Grave Story: Paul Strand (1893-1974)

Here lies Paul Strand, who was a hero as a pitcher for one team and a flop as an outfielder for another team. He played for the Boston Braves (1913-1915) and Philadelphia Athletics (1924).

“Silent” Paul was born on December 19, 1893 in Carbonado, Wash., though newspapers of the era put his hometown a few miles north in South Prairie. His ascent through professional baseball was pretty meteoric. One year he was playing ball for a small town in Washington state for $5 a game. Then the 17-year-old was discovered by Spokane Indians owner/manager Joe Cohn and signed for $125 a month. He was the youngest player in organized baseball at the time, and he had to convince his Swedish immigrant parents to allow him to travel to the big city.

“My mother cried at first, but afterwards consented, telling me to be a good boy when away from home,” Strand told the papers. “Father intimated he would not spare the strap if I failed, so I just had to make good.”

Statistics for the Northwest League in 1911 aren’t available on Baseball Reference, but Strand turned into a strikeout machine in his first starts. He fanned 11 in 7 innings against the Victoria Bees in just his second pro appearance, striking out the first 3 batters on 9 pitches. Strand pitched so well in Spokane that his contract was purchased by the Boston Red Sox for $5,000 after just a handful of starts. (Brooklyn had a shot at him, but owner Charley Ebbetts wasn’t impressed.) The only weaknesses that the papers could report on the young left-hander was that his fielding was awkward and that he “does not look like any sort of a batsman,” despite getting three hits against Victoria. That would prove to be a truly horrendous take, in time.

Source: San Francisco Examiner, May 7, 1911

Strand attempted to move up in the minor leagues and started 1912 by pitching in a practice game for the San Francisco Seals. He was crushed for 9 runs in an inning of work and was returned to the Indians, who in turn demoted him to the Walla Walla Bears, a new Class-D team in the Western Tri-State League. Strand won the Bears’ first-ever game on May 8, 1912 with a wild-but-effective 3-1 win over the Pendleton Buckaroos. He won a $25 suit of clothes for the occasion. He pitched his way back to Spokane and ended up with an 8-7 record and 3.89 ERA for the Indians. At some point during his demotion to Walla Walla, the Red Sox lost interest in Strand, but at the end of the season, Boston’s other team, the Braves, acquired him.

Strand was said to be working on something called a “dry spitball” early in 1913. That might have been a pitch like a splitter or a knuckleball that had the movement of a spitball but without the, you know, spit. Whatever it was, he didn’t get much of a chance to use it in the majors. Strand pitched in 7 games for the Braves in 1913, used mostly as a mop-up reliever. In 23 innings, he walked 12 and struck out 6 but allowed just 4 earned runs for a 2.12 ERA.

The 1914 Braves team is better known as the “Miracle Braves,” as the team started July in last place and ended the season by winning the pennant with a 94-59 record, 10-1/2 games ahead of the New York Giants. Strand was the baby on the team at just 20 years old, but he played a big role in the team’s turnaround. Pitching mostly in relief, he won 6 games in 16 appearances, including 3 wins in August. The Braves would go on to sweep the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Strand didn’t appear in any of the games, as the Braves used only their three starting pitchers, Bill James, Dick Rudolph and Lefty Tyler. Still, he was considered the most promising lefty in the National League; teammate George Whitted compared him favorably to Rube Marquard.

Arm troubles, however, put an end to his pitching career the following season. Strand came to Spring Training is excellent condition and pitched well in April. He threw a complete game win against the Brooklyn Robins on April 19, allowing just 2 hits while fanning 8. He wouldn’t pitch again until early July and was knocked around in his final two appearances. Manager George Stallings used him as an occasional pinch hitter, but he failed to hit in that role. He was suspended by the Braves in mid-July for failure to get in condition. He would later get into a few more games as a pinch hitter and outfielder, ending his season with 2 hits in 23 at-bats for an .091 batting average.

That ended Strand’s first MLB career and started him on the path for his second.

Strand pitched in the minors for a couple more seasons without much success. He did toss a perfect game as a member of the Seattle Giants in 1917, but he only pitched in 19 games, with a 9-7 record. His hitting, however, improved to the point that he batted.285 for the Seattle Giants in 1917.

Strand spent 1918 with the naval reserve in Seattle, training to become a naval operator. He returned to professional baseball in 1919, this time as a full-time outfielder. He had transformed into a hot-hitting slugger, and his batting feats for the Salt Lake City Bees in 1922 and 1923 rewrote the record book.

In 178 games for the Bees in 1922 (Pacific Coast League seasons were much longer than the MLB season), Strand had 289 hits, including 52 doubles, 13 triples and 28 home runs. He batted .384 and had a .600 slugging percentage. Incredibly, he improved in almost every offensive category the following season, with 325 hits in 194 games. That’s a record for professional baseball that will never be touched. Strand slugged 43 home runs and 66 doubles for a .394 batting average and .662 slugging percentage. He also scored 180 runs and knocked in 187. He started earning comparisons to Babe Ruth who, like Strand, also started as a pitcher before becoming known for his offense.

After nine years away from the major leagues, Strand found himself a hot commodity once again. The 30-year-old was acquired by Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for three players and cash — Baseball Reference says it was $32,500, but contemporary newspapers put the total at $50,000. The A’s in 1923 had given the powerhouse Yankees a run for their money before sliding out of contention. Mack had hoped that the addition of Strand and promising rookie Al Simmons would put the A’s over the top and become pennant contenders.

One of those two signings worked out really well. Simmons, of course, embarked on what would become a Hall-of-Fame career. As for Strand, the success he showed in the PCL vanished once he reached the majors again. He had a respectable April, but by mid-May he was briefly benched. Strand hung around the A’s until the end of June, when his batting average dipped to .228. He had just 9 doubles and 4 triples to his credit, without a single home run. He was shipped off to Toledo on June 28, and the comeback story turned into a memorable flop. It would be referenced for years to come. Whenever a played from the PCL was acquired for a high price and underperformed, people would say, “[they] bought another Paul Strand.” Joe DiMaggio was just one of the players who was tagged with the label after his career got off to a slow start. Sam Jethroe was tagged as a possible Strand-type player when the Boston Braves acquired him for $100,000 in 1950, more than 25 years after Strand’s time with the A’s.

Source: The Oshkosh Northwestern, July 3, 1924

For his career as a pitcher, Strand had a 7-3 record and 2.37 ERA. He struck out 52 batters in 95 innings and a 1.400 WHIP. As a hitter, he had a .224 batting average, with 49 hits and 18 RBIs.

Mack, in 1931, wrote a really mean-spirited article about the Strand affair as part of a look back on his 50 years in baseball. In it, Mack called Strand “my expensive outfielder and colossal disappointment” and “bust” and said, “Personally I never saw any hope in him after his wretched showing in 1923.” I should point out that Mack, in 1931, was pushing 70 and misremembered a chunk of the story. He thought that Strand played for him in 1923 and was brought back in 1924 as an act of charity and to salvage some of the cost that it took to acquire him. That never happened. It makes one wonder if the senility that would become a problem for Mack at the end of his career was already creeping in, as I’ve not come across stories that portray Mack as spiteful or harsh prior to this.

Strand continued in the minors until 1928. He went back to being a .300+ hitter, but he never again reached the heights he had in his two seasons at Salt Lake City. He returned to Utah and, in 1929, helped to revive a new Salt Lake Bees for a short time. The Bees team he starred on folded after 1926.

“To me, baseball is the finest American game and I’d like to see another Bee club join the Pacific Coast League,” he said in a 1936 interview with the Salt Lake Telegram. His wish would come true, but long after he died.

Strand married “the girl of my dreams” in 1925. He became a salesman for a plumbing company, but he still found time to teach local youths about baseball into the ‘30s.

Paul Strand was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. He died on July 2, 1974 at the age of 80 in Salt Lake City, from natural causes. Up until the last week of his life, he was president and treasurer of a plumbing and heating company. He is buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery.

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