SABR

Otto Vogel

This article was written by Steve Smith.

It’s the bottom of the ninth, and coach Otto Vogel’s Iowa Hawkeyes trail the Golden Gophers of Minnesota by a run. Manush, the Iowa hitter, fouls to the catcher, who went behind the Iowa dugout to make a brilliant catch of the ball and supposedly end the ballgame. However, coach Vogel is claiming the ball is out of the playing field because the catch was made behind the dugout, which in an ordinary park would have been in the grandstand. A great rumpus ensued and finally it was ruled that Manush got another swing, whereupon he promptly singled to score the tying run.[1] Although the Hawkeyes eventually lost the game in the 11th inning, this incident demonstrates why Otto Vogel was described as “shrewd,” a smart tactician who knew the ins and outs of baseball. He even wrote a baseball book that contained a chapter entitled “The Fine Art of the Squawk.”

As a collegian, Vogel played football, basketball, and baseball. He coached high-school basketball, missing out on a state championship so he could go to baseball spring training. He played two years of major-league baseball, going directly from college to the pros with nary a game in the minors. He coached baseball at the same college for 39 years. For many of those years, he was also an assistant football coach. Like many Americans of the time, he saw his career interrupted by World War II, when he became a lieutenant in the United States Navy. He was selected to the college baseball coaches’ hall of fame. Yes, Otto Vogel had a fine, fine career.

Otto Henry Vogel was born in Mendota, Illinois, in the north central part of the state, on October 26, 1897.[2] He was the son of Henry and Anna Ruetzel Vogel, both of whom immigrated to the United States from Germany. Henry’s occupation was listed as a brewer on the 1910 U.S. Census. Otto had an older sister, Anna. By his high-school years the family had moved, and Vogel graduated from Davenport (Iowa) High School. He played three years on the Davenport High football and basketball teams.[3]

Otto entered the University of Illinois as a freshman in the fall of 1920. He lettered in football as the starting center in the 1921 season (his coach was the legendary Bob Zuppke) and was named a second-team All-America by one selector.[4] But his gridiron career was brief; he gave up the game after suffering a muscle injury to his right (baseball-throwing arm) in the 1921 Illinois-University of Iowa game. “It was October 2, 1921,” Vogel recalled in a 1965 interview with Gus Schrader of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “I was playing guard and center for Illinois against Iowa. I don’t recall just how I hurt my right arm, probably because I didn’t think it amounted to much at the time.”[5] 

Vogel became an All-American baseball player in 1921, 1922, and 1923.[6] He was a catcher, first baseman and center fielder. As the center fielder in 1921, Vogel was the “sensation of the (Big Ten) conference” as he hit .417. Vogel was considered the best batter in the Big Ten for his three years and had the highest batting average of any college player in the United States in his senior year. He was nicknamed the Babe Ruth of the Big Ten because of his home-run-hitting ability.[7] The Illini baseball team won the conference championship twice (1921 and ’22) and finished third (1923) during Vogel’s years at Illinois. 

In 1923, Vogel was awarded the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor, given annually to an athlete for athletic and scholastic excellence. He graduated 1923 with a B-plus average and a bachelor’s degree in athletic coaching and physical education. He was a member of the junior and senior honorary societies at Illinois and was also a member of Delta Theta Epsilon, an honorary physical education fraternity. One Illinois athletic official declared that Vogel was “the best college baseball player I have ever seen.”[8]

Vogel’s years at the university weren’t completely serene. A scandal broke in February 1922 when a reporter exposed the practice of Big Ten players playing summer baseball while being paid for work. Vogel was alleged to have played two or three games a week for a Denison, Iowa, semipro team in 1921 while being paid for a paving job and receiving room and board.[9] While the allegations were likely true, no action was taken against Vogel by the Big Ten Conference.

A 6-foot, 195-pound right-handed hitter and thrower, Vogel was recruited by the Chicago Cubs and reported directly to the team at the close of the 1923 college baseball season. He made his major-league debut on June 5, starting in right field in a game against the New York Giants in Chicago less than two hours after signing his contract.[10] He struck out in his only plate appearance. 

The next day Vogel again started in right field against the Giants. As a newspaper described it, “one of Vogel’s drives went into the darkness in right field and he raced to second in the belief it was a double. Pep Young then emerged from the darkness with the ball in his hand and claimed he had caught it. The umpires took his word for it and Vogel was declared out.”[11] Vogel had a single and a walk and stole a base in that game.[12] He played in 41 games with the 1923 Cubs, batting .210 with one home run and 6 RBIs. His home run came on July 1 in Chicago against Bill Sherdel of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Vogel was described as “taking a full and healthy swing that is a pleasure to watch whether he connects or not.”[13] In 1932, while barnstorming through Iowa, his Cubs teammate Grover Cleveland Alexander told a story of Vogel’s hitting ability: “Vogel was a good hitter, and a good fielder. The National League pitchers had a hard time with Otto then, as he was always dangerous, though they finally got to him somewhat by curve balling him. I broke my wrist on a day back in about 1925[14] when I was throwing in batting practice to the Cubs batters.  Vogel was the last hitter, and as I was about to walk away, Vogel called out, ‘Just one more ball, Alex,’ so slightly off balance I turned, and threw the ball towards the home plate. Otto hit a line drive back through the box like a shot, and before I know it the ball bounded off my arm, and I was out for over a month with a broken wrist.”[15]

After the 1923 baseball season, Vogel became a high-school basketball coach in Elgin, Illinois. He left the team when its record was 12-1 to go to 1924 spring training with the Cubs. Under his replacement, the team posted a 13-2 record the rest of the season en route to the first of two consecutive state championships. 

In the spring of 1924, Cubs manager Bill Killefer considered making Vogel an infielder, primarily because of shortstop Charlie Hollocher’s absence. Killefer said, “Playing Vogel at short is a pure hunch as Vogel has a great throwing arm and is fast.” [16]  The experiment did not go particularly well; Vogel tended to throw everything overhand to first, which allowed fast baserunners to beat the throw. He also had trouble with the double play.

Hollocher’s absence from training camp was, he said, due to a “stomach illness.” Most sportswriters believed it was simply a holdout for a bigger contract.  Hollocher eventually signed, and Vogel was sent back to the outfield. During that same spring training, which was held on Catalina Island, William Wrigley Jr.’s private paradise, Vogel and other Cubs formed an impromptu band and serenaded Wrigley at his mansion on Catalina. Vogel played the violin, and his bandmates were Hack Miller on guitar, Ray Pierce on horn, Cliff Heathcote and Jack Churry on ukuleles, Bernie Friberg on banjo, and Ace Elliott on piano.[17]

In 1924, having returned to the outfield, Vogel played in 70 games for the Cubs, batting .267 with one home run and 24 RBIs. The home run – the second and final of his career – came on July 25 in the Baker Bowl against the Phillies’ Jimmy Ring. It was hit into the left-field stands and described by the Chicago Tribune as “vicious.”

The 1924 season was Vogel’s last. Plagued by the effects of his football injury, he asked to be placed on the major leagues’ voluntarily retired list as of December 30, 1924, and accepted the position of head coach of the University of Iowa baseball team. He was 27 years old. In a 1965 interview with Gus Schrader of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, he said the pain in his right elbow was getting worse and he had remembered that the University of Iowa was looking for a baseball coach. “I was debating whether to quit baseball, try coaching or take a job in engineering,” he said. “They weren’t paying engineers much in those days -- $75 a month – so I came out here to Iowa City in January of 1925 and accepted the job.”[18]

Vogel coached the Hawkeyes’ nine for the next 41 years, except for the three years he spent in the Navy during World War II. He retired in 1966.

On September 1, 1925, Otto married Dorothy Whitaker in Urbana, Illinois.[19] 

Vogel was an innovator throughout his coaching career, and signs of this appeared quickly. In early April of 1925, he took the Hawkeyes on a Southern spring-training trip, the first an Iowa baseball team had ever taken. [20]  The team played five games, in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge.

Though only eight men came out for the baseball team as it began training for the 1925 season, Vogel scouted the university for talent and added players to his roster as the season progressed. By season’s end, he had guided Iowa to a winning record (9-8-1) and a fifth-place Big Ten finish.[21] Then, in the fall, he turned his attention to football, assisting head coach Bert Ingwersen.

In his third year as baseball coach, 1927, Vogel led Iowa to its first baseball title, tying for the Big Ten lead with Illinois, his alma mater. The star pitcher on that Iowa team was Forrest Twogood, later a minor-league baseball player and University of Southern California basketball coach.

Vogel continued to play semipro ball in the summers during the late 1920s. In 1926 he played for Hammond, Indiana, and in the summer of 1927 he played for the Madison (Wisconsin) Blues, for whom he took over as manager after the playing manager suffered an injury. In the summer of 1926, Vogel played for N.J. Alexander’s Iowa City Independent team as well as the Davenport KC’s team. In the summer of 1928, he played for the Sioux City Stockyards.[22] 

Otts, as he was known throughout his coaching career, also loved to referee football and basketball games and did that extensively for high-school and college games in the baseball offseason. But at some point in the fall of 1925, he was not allowed to referee semipro football because of a Big Ten rule prohibiting participation. 

As the Hawkeyes’ baseball coach, Vogel’s best era came before World War II. His teams compiled back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1938 and 1939, had a 20-3-1 record in 1940, a 22-6 record in 1941, and won another Big Ten championship in 1942.

During his time in the Navy (1943-1945), Vogel was a physical instructor for Navy pre-flight cadets on the University of Iowa campus, which was a major station for the Naval Pre-Flight program during World War II. He also coached the Iowa Pre-Flight baseball team in 1942 and compiled a 9-6-1 record. He was discharged from the Navy with the rank of lieutenant commander.

After the war, Vogel could never fully re-create his prewar baseball success at Iowa but he did land his fifth and final title in 1949 with a 14-8 record (8-4 in the Big Ten) with a team led by future major leaguers Jack Dittmer and Jack Bruner that tied for the conference championship.

Vogel was assistant football coach in 1950 and 1951 under head coach Leonard Raffensberger. His primary responsibilities were with the junior varsity. He had previously worked with Iowa freshmen football players prior to 1932 and for seven years in the ’30s was a varsity assistant.[23]

In the fall of 1951, upon the death of baseball coach Wally Roettger, the University of Illinois made a serious attempt to hire Vogel as baseball coach at his alma mater. Newspapers reported that the job was Vogel’s if he wanted it. Paul Brechler, the Iowa athletic director, called Vogel “the greatest baseball coach in the country” and said he would “do everything within my authority to keep him here,” but that if Vogel decided to accept the Illinois position he would not stand in his way.[24] Vogel pondered his decision for more than a month, then, on December 14, announced that he was no longer a candidate for the position. Shortly after, the University of Iowa raised his salary by $500, (from $7,500 to $8,000 annually) and promoted him from assistant professor of physical education to associated professor, a position that granted him tenure on the Iowa faculty.[25]

The baseball years from 1950 to the end of Vogel’s coaching career in 1962 were rather desultory, with his last winning record in 1953, though the Hawkeyes did tie for second in the Big Ten in 1957. (7 victories, 4 defeats in the conference in 1957, 1-5 in nonconference games, for an overall 8-9 record.)

Vogel’s wife, Dorothy, died on July 13, 1962, after a lingering illness, and his mother died that year after suffering a broken hip.[26] Then, on Sunday, December 23, 1962, Vogel suffered a stroke at about 10 p.m. at his apartment. His condition was not discovered until 6 o'clock the next morning, after he heard the milkman and called out. The milkman informed the building attendant, who summoned an ambulance.

After the stroke, assistant coach Dick Schultz became interim head coach for 1963. (Schultz later became Iowa basketball coach and executive director of the NCAA.) As he took over, Schultz said, “Otto will serve in an advisory capacity. He can attend our home games, but I understand the doctors don’t want him to make any trips.”[27] Vogel was listed as head coach on the scorecards with Schultz listed as “field coach.”[28]

Vogel formally retired as baseball coach in July 1, 1966, after 39 years as head coach of the Hawkeyes. Previously, on May 14, a testimonial dinner was held to honor him for his distinguished résumé of accomplishments at Iowa. [29]  He coached five Big Ten championship teams, in 1927, 1938, 1939, 1942, and 1949. His teams were runners-up in 1929, 1941, 1957, and 1963. His career record was 505-431-14 (.540).[30]

Vogel had many honors and accomplishments over the course of his career. In 1952, he was one of three college baseball coaches (along with Jack Coombs of Duke and Marty Karow of Ohio State) invited to conduct an armed forces baseball clinic in Germany. In addition to the three coaches, Jocko Conlan and Art Gore, National League umpires, and Lew Fonseca, director of major league promotions, assisted in the conduct of the clinic.[31] In 1953, Vogel was elected president of the National Association of College Baseball Coaches.

Vogel was a prolific writer. His first article appeared in the March 1926 issue of Old Gold, published by the University of Iowa department of physical education and was entitled “Hitting.” He later co-wrote a series of baseball instructional manuals with former major leaguer and University of Minnesota baseball coach Dick Siebert.  Vogel also wrote the book The Ins and Outs of Baseball. [32]  It covers the sport so completely that it was used as a classroom text in many schools as a text on the game.[33]

Vogel was an innovator. As Iowa coach he perfected an aluminum alloy bat to cut down on the number of broken bats in practice. He also devised a pitching target consisting of an upright stand with cords dividing the pitching area placed over the plate to enable pitchers to become accustomed to cutting the corners.[34]

In 1969, Vogel was inducted into the American Association of College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. He was the first Hawkeye selected. In 1994, he was inducted into the University of Iowa’s National Iowa Varsity Club Athletic Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame of the Helms Athletic Foundation

Ten future major leaguers played under Coach Vogel at the University of Iowa:

1.      Frank Mulroney (Boston Red Sox, 1930).

2.      Mace Brown (Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Boston Red Sox, 1935-46).

3.      Joe Mowry (Boston Braves, 1933-35).

4.      Gene Ford (Boston Braves, Chicago White Sox, 1936-38).

5.      Ham Schulte (Philadelphia Phillies, 1940).

6.      Hal Manders (Detroit, Chicago Cubs, 1941-46).

7.      Jack Dittmer (Boston Braves, Milwaukee, Detroit, 1952-57).

8.      Jack Bruner (Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns, 1949-50).

9.      Bob Gebhard (Minnesota, Montreal, 1971-74).

10. Jim McAndrew (New York Mets, San Diego,1968-74).

George Wine, former Iowa sports information director, has written: “I once asked {Coach Vogel} if he had one player that stood out above the others. “Mace Brown,” said Vogel without hesitation. “He was the best I ever had.” Brown, who played for 11 years in the major leagues, was born in North English, Iowa, attended the University of Iowa from 1927 to 1929 and played baseball in his sophomore and junior years.[35]

Otto and Dorothy had two sons, William (Born 1926) and Robert (Born 1927). Little is known about them.

Otto Vogel died on July 19, 1969, at the age of 72 in Iowa City after a long battle with cancer. He is buried in Memory Gardens in Iowa City.

Notes


[1] Waterloo Daily Courier, June 1, 1938.

[2] According to Baseball-Reference.com, Vogel was born October 26, 1899. His obituary in the Iowa City Press-Citizen dated July 21, 1969, said the date of birth was October 24, 1897. Vogel’s death certificate gives October 24, 1897, as the date of birth. The Social Security Death Index lists October 26, 1897, as the date of birth. In a 1965 interview with Gus Schrader, Otto called the 1899 date his “baseball age,” and took mandatory retirement at the age of 68 from the University of Iowa in 1966 using the date of October 26, 1897, as his birthdate. Accordingly, I am accepting the 1897 date as his birthday. Whether it’s the 24th or the 26th is an unresolved question. I am accepting the University of Iowa retirement date of October 26 as his birthdate.

[3] Davenport Democrat and Leader, June 6, 1923: 17

[4] http://www.fightingillini.com/sports/m-footbl/archive/FBHist-All_America...

[5] Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 4, 1965.

[6] Obituary, Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 7, 1969.

[7] Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 30, 1924.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 8, 1922.

[10] The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, June 6, 1923: 7.

[11] Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 7, 1923.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Davenport Democrat and Leader, July 17, 1924.

[14] Contrary to Alexander’s memory, the year he broke his wrist was 1924.

[15] Estherville Daily News, July 27, 1931.

[16] Bridgeport Telegram, January 31, 1924.

[17] Oakland Tribune, March 27, 1924.

[18] Cedar Rapids Gazette. July 4, 1965.

[19] Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 31, 1925.

[20] Waterloo Evening Courier, February 5, 1925.

[21] Great Moments in Hawkeye History: 89.

[22] This list is not meant to be comprehensive but simply some of the teams I was able to document as Vogel seemingly looked to simply play baseball during these years and was a “bat for hire” in the semipro circuits.

[23] 1951 State University of Iowa Football Media Guide “Gridiron Grapevine,”: 11.

[24] Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 12, 1951.

[25] Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 12, 1952.

[26] Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 27, 1962.

[27] Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 13, 1963.

[28] Some sources credit Vogel with the wins and losses during the period 1963-66 when Dick Schultz was the field coach while others credit Schultz. The current Iowa Baseball Record book (online at www.hawkeyesports.com) credits Schultz with the wins and losses while Vogel’s plaque in the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame credits them to him. It should be noted that the 1967 Hawkeye Yearbook, a contemporary publication, states that 1967 is Dick Schultz’s first “official season” as baseball coach.

[29] Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 14, 1966.

[30] These Win/Lost totals include the years 1963-66 in which Dick Schultz was the “field coach.”

[31] Chicago Tribune, January 25, 1952.

[32] 1952 Illinois-Iowa Football Program: 17.

[33] Vogel also was a judge in an essay contest sponsored by the Iowa City Press-Citizen on “Your Favorite Big Leaguer.” Paul Shaffer, 13, of Iowa City won the essay contest by writing a paper on Walter Johnson as his favorite big leaguer. The Press- Citizen said over 4 dozen entries were received. An essay on Ty Cobb won second place. Paul’s prize was to become mascot of the Hawkeyes baseball team.

[34] 1952 Illinois-Iowa Football Program: 17.

[35] George Wine, English Valley’s Alumni Online “An Alumnus Who Played Ball with the Best,” http://showcase.netins.net/web/evonline/honoringalumni.html.

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