Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pirates 1951 exhibition benefited blinded player

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

            A benefit game for Julius “Moose” Solters was played on July 9, 1951, at Forbes Field between current Pittsburgh Pirates players and former Pirates active on other teams.
            Solters, who had played nine Major League seasons, all in the American League, had been blinded as a result of an accident on the diamond during the 1941 season and had been trying to support his wife and five children by operating a tavern in the Beltzhoover district of Pittsburgh.
            After outfield practice at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 1, Solters got in the way of a baseball thrown by teammate Joe Kuhel to Luke Appling. “I was crossing the field, heading for the dugout, when I saw my two brothers-in-law in the stands. I waved to them and that’s all I remembered,” he said later. 
            The ball struck Solters in the left temple. He was hospitalized for two weeks with a fractured skull.
            He returned to action on Aug. 14, but by the end of the month, had to remove himself from the line up frequently, sometimes for days at a time.
            The next season he his eyesight began to fail and he eventually became totally blind.
            The 1951 benefit was organized by former Pirates infielders Lee Handley and Frank Gustine..
            The Solters benefit game was the Pirates’ third charity exhibition in a month. The first two had been a home-and-home series with the Cleveland Indians.
On June 11 at Municipal Stadium, in a game dubbed the Health and Welfare Exhibition, the Bucs had beat the Indians 9-5 before a crowd of 8,568.
A return engagement at Pittsburgh on June 25 was a benefit for the Children’s Hospital. A home run derby, an accuracy throwing contest for catchers and a base-running race, preceded that game. Winning wrist watches for their performances in the pre-game contests were Ralph Kiner, with five home runs, Joe Garagiola, who was the only catcher to throw a ball into a bucket at second base, and Bobby Avila, who circled the bases in 15.4 second. In the game, the Pirates defeated the Indians 5-2 before a crowd of 9,517.
The Pirates turned over their share of the gate, $6,640 to the Children’s Hospital, while the Forbes Field union employees donated their night’s pay, $1,418.
In the July 9 Solters benefit game, the current Pirates defeated the former Bucs 1-0, before a crowd of 9,533..
In the line-up for the current Pirates was a “ringer” in the person of shortstop Danny O’Connell. O’Connell was then serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Virginia. He had returned to Pittsburgh on a three-day pass. That pass was extended when U.S. Senator Herman Welker of Idaho phoned O’Connell’s commanding officer and requested the extension so that O’Connell could participate in the benefit game. Welker was an accredited scout for the Pirates. Since army colonels don’t say no to U.S. senators, O’Connell was OK’d to play.
The “former Pirates” had their own ringer. Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller, coming off his third career no-hitter, did a bit of relief work. Feller had been snubbed by American League manager Casey Stengel for the All-Star team, and paid his own way to Pittsburgh for the Solters benefit. Feller had been a teammate of Solters with the Indians,  1937-39. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Feller was tagged with the loss.
In a short speech at home plate after he was presented with a check for the game’s proceeds of $15,633, Solters, according to Pittsburgh baseball writer Dan McGibbeney, “‘looked’ around spacious Forbes Field and, with a sob in his voice, said:
“‘It is the most wonderful feeling to know that I have so many friends. As I stand here tonight I can see in my mind the beautiful green trees and grass which make such a wonderful backdrop beyond the outfield walls. This wonderful gesture you are making tonight proves once again to me that baseball and its people are truly the best sports in the world.’”
Besides the game’s proceeds, the fund for Solters was bolstered to more than $16,000 with other donations, including $250 each from the American League, the National League and the Commissioner’s office.
The 14 Pirates’ alumni who played in the game were: Stan Rojek, Wally Westlake and Cliff Chambers (Cardinals), Bob Elliott and Ebba St. Claire (Braves), Dixie Howell and Jimmy Bloodworth (Reds), Ken Heintzelman (Phillies), Gene Woodling and Johnny Hopp (Yankees), John Berardino and Dale Long (Browns), Hank Borowy (Tigers) and Clyde Kluttz (Senators).
The current Pirates’ lineup played the entire game, with O’Connell (3b), Rocky Nelson (1b), George Metkovitch (cf), Gus Bell (rf), Pete Reiser (lf), Ed FitzGerald (c), Monty Basgall (2b), George Strickland (ss) and Junior Walsh (p).
The Pirates’ principal star and drawing card, Ralph Kiner, was not at the benefit game. He was in Detroit at a meeting of league and player representatives held the day before the July 10 All-Star Game.
Though he had begun playing baseball in the sandlots around his native Pittsburgh in the 1920s, Solters had never played for the Pirates. He spent his entire big league career in the American League.
His pro career began in 1927. After hitting .393 with Binghamton in 1932 and .363 with Baltimore in 1933, he entered the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1934, batting .299. He was traded in mid-1935 to the Browns. Prior to the 1937 season he was traded to the Indians, where he had his best season, hitting .323. He returned to the Browns on waivers late in1939. In 1940 he was traded to the White Sox.
Following his injury, Solters sat out the 1942 season. He returned to play in 42 games as a fourth outfielder for Chicago in 1943, hitting just .155 against wartime pitching.
Solters appeared in several of the major baseball card issues contemporary with his career, notably 1934 Goudey, 1934-36 Diamond Stars (shown at top), 1939 and 1940 Play Ball (shown above) and 1941 Double Play. He died in 1975.

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