Only Landis’ Imperiousness Kept Feller, Henrich from Being Teammates
Vince Guerrieri | On 02, May 2018
Seventy-two years ago this week, Bob Feller became just the second pitcher in Indians history to throw multiple no-hitters, getting his second no-no against the Yankees.
To finish it off, he had to go through the meat of the Bronx Bombers’ lineup, including Tommy Henrich, nicknamed “Ol’ Reliable” by longtime Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen for his ability to deliver in the clutch.
But it’s entirely possible that Feller and Henrich could have been teammates – possibly in Cleveland OR New York.
Henrich grew up in Massillon, but Babe Ruth’s arrival in New York made Henrich a Yankees fan as a boy. Henrich, who was friends for many years with the Browns’ founding coach Paul Brown, played softball as a teen, and in 1933 at the age of 20, he was signed to a contract by the Indians. Three years later, legendary Indians scout Cy Slapnicka unearthed Bob Feller in Iowa.
By then, Henrich had distinguished himself in the minor leagues, and he thought he would get an invitation to Indians spring training in 1937. Instead, he was sent to Milwaukee. The minor leagues hadn’t developed into the full farm system we know today, and Milwaukee had a working relationship with the Indians, but nothing official.
Henrich thought he was being hidden by the Indians and took his case to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Judge Landis had already made a similar decision, ironically enough, in Feller’s case. At the time, major league teams were prohibited from signing players from the sandlot to the majors, and although Feller was assigned to a pair of minor league teams, he never reported to either. Lee Keyser, the owner of the Western League Des Moines Demons, lodged a protest – at least in part because Slapnicka had beaten him to signing Feller. Feller and his father were happy to be affiliated with the Indians and had no urge to move on, so Landis didn’t declare the phenom a free agent, instead fining the Indians $7,500.
They wouldn’t have the same luck with Henrich, who brought his case before Landis. Henrich later said it was a strong case, but he felt it was aided by Landis’ animus toward Slapnicka. He was declared a free agent and signed with the Yankees, who promptly dispatched him to their Triple-A team in Newark. But it didn’t take long for him to emerge with the parent club for the start of what turned out to be an 11-year major league career. He played in four World Series, and is probably most remembered for his scramble to first when Mickey Owen dropped strike three for what would have been the final out of Game 4, which would have knotted the World Series at two games apiece. The Yankees rallied to win the game, and defeated the deflated Dodgers the next day to win the World Series.
Henrich returned to Ohio after his playing career ended, singing barbershop quartet songs and telling stories about the good old days. At the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 96, he was the oldest living former Yankee and the last living teammate of Lou Gehrig.
Photo: OOTP Developments