No. 57: Roy Hobbs

Roy Hobbs was born in Sabotac Valley, Iowa in 1904, the same year as Hall of Famer Chuck Klein. Hobbs’ mother died in childbirth. His father, William, had played some semi-professional baseball before settling on a farm; Billy Hobbs desperately wanted his son to become a Major League player. According to legend, Billy would draw a circle on the side of a barn and tell young Roy to hit that spot again and again. At age 14, Roy Hobbs had hit that circle so many times that his fastball actually broke through the wood. Billy Hobbs died of a heart attack that same year.

Young Roy Hobbs was a phenomenal amateur pitcher; he threw eight no-hitters his senior year in high school. When Billy Hobbs died, Roy was taken in by a former big league catcher named Sam “Bub” Simpson, who is a good story in himself. Bub Simpson played for the St. Louis Browns from 1904 to 1906. He was a terrific defensive catcher and he hit .340 his first season, though he quickly drank his way out of the game. He lived near Sabotac Valley and was Billy Hobbs best friend. He sent letters to the Chicago Cubs raving about young Roy’s talents and after getting several tepid responses finally got Hobbs an invitation to a tryout. How good a pitcher was Roy Hobbs in those days? It’s hard to tell. Simpson died the year he brought Hobbs to Chicago for the tryout but he supposedly told the sportswriter Max Mercy that he was a “slam-bang pitching prospect” and that he would be the “coming pitcher of the century.” Mercy himself always said he only saw Hobbs throw three pitches. Mercy’s story -- and it is perhaps apocryphal -- is that he was on the same train for Chicago as Simpson and Hobbs, only he happened to be traveling with one of the great sluggers of the day, Walter Wambold, known of course as “The Whammer.”* Wambold was apparently going East to work out a new contract.

*Wambold was probably the second-best right-handed hitter of the time behind Hornsby but, ironically, he is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The irony is that Max Mercy himself led a campaign against Wambold, insisting that the Whammer used a corked bat and various potions and elixirs that Mercy was convinced were performance enhancing drugs. Wambold denied this until his death but just before the first Hall of Fame election in 1936 Mercy quoted Wambold’s second ex-wife saying that she saw him load up on performance enhancers. Whammer never got even 10% of the vote.

According to Mercy, at some point, the train stopped at a fairgrounds, and a somewhat inebriated Simpson suggested that Hobbs could strike out Wambold on three pitches. A bet was arranged, and Mercy would write in biography, I Outlasted Them All: “As the sun set in the distance, Hobbs -- barely a shadow on the mound -- uncorked three of the damnedest pitches you ever saw. The first one hopped. The second one dropped. And the third one disappeared into a puff of smoke.” After seeing that, Mercy claimed Hobbs would have been better than Lefty Grove. Whammer denied the event ever happened though before he died, he reportedly told one friend that it did happen but “the sun was so low It was like hitting in a tunnel at midnight.”

We’ll never know just how good a pitcher Hobbs would have become because once the train reached the hotel, Hobbs was the victim of perhaps the oddest crime in baseball history. A woman named Harriet Bird, who deserves a book all her own, had decided to kill the greatest athlete in every American sport with a silver bullet. Bird, who considered herself something of an expert in literature and philosophy, supposedly believed that America’s growing attention on sports in the 1920s was leading the nation on the road to perdition. She was also crazy. In successive days, an Olympic athlete and a college football star (Johnny Zirowski, who played end for UCLA) were shot with silver bullets.

Bird was probably on the train to kill Whammer (though, if she wanted to kill the best, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby were both better players). Instead, for unknown reasons, she turned her attention to Hobbs. Mercy always thought she was persuaded by the three-pitch exhibition that Hobbs was the better player, which seems an odd baseball decision but Harriet Bird was certifiably crazy. At a Chicago hotel, just before Hobbs could go to the Cubs tryout, Bird shot him in the side with a silver bullet. She then took her own life.

Doctors told Roy Hobbs he would never play baseball again.

The next 16 years of Hobbs life are dim and out of focus. Hobbs never much liked talking about anything, but he was especially reticent about those dark years. The only thing he would say was, “I lost my confidence.” He kicked around in various jobs. When he was 34 he decided to give baseball one more shot, this time as a hitter. The lingering injury from the silver bullet (which was never actually removed) made pitching out the question.

He joined a semi-pro team in Utah, the Heber (City) Oilers. In his first game, he hit five home runs. Yes. Five. The next day, he hit three more home runs. A New York Knights scout named Scotty Carson was traveling in Utah at the time, looking for a different player, when he heard about Hobbs. He saw Hobbs hit two doubles and a near 500-foot home run and signed him for $500 and gave him a train ticket to go directly to New York. Hobbs hit .798 with 11 home runs in the two weeks he was with the Oilers.

The Knights were the worst team in the National League when Hobbs arrived, and this was in large part because of their mostly incompetent manager, Pop Fisher. He had been a popular player for the Knights during Deadball, a good fielding second baseman with some speed. He could not hit at all. His nickname “Pop” did not come from his fatherly comportment but because that’s what he usually did when he actually connected with a pitch. His Knights were routinely awful, but he was part-owner of the team and so continued to manage.

Fisher’s managerial ineptitude is the stuff of legend. He was known to hire psychologists to address the players about the “disease of losing.” When Hobbs showed up, the Knights were buried in last place and Fisher decided to not only keep Hobbs on the bench but to not even allow him to take batting practice. Fisher was in the middle of a nasty battle with his co-owner Goodwill Banner, who was a successful New York judge (everyone called him “The Judge”). Fisher was convinced that the Judge had signed Hobbs as a trick to make him look bad and also so the team would lose more games, freeing the Judge to buy out Fisher and own the team himself. Fisher, in addition to being inept, was also a bit paranoid.

So, remarkably, Hobbs not only sat on the bench but was forbidden from taking batting practice for more than two weeks while the team sank deeper into the cellar. Finally, as the story goes, Hobbs walked out of a psychologist’s “Losing is a disease” seminar, infuriating Fisher. The two had words (Fisher reportedly threatened to send Hobbs down) but Hobbs’ earnestness impressed Pop. The next day at batting practice, Hobbs was included and he hit seven home runs in a row. Fisher -- despite huge holes all over the field -- kept Hobbs on the bench that day too.

But late in the game against Philadelphia, the Knights right fielder Bump Bailey dropped a fly ball, perhaps on purpose, and this was finally too much for Pop. He benched Bailey and sent Hobbs to the plate as a pinch-hitter. This was July 21, 1939. Hobbs came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning and of course every baseball fan knowns what he did. With runners on first and second, he hit the baseball so hard, the stitching snapped and the baseball core and the yarn surrounding it popped out. According to legend, just before this happened, Pop Fisher had told Hobbs to “knock the cover off the ball,” though this part seems unlikely.

Just as Hobbs hit the ball, a flash of lightning lit up the sky and it began to pour rain. The Philadelphia outfielders fumbled with the twine and cork while rain fell in buckets. Two runners scored and Hobbs made it all the way around the bases for a triple. At this point, the Philadelphia manager and players raced on the field to argue with the umpire. Here was the story as it appeared in the Daily Mirror:

Roy Hobbs Man From Nowhere While Daily Mirror sports columnist Max Mercy continues to cry for an investigation into Roy Hobbs’ bat, speculation continues over the phenomenal blow that sent a baseball whirling into center field with enough twine to tie up the Philadelphia Phillies outfield and put right-fielding pitch-hitter Roy Hobbs on third base for a standup triple, scoring two runs and giving the Knights a sensational 4 to 3 victory over Philadelphia as rain plummeted down on Knights Field. When the umpire called Hobbs safe, a rhubarb boiled sending Phillies manager and his players onto the field. At the same time, Pop Fisher was shouting in defense of the ump. The ump had a troublesome time of it and was shoved this way and that. He tossed out two men and then turned in his decision that Hobbs hit was a ground-rule double.

The report was wrong -- Hobbs slid into third -- and the ruling has been the subject of much debate ever since because if it was called a ground-rule double, then the game should have been tied and the runner on first should have been sent back. But the victory stood. There was so much confusion ... in large part because of Mercy’s insistence that Hobbs’ bat was corked and the investigation that followed.

This, by the way, was the lead in Mercy’s famous “Sports Beat” column the next day.

I have combed baseball record books and newspaper files and nowhere can I or my colleagues find any evidence that a cover has ever been knocked off a ball before, although some of the older stadium scribes insist its’s been done before.

Mercy insisted until his death that Hobbs corked that bat, which he called “Wonderboy,” though Hobbs himself always said he made it from a tree on his father’s farm that had been struck by lightning. The league examined the bat and, to Mercy’s disgust, agreed with Hobbs and approved it. Hobbs was free to use the bat.

Well, not right away, not with Pop Fisher around. The Knights’ manager of a last place team, even though he had now seen Hobbs (1) Hit seven consecutive home runs on the first seven batting practice pitches he had faced, and (2) Knock the cover off a baseball, decided to keep Hobbs on the bench for the July 23rd game against St. Louis and start Bump Bailey, who was having a dreadful season and was rumored to be in cahoots with gamblers. It is possible that, had fate not taken a hand, Pop Fisher never would have played Roy Hobbs.

But fate did step in. That very game, Bailey crashed threw a wall as he chased a fly ball and died in the hospital that evening.

“He chased a fly, crashed a wall,” was the rather crass headline in the Daily Mirror a week later. Bailey was just 28 when he died. He’d been a good player his first couple of seasons, flashing both power and speed, but he declined quickly and the rumors about him possibly throwing games should have been picked up by Pop Fisher.

With Bailey dead, Hobbs started in right field on July 24. He promptly hit a monstrous home run. “Maybe we can expect good things from Hobbs,” the Knights radio announcer famously said. With Hobbs in right field, the Knights won twelve games in a row and moved out of last place for the first time all season. A cartoon in one of the New York papers showed Hobbs literally leading the Knights out of a cellar and shouting “Taste that fresh air!”

Hobbs was utterly remarkable the first four weeks or so. In 30 games, he hit .591 with 23 home runs and 57 RBIs. The Knights went 27-3 within striking distance of the first-place Pirates. Nobody had ever seen anything liked it. He was so good, that just three weeks after he made it to the big leagues he was put on the cover of the August 14 Life Magazine with the headline “Roy Hobbs, Baseball’s New Wonderboy.”

Then, just as suddenly as it began, Hobbs stopped hitting. Between August 23 and August 30, he came up 29 times and struck out 20. He blooped one hit and walked twice. The Knights lost six of seven and seemed to be dropping out of the pennant chase. Hobbs never did say what went wrong during that stretch, though rumors are that it had something to do with a relationship problem.

Anyway, everyone remembers how he snapped out of it. He was in Chicago, ninth inning, at at 4:41 p.m. a woman wearing white stood up in the stands. Hobbs had struck out two more times in that game but, according to reports, he saw her and seemed to gain strength. On the next pitch he mashed an opposite field home run that broke the clock near the top of the scoreboard. Many have estimated that home run would have traveled more than 600 feet.

The woman, Iris Lemon, was in the papers the next day. “The Knight and the Lady” was one headline. Hobbs would not talk about her -- he was very press shy -- but we would later learn that he grew up with her. The next day, September 1, Hobbs hit four home runs to beat the Cubs. It was the beginning of a month for the ages.

Hobbs hit a grand slam to beat Philadelphia. He hit a ninth inning walk-off home run to beat St. Louis. He hit another. He scored a game-winning run by crashing into the catcher and knocking the ball free. He hit an opposite field double when the pitcher was trying to intentionally walk him.

All in all, Hobbs came up 148 times in September. He hit .622 with 92 hits, 28 of them home runs. He scored 61 runs in the 34 games. He drove in another 58.

Hobbs season numbers look like fiction.

Roy Hobbs, 1939: 72 games, 307 PA, 171 hits, 42 doubles, 13 triples, 51 homers, 106 RBIs, 101 runs, 30 walks, 44 strikeouts, .557/.655/1.415

He missed the last three games of the season with an abdominal injury related the silver-bullet shooting. It appeared that he would not be healthy enough to play in the one-game playoff against Pittsburgh for the pennant, which gave Pop Fisher one more chance to display his incompetence. With Hobbs seemingly out, Fisher at the last minute decided to simply cross out Hobbs name in the lineup car and replace it with Bobby McGee, a defensive fourth-outfielder who hit .189 in his career. This meant he planned to have McGee hitting THIRD in the lineup with the pennant on the line. Pop may have been a friendly guy but he really didn’t know baseball.

Anyway, as you know, Hobbs did play in the one-game playoff. He was badly hurt, but he famously hit the game winning home run in the ninth, a home run that crashed into the lights, sending sparks everywhere. Hobbs’ uniform -- which he actually bled through -- is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame as is his Wonderboy bat.

Roy Hobbs never played again. The Knights, without Hobbs, were swept easily by the Yankees in the World Series. Fisher retired after the season and became a farmer, “the job he was should have been doing the last 10 years,” in the accurate but not especially gracious words of Max Mercy’s farewell column. Mercy also called Hobbs “selfish” for not playing in the World Series and “money driven” for not returning the next year.

Hobbs moved back to Sabotac Valley and married Iris Lemon where they lived out their quiet lives. He never gave an interview though people around Sabotac Valley said he was friendly. People who saw him play insist that if he could have stayed healthy, Roy Hobbs would have been the greatest player in the history of the game. He was, a natural.