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That Time Chummy Gray Threw a No-Hitter in the Home Opener

February 27, 2016

Chummy Gray. Public Domain.

 

The 1899 Buffalo Bisons of Ban Johnson’s Western League started the season surprisingly well, sweeping the league favorite Indianapolis Hoosiers on the road in four games. However, the Bisons were then swept in three games in Detroit, before splitting two games in Columbus. The 5-4 Bisons looked good to start the season. As the Buffalo Courier stated, Buffalo “displayed snappy, vigorous work even in their losing games and well deserve the hearty support of the local fans.”[1] After their third game in Columbus was rained out, the team took the Lake Shore Train out of Columbus at 10:00 PM. The Indianapolis Hoosiers boarded the same train later in Cleveland, and both teams arrived in Buffalo around 7:40 AM the day of the home opener.

 

The Bisons entered the game confident, after their road trip to start the season. As manager Billy Nash stated “There isn’t a team in the Western League that has any license to beat us if we have the pitchers. I think I’ve got the finest outfield in the country and the infield is pretty fair too.”[2] The Hoosiers, on the other hand, were frustrated at the close games they had lost to Buffalo to start the year. W.F.C. Golt, the Indianapolis team President expressed this frustration before the game, saying “If we’ve got to get beaten, do us by more than one run. That one run business nearly set us crazy during the series at Indianapolis… The only satisfaction we got out of the whole series was that we lost the last game by more than one run. Now, for goodness sake, don’t beat us by a run this time.”[3]

 

The weather forecast for the Monday afternoon game called for an all-day rain. In fact it did rain in the morning and sprinkled throughout three innings of the game. The weather was so ominous that the nearly 3,000 fans who showed up to Olympic Park, located on Michigan Avenue at East Ferry Street, were issued rainchecks. Fans who entered the ballpark, by Western League rule, paid 25 cents to get into the park, and men paid an additional 25 cents to enter the grandstand if they so choose, a 10 cent increase from the previous season, while women were admitted to the grandstand free of charge. Some of these fans may have been disappointed that Buffalo team President Jim Franklin cut out much of the normal pomp and circumstance that would normally accompany a home opener at the time, such as a team procession and a band playing before the game, because he believed it was “hoodoo” that had helped to keep the team from winning a home opener for years.

 

Many of the fans were also looking forward to the home debut of new Buffalo pitcher, and former National Leaguer, Elt Chamberlain. “Ice Box,” as Chamberlain was known, was already a local favorite, having been born in Warsaw, NY, just 37 miles east of Buffalo. His family moved to Buffalo when he was a child, and he had starred on the amateur mounds in the city. He went on to have a solid major league career pitching for the St. Louis Browns of the American Association (which was a major league) and the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. He was a right handed pitcher who once threw two innings of a major league game left handed. The thirty-one year old’s best season was with the 1889 Browns, when he went 32-15, with a 2.97 ERA, in 421.2 innings, with 44 complete games in 51 starts. Chamberlain had won 157 major league games, but none since 1896, and now he was attempting to make a comeback with his hometown team. Ice Box warmed up about a half hour before the game as usual, but then Buffalo manager Billy Nash decided to start George “Chummy” Gray instead of the Ice Box. Why Nash made this decision is up for debate, the Buffalo Evening News reported that Chamberlain “did not warm up quite hot enough,” but the Buffalo Times stated that when Nash learned that Frank Foreman was pitching for Indianapolis, he decided to start Gray instead.[4]

 

Chummy Gray was a twenty-five year old right handed pitcher who won 24 games for the Bisons in 1898 in the Eastern League, and was a 23 game winner for them in 1897. Gray had already defeated the Hoosiers 3-2 in Indianapolis during the season opener, when he went nine innings, giving up two runs on six hits, five walks and no strikeouts. He also pitched and won the fourth game of the opening series at Indianapolis, going nine innings, and giving up three runs on five hits, with three walks and one strike out. Gray also had pitched two innings in the May 5 game at Detroit, and amazingly had pitched a complete game 10 inning win in Columbus just two days before the home opener, where he allowed just two runs on four hits, with four walks and three strikeouts.

 

Gray’s mound opponent, Frank “Monkey” Foreman, was a colorful character who had already played numerous seasons in the National League. The thirty-five year old lefthander had most recently pitched in the majors for the Cincinnati Reds, where he won twenty-five games combined in the 1895 and 1896 seasons.

 

Buffalo took the field on the damp afternoon in their new pearl gray uniforms, with dark blue trim and black stockings. The fans had a good laugh in the first inning, when Buffalo centerfielder Jim Garry was presented with a silk umbrella as he came to bat. The umbrella was apparently one that Garry had accidently left in Syracuse, and a good natured soul had brought it back to present to him in the sprinkles of opening day.

 

The Bisons got their only run in the third inning as a result of a controversial play. Buffalo shortstop Frank Eustace, who played for Indianapolis in 1897, laid a bunt down the third base line. The slow rolling ball appeared to go foul, but as Hoosier pitcher Frank Foremen attempted to touch the ball in foul territory, he booted it back fair and apparently blocked the view of umpire John Haskell while doing so. Haskell called the ball fair, and Eustace was safe at first. Despite an animated argument from Foreman, in an era before instant replay or even a second umpire, the call stood. Eustace then stole second, advanced to third on Ed Gremminger’s groundout to second, and came home when third baseman Eddie Hickey bobbled a Billy Nash grounder allowing Nash to safely reach first.

 

The closest Indianapolis came to scoring was in the third inning, when Eddie Hickey reached on an error by Bison third baseman Ed Gremminger. He then advanced to second on Frank Foreman’s groundout to Gray, and went to third when George Hogriever grounded out to third. Hickey, however, was stranded at third when Ace Stewart grounded out to second to end the inning.

 

The Bisons threatened again in the fourth inning when William Diggins and Frank Eustace both singled, but Ed Gremminger grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the rally.

 

After Hoosier pitcher Frank Foreman’s outburst in the third over the controversial bunt play, he settled in and began to entertain the Buffalo crowd. The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser reported that Foreman “proved to be one of the jolliest fellows on the field,” and that he “had the crowd with him.”[5] On one play, the Buffalo Enquirer said that after Foreman threw a ball behind Jim Garry, Foreman “pirouetted around on his toes and posed a la ballet dancer. He kidded the fans and he laughed and saluted with hand to cap every Bison who faced him.”[6] The Buffalo crowd loved his antics.

 

Umpire John Haskell did not have the same effect on the crowd. Numerous newspaper reports stated that the crowd could not tell his long howling strike call from his ball call. The Buffalo Times said one fan complained that Haskell’s voice sounded like “a man bellowing down a well,” while the Buffalo Evening News reported a fan yelling to “Take the marbles out of your mouth.”[7]

 

The excitement of the game also caused a disturbance, when in the eighth inning “some kids who couldn’t stand the suspense any longer pulled a board off the center field fence and there was a grand rush for the right field bleachers. After 40 or 50 of the gang had landed safely, the hole was bounded up.”[8]

 

The game was also notable for many great defensive plays. The Buffalo Courier described the game as “a fielding battle with a rattling succession of kaleidoscopic plays that electrified the spectators and drove the fans insane.”[9] The closest Indianapolis came to a hit was probably a line shot in the seventh inning which, as the Buffalo Evening News described, “went so straight at (third baseman) Gremminger that he couldn’t have avoided squeezing it if he had tried.”[10] Buffalo’s Frank Eustace played a solid game at shortstop. Though most of the balls hit to him “were ugly, he handled them as if they were toys.”[11] After the game, the Indianapolis News would state that “Buffalo has the cleanest fielding team in the league.”[12] Not to be outdone, Indianapolis left fielder George Flynn also made some pretty plays, including a nice catch on a Jim Garry fly ball in the first inning, and a running catch in the seventh off the bat of Billy Nash, which he caught just off the ground after a long run. Bob Allen, the Hoosiers shortstop, was also stellar in the field, as the Buffalo Enquirer said, “There has never been seen on local ball grounds a better shortstop than he. Twice yesterday he robbed Buffalo batters of what looked to be sure hits, and his throws to first were marvels of speed and accuracy.”[13]

 

At the end of the hour and forty-five minute game, Chummy Gray had not allowed a hit. He allowed only one walk, to centerfielder Herm McFarland, while Buffalo’s Ed Gremminger and Billy Nash each committed an error. Gray’s mastery on the day is illustrated by the fact that first baseman Big Bill Massey had 16 putouts. Only four balls were hit to the outfield, one to left, one to center, and two to right. Only one Hoosier got past second base, Eddie Hickey in the third inning. Buffalo managed only five hits and a lone run off Foreman. There was only one double play in the game, which Buffalo’s Ed Gremminger hit into, and not a man on either team struck out. Perhaps most incredible of all, in a time before pitch counts and innings limits, Gray threw a no-hitter just two days after throwing a 10 inning complete game.

 

The approximately 3,000 fans had to exit through a single turnstile, because Buffalo President Jim Franklin “forgot the keys to the seven barn door exits.”[14] A more discerning observer may believe that the “forgotten keys” had something to do with collecting the rain checks which had been issued before the game. The Buffalo Times reported that about a third of the fans managed to get away holding their rain checks.[15]

 

The fans and press immediately realized what a great game they had witnessed. The Buffalo Enquirer called it “probably the best game ever played by any team since Buffalo has been associated with professional baseball leagues,” and that “yesterday’s game will go down as the greatest ever played on a local diamond. It was remarkable in more ways than one.”[16] Even the losing side knew what a great game had been played, as the Indianapolis News said “There will probably not be a better contest played in the Western League this season.”[17]  

 

The Indianapolis players and press were complimentary of Chummy Gray after the game. The Indianapolis News said “he is not long for this league.”[18] Hoosiers team President W.F.C. Golt stated that “Your man Gray is certainly a wonder. He is plenty fast enough for any of the big league clubs. I wish I had him.”[19] Many of the Indianapolis players who had previously played in the National League claimed that Gray was better than many N.L. pitchers.

 

It was Buffalo’s fifth straight win against Indianapolis, with four of the wins by only one run. The Indianapolis News reported that this was the first time any team had beaten the Hoosiers in five straight games since the Western league was organized.[20] The win made Buffalo 6-4, and put them in a tie with St. Paul at the top of the Western League Standings. Buffalo’s win streak against the Hoosiers would end the next day as Indianapolis won 11-3. Buffalo fans were disappointed, but good natured in the loss, because, as the Buffalo Courier stated, “for a victory like that of Monday covereth a multitude of defeats.”[21] The most exciting event in Tuesday’s loss may have been in the seventh inning when the teams’ dressing rooms briefly caught on fire. Buffalo’s opening day scheduled starter and hometown hero Ice Box Chamberlain finally made his season debut two days after the no-hitter, allowing three runs on eight hits, four walks, and two strike outs in a 3-1 loss to the Hoosiers. The loss would be the last decision of his long career, as his comeback ended shortly thereafter.

 

The two teams’ fortunes would be quite different after Gray’s no-hitter. Indianapolis went on to win the Western League Pennant, as they often had. They won the Western League in 1885, 1895, 1897, and 1899. The Bisons would end up finishing tied for last place after a tumultuous season. After Gray’s no-hitter, the press showered manager Billy Nash with praise for playing injured and inspiring his team. But he would be fired five days after the game, due to tension with team president Jim Franklin. Buffalo went through four different managers during the season, with team president Franklin even managing them for a short time. The Bisons would also have numerous run-ins with the police throughout the season for illegally playing games on Sundays. Usually, the police would wait for the ninth inning, when the game was already decided, and then arrest both teams. One time, on July 23, police arrested the Bisons and the visiting team in the top of the second inning. Franklin had to bail the teams out on each occasion. By 1901, when the Western League turned into a second major league, re-named the American League, the Buffalo franchise was terminated despite assurances from league President Ban Johnson, so that the Boston Americans, known today as the Boston Red Sox, could be added.

 

Indianapolis pitcher Frank “Monkey” Foreman went on to win 15 games and lose 12 for the 1899 Hoosiers, tied for tenth most wins in the Western League. He had other great starts against Buffalo, including a 1-0 win on June 15 when he beat Chummy Gray, and a 2-1 loss on July 1, when he again lost to Gray. Foreman ended up pitching for Buffalo in 1900. In 15 games, including 12 starts, he went 7-6, with a 5.42 ERA. He remained a character and a crowd favorite. In a game in Chicago, he coached third base for Buffalo wearing an engineer’s hat and carrying two lanterns and a switchman’s flag.[22] He would later return to the major leagues, briefly with the Boston Americans and then two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. He won 12 more games, giving him 96 major league wins.

 

As for Chummy Gray, he ended up going 16-20 for the 1899 Bisons. On July 6, team president Jim Franklin suspended Gray for the season for refusing to accompany the team on a road trip, because he was going to have to share a sleeping berth with a team member. Both sides later made nice and Gray was back on the mound for the Bisons on July 25. The suspension illustrates the tension surrounding the team as it plummeted in the standings, with its revolving door of managers. Gray’s year ended on a high note as he pitched for the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates from September 14 through October 14. Gray went 3-3, with a 3.43 ERA, in nine games. He completed five of his seven starts for the Pirates, amassing 70.2 innings, with only nine strikeouts. Gray would rattle around the minor leagues for a few more seasons, including getting eight wins for the 1902 Bisons, but he would never again return to the majors. However, he’ll always have the glorious opening day of 1899.

[1] “Baseball in Buffalo Today,” Buffalo Courier, May 8, 1899.

[2] “Buffalo Team Left a Good Impression,” Buffalo Times, May 8, 1899.

[3] “At Em, Nash!,” Buffalo Express, May 8, 1899.

[4] “Great Game,” Buffalo Evening News, May 9, 1899. “Not a Hit,” Buffalo Times, May 9, 1899.

[5] “They Will Do!,” Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, May 9, 1899.

[6] “Hotspur’s Daily Column of Sporting Gossip,” Buffalo Enquirer, May 9, 1899.

[7] “Not a Hit,” Buffalo Times, May 9, 1899. “Great Game,” Buffalo Evening News, May 9, 1899.

[8] “Not a Hit,” Buffalo Times, May 9, 1899.

[9] “Bisons One, Hoosiers None,” Buffalo Courier, May 9, 1899.

[10] “Great Game,” Buffalo Evening News, May 9, 1899.

[11] Ibid.

[11] “By That Fatal One Run,” Indianapolis News, May 9, 1899.

[12] “Hotspur’s Daily Column of Sporting Gossip,” Buffalo Enquirer, May 9, 1899.

[13] “Great Game,” Buffalo Evening News, May 9, 1899.

[14] “Not a Hit,” Buffalo Times, May 9, 1899.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “By That Fatal One Run,” Indianapolis News, May 9, 1899.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Not a Hit,” Buffalo Times, May 9, 1899.

[19] “By that Fatal One Run,” Indianapolis News, May 9, 1899.

[20] “Billy’s Bisons Badly Bumped,” Buffalo Courier, May 10, 1899.

[21] Joseph M.Overfield, “The 100 Seasons of Buffalo Baseball,” Kenmore, NY: Partners’ Press, 1985.

 

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