This article was written by Randolph Linthurst
This article was published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal
For an all-around spectacular debut in major league baseball, it would be difficult to surpass the one enjoyed by Russ Van Atta on April 25, 1933. A 26-year-old rookie pitcher with the New York Yankees, Van Atta broke into the big leagues by hurling a five-hit shutout over the pennant-bound Washington Senators in Griffith Stadium and topped it off going four-for-four at the bat. The Yankees won the game, 16-0. How about that!
All four of Van Atta’s hits were singles. He scored three runs and knocked in another during the one-sided tilt.
Despite his strong showing at the bat, Van Atta recalls few details of his first appearance at the plate. “I don’t remember who was hurling for Washington or what kind of pitches I hit,” he said in a recent interview. “I always batted well in the minors, so it was no big deal. I was more concerned about my pitching, because I wanted to gain a spot in the starting Yankees’ rotation.”
He does remember that he didn’t lose his composure or effectiveness during one of the stormiest mob scenes ever to take place in the big leagues, a melee that interrupted play for 20 minutes during the game. In the fourth-inning, Yankee outfielder Ben Chapman spiked Buddy Myer while sliding into second base. Myer got up and kicked Chapman in the face and the pair scuffled.
“Players rushed from both benches onto the field,” says Van Atta. “John Kerr, a Senator infielder, yelled something at me when I got out there on the field, and I went toward him. Manager Joe McCarthy and Coach Art Fletcher grabbed me, however, and told me to return to the dugout because I was pitching. To my surprise when I got back to the bench, I found two Yankee players sitting there watching the fracas in an otherwise deserted dugout. They were Ruth and Gehrig. I guess they were lovers, not fighters.”
“Chapman and Myer were both ejected from the game and Chapman, on his way to the clubhouse, had to pass through the Senators’ dugout,” reflects Van Atta. “Earl Whitehill yelled something at him and Chapman slugged the Washington pitcher in the mouth.”
A free-for-all then erupted with several hundred fans pouring out of the lower deck. Dixie Walker ran from the Yankee dugout to Chapman’s aid, but soon was getting the worst of it until Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, and Tony Lazzeri battled through the crowd to his rescue.
When play was finally resumed, Walker had also been ejected and five spectators had been arrested. After Van Atta had retired the final Senator batter, the police formed a cordon in’ front of the Yankee dugout to protect the players from an angry mob.
The rookie southpaw went on to post a 12-4 record, beating the Senators five times in his first major league campaign and collected 17 hits in 60 times at bat for a .283 average. There was every indication that a long and successful major league career would follow. This was not to be the case, for the young hurler seriously injured a finger on his pitching hand while rescuing a cocker spaniel in a house fire in December of 1933. His career quickly went downhill.
“I didn’t have it after the accident because of a dead nerve in the index finger of my left hand,” said Van Atta. “I never told my wife, nor my manager or teammates about it and went on pitching. I won only three games in 1934 with the Yankees, and they sold me down the river to the St. Louis Browns during the 1935 season. I lingered on with the Browns until retiring during spring training in 1940.” He was primarily a relief hurler and led the American League in games pitched with 58 in 1935 and 52 in 1936. The only shutout he pitched in more than 200 games was his 16-0 inaugural.
Van Atta attracted the attention of big league scouts at Penn State University where he lost only one game in four years. “I signed with the Yankees in 1928 for a bonus of $250,” the former pitcher stated.
“I stayed with New York for a few weeks after signing and was feeling a bit cocky and wondered when I would get a chance to pitch,” says Van Atta. “Miller Huggins, the Yankee manager, called me into his office and quickly brought me back to reality. He told me that I didn’t even know how to pitch batting practice and was being sent to Hartford in the Eastern League.”
After finishing the 1928 season at Hartford, Van Atta pitched during the next four campaigns for St. Paul in the American Association with good success. In one of the first night games ever played in the American Association, in 1932, Van Atta hooked up in a pitching duel with Paul (Daffy) Dean and lost 2-1.
Although his debut in the majors was nothing short of spectacular, Van Atta has fonder memories of several low scoring pitching duels with Cleveland ace Bob Feller later in his career. “In his first book, Feller wrote that one of his biggest thrills was his first big league hit which came off of me. If I knew he was going to write about it,” says Van Atta, “I would have knocked him on his can.”
A fairly good hitter in his career, Van Atta doesn’t think much of the designated hitter rule. “I started swinging when I left the bench and could powder the fast ball, although I had trouble with the curve,” he says. “I liked my ups.”
After his baseball career ended, Van Atta went into politics in rural Sussex County, New Jersey, serving terms as sheriff and county freeholder. He later became a successful businessman.
Now, at age 68, he is enjoying retirement in the scenic foothills of northwestern New Jersey.