October Surprise

In early September, 1929, Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, had a problem.  His team had pretty much clinched the American League pennant, but his likely opponent in the World Series, the Chicago Cubs, featured a lineup of hard hitting right-handed batters, including three future Hall of Famers (Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Kiki Cuyler).  Mack’s problem?  Two of his three best starters were left-handed (Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg).  The third was a righty (George Earnshaw), but Mack wanted to pitch him later.

Looking over the schedule for mid-September, Mack noticed that the Cubs would be in Philadelphia playing the Phillies at the same time the A’s were hosting the White Sox.  An idea popped into his mind:  In the first game of the World Series he would start Howard Ehmke, a journeyman in the twilight of his career.  Ehmke, was a right-hander with a tricky sidearm delivery that just might bamboozle the Cubs.  Mack took him aside and laid out his plan:  He would provide Ehmke with tickets for the Cubs series—good seats with a view of the Cubs’ batters.  Ehmke, unnoticed in the stands, would study them and take notes.  By the time the series was over, he would see approximately 12 at bats from each hitter.

Howard Ehmke was not a great pitcher, but he was a smart guy.  He was expected to enroll at Brown University after high school, but instead chose a career in baseball.  After several years with the Tigers and Red Sox, during which he did pitch a no-hitter and won 20 games one year, he came to the A’s in 1926.  Now, three years later at the age of 35, he was a spot starter who pitched only 54 innings with the Athletics.

When Connie Mack announced Howard Ehmke as his starting pitcher in Game One of the 1929 World Series, it shocked the baseball world.  Sportswriters and fans could not believe that Mack bypassed the likes of Grove (20-6), Walberg (18-11), and Earnshaw (24-8), for Ehmke.

On October 8, 1929, in front of 50,000 fan crammed into Wrigley Field in Chicago, Ehmke beat the Cubs, 3-1.  He pitched a complete game, striking out 13 batters (a World Series record at the time), including two strikeouts each against those three future Hall of Famers, Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson, and Kiki Cuyler.  The A’s went on to take the Series 4-1.

Ehmke retired the following season.  He started his own business in Philadelphia—manufacturing tarpaulins.  He’s credited with developing the first canvas tarps that covered baseball infields.  Howard Ehmke died on March 17, 1959.  He was 65.

Note:  Information for this post is from an article by Gregory H. Wolf in Baseball-Reference.com and the SABRE Bio Project.

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