SABR

Lu Blue

This article was written by Cort Vitty.

The dreaded trip to the woodshed altered many a young life; however, in the case of a young Washington, D.C., native, the effort was futile.

Luzerne Atwell Blue was born on March 5, 1897, in the District of Columbia. Lu always claimed he was the youngest of seven sons; however, a look at the 1900 census reveals a total of 10 children born to Charles and Ida Blue. Lu was actually the youngest of nine boys, two of whom probably never survived to adulthood.

A rather stern and stoic man, Charles Blue resorted to physical punishment when he learned of his sons' fondness for skipping school and sneaking off to National Stadium, where he could watch his beloved Senators play. Although a Washington fan, the youngster absolutely idolized Detroit's legendary Ty Cobb; little did he know that one day he'd play for the Georgia Peach.

In the spring of 1909, the elder Blue lectured young Lu about wasting time such a frivolous activity as baseball. Charles Blue then escorted his son to the woodshed, where he proceeded to break five wooden barrel staves, trying to persuade the boy that schoolwork was preferable to baseball.

Even his brothers got into the act, lobbying their youngest brother to put the game aside for honest work. They actually blamed his eccentric behavior on his being left-handed! Years later, Blue would find a clever way to remind family of his baseball success. Upon receiving his first $10,000 major league contract, Lu sent a telegram to his siblings, apprising them of his new wealth and good fortune.

After high school, Lu was sent to Briarly Hall Military School in Poolsville, Maryland, for academic and disciplinary reasons. To the chagrin of his parents, it turned out that Briarly was run by a Sid Lodge, who briefly played organized ball in his younger days. Coming under the wing of his headmaster, Lu soon became the Briarly first baseman. He played hard and learned the finer points of the game, displaying enough talent to get the attention of professional scouts.

Lodge was a friend of William J. "Country" Morris, manager of the Martinsburg club in the Class D Blue Ridge League. In 1916, Lu was offered a contract by the Blue Sox and signed despite the objections of his parents. The elder Blue reminded young Lu of the whipping many years earlier and lamented the session apparently had no positive effect on the teenager.

Joining Martinsburg for his inaugural season, he hit a disappointing .216. A high percentage of extra-base hits, along with fine fielding ability and good baseball instincts, were encouraging signs.

During the 1917 campaign, again with Martinsburg, Lu improved all aspects of his game. The season also produced an intriguing story of how he allegedly poked two grand slam homers in a single game--one from each side of the plate.

Buried in a moldy edition of the Chicago Tribune, dated October 11, 1934, is a blurb about the then retired Lu Blue and his accomplishment in the Blue Ridge League of 1917. Reported by Arch Ward, the column alludes to a game that year when Blue (batting right) hit a bases-loaded home run to tie a game against Frederick in the ninth inning. In the twelfth, with the bags full again, Lu belted another homer, this time left-handed to win the game. A final score was not reported.

In 1937, another account of this incident appeared in an issue of Liberty Magazine, dated September 11. Authored by future Hall of Fame umpire Bill McGowan, the details were recounted with home team Frederick leading 4-0 in the ninth inning. This time the report had Lu swinging lefty, connecting for a grand slammer off right-hander Bill King, tying the contest at 4-4 and sending it into extra innings.

In the 12th inning, the bases were loaded once again as Blue stepped to the plate. A pitching change was made. With an unnamed lefthander called in, Lu switched over to the right side of the plate and proceeded to poke another one out of the park, giving Martinsburg an 8-4 victory. McGowan was very clear in his recollection of the details.

The records show Lu Blue was credited with 35 doubles, 6 triples and 8 home runs in 1917.  Six of his first 7 homers were hit at Martinsburg's Rosemont Park; one was hit at Frederick's Agricultural Park.

An examination of box scores reveals no games ending with a score of 8-4; also noted: 4 of his first 7 home runs came in the 9th inning or later. A two grand slam game for Lu Blue was not found, although he did hit two home runs off Chambersburg's Louie Lyons. 

The seven home runs were apparently all hit off of right-handed pitchers; however, a pitcher named Carlson gave up a Lu Blue dinger, and it's not known if he was a lefty or a righty.

On May 21, 1917, Blue hit a game-winning home run in the 12th inning against the Gettysburg Ponies' right hander Paul Sherman to win 9-8.

On June 9, 1917, he hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth against Hagerstown to tie the score, 6 to 6, but teammate Reggie Rawlings was credited with a run-scoring single to win the game in the 11th inning.

Conflicting accounts exist of the game on June 21, 1917, which was an extra inning contest as Martinsburg topped Frederick 10-5. In the 10th, Blue hit a ball over the fence with the bases loaded, but was credited with only a ground rule double and 2 runs batted in. He hit a homer earlier in the game, but it was not a grand slam since Martinsburg did not score as many as 4 runs in any previous inning. The sole pitcher that day for Frederick was right-hander Lew Stanley; therefore it was unlikely Blue switch hit in the game. In another account, reported by the Frederick newspaper, he was credited with a three-run home run, and a bases-loaded triple. The umpire of record in the game was Bill McGowan.

Blue hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth against Frederick's Wick Winslow on June 28 to win a game, played in Martinsburg. He hit at least two homers to win games in 1917, and one to tie a game in the 9th, but none were recorded as grand slams.

Blue did hit two solo home runs in one game in for Martinsburg, at Hanover, Pennsylvania; however, it was in 1916 and McGowan did not umpire in the Blue Ridge League during that season.

Perhaps an exhibition game played that season was the answer. Contests were played against area colleges and armed service teams, but not against the other league teams.  The Frederick club played an exhibition against the Washington (Senators) Nationals, as a fundraiser for the American Red Cross during the 1917 season.
 
The Sporting News, on December 24, 1952, again recounted this story. Here, reporter Oscar Ruhl lists the occurrence as the most unusual event ever witnessed by umpire Bill McGowan. This time, the first grand slam occurred in the 8th inning, with Blue batting right handed and clubbing a homer to tie the score, 8-8. In the 10th, Blue hitting lefty belted a ball over the right field fence providing Martinsburg with a 12-8 victory.

Some box scores from the 1917 season are missing. Newspapers on file in the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library were destroyed by fire before they were microfilmed; therefore the file for the Martinsburg Evening Journal newspapers in 1917 is incomplete. 

It's possible the records are lost from the contest when Blue allegedly hit two grand slam homers in one game. And a lot depends on just how the second one was credited in the record books and reported in the papers. For now it remains an intriguing baseball story that cannot be verified.

The Detroit Tigers purchased Blue's contract in fall 1917. He was brought up to the parent club, but did not make an official game appearance. Manager Hughie Jennings invited the young prospect to camp the next spring. Although impressed with the first sacker, Blue was farmed to St. Paul in the American Association, where he was hitting .229, when Uncle Sam beckoned in 1918.

Lu entered the Army and served his country at Camp Lee, Virginia, until the war ended in 1919. Once again, he joined the Tigers but departed for Portland of the Pacific Coast League--without making an appearance on the field.

In Portland, he hit a respectable .281 with 9 homers; he also led the team with 44 stolen bases. Assigned to another year at Portland in 1920, he saw his average improve to .291; once again, the hustling young first sacker led the team with 37 steals. The 1920 season was impressive enough to earn a promotion to the big club.

Ty Cobb assumed the managerial reins in Detroit for the 1921 season. Fed up with the losing habits of the past, Cobb sought to add some new blood to the lineup in an effort to transform the team into a winner. The addition of Lu Blue was a key change in the new manager's overall plan.

Jitters apparently affected the debut of the 24-year-old rookie in 1921. His flawless fielding suddenly abandoned him while his suspect hitting improved to a startling .308. Blue became one of the few ballplayers to put up better offensive numbers in the majors than posted in the minor leagues. Playing in 153 games, he was firmly established as the Tigers' regular first baseman, as the Cobbmen finished in sixth place.

Blue would later credit Ty Cobb with improving his performance at the plate. Cobb taught him to study the intricacies of league pitchers; this knowledge helped immensely as he became a real student of the game.

Blue learned pitchers often threw in a pattern, based on the count, enabling him to anticipate pitches. He developed a keen sense of the strike zone and remained selective at the plate throughout his career. Four times in his career, he would contribute over 100 walks a season to his team's total offense.

His fielding prowess returned and contributed to a controversial play late in the 1921 season. In a contest against the Cleveland Indians, Blue was attempting to field a high throw to first from shortstop Ira Flagstead. Lu jumped--just as the ball hit the leather. Upon impact, the glove landed behind first base with the ball lying securely in the pocket. Blue rushed for the ball while runner Charlie Jamieson streaked toward second base.

Cleveland manager Tris Speaker argued the runner should be awarded third base. Detroit manager Cobb disagreed and quickly sped in from his position in center field to state his opinion: first base only for the runner. Umpire Bill Dineen huddled with the managers and prudently decided to split the difference and award the runner second base.

Lu put up good numbers in 1922, his sophomore season, contributing a .300 batting average while sparkling in the field. His glove caused another commotion on June 24, 1922. In a game against the St. Louis Browns, a riot almost erupted when Lu's glove was thrown into the stands. The plan was to distract the Brownie pitcher by tossing the glove up and down from the first base coach's box. Sick of the high jinks, Jimmy Austin of the Browns raced onto the field and ended the prank by throwing the glove into the stands. The Tigers saw this as an act of aggression. The benches cleared as both clubs prepared to rumble. Simultaneously, a fan threw Blue's glove back onto the field, causing both teams to realize how laughable the incident was. The mob broke up and the game resumed as if nothing happened.

On September the 8th of that year, also against the Browns, Lu contributed two unassisted double plays to a winning effort. The Tigers prevailed, 8-3, as Johnny Tobin of the Browns was the unlucky batsman, lining into both twin killings.

Another baseball oddity occurred during the 1923 season, while the Tigers played the Yankees at the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. During pre-game fielding practice, Lu was hit in the head. Knocked unconscious by a serious blow to the noggin, Blue was helped from the field. Recovering in time to start the game, Lu promptly singled to right in the first inning. The woozy young infielder barely made it to first and was so wobbly that manager Cobb requested a courtesy runner. The Yankees agreed and left-handed pitcher Ray Francis replaced Blue on the base paths. When the inning ended, Blue returned to the field and played the balance of the game with no ill after effects.

He wrapped up the 1923 season with his average slipping to .284, while the Tigers improved to second place in the standings.

In March 1924, three Tigers players were traveling south for spring training accompanied by manager Bucky Harris of Washington. Harris lamented the total domination of the Philadelphia A's Bryan Harris over the Nats. Three Detroit players--Blue, Harry Heilmann and Del Pratt--had a tip for the Washington manager.

It seemed the Tigers had no problem with Harris since they discovered the pitcher thought he was "jinxed" by a black cat. Subsequently, Tiger players ensured that Harris' trips to the mound would be accompanied by a stray cat or two conveniently placed onto the field before a game. Supposedly it worked for the Tigers and manager Bucky Harris made a note to try it during the season.

In 1924, Lu gave up the single life and married Pauline Chambers; the couple had no children. Married life must have agreed with the first sacker; his average improved to .311. Smaller than most first basemen in the 1920s, Lu stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 165 pounds. What he lacked in size and strength was compensated in speed and agility. Often among the league leaders in fielding percentage, he'd get to balls other first baseman could not have touched. The flashy fielder also possessed one of the games best throwing arms. The Detroit club was in the hunt for the pennant until fading late in the season; ultimately finishing third, six games behind league-leading 1924 Senators.

The 1925 season saw Blue post a solid.306 at the plate, while adding a career high of 19 stolen bases to his offensive resume. Friction between Cobb and Blue developed during the season. Although they didn't always agree, they had a mutual respect for one another's talent. Lu had a reputation of being a bit difficult in dealing with teammates. Cobb was a tough taskmaster and thought nothing of verbally abusing Blue right on the playing field. Cobb's antics actually spilled over to the opposition. Blue recalled that other players would often approach Cobb in a friendly manner during batting practice, trying to soften him up. They would approach the Tiger star with a pleasant, "How are you, Ty? How's the Peach?" Usually the effort went for naught.

In 1926, Blue was temporarily banished to the bench in favor of Johnny Neun. Lu was still unhappy with the disciplinary tactics utilized by Cobb, in his last season as skipper of the Tigers. Blue and Neun were both lefty-throwing switch hitters, an extremely rare combination in the big leagues. Lu made the most of his time by appearing in center field and pinch-hitting with good results; he even took the hill during batting practice to show off his strong left arm. In 128 games, the veteran hit .287; in 109 of those games, he appeared at first base.

If disagreements simmered under Cobb, they built to a crescendo in 1927 under new manager George Moriarty. Even before the season started, Moriarty announced he would shake up the batting order by demoting Blue from leadoff hitter to the seventh spot. As the season progressed, Lu's relationship with his manager grew worse; Lu argued bitterly with Moriarty and even took matters into his own hands by going directly to the owners, after the season. Upon announcing to management he would never play another game for the Tigers, Blue abruptly found himself the property of the St. Louis Browns.

That December 13th, he was traded along with outfielder Heinie Manush to the Browns for outfielder Harry Rice, pitcher Elam Van Glider and infielder Chick Galloway. News accounts predicted the loss of Manush and Blue as detrimental to the Tigers' prospects of improving in the standings.

In 1928, under Browns manager Dan Howley, Lu regained his confidence and contributed some impressive offensive numbers; while hitting .281, he cracked a career-high 14 homers and was second in the league with 105 walks, as the surprising Browns moved up to third place.

Continuing his steady performance in 1929, Lu boasted an average of .293 and again finished second in walks with a total of 126. Locally, a Washington, D.C., semipro club honored their native son, during the 1929 season, by playing under the moniker of ... The Lu Blues!

Originally, Lu was known as a fastball hitter, producing a steady diet of curveballs from opposing hurlers. He realized he'd better learn to handle the curve and actually developed a preference for the breaking ball. In a 1930 article, Lu described how he handled the stuff dished out by the great Walter Johnson, when the Big Train was still active on the mound.

"We used to know when his curve ball was coming. He was so fast, it seemed impossible to hit his speed; everyone wanted a chance to hit his curve. He would pitch fast ball after fast ball, and then maybe shake his head when the catcher gave the signal. This would be the tip-off. The catcher was signaling for another fast one, but Walter had decided to throw a curve. Then we would try and hit the curve, knowing we had a better chance against it than his hopping fast one." When Johnson passed away in 1946, Lu would serve as an honorary pallbearer.

In 1930, Lu was bothered by an arm injury, causing his batting average to slip to .235, the lowest figure of his major league career. Under the leadership of manager Bill Killefer, the Browns finished a disappointing sixth in the American League. The deepening Great Depression and dwindling attendance put the club in the mood to reduce payroll.

Contacted by White Sox manager Donnie Bush, briefly a Detroit teammate, Blue was quizzed about the status of his arm. Lu felt he was completely recovered and assured the Chicago skipper of his overall health and stability.

Eager to save dollars, the St. Louis club wanted to halve Lu's salary of $14,000 for the 1931 season. Upon hearing the news, the veteran first sacker objected and refused to sign. Subsequently, he was sold to the Chicago White Sox for an undisclosed amount of cash.

Delighted at the prospect of acquiring a veteran of Blue's credentials, skipper Bush quickly inserted the ex-Brown and Tiger into the leadoff spot of the lineup. Blue responded with a fine season at the plate, contributing an average of .304 with 127 walks, a combination that produced an outstanding on base percentage of .430. The Sox, unfortunately, finished dead last in the standings.

Nineteen thirty-two saw his average slip to .249 in 112 games for the seventh-place White Sox. Cut loose by the Chicago club at the end of the season, Lu caught on with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the spring of 1933. He had only one at-bat, without a hit, before the Dodgers released him. Blue signed on with Toronto of the International League, reuniting with his onetime Browns skipper Dan Howley for 113 games, before calling it a career.

Before Blue went to the Dodgers' spring training camp in 1933, he was among the finalists to take over as skipper of the Jersey City club in the International League. The competition consisted of Hans Lobert, Mike Kelly and Bud Clancy; ultimately, the job went to Kelly.

In 1938, Lu was rumored to be a managerial candidate of the St. Louis Browns; however, he lost out again, this time to Gabby Street.

Toward the end of the decade, Lu operated a baseball school and maintained a semipro stadium in northern Virginia. The site was utilized by the NFL's Washington Redskins as a training facility in the late 1930s. The baseball school ultimately closed in 1940.

In 1941, Blue retired to a chicken farm in Cloverly, Virginia. Later, he owned a farm in Colesville, Maryland, where neighbors Sam Rice and Ossie Bluege also operated successful chicken hatcheries.

An agitated Blue objected to a poll taken by sportswriters in 1945. In a nationwide survey, the scribes were asked to list the most outstanding sports achievement of all time. The honor went to golfer Bobby Jones for his 1930 golf Grand Slam. Blue stood up for old teammate Ty Cobb when he publicly commented that leading the league in hitting, nine years in a row, put the Georgia Peach at the top of the list; he also noted that Cobb enjoyed back-to-back .400 seasons in 1911 and 1912.

In retirement, Lu enjoyed the celebrity of being a local sports hero in the D.C. area. Although he toiled for three big league clubs, he always considered himself--first and foremost--a Detroit Tiger.

He was among the ex-sports figures invited to a White House luncheon in 1953 as a guest of President Eisenhower. The occasion was a prelude to the annual Congressional baseball game for charity.

Ill with complications from arthritis, Blue passed away after a long illness, on July 28, 1958, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The former big league first sacker was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Although not a glitzy player, the workmanlike first baseman played hard during his days on the diamond. In an era when on-base percentage was undervalued as an offensive weapon, he compiled a very impressive lifetime mark of .402.


Author's Note: A special thanks goes to SABR member Mark Zeigler, who undoubtedly is one of the foremost historians of the Blue Ridge League. His help with statistics from the 1917 season was invaluable in preparing this article.


Sources

Johnson, L., and Wolff, M. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Durham N.C. 1995.

McGowan, Bill. "The Umpire Talks Back." Liberty Magazine 9/11/37, pg. 41-43.

Porter, David, Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, 1989-1992. New York: Greenwood Press.

Smith, Ira. Baseball's Famous First Baseman. A.S. Barnes & Co. N.Y. 1956, pg. 174-181.

Snelling, Dennis. The Pacific Coast League: A Statistical History. McFarland 1995.

Stump, Al. Cobb. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, N.C. 1996.

The Baseball Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan 1982.

Worthington, Bob. Baseball Rarity: Bats Right Throws Left. Baseball Digest: October 1976.

Zeigler, Mark: BlueRidgeLeague.org

1900 U.S. Census.

"Caught at the Plate." The New York Times, June 20, 1923.

"Vapor City Squad Bound for Tampa." The Washington Post, March 8, 1924.

"Johnson To Oppose Tigers." The Washington Post, June 6, 1926.
"Tigers Get Vangilder, Rice for Manush and Blue." The Washington Post, December 14, 1927.

"Those Surprising Browns." The Los Angeles Times April 7, 1929.

"Lu Blues Win, 26-1." The Washington Post, July 27, 1929.

"On the Sidelines." The Washington Post, May 22, 1930.

"Sox Buy Lu Blue." The Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1931.

"White Sox Pound Giant Pitchers." The Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1931.

"Baseball Ticket Prices Never Up, Won't Fall." The Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1932.

"How I Got My Start in Baseball." The Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1932.

"Lu Blue Signs With Dodgers." The New York Times, April 19, 1933.

"Talking it Over." The Chicago Tribune, Oct. 11, 1934.

"Redskins Mean Business; Close Gates to Public." The Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1938.

"Sports Figures Watch Century of Baseball Screening." The Washington Post, January 8, 1939.

"President Stars at White House Meeting of Champions." The New York Times, June 6, 1953.

"This Morning." The Washington Post, February 11, 1944.

"This Morning." The Washington Post, November 11, 1945.

"Lu Blue Dies, Played on Tigers With Ty Cobb." The Washington Post, July 29, 1958.

"Lu Blue, Ex-First Baseman, Dies at 61." The Sporting News, August 6, 1958, page 38.



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