Pennock was deliberate in his style, hitching his belt, tugging at his cap, and then frustrating hitters with a well-placed pitch.
He was a successful scout for the Boston Red Sox after his retirement, and as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, was the architect of the 1950 National League champion “Whiz Kids.”
Pennock won 241 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame. But his achievements were tainted by a telephone call he apparently made in May 1947 to Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey that allegedly included racial slurs. Since Pennock died in January 1948, he has been unable to challenge that episode, which has been printed as gospel in biographies of Jackie Robinson and even portrayed in “42,” the movie about the Dodger great’s life.
“Herb Pennock’s perspective on Jackie Robinson’s arrival and the subsequent integration of baseball has been reduced to a solitary instance of hearsay,” author Keith Craig asserts in his new book, “Herb Pennock: Baseball’s Faultless Pitcher” (Rowman & Littlefield; hardback; $40; 300 pages). “That claim is repudiated in this biography.”
Those issues are part of a thorough look at Pennock, and Craig waits until Page 185 to tackle the racial issue. Craig’s approach to writing this biography is much like the man he wrote about — methodical, purposeful and thoughtfully planned out. It will be up to the reader to decide whether Craig succeeds in his defense of Pennock’s actions as a baseball executive.
Craig currently is the public relations manager for Linode, “setting the table for journalists to report on the cloud,” according to his Twitter page. Linode is a virtual private service provider located in New Jersey. He also wrote “New Garden Township,” a pictorial-history of a Pennsylvania town, in 2010.
Pennock was signed as an 18-year-old by Connie Mack and played his first 3 ½ seasons with the Athletics. Released in 1915 by the Athletics, Pennock was snapped up by the Red Sox and pitched 7 ½ seasons in Boston. When he joined the Yankees in 1923, Pennock became the final piece in New York’s championship puzzle and would be a dominant pitcher for the next six seasons, winning 115 games. He became close friends with Babe Ruth and enjoyed the bats of the Bambino and Lou Gehrig in the Yankees lineup. But as a pitcher, Pennock was precise and economical.
“My philosophy of pitching is enveloped in conservation of energy,” Craig quotes Pennock from a 1939 article in The Sporting News. Pennock’s theory also embraced noting a player’s quirks while recognizing his own.
“Don’t let the coaches read you,” he said. “It’s tough enough to fool the hitter without giving away what you are throwing.”
In addressing the “800-pound gorilla” tormenting baseball — integrating the major leagues — Craig places the blame for the story about Pennock’s alleged racial comment squarely on Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrott. A former sportswriter for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, Parrott first revealed the telephone conversation in his 1976 book, “The Lords of Baseball.” He said Rickey told him to listen on a telephone extension when Pennock called the Brooklyn GM.
“Just can’t bring the (racial epithet) here with the rest of your team, Branch,” Parrott quotes Pennock telling Rickey. “We’re just not ready for that sort of thing yet.”
Roger Kahn quotes the exchange in his 1993 book, “The Era,” and Jonathan Eig picks up the same quotes verbatim in his 2007 book, “Opening Day,” Kahn goes a step further in one of his footnotes in “The Era,” writing that when Pennock was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he was “obviously not the only racist so honored.”
Kahn paraphrases Pennock’s comment again in his final book, 2014’s “Rickey & Robinson.”
Eig would tell the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014 that “quite frankly, (Parrott) hasn't proved to be the most reliable source.”
Craig admits that with all three principals dead in 1976, the phone call “was and is impossible to corroborate.” Robinson, in his 1950 autobiography, attributed the call to Phillies owner Bob Carpenter.
“In 1947, no one involved put Parrott’s claim on the record,” Craig writes. “By 1976, no one involved was alive to question it.”
The same holds true in 2016.
Parrott was known to stretch the truth to sell newspapers, and the items about gamblers in the column he helped Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher write (“Durocher Says”) more than likely sealed the Lip’s suspension for the 1947 season.
“While it is reasonable to doubt Herb Pennock’s ever making such a phone call, it is undeniable that Parrott compromised truth when writing,” Craig writes. “It was his forte — from way back.”
It’s interesting stuff. As a side note, since 2009, Craig has been the master of ceremonies for the Kennett Old-Timers Baseball Association Banquet and Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Pennock’s hometown of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Craig’s biography of Pennock is balanced, and he addresses the good and the bad about the man. He did several interviews with members of Pennock’s family and Kennett Square residents who knew the former baseball star.
When Pennock retired after the 1934 season, New York Times sportswriter John Kieran said the pitcher had “all the good gifts of nature.”
“He spoke as he pitched, gracefully, quietly, effectively,” Kieran wrote.
The same could be said for Craig’s workmanlike effort on Pennock’s biography. He wrote it like Pennock pitched it.