Ralph Schwamb

July 31, 1948: Ralph ‘Blackie’ Schwamb earns his only win in major leagues

This article was written by Glen Sparks

Ralph SchwambRalph “Blackie” Schwamb walked to the pitcher’s mound on a warm summer evening in 1948 and won the only big-league game of his career, a 10-8 thriller. Fifteen months later, he was facing a murder charge.

Schwamb played for the St. Louis Browns, who were just a few years removed from an American League championship. The team that stumbled so often finally hoisted a pennant in 1944 but lost to the city’s National League club, the Cardinals, in a six-game World Series.

Following that brief run to glory, the Browns settled into third place the following year but dropped to seventh in 1946 (66-88) and eighth – or last – in 1947 (59-95). This was familiar ground. St. Louis finished in the second division 15 times from 1927 through 1943.

In 1948, the Browns fell to seventh place after the New York Yankees swept them in a doubleheader June 6 and were still stuck in that lowly spot when they faced the Washington Senators on July 31 with a 33-55 mark, 21 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.

This was the second game of a five-game series. The Senators won the opener, 3-2, but were still just 40-52 and only one spot ahead of St. Louis in the standings. The forecast called for a high temperature of 86 degrees as August – and another sultry month – loomed.

By evening, the thermometer had cooled a bit from the daytime high. A crowd of 4,556 filed into Sportsman’s Park. As usual, the Browns were struggling at the gate. The team had drawn just 320,474 fans in 1947, fewest in the league. From 1926 through 1943, the Browns trailed all the other American League teams in attendance every season.

Schwamb, a California native just a week away from his 22nd birthday, took his warm-up pitches. The rookie stood 6-feet-5-inches and unfurled fastballs and curveballs from a long right arm. This was just his second big-league game. He got a no-decision in his debut, July 25 against the Senators at Griffith Stadium in the second game of a doubleheader. Blackie pitched 6⅓ innings and gave up three runs—just two earned—as the Browns won, 6-4, in 11 innings.

He was a different sort. Schwamb grew up in Los Angeles and earned his nickname years earlier while watching a Western movie at a local theater with some of the other neighborhood kids. Young Ralph noticed that the bad guys wore black, and he decided to do the same. Later, he got kicked out of the Navy after getting into one too many brawls.

Jack Fournier, a Browns scout and former infielder for the Brooklyn Robins and other teams, watched Schwamb throw fastballs on the LA playgrounds and signed him to a contract in 1947. Fournier said, in the style of a backhanded compliment, “He’s a screwball, but he can pitch.”1

Schwamb spent 1947 with the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Pheasants in the Northern League and the Globe-Miami (Arizona) Browns in the Arizona-Texas League. He began the 1948 campaign with the Toledo Mud Hens in the American Association, where he barked at teammates and spent too many of his off-hours ordering drinks from the local watering holes. Blackie was as comfortable with a beer in his hand as he was with a baseball.

He appeared in 25 games for Toledo and won just one of his 10 decisions. He posted a 5.14 ERA over 77 innings and walked 52 batters. The Browns called him up anyway, and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat complimented Schwamb on his debut performance. He “pitched great ball for the first six innings,” sportswriter Harry Mitauer observed.2

Could Blackie do it again? The Senators, who were just 10-18 in July, jumped ahead with two runs in the first inning, one unearned and the other earned. Al Kozar and Sherry Robertson led off with base hits. Dick Kokos misplayed Robertson’s single to right field, and the runners advanced to second and third. Both players headed home on Gil Coan’s single. Schwamb settled down and retired the next three batters.

Walt Masterson walked to the mound for Washington. The 28-year-old right-hander from Philadelphia had a 7-6 won-lost record with a 2.91 ERA. Just a few weeks earlier, he started for the AL in the All-Star Game and gave up two runs in three innings. It was the second straight All-Star appearance for Masterson, who went 12-16 in 1947 but with a solid 3.13 ERA. In his first inning against the Browns, Masterson allowed two singles but wiggled out of the jam.

Both pitchers retired the side in order in the second, and Schwamb repeated that performance in the top of the third. The Browns scored twice in the bottom half. Bob Dillinger doubled with one out and Masterson, often subject to wild streaks, hit Al Zarilla with a pitch. The two baserunners pulled off a double steal, and Jerry Priddy walked to load the bases. Dillinger scored on Hank Arft’s fly ball, while a single by Kokos brought home Zarilla.

St Louis went ahead, 3-2, when Zarilla led off the fifth inning with his third home run of the season. The Browns “really went to town”3 in the sixth and loaded the bases with nobody out. Left-hander Forrest Thompson replaced Masterson but offered little relief. Zarilla, the first batter he faced, singled to bring home two runs.

Thompson intentionally walked Priddy to load the bases again and set up a possible inning-ending double play. Arft, though, knocked a two-run single to center field, and Don Lund, pinch-hitting for Kokos, followed with a two-run triple. After Paul Lehner grounded out, Roy Partee walked. With Eddie Pellagrini at bat, Thompson uncorked a wild pitch to score Lund and give St. Louis a 10-2 lead.

The Senators made the game interesting by scoring four times in the seventh. Mickey Vernon singled and Eddie Yost walked to lead off the inning. Schwamb walked Thompson with one out, filling the bases.

Washington followed with three straight singles. Kozar’s base hit scored one run, as did Robertson’s. Coan drove home two runs, making the score 10-6. That ended Schwamb’s evening. Reliever Bryan Stephens, who, like Schwamb, had attended Washington High School in Los Angeles, got groundouts from Bud Stewart and Mark Christman to end the inning.

Vernon homered against Stephens to begin the eighth. Browns reliever Joe Ostrowski entered the action in the ninth inning with nobody out and runners on first and third. Coan popped out but Tom McBride’s sacrifice fly made the score, 10-8. Christman flied out, ending what Glen L. Waller of the Globe-Democrat called a “free-for-all”4 of a game that still only lasted one minute shy of two hours.

Masterson’s record dropped to 7-7, and he ended the year 8-15 with a 3.83 ERA. The Senators finished 56-97, in seventh place. The Browns wound up 59-94, in sixth place and 37 games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians, who overtook the Red Sox.

Schwamb celebrated his first big-league win in typical Blackie style. He slipped into a local bar and raised pint glasses through the early morning. Years later, Schwamb recalled, “I had the world by the tail.”5 He got shelled in his next outing, though (one-third of an inning, six runs, all earned), and ended his rookie campaign with a 1-1 record and sky-high 8.53 ERA over 31⅔ innings. He never pitched in the big leagues again.

Blackie spent the 1949 campaign as a minor leaguer with the Little Rock (Arkansas) Travelers of the Southern Association. When the season ended, he pulled off a string of robberies, often at the behest of West Coast mobster Mickey Cohen. On October 12, 1949, Schwamb and a friend, Ted Gardner, robbed and killed Long Beach, California, dentist Donald Buge. A jury convicted the men of murder, and Judge Charles W. Fricke sentenced both to life in prison.

They took the train to San Quentin State Penitentiary. Schwamb still wanted to play baseball, and San Quentin fielded a team. Blackie put together maybe the greatest prison house baseball career in history, both at San Quentin and later at Folsom, another tough lockup in the California system. He posted a 131-35 won-lost record and 1.80 ERA over about 1,500 career innings.

The prison gates opened for Schwamb in January 1960. He had made parole, and while he played a few more seasons of minor-league baseball, his dream of getting back to the majors ended with more booze, more arrests, and a tired arm. He died on December 21, 1989, at the age of 63. “I was a lousy gangster,” he once said. “But I was a great pitcher.”6



This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play.





1 Eric Stone, Wrong Side of the Wall: The Life of Blackie Schwamb, the Greatest Prison Pitcher of All Time (New York: Lyons Press, 2004), 63.

2 Harry Mitauer, “Lund’s Double Gives Browns Even Break,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 26, 1948: 17.

3 Glen L. Waller, “Browns Whip Senators, 10-8, in Wild Tilt,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 1, 1948: 43.

4 Waller.

5 Stone, 114.

6 Stone, 86.

Additional Stats

St. Louis Browns 10
Washington Senators 8

Sportsman’s Park
St. Louis, MO


Box Score + PBP:

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