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The Cub Can Of Worms: Jimmy St. Vrain

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What really happened? I'll never tell!

You never heard of him, right? Neither had I, until Mike related his story to me. (The photo is of St. Vrain when he was with the Tacoma Tigers in 1904.)

Jimmy St. Vrain was a 19-year-old rookie pitcher with the Cubs -- then known as the Orphans or sometimes the Colts -- in 1902. The club was not yet the powerhouse that would win four pennants over the next nine years, although Johnny Kling, Frank Chance and Joe Tinker were among St. Vrain's teammates. (Orval Overall, another key Cub of the pennant-winning years, was St. Vrain's teammate at Tacoma in 1904.)

In the baseball classic "The Glory of Their Times" (which you should read if you haven't), Davy Jones told this story about St. Vrain:

But getting back to baseball, that story of Germany Schaefer running from second to first reminds me of another incident that happened when I was with the Chicago Cubs in 1902. We had a young pitcher on that club named Jimmy St. Vrain. He was a left-handed pitcher and a right-handed batter. But an absolutely terrible hitter -- never even got a loud foul off anybody.

Well, one day we were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jimmy was pitching for us. The first two times he went up to bat that day he looked simply awful. So when he came back after striking out the second time Frank Selee, our manager, said, "Jimmy, you're a left-handed pitcher, why don't you turn around and bat from the left side, too? Why not try it?"

Actually, Frank was half-kidding, but Jimmy took him seriously. So the next time he went up he batted left-handed. Turned around and stood on the opposite side of the plate from where he was used to, you know. And darned if he didn't actually hit the ball. He tapped a slow roller down to Honus Wagner at shortstop and took off as fast as he could go ... but instead of running to first base, he headed for third!

Oh, my God! What bedlam! Everybody yelling and screaming at poor Jimmy as he raced to third base, head down, spikes flying, determined to get there ahead of the throw. Later on, Honus told us that as a matter of fact, he almost did throw the ball to third.

"I'm standing there with the ball in my hand," Honus said, looking at this guy running from home to third, and for an instant there I swear I didn't know where to throw the damn ball. And when I finally did throw to first, I wasn't at all sure it was the right thing to do!"

St. Vrain pitched against the Pirates twice in his tenure with the Cubs (I'll keep it simple by referring to them as "Cubs" from here on out in this post, even though they weren't officially "Cubs" in 1902), which lasted 12 appearances (11 starts) from the beginning of the 1902 season until June 14, when he was sent back to the minors, never to return. Those starts were on April 27 at West Side Grounds and May 30 in Pittsburgh. The Baseball Library says this incident occurred on April 27.

The problem is, Jones, who told the story in great detail, wasn't even on the Cubs on that date -- he had been on the AL's St. Louis Browns and, as was relatively common in the early days of the AL, when they were fighting for players with the established NL, jumped from the Browns to the Cubs on May 13 (check the transaction log at the bottom of that link) -- so he could not have witnessed the incident had it happened that day. The game story the next day in the Chicago Tribune doesn't mention any such incident, although it was filled with excruciating detail on any one of a number of mundane fielding plays.

Neither did an account in the New York Times (couldn't locate any Pittsburgh newspaper) of the May 30 game mention anything of the sort.

So it appears we are left to draw the conclusion that this is a story from baseball's early days that was either invented, or enhanced to the point where the facts are unrecognizable.

St. Vrain was sent to Memphis of the Southern League in mid-June after posting a 4-6 record with a 2.02 ERA (that may sound good now, but keep in mind that he allowed 14 unearned runs in 12 appearances and that run-scoring was far lower in that era than it is today). He was supposed to return the next year, but sometime between mid-June and mid-July both he and his manager were suspended by the league and at one point in August, the Southern League team in New Orleans forfeited a game rather than allow St. Vrain to enter its ballpark. I have not been able to locate the reasons for this, but in any case, St. Vrain played in the American Association in 1903, for Tacoma in 1904, and then fell off the face of the baseball earth; he died in Butte, Montana, far from major league baseball, in 1937.

One thing noted in the quote from "The Glory of Their Times" is true -- St. Vrain was a terrible hitter, going 3-for-31 (.097), all singles, in his brief major league career. But did he really run the wrong way after hitting a ball batting lefthanded? 106 years later, we'll probably never know for certain.