Saturday, June 7, 2008

Hank Gehring, Savvy St. Paul Spitball Artist

I'm currently working on a short biography of Henry "Hank" Gehring, a pitcher during the early years who pitched in various leagues, including the American Association. I wanted to write about him after being invited to write a different bio for a book the local SABR chapter is preparing on Minnesota-born ballplayers. It took some doing, but I convinced the group that Gehring was someone who should not be left out of this compendium, despite his limited experience in the major leagues. His story is both relevant and poignant.

Gehring became a major leaguer in 1907 when he was called up to the American League's Washington Senators. He'd been with Des Moines of the Western League where the manager, Mike Kelley, had a connection with Joe Cantillon, the manager of the Senators.

Born in the heart of St. Paul to a family of Swiss immigrants in 1881, Gehring was the sixth born of nine children, the first U.S.-born son of John and Annie Gehring. He was married to Bertha Horman sometime before the birth of their first child, Florence, in 1904. Hopefully the specific marriage date will be found at the Minnesota History Center when I go down there next week.

Gehring was a spitball artist who was quite successful with the pitch. Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes credited Gehring with inspiring him to use the spitter when he was a youngster growing up in northwestern Wisconsin near Emerald/Clam Lake. Grimes had attended a St. Paul Saints game at Lexington Park (sometime after mid-season 1909) with his uncle when he witnessed Gehring's work on the mound.

Gehring's American Association career began in 1906, somewhat ironically, as a pitcher for the Minneapolis Millers (being a St. Paul kid, Gehring was likely aware of the intense crosstown rivalry between the two river towns). He had a modestly successful season that year, winning 12 while losing 13. He tossed three shutouts and 20 complete games, showing maturity with excellent control in over 220 innings of work that season.

After a substantial stint with the St. Paul Saints, the talented righty was purchased by the Kansas City Blues in November, 1911 for the 1912 season. Spring training that year was going well, but during the week before the season opener, Gehring stayed in Kansas City, not feeling well. He was suffering from what was known then as Bright's disease, a combination of factors which leads to sudden kidney failure. He died just past his prime as a professional pitcher on April 18, 1912, leaving behind his wife Bertha and 8-year-old daughter Florence.

Bertha remarried, Florence grew up, and a new family was started. Florence married and adopted a son name Maurie, the grandson of Hank Gehring. Maurie lives with his wife Connie in Forest Lake, Minnesota, 30 miles west of wear I live. I've had a chance to visit with them twice, as they've graciously shared their family history with me through photos and stories. The photograph above is one of the items they donated to me.

Further information on the exploits of the savvy St. Paul spitballer will be contained in the Summer issue of the American Association Almanac, due out September 1, 2008.

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