Death to Flying Things
One of my all-time favorite baseball player nicknames is "Death to Flying Things." Bob Furguson, who played in the 1860s and '70s, earned that nickname first for his defensive prowess. Then his contemporary, Jack Chapman, borrowed the nickname, too. Chapman was a player/manager for the Louisville Grays in the 1870s. Over 100 years later, Franklin Gutierrez was bestowed the moniker as an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners. Of course, there have been many players in history who could seemingly catch any ball coming their way. There were even some players who went to ridiculous extremes to prove it.
Bob Ferguson circa 1838 (Image source)
Gabby Street was a weak hitting catcher for the Washington Senators in 1908. But his ability to catch the great Walter Johnson’s blazing fastball is what the Senators sought. A Washington sportswriter named Pres Gibson was an ardent supporter of Street. One evening, Gibson (perhaps after a few drinks of Kentucky bourbon) bet a Street hating fan that Street could catch any ball – including one tossed from the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument. Street agreed to the stunt and on August 21, 1908, Gibson climbed the 555 feet to the top of the monument with 13 baseballs.
After lightly tossing a few down and having them hit the side of the monument, Gibson began tossing them harder, but they were sailing wildly with the wind and out of the reach of Street. Gibson then moved to the opposite side of the monument where the monument shielded the wind. After a few close misses from Street, Gibson was down to ball 13. His last throw was true, and Gabby camped out under it and he held on to the delight of the crowd that had gathered. His catch inspired more players to try the stunt, while raising the stakes.
1973 Fleer card depicting Gabby Street catching the baseball dropped from the Washington Monument (Image Source)
Seven years later, future Hall of Famer Wilbert Robinson attempted an even wilder stunt. The former star catcher for the Orioles was, by 1915, the popular manager in Brooklyn. So popular, in fact, they called themselves the Brooklyn Robins in honor of “Uncle Robbie” from 1914 – 1931 (you know them now as the Los Angeles Dodgers).
The 52-year-old former catcher attempted to catch a ball dropped from a plane during spring training at Daytona Beach. Ruth Laws, a female aviation pioneer, would be the pilot and ball dropper. A 24-year-old outfielder named Casey Stengel allegedly wanted to play a prank on his manager. As Laws was getting ready for takeoff, Stengel swapped the baseball with something more native to Florida: a baseball sized grapefruit.
As Laws approached the field in her plane to “throw” the ceremonial first pitch from 500 feet in the air, she released her citrus cargo and it came soaring down as Robinson drew a bead on it. Splat! The “ball” hit Robinson in the chest and exploded, knocking Uncle Robbie to the ground. Dazed and covered in red liquid, the startled Robinson likely thought his days were numbered. After his team roared with laughter, it became clear he had been duped. Whether Stengel gave the grapefruit to Laws is still up for debate, but “The Old Perfessor” would go on to become a beloved manager for the Yankees.
In 1938, Cleveland’s Terminal Tower was the second tallest building in the world. To promote the city and the 708-foot building, the Cleveland Indians took their turn at the stunt. Rookie third baseman Ken Keltner threw balls from the top floor of the tower and, after a few misses, catchers Hank Helf and Frankie Pytlak each caught a ball. With a reported crowd of 10,000 fans, I’m declaring that this was the “golden age” of catching baseballs from ridiculous heights.
Hank Helf positioning himself to catch ball dropped from Terminal Tower (Image source)
And just in case you had a hankering of trying the stunt yourself, keep reading.
Joe Sprinz was a veteran catcher for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1939. The 1939 Seals also starred Dom DiMaggio, the youngest of the DiMaggio brothers. To try to best the Indians record setting catch, Sprinz tried to top it on August 3rd, 1939 – his 37th birthday. The Seals coordinated to have someone throw balls from the Goodyear blimp that hovered 800 feet above.
The first four balls, Sprinz missed. The fifth ball, estimated to be travelling at 154 mph, Sprinz snagged in his catcher’s mitt. The force of the ball drove the mitt into his face, breaking his jaw in 12 places, fracturing five teeth, and knocking him unconscious. And if his birthday bash wasn’t bad enough, the ball trickled out of his mitt. He’d miss the remainder of the season and spent three months in the hospital recovering.
Death to flying things nearly became death from flying things. That incident seemed to at least slow things down.
Joe Sprinz during his time with the Seals (Image source)
In 1980, Cleveland’s Terminal Tower was celebrating its 50th Anniversary. To celebrate, the building’s management asked the Indians to recreate the stunt they accomplished back in ’38. Perhaps because of the Sprinz incident, the Indians declined. Enter Ted Stepian. Stepian was an eccentric businessman and then owner of both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Competitors – a professional softball team. He agreed to the stunt with him throwing softballs from the top floor to his softball outfielders below. It did not go well - Stepian threw five softballs from the top floor. One ball was missed, two balls hit bystanders – breaking one woman’s wrist, and a fourth ball hit a parked car and damaged it. Having no communication from the ground Stepian, continued to hurl all five balls. Finally on the fifth ball, the Competitor outfielder made an impressive grab with bystanders and area parked cars collectively breathing a sigh of relief.
If you enjoyed this blog, you’ll enjoy an upcoming blog featuring a guest blog contributor from a Padres VP that coordinated the Padres’ 1982 attempt of the stunt.