The Greatest Baseball Game Ever Played

John T. McCutcheon's poster for the 1917 Herald vs. Tribune baseball game

Baseball, once touted as “The National Pastime,” has always held a fascination for cartoonists. George Herriman, Clare Briggs, Rube Goldberg, “TAD” Dorgan and others observed the idiosyncrasies of the game for the sports page, with cartoonist Willard Mullin giving the baseball world one of its most long lasting images: The ever-loving, ever-losing, mascot of the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Bum.

Some cartoonists overlaid their creations onto the game, giving them a setting that hoped to bring baseball fans into their characters' orbit. Mutt and Jeff played a short stint for the 1919 Boston Red Sox, replete with references to Red Sox manager Ed Barrow and star center fielder Tris Speaker. Superman hit a home run with his bare hand as he played baseball with the troops in the Pacific during World War Two. Ray Gotto’s Ozark Ike and Cotton Woods comic strips from the 1940s through 1950s centered around clean-cut, All-American baseball players. And the ultimate in the anguish of losing a baseball game, or any other sporting event for that matter, was given to us by Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, who in over 50 years of playing the game were perennial losers.

Comics still teams up with baseball today, in such graphic novels as Wilfred Santiago’s recent biography, “21” The Story of Roberto Clemente.  James Sturm’s and Rich Tommaso’s Satchel Paige - Striking Out Jim Crow used baseball as a backdrop to take on the larger issue of racial discrimination. Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing also used baseball as a stage for looking at anti-Semitism in 1920’s America.

But on at least one occasion, cartoonists crossed ‘the fourth wall’ into real-life baseball, with arguably the greatest game ever played... by cartoonists.

It was 1917. World War One, then known as The Great War, had consumed men and materials in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for over two and a half years. The United States, after doing its best to sit out the war and make millions in profits by selling war materials to the Allies, found itself declaring war against Germany on April 6 of that year. The nation leapt into action. Volunteers joined the Army, munitions plants worked overtime, every media outlet available hawked Victory Bonds and various organizations such as The American Red Cross began mobilizing to aid the war effort.

In support of The Red Cross, a charity baseball game was organized between the ascendant Chicago Tribune and the declining Chicago Herald, which would cease to exist a year after the game was played. The game was scheduled for Sunday, May 27, 1917, and would match the art and cartoon departments of both organizations in one of the then-newest ballparks in the major leagues, Weeghman Park. Opened in 1914, Weeghman Park became the home of the Chicago Cubs in 1916. Ten years after that, it acquired the now-familiar name “Wrigley Field”, where the Cubs still play today.

The people who attended the charity game that day could not have known that they were about the see one of the greatest displays of cartooning talent to ever to take the field in any sport. Or that many of the players in the game would go on to create signature contributions to the world of comics.

John T. McCutcheon's program cover

The “home team” for this game was deemed to be the Chicago Herald. Pitching for the home team was a young, raw talent (both baseball and cartoon-wise), 22-year-old Elsie Crisler Segar. Segar joined the Herald staff a few years prior to the game, following an introduction by the famed Richard Outcault. In March 1916, he began his run as the cartoonist for Charlie Chaplin’s Comic Capers, the strip by which the audience at the game would have recognized his name. In 1917, he was two years away from starting Thimble Theater and a dozen years out from creating his character masterpiece, Popeye.

Pitching for the Tribune was 27-year-old Carey Orr. He joined the Tribune staff just three months before the game, but in baseball he was anything but a rookie or sandlot player. Orr was an accomplished semi-pro baseball player. He paid for his art school classes with the money he made playing baseball. In short, rather than a rookie he was a “ringer.”

Orr would become one of the political cartoon attack dogs that Tribune owner Colonel Robert McCormick would sic on his opponents – the most famous of these bêtes noires being FDR and the Socialist/Nazi New Deal (McCormick couldn’t make up his mind which). Orr would eventually ride his talents and exposure on the front page of the Tribune to the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.

The Herald lineup as drawn by Herbert M. Stoops

Both of the teams had depth and strength in the field of cartooning, though this did not always translate to the field of baseball. The Herald’s cartoon contingent was rounded out by two now-well-known names that in 1917 were indeed rookies in the comic strip world.

Playing second base was 23-year-old Frank “Bud” Willard. He was gracing the Herald with a 3-panel strip called Solving Life’s Mysteries, as well as a Sunday page titled Mr. and Mrs. Pippin. Willard also drew occasional cartoons for the Herald’s sports page, but the strip for which he would be known nationwide, Moon Mullins, was still six years in the future.

Across the infield from Willard was none other than Billy “Aleck” De Beck. DeBeck had come to Chicago from the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, where he was a political cartoonist. But at the Herald he drew the mildly successful strip, Married Life, in addition to the occasional appearance on the sports page. DeBeck’s money making masterpiece, Barney Google, was not to be conceived for another two years.

The Tribune Lineup as drawn by Herbert M. Stoops

The Tribune, on the other hand, had a stable of cartoonists that would prove to be one of the great lineups of the comic strip era, no less for a baseball game.

Manning the duties at first base was William Donahey, whose Teenie Weenies began in the Tribune in June 1914 and ran in various forms for over 50 years. Donahey shared his fielding assignment with none other than Ring Lardner, famed sports columnist, who wrote a baseball themed comic strip about his prose protagonist, bush league pitcher Jack Keefe. The strip was named for his nationally famous Saturday Evening Post series You Know Me, Al, and was published from 1923 to 1925.

Playing left field was Garrett Price. The clear youngster on the field at the tender age of 21, Price was a rookie cartoonist doing spot illustrations for Lardner’s column In The Wake Of The News, amongst other duties as the bottom-of-the-totem-pole cartoonist on the multi-talented Tribune cartoon team. His days contributing single panel cartoons to such magazines as Esquire, the original, humor-oriented Life, Ballyhoo, and the prestigious New Yorker were not to start until the 1920s. Price was also the creator of the comic strip White Boy, which ran from 1933 to 1936.

Out in right field was Sydney Smith. His most famous creation, The Gumps -- for which in 1922 he would be paid over a million dollars for signing a long-term contract with the Tribune -- began just a few months before the ball game. It debuted on February 12, 1917, and replaced his first strip for the paper, Old Doc Yak.

Smith shared right field duties with arguably the most-famous cartoonist in the United States at that time, John T. McCutcheon. Journalist, world traveler, witness to the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War, and the acknowledged head political cartoonist for the Tribune. McCutcheon was a sprightly 47 years old when he took the field, fresh off his marriage that February to the even sprightlier 23-year-old Evelyn Shaw. He would beat his teammate Carey Orr to the Pulitzer Prize, winning the award in 1932, and was one of the most influential single panel cartoonists of the early 20th century.

Completing the outfield for the Tribune was Frank King. He got his big break in 1914 when his fellow outfielder McCutcheon went to cover the war between the United States and Mexico, as well as the opening of WWI (when he was captured by the German's and accused of being a spy), leaving a void on the front page that King was more than happy to fill. King had created his then current strip Bobby Make-Believe in 1915, which he produced along with the lead cartoon for the Sunday Tribune editorial section. Gasoline Alley, like DeBeck’s Barney Google, was still two years in the future.

After a rendition of songs from the 50-piece Great Lakes Naval training Station band and the chorus of the Jerome Kern musical comedy Very Good Eddie, the game began on a cold, blustery, Chicago afternoon.

For the first five innings, the game was close. The Tribune scored a run in both the second and fourth innings. In the top of the fifth, they scored two more, leading 4-0. But in the bottom of the fifth, the Herald staff, lead by DeBeck who went 2 for 3 that day, scored three runs to close to 4-3.

The Tribune's scorecard

Then the wheels came off of Segar’s pitching arm. In the top of the 6th inning, the Tribune team scored 12 runs, and added three more runs in the top of the 7th inning, making the score 19-3. As part of this roughing up of Segar by the Tribune staff, “Old Man” McCutcheon hit a double, which was the hit of the game according to contemporary accounts. It was clear that no one expected the 47-year-old McCutcheon to make it to first base, no less eventually score a run.

In the bottom of the 7th inning, the umpire decided to mercifully end Segar’s and the Herald’s thumping at the hands of their cross-town rivals. The Herald staff was not happy with this, and in their write-up of the game made that clear: “This bird who umpired the game is named Sam Hall and is suppose to be sporting editor of the Examiner, but he must be working in the Tribune art department, because he called the game at the end of the seventh and wouldn’t give our boys a chance to catch up when we were only sixteen runs behind.”

The Chicago Herald report on the game

This contrasted with a report about the game in the July 1917 issue of Cartoons Magazine, that was accompanied by a cartoon of the proceedings by Frank King: “The Tribune score would have been larger, it is said, except for the fact that the umpire rather humanely called the game so as to save the losers further punishment.”

Frank King in the July 1917 Cartoons Magazine

Segar’s pitching arm and delivery were indeed the main cause of his team’s drubbing by the triumphant Tribune. Though his strikeout total was 12 to Orr’s 13, he had 15 wild pitches, walked 5, and no less than 9 times did Tribune players steal a base. This contrasted with Orr, whose semi-pro background had his totals as all 0’s for walks, wild pitches and stolen bases. Orr also bested Segar in hits allowed. Orr gave up only 4 hits, two of them by DeBeck, to Segar’s 14. The biggest-hitting pain in Segar’s side was The Gumps' Sydney Smith. Smith went 3 for 3, scoring two runs, clearly having Segar’s number that day. He also showed he was quite fleet of foot by stealing two bases.

The scorecard for The Herald

The event raised over $2500 for the Red Cross and included the sale of a program that featured a cover by McCutcheon as well as portraits of both teams’ players by Herbert M. Stoops of the Tribune that were drawn in the style of Simplicissimus cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson. Stoops, who did not play in the game, worked the crime beat as a courtroom illustrator and would serve in WWI as a lieutenant in the field artillery. When the war ended, he continued working in the area of commercial illustration, and in 2009 was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

The audience who saw this game, though they did not know it at the time, were watching the creators of what would become some of the most iconic comic strips in the history of the medium. On the field were the originators of The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, The Teenie Weenies, Moon Mullins, Barney Google and Popeye, as well as two future winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Cartooning.

Surely no better baseball game has ever been played.