Johnny Pomorski: Chesty’s Last Stand

 

Walking from the dugout back out to the mound made him feel every bit of his 42 years. And yet, despite it being the top of the 20th inning, Johnny Pomorski dug deep and found the swagger and confidence that earned him the nickname “Chesty” back at Passaic High School in New Jersey. That was long ago and far away from Thetford Mines, Quebec where he now stood ready to pitch the twentieth frame of the game that didn’t seem to have an ending.

The long and winding road that led Chesty to Thetford Mines began in Brooklyn on December 30, 1905. John Leon Pomorski was the eldest of Leon and Frances’ three children. His parents were both Polish, Leon born in the Russian zone and Francis in the part occupied by Germany. Around 1909 the family moved to the industrial city of Passaic, New Jersey, where Leon found work as a machinist. The Pomorski’s lived on Quincy Street, the heart of Passaic’s bustling Polish community, and the boys learned baseball, football and basketball on the city’s playgrounds and vacant lots.

When Johnny entered Passaic High in 1922, the school’s basketball team was world famous. Coached by the legendary Ernest “Professor” Blood, Passaic High’s basketball squad, called the “Wonder Team” in the press, was in the midst of a 159-game undefeated streak that remains unequalled to this day.* Yet, despite the amount of talent already wearing the red and blue colors, Pomorski was able to crack the starting lineup his sophomore year. His 6’ 2” size made him a natural center because back in the 1920s there was a jump ball after every basket. If a team’s center could win the majority of jumps then it took away the scoring opportunity from the other team.

In 1924, Coach Blood was ousted by the school’s principal, Arnold D. Arnold, who had become increasingly jealous of “The Professor” and the Wonder Team’s success and celebrity. Assistant Coach Amasa Marks took over, and Passaic’s undefeated streak lasted until February 6, 1925 when Hackensack High defeated them 39-35. The win was controversial since it was reported that the floor of the Hackensack Armory had been seeded with sawdust to neutralize Passaic’s patented “fast break” style of play. Regardless of how it was ended, Passaic’s undefeated streak of 159 games over five seasons made Blood and the boys who played on the Wonder Teams famous.

BESIDES HIS TALENT on the boards, Johnny also excelled in track, football, soccer and baseball. His all-around athletic prowess earned him the nickname “Chesty Johnny.” As the August 19, 1926 Bergan Record espouses: “Where did he get that name? It explains itself. It describes Johnny to perfection. It gives you the impression of swaggering, confidant, blissful poise, of just a touch of arrogance, and a certain degree of ability. That’s Johnny. Ever since he’s been able to throw a baseball he’s been proud of his ability. He knows he’s good–he shows it when he steps onto the mound. And he is good, and the other folks know it, too.”

Outside of basketball, Pomorski gained a reputation as one of the top high school pitchers in the New York Metropolitan area. Elected captain of the baseball team as a junior in 1925, Pomorski was equally dangerous with a stick as his .525 average was tops on the team. It was at this time that Chesty started playing a dangerous game that threatened to destroy not only his scholastic athletic career but his reputation as well.

SINCE THE BEGINNING of high school and college sports, talented young athletes have been tempted by the lure of making money in the professional ranks. Of course, to do so would take away their amateur status, but more often than not, if an athlete was discrete, officials looked the other way. For instance, Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Eddie Collins both played pro ball undetected under assumed names to protect their amateur status. Others like Lou Gehrig and Jim Thorpe had their covers blown and their amateur status suspended or revoked. Pomorski, as his nickname “Chesty” implied, believed himself immune to such regulations and, for a time, he was right. Because of his legendary reputation with Passaic High, Pomorski’s name was a big draw throughout New Jersey. Beginning in 1924 he made the most of it, pitching for various semipro teams while playing under his real name.

It was never proven Pomorski took money to play with pay-for-play teams such as the Lodi Independents, Riverside A.C. and the Maywood A.A., but his teammates did receive cash for their work. As if this was not tempting fate enough, Pomorski went one further when he traveled with the not-to-subtly named “New Jersey Professionals” to Coalwood, West Virginia to play an “outlaw” team featuring “Shufflin’ Phil” Douglas. Douglas had been a star pitcher for the New York Giants before a combination of too much booze, bad judgement and a bizarre scheme to leave the team to ensure the Giants lost the pennant led to his being thrown out of professional baseball in 1922. Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis decreed that any player caught participating in a game with or against Douglas would lead, in turn, to their expulsion from the game. So, on August 28, 1925 when Chesty Pomorski took the mound against “Shufflin’ Phil” and his outlaw crew, he was not only putting his amateur status at risk but his future as well.

FOR THE TIME BEING, Pomorski was able to talk his way out of outright banishment from Passaic County high school sports. However, when he ran into disagreements with his coaches, he decided to take his talents to another school district. Though adjacent to Passaic, Garfield, New Jersey is in Bergen County and an altogether different high school league. Pomorski immediately became the star of Garfield High’s basketball squad, much to the chagrin of the other eleven schools in the district. Unlike the coaches in Passaic County, who looked the other way regarding Chesty’s sketchy amateur status, the Bergen County coaches did not. When Garfield fielded Pomorski and another player who already had five years of high school ball under his belt during a game against Leona High, their coach filed an official grievance. This put in motion a trial that that rocked the north Jersey high school sports world to its core.

On the evening of January 7, 1926 representatives of the twelve Bergen County High Schools held a “trial” to decide whether or not to revoke John Pomorski’s amateur status. The accused didn’t help matters by showing up wearing what the Bergen Evening Record described as “a natty, light brown suit.” The Record goes on to describe that “some of the sinister minds soon began to lisp out the thought that he must have made a lot of money last summer.”

Leona’s coach Roy Nickerson, accompanied by his attorney William Madden, led the prosecution. Nickerson began by lambasting the “liars” on the Passaic County board that had failed to convict Pomorski when allegations of professionalism were first levied against him in 1924. Nickerson, whose attorney happened to be a former local sportswriter, presented box scores that proved Pomorski’s presence on professional baseball teams during the summer of 1926. Coach Hobbs of Westwood High testified that he had seen with his own eyes Johnny Pomorski pitching for professional ball teams in the summer of 1926.

The slam dunk was the game account and box score from the West Virginia game against “Shufflin’ Phil Douglas and company. Chesty’s performance on the stand helped seal his fate:

PROSECUTOR: Did you pitch against Phil Douglas?
POMORSKI: I don’t know.
PROSECUTOR: Did members of your team tell you who you were pitching against at Coalwood on August 25?
POMORSKI: No.

This exchange must have sent waves of guffaws through the audience. Phil Douglas was one of the better pitchers in the National League in the early 1920s. Not only that, but he played for the New York Giants, at the time the most popular sports team in the nation, and his banishment from the game was one of the biggest sports story of 1922. Pomorski would have been 16 at the time of Douglas’ downfall – for a jock like him to claim he did not know he was pitching against a star of Douglas’ stature was simply laughable.

The final blow was when Pomorski was caught using a white lie that had gotten him out of his previous scrape with the Passaic County high school board. At the time, leeway was given for an athlete to play ball alongside professionals provided he did not accept money and had secured permission from his high school coach. Pomorski claimed that he had been granted such permission from Passaic’s coach Ray Pickett. Nickerson devastatingly countered by telling the court that Coach Pickett denied ever having given Pomorski his consent.

Now, with his back to the wall, Pomorski told the court that the only money he received was for transportation to and from the games and ”expenses.” He explained that the allegations against him now were the same he was acquitted of in 1924. While he referred the court to question the manager of the Maywood A.C. team as to whether he was paid to play, he did not offer any definitive proof or documentation on the same level as Nickerson’s evidence.

The twelve school representatives deliberated for an hour and half before the vote was taken. The outcome was 11-0 for Pomorski’s permanent banishment from amateur athletics. In a move both cowardly and seeming to acknowledge Pomorski’s guilt, Garfield’s rep voted “present.”

WITH NO FURTHER reason to hide his professional status, Pomorski began his career as a pro ballplayer. One of Pomorski’s teammates on the Passaic Wonder Team was Fritz Knothe. Fritz’s older brother George was an infielder with Lawrence of the New England League. Already acquainted with Pomorski’s reputation first hand, he convinced Lawrence to sign the pitcher when word reach him of his ouster from high school sports. Chesty got into 3 games for Lawrence and ended his first season as a professional with an 0-1 record. He returned to Lawrence the following season and finished a lack-luster 5-7. 1928 was Pomorski’s breakout season. Moving to Attleboro in the same league, Chesty appeared in 40 games and set a league record by completing 28 of them. He also led the league with 21 wins. Pomorski’s 21 wins and nice 2.89 ERA garnered interest from higher up minor league teams.

Pomorski’s contract was purchased by the Montreal Royals. The Royals were an independent team in the International League, one of the three top level minor leagues of the day. Pomorski managed just one win against six losses before he was loaned out to the Canton Terriers. After he helped pitch the team to the Central League pennant, the Terriers faced the Quincy Indians, champions of the Three-I League, in the Little World Series. Canton dropped the first two games, but Chesty threw a 6-hitter in Game 3 to keep the Terriers alive. Canton won the next two and then sent Pomorski back to the mound for Game 5. He tossed another 6-hitter as Canton took the Series.

Pomorski made the Royals starting rotation out of spring training. He adjusted to the faster company, winning 13 for the Royals in 1930. Near the end of the season, New York Giants manager John McGraw made a special trip to Montreal to see Pomorski in action. Impressed, an offer was made, but the Royals refused to budge on price, and McGraw left empty handed. Several other clubs sent their scouts to Montreal, but they too retreated south when they saw the $75,000 tag.

AND SO IT WOULD GO for the next few years. Pomorski posted fine numbers for Montreal, establishing himself as one of the team’s most reliable arms and becoming a fan favorite. For his part, Pomorski enjoyed living in the “Paris of North America” and soon married Montreal native Olive LeMarquand. The couple quickly had a son Earl and daughter June. When he wasn’t pitching or spending time with his growing family, Chesty could be found breeding canaries in his spare time.

McGraw made another run at Pomorski in 1932, but again the price scared him off. Chesty was Montreal’s “work horse,” switching between starter and reliever, ready at any moment and eagerly eating up innings. At one point he went twelve games without recording a defeat. Yet, even as scouts continued to sniff around Montreal’s ace, that high price tag kept him in the minors.

Then there was a story reported years later about how a case of mistaken identity may have cost Pomorski a trip to the majors in 1931. Montreal’s shortstop was another Polish guy from New Jersey named Urbanski. According to the tale, the Boston Braves purchased Billy Urbanski mistakenly believing they actually purchased Johnny Pomorski. How the Braves scout managed to differentiate them from the Royals other “ski’s,” catcher Johnny Grabowski and third baseman Henry Peploski, was not recorded…

AFTER A SMART 14-win season in 1933, the scouts began congregating again. This time it was the Red Sox who were the main contenders, but they pulled out at the last minute. Then, in the off season, the Royals agreed to Pomorski’s conditional sale to the Chicago White Sox for three players and cash.

Pomorski’s conditional sale meant that if he made the White Sox and stayed past June 15 then Chicago owed Montreal the agreed cash amount. If he was returned before June 15 then Chicago kept the money and Pomorski was back in a Royals uniform.

The 1934 White Sox was a team desperately trying to rebuild. The banishment of the eight Black Sox players in 1920 had sent the organization into a nosedive from which they still had not recovered. The Sox had a strong offense with Al Simmons, Luke Appling, Zeke Bonura and Mule Haas, but was low on pitching. Besides Ted Lyons and an increasingly ineffective George Earnshaw, the Sox were helpless when facing strong offensive clubs like the Yankees and Tigers. After the 1933 season, manager Lew Fonseca and owner Lou Comiskey pulled out all the stops trying to add another strong starter to their rotation and they set their sights on Pomorski. According to a piece in the November 2, 1933 Sporting News, the White Sox had been trying to buy Pomorski since 1932. However, Montreal refused to sell in the belief he would improve and thus command a better price.

POMORSKI JOINED the White Sox at their training camp in Pasadena. All dispatches from the spring heaped praise on the newcomer, one paper reporting that “Pomorski has speed, a fair assortment of curves and combines control with a good change of pace.” His role as both a starter and reliever with Montreal made him especially valuable to the Sox. When the team broke camp to start the season, Pomorski was with them.

The Sox wasted no time in giving Pomorski a shot. In the second game of the season Detroit was beating up on Chicago 8-3. Fonseca waived Pomorski in from the bullpen to pitch the top of the 9th. He walked Charlie Gehringer and then got Mickey Cochrane and Goose Goslin to fly out and Gee Walker on a grounder to end the inning.
Two weeks later he was brought in to relieve Milt Gaston with one out in the 6th inning. With Cleveland up 7-0, Pomorski gave up a double to Willis Hudlin, but then got Sam Rice and Frankie Pytlak each to ground out and end the inning. He was taken out for a pinch hitter the next inning, and the Sox went on to lose 12-1.

Four days later, the Sox were in Philly playing the A’s. The Sox were up 4-3 in the 8th with one out when Whit Wyatt gave up a three run homer to Pinky Higgins. When Wyatt walked the next batter Pomorski was waved in. He appeared to get Bob Kline on a fielder’s choice but Luke Appling dropped the ball for an error. Pomorski then unleashed a wild pitch that put runners at second and third. When he walked the next batter, Fonseca called time and sent Pomorski to the showers. The Sox went on to drop the game to the A’s 10-4.

Likely suffering from sticker shock and buyer’s remorse, the White Sox didn’t give Pomorski another chance. After going 4-11 to start the season, Comiskey sacked Lew Fonseca and made Jimmy Dykes manager. Whatever plans the Sox had for Pomorski had ended with Fonseca’s firing. It’s likely that Dykes didn’t want anything to do with that looming payment due to Montreal if Pomorski stayed on the roster after June 15. A large chunk taken out of the budget for an unproven pitcher was the last thing a new manager needed. A week shy of the conditional deadline of June 15, Pomorski was back with Montreal.

AS HAPPENS TO MANY players who are tossed back to the bush leagues after a cup of coffee in the majors, Pomorski stumbled hard. His 5-12 record for the remainder of 1934 lost him his position as ace of the Royals staff. The next year, after going 4-9, he was traded to the Buffalo Bisons. By now, he was used solely out of the bullpen. Because he tended to be especially effective against the Newark Bears, the Yankees top farm club in the International League, he bounced around the league, going from Buffalo to Toronto to Syracuse and back to Toronto, who gave him his unconditional release halfway through the 1937 season.

Chesty, now 31, returned to Montreal. He was still a popular figure around town and had wisely made many business connections since moving there in 1929. He began a career in insurance and kept his hand in the game by being named player-manager of the Drummondville club in the semipro Quebec Provincial Baseball League. He switched to Lachine in the same league the next season, which led to his return to organized ball in 1941 when he went 15-10 for the Trois-Rivieres Renards of the Canadian-American League. With the war raging, Pomorski took 1942 off to work a defense job, but was back on the mound the following year in a semipro senior league. He was still at it on September 7, 1947 when he found himself pitching the game of his life.

POMORSKI HAD PITCHED and managed Thetford Mines to the Eastern Townships Independent Intermediate League playoffs. His team had taken the first two games and were expected to sweep the best of five series against Drummondville. Thetford Mines took a 2-1 lead in the 8th and knocked Drummondville’s starter out of the box. With victory three outs away, Pomorski threw a bad pitch that went for a long triple. Then a bloop single scored the tying run. Chesty bore down and retired the side, but the damage was done.

The game dragged on through the 14th inning. In the top of the 15th, Pomorski gave up two singles and an error by the catcher who scored the go ahead run. In the Thetford half, Pomorski’s boys were down to their last out when Paquette hit a screaming liner into left field. The ball took a bad hop and shot into a drainage ditch. By the time the left fielder dug it out, Paquette had rounded the bases to tie the game again.

As the long shadows turned to darkness, Pomorski pitched five more scoreless innings, just firing fastball after fastball at where he thought the catcher’s glove would be. When the ump finally made the decision to end the game at the end of the 20th, most couldn’t see his raised arms signaling the call. Pomorski had given up three runs and twelve hits in 20 innings while Drummondville’s two pitchers had done the same. As William Young wrote in his 2004 Sherbrooke Record article about Pomorski’s masterpiece, the called game began a controversial post season which found both teams claiming to be victors and playing for the championship in different series – and both losing.

Johnny Pomorski continued to bring his swagger and confidence to independent league Quebec baseball well into the 1950s. He occasionally returned to Passaic to visit family as well as recruit young players for the semipro leagues in Quebec. He prospered in the insurance business, passing away in 1977 at the age of 71, leaving behind his wife Olive, son and daughter and three grandkids. He also left behind an athletic career that found him starring for one of the most storied early basketball teams of all-time, posting a 9-year record pitching in the best minor league of the 1930s and a playing starring role in what was probably the longest baseball game ever played on Canadian soil.

*Although claims of longer winning streaks have been made, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame recognizes Passaic’s 159 games as the record.

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This week’s story is Number 33 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

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