INDIANA has had its share of major league baseball players during the past century or so. There have been so many (364) that an Indianapolis-based sports historian, Pete Cava, has compiled brief narratives on each in a book called “Indiana Born Major League Baseball Players.”
He’ll talk about his book and that impressive roster at 6 p.m. July 11 at the Bartholomew County Public Library. There’s a lot to tell. Indiana has been the birthplace for a number of noteworthy major leaguers such as:
Gil Hodges, Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman in the 1950s and manager of the Miracle New York Mets of 1969.
Carl Erskine, a teammate of Hodges with the Dodgers and one of the best pitchers in his era.
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Don Larsen, the famed New York Yankees pitcher who threw the only no-hitter in World Series history.
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, a Hall of Fame pitcher from the early 20th century.
I’m sure that Cava has a wealth of stories about the famous and near-famous Hoosier big leaguers that he can share with the Columbus audience, but I suspect the greatest interest will be on two players who had pretty short careers.
Ironically, they were both nicknamed “Dutch.” They also were born in Columbus.
Paul “Dutch” Fehring and Franklin “Dutch” Wetzel had very brief careers in the majors, but in their own way, they left pretty impressive marks.
Fehring is arguably the more famous of the Columbus big leaguers. After all, he’s a Hall of Famer and shares an all-time major league record.
Those achievements come with caveats. None of his Hall of Fame accolades can be found at Cooperstown, site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Locally he’s best known as an all-around athlete who was inducted into the Indiana Basketball and Purdue University Halls of Fame. Nationally, he’s been honored with induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame for his coaching record at Stanford University.
But his mark on major league baseball, while not long, was one for the history books. He was one of almost 200 players who played their first and last major league game on the same day.
Fehring’s claim to fame was on June 25, 1934, when he was a bullpen catcher for the Chicago White Sox. The Sox were playing the New York Yankees that day in Yankee Stadium.
Both teams shared the bullpen phone, and Yankees pitcher Burleigh Grimes answered. Either Burleigh had trouble hearing, or the White Sox coaches weren’t sure about just who was on the roster.
“Burleigh picked it up and said, ‘Perry? There’s no Perry here,’ and he hung up,” Fehring recalled in another book, “Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors.” “But they called back, and it was me they wanted. I started walking toward the dugout to come into the game, and it seemed like all eyes were on me.”
Fehring took his stance behind the plate and found himself looking up to the images of all-time greats like Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey. It was when Gehrig, the Hall of Fame first baseman, stepped to the plate that Fehring was about to enter the record books for another achievement.
Gehrig, who had homered, doubled and singled in three previous at bats, hit a deep shot over the center fielder’s head. By the time the ball was retrieved, he had rounded third in his quest for an inside the park home run. He was out of luck on that score because Fehring caught the incoming throw and tagged out the first baseman.
Instead of his second homer of the day, Gehrig was credited with a triple, which ironically gave him the rare achievement of hitting for the cycle (single, double, triple and home run) in the same game.
Fehring’s major league career began and ended that day. He was offered a spot in the minor leagues, but he elected to pursue a more stable occupation — coaching.
Fehring maintained close ties with his hometown throughout his life, often returning for reunions of his high school and college classes and visiting with local friends.
Franklin “Dutch” Wetzel had only tenuous ties to Bartholomew County. He was born in Columbus in 1893. His father, Frank Wetzel, was a railroad engineer who was killed in a railway accident in 1897. His mother later remarried while he was still in school and moved the family to an area near St. Louis.
The family’s move was a decision that would later play into Wetzel’s brief career in the major leagues. He spent his two major league seasons as an outfielder with the old St. Louis Browns.
From the perspective of statistics, Wetzel was a so-so major league player. He was sold to the Browns by the Flint, Michigan, team in the old Michigan-Ontario league in 1920. During the 1920 to 1921 seasons, he carried a .243 batting average in 68 games.
His record in the minor leagues, both before and after his time in the “bigs,” was outstanding. In his 13 years in the minor leagues, he carried a lifetime batting average of .324. In one season with the Flint Halligans he had a .387 average, which included 33 doubles, 20 triples and 12 home runs in 112 games.
His roads into and out of professional baseball were almost as fascinating as his career in the majors. In 1918 he entered the Army and served in combat situations during World War I. He also played for a baseball team, and one of his teammates was pitching immortal Grover Cleveland Alexander.
After his playing days ended, he went into managing in California. One of the teams he managed was owned by movie comedian Joe E. Brown. In February 1934, he even became the owner of a franchise in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a short experience, as he sold his share of the team in July 1934. His last job was as an electrician for RKO Studios in California.
Cava has spent many years compiling the narratives of Hoosier big leaguers. Much of the material in the book deals with the statistical records, but he most treasures the incidental stories told to him by many of his subjects.
“The thing I found is that they lived interesting lives,” he said recently. “In talking to them, I was able to look beyond their statistics and see them as real people.”
One of the most fascinating stories he heard was told to him by Fehring of his one game in the major leagues.
“It was not the Gehrig incident but one involving (Yankee catcher) Bill Dickey that really captivated me,” Cava said. “Dutch had only one turn at bat in that game, and he struck out. However, he told me that when he got to the plate, Dickey looked up and said, ‘OK, kid, the first pitch is going to be a fastball down the middle.’
“Dutch thought he was pulling his leg and wasn’t looking for a fastball down the middle, but that was what he got. Dickey then told him the speed and location of the next pitch, but Dutch still didn’t trust him. Sure enough, strike 2 was what Dickey said it would be.
“Finally the umpire got into the act, and he told Dutch, ‘Kid, listen to him, he’s trying to help you out.’ By this time Dutch wasn’t sure who to believe as Dickey relayed a third prediction. It was accurate, but in his doubt Dutch just stood and watched a third strike whiz by.”
I hope Cava shares more of those kinds of personal stories when he addresses the Columbus audience July 11. After all, they’re what baseball fans love to talk about.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.