Hal Carlson

This article was written by Ernie Fuhr

Occasionally, a player is taken out of the lineup due to personal misfortune. But in 1930 a scheduled pitcher didn’t take the mound (or ever pitch again) because he died an agonizing death on that very morning. Hal Carlson was a righthanded journeyman who pitched for three teams in the National League. He was a fairly talented pitcher, but his success hadn’t come easily. His 14-year career was disrupted by World War I, the spitball ban, chronic health problems, and, finally, an early grave.

Harold Gust Carlson was born on May 17, 1892, in Rockford, Illinois, close to the border with Wisconsin. He was the oldest of four children1 of working-class Swedish immigrants who instilled in him the values of hard work and self-reliance, qualities that later served Carlson well. While growing up, he attended Wight School, a neighborhood school in the heart of Rockford’s Swedish-American community.2 On the sandlots of Rockford’s east side, young Hal honed his skills, pitching for the semipro Rockford Maroons.

The Maroons, an independent team of Swedish-American men, worked regular jobs during the week, and on weekends they traveled to play other teams in the region, often in Wisconsin, Indiana, or Iowa. Hal started pitching for the Maroons in 1911.3 He enjoyed the camaraderie of playing baseball and remained friends with many of his teammates for the rest of his life. He experimented with the spitball, soon discovering many ways that he could magically affect the weight, motion, and trajectory of the baseball. The spitball pitch would become  Carlson’s specialty.

Baseball scouts soon noticed Carlson’s talents and in 1912 he joined the Rockford Wolverines of the Class C Wisconsin-Illinois League. Although Carlson showed potential and was popular with hometown crowds, he struggled somewhat. In April 1913 the Rockford Register Gazette reported that he had been cut from the team: “Harold Carlson, a Rockford boy who did some pitching for the team last season, was dropped today. It was hard to find room for him, against the greater experience of others on the staff.”4 This temporary setback did not discourage Carlson, nor did the Rockford club lose interest in him. The next season, he was picked up again. According to the Rockford Morning Star, “Harold Carlson, the local pitcher who has shown considerable promise when wearing the Rockford uniform, was yesterday added to the pitching staff at the insistence of manager Orville Wolfe, who thinks he can develop him into an effective hurler.”5

Carlson had a good year in 1914, posting a winning percentage of nearly .550, and was considered “to possess the best spitter of any pitcher in the W-I Circuit.”6 On August 24, 1914, he was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers of the Double-A American Association for $750.7 Carlson’s time in Milwaukee was short; he soon came down with a bad case of the flu and was unable to report to the team.8 It is uncertain whether Carlson recovered enough to actually pitch, as there is no formal record of his performance. Apparently, Milwaukee was unimpressed. In January 1915 the Brewers sold Carlson to the Central League’s Grand Rapids Black Sox.9 In the early months of the season he was 4-5 with an earned-run average of 2.96. In June Carlson obtained his release from Grand Rapids and joined the hometown Rockford Wakes of the Class B Three-I (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) League. After a subpar 1915 season with the Wakes (4-11, 3.07 ERA), Carlson’s best performance in the minors came in 1916, when he posted a record of 23-13 and an ERA of 2.79. In a game against Moline, Carlson pitched 18 innings, with a nohitter going into the ninth.10 Although Rockford eventually lost, 1-0, the game illustrated Carlson’s endurance and solidified his growing reputation.

Clarence “Pants” Rowland, who had scouted in the Three-I League and often seen Carlson pitch,11 was now managing the Chicago White Sox and in 1916 he invited Carlson to team tryouts in the spring of 1917.12 Had things worked out differently, Carlson might have spent his rookie year playing with the world champion White Sox of 1917. For reasons unclear, the White Sox canceled their invitation to him.13

Carlson got another opportunity on September 21, 1916, when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him for $1,200.14 In his rookie year of 1917, as a spot starter and reliever, he went 7-11, with a respectable ERA of 2.90. In May 1918 Carlson joined the Army to serve in the World War.15 He was able to play a little more baseball before being shipped to Europe, pitching for the 86th Division team at Camp Grant, in Rockford.16 When he got overseas he served as a machine gunner in the Battle of the Argonne Forest.17 Like many of his comrades, he was exposed to poison gas, and there was speculation that this contributed to the health problems that plagued Carlson and eventually took his life 20 years later.18 Carlson was discharged as a sergeant and returned home in May 1919, in time to rejoin the Pirates.

While Carlson was overseas, a major controversy brewed regarding spitball pitching. Club owners felt that the time had come to ban the practice for ethical reasons as well as safety concerns. The ban was instituted for the 1920 season, except for two pitchers on each team whose stock in trade was the spitball. They were given one season to adjust. After the 1920 season club owners were allowed to submit the names of spitball pitchers who would be allowed to continue using the pitch until they retired. This list of 17 spitball pitchers did not include Carlson because Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss did not submit any names. This was probably more than just a clerical oversight; Dreyfuss was a staunch opponent of the spitball who served on the commission that banned it. He may have tried to get Carlson’s name on the list, but, according to at least one sportswriter, was rebuffed by the other owners.19

Carlson was forced to reinvent his repertoire and again master some fundamentals: throwing curves and fastballs, and altering speeds. His pitching faltered and his statistics declined. In 1919 he was 8-10 with an ERA of 2.23. In 1920 he was 14-13, but his ERA had risen more than a full run, to 3.36. On July 7, 1921, in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Carlson struck out Babe Ruth twice.20 But he was soon sidelined with a sore arm, and ended the season with a dismal 4-8, 4.27 record. There was no noticeable improvement in 1922 (9-12, 5.70). In 1923 Carlson made only four appearances before the Pirates demoted him to the Wichita Falls Spudders of the Class A Texas League, where he spent the rest of the season. In Texas Carlson was rejuvenated, ending the season 20-10. It was enough of an improvement for the Philadelphia Phillies to take a chance on Carlson, acquiring him for 1924.

On October 24, 1924, Carlson married Eva Nelson, a local schoolteacher, whom he had met while she was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Carlson’s granddaughter, Kristine Pratt, recalled that her grandmother said a friend asked her to go to a party where a “famous baseball player” was going to be. “My grandmother refused initially, as she couldn’t care less about baseball players of any kind, famous or otherwise,” Pratt said. “I wonder if that’s what interested him in her initially; the fact that she wasn’t in awe of him or one of his groupies?”21 The Carlsons’ first child, daughter Betty, was born two years later.

With a new team came new opportunity. When Carlson joined the Phillies in 1924, they were struggling. In 1924 and 1925, Philadelphia finished next to last in the National League, then dead last in 1926 and 1927. Against this backdrop, a mediocre hurler like Hal Carlson could distinguish himself, if he performed well. His first two years in Philadelphia were unspectacular, but in 1925 he led the National League with four shutouts. The 1926 season was his best year yet, when he posted a record of 17-12 and the best ERA (3.23) since his rookie days. Carlson also earned a few votes for 1926 National League MVP, placing 11th in the vote tally. Withal, on June 7, 1927, Carlson was traded to the Cubs for pitcher Tony Kaufmann and shortstop Jimmy Cooney.

Carlson’s hometown of Rockford is 75 miles northwest of Chicago, so when he was traded to the Cubs, it felt like a “homecoming” in many respects. Carlson continued to be very popular with the people of Rockford. Whether he was winning or losing, he was widely admired and always captured local headlines. On August 25, 1926, when he was still pitching for the Phillies, more than 500 fans from the Rockford area journeyed to Wrigley Field to honor their hometown hero. They presented Carlson with a grandfather clock.22 (After many decades keeping time in the Carlson family’s home, the clock, along with other baseball artifacts, was presented to Rockford’s Erlander Home Museum.)

Carlson made his debut with the Cubs on June 8, 1927, the day after he had been traded, at Wrigley Field against Dazzy Vance and the Brooklyn Robins. Carlson pitched a complete game and allowed only two runs as the Cubs edged the Robins, 3-2. In his first four weeks in Chicago, Carlson won six games, helping put the Cubs in first place by July 7. He won 12 games and lost 8 for the Cubs with an ERA of 3.17. (His combined record was 16-13 with an ERA of 3.70.)

Carlson suffered a setback in the Cubs’ 1928 spring training camp on Catalina Island; he was stricken with a bad case of the flu. This and serious bouts of pleurisy rendered him ineffective for most of the season. He was dropped from the pitching rotation and started only four games, ending the year 3-2 with an ERA of 5.91. Carlson’s chronic health problems were a permanent condition, related to his being gassed in World War I. A doctor in California told him that he probably only had months to live.23 Carlson didn’t share this grim news, nor did he let it deter him from playing.24 He returned to Chicago hopeful for one more comeback, both for himself and for the Cubs’ postseason hopes.

In spite of his age (36) and ill health, Carlson did his best to stay in shape. One day before he had to pitch, he asked the Cubs trainer, Andy Lotshaw, for a deep tissue massage on his sore elbow. Lotshaw advised Carlson to lie face down. Then, while the ailing pitcher wasn’t looking, he rubbed Hal’s arm with Coca-Cola from the bottle he’d been drinking. Carlson pitched successfully that afternoon, and from that day on, Lotshaw continued to give him this “special therapy” without telling him what it was.25

The 1929 World Series, against the Philadelphia Athletics, was the pinnacle of Carlson’s 14-year career. By then he had recuperated and was pitching better than ever, with a record of 11-5 and an ERA of 5.16. In the World Series he pitched twice in relief, giving up seven hits and three runs in four innings. The three runs he gave up came in Game Two, when he was one of three pitchers who hurled in relief of Pat Malone as the Cubs list, 9-3. One of the five hits he gave up in three innings was a two-run homer by Al Simmons. In Game Four, in which the Cubs took an 8-0 lead but gave up 10 runs in the seventh inning, Carlson pitched a scoreless eighth inning.

Carlson began the 1930 season feeling healthy and upbeat. He and his wife were expecting their second child that summer, and his Cubs salary allowed them to build a home in Rockford. Carlson also enjoyed the camaraderie of his teammates, even though he was older than most of them. Despite being called “The Silent Swede” with his reserved personality, he had a fun-loving, mischievous side. “He could be a practical joker,” said his granddaughter Kristine Pratt.26

Carlson relished his role as the dugout bench jockey. Chicago Tribune sportswriter Edward Burns wrote, “A job such as Hal’s, of course, involves a great deal of research. If, for instance, any one of the opposing pitchers ever was in jail for horse stealing, Hal should know about it. To be a good jockey as Carlson is, his timing must be perfect.”27

On May 27, 1930, an unseasonably cold day, the Cubs home game against the Cincinnati Reds was rained out. The Cubs were 19-19 and Carlson led the pitching staff with a 4-2 record. After an early dinner, Carlson returned to his apartment at Hotel Carlos, just up the street from Wrigley Field. He knew that he would be starting in the next day’s game and, feeling a little under the weather, he turned in early that night.28

In the middle of the night, the 38-year-old Carlson awoke with an awful pain in his stomach. Though it was about 2:15 A.M., the pain was bad enough that he called Ed Froelich, the Cubs’ clubhouse attendant, who also stayed in the hotel. “I feel pretty bad. You better call a doctor,” Carlson said. Froelich rushed to Carlson’s room. Carlson told him that it was probably just an attack of his stomach ulcers. He thought that if the pain abated, he might be okay. Concerned, Froelich sat with him for a while. By 3 A.M., blood started to come up into Carlson’s mouth. Now in a state of panic, Froelich called three other Cubs players who were in the building: Kiki Cuyler, Riggs Stephenson, and Cliff Heathcote. By the time they arrived, Carlson was fading fast. Immediately they summoned the team physician, Dr. John Davis, who was nearby. By the time Dr. Davis arrived, Hal was losing consciousness. An ambulance was called, but by the time it arrived, it was too late. At 3:30 A.M., as his teammates watched helplessly, Carlson breathed his last. The cause of death was officially listed as a stomach hemorrhage.29

There is some debate as to the exact cause of Carlson’s stomach hemorrhage and whether his death could have been prevented. One theory is that Carlson was injured when he was struck in the abdomen by a batted ball at spring training that year.30 This may have damaged the fragile artery within the stomach, proving fatal if undetected. Another possibility is that the poison gas in World War I did long-term organ damage, and eventually caught up to Carlson. It is uncertain which of these things is more directly responsible for Carlson’s death, as medical knowledge was much more limited in 1930, and Carlson closely guarded his medical privacy.31

Eva Carlson was not with Hal at the hotel because she was eight months pregnant and was resting at their home in Rockford. This was not uncommon, as late-term pregnancies and childbirth could become risky in those days. Kristine Pratt said she believed her grandfather was unconscious by the time Froelich and the players arrived, and that he had actually died alone. “He felt the pain and he knew something was wrong and started calling the other players on the team, crying out in agony and begging them to do something, as he was dying,” she said. “Unfortunately, he was known for being a practical joker. So he died alone in his room. Of course it’s a game we can all play isn’t it? If he hadn’t played practical jokes, if someone had come, if my grandmother had been there, would it have turned out differently? Medical care isn’t what it is now. Could anyone have helped him? Regardless, the end result is the same.”32

The Cubs, stunned and wearing black armbands for their fallen pitcher, played their scheduled game against the Reds that afternoon, winning 6-5. Kiki Cuyler, who had been at Carlson’s deathbed hours before, hit a two-run homer in the first inning. The next game was postponed, as a delegation of Cubs players accompanied Carlson’s body back to Rockford.

Carlson was buried that weekend. Crowds lined the streets as the funeral procession passed, and 5,000 mourners gathered at Rockford’s Arlington Cemetery.33 The rest of the Cubs soldiered on. On the afternoon that Carlson was buried, they won a doubleheader from the St. Louis Cardinals.

On July 7, 1930, five weeks after Carlson died, Eva gave birth to their second daughter, Kathleen. As a single mother and with only her meager schoolteacher’s income, Mrs. Carlson successfully raised both girls, no small accomplishment during the Great Depression. She never remarried and lived another 59 years. She kept a portrait of Carlson hanging over her bed and would say goodnight to him every night for the rest of her life.34

Carlson was remembered by his friends and colleagues for his hard work, patriotism, and perseverance, on and off the field. Perhaps the most fitting eulogy was given by Cubs president Bill Veeck, Sr. who said: “Hal Carlson was a splendid example of moral courage and was loved by everyone who knew him. While he was fighting for his country in the World War, his stock in trade as a pitcher, the spitball, was taken from him through an oversight. But instead of quitting like most humans, he came back to greater success than ever. In all my life I have never known a finer type than Carlson. He was strong in every way, morally and physically.”35

SOURCES

Asprooth, Fritz, Hal Carlson: A Rockford Legend. (booklet), Library of Congress

No. TXu 000330544, 1988.

Boone, Robert, and Gerald Grunska, Hack: The Meteoric Life of one of Baseball’s First Superstars (Highland Park, Illinois: Highland Press, 1978).

Ehrgott, Roberts, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

Rockford Daily Republic

Rockford Morning Star

Rockford Register Gazette

Rockford Register Star

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.com

Genealogybank.com

Ancestry.com

Kristine Pratt, email correspondence with author, October 2013

  • 1. Carlson was born in 1892, although the author came across several stories and biographies that stated, inaccurately, that he was born in 1894. In one instance, Carlson himself spoke this mistruth to a reporter: “The Cub Takes A Week Off and Goes to Work,” Rockford Daily Republic, June 22, 1927, 6.
  • 2. Fritz Asprooth, Hal Carlson: A Rockford Legend. (booklet) Library of Congress No. TXu 000330544. 1988, 6.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. “Team Chosen By Marshall,” Rockford Register Gazette, April 29, 1913, 7.
  • 5. “Series of Dances Planned in Aid of Baseball Club,” Rockford Morning Star, January 30, 1914, 7.
  • 6. “Sell Carlson to Milwaukee Club,” Rockford Register Gazette, August 24, 1914, 5.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. “Drizzle Prevents Clash of Indians With Rockfords,” Rockford Morning Star, August 29, 1914, 9.
  • 9. “Breakfast Table Chat,” Rockford Morning Star, January 1, 1915, 10.
  • 10. Asprooth, 8.
  • 11. “Carlson to Get Trial With Sox,” Rockford Register Gazette, May 5, 1916, 9.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. “Carlson Star for Pirates,” Rockford Register Gazette, May 5, 1917, 5.
  • 14. “League Meets Oct. 10,” Rockford Daily Republic, October 6, 1916, 10.
  • 15. “May Brings Rockford Baseball Fans Memories of Hal Carlson,” Rockford Morning Star, May 11, 1952, 20.
  • 16. Asprooth, 12.
  • 17. Dick Ramey, “Hal Carlson, Rockford’s Only Major League Player, Dies Suddenly in Chicago,” Rockford Register Gazette, May 28, 1930, 2.
  • 18. Robert Boone and Gerald Grunska, Hack: The Meteoric Life of One of Baseball’s First Superstars (Highland Park, Illinois: Highland Press, 1978), 93.
  • 19. Burt Whitman, “Aid Pitching By Letting Down Bars to Spit Ball Delivery,” Boston Herald, December 28, 1924, 3.
  • 20. “Harold Carlson Fans Babe Ruth Twice Thursday,” (Associated Press article) Rockford Register Gazette, July 8, 1921, 14.
  • 21. Kristine Pratt, correspondence with author, October 27, 2013.
  • 22. Dooney Trank, “Carlson Loses but Gets Gift from Fans Here,” Rockford Register Gazette, August 26, 1926, 11.
  • 23. Robert Ehrgott, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 127.
  • 24. Ehrgott, 104.
  • 25. Ehrgott, 108.
  • 26. Kristine Pratt, correspondence with author, October 17, 2013.
  • 27. Edward Burns, “Who Are These Cubs?” Omaha World Herald, September 30, 1929, 10.
  • 28. Ehrgott, 232.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Bill Wolverton, “Who was Hal Carlson?” Rockford Register Star, April 3, 1996, 4B.
  • 31. Ehrgott, 104.
  • 32. Kristine Pratt, correspondence with author, October 17, 2013.
  • 33. “Friends Pay Last Respects to Hal Carlson,” Rockford Daily Republic, June 1, 1930, 1.[f/n] Carlson’s pallbearers were local friends with whom he had played ball in his early days with the Rockford Maroons. Honorary pallbearers were Cubs personnel, including fellow pitchers Charlie Root and Pat Malone.Ibid.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Bob O’Neal, “Local Pitcher Loses Battle To Ill Health,” Rockford Daily Republic, May 29, 1930, 1.