Bobo Revolinsky: The Miracle 1937 Salisbury Indians

 

Sometimes when seeking a new player to write about, I just drift around looking for interesting players to catch my attention. Flipping through a book on the old Eastern Shore League, I came upon the chapter on the 1937 Salisbury Indians. Mid-season, the team had 21 wins taken away from them for a roster violation and, in what has to be the greatest comeback in sports history, went on a winning streak that won them the pennant. It’s a tremendous made-for-Hollywood story and more than worthy of the Infinite Baseball Card Set treatment; so, I started rooting around for a player through which I can tell the team’s story. I first figured I’d settle on their ace pitcher, Blackie Kohlman, who won 25 games, or their second starter, Jorge Comellas, a Cuban import who also won more than 20 games. Both of those guys would have made a great story, and I was deciding between the two when my eyes fell upon a big, chunky guy in the team photo with a mischievous grin on his broad mug. When I saw his name in the roster key at the bottom of the photo, I knew I had found the guy: Bobo Revolinsky.

Born Leon Revolinsky in 1912, the man who would be Bobo was the son of Polish immigrants who settled in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Big and bulky, Leon played baseball with numerous Polish-American clubs in and around New Brunswick where he developed into a beefy switch-hitting flamethrower pitcher. With the great Depression in full swing and jobs at a premium, Leon, like many other young men at the time, decided to try their hand at a professional baseball career. Many big league clubs organized tryout camps all across the country that attracted hopeful teens and adults at their own expense. In the summer of 1936, the Washington Senators farm team in nearby Trenton held a baseball camp where scouts evaluated the attendees and proffered minor league contracts to the chosen few. Leon Revolinsky was one of the ones who received a coveted Trenton contract.

Though the Trenton Senators signed Revolinsky, the team farmed him out to a lower class club in their organization. He spent spring training with one of the Washington Senators farm teams, but was soon dispatched to the Salisbury Indians of the Eastern Shore League.

The Eastern Shore League had just been reconstituted a decade after it had folded in 1927. Consisting of 8 teams located in Maryland and Delaware, the Eastern Shore League were hoping for a profitable season despite the Depression. Seven of the eight teams were affiliated with major league clubs, and the Salisbury Indians were part of the Washington Senators organization. The Indians were one of the many minor league clubs owned by Joe Cambria. A native of Sicily, Cambria was one of the trailblazers when it came to signing Cuban ball players to play in the United States. As such, the Salisbury Indians had more than the usual contingent of Cuban imports. However, the biggest group of players – 6 of the 14 players on the Opening Day roster – came from New Jersey, all scooped up in the previous years’ Trenton baseball camp. Like Revolinsky, the majority of the New Jersey faction were Polish, and it can only be imagined how the Eastern Shore fans and sportswriters tried to digest names like Treschock, Luzansky, Reznichak, Kowal and Revolinsky in their morning boxscores.

Although most of the players had previous semi-pro experience, few had played any organized baseball, meaning the minor leagues. This was by design because the minors had rules limiting the number of veteran players each team could employ. This was done to give the low minor league clubs a fighting chance, prohibiting a more affluent or connected team from flooding their roster with experienced players and running away with a pennant. The Eastern Shore League rules stipulated that each club could employ three players who had previous minor league experience. Rosters were to be submitted to the league president, Colonel J. Thomas Kibler, who would approve each player. Salisbury was no exception, and their roster was submitted by manager Jake Flowers and approved by Commissioner Kibler before the season began.

Unfortunately, there was a rooster hiding in the hen house.

Salisbury jumped to an early lead in the standings, riding mostly on their two ace starters, Blackie Kohlman and Jorge Comellas. Their third starter, whom the Indians had slated for big things, was Leon Revolinsky. The big guy from Jersey had made the Indians roster, but despite being heralded as one of the team’s most promising pitchers, injured his back in his debut on May 27.

In the second inning of the game against Federalsburg, Revolinsky pulled some back muscles. A consultation with manager Flowers elicited the old-time cure-all remedy of working through the injury, and he remained on the mound. However, the injury intensified and he was taken out after completing the fourth inning. The big righty’s debut was less than auspicious, giving up 1 run on 5 hits, 7 walks and striking out 3 in four innings. Still, Revolinsky was commended for having “a world of stuff on the ball.”

His next start on May 31 was much more in line with what was expected from him, beating Easton for his first win of the season. In 8 1/3 innings, Leon struck out 12, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs. Unfortunately, he was also wild, walking 10 batters.

In his forth start, Revolinsky went the distance, holding the Dover Orioles to just two hits. He did have bouts of wildness, but was able to bear down and work his way out of them, striking out 8 Orioles.

Meanwhile, the Indians were firing on all cylinders. On June 19, Salisbury was firmly in first place. Kohlman and Comellas were 4-1 and 5-0 respectively while Revolinsky was 3-1. The team had a formidable offence as well, batting .283 collectively while Jerry Lynn, Joe Reznichak and Frank Treschock ranked in the top 10 in batting average.

Then, that rooster in the hen house was discovered.

On the morning of June 20, Salisbury fans woke up to find that their first place Indians had miraculously wound up in last place literally overnight, their 21-5 record now sitting at 0-26. The problem was a little-used first baseman Bob Brady. Somehow or other it was discovered that Brady, three years earlier, had signed a contract with the Harrisburg Senators in the New York-Penn league. Brady never joined the team nor appeared in a game for any other professional team, but he was officially listed on the “suspended” list and thus considered a veteran.

Of course, everyone from the Salisbury fans to owner Joe Cambria and the higher-ups in the parent Washington Senators cried foul, but Commissioner/Colonel Kibler stood his ground. The Indians manager, Jake Flowers, had known Kibler years earlier when the future commissioner coached Flowers on the Washington College nine. The two men even played side by side for a Delaware semi-pro team in the early twenties, yet despite their acquaintance, Kibler refused to budge.

Now it’s got to be said that no one would be surprised in retrospect if Salisbury threw in the towel and finished the ’37 season half-heartedly. But these were different times. The Depression was in full swing and jobs were non-existent. All of the players on the Salisbury roster had no secure job to return to if they failed to make good in baseball. For these men, a professional contract meant money and security. If they gave up or slacked off, even for one season, they ran the risk of being cut loose back into the Depression abyss.

Salisbury’s manager, Jake Flowers, must have been one hell of a motivator. Flowers was a local boy, growing up in the Eastern Shore town of Cambridge, Maryland. He played ball for Washington College then went on to play in the majors as a middle infielder for over a decade. He’s won World Championships in 1926 and 1931 with the Cardinals and was now in his first year as a manager. To be saddled with such a devastating blow to what had began as a fine season would have ruined most first year skippers, but not Jake Flowers. Sore at first, Flowers quickly accepted Kibler’s ruling. The day after his team’s victories were vacated, the Indians skipper told the press: “From now on, we ask no quarter and offer none. We’ll be back in the first division before Labor Day.”

And with those words, Salisbury re-started their season anew, albeit from a 26-game disadvantage.

The Indians now went on a rampage the likes of which have never been witnessed before or since. Charging forth behind their dominant pitching staff, Salisbury the next 49 of 60 games, reaching fourth place and the first division on August 15.

It must have been one heck of a positive atmosphere in the Salisbury clubhouse. Besides the drive that manager Flowers’ decade of big league experience must have brought to the team, it was Leon Revolinsky’s good natured wisecracking that kept the team loose in what first appeared to be a devastating end to their season.

In researching this story, I had come across Revolinsky referred to as “Bobo” countless times in newspapers stories, including his 2008 obituary. However, these all date to the post-1938 period. In Eastern Shore sports pages, he’s always referred to by his given name of Leon. Whether of not he was known as “Bobo” back in the summer of ’37 or not, I’m going to throw out my reason of why he received that nickname because the reason applies to what his role was behind the clubhouse door of the Salisbury Indians that season.

A quick search shows two big leaguers who have been known by the nickname “Bobo.” One, Bobo Holloman, played a single season for the 1953 St. Louis Browns and has the distinction of throwing a no-hitter in the first big league game he started. The other Bobo is the better-known Bobo Newsom. It’s this Bobo that our hero derived his nickname from. Newsom, like Revolinsky, was a big, bulky right-hander with a flaming fastball. Newsom was also a character, possessing a tremendous ego and forever wisecracking and busting balls on all nine of the big league teams he played for. Newsom was also a winner, eking out 211 wins despite playing for some of the worst offensive clubs in history. In the late 1930’s, Bobo Newsom was a favorite subject of sportswriters, his mischievous nature combined with his tremendous fastball making great newspaper copy. I believe Leon Revolinsky being a wisecracking speedballer drew the obvious comparison to his better-known big league doppelganger, Bobo Newsom.

Besides adding color to the surging Indians, Revolinsky further aided Salisbury’s pennant run by throwing a no-hitter against the Dover Orioles on August 21. The game was a 1-0 nail biter that also put the Indians firmly within striking distance of first place.

The Salisbury pitching staff were posting seasons that were simply phenomenal – Kohlman was 25-1; Comellas 22-1; and Revolinsky 13-2. As good as the other starters were, Kohlman by far had the best season. After losing his first start of the 1937 season, Kohlman never lost again, winning 25 straight! In addition to winning his first 20 games, Comellas struck out 21 batters in a June 28 game against Centreville.

By the end of August, Salisbury was tied with the Easton Browns for first place. On September 2, Blackie Kohlman took the mound against Easton and threw a no-hitter that gave his team a 1 1/2 game lead that the Indians never relinquished.

Even though Salisbury won the most games and finished in first, the official pennant was to be decided by a 4-team playoff. Dubbed the “Shaunessey Playoff, this system was utilized by most minor leagues during the Depression to keep fan interest even though one team might have run away with the pennant during the regular season. The Baltimore Orioles’ string of seven International League pennants during the early 1920’s led to its conception by league president Shag Shaunessey, whose name it was thereafter known by.

In the first round, Salisbury swept Cambridge and then faced Centreville; the team the Indians had snatched the pennant from weeks earlier.

In Game 1, Jorge Comellas started for the Indians. Surprisingly, the Cuban didn’t make it past the sixth, by which time he was behind 3-1. Flowers sent Revolinsky to the mound, but the big right-hander was tagged for six hits in two innings. Centreville went on to take the game 9-1. Kohlman then lost Game 2. Suddenly Salisbury’s miracle season was one game away from ending in Shaunessey Playoff defeat.

The unlikely hero was Johnny Bassler. The left-hander had gone 10-10 during the season as a spot starter. He threw 5 1/3 innings and turned the ball over to Jorge Comellas who finished the 6-3 win. Game 4 saw Bassler coming in to relieve Juan Montero, another regular season spot starter, as the Indians won again to even the series.

Now comes the Hollywood ending. Ace Flowers gave ace Blackie Kohlman the ball for the Championship game. The 25 game winner proceeded throw his second no-hitter of 1937, beating Centreville 7-zip.

Thus concluded the most spectacular comeback in all of professional sports. The parent Washington Senators were so proud of their little farm team that could that they gave each player and the front office staff custom engraved watches. Jake Flowers received a new car and was voted “Best Minor League Manager” by the Sporting News while Blackie Kohlman was named the Eastern Shore League’s Most Valuable Player.

Most importantly to the players, five of them were called up to The Show either at the end of 1937. Kohlman got into two 1937 games for Washington, going 1-0. Jerry Lynn, Frank Treschock and Mike Guerra all made their debut though only Guerra stuck, lasting eight years in the majors.

So, what became of our hero, Bobo Revolinsky?

The big guy was back in Salisbury for 1938, but he seemed to have lost the handle on his fastball. Revolinsky was carried for the first few weeks of the season, but was released in June. The Indians went on to have another pennant winning season, albeit this time without the drama. The team even brought Revolinsky back later in the season, using him mostly out of the bullpen where he cobbled together a 2-2 record. He walked 24 and gave up 32 hits in 29 innings, a far cry from his previous season.

Despite his spotty record, Revolinsky remained a popular player in Salisbury, so much so that August 2 was declared “LEON REVOLINSKY NIGHT” at Gordy Park. A newspaper advertisement for the game proclaimed the big right-hander “club clown but one of the steady ball game winners for the Salisbury Indians the past two years.” Unfortunately, the game turned out to be the worst defeat inflicted on Salisbury since the league was reformed in 1937. The Pocomoke Red Sox won by a score of 20-9, and by the time the game ended, the Indians had used every pitcher in their bullpen. Even the evening’s honoree, Leon Revolinsky, got his ears pinned back by the Red Sox bats, entering the game in the third inning after a pair of Indian pitchers had given up seven runs. Leon walked the first batter he faced, gave up a sacrifice another walk and then three singles before he was sent to the showers.

Revolinsky tried a comeback in ’39, but lasted only a few games for the Oswego Netherlanders of the Canadian-American League. He returned to New Brunswick and continued to play semi-pro ball where his name continued to be a big draw well into the 1940’s. He led the Schwartz Athletic Association team to the 1941 New Jersey State Championship and on to the National Semi-Pro Congress Championship Tourney in Wichita.

Off the field, Leon married local girl Mary Roman, followed by the birth of a daughter and son. Putting his good natured personality to good use, Revolinsky, now firmly known as “Bobo,” became a successful car salesman, selling so many Chevrolets that he made the “100 Car Club” every year for two decades and was named to the company’s “Legion of Leaders” club. He dabbled in Democratic politics and was a member as well as founder of several local clubs and organizations.

The big right-hander passed away at the age of 96 in 2008, outliving the other two Bobo’s by several decades.

To my knowledge, no other professional sports team has come back from such a devastating setback as the 1937 Salisbury Indians. Though the team produced no future Joe DiMaggio’s or Ted Williams’, to me their story exemplify the things that makes this country great – how, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable adversity, this group of men didn’t waste their energy at fruitless protest or give up and go home. Instead, this diverse bunch of rookies, Poles from New Jersey, coal miners from Pennsylvania, Cubans from Havana, led by a hometown manager in his first season as a leader, forged their desperation and anger into a gritty spirit that achieved the impossible.

Their story shows what guys named Blackie, Jorge and Bobo can do when the chips are down and they work together. Give me the 1937 Salisbury Indians any day of the week, and I’ll be there in the cheap seats cheering for them.

One thought on “Bobo Revolinsky: The Miracle 1937 Salisbury Indians

  1. Great story. If you haven’t been to the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame at the new ballpark in Salisbury, you owe it to yourself to go.

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