Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #44

This is the forty-fourth in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn whether a movie correctly predicted Ken Griffey’s stardom during his rookie season, discover the interesting role that Babe Ruth played in the institution of the trade deadline and shake your head at how a “joke” game cost a Hall of Famer an impressive pitching record.

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

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: In Back to the Future II, a bat “autographed” by “Ken Griffey III” is used in a scene set in 2015.

STATUS: False

Few films seem to spawn as many rumors, myths and legends as the Back to the Future franchise, particularly the scenes in the second film set in the future.

Whether it be the famed “hoverboards are for real” joke by director Robert Zemeckis (that way too many people took seriously) or the requests sent to Nike for self-tying sneakers like the ones Marty McFly wears in the film, people really took the scenes set in 2015 quite seriously. The world of sports also has a great many legends spinning out of those 2015 scenes in Back to the Future II, which makes sense, seeing as how the plot of the second film involved a Sports Almanac being used to travel back to the past to amass a fortune through gambling.

The most prolific sports legend about the film involves the (falsely) assumed notion that the film predicted that the Florida Marlins would win the 1997 World Series and/or the 2003 World Series. In reality, the film simply states that the Chicago Cubs defeated the “Miami Gators” in the 2015 World Series. As Major League Baseball did not yet have a team in Florida at the time of the making (or release) of Back to the Future II, the filmmakers likely deserve some credit for predicting Florida baseball, but I think it is safe to say that Florida baseball was seen by many of the time as an inevitability more than a possibility (and indeed, it was just four years later that the Florida Marlins joined the National League as an expansion team).

However, another sports legend about the film is about the bat that young Griff Tannen (grandson of the main antagonist of the trilogy, Biff Tannen) uses in Back to the Future II. Did they really think to have it autographed by Ken Griffey III before Ken Griffey Jr. ever became a superstar?

As you might expect, with the added development necessary before entering the Major Leagues, #1 draft picks in Baseball do not have nearly the same success rate as their contemporaries in Football, Basketball and Hockey. When a basketball #1 pick does not become a great player, it is seen as bad luck. If a baseball #1 pick does not become a great player, it is seen as almost typical. I featured this topic in an old Baseball Legends Revealed about the only player to be drafted #1 in the MLB draft twice (you can read that story here)! Amazingly enough, George Kenneth Griffey Junior, when he is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in three years, will be the first #1 draft pick to be elected to the Hall of Fame (the draft began in 1965) (things look a lot brighter for the future, though, with Chipper Jones a cinch for the Hall and Joe Mauer, Adrian Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez all having decent odds for enshrinement). So with those odds, when Griffey was selected first in 1987, he was certainly not a sure thing. He did get a goodly amount of hype, though, especially as he was the son of three-time Major League All-Star (as well as a two-time World Champion and the winner of the 1980 All-Star Most Valuable Player award), Ken Griffey (who played most of his career for the Cincinnati Reds). When Griffey made the Majors in 1989 at the age of 19, he gained quite a good deal of media attention (he ended up finishing third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, behind closer Gregg Olson and starter Tom Gordon). So it would certainly make some sense for the filmmakers of Back to the Future II (which was released in November of 1989) to make a little nod to Griffey (and his parentage) by having a teenager in 2015 wielding a bat autographed by Ken Griffey III.

But did they?

The scene in question happens when Marty McFly is impersonating his own future son. He is tasked with keeping his son from going along with a robbery with “Griff” Tannen and his gang of hoods. Griff attacks him with a futuristic baseball bat. Later, after a chase involving “hoverboards” (skateboards that, you know, hover) Marty appears to be in trouble when his hoverboard gets stuck over a small pond (hoverboards don’t work over water unless you have an independent power source). Griff’s hoverboard DOES have an independent power source, so Griff prepares to zoom after Marty and smash his head in with his baseball bat. As he prepares to do so, we quickly see the baseball bat. You can definitely make out that there is a name on the bat, and it appears as though it is a K___ G______ and then either “Jr.” or “III.” Ken Griffey III certainly would fit the scene.

However, it is not Ken Griffey III.

Bob Gale, screenwriter of the film, actually specifically debunked this legend back at the end of last year. Here is Gale on the subject (from this following nifty Back to the Future website):

Griff’s bat is signed by “Kirk Gibson Jr.” The gag was inspired by Kirk Gibson’s stellar year in 1988 and clutch walk off home run in that year’s world series, which took place just a month before we started shooting Back to the Future Part II. The gag was concocted by production designer Rick Carter and me, in a discussion regarding what signature the bat should have on it. Neil Canton [producer of the film - BC], being a die-hard Giants fan, went along with it, seeing the humor in it, despite his total disdain for the Dodgers.

So there you go!

Amusingly enough, in 1994, Griffey Jr. did, indeed, have a son. And he was, in fact, named George Kenneth Griffey III, although they decided to call him “Trey” as his nickname, which is what he goes by today. He is a well-regarded wide receiver prospect currently deciding what college to attend following his standout play at Dr. Phillips High School in Florida. Perhaps some day Trey Griffey will play professional sports, but it most likely will not be baseball!

Thanks to Bob Gale for the great information!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Babe Ruth played a part in the institution of Major League Baseball’s first trade deadline.

STATUS: True

Every year, as the baseball season gets closer to the July 31st Major League Baseball (MLB) Trade Deadline, fans’ thoughts generally turn to where players will end up being dealt (if they get traded at all). However, did you ever think about why there is a deadline? It has been July 31st since the players and owners collectively bargained for it to be changed in 1986. For the previous sixty-three years it was June 15th. How did it get to be June 15th? And how did it come into existence in the first place? The answer lies with a few deals involving Boston and New York, both the Red Sox and Yankees of the American League and the Braves and the Giants of the National League. It also does somehow involve Babe Ruth.

Read on to find out how!

I have written before about the environment surrounding Red Sox owner Harry Frazee’s 1920 sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees (you can read an extensive piece on it here), but I’ll quickly set the scene for you. At the time, the American League and the National League were very much run as their own independent leagues. It would not be until later in 1920 (with the Black Sox Scandal making headlines) that Major League Baseball would appoint Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the very first Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

In the American League, among the eight teams, there was a split between those five teams loyal to Ban Johnson, President of the American League (Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Washington Senators, Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Browns) and the three teams that were at odds with Johnson (New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox). It was a very strange situation to be in, as an all out civil war in the American League seemed to be a constant threat, so teams like the Yankees and Red Sox would actually go out of their way to make deals with the other teams for purely political reasons (you know, like “you can’t say that we don’t deal with you – we just sold you Player X!”).

So when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for a little over $100,000 (plus some other financial interests, including help on the mortgage to Fenway Park), the rest of the league was outraged at the idea of the Yankees using their great financial strength to take advantage of the Red Sox to the detriment of the rest of the American League.

Meanwhile, the new owner of the Washington Senators, Clark Griffith, also tried to get Ruth from the Red Sox, but he did not have much luck. Moreover, when he saw how much Ruth was signed for, he became a bit worried. The fact that the Yankees were willing to spend so much was a sign to the players in the American League that, hey, the owners had money to spend – we should be getting a piece of that money. This might have been true for the other owners, but Griffith, who was in his first year as the owner of the Senators after managing the team since 1912 (he and a partner, grain broker William Richardson, purchased a controlling interest in the team in 1919 and Richardson allowed Griffith to represent both of their interests), had no other income than from the Senators and their stadium (which was re-named Griffith Stadium). So he took a hard line with his players in that first 1920 season. In addition, Griffith decided to try to get involved in American League leadership (as he was one of those owners who was friendly with Ban Johnson) and Griffith proposed a new rule that required that no player could be sold to another team for more than the waiver price. This was a direct response to the Babe Ruth sale (of course, if money was included in a trade of players, that was all right, which is obviously exactly what ended up happening). This rule of Griffith was strengthened by the other owners into a new rule – that no trades or sales could take place between August 1st and the end of the World Series. This was the first trading deadline in Major League Baseball history (the National League, in 1917, had instituted a rule saying that after August 1st, players would have to clear waivers to be dealt, but that was not a strict deadline like the American League’s new rule).

After the Babe Ruth sale, any deals between the Yankees and Red Sox began to be viewed with disdain by the other owners (and there were a lot of them, as the Red Sox sent the Yankees the following players- Ernie Shore, Duffy Lewis, and Dutch Leonard in 1918; Carl Mays in 1919; Babe Ruth in early 1920; Waite Hoyt, Harry Harper, Wally Schang, and Mike McNally in late 1920 and Everett Scott, Joe Bush, and Sam Jones late 1921). The problem was that after the 1920 season, the Black Sox scandal broke out and suddenly Charles Comiskey was no longer available as a friend to Frazee. So the Yankees owners were Frazee’s only friends in the American League, which was likely why he did so many deals with them. Still, after the Yankees won the American League pennant in 1921, Frazee tried to quell the complaints (especially Ban Johnson’s brutal comment that Frazee was a “champion wrecker of the baseball age”) by pointedly dealing with the other teams. Most notably he worked out a three-way deal with the Athletics and the Senators where he sent star shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh (who he had just acquired from the New York Yankees) to Washington for shortstop Frank O’Rourke and third baseman Joe Dugan (who came from the Athletics, with the Senators sending pitcher Jose Acosta and outfielder Bing Miller to the Athletics to complete the trade). As soon as the deal happened, though, the other teams all grumbled that it would only be a matter of time before Dugan would end up a Yankee, as they felt Frazee only acquired Dugan because he could later sell him to the Yankees for $50,000.

Frazee held off on such a deal, but late in the season, with the surprising St. Louis Browns in first place (two and a half games ahead of the Yankees) and the Red Sox mired in last place, Frazee could not hold on to Dugan any longer. So on July 23, 1922, Frazee traded Dugan and right fielder Elmer Smith to the Yankees for outfielder Elmer Miller, shortstop Johnny Mitchell, utility man Chick Fewster, pitcher Lefty O’Doul (initially a Player to be named Later) and, of course, $50,000. The Yankees then went on to surpass the Browns and win the American League pennant (although they were swept by the New York Giants in the World Series, their second straight defeat to the Giants in the Series).

The other teams were apoplectic, President Ban Johnson included. Johnson wanted to ban mid-season trades all together.

However, what is often overlooked in the hullabaloo over the Dugan trade is the fact that it was really ANOTHER deal with Boston and New York that put the collective outrage in the baseball community over the edge. You see, while the Yankees had been using their financial advantages to, well, their advantage, so, too, had the New York Giants in the National League.

Only twice did Frazee deal a player to the Yankees late in the season. Mays in 1919 and now Dugan in 1922. The Giants, however, repeatedly made deals in July.

In both 1917 and 1919 they made deals, with the August 1, 1919 acquisition of star pitcher Art Nehf from the Boston Braves for pitchers Joe Oeschger, Red Causey, and Johnny Jones, catcher Mickey O’Neil, and $55,000 being the most notable.

In June 1920, the Giants acquired star shortstop Dave Bancroft from the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Art Fletcher, pitcher Bill Hubbell and $100,000.

In June and July of 1921, the Giants made a number of deals, with the most notable one being the late July acquisition of outfielder Irish Meusel (then hitting .353 with 12 home runs) from the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Curt Walker, catcher Butch Henline, and $30,000. The deals helped the Giants come from four games back of the first place Pirates and win the National League pennant and then the 1921 World Series.

In late July 1922, the Giants had a small one and a half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals when the Giants acquired pitcher Hugh McQuillan from the Boston Braves for pitchers Larry Benton, Fred Toney, and Harry Hulihan and $100,000.

Now, finally, after years of little media attention to the Giants and their mid-season acquisitions, THIS deal suddenly drew the rage of sportswriters across the country, as the Giants were being accused of “buying” the championship once again.

It helped that the two teams most affected by the New York teams and their trades were both from St. Louis. Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey tried to drum up moral outrage over the deals, getting the City Council, the Rotary Club and other local St. Louis organizations to send letters of protest to Commissioner Landis. After the season, with complaints from all sides, Landis agreed to make changes (it helped that the owners had recently agreed to new rules allowing Landis considerably more power as Commissioner) and while he did not take Ban Johnson’s “no mid-season trades” rule seriously (especially since Landis strongly disliked Johnson), he did agree to make a trade deadline for the Major Leagues, choosing June 15th based on a suggestion by the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Barney Dreyfuss.

So that’s how we got the June 15th trade deadline. First the Babe Ruth sale, and then later Boston/New York deals.

Thanks to Mike Lynch and his brilliant book, Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson, and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and Ted Leavengood’s nifty biography, Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball , as they were filled with information about this topic (particularly Lynch’s book).

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A “farce game” ended up robbing Walter Johnson of an impressive pitching record (although the robbery was not recorded for over half a century!).

STATUS: True

In 1912, Clark Griffith became the manager of the Washington Senators. He would manage the team for nine seasons and eventually buy the team himself.

A tradition he started early on was that at the end of the season, he would treat the fans to a “farce game,” a game intentionally played for laughs (only if the game did not affect the standings – the Senators were in second place in the American League in 1912 and 1913 and third places in 1914). For instance, Griffith himself (a former star pitcher then in his 40s) would come out of retirement on the last game of the season to pitch in relief in 1912-1914 (he got an at-bat in each of the three games and actually hit a double in 1913 and 1914!). When the game was actually held in D.C. in 1913, they went even MORE overboard!

The Senators and the Red Sox played a wild game on Saturday, October 4th 1913 that included a then-record EIGHT pitchers used for Washington!

The Senators’ star pitcher Walter Johnson was the center fielder that day! He stole two based that day. With the Senators up 10-3 going into the 9th inning, Johnson moved from center to pitcher Senators coach Jack Ryan (like Griffith, in his mid-40s at the time) came in to catch. Johnson intentionally throw two lob pitches to the Boston hitters. They both got hits. Johnson then moved back to center field (while pretending to be disgusted at his performance) and the Senators back-up catcher, Eddie Ainsmith, came in to make the only pitching appearance of his career. Ainsmith promptly gave up back-to-back triples, scoring both runs. Griffith came in to pitch, forming an octogenarian battery with Ryan. The Senators used a then-record five pitchers in the inning, including rookie second baseman Joe Geldeon, before they managed to hold on to a wild 10-9 victory that seemed to entertain everyone (including the umpires, who let both teams have additional outs during the game).

Here is the twist, though. Since the game was a joke game and Johnson intentionally threw what amounted to batting practice pitches, the official scorer did not charge Johnson with the earned runs. This left Johnson with a 1.09 ERA for the season, a remarkable year in which Johnson went 36-7 with 243 strikeouts in 346 innings pitched.

That 1.09 ERA was one of the best ERAs of all-time and it was THE best ERA for a pitcher who threw over 300 innings.

Well, in 1968, Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in over 304 2/3 innings pitched. At the time, while it was a tremendous feat, it was thought to be the second-best ERA of a pitcher who threw at least 300 innings.

Sometime in early 1980s, though, a researcher was going over Johnson’s box scores and discovered the scoring decision. Naturally, it was overruled (as the game WAS an official game, even if it was intended as a joke) and so Johnson’s ERA for 1913 ended up as 1.14, making him second to Gibson among pitchers who threw at least 300 innings (and from fourth to sixth in best single-season ERA by a pitcher qualifying for the ERA title).

So the joke, as it turned out, was on Johnson! Then again, he died thinking he had the record (and he also died a first ballot Hall of Famer – and when I say “first ballot,” I mean FIRST BALLOT, as he was one of only five men to get elected in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural induction in 1935), so I don’t think he minded too much.

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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