a publishing star, leading to a long and storied career where he was one of the first authors to make a million dollars off of his work (his books sold over 20 million copies during his lifetime). His love of baseball remained, though, as he wrote a couple of novels about baseball.

He passed away in 1939 as one of the most beloved authors in the country, but never a professional baseball player, a path determined by a rule change over forty years later caused by a Thunderbolt and a Cyclone.

Thanks to Thomas H. Pauly’s nifty biography of Grey, Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, for much of the information for this piece!

BASEBALL LEGEND: Deion Sanders played in an NFL game and an MLB game on the same day.

STATUS: False

As the baseball season comes to a close and the football season gets ready to start, now is a perfect time to celebrate that glorious period where the two great sports actually overlap with each other. In honor of this overlap period, I figured we could address one of the greatest two-sport athletes of all-time, Deion Sanders and the legend of whether Sanders actually managed to play a professional game in each league on the SAME day!

All the way back in high school, Deion Sanders was a tremendous athlete. He was All-State during high school in baseball, football and basketball! In 2007, Sanders was chosen to be among the Top 33 high school athletes in Florida State High School history. So it comes as no surprise that a Major League Baseball team would try to get him to turn pro right out of high school. The Kansas City Royals used a sixth round pick on Sanders in the 1985 MLB Draft, but Sanders turned down professional baseball to attend Florida State University, where he was a star athlete playing baseball, football and track.

In April of 1989, the Atlanta Falcons used their first round pick (the fifth overall) on Sanders. In June of 1989, the New York Yankees used their 30th Round pick on Sanders. He signed with both teams, creating an impressive trio of athletes then playing both sports – Sanders, Bo Jackson of the Royals and Los Angeles Raiders and Sanders’ Falcons teammate, Brian Jordan, who played for the Falcons while working his way through the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system.

Sanders made his debut for the Yankees in the 1989 season and in the 1990 season he had a memorable game where the Yankees faced off against Jackson’s Royals. Jackson hit two massive home runs while Sanders raced around the base paths for an inside-the-park home run. Sadly, that highlight was pretty much the only highlight Sanders had in his two seasons as a Yankees, and the team released him after the 1990 season. He signed with the Atlanta Braves and played a role in their remarkable turnaround from last place in the National League West in 1990 to first place in 1991. However, due to a clause in his NFL contract, Sanders had to skip out on the Major League postseason, as the Braves went on to the World Series.

Sanders had a tremendous 1991 season in the NFL, being named to the Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro. Before the 1992 MLB season, Sanders re-negotiated his NFL contract to allow him to return to the Braves after first reporting to the Falcons for training camp. This arrangement allowed Sanders to participate in the 1992 MLB postseason with the Braves, who once again made the playoffs.

What happened in the 1992 MLB playoffs is what I like to call “storytelling rounding up.” Often, when a story is interesting but falls just a bit short of what would really stand out, future re-tellings of the story will often skew the facts so that the story is “rounded up” to the most interesting version of the story. For instance, instead of saying Ronnie Lott risked terrible damage to his injured finger by participating in the NFL playoffs and ultimately had to have a piece of his finger amputated during the offseason, which is a very cool story, the story is “rounded up” to being Ronnie Lott had a piece of his finger amputated so that he could play in the NFL playoffs (I featured the full Ronnie Lott story here, by the way).

With the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Sanders was determined to be available to play in every game of the series, even though Game 5 of the series would take place on a Sunday. In Game 4 of the series in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, with Atlanta up 2 games to 1, Sanders played and entered the game in a double switch in the seventh inning. Atlanta won the game to go up 3 games to 1.

Sanders then flew to Miami where he played for the Falcons in a day game against the Miami Dolphins (the Falcons lost. Sanders had been fined $68,000 for missing the first game of the NFL season, but he had played in every other game since). He then flew from Miami to Pittsburgh to suit up for Game 5 of the NLCS.

However, that’s all he did – suit up. Sanders never got to play in the game (which Pittsburgh won, by the way). So while he certainly tried to make sports history, Sanders was not able to play an NFL game the same day as an MLB game. No player has managed to do it in sports history. But the story has been “rounded up” over the years to go from “Sanders is the only player to suit up for an NFL game the same day as an MLB game” to “Sanders is the only player to play in an NFL game the same day as an MLB game,” (just do a quick internet search for the second sentence and you’ll find a number of places crediting Sanders with playing in both games), and that is simply not true.

BASEBALL LEGEND: Rick Honeycutt cut himself on the tack he was using to cheat in a game.

STATUS: True

Rick Honeycutt spent twenty-one years in the Major Leagues pitching for eight different baseball teams.

Here he is when he was on the Texas Rangers…

In 1980, while pitching for the last-place Seattle Mariners against the first-place Kansas City Royals, in one of the last games of the season, Honeycutt decided he would try SOMEthing different. He took a tack off of a Royals bulletin board and taped it to one his fingers hidden in his glove.

Well, before the game, Honeycutt forgot what he had done. “I came down from the bullpen and sat in the dugout and I forgot I had done the thing. So, I took off my glove and wiped the sweat off my forehead and cut my head with the tack.”

In the first inning, Honeycutt tried the tack, but gave up back-to-back singles to UL Washington and George Brett. So he stopped using the tack to scuff the ball (“scuff” is probably the wrong term. As Honeycutt put it, “If you looked at the ball, it looked like somebody tried to put the mark of Zorro on it. There were obvious marks on it.”).

In the third inning, though, Willie Wilson tripled and he noticed the tack from third base. The next batter, George Brett, singled in Wilson and that is when the umpires came to the mound. They not only discovered the tack but they discovered the gash on Honeycutt’s forehead. He had just barely missed poking himself in the eye with the tack!!

Reflecting on the attempt years later, Honeycutt noted, “Back then, I had heard a lot of people talking about it and I said, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t practice it or anything. It was pretty amateur. I did such a bad job that nobody on my own team knew I had done it. My manager (Maury Wills) and pitching coach (Wes Stock) were laughing at me in the dugout when they found out.”

Thanks to Honeycutt and Sam McManis for the information!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

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