Oldest former major-leaguer recalls game's good old days

July 24, 1991|By Mike Dame | Mike Dame,Orlando Sentinel

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The cool winds of autumn were just beginning to stir up the infield dirt at New York's Hilltop Park, but Highlanders ace Russ Ford already had been blown away for nine runs by the Detroit Tigers.

"Hey, rookie," Highlanders manager Hal Chase said, beckoning down the bench toward young Chet Hoff. "Go out there and tell Russ to come sit down. You're taking over."

Hoff, who had joined the 1911 American League squad a few days earlier, shot off the bench like a firecracker. Although his team trailed, 9-3, Hoff strode proudly to the mound and dug his spiked shoe into the soft clay, watching as a big left-hander settled into the batter's box.

"I pitched him a couple of fast ones inside, and he fouled them off," recalls Hoff, now 100 and the oldest living former major-leaguer. "The third ball, the catcher gave me a sign for a pitchout, just outside the plate to see if he'd go after it. But he didn't fall for it.

"He didn't see the curveball yet, and the catcher called for the curve. And I throwed him the fastest curveball he'd ever seen. He didn't even get the bat off his shoulder. The umpire yelled, 'Strike three, you're out!' "

The victim? Ty Cobb, who finished that season leading the league in batting (.420), RBIs (144) and stolen bases (83).

"I didn't know who he was," Hoff said. "The next morning, the newspaper had a headline on the front that said, 'Hoff strikes out Ty Cobb.' I almost passed out!"

Hoff loves to pull that story from the recesses of his remarkable memory. As he sits in his cushy green recliner at RaStelle Manor rest home in Daytona Beach, the old stories flow as if it were yesterday.

When Hoff made his big-league debut with the Highlanders -- they wouldn't become the Yankees until 1913 -- Babe Ruth was still a babe. Shoeless Joe Jackson was a rookie. There were only 46 states. Henry Ford's first mass-produced automobile was three years away, and women's suffrage was nine years away.

And the club -- Highlanders or Yankees -- had yet to win a pennant.

That doesn't mean Hoff didn't enjoy the Yankees' later glory years.

"Once a Yankee, always a Yankee," said Hoff, who turned 100 on May 8. He became the oldest ex-player last December when another former Yankee, Paul Otis, died 10 days short of his 101st birthday. But 101 is not out of Hoff's reach; other than impaired hearing and vision, he is in remarkably good health.

Despite his place in baseball history, Hoff's life today is not that of a celebrity. His second-floor room overlooking U.S. 1 has only the essentials: a bed, dresser, sink, mirror and a color TV with remote control. A Yankee cap sits on the dresser.

To be sure, baseball still holds a special place in Hoff's heart. A sprightly man who stays fit by doing sit ups and walking, he watches games nightly and follows the Yankees religiously, lamenting their abysmal pitching. And Hoff has strong opinions about the game.

"The salaries these guys get today are outrageous," said Hoff, who had a career ERA of 2.49. "When I was pitching, you had to go nine innings a game or you couldn't hold a job. You were nTC gone. The best I ever got was $450 a month. It was good pay in those days. That was better than working for a living and getting $20 or $25 a week."

Maybe that's why Hoff prefers to talk about baseball's early days. When players competed for the joy of it on soft fields of real grass. When the only illumination was the blinding light of the sun. When heroes abounded in the bigs.

The way Hoff broke into the game is no less romantic.

When he was 20, his older brother Herb -- who played for their hometown semipro team in Ossining, N.Y. -- asked him to have a catch one night after dinner. Two days later, Hoff was pitching for Ossining against nearby Croton.

He won. The next week, in Tarrytown, Hoff won again.

"The day after that," Hoff said, "a friend of the family, a Wall Street broker [Al Buckhout] who was friends with Mr. Chase, went and told him he had a young ballplayer up in Ossining and wondered if he could get a tryout," Hoff said. "So I went down and tried out."

Chase, who died in 1947, was so impressed that he gave Hoff a spot on the New York staff as a reliever. "He says, 'See that locker over there? There's a uniform and that's for you,' " Hoff said. " 'Come out with our regular players today.' "

So after only two semi-pro games, Hoff was a big-leaguer. But his time in the majors would be brief.

After spending portions of the 1911, '12 and '13 seasons with the Yankees, Hoff's career ground to a halt in 1915 with the St. Louis Browns, who were managed by Branch Rickey. When the rival Federal League folded in 1916, its players pushed out journeymen like Hoff.

But Hoff's short stay in the big leagues -- his contemporaries included Connie Mack, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood -- was filled with experiences of a lifetime.

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