SABR

Mark Koenig

This article was written by Daniel Shirley.

During the fourth game of the 1927 World Series, Pittsburgh hurler Johnny Miljus threw a wild pitch in the ninth inning that scored Earle Combs from third base, completing a sweep by the New York Yankees.

Perhaps the happiest player that day was New York shortstop Mark Koenig. His .500 batting average in the Series eased his pain of being the “goat” a year earlier in the Yankees’ loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. It also erased some doubts from his critics who claimed Yankees manager, Miller Huggins, had erred by selecting Koenig as his shortstop in the first place. Baseball can be a forgiving game.

Mark Anthony Koenig was born July 19, 1904, in San Francisco to Charles and Stella Koenig of German and Swiss descent respectively. Mark had no siblings. His father was an engraver with Boyce Klinker Tool and Die in San Francisco. His mother ran a curtain laundry business out of the home on Seventh Avenue. Mrs. Koenig made thirty-five cents per pair and worked 6:00 A.M. to 11:00 P.M. She paid Mark ten cents per week to deliver them. The youngster got around on his coaster with his dog, Buster, by his side.1

As a young lad, Mark developed a lifelong interest in books. “I was an avid reader,” he told the author. “I read such works as The Illiad. Later on, I read until two or three in the morning.” Mark also took up the piano. Although he didn’t practice as much as he should have, he was still somewhat proficient. “I wanted to do something in a crowd instead of sitting around like a wallflower.”2

Baseball came into his life before he turned twelve. Anson Orr, a local window dresser, sponsored two teams in the Sunset District, playing at “The Big Rec” at Seventh Avenue and Lincoln Way. Mark joined the Sunset Midgets, wearing his first uniform. The older kids played on the Sunset Federals. “Anson ran the whole thing every Sunday. You had to be pretty good to break in with them.”3 Other major leaguers who came from Orr’s teams included Willie Kamm, Lew Fonseca, and Sammy Bohne.4

Mark bore the nickname “Booby,” which did not follow him to his professional career.5

Mark entered Lowell High School in San Francisco. He made the baseball team, but was not the regular shortstop. Artie Berger started at short while Mark played sparingly at other infield positions. As a junior, Koenig’s playing time increased and he caught the attention of scout Marty Kearns, who recommended him to Nick Williams of the Moose Jaw Millers of the Western Canadian League.6

Mark left school to play for the Millers for the 1921 season. His parents did not object. The Millers trained in Pendleton, Oregon, and he arrived there by train, another first in his life. From there he drove to Canada. “We had breakfast in Oregon, lunch in Washington, and dinner in Idaho.”7

Koenig best remembers Elmer O’Shaughnessy, Willie Rose, and Ray Bliss from the Millers.8 Unfortunately, the league folded before the season ended. Mark wound up with a .202 batting average in 84 games.9 Two things happened at Moose Jaw which benefitted Mark: He decided to also hit left-handed, making him a switch hitter, and he drew the attention of Yankees scout Bob Connery, which eventually led to his being acquired by the Yankees. He spent the last part of the 1921 season with the St. Paul Saints, getting in only four games.10

At 18 Koenig filled out to six feet tall and 180 pounds. With the Jamestown Jimkotans of the Dakota League in 1922, he played third and hit .253.11 The following season he improved to .288 with the Des Moines Boosters in the Western League. But he made 37 errors at third base. After the season, the St. Paul Saints (AA) recalled him.12

The 1924 season found Koenig riding the bench most of the year. Chuck Dressen was the starting third baseman while Danny Boone patrolled shortstop. Koenig finished at .267 in 68 games. The Saints made it to the Little World Series and squared off against the International League Baltimore Orioles led by 26-game-winner Lefty Grove. When Boone injured his ankle during batting practice, the Saints were forced to start Koenig and he made the most of it, batting .429 with two home runs, one off Grove. The Saints won the series five games to four with one tie.13 “They were so confident in beating us that they never unpacked their trunks,” Koenig recalled.14

The 1925 season was a pivotal one for Koenig. As the Saints’ shortstop, he hit .308 and was sold to the New York Yankees for $50,000 and three players: Fred Hoffman, Oscar Roettger, and Ernie Johnson.15 The Yankees were not the only teams interested in Koenig. The Athletics, Browns, Senators, White Sox, and Phillies also pursued him. He was now in the major leagues at the age of 21.

The Yankees were headed for a seventh-place finish, their worst in ten years. Babe Ruth played in only 98 games, and only one starting pitcher was .500 or better (Urban Shocker, 12-12). Rookie Pee Wee Wanninger was the starting shortstop, whose .236 average didn’t make him secure to play every day in the future. Koenig made his major league debut on September 8 in Boston when he came in for defensive purposes. In the second game of the day, Koenig started at shortstop and got his first major league hit off Buster Ross during the double-header sweep. By the end of the season, Koenig had accumulated a .209 batting average in 28 games. Manager Miller Huggins had big plans in store for him in 1926.

The 1926 Yankees’ biggest change was the decision to start Koenig at shortstop and put rookie and fellow native San Franciscan Tony Lazzeri at second base. Lazzeri was coming off a 66-home run season at Salt Lake City. Koenig said, “We weren’t expected to go anywhere in 1926. We had power and good pitching, but a young infield. Gehrig was starting his first full season. Lazzeri and I were 21-year-old rookies. We were an unknown quantity. Dugan at third was the only veteran.” 16 Koenig was in there mainly for his offense. His error totals on defense were generally high. “I had such small hands, and the gloves weren’t the same as they are today. They got butterfly nets now.”17

On April 23 Koenig hit his first major league home run off Red Sox pitcher Red Ruffing at Yankee Stadium.18 The Yankees had Koenig leading off with Earle Combs batting second until mid-June when Huggins flip-flopped the two. Koenig hit a career-high five home runs with a .271 average. The home run Koenig remembers best is the one he belted off Lil Stoner on August 7 in Detroit. As he told writer Dave Newhouse, “Stoner had a beautiful curve and he got two strikes off me right away. For some reason, I turned and winked at Gehrig who was on deck. Sure enough, Stoner’s next pitch was a fastball and I hit it in the right field stands. As I’m running around the bases, I see Cobb holding his nose and waving his arms up and down at Stoner. Cobb was a miserable man.”19

The Yankees won 91 games in 1926 and finished three games in front of the Cleveland Indians. They squared off against the St. Louis Cardinals led by Rogers Hornsby in the World Series. What most fans remember is Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Lazzeri in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and two outs in Game Seven. What stood out for Koenig was the four errors he made at shortstop and striking out six times. In the fourth inning of the last game, Koenig booted a probable double play ball hit by Les Bell that would have ended the inning. Moments later, left fielder Bob Meusel dropped a fly ball. Three Cardinal runs scored that inning and that’s all they needed for a 3-2 victory. It was a bitter and disappointing end for Koenig and his teammates.20

After the Series, Koenig, along with Guy Bush, Bob Shawkey, Eddie Collins, Sam Jones, and Benny Bengough, took off for a two-week hunting trip to New Brunswick, Canada. Each was assigned an Indian guide. Like the World Series, Koenig came up empty in his efforts to bag a moose.21

Before the 1927 season began, the writers again got on Huggins for starting Koenig. “Huggins told me, ‘You’re playing ball for me, not the sporting writers.’ That gave me a little confidence you know. We didn’t have a curfew with the Yankees. Huggins was a nervous little guy. He’d often say, ‘This guy can’t hit. He’s got two already.’ But you don’t have to be much of a manager with a team like that. If you have the horses you’ll win.”22

The 1927 Yankees are often called "Murderers’ Row," "Five O’Clock Lightning," or "The Greatest of All." The club won 110 games, lost 44. They won the pennant by 19 games over the Athletics, with Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs and Lou Gehrig driving in 175. Baseball history was made on September 30. In the bottom of the eighth against the Washington Senators, Koenig smacked a triple off Tom Zachary. Ruth, the next hitter, hit a curveball into the right field bleachers for home run number 60. The Yankees won 4-2.

Not one American League team was able to break even against the Yankees. Cleveland played the Yankees tough by winning 10 of 22 games. One player who stood out in Koenig’s mind on the Indians was infielder Freddy Spurgeon. “Spurgeon used to get the poopiest hits. Always drove us crazy.”23

Batting second ahead of Ruth and Gehrig, Koenig hit .285 and scored 99 runs. He was a proficient bunter and struck out only 21 times. Koenig made 47 errors, despite missing 31 games. “Red Faber hit me in the leg with a fast ball. Doc Woods (Yankees trainer) put a rolling pin to it that cut off the circulation. That’s what put me in the hospital.”24 Lazzeri played shortstop in Koenig’s absence while Ray Morehart took over at second base.

Late in the season, Koenig and Ruth were involved in an altercation in Baltimore during an exhibition game. While Ruth was playing first base, Koenig was unable to snag a throw several feet above his head. Ruth yelled obscenities at Koenig. When they returned to the dugout, Koenig informed Ruth to never talk to him like that again. Moments later, the two wrestled on the ground. It was broken up and Huggins decided to move the two apart since their lockers were next to each other in the clubhouse. They didn’t speak to one another until the last day of the season.25

During the year, Koenig shared an apartment with Benny Bengough on 181st and Broadway. And when the Yankees were at home, he would often go to the home of Lou Gehrig and his parents for dinner.26

The Pittsburgh Pirates represented the National League in the World Series. Koenig felt the Pirates was every bit as good as the previous year’s champion St. Louis Cardinals. “That was a good club. The Waner brothers. And the pitching. Oh boy. Vic Aldridge and Carmen Hill.”27 Still, the Yankees were heavy favorites, and swept the Series. The last game went into the ninth with the score 3-3. Pirates reliever Johnny Miljus walked the leadoff man, Combs. Koenig laid down a bunt and managed to beat it out for an infield single. Ruth walked after a wild pitch by Miljus. Gehrig and Meusel struck out and Pittsburgh had a glimmer of hope. On an 0-1 count to Lazzeri, Miljus uncorked another wild pitch that catcher Johnny Gooch was unable to retrieve. The Series was over. Koenig managed 9 hits in 18 at bats, no errors, and only two strikeouts.

Koenig had a high regard for his Yankee teammates:

  • Babe Ruth: “I don’t think Ruth knew anybody’s name outside of Meusel. He called everybody ‘kid.’ I don’t recall Ruth ever throwing to the wrong base. And for a person his size, he could run.”
  • Lou Gehrig: “He was a nice person and didn’t say much. On the field, he threw a hard ball. Boy that hurt.”
  • Bob Meusel: “I went out with Meusel a lot. Nice guy. The wife and I would visit him during the winter in Redondo Beach (CA). He didn’t say much but when he did he meant it.”
  • Ben Pascal: “Pascal could hit left-handed pitching. He could run like a deer. He wasn’t a very good outfielder.”28

Mark was grateful to have landed on the Yankees. “If I had joined another club during that time, I wouldn’t have lasted a year. I was lucky to be on that club.” Still he downplayed his contribution. “They could have played a midget at shortstop.”29

The 1928 Yankees had a slightly different look when pitcher Urban Shocker didn’t join the club until May and only stayed a short while. By September, he was dead as a result of pneumonia and heart disease. But they started fast and at one point were 66-23. From then on, they were 35-30 to barely squeak by the Athletics, who finished 2½ games back. This was Koenig’s high water mark as a batter. He made his usual 49 errors but managed a .319 average and struck out 19 times.30 On September 11, Ty Cobb of the Athletics pinch hit and popped out to Koenig. It was his last major league at bat.31 Koenig quipped, “I’m the ballplayer who retired Ty Cobb.”32

The World Series was played against the St. Louis Cardinals, led by manager Bill McKechnie. In Game One, Koenig singled in the eighth and later scored. His defense came through as well with a great play off the bat of Frank Frisch to lead off the seventh inning, a key play since Jim Bottomley followed with a home run. New York won, 4-1. The rest of the Series belonged to the Yankees, who outscored their opponents, 27-10. Koenig hit an anemic .158 and committed two errors. It didn’t matter since Ruth and Gehrig hit .625 and .545 respectively. This was the first time in World Series history that one team swept its opponents two years in a row.33

After the ’28 season, Mark married Katherine Tremaine of Red Bluff, California. They had one child, Gail, in 1930.

In 1929 the Yankees’ run of three pennants in a row gave way to Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics who had slowly built to a championship level. Koenig hit .292 but was not the regular shortstop, replaced by light-hitting Leo Durocher. Third baseman Joe Dugan was gone and Koenig played some at the hot corner. Still, he managed to appear in 116 games. The Indians and Yankees started a trend that year when they added numbers to the back of their uniforms. Koenig wore number two since that was his position in the batting order. Ruth wore number three, Gehrig four, and so on.

The ’29 season ended on a tragic note days before the season was over. Miller Huggins passed away on September 29 from erysipelas (blood poisoning).

Ex-pitcher Bob Shawkey took the reins in 1930 and eventually inserted Lyn Lary as the everyday shortstop. Through May 30, Koenig appeared in only 21 games, hitting a paltry .230. He fell out of favor with the new manager along with outspoken pitcher Waite Hoyt, who complained, “The trouble with this club is that there are too many guys on it who aren’t Yankees.” Hoyt and Koenig were dealt to the Detroit Tigers on May 30 for Ownie Carroll, Yats Wuestling, and Harry Rice, a trade that benefitted neither team.34

The Tigers felt Koenig was suffering from eye problems and needed to wear glasses. He was fitted with a pair of spectacles. It didn’t help. “It was all in my head.”35

The Tigers decided that Koenig could be a big league pitcher. On September 27, he made his only major league start, against the White Sox. He gave up six runs in the first inning but settled down and pitched scoreless ball for five innings. The roof caved in again during the seventh inning when he gave up four runs.36 The one bright spot of playing with Detroit is that he didn’t have to face pitcher George Uhle, “the toughest pitcher I ever faced. He even made Ruth and Gehrig look silly.”37 Uhle was 9-3 versus the Yankees during the combined 1927-28 seasons while with Cleveland.

Koenig labored on with the Tigers during the 1931 season. Detroit was getting their future lineup set for pennants that would follow in 1934 and 1935. Billy Rogell was the shortstop. As a reserve infielder and pinch-hitter, Koenig managed to get in 106 games with a .253 average. He had played his last American League game.

The beginning of 1932 found Koenig playing for the San Francisco Missions in the Pacific Coast League. While playing short and third, he accumulated a .335 batting average. Fate stepped in during early August. Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges was shot in the hand by Chicago showgirl Violet Popovich Valli. The Cubs were in dire need of a shortstop until Jurges returned and noticed Koenig doing well for the Missions. Cubs president Bill Veeck Sr. said, “Grab him.” So, Koenig became a member of the Chicago Cubs.38 Koenig recalled, “I didn’t want to go but Dutch Ruether talked me into it so I went.”39 He settled in nicely with a .353 average in 33 games. The Cubs won the pennant by four games. One game that stood out was a tenth-inning home run off Giants reliever Sam Gibson on August 31 that led to a 10-9 win after New York had scored four in the top of the inning. Still, Koenig was not overjoyed about playing for the Cubs. “I never fit in with the Cubs players. They only voted me a half-share of the World Series.40 I had six tickets for the games and they were all behind posts. Guy Bush must have had one hundred tickets. I knew damned well we couldn’t beat them.” 41

The American League champion New York Yankees were all over the Cubs for their treatment of Koenig in voting him a partial share. Babe Ruth hollered across the field, “Hey Mark, who are those cheapskates you’re with?”

In Game One, Koenig hit a triple off Red Ruffing, scoring Gabby Hartnett. He hurt his wrist sliding into third and was essentially out for the Series except for a brief pinch-hitting stint that saw him replaced by another pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of Game Three. The Yankees won the first two games, 12-6 and 5-2.

Game Three is where the controversy occurred that is still debated. During the fifth inning, Babe Ruth hit a solo home run with two strikes off Charlie Root. The controversy is, “Did Babe Ruth call his shot?” Reporters claimed that Ruth was pointing to the bleachers right before he homered. In Koenig’s opinion; “He made a gesture when there were two strikes. Someone would have to be foolish to point to the stands with two strikes on him. Still, I give him the benefit of the doubt.”

The Cubs lost in four games. The loser’s share was $4244.60. Koenig, one may say, was cheated out of $2122.30.

Koenig stayed with the Cubs the following year and hit .284 in 80 games. On November 21 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with Ted Kleinhans, Harvey Hendrick, and $65,000 for triple crown winner Chuck Klein. One month later, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Otto Bluege and Irv Jeffries.

In 1934, Koenig played in 151 games at third and short, the most in his career. His error total was still high, 48, but he struck out only 24 times and hit .272. “I liked Cincinnati. They had manager Charlie Dressen there. It was a lousy ball club [52-99]. Pitcher Larry Benton was the best friend I had on the club. ‘Stinky feet’ (Fred) Piet was my roommate. He’d wash his socks in the bath tub.”42 That year the Reds became the first major league team to fly, traveling from Cincinnati to Chicago on June 8.43 Koenig and Jim Bottomley refused to board an airplane and continued to travel by train.44

On December 14, Koenig was traded to the New York Giants with Allyn Stout for Billy Myers. Koenig managed to get in 107 games for the third-place Giants and hit .283.

In his last big league season, 1936, Koenig made it back to the World Series, this time against the Yankees. During the regular season, he hit .276 in only 58 at bats. He was 1-for-3 in the six-game Series won by the Yankees.

Mark Koenig did not appreciate Giants manager Bill Terry’s style. “Terry was a lousy manager. If you had a bad day he wouldn’t talk to you. And he had a strict curfew.” This was a far cry from the Yankees’ looser atmosphere in which, Koenig recalled, “I’d come in at three in the morning and the elevator guy would say, ‘I just took a load of you guys up.’ ”45

The Giants released Koenig in December 1936. His lifetime major-league batting average in twelve seasons was .279, with 1190 hits and only 190 strikeouts. He returned to the Mission Reds in 1937, playing for his old San Franciscan friend and ex-major-leaguer, Willie Kamm. He hit .289 but was gone before the season ended.

Koenig stayed in San Francisco where he owned and operated two gas stations. He divorced Katherine and married Doris Bailey. He appeared in two biopics of Yankee teammates Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, “The Babe Ruth Story” and “Pride of the Yankees.”

Koenig invested well in the stock market, particularly Pacific Gas & Electric. Still, it was upsetting to him that players of his era were not entitled to a pension. “I don’t need it, but I know a lot of ex-players who can use it.”46

After he sold his gas stations, Koenig and his wife moved to Glen Ellen, California. He spent his time with a few of the locals, played dominoes, kept up with the news, and worked the crossword puzzles in the San Francisco Chronicle.

When Doris passed away in 1979, Helen Palmer, a widow from Rockford, Illinois, who, had read about Mark, contacted him. Soon she moved in and was his companion for nearly six years.

The last honor bestowed on Mark Koenig was the 1987 presentation of his high school diploma by Lowell High School principal Alan Fibish.

The passing of his teammates from the old Yankee teams saddened him as the years progressed. When Ray Morehart passed away in 1989, Mark became the last survivor from what many consider the greatest team ever. Interviews did not stop and his mind was as sharp as ever. He could still remember the strengths and weaknesses of many of the ballplayers he played with and against. He could recite limericks that he learned in grade school with great accuracy.

When health issues became a concern, Koenig moved to Orland, California, where he lived on his daughter’s property. On April 22, 1993, Mark Koenig passed away from cancer in Willows, California, at the age of 88. He was survived by his daughter, five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Koenig’s Yankee number 2 will one day be retired by another Yankee shortstop of a different generation, Derek Jeter. Still, Mark Koenig’s accomplishments will forever be a part of the Yankees’ rich and great tradition.

 

Notes

1 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Who’s Who in Baseball (New York: Baseball Magazine Company) 1934

10 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

11 Who’s Who in Baseball (New York: Baseball Magazine Company) 1934

12 Ibid.

13 Email correspondence with Roger Godin, August 2014.

14 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

15 Who’s Who in Baseball (New York: Baseball Magazine Company) 1934

16 Votano, Paul. Tony Lazzeri—A Baseball Biography (McFarland & Co., 2005).

17 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

19 Newhouse, Dave. “Yankee Hermit, Mark Koenig and His Memories,” Sporting News, July 5, 1980.

20 Doutrich, Paul E., The Cardinals and the Yankees 1926. (McFarland & Co., 2011).

21 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Newhouse, Dave. “Yankee Hermit, Mark Koenig and His Memories,” Sporting News, July 5, 1980.

27 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

32 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

33 Neft, David and Cohen, Richard. The World Series. (Dial Press, 1979).

34 Cook, William A. Waite Hoyt (McFarland & Co., 2004).

35 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

37 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

38 Trachtenberg, Leo. The Wonder Team, 1927 N.Y. Yankees (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995).

39 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

40 Ibid.

41 Creamer, Robert W. Babe, The Legend Comes To Life. (Simon & Schuster, 1974).

42 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

44 Personal Interview with Mark Koenig, February 1983.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

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