December 15, 2017

Book Review: Urban Shocker, Silent Hero Of Baseball's Golden Age, By Steve Steinberg

Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age
By Steve Steinberg (University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Urban Shocker pitched parts of 13 seasons for the New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns before dying at age 37 of heart failure in 1928.

In his introduction, Steve Steinberg writes that having been diagnosed with heart irregularities himself in 2009 provided him "with a stronger understanding of and connection to Shocker's story". Steinberg has delivered an informative and empathetic portrait, breathing life into the largely forgotten story of a man who threw his last major league pitch almost 90 years ago.

Steinberg has co-written two books (with Lyle Spatz) that cover much of the same time period as this biography: 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York and The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership That Transformed the New York Yankees.

Shocker was supremely confident in his abilities, often to the point of cockiness. After being signed by the Yankees, he reported for spring training in 1916 and made the club, but after two relief appearances, he was sent down to Toronto (International League). The demotion rankled him, but he performed extremely well, setting a new IL record of 54 consecutive scoreless innings. When he rejoined the Yankees in August, a sportswriter asked if he expected more challenges from major league hitters. "One league is just the same as another," Shocker said. "They fall for my stuff in one just as they do in the other ... I got a ball none of them will do much with."

Shocker's reputation as a cerebral pitcher (with "the nerve of a burglar") was established early in his career. He read several newspapers each day, studying the box scores to discern which hitters were hot. He was also a keen observer while on the mound, intuiting a batter's intentions by the way he waggled the bat or by the placement of his feet in the box. "I doubt there is another pitcher in the game," wrote St. Louis sports editor Sid Keener, "who studies his batters as carefully as Shocker and gives them just what they don't want."

Steinberg quotes one description of Shocker's legendary slow ball (or change-up) as coming upon the batter "as mist drifts past a street lamp on a foggy night". To another writer, his slow pitches "looked as big as trucks and were as elusive as greased fleas". Many observers believed his change-up was actually a spitball, and while Shocker did throw a spitter, he threw it infrequently, and less often as he matured.

Shocker had been with the Yankees for two seasons when Miller Huggins was hired as manager in 1918, and one of Huggins's first decisions was to trade the right-hander to the Browns. Huggins later regretted his "foolish" decision, saying he had taken advice from too many people and "my informant had done Shocker a very grave injustice".

Steinberg's narrative balances the events of Shocker's life with the larger trends in baseball during the 1920s, such as Babe Ruth's emergence as a hitter and the subsequent increase in offense, the banning of certain pitches, and the evolution of the rosters of both the Yankees and Browns (with spotlights on George Sisler and Bob Meusel, among others).

For much of his career, Shocker's confidence was coupled with a pugnacious attitude on the field. He often argued loudly with umpires about balls and strikes, both on the mound and at the plate. He was also friends with fellow pitchers Ray Caldwell and Dave Davenport, both heavy drinkers. Shocker sometimes disappeared on road trips, likely off on a bender and staying with his sister, who lived in Detroit. One newspaper quoted a heckler yelling "Urban Schicker!" (Yiddish for a drunk).

After the Yankees reacquired Shocker for the 1925 season, he began experiencing health problems, suffering from shortness of breath and dizziness. He knew he needed to pace himself (keeping his condition a secret was essential) and was more reserved now, more subdued. In 1928, Shocker confided to sportswriter Bill Corum: "I've slept sitting up for three years". Lying down created congestion in his lungs and made him feel like he was choking. (Corum kept Shocker's comments a secret for decades.)

During the winter of 1927-28, Shocker's weight dropped to 115 pounds (his playing weight was usually listed as 170). He talked about retiring, hoping that would buy him some time to get his weight back up. Shocker eventually joined the Yankees and, on May 30, pitched two scoreless innings of relief against the Senators. No one knew it, but that would be the final game of his career.

Less than two weeks later, Shocker collapsed while pitching batting practice in Chicago. He passed away in September 1928 in a Denver hospital. An autopsy revealed an overworked and enlarged heart. As Steinberg states: "He simply could not pump enough blood through his body."

(This review was originally written for the Society for American Baseball Research's Deadball Era Committee.)

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