Ernie Shore’s last big save

by Brian Clarey

I relive the fantasy every spring, when the grass greens and the earth softens just enough to give extra bounce to an infielder’s knees and make a poorly-hit ball take a short hop right into his mitt.

I’m listening for the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the smell of spilled beer and hot-dog water that still give me a rush even after all these years.

Talkin’ ’bout baseball, if you haven’t figured it out yet, and it’s gonna be a banner year for the American pastime in the Triad.

The Greensboro Grasshoppers play in value-added NewBridge Bank Park, which this year will be home to the 2008 South Atlantic League All-Star Game on June 17. And the Winston-Salem Warthogs close out their last season at Ernie Shore Field before next year’s inaugural opening game at the downtown ballpark that has yet to be named.

Ernie Shore was a grand old park, and Shore himself was a grand old guy – a local boy, Guilford College grad (Class of ’14) from Yadkin County. Made it to the bigs in 1912, throwing batting practice for the New York Giants and then moved on to the Boston Red Sox as a right-handed reliever. That’s where he met a cocky left-hander by the name of George Herman Ruth.

Well, they roomed together on the road, drank together in the bars, and maybe the most noteworthy time Shore covered the Babe’s ass was on the mound, during the first game of a double-header against the Washington Senators on June 23, 1917.

Everybody knows Ruth was a pitcher back then, right? And he was young, 21 or 22, full of spit and fire. Well, Ruth gets on the mound at Fenway that afternoon and walks the first batter. He’s not happy with the strike zone, so he gets into it with legendary plate ump, Brick Owens – some say he even took a swing at the Brick – and finds himself in the showers before even the first out in the game.

Shore comes in, a right-hander, and he’s cold – it’s the top of the first inning, for cryin’ out loud – but he immediately picks off the runner Ruth walked. He’s a right-hander, see, and the Senators had their game built around hitting Ruth. Shore goes on to retire the next 26 batters, three up three down, a perfect game.

With an asterisk, of course.

But I’m thinking of an Ernie Shore save that went down long after he retired in 1920 – as a New York Yankee, by the way; Shore was a part of that infamous trade that put the Babe in pinstripes and into the annals of human history and sent the Sox on a century-long championship slump.

After he hung up his cleats, of course, ol’ Ernie got himself elected sheriff of Forsyth County in 1936. Today a scenario like that could serve as a plot from an Adam Sandler movie, but things were different back then. It was during the Great Depression, and before Shore was elected sheriff for life, most North Carolina counties didn’t even have patrol cars, and none of them had two-way radios. Back then Mayberry seemed like the world of the future, but ol’ Ernie kept the peace reasonably well for 10 years or so before he found himself presiding over a crime against baseball, the game to which, you might say, he owed everything he had.

It was a fixing scandal, of course, and to make matters worse it involved a player, fellow right-handed pitcher and baseball journeyman Barney DeForge.

Complicating matters further, at the time fixing a baseball game in North Carolina was a felony, punishable by no less than a year in prison.

What could DeForge have been thinking?

Baseball had not been so kind to Barney DeForge. After a more than a decade in the game, he found himself player-manager of the Reidsville Luckies in their first year in the Carolina League. A-ball, but still….

DeForge’s career had followed a different trajectory than his pal Ernie Shore’s. In the great crapshoot that is professional baseball, Shore made his point early on and rode his winnings into the sunset. DeForge, a sturdy Frenchman with a square jaw and dark, deep-set eyes, showed early promise but was not favored by time, talent and circumstance.

It wasn’t but 10 years earlier that he struck out 15 against the Eau Claire Bears as a starter for the Superior Blues and a couple months later threw a 4-hitter against Wasau. He went 19-6 as a starter that year, and the sportswriters of the day called his performance in the first playoff game against Crookston a “masterpiece,” though after 15 innings he allowed the winning run to score in the 1-0 contest, just another stroke of piss-poor luck in a life that seemed, at times, lousy with it.

But if what Ed Weingarten and WC McWaters had told him up in the rooms at the Hotel Belvedere was true, he could finally stand to make some real dough from this game to which he’d devoted his life.

Weingarten was a good enough guy – a baseball man who had teams in Leaksville, NC and Florence, SC. McWaters was another story, a used car salesman and professional gambler who had drifted in from South Carolina with flash, style and a scheme to wring some dollars from the national pastime.

Gambling on baseball was nothing new in 1948. The Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1920 was still fresh in fans’ memories, and DeForge himself had seen plenty of corruption when he played in the Evangeline League down in Louisiana, which during the mid-forties was pretty much run by the bookies. He pitched good ball down there, though, going 12-4 the previous season for Natchez, a fact that would later come back to haunt.

But up in that room McWaters had made it sound so easy. “We can make a lot of money,” he said. Weingarten said it would work. What the hell did DeForge, a washed-up ballplayer with a mouthful of sour tobacco, know about it? His job was the team. And that day up in the Hotel Belvedere, DeForge made his pact.

The call came four days later, May 14, the afternoon before the game with the Winston-Salem Cardinals. DeForge was at home, thinking about a starting pitcher. It was McWaters on the line.

“Meet me at the Robert E. Lee,” McWaters had said.

They met in the lobby and DeForge got his instructions.

“Lose by three,” McWaters had said.

So DeForge penciled in Tal Abernathy, another washed-up hurler, a Southpaw, who had done time with the Philadelphia Athletics from 1942-44 and also found himself in the Carolina League on the ass end of his career.

The stage was set, and DeForge watched from the bench at South Side Park on a chilly night, working his chaw furiously in his cheek. It would be the last professional baseball game he was ever a part of.

Things looked good. Winston-Salem’s pitcher, Jack Frisinger, was throwing good ball, giving up just two hits going into the eighth. The problem was with DeForge’s patsy, Abernathy.

He was a chucker, which was why he never made it in the bigs. In his three-year stint with the A’s he had only pitched about 20 innings and had given up 26 runs. But here he was pitching the game of his life, just two runs off seven hits by the end of the seventh, and DeForge was a nervous wreck.

There was only one thing he could do.

At the bottom of the eighth, DeForge took Abernathy off the mound and assigned relieving duties to… himself. At the moment it was regarded as an odd decision: The smart move would have been to pinch-hit for Abernathy in the top of the inning – the kid had but a single hit in five at-bats during his three years in the majors.

It didn’t help that DeForge consulted with McWaters in the bullpen before taking the mound, and that afterwards McWaters began taking bets in the Winston-Salem bleachers.

So DeForge took the mound and walked the first two batters, Zernia and Caswell.

He almost swallowed his plug when, in the next at bat, Rutherford hit to third, catching Zernia in a pickle that would see DeForge throwing the ball for the put-out. Then, with Caswell at third and Rutherford at second and one man down, DeForge walked Dean Frye, loading the bases.

It was advantageous for the cardinals, to be sure, but three men on base can easily turn into a quick double play, which would have ended the inning. Again, DeForge knew what he needed to do.

He uncorked a wild pitch, one of a small handful in his career, scoring Caswell. Another walk, to Mason, loaded the bases anew. A sacrifice single by Frisinger scored two more for Winston-Salem, and DeForge, the spread safely covered, got Blackwell to hit into a 4-3 put-out.

The final score: Winston-Salem 5, Reidsville 2.

After the game, DeForge met McWaters again in the lobby of the Robert E. Lee Hotel in Winston-Salem and collected his part of the take: $300, which in today’s money is about $2,675.

“I hated to see you have to do what you did,” McWaters told him. DeForge pocketed the money – three one-hundred dollar bills – and deposited them in his bank account in Reidsville.

And if it weren’t for a meddling do-gooder in the stands, they might have gotten away with it.

An anonymous fan came into the offices of The Winston-Salem Journal just before the midnight deadline on the night of the 14th and complained to legendary sports columnist Frank Spencer about betting in the stands, money changing hands, a game besmirched,

“I take my little son to baseball games and I don’t want anything crooked to happen,” he told Spencer. “I talked it over with my wife and she said to come and see you.”

The next morning Spencer hit the streets with Cardinals business manager Vedie Himsl. The scheme quickly fell apart, and on June 1, 1948, DeForge and Weingartner were banned for life from the game of baseball by Association of Professional Baseball Clubs President George Trautman.

“I guess it was just a weak moment,” DeForge said later. “I thought I was being smart.”

But because fixing baseball games was a felony in the state of North Carolina, there was still a criminal matter to deal with.

“There is some consolation in the knowledge that a statute of the state of North Carolina provides a penalty of imprisonment for anybody found guilty of fixing a ball game,” Trautman said in his statement, “and I feel that I speak for all professional baseball when I wish the law enforcement officials of that state Godspeed in any action that the state might institute against the guilty.”

DeForge was looking at one to five years.

The trial began Oct. 18, 1948 in Forsyth County Courthouse, in the courtroom of Judge Allen Gwyn, in late October, just after the Cleveland Indians defeated the Boston Braves in Game 6 of the World Series and far too late to affect Weingartner, who passed just a couple months after being banned from the game. They said it was kidney failure. DeForge knew better.

And oh, but weren’t those South Carolina boys slick? McWaters faced charges of conspiracy and bribery in baseball – felonies in North Carolina, you recall – with another Palmetto State sharpie named Tom Phillips.

On the first day of proceedings, the four lawyers for McWaters and Phillips presented three character witnesses: the Rev. WH Bowman, pastor of Clover Presbyterian Church; AY Cartwright Jr., York County, SC state representative; and York County Sheriff CA Moss.

They both denied everything, and McWaters provided eyewitnesses who placed him in Greenville, SC the night of the fateful game. He said he read about it in the newspapers three weeks later in Washington, DC.

DeForge had but a single lawyer who advised him to plead guilty, since he had already confessed to his role and been banned from the game. And though DeForge named names, he was not offered immunity for his testimony.

McWaters and Phillips were acquitted of all charges. For DeForge it was just another curve ball that refused to drop.

The jury found DeForge guilty after a 37-minute deliberation; Judge Gwyn sentenced him to a year in jail, but not before remarking to Deforge, “You are one of the most pathetic figures I have ever seen in a courtroom.”

Gwyn also delivered a lengthy diatribe about baseball worthy of the stage:

“I think that baseball is one of the truest and finest expressions of the American spirit,” he told the courtroom. “Anybody who tampers with it and undertakes to corrupt it and does corrupt it, does violence to America and irreparable damage to the people. Baseball is one means for people weary and worn out to go out and renew their spirits.”

He gave DeForge until Saturday morning to report for jail. DeForge went to say goodbye to his wife and child.

Now here is where Ernie Shore comes in.

And what happened next didn’t make the front page of the papers, but appeared as the lead item in Frank Spencer’s sports column in The Winston-Salem Journal under the hed: “Unofficial Decisions.”

It was a Saturday morning meeting in Judge Gwyn’s chambers, is what it was, with the prosecutor, Walter Johnston, in attendance, Chief John Gold of the Winston-Salem Police Department and the one-time roommate of Babe Ruth, now with 12 years under his belt as sheriff and with considerable goodwill sown atop the loam of his legendary lore.

What went down in the judge’s chambers that day was not recorded for posterity, but the end result was that Judge Gwyn suspended DeForge’s one-year sentence and the case was deemed closed.

Spencer, the dean of North Carolina sportswriters, had the last word.

“The case is closed,” he wrote on Oct. 26, 1948, “but there is a feeling among baseball fans that the verdict is one of the strongest boosts which organized gambling has received in the history of North Carolina.”

And Ernie Shore, the cagey right-hander who had been out of baseball for 20 years and would serve 22 more as Forsyth County Sheriff, chalked up another save.

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