My favorite part of writing is doing the research. I love to look things up. Nowadays, I can spend hours at a time reading old newspapers on my computer, but I’ll always remember the day back in 1983 when I discovered newspapers on microfilm. Corny as it sounds, it changed my life. Until I found those little orange boxes containing the New York Times, microfilm had only existed for me in spy movies. It was something someone smuggled out of an Iron Curtain country. Now, it would let me travel through time!
Having made this discovery, some people might choose to look up the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or maybe the day they were born. I chose to look up the seventh game of the 1926 World Series. The day that Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexanderstruck out Tony Lazzeri of the New York Yankees with the bases loaded and went on to save the first World Series championship for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Why did I look up that game? One reason was that I knew the exact date (October 10, 1926). Another was the reason why I knew the exact date, which is because the legend of Alexander striking out Lazzeri was one of the featured stories in the very first book I ever had about baseball history: Big Time Baseball by the late Maury Allen. Mostly, the reason I chose to look up that game is because there were so many different versions of what happened that day. The people involved couldn’t even agree on the weather! Alexander himself remembered it as a “dark, chilly afternoon,” but his manager (and second baseman) Rogers Hornsby recalled Alex being out there “in the sunlight.”
The World Series of 1926 was a classic. The Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were already a powerhouse, while the Cardinals had just won their first National League pennant. The Yanks won the opener and went out to a 3-2 series lead, but Alexander kept the Cardinals alive with a complete-game victory in New York in game six. St. Louis was clinging to a one-run lead in game seven the following day at Yankee Stadium when starter Jess Haines injured his pitching hand. There were two out and the bases loaded when Hornsby called on Alexander again. As Big Time Baseball put it:
Why, many wondered, was it Alexander, and not [Art] Reinhart or [Flint] Rhem coming in toward the mound? After his nine-inning chore of the day before, Ol’ Pete had no reasonable expectation he would be called on again. In view of that he had done some celebrating — perhaps a little too much celebrating — the night before. Was he rested enough — was he in condition to pitch?
Alexander was an alcoholic, drinking to hide his epilepsy and to forget the horrors of combat in World War I. There are many who say the pitcher was hung over when Rogers Hornsby called on him. Others claim he was still drunk. Hornsby said fans would tell him to his face that he’d had to send a cab to get Alex out of a barroom after the game had started, but Alexander always maintained he was sober and Hornsby backs him up. Still, the pitcher admits he took a long time making the walk from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound to face Lazzeri. Alexander and Hornsby spoke briefly, and then the pitcher got to work.
Everyone seems to agree that Alexander started the young slugger with a curveball, but the story gets fuzzy again after that. Some say the pitch was a strike. Others a ball. Then there are those who maintain it was the very first pitch that Lazzeri launched deep down the left field line.
The piercing crack was like a rifle report. Sixty thousand fans jumped to their feet howling, as a mighty line drive whistled toward the left field stands. The ball zoomed over the fence and the shouts rose to a deafening roar — and then suddenly died away. The drive was foul by a foot!
Hornsby would say the ball was two feet foul, but Alexander claimed the drive “had a tail-end fade and landed foul by eight to ten feet.” He shrugged it off, and struck out Lazzeri to end the threat. For all practical purposes, it was ball game over. Alexander had little trouble in the eighth and ninth, and the Cardinals were World Series champions.
The microfilm was going to give me the chance to find out what really happened. I didn’t figure there was any way I would read about how drunk or hungover Alexander was or was not, but I knew I would at least find out what the weather was and which pitch Lazzeri hit. Most importantly, I hoped to find out just how far foul that ball really was!
As I suspected, there was no mention of Alexander’s drinking. Just talk that it seemed to be “a sort of questionable bit of diplomacy” to call on him after his performance the day before. The weather, however, was summed up nicely: “It is cold; it is dreary; it is dark; it is dripping; it is damp and thick and all that.”
As for the pitch, the newspaper confirmed that Alexander started Lazzeri with a curve, but he didn’t swing and it was ball one. Lazzeri didn’t swing until the third pitch, when, with the count 1-and-1, he hit the famous foul ball. But no account would say how far foul. One writer said simply, “Lazzeri fouled it into the stands.” Another reported only that, “Lazzeri drove a long foul fly to the leftfield stands.” The written account of the radio play-by-play called it “a long shot into the left field stands.”
So, my first foray into microfilm had produced success and failure. I had found some of what I was looking for, but I couldn’t uncover everything. Some things, even simple things, really are lost to history.