The Sudden Death That Led to the First MLB All-Star Game
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this was the forerunner to the now beloved All-Star game.
By Vince Guerrieri
The skies were clear, and, judging from the overcoats in the crowd, the weather not too warm. More than 15,000 people had showed up at League Park for a good cause. The turnout on July 24, 1911, wasn’t the biggest in the brief history of the concrete-and-steel fireproof ballpark, but those in attendance had paid handsomely for the privilege. Tickets cost anywhere from 25 cents to $1, nearly double the price of a standard ticket to see the Cleveland Indians, called the Naps at the time in honor of the team’s biggest star, Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie.
Only the flag in center field, flown at half-staff, hinted at the somber occasion, a benefit for the family of Cleveland pitcher Addie Joss, who had died unexpectedly before the season began. There were no maudlin speeches, no funereal ambience. And outside of juggling and other entertainment by Germany Schaefer, equal parts comedian and baseball player, the only attraction was the game itself. And what a game it was.
No one had seen all those stars together in one place.
Scott Longert, sports historian
A collection of American League all-stars — the largest collection of star power on one field in baseball history — had gathered to play the Naps. “No one had seen all those stars together in one place,” says Scott Longert, a Cleveland sports historian and author of Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers. “It was really a testament to how much he was liked.”
Since his debut in 1902, in which he pitched a shutout with one questionable hit, Joss had become known as one of the best pitchers in the American League. He had started to compete with the older, more established National League in 1901. His crowning achievement came in 1908, when he outdueled the White Sox’s Ed Walsh in a game at League Park in the heat of a pennant race, throwing a perfect game in just 74 pitches.
After Joss threw his second no-hitter in 1910, elbow problems forced him out of action for the rest of the season. In 1911, he went to spring training in Louisiana, believing himself to be fully recovered. During an exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Joss fainted, and while the rest of the team returned to Cleveland, he went home, to Toledo. The initial diagnosis was pleurisy, but it turned out that Joss had bacterial meningitis. Eleven days later, he was dead.
The outpouring of grief was tremendous. Joss, in contrast to the rough-and-tumble image of ballplayers of the day, was a college-educated family man, happily married with a son and a daughter. He was heralded as a great pitcher and role model. The Toledo News-Bee — the newspaper where Joss worked as sports editor in the off-season — said people in Toledo “knew nothing but good of him.” The Toledo Blade, the News-Bee’s competitior, said Joss “had more friends in the city than any other man.”
Naps players said they would attend Joss’ funeral at Toledo’s Masonic Temple, and American League President Ban Johnson postponed the team’s scheduled game in Detroit that day to avoid a revolt. Lajoie and Cy Young wept openly at the service, conducted by ballplayer-turned-preacher Billy Sunday. Four days after the funeral, thought turned almost immediately to some kind of benefit for the Joss family in Cleveland. Team owner Charles Somers decreed it, and he carried enough sway within the American League to make it happen.
The players didn’t need convincing, and their desire to give up an off day during in-season exhibitions and arduous train travel was another testament to their adoration of Joss. Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson was asked to pitch. “I’ll do anything for Addie Joss’ family,” he told manager Jimmy McAleer, an Ohio native who volunteered to manage the all-star team that would take on the Naps.
Ty Cobb — one of the greatest players in the history of the game, as well as one of its most despised — not only volunteered to play in the benefit before he was even asked but also donated $100, more than any other player. He tried to do so anonymously, until Naps Vice President Ernest Barnard, the organizer of the benefit game, made it public knowledge. “They weren’t close friends, but Cobb really respected Addie,” Longert says.
On his way to Cleveland for the game, Cobb lost his luggage. Photos from the game show him wearing a Naps road uniform.
The game itself was anticlimactic, with the all-stars easily beating the Naps 5-2, but the event was unparalleled. Nine future Hall of Famers took the field, and at least one was in the stands: George Sisler, then an 18-year-old from nearby Akron, who attended his first major league game with his uncle. The game raised $12,914.60 for the Joss family.
In 1933 — 22 years after the Joss benefit — as the Great Depression took its toll on spectator sports, Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward proposed an all-star game at Comiskey Park (home, ironically, to the only American League team that didn’t take part in the Joss game, the White Sox, because of schedule conflicts) in conjunction with the Chicago world’s fair. Like the Joss benefit, the game was originally proposed as a one-time event. But it proved so popular that it became an annual midsummer tradition, which continues to this day.
- Vince Guerrieri, OZY Author Contact Vince Guerrieri