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Bucky’ story seems like fiction

Bucky Harris rounds first after getting a hit against the Yankees as Lou Gehrig makes sure Bucky tags the bag. Probably in 1925 the year Gehrig started his famous games-played streak. The photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress

Bucky Harris rounds first after getting a hit against the Yankees as Lou Gehrig makes sure Bucky tags the bag. Probably in 1925 the year Gehrig started his famous games-played streak. The photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress

Ed note: Jack Smiles will be at the Hughestown Hose Company party room on Wednesday beginning at 6:30 for a book release party, signing, sale and discussion of his book, Bucky Harris, a Biography of Baseball’s Boy Wonder. Published at $29.95 signed copies will be available for $25

Bucky Harris is a Hall of Fame baseball player-manager from Hughestown. So why, as I wrote and researched a book about him, could I not stop thinking about basketball? Not just thinking about basketball, but imagining myself in a crowd of some 2,000 crazy fans circa 1915 watching Bucky and his brother Merle play for the Pittston Pitts against the Wilkes-Barre Barons or Scranton Miners in the professional Penn State League.

Maybe, as I am imbued with old time baseball, my fascination with the old time basketball I found in my research is because it is new to me.

The game I imagine myself attending is down on Main Street in the armory, which is today the Sapphire Salon. My adult ticket cost 50 cents. I pull a flask out of my inside pocket and take a swig. I light up a cigar. Nobody cares, because most of the fans, who are mostly men, are doing the same. A miner a few seats away heats a bolt with his lamp and throws it through a tear in the cage that surrounds the basketball floor toward one of the Pitts opponents and he and his friends roar with laughter.

The game’s lone and beleaguered referee, afraid to look away from the game as a fight might break out, kicks the bolt away. If there is a fight there’s a good chance Bucky Harris will be in it, much to my delight.

The game is strange and new. So new, many of the players are older than the game. It is difficult to play. The baskets have no backboards. The defense is fierce, especially away from the ball where players are picked off, knocked down and pinned against the cage. Only fouls against shooters lead to free throws. Other shots are made only two ways: From under the basket after a string of passes gets a player free or two handed from 20 or more feet away. Scores are typically in the teens and 20s. There is a center jump after every basket, so a tall player who can jump is all important.

Within a few years I will not see Bucky Harris play with the Pitts any more.

Clarke Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators baseball team, will make him give up the cage for a full-time job as the Senators second baseman and by 1924 second baseman and manager.

Bucky’s story is so wondrous it almost seems like the stuff of fiction and in fact part of it is the stuff of fiction.

In 1924 Griffith named Bucky the Senators manager. Bucky was 27 and the full time second baseman. The baseball writers derisively called Bucky “The Boy Wonder” and “Griffith’s Folly.” But that year Bucky led the long-suffering Senators to an upset of the three-time defending champion Yankees and won the capital’s first American League pennant. It was an upset so monumental it is said to be part of the inspiration for the 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which later became the Broadway play Damn Yankees.

The back story is just as surreal. In it a small, socially-awkward, uneducated coal miner finds himself the toast of the nation’s capital, married to a senator’s daughter with the president of the United States as a guest.

I can only hope I did this amazing man justice with my book.

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