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Dickey Kerr: A Small Miracle

It was said of Dickey Kerr: “He was not as tall as a walking stick and the tiniest of the whole team. Won’t weigh 90 pounds sopping wet. Too small for a pitcher, especially a left-handed pitcher. But would make someone a good watch charm.”

Damon Runyon said about this oddly sized Major Leaguer, “When the fancy are pawing over the runt of the litter, they always disdain the runt. Too small! Sell him for a lead nickel! Give him away! Drown him! Anything to get rid of him!” But it would be said of “Runyon’s Runt” that despite all the ridicule aimed at him, he played with determination, proving the old saying that “dynamite comes in small packages.” 

There were games he had no right winning. When the majority of your supporting cast is in the tank to gamblers, winning two World Series games is nothing short of remarkable. Yet after two shocking opening losses by the infamous Chicago Black Sox that had rumors swirling about a fix, Game 3 saw Kerr hurl a three-hit shutout for a 3–0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in the tainted 1919 World Series. Then he came back in Game 6 to notch a 5–4 victory in his second complete game of the Series.

Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk called Kerr “The Little Giant.” During his outstanding rookie season of 1919 (13–7 with a 2.88 ERA), newspaper reporters tagged him “The New Napoleon.”

Opposing pitchers Dickey Kerr of the Chicago White Sox and Ray Fisher of the Cincinnati Reds share a hug prior to the start of Game 3 of the 1919 World Series. Kerr held the Reds to a three-hit 3–0 shutout, giving the Sox their first win of the Series.

In a wonderful piece for this website, Jacob Pomrenke called our little lefty “The Man Who Made the Man.” After his playing days ended, diminutive Dickey Kerr, all 5-feet-7 of him, went on to have a managerial career that put him in the absolute right place at the absolute right time doing the absolute right thing. In 1940 as skipper of the Class D Daytona Beach Islanders, he converted a sore-armed young pitcher into a full-time outfielder. The player’s name, of course, was Stan Musial.

Kerr deserved better from the game he loved. Surprisingly, he received his just due away from the mainstream press. Ira F. Lewis started his writing career as a sports columnist for the Negro weekly Pittsburgh Courier in 1925 before going on to be one of the most important editors in black journalism history. In his The Passing Review column, Lewis gave an interesting slant on Kerr. Lewis, a black journalist, wrote about this white pitcher at a time when Kerr was in the midst of a comeback season after having been banned from professional baseball since his holdout for higher pay in 1922.

“Baseball fans through the country will be glad to see Dickey Kerr, the diminutive White Sox pitcher, again in harness, and pitching for the hosts of Comiskey,” Lewis wrote. “The little fella has the sympathy of fandom in general in his losing fight against Organized Baseball. He pitched sterling ball for the Pale Hose during the hectic season of 1919, and was one of the stars of the odious World Series of the same season. His salary demands were perhaps just and would have been met by the Old Roman [team owner Charles Comiskey] had it not been for the fact that the generally generous Comiskey was brokenhearted over the treachery of the infamous ‘Black Sox.’ Kerr, by being insistent, had visited upon him the wrath of Organized Baseball, a combination that no mere player can defeat.”

Kerr and his comeback turned out to be the lead-in for Lewis to some interesting rumination about “great pitching feats which have been high water-marks in baseball. . . .

“May 5, 1904—Cy Young, pitching for Boston, shut out the Philadelphia Athletics without allowing a hit or allowing a runner to reach first base—a perfect gem.

“October 2, 1908—An exciting finish to a season where four teams had a chance for the American League pennant as late as the last week of the campaign when Fielder Jones brought his White Sox into Cleveland to win one game. In the crucial contest, Big Ed Walsh struck out 14 men and allowed four hits with no errors behind him but could not win because the peerless Addie Joss shut out the White Sox, allowing neither a hit, a run, nor a man to reach first—a perfect gem.

“April 27, 1922—Charlie Robertson, pitching for the White Sox, shut out the Detroit Tigers without allowing a hit or a man to reach first base. When one considers the caliber of the batsmen he faced, Robertson’s feat perhaps overshadows the performances of either Young or Joss—a perfect gem.”

Some of the talented pitchers making headlines in the early 1900s were Cy Young of the Boston Americans, Cleveland’s Addie Joss, and Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox.

In the colorful prose of that time, Lewis stated that these three “perfect gems” were even more than great pitching feats. “Such work was a display of the modern pitching art developed and produced at its highest degree of scintillating efficiency.”

But for Lewis, the pitching achievements of Young, Joss, and Robertson pale in comparison to the shutout Kerr hurled against the Reds in the World Series. “With his first baseman [Chick Gandil], his shortstop [Swede Risberg], his third baseman [Buck Weaver], his left fielder [Joe Jackson] and his center fielder [Happy Felsch] all trying to lose the game, only his right fielder, second baseman and catcher were working with him to win,” Lewis wrote. “That, in our opinion, was the greatest exhibition of pitching the world has ever seen. While not listed among the immortal mounds-men of history, for that performance alone the fans will welcome back Dickey Kerr.”

I have a suspicion that Stan the Man would love to have known of Ira Lewis’s ruminations about the greatest-pitched game of all time. I have a further suspicion that Musial would have agreed with the journalist’s assessment.

Toward the end of his life, Kerr commented about the most memorable baseball event of his career: “Never, though never could I forget about 1919. I wouldn’t think about it when I was on the field, but then I’d come back to all those hotel rooms some nights and there it would be. Almost like a living thing.”

And then came redemption.

“The little man with the sad blue eyes looked back 40 years today and thanked the Lord and the White Sox for putting him at peace,” a United Press International article said on October 2, 1959. “Dickey Kerr’s voice had the tone of a prayer as he rooted for the White Sox to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

“I’ve lived for this day,” said the gnarled, freckled man who pitched and won two games for those infamous Chicago Black Sox who threw the 1919 World Series without his knowledge. “I always knew that sometime the White Sox would get back into the Series. ‘I was just afraid that I wouldn’t be around.’”

Following a salary dispute, Dickey Kerr left the Chicago White Sox after the 1921 season and was placed on the permanent ineligible list. In August 1925, Kerr, shown here with Manager Eddie Collins, was reinstated in organized baseball and rejoined the White Sox for his final 12 games in the Majors.

 

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