Though he played ten years in the majors, when people look back at Ossie Vitt’s career, they tend to remember the player mutiny against him by the team called the “Cleveland Crybabies” when he was manager of the Indians in 1940. He managed the Indians from 1938 through 1940, and 18 seasons in the minor leagues, after his ten years as a player.
Ossie was short for Oscar; he was born as Oscar John Vitt on January 4, 1890, in San Francisco. Her mother Adelaide had come from Germany to the United States in 1873. His father Alfred, a department store clothing salesman, was a New York native of German parents. The couple had four children: Odelia, Albert, Walter and Oscar.
Oscar reportedly “knew nothing of baseball until he was 16 years old” but was instead a handball player and an energetic one.1 Ossie studied architecture at the Wilmerding School of Industrial Arts — a high school in San Francisco — and at the time of the 1910 census gave his employment as “architect, general.” That was where he first saw baseball, in his second year at the school, in 1906. He began to play at the school and on Sundays for an independent team in Napa, California, starting in 1907. The Vitt family survived the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and the fire spared the family’s severely damaged house on Waller Street. Oscar had just completed a bricklaying course at Wilmerding and with chimneys tumbled down all over the city, suddenly had more work that he could possibly handle.2
Walter was his only brother still living at home and he worked as an electrician. Oscar played for Napa in 1908 in the Bay Counties League and then for two teams in 1909 — Oakland (California State League) and Monterey (Three C League) — but 1910 was the first year he was seen in “organized baseball,” when he played third base for the San Francisco Seals. He had a good, full season, playing 205 games for the Seals. That may seem like an extraordinary number of games, but the Pacific Coast League often had extremely long seasons. The Seals played 221 games that year and finished in third place for manager Kid Mohler.
Vitt hit for a .232 batting average, with one home run. That home run was a big one and helped him earn a headline that began, “Vitt, Whole Show,” which described the July 28 game against visiting Portland. “It is not often the privilege of one player to figure so prominently in the winning of a game as was the case with Oscar Vitt at Freeman’s Park today,” began the account in the next day’s Oregonian. The San Francisco third sacker was such a brilliant light in the victory that even the wonderful pitching of Frank Browning was only a glimmer in comparison. The Seals won the game by a score of 1-0.3
He was fast on the bases, leading the league at times. Vitt only weighed 130 pounds in his first year. His later playing weight was said to be 150 pounds; he stood 5-foot-10 and both batted and threw right-handed.
Vitt had played ball in his early days, for Crocker Grammar School in San Francisco and for a number of semipro teams in the city. He’d played for the Napa team, too. A report in early August 1910 said that Connie Mack made a conditional offer to him to join the Philadelphia Athletics.4 By season’s end, there were said to be as many as eight major-league teams interested in him, but Mohler strongly believed he would benefit from another year of seasoning.
Though Vitt was only 21 years old in 1911, and the youngest member of the time, he must have displayed some leadership character since the “bright little chap” was designated the business manager while the team was on the road.5 He didn’t play as much in 1911; he was quite ill early in the year and played in 124 games, hitting .269 and stealing 44 bases. The Seals finished fifth, and Vitt repaired to spend several weeks with relatives in Napa to try and build up his strength after the season. He was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the September 1911 Rule 5 draft, for 1912.
Manager Hughie Jennings was pleased with his play in the springtime of 1912 and with shortstop Donie Bush still a holdout, Jennings handed Vitt an Opening Day job. Vitt got the first hit of the season for the Tigers. Within the first three weeks, he was also asked to play third base, left field and then second base. The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted his versatility and wrote, “In Vitt Jennings finds a boy who is fast, a good judge of ground hit balls, and a splendid batter. … There is not a better throwing arm on the club than Vitt’s.”6
It wasn’t long into the season when Vitt himself was part of a player mutiny which one could say foreshadowed the rebellion against him with Cleveland in 1940. Ty Cobb’s teammates were angry by a suspension dealt to Cobb and went on strike, refusing to play. He was one of 18 Tigers fined $100 by AL President Ban Johnson.7 On the whole, Vitt seemed to like it better playing other than on his native West Coast. “It is harder to get a good batting average on the Pacific coast than in the interior,” he said, somewhat vaguely explaining that “on the coast, a pitcher can get more stuff on the ball.” But he added that neither pitchers nor batters found the conditions that good: “In San Francisco there is fog, in Sacramento blistering hot weather, in Portland rain is always threatening.”8 He played in 76 games and hit .245, with 19 RBIs and 39 runs scored. He stole 17 bases. And he got in trouble another time, too. Both he and Jennings were suspended due to their conduct in the September 11 game against the Athletics, protesting decisions of Umpire Bob Hart. Vitt was coaching at the time.
Hopes he might get a raise for 1913 were dashed by Detroit owner Frank Navin, who sent him a letter in late January or very early February saying that he was “more than satisfied with [Vitt’s] work last year, and would be ordinarily glad to increase his salary” but that he had been forced to agree to pay Ty Cobb $15,000 and consequently he couldn’t give Vitt an increase.9 A letter like that could sometimes create divisions among players on a club. Near the end of spring training, it looked like Vitt was going to be sent to Providence, but things changed and he actually started the season filling a hole in center field for a couple of games before being asked to play second base. He didn’t see the minor leagues again until 1922.
Vitt appeared in 99 games in 1913, batting .240 with 33 RBIs, and would have played more had he not become seriously ill with the grippe at the end of July.
During the offseason, he wrote about baseball for a San Francisco newspaper and had his own remarks published about Cobb. He said he could be the greatest player in the game, but that he was “essentially an individual player” out to pad his own stats. While he regarded Cobb as “greater than [Eddie] Collins in some respects” and “the greatest box-office attraction in the game,” nonetheless “I don’t think he is as valuable to a club.”10 His remarks on Cobb as a grandstand player weren’t likely to please either the Georgia Peach or his legion of fans in Detroit. Even the Denver Post suggested that Vitt “better get busy and repudiate the story he’s alleged to have written.”11 Cobb as quoted as saying, “I should think Vitt might help the team if he would accumulate a little better individual average and not attack his fellow players.”12 A report in the Miami Herald as late as May 6, 1914, said that Cobb refused to speak to Vitt.
Not surprisingly, the Federal League made overtures to Vitt, but he let it be known early on that he wasn’t interested and would be returning to Detroit in 1914. With or without conversation with Ty Cobb, Vitt began the season with the Tigers and did seem to adding points to his average, when he suffered a fractured wrist in the July 10 game when he threw up his hand to prevent a double play.13 He missed a month, and indeed only got into 66 games. He had a few other problems, too. He was characterized by one syndicated newspaper story as “the diminutive utility infielder, who can play better baseball than many regulars, but who has never been able to last long at a stretch because of boils, indigestion, an unlucky series of broken bones, and other ills.”14 His average for the year was .251.
Whatever Cobb thought of him, manager Jennings liked his play: “Oscar Vitt is the most valuable utility player in the American League,” he declared a week or so before the 1915 season opened. It was due to his fielding, and his versatility, and in spite of his bat. An evaluation about five years after he left the majors saw him and Donie Bush as “examples of men who climbed the heights and stayed there without the aid of a big bat, simply because they had wonderful whips.”15 Jennings only wished for him to gain some added strength and, perhaps, thereby gain a little extra confidence at the plate.16 He played a nearly full slate in 1915 of 152 games, even surviving a beaning by Walter Johnson on August 10. He hit an even .250 with 48 RBIs and a highly impressive 116 runs scored. Both were high points in his career. And after the season, he married Irene Freund of Oakland on October 20.
The couple took a honeymoon for a week to ten days, but the bridegroom launched Oscar Vitt’s All-Stars and played a best-of-seven series of exhibition games against the Pacific Coast League champion San Francisco Seals. Vitt’s All-Stars won the series. Then Oscar and Irene spent the winter at their ranch about ten miles outside of Napa, a two-hour drive on rough roads. An amusing headline appeared in the Grand Rapids Press: “Oscar Witt, with Bride in Mountains, Lonely for Ty Cobb.”17 He said he wanted Cobb to come visit his hunting grounds; he added Cobb was always boasting about his hunting trips in Georgia, but, he noted with some competitive good humor, “One visit would convince him that I have the real place for sport.”
Vitt played another full year in 1916, appearing in 153 games, though his average dropped to .226. The 23 double plays he initiated from third base led the American League.
He was a holdout into April 1917 and on April 11 he was automatically suspended for failure to sign his contract. On April 26, the two parties came to terms and Vitt reported to the Tigers on May 1. He had arrived in time to get into 140 games before the end of the year. He hit .254. With the Great War on in Europe, Vitt was ordered to appear for his physical examination for the draft near the end of August.
He was never called to service, but Ed Barrow of the Boston Red Sox called Frank Navin asking about Vitt. Navin wasn’t interested. An injury to Vitt’s left thumb cost him three weeks in a season that was shortened by the war, ending on September 2, but he played in 81 games, hitting .240. Vitt also played for Moore & Scott in the San Francisco shipbuilders league.
Barrow got his man in January 1919, trading three players to the Tigers to get him: Eddie Ainsmith, Slim Love and Chick Shorten. It was part of a three-way deal, since Barrow had to trade Hal Janvrin to Washington to get Ainsmith (and pitcher George Dumont.) Adding Vitt “strengthened the weakest spot on the club.”18 The Red Sox were the reigning world champions, but bringing in Vitt resulted in headlines in some areas such as “Vitt Makes Boston Look Like Pennant Winner.”19
There was a team that played in Oakland during the summer of 1919 called Vitt’s Grays which featured several cousins: Lawrence Vitt, third base; Henry, second base; Edward, shortstop; John, left field; and Joe Vitt, the team’s manager.20
Oscar’s .970 fielding percentage in 1919 led all league third basemen. He improved it to .985 in 1920, though in 87 games rather than the 133 in which he appeared in 1919. He was apparently a very awkward-appearing fielder who earned the nickname “Houdini” because of the way he tied himself up in knots in catching the ball, and then worked his way out of them, with an extremely accurate throwing arm.21 His batting average was .243 with 40 RBIs in 1919 and .220 with 28 RBIs in 1920. At the time of the 1920 census, Oscar and Irene lived in Oakland with her father Charles, a packer of dry goods.
His 1920 season got off to the same sort of start as in 1919 – with Vitt holding out so long that he (and Wally Schang) were suspended for failure to report. The New York Yankees let it be known that they were interested in landing him if the Red Sox could not and Yankees scout Ed Kelly met with Boston’s Harry Frazee to discuss the possibility.22 Things were worked out and Vitt reported to the team on April 30 — but Eddie Foster had been handed the third-base job. He wound up taking over for Mike McNally at second base for a while, but mostly worked backing up Foster, and did get into those 87 games.
In the spring of 1921, he seriously wrenched his ankle in last March spring training. Irene Vitt came to Boston with their young son, Robert, and both watched the August 6 game at Fenway Park. Though he was only 31 years old, Vitt was on a downhill slide in 1921, batting just .190 in 78 games. They were his last games as a major-league ballplayer.
The Cincinnati Reds perhaps didn’t know that yet, and they picked Vitt off the waiver wire on December 8, 1921 – though his contract was sold to Salt Lake City one week later.23 Duffy Lewis was manager of the Bees. Vitt was named captain.
Though hitting was his primary weakness in the major leagues, such was not the case in the Coast League. From 1922 through 1925, he hit over .300 for four years in a row. The .315 he hit in 1922 was the lowest of the four years: He hit .337, .333, and .345 in the following three seasons. It would appear he was wrong that the fog and blistering heat and threat of rain depressed his own hitting. He even seemed to discover some power; after never hitting more than four home runs in a season (and only in 1913 hitting as many as two in the majors), he suddenly hit 19 in 1923 and 15 in 1924. After those two explosive seasons, he hit six in 1925 and only one in his remaining years. Nonetheless, he said of himself, “Some guys are born to slug and some are born to think. I was born to think. All my power is above the shoulders,”24
Vitt began managing in 1925. After Duffy Lewis became a part-owner of the Portland Beavers, Salt Lake City Bees owner William H. Lane appointed Vitt as manager.25 He managed Salt Lake City in 1925, then moved on to manage the Hollywood Stars (Bill Lane launched the Hollywood franchise and brought Vitt with him to run the team) from 1926 through 1934. With the duties of skipper added, he played increasingly fewer games in the years 1926 through 1929 (only playing one game apiece in 1928 and 1929), and then did not play again.
He did put himself in to pinch-hit in the eighth inning of a game the Stars were losing to Sacramento, 1-0, on August 6, 1926 — and he drove in two runs to win the game.26
In his work as manager, there never appeared in print the kind of conflicts that surfaced in Cleveland later on. He seemed to be a popular enough player and manager. Writing about Bill Lane coming to Hollywood, the Seattle Times foresaw the team challenging the Los Angeles Angels for popularity in the area, adding, “Bill has a good colorful club to back him up and he has a manager in Oscar Vitt, whom many rate only less strong and colorful in this league than our own Wade Killefer. Hence the battle in popularity in this end of the league is going to be worth watching.”27 That’s not to say he wasn’t a passionate player, but that he doesn’t appear to have had run-ins with his own players. Umpires, however, were another matter. Every so often there was a run-in with one of the men in blue, for example the July 31, 1926, game when Oakland was visiting. Vitt was “banished from the game for slapping Umpire Moran in the face with his fielders mitt.”28 He then reportedly went to the league president’s office and complained that there were too many incompetent umpires. On August 21 in San Francisco, angered by umpire George Goes calling four straight balls on his pitcher, Vitt came out onto the field and stepped on Goes’ toes. “Goes flashed back with a right to the jaw. At this point, [John] Peters, Hollywood catcher, rushed into the fray, but the stocky umpire threw him to the ground and it took three Seal players to pull the pummeling Goes off.”29 Vitt and Peters both drew suspensions.
Some ten years after the event, and seven years after news of the Black Sox scandal broke, there was another accusation leveled by Swede Risberg that the White Sox had fixed a four-game series with the Tigers around Labor Day in 1917 to give Chicago a better chance to win that year’s pennant. Some White Sox players were said to have offered the Tigers a pool of $1,100 to “slough” off and let the White Sox win.30 Naturally, there were denials. Vitt said he didn’t know a thing about it. Buck Weaver told Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that he had given Vitt the gift of a traveling bag at Christmas.31 Nothing really came of the matter, and the players were exonerated.32
Generally, the press seemed to like him. The Riverside Daily Press dubbed him the “jovial pilot of the Stars.”33 On back-to-back days in 1931, San Diego papers called him “peppery” and “genial.”34 The Seattle Daily Times wrote in 1933, “Of all the managers in the Pacific Coast League, Oscar Vitt is the pleasantest to meet.”35 The same paper later called him “bright and chipper.” He had to release players and he had to discipline players, but there is no indication that he was anything but businesslike in the process.
In 1929, the “Vittmen” (the Stars) came in third in the PCL standings but won the playoffs, beating the Mission Reds four games to three. In 1930, they placed first in the regular season and won the best-of-seven playoffs in five games. A second-place finish in 1931 was followed by Hollywood being swept in the postseason series. There were persistent rumors, certainly by 1933, that he was being considered to manage in Detroit.
On October 24, 1934, Vitt mailed his resignation to Bill Lane. No reason was given at the time, but Lane said that he had been released, and Vitt said, yes, he had resigned but been asked to do so “for reasons of economy.”36 On November 1, he was hired by the Oakland Oaks to manage in 1935 and he led the Oaks to a third-place finish.
He traveled east to manage the Newark Bears in the International League, finishing in a tie for second place in 1936 (and losing in the playoffs) but then reaching the top in 1937, with the team’s 109-43 record claiming the pennant with 25½ games over second-place Montreal. Newark then won both rounds of the playoffs, then beating American Association champion Columbus, winning the Little World Series, too. It was a remarkable team in which every one of the players save Jack Fallon went on to make the majors.37 The Bears were a Yankees farm club at the time, but it was the Cleveland Indians hiring Vitt to manage at the major-league level. The Bears had let him know he’d be welcome back, but the Indians didn’t wait long to hire him. On October 20, Alva Bradley of Cleveland announced that the team had signed him to a two-year deal. Vitt seemed like an unknown to some, but on the West Coast he had long been considered, the Cleveland Plain Dealer told its readers, a “major league manager buried in the minors.”38
The Indians trained in New Orleans in the spring of 1938. The team was coming off fifth- and fourth-place finishes under prior manager Steve O’Neill. Vitt knew he had a pitching phenom in young Bob Feller, but there was open competition for several slots, particularly at second base, third base, and in right field. Catcher Rollie Hemsley had to be sent home for “training infractions” early in March (typically a euphemism for substance abuse) but Vitt was himself called “the genial little manager” in news stories.
It’s worth noting that the Indians as an organization seemed to be problematic at best. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post detailed several of their blunders and violations in a column which began, “If there were an Alcatraz in baseball, the Cleveland club would certainly qualify … the Indians are seemingly confirmed violators of the baseball laws. Their faculty for getting into trouble is no less than amazing.”39 The baseball culture in Cleveland at the time was a difficult one, Grantland Rice observed, on the eve of the season’s opening: “Oscar Vitt starts in Cleveland, where some good men have failed. Cleveland’s baseball temperament is unstable. The hopes of the fans are riding high one day and coasting to the depths the next. And too frequently the manager has been caught in the middle. Sharply critical scribes, noisily articulate fans, and, too frequently, ballplayers who huddled in cliques in the clubhouse corners, have wrecked the careers of managers who have tried desperately to win in Cleveland.”40 Rice added, “Oscar knows all this, of course. He walked into the job with his eyes wide open and against the warnings of some of his friends. He knew it was a hard job, but he didn’t hesitate to tackle it.”
In fact, the situation in Cleveland was understood around the league. Washington owner Clark Griffith had, among deer’s heads and antlers on the walls of his office, a large hornet’s nest; during a party for Griffith’s birthday the prior November, just after Vitt had been hired, one of the guests asked another what was so interesting about the nest. The reply: “I thought if I looked close enough, I would find Oscar Vitt in there.”41
The season had just gotten underway when Vitt had to suspend Hemsley again and fine him on April 25. Club GM Cy Slapnicka backed up Vitt and threatened an indefinite suspension unless the catcher could get his drinking under control. Overall, though, Vitt was optimistic heading into the season, saying he thought his team was showing that extra “umph” because of all the hustle he’d insisted on and because of the better plate discipline he demanded.42 The club seemed to have come together, so much so in the early going that a headline appeared in the May 13 Hartford Courant: “Cleveland’s Big Trouble Is Happiness: Indians Are So Contented They Forget to Get Mad While on Road Trips.” Indeed, things looked good for a couple of months after that; as late as July 12 the Tribe held first place in the standings and had been there for most of the season. This despite a $250 fine levied against one of his star pitchers, Johnny Allen, for walking off the mound during a game when the umpire had instructed him to wear a proper uniform instead of the one with a ragged sleeve he had on. The Christian Science Monitor, early in 1938, wrote that “Manager Oscar Vitt is pretty fair at handling temperamental ballplayers.”43
A full John Kieran column in the New York Times entitled “Brevity is Not the Soul of Vitt” gave a better picture of the “amiable and even jovial” Cleveland manager at the time.44 The team slumped some in August, losing some of that “umph,” and finished in third place, still an improvement over 1937. And Grantland Rice wrote a column in March 1938 headlined “Suggests Award Of Valor For Manager Oscar Vitt: Man Who Gave Up Soft Berth in Newark to Take Precarious Job of Piloting Cleveland Club Should Be Given Medal For Bravery.”45 Catcher Frankie Pytlak walked off the club during spring training. And a few weeks later, just days before the season began, Vitt had to again suspend Hemsley, who kept up most of the team during the night while, in Vitt’s words, “kicking cuspidors from one end of the train to the other. Then he started lighting matches and throwing them into the unoccupied berths…Half the time he was abusive and half the time he was crying.”46 But it was Vitt who pleaded on his behalf and got him a pardon from Slapnicka.47
The 1939 team struggled to stay above .500 for most of the season, coming out of an early-season slump before settling into third and fourth place for most of the year. There were stories starting to circulate that ownership was dissatisfied. There had been a newspaper story saying he was on the brink of being fired and that there was a “smoldering rebellion against the manager by some members of the team,” to which owner Alva Bradley responded by signing Vitt to a new contract on August 11 and saying that he’d been “more than pleased” by the year and a half his manager had put in and that “our team had certain weaknesses of which we were all aware, and to blame the manager for failure to win a pennant with such a team would be extremely unfair … we feel he has done an excellent job keeping the Indians in the first division.” Presumably alluding to the hints of rebellion, he added, “They’ve got to know who their boss is, and they might as well know now that Vitt will be giving the orders again next season. Naturally I will back him up in whatever action he may take to maintain discipline.”48
Just a few days later, he heard that his wife had been killed in a train wreck in Nevada. He soon learned this was not the case, but that she had been injured, and 22 others had lost their lives.49
The 1939 Indians finished a solid third place.
Vitt didn’t expect to beat the Yankees in 1940 but thought his team had a good chance to edge the Red Sox for second place. The team had fixed its infield problems, he thought, but recognized that both Johnny Allen and Mel Harder were aging as pitchers. And Bob Feller threw a 1-0 no-hitter against the White Sox on Opening Day, with Hemsley tripling in the one run. Regardless of what went on in the clubhouse, there were only two days all season long — May 7 and June 15 — that the Indians sank as low as third place. They were in first or second place almost all season long, and in first place for most of August.
The player rebellion broke out in mid-June. They were still in second place, but had lost eight of their last 13 games. What was said to be virtually every Cleveland player who was not a rookie personally confronted owner Alva Bradley in his office in what the Associated Press termed a “mass protest, believed unprecedented in major league baseball history.” They said they couldn’t win under Vitt, who was guilty of “insincerity, ridiculing of players and caustic criticism.”
Veteran Cleveland sportswriter Gordon Cobbledick wrote in the June 14 Plain Dealer that the players’ demand was “incontrovertible evidence” that he did not have his players’ confidence and therefore by definition was a poor manager. “The Indians say it is difficult to hustle for Vitt. They charge that he has destroyed their spirit and wrecked the incentive to play winning ball. It isn’t merely that they dislike him, for other managers have been disliked by their players and still made a success. Their chief complaint is that he has forfeited their respect and caused them to lose face with other teams.” Bradley, for his part, expressed complete surprise to hear all this — though the AP story did refer to “undercurrent rumblings” which had “nearly reached the surface last season” and resulted in Bradley extending Vitt’s contract. Vitt expressed amazement and said he gave his all for the team and couldn’t understand what this was all about. Bob Feller spoke up and said he had nothing against Vitt but “sometimes it seems he’ll drive us all nuts.”50
On June 16, all the players (except for three who were not present for unrelated reasons) signed a statement withdrawing everything they had said, citing the withdrawal as for the betterment of the team.51 Needless to say, Vitt had been stung by the charges and that couldn’t all be wiped away by the withdrawal. Povich of the Post suggested that had been a strategic retreat, since the players “suddenly discovered that they had whipped up an awful fuss and were making themselves, as well as Bradley and Vitt, laughing stocks.” They also found that Bradley was going to stick by Vitt, and “baseball players don’t argue with club owners.” Bradley couldn’t really kowtow to the players in the short run, though Povich understood that Vitt’s days were inevitably numbered and that the only thing which could save him would be to win the pennant. He did say that his sympathies were with the beleaguered manager.52
Around baseball, even other ballplayers tended to sympathize with Vitt, in part because they realized he had an unusually large number of problematic ballplayers on his team, and players on other teams were heard to call them “sneaks” and “crybabies.” “It is a wonder Vitt has taken their temperaments as long as he has,” wrote Ed Rumill in the Monitor.53 Rumill also questioned how smart they were to pull a stunt like this when they were no more than two games out of first place.
The team did go on a 12-2 run, however, getting back into first place and, staying there into early September. Alva Bradley was well aware that the problems remained and said later in August that “even the winning of the pennant and the World Series won’t smooth over the present difficulties.”54 They never went away. Sometimes the press may have exaggerated things, writing that “everybody hates everybody” on the club and talking about a second players-only secret meeting in early September. Some of the players scoffed at the latter notion, griping that every time some of them got together in a room to enjoy themselves, it was characterized as a “secret meeting.” The team lost sox games in a row — though still held onto first place — in the first week of September, and Irving Vaughn of the Chicago Tribune wrote that they were now eating the fruit born from the seeds of their own dissension.55
The race went right down to the wire, the Tigers coming in first and the Indians second, with Detroit only winning out in the final home stand for the Indians. Cleveland wound up one game out of first place.
Vitt went home after what he called a “nightmarish” season, and said he never would have resigned, because “I’m no quitter.” It was really two or three players who had been the ringleaders, he said, and the others followed, but that it broke out was because upper management hadn’t backed him strongly enough. Blaming the higher-ups probably wasn’t going to help him keep his job. Cy Slapnicka then countered Vitt. In any event, surprising no one, the Indians chose not to renew his contract for 1941. New manager Roger Peckinpaugh had his sympathies, Vitt said. Another Oscar, Melillo, coached for Cleveland in 1939 and 1940, and resigned when manager Ossie Vitt was let go, complaining that the players who had rebelled against Vitt had forfeited his respect for them.56
It may be worth noting that at the baseball writers’ dinner in New York in January, a skit was presented which portrayed three Indians as in the Army and complaining to Bradley that they weren’t being treated properly — at which point a “Sgt. Vitt” showed up with a bullwhip.57
Within a few weeks, Vitt had been hired on November 24 by the Portland Beavers to run the team in 1941.
Expectations might have been good that he’d have some success. There might have been a sense that he couldn’t do any worse. Portland had finished last two years in a row — 75-98 under Bill Sweeney in 1939 and 56-122 under Johnny Frederick in 1940. As it happens, the Beavers finished last again (71-97) under Vitt in 1941 (and, for that matter, under Frank Brazill with 67-110 in 1942.)
It was indeed a one-season gig for Vitt. He resigned immediately after the season. Portland had no one set to replace him; the decision may have been Vitt’s alone.
Back in Cleveland, the Indians were in first place until the end of June but then gradually lost ground, as the season wore on, finishing fourth. On the very same day Vitt resigned in Portland, GM Cy Slapnicka did in Cleveland. The dissension hadn’t ended with Vitt’s departure; Peckinpaugh had similar, though muted, problems during the 1941 season. When Lou Boudreau was named manager before the 1942 season, outfielder Gee Walker said he hoped that would finally bring about an end to the dissension. With Slapnicka out, and Peckinpaugh elevated to GM, Walker felt that the new GM would realize the importance of backing the manager since he’d lived through the problem in 1941.58
On October 25, 1941, Vitt was signed to a two-year contract to once again manage the Hollywood Stars. He brought the Stars in seventh, a notch above the Beavers. It was expected he’d manage again in 1943 but in late February, it was announced that he’d been bought out of his contract and the Stars would be hiring a replacement. There was a suggestion that part of the reason was to cut costs by hiring a playing manager like Charlie Root.59
On January 4, 1962, the date of his 72nd birthday, Vitt suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed in his right arm and leg. Complications developed and by the end of the year or very beginning of 1963 he was hospitalized. He died at Merritt Hospital in Oakland on January 31.
L.H. Gregory of the Oregonian didn’t mince words in his column after Vitt’s death, railing against “the incredibly stupid, idiotic, Cleveland ‘Crybaby’ baseball rebellion of 1940.” He further wrote, “Some of the players ran moaning to the front office with complaints about Vitt’s sarcastic tongue — and, unbelievably were heard sympathetically by Cy Slapnicka, the general manager. The late H.G. Salsinger, former Detroit News baseball writer, always insisted he had irrefutable evidence that Slapnicka didn’t like Vitt, that from the opening of the season he had a change in mind. …” The Crybabies, Gregory added, “in effect cried themselves out of the world’s series and accompanying big money”60
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Vitt’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to Carlos Bauer and to Lyle Spatz for supplying some of the information presented here.
1 Cleveland Press, October 28, 1937. The Press ran a 12-part series by Stuart Bell detailing Vitt’s life story.
2 Cleveland Press, October 30, 1937.
3 The Oregonian continued: “Vitt made the run, Vitt saved the day in the ninth and Vitt accepted nine chances during the nine spasms without a flutter. Some of them were chances that required skill and agility to handle, but the clever youngster got away with them just like breaking sticks.
“Anything else? Well, he lifted the ball over the left field fence for the only tally of the game, just over, but it was enough. And he rapped out a pretty two-bagger in addition out of his three trips to the plate.
“Anything else? Yes, with Olson on third at the last rally of the beavers to get on the board, he stopped two wild throws from the arm of Williams and he ended the awful agony by pouncing on a hard-hit ball that had all the earmarks of a safety and with a perfect low peg to the plate retired the runner.”
4 Trenton Evening Times, August 4, 1910.
5 The Oregonian, February 12, 1911.
6 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 28, 1912.
7 Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 1912.
8 Lexington Herald (Lexington, Ky.), July 14, 1912.
9 Washington Evening Star, February 4, 1913.
10 Cincinnati Post, October 28, 1913.
11 Denver Post, November 22, 1913.
12 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, December 13, 1913.
13 Sporting Life, July 25, 1914.
14 Riverside Independent Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.), March 4, 1915.
15 San Diego Evening Tribune, May 27, 1915.
16 Flint Journal, April 7, 1915.
17 Grand Rapids Press, January 10, 1916.
18 New Orleans Item, February 6, 1919.
19 Columbus Daily Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.), February 20, 1919.
20 Daily Illinois State Register (Springfield, Ill.), August 14, 1919.
21 See, for instance. “Houdini of Baseball” in the Detroit News of October 21, 1937.
22 New York Times, April 3, 1920.
23 Who actually sold the contract — the Reds or, as reported in some publications such as the December 16 Chicago Tribune, the Red Sox — is not 100 percent clear.
24 Article by H. G. Salsinger, Detroit News, October 21, 1937.
25 Seattle Times, November 18, 1924.
26 Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1926.
27 Seattle Times, March 27, 1926.
28 Seattle Times, August 1, 1926.
29 Seattle Times, August 22, 1926.
30 Trenton Evening Times, January 3, 1927.
31 Tampa Tribune, January 2, 1927.
32 Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1927.
33 Riverside Daily Press, February 21, 1927.
34 San Diego Union, April 3, 1931 and San Diego Evening Tribune, April 4, 1931.
35 Seattle Daily Times, June 11, 1933.
36 Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1934.
37 If we exclude three pitchers who only appeared in 12 games among the three.
38 Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 21, 1937.
39 Washington Post, March 12, 1938.
40 Boston Globe, April 16, 1938.
41 Washington Post, November 22, 1937.
42 Hartford Courant, April 28, 1938.
43 Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1939.
44 New York Times, July 20, 1938.
45 Hartford Courant, March 6, 1939.
46 Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1939.
47 Boston Globe, April 17, 1939.
48 New York Times, August 12, 1940.
49 The story is detailed in the August 14, 1939 Cleveland Press.
50 New York Times, August 16, 1940.
51 Boston Globe, June 17, 1940.
52 Washington Post, June 18, 1940.
53 Christian Science Monitor, June 20, 1940.
54 Boston Globe, August 25, 1940.
55 Chicago Tribune, September 8, 1940.
56 Bill Nowlin, “Oscar Melillo,” SABR BioProject.
57 Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 3, 1941.
58 Washington Post, February 16, 1942.
59 Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1943. The March 2 Times later also called it an “economy move.”
60 The Oregonian, February 6, 1963.