One Last Pitch
The old-timer – only in age, not spirit – stood in front of the pitcher’s mound, looking no different than the thousands of others who have thrown out ceremonial first pitches before a Harrisburg Senators game on City Island.
Only this man was different.
His throw was being recorded by several television cameras for posterity, not to mention the local nightly newscasts.
No one noticed the man’s bruised right hand, the result of warming up barehanded for his one pitch. The palm of the hand already was turning purple, but there was no complaining.
“This? Pain?” said the man closing in on his 90th birthday.
Carl Scheib then smiled to the crowd, waved his tender hand and walked off the field, enveloped in the adulation he once received in the major leagues.
The first embrace came long ago, when Scheib was a teenager fresh off the family farm in Gratz, Pa.
Back then, in 1943, the 16-year-old Scheib was so good as an athlete, so fast as a pitcher. His name was peddled by a traveling salesman from Dauphin County to Connie Mack in Philadelphia, where the living legend was in his 43rd season as the manager of the once-fabled Athletics.
Mack took a look at Scheib, then 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds of muscle, and brought him to Philadelphia. He stashed Scheib in a one-room apartment a few blocks from his north Philadelphia ballpark and had him pitch batting practice to his team.
Instead of lobbing the ball to the plate as he recently did before a Senators game on City Island, Scheib threw darts in Philadelphia. The right-hander teased Mack’s best hitters with fastballs that, by Scheib’s estimate, approached 100 mph.
With his formal schooling over in the 10th grade, Scheib was just beginning his real-life education.
“I wasn’t worth a damn in school anyway,” Scheib said. “I didn’t study. I was always messing around.”
Shortly after signing him as a batting practice pitcher in 1943, Mack brought Scheib to Harrisburg to pitch for the A’s in an exhibition game on the island.
After that, Mack gave Scheib another contract to play, not practice. When Mack sent Scheib to the mound in the ninth inning of Philadelphia’s home game against the New York Yankees on Sept. 6, 1943, he made the kid from Gratz the majors’ youngest player since a slightly younger, 16-year-old infielder named Piggy Ward played one game in 1883 for the Philadelphia Quakers.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t know they had professional baseball,” Scheib said. “I was stuck on the farm. We had no radios, no nothing. I was awed when I went from my little country field to a ballpark that held 38,000 people.”
Mack mostly used Scheib to close out meaningless games in relief for the next two-plus seasons. Ironically, Scheib – whose rise to the majors was facilitated by the dearth of talent during World War II – was drafted into the military after the 1945 season.
When he rejoined Philadelphia in 1947, Scheib returned to mopping up games when Mack asked the question Scheib had been anticipating.
“Connie Mack came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s about time?’” Scheib said. “I knew what he meant. I said, ‘I’m ready.’”
Scheib then started a game against Detroit in early June and beat the Tigers 4-0. Five days later, Scheib again beat Detroit, this time 5-2, before shutting out the Chicago White Sox 3-0 in his next start.
By 1947, Scheib, still just 20, had been replaced as the majors’ youngest player by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall, who was all of 15 in his 1944 debut.
The A’s kept giving the ball to Scheib over the next seven seasons, first as a starter, then as a swingman out of the bullpen and, at times, a closer.
Scheib, who still holds the distinction of being the American League’s youngest player, spent 11 seasons in Philadelphia, going 45-65 overall with a 4.88 earned-run average in 107 starts and 160 relief appearances.
He pitched against Hall of Famers like Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Whitey Ford, and pitched to Hall of Fame hitters like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.
He actually owned Williams, arguably the game’s greatest hitter who had just six hits in 30 career at-bats against Scheib.
“I liked to curve him in,” Scheib said of Williams, “so he couldn’t extend his arms.”
Alas, a sore arm ultimately drove Scheib from the majors in 1954.
“They would put it in hot water. They would put it in cold water,” Scheib said with a shrug. “That was all they knew back then.”
After a couple of more seasons in the minors, Scheib was done throwing baseballs for a living. He was 30 years old.
Fifty years later, the good folks of Gratz dedicated a statue in his honor. Earlier this year, a biography of his life was released. This summer brought a return to City Island for the first time since that 1943 exhibition game.
The trip was his last, too, as Scheib soon returned to San Antonio, his home for nearly 60 years.
Now more Texan than Pennsylvanian, Scheib said he has no plans to return for another visit. His parents passed away years ago. His two sisters and a brother lived into their 90s, but they are gone now, too.
“The travel is getting too hard,” Scheib said.
“Look, I’ve had a good life. I’ve been very fortunate, but I worked hard, too. Nothing was handed to me on a silver platter. …But they put up a monument (in Gratz). I can’t tell you what that means to me and, now, a book about me. What more can a guy ask for?”