‘Oil’ Smith, Peckinpaugh and the 1925 World Series

February 21, 2018:

Catcher Earl “Oil” Smith played on five World Series teams in his 12-year career, spanning the 1920s. Although Nats’ shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh often gets blamed for his record eight errors, you could argue that it was Smith who cost the Senators a second world championship in 1925. Washington became the first team to blow a three-games-to-one lead that year in losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Smith, renowned as a bench jockey and a major distraction behind the plate, was at his aggravating best during the 1925 Series. “Who are you?” he asked Bucky Harris whearl smithen Harris came to the plate. “I’m the manager,” Harris responded. “You’re just a messenger boy for Clark Griffith,” Smith said, probably spitting tobacco juice, as was his habit, on the batter’s pants. The profanity and harassment got so bad the Senators held a team meeting before lodging a protest with Commissioner Landis, who asked Pirates manager Bill McKechnie to tell Smith to cool it.

Washington slugger “Goose” Goslin probably got the worst of it, with Smith flapping his arms when Goslin approached the plate and making snide comments about Goose’s prominent nose. Those might have been Smith’s milder antics. Goslin, with Smith abusing him about his ancestry, looked at a third strike to end Game Seven.

Making contact with opponents’ bats, usually before they were swinging, was a Smith specialty.  Hall of Fame historian Lee Allen described Smith as “a tipper of bats beyond parallel” in a 1968 column. With Peckinpaugh at bat in Game Seven, Smith became the first World Series backstop whose bat-tipping resulted in catcher’s interference.

Smith, a good left-hand batter, hit .350 in the series, including a key double in Game Seven. He would have hit an even .400 were it not for one of the most controversial catches in World Series history. Smith’s eighth-inning drive in Game Three was snared by Sam Rice before he tumbled into the temporary roped-off area in right field at Griffith Stadium. Rice eventually stood up holding the ball. Umpire Cy Rigler made the out call, provoking vehement protests by the Pirates, who were sure Rice had not held on. In a letter opened after he died, Rice insisted he had.

The weather was horrible for Game Seven of the ’25 series. The game had been postponed by the previous day’s downpour. “Puddles … soaked the Pittsburgh field the next day … and under normal conditions .. another day’s postponement would have been in order,” wrote Jeff Carroll in his 2008 biography of Rice. The forecast for the next few days called for more rain, however, so Landis ordered the game played even though rain was falling from the start.

Landis, sitting next to Griffith in the stands with both soaked as the rain intensified by the sixth inning, wanted to call it with the Senators leading. “You’re the world champs,” he told Griffith, Henry Thomas wrote in his excellent biography of his grandfather, Walter Johnson. But the Washington owner would have none of it, insisting that the game be played to its conclusion.

The veteran Peckinpaugh, who was voted the A.L. most valuable player in 1925, was victimized by the poor field conditions for Game Three in Washington — cold and damp after a postponement the day before — and for Game 7. He told author Eugene Murdock during a 1973 interview  that “about four of the errors were on low throws with a soggy, muddy ball.  Joe Judge, who would normally eat up those throws, wasn’t able to come up with them.” Indeed, four of his eighth errors — two in Washington and two in Pittsburgh — came on bad throws to first.

Another factor may have worked against Peckinpaugh: the official scoring. “What the Pittsburgh scorers were trying to do was let me break Honus Wagner’s World Series record for errors,” he told Murdock. The Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop had made six errors in the first series in 1903, albeit in the eight games played that year. (Wagner had five errors through the first seven games.)  When the series returned to Pittsburgh for Games Six and Seven, Peck already had been charged with five errors, although two were at Griffith Stadium.

His seventh error came in the seventh inning of Game Seven when he slipped on the wet turf and couldn’t corral a popup behind second base. That ended up costing Johnson two unearned runs and let the Pirates tie the score at 6.

Peck’s home run in the top of the eighth gave Washington its final lead of the series, 7-6. Then, with two outs and runners at first and second in the bottom of the eighth, the game was tied at 7 when Max Carey grounded to short. Peck’s bad throw of the wet ball on the attempted force at second gave him his eighth error — and the Pirates new life.

Peckinpaugh told Murdoch in the 1973 interview that Carey always insisted his grounder should have been scored a hit, which would have been Carey’s fifth of the game off Walter Johnson. In any case, Kiki Cuyler followed with a double that scored the deciding runs in the Pirates’ 9-7 victory.

Smith, meanwhile, went on to play with the Pirates in 1927 series and again with the Cards in 1928. He retired with a .303 lifetime batting average and is listed as no. 100 on the Bill James list of the 100 greatest catchers.

The Big Train never was one to blame teammates for a loss, but perhaps it was a bit of poetic justice that Johnson replaced Peckinpaugh as Cleveland manager in 1933.

My full biographical essay on Earl “Oil” Smith is posted at SABR.org as part of the BioProject.

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