Eddie Rommel had two careers in baseball, and created some milestones in both of them. As a right-handed pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics he was the first moundsman to make extensive use of the knuckleball. After retiring as a player and working briefly as a coach and minor-league manager, he became an umpire, one good enough to spend 22 seasons in the American League. In 1956 Rommel and Frank Umont became the first two 20th-century major-league umpires to wear eyeglasses, though Rommel did it only when he was umpiring on the bases during night games.
In 13 major-league seasons Rommel won 171 games and lost 119 for a .590 winning percentage, ranking him with Hall of Famers Walter Johnson (.599), Herb Pennock (.598), Warren Spahn (.597), Mickey Welch (.594), Bob Gibson (.591), Amos Rusie (.586), and Dazzy Vance (.585). He led the American League in victories twice and in games pitched twice.
Edwin Americus Rommel was born on September 13, 1897, in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest of seven children (five boys and two girls) of Frederick Rommel, a merchant, and his wife, Louisa. He played sandlot baseball during his school years, grew to 6-feet-2 and nearly 200 pounds, and became a good enough right-handed spitball pitcher to joined Seaford, an independent team in Delaware, Jimmy Dykes, who was a teammate of Rommel’s on the Athletics, also played for Seaford. 1
In 1917 Rommel joined the Hanover (Maryland) Raiders of the Class D Blue Ridge League. Working as a steamfitter’s helper in a shipyard during the World War, he scalded his hand severely. While recovering, he began experimenting with the knuckleball, a pitch he had learned on the sandlots from a veteran local first baseman named Cutter Drewry.2 Rommel said of the new pitch, "I tried it and the first ball I threw broke about five feet. I was delighted and went up to Newark and caught on with the 1918 Newark Bears, of the International League."3
At Newark Rommel had a 12-15 record in 1918 with a 2.22 earned-run average. His ERA impressed John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, and the Giants purchased his contract from the Bears. But during spring training, a few days before the 1919 season was to begin, the Giants returned Rommel to Newark. Back in Newark, Rommel went 22-15 with a 2.48 ERA, and pitched a 1-0 no-hitter against Toronto. (In his next start he gave up just one hit but lost, 1-0.) Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack visited Newark, watched Rommel pitch, and was impressed enough to purchase his contract from the Bears for the 1920 season. Rommel pitched for the Athletics for the next 13 seasons and won 171 games.
Tom Mahl, the author of The Spitball/Knuckleball Book (2009), called Rommel “the father of the modern knuckleball.”4 The book has a photograph from the Hall of Fame Library, showing Rommel’s grip when throwing the knuckleball. The tips of his index and middle fingers are on top of the ball digging in to the smooth surface of the ball, and his thumb is under the ball crossing the seam. His other two fingers are to the sides of the ball. Mahl listed 28 knuckleball pitchers, called Rommel the best of them, and wrotes, “Ed Rommel should be a candidate for Cooperstown. Ed Rommel, the pitcher who really brings us the modern knuckleball.”5 Of the 28 pitchers named by Mahl, Rommel had the most victories in a single season (27 in 1922). The next closest are Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (23 in 1969) and Bob Purkey (23 in 1962).
In Rommel’s rookie season with the Athletics, 1920, the team finished in last place for the sixth year in a row, with a dreadful 48-106 record. In 12 starts and 21 relief appearances, Rommel had a 7-7 record with a 2.85 earned-run average (fourth best in the league) and two shutouts. His walks and hits per inning pitched were 1.198, third best in the league.
The Athletics improved slightly, to 53-100, in 1921. Rommel led the American League with 23 defeats, but topped the team with 16 victories, though his ERA jumped to 3.94. Finally, in 1922 the team escaped the cellar. Their 65-89 record moved them up one spot in the standings to seventh, and they began a steady rise that in a few years made them the best team in baseball. Rommel had his best season in 1922, winning 27 games, or 41 percent of the team’s victories, and placing second in the voting for the Most Valuable Player. In an interview with Baseball Magazine, he estimated that one-third of his pitches were knuckleballs. "… (I)t doesn’t do to throw all one thing, no matter how good that one thing may be. You have to mix them up to keep batters guessing," he said.6
The Athletics moved up a place in the standings in both 1923 and 1924, and Rommel won 18 games in each season. In 1925 they shot up to second place, 8½ games behind the Washington Senators, Rommel led the league with 21 victories (10 losses) as he appeared in more than 50 games for the third time in four seasons. From 1926 through his last season in the major leagues, 1932, Rommel began pitching less frequently. Earlier in his career, as the Athletics slowly made their way up in the American League standings, he was a workhorse for manager Mack, and led the team in games pitched, starts, and innings pitched in several seasons. But in the middle to late 1920s, as manager-owner Mack assembled a great pitching staff –Lefty Grove, Rube Walberg, Jack Quinn, George Earnshaw, Howard Ehmke, Bullet Joe Bush – Rommel became a super-utilityman on the mound, pitching in the role of a starter, a middle reliever, and a finisher. In the famous 1929 World Series game in which the A’s overcame an eight-run deficit by scoring ten runs in the seventh inning, Rommel was the winning pitcher in relief. His only other World Series appearance was in a relief role in 1931, when the Athletics lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
One of the best games Rommel pitched may have been a game he lost, on Opening Day of the 1926 season. Rommel faced the Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson, who holds the record for Opening Day victories by a pitcher. The game went 15 innings and both pitched complete games. The Senators won, 1-0, on a walk-off hit by Joe Harris. Rommel gave up nine hits and six walks, and the Big Train gave up just six hits and three walks. (Writing soon after it was played, sportswriter F.C. Lane asserted that Rommel the knuckleballer did not throw a single knuckleball in the game.7)
Though Rommel made only 34 starts from 1927 through 1929, his .783 won-lost percentage (36 victories, 10 defeats) was the highest among starters in the American League, leading Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt (.705) and Lefty Grove (.703). In 1930 and 1931 he had a .640 won-lost percentage (16 victories, 9 defeats). His ERA in 1930, a season of inflated batting averages, was 4.28, and in 1931 it was 2.97. Rommel’s final season was 1932, and he pitched in only 17 games, all in relief. His one victory that season came in a remarkable (to say the least) relief outing. The Athletics traveled to Cleveland for one make-up game, and to save on travel expenses, Connie Mack took along only two pitchers, Rommel and rookie Lew Krausse, who started. Krausse was ineffective and Rommel, who had pitched in relief in the previous two games, took over for Krausse at the start of the second inning. Both teams scored frequently, and the game went into extra innings tied 15-15. Rommel soldiered on and emerged victorious when the Athletics scored a run in the 18th inning. Eddie gave up 29 hits, nine walks, and 14 runs in his 17 innings of relief. (The losing pitcher, Wes Ferrell, gave up 12 hits and eight runs in 11? innings.) It was Rommel’s 171st and last major-league victory. "I was 34 at the time, and I had worked the two previous days. It never occurred to me that I’d have to go more than a couple of innings, if any. It was the end of me as a pitcher, too." Rommel finished the season but was not himself anymore and Mack released him after the season.
In his best years, the decade of 1921-1930, Rommel won 156 games, only ten games less than the leader for the decade, Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt. His .598 won-lost percentage was fourth best (Grove led at .669). His 3.57 earned-run average was eighth best, and his ERA+ (a measure of a pitcher’s earned-run average compared to the league ERA) was fourth, at 121 (100 is average). He was seventh in the league in WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), and led the league’s pitchers in WAR (wins above replacement) at 35.2 for the decade. Rommel also helped himself as a fielder, leading the league in fielding percentage three times and in assists twice.
After releasing him as a player, Mack hired Rommel as a coach, a job he held for two seasons. In 1935 he managed the Richmond Colts, an Athletics affiliate in the Piedmont League, and they won the league championship. (Rommel also pitched for the team, winning six games and losing two.) The Richmond owner, Eddie Mooers, wanted to cut Rommel’s salary by $1,000 for the next season, and Rommel contacted Mack, who told him, "Why don’t you become an umpire?"8 That conversation and some advice from his brother Ernest "Doc" Rommel, who had played amateur baseball for 35 years, mostly as a catcher, then became an umpire, working for Baltimore’s Bureau of Recreation, influenced Eddie to become an umpire. He and another retired American League pitcher, George Pipgras, applied for jobs as umpires in the American League. The league president Will Harridge told them they should spent three years in the minor leagues first.9 They both agreed and served their time learning their new trade.
"The first offer I had was to umpire in the Southwest, but I turned that down because that was too far from home and my family. Then came a chance to work in the New York-Pennsylvania League (now the Eastern), and I took it," Rommel said.10
In 1937 Rommel was promoted to the International League, and after the season his contract was purchased by the American League. He umpired in the league for 22 years, retiring after the 1959 season. He earned praise for his fairness and ability to get along with even the most rambunctious players.11 Rommel worked in six All-Star Games and two World Series. In 1954 he umpired the first game for the Baltimore Orioles after the St. Louis Browns franchise was moved to Baltimore.12 He had worked the last game the Browns played in St. Louis before their transfer to Baltimore. On the second day of the 1956 season, while calling a game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Senators, he became the first major-league umpire to wear eyeglasses in a regular-season game.13
Soon after he retired, Rommel, saying he was "tired of laying around,"14 so he took a job as a clerk in the office of Maryland’s governor, Millard Tawes. He worked there until 1966, when he retired because of a kidney ailment. While working for the governor he also continued to help at baseball schools for servicemen in Germany and Japan.15
One of Rommel’s 14 grandchildren, Patricia Joseph, described her grandfather as someone who had a modest lifestyle, living in a Baltimore rowhouse and not one to flaunt his money or his celebrity. She said Rommel took his family on vacations to such places as Ocean City, Maryland, and to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where he introduced her to Joe DiMaggio and other players. She said her grandfather was a good bowler and owned a bowling alley in Baltimore for a time. She said Eddie had a good sense of humor, as exemplified when he said of his umpiring duties: "Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll admit it’s a tough racket, but I love it. Where else can an old gaffer like me make such a good living?"16
Rommel died on August 26, 1970, shortly after 7 P.M. at his home at 1610 Chilton Street, where he and his wife, Emma, had lived for 47 years.17 He was survived by his wife; a son, Edwin A. Rommel, Jr., a daughter, Patricia Joseph; a sister, Mrs. Wilbur Barry; and 14 grandchildren, all of Baltimore.18 He was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore, the resting place of Hall of Famers Ned Hanlon, John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, and Joe Kelley, and Bobby Mathews, who won 297 games in the 19th century.19
Thanks to the staff at Fairview Library in Owings, Maryland: Bonnie Spicknall, Sarah Avant, Emily Mudd, Mary Perdue, and Jennifer Seidel.
Most of the newspaper articles cited were obtained from the Maryland Historical Society.
Thank you to Caprice at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.
1 Baltimore Sun, September 10, 1961
2 James Ellis, Baltimore Evening Sun, February 12, 1957
3 C.M. Gibbs, "Gibberish" Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1958.
4 Tom E. Mahl, The Spitball Knuckleball Book (Elyria, Ohio: Trick Pitch Press, 2009), 163
6 F.C. Lane, Baseball Magazine, July 1923
7 F.C. Lane, Baseball Magazine, September 1926
8 Baltimore Evening Sun, February 11, 1957
9 C.M. Gibbs, "Gibberish," Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1958
10 James Ellis, "Money Hassle With Owner of Richmond Team Led Eddie Rommel To Don Umpire's Uniform," Baltimore Evening Sun, February 12, 1957
11 "22-Year AL Umpire, A's Pitcher Dies At 72," Baltimore Evening Sun, August 27, 1970
13 "Rites Planned for Rommel, Baseball Pitcher," Baltimore Sun, August 28, 1970
14 "Ed Rommel Gets Post in Tawes Office," Baltimore Evening Sun, August 1, 1960
16 Baltimore Sun Magazine, Jube 30, 1957
17 "22-year AL Umpire, A’s Pitcher, dies At 72," Baltimore Evening Sun, August 27, 1970
19 Tom Hufford, "Old Orioles Reunited," Baseball Research Journal (SABR, 1976)