This article was written by Joseph Wancho
He was not as flashy as his predecessor, Buck Weaver. But he was as refined and polished as a third baseman as one could find. He had quick and sure hands and outstanding range, and threw perfect strikes across the diamond. Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Chief” Bender said he was the best third sacker he ever saw. Bill James rated him among the best defensive third baseman in history.
Willie Kamm burst onto the Chicago South Side in 1923, and was a fan favorite at Comiskey Park for almost a decade. His defensive ability became legendary. Kamm would boast that his hands and his sleight of hand were so quick that he pulled the hidden-ball trick successfully twice a season.
One such occurrence happened on April 30, 1929, as the White Sox hosted the Cleveland Indians. The hometown heroes were enjoying a 5-3 lead as the visitors took their cuts in the seventh inning. Johnny Hodapp pinch-hit for pitcher Willis Hudlin and singled to right field. Outfielder Charlie Jamieson singled to center, and when center fielder Dutch Hoffman tried unsuccessfully to throw out Hodapp at third base, Jamieson took second on the throw. With the Chicago infielders playing back to concede the run, Cleveland third-base coach Howard Shanks instructed Hodapp to break for the plate on any ball hit to second base or shortstop, but to stay put if the batted ball was headed to first or third base. Carl Lind, the next batter, hit the ball to shortstop Bill Cissell, who threw to first base for an out. Hodapp broke for home, retreated, broke again, but retreated a second time. Jamieson had moved up, and was standing on third base. Bud Clancy, the White Sox first baseman, fired the ball to catcher Buck Crouse. Crouse fired to Kamm, who tagged out Hodapp.
Cleveland now had a runner at third base with two outs. As Jamieson and coach Shanks discussed the poor baserunning of Hodapp, Kamm returned to his defensive position, and pitcher Danny Dugan went to the hill. Jamieson took his lead, only to hear umpire Red Ormsby holler, “You’re out!!” as Kamm applied the tag to the unsuspecting Indian. It may have been an unorthodox triple play, but it was really nothing out of the ordinary for a player like Kamm.
William Edward Kamm was born on February 2, 1900, in San Francisco, the only child of Edward Kamm, a baker, and his wife, Frieda. Willie remembered as a child the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, specifically the plaster that was falling off the walls of the family home. Next to the Kamm home was a laundry, which caught on fire, and Edward grabbed Willie and his mother and led them to safety at Union Square, where other refugees gathered as the fire raged. The Kamm family lived out of a tent at Scott and Post Streets – the area became known as Refugee Square – until permanent housing could be found.
When Willie was 15, he began playing for several semipro baseball teams around the city, including the Golden Gate Park Bums. He broke into professional ball with Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League in 1918, but was released after just four games. A right-handed batter, Kamm had a tendency to step away from home plate with his left foot when he was at bat. Many players have shown this inclination early in their careers and it is commonly referred to as “foot in the bucket.” Spike Hennessey, a baseball scout in San Francisco, worked with Kamm to alleviate the problem. Hennessey would lie flat on his stomach, clutching Kamm’s left foot to hold it in place as he took batting practice. Hennessey found Kamm work in Oregon playing in a shipyard league on the weekends. Willie returned home to work for Union Iron Works, playing for the company’s team, the Timekeepers, on the side.
Kamm was recommended to the San Francisco Seals by sportswriter Tom Laird, who was enthralled with his glove work. With the World War going on, Willie wanted to volunteer for the Navy, but the Seals’ owner Dr. C.H. Strub, talked him out of that idea. “Strub told me the war would be over in a month, and sure enough it was, almost to the day. He told me he could tell the way the stock market was reacting. I never forgot that. So, right after the Armistice, I signed for $175 a month,” Kamm recalled many years later.i
But the youngster committed 42 errors that first season and then 11 more in 1920. Seals manager Charlie Graham stayed the course with Kamm, and it paid off. After the 1920 season, Willie had his tonsils removed and added 20 to 25 pounds. His batting average jumped over 100 points from the end of the 1920 season to the end of 1922. He also showed some power, clubbing 38 home runs over the 1921 and 1922 seasons. He cut his errors down as well, down to 24 in 1921.
The Pacific Coast League long considered itself on par with the major leagues. Until 1957, when the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers migrated to the West Coast, St. Louis was as far west as a major-league team traveled. The Coast League teams did not have direct affiliations with the major-league clubs. They were in effect an independent league within Organized Baseball, showcasing the rich talent of the West Coast. It was not uncommon for major-league clubs to trade for or purchase the most prized players to improve their own teams. (In Kamm’s last season with the Seals, 1922, all but four of his teammates were former or future major leaguers.) And Kamm was attracting notice from the major leagues. By the time the 1921 season was over, his stock had risen. The Seals were fielding offers from several teams. Pittsburgh was one of them. Although the Pirates were seemingly set at the hot corner with future Hall of Famer Pie Traynor, they were considering acquiring Kamm and moving Traynor to shortstop. The Pirates thought they had a “handshake deal” with the Seals for first refusal on Kamm. But Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey blew everyone away with a record offer of $100,000, pitcher Doug McWeeny, and two players to be named later (pitcher Shovel Hodge and infielder Eddie Mulligan). Pittsburgh scout Chick Fraser said later, “Kamm would have been bought by us no matter what the cost. Pie Traynor is a shortstop and he’d sooner play that position than to be tied to third.” ii (Comiskey’s offer to the Seals was born of necessity. The White Sox needed a suitable replacement at third base for Buck Weaver, one of the Black Sox who had been banned from baseball. At first Mulligan was Weaver’s replacement. He was an average fielder, but a mediocre hitter. After playing two seasons at third base, he was deemed expendable by the White Sox, who made the deal on May 29, 1922, but didn’t send Mulligan to the Seals until after the 1922 season.)
The deal for Kamm was not made public for a week, and Kamm remembered how he found out: “The San Francisco club had to make a trip to Los Angeles that week, but I had a bad charley horse so they decided to leave me home to rest up. I didn’t have anything in particular to do that evening, so I thought I might as well go for a walk and get some fresh air. I’m walking up Market Street, when suddenly I hear the newsboys yelling ‘Willie Kamm sold to White Sox for a hundred thousand dollars! Willie Kamm sold to White Sox for a hundred thousand dollars!’ ” iii
Kamm’s original thought was that he was not a good enough player for the big leagues. The idea of moving up frightened him. He thought that perhaps he wouldn’t go, and remain with the Seals. But part of the deal was that Kamm was to finish out the season on the Coast. His fears were temporarily abated.
At the White Sox’ spring-training camp in Seguin, Texas, in 1923, manager Kid Gleason gave his approval of the rookie third baseman. “There is the best third-base prospect since the days of the old Orioles; and I’m saying it whatever it cost our club,” he told a sportswriter.iv Gleason must have known what he was talking about. Kamm committed only 23 errors in 1923 and ranked second among American League third basemen in fielding percentage, behind the New York Yankees’ Joe Dugan. It was the last time that decade that Kamm would finish second. He showed some moxie at the plate as well, hitting .292 and smacking 39 doubles. For most of the season, Kamm hit sixth or seventh in Gleason’s lineup, and still managed to drive in 87 runs. It seemed apparent to most fans on the South Side that the Old Roman’s money was well spent.
But Kamm still had his detractors. “They should have kept that quiet,” he said of the $100,000 price tag for him. “After that, if I made a good play, people would say, ‘He’s supposed to make those plays.’ If I made an error, they said, ‘He’s a bum.’ ” v
In Kamm’s opinion, the ball was livelier on the Coast, and the grounders come at you plenty fast. “If you can handle ground hits there, you can handle them anywhere,” he said. He suggested that the biggest difference between the majors and the PCL was the “thinking end” that is needed on the major-league diamond. “You have to find out where the hitters usually send a certain kind of pitched ball and remember what you learn,” Kamm said. “You can make hard-hit balls look easy by being ready and by watching the pitcher and knowing the batter. You can’t afford to go to sleep on a big league diamond.”vi
White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins said that Kamm was in a class by himself in getting the ball away to start a double play. Kamm suggested that maybe that was because he got plenty of practice fielding grounders at third base. He said, “I got a good workout every day when Ted Lyons was pitching his low curves or when Red Faber was throwing his legal spitter. Their deliveries were calculated to make hitters top the ball to the infield.”vii Kamm showed off some flair when he tied a then-league record with nine assists in a game against the St. Louis Browns on September 30, 1923.
Kamm was the best defensive third baseman of the 1920s. For the seven seasons from 1923 through 1929, he led the league in fielding percentage six times and was second once. He was tops in putouts five times, and assists three times. In five seasons he made 15 or fewer errors. Kamm’s work at the plate was a bonus. He drove in more than 80 runs four times between 1923 and 1928. He led the league in walks with 90 in 1925. “Personally, I have always felt that a base on balls should be recognized in batting averages,” Kamm said in 1928. A player gets a certain amount of credit for the number of passes given him during a season. But these passes do not help to fatten his batting average any. They should, for a batter is passed usually either because the pitcher fears him, in which case he has won his transportation to first by his acknowledged batting ability. Or he is crafty enough and has a keen enough batting eye to wait the pitcher out, in which case he has certainly earned his base.”viii
As well as Kamm manned third base, the White Sox were not competitive in the post-Black Sox era. From 1923 to 1930 they were a second-division team. Their best finish in that period was in 1926, when, under manager Eddie Collins, they won 81 games and lost 72 and finished in fifth place, 9½ games behind the pennant-winning Yankees.
Donie Bush, a former shortstop for the Detroit Tigers during the Deadball Era, took the White Sox’ reins in 1930. Bush attempted to jump-start the anemic Chicago attack by benching Kamm for lack of hitting. Irv Jeffries, Bill Cissell, and Blondy Ryan were all given the opportunity to start at the hot corner. Unfortunately for Bush, not one of the triumvirate could muster much offense. Kamm wound up starting 95 games; his 331 at-bats were by far the lowest of his major-league career.
Eventually the Kamm-Bush relationship soured in 1930, and it was completely torn apart in early August, when the team departed for Detroit for a four-game series, and Bush left Kamm behind. The manager simply did not want Kamm with the team. Red Faber met a similar fate; he was also at odds with the Chicago skipper. Bush said he felt both players were indifferent to giving their best for the good of the team.
As often happens when there is a rift between a player and his manager, trade rumors abounded. Almost every team in the American League was named as a potential trade partner with Chicago. But it wasn’t until May 17, 1931, that Kamm was traded, to Cleveland for infielder Lew Fonseca. Fonseca was an old friend of Willie’s; they had been teammates at San Francisco in 1920.
Perhaps the trade was not that big a surprise, but the way Kamm found out about it was. About a week before the trade, a telephone operator called Willie to tell him that he was to be traded to Cleveland. “I thought she was just some nut,” Kamm told author Lawrence Ritter. “She called back to say that the teams were getting closer to a deal” – then, “The deal went through, you’re traded to Cleveland,” she informed Kamm on her final call.ix
Kamm got up the next morning, a Sunday, and there was the trade in print. Kamm wondered what he should do, as no one from the White Sox had bothered to call him, but there it was in the newspaper. He waited until the game started, planning to clear out his gear in the empty clubhouse. On his way out of the park, he stopped by the office to inquire about transportation to Cleveland. All anyone said to him was “Yeah, you’ve been traded.” x In spite of his reduced playing time and his rocky relationship with Bush, Kamm was still a bit sore about the news.
The Cleveland Indians were a bit more competitive than Chicago, but they were not usually included in the pennant conversation as the calendar flipped to September. Besides outfielders Earl Averill and Joe Vosmik, and later a young first baseman named Hal Trosky, the team did not have consistent offensive punch. “The Cleveland guys were better ballplayers, but they were rowdier,” Kamm recalled. “The White Sox were a finer group of men.”xi
One of Kamm’s favorite foils on the Tribe was catcher Frankie Pytlak. “Somebody hit a pop fly between third and home once,” said Kamm, “I was yelling, ‘I got it,’ but I didn’t hear any answer. Calling for a ball is one thing, but getting the answer is more important. I was running under the ball yelling, ‘I got it’ and wondering where Frankie was. I didn’t hear him so I guessed he was standing back to let me take it. Of course we plowed right into each other. Luckily, Frankie was a short guy and I still reached out and made the catch. But Frankie jumped up and said, ‘Didn’t you hear me waving?’ ”xii
Kamm was still playing a solid third base at Cleveland, leading the league in fielding in 1933 and 1934. He also proved valuable in working with the young infielders on the team. When manager Walter Johnson was hospitalized with pleurisy in 1934, Kamm was the obvious choice to step in and guide the team.
In the end, it was Kamm’s working with the infielders that caused a rift between him and Johnson. In 1935 Johnson accused Kamm of being a negative influence on some of the players. Supposedly complaints had reached Johnson that Kamm’s constant suggestions and advice were cramping the young players’ style. “Maybe he’s right,” said Kamm. “Maybe I’ve been a heel and don’t even know it. Sure, I’ve talked a lot to the young players. If I ever get another job in baseball, I’ll do the same thing. When I see a kid doing something wrong, I try to straighten him out. I’m conceited enough to think that I have helped some of them to be better ballplayers. This is the first inking I’ve had that anyone has resented it.”xiii
At the same time Johnson accused catcher Glenn Myatt of being disloyal to the club. It was no secret that many of the Indians did not care for Johnson, and he was not a popular figure with the fans. But on May 23, 1935, while the team was in Philadelphia, Johnson had Kamm sent back to Cleveland, and Myatt was released.
The media piled on and angry customers wrote about their dislike for Johnson. “Johnson Fails to Win Team’s Respect,” shouted a headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on May 24. “Deeply Rooted Antipathy Can’t Be Cured by Firing Few Players,” was the subheadline.
Kamm went to general manager Billy Evans and team owner Alva Bradley. Bradley refused to pass a judgment against Johnson. Kamm took his case to Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, who met with both parties for two hours, then absolved Kamm of any wrongdoing. That was all Willie was really after. His good name was restored in the baseball world.
Myatt joined the New York Giants a few days after the Indians released him. But Kamm earned the rest of that year’s salary working as a scout for the Indians. His playing days as a major leaguer had come to an end. He ended with a .281 batting average, 827 RBIs, and 348 doubles. His fielding percentage was .967, and as of 2012 he ranked eighth among third basemen in career putouts (2,151), 28th in assists, (3,345), and 16th in fielding percentage (.967). He took part in 299 double plays.
Kamm managed the Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League in 1936 and 1937. A bachelor most of his life, he was married in his mid-50s to the former Mary Frances Kotowicz. While he was a young player, Kamm, on the advice of Seals owner George Putnam, had invested in Pacific Gas and Electric and General Motors stock. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Kamm stayed the course with his investments and survived the downturn. When he retired from baseball, he was able to live off his investments. He died of Parkinson’s disease on December 21, 1988, in Belmont, California.
Perhaps there is no better accolade than one that comes from a contemporary, and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame at that. When Joe Cronin, a fellow San Franciscan, was a youngster, he took in a Seals game whenever possible. He referred to the Seals’ home, Recreation Park as “the hallowed ground of Willie Kamm.” “Yeah, I idolized Willie – so did half my friends – and then years later I found myself in the major leagues playing against him,” Cronin once said.xiv
Mark Armour, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).
James Forr and David Proctor, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing, 2010).
Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966).
Gordon Cobbledick, “Johnson Fires Myatt, Bans Kamm,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 24, 1935.
Jack McDonald, “Country Squire – That’s Willie Kamm,” The Sporting News, November 13, 1965.
“Gleason Giving Kamm The O.O.,” The Sporting News, March 29, 1923.
“Kamm $100,000 Beauty, Proves He Was Worth Every Penny,” New York World-Telegram, January 13, 1924.
“What The Baseball Records Mean to the Player,” Baseball Magazine, February 1928, 388.
Dan Montgomery, article February 22, 1984, source unknown, from Kamm’s file at the Baseball Hall Of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
Fred Schuld, “Willie Kamm: How He Left Major League Baseball,” presentation to SABR Jack Graney Chapter, Cleveland, February 3, 2007.
United States Census.
i Jack McDonald, “Country Squire – That’s Willie Kamm,” The Sporting News, November 13, 1965, 11.
ii James Forr and David Proctor, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, 55.
iii Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times, 266.
iv “Gleason Giving Kamm The O.O.,” The Sporting News, March 29, 1923, 1.
v Dan Montgomery, article February 22, 1984, source unknown, from Kamm’s file at the Baseball Hall Of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
vi “Kamm $100,000 Beauty, Proves He Was Worth Every Penny,” New York World-Telegram, January, 13, 1924.
vii McDonald, 12.
viii “What The Baseball Records Mean to the Player,” Baseball Magazine, February, 1928, 388.
ix Ritter, The Glory of Their Times, 266.
x Ritter, The Glory of Their Times, 266.
xiii Gordon Cobbledick, “Johnson Fires Myatt, Bans Kamm,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 24, 1935.
xiv Mark Armour, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 10.