Air. Eight inches of air. Only that separated Tony Lazzeri's bat from the curve ball delivered by Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1926 World Series. Those eight inches have defined Lazzeri's Hall of Fame baseball career for more than seventy-five years. Even today when Lazzeri's name is mentioned among knowledgeable baseball fans, the initial comment is almost reflexive. (1) The strikeout. Air. Eight inches of air.
In terms of strikeouts Lazzeri's was Major League. In the seventh inning of the seventh game of the 1926 World Series, rookie second baseman Tony Lazzeri stepped to the plate to face pitcher Jess Haines. The bases were loaded with Yankee greats--Earle Combs on third, Babe Ruth on second, and Lou Gehrig on first. With two outs in the inning Lazzeri's Yankees trailed the St. Louis Cardinals 3-2. Despite bleeding fingers the knuckle ball specialist Haines gamely tried to finish the inning. St. Louis player-manager Rogers Hornsby had a different plan.
In changing pitchers Hornsby exchanged one future Hall-of-Famer for another. Despite the fact that Grover Cleveland Alexander had pitched a complete game the previous day (and was probably suffering the effects of a long night on the town), Hornsby placed his money on Ol' Pete. This was the moment of the game and of the Series. Hero and goat stared each other down as Alexander began his windup. The drama is captured in Lazzeri's description of the encounter:
The first ball Alex pitched was a bad one, high and wide, and Alex,
figuring I would not swing at the next, grooved it, and the call was one
ball and one strike. I fouled the third and then made up my mind to
crack the next one. The Old Master must have read my mind, for he tossed
a tantalizing curve on the outside, and although I did my best to
resist, I was set to swing and I did. I missed the ball by eight inches.
Of such moments obituaries are made. Cleveland pitched two more scoreless innings, and the Cardinals celebrated their Series win in front of a subdued crowd in Yankee Stadium. (2)
The strikeout did not end Lazzeri's career, however. As the star second baseman of the Yankees for a dozen years, Lazzeri played in and won five World Series titles and was a standout player on perhaps the greatest baseball team ever. In 1991 he was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As Yankees manager Miller Huggins related: "Any one can strike out, but ballplayers like Lazzeri come along once in a generation." (3)
The strikeout was not Lazzeri's first moment in baseball's spotlight, however. His story trails back to his days spent toiling for the Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League. In 1925, just one year before the (in)famous strikeout, Lazzeri had one of the greatest Minor League seasons in history--202 base hits, 222 runs batted in, and 60 home runs. His remarkable success led one contemporary to declare that Lazzeri was the "greatest shortstop in PCL history." (4)
Lazzeri's pre-Yankees baseball career has attracted little attention from baseball enthusiasts and historians, however. (5) A close examination of Lazzeri's 1925 season not only reveals his accomplishments but provides a glimpse into how the "Golden Age" of sports played out in cities and leagues far from the glare of the Major Leagues. But beyond that we can learn more about the relationship between sports and ethnicity by studying how the Italian-American Lazzeri fit into a predominantly Mormon community where anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment ruled the day. Moreover, Lazzeri's last year in Salt Lake City was also the Bees' last year in Utah, a coincidence that allows us to take a deeper look at the difficulties of maintaining Minor League baseball in the Intermountain West.
THE ANONYMITY OF ANTHONY MICHAEL LAZZERI
Perhaps we don't know much about Tony Lazzeri because he wanted it that way. He was a notoriously difficult interview. …