Cooperstown Confidential: What really happened with Fritz Ostermueller and Jackie Robinson

By all accounts, 42 is a wonderful movie, beautifully filmed and superbly acted. It is a film that does a skilled job in telling the story of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues and the season-long struggles that he faced as the game’s greatest racial pioneer. It is a film that may earn Harrison Ford an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Branch Rickey.

But there is an ongoing controversy with this film, and it involves the characterization of former Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller. The veteran moundsman is seen intentionally throwing a pitch at Robinson’s head, hitting him with that pitch, and then attempting to insult him with a dismissive and racially tinged remark.

The portrayal has drawn the wrath of Ostermueller’s daughter, who contends that her father was not a racist, but a kind and open-hearted man. “I’d just like people to know that the man that they portrayed was not Fritz Ostermueller, was not my dad,” said his daughter, Sherrill Ostermueller Duesterhaus. “It was Hollywood taking maybe a little piece of history and rewriting it their way.”

“I can understand Hollywood making a good story,” said Sherrill, “but not at an expense of someone else and someone else’s memory and legacy.” Sherrill may not be the most objective source on the subject, but it’s also safe to say that she knew her father better than most people did.

Ostermueller is no longer around to defend himself. Diagnosed with cancer in 1956, he died one year later, at the age of 50. He has been gone for nearly 60 years. So we are left to rely on the testimony of others, a group that includes his surviving family members.

Who was the real Fritz Ostermueller? That is a question that historians like myself are trying to contend with as the film continues to enjoy a successful run in theaters nationwide.

There are at least two clear mistakes in the film’s characterization of Ostermueller. 42 shows him to be a right-handed pitcher; baseball fans who recall the 1930s and 40s will surely remember him to be a left-handed pitcher, and a good one at that. He won 114 games over a decade and a half, finishing in the top 10 in league ERA three times.

Far more importantly, the film shows the Ostermueller/Robinson incident to involve a beanball that nails Robinson in the head. The incident refers to a game between the Dodgers and Pirates at Forbes Field on May 17, 1947. In the top of the first inning, Ostermueller hit Robinson with a pitch, marking the fourth time that Jackie had been hit overall that season. But in actuality, when Ostermueller hit Robinson with a pitch that day, it was in the left arm, and nowhere near his head.

My first reaction to hearing of such inaccuracies was this: if the filmmakers couldn’t correctly identify Ostermueller as a left-handed pitcher, and couldn’t accurately portray Robinson being hit in the arm instead of the head, then what else did they get wrong in portraying Ostermueller? Why should we believe anything that 42 says, or even hints at, about the career of Fritz Ostermueller?

First off, let’s provide a biographical summary of Ostermueller. Born in Quincy, Illinois, he was raised on a dairy farm. After some experience playing in a church league and then for his college team, he signed with Quincy’s minor league club and began working his way up the professional ladder within the Cardinals’ organization. A stint at Rochester showcased him as a star; he led the International League in ERA and drew interest from several major league teams.

With their expansive minor league system and a strong major league rotation, the Cardinals had no room for Ostermueller. The Red Sox purchased the talented left-hander and assigned him to work with Hall of Fame southpaw Herb Pennock, who helped him refine his control. As a rookie in 1934, Ostermueller pitched very well, finishing in the top 10 in ERA among American League hurlers.

Ostermueller’s performance began to dip in his second season. As the decade continued, his ERAs rose into the high 4.00s, even though he reached double figures in wins in 1938 and ‘39. His performance seems to have been affected by arm problems that he first encountered in 1937, resulting in eventual surgery.

The Red Sox ran out of patience with Ostey in 1939. After the season, they sold him and veteran right-hander Denny Galehouse to the St. Louis Browns. The war years brought Ostermueller a considerable level of tumult. He struggled so much that the Browns sent him back to the minors. After he returned, he was hit in the elbow by a batted ball and had to undergo another surgery. As a result of the injury, he came up with a distinctive delivery, which mimicked the motion of a rocking chair and caught the attention of fans and writers.

In 1943, Ostey volunteered to enter the military as part of the World War II effort, but an examination showed him to have arthritis, resulting in his rejection for military service. The Army later reclassified him, allowing him to serve briefly in 1945.

In July of 1943, the Browns traded Ostey to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Bobo Newsome. He seemed to find a home with the Dodgers, where he pitched well in relief for the balance of 1943 and the first half of 1944.

Despite his solid pitching, the Dodgers cut him loose in midseason and tried to send him to the minor leagues, a move that Ostey protested. Dodgers GM Branch Rickey didn’t like Ostermueller, whom he referred to as “not my kind of a pitcher.” Part of the dislike stemmed from the feeling that his veteran left-hander drank too much. As sportswriter Tim Cohane once wrote: “[Ostermueller] has been known occasionally in the past to quaff a species of liquid refreshment more stimulating than beef tea.” Rickey took note of the habit, and Ostey never forgave Rickey for the slight.

Initially signing with the Reds, Ostermueller then signed with Pittsburgh and emerged as an effective pitcher for the Pirates over the next three and a half seasons. It was with Pittsburgh that Osty coined the famous saying that was originally credited to his Hall of Fame teammate, Ralph Kiner: “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; single hitters drive Fords.”

Though Ostermueller was now in his late thirties, he put up two of his best seasons in 1945 and ‘46, winning a combined 25 games. (I guess it was quite appropriate that Ostermueller was nicknamed “Old Folks.”) The consummate crafty left-hander, he relied on control and deception. In some ways, Osty enjoyed the last laugh on Rickey.

Ostermueller remained an effective pitcher in 1947, Robinson’s rookie season. But his career took a downturn in 1948, forcing him into retirement.

As a pitcher, Ostermueller had an uneven but respectable 15-year career. He showed resiliency in coming back from multiple surgeries, and overcoming multiple rejections from various teams.

Now for the more pertinent issue. In trying to come up with answers about Ostermueller’s character, I began my search by examining his file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. It is a decent-sized file, with about 40 or so newspaper clippings. Unfortunately, most of the clips are pre-1947, so they give us no indication as to his feelings regarding race relations. Of the few articles that are dated from 1947, there is no discussion of the game in which he hit Robinson with a pitch; there is not even a passing mention of the now-famous incident.

In looking at the articles post-1947, there are just a few mentions of Ostermueller’s pitching career, along with two different obituaries. Once again, the articles offer no discussion of the Robinson incident, and no examination of his racial attitudes. In a column written by Pittsburgh writer Al Abrams, Ostermueller is described as “a particular favorite” of the writer. There is certainly no indication that he was any kind of a racist or a hater.

So based on his clippings file, Ostermueller looks good. But the absence of any written allegations of racism does not necessarily make him innocent of the charges posed in 42. After all, the issue of race was not always discussed in the mainstream press, even in 1947 when Robinson was making history.

Having exhausted Ostermueller’s clippings file, I next made my move toward the Internet, trying to read as many biographical articles as possible. One of the best sources comes from SABR’s Biographical Project, which features an extensive bio written by John F. Green. There is not a single mention of Jackie Robinson, or even the words “race” or “racism” in this lengthy article, which is perhaps the most extensive biographical effort made of Ostey’s career. Similarly, I found no evidence of race being brought up in other Internet articles that predated the ongoing issue surrounding 42.

That leaves us with one other avenue, and that is perhaps the most useful source in a story of this kind. Are there any surviving teammates of Ostermueller who might give us some insight into his character? This is where the helping hand of a Pittsburgh writer named Bob Hurte, who is a friend of mine, comes into play. A historian and budding author, Hurte has communicated in recent years with one of Ostermueller’s teammates, a man who seemed to have first-hand knowledge of Ostey’s feelings. At the time of Hurte’s conversation with him, this player preferred to remain anonymous; he did not want to publicly impugn his late teammate or his family, nor did he want to become embroiled in a public controversy. But this player told Hurte that Ostermueller did portray bigoted sentiments during his time with the Pirates. The unnamed teammate said that Ostermueller once referred to Robinson by saying, “I’m going to hit that black bastard.” Based on that remark, the teammate believed that Ostermueller threw at Robinson intentionally, and for reasons having to do with race.

It is the player’s prerogative to remain anonymous. And it is certainly ethical for Hurte to respect the player’s right to privacy. At the same time, Hurte believed (and still believes) that the teammate is a credible source, one without an axe to grind. He believed the teammate when he described Ostermueller in such a way. And I happen to think that Hurte is being perfectly forthright and sincere here, to the point that I am willing to use Hurte as a secondary source.

Now for some readers, that might not be good enough. And I understand that. But given the passage of time, and the lack of eyewitnesses surviving from the 1940s, it is the best we have to go on in trying to reconstruct events from nearly 70 years ago.

So what conclusions can we draw from this experience? First off, 42 erred badly in its characterization of Ostermueller, particularly in showing him to have hit head Robinson in the head, when he did not. That’s an important detail to miss, and one that exaggerates the severity of the incident.

Second, Ostermueller does not seem to be completely innocent. Based on the recollections of a teammate, Ostermueller had racist feelings, and allowed those feelings to manifest themselves in the form of a hateful incident. That doesn’t necessarily make Ostermueller any different from many players of that era, but it is an incident that is definitely part of the Robinson story.

Both the filmmakers and Ostermueller appear to have made mistakes. Let’s hope the final record reflects those shortcomings.

References & Resources
Fritz Ostermueller’s biographical file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

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Comments

  1. Jim said...

    Nothing in the Sporting News about it that I could find.

    Thank you for the article.  I heard the producer wanted it to be as factual as possible.  How could he miss the handed-ness?  I can understand the location of the HBP, the arm is not too sexy, but the head is.

  2. Marc Schneider said...

    I knew that Robinson had been spiked repeatedly and so forth but never heard that he was actually beaned.  If this incident was made up, ie, showing him getting hit in the head instead of the arm, that’s pretty problematic IMO.  It’s one thing to hit someone in the arm, whether intentionally or not, another to hit him in the head. 

    This is always the problem with historical movies, including “Lincoln.”  There is always a tendency to play loose with the facts-indeed, often a necessity-for dramatic purposes. Whether Ostermueller was a racist or not, he doesn’t deserve to be tarred with hitting Robinson in the head if he did not do so.

  3. Dan Holmes said...

    Top notch work as always, Bruce.

    I haven’t seen “42”, mostly because I have never seen a baseball biopic that was worth a damn. Sounds like this one is shoddy too, if they can’t get basic information correct.

    I always thought it was ironic that probably the most interesting baseball player in history, Moe Berg, has never had a full-length movie made of his life. In berg’s case there wouldn’t be any need for reckless embellishment.

  4. bucdaddy said...

    Bob who? You don’t mean Bob Hertzel, do you?

    Also, Sherrill Ostermueller Duesterhaus is a great, great name. Just sayin’.

  5. Lou D. said...

    Hollywood takes liberties in film to make a composite of characters to fit the back story. In this case I’d say they used a composite of pitchers from that era which ended up being Ostermueller. Hence the right hander. It is believable that there probably were many pitchers at that time that tried to hit Jackie Robinson in the head so again that’s Hollywood using artistic license. After all Field of Dreams would have you believe Shoeless Joe Jackson threw left handed and batted from the right side (Ray Liotta). In fact he was just the opposite.

  6. studes said...

    Terrific job, Bruce.  Thanks for sharing your research—that part of the movie bothered me too.

  7. John C said...

    How much of the reason Ostermuller hit Robinson was because of his race, or because in the 13 games prior to that one, Robinson had hit safely in every one, and raised his average from .227 to .290? Throwing at his arm suggests that Osty was trying to send a message to a red-hot hitter who just happened to be black. If he was motivated by racial hatred, then he really would have thrown at Robinson’s head. He may not have liked having to compete against a black player, but my guess is that he was doing exactly that—doing something that he thought would give him a competitive advantage in the long run.

  8. Joe Distelheim said...

    One nice side note, from Jonathan Eig’s “Opening Day,” which recounts Robinson’s first season:  The next time Robinson played and Ostermueller was on the mound, Robinson stole home on him—the steal that began Robinson’s reputation for pulling off that feat.

    Strong piece, Bruce.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    Bucdaddy, the writer is Bob Hurte, just as the article says. He is a Pittsburgh area writer.

  10. Paul W Dennis said...

    Hollywood definitely plays fast and loose with facts they find inconvenient. Jackie Robinson was very much a Christian and his faith was a very strong part of his character. But as in the Johnny Cash biopic I WALK THE LINE, Hollywood has eradicated that aspect of Robinson’s life, thereby turning the film into fiction – again

  11. John Fox said...

    We’re over thinking this, i believe.  The producers were looking for somebody who hit Jackie Robinson with a pitch at the appropriate part of 1947.  Oh, and that person had to be dead, so they couldn’t sue.  Whether it was a right or left handed pitcher, whether the hbp was in the arm or the head didn’t matter, they just wanted to advance their narrative.  The Hollywood types would just assume any pitcher who hit Jackie Robinson would have to be a racist, pretty much by definition, at least their definition.
    A similar example from another sport is the movie “Elmira Express” about Heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis of the Syracuse Orangemen.  In that film there is depicted a 1959 game at West Virginia with all sorts of racial insensitivity by the fans.  Except that Syracuse played West Virginia in Syracuse in 1959, the whole scene was fictitious, but it advanced their narrative.

  12. Michael Caragliano said...

    Here;s another possibility…. what if Ostermueller hit Robinson, or disliked him, or whatever, simply because he was Branch Rickey’s pet project. You said, Bruce, that Ostermueller wasn’t fond of Rickey after he let him go, so what if his dislike of Robinson was less racially-motivated than it was personally by extension? You can’t get back at Rickey, so you drill his player in the arm. In fact, I wonder now how Ostermueller fared against Brooklyn in the later years of his career.

    As for 42 itself… well, it was a solid movie, but you always go into a movie with the willingness to suspend belief. You wouldn’t buy a ticket to any movie if you couldn’t. I thought the producers did a bigger disservice to the facts when they said Leo Durocher was suspended for adultery rather than for hanging out with friends who were gamblers. As for Robinson/Ostermueller, the moment I didn’t like was when Jackie hit the homer off him, and then stood there for a second and admired it. That’s something players do in 2013, but in 1947, that would’ve guaranteed Ostermueller hitting him in the head his next time up for real.

    They missed a few things- I, for one, would’ve liked to have seen the reaction in the Dodgers dugout when Dan Bankhead joined the team that summer, and the steal of home would’ve been a great scene in the middle of the film. Ostermueller had Hank Greenberg as a teammate in 1947; I’ve heard a story about Greenberg reaching first in one of those games and encouraging Jackie to hang in there. That would’ve made a decent :30 clip. Overall, though, despite the dramatic license, they got the look and feel of 1947 right.

    One last thought… Enos Slaughter was alive in 1994, when Ken Burns mentioned- just mentioned!- his spiking Robinson, and he was livid. He said the mere mention of the incident portrayed him as a racist and was quick to say he was not. Slaughter is now dead, so as long as we’re wondering how Ostermueller himself would’ve reacted, I wonder how Slaughter would’ve reacted to seeing a re-enactment of the spiking incedent.

  13. djm said...

    Adding to the list of sports pics playing with the truth and, in particular, with a dead man’s reputation, there’s Cinderella Man.  Max Baer is portrayed as a cruel, thoughtless killer in the boxing ring when it’s on pretty much every record that he was a charming, humorous, good-time playboy who was plagued with nightmares about an opponent’s death. 

    When movies are based on true stories, the “based” is often just as operative as the “true”. I’d shrug such inconsistencies off except when you attach a man’s name to it – especially a dead one; then there’s something particularly odorous about it.

  14. bucdaddy said...

    Thanks, Bruce. I asked because I used to work with and for Bob Hertzel, who covered MLB beats for several papers, notably Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and IIRC wrote a couple of books about the Reds, “Charlie Hustle” and “The Big Red Machine.”

    So the name similarity and line of work are purely coincidental; you can understand why I was bumfuzzled there for a minute.

  15. Eric O said...

    In a time when we know for sure every other player was racist, why do this? To create tension in the movie? Eyewitness testimony is so unreliable, but why not believe a 9,000yr old guy that could be remembering events in his own way.

  16. InnocentBystander said...

    I agree with John Fox’s interpretation that the movie is just trying to advance their narrative. Hollywood doesn’t know or care if Ostermueller was really a racist or not. Let’s put it another way, Bruce has the wherewithal to do all of this research (great job, by the way). And the *only* thing he can come up with is one story from an anonymous source to a writer that he’s lucky enough to know personally. That’s it. Does anybody believe that Hollywood did a fraction of this research? Or they happened to also get the same story from Hurte? I’m doubtful. I don’t think that they put in any effort because it doesn’t matter to the story they are trying to tell.

  17. Greg Simons said...

    Eric O: “In a time when we know for sure every other player was racist.”  Really, every single MLB player in 1947 was racist?  That’s a bold – and certainly incorrect – blanket statement to make about several hundred men from 66 years ago.

    • chuck andelman said...

      In a PRE World War II poll of Major League baseball players, 80% said they wouldn’t object to playing with a Negro.

  18. Jim said...

    Now I know why I don’t watch movies, it’s all garbage.  Problem is others do and think it’s all truthful and act on it.  Same as television.  We have become a non-thinking society.  Just follow the person with the loudest sound track.

    Wonder what else in 42 is a bald faced lie.

  19. Robert Haymond said...

    This was an excellent piece on history and historical methodology.  It just happens to be about baseball.  I’ve really appreciated the exercise.  Furthermore, the following commentaries have been educational, especially Michael’s, which suggest an alternative motive for the hit-by-pitch but not beanball.  thanks to all of you starting with Bruce.

  20. Marc Schneider said...

    There are a lot of issues with making racism with respect to Jackie Robinson a black and white issue (I know, it’s a bad pun).  As Yehoshua noted,it was a much rougher time, with less sensitivity toward people’s feelings. Using ethnic slurs was a regular way that ballplayer’s spoke. 

    Another issue is that players were terrified for their jobs.  In the days before free agency, the teams treated players like so much cattle, unless they were stars like Williams or DiMaggio. Professional baseball was mean because players knew they could lose their jobs at any time-and, for a lot of these men, they had few other goo options in life.  It’s quite possible that, aside fron any native racism-which obviously existed-many of the white players feared that the influx of black players would take away their jobs.  So, I think it’s more complex than saying players were racist or not racist; by today’s standards, most certainly were, just as most white people in general were racist to one degree or another.  But that may not have necessarily been the primary motive in their treatment of Robinson, at least for some.

    That’s not to say, of course, that Robinson did not experience a virulent racism that other players did not, if for no other reason than he was the first.  But, I suspect, there were a complex mix of motives among the players.

    I have to say something about the anti-Hollywood sentiments expressed here. While I agree that they should strive to get the story as historically accurate as possible, there is always a tension between making a dramatically appealing movie and adhering strictly to the facts.  It doesn’t do any good to make a movie that bores the pants off people. Personally, I might have fictionalized the Obermueller character but we really don’t know if he was a racist or not, and, to be honest, it hardly matters.  Moreover, the fact that he was a good father to his daughter and a “kind” man doesn’t necessarily preclude him from having racist thoughts, especially in the context of the times.  And, let’s face it, how many people even know who Obermueller was. 

    Frankly, whether or not Robinson was a devout Christian hardly seems relevent. That’s the first I have ever heard of that.  Even if he was and the movie played it down, that hardly makes it a piece of fiction.  Maybe he also liked strawberry ice cream-big deal.  Frankly, I suspect that a lot of the anti-Hollywood comments here come from conservatives who just don’t like Hollywood liberals.

  21. Jim said...

    No, the producer said he tried to make the movie as factual as possible and he failed miserably, which makes him a liar. 

    I understand it is a good movie if you don’t know anything about Jackie Robinson and there are now two generations of those people.  But having grown up in that era, I have heard, it is more a refresher course. 

    I have not seen the movie as I refuse to pay theater prices to get shot or have someone yell and scream.  I am awaiting Netflix.

  22. Greg Simons said...

    Marc Schneider – “Frankly, I suspect that a lot of the anti-Hollywood comments here come from conservatives who just don’t like Hollywood liberals.”

    Really?  That’s quite presumptuous.

  23. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    I don’t even think that players were necessarily racist (implying an ideology of hate and sense of superiority) even if they used racial or ethnic epithets. If you knew that the guy on the other team was black, Jewish, Irish or Italian, you used eptithets to get under his skin even if you may have a player of the same ethnicity on your team who was your best buddy. Granted, at the time of Robinson that didn’t exist yet. But it was quite common to call an Italian guy a wop or spaghetti-bender or whatever just to try to make him lose his concentration. True, it is documented that Ty Cobb, for example, viciously hated blacks, and when he used the n-word he meant every drop of it. But not everyone was that way. Today in the days of PC it’s hard to understand that, but that’s the way it was.

  24. Martin said...

    He hit him on the left arm, yes. But he was aiming for the head, it just so happened that Jackie’s left arm was in the way.

  25. chuck andelman said...

    Just saw 42 again. One of the major figures- in many ways- that was on the Pirate club in ’47 was Hank Greenberg, their first baseman. Greenberg had to take a lot of anti -semitic slurs during his playing days,though he acknowledged it was a different order than what Robinson had to put up with. He also had no Branch Rickey figure telling him not to retaliate physically. Greenberg was perhaps the most supportive of Robinson of any ballplayer of the Dodgers’ opponents. Seeing as the Pittsburgh ownership had to literally beg him not to retire after his trade from Detroit, he would have had a lot of clout in the club house. In 42, in the Pirate games scenes we never see Jackie running to or by first base. If the Pirate’s games depicted in the film were mostly accurate – and that’s a big if – it seems very likely that big Hank would have his say with Ostermuller.. It seems 100% likely if his second baseman, as in the film. started chirping those raciest taunts, Hank would have threatened him with bodily harm.

  26. Brendan barnett said...

    Fritz is my grandfathers uncle. He was more know for giving up a couple of jacks to Ruth late in Ruths career. My grandpa says Fritz was NOT a racist.

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