Al Kermisch: Grand guru of baseball games gone by

James H. Bready

April 03, 1992|By James H. Bready

AL KERMISCH, gazing out across the baseball diamonds of long ago, has made a discovery. He's made it as he sits there staring into a microfilm screen at the Library of Congress. The discovery is like a beer vendor's making a sale at an Oriole home game: It keeps happening.

But this one stands out. It's the worst slaughter ever.

In the history of baseball, particularly as played professionally in Baltimore and Washington, Al Kermisch has been everywhere. He has inspected the box score of every game ever played by the teams, major league and minor, of both cities.

He was Colonel Kermisch, on terminal leave from the Pentagon, when he first went at it full-time in 1963. His routine has been to arrive at the Library of Congress when the doors open and spend all day in the serials division, poring over old newspapers and making notes. It was a seven-day-a-week labor of love, though at 77 Kermisch has slowed down to five days.

Some people would say a man who commutes between his apartment in Alexandria and the Library of Congress -- four pedestrian blocks and two subway stops apart -- doesn't go much of anywhere. Kermisch does declare spring vacation and head south for the training camps; he was there as far back as 1942, wearing his army uniform and pitching batting practice for the players in their Oriole uniforms.

In 1954, when he couldn't get enough military leave, he passed up spring training. Instead, he went to Detroit for the two games in which the reborn American League Orioles first appeared on a modern scoreboard. Then he made the scene for opening day at Memorial Stadium.

Stationed in Washington, Kermisch became historian of the Senators until their demise. Between games, he added to the known list of old-time pitchers who worked both games of a doubleheader; he ferreted out pinch-hitters -- before the 1891 rule change legalizing pinch-hitting.

The Baseball Research Journal, issued yearly by SABR (thSociety for American Baseball Research) calls Al Kermisch "our staff archaeologist" and publishes him under an unchanging headline, "From a Researcher's Notebook." At the two rival baseball encyclopedias, his articles are awaited with morbid interest because Kermisch helpfully points out so many mistakes.

In 1869, a game between two Buffalo teams ended in a score of Niagara 209, Columbia 10. Surely the most uneven matchup of all time? Wait until Kermisch publishes an account of the game in 1870 between the Washington Olympics and a pickup team of newspaper men.

Growing up in East Baltimore, a lefty, Kermisch pitched for the Calumet Democratic Club, coached by Rube Marquard. Once he pitched a 20-inning game on the old Trenton Club diamond on Reisterstown Road. It was 95 degrees, and he lost "10 pounds anyway." His arm felt OK at the time, Kermisch says, but thereafter he was a first baseman. He also sold newspapers, and it is a funny feeling, 65 years later, to read the same papers on microfilm.

At the Library of Congress you have to fill out a request slip. Six reels is the maximum allowed. Kermisch's one bit of spin on the ball is to arrive with his slips already filled out. Now, recovering from hip surgery (TV will give him a good view of Opening Day at Oriole Park), he has six filled-out slips in his jacket pocket. In a few weeks, when he can manage the subway escalators again, he will be asking to see the Washington Times for some months in 1898 and 1899; the Baltimore News, 1932 and 1933; the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, 1867 and 1869.

In each, he is on the trail of something. It was Kermisch, for instance, who pointed out that the Oriole Dan McGann in the record books was actually two separate McGanns. Kermisch also notes that George Wright of Boston, a Hall of Famer, one day in 1873 hit two homers in one inning against the Lord Baltimores, a detail apparently unmentioned here since then. Kermisch notes further that the man from the Associated Press hit a home run that afternoon in 1870 when the journalists took on the Olympics.

His valor prevented a shutout, in what was otherwise history's most one-sided game. The two teams, responsive to public or pride (or both), played a full nine innings. The Olympics, warming up with 11 runs in the first, scored 62 in the ninth. Final: Olympics 304, Correspondents 1.

If over the years any team ever topped that gruesome total, the identity of such a game's rediscoverer and the scene of the achievement will be known in advance to aging Calumet Democratic Club members and to modern Baltimore Oriole fans.

All hail Al Kermisch, the grand guru of games gone by.

James H. Bready is a retired journalist who was slightly too young for the Olympics-Correspondents game. He is historian of the Baltimore Orioles.

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