Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Turkey Red cabinet immortalizes Street's feat

The Washington Monument, from which
Gabby Street caught a baseball in 1908,
can be seen at far left on Street's
1910-11 Turkey Red cabinet card.
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.

Like most baseball fans, I’d long ago heard of Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street’s feat of catching a baseball thrown from the top of the Washington Monument on Aug. 21, 1908.

I’ve mentioned the event once before in this venue, on Feb 9, 2014, when I wrote of a less lofty recreation of the ball-drop Street accomplished 37 years later.

Beyond knowing that he had been successful in catching a couple of balls in 1908, I don’t recall ever hearing the details.

I found a first-hand account in an interview Street gave to New York Daily Mirror sports writer Bob Considine that was republished in the Oct. 12, 1944, issue of The Sporting News.

According to the Considine article, the idea for the feat originated—as such things often do—over drinks at the National Press Club. Washington Post society editor Preston Gibson repeatedly insisted that Street could, indeed, catch a ball thrown from atop the highest point in the nation’s Capital. He backed his belief with a number of not insignificant wagers with others among the ink-stained wretches around the bar.

On the appointed day, Gibson schlepped 13 baseballs to the top of the 555-foot obelisk, where a 20-foot long wooden trough had been erected. The newspaperman let the first few balls roll down the trough, but it was not long enough and the balls bounced off the sides of the tapered monument's base. 

Street then telephoned Gibson to abandon the trough and throw the balls out further so they would not be blown into the side of the structure. Gibson then began throwing the balls, which achieved the necessary clearance, but Street lost them in the sun—potentially a fatal failing.

Moving over to the shady side of the Monument, Street missed on a couple more. 

Street said that it had been his original intention to catch the balls waist-high, figuring that the worst that could happen would be a broken wrist or arm.

When the strain of looking that high into the air got to be too much, Street enlisted Washington shortstop George McBride to spot the falling baseballs for him. Street didn’t look up until the pellets were about 200 feet above him.

Under that system, Street reported, “I caught the fourth one I tried for, and the thirteenth and last one Gibson threw.

“Caught both of them right over my head,” Street recalled. “They’d have gone right through my head if I had missed them. Sure, they were ‘heavy,’ but not too heavy. I just used my regular mitt—no sponge or anything." Mathematicians estimated that Street caught 300 pounds of energy at the end of the balls' 550-foot drop.

“Gibson told me later that each catch I made sounded like a .38 revolver going off, even way up there at the top of the monument.”

Street reckoned that Gibson collected a lot of money from his bar bets. “I know he paid me $500,” he said.

Street reported that one of the spectators offered to buy the first ball he caught for another $500. “But I hung on to it for years and finally turned it over to the American Legion in Joplin, where I live, and they raffled it off in a war bond rally that brought $45,500.”

The ball that Street caught on the 13th attempt returned the public eye in 1964, when it was revealed to be in the possession of Gibson's son, James McMillan Gibson. 

The younger Gibson discovered the ball in his father's effects after his death in 1937. He told George Minot of the Washington Post that his father had not displayed the ball.

Gibson told the reporter that he bought a special plastic case for the ball and displayed it on a shelf in the study of his N Street home in Washington, D.C.

Curiously, the ball is an official National League ball. Printed in black ink on it is, "August 21, 1908, 11:30 a. m. Dropped from the Washington Monument by W.J. Preston Gibson, caught by Gabby Street, 550 feet, 135 feet per second."

James Gibson moved the ball when he and his wife vacated their Georgetown mansion after selling it to Jacqueline Kennedy.

The souvenir's current whereabouts are currently unreported.

Next time we’ll look at claims that others made successful catches of balls throw from the Washington Monument before Street’s feat.

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