Joe Oeschger Remembers

This article was written by Lynwood Carranco

This article was published in 1980 Baseball Research Journal

In discussions of baseball records, most observers agree that Joe DiMaggio’s feat of hitting in 56 successive games and Lou Gehrig’s streak of playing 2,130 consecutive games will stand for all time. But what about the record of pitching 26 innings in one game? With a battery of bull-pen relievers now available to step in whenever the starting pitcher falters, there seems to be no likelihood that the tremendous long-game effort of Joe Oeschger and Les Cadore will ever be challenged.

It was 60 years ago, on May 1, 1920, that the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers battled 26 innings to a 1-1 tie on a cloudy Saturday afternoon at old Braves Field. Umpire Barry McCormick finally had to call the game because of darkness. Each team used only 11 players that long afternoon; two had 11 official at bats while eight others had ten.

A modern day comparison is the 25-inning game in 1974 at Shea Stadium between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals. Managers Yogi Berra and Red Schoendienst employed 50 players on that occasion as against 22 for the 1920 game. The Cardinals used six pitchers and the Mets five.

One of the last survivors of that famous 1920 game is Joe Oeschger, who was the real star performer. While his rival, Cadore, who died in 1958, gave up 15 hits, Oeschger gave up only nine and held Brooklyn scoreless over the last 21 innings. For years Oeschger has been something of a legend to the sports-minded fans of northern California where he lives. I wrote him last year about an interview and he quickly accepted.

Joe and his charming wife Nancy live near Femdale in the majestic Redwood country about 100 miles south of the Oregon border. Their hillside home is on his father’s original ranch of 100 acres which is situated in a timbered valley not too far from the Pacific Ocean.

Oeschger, who turned 88 in May, is a big, handsomely-rugged gentleman who is very articulate and perceptive. His parents immigrated to America from Switzerland, and he was born in Chicago on May 24, 1892 (some sources say 1891, but that is a year too early). The family subsequently moved to California’s Santa Cruz County and in 1900 settled in Ferndale, where Joe’s father bought 100 acres for a dairy ranch. Walter, Joe’s younger brother, still operates the ranch. Joe has three brothers and two sisters.

All four brothers attended Ferndale High School and played baseball, and later all played at St. Mary’s College near Oakland. Brother George, now 78, was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1923 and pitched several years in the minors.

Upon my arrival at Joe’s home, I was immediately put at ease in the friendly atmosphere. His wife, Dr. Nancy O’Sullivan Oeschger, is also quite a person. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Madrid. Her book “Mothers of the Spanish Conquistadores” was published in Spain and circulated throughout Latin America. She showed me a stack of fan letters that Joe had received during the previous week. She also mentioned that the name plate on their rural mail box kept disappearing — no doubt stolen by autograph hounds.

When Joe was in the majors, he regularly sent home news- paper clippings of the games in which he pitched. After his retirement, his mother presented him with a scrapbook, which contains the clippings and provides a detailed summary of his baseball career.

Joe brought out the scrapbook shortly after my arrival, and soon we were discussing games, players and his teaching career. While pitching for St. Mary’s College, Joe was observed by several major league scouts. Upon graduation in 1914, he signed with Philadelphia of the National League. The Phils farmed him to Providence in the International League for most of 1915 and he responded with a 1-0 no-hitter against Toronto on July 14 and a 21-10 season record. He remained with the Phillies until 1919, pitching a 20-inning 9-9 tie game against Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers on April 30 of that year. A short time later he was traded to the New York Giants. Still later in 1919 he was traded to Boston. He ended his baseball career in 1925 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team he had faced in two marathon contests.

Oeschger was in his seventh season in the majors and approaching age 28 when he pitched the longest game ever. It rained most of that May-day morning in 1920, he remembered.

“We didn’t think the game would be played, but we had to report to the park. It was a Saturday, and I didn’t think I would pitch because Manager Stallings usually pitched me on Sundays because I went to church. He always played his hunches. I was happy to get the starting job because Cadore was pitching, and he had beaten me 1-0 in 11 innings earlier in the season. I wanted to even things.”

“It had stopped raining, but the sky was still overcast with more rain predicted. The Dodgers scored first in the fourth inning, and it was my fault. I first walked Ernie Krueger. Then Cadore hit a hard grounder at me, which I momentarily fumbled trying to get Krueger at second, but I did get Cadore at first. After I got two strikes on Ivy Olson, he hit a single just over our shortstop, Rabbit Maranville, which scored Krueger. The next inning we tied the score when Walt Cruise hit a triple against the scoreboard in left. He scored on Tony Boeckel’s single.”

Oeschger then held the Dodgers scoreless for the next 21 innings! But the Braves also failed to score.

“We had a chance to win in the ninth when we filled the bases with only one out, but our second baseman, Charley Pick, hit into a double play, which sent the game into extra innings. Cadore had a good curve ball and I had a good live fast ball that day.”

“The seventeenth inning was a bad one for me. Hank Gowdy, our catcher, saved my neck. The Dodgers filled the bases with only one out. Rowdy Elliott hit one sharply to me on the ground. I threw to the plate, forcing Zack Wheat, but Gowdy’s throw to first was wide, and Walter Holke knocked it down. Holke finally recovered the ball and fired it back to Gowdy, who took the throw  and threw himself across the line in front of the plate and tagged out Konetchy as he thundered in.”

“I was getting tired by the eighteenth inning, but the players kept telling me: `Just one inning, Joe, and we’ll get a run.’ Stallings never did ask me if I wanted to come out. But the batters were griping to stop the game. I didn’t want to stop.”

“It was getting dark and there were no lights in those days. McCormick, the umpire, after talking to the two managers, finally called the game after 26 innings.”

The game started at 3 p.m. and was called at 6:50, which meant three hours and 50 minutes for 26 innings. The 25-inning game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets took seven hours and 23 minutes.

Joe explained that he was a “little tired” after the 26 innings, “but I was more fatigued in some nine-inning games when I got into many jams. There weren’t too many tight situations, and in the seventh I retired the side on three pitched balls.”

Joe said he threw no more than 250 pitches in what was almost equivalent to three regulation games in one afternoon. The Dodgers rapped nine of those pitches for hits. Cadore gave up 15 hits, but Joe insists that pitching honors were about even.

A popular story has developed through the years that the marathon performance ruined Oeschger’s arm. “This is not true,” he maintains. He missed his next turn not because of his arm, but because he pulled a leg muscle running around the park. He returned to the mound 12 days later and was beaten by St. Louis, 9-3.

The following year — 1921 — Oeschger enjoyed his best season, winning 20 games for the Braves. He pitched four more seasons in the majors, much of the time in relief, and then decided to quit because he was experiencing arm trouble. His overall won-lost record was 83-116.

Joe had much praise for George Stallings, his manager on the 1920 Braves. Six years earlier, Stallings had led the “Miracle Braves” from last place on July 15 to the National League pennant by 101/2 games and then a World Series sweep over the Philadelphia Athletics.

“Stallings was a Southern gentleman all the way through, and he was always nice to me when I was playing. He had a tremendous estate near Macon, Ga. On our way through the South he usually invited the whole club to spend an evening there and he always put on an interesting show for us.”

“He had more ability to stimulate a young player to greater effort than anyone I know of. He could encourage you, and he had that something that young players listened to. He was never harsh to young players. His overall management of young fellows was an example for managers. John McGraw was also a great manager, but he wouldn’t develop a young player. He wanted the finished product.”

Oeschger had many interesting comments on former teammates. He was Jim Thorpe’s roommate and was told to keep his eye on the hero of the Olympic Games, who was also famous for his escapades off the playing field.

“Jim had a tendency to go over the line at times. He had a drinking problem. But he was a tremendous athlete. He looked terrible at times on curve balls, but he would beat out a lot of infield hits. It was a pleasure to watch Jim run down the line to first. He could really run. Jim was a good drawing card, and he sure packed them in.”

Another teammate about whom Joe reminisced was Rabbit Maranville, the Braves’ shortstop.

“The Rabbit was a wonderful player. He was small in stature, but had tremendous ability. He had a peculiar way of covering the ground. His throw was right from the chest, and he could throw like a bullet. He was very good with men on first and third when a double steal was attempted. Usually the second baseman handles the cutoff when the runner on third goes in. But on the Braves’ team Rabbit handled the play, which is difficult for the shortstop.”

“Only twice when I played for the Braves did he fail to make the right play.”

Joe laughed when we discussed the family name Oeschger, which has four consonants in a row and is almost always mispronounced. Sports writers and baseball announcers invariably inquire about the pronunciation when speaking of Joe. Even in Humboldt County and in Ferndale, the people say “Oscar.” Joe said the correct pronunciation is “Esh-ker.”

“I’ve been called ‘0-Sugar’ and everything else,” Joe commented. Once in Boston, where there are many people of Irish descent, he recalled the umpires going around the field before the game announcing the batteries: “For Boston, O’Shayger and O’Neil.”

After retiring from the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1925, Oeschger decided to become a physical education teacher. He said he felt his background in baseball was too valuable to ignore. A graduate engineer of St. Mary’s College, he obtained a degree in education at Stanford University. He then taught physical education for 27 years at Portola Junior High School in the Butchertown section of San Francisco, which produced Lefty O’Doul.

“I always got along well with kids, and I though it would be a good field to get into. I never regretted it. I feel that I have contributed more in my teaching than I ever did in baseball as far as the overall picture is concerned. I have had much satisfaction in helping boys to become good citizens. Every once in a while I meet some of my former students, and they have families. And it is so nice. It makes me feel so good.”

Twenty years ago Joe and Nancy came back to retire in the country of Joe’s childhood, and they have lived a quiet, relaxed life, shopping in town, visiting their many friends, and helping to promote community projects. Three years ago Joe was honored during “Humboldt County Night” at Candlestick Park in San Francisco at a game between the Giants and the Atlanta Braves. Although people may have trouble pronouncing his name, they still remember him for one of the greatest pitching performances in major league history.