This article was written by Steve Bennett
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
In his 94 eventful years, George “Stormy” Kromer caught for the Wisconsin All-Stars, worked 54 years on the railroad, invented the railroad engineer’s cap, founded a manufacturing empire, and managed a minor league team to 35 straight defeats. And if that’s not enough, when he was 75, he managed a minor league team to an embarrassing 40-5 defeat that received national attention, forced an investigation by the minor league governing body, and resulted in the end of Kromer’s involvement in Organized Baseball.
Many parts of the Kromer legend are shadowy. A lot was written about him in his native Wisconsin, but the source for much of what was written was Kromer him self. In this regard Kromer was the equal of a more famous baseball storyteller and mythmaker, Bill Veeck. But if this is the story of one man’s romance with base ball, then we must hear the story as he wanted us to hear it, for it’s not the facts that count here, it’s how we tell them. But don’t fear: I’ll draw distinctions between what is certifiably real and what is likely Kromer embellishing the details.
In 1897, at the insistence of his future father-in-law, 21-year-old George Kromer got a real job, starting as a railroad fireman on the North Western line. Fifty-four years later he retired as an engineer. But to simply say he was a railroad man and leave it at that is to miss most of a delightful tale of a true American original.
Stormy Kromer was born in Kaukauna, WI, a town known for the cheese that bears its name. As a boy, he was often found throwing and catching a baseball with a homemade glove, which he crafted out of an old ladies boot and some black string. Stormy eventually quit school and was working delivering groceries when he was pressed into service for his local high school team. He claimed he played so well that he became the regular catcher even though he did not attend school!
In the mid- l890s, Stormy caught for the Wisconsin All-Stars. Kromer took particular pride in associating with players who enjoyed major league success. He said he caught four men who later pitched in the major leagues. One player he definitely caught was Pete Rusting, who went on and pitched for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. As a 24-year-old, Rusting won 14 games for the American League champion A’s. He was their number three starter that season behind future Hall of Famers Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world, but Pete Rusting retired from baseball after that season and moved back to Wisconsin to practice law.
While catching for semi-pro teams in the Midwest, Stormy was upset that he didn’t have a matching cap for his uniform. Unable to afford one, he asked his wife, Ida, to fashion a cap from the sleeves of his “uni.” Stormy was always a stickler for neat appearance at the ball park. Little did he know how that would come to profit him.
Railroad men of the period wore regular hats, any thing from straw hats to derbies. Kromer came home from a train run one day determined to design a new cap that would not blow away when the winds whipped through the locomotive cab. Using the experience they had gained from making a baseball cap, Stormy and Ida created a canvas and cloth cap that proved so practical other rail men would “steal” Stormy’s cap and force money on him. The Kromers decided to manufacture the pieces for sale.
In three weeks Mrs. Kromer and two girls put together 18 caps. That inauspicious beginning led, in just a few years’ time, to the Kromer Cap Company and its famous Kromer Klean Kloth Kabin Kap. It also led to a plant in Milwaukee, distribution on three continents, production of 360,000 caps annually, and a healthy bankroll that enabled Stormy Kromer to pursue his real passion baseball.
Though still working four months a year on the rail road and overseeing a cap empire, Kromer had ample time and financial resources to invest in baseball teams, both semi-pro and professional. During the 1920s he claims to have sunk $60,000 into a total of 11 teams. One of those teams stood out from the rest.
In 1925 Stormy leased the Blytheville, Arkansas Tigers of the old Tri-State League for $2,000. They were a Class D minor league, which was the lowest professional classification. He found some pretty fair ballplayers for this entry level squad. One, Jack Kloza, wound up briefly in the bigs. Another, Bill Lewis, batted .397 in the Western Association in 1930. He claimed six others also scored later successes in higher leagues, though there is reason to believe some of them may have simply had the same last names as players who performed well in higher leagues.
Stormy liked to tell of how he found Lewis. As the story goes, Lewis was a newsboy in Memphis when Stormy saw him playing catch in the street. Stormy offered him a tryout, and the boy made good. The reality is Lewis had already played for three minor league teams by the time he got to Blytheville. It’s possible Kromer found some player playing catch on a Memphis street, but it wasn’t Lewis. More likely it was a player who was soon back on that same Memphis street playing catch and talking wistfully about when he used to play pro ball.
Kromer’s policy with the 1925 Blytheville Tigers and all their diamonds in the rough was the same one Branch Rickey used so successfully years later: He sold his players when he felt their value to be at its peak. This was a common practice of astute minor league operators in the days before farm systems. Sometimes the practice could backfire when the team was left bereft of talent. In the early 1920s when the Baltimore Orioles were in the middle of a string of seven consecutive International League pennants, owner Jack Dunn chose not to sell his great pitcher, Lefty Grove. He didn’t want to damage his team’s chances of winning.
Some operators, though, didn’t have the luxury of passing up good money from higher leagues. In Blytheville, Stormy wasn’t racing toward a pennant, and he had no qualms about moving talent. Kloza was shipped to Birmingham for $1,000. Outfielder Parker Perry went to Chattanooga for the same price. Two other players went at the same time, and between injuries and sell offs, the team was decimated. They went into a tail spin that didn’t end until a new standard for futility had been set: 35 consecutive defeats.
The community was outraged. Kromer said the Ku Klux Klan threatened to run him out on a rail. He often recalled how the townsfolk decided the matter for him by staying away from the ballpark. After a series of games when allegedly no spectators showed up, Stormy figured it was time to take his show on the road. Thus was born Kromer’s Arkansas Night Riders. They became a road club that actually turned a small profit. The visiting team was guaranteed $100 a game, and Kromer’s expenses ran between $75 and $85 a day. Best of all, he was true to his ultimate purpose: developing baseball talent. Toward that end, he kept bringing in rookies for tryouts: 117 by year’s end. “Most of them weren’t worth much, but it didn’t take me long to pick out the good ones,” he said. “I released 14 one night and on another occasion canned seven at one time.” The circumstances of the Blytheville season make for a great tale. The only problem is there is no evidence that any of it is true, except for the parts about selling off players and losing 35 in a row. The league played a split-season schedule. Blytheville’s record in the first half was 27-33. In the second half they dipped to 4-44.
In 1933 Kromer was compelled to defend his record and methods in Blytheville in a letter to the editor of The Sporting News. This is telling in that years after the fact, people were still talking and writing about what occurred there.
After years of working with semi-pro teams in Wisconsin, Stormy had one final fling in Organized Baseball. In 1951 he paid the owners of the Class D Vincennes Velvets of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League for the right to manage the club on the field. The Vincennes club lost $8,000 in 1950, a fact they blamed on a combination of bad weather, a losing team, and out-of-town ownership. Local owners were recruited, but when Kromer came calling with an offer of $10,000 to run the team, of course the new owners accepted. Furthermore, he let them know that developing hitters was his specialty. Even though it had been more than half a century since his days as a catcher for the Wisconsin All-Stars, the 75-year-old man had lost none of his desire to teach youngsters his system of baseball, the “sizzels of base ball” as he called it.
One of Stormy’s “sizzels” was his advocacy of good balance for his players. Today balance drills are common practice. High school pitchers and younger practice throwing while standing on a balance beam. They practice maintaining the balance point of their deliveries while standing on a fulcrum. Similar drills exist for hitters.
Some of his other “sizzels” made less sense, then or now. The training camp for the Vels was like no other. There was Stonny with his rum-soaked cigars expounding on his baseball theories. He had players looking into the sun to strengthen their batting eyes. Contrast this with the beliefs of Rogers Hornsby, the seven-time batting champion who refused to read or go to movie houses be cause he was worried it would damage his vision. Stormy would have been familiar with Hornsby’s views. As an older man, Kromer enrolled in Hornsby’s baseball school in Hot Springs, AK. He went through the same paces as the 18-year-olds who made up the school’s attendees. Hornsby noted, “That guy Kromer is the best example of a player with guts I ever knew.” The source for the quote is probably “that guy Kromer.”
Stormy had the team practice with sponge rubber balls. Bob Signaigo, his assistant manager and right fielder, explained, “That was to keep you from being afraid of being hit. But by God, we were professionals. We had been hit a thousand times by then!” Kromer’s use of rubber balls dates back to at least 1923. An Appleton Post-Crescent article mentions him using soft rubber balls for practice with his Wisconsin State League team. Late in spring training the Vincennes Sun-Commercial reported that manager Kromer was “getting ready to get down to his favorite pastime-improving batting averages.” It went on to mention a visitor to camp, one of Stormy’s players on the 1925 Blytheville team that had won 32 games in a row!
Stormy’s most famous theory of all was to “Take two; take all you got coming to you. Then hit the third one where you want.” He tried to teach his hitters discipline by commanding them to not swing until they had two strikes. He believed this made them hungrier hitters, though a Dodgers scout countered, “If a Class D team or a high school team will take two strikes, bunt and run, it will win a lot of games. You’d win, though you wouldn’t develop any real hitters.” Stormy argued his system worked because he produced a number of good minor league hitters during the 1920s such as Lewis, Perry, and Kloza. Kloza may have been quite a hitter anyway. In his first at bat with Blytheville, Kloza disregarded Kromer’s advice to “take two” and instead swung at the second pitch, blasting a drive over the center field fence.
Stormy liked to tell the story of a practice game long ago. A young boy ran off with a ball. When he was stopped by one of the players, he explained, “I only got one! Stormy always says, ‘Take two.”‘
Signaigo often threw batting practice with 75-year old Stormy catching. “I decided to play a little joke on Stormy,” he recounted. “I substituted one of the rubber balls and let loose with a rising fastball that hit him in the mask and bounced away. Was he impressed! I don’t think he ever knew it wasn’t a real baseball.”
It might have been the rising fastball hitting him in the mask that convinced Stormy to use outfielder Bob Signaigo as a pitcher in a game. It ended up being Kromer’s last game in Organized Baseball.
Here’s what happened: The Velvets traveled to Danville, IL, to take on the Dans in a doubleheader. In the first game Kromer used a patchwork lineup that featured only four players in their regular positions: the pitcher, the second baseman, the shortstop, and the right fielder. When Long George Smith got shelled for seven runs in the first, Stormy chose to live to fight another day. He shifted Smith to right and brought Signaigo, he of the rising fastball, in to pitch. Unfortunately for Vincennes, Signaigo, who was hitting almost .400 at the time, did not have his best stuff. Eight walks, eight hits, 13 runs, and just six outs later, Signaigo was replaced by the center fielder, John Richmond. He was tagged for nine runs in just one inning before giving way to the first baseman, Eddie Garcia. Garcia mopped up admirably, allowing only 11 runs over the last four innings.
It was reported that when Danville got to 39 runs, the fans started clamoring for 40. With a runner on third, a ball was hit to an infielder who had an easy play at the plate. But true to the old showbiz adage, “Give the people what they want,” the infielder screamed, “Here’s your 40!” and threw the ball into the stands, allowing the fortieth and final run to score. Less than three hours after it started, Danville was victorious by the startling score of 40-5. It was one of the highest scoring games in modern baseball history.
The umpires decided Stormy was making a mockery of the game and ejected him prior to the start of the doubleheader’s second game. This decision wasn’t entirely fair to Kromer. True, many of the players were in positions they had not played before, and responsibility for the lineup rests with the manager. But when the starting pitcher didn’t have his best stuff (or any stuff at all), Stormy chose to rest his real pitchers and save their arms for more winnable games. This is a practice that still occurs today, though usually the faux pitcher enters the game in the eighth or ninth inning, not the second.
Three days later the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution commending the Dans for their victory. The resolution claimed the Dans “eked out a 40 to 5 victory” in a “stirring pitchers’ battle reminiscent of the classic duels between the immortal Christy Mathewson and Mordecai Brown.”
That same day Stormy Kromer resigned and was re placed by his assistant, right fielder Bob Signaigo. Stormy bore no grudges. He continued to show up for Velvets’ games. His players liked the man. Lefty Mehringer, the team’s best hurler, spoke for his teammates. “We all liked Stormy. He was trustworthy, and he was honest.”
Cy Deem, one of the young pitchers on the Velvets, related this story:
Stormy was in the stands and saw kids chasing the foul balls that went out of the park. I suppose he didn’t know they were turning them in to the Danville officials and started paying the kids to bring them to him. The Danville officials caught on and confronted him. When Bob Signaigo went to help him, Stormy was crying and said it was for the good of the league and that he intended to turn them in after the game.
To provide background for the league investigation into the Danville debacle, Robert Rouse, the Velvets general manager, sent a letter to George Trautman, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. The letter is presented in its entirety.
Your letter to Mr. Horace Parrish, President of the Vincennes Baseball Club, has been handed to me for reply. This letter was regarding a complaint by Mr. George J. Kromer against Mr. Parrish and Mr. Raymond Werner, Secretary of the Club.
In an agreement dated March 28, 1951 Mr. Parrish and Mr. Werner agreed to let Mr. Kromer take over management of the Vincennes Club, on the field, for the 1951 season. Mr. Kromer had stated that he was an old time professional ball player and had managed professional clubs at Blytheville, AK and Blackwell, OK. Kromer further stated that he had a system of play that had developed several major league players and would teach that system to the Vincennes Club. In return for letting him “coach” the club, Kromer agreed to pay the Vincennes Club $5,000 when the agreement was signed and another $5,000 on June 1, 1951. Kromer paid the first $5,000 and arrived in Vincennes in time for spring training. At that time I had my first meeting with him and he sat down to give me what he called the “Sizzels” of baseball. Kromer made it plain at once that baseball had been played all wrong for 75 years. He referred to such men as Cobb, Speaker, Alexander, Hornsby, Ruth, and Musial as “dummies” and stated that none of those men played any better than the average sand lot kid. I was informed that this spring training would be different and would be run the right way. It, in part, consisted of using sponge rubber balls instead of baseballs, always throwing the ball in the infield to any base on two or more bounces, never using a glove or mitt to catch a ball and to catch with both arms extended rigidly in front of you with all fingers spread apart as far as possible. Never to run, as that would tire you and for pitchers not to throw. To warm up, a pitcher was to hold his arms up raised for 10 minutes. He was then ready to go. To strengthen the eyes, players were asked to look into the sun for 15 minutes. For hitting practice, players went to the plate with a 3-2 count on them. Kromer positioned himself behind the mound as umpire. The pitcher delivered. If the ball was over and the batter took the pitch, he was out and another man came up. If the pitch was bad, the batter walked and a new man came up. If the batter fouled the pitch, he was out. New man. The only way a batter could get more than one pitch was to hit the first one for what Kromer judged to be a base hit. In that event, he stayed up, still with a 3-2 count.
Naturally, after two days of this I knew something had to be done so I started taking Kromer on “scouting trips” every day while one of our veteran players conducted spring training. When the season opened, I was able to convince Kromer, whose age is 75, that the road trips were too hard for him and that he should not make them. At home I could watch him and keep him from causing too much trouble. My task was to keep Kromer happy in order to protect the owners, who know little of baseball and take no part in the operation of the club, because of Kromer’s investment, and at the same time see that the players were not subjected to a lot of “hocus pocus” that Kromer believed in.
Things went along well until June 17th. On that day we were playing at Danville. Kromer, unknown to me, had hidden himself on the club bus and made the road trip. This was the chance he had been waiting for. He sub mitted a lineup for the first game of a double header that found outfielders pitching, pitchers in the infield, and in fielders in the outfield. The players tried to show Kromer that this was bad baseball but he replied that if they were ballplayers they could play just as well one place as an other. The result was Danville 40, Vincennes 5. After the unbelievable score, Kromer left the park and club and didn’t return for three days. When he did arrive, it was to brag about how he made the headlines in papers all over the country as a result of the game at Danville. I tried to explain that things like that were very bad for the game and could only result in causing the club trouble with both the League and the National Association. I was soundly cursed by Kromer and further informed that no one could do a damn thing about it because he had a contract and could run the club the way he wanted to. That same evening, June 20th, one of the players told me that Kromer was again drawing up a lineup with players out of normal position. I went to the players bench and talked with Kromer. He refused to alter his plan. I then called the club president, Mr. Parrish, and he tried to talk with Kromer but Kromer hung up. Mrs. Parrish came to the park to talk with Kromer but he re fused to alter his plan and used bad language in her presence. When nothing else would work, I again went to the player’s bench, tore up Kromer’s lineup and in formed him that he could no longer manage the club. He had already broken his contract because he had not paid the second $5,000 that was due on June 1st. Kromer left the field and the next day sent a letter thanking the club owners for the chance they had given him and stating that he was “resigning” and going home. It must have been while he was at home that he wrote your office. I understand that our League President and The Sporting News also received a similar letter.
Kromer is now back in Vince1rnes. He goes to the ball park every night and spends a lot of time with me. He does not, however, try to manage the club. Today, when Mr. Parrish handed me your letter, I asked Kromer when and why he had written your office. He replied, “I don’t remember ever writing to Mr. Trautman.”
That is the story. I know it sounds unbelievable but it is true. In fact there is much, much more that could be added but I think this is enough to give you some idea about Kromer. If you should desire more information, I can send you a few of Kromer’s “sizzel sheets,” full of information about the new strike zone, complete information on why a batter should strike out on one strike or walk on two balls, how a ball game should be only four innings or a lot of other things that I’ll bet even your office never thought of.
I am not trying to make a joke of this thing but it is hard to keep from seeing some humor in the thing when one knows that Kromer sincerely thinks that baseball is all wrong and that he, alone, has the answer that will save it.
Yours very truly,
Robert M. Rouse
Three years later the Kaukauna Elks threw a testimonial dinner for Stormy Kromer, “the best sport in the world.” 125 people showed up to pay tribute to this baseball pioneer and to share their favorite stories about him and his affection for baseball. They told how he would collar people on the train platforms during layovers and make them play catch with him. They told how, as a passenger, Stormy would miss his stops on the train because he was so engrossed in baseball conversations. They told how as a boy in Kaukauna, he would play ball with whatever was available, even corn cobs and bundles of rags. They told of the time he sold a player to the White Sox, even though the player had lost a finger. The Sox figured they wouldn’t lose him to the military draft. Instead the boy quit baseball six months later. And they told of the time when, with the bases loaded, Stormy hit 18 foul balls in row, waiting for his pitch. Then he struck out. That one at bat served as a microcosm for Kromer’s baseball career. It was in failure that Stormy Kromer was most remembered, but he kept dusting himself off and going back for more. Nothing could quench his passion for baseball, and it was that quality that endeared him to all who knew him.
At 19 he was catching future big leaguers on the sandlots of Wisconsin. At 75 he was still catching batting practice in the minors. Stormy summed up his feelings in four words. “Baseball keeps you young.”
STEVE BENNETT’s greatest baseball thrill was sitting in the nosebleed seats with his son and SABR members Rod Nelson and Mark Rucker and watching the White Sox win the first game of the 2005 World Series. A SABR member since 1987, Bennett lives in Grinnell, IA with his wife and two children. He enjoys being the public address announcer for his sons high school baseball games.