As a pitcher for the New York Giants in 1915, Fred Herbert fared pretty well, with an ERA of 1.06 in 17 innings. It’s not the final word on whether Fred Herbert was a good major league pitcher, but it certainly shows he had some good stuff. It would seem to be somewhat of a rare thing for a pitcher to pitch that well in the majors for two games in five days and then disappear.
Fred Herbert was actually born Herbert Frederick Kemman in La Grange Park, Illinois on March 4 in 1887. Although the Kemmans were serious farmers, young Herbert and his brothers loved baseball, and even went so far as to form a semipro team that played its home games on a makeshift diamond out in the pasture on the Kemman farm.
Herbert went to the University of Illinois, where he lettered as a right-handed pitcher for the Illini under coach George Huff, before joining the Ottawa Senators’ minor-league club, where he was 16-9 in 1912 after 239 innings of work. At the moment of his entry into professional ball, Herbert changed his name to “Fred Herbert” – perhaps, like many other serious young men of his day, he was a little sheepish about being known as a ballplayer.
He ended up in the International League with Toronto in 1913, where he worked through 1916, and once pitched a no-hitter against the Baltimore club on July 25, 1914, a 15-0 seven-inning win over the Baltimore Orioles. Although he was drafted by Brooklyn – the NL club then known as the “Robins,” after their manager Wilbert Robinson – he ended up with John McGraw’s New York Giants on September 1915, after some amount of trouble.
At the moment when Fred Herbert was breaking in, major-league baseball had briefly fractured into three leagues – the cooperating National and American Leagues, and a third, rogue league known as the Federal League. James Gilmore started the Federal League in 1913 with the idea that it would rival the National and American leagues, enabling a fresh new band of industrialist-club owners to exploit the advertising power of baseball and to reap easy profits. While NL and AL owners were trying to hold the line against higher player salaries, the Federal League owners began waving lucrative contracts in front of major-league talent, with the result that such luminaries as Three Finger Brown, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Joe Tinker, and Hal Chase were seduced into joining the Federal League.
This, of course, caused a bit of a talent drain, and the New York Giants were struggling mightily in the stretch run of the 1915 season, battling with the Cubs for last place. With his pride on the line, McGraw was throwing everyone he could out there to win. It appears that McGraw first tried to obtain Herbert from Toronto in August by trading away his floundering southpaw hurler, future Hall of Famer Rube Marquard, straight-up for Herbert. Marquard refused to report to the minors, however. He was sold to the Brooklyn Robins and had a superior 1916 season. On the second try, on September 20, McGraw signed Herbert for cash, along with Toronto catcher Bradley Kocher.
Herbert was given his first major-league start just five days later, on September 25, against the Cardinals in St. Louis. He pitched a complete game, beating the Cards 5-3 and allowing only six hits – although the Giants were lucky to avoid forfeiting the game in the fifth inning, when infielder Fred Brainerd refused to leave after being thrown out by umpire “Lord” Byron for “loud talking” (i.e. disagreeing with one of Byron’s calls) until Byron threatened to award the game to the Cards. Meanwhile, Herbert had even singled and scored the final Giants run in the fourth inning. The headlines proclaimed “Giants’ Recruit Hurler Beats Cardinals.”
On three days’ rest, McGraw started Herbert again, this time against the Robins at the Polo Grounds. Although he pitched well for eight innings, giving up only two runs on six hits (including an inopportune triple by Robins right-fielder Casey Stengel), Herbert’s good work would not win the day. The Robins beat the Giants, 2-1, and Herbert’s loss unfortunately clinched last place for the Giants. McGraw and the club were rewarded with a sarcastic editorial in the New York Times about the Giants being the “reverse champions,” and on the next day, Giants’ president Harry Hempstead had to cancel a game due to poor attendance.
At the end of the 1915 season, the Federal League was entangled in a snarl of lawsuits, and NL, AL, and FL owners got together and worked out a settlement that resulted in the disbanding of the Federal League. In January 1916, there was talk that McGraw was looking at keeping Herbert on board, but with Jeff Tesreau, Ferdie Schupp, and the great Christy Mathewson on his roster, plus the signing of three ex-Federal Leaguers for the mammoth sum of $50,000, McGraw released Herbert to Toronto on January 31. Mathewson unfortunately injured himself before the spring was over, and later in the year he was dealt by McGraw to the Reds.
Herbert, however, was long gone by then. During the 1916 season, he sidled up to the Beloit Fairies (which played in and out of the outlaw Midwest League), and became a star of the club’s pitching staff – this time under his own name, Herb Kemman. In his debut with the club, he won both ends of a doubleheader.
As a Fairy, Kemman would pitch alongside another footnote hurler from the Deadball Era, George “Zip” Zabel, a former Kansas chemist who would get his name into the sports history books for two notable items – first, as a reliever with the Cubs, he set a major-league record for the longest relief appearance, taking over after two outs in the first inning and beating Jeff Pfeffer, 4-3, at the end of 18-1/3 innings of pitching; and secondly, as the referee whose questionable officiating is blamed for giving the Green Bay Packers its first-ever loss as a semipro gridiron squad, against (you guessed it) the Beloit Fairies football squad on November 19, 1923. After losing to the Fairies, the Packers joined the NFL.
After Kemman retired from the Fairies baseball club, he stayed on in Beloit, and managed to cut quite a swath there. In 1926, the Beloit Daily News sponsored its first-ever city bowling tournament. Herb Kemman, bowling for (yep) the Beloit Fairies bowling team, took the title, knocking down 4,599 pins to 4,423 by the nearest competitor. Kemman went on to win the Beloit Daily News tournament again in 1929, and once more in 1948 at the age of 61.
Kemman served as mayor of Beloit for a time, and was later inducted into Beloit’s Sports Hall of Fame — along with a number of other Fairies, one would assume. Presumably he retired to Florida, passing there on May 29, 1963. He was buried back home in LaGrange.
So what’s the deal with the “Beloit Fairies” and all that fairy dust on the diamond? It’s simple, really — Fairbanks-Morse, a Beloit engine manufacturer, was an enthusiastic supporter of local semipro sports teams, and “Fairies” was just short for “Fairbanks-Morse.” Kemman, in fact, worked there for a number of years as a foreman while also playing on the company teams.
To prepare this biography, the author consulted the Illini Baseball Record Book (2014); Sporting Life, The Sporting News, and other publications of the day, and corresponded with Paul Kerr, director of the Beloit Historical Society.