Friday, August 15, 2014

The Bad News Bees, Part 3a, Bill Rumler

(Editor's note: Parts 1 and 2 of this series appeared on this blog on June 14-15 and July 10-11.)

In 1919 Salt Lake City had clean air, clean-living people . . . and dirty ballplayers.
While the attention of baseball fans was focused on revelations of the dirty doings of the Black Sox in Chicago, a parallel scandal was unfolding on the West Coast involving several former major leaguers. Three of them were teammates on the Salt Lake City Bees.
             The scandal had its genesis in the 1919 Pacific Coast League pennant race. Like the Black Sox thing, it would not become widely known until August of 1920 when one of the Salt Lake players was observed accepting a $300 pay-off. Before the season was over, a Los Angeles grand jury had begun an investigation into the attempts of gambler Nate Raymond to fix the 1919 season for the benefit of the Vernon Tigers.
            Using Vernon first baseman Babe Borton to get to players on other teams, Raymond followed the Tigers up and down the Left Coast fixing ballgames. He later bragged that he had made $50,000 on crooked games.
            Vernon won the 1919 PCL pennant, finishing 2-1/2 games ahead of Los Angeles and 18 games in front of third-place Salt Lake City. In winning the championship, the Tigers split a $10,000 bonus pool put up by fans, plus the $8,000 winners’ share of the “Little World Series” won 5-4 over St. Paul of the American Association.
            While the Bees as a team missed out on a similar windfall promised for a pennant win, at least three of the team’s key players had collected personal bonus money amounting to something like two weeks’ salary for the average Coast Leaguer. A year later those private pension programs put the players beyond the pale of Organized Baseball; run out of the game by team and league officials with the wisdom and courage to protect the integrity of the Pacific Coast League.
            In this multi-part series we’ve been looking at the trio of 1919 Salt Lake City Bees who sold out.
The story of Gene Dale was published here June 14-15. Harl Maggert’s part in the scandal was detailed July 10-11. This presentation is an updating of a series of articles published in 1993 while I was publisher of Sports Collectors Digest.

Bill Rumler’s story mix of

‘Eight Men Out,’ ‘Natural’

Bill Rumler

Once a man has stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter – the game on the line – in the extra-innings gloaming with Walter Johnson clutching a dirty baseball in his huge hand, 60 feet and six inches away, there is little else on this earth that will raise the small hairs at the back of that man’s neck. *
An exception, however, is an approaching storm on the Nebraska prairie with a line of black funnel clouds rising and dropping like God’s own knuckleball on greenies. No man, no matter what else he’s faced on the ballfield or elsewhere in life, sees nature’s ultimate brushback pitch headed his way without beginning to bail.
It is what the man does after he regains control of his wits, his cardiopulmonary system and his bladder that is his true measure. In the case of Bill Rumler, chief of police in Milford, Neb., in 1957, he just did his duty – protect and serve. In the teeth of the storm, Rumler drove his black-and-white up and down, across and back, the streets of the community, siren wailing a warning of the impending twister. A citation for heroism presented later by the U.S. Weather Bureau credited Rumler with saving many from death or injury.
It was a high point in a 20-year career of public service in and around his home town. A town where, according to a newspaper account on his retirement, he owned the most familiar face on Main Street.
A local newspaper photo, date unrecorded, shows Bill
Rumler (right) about the time he retired from his post-
baseball career as Chief of Police in Milford, Neb.
While Rumler’s visage may have been familiar to the residents of Milford, the details of his life as a professional ballplayer were not common currency. Many knew that he had spent time with the St. Louis Browns. With a few he had shared the pride of ownership of a couple of major league pinch-hitting records and a league-leading season as a minor league outfielder. With no one – not even family – had he shared the shame of once having been banned from Organized Baseball for his part in the biggest gambling scandal in the modern history of the national pastime, save only the Black Sox’ sellout of the 1919 World Series.
Rumler was the left fielder and usual cleanup hitter for the Salt Lake City Bees in 1919. When allegations surfaced the next season that certain Salt Lake players had accepted money from Babe Borton of the Vernon Tigers to throw the Pacific Coast League pennant to Vernon, it was revealed that Rumler had been the recipient of $250 in bribe money.
The Salt Lake City outfielder readily admitted to the technicality of having bet against his own team, but emphatically denied throwing any games to Vernon. The facts seemed to bear out his claims. For that reason Rumler received the lightest punishment of the conspirators in the P.C.L. pennant scandal of 1919. Instead of being banished for life from Organized Baseball, Rumler was handed a five-year suspension. Baseball’s hierarchy must have felt that a five-year set-down amount to a lifetime ban for a 29-year-old ballplayer, but Rumler proved them wrong in a manner rivaling “The Natural” in drama and near-unbelievability.
In fact, the story of Bill Rumler’s life would make a great movie,
Born to immigrant parents – a German father of Amish ancestry and a Russian mother – in the Mennonite farming community of East Milford, 20 miles west of Lincoln in southeastern Nebraska in 1891, Rumler got his start in pro ball at about the age of 22 as an Indian; not a Cleveland Indian, a faux-Cherokee Indian.
Rumler got his start in pro ball around
        1912 as a faux Indian on a traveling
         team. In the above photo he's pictured
        second from left in the top row.
 The Cherokee Indians were one of several touring novelty teams of the era which traveled the central portion of the United States playing town teams, county all-stars and even the occasional Negro Leagues team wherever a crowd could be gathered at a quarter-a-head.
Rumlar later admitted he told some tall tales and adopted the name “Black Hawk” to catch on with the team as a catcher. A photo in the family album shows the team decked out in eagle-feather and buffalo-horn headdresses. Hand-written on the page above the photo is “1st Year Out 1913”. While it’s possible that date is accurate, it is also possible the year was 1912. Newspaper articles based on interviews with Rumler in later life frequently quote dates that are at odds with contemporary baseball records.
What is definite is that by 1913 Rumler was playing minor league ball. He opened that season with Great Bend in the Kansas State League (Class D). In 61 games he batted .314 and was fourth in the league with 22 stolen bases. His fielding average was worst among the league’s catchers.
When the league disbanded in mid-summer, Rumler went to Burlington of the Central Association (also Class D). In 37 games he hit .350 to lead the league. At the close of the season he was purchased by the St. Louis Browns. The last-place Browns’ backup catchers. Bill McAlester and Walt Alexander, had hit just .144 in 1913, with no home runs.
At 6’1”, 180-pound Rumler must have looked like good raw material to one of the game’s best judges of talent, Branch Rickey, who had been the third of three Browns skippers that season in his first major league managerial assignment.
Rumler spent the entire 1914 season in the American League, mostly on the bench. He caught nine games for the Browns, and played half a dozen in the outfield. As a pinch-hitter he was 2-for-18 (.154) and he batted just .174 overall.
For 1915 Rumler was farmed out to the Atlanta Crackers. While he hit only .253 in the Southern Association, he was tied for fourth in the league with six home runs. He was the second-best fielder among the league’s catchers, and also spent time in the outfield.
Rumler remained in the S.A. when the 1916 season opened, but changed teams, to Little Rock, which had a long association with the Browns. During spring training he caught the attention of The Sporting News, which said, “Rumler’s throwing certainly has been sweet during the exhibition games, and the best of the base runners were made to look like flat feet when they tried against him.”
Halfway into the season, Rumler was batting .337 with eight home runs when Branch Rickey visited the club looking for a new catcher. When the peace agreement had been reached between the National and American Leagues and the upstart Federal League following the 1915 season, Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Federal League franchise, had been allowed to buy the Browns and merge the players from the sixth-place A.L. club with those of the second-place Federal Leaguers. Rickey had stocked his roster with a pair of back-up backstops from the Terriers, Harry Chapman and Grover Hartley. That pair hit .209 for the 1916 season, with no home runs.
In late July, Rumler rejoined the Browns. The Sporting News said, “In order to get more hitting on the team big Bill Rumler will be returned. Rumler is said to have developed rapidly as a backstop,” the paper continued. “It is to be hoped so, for he was pretty crude when up before. But he can hit and it is among the probabilities that he will be turned into the outfield in order to put more punch in that department.” That account also indicated that Rumler had been laid up for a week or 10 days, and may be another week in recuperation before getting into action with the Browns. It was the first notice of a string of injuries that would cost Rumler his major league career and plague him throughout his professional ballplaying days.
Rumler never did make it to the outfield for the 1916 Brownies. He caught nine games and went to the plate 15 times as a pinch-hitter. He batted an even .400 in that capacity, and hit .324 overall for the season with St. Louis. Sharing the bench with Rumler on the ’16 Browns was second-string first baseman Babe Borton.

For 1917, Rumler’s role was limited to an occasional (nine) relief appearance in the outfield – that of the major league’ premier pinch-hit specialist. In a record 71 pinch-hit at-bats, Rumler had 16 hits (.225), which was the best in the majors that season. Pinch-hit appearances are not well-chronicled in the contemporary record books, so it is difficult to say how long Rumler’s 71 at-bats in that role in 1917 remained a record. In 1932 Sam Leslie had 72 PH at-bats; the record is currently held by Lenny Harris, with 83 for the Mets in 2001. Rumler may well have improved on his record that season, but on May 15 he took such a powerful cut at the ball – and missed – that he dislocated vertebrae in his back and was out of action for more than a week. Overall Ruler hit .261 for the Browns in 1917.
 Despite the shortage of players during World War I, the Browns released Rumler to Columbus of the American Association prior to the opening of the 1918 season. Rumler never played for the Redbirds, however, as he was drafted into the Army on May 27. Rumler never saw combat in the Great War. He was assigned to the 5th Company, 163rd Depot Brigade at Camp Dodge in Iowa. He rose to the rank of sergeant during his hitch, spending most of his time playing ball. “I didn’t care about playing ball,” Rumler told an interviewer many years later, “but they found out right away and wanted me to play ball.” An injury suffered on the ball diamond was probably responsible for Rumler’s escape from overseas duty. In a September game against Ft. Riley, Rumler attempted to slide back into first base on a pick-off attempt and broke his leg. By the time his leg had healed, the Armistice had been signed and Rumler was discharged on Dec. 11.

* For the record, on June 1, 1917, Bill Rumler came to bat as a pinch-hitter in the top of the 10th inning at Washington. The game was tied 2-2 and Walter Johnson was on the mound. Rumler singled and the Browns won 4-2.

(Continued tomorrow)

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