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Frank's Place: The past isn't all it's made out to be

Nostalgia is history's makeup. Apply it liberally to the old and unsightly, and, from a distance at least, you can't spot the warts.

Nostalgia is history's makeup. Apply it liberally to the old and unsightly, and, from a distance at least, you can't spot the warts.

What it also does, of course, is obscure the truth.

"Nostalgia," said the late diplomat George Ball, "is a seductive liar."

Fans of sports, and in particular baseball, seem more susceptible to this wistful whitewashing than most. For so many, the ballparks, players, and artifacts of the past, no matter their flaws, have acquired a permanent, sepia-toned perfection.

Old-timers will speak poetically about Connie Mack Stadium's emerald field, but neglect to mention its uncomfortable seats, its inedible concessions, and all those crowds of 3,267.

Personally, I like the warts. They add heft and substance to memory.

If you're willing to look beyond the time-bleached recollections in your head, you'll quickly discover that baseball's old days were as corrupt and unsettling as today. And, Rougned Odor aside, far more bloody.

Consider Philadelphia-born Ed Irvin, whose only big-league game came on May 18, 1912, the day the Detroit Tigers went on strike to protest Ty Cobb's suspension.

In the familiar retelling of that now-famous afternoon, Irvin was one of the North Philly youngsters recruited to replace the Tigers for a game against the Athletics at Shibe Park. Facing legitimate big-league pitching, the North Philly sandlotter had two triples in two at-bats.

Sweet story about an innocent urban ragamuffin and his moment of glory, right?

Not when you look beneath the surface.

According to the ghoulish but fascinating book Baseball Necrology, Irvin apparently was no saint. He would be dead within four years, killed when he was thrown through the window of a North Philadelphia saloon.

Recently, the mysterious Irvin was featured as the central character in a play by David Brock, The Perfect Hands of the Irresistible Ed.

Interestingly, Irvin's replacement Tigers had been rounded up that morning - by a future Jesuit priest - from the corner of 23rd and Columbia. It must have been a pretty tough hangout because another of the players, third baseman Billy Maharg, would later be arrested as part of the plot to fix the 1919 World Series.

And the reason those replacement players were needed in the first place was no less unsavory.

Three days earlier, Cobb had earned an indefinite suspension when he'd charged into a New York crowd to pummel a noisy fan. If that behavior weren't inglorious enough, the fan was handicapped, having lost one hand and three fingers on another in an industrial accident.

When concerned spectators yelled to Cobb that his victim "has no hands," the pugnacious Tiger reportedly replied, "I don't care if he's got no legs," and continued the beating.

Ah, the good old days.

A decade earlier, on March 22, 1902, a Philadelphia cop, Johnny Ryan, an outfielder with several teams in the early days of the National League, was walking his beat on Girard Avenue. He was summoned to a nearby bar where a drunk patron, Charles Hemple, was causing problems. Escorting the troublemaker to a police call box at 29th and Flora, Ryan lost his grip. Hemple proceeded to kick him to death.

Murdered ballplayers aren't as uncommon as you might think. And there's a bar involved in many of the deaths. At least four were stabbed or shot to death in taverns, two by bartenders.

Other ballplayers, either retired or active, have been killed during political arguments, jealous quarrels, robberies, and carjackings. In 2003, Ivan Calderon, an all-star outfielder with the Montreal Expos in 1991, was shot to death during a Puerto Rican mob hit.

Maybe the most bizarre and gruesome demise in baseball history was that of Len Koenecke.

A better-than-average outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Koenecke had 14 homers and 73 RBIs in 1934 as well as a National League-record fielding percentage of .994.

But like so many players in the sport's colorful first century, he also had a drinking problem. Koenecke's got so bad that the Dodgers released him in the midst of a 1935 road trip.

He didn't handle the news well.

Drunk and disorderly on a flight to New York, Koenecke had to be restrained by the pilot, who shackled him to a seat. Removed from the plane in Detroit, he hopped onto another flight, this one to Buffalo.

Again a disturbance ensued, and this time he tried to take over the plane. Abandoning the controls, the pilot grabbed a fire extinguisher and struck Koenecke in the head with it. After an emergency landing in Canada, the 31-year-old ballplayer was pronounced dead.

All this isn't to suggest that nostalgia is always misplaced. Sometimes the past does yield sweet and simple stories. Take Aloysius Stanislaus Travers, boy pitcher.

On that same day Irvin played in 1912, the real Tigers, including the suspended Cobb, initially took the field against Connie Mack's defending American League champs. But when the umpires waved Cobb off, the rest of the team followed.

Anticipating this, and knowing the frugal Mack would never postpone a lucrative Saturday afternoon game, Tigers manager Hugh Jennings earlier had contacted a friend, Bulletin sportswriter Joe Nolan, and asked him to put together a makeshift squad.

Nolan knew the student-manager of St. Joseph's University's baseball team, Al Travers, and passed on Jennings' request to him.

Travers found enough bodies on the North Philly corner where he hung out. And upon learning that the pitcher would be paid twice as much ($50) as the others, he assumed that position.

"Jennings told me not to throw fastballs because I might get killed," he recounted to legendary sportswriter Red Smith in his only public retelling of the event.

Travers earned a spot in baseball's record book that day, yielding 24 runs on 26 hits, including seven triples.

Ten years later, he was ordained a Jesuit. He spent the next 42 years as a beloved and respected teacher/administrator at St. Joseph's and St. Joseph's Prep.

Travers died in 1968 at 75, not in a barroom, but surrounded by prayerful friends in Misericordia Hospital. Those friends apparently knew little about the dying man's day in baseball's spotlight.

Al Travers, it seemed, never had much use for nostalgia.