Derrick Rose needs to get healthy, quickly. Chicago’s star guard has missed over 40 percent of his team’s games this season because of nagging injuries, the latest of which is causing a wave of panic to wash over otherwise-optimistic Bulls fans who fear that bumps and bruises could spoil what’s been a dominant season thus far. Sure, the Bulls carry the deepest bench
in the league, yet a poor run of form
(and common sense) suggests their GQ cover boy
must play at a high level if they have any shot at winning the NBA title. “I’m just trying to survive,” Rose joked
earlier this week. So are we, Derrick. So are we.
Thankfully, Rose and other modern athletes now have at their disposal a ton of sophisticated medical procedures and medications to help the body heal, from physical therapy and acupuncture to cortisone injections and advanced surgeries. Professionals—whose livelihood depends on proper functioning arms and legs—will even spend thousands and thousands of dollars on remedies that have not yet passed clinical trials, like the injectable anti-inflammatory drug Toradol
, in which the “patient's own tissues are extracted, carefully manipulated, and then reintroduced to the body.” There are obvious risks in stepping back onto the field or court after undergoing experimental treatments—just ask the owners of drugged thoroughbreds.
But with the biological clock ticking, the more options available, the better.
Dr. George Bennett, a sports medicine pioneer, would be thrilled to see these innovations. Born in the Catskill Mountains in 1885, Bennett was himself a solid baseball player, landing a roster spot on a local semi-pro team by the age of 16. (Friends later described him as a “rather undisciplined little tough guy.”) But medicine was Bennett’s true passion. After high school, he worked a series of odd jobs throughout the Midwest, stashing away his earnings to pay for medical school tuition. Bennett eventually matriculated at the University of Maryland, graduated in 1908, and landed a job at the Johns Hopkins Hospital two years later. He was 25.
It was an interesting time for a sports fan to enter the field, such as it was. “Sports medicine,” as we understand it today, was in no way a recognized discipline. In the locker room, “it was considered effete and unnecessary to have a doctor in attendance” (Washington Post
; March 10, 1962), and trainers—most of whom had no science background—applied the lion’s share of treatments, which often meant rubbing sore muscles with balms. At the same time, doctors were starting to use x-rays with more regularity, producing detailed images of the body without having to penetrate the skin physically. If an entrepreneurial physician studied how the athlete’s body works and used that knowledge to create procedures that sped up recovery times, he could give daring ballplayers a competitive advantage while making a tidy profit for himself.
So Bennett poured over x-rays, starting with baseball pitchers. And what he found was troubling. While baseball players were subject to the same disabilities of the average laborer, repeating the overhand throwing motion over and over did increase by a wide margin the frequency of degenerative joint injuries. The ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the human arm are just not designed to exert the pressure necessary to propel a baseball 60 feet at rapid speeds, much less make it curve in flight. "Pitching,” Bennett would famously say
, “is a most unnatural motion.”
Bennett penned an article in the American Physical Education Review
in 1925 laying out the case in plan details that pitching can create long-term structural damage. He followed that piece up with another influential article in 1941, titled “Shoulder and Elbow Lesions of the Professional Baseball Pitcher
,” that included x-ray photos and a controversial suggestion that pitchers should use the side-arm delivery (like Walter Johnson
) to lengthen their careers. It seems obvious now, but the conclusion was revelatory at the time; pitcher workloads didn’t begin to drop dramatically
until the mid-1920s, after Bennett’s first paper was published.
While he studied joints in the lab, Bennett simultaneously built a successful practice, which he would leave Johns Hopkins to run full-time in 1947. Over time, the doctor garnered what sports columnist Red Smith called “the enviable and deserved reputation for remantling athletes” (Baltimore Sun
; May 28, 1950). Famous ballplayers liked him for a number of reasons: he was clearly bright, he took sports seriously, and he was not afraid to take orthopedic chances if his client requested it of him. Most importantly, he kept his mouth shut; an AP reporter once joked that the only two words the humble Bennett ever said in public were “operation successful.”
Over the course of his career, Bennett opened up stars like Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Pee Wee Reese, and Johnny Unitas.* (Clark Cable and Lord Halifax sought out his counsel, too.) With the help of a colleague at Hopkins, he also invented
the first batting helmet, a hat designed with a specialty zipper pocket that held two hard plastic slabs
. And once in a while, he worked miracles.
The career of Roy Sievers
(pictured above) is an instructive example. A hulking left fielder, Sievers won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1949, hitting .306 and slugging 16 home runs for the St. Louis Browns. But in 1951, after struggling during his sophomore season, he broke his right collarbone diving for a ball in the outfield. The next spring, he dislocated the same shoulder making a throw across the diamond. His career appeared finished. Then Sievers visited Bennett. In what the doctor described as “an experiment,” he drilled a hole in Sievers’ bone, cut his tendons, slipped them through the opening, and knotted them together on the other side to keep the bone from rolling out of the shoulder socket. The procedure drastically limited Sievers’ throwing power, forcing a positional move to first base. While supportive of the initial operation, Browns president Bill Veeck and his colleagues in the front office weren’t convinced he would return to form, so they shuffled him off to Washington in a trade for the unremarkable Gil Coan.
This turned out to be a mammoth mistake; Sievers gradually redeveloped strength in his arm and subsequently took the majors by storm, blasting over 20 home runs in nine straight seasons. His best year came in 1957, when Sievers finished third in the AL MVP race, logging 42 home runs and an on-base plus slugging percentage of .967. According to Bennett, Sievers’ recovery was a “miracle of modern medicine” (Washington Post
; September 20, 1957). The Senator agreed; during an awards dinner for Bennett the following year, Sievers came up to the doctor with a tear in his eye and thanked him for saving his career. Red Smith aptly described Bennett’s enduring reputation: “This sort of thing has become such a familiar story—the halt and lame of sports have been shuffling off to Baltimore for so long now and in such numbers—that a newspaper reader might be excused if he got the notion that Dr. Bennett had invented the practice of medicine.”
Bennett died in 1962,
so he didn’t get to see the creative surgical work of the doctors who followed in his wake. That includes Frank Jobe, who successfully repaired Tommy Johns’ shoulder and launched
a medical revolution. But his impact on sports, and the medical profession more broadly, was undeniable. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might even want to revisit the doctor’s thoughts on football, broadcast in an AP interview on December 18, 1947. “The present helmet is simply equipping a player with armor and the steel mask in front is an open invitation to crush someone’s jaw or knock his teeth out,” he said. “The toll of injuries will continue to mount unless the face mask is legislated out of the game immediately.”
Prescient words from a thoughtful man.
*“After listening to that all-star team of players Dr. Bennett has mended,” Joe Garagiola said at an awards dinner in 1958, “I’m sort of sorry I didn't break my leg."
I hope you spend a few minutes reading my new feature
for The Classical
on the House of David and its famous barnstorming baseball team of the 1920s and 1930s. The piece was a ton of fun to report and I’m thrilled my friendly editor
decided to publish it relatively early in his site’s run, which has gotten off to a great start already. Y’all should definitely reward the crew over there with pageviews and follows
While digging into the history of the program, it was striking to see how often members of this tiny Michigan commune played with or against genuine baseball legends. One HoD ringer whose name did not make it into the piece was pioneering female pitcher Jackie Mitchell
, and I thought I’d use the space here to flesh out her fascinating biography. Let’s call it the HoD director’s cut.
Mitchell was not the first professional female player, a designation that belongs to Lizzie Arlington
, but she’s certainly one of the most decorated. Born sometime between 1912 and 1914 in Massachusetts, Mitchell was raised by a supportive and athletically-minded father, an optician who encouraged her to swim and play sports at an early age. She also had the good fortune of living next door to Dazzy Vance
, a Dodgers great who won the NL MVP award in 1924 and struck out over 2,000 hitters in his 16-year career
. During the 12 months they shared adjoining apartments, Vance took a liking to his little neighbor and taught her how to throw a drop ball, otherwise known as a sinker, among many other tricks. Jackie absorbed it all. By 1930, she had earned a spot on a womens team in Chattanooga run by the chief scout of the Washington Senators, Joe Engel. According to her father’s own scouting report
at the time, Mitchell “has one of the most deceptive pitching deliveries, hits fair, and fields way above the average that a boy of her age can field.” The local Middletown Times Herald
added these relevant details: “Interviews have found her distinctly feminine – she cooks and plays a piano.”
On top of running the Engelettes, Engel
oversaw baseball operations for the Chattanooga Lookouts, one of the Senators’ farm clubs. During the Depression, the "Barnum of Baseball” tried just about every promotion
he could dream up to attract fans, from raffling off a house to staging a (papier-mâché) elephant hunt on the field. And in the spring of 1931, he got the bright idea to call up Mitchell for an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, who were traveling through Tennessee en route to the Big Apple following spring training.
The novelty of watching a small teenage woman with an odd sidearm delivery toe the rubber against the greatest hitters in the world drew 4,000 fans to the ballpark. Mitchell did not disappoint. After Chattanooga’s starter gave up two hits to kick off the contest, the manager immediately brought in Mitchell to face the meat of the Yankees' order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzari. Ruth took two huge cuts on the first two deliveries, whiffing on both. Frustrated, the Sultan of Swat asked the ump to check the ball. It turned up clean. After a pitch outside, Mitchell painted the corner with another sinker, catching Ruth off balance for the third strike. Disgusted, the slugger “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench” (New York Times
, April 3, 1931). Gehrig fared no better, swinging through the first three pitches he saw for the second out of the inning. Lazzari earned a four-pitch walk before the skipper turned back to the bullpen, ending Mitchell’s day. The Yankees went on to win 14-4, but it was Jackie’s incredible inning that dominated headlines the next morning (and for weeks after). The New York Daily News’
characterization was typical: “A swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.”**
If you think the story sounds a bit fishy, you’re not the only one. To this day, nobody has been able to determine conclusively whether or not the Bambino and the Buster -- unbeknown to Mitchell -- took a dive in exchange for an under-the-table settlement. If I had to wager, I’d say the evidence points toward some type of deal. The previous season, Ruth and Gehrig posted OPS’ of 1.225
respectively, both of which still rank among the top 25 single-season offensive performances in Major League Baseball history. Combined, they only struck out in 9 percent of their at-bats, and those came against top-tier pitchers, not 130-pound amateurs who, as the Washington Post
reported at the time,
had “been laid up with a sore arm.” Not to mention the contest was originally scheduled
for April Fool’s Day, but had to be pushed back 24 hours because of rain.
On the other hand, Lazzari claims he went to the plate looking to hack. And MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sure didn’t think Mitchell’s performance was a hoax; embarrassed by the spectacle of a lady taking down his superstars, he voided her contract
with Chattanooga within days, calling baseball “too strenuous for women.”*** Maybe her stuff on that April afternoon was just that damn good?
Once booted from the Scenic City, Mitchell played briefly in the Piedmont League and toured with Babe Didrikson before signing a contract with the House of David in 1933. Here she is, in the left corner, courtesy of the HoD museum in Addison, Michigan:
The commune paid the “typically boyish” hurler $1,000 per month (NYT
, July 15, 1933) and allowed her parents to travel with the team. (Not that there was much in the way of carousing on road trips with Christian Millennialists.) She laced up her spikes for the Jesus Boys until 1937, when she quit baseball and took an office job with her father's company. Officials from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which debuted in 1943, couldn’t even pull Mitchell out of retirement. I guess when you’ve struck out Babe Ruth and played several seasons with the most popular barnstormers in the sport's history, pitching for the Fort Wayne Daisies or Muskegon Lassies doesn’t sound all that appealing.
There are some neat photos of Mitchell here
, including one in which Dazzy Vance’s protege is introduced to Ruth and Gehrig. And if you still haven’t read my House of David piece, you can find it here
. I hope you like it.
*It was also hilarious to look at hairy photos.
**The Atlanta Constitution
added another dollop of sexism in its coverage of Mitchell on June 27, 1931: “If you’ve never seen her pitch, you probably think of her as one of these stuck-up, temperamental woman athletes possessed with a sense of her own importance and hard to get along with, don’t you? You should change your mind. Jackie Mitchell … is a shy little girl, who blushed under her sunburned face when asked her full name.”
***The MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.
With NBA draft night upon us, and this year’s crop so “bombed out and depleted
,”* I think some franchises should follow the lead of the Harlem Globetrotters and think outside the box when assembling its incoming class. Earlier this week, the yucksters from upper Manhattan offered contracts to 7’8” goon Paul Sturgess
, viral dunker Jacob Tucker
, 12-year-old dribbling prodigy Jordan McCabe
, and Barcelona striker Lio Messi. (Yes, that Messi
.) Assuming the world’s greatest footballer would hang up his boots for a chance to nail unassuming children with confetti,** that would make for one entertaining squad.
The idea of Messi and McCabe running the fast break got me thinking about other distinctive barnstorming squads in U.S. sports, an exercise that always leads back to the The Israelite House of David
. This baseball team was the brainchild of Benjamin and Mary Purnell, founders of a briefly successful and religiously eccentric turn-of-the-century commune
in Benton Harbor, Michigan. (Sect leaders prophesied, incorrectly it turns out, that Jesus would return to Earth after the millennium and induce thousands of years of peace for 12,000 members of the 12 tribes of Israel. Nonbelievers wouldn’t reap the benefits of JC’s visit.) The Purnells, hoping to spread their gospel across rural America and make some cash in the process, fielded a team of ballplayers and sent them on the road. Their look was one-of-a-kind; because church members abstained from shaving or cutting their hair, players boasted scraggly beards and wild manes.*** And their squads were stacked with homegrown talent as well as hired hands, including aging major leaguers (Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mordecai Brown) Negro League stars (Satchel Paige), and skilled women (Jackie Mitchell, Babe Didrikson). From a fascinating 1970 piece
in Sports Illustrated
:These barnstorming ballplayers were to baseball what the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball. For four decades, from World War I through the mid-1950s, there was a team—and sometimes two, three or more—out on the road representing the House of David. Playing upwards of 185 games a season, the men of the House of David had their biggest following in towns like Kewanee, Ill. (pop. 16,000), where they once drew 10,000 fans, and Great Falls, Mont., where a local newspaper hailed the visitors as "the one big baseball attraction of the year." Everywhere they went they wowed the fans with exploits that a sportswriter in El Dorado, Ark., engaging in the kind of wordplay that long tresses seem to inspire, called "hair-raising."If the thrills failed to come in the regular course of the game, the players enlivened matters with some well-rehearsed bits of grandstanding. John Tucker, the first baseman, deftly caught pop flies behind his back. And whenever Eddy (New) Deal was on third base there was no telling when he might go backward and steal second. Some of the zaniest antics came during the celebrated pepper game, a sleight-of-hand routine in which a group of House of David players tossed the baseball around with such lightning speed that it was almost impossible for the eye to follow. Sometimes it would disappear, only to be located, inevitably, deep inside somebody's beard. The pepper game, promised the posters that went into store windows shortly before the House of David arrived in town, was "worth the price of admission alone."
Following a major sex scandal and the death of Benjamin in the late 1920s, a power struggle erupted from which the commune never really recovered. (In 1994, Adam Langer published a memorable profile
in the Reader
of the few remaining members.) But sports fans the world-over owe the House of David a debt of gratitude; without their precedent, Meadowlark Lemon and “Sweet Georgia Brown
” would have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
**One point for you
, Grantland staff.**Joke borrowed from Steve Guzowski
***Steinbrenner wouldn’t approve
This week, I signed up for my fifth consecutive season of summer softball. For three seasons, I led off and roamed center field for the In These Times
Deadline Dogs, a scrappy group that reached the finals of the Chicago non-profit league once but was put down prematurely after losing several key players
to free agency, including our captain
. Last year, a group of former Vikings
formed Oops Pow Surprise
, or OPS for short. (Get it, baseball nerds?) It was an encouraging, if at times frustrating, opening campaign; we got beat pretty bad in week one, but ran off several wins in a row (six? seven?) before being bounced in the playoffs in perhaps our worst-played game of the season. We're hoping to perform better in the clutch in 2011.
Though OPS plays 12-inch, we’re still proud to join the rich tradition of Chicago softball, a working class game with aristocratic origins. On Thanksgiving Day 1887, at the Farragut Boat Club, a group of Harvard and Yale graduates waiting on the results of their annual football game decided to wrap up an old boxing glove into a sphere and play a modified version of baseball inside the gymnasium. George Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, made up the rules
on the fly, and a broom served as their first bat. Gloves, of course, were not handy and thus not used. The sport was so addicting that the boys from Farragut started challenging
other gyms to games, and in the spring, they took their “league” outside. Sixteen-inch softball was born.
Beginning during the Depression and stretching through the 1940s, softball was the Windy City's favorite pastime, with many neighborhoods fielding several competitive teams. It’s easy to see why a sport that can be played in tight urban spaces and doesn’t require expensive equipment flourished during tough times. Indeed, more than 20 Chicago-area 16-inch players, including Moose Skowron and Lou Bourdreau, eventually made it to major leagues. And Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton
, who later broke the NBA’s color barrier, was so skilled on the diamond that old-timers compare
him to Negro League legend Josh Gibson. “We never played anything but softball,” remarked
Augie March in the legendary 1953 novel that bears his name. Saul Bellow knew his city.
Thanks to white flight and the disruption of neighborhood relationships that followed, not to mention the advent of television and other entertainment options, softball participation has never hit the heights that it did 70 years ago. There was a strong revival in the late 1960s and 1970s, this time with teams made up of baby boomer coworkers hoping to relive their childhood triumphs. (Think of hipster kickball leagues, without as much irony and with a heavier dose of machismo.)** But by 1983, the Tribune
noted that it was “generally thought that there are only two suburban leagues -- in Harvey and Mt. Prospect -- where devotees of 16-inch softball can be reasonably assured of seeing top-flight competition.” And having spent plenty of time in Harvey since 1984, I can report with some authority that such a league no longer exists.
Still, roughly 30,000
locals play recreationally every summer. And each January, old players gather at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero to honor a new class of inductees into the (virtual
) 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame. It may not be Cooperstown, but it’s still a tradition worth celebrating.
**A stalwart of Grant Park’s Chicago Daily News
squad, Mike Royko was the sports’ most famous champion
, sacrificing column inches and even bones to promote Chicago’s homegrown game. He went so far as to sue the Chicago Park District in 1977 when the city allowed some teams to wear gloves. Since the ruling had come down after his team paid its $240 entry fee, Royko argued that it was impossible to withdraw and find a league "in which men played like men." He won.
This is the fourth and final post in a short series riffing off Daniel Okrent’s
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Buy his excellent book here.
By most accounts, America’s experiment with Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster; the embargo on booze (only loosely enforced) robbed the government of revenue and encouraged wide-scale, professionalized criminality and corruption. But seen through a much wider and sympathetic lens, one could argue that the 18th Amendment was a partial success. While Americans didn’t stop drinking entirely, this thirsty nation cut back its liquor consumption considerably during the “dry” years. Some limited themselves out of respect for the rule of law. Others abstained because practical roadblocks made hooch trickier and more expensive to obtain. Whatever the reason, drinking certainly declined. From Okrent’s epilogue:Back in the first years of the twentieth century, before most state laws limiting access to alcohol were enacted, average consumption of pure alcohol ran to 2.6 gallons per adult per year -- the rough equivalent of 32 fifths of 80-proof liquor, or 520 twelve-ounce bottles of beer. Judging by the most carefully assembled evidence, that quantity was slashed by more than 70 percent during the first few years of national Prohibition. It started to climb as Americans thirsts adjusted to the new regime, but even Repeal did not open the spigots; the pre-Prohibition per capita peak of 2.6 gallons was not again attained until 1973.
This behavioral shift was famously memorialized by Tin Pan Alley troubadour Albert Von Tilzer
, who in the early 20s penned a hit novelty song “I Never Knew I Had A Wonderful Wife (Until The Town Went Dry).” The lyrics
are kind of sweet, in a deeply misogynistic way. “I used to make excuses and go out to the club/And when I think of what I missed I knew I've been a dub.” Here’s a fresh rendition of the tune, courtesy of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (which I still need to see):
While he collected lots of royalties for this (now-forgotten) song, Von Tilzer’s most famous contribution to American culture should be familiar to everyone. It’s a little ditty called “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”
What, you thought I’d let Opening Day pass by without a little tribute?
When I played high school baseball
, several of my teammates chewed tobacco, or “dipped.” Even as a 17-year-old with a tolerance for disgusting things much higher than the average adult, I could tell how rancid that stuff was. (One story I remember involving dip spit, Diet Coke, and two opaque cups still makes me queasy.) But the practice is rampant. Harvard public health professors found that 33 percent of major leaguers use chewing tobacco. The CDC estimates that one in five
white, male high school students do, too. And it’s the only tobacco product gaining young customers.
The connection between baseball and chew dates back to the beginning of the sport. (Brian Palmer at Slate wrote up a quick and informative primer
in 2009.) In the 19th century, smokeless tobacco offered several advantages to cigarettes: it was cheap, more potent, freed up the hands of workers tending to fields or mining coal, and generated moistness to relieve dust-induced dry mouth.
Eventually, microbiologists determined that spitting contributed to the spread of tuberculosis, so the practice fell out of favor among the general population. Not so for ballplayers. In a game whose identity relies on folklore and ritual, dipping is one of its most enduring traditions.
Roy Blount Jr.’s 1977 essay
in Sports Illustrated
is illustrative. Calling it the “drug of sports,” Blount talked to dozens of addicted athletes about their habit. Here’s an excerpt from the piece, which features a hilarious anecdote about Rod Carew:Many players chew to keep their whistles wet (Montreal Coach Billy Gardner, who chews, is known for his whistling) because when they grew up they were warned that drinking water during games would "bloat you," and maybe too much will, although progressive trainers now warn that it is bad for thirsty athletes to avoid water during competition. Weight-watching players chew to cut down their calorie intake. Rod Carew used to drink 15 bottles of pop before and during every game, and sometimes would get nauseated. Now he chews three packs of tobacco a game, wrapped in gum. He has cut his soft drinks to two or three, and his stomach stays settled. Other players chew to keep from biting their nails, or they use snuff or chewing tobacco as a substitute for smoking. "If I didn't chew," says retired Catcher Dave Duncan, "I'd smoke five, six or seven cigarettes a game between innings."
MLB legend Babe Ruth, who would have fit well into Snoop and Chris’ Baltimore crew
had he been born 80 years earlier, famously
began chewing as a five-year old. He later hawked his favorite brand, Pinch-Hit, in newspapers across the country:
Modern scientists, however, have demonstrated how dangerous it is to rub nicotine against the sensitive membranes of the gums and lips. The substance likely contributed to Ruth’s early death, for example. It’s also why injured pitching phenom
Stephen Strasburg is attempting to quit
while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. From the Washington Post’s
excellent piece on the topic today:The habit carries a steep risk. Smokeless tobacco can lead to several forms of mouth cancer that require a series of disfiguring surgeries; many patients have their entire jaw removed. The juices swallowed contain heavy metals and can lead to esophageal and pancreatic cancer, two of the direst cancers to treat. White, precancerous lesions appear on the lips. Gums recede. Teeth become discolored and loosen.
Last year, Congressional Democrats urged
MLB owners and the player’s union to prohibit dipping during ballgames. Doing so would require altering the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December. Expect such a reform to be discussed this fall.