Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Billy Sunday's Message of Temperance to a Brooklyn Dodger

If you study the game long enough you start to realize that those early days hardly provided the kind of family entertainment we come to expect today.  Instead, Baseball was a rough and tumble sport.  It was filled with ruffians and gadfly's bent on ranting like a sailor and partying like the end of the world was around the corner.  Some of the games earliest heroes were known to fight with the fans (like Ty Cobb) and imbibe in all hours of the day (like Babe Ruth, Mike Kelly and just about everybody else).  So, it's no surprise that some thought that Baseball was a game for delinquents.

Still, America embraced the sport, and not everyone was uncouth.  In fact, America's most successful evangelist was a former Baseball star himself (also known as a straight-laced church going fella during his playing days) in the late 19th century.  His name was Billy Sunday, and as the letter above shows (currently on auction at REA) he would take an interest in a talented Brooklyn player that appeared to be going astray.

The year is 1922 and the Brooklyn Robins/Dodgers had just acquired ace starting pitcher Walter "Dutch" Ruether from the Reds the year prior.  Known to have an outstanding fastball and a good bat, it was hoped that Dutch could help the Brooklyn club climb over that hump.  In 1920 the Brooklyn Robins had lost the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, and were aiming to win it the next season.  Unfortunately, the following year (Ruether's first) was a disaster.  Brooklyn landed in fifth place in 1921, and apparently Ruether's poor performance on the field had been attributed within the press to his heavy drinking.

(Billy Sunday)
Having read all about the path the star pitcher, who had lead the Reds to a World Series title in 1919, was taking, Billy Sunday decided to put pen to paper and provide some counsel.  The famous preached gave Walter "Dutch" Ruether a short lesson in temperance.  Below is what he wrote to the left-handed pitcher, dated March 16, 1922:
My Dear Walter:

I am tremendously interested in you because you are a ball player and one of the top notchers and some how or other my enthusiasm for the great game and its players never has grown less, even 'tho I don't get into the uniform as often as I used to.

I noticed that the papers referred to times when you have occasionally slipped up and let drink get you out of condition.

I remember when I played, every now and then some young fellow would appear playing Star base ball but he would only last for a little while and then drop out of sight. Simply because he did not take care of himself. While fellows like Radbourn, McCormick, and Cy Young pitched for years, just because they took excellent care of themselves. I do not know of any one who has more ability than you have, and I can't help but feel a personal interest in you. I believe no team has a better chance for the championship than Brooklyn and when it comes to a show down, winning of a pennant [sic] may rest with you.

So be careful Walter, cut out the gang, don't let anybody swerve you from a determination to put it over this year. Make your wife a confident [sic] and a companion and take care of yourself. (Sunday has then added in his own hand: and you will win out hands down.). Best wishes to you always.

Faithfully your friend, W.A. Sunday.
Whether Sunday's advice truly changed Ruether is unknown.  What we do know, however, is that Dutch rebounded in 1922 - big time!  Ruether went 21-12 with an 3.53 ERA in 35 games started.  He completed 25 games and recorded two shutouts.  Using todays metrics, Dutch Ruether had a 4.6 WAR (the best of his career) and an ERA+ of 116.

Unfortunately, his improved play did not translate into a pennant for the Robins/Dodgers.  Instead, they finished with an even worse record than the season before.  I guess the oncoming specter of the "daffiness" boys would not be abated - regardless of the efforts of Walter "Dutch" Ruether.

BTW, the cabinet photo in the pic at the very top is of Billy Sunday.  To the right is a 1922 Exhibit Baseball card of Ruether in a Brooklyn uniform (from my own collection).

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