Harry Coveleskie: ’cause down the shore, everything’s all right
IN THE SPRING OF 1907, Harry Coveleskie began to feel he could breathe easy– both physically and mentally. He’d spent the past 7 years toiling in a Shamokin, Pennsylvania coal mine alongside his father and brothers. Coming from a family of poor Polish immigrants, Harry and his siblings didn’t have many options for the direction their life would take. The Coveleskie’s oldest boy, Jake, had escaped the mines by joining the army when the Spanish-American War began in 1898. But instead of finding a new life, Jake died from dysentery in an army hospital in the Philippines.
For the four remaining Coveleskie brothers, the only avenue left that led out of Shamokin was baseball. Ever since they were kids, Harry and his three brothers, John, Frank, and Stan, played for local amateur nines. The Coveleskie’s knew baseball could get them out of Shamokin because John, the oldest, had successfully left home and was plying his trade as a ball player on the east coast. Harry, by now a 21 year-old six foot lefthander, pitched his heart out every Sunday until finally, in the spring of ’07, a scout recruited him to pitch for the Kane Mountaineers of the Inter-State League. The Mountaineers were the lousiest team on the lowest rung of organized ball, but it was a start – and it wasn’t underground.
Harry’s record stood at 4 wins and 7 losses when the team disbanded in the second week of July. With a return to the mines looking all but inevitable, Harry could no longer breathe easy. However, he had one last chance to make it real. A leap of faith took him to a beach town in New Jersey because, as the song says, “down the shore, everything’s all right.”
LIKE MANY OTHER resort areas of the country, the Jersey Shore had a vibrant summer baseball scene with teams sponsored by the big luxury hotels. With TV and radio years away, there were not many options for daytime entertainment. Baseball games filled this void, and ballplayers were recruited from colleges and semipro teams with the promise of honing their trade and an easy job in a premium beach hotel. John Coveleskie was one such recruit, and the summer of 1907 found him playing third base for Hotel Ottens, Wildwood, New Jersey’s premier resort. So, when the Mountaineers went under, Harry made his way to Wildwood where he found a place on the Ottens club.
The first Ottens box score Harry appears in is the July 26 game against the Salem Quakers. Harry went the distance and pitched a 2-hit shutout while striking out 13 Quakers. His brother John contributed a double in the 10-0 blowout. The next afternoon Harry played rightfield, getting three hits in the 7-5 win over the Anchor Giants. On August 3 Harry allowed the Bridgeton team only three hits and struck out 8 but lost the game 1-0 on errors. Harry spent the next four games in the outfield, but a Philadelphia Phillies scout had seen his two pitching performances and was impressed. A Phillies rep made the trip to the Jersey shore and for $250 a month, took Harry Coveleskie back to Philly with him.
Harry made his big league debut on September 10, 1907, at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl. The Brooklyn Superbas were beating the Phils 5-1 when Harry took the mound in the top of the fifth. He held Brooklyn scoreless the rest of the game, but the Phillies were unable to pull ahead. Harry struck out two and issued no walks. Seven days later he pitched a hitless inning against Brooklyn and on September 22 he gave up two runs in seven innings of relief against St. Louis. On the last day of the season, Harry again pitched relief, this time shutting out the New York Giants for seven innings and earning his first win.
All-in-all it was a miraculous season for Harry, going from a busted bottom rung minor league team to a Jersey Shore hotel outfit and then straight to the major leagues. His four games gained him an invite to spring training in 1908 and, once again, Harry was able to breathe easy.
AT CAMP, Harry was unable to master the control he showed the year before. The Phils kept him on the Opening Day roster, but after one bad relief appearance against the Giants, it was decided he needed some minor league seasoning. Harry was sent to the Lancaster Red Roses of the Tri-State League. Lancaster thought Harry’s natural sidearm motion had something to do with his lack of control and he was taught an overhand delivery. The adjustment paid off and by the end of August he’d won 22 games and set the league record for most strikeouts in one game. This earned him a September call back from the Phillies.
Harry’s first game back was a tough 1-0 loss to Cincinnati on September 23, 1908. That same afternoon, the Cubs were in New York to play the Giants. Both clubs were locked in a tight pennant race, making this head-to-head matchup especially important. The Cubs had taken both ends of a doubleheader the day before, and the standings that afternoon showed the Giants in first place with an 87-50 record and .635 winning percentage and the Cubs in second with 90-53 and .629. The difference in games played was due to rainouts earlier in the season, and the Giants would make up those games if needed in the last weeks of the season.
In the bottom of the 9th inning, the score was knotted 1-1 with two outs. Moose McCormick singled and advance to third on another single by Fred Merkle. Al Bridwell then hit another single, scoring McCormick with what should have been the winning run. The Giants fans swarmed the field, and Fred Merkle forewent touching second base and instead ran for the clubhouse. Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball and touched second for the force out, which meant McCormick’s run did not count, and the score was still 1-1. With the coming darkness and the deluge of fans on the field, the game was declared a tie and the incident pretty much forgotten about as the Giants resumed their last 16 games of the season.
Enter Harry Coveleskie.
On the morning of September 28, the newspapers showed New York in first place, 91-52 with a .636 winning percentage; Chicago was 93-54 and .633 and coming on strong. Several injuries hobbled the Giants, and a close pennant race had worn everyone down. This would have been enough to cause a panic, but the Giants were scheduled to play their next 8 games against Philadelphia, a team they had beaten 11 out of 14 times that summer.
We need to take a time out here and talk about the New York Giants.
One hundred plus years later, it is hard to understand how big the Giants were in the first couple decades of the 20th century. In the years since 1902 when John McGraw took over as manager, the Giants became the first “America’s Team” – indeed, teams throughout the land, from the Negro Leagues to the semipros, named themselves the “Giants” because that was synonymous with “winner.” And New York boasted many of the greatest players of the era, most of all their ace, Christy Mathewson. The Giants seemed to have everything and anything a fan could want in their favorite team: a feisty, win by any means manager in McGraw, the perfect gentleman-athlete in college-educated Mathewson, and a dozen other hard playing-hard drinking roughnecks who came ready to win. And just like today’s Yankees, if you weren’t a Giants fan back then, you rooted against them with a burning hate-fueled passion. In the waning days of the 1908 season, all eyes were on the Giants as they wobbled unsteadily towards the finish line.
The first four of the eight games were in New York. The Giants took the opener, 7-6, and then won the first game of the next day’s doubleheader by the score of 6-2. Meanwhile, Chicago won against Cincinnati and were now tied with New York for first place.
In the second game, Giants pitcher Doc Crandall went to work against Harry Coveleskie. The big Pole pitched marvelously, striking out six New Yorkers and shutting them out on just seven hits to win 7-0. Coveleskie even hit a triple that ignited a five-run rally. This unlikely win pushed the Giants into second place. The New York Times went out of its way to turn on the ethnic-slur spigot to belittle Philly’s unlikely hero. Obviously, upset over the hometown boys being knocked out of first, Times sportswriter W.W. Aulick wrote, “Doggone these foreigners anyway. Why don’t they confine themselves to skat or ski-balling or whatever their national game is, and leave America to the Americans?” The Times conveniently overlooked the fact that Harry Coveleskie was born in the good ol’ USA, had lost a brother fighting for the country, and he was playing his national game – and he was playing it better than the Giants.
The New Yorkers took the next game 2-1 while Chicago lost to Cincinnati. This put the Giants back in first while the Pittsburgh Pirates snuck into second place over the Cubs. Both teams took the evening train to Philadelphia, where they would play the final four games of their series.
October 1 was a doubleheader at the Baker Bowl. Christy Mathewson pitched and won the opener, 4-3. Harry Coveleskie took the slab for the nightcap and proceeded to baffle the Giants batters, allowing just two runs on four hits as the Phils won, 6-2. When the Cubs and Pirates scores came in, standings showed all three teams tied for first.
On October 2, the Giants beat Philly 7-2 to stay even with the Cubs, who had beaten the Reds, but Pittsburgh won a doubleheader against St. Louis to take sole possession of first place. By now, McGraw and the Giants were in panic mode. Four games remained in the schedule. If the Giants could win them all, and the Cubs and Pirates lost one or two, the pennant remained within reach. To provide a sure win, McGraw turned to his ace, Christy Mathewson. Matty had won 37 games that summer, and McGraw knew if anyone could chalk up a win for the Giants, it was he. Though he had pitched nine innings against the Phillies two days earlier, Matty was a gamer, and just his presence on the mound would be intimidating to the Phillies.
Whatever confidence McGraw and the rest of the Giants were feeling drained out of them when Harry Coveleskie began taking his pregame warmups. Like Matty, Coveleskie too had pitched a full nine innings two days prior. Before the game, Billy Murray offered Harry $50 if he would pitch against Matty. For Murray, the chance to beat McGraw was more than worth half a C-note; for Harry, fifty bucks was fifty bucks.
The game was a real cooker. New York struck first when Fred Tenney led off with a double. He was sacrificed over to third and scored on McCormick’s single. Then Coveleskie matched Mathewson zero for zero through the fifth. Finally, the Phillies bats came alive in the fifth when Fred Osborn led off with a triple. A sacrifice by Mickey Doolin tied the game. Red Dooin followed with another triple off Matty and scored when Coveleskie smacked a single to center. Now the Phils were up, 2-1. Philadelphia eked out another run in the sixth to make it 3-1. Going on just two days’ rest, both pitchers were reaching their limit. McGraw took out Matty after the seventh, but Coveleskie kept going.
By the ninth, the Pole was running on fumes. Buck Herzog led off the ninth with a single and took second when centerfielder Osborn fumbled the ball. McCormick belted a long triple to deep right field and scored Herzog. It was now 3-2 with no one out and the tying run 90 feet away. Mike Donlin hit a fly ball to center, but Osborn caught it and got it back to the infield before McCormick could safely tag up. Cy Seymour hit a grounder to second base, and McCormick was tagged out in a rundown as he tried to score. Seymour used the confusion to take second. Two outs, man on second. Coveleskie bore down and used every ounce of strength left in him to whiff Art Devlin. Final score: 3-2 Philly.
Coveleskie’s third victory over the Giants in one week had pushed New York into third place while Pittsburgh and Chicago both won, taking the first and second spots. As for Coveleskie, the unlikely hero had become the toast of the country. An unknown son of immigrants whipping the greatest sports franchise in the land was the kind of story Americans love. The press universally settled on one nickname for Coveleskie: “The Giant Killer.”
Meanwhile, three games remained in the season. Chicago beat Pittsburgh, eliminating them from the race. The Giants went on a tear, sweeping Boston. When the dust settled, the New Yorkers found themselves tied with the Cubs for the pennant. Now all attention turned to that September 23rd game that ended in a tie. Due to what has become known as “Merkle’s Boner,” the two teams would now have to replay the game to decide the pennant. On October 8, the game was replayed in New York, with the Cubs winning 4-2. Chicago went on to the World Series and whipped the Tigers, 4 games to 1. John McGraw, never a good loser, settled into the off season, his hatred of Harry Coveleskie keeping him warm all winter.
HARRY COVELESKIE was the darling of the hot stove league writers, and big things were expected from the Giant Killer in 1909. And word had gotten around about the three other Coveleskie boys. Harry’s former club, the Lancaster Red Roses, snatched up both John and Stanley while Frank signed with Danville of the Susquehanna League.
When the 1909 season began, the Phillies hopes for a first division finish were invested in Coveleskie, while the Giants swore vengeance on the Giant Killer.
Here’s the part of the story where myth meets reality in one big fog bank.
ACCORDING TO BASEBALL LORE, McGraw and the Giants discovered Harry Coveleskie’s Achilles’ heel and hounded the Giant Killer right out of the majors. There are various tales of how this was supposedly accomplished. One story claims Coveleskie habitually chewed on a sausage he kept in his pocket during a game. The Giants seized on this eccentricity and relentlessly taunted the embarrassed pitcher until he lost all effectiveness.
Another version has a Cincinnati Reds scout telling John McGraw about how back home in Shamokin, Coveleskie had a crush on a girl who in turn was only wild about musicians. Trying to win her heart, Harry tried joining the local marching band as a drummer but failed miserably. The scout suggested that if the Giants imitated a snare drum, the heart broken southpaw would fold like a cheap card table. Christy Mathewson claimed that McGraw would stand in the third base coaches box pretending to bang on a drum while Giants first base coach Arlie Latham made the “rat-a-tat-tat” sound from the other side of the diamond. Other stories in the same vein tell how the entire Giants bench joined in on the percussion razzing.
However, like most great stories, none are probably true. In fact, Coveleskie pitched a 3-hit shutout against the Giants his first time facing them in 1909. But something apparently did happen to Coveleskie’s effectiveness shortly afterwards. After losing his next three starts, Coveleskie faced New York again.
May 28 was a Coveleskie-Mathewson rematch. Both men pitched expertly, but Coveleskie gave up three runs in the fifth. The game was called in the seventh due to darkness and impending rain with New York the victor, 3-0. Newspapers reported the next morning that Coveleskie’s loss came through bad luck and a few Philadelphia fielding muffs. Indeed, Coveleskie gave up only seven hits while striking out four. In his article, Harry Coveleski: The Life and Legend of the “Giant Killer,” Art Ahrens demonstrates that there was no mention to be found in any newspaper coverage of the game of any out of the ordinary ribbing directed towards Coveleskie. And neither were there any a few days later when Coveleskie pitched 2 innings of relief against the Giants.
It wasn’t until July that Coveleskie faced the Giants again. At this point in the season Coveleskie’s record was a disappointing 5-7 with only two complete games since the beginning of May. Harry’s younger brother, future Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski, later told writers that Harry had suffered an arm injury that summer. His record does indicate that something was wrong with the Giant Killer. In the July 5 game, Coveleskie went the full nine, but gave up three runs on ten hits, losing 3-zip. The Philadelphia Enquirer game story recounts when the second inning concluded, “McGraw, who was coaching at third during the inning, must have hurled a few choice remarks at Coveleskie, for the latter, as soon as the inning was over, went right at McGraw in a threatening manner.” A few of Coveleskie’s teammates quickly jumped in before any blows were exchanged. No mention was made of any drum taunts or sausage cracks being made, and no other Giants were involved besides McGraw.
Two days later, Coveleskie got the start against the Giants again. This time the Giant Killer didn’t make it out of the 6th inning. Coveleskie couldn’t seem to find the plate, and the Giants players pounced, alternately trying to stare down the struggling pitcher and laughing out loud as a group from the bench. Again, no mention can be found of a drumming dirge or sausage shenanigans.
Coveleskie made two brief relief appearances before he was put on ice for the next five weeks. On August 18, he pitched an inning and a half of relief against the Giants, giving up three hits, a pair of walks and a run. Again, no mention has been found of the Giants doing anything out of the ordinary to rattle Coveleskie. However, he did not pitch another game until the first week of September. He pitched the first seven innings of a 13-inning game against the Reds but received no decision. Five days later he went the full nine and picked up the win against Boston.
THOUGH THE SEASON still had three weeks to go, Coveleskie was through for the year. His sparse use beginning in July seems to indicate an injury, just as his brother Stan claimed. Over the winter the Phillies dealt Coveleskie to Cincinnati, but he lasted only a few games before the Reds optioned him to Birmingham of the Southern Association.
Cincinnati recalled him at the end of the Southern Association season and put him to work against the Giants at the Polo Grounds on September 28. Of all Coveleskie’s battles with the Giants, it is this game that was likely the source of the story of how the New Yorkers hounded the Giant Killer out of the majors.
The game started going bad as soon as Coveleskie took the mound in the bottom of the first. The first seven pitches were balls, and it just got worse. When the game ended, Coveleskie had walked 11, hit two batters, threw a pair of wild pitches, and gave up 16 runs on 14 hits. The topper was when Giants pitcher Doc Crandall hit an eighth inning home run off him. As Art Ahrens writes in his article, McGraw and all the Giants players were merciless in their taunting of Coveleskie. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported, “The heartless Giants got their revenge on poor Harry Coveleskie…. Using every known means to rattle the big fellow, they had his goat from before the game was well underway and he was a sight for a specialist on nervousness before he got through. McGraw and his men attacked him right from the jump, commencing before the game….”
Although most game accounts were sure to include the heavy taunts Coveleskie was subjected to, again, none mention anything of the drum or sausage variety. What could not be denied was that Coveleskie was no longer the Giant Killer, and the Reds were through with him. He was sent back to the Southern Association, this time to the Chattanooga Lookouts.
THIS BEGINS a remarkable three year journey of reinvention and redemption. He went 11-22 in 1911, followed by 13-15 in 1912. Over those two seasons, Coveleskie kept his walks low and averaged a 2.80 ERA. In 1913, he regained his former form, leading the league with 28 wins and seven shutouts while posting a 1.44 ERA. The Detroit Tigers bought his contract and earmarked him for a spring 1914 delivery.
Harry Coveleskie made the most of this rare second chance in The Show in 1914. His first season back, Coveleskie won 22 games. Late in the season, the Yankees took a page out of the Giants handbook and tried to rattle Harry by singing the popular tune, “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” According to a syndicated story by Frank G. Menke, the singing so upset Coveleskie that he blew the game. A look at the schedule shows Harry’s lone late-season appearance against the Yanks was an August 29 5-4 loss. Harry pitched a complete game and gave up three earned runs on 10 hits with no walks. All of New York’s runs were in the early innings. If the Yanks were trying to rattle Harry, it had no effect past the 4th inning.
Harry won another 22 games in 1915 and 21 in 1916. He averaged 310 innings in each of those three seasons, which inevitably led to arm trouble in the spring of 1916. Coveleskie hung around through 1918, and though he won just four games, his collective ERA of 2.34 during his stay in Detroit is still the franchise record.
The end of Harry’s career coincided with the rise of his brother Stan’s with Cleveland. There’s a great story from April 17, 1916, the first time Detroit faced his brother pitching for Cleveland. Though he was pressured to start against his brother, Harry refused, saying, “No, I won’t go in. I’ve made good in the big league and the kid has his piece to make. I know I would be holding back if I went against him. I couldn’t put my heart into an effort that might send him back to the bushes.” Instead, Harry lost himself rooting for his little brother, shouting, “Atta boy, Stan, atta boy!” from the Tigers bench, much to the dismay of his teammates. When Sam Crawford hit into a forced play, Harry yelled, “That’s it Stan, you’ve got his number!” Finally, Tigers third baseman Oscar Vitt snapped his teammate back to reality, “Say Harry, if you are going to root for Cleveland, go over on the Cleveland bench!” Stan would go on to have a long career in the majors that included three victories against Brooklyn in the 1920 World Series and concluded with a plaque in Cooperstown.
HARRY RETURNED to Shamokin with his wife, Cecilia, and son, William, where he became a police officer and tended bar until Prohibition was passed. In 1929, he was pinched for operating a speakeasy and, incredibly, was reinstated as a police officer to work off his fine! In 1937, he opened his own tavern, appropriately called “The Giant Killer Café,” slinging beers, sandwiches, and big league tales to his Shamokin fans. The Giant Killer passed away in 1950, felled by the effects of diabetes.
Over a century later, Harry Coveleskie’s mad week as the Giant Killer lives on as one of the most unlikely events in baseball history, a true David versus Goliath story. For me, the best part of Coveleskie’s career is how he was able to bounce back from the minor leagues and emerge an even better pitcher than he was in 1908. When the tale of the Giant Killer is told in baseball history books and TV shows, Harry’s story is conveniently snipped off at the part where McGraw and his Giants supposedly chased the pitcher out of the majors. As is almost always the case, the true story is often the best, and Harry Coveleskie’s second career with Detroit certainly fits that bill.
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Harry Coveleskie’s performance against the Giants made him an instant star, and there are no shortage of national newspaper features from the winter and spring telling his life story. It is from these that I drew most of my research.
The local Shamokin newspaper was also a great source for interesting Harry Coveleskie anecdotes. Among the neat tidbits I found was how, in 1916, Harry was summoned to the White House to act as President Wilson’s interpreter when he received a delegation of Polish priests. A 1941 story quoted Harry reminiscing how after winning 22 games in 1915, Tigers owner Frank Navin told him, “You’re getting entirely too much money. I’ll have to cut you,” and he did so, slashing his salery from $5,400 to $4,200.
One modern source I found incredibly well-written and researched was Harry Coveleski: The Life and Legend of the “Giant Killer” by Art Ahrens, published in the publication Base Ball 12. Ahrens really dug into the often told story of the Giants “drumming” Harry out of the league and separated myth from reality.
And lastly, the main fuel I used to power my story of Coveleskie’s 1908 massacre of the Giants are the box scores found on Baseball-Reference.com and the game stories in the Philadelphia and New York newspapers of the time.
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THE FABULOUS COVELESKIE BOYS
JAKE (born 1875) was a “well known central Pennsylvania base ball pitcher” before he died of dysentery in 1900 while serving in the Philippines as a private in the 21st Infantry.
FRANK (born 1882) pitched professionally for Philadelphia of the short-lived Union Association before rheumatism cut his career short. He returned to the mines, and two of his sons played minor league ball.
JOHN (born 1884) went to spring training with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908. Connie Mack, who didn’t like long surnames (he was born Cornelius McGillicuddy) re-named his recruit “John Cove.” He initially made the team but was released after the season began due to “severe case of severe charley horse.” He began a minor league career that lasted through 1917, playing entirely at the Class B level with stops at Lancaster, San Antonio, Erie, Albany and Richmond.
HARRY (born 1886) –you just read about him!
STANLEY (born 1889) won 20 or more games in five seasons with Cleveland and Washington. In the 1920 World Series he beat Brooklyn three times. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969.
JOE (born 1921) son of Frank, pitched for the Allentown Dukes of the Interstate League in 1939. After being named the leading pitcher in the Northeast Arkansas League in 1941 and the Canadian-American League in 1942, Joe was drafted into the army, effectively ending what could have been a promising career.
STANLEY (born 1922) son of Frank, was a catcher and outfielder in the Phillies organization from 1944 to 1951, making it as high as Utica in the Eastern League.
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To “E” or not to “E”?
Besides one being a southpaw and the other a righty, the big difference in the Coveleskie brothers is that Harry had “-skie” at the end of his name while Stanny had “-ski.” But why?
It seems that the family spelled their name “Kovalewski” when they came to America in the 1870s. Like most Polish families, there were several iterations of the surname before a final version was settled on.
By the time Harry was playing ball in 1907, the name was standardized as “COVELESKIE.” I wondered where the “e” came from and contacted William F. Hoffman, author of Polish Surnames: Origins & Meanings. According to Mr. Hoffman, there is no definitive answer, but he had this to say:
So why the final “e”? I think maybe it just clarified things for English speakers. These days, we’re pretty used to -ski sounding like “skee,” if only because the word ski has become a common one in English. Go back more than a century and maybe people weren’t quite so used to that word and that pronunciation. I think spelling the name -skie may have avoided confusion by telling people, “It’s not pronounced like English ‘sky,’ it rhymes with ‘bee.'”
Harry kept the “e” on his name to the day he passed away – it’s on his death certificate and on all his obituaries. However, today if you go to any baseball reference book or site, the “e” has vanished. The reason for this revision, I believe, can be found in Harry’s file in the archives of the Hall of Fame. A player profile filled out after his death has his official name as “Coveleski” without the “e.” Why? Well, it was filled out by his brother, Stanley “No ‘e’ For Me” Coveleski!
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This week’s story is Number 56 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 5 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 054 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-53 can be purchased as a group, too.