Grave Story: Urban Shocker (1890-1928)

Here lies Urban Shocker, a renowned spitball pitcher who was one of the top pitchers on the famed ’27 Yankees “Murderers Row” team. He did that while suffering from a heart ailment that would kill him less than a year later. Shocker pitched for the New York Yankees (1916-17, 1925-28) and St. Louis Browns (1918-24).

It also goes without saying that he has one of the best names in baseball history. And if you don’t believe me, ask D.B. Firstman. Shocker is included in their Hall of Name book.

Urbain Jacques Shockcor was born in Cleveland on September 22, 1890. His start in baseball came on the sandlots of Detroit. There is a reference to a pitcher named “Shockcor” playing for Iroquois in 1909 and a catcher with the same name playing for Northwestern in 1910. It’s likely that this is the same person, as Shocker did work behind the plate early on in his career. By 1911, he was playing for Windsor, Ontario, in the Border League and was going by the name “Shocker,” which he would use for the rest of his life.

Urban Shocker’s grave in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Mo. His wife Irene, their son Cletus and Cletus’ family are buried there as well.

Shocker became a full-time pitcher in 1913 after breaking his middle finger on his right hand while catching. When he healed, according to his SABR biography, it had developed a permanent hook. “That broken finger may not be pretty to look at,” said Shocker, “but it has been very useful to me. It hooks over a baseball just right so that I can get a break on my slow ball and that’s one of the best balls I throw. If the finger was perfectly straight, I couldn’t do this. As it is, I can get a slow ball to drop just like a spitter. Perhaps if I broke one of my other fingers, I could get the ball to roll over sideways or maybe jump in the air, but I am too easy-going to make the experiment.”

Shocker had an actual spitter, too, but it was legal at the time. He had a 6-7 ERA for Windsor before leaving the team to pitch for the S&S club in a semipro Detroit industrial league. He beat a team from Packard in a 3-game series where he allowed a total of 15 hits while striking out 33 in the series. He also pitched against a group of Chinese-Hawaiian All-Stars, striking out 10 in a 5-4 loss.

Shocker as a catcher. Source: The Windsor Star, July 3, 1912.

Shocker pitched for the Ottawa Senators of the Canadian League in 1914 and 1915. He won 20 and 19 games, respectively, while showing excellent control. He faced the Detroit Tigers in a charity game, and while he lost 4-0, he held Ty Cobb hitless in 4 at-bats. Shocker was given a tryout with the Tigers at the end of the ’14 season, but nothing came of it. Manager Hughie Jennings didn’t think his fastball was fast enough for the majors.

If the Tigers weren’t interested, the Yankees certainly were. They bought his contract in late 1915 and added him to the team’s roster at the start of the 1916 season. After two relief outings left him with an 0-1 record and 9.00 ERA in 4 innings of work, he was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. He proceeded to win 15 games with a 1.31 ERA for the Leafs, Yankees manager Bill Donovan brought him back to the big leagues in August. In his first MLB start on August 12, Shocker took the loss but threw 8 innings of 2-hit ball against the Philadelphia Athletics, allowing an unearned run. He tossed a 13-inning complete game against Cleveland on August 18 to pick up his first win. After that, Shocker entrenched himself in the Yankees’ starting rotation for the rest of the season.

Shocker finished the year with a 4-3 record and a 2.62 ERA. He was about as good in 1917, with an 8-5 record and 2.61 ERA. The Yankees, had him start 13 games and relieve in 13 games. He had 68 strikeouts in 145 innings, but the team was not entirely convinced of his worth. In January of 1918, the Yankees and Browns engineered a large trade that sent Eddie Plank and Del Pratt to New York for Shocker, Nick Cullop, Joe Gedeon, Fritz Maisel, Les Nunamaker and $15,000 in cash.

Plank is in the Hall of Fame, but not because of his work with the Yankees. In fact, he never pitched a single game for the team; he retired after the trade. Pratt, a second baseman, had a few productive years for the Yanks. Shocker, meanwhile, turned into one of the American League’s elite pitchers, winning 20 games three times with the Browns.

It ended up being a horrid trade for the Yankees, and pretty much everyone in the American League saw it coming. “The Yankees will miss Urban Shocker, who has been traded,” commented the Senators’ boss Clark Griffith. “In my opinion Shocker is a great young pitcher and I feel sure that he will win many games for [Browns manager] Fielder Jones. He had a wonderful spitball and a good arm. I would have been glad if Shocker had been handed over to me, but I had nothing in the way of playing material to offer for him.”

Source: Library of Congress

Shocker only pitched for the Browns through the end of June in 1918 before he was called to the Army. But in that short time, he had a sparkling 1.81 ERA in 14 games. He had a pedestrian 6-5 record, but of his 9 starts, he threw 7 complete games.

Shocker said he had a close call while fighting in World War I. He told his family that he was involved in hand-to-hand fighting with a German soldier and sustained a bayonet would to the head. He ran the German through with his own bayonet to save his life. He sailed home from France in April of 1919 and returned to the Browns in May.

Shocker pitched as a starter for a complete season for the first time in his MLB career. Again, the record was just 13-11, but keep in mind he was playing for the Browns, which were pretty much the definition of an also-ran team. He tossed 14 complete games and 5 shutouts with a 2.69 ERA for a team that finished 67-72 in 5th place. Shocker’s season came to an abrupt end in early September when he was suspended from the team. That suspension was later rescinded because of a misunderstanding with manager Jimmy Burke. Shocker strained himself while pitching and missed a trip out East. Burke expected him to travel with the team, injured or not. It was later reported that Shocker needed surgery to remove a tumor that was somehow related to his injury.

He also went through an ugly divorce from his first wife, Minerva, which carried over into the newspaper headlines. He claimed that she told lies about him to managers in an attempt to sabotage his career and alleged some impropriety while he was in the Army. She claimed later that summer that he was $450 behind on his $50-per-week alimony.

From 1920 to 1923, Shocker rattled out four straight seasons of at least 20 wins each. He beat his old team the Yankees on July 13, 1920 and struck out 14, including Babe Ruth three times. That game was part of a doubleheader that saw Ruth fan five times in the day and smash his bat in disgust in the second game. It was one of 20 wins on the season for him, to go with his 2.71 ERA. He was heralded as one of the best pitchers in the game, and his best seasons were still ahead of him.

Billy Evans, the umpire behind the plate for Shocker’s 14-strikeout game, wrote later that it was a case of brains over brawn. Ruth was expecting Shocker’s trademark spitter, and Shocker focused more on fastballs and offspeed pitches.

“He took advantage of every weakness,” Evans wrote. “Ruth is supposed to be weak on a slow ball that is kept low. Each time Shocker whiffed Ruth he used a slow ball, perfectly controlled, for the third strike. It takes nerve and good control to slip up the slow one in the pinch. Shocker proved he was that kind of pitcher and each time Ruth cooled the stands and caused the earth to tremble by taking a terrific swing and missing.”

Shocker had a below-.500 record against the Yanks for his career. But it certainly seems that every Shocker victory over New York was either a masterpiece or hurt the Yankees’ pennant chances.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 1, 1922.

The Browns moved up to third place in 1921, guided by new manager Lee Fohl. Shocker led all of baseball with 27 wins (tied with Carl Mays) against 12 losses and a 3.55 ERA. He started 38 of his 47 games and completed 30 of them. He and Eddie Rommell tied with home runs allowed with 21, but no pitcher faced more batters (1,401) than Shocker. He threw 326-2/3 innings, and that’s with another suspension for going AWOL while visiting friends and recovering from ill health.

Shocker was just as good in 1922, with a 24-17 record and a 2.97 ERA. There were complaints that Fohl was using him too often, and he did appear in 48 games with 38 starts and pitched in 348 innings (all career highs). While he did lead baseball in hits allowed (365) and homers surrendered (22), Shocker also led in strikeouts (149) and the AL walks per 9 innings (1.5). His control was outstanding, as he walked just 57 batters.

“A manager could have no better ace than Shocker,” read one syndicated report. “When some St. Louis pitcher starts to weaken, Manager Fohl never needs to ask Shocker to warm up. He can usually be found in the warm-up section getting ready.”

The Browns, meanwhile, won 93 games and were in the thick of the pennant race to the end of the season, Fohl probably did go to the well too often with Shocker, and it came back to haunt him in a series that basically decided which of the two teams would win the AL pennant. You can go to Fohl’s Grave Story for the details, but the short version is that Fohl turned to Shocker on a day’s rest to get the Browns out of a jam against the Yanks. He instead gave up the go-ahead run that put the Browns into second place for good.

Though the season ended badly, Shocker received some MVP votes in ’22, and he did the same in 1923. He had a 20-12 record, 3.41 ERA and 109 strikeouts in that season. The Browns had fallen back to the middle of the AL pack, and rumors began swirling around that Shocker would be traded. He once again was suspended for failing to travel with the team on a road trip. This time, the problem stemmed from the fact that the pitcher wanted to take his new wife, Irene, with him, and the club refused. Shocker and Irene both stayed in St. Louis, and he was fined $1,000. Shocker took his appeal to Commissioner Kenesaw Landis, in the hopes that he would be declared a free agent. Shocker ended up staying with the Browns for one more season, and he reported that everything, including his fine, had been “satisfactorily adjusted.”

Shocker won 16 games for the Browns in 1924, but he wasn’t quite the ace he was just a few seasons ago. He also lost 13 games, and his ERA crept upwards to 4.20. His workload also tailed off to less than 250 innings. All that wasn’t enough to stop the Yankees from re-acquiring him that December. The deal, which included Toledo of the American Association, saw the Yankees give up Bullet Joe Bush and Milt Gaston to the Browns and Joe Giard to Toledo. Shocker, at 33, was a couple years older than Bush, but it was assumed that the Yankee-killer would get back to his 20-win pace with a stronger team than the St. Louis Browns behind him.

Instead, Shocker went 12-12 for New York in 1925, which was a disastrous season for the team in general. The man who was supposed to be the staff ace was a .500 pitcher, Ruth was hospitalized to start the season and played in only 98 games, and the team fell to a 7th-place finish. Before cries that the Yankees were once again burned in a trade involving Shocker got too loud, he pitched two brilliant seasons – even if he was killing himself to do so.

Source: Library of Congress

Shocker won 19 games and lost 11 for New York as the team won the AL pennant. He wasn’t quite the workhorse that he was with the Browns, but then again, the Yankees had Hall-of-Famers Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt on the pitching staff, so Shocker didn’t need to pitch as often as he did with the Browns.

The team faced the Cardinals in the 1926 World Series, and Shocker started Game Two. His pinpoint control wasn’t as sharp as usual, as he allowed 10 hits and 5 runs in 7 innings. The big blows were a 2-run single by Jim Bottomley in the third inning and a 3-run homer by Billy Southworth in the seventh. The Cardinals won that game 6-2. He came on in relief for Bob Shawkey in Game Six and allowed a 2-run single to Rogers Hornsby and a 2-run homer to Les Bell in 2/3 of an inning. The Yankees were crushed 10-2 in that game and lost the World Series in seven games.

Shocker started 1927 by getting into a nasty contract negotiation with the Yankees. Once the two sides reached an agreement, he went 18-6 for the famed “Murderers’ Row” team. He started 27 of his 31 games and tossed 13 complete games. However, late-season injuries and ineffectiveness reduced his workload to 200 innings, and he wasn’t used at all in the World Series sweep of the Pirates. If he wasn’t quite the pitcher that he used to be, most people chalked it up to the fact that he was 36 years old.

When Shocker announced he was retiring in February of 1927 to focus his attention on a radio supplies shop he ran in St. Louis, it was widely assumed to be part of the typical contract negotiations between the player and the team. “The next move has to come from Shocker. We are not worrying,” said Yankees business manager Ed Barrow.

Shocker did return to the Yankees with a 1-year contract, with the provision that he get into shape by May 23. The pitcher vowed in April to be just a few weeks away from playing When he reported, however, he was dangerously underweight and unhealthy. He was diagnosed with “athletic heart,” which was described as the “fearful nemesis of athletes who play too hard.”

The reality was that Shocker’s health had been in decline for the previous couple of years with heart disease. He took to sleeping upright because he would choke if he tried to lie down. Amazingly, he did work himself back into playing shape, at least for one more game. He threw two scoreless innings against the Washington Senators on May 30. That was all he could manage, though. He and the Yankees agreed to part ways in July, ending his playing career.

In his 13 years in the major leagues, Shocker had a 187-117 record for a .615 winning percentage. He had a 3.17 ERA and struck out 983 batters. He appeared in 412 games, 317 of which were starts, and he had 200 complete games, 28 shutouts and 25 saves. He led the AL twice in walks per 9 innings and averaged 2.2 walks/9 innings in his career.

Along with his famed spitball, Shocker was known to be one of the brainiest pitchers in the game. In his syndicated column, Babe Ruth (or more likely a ghost writer) noted that Shocker would stop at a hotel lobby on road trips and buy every newspaper from the cities where they were headed. He used them to do advanced scouting for the team.

“He notices which men on the opposing lineup are hitting and which ones are in a slump. He notes how they go against opposing pitchers – and being a veteran and well acquainted with the styles and types of the various pitchers, he can then get a pretty good line on what sort of pitching they are hitting,” Ruth wrote. If a hitter struggled against slowball pitchers Tom Zachary or Jack Quinn, Shocker would give them offspeed pitches.

Shocker traveled to Denver after his retirement to pitch in the Denver Post semipro tournament. He contracted pneumonia there in August and was hospitalized. He never left Denver. On September 10, 1928, Shocker woke up in the morning and asked to see the newspaper. “I want to see who’s going to pitch the games today.” He saw that the Yankees were playing the Philadelphia Athletics in a doubleheader.

“I’ll be better today,” he told his wife. “I’ll be able to enjoy those two victories the Yanks are going to win.”

Urban Shocker died about 40 minutes later. He was 37 years old. Shocker was brought back to his home in St. Louis, and he is buried there in Calvary Cemetery.

“He played the game to the last,” said Irene Shocker. “He seemed to lose his strength as the Yankees slipped. He began to sink last Friday when the ‘beloved Yanks,’ as he called them, lost two games and Philadelphia won two. His condition grew worse when the Athletics went into the lead. He was excited about the two games Sunday. And then he died.”

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