This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 16-Jan. 22, 1916

On Jan. 21, 1916 Germany Schaefer was purchased by the New York Yankees. For a simple transaction, there are a number of good stories involved.

Three wars back we called sauerkraut, “liberty cabbage,” and we called liberty cabbage, “super slaw,” and back then a suitcase was known as a “Swedish lunchbox.” Of course, nobody knew that but me. Anyway, “long story short” is a phrase whose origins are complicated and rambling…

~Grandpa Simpson, Jaws Wired Shut

As I’ve almost certainly complained about before, nicknames these days are not what they once were. For every “El Duque” or “The Big Hurt,” there are a dozen players with no nickname at all. Or, even worse, those nicknames which barely even rise to that level, like “A-Rod” or “Gonzo.”

But back in the glory days of baseball, nicknames abounded. Germany Schaefer earned his nickname, presumably, for the Teutonic quality of his last name since he was born in Chicago and, therefore, no more German than I am. He was born as William Herman Schaefer in 1876 and debuted with his hometown Cubs in 1901.

Schaefer was clearly not ready for the majors, hitting .203 during his time in Chicago, and he would not return to the majors until he was 29, playing for the Tigers. Schaefer is today most remembered for his personality rather than his game, even if at least some of the most famous Schaefer stories—largely recounted in The Glory of Their Times—are probably apocryphal at best. They survive because, even if not quite true, they really are terrific stories.

Easily the most famous is that Schaefer was on first base with Davy Jones on third when Schaefer gave the sign for a double steal. With the obvious intent of allowing Jones to score on a throw through to second base, Schaefer took off, but the opposing catcher did not take the bait.

Unconcerned with this failure of his initial plan, Schaefer shouted, “Let’s try it again!” and on the next pitch took off for first base. According to Jones, Schaefer intended to draw a throw and allow him to score, but everyone was so stunned that no throw was made and Schaefer “stole first base” with ease. On the next pitch, Schaefer again took off for second, this time drawing a throw. Schaefer was safe, however, as was Jones, who came home.

image
No one stole more bases than this man. But none of them were first. (Icon/SMI)

Unfortunately, actual evidence in support of that version of events is lacking, although it seems likely Schaefer tried the trick on at least one other occasion.

(Today, any batter who attempts to run the bases in reverse order with the goal of “confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game”—and, yes, it really says “making a travesty of the game”—is out.)

But stealing first base is just one of Schaefer’s unlikely habits. Sent up to pinch-hit, Schaefer is supposed to have turned to the crowd, announced himself as, “Herman the Great, acknowledged by one and all to be the greatest pinch hitter in the world.”

He then proceeded to call his shot, no mean feat for someone who only hit nine home runs in his career.

Astoundingly, Schaefer managed to fulfill his prediction, hitting a home run to give the Tigers a dramatic late win.

Feeling a regular trip around the bases to be insufficient, Schaefer instead sprinted to each base, before sliding in, only to leap up and announce, “Schaefer ahead at the quarter pole!” at first base, “Schaefer leads at the half!” at second and, “Schaefer wins by a nose!” after sliding into home.

Finally, Schaefer turned to the crowd and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes this afternoon’s performance. I thank you for your kind attention.”

If Schaefer really did do that—and the box score does verify, at least, that he hit the home run—it is a reflection of the times in which he played. That kind of stunt would cause a riot if someone tried it today.

Schaefer’s extracurricular activities would overshadow all but the greatest careers, and Schaefer didn’t have the greatest career. Though of impressive length for someone who was not a regular until he was 29, Schaefer never had an All-Star-quality season and finished his career with fewer than 10 WAR.

His legacy is greater than his own exploits; it was Schaefer who helped dub Walter Johnson “Barney,” after Barney Oldfield, a famed contemporary race car driver. While it has since been overtaken by “The Big Train” as Johnson’s nickname, “Barney” was widely used at the time.

Meanwhile Schaefer’s own nickname is the reason behind that Grandpa Simpson epigraph. Upon returning to the major leagues after a season with the Newark Pepper of the Federal League—an interesting name in its own right—Schaefer announced that, in light of the United States fighting the German Empire in the first World War, he would be changing his nickname to “Liberty” Schaefer.

Despite the seeming absurdity of the situation—as I mentioned, Schaefer was born in Chicago—the nickname apparently stuck to enough of an extent that it is still listed on Baseball Reference. (This makes Schaefer one of the rare players who has a nickname as his primary Baseball Reference name and another nickname listed. The most prominent example of this is probably Casey Stengel, the Old Perfessor.)

It was “Liberty” Schaefer who helped pioneer the concept of “baseball clowning,” and he toured in vaudeville. Schaefer was the first partner of Nick Altrock, who later teamed with Al Schacht to form a celebrated duo of baseball clowns. Schaefer’s trademark acts included wearing a raincoat or carrying an umbrella during rainy games and wearing fake mustache when he came to bat.

As his career in entertainment reflects, though Schaefer was a character, he also had a sharp mind. As one of the player representatives prior to the 1907 World Series, it was Schaefer who helped ensure that the players would receive the gate receipt from all games, including any ties. As it happened, the first game that year was a tie, being called after 12 innings on account of darkness.

Schaefer played his last game in April of 1918, and slightly more than a year later he died of tuberculosis in upstate New York.

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