Al Huenke

This article was written by Mike Lackey

You could think of Al Huenke as another Moonlight Graham.

Archie “Moonlight” Graham had one of the briefest major-league careers on record — two innings in right field for the New York Giants on June 29, 1905. He became posthumously famous when he turned up as a character in W.P. Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe and the subsequent movie version, Field of Dreams. No comparable celebrity ever found Huenke, but there are parallels. Like Graham, Huenke played for John J. McGraw’s Giants during the Deadball Era, and his bid for big-league stardom consisted of just the merest glimmer — a fraction of one game.

Albert Alfred Huenke was born on June 26, 1891, near New Bremen, Ohio, a village of 1,250 people along the Miami-Erie Canal midway between Cincinnati and Toledo in Auglaize County. He was among four sons and five daughters of Albert and Minnie Jordan Huenke. His parents were Ohio-born children of German immigrants. Working on the family farm during spring planting and fall harvest likely impeded Al’s education, but he graduated from New Bremen High School in 1911, weeks before his 20th birthday.

By that time, Auglaize County had become something of a baseball hotbed. Between the late 1890s and the onset of World War I, the county, with barely 31,000 people, nurtured more than a half-dozen players who reached the major leagues. Most prominent were future Yankees manager Miller Huggins, who played semipro ball in Auglaize in 1898, and native son Bob Ewing, who pitched 11 years in the National League starting in 1902. Soon after he finished school, Huenke was developing his own reputation; local newspapers referred to him as New Bremen’s “strikeout wonder.”1

A contract card at the National Baseball Hall of Fame says Huenke signed with his first professional club, the Dallas Giants of the Texas League, on February 28, 1913. It seems unlikely that a green-as-grass pitcher would be plucked directly out of the farm fields of Ohio by a Class B team 850 miles away, but there is no record of Huenke’s pitching professionally anywhere before that. Certainly teams closer to home showed interest. In August 1912, an out-of-town paper reported that Huenke had signed with Lima in the Class D Ohio State League.2 On the same day, a Lima paper reported that Huenke had rejected that offer and was hoping to catch on with Dayton in the Class B Central League.3 When he reached Dallas the following spring, he was regarded as a promising prospect based on his “wonderful record in the O. and P. league last year.”4 This last possibility might be the most likely, but the Class C Ohio-Pennsylvania League staggered through a chaotic season in 19125 and it appears that no final statistics were ever compiled. Baseball-Reference.com offers no evidence that Huenke ever played for Lima, Dayton, or anybody in the O-P League. Local papers show him pitching for the New Bremen town team as late as September 1912.6

Huenke, a 6-foot, 175-pound right-hander sometimes referred to in the press as Happy Huenke,7 produced an 8-10 record in his first year with Dallas. Highlights included a 5-1 victory over the Beaumont Oilers in which he gave up just one hit. By early 1914, he was attracting notice from big-league clubs. In spring training he pitched four innings of a 4-0 victory over Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants, allowing just one hit while striking out five. Facing the Giants again a week later, he struck out seven and left after six innings holding a 2-0 lead in a game New York ultimately won 5-3. He also notched a complete-game victory over George McQuillan and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Midway through the summer, Huenke was on his way to a 16-11 record for Dallas when it was announced that his contract had been purchased by McGraw, for delivery at the end of the season. Back in New Bremen, a local weekly reacted with a congratulatory local-boy-makes-good news item, later reprinted in the New York Times:

“Friends here of Albert, or more commonly known as Al, Huenke will no doubt be pleased to hear of his recent jump into the limelight by casting his lot with the New York Giants. Al has pitched many games in this vicinity and we guess that if he can stand up against such sluggers as Dave Simpson and Jig Sullivan he won’t have much trouble in the National League.”

Then, possibly with a wink toward Ring Lardner, the writer added, “New Bremen people always stick by their native sons and everyone here hopes he will succeed. You know us, Al.”8 Another western Ohio paper was equally optimistic about Huenke’s prospects, thanks to his “world of speed … [and] large assortment of breakers, all governed by a ‘cool’ head.”9 In one of his last Texas League outings, the strikeout wonder fanned 14 batters in a 12-inning, 2-1 victory over Beaumont.

Reporting to New York after the conclusion of the Texas League season, Huenke found the Giants and their followers in a glum mood. After three consecutive National League pennants between 1911 and 1913, and six straight years with more than 90 wins, the 1914 Giants were limping to an 84-70 record and a finish 10⅟₂ games behind Boston’s Miracle Braves. He finally got his chance to pitch on October 6, in the second game of a Tuesday afternoon doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies — the final game of the season.

By the time Huenke entered the game in the sixth inning, the Giants had committed six errors and trailed 7-0. Much of the “crowd,” reported as a “few thousand”10 or less, had headed home. McGraw had relinquished managing responsibilities for the day to outfielder Mike Donlin,11 though apparently Mugsy was in the ballpark, observing the proceedings in civilian clothes.12 The Giants appeared in their road uniforms, gray with purple trim, the home whites having been sent to the dry cleaner in preparation for the coming city series with the Yankees.13

While Philadelphia stuck with its regulars in a futile bid to catch fifth-place Brooklyn in the standings, the Giants used the day to audition youngsters. Huenke’s supporting cast was made up largely of “wholly anonymous young men”14 including first baseman Walter Holke and second baseman Fred Brainard, who made their major-league debuts that day; and two other rookies, shortstop Desmond Beatty and catcher Elmer Johnson, closing out their brief big-league careers. In left field was Sandy Piez, who had been with the team all summer but was used almost exclusively as a pinch-runner. In center was the former Olympian Jim Thorpe.

The first batter Huenke faced was Bobby Byrne. He flied out to left. Jack Martin singled and stole second. Sherry Magee popped up to second, but Gavvy Cravath delivered a two-out single, sending Martin home with the Phillies’ only earned run of the game. Beals Becker made the final out of the inning on a groundball to second. In the bottom of the sixth, Huenke accomplished something Moonlight Graham never did in the big leagues: He went to bat. Leading off the inning against Stan Baumgartner, he flied out to center field. New York failed to score despite singles by Piez and Brainard.

In the seventh Huenke struck out Fred Luderus and Hal Irelan, and retired Bill Killefer on a grounder to second. The Giants went in order in the bottom of the inning, their third out coming on Red Murray’s fly to right.15 At that point, home-plate umpire Arthur O’Connor (another rookie, working his final big-league game) turned to the mostly empty grandstand and announced that the game was called because of darkness — thus ending the National League season, and Huenke’s major-league career, “two full innings before [their] allotted time.”16 The New York Tribune described dusk falling over the Polo Grounds just as Murray’s fly ball settled into Cravath’s glove, but there is some doubt about that. Both the Sun and the Times reported that the sun was still “shining brightly.”17

All the reporters agreed, however, that everyone concerned — fans, umpires, players, and the scribes themselves — seemed relieved to see the Giants’ sorry season end. “There was no hurrah about it,” Sam Crane wrote in the Evening Journal, “… just a falling of the draperies that shut out all the agonizing remembrances.”18 Damon Runyon, in the New York American, stated that the spectators were “kindly requested to use the exits nearest to them … and to refrain from casting asparagus at the performers.”19 Not surprisingly, commentary on Huenke’s efforts was scanty. The Philadelphia Record said the doubleheader “was hardly taken seriously by even the players” and the second game “was more of a joke than the first,” but the writer allowed that Huenke “did better” than Giants starter Eric Erickson, another player making his debut.20 Beyond that, as the Times put it, “The less said about the second game the better.”21

Huenke went to spring training with New York in 1915 and was said to have “impressed the critics with the Giants in the South,”22 but as the season was about to open he was optioned to Rochester in the Double-A International League. He never made it back to the big time and pitched only two more years. He went 11-13 for Rochester in 1915 and 19-16 in 1916, when he started with Rochester but spent most of the season with the Troy/Harrisburg franchise in the Class B New York State League. In the final weeks of his career, Huenke pitched two complete games in a doubleheader at Utica, losing the first 1-0, winning the second 2-0, and allowing just three hits in each. He also beat Syracuse 3-1 with a seven-inning one-hitter.23

On February 24, 1916, Huenke married Elsie Berend, a German immigrant. They had two daughters and remained together for 52 years until her death on May 3, 1968. After retiring from baseball, Huenke returned to New Bremen to operate a farm with his brother William. In 1940 Huenke ran for county commissioner as a Republican. He was elected to a four-year term and was re-elected in 1944.

Al Huenke died at Joint Township Memorial Hospital in St. Marys, Ohio, on September 20, 1974, of metastatic colon cancer, and was buried in New Bremen’s German Protestant Cemetery. The St. Marys Evening Leader played his obituary on the front page under a two-column headline: “Former Major Leaguer Albert Huenke Dies.”24

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Chris Rainey anf Len Levin and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Notes

1 “Guese Bests Young Strike-Out Wonder,” Lima News, August 12, 1912: 5; “Strikeout Wonder,” Hamilton Evening Journal, August 16, 1912: 8; “Lima Team May Lose New Wonder,” Lima News, August 16, 1912: 8.

2 “Strikeout Wonder,” Hamilton Evening Journal, August 16, 1912: 8.

3 “Lima Team May Lose New Wonder,” Lima News, August 16, 1912: 8.

4 “Dallas Giants Have Some Experiments to Work Out,” Galveston Daily News, February 23, 1913: 5.

5 Four teams folded by July 17 and there were four other instances of franchises moving from one town to another. See Benjamin Barrett Sumner, Minor League Baseball Standings: All North American Leagues, Through 1999 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2000), 466.

6 “New Bremen Team Claims Honors,” Lima News, September 9, 1912: 2.

7 “Bronchos Win Great Eleven Inning Game,” San Antonio Light, June 15, 1913: 18.

8 The Times mangled the name of Huenke’s hometown, rendering it as “New Brendon”; see “Al Huenke on the Way,” New York Times, July 14, 1914: 7. The first of Lardner’s letters from the fictional pitcher Jack Keefe, later collected in book form as You Know Me Al, were published on March 7 and the phrase “You know me, Al” first appeared on May 23, 1914, in The Saturday Evening Post; see George W. Hilton, ed., The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring W. Lardner, 1914-19 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995): 33-ff.

9 “Lucky to Fall Into Hands of McGraw,” St. Marys Evening Leader, July 10, 1914.

10 “New Giants Delight Polo Grounds Fans,” [New York Sun, October 7, 1914: 10.

11 “New Giants Delight Polo Grounds Fans.”

12 Damon Runyon, “Giants Close Season with Win and Defeat,” New York American, October 7, 1914: 8.

13 Frederick G. Lieb, “M’Graw’s Juveniles Exhibit Their Wares,” New York Press, October 7, 1914: 8.

14 Runyon.

15 Play-by-play from “Giants Lose Season Final,” [New York Evening Mail, October 6, 1914: 13.

16 Heywood Broun, “Giants End Season with an Even Break,” New York Tribune, October 7, 1914: 10.

17 “Giants Try Out Rookies,” New York Times, October 7, 1914: 10; “New Giants Delight Polo Grounds Fans.”

18 Sam Crane, “Giants Get Ready to Battle with Yankees,” [New York] Evening Journal, October 7, 1914: 16.

19 Runyon.

20 “Lefty Baumgartner Shuts Out Giantlets,” Philadelphia Record, October 7, 1914: 13.

21 “Giants Try Out Rookies.”

22 “Rochester Gets Recruits,” Wellsville (New York) Daily Reporter, April 15, 1915: 3.

23 The game was the second half of a doubleheader, limited to seven innings by prior agreement between the teams; see “Stars Now Five and Half Games Ahead of Bingos,” Syracuse Herald, August 30, 1916: 24.

24 “Former Major Leaguer Albert Huenke Dies,” St. Marys Evening Leader, September 21, 1974: 1.