SABR

Ossie Bluege

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

Whenever American League President Joe Cronin was asked to rank big-league third basemen, he always gave the same answer: “Well, you start with Bluege.”1 Of course shortstop Cronin was referring to his old partner on the right side of the Washington Senators teams of the 1920s and ’30s, Ossie Bluege. At the 1970 World Series, watching Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson make one outstanding play after another, Joe would remark “That’s another Ossie Bluege play.”2 He would often comment that he never had to worry about a ball that was hit to his right side with Bluege manning the hot corner.

Luke Sewell, a catcher for the Senators in the later years of his career, described Bluege as “the two greatest infielders who ever played in my time.” Sewell explained: He played third and short at the same time, and nobody could come up with a bunt and snap it to first base as fast as Bluege.”3

Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s fifth commissioner, worked at Griffith Stadium as a youth. He earned $1 a day working the scoreboard. Of Bluege, Kuhn commented, “He had that smoothness that stood out. He never seemed to strain at the position. There was nothing dramatic. I think Bluege was so quick, you never saw the rough edges. He was a natural.”4

Bluege played the shallowest of third base anyone had ever seen. He cut off countless hits with his catlike reflexes, which became his nickname to some, “The Cat.” Washington Post writer Shirley Povich wrote that Bluege was a “devourer of bunts, with his dashing one-handed pickups and accurate off-balance throws to first”5

Bluege was known as a quiet, unassuming type of person who went about his job without much fanfare. He never popped off or brought attention to himself. He did not drink, smoke, or keep late hours. He was a virtual unknown to many. In spite of his anonymity, Bluege was a member of the Washington Senators for 18 seasons, served as a coach for two, and managed the Nats for five more. He was the franchise’s first farm director and worked as the comptroller, and later executive secretary, when the organization relocated to Minneapolis. When he retired in 1971, Bluege had worked 50 years for the same franchise. Indeed he was a company man.

Oswald Louis Bluege was born on October 24, 1900, in Chicago, one of three boys (himself, Hugo, and Otto) born to Adam and Olga Bluege. Adam Bluege was employed in a factory as a box maker. He grew up in Goose Island, one of the toughest neighborhoods on the Windy City’s South Side. Adam’s surroundings did not deter him from playing ball on the Chicago sandlots, and at 14 he started at shortstop for the St. Mark’s Lutheran Church team.

Although his formal education did not go beyond grammar school, Ossie Bluege lied about his age and got an accounting position with International Harvester. While playing on the company team, he caught the attention of Jack Doyle, a scout for the Chicago Cubs. Doyle persuaded Bluege to join the Chicago-based Logan Squares, one of the top semipro teams in the country. The exposure he received led Bluege to his first professional club, Peoria of the Three-I League. Bill Jackson, manager of the Tractors, offered the youngster $200 if he would finish out the 1920 season in Peoria. But at 19, he needed his parents’ permission to sign on the dotted line. Ossie pleaded with his father, telling him that major leaguers were earning up to $8,000 a year. Adam Bluege was skeptical, but gave his blessing, with one caveat. “I’ll give you three years,” he said. “If you don’t make what you call the majors, come back to the job which is waiting for you.”6 Many years later, reflecting on his 50 years in the game, Bluege commented that those years “happened because I had a dad who listened.”7

Bluege reported to Peoria in July and started at shortstop; Charlie Dressen had the third-base position all to himself. Although he performed well, he found the routine to be monotonous. He was prepared to return home, but Jackson, his manager, encouraged him, told him all the right things, and in the end persuaded Bluege to finish the year. He returned to Peoria in 1921, hit .293 and led the team in triples (15).

A scout for the Philadelphia Athletics secured an option on Bluege. But when it was learned that he had injured his left knee during the season, the A’s let the option lapse. Senators scout Joe Engel was still interested in Bluege and wanted him to test the knee. He lined up Bluege with two other players and told Ossie that if he beat them in a footrace across the field, to the center field fence, he had a job. Bluege won the race.

The following year at spring training, Washington manager Clyde Milan spent about an hour hitting groundballs to Bluege. Shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh was in a salary dispute, so Bluege filled in until Peck reported to the club. Bluege flashed his defensive prowess when he and his keystone partner, Bucky Harris, combined for six double plays in one game against the Athletics. Milan was so impressed with Bluege that he made special mention to Clark Griffith, the Senators owner. “Griff Strong for Windy City Rookie,” read the headline from spring training. His capability convinced the Senators they should keep him as a utility infielder.

Early in the 1922 season, third baseman Bobby LaMotte was injured and Milan inserted Bluege at the hot corner. From then on Bluege manned third base. However there were questions about his hitting ability and Bluege was sent back to the minors, this time to Minneapolis of the American Association. He batted .315 for the Millers in 44 games.

Bluege returned in 1923, and over the next three seasons, the Senators sported one of the top infields in the majors. Joe Judge at first base and Harris at second formed a formidable right side to go with Peckinpaugh and Bluege. Future Hall of Famers Goose Goslin and Sam Rice manned the corner outfield positions and provided solid offense. Before the 1923 season, the Senators acquired Muddy Ruel, a solid, veteran backstop from the Boston Red Sox. Walter Johnson was the leader of a competent pitching staff, posting back-to-back 20-win seasons in 1924 and 1925.

Harris took over as manager in 1924 and led the Senators to consecutive pennants in 1924 and 1925. The Senators faced the New York Giants in the 1924 World Series, and found themselves down three games to two. But Tom Zachary won his second game of the Series in Game Six, and Johnson pitched four innings of relief in Game Seven to clinch the world championship for Washington.

In Bluege’s mind, the Nats were lucky to win. With one out in the twelfth inning of Game Seven, Ruel lifted a pop foul behind home plate. Giants catcher Hank Gowdy got tangled up with his mask and dropped the baseball. Given renewed life, Ruel laced a double to left field. Johnson stepped up and reached on an error by shortstop Travis Jackson. Ruel held at second, but scored when Earl McNeeely sent a bouncer to third base. The tale that has been handed down through the years is that the ball struck a pebble and caromed into left field. “(Irish) Meusel fielded the ball and Muddy’s running like hell,” remembered Bluege. “And that’s when Meusel put the ball in his pocket. He could have thrown Muddy out. We were on top of the bench, pulling like hell. I remember Nemo Leibold standing up alongside of me, pumping, ’C’mon, Muddy. C’mon, Muddy,’ trying to pull him across home plate. When he did, we jumped like hell and we greeted everybody and kissed everybody. But there was no champagne at that point in time. We didn't believe in champagne.”8

The following year, their opponent in the fall classic was Pittsburgh. However, luck was not with the Nats this time around. In Game Two Bluege was hit behind his left ear on a pitch from the Pirates’ Vic Aldridge. Knocked out, Bluege was taken to the hospital where X-rays were negative. The doctor whose care Bluege was under told Clark Griffith, “We believe Mr. Bluege’s skull is the thickest we’ve ever X-rayed.”9 Bluege returned to the lineup for Game Five, and stroked a double off Aldridge.

The Senators held a 3-1 Series advantage, but collapsed, losing the last three games. Game Seven at Forbes Field was postponed, and the next day a steady drizzle turned into a steady rain. The field was unplayable, but Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis ordered that the game be played. The grounds crew applied sawdust, the drying agent of the day, but the field was still a mess. In the sixth inning the Senators were in front by a 6-4 score. Landis reportedly told Griffith that he was going to call the game on account of the horrible conditions, thus making the Senators’ champions again. But Griffith disagreed with the judge. “Griffith said he could not, that the game was started in the rain and the fans were entitled to see a full game,” said Bluege. “They did, and they also saw Pittsburgh win, 9-7. I wonder how many other owners would have taken that stand.”10

Over the next several years, the Senators finished in the upper half of the American League, as the Yankees and then the Athletics flexed their muscles as kings of the junior circuit. Bluege was at the top of his game, leading the league in fielding in 1931 (.960) and in multiple years in games started, assists, and innings played. Although he hit anywhere from .271 to .295 in his prime years, he was overshadowed by stronger offensive players like Judge, Rice, Goslin, and later Heinie Manush, Joe Kuhel, and Joe Cronin.

One of the most difficult adversaries for any American League club was Ty Cobb. Contrary to popular belief that Cobb was a dirty player, sharpened spikes and all, Bluege had a different recollection of him. “He would fake a slide, as if going directly for the baseman, and at the last minute throw his body in the opposite direction, away from the infielder and the base. He would overslide, then reach for a corner with his hand.”11 The basepaths belonged to the baserunners. Get in their way, and you could get hurt.

Ossie’s younger brother, Otto, made his major league debut with Cincinnati in 1932.  He was on their roster for 1933 as an infielder, and never played in the major leagues again.     

The Senators won their third and last pennant in 1933. Washington led the Yankees by one game in late July, and then went 38-17 through August and September to take the AL crown by seven games. Like Bucky Harris before him, Joe Cronin led the Nats to the World Series in his first season as manager. General Crowder and Earl Whitehill each won more than 20 games to lead the mounds corps. Six of the eight regulars hit .295 or higher, giving the Nats a well-rounded offensive attack.

Unlike their previous two trips to the World Series that resulted in a deciding seventh game, the drama was over early in 1933. Behind Carl Hubbell’s two wins, the Giants dusted the Senators in five games. It was the last time the Senators made it to the Series, giving credence to the old saying, “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

The 1933 season was Bluege’s last as a regular. The emergence of Cecil Travis gave Cronin good reason to make the switch. The young Georgian might not be able to field like Bluege, but he could hit like no one’s business. From 1934 through 1941, Travis batted over .300 all but one year, and in that season he hit .292.

Bluege showed his versatility, moving over to shortstop to replace Cronin, who had been shipped to Boston before the 1935 season to become the Red Sox’ manager. When second baseman Buddy Myer was sidelined the next season with a stomach ailment, Bluege moved over to the keystone position, started 50 games, and hit .311 while playing second base, and .288 for the year.

Bluege retired as a player after the 1939 season. He had played in 1,867 games with 6,440 at-bats and hit .272. He started 1,454 games at third base, fielding the position at a clip of .957.

His playing career behind him, Bluege was far from leaving the game. He was a coach on Bucky Harris’s staff for the 1941 and 1942 seasons. After the 1942 Senators finished in seventh place, 39½ games behind New York, Bluege was named manager. Asked about his biggest attribute, Griffith said, “He has a cold, analytical mind, born perhaps of his younger days as an accountant in the offseason. He is the only manager in baseball history to come out of the accountant’s office. He finds out the reason why. This club of ours needed a big dash of discipline. It needed a man who would insist that the players give everything they had. And Ossie can do it.”12

The Senators showed great improvement in 1943, Bluege’s first year, finishing in second place, 13½ games off the pace. The Yankees were never seriously threatened in their march to their pennant. Still, the Senators’ 84 victories were an improvement of 22 games from the previous season.

After a last-place finish in 1944, the Nats finished second again, but this time to the Tigers, by a mere 1½ games. The Tigers were leading by a half-game on September 14 when they faced the Senators in a five-game showdown at Griffith Stadium. The Tigers took three out of five, to increase their lead. Washington lost two straight at Yankee Stadium, and the race was all but over with only three games left on the schedule. Bluege was named Major League Manager of the Year by The Sporting News in 1945.

With many players still serving in the armed forces, it became necessary to find players from all corners. Such was the case with Bert Shepard, a career minor leaguer. Shepard was a fighter pilot in World War II and was shot down during a mission over Berlin on May 21, 1944. A German army doctor amputated his leg and Shepard was freed in a POW exchange in February 1945 with an artificial leg made by a fellow POW. Griffith, sensing a morale-boosting tale, invited Shepard to spring training in 1945. He reported a mere four days after being fitted with a new artificial leg in the US. He joined Bluege’s staff to pitch batting practice in 1945, but was activated to the pitching staff later in the year. On August 4 Boston was throttling the Senators at Griffith Stadium, leading 14-2 after four innings. With the game as good as lost, Bluege knew there was no better time for Shepard to realize his dream of pitching in the majors. He inserted Shepard into the game in the fourth inning. Shepard struck out George Metkovich to end the fourth inning, garnering wild applause from the crowd. Shepard pitched 5⅓ innings of relief, allowing one run on three hits and striking out two. It was his only appearance in the major leagues.

Over a span of five years, Bluege’s record was 375-394. He left the diamond for good after the 1947 season, taking a front-office position as Washington’s first farm director. “For economy reasons, I was a one-man system. We just couldn’t compete financially for players,” said Bluege. “Later, Sherry Robertson joined me. We worked together until 1955.”13

Like many scouts, Bluege found his “diamond in the rough” in an unlikely place. Senator Herman Welker (R-Idaho) had been touting a young man from Idaho to Griffith. Welker, a frequent visitor to Griffith Stadium, pleaded with the Old Fox to send a scout to look over the prospect, Harmon Killebrew. “And he told Mr. Griffith about a young boy out in Idaho he thought could hit the ball pretty well, and I think more than anything else, just to keep Senator Welker quiet, Mr. Griffith sent Ossie Bluege out to see me who was the farm director of the Washington club at that particular time,” Killebrew said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1984. “A former great third baseman with Washington. And Mr. Bluege came out to that little town in Idaho. He rented a car in Boise, Idaho, and drove through the rain 60 miles to that little town, and it didn’t look like we were going to play the ballgame that day, it had rained very hard. And I’ll never forget that I sat in Mr. Bluege’s car and we talked about going to Washington, that the club wanted me to work out with them, and I said, ‘Well, I really appreciate that, but I am going to play football and baseball at the University of Oregon,’ and we talked and the skies cleared. And the townspeople there, knowing that a major league scout was there, hurriedly got the field in order, and we played that ballgame that night. And that night I happened to hit a ball over the left-field fence, and I’d been going to that ballpark since I was a small boy and had never seen anyone hit a ball over that left-field fence. It was over 408 feet down the left field line, and no one that I can recall had ever hit one over there in previous years. And when I hit one that night, Mr. Bluege went out the next morning and stepped it off and he immediately called Mr. Griffith, and he said it was 435 or so in a beet field – not a potato patch – and he thought that was a pretty good hit for a 17-year-old boy from Idaho. He left a contract in Senator Welker’s law office and went back to Washington. It was through the recommendation of Ossie Bluege that I am standing here this day. Mr. Bluege is here, and I would like to recognize him. Thank you, Ossie.”14

Bluege became the team comptroller in 1955 following the death of Clark Griffith. Under Calvin Griffith, Clark’s nephew, he became the executive secretary as the Senators relocated to Minneapolis after the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins. But Bluege’s heart was always in the nation’s capital. He had hoped that major-league baseball would return someday. Eventually, it did, when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005 to become the Nationals, 20 years after Bluege died.

Ossie Bluege died on October 14, 1985, of cardiac arrest. His first wife, Margaret, had died of cancer after they were married for 11 years. Bluege was survived by his second wife, Wilor, and their three daughters, Wilor, Carol, and Lynn.

In 1931 the Chicago White Sox were visiting Griffith Stadium. White Sox rookie third baseman Billy Sullivan, right from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, sat in the visitors dugout transfixed with the action on the diamond. The lad was tardy for a meeting. Manager Donie Bush sent a coach to look for him. When the coach asked what he was doing, Sullivan answered, “Been watching that cat out there on third base for the Senators. I guess I was in a trance.”15 The rookie may have been in a daze as he watched Bluege work his magic, fielding grounder after grounder with little effort. It was a vision that many players and fans were well acquainted with across the American League.

 

Sources

Deveaux, Tom, Washington Senators 1901-1971 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001).

Kirkpatrick, Rob, Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

sabr.org.

retrosheet.org.

baseball-reference.com.

US Census Bureau

 

Notes

1 Shirley Povich, Washington Post, June 24, 1971.

2 Povich

3 Povich

4 Jane Levy, “Ossie Bluege: The Quirkless Man,” The National Pastime, Society For American Baseball Research, Winter 1987, 18-21.

5 Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 1995), 186.

6 Bill Hengen, The Sporting News, July 10, 1971, 15.

7 Hengen.

8 Levy, 21.

9 Povich.

10 Hengen.

11 Norman Macht, Connie Mack: The Turbulent and Triumphant Years (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 444.

12 Bluege’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown New York.

13 Hengen.

14 Steve Aschburner, Harmon Killebrew: Ultimate Slugger (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2012), 188-189

15 Povich.

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