September 16, 1922: Whitey Witt knocked out in Yankees-Browns melee
On September 15, 1922, the New York Yankees lost to the Chicago White Sox, 2-1, while the St. Louis Browns were beating up on the Boston Red Sox, 7-1, to pull to within a half-game of the first-place Yankees heading into a crucial three-game series at St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park.
Led by George Sisler, who would go on to bat .420 and be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player at the end of the season,1 and an outfield trio of Ken Williams, Jack Tobin, and Baby Doll Jacobson, the Browns went into their series against the Yankees having scored the most runs in baseball and were averaging 5.7 per contest. Their pitching staff would eventually lead the league with a 3.38 ERA, and with only 12 games to go they’d allowed the third fewest runs in all of baseball.
At just over 5.0 runs a game, the Yankees’ offense wasn’t as potent, but no pitching staff allowed fewer runs and their ERA was almost identical to that of the Browns. They also boasted the most efficient defense in all of baseball.2
Though the Yankees had won their first pennant only a year before and were vying for their second, they’d been a .500 team since the franchise was established in 1903.3 Meanwhile the Browns had never finished closer to first place than five games behind, and their best finish, second place in 1902, came in their first year after moving from Milwaukee. From 1902 to 1921 no AL team lost more games than the Browns.
But with two weeks left in the season the Browns had an excellent chance of dethroning the defending champions and winning their first pennant.
In game one of the Yankees-Browns series, on September 16, St. Louis skipper Lee Fohl gave the ball to his ace, Urban Shocker, who had 23 wins under his belt en route to a 24-win season. New York’s Miller Huggins countered with 18-game winner Bob Shawkey, who would go on to win 20 games and lead the Yanks with a 2.91 ERA, good for third in the AL.
The three-game set was so highly anticipated that newspapers referred to it as the “Little World’s Series,” and fans began lining up outside the ballpark 12 hours before game time. Coffee, sandwiches, hot dogs, and peanuts were served to those in line to help them get through the night and the following morning.4
By the first pitch Sportsman’s Park was filled to capacity and then some. “The biggest crowd in local history saw the game – squeezed and pushed into the bandbox park,” wrote the New York Times. “They stood and sat wherever there was room. Not an inch was wasted. … St. Louis sat like sardines in a small can to see this game of games.”5
In fact, the overflow crowd caused officials to rope off the outfield and establish ground rules in case a ball went into the throng taking residence on the field. Cheerleaders whipped the crowd into a frenzy and each time a Yankee took his turn during batting practice he was greeted by jeers, even Babe Ruth, who promptly blasted a pitch deep into the right field sky.
When Sisler emerged from the dugout, a loud roar enveloped the Browns star and continued while the rest of the team took their positions. The first inning went by without incident thanks to a fantastic running catch by Williams that robbed Joe Dugan of a sure double, but the Yankees scored a run in the second to take an early lead. Bob Meusel singled to center and went to second on an error by center fielder Jacobson. Aaron Ward’s bunt to Sisler sent Meusel to third, and a single by Everett Scott plated him to give New York a 1-0 lead.
The overflow crowd had an early impact on the game when a drive by Jacobson in the bottom of the second went into the fans and was ruled a double. Then he was doubled off on a fine play by Dugan, who fielded Marty McManus’s grounder and tagged Jacobson before firing across the diamond to retire McManus.
The Yankees extended their lead to 2-0 in the top of the third courtesy of singles by Dugan and Ruth and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Wally Pipp that scored Dugan, who made a great slide past catcher Hank Severeid.
From there the Browns were forced to play catch-up and weren’t having an easy time of it. Shawkey was on his game and had retired 10 of the first 11 St. Louis batters before Sisler poled a double to right with two outs in the fourth. Williams grounded out to end the inning, but Sisler’s hit wasn’t for naught. It was the 40th straight game in which he’d recorded a hit, tying him with Ty Cobb for the longest hitting streak in the American League up to then.6
In the fourth, fifth, and the top of the sixth, Shawkey and Shocker traded goose eggs, but the Browns got on the board in the bottom of the sixth when shortstop Wally Gerber singled, moved to second on Shocker’s groundout, advanced to third on a bunt single by Tobin, and came home when second baseman Ward fumbled Eddie Foster’s groundball single.
Neither team scored the rest of the way and the Yankees wound up with a crucial 2-1 victory. But the game ended on a low note for both teams.
In the bottom of the ninth, Foster led off with a fly ball to right field. Right fielder Bob Meusel and center fielder Whitey Witt converged on the ball and Meusel made the catch. Before the play was made, however, Witt was struck in the forehead by a pop bottle that had been allegedly thrown from the crowd.
“Witt fell like a log,” wrote the New York Times. “Players and umpires rushed out to where he lay on the ground. Mounted police galloped over from left field. The crowds swarmed out from the stands, and it looked like the makings of a good riot.”7
Police were able to contain the uprising and Witt was carried from the field unconscious draped over the shoulder of Yankees backup catcher Fred Hofmann. According to reports, the blow was such that the bottom of the bottle was knocked out. But Witt suffered only a deep gash and was expected to miss just a few games.8
After the commotion died down, Meusel moved to center field and Elmer Smith came into the game to play right field. The contest resumed and ended soon after – Sisler grounded out to Shawkey on a bunt attempt and Williams flied out to Smith – and the Yankees took the first game of the series and extended their lead over the Browns to 1½ games.
The day after the assault on Witt, American League President Ban Johnson offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could identify the bottle thrower. The Browns and the St. Louis Rooters’ Club also offered a reward of $550.9
Three days after the game the New York Times reported that Joseph Walsh, a deputy clerk of the United States District Court, was in the right-field crowd when Witt was beaned and saw a 10-year-old boy throw the bottle that struck Witt before disappearing into the crowd.10
Two days later the New York Times reported that James P. Hon of St. Louis, a salesman, insisted that no bottle was thrown and that Witt stepped on a bottle that was already there, propelling it into his forehead and knocking himself out. In a letter to Johnson, Hon stated that he wanted no reward but was willing to “make affidavits that the bottle was not thrown.”11
Johnson was pleased with Hon’s explanation and rewarded him anyway. At the conclusion of the pennant race Johnson gave Hon tickets to the World Series between the Yankees and New York Giants, round-trip railway fare between St. Louis and New York and a check for $100.12
New York Times
Westcott, Rich, “Whitey Witt,” SABR Biography Project, sabr.org.
1 There was no National League recipient in 1922 and 1923.
2 According to Baseball-Reference’s Defensive Efficiency list.
3 The Yankees went 1414-1412 (.5003) from 1903 through 1921. The Yankees were established in 1903 after the team’s first owners purchased the defunct Baltimore Orioles franchise, but most authorities do not consider the Yankees to be a lineal descendant of the early Orioles.
4 “Yanks Beat Browns Before 30,000 Fans,” New York Times, September 17, 1922, 106.
6 Bill Dahlen hit in 42 straight games in 1894 and Willie Keeler hit in 44 straight in 1897 to set the National League record. Cobb hit in 40 straight games in 1911 to set the American League record. Sisler recorded a hit the next day to break Cobb’s record, but his streak was stopped at 41 games by Bullet Joe Bush they day after that. As of 2014 Sisler’s streak ranked second in the AL behind Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game streak in 1941, and fifth all-time among all players.
7 “Yanks Beat Browns.”
8 In actuality Witt missed no games due to his injury and helped the Yankees win the series by rapping out three hits and driving in two runs in New York’s 3-2 victory on September 18.
9 “Offers $1,000 Reward in Whitey Witt Case,” New York Times, September 18, 1922, 16.
10 “Ten-Year-Old Boy Threw Pop Bottle Which Injured Witt,” New York Times, September 19, 1922, 27.
11 “Fan Declares Witt Was Not Struck By a Thrown Bottle,” New York Times, September 21, 1922, 25.
12 “’Pop Bottle Mystery’ Solver Is Lucky Fan,” New York Times, October 2, 1922, 21.
New York Yankees 2
St. Louis Browns 1
St. Louis, MO
Box Score + PBP:
If you can help us improve this game story, contact us.