Although the question about who is the best major league baseball team is quite subjective, the answer that is given on many occasions is the 1927 New York Yankees. The team that was dubbed “Murderers’ Row” included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt. All are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There are some who would argue that Bob Meusel could join them. Throw in stars Joe Dugan and Mark Koenig, plus catcher Pat Collins and you have the whole starting nine.
It almost seemed unfair that the Yankees obtained Urban Shocker from the St. Louis Browns. Shocker won 20 games four years in a row for the Browns, and now he was an added gun to the best team in baseball. Especially when one considers the Yankees were Shocker’s first major league club and they unloaded him to St. Louis in 1918. “There were a lot of things I had to find out, even about my own players,” said Miller Huggins, who had just taken over as manager of the Yankees in 1918. “So I poked around and found out as much as I could about them before the training season started. One of the things I was told was that I would do well to get rid of Shocker as quickly as possible because he was a trouble-maker. I later discovered that my information had done Shocker a grave injustice. Urban has never made trouble for anyone.”1 Huggins righted his wrong, reacquiring the St. Louis ace.
Shocker was able to fulfill the dream of most ballplayers; winning a World Championship. Shocker pitched that 1927 season on guts and guile. What was known to very few, and certainly not outside the Yankee organization, was that he was suffering from a heart disease that corroded one of his valves. But he battled through the pain on his way to 18 victories and a 2.84 ERA, the third-lowest in the league.
Urbain Jacques Shockcor was born on September 22, 1890, in Cleveland, Ohio, the fifth of eight children born to William and Anna Shockcor. William Shockcor, who was of French origin, made his living as a machinist. Anna Shockcor, maiden name Spies and of German derivation, made her living as a dressmaker. The Shockors’ raised their family on the lower west side of Cleveland, where Urbain attended Dennison Grammar School and Lincoln High School.
The reasons are vague as to why or when Urbain Shockcor relocated to Michigan. What is clear is that Shockcor embarked on his baseball career there, joining semipro teams in both Michigan and Canada. A catcher, he signed with Windsor, Ontario, a Class D Independent team of the Border League in 1912. He alternated between catcher and pitcher, but a freak accident in 1913 moved Shockcor permanently from behind home plate to the pitching mound. One day while catching, he stopped a baseball with the tip of the third finger on his pitching (right) hand. When the broken finger healed, it had a hook at the last joint. “That broken finger may not be pretty to look at,” said Shockcor, “but it has been very useful to me. It hooks over a baseball just right so that I can get a break on my slow ball and that’s one of the best balls I throw. If the finger was perfectly straight, I couldn’t do this. As it is, I can get a slow ball to drop just like a spitter. Perhaps if I broke one of my other fingers, I could get the ball to roll over sideways or maybe jump in the air, but I am too easy-going to make the experiment.”2
Shockcor posted a 6-7 record with a 4.54 ERA for Windsor in 1913. But the ratio of strikeouts to walks was nearly 3 to 1; he fanned 90 batters while issuing 33 free passes. He moved on to Class B Ottawa of the Canadian League, where he established himself as a viable major league prospect with two breakout seasons. In 1914 Shockcor won 20 games and followed that up with a 19-win season the following year. But as was the case at Windsor, it was his control that made him special. Shockcor struck out 158 men in 1914 while walking 60. He was even better in 1915, racking up 186 K’s while opposing batters walked only 40 times. Shockcor alluded to the fact that he was a “slow ball” pitcher, which enabled him to maintain pinpoint control. The Ottawa Senators won the league championship both seasons, making it four straight overall as the champions of the Canadian League. At the conclusion of the 1915 season, Shockcor was drafted by the New York Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft. The Yanks coughed up $750 for the services of the young righty.
It is unclear as to when Shockcor changed his name. His nephew Roger Shockcor says that the name switch came about as the result of writers continually misspelling his name. Urbain Jacques Shockcor would be known to the world as Urban James Shocker thereafter.
During a spring training game in 1916, a ball was hit down the line near first base, Shocker moved to cover the bag, but was spiked on the foot by the base runner. It turned out to be a minor setback, as Shocker pitched well enough to break camp and head north with the varsity. He made his major league debut on April 24, 1916, pitching three innings of relief in an 8-2 loss to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. With a surplus of pitching, the Yankees optioned Shocker to Toronto of the International League, with whom New York had a working agreement. Shocker reported to the Maple Leafs on May 15. At this point of the season, Toronto was a woeful 2-12. His first assignment was against the 12-1 Newark Indians, and Shocker toppled the league leaders with a 5-3 victory. On July 8, Shocker started a string of pitching four straight shutouts covering 36 scoreless innings. Not only was he on a hot streak, the Maple Leafs won 10 of 12 games during the stretch. On July 22, Shocker tossed an 11-inning no-hitter at Rochester. “He had his spitter snapping over the plate in such a way that it appeared to hypnotize the local batsmen,”3 noted the Rochester Sun.
His string was snapped at 54 1/3 scoreless innings when he surrendered two runs in the eighth inning on July 26, 1917 against Montreal in a 2-2 tie called on account of darkness. For the year, Shocker was 15-3 with a 1.31 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 185 innings. He was recalled to New York and started nine games, going 4-2. (He had lost one game before his demotion and was 4-3 on the season with a 2.61 ERA).
In spite of his success at Toronto, Shocker was used sparingly by New York manager Wild Bill Donovan in 1917. He made 13 starts, going 8-5 with seven complete games for the sixth-place Yanks. Shocker gave a preview of coming attractions on September 11, fanning 10 Athletics in a 4-1 New York win at Shibe Park. Donovan was replaced by Miller Huggins for the 1918 season. Huggins was looking for stability at second base, as Luke Boone, Joe Gedeon and Fritz Maisel all took their shot at the keystone position. None provided the offense that Huggins desired. He set his sights on Del Pratt of the St. Louis Browns. With Wally Pipp at first, Pratt at second base, Roger Peckinpaugh at short and Frank “Home Run” Baker at the hot corner, the Yanks would have a tremendous infield. Pratt, who ended his 13-year career with a .292 batting average, had a down year in 1917 hitting .247. On January 22, 1918, Pratt and pitcher Eddie Plank were sent east for Gedeon, Maisel, catcher Les Nunamaker, and pitchers Nick Cullop and Shocker.The Browns also received $15,000 in the deal. But Plank decided to retire instead of reporting to the Yankees and a portion of the payment was refunded.
Urban posted a 6-5 record with a 1.81 ERA before his draft board tapped him to change into an army uniform at the end of June. Shocker returned from France the following year, joining his teammates and making his first appearance on May 11, 1919, losing to Detroit, but rebounded to win his next six of seven starts, shutting out the Senators twice and the Athletics once.
Shocker, who relied on the spitball in his repertoire of pitches, was facing adversity. A new rule banned pitchers from using a foreign substance on the baseball or scuffing it. The1920 season was to be a year of transition so that the spitball pitchers could wean themselves from throwing it. However, the players who relied on the spitball as their “money” pitch lobbied to be able to continue to use the pitch. Seventeen of them, including Shocker, were allowed to throw it until their careers ended. (Burleigh Grimes was the last legal spitball pitcher. He hurled until he was 41, his last stop being with Pittsburgh in 1934.)
The St. Louis Browns usually finished in the middle-to-bottom of the American League standings. But the tide was beginning to turn in their favor. A powerful hitting team was being assembled in the Mound City, and it began with George Sisler. Sisler was the Browns’ only “name” player, and the only member of the Browns of this era who was enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame. The first baseman hit over .400 twice in his 15-year major league career and failed to hit over .300 in only three seasons. He was joined in the lineup by outfielders Jack Tobin, Ken Williams and William “Baby Doll” Jacobson. All three players had the ability to drive in runs and hit for average with some long distance “pop” in their bat.
The Browns needed pitching, and they may never have expected the return they received when they dealt for Urban Shocker. Shocker won 20 games in 1920. He was backed by Dixie Davis who won 18 games while leading the league in walks with 149. The Browns were one of the few teams that used a walk as a strategy, often issuing a free pass to the better hitters of the game, rather than risk a more damaging hit. The Browns frequently used this strategy against Babe Ruth, who was hitting home runs at a record pace in 1920. “If they won’t let me use base hits as a mode of transportation,” said the Babe,’ they ought to at least issue me a bicycle.”4 Shocker bucked this trend in the first game of a doubleheader against New York on July 13, 1920. He fanned a career-high 14 batters, whiffing the Babe three times in the 6-4 Browns victory. To prove it was not a fluke performance, Shocker scattered five hits in defeating his former mates 1-0 on July 28 at Sportsman’s Park. The Browns finished in fourth place in 1920, their highest finish since 1908. Shocker was 9-5 against the three clubs (Cleveland, Chicago, New York) that placed higher than the Browns.
Over the next three years, Shocker topped the 20-win mark in each season, leading the league in wins with 27 in 1921. With the exception of Elam Vangilder, the Browns’ pitching staff was very thin. However, the additions of Marty McManus at second base and Frank Ellerbe at third base solidified the St. Louis infield. Add Hank Severeid as the starting backstop to go with the powerful outfield, and a championship team was being put into place. They finished third,, trailing only the Yankees and Indians.
Shocker provided a glimpse as to what he tried to achieve when he was pitching in order to be successful: “The secret of Ty Cobb’s success as a batter is the fact that he always establishes a mental hazard. He was always on the offensive and you never knew exactly what he would do. Sometimes he would choke up on the bat and punch a hit through the infield. Sometimes he would slug. Sometimes he would bunt. Sometimes he would wait them out. But you never could tell what he was going to do or how he was going to do it.
“To my mind, the successful pitcher does the same thing. He also establishes a mental hazard. He has the batter guessing, and to the extent that he has the batter guessing, he has him at a disadvantage for he can give the batter any kind of ball he chooses. The batter has to take what comes and if you can contrive to give him something he isn’t looking for, you have him.
“You can tell very often what is in a batter’s mind by the way he shifts his feet or hitches his belt or wiggles his bat. Keep him guessing. That’s the point and if possible, get him to bite on bad balls. Once you have him swinging, you have his number. And still, as long as your control holds good, there is really nothing else for him to do. Sometimes I wonder why pitchers ever lose a game and then I reflect that there’s a fellow also pitching for the other side.”5
But there was more to Shocker’s game then pitching. “Best fielding pitcher I ever saw,” said Browns third baseman Frank Ellerbe. “He could field that position, he’d leave that mound and jump on the ball like a cat. You’d see a slow one down the third base line, a bunt or sacrifice or anything, and if the runner from second would come, he’d jump on that ball and we’d cut him off at third…and if the man didn’t come he’d jump on the ball and we’d get him at first. He could really field his position.”6
After the conclusion of the 1921 World Series, won by the New York Giants over the Yankees, Bob Meusel and Babe Ruth took part in a barnstorming tour, a common practice among players of the day to earn some extra money during the offseason. However, baseball rules forbade members of the teams that participated in the World Series to barnstorm. Commissioner Landis fined both Meusel and Ruth to the tune of $3,362, equal to the player’s shares from the World Series. In addition, each player was suspended for the first six weeks of the 1922 season.
All signs pointed to 1922 being a banner year for the Browns. And Shocker was a main ingredient in the mix of talented ballplayers in St. Louis. General Manager Bob Quinn said “With another like him we’d win the championship. Even as we stand we’ve got a good chance.”7 Shocker led the staff with a 24-17 record and a 2.97 ERA. He also led the league in strikeouts with 149. Even more surprising was the fact that Shocker was second in the league in innings pitched with 348, considering he was sidelined from June 11 through July 4 with an injured leg. Vangilder won 19 games and Davis 14 . The real surprise was Ray Kolp, who at 28 , in his second major league season, posted a 14-4 record. The Browns were not a “one-man band” when it came to the starting rotation. Sisler batted .420 with 246 hits and 19 triples, all league highs. The Browns as a team hit .310 for the season.
When Ruth and Meusel returned to the starting lineup on May 20, the Yankees held a two-game lead over St. Louis. As it would happen, the Yankees’ opponent that day was the Browns at the Polo Grounds. Shocker was on the hill, and breezed to his eighth win of the year, 8-2 . It was a dog fight between the two clubs the rest of the way. St. Louis trailed the Yanks by only half a game when the Yankees came calling for a three game series at Sportsman’s Park beginning September 16… . Bob Shawkey topped Shocker in the first game, 2-1. They split the next two, and the Yankees left town with a 1 ½ game lead. St. Louis lost two of three to the Senators in the next series to fall 3 ½ games back. Even though they won their next five of six contests, they could not overcome the deficit. They finished in second place by one game. “I also blame our club for not hustling more after the Yankees beat us, two out of three, in a September series” said Jacobson. “After the Yanks left town, we blew our next games to Washington, then a second division club. When we eventually lost the pennant only by a game, the importance of those Washington defeats may well be realized.”8
Manager Lee Fohl had the horses, as he guided the Browns to a 93-61 record. The Browns dominated the rest of the league, but were 8-14 against the Yankees. Shocker accounted for half those wins, going 4-7 against New York.
Over the next two seasons, the Browns slipped back to the middle of the pack in the American League. Fohl was replaced in 1923 by longtime Browns infielder Jimmy Austin. Shocker won 20 games in 1923 and it may have been more. But the veteran pitcher took a stand against the club rule prohibiting wives from accompanying the team on road trips. Shocker refused to join the Browns on a trip to Philadelphia without his wife, Irene. When Shocker was threatened with fines and suspension, he held his ground. He was suspended for the remainder of the 1923 season, pitching his last game on September, 7 at Chicago. Shocker brought his case to Commissioner Landis, making a plea that he be declared a “free agent”. However a settlement was finally reached between Shocker and the Browns.
Sisler assumed command of the team in 1924. But that change made little difference in the club’s fortunes. Shocker again ran afoul of management when he showed up late one day. Sisler fined his ace pitcher, who by some accounts made showing up late a habit. “Shocker is a great pitcher; the greatest in the game when he takes care of himself…However, infractions of the unwritten rules of baseball cannot be overlooked. A man must keep in shape, fit to play, and if he doesn’t, something must be done,” said Sisler.9
“He had control. He had the best control of that spitball of anybody I ever saw. He was a little wild, not with his pitching, but a little wild in his living,” said Ellerbe. “When he wasn’t pitching someday maybe he might not show up, supposed to get four days rest. But he’d come back in the club house and say ‘Give me one today boys, one run today and I’ll beat ‘em.’ Sometimes he’d come in and say, ‘Well I might need two, give me two runs and I’ll beat ‘em’. And he came dang near doing it too.”10
Shocker was not one to follow the crowd. He did his own thing and was considered somewhat of a loner. While his teammates might gather for breakfast or a night on the town, Shocker chose to either go off by himself, or more likely stay in his room when the team was on the road. He loved newspapers, a voracious reader who subscribed to out- of-town papers as well. “I used the time reading the papers from the next city on our schedule,” Shocker explained, “and that way I could keep book on the streaky hitters. Gave me a little edge.”11
There was one day in particular that Shocker demonstrated his value, and more. In the first game of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park on September 6, Urban went the distance in a 6-2 win over the White Sox. Shocker started the nightcap as well, winning again by an identical score of 6-2. Again he went the full nine innings, walking four batters and striking out none.
Shocker’s record slipped to 16-13 in 1924, and his ERA ballooned to 4.20. His age (34) and his recent disagreements with management made him expendable. The Browns found a willing trade partner in the Yankees. Huggins coveted Shocker and jumped at the chance to snatch him up. On December 17, 1924, Shocker was sent to New York. St. Louis received pitchers “Bullet Joe” Bush, Milt Gaston and Joe Giard. “He’ll just about make our pitching staff,” said Huggins. “All I want is another left-hander besides Pennock. Shocker will win at least 20 games, and I expect him to work hard and pitch winning ball with a change of atmosphere.”12
Huggins was slightly off in his appraisal. The pitching staff was not as strong as believed, as Pennock, Waite Hoyt and Sad Sam Jones all finished with losing records. Shocker was an even 12-12, a subpar season for him. Babe Ruth was hospitalized in spring training and did not break into the lineup until June 1. His 25 home runs and 67 RBIs were career lows, at least in the time he wore the Yankee pinstripes. Furthermore, Ruth was suspended and fined $5,000 for “insubordination” after showing up tardy for a game in St. Louis on August 29. The suspension was intended to last the remainder of the year, but Ruth was back on the field in early September. Lou Gehrig was in his first full season, and except for Bob Meusel, who led the league in homers and RBI, the team was barely treading water. Tthey sank to seventh place.
Then the Yankees got younger with a new keystone combo, as Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig took over at second base and shortstop, respectively. Of course it didn’t hurt that the Babe rebounded to have one of the finest seasons in his career. He led the league in runs (139), home runs (47), runs batted in (153), walks (144), OBP (.516) and SLG (.737). Herb Pennock led the staff with a 23-11 record, while Shocker was right behind him at 19-11 .
The Yankees held off Cleveland to win the American League pennant by three games. Their opposition in the World Series was the St. Louis Cardinals. Shocker got the starting assignment in Game Two, with the Yankees leading the series 1-0. The game was tied at two, when Shocker surrendered a three-run homer to Cardinal right fielder Billy Southworth. The Cards went on to win the game, 6-2. Shocker’s only other appearance was in Game Six, as he pitched 2/3 of relief as St. Louis battered New York, 10-2. The Cardinals eventually won the series in seven games.
By 1927 Shocker was pitching with a lot of courage. He was fighting heart disease, although few people knew it. He told writer Bill Corum; “I’ve had a bum heart for some time. You’ve seen me sitting up late at night in my Pullman berth. I couldn’t lie down. Choked when I did.”13
There was no drama in the 1927 American League race. New York trampled the opposition, besting second place Philadelphia by 19 games. Still, on a team that was loaded with pitching, including Waite Hoyt, Wilcy Moore, Dutch Ruether and Pennock, Shocker posted a record of 18-6 with a 2.84 ERA. After a victory over his old mates from St. Louis, James M. Kahn of the New York Graphic wrote, “Professor Urban Shocker enjoyed his best game of the season yesterday, allowing only four hits, all singles. How the professor continues to do it is a mystery. After 13 years in the big leagues, Shocker hasn’t the varied assortment of deliveries that he once had, but it has leaked out that he has passed by a studious and diligent process into his head. Professor Shocker is nobody’s straight man, though he makes the batters look like a very droll lot of comedians.”14
In the World Series, they swept Pittsburgh in four straight. Shocker did not appear in the World Series, as George Pipgras started in his place.
Ruth, Combs, Muesel, Pennock, and Shocker were all holdouts when the 1928 season rolled around. Ruth received a two-year $70,000 deal, which opened the floodgates for negotiating with the others. But Shocker announced in February that he was retiring. He had an interest in the radio business and aviation and planned to pursue a career in those fields. Although Huggins tried to get Shocker back in the Yankee fold, he was resigned to go onward. “I am not going to waste any more time or telegraph tolls on Shocker,” said Huggins. “He says he has quit, so I will take him at his word. In cases like this we put him on our voluntarily retired list. Naturally I could have used a pitcher like Shocker this year. What’s the sense of denying that obvious fact? But he is not indispensable and his place on the roster will be taken by one of my young pitchers who otherwise would have been farmed out.”15
Huggins felt that Shocker was bluffing all along, and it turns out that Urban did change his mind and came to terms with the Yankees on a $15,000 deal just before the start of the regular season. “Just as soon as he shows me that he is fit and ready to take his turn, he will get a contract. But not before that. It wouldn’t be fair to the other players who went to training camp and worked hard were I to greet Shocker as the return prodigal and put him right on the payroll. He should have had his training when the training season was on.”16
Shocker was battling a wrist injury, not to mention a dramatic loss of weight. When he was healthy he weighed 190, but it dropped significantly to 115 . He was also waiting to be reinstated by the Commissioner’s office as he was still on the voluntarily retirement list until he got into shape.
Shocker made his only appearance of the year in a Memorial Day matchup with the Senators. He pitched two innings of scoreless relief. Not long after, Shocker was pitching batting practice at Comiskey Park when he collapsed. He was given his release on July 6, 1928, citing poor health as the reason. “Shocker has gone because he could not get into shape to pitch. He ignored his big chance while we were down in Florida,” said Huggins. ”He is essentially a spring pitcher, and once behind in his work, he could not catch up. I wish him lots of luck.”17 His career record in the major leagues was 187-117 with a 3.17 ERA. He registered 983 strikeouts and 657 walks.
Shocker headed to Denver in an attempt to revive his career, and to seek medical attention for his heart. He pitched briefly for a semipro team in Denver, then was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in mid-August of 1928. Urban Shocker passed away from a combination of pneumonia and heart disease on September 9, 1928. He was survived by his wife, Irene.
As it happened, the Yankees were starting a series in St. Louis at the time of Shocker’s funeral at All Saints Church.. Over 1,000 mourners attended the service. Yankee teammates Hoyt, Gehrig, Combs, Mike Gazella, Gene Robertson, and Myles Thomas served as pallbearers. He is interred at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
When the Yankees had reacquired Shocker, it was to the delight of Babe Ruth. “Shocker is a mighty smart hombre out there on the mound, believe me,” said Ruth. “Time was when he used to have a good assortment of stuff, too- but now, as he gets older, he’s losing a lot of the swift. And his hook doesn’t break any more, it just bends a little. But Shocker has two things that most pitchers lack. He has control-and he has a lot of knowledge up there under that old baseball cap of his. And the two get him over many a tough, tough spot, believe me.”18
What was the secret to Urban Shocker’s success? It would seem pinpoint control, studying box scores, and a crooked middle finger was the recipe. Who knew?
The author would like to thank SABR member Steve Steinberg for his help with this bio.
1 Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2006), 71
2 Baseball Magazine, January 1921, 381
3 Steve Steinberg, “A Shocker on the Island”, Dominionball: Baseball Over the 49th (Cleveland, Ohio: SABR, 2005), 119
4 Bill Felber, Under Pallor, Under Shadow, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2011, 101
5 Baseball Magazine, January, 1921, 381-382.
6 Roger A. Godin, The 1922 St. Louis Browns: Best of the American League’s Worst (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 1991), 83
7 Godin, 15
8 Godin, 184
9 Rick Huhn, The Sizzler: George Sisler, Baseball’s Forgotten Great (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 192.
10 Godin, 83
11 Harvey Frommer, Five O’clock Lightning: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the Greatest Baseball Team in History, the 1927 New York Yankees (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008), 91.
12# New York Times, December 18, 1924.
13 Lee Trachtenberg, The Wonder Team: The True Story of the Incomparable 1927 New York Yankees (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1995), 92.
14 G.H. Fleming, Murderers’ Row: The 1927 New York Yankees (New York: Morrow & Company, 1985), 221.
15 New York Times, March 9, 1928.
16 Charlie Gentile, The Return of Murderers Row: The 1928 New York Yankees (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 75.
17 Gentile, 144
18 Faber and Faber, 73.