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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Carl Scheib, the 16-Year-Old Major League Bullpen Pitcher

Appearing in 267 games during an 11-year major league career, pitcher Carl Scheib had a solid yet unspectacular showing as a big leaguer. However, he would likely have never gotten the change if not for a traveling salesman, who wrote Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack to recommend the high school phenom— resulting in a 16-year-old Scheib working as the team’s batting practice pitcher in 1943 and making his debut before the year was over.

Born in 1927, Scheib grew up in tiny Gratz, Pennsylvania, a rural town outside of Harrisburg. A community known for farming and coal mining, his father did both, leaving few options as to what the youngsters’ future held when he came of age.

Scheib’s parents encouraged him to play baseball and by the time he was a teenager he had become an all-around player and right-handed pitcher of some local renown. As a 15-year-old, he was larger than most full-grown men and his success pitching for an American Legion team often made him the topic of town chatter, as they relived his exploits. This ended up changing the direction of the youngster’s life forever.

In 1942, Gratz grocer Hannah Clark waited on traveling salesman Al Grossman and started talking up the teen hurler. Although he didn’t work in baseball, Grossman did have friends in the Athletics organization and shortly after this encounter wrote a letter to legendary manager Connie Mack to make him aware of the promising prospect residing within state limits. Before the days of easy coast-to-coast travel and social media, baseball teams relied on tips like these almost as much as their own scouting to get the inside dope on such up-and-comers. Otherwise, tops rural athletes like Scheib had little recourse to get noticed and pursue a professional career.

At the time of Grossman’s letter, the team was in the midst of its eight consecutive year of residing in the second division. In particular, the team struggled mightily to find consistent pitching. Known for frequently gambling on young players, Mack couldn’t resist looking into this tip further, despite the kid’s age.  That September, Scheib was driven by his brother to Philadelphia, where he nervously went through his paces in front of Mack and a coach.

As Scheib later recalled, “I had no glove or shoes or uniform, so they had to go around the clubhouse and collect them for me. I went down to the bullpen and all the coaches and big wheels were there. I threw to Earle Brucker and Mr. Mack said, ‘You hurry back next year as fast as you can.’”

Next April, Scheib discussed his options with his family. Knowing that a likely alternative was the farm, the coal mines or both, they came to the consensus that it would be a good thing for him to leave school two years early to pursue professional baseball. True to his word, Mack hired him as a batting practice pitcher. Soon, his repertoire impressed enough people that he started going out on road trips with the team and making appearances in exhibition games.

Unfortunately, it was not an easy for the pitcher to acclimate to being with a big league team. He later explained, “In those days those teammates didn’t tell you much. Coaches? They didn’t work with you. They just went out to third base and directed traffic. It was hard to get used to. I was intimidated. I was a bashful, shy kid coming out of the sticks. It was pretty hard.”

The combination of Scheib’s talent; the watering down of major league talent because of World War II; and the putrid state of the Athletics (they lost 105 games in 1943) all contributed to the youngster being given a player’s contract in September. Mack offered him $300 for the remainder of the season, gave him another $500 for signing and also provided a $1,000 check to his father (who had to co-sign the deal because his son was under the legal age of consent at 16 years, nine months and seven days). The venerable skipper then told the young player, “Now you go down to the clubhouse and get a uniform so you can be indentified.”

On September 6th, he pitched the final 2/3 of an inning in an 11-4 loss to the New York Yankees in the second game of a doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, becoming the youngest player in the history of the American League. He gave up two hits and a run but retired veteran stars Joe Gordon and Frankie Crosetti to close out the game.
Scheib made a total of six relief appearances before the season ended, going 0-1 with a respectable 4.34 ERA. He struck out just three in his 18.2 innings (including Bob Muncrief for his first career punch out) but only walked three and generally acquitted himself admirably for the basement dwellers.

Youth and a stint in the Army limited his opportunities over the next few years. However, he became a regular on the Athletics’ pitching staff in 1947 (his first major league win was a seven-hit shutout of the Detroit Tigers on June 11th) and went on to play with them midway through the 1954 season when he was sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was later returned to the Athletics but never pitched in the majors again, spending the next three years pitching in the minors before retiring following the 1957 season at the age of 30 because of injuries.

In his parts of 11 years as a big leaguer, Scheib was a combined 45-65 with a 4.88 ERA in 267 games (107 starts). He was not a strikeout pitcher, as evidence by his 290 strikeouts (against 493 walks) in 1,070.2 innings. His best season came in 1947, when he was 14-8 with a 3.94 ERA and 15 complete games for a team that won 84 games.

In later years, he expressed frustration that he was shuffled between the bullpen and rotation so indiscriminately throughout his career. “I just wished they used me as one or another. I think it affected my arm. We had quite a few pitchers that had sore arms.”

Schieb never became a full-fledged star but had a professional baseball career that should make most envious. After throwing his final pitch, he became successful operating a car wash and installing related equipment. It’s amazing to think about how a chance encounter by two people engaged in idle chatter changed the course of his life forever and allowed him to have a life that at one time may have seemed impossible.

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