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Eddie Rommel: Making Plan B Work

In part 3, Schechter examines knuckleballer Eddie Rommel, who won a World Series game with fellow umpiring legend Bill Dinneen behind the plate. As an umpire, Rommel had the plate twice in the 1947 World Series, including Game 7.

By Gabriel Schechter , February 9, 2017
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

Much has been made of the Indiana farm boy who ran afoul of a corn thresher that tried to separate the boy’s right hand from his wrist. Little Mordecai Brown grew up to be “Three Finger” Brown. Mangled fingers forced him to find a unique grip that gave him the most unhittable curveball of his generation, leading to a Hall of Fame career.

Baltimore native Edwin Americus Rommel achieved a lesser-known adaptation to adversity. After two seasons in the low minors, the 6-foot, 2-inch 20-year-old got a winter job in 1917 as a steamfitter’s helper on a ship. When a mishap severely scalded his hands, he couldn’t grip a baseball normally. Instead, he used his fingertips and became the standout knuckleball artist of his era, fashioning a 171–119 record in thirteen seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics.

John McGraw gave Rommel a tryout in 1919 but quickly jettisoned him. Pitching for Newark in the International League, Rommel won 22 games, including a no-hitter. Connie Mack saw him pitch and offered him a contract. By 1921 he was Mack’s workhorse, going 16–23 for a franchise that finished last for the seventh straight season. From 1921 to 1925, Rommel averaged 50 games, 32 starts, 19 complete games, and 283 innings per season.

Rommel’s 1922 season was outstanding, a precursor of Steve Carlton’s 27 wins for a 1972 Phillies team that won just 59 games. Rommel single-handedly lifted the Athletics to seventh place; he went 27–13 while the rest of Mack’s staff went 38–76. He went 8–1 out of the bullpen, posted a 13–2 mark after August 7, and twice won both ends of a doubleheader, starting one and relieving in the other. He finished second in the MVP voting to George Sisler, who batted .420 for the second-place Browns.

Eddie Rommel played his entire 13-year major league career with the Philadelphia Athletics.

How did Rommel become the first successful knuckleball practitioner in the Major Leagues? He worked at it. In an article published after his breakout 1922 season, he described the process:

The first time I pressed the three knuckles against the seam, the ball dropped more than two feet. I experimented with all sorts of deliveries. I pitched it with a sidearm motion, underhanded, overhanded, moved the thumb and little finger to different parts of the ball, and that’s all there is to it. It is impossible to get much speed with the knuckle ball. . . . It is this slow-motion speed which throws the batter off balance.

For a batter’s-eye view of Rommel’s knuckler, here’s Sisler, who hit a mere .350 against Rommel that year:

The bat has to meet the ball squarely for a clean wallop. I have found myself not only topping Rommel’s knuckler but getting under it. . . . The ball does not seem to do its stuff until it is about six feet from the plate. If it made a one-way hop the batter would be able to set himself and familiarize himself with the break. But that’s just where Rommel’s success comes in. It goes down one time and the next will take an upward break.

Rommel’s second 20-win season came in 1925, the year Mack’s Athletics returned to the first division, beginning their second dynasty. He went 21–10 and even hit his only career home run, off Buster Ross of the Red Sox. The Athletics were in first place when he raised his record to 20–5 on August 11, but somehow they lost 17 of 19 games and finished two games behind the pennant-winning Senators.

Over the next few years, Rommel evolved into an indispensable reliever and spot starter. (Of his 501 career games, 249 were starts and 252 came in relief.) From 1927 to 1929, Mack had a magic touch in deploying his rubber-armed right-hander. He posted an amazing three-year record of 36–10, going 12–2 in 1929 when the Athletics finally claimed their first pennant in 15 years. Unfortunately for Rommel, he pitched just one inning in the World Series. But what an inning! In Game 3, he yielded a run in the seventh inning that gave the Cubs an 8–0 lead, but the Athletics’ historic 10-run rally made Rommel the winning pitcher.

In 1931, Rommel (center row, seventh from left) helped the Athletics capture a third straight American League pennant.

By the 1931 World Series, the 34-year-old Rommel was limited to a single mop-up inning in a Game 5 loss. That season, he had pitched complete games in his last six starts, but in 1932 all 17 of his appearances came in relief. One of them, on July 10 at Cleveland, was the most incredible relief misadventure in baseball history. Rommel set records by pitching 17 innings, allowing 29 hits, and surrendering 14 runs—and he was the winning pitcher!

Blue laws prohibited Sunday baseball in Pennsylvania, so after playing doubleheaders at home against the White Sox three straight days, the Athletics made a one-day trip to Cleveland before resuming their home stand. Mack took only two pitchers—Rommel and Lew Krausse. Krausse gave up three runs in the first inning, and Mack summoned Rommel, who had pitched five innings over the previous two days. No matter.

Rommel gave up runs early and often. Given a 13–8 lead in the seventh inning, he promptly got drilled for six runs. Indians second baseman Johnny Burnett ripped eight of his record nine hits off Rommel, who gave up the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning and failed to hold a two-run lead in the 16th.

Luckily, Rommel had Jimmie Foxx on his side. Trailing by a run with two outs in the ninth inning, Foxx doubled in two runs. In the 16th, he belted a two-run homer, his third of the game. Thanks to Rommel, he got another chance in the 18th, singled, and scored the winning run. Foxx drove in eight runs with his six hits, amassing 16 total bases. Rommel needed every one of them. Two other future Hall of Famers—Al Simmons and Earl Averill—had five hits apiece. Rommel contributed three hits to the team’s combined total of 58.

“It never occurred to me that I’d have to go more than a couple of innings, if any,” he said. “It was the end of me as a pitcher, too.” That was his only win in 1932 and the last of his career. He rested for 40 days, pitched five more times, and was released after the season. Only 35 years old, he wanted to stay in the game he loved. Following two years as a coach and batting practice pitcher for the Athletics, he managed Richmond of the International League. A salary dispute ended his tenure there, and he turned to umpiring.

Courtesy of: The Trading Card Database

It was a very good decision. After two years of seasoning in the minors, Rommel joined the American League staff in 1938, replacing Bill Dinneen, one of the umpires in Rommel’s World Series victory. He survived for 22 years, retiring in 1959 at age 62 after umpiring 3,366 regular-season games, over 1,000 of them behind the plate.

Though Rommel worked two World Series and six All-Star Games, the most exciting game he ever saw came on April 30, 1946, in front of more than 38,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. Bob Feller and Bill Bevens pitched shutout ball until the ninth inning, when Indians catcher Frankie Hayes hit a home run. That was all Feller needed as he retired Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller with the tying run in scoring position to finish off a no-hitter. The other no-hitter Rommel called was Don Black’s gem against the A’s at Cleveland Stadium on July 10, 1947.

Rommel had a simple philosophy of umpiring: “To say an ump never makes a bad call is an outright lie. What I used to do is say, ‘Okay, I missed it. Now what do we do?’ That always stopped ’em because there wasn’t any answer.” Well, not always. Rommel issued 46 ejections, a dozen in his first two seasons and 15 to future Hall of Famers. He got Ted Lyons, Luke Appling, and ex-teammate Jimmy Dykes three times each and thumbed Mickey Mantle, Hank Greenberg, Casey Stengel, and Lefty Gomez.

In 1943, after his sixth season, Rommel got his first World Series assignment, with the higher honor of working the plate in Game 1. Spud Chandler of the Yankees amplified his 20–4 record during the season by beating Max Lanier and the Cardinals, 4–2. Rommel had the best view in Game 5 as well when Chandler polished off the Series clincher with a 2–0 10-hitter.

Earlier in 1943, Rommel had enjoyed his second All-Star Game assignment. The first came in 1939, when he split the game between first and second base as the American League won, 3–1. The story was similar in 1943, a 5–3 AL victory at Shibe Park. Rommel worked the plate for the first half of the game, judging the flings of Mort Cooper, Johnny Vander Meer, Dutch Leonard, and Hal Newhouser.

Rommel—shown here with Casey Stengel, Pee Wee Reese and fellow officials Larry Goetz and Augie Donatelli— worked as an American League umpire for 22 years. 

Rommel’s other All-Star Game experiences:

  • 1946: In a 12–0 AL romp at Fenway Park, Ted Williams went 4 for 4, including his famous home run off Rip Sewell’s blooper pitch.
  • 1950: This time, Williams wrecked his elbow running into the wall to catch Ralph Kiner’s first-inning drive. Kiner blasted one over the wall at Comiskey Park to tie the game in the ninth inning, and Red Schoendienst’s 14th-inning home run won it.
  • 1954: Rommel worked the plate for the first half of the slugfest at Cleveland Stadium, won by the AL, 11–9. Hometown hero Al Rosen drove in five runs, and Nellie Fox’s two-run single in the eighth inning brought in the winning runs.
  • 1958: Rommel called balls and strikes for starters Warren Spahn and Bob Turley, though neither pitched well. The AL won, 4–3, on Gil McDougald’s RBI single in the sixth inning.

In 1947, Rommel had the honor of officiating his second World Series, the first of six Series battles between the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers during Jackie Robinson’s 10-year Major League career. In Game 4, with Bill Bevens one out away from a no-hitter at Ebbets Field, Rommel was stationed at third base, the perfect angle to see that right fielder Tommy Henrich wasn’t going to catch the drive by Cookie Lavagetto that resulted in a game-winning double.

Rommel had the plate in two games, including the deciding Game 7. In Game 3 at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers drilled Bobo Newsom for six runs in the second inning and barely held on to win. Yogi Berra’s seventh-inning home run off Ralph Branca cut the lead to 9–8, but Hugh Casey came in to shut down the Yankees for the win.

Dodgers Manager Burt Shotton surprised observers by giving the crucial Game 7 start to Hal Gregg, a nondescript 4–5 during the season, after using his four top pitchers to win Game 6. Gregg didn’t make it through the fourth inning. Bobby Brown and Tommy Henrich had RBI hits to give the Yankees the lead, and Gregg took the loss in the 5–2 finale. The victory was earned by Yankees reliever Joe Page, who pitched five innings of one-hit ball, retiring 13 Dodgers in a row.

Rommel made history in an unusual way on April 18, 1956, when he became the first Major League umpire to wear glasses on the job. Later that season, AL ump Frank Umont became the second. Rommel used them only for night games, and not when he had the plate, and didn’t get undue heat from the players. It must have made him look distinguished, because after he left baseball he became an aide to the governor of Maryland.

Always competitive, Rommel won a number of duckpin bowling tournaments and owned a bowling alley for awhile. He was also an avid golfer and pool shooter. He died in 1970 at age 72.

Rommel served as an American League coach during the debut All-Star Game of 1933. The All-Americans, with a dozen future Hall of Famers including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, defeated the Nationals, 4-2.

 

 

 

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