Overton Tremper: Putting One Over on John McGraw

 

Overton Tremper was one of the first ballplayers I wrote about when I began my blog back in 2010. I had always been interested in the Brooklyn Bushwicks, so it was a given that I would feature a Bushwicks player early on. Out of all the interesting players that suited up for the Bushwicks – Dazzy Vance, Waite Hoyt, Whitey Ford, Marius Russo – I picked a former college star, cup of coffee big leaguer and math teacher by the name of Overton Tremper. I have to be honest – I liked the guy’s name – that’s why I picked him. The story I originally wrote about him was, as all my early stories were, quite brief. However, that little story attracted the attention of a few of Tremper’s relatives, all located in different corners of the country and who did not know of the others existence. In addition to learning more about this obscure ballplayer, I was able to reunite a couple of relatives who had through time become estranged from one another. That was my first experience meeting the families of the players I featured, and the whole experience made me want to put more and more research into my stories. In the years since, I have been contacted by the families of many of the players found in the Infinite Baseball Card Set, and I’m proud to say that often I had information in my stories that the family had not known before reading my blog.

So, since I am gradually migrating my old stories onto this new site, I figured I would take a second look at Overton Tremper’s story as well as freshen up his illustration, bringing him inline with the current standards found today at The Infinite Baseball Card Set.

A guy like Overton Tremper would not exist today.

Today, there is no other avenue for a baseball player besides organized baseball: the major leagues and minor leagues are the only game in town. But one hundred years ago, a guy could make a decent living playing baseball without suiting up for a professional ball club. And that’s just what Overton Tremper chose to do.

It wasn’t that Tremper didn’t have to chops to make it in the majors – he did. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1906, the son of Walter Tremper, a civil engineer, and Sarah Overton. Though his first name was Carlton, the boy was known by his middle name, Overton, his mother’s maiden name. The Overton’s were an old New York family, descendants of Nathaniel Overton, a Minuteman and later Captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

Tremper first made a name for himself playing ball for Brooklyn’s Erasmus High, captaining the team that won the borough and city championships. He then transferred to the swankier Poly Prep Country Day School his senior year where he also was elected team captain. Tremper then matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania where he intended to study economics at the Wharton School.

In his first year as an Ivy Leaguer, Tremper had the inglorious distinction of being paddled by future Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley for neglecting to wear his freshman beanie on campus. The man who would eventually destroy baseball in Brooklyn was in his second year at Penn, and was head of something called the “sophomore vigilance committee” whose job it was to punish such serious breeches of collegiate etiquette. Fortunately for Tremper, his athletic endeavors at Penn went much more smoothly. With the freshman nine he batted .410 while making only a single error all year. Promoted to the varsity Quaker squad his sophomore year, Tremper hit .305 and then broke out his junior year with a .407 average. Playing under the tutelage of Penn’s coach, Doc Cariss, it became apparent that besides his potent bat, Tremper possessed a rifle arm and lightning speed afoot. As demonstrated by the fact that he was elected captain on every single baseball team he played with since he was a little kid, Tremper possessed a sharp baseball mind to round out his stellar qualifications.

Then, just as he began his spring semester in 1927, Tremper suffered a set back that threatened to wreck what promised to be a triumphant senior season. A severe sinus problem had forced him to return home to Brooklyn. Weighting only 160 to begin with, Tremper lost 25 pounds, and there were doubts that he’d be well enough to play baseball that spring. In mid-March he had recovered enough to return to school where his teammates suprised him by voting him team captain in an election delayed just for him. The captain responded by completely tearing up the Ivy League competition: at the end of the season Tremper was voted the Quaker’s most valuable player and received a trophy for leading all Eastern College players in batting with a .437 average.

The Reds, Cubs, Braves, White Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Giants all put in bids for the Penn Phenom, but it was his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers that won out. On June 14 Penn played Cornell in the final game of the college season. Immediately afterwards, Tremper boarded a train to Cincinnati where he would join the Brooklyn Dodgers. Overton Tremper’s pro baseball career had begun.

Then, all hell broke loose.

Although we like to think that a college education is ridiculously expensive today, the same was also true back in Tremper’s time. In order to pay for his final year at Penn, Tremper struck a deal with the devil – well, not actually Lucifer, per se, but about as close as you can get to the Angel of Darkness on a ball field: John McGraw.

Ever since the 1890’s when he was a young punk tugging on base runner’s belts to slow them down, John McGraw was at the center of countless baseball controversies and scandals. McGraw lived his life as if rules didn’t apply to him, and it was only his devious survivor skills that kept him out of serious trouble while his cohorts paid full price for their indiscretions. One of the more harmless scandals he was involved in was when it came out that he had paid part of Overton Tremper’s University of Pennsylvania tuition. Even a simpleton understood that Giants manager John McGraw wasn’t cutting checks to needy college kids out of the goodness of his heart – he was playing the long game.

Professional teams secretly paying a ballplayer’s college tuition wasn’t unheard of back before the days of the draft system. Back then, baseball recruiting was the Wild West, and teams did whatever there wallets could afford to secure the best young players. Technically, by accepting money from McGraw and the Giants, Tremper should have been ruled ineligible for collegiate sports his senior year. But, just like today, big universities were more than willing to turn a blind eye in order to keep their sports teams competitive. So that Tremper was given money by the Giants before his graduation wasn’t that out of the ordinary – what was was how it all came to light.

When Tremper grabbed hold of his sheepskin and exited the hallowed halls of Penn in the spring of 1927, John McGraw fully expected to see the kid sitting in the dugout of the Polo Grounds within the week. Imagine his surprise when he opened his morning paper and read that his arch rival, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson, had just signed the Penn star for $10,000! The Giants skipper had been teammates with Robinson back on the 1890’s Baltimore Orioles. The two were close friends, even owning a bowling alley together, and when McGraw took over as manager of the New York Giants in 1904, Robinson came with him as a coach. In 1913 the two men had a falling out and by the time Robinson took over as Dodgers manager in 1914, the two were mortal enemies. In the ensuing years, the two hard-heads did everything they could to antagonize and derail each other on and off the field.

Humiliated by his arch-nemesis, McGraw emptied both barrels at Tremper, penning a syndicated newspaper story that unveiled the whole deal, relating that it was fully understood by both parties that the illicit $1000 tuition payout was in exchange for the kid signing with the Giants after graduation. If McGraw was telling the truth, it opened up a whole Pandora’s box of moral and college athletic rules violations. Tremper countered by admitting he did indeed receive ten $100 checks over the course of ten months which he used to pay for his senior year tuition. He went on to insist that the $1000 was a loan from McGraw, to be paid back over time, and that all the young ballplayer agreed to do was inform the Giants of the highest offer he received from any other club wanting to sign him. McGraw blamed Tremper’s father for breaking the deal, stating that father counseled son to sign with Brooklyn over the Giants. Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson backed up his ten-grand bonus baby, claiming Tremper lived up to his part of the deal by informing the Giants of Brooklyn’s offer, and that he had already started repaying McGraw’s “loan.”

And, just like today, the whole sorted scandal got swept under the rug and conveniently forgotten about. It was common knowledge that teams paid money to college athletes, and until both colleges and organized baseball agreed to put a stop to it, it would continue unabated. Because McGraw was the guy people loved to hate, seeing him come out on the wrong end of a shady deal helped take the sting out of the Tremper story. However, even though the story faded from the sports pages, Overton Tremper was still a 21 year-old high-priced rookie propelled from a college nine straight to the major leagues.

Tremper made his big league debut against the Cincinnati Reds on June 16, 1927, just two days after his final college game. Robinson had the kid pinch hit for Johnny Butler in the top of the 9th inning. Facing Reds ace Dolph Luque, Tremper connected for a one out single, but was left stranded when he was spept up by a game ending double play. For most of the 1927 season, Robinson kept Tremper on the bench, carefully inserting him into games when there was nothing at stake. In 60 at bats he hit .233. The kid was able to get the wood on the ball, striking out just twice, but clearly he needed more seasoning before being ready for The Show. No doubt John McGraw eagerly followed Tremper’s batting average in his morning paper, pleasantly pleased as it dipped ever closer to the Mendoza line.

Unable to keep a spot on the bench open for a .233 hitting rookie, Robinson sent him down to the Macon Peaches for 1928. Finally playing everyday, Tremper hit a healthy .320 and connected for 20 doubles. Called back to Brooklyn at the end of the season, he hit an anemic .194 in 10 games. Papers speculated that he had trouble with a big league curve ball. He spent all of 1929 with the Peaches, hitting .280 with 7 home runs. He also led all Macon outfielders in fielding percentage. Tremper returned to Macon in the spring of 1930, but was given his release in April. Instead of trying to catch on with another bush league team, Overton Tremper left organized baseball for good.

The college grad was just 23, plenty of time with which to make his way back to the majors. Yet the unstable, nomadic life of a ballplayer wasn’t what Tremper wanted. Between the 1928 and 1929 seasons, he married Maude Everhart, and the pair wanted to start a family. Returning to Brooklyn, Tremper shopped his resume around and landed a job as math teacher and baseball coach at Babylon High out on Long Island. But Tremper wasn’t finished with baseball yet.

Like I wrote in the beginning of this story, one hundred years ago a guy could make a decent living playing baseball without suiting up for a professional ball club. His first summer back in New York, Tremper was hired by the Brooklyn Bay Parkways. The Parkways were a semi-pro team that played a heavy schedule against other semi-pro clubs as well as Negro League teams. The New York City/Northern New Jersey area was a hotbed of semi-pro activity, and there were dozens of clubs stocked with college stars, former big leaguers and minor league journeymen. In other words, these semi-pro outfits weren’t your weekend beer league team, these were professional clubs in everything but name. Case-in-point: when Tremper joined the Bay Parkways in 1930, he was replacing a teenage Hank Greenberg who had just signed his first pro contract with Detroit.

In 1930, the Bay Parkways, along with the Brooklyn Bushwicks and Springfield Grays, were the top three white semi-pro teams in the region. Out of that trio, the Bushwicks were by far the best, regularly playing before 4,000 people in their own stadium, Dexter Park. Dubbed the “Kandy Kids” by their fans because of their colorful blue and orange striped uniforms, the Bushwicks paid the best salaries in the semi-pros. Depending on the level of talent, a guy signing on with the Bushwicks could expect about $20 game. The average take-home salary in 1931 was about $35, and since the Bushwicks played doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday and a weekday night game, a guy like Tremper could go home Sunday with more than double the average man’s paycheck – this on top of his regular teaching paycheck. If you were working the semi-pro circuit in 1930 New York, the Bushwicks were where you wanted to be, and in 1931, Tremper got the call.

For the next four summers, Tremper held down left field and batted in the meat of the Bushwicks order. During those seasons Tremper was 25 to 28 years-old, prime baseball age. Baseball archeologist Scott Simkus has done tremendous research into the Bushwicks, painstakingly compiling the stats for the Kandy Kids against all levels of competition. For Tremper, Simkus has him batting a hearty .336 in 71 games against top Negro League teams from 1931 to 1934. This stat sticks out because the Bushwicks, who fielded an average seven starters with professional experience, managed a sub .500 record against the Blackball teams while Tremper hit their pitching at a .336 clip. Clearly, Tremper was in his baseball prime during his time with the Bushwicks.

In 1934, Tremper was invited back to his alma mater where he appeared at Franklin Field with an all-star alumni team that played the current Penn varsity nine. Tremper single handedly crushed the college kids, going 4 for 5 with a towering home run to deep center field as the oldtimers defeated the kid Quakers 14-11.

At this time Tremper made some changes both on and off the baseball field. After five years at Babylon High, where his baseball teams won two championships, Tremper accepted a better position at Freeport High School where he taught math and coached baseball.

Since the Bushwicks were founded back before World War I, the club was managed by its owner, Max Rosner. By the early 1930’s, Max was getting on in years and wanted to take more of a backseat. Rosner surveyed the fertile New York semi-pro circuit for the best field manager and settled on Bay Parkways’ skipper Joe Press. Although he never played professional baseball, the Bronx-born Press was a semi-pro vet who had been managing teams in the Metropolitan area since he was a teenager before the war. For Joe Press the decision to leave the Bay Parkways was a no brainer – the Bushwicks paid the best salary outside professional baseball and were the New York Yankees of the semi-pros. However, there was one thing standing in the way of his taking the helm of the mighty Bushwicks: Overton Tremper. As a former Brooklyn Dodger and hometown boy, Tremper was by far the fan’s favorite, and his years of pro experience made him a natural leader in the Bushwicks clubhouse. Those two things posed a potential problem for Joe Press – unlike Tremper, the manager-to-be had no pro experience and the ex-big leaguer’s leadership on the team could undermine Press’ authority. At the end of the 1934 season Rosner unceremoniously released Tremper from his team.

He wasn’t a free agent for long. As one of the best hitters in the semi-pro scene and a proven leader, Tremper was the object of numerous offers from other independent outfits. He accepted the player-manager job with the Springfield Greys, a position he would hold for the next decade. While the Greys were not as talented nor as renown as the Bushwicks, Tremper managed to assemble a formidable club, stocked mostly by former college athletes with minor league experience. Tremper’s anger at being released by the Bushwicks was widely reported in the local press, and he took it out on the Kandy Kids whenever the two teams met, usually ending with the Greys coming out on top. With his Freeport High paycheck augmented by the $55 a week he received for piloting the Greys, Tremper was doing very well for himself. He and Maude now had three boys, Carlton Overton, Jr., Lawrence Everhart and Walter Michael. In between raising his family, managing the Greys and teaching math, Tremper completed his master’s degree in education from NYU.

In early 1948 it was reported that Tremper accepted a job as manager of the Keene Bluejays of the Northern League. Even at the advanced age of 42, Tremper demonstrated he still had some pop left his bat as a pinch hitter. The July 11 game against the Burlington Cardinals was his last hurrah: with his team trailing 6-4 in the bottom of the 8th and two runners aboard, Tremper penciled himself in to pinch hit. In a made for TV moment, the old ballplayer pounded a fastball 350 feet over the left field wall, scoring the winning run. Keene wanted him back at the helm for 1949, but Tremper couldn’t take the time off from his teaching position needed to fulfill his managerial duties.

By the end of the 1940’s Tremper retired from the game and concentrated on his education career, continuing his studies at Hofstra University. The longtime math teacher and coach at Freeport High became a guidance counselor and administrator before finishing up as a vice principal at Patchogue High School. In 1977 he retired to the land of old ballplayers, Florida, and passed away in 1996, just shy of his 90th birthday.

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