Gabby Street’s Monumental catch

Charles Everd “Gabby” Street played in the majors for seven seasons as a catcher with the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Braves, New York Highlanders, St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Senators, where he spent four years as Walter Johnson’s personal catcher. In the midst of his playing career, he survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

In 1931, while managing the Cardinals to winning the World Series, he caught three innings on Sept. 20, at age 48, 19 years after his last big league game – a record at the time for seasons between appearances. Decades after his death in 1951, his character was featured in a 1992 episode of “The Simpsons.”

My 1911 Street card

Street is best known, however, for catching a baseball tossed from the top of the Washington Monument. It was the morning of August 21, 1908, when newspaperman Preston Gibson and Senators fan John Biddle went to the observation deck of the monument and began dropping the balls, which plummeted more than 500 feet to where Street, who had removed his suit jacket, was standing with his catcher’s mitt. (The monument is 555 feet tall, but the observation deck windows are 504 feet from the ground.)

At first a chute that had been attached to the window of the observation deck didn’t send the balls far enough out to avoid hitting the monument’s base. So Gibson began tossing the balls farther out himself. The first baseball Gibson tossed hit the heel of Street’s mitt but fell to the ground. Street missed the next 11, but caught the 13th, the last ball Gibson and Biddle had with them. Street won a $500 bet for Gibson by making a catch that had been attempted numerous times but never before accomplished. It’s not clear from various accounts whether Street got $500 himself or even a smaller amount from the bet, or if the bet was just between Gibson and Biddle.

In a widely reported attempt on August 24, 1894, Chicago Colts pitcher Clark Griffith, later the manager and longtime owner of the Senators, tossed two balls from the top of the Monument to his catcher Bill Schriver. The first went over Schriver’s head. Newspapers reported the next day that Schriver caught Griffith’s second toss, although Griffith, years later, told famed Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich that the ball hit Schriver’s mitt, but he couldn’t hold it.

“He’d have caught one, I’m sure, if the cops had left us alone,” Griffith told Povich. The police had arrived on the observation deck to find out what was going on before Griffith could toss out any more baseballs.

Povich wrote in his 1954 history of the Senators that two renowned 19th century catchers, Pop Snyder and Buck Ewing, a Hall-of-Famer, later tried and failed to the corral a ball dropped from the top of the monument.

Unlike the 1894 attempt, the superintendent of parks had given permission for Street’s 1908 try. Reporters, photographers and fans were on hand. Street said years later that he should have caught the first ball Gibson tossed. “Had my mitt on it and dropped it…. I knew then that it could be done, but the winds bothered me until I finally snagged the 13th toss.”

Street had to be talked into trying to make the catch, which many people argued couldn’t be done. Gibson was willing to risk $500, betting it could be. He pestered Street until the catcher agreed, influenced no doubt by knowing others more famous had failed.

Street’s teammates George McBride and Bob Ganley accompanied him for the catch attempt. When Street looked up at the top of the monument, he told them he got dizzy. Signals had been arranged to let Street know when the balls were tossed, but Ganley told Street to keep his head down until Ganley saw the ball. By then, the ball was probably about 50 feet away, but with Street’s experience with pop-ups, he was able to locate it when Ganley yelled.

Different newspaper accounts of the day estimated the force of the ball at between 200 and 300 pounds when it hit Street’s mitt less than five seconds after being dropped from the top. Street had his arms and mitt over his head to make the catch, much as catchers do today on foul pops.

“I didn’t see the ball until it was halfway down,” Street told reporters. “It was slanting in the wind and I knew it would be a hard catch.”According to one Washington newspaper, the gathered crowd said the ball hitting Street’s mitt sounded like a rifle shot.

“The ball I caught hit my mitt with terrific force, much greater than any pitched ball I have ever caught,” Street told the reporters. “Though my mitt is three or four inches thick, the force of the ball numbed my hand,” Joseph Wancko wrote in his SABR bio of Street, based on quotes in a Hall of Fame file newspaper clipping.

Any pain Street felt must not have lasted long. Later that day, Street caught Johnson’s five-hit, 3-1, win over the Tigers.

Two years later – on August 24, 1910, Billy Sullivan of the White Sox, the American League’s premier defensive catcher, caught three baseballs thrown by pitcher Ed Walsh from the top of the monument, topping Street’s feat. According to Trey Strecker’s SABR bio of Sullivan, “Contemporary reports estimated that the balls sped at 161 feet per second toward Sullivan’s pancake mitt. Remarkably, despite gusty winds, Sullivan caught three of the 11 balls Walsh threw.”

Once Street and Sullivan proved it could be done, no other publicized – or legally sanctioned – attempts were made to catch balls thrown from the top of the monument. After two suicides of people jumping from the windows in 1920s, bars were installed on them in 1929. Later, the thin marble shutters were replaced with windows that are kept closed.

Street wasn’t much of a hitter, although he gained a reputation for defense and for being able to handle Johnson’s fastballs. He hit .208 in the majors before retiring during the 1912 season. Griffith, in his first year with Washington, had traded him to the New York Highlanders.

After several seasons in the minors, Street enlisted in the Army as soon as America entered World War I. He saw combat in France, sustained a bullet wound and received a Purple Heart.

Back in the states, he began managing and was hired as the skipper of the Cardinals in 1929. He led them to National League pennants in 1930 and 1931. In the World Series, the Cards lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in ’30, but beat them in ’31.

After his managing days, Street, who made his home in Joplin, Missouri, became a radio broadcaster, first for the Cardinals and then for the St. Louis Browns. He helped young Harry Carey begin his Hall-of-Fame broadcasting career. A street in Joplin is named Gabby Street Boulevard.

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