Joltin’ Joe

by Malcolm Macdonald, June 22, 2016

On June 23, 1941 Joe DiMaggio didn't get a hit. No, his famed fifty-six game hitting streak didn't end there, he was just past half way at the time. It was an off day between home games at Yankee Stadium against the Detroit Tigers on the 22nd and the start of a three game series against the St. Louis Browns on June 24th. Though it seems a distant, wistful memory, three-quarters of a century ago St. Louis had an American League baseball club.

On June 22nd, Joltin' Joe had doubled and homered off two Tiger pitchers; one of them, Hal Newhouser, would go on to a Hall of Fame career; the other, Bobo Newsom, was one of the more ill-fated men to pitch in the big leagues. Bobo Newsom died at fifty-five from complications due to cirrhosis of the liver. Certainly, most readers can deduce what lifestyle choice brought Bobo to such an end. However, despite that end and the nickname, Bobo, Louis Norman Newsom won 211 games in a major league career that started in the 1920s and concluded in the 1950s.

Bobo first toed a big league mound for the Brooklyn club of 1929. Though Brooklyn's National League baseball club was called the Trolley Dodgers as far back as the 1890s, they were largely termed the Robins throughout the nineteen-tens and twenties, the name deriving from their long time manager, and later team president, Wilbert Robinson. “Uncle Robbie,” as he was affectionately named after leading the Brooklyn nine to pennants in 1916 and 1920, had ceased to run the club with as much focus by the time Bobo Newsom arrived on the scene. In those days the Robins were often referred to in print as the “Daffiness boys.” The prime example of their befuddled play occurred one day when three of their batter/runners (Dazzy Vance, Chick Fewster, and Babe Herman – how's that for a trio of nicknames?) made their way to third base simultaneously. At the time it was written up as Herman tripling into a triple play, though technically Babe Herman, the third runner to arrive at third base, was ruled safe (Vance and Fewster were out), the Brooklyn “Babe” was credited only with a double.

Bobo Newsom would have been better suited to the free agency era that began in the mid 1970s. He was never afraid to ask for a raise, even after coming off consecutive losing seasons. Anyone interested in baseball in the Great Depression – World War II era or just downright colorful figures might like to check out Jim McConnell's worthwhile biography, Bobo Newsom: Baseball's Traveling Man. Bobo was one of only two pitchers to win over two hundred games yet have a losing record for his career (211-222). In Ogden Nash's poem, “Line-up for Yesterday,” published in 1949, more than two dozen Hall of Famers earn Nash's mention along with Bobo in the following stanza:

N is for Newsom,

Bobo's favorite kin.

You ask how he's here,

He talked himself in.

Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six game hitting streak did occur at a time when African-Americans were not allowed in the major leagues. One can also point out that in today's game DiMaggio would be facing one relief specialist after another, including hurlers throwing at or near 100 miles per hour.

Another Bobo side note: In 1946 when Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith paid the great fastballer of the era, Bob Feller, to throw while a speed gun tracked Feller's velocity at a high point of 98.6 mph, Newsom sauntered out to the mound after Feller was done, rocked into something like a triple wind up, then delivered a high arcing blooper pitch that failed to register on the low end of the newfangled speed gun's mph range. The crowd went wild with cheers and laughter.

Despite all the ifs, ands, or buts attached to DiMaggio's achievement no one, before or after, has come closer than a forty-four game hitting streak (Wee Willie Keeler in the deadball era of 1897 and Pete Rose in 1978). Some statisticians scoff at DiMaggio being named the American League MVP in 1941 when his final batting average for the season was .357 while Boston's Ted Williams hit .406, had an on-base percentage more than a hundred points higher than Joe D., and led the league in homers as well as slugging percentage. The best response to Williams' statistical advantage rests in simple historical fact. Before DiMaggio's hitting streak started, his team, the Yankees, had lost as many games as they won. The Yanks were several games out of first place at the time. At the conclusion of the fifty-six game streak the Yankees were six games out in front of their American League competition and on their way to yet another World Series.

The next best response is that Ernest Hemingway never wrote a book juxtaposing the elongated failure of a fisherman against the backdrop of news about Ted Williams' 1941 batting exploits. Hemingway's Santiago, the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, says about his dozens of days without catching anything, “I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of a bone spur in his heel.”

Once Santiago has a big one on the line he asks himself, “Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as I will stay with this one? I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman.”

This takes us to the end of 1941 and the entry of the United States into World War II. Joe DiMaggio's parents who had lived in San Francisco for decades were declared enemy aliens because of their Italian birthplace. Joe's father's fishing boat was confiscated and both his father and mother were placed on a restricted list that meant without a special government pass they were forbidden from traveling beyond a five mile radius from their home.

(Colorful characters abound at the author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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