A good baseball story is a good baseball story. It really doesn’t matter what era it happens to land in.
Former Lima News columnist Mike Lackey has put together an excellent baseball story with his new book, “Spitballing, The Baseball Days of Long Bob Ewing.”
Ewing, who was inducted into the Reds’ Hall of Fame in 2001, pitched for the Reds from 1902 to 1909. He anchored a staff on many Reds’ teams that frankly weren’t very good.
But there’s so much more to the story.
First, Ewing grew up down the road in New Hampshire and began playing ball for the local team there. From there, he was recruited to play for Wapakoneta, one of the top town teams in northwest Ohio at the top.
“That was maybe the biggest step in his career, was not going to the major leagues, it was going from New Hampshire to Wapak,” Lackey said. “Because someone would see him when he pitched for Wapak.”
Over the years in the majors, he was known as “Long Bob” and “Old Wapak.”
“The family farm that he grew up on was probably near New Hampshire, but he did live much of his life in Wapakoneta,” Lackey said.
With success playing for Wapak, he was signed to his first pro contract with the minor league Toledo Mud Hens in 1897. After four years in Toledo, he went to Kansas City for the 1901 minor league season.
After he finished his season with Kansas City, he came home to his Ohio farm. As was the case with most players, he played with a few local teams until the weather turned nasty.
The Reds, who barnstormed in the winter as well, happened to play Ewing’s team in Sidney one fall day and that’s how Ewing got his big break. Shortly after that game, he was signed by the Reds.
“The Reds scheduled the game against the Sidney team on Oct. 10, 1901,” Lackey said. “Ewing was the best pitcher Sidney had, so he was the pitcher they started that day. And he pitched extremely well against the Reds.”
Lackey hardly had a book in mind when he started researching where former baseball players in our area were buried for the Society of American Baseball Research.
Lackey indeed visited Ewing’s grave site at Walnut Hill Cemetery, near New Hampshire, in 1997.
“I started thinking, he had been dead for 50 years and his career had ended 85 years earlier and I thought, how much could I find out about this guy?” Lackey said. “Is he completely lost to history?
“I found out very quickly that nobody had basically written anything about him. … I began digging around and I started snooping around through newspapers and I realized that if you’re really willing to dig, it’s amazing how much you could learn.”
Lackey figured he would get “a column or two” from his “snooping” and then he would move on to his next column.
That didn’t happen.
Lackey kept digging until he was on his way to a book.
While still working at The Lima News, he spent a one-week vacation in a hotel across the street from the Cincinnati Public Library. He would get to the library the minute it opened and spent nearly every hour of daylight pouring over microfilm of Ewing’s games and times with the Reds.
The other big angle to the book was that Ewing was one of first spitball pitchers and one of the most successful. The spitball wasn’t outlawed until 1920, but those throwing it were allowed to use it through the end of their career.
“I enjoyed the spitball,” Lackey said. “The spitball almost becomes another character in the story. That was another thing that really fired my interest, when I found out he was a spitball pitcher. … There were relatively few guys who actually mastered that thing to actually use it a lot and he certainly the first guy in the National League to really be a master of it.”
Over his career, Ewing battled arm trouble and lack of hitting support. He finished his 11-year career with a record of 124-118 with an ERA of 2.49. His Reds’ career ERA of 2.37 remains the Reds’ career record.
Ewing won 20 games in 1905. Then, in 1907, he went 17-19 with a 1.73 ERA over 332 innings.
In January of 1910, he was traded from the Reds to the Phillies, where he played two years, before finishing his major league career with St. Louis in 1912.
The book is available on Amazon.com and also through the publisher’s website, orangefrazer.com. It’s also available in the Reds’ Hall of Fame gift shop at the Great American Ball Park.
If you like baseball, or you like history, this is a masterfully written story of a farm boy from Auglaize County, who put his life with his hogs on hold to pitch in the majors.
“He was steady and quiet, and I think he was appreciated as an individual,” Lackey said. “I think he was always respected as someone who worked hard, stayed sober and gave you the best he had every time he went out there.”