By Michael Lewis
If you hadn’t seen the comedic and wild video of Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Will Craig catching amnesia trying to tag out Javy Cruz and allowing a Chicago Cub to score in one of the fielding errors of the ages, you should catch it.
Thursday’s mind-boggling play reminded me of what transpired a scant 95 years ago at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y.
OK, soccer fans, I realize this column isn’t about your favorite sport, but this bit of comical history is too good to forget about.
It involved the indomitable Babe Herman, a great power hitter back in the day who had a questionable reputation of fielding. As it turns out, Herman’s action in this little story wasn’t about his field ability, but rather one misadventure on the basepaths.
OK, let’s set the scene of what transpired in the first game of doubleheader.
The game was played such a long time ago that Brooklyn was known as the Robins, and not the Dodgers (Robins was used through the 1931 season).
In the seventh inning, the Robins rallied from a 1-0 deficit to grab a 2-1 lead in the most mind-boggling way on Herman’s “wild and wooly base running” according to the New York Daily News.
.@javy23baez broke out a trick we have never seen before. 🤯
— MLB (@MLB) May 27, 2021
We’ll let The SABR Research Journals Archive take it from here:
What about the old story that the Brooklyn Dodgers once had three base runners on one base? Well, it might get embellished with the telling, but it is basically true. The date was August 15, 1926, first game of twos, Boston Braves at Brooklyn. It is the seventh inning with the bases full of Bums. Babe Herman hits the ball off the rightfield wall. Catcher Hank DeBerry scores from third, but pitcher Dazzy Vance, on second, holds up, thinking the ball would be caught. Finally he takes off, rounds third and heads for home. But the ball is thrown home and Vance heads back to third. He is met there by Chick Fewster, the runner who had been on first, and Herman the hitter who was right on his heels. They decide to let Vance have possession of third and head back toward second, but both are tagged out. The fielding play on Boston’s part went from rightfielder Welsh to second baseman Gautreau to catcher Siemer, to third baseman Taylor to Gautreau, who came over from second. What it came down to for Herman was doubling into a double play.
The New York Times reported that “the Robins made two more in the eighth and they didn’t need those. If it had been a more critical situation the Babe would wake up this morning and find himself famous.”
Well, he was famous enough because of that incident.
Too bad we don’t have film of that gaffe.
The Robins went on to win the opener, 4-1 and the second game, 11-3, in front of 15,000 spectators. Brooklyn also was victorious in the nightcap, 11-3, in an encounter that was shortened to eight innings. That game was called at 6 p.m. so the Robins could catch a train for a road trip.
As for Herman’s misadventures on the basepaths, in 1934 with the Cubs he stole one base and was thrown out 11 times. Honest.
To be fair to Herman, he was one of the great hitters of the 1920s and 1930s while also playing for the Cincinnati Red, Detroit Tigers, Cubs and Pirates. He hit .324 with 181 homers and 997 RBIs, finishing with 1,818 hits over a 13-year career.
Herman set six Robins/Dodgers records, some that lasted more than 20 years. He hit the most homers in a season (35), the highest batting average in a season (.393) and most total bases (416), according to his obituary in the Times Nov. 30, 1987. His career season was 1930, when he cranked 35 homers, drove in 130 runs and fell seven percentage points of that coveted .400 mark.
And he didn’t win the batting title in 1930. New York Giants first baseman Bill Terry did with a robust .401 average.
Herman’s other achievements included becoming the first player to hit for a cycle (single, double, triple and homer) in a game and twice in a season. He also hit the first homer in a night game with the Cincinnati Reds against the Dodgers in 1935.
And to put things in further perspective Herman, struck out only 553 times in 6,230 plate appearances. Some of today’s players probably will reach that number in three seasons or less.
But like it or not, this Babe is remembered for a base running error for the ages.
So, would it be fair to remember Craig just for his brain fart?
Like it or not, we probably will. Of course, if he goes on to do incredible things, such as leading the league in batting or hitting four home runs in a game, it could become a footnote in his career. But given social media, it will be a long time before that comedic episode is forgotten.
And one other thing, in case you were wondering, the Cubbies won the game in Pittsburgh, 5-3.