This is the tragic story of Urban Shocker, star pitcher for the greatest team in baseball history – the 1927 New York Yankees. For Shocker and the Yankees, that shining season began in March at spring training camp in St. Petersburg – 18 months later, Shocker would be dead.
Sportswriters nicknamed the first six hitters in the 1927 lineup “murderers’ row” – Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri. The Yanks finished the season with a 110-44 record and swept the Pirates 4-0 in the World Series. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, a record that would stand for 34 seasons.
The pitching staff was solid and veteran Urban Shocker won 18 games against 6 losses, but Shocker was keeping a secret – he suffered from a dangerous heart ailment. He would sit up while sleeping – if he laid down, his lungs would fill with fluid and he could die. His roommate, the diminutive mascot Eddie “Banjo” Bennett, checked on Shocker every two hours during the night to ensure he was upright. Only Banjo and manager Miller Huggins knew of Shocker’s condition.
Urban Shocker began his career as a catcher, but when he broke a finger it altered the way he gripped the ball. He soon discovered that he was able to throw a pitch with a peculiar spin that was difficult for batters to hit. He added another pitch to his arsenal – the spitball, which was legal at the time. He had success as a pitcher for the St. Louis Browns, winning 20 games or more in four consecutive seasons.
Baseball banned the spitball in 1920. To assuage the teams that relied on spitball pitchers, 17 players were permitted to throw the banned pitch until they retired. Shocker was one of the 17, which gave him something of an advantage over all but 16 other pitchers.
In 1925, he was traded to the Yankees, where he became one of their top hurlers. But in 1928, with his health declining, the Yankees released him mid-season. Hoping to revive his career, he entered an exhibition tournament in Denver. He did not pitch well, possibly owing to his heart condition and the sudden shift to Denver’s altitude. Soon after, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
While recovering, Shocker closely followed the tight American League pennant race, rooting for his former teammates. As the Yankees began to falter, so did Shocker’s health. After the Yanks fell out of first place, Shocker took his final breath. His wife was at his bedside. Doctors said Shocker died of an athletic heart, but his wife insisted it was a broken heart. He was 37 years old.
Urban Shocker pitched in St. Petersburg during four Yankee spring camps – 1925 through 1928. Spectators witnessed a talented player with a unique quirky pitch that baffled hitters. He didn’t quite make it into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but his name will forever be a part of St. Petersburg’s spring training history.
For more St. Pete stories, visit The Jungle Country Club History Project.