Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Germany Schaefer: The Fatherland of Baseball Comedy

An international trio, of sorts: Germany Schaefer (center) with Cuban players
Jacinto Calvo (left) and Merito Acosta (right) in 1913 with the Washington Senators

Having only been out of country once, I have yet to see much of the world first-hand. As such, my opinion of most of the world derives from popular media's stereotypes of nations. So it's only natural that I consider Germans austere and precise. If any absurdity exists in the country, it is expressed through artistic statements that, while humorous, are unsettling1. Of course, given proper circumstances, Germans become quite affable. So the stereotypes go, anyway.

Yet, history regards early 1900s infielder Herman "Germany" Schaefer as a clown and one of the most hilarious and entertaining chaps to don a baseball uniform. His exploits mirror those of many other wacky baseball players, but he was actually a pioneer amongst goof-offs: He was once ejected for coming to bat with a fake mustache. He pretended to be the disembodied voice of God to an umpire who had gotten sauced after a game. He tight-rope walked the first-base line. And he pioneered the art of stealing first base2. And he wasn't a bad baseball player, either.

William Herman Schaefer was born in Chicago in 1876 to German immigrants (hence the nickname3). His family lived in the so-called Vice-Districts of the city. Herman played baseball in the local sandlots as a kid, then found his way into semi-pro ball. Accounts of Schaefer's career suggest that the stout infielder was surprisingly agile and a terrific defender. Despite his unimpressive career batting numbers (.257/.319/.320), Germany put up a few good years at the plate.

The Chicago Orphans inked him in 1901, and he played two games that year. 1902 found him at third base for the Orphans, completing an infield that included Tinkers, Evers and Chance4. His struggles at the plate that year (.196/.250/.223) led the Orphans to cut him, and he wandered back to the American Association until 1905, when the Detroit Tigers came calling. Detroit, in need of infielders, took a chance on Germany. Schaefer played well and was a valuable asset to the Tigers, who made him their captain. Schaefer would play in the 1907 and 1908 World Series, alongside baseball's biggest jerk. He hit eight of nine career home runs with Detroit, famously showing up Doc White and Rube Marquard in two separate incidents. In the offseason, Schaefer paired with Charley O'Leary, Detroit's shortstop and a fellow Chicagoan, to perform a vaudeville act.

Detroit sent Germany to Washington in 1909 for Jim Delahanty5. He played his best years for the Senators, hitting .334/.412/.398 in 1911. His playing time diminished after that year, and Germany spent increasing amounts of time coaching and in the dugout, which allowed Schaefer to dial his antics up a notch. Encouraged by teammate, fellow clown and Senators' coach Nick Altrock and Washington manager Clark Griffith, Schaefer used his free time to keep the team loose and provide some valuable PR for the club. He once helped a courtroom full of people on charges of public drunkenness have their cases dismissed, taking them out for a hot meal afterward.

Schaefer's career effectively ended after a stint with the Newark Pepper of the short-lived Federal League in 1915. He served as a coach for the New York Yankees in 1916 and the Cleveland Indians in 1918. With the United States' entrance into World War I, Schaefer denounced his nickname and insisted that he be called "Liberty" Schaefer, following the example of saurkraut being renamed "liberty cabbage.6"

The pugnacious John McGraw hired 42-year-old Schaefer as a scout in 1919, but Germany died suddenly that year7 while on a scouting trip. He was interred at a Northside cemetery in Chicago.

Read about Germany here. Read about Germany Schaefer's exploits in greater detail here.

1 Actually, my interpretation of Germans comes mainly through Saturday Night Live, particularly "Sprockets" and this gem.

2 This is actually not a metaphor. Schaefer literally stole first base after reaching second base to draw a throw from the catcher to allow the runner on third base a chance at scoring.

3 Obvious nickname is obvious.

4 Johnny Evers actually only played a handful of games at second base for the Cubs in 1902, so Germany probably only played with the most famous double-play combination in baseball history for a game or two.

5 If you didn't already look at it, check out Jim Delahanty's most famous photo, which is extremely unflattering. Leave a comment regarding what Big Jim is thinking, saying, or murdering when the photo was snapped.

6 Some baseball revisionist historians in the early 2000s similarly insisted that Stanley George Bordagaray be referred to as "Freedom" Bordagaray in all subsequent references. Jeff Francoeur was to be referred to as "Freedomy."

7 Coincidentally, the homeland of Schaefer's parents found ruin just a month after his death in 1919.

No comments:

Post a Comment