Monday, September 22, 2014

Rescuing dog cost Van Atta his career

Russ Van Atta appeared on a 1933 Goudey
bubblegum card in his rookie season of 1933.
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.

While reading microfilm on a sunny Sunday spring morn, I spotted a story that particularly resonated with me.

The “Scribbled by Scribes” press roundup column in the March 28, 1940, issue of The Sporting News picked up a story by Charles Segar of the New York Daily Mirror, who reported that the career of recently retired seven-year major league veteran pitcher Russ Van Atta had been ruined by saving the life of a dog.

“Van Atta did well in his first season back in 1933, and that fall returned to his home in Franklin, N.J., with great prospects,” Segar was quoted. “But the fates were unkind. A fire hit Van Atta’s homestead. The pitcher saved his family, but in the house was the family dog. Van Atta went back. There was no way to reach the pet but by smashing a window, which Van did. The dog was saved but the result was two badly-cut fingers on his left hand.

“Came the spring of 1934,” Segar continued, “The fingers that had been cut had no feeling. Days and weeks came and the fingers felt the same. A year, then another. One operation after another. Teeth extracted . . . massage . . . baths . . . treatments from quacks and reliable men . . . hope. Van clung to that. Everything would be all right.

“He let no one in on the secret until one day last summer,” the story continued. “when the Browns sent him to the minors and he couldn’t pitch. He told me (the story) and pledged me to secrecy until he was definitely able to go on,” Segar revealed.

“He still had hope. He wanted one more chance. The other day he joined the Browns. A few days in camp. It was the same old story. The fingers that he could put over a flame without feeling any pain were lifeless. They had lost their touch forever. He broke the news to the Browns’ officials that he was through. No use carrying on.”

Van Atta was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University. It has been reported that he lost only one games in four seasons for the Nittany Lions.
1936 Goudey "Wide Pen" premium.

The N.Y. Yankees signed him and sent him to Hartford in the Class A Eastern League for 1928. On the strength of an 8-4 record and 2.37 ERA he was promoted to St. Paul in the American Association for 1929. He pitched four years for the Saints, compiling a 42-36 record before his 22 wins in 1932 earned him a promotion to the big club for 1933.

Van Atta had one of the most successful major league debuts on record at Washington on April 25, 1933. Backed by a lineup that included six future Hall of Famers, he not only shut out the Senators 16-0 (five hits, three walks and five strikeouts), but was 4-for-4 at the plate with a sacrifice bunt and an RBI.

The pitcher had a 12-4 rookie season for the Yankees. Because of his hand injury, he was 3-5 in 1934. When he started the 1935 season pitching only a handful of innings over five games in release he was sold to the St. Louis Browns in mid-May.

From 1935-39 Van Atta never had a winning season with the Browns, pitching mostly in relief. His record for St. Louis stood at 18-32 early in 1939 when he was sold to Toronto where he finished his professional career with an 0-1 record and 15.00 ERA.

During World War II, Van Atta served a four-year term as sheriff of Sussex County, N.J., later serving six years on the county’s board of freeholders. He had a successful career in sales with Gulf Oil Corp. He died in 1986 at the age of 80.

Van Atta’s tragedy hit home with me on two counts. I have great respect for any man who would do what Van Atta did to save his dog. Secondly, I can relate to the pitcher’s dead fingers.

For several years I have been losing the feeling in some of my phalanges. Probably due to a combination of diabetic neurothapy and thousands of blood-sugar test finger sticks, the little finger and ring finger on each hand have been going numb. All feeling is gone from the little fingers and there is little sensation left on the ring fingers.

The loss of feeling has begun to make everyday tasks more challenging. I dread the day that more of the digits should become affected, particularly if the time should ever come when my ability to manipulate a computer mouse would fail, rendering me unable to create my custom cards. 

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