Gabby Street’s monumental catch: ‘It weighed 300 pounds and traveled 95 mph’

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the SABR Deadball Era Committee’s September 2015 newsletter.

By Joseph Wancho

It is doubtful that Charles Evard Street will be recognized as one of the great catchers in the Deadball Era of major league baseball. Chances are excellent that many baseball fans may not recall him at all. For Gabby, it was outside the white lines of a baseball diamond that brought him the most notoriety. First, he was used to settle an unorthodox wager between two Senators fans in 1908. Three decades later, he was a pennant-winning manager for the St. Louis Cardinals.

But the garrulous Street was given the nickname “Gabby” for good reason. His battery mate from the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson, explains Street’s moniker. “You don’t see Gabby’s kind of a catcher anymore. He never hit much, but what a receiver he was — big fellow, a perfect target, great arm, slow afoot, but spry as a cat on his feet behind the plate, always talking, always hustling, full of pep and fight,” said Johnson. “Gabby was always jabberin,’ and he never let a pitcher take his mind off the game. When we got in a tight spot, Gabby was right out there to talk it over with me. He never let me forget a batter’s weakness.”[fn]Alan Gould, “Gabby Street, Ace of the Cards,” Associated Press, September 20, 1931.[/fn]

Street could also be an annoyance to the opposition. “He always kept the pitcher in good spirits with his continual chatter of sense and nonsense,” said the Big Train. “‘Ease up on this fellow, Walter, he has a wife and two kids,’ he would call jokingly when some batter was hugging the plate and getting a toehold for a crack at one of my fast ones. ’This fellow hasn’t had a hit off you since you joined the league,’ might be his next remark and so on throughout the game.”[fn]Henry W. Thomas, Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 55.[/fn]

As Johnson pointed out, the Huntsville, Alabama native was not a great batsman. One only has to note his .208 career batting average over seven seasons. But Street may never have gotten his chance to play in the major leagues at all if it were not for Branch Rickey. Cincinnati had called up Rickey from Class C Dallas of the Texas League. But Rickey, a devout Christian, refused to play ball on Sundays. Rickey was subsequently returned to Dallas and the door was opened for Street.

During a ballgame on June 3, 1905, two catchers for the Boston Beaneaters were injured. The National Commission facilitated a loan of Street to the Beaneaters.[fn]Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1905.[/fn] However, his tenure was short, as he committed four errors in a game on June 7. The very next day, he himself was hurt, his index finger hit by a pitch which broke it. But with no other catcher available he had it bandaged and continued.[fn]Boston Globe, June 8, 1905. These were the only four errors that Street committed during the three games in which he appeared for Boston, but four errors in 18 chances saddled him with a .778 fielding percentage in the short stay, from which he also returned with a broken finger.[/fn] Street was returned to the Reds in the middle of June. Boston was a dismal team in 1905, as four starting pitchers registered 20 losses or more on the season. To prove that it was no fluke, they duplicated the feat in 1906, with three new pitchers no less.

In February 1906, Street’s contract was purchased by San Francisco of the Pacific Coast League. He spent the next two seasons on the “City by the Bay,” although on April 18, 1906, he almost got dumped into the Bay. “I was living in the Golden Gate Hotel, patronized largely by baseball players and members of the theatrical profession and during the wee hours of April 18 of that year, I was thrown from my bed,” said Street. “Out in San Francisco they still refer to the Act of God which tossed me from my bed as ‘The Fire,’ but the force that removed me from my mattress to the floor was an earthquake. Aroused, I rubbed my eyes, looked out the window and saw buildings crumbling, and having heard whispers of quakes, I headed for the street. If I live to be a hundred I shall always remember that scene. The Beauty and the Beast and Babes in Toyland companies were living in the same hotel and what the female members of those troupes wore as they hiked for the exits is nobody’s business. As we hit the street, en masse, the rear of the hotel collapsed and the water tank on the roof, halved by the second shock, washed everyone of us. I walked through showers of brick and mortar to the Golden Gate Park where I spent the night.”[fn]The Sporting News, October 2, 1930.[/fn]

Persistence paid off for Street, and his contract was sold to the Washington Senators of the American League. Of the 504 games that Street played in the major leagues, 429 of them were over the next four years (1908-1911) in Washington. Defense was his specialty, as he led the league in putouts and double plays in both 1908 and 1909. In 1910, he was atop his peers with a fielding percentage of .978. However, Washington was not fielding a championship team in those days. They finished no better than seventh place in the American League, and no closer than 22½ games back of the pennant winner.

But what was it that made fans remember Gabby Street? He was perhaps best known for catching a ball dropped from atop the Washington Monument on August 21, 1908. Senators fans Preston Gibson and John Biddle had made a wager of $500 whether the feat could be done. After all, the ball would travel 555 feet, and at a high rate of speed. Gabby was never one to be deterred from a challenge and set his place at the foot of the monument. Gibson and Biddle climbed to the top with a basket full of baseballs, and constructed a wooden chute so the ball would slide to arc away and clear the wide base of the enormous structure. The first 10 baseballs caromed off the base of the monument, so the chute was discarded and the pair of fans took turns throwing the ball from their perch. Gabby, dressed in street clothes, with arms outstretched over his head as if to corral a pop fly, made the successful catch on the 15th attempt. It was calculated that the baseball had picked up 300 pounds of force by the time and was traveling 95 miles per hour by the time it landed into Street’s mitt, which almost hit the ground from the impact. “I didn’t see the ball until it was halfway down,” said Gabby. “It was slanting in the wind and I knew it would be a hard catch.”[fn]Unidentified clipping from Street’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.[/fn] But the feat was no big deal to Gabby. He continued on his way to work. He caught Johnson that afternoon, as the Senators topped the Detroit Tigers on a five-hitter, 3-1.

Street’s last season in the majors was 1912. He split the season between the New York Highlanders and Providence Grays of the International League, participating in a handful of games for each team. He spent the next five seasons in the Southern Association, suiting up for both Chattanooga and Nashville.

Gabby Street became known as Sergeant Street when he enlisted in the Army in March, 1918. As Street put it, he was going off to fight in the “real” World Series. “I was sent to Fort Slocum, N.Y. and everybody interested in baseball thought it was great that I should be on hand to catch the army team. I finally convinced my lieutenant that I joined the army to fight, pointing out that I could have continued playing baseball for a salary. I was one of the first 50,000 to get over and took part in three major engagements: Chateau Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Argonne. That St. Louis regiment, the 138th, was as fine as an outfit as I ever saw, and I was proud to be attached to it,” said Sergeant Street.[fn]The Sporting News, October 2, 1930.[/fn] He was assigned to the First Gas Regiment, Chemical Warfare Division. He and his men joined the 138th in the Battle of Argonne, France. Street’s men held down a smoke screen for the 138th infantry (St. Louis) of the 135th division on September 26, 1918. A machine gun bullet from a German airplane punctured his right leg on October 2, 1918. Gabby was awarded the Purple Heart, but his war days were at an end.

At 36 years of age, combined with the injuries he suffered in the war, Street’s baseball playing days were coming to a close. He spent the next nine seasons as a player-manager in the minor leagues. One of his stops was in Joplin, Missouri in 1922-1923. There, Street met and married the former Lucinda Rona Chandler. They married in 1923 and had two children, Charles Jr. and Sally.

Branch Rickey was building a juggernaut in St. Louis, as the Cardinals won their first World Championship in 1926, finished in second place to Pittsburgh in 1927, and won the pennant in 1928. Street was added to St. Louis Manager Billy Southworth’s staff in 1929. But the Cards slumped and Street was inserted as the skipper in 1930. St. Louis owner Sam Breadon had a penchant for making changes, especially managers. Street was the fifth new manager to start a season in five years. It was a goal that Street had set for himself and now he saw it fulfilled. Breadon said he had hired Street, “Because I believe he is just the man to give us a winner. He knows baseball through and through, is smart, a hustler, and the game is his main interest in life. The players like him and respect him. He was glad to get the job. It was unanimous.”[fn]Gould.[/fn]

The team of which that Street took the reins was by no means a rebuilding project. Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch, George Watkins, Jimmie Wilson, and Chick Hafey anchored a formidable lineup in which each starter hit over .300 and the team scored 1,004 runs. The pitching staff was led by Jesse Haines, Bill Hallahan, and spitball hurler Burleigh Grimes. Street did not have the burden of developing players as he had in the minor leagues. Indeed, it was a smart manager who recognized the talent on his club and did not tinker with it too much. “The difference is I don’t have to show these fellows how to play ball,” said Street. “Most of them have had long experience. They do the work and make my job easy for me.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

The veteran squad won a pennant in 1930, but lost in the World Series to the Philadelphia Athletics in six games. The following season the Cards breezed through the regular season, besting the New York Giants by 13 games. Their opponent was once again the Athletics. This time the Cardinals came out on top, winning the championship in a hard-fought seven game series.

St. Louis fell in the standings the next two seasons. In 1933, during spring training, the sportswriters began to write about Street’s “board of strategy.” In essence, Gabby allowed some of the veteran players to assist him in the decisions he made on the field. The result was a cooperative team and two pennants. When the Cards started losing, Street’s way naturally began to take a hit in the press. Suddenly Street felt he was not getting the credit he deserved for the two pennants.

In a spring training meeting, Street blew up at his team, telling them that he and he alone would be making every decision in the dugout. “Gabby didn’t like those stories about the Cardinal ‘board of strategy’ on the ballclub,” said Frisch. “There wasn’t going to be any board of strategy from there on. He’d crack the whip, he’d make all the decisions, he’d take all the responsibility, and maybe after the next pennant the Old Sergeant would get just a little bit of credit as manager of this club. Spoken or not, the sentiment was: ‘We’ll let him manage the ballclub, we’ll let him crack the whip, and we’ll let him get all the credit, and we’ll just keep our damned mouths shut.’ It hurt me to see the absolute divorce between manager and squad. I got him alone one day and asked him why in the world he had lost his temper and popped off like that to a club that thought so much of him. ‘Frank,’ he said, ‘I just got so damned sick of that junk in the newspaper that I couldn’t stand it any longer.’”[fn]Peter Golenbock, The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 163-164.[/fn]

Street was not around to see the conclusion of the season, as he was replaced by Frisch. He did return to managing, taking the reins of the St. Louis Browns in 1938. He didn’t last to the end of the season, being dismissed after posting a 53-90 record.

With a nickname like “Gabby,” he was a natural for a color commentator on radio broadcasts. He started his second career in 1940, providing his unique insight to Browns ballgames and was eventually paired with a young Harry Caray to broadcast Cardinal games from 1945 to 1950.

Charles Evard Street passed away on February 6, 1951 after battling pancreatic cancer. In 1966, he was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. His former broadcast partner Caray served as the host. “Gabby could talk because he lived through so much. To be able to have this man as my friend was the greatest thing that could happen to me.”[fn]Unidentified clipping from Street’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.[/fn]

JOSEPH WANCHO, a SABR member since 2005, is the co-chair of SABR’s Minor Leagues Research Committee. He was the editor of the book “Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians” (University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

 



Originally published: September 23, 2015. Last Updated: September 23, 2015.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved