A Genuine Halo: Saint to Cardinal to Angel

This article was written by Gene Karst

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

True baseball fans thrive on trivia. Here are four questions, the first three of which almost nobody can answer. The fourth probably will also stump even sportswriters, broadcasters and knowledgeable club officials.

1 -Who was the Saint who was traded for a date and later became an Angel?

2-Name the player who was riding the bench with a tail end minor league team one day and the next day helped the defending world champions win a double-header with his hitting and fielding.

3-Who was the major leaguer who turned 25 pigeons loose in front of a Fourth of July crowd so the birds could carry his greetings to friends 500 miles away?

4-Name the batboy of World War I vintage who in recent years has made his living hitting fungoes to a Gold Glove outfielder.

The answer to all four is Hymie Solomon. Doubtless you now are wondering: Who was or is Hymie Solomon?

Branch Rickey and Larry macphail could have answered the first two or three questions easily. But they are long since dead. Since I was involved in the aforementioned incidents, permit me to tell Solomon’s story.

  Hymie was born in New York City on October 1, 1904, which means he is 82 years old. He may be trying to fudge a bit on his age, however, because nowadays his birthdate is usually listed as October 1, 1905. In any event he still wore a major league uniform regularly in 1986 and still wore out players in their 20s and 30s by hitting fungoes that they had to chase until they were breathless.

Gary Pettis, center fielder for the California Angels, credits Hymie Solomon, alias Jimmy Reese, with helping him to become a Gold Glove outfielder. “Jim will hit balls to my left, then to my right, then deep and then in,” Pettis said late last season. “Then he moves up to the infield and tries to hit them as close to the wall as possible. I measure my steps from the warning track to the fence.” Now let’s go back to the beginning.

Hymie Solomon, a.k.a. Jimmy Reese, was born of Jewish and Irish parents in New York City. His father’s name was Solomon, his mother’s was Reese. While he was still a youngster, the family moved to California. By the time he was 13, in 1917, he was known as Jimmy Reese, batboy for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

While Jimmy was still a teenager, he wangled a tryout with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and made the grade as an infielder. He soon attracted attention with his spectacular play at second base.

By 1928 New York Yankee scouts were so impressed by the Oaks’ double-play combination of Lyn Lary and Reese that they invested something like $100,000 of Colonel Jake Ruppert’s money to buy both players. In those days that was BIG money.

The Yankees had Tony Lazzeri at second base and Mark Koenig at short. Both had seen their best days, and some observers felt the Lary-Reese duo might be their successors as a keystone combination. Lary was called up in 1929 and stayed with the Yankees several years. Reese didn’t break into the New York lineup until 1930 when he appeared in 77 games, including 48 at second base and five at third. His .346 batting average with three home runs was respectable.

In 1931 Reese slipped to .241 in 65 games, again with only three home runs, and subsequently he was sold to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals romped to the 1931 National League pennant by a 13-game margin and vanquished the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. But the 1932 season started off wretchedly for the Cardinals – and for Reese. Pepper Martin was beset by injuries and illness, and Frankie Frisch was slowing down as the Cardinal second baseman. The club’s hitters slumped and the pitchers couldn’t pitch. By now champions in name only, the Cards were stumbling around the bottom of the league.

Demoted to the minors, Reese couldn’t win a regular job on the last-place St. Paul team. He was genuinely worried about his future in professional baseball.

In St. Louis, vice president-general manager Branch Rickey was desperately trying to figure out some solution to the multiple problems of the floundering world champion Cardinals. He realized the club badly needed an additional infielder among other things.

Here macphail enters the story. At the time Larry was president of the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association. The Cardinals had bought the Columbus franchise in 1931 and put macphail in charge. They inherited a broken-down, collapsing wooden park and a handful of players about as worthless as the antiquated grandstand.

The Cardinal organization, of course, had plenty of promising young players almost ready for the majors. And taking advantage of Depression-era construction costs, the Cards arranged to build an attractive new concrete stadium with a seating capacity of 15,300 at an investment of $350,000.

Macphail promoted the opening game in the new Columbus park on Friday, June 3. He persuaded several notables to be on hand, including Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, George White, governor of Ohio, John Heydler, president of the National League, and the owner of the Cardinals, Sam Breadon.

Ordinally a day game in Columbus would have drawn just a thousand or so paying customers, but the fans turned out en masse, filling the new park. The Indianapolis club not only won the game, but pocketed a good-sized check as the visitors’ share of the gate.

Rickey and macphail still had another trick up their sleeves. When would they unveil the new lighting system in the new stadium? Night baseball was just coming into vogue in a scattered few minor league cities and was still very much a novelty. Columbus fans had never seen a professional game played under the lights and eagerly awaited the historic occasion.

All of the other American Association clubs were eager for macphail to schedule the first night game while their team was in Columbus so they could get their hands on that big visitors’ check.

Now to Saturday, June 4, and the Machiavellian strategies of the scheming Rickey. After studying the rosters of every major league club and those in the top minors, he came across the name of Jimmy Reese on the St. Paul Saints. Rickey searched the box scores carefully and realized that Jimmy wasn’t playing regularly. He instructed macphail how to proceed. If successful, the trick would solve the Cardinals’ infield problem, at least temporarily, at a minimum cost – no cash whatever.

Macphail phoned Bob Connery, the St. Paul club’s boss. Many years previously Connery had gained fame as a Cardinal scout when he signed Rogers Hornsby as a young player out of Texas. By now Connery had no connection whatever with the Cardinals and was just as eager to make a buck as the next minor league club executive.

Macphail told Connery about the big crowd that attended when the new park was opened and promised that the as-yet-unscheduled first night game would draw even more fans. He dangled the possibility of playing that first night game when the Saints came to town. After considerable palaver macphail promised the date to the Saints – IF the Saints would do him, macphail, a favor.

“Say, Bob, you’ve got a guy sitting on your bench I could use,” said macphail. “How about letting me have Jimmy Reese? You give me Jimmy Reese, and you’ll get the first night game!”

Connery took the bait. Macphail then said he would set the date for Friday, June 17, when the Saints were in Columbus.

Had Connery known that Reese’s real destination was the major leagues the canny baseball veteran probably would have demanded a lot more than a night date in Columbus for Reese’s contract. Only after the deal was solemnly pledged did Connery realize he had been outsmarted. Macphail didn’t want Reese in Columbus at all – Rickey wanted him in St. Louis!

Macphail immediately phoned Reese, catching him in Milwaukee, where the Saints were playing the Brewers. At first Reese thought it was a practical joke. He found it hard to believe that a big league team would want him because he was not even in the lineup of the tail end Saints. Macphail finally convinced him and instructed him to report to the Cardinals in St. Louis the next day, Sunday, June 5.

Reese checked in at the Cardinal clubhouse in old Sportsman’s Park about 10:30 a.m. And Butch Yatkeman, the equipment man, assigned him a Cardinal uniform. One technicality remained: Jimmy had to sign a contract before he could play in that day’s doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds.

This being Sunday, Rickey didn’t come to the park. Reese, in his uniform and in stocking feet, climbed the long stairway to the Cardinal office on the second floor. Treasurer Bill dewitt, traveling secretary Clarence Lloyd and I talked with him briefly before he shook hands with owner Breadon. My capacity with the Cardinals was publicity man, the first ever hired by a major league team.

After the contract signing Reese hurried back to the playing field, where he donned his spikes, grabbed his glove and took batting and fielding practice.

When the lineups were announced, manager Gabby Street had shifted Frisch to third base and inserted Reese at second base. In the first inning of the twin-bill opener Jimmy demonstrated his fielding skill by acting as middle man in a double play to smother a potential Cincinnati threat. In the last half of the same inning he singled. Next time up he singled again. Reese took part in four double plays and handled 11 chances without an error. With Paul Derringer pitching the Cards posted a 3-2 victory.

In the second game Jimmy didn’t get any hits, but he took part in another double play and handled seven chances without an error. Dizzy Dean was on the mound in the second contest and the score once again read: Cardinals 3, Cincinnati 2. By capturing both games the Cardinals climbed from sixth place to fourth.

What about that date that Reese was traded for?

The day after Reese’s National League debut in St. Louis, macphail put tickets on sale for the first night game in Columbus, set for June 17. Rickey sent me to Columbus to help with the advance publicity. The Cardinal farm club included some pretty colorful and capable players – Paul Dean, Lew Riggs, Burgess Whitehead, Bill Lee, Nick Cullop, Gordon Hinkle, Pat Crawford and Evar Swanson.

The weather turned out beautifully and the fans stormed the new park literally. Although the seating capacity was 15,300, nobody knows exactly how many attended the game. Outside the stadium there was a colossal traffic jam. Ticket offices were swamped. Fans climbed over the turnstiles, broke down the wagon gate in the outfield and poured into the park. The handful of police on hand proved inadequate to control the swarms of fans. Macphail himself was running everywhere, giving instructions. He asked me to get the police and guards to do a better job of disciplining the fans now overflowing onto the playing area. It was hopeless until the P.A. announcer informed the crowd that the game wouldn’t start until some semblance of order was restored.

Paul Dean, Dizzy’s “little brother,” pitched for Columbus that night, and the Red Birds won in the final inning, sending the crowd home in a happy mood.

Although the Saints lost the game, they received a handsome check as the visitors’ share of the estimated 21,000 crowd, the largest in the history of the Columbus franchise. Thus the trade of Reese for a date in Columbus paid off for all concerned.

Back in St. Louis the Cardinals continued to have their problems despite Reese’s contributions. The team finished in a sixth-place tie with the New York Giants, and Reese ended with a .265 average in 90 games.

With the Depression continuing to worsen and St. Louis crowds falling off, we were ready to try almost any promotion to stimulate attendance. In mid-June several fans from St. Paul came to my office with a proposition. They claimed to be friends of Reese and wanted to honor him between games of the July 4 doubleheader. They outlined their plan. I explained we’d have to get permission from Breadon.

Sam listened, smiled and replied, “Why not?” After all, he doubtlessly reasoned, what did we have to lose?

When Sid Keener, sports editor of the St. Louis Star-Times, heard about the scheme, he wrote that the Cardinals had come up with a great alternative to a picnic in a rural area, battling ants and risking poison ivy, as a way of observing Independence Day. He praised the promotional ideas being manifest in the Cardinals’ plan to give the fans something different. They would have Jimmy Reese “release, liberate, free 25 racing pigeons and shoo them back to St. Paul.” His column continued:

Baseball must be dull with the Cardinals winning four pennants in six years. Therefore, pigeons will be flying around the rooftops on Grand boulevard, Sullivan avenue and Dodier street, taking squints at the world championship flag in centerfield before heading north.

Reese made the acquaintance with St. Paul pigeon fanciers earlier this season. Their pidgies reportedly missed Reese and they didn’t sleep at nights. The chairman of the pigeon fanciers association started to weep and then got a brainstorm. Take them to St. Louis to see Jimmy; let them see him playing with the world champions.

The pigeons refuse to fly after dark, Gene Karst, publicity man for the Cardinals, tells me. They travel at about 40 miles an hour. Get ready, fans, next time the Cardinals make a trade maybe they’ll get a turtle fancier and have a turtle race between games of a doubleheader. They claim there was a turtle race one time in the minors.

On the Fourth of July Reese duly opened the cages of the 25 homing pigeons. The pidgies hovered over home plate a few minutes, then circled around the grandstand rafters until their compasses were working. When last seen, they were presumably headed for St. Paul.

Later we learned the stunt had been concocted by a St. Paul fan who bet his friends that he could get a “prank” staged in a major league park. He won his bet, but we still don’t know how much he genuinely loved pigeons or how many fans were lured to the park by the promotion.

The Cardinals released Reese following the 1932 season, and he bounced around the minor leagues for a long time, eventually coaching, managing and scouting before landing with the California Angels in 1973. With the Angels he has been listed as a “conditioning coach” because of all that fungo hitting. Obviously Jimmy has kept himself in pretty fine condition, too, and the octogenarian can lay claim to being the oldest man wearing a major league uniform during the 1986 season.