So, Are We Sure About These Tigers Scrimmages?

Ever seen this singular photo before?

It is one of the few remaining documentations of the day a bright idea by the Boston Red Sox that wound up – in all likelihood – costing them the 1946 World Series:

Photo Courtesy Boston Red Sox

On the left, Red Sox centerfielder Dom DiMaggio. In the center, pitcher Tex Hughson. On the right, in the Sox road gray: Joe DiMaggio – who didn’t have his regular uniform with him for one of the fateful games Boston played 66 years ago.

The Detroit Tigers’ idea to address their five day layoff between finishing sweeping the Yankees and facing the Cards or Giants in the Series by playing a pair of exhibition games is not new. The Red Sox did the same thing in 1946.

And it killed them.

We forget this now, but the Red Sox were prohibitive favorites to win a Series remembered for “Slaughter’s Mad Dash” and the disastrous 5-for-25 performance of Ted Williams. Boston had clinched the American League pennant with a 1-0 win on September 13th (courtesy of a Williams homer, naturally). They won by 12 games over a defending champion Tiger team that nearly played .600 ball, and a tidy 17 over the third place Yankees who imploded and went through three managers. Williams supplied a slash line of 38/123/.342 and had an OPS of 1.164 (and four other guys in the line-up were at .799 or better). The Red Sox were the team to beat.

But the National League race was back-and-forth between the Dodgers and Cardinals and with an N.L. first-place tie – and a Series-delaying three-game playoff looming – Sox Manager Joe Cronin and General Manager Eddie Collins thought they needed something to keep their Heroes alert and awake while the N.L. decided which of its teams was going to be its sacrifice to the mighty Boston maw.

They scheduled three exhibition games for the Red Sox…versus American League All-Stars. It was a helluva plan – in theory. The Red Sox got such luminaries as Hank Greenberg and Luke Appling and Joe DiMaggio (hence that crazy picture) to travel to Fenway and put the Champs through their paces.

They also brought in Mickey Haefner.

Haefner had just completed a 14-and-11, 2.85 season for a Washington Senators squad that only the year before had finished a buck-and-a-half behind the A.L. Champion Tigers, so he belonged among the All-Stars doing their part for the greater glory of the American League. But there was only one problem with letting Haefner throw towards your hitters, even in an exhibition setting.

He was a knuckleballer.

On October 1st – which would’ve been the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, had the N.L. only made up its mind in 154 games – Haefner was pitching for the All-Stars against the Red Sox at Fenway. And one of his knucklers – and he threw it in the Niekro/Dickey range of hardness, not the Wakefield range – hit Ted Williams in the elbow.

Got him exactly right. There is no idea how hard the pitch was thrown but the pain was sufficiently excruciating to send Williams to the hospital for X-Rays. While those few who saw the injury held their breath (and presumably Collins and Cronin tried to figure out how they could each blame the other), the tests came back negative. That’s the way it was in those days: broken or not broken. Nothing about deep bone bruises or inflamed ligaments or anything else. It hurt? It ain’t broken. Put some ice on it and play.

Williams played. 5-for-25, .200. It would be decades before Ted acknowledged that the elbow pain never really subsided through the subsequent Series. The only post-season appearance of his career produced five measly singles. And when reporters concluded Williams had not risen to the occasion, or had been psyched out by what was even then a rare but not unique infield defensive shift, Williams let them blame him. Despite the apparent justification for such a claim, he never blamed his ’46 World Series nightmare on the Haefner Hit-By-Pitch.

That the Sox lost the Series was not the end of the story. The pall of that loss lingered for generations. Boston would slide into the second division, then the basement, and would not emerge until the year after Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame. That his performance in the 1946 Classic was the low point of Williams’ career goes without saying. He eventually admitted it was the low point of his life.

Talk about the Curse of the Bambino? Bolshoi! The Curse of Mickey Haefner, more like!

If you check history – especially internet history – you might see passing mention that Williams hurt his elbow when hit by a pitch “in an exhibition game just before the World Series.” But what you do not see is the disturbing truth that is of particular relevance tonight: Williams hurt his elbow when hit by a pitch in an exhibition game just before the World Series that had been arranged by his own bosses to try to keep the Red Sox sharp FOR THE WORLD SERIES.

Today, of course, Collins or Cronin would’ve been fired or at minimum vilified by history for their gross stupidity. Didn’t happen that way. Cronin succeeded Collins as General Manager, then became American League President in 1959. Both of them are in the Hall of Fame and Cronin has his retired number 4 right up there with Teddy Ballgame’s.

The Tigers are not asking any of their vanquished foes to help them fill the competition gap by playing these exhibitions (the term they used was “scrimmages”) on Sunday and Monday. They have flown up the minor league kids like pitchers Hudson Randall and Joe Rogers from the Florida Fall Instructional League  to fill the role played by the A.L. All-Stars in the last ill-fated attempt to keep the rust from growing while the National League tries to figure out its champion (Cards or somebody else).

Presumably the Tigers will take every precaution against the obvious things: sliding (no!), diving for fly balls (don’t!), line drives back at pitchers (use the Batting Practice screen!). But unless Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski are aware of the 1946 Red Sox disaster and the saga of Mickey Haefner, they cannot possibly be prepared for the inadvertent pitch that just…gets away.

What do they do if Miguel Cabrera gets hit in the elbow? Or the knee? Or the head? Or while at third base takes a one-hopper off his bean, as he did in Spring Training?

Hudson Randall and Joe Rogers, you say? Neither of them is a knuckleball pitcher, right?


  1. RobertaK (@justme2)

    Fascinating history — Marty Lurie on KNBR in San Francisco just mentioned this on his show, so had to come take a peek. It’s a fine line between developing rust and risking injury. Life is definitely interesting here by the Bay; chance of rain early in the week which could push the Series start back even farther if STL/SFG have to play a game 7. (But hey, would it have killed ya to actually acknowledge the presence of the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, instead of calling them “somebody else”?)

    • Nick Carlson (@Nick_C_C)

      Yeah (regarding Giants)!
      Also what if CC Sabathia has a serious elbow injury, because he is seeing Dr. James Andrews (cue frightening organ chord)? If he misses significant time in 2013, will it be a first since 1995 (no Yankees OR Red Sox in postseason)?

  2. Sandy M.

    Very good point. I think it would serve the Tigers well to heed this bit of advice. Now if they just read it! Well done, Keith, as usual. Everything you write is brilliant. And I ditto what Ron said in his comment before me. Looking forward to your return soon. Can’t come soon enough for me.

  3. mary_caruso

    This was a great historical piece. I enjoy reading about how it was back then. Love the picture of Joe DiMaggio (another hero of mine). Good tale of the knuckleballer Mickey Haefener and what can go drastically wrong in a flash. That’s the second time I’ve heard about a knuckleball pitcher besides Jim Bouton. I really appreciate your writing about baseball. You show a true love of the sport and make it easy for me, a novice, to understand. I’m not making any bets but I would really like to see the Tigers win this one. Unfortunately that may not be the case. It should be a great series to watch in any event.

  4. StyleWriterNYC

    Given this is Leyland’s solution to the same no-play stint that is blamed for 2006, what’s your in-between solution?

  5. John

    And how many times has a team sat around and done nothing and been the favorite and end up losing? Oh that’s right, how about the Tigers in 2006 with Jim Leyland as manager. Freak things happen in life. How many players have been injured taking batting practice, or even slipping in the shower.

  6. Rob MacKnight

    Great history, but in no way are the Tigers ill-advised for trying to stay sharp. With the modern interminable playoff system, hot teams can get iced. No better example than in 2007 when the Rockies were rewarded for their two series sweeps by being iced for NINE DAYS until the World Series with Boston finally came around. Inaction is DEATH for baseball players, and the Rockies went from super-hot to ice cold and got swept.

    Baseball players have to be sharp, aggressive, and not pussyfoot around worrying about injuries. I applaud the Tigers for doing all they can to be at their best for when the damned World Series FINALLY comes around where we may once again see The Summer Game spill into NOVEMBER. Ugh!

  7. davepowers

    so, perhaps the answer is to A. have scrimmages, but B. don’t use knuckleballers?

    thanks for posting this, love the blog and glad I found it

  8. rolandtrotter

    Love the article but lets face it Leyland hasn’t gotten the benefit of the doubt on any decision this year. If he lets his guys sit and they go cold he is wrong, if they work out or scrimmage and someone is hurt he is wrong. By the way I’ve seen the photo before but never realized they were wearing different uniforms.

  9. walt kovacs

    didnt care before. now i want the giants to win the nlcs and the ws

    forcing ko to write about stupid baseball cards and how his beloved yanks are right on the cusp of another world championship

    the fact is, back in the day, ball players werent athletes…except for mays

    so anything they did could cause an injury

    dimaggio was a fraud…there are kids in low a who could strike him out


  10. Juan

    Hey Mr Olbermann! Now would be a good… nay, perfect time, to gather the children ’round the campfire and tell us the story of how this would have been the second square-off between Giants and Tigers, if it wasn’t for Fred Merkle and Johnny Evers.

    Please don’t forget to mention and clarify if Iron Joe McGinnity or Christy Mathewson (who pitched that very same game) was first-base coach when the Giants were batting. Pitchers as baserunning coaches during the game? So if Mathewson came to bat AND was coaching first base, did Iron Joe replace him for just the at-bat?
    It’s… it just gets weirder and weirder the more one reads about the day of the Merkle Boner, fascinating stuff and this chapter of baseball history is relevant this week.

  11. shthar

    I see these ‘scrimmages’ drew about 2,000 fans.

    From what I know about baseball of that era, the sox saw a chance to make some more $ and took it.

    I’m not sayin it was a good decision, just why it was made.

  12. walt kovacs

    after the series is over, will ko finally apologize to vogelsong, the giants, giants fans, the city of san francisco, the state of california, and baseball fans everywhere?

    will he finally admit that he and the rest of press who live east of the mississippi, know little to nothing about the greatest game ever created?

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