My day with Chief Hogsett, Detroit’s first bullpen ace

Left-hander Chief Hogsett was an important relief pitcher for the Tigers in 1934 and 1935 when they won two pennants and their first world championship.

Left-hander Chief Hogsett was an important relief pitcher for the Tigers in 1934 and 1935 when they won two pennants and their first world championship.

One day when I was young and dumb—and really, is there any better time in life?—I climbed into my POS, the one with the leaky radiator, busted AM radio, and four-window air conditioning, and with very little cash in my pockets impulsively set out for Hays, Kansas, a thousand miles and a like number of cows away. I’d never met Elon “Chief” Hogsett, but when I arrived at his tidy little bungalow about 16 hours later it was like I had known him all my life.

Chief pitched for the Detroit Tigers from 1929 through 1936, and came back for a short spell during World War II. I’d written Chief a letter (remember those?) asking for an audience, and Chief wrote back, saying, sure, drop on by anytime, he’d welcome the company. So now here I was.

Chief had been a traveling liquor salesman after leaving baseball, which almost by definition meant that he was a helluva raconteur. I was barely through the door when he was popping the cap on a bottle of beer and telling me about the time Jimmie Foxx hit one into the bleachers off him. It was about 11 in the morning. He lit a cigarette and settled in at the kitchen table. When I left about three hours later, the table was littered with a dozen longnecks and the ashtray overflowed with stubbed-out smokes. Already groggy from the long drive, I’d had a couple beers on an empty stomach and my head was slightly spinning. Meanwhile, Chief, nearly 80, looked refreshed, 10 to 15 years younger than his actual age.

“I was born on a farm just outside Brownell, Kansas,” Chief said. “Had 10 brothers and sisters, and I’m the only one left. In fact, I’m the only Hogsett here in Hays. I’m known all over town: ‘Chief.’

“If anybody can’t remember my name or they’re in doubt, I ask them right away, ‘You ever been on a farm?’ Well, lots of people from these parts been on farms. Then I say, ‘You ever see a hog settin’ down? Well, that’s my name: ‘Hogsett.’”

Chief had a hard early life, leaving his abusive, alcoholic step-dad in 1917, when he was 14. “We had a herd of cows in the corral,” he said. “One day I opened the gate, took them out to pasture, and never came back. I rode horseback into Brownell, stayed with my sister in a hotel where she was working. My old man didn’t give a damn. Probably glad I left.”

Chief, a southpaw, was a submarine-style pitcher, the result of always throwing stones underhanded as a kid. He graduated from town teams to the low minors to Detroit’s farm team in Montreal, where he won 22 games before being called up to the majors near the end of the 1929 season.

“After my first season with Detroit I pretty much stayed in the bullpen,” he said. “I’d come in and pitch to those left-handers. Goddamn, the Yankees had five of them in a row those days: Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Dickey, and Combs. How’d I pitch Gehrig? Not very good. He hit me a hell of a lot better than the Babe. Babe liked that live fastball, high. And I was a sinkerball pitcher, so it’s understandable, I guess. I didn’t give up a hell of a lot of home run balls. Didn’t give up a whole lot of fly balls to the outfield, either. It’s funny how these things work. I had pretty good luck against the Babe, but someone like Ossie Bluege with Washington could hit me in the dark with a strand of barbed wire.

“Gehrig could cut your legs off, he hit the ball so hard. But what I remember about Gehrig is how he used to murder cigarettes. He’d come into the visitors’ clubhouse and duck down in the tunnel. His image was everything they said about him, but God, he smoked cigarettes. He’d always come in between innings for a smoke if he wasn’t due up.

Gehrig wasn’t too popular with his own teammates, Chief said. “He was a loner. Good guy—kept care of himself. Didn’t cause anybody else no trouble, but he wasn’t a socialite. But he was the ‘Iron Man.’ We used to try to step on his feet at first base and everything, but he’d play with a broken thumb, broken fingers. Stayed in there for 2,130 straight games.”

The gregarious Ruth was Gehrig’s polar opposite, Chief said. “Oh hell, everybody liked the Babe. Wasn’t any pitcher knocked Babe down. All the players kind of gave him credit for raising the salaries. I never heard any ballplayer say anything bad about the Babe.

“The Babe would get his base hits. Oh, goddamn, he hit one back at me one time, right back by my ass after I’d delivered the ball. A terrific line drive—it it would’ve hit me, Jesus Christ, they would’ve had to amputate my cheek. It was a sinkerball he hit that time, and the line drive was still sinking when it hit second base. It hit the bag, bounced straight up into Charlie Gehringer’s hands, and Charlie threw him out before Babe was halfway down to first base.

“Babe stopped in his tracks and said, ‘You big son of a bitch, I’ve got enough trouble hitting you without that!’”

Chief wasn’t proud of his career numbers: a 63-87 record with a 5.02 ERA over parts of 11 seasons. But he pitched in an era of heavy hitting, with entire teams sometimes hitting .300. In 1933 and 1935 he placed first in the league in games finished and second in saves. And in 1930 and 1936 he led all pitchers in hit batsmen.

“Did I throw at hitters? Not at their heads,” Chief said. “I’d throw at their feet or their knees. That was part of the game back then. The good hitters expected it. Of course, some took exception to it.

“But I’ve thrown at guys. Oh yeah. I lowered the boom on Heinie Manush one day. That’s when I was first up with Detroit. Heinie was with the Browns at the time. I hit him his first time up; it was very unintentional. Oh geez, he exploded! He got about halfway down to first base before he turned and yelled to me, ‘You son of a bitch! You better go back to the minor leagues and learn how to pitch!’

“I didn’t say a thing to him. But I said something to myself: ‘You s.o.b.—if I’m in the game the next time you’re up, I’ll let you know.’

“And I did. Floored him the second time he was up. Went down like a shot hog. He didn’t say anything after that.”

The Yankees and Philadelphia Athletics dominated the American League during Hogsett’s first few years in Detroit, but then the Tigers acquired catcher Mickey Cochrane prior to the ’34 season. The jug-eared firebrand caught and managed the Tigers to back-to-back pennants and the club’s first championship in 1935.

“Things turned around when we got Cochrane,” Chief said. “Ol’ Mick never let you fall to sleep out there. I remember sometimes I’d come into a game and feel like trying out a new pitch. Mickey would call for a fastball and I’d cross him up. God! He’d come stormin’ out halfway to the mound and fire that ball back to me. ‘Wake up, you big Indian son of a bitch!’ he’d yell. I knew what he meant: quit experimenting out there.”

Salaries, of course, were nothing like they would one day become. “My top salary was $7,500 a year,” Chief said. “Shit, I didn’t have any money. Just my baseball salary. Even then, I was buying a new Buick every year and going to Florida every winter on that salary. Every day, weather permitting, I’d be fishing. Every day the weather didn’t permit, I’d be in some saloon, drinking double martinis. Of course, I was a little bent come spring training time.”

Chief’s financial difficulties were compounded by a series of dodgy investments. Nobody tied Chief to a chair and poured whiskey down his throat until he said yes (though I suspect Chief might have enjoyed being waterboarded with Johnny Walker Red). He willingly entered into a series of get-rich schemes and exited got-robbed each time.

“We got about $3,500 for a World Series share in 1934 and about $6,500 the next year, when we beat the Cubs,” he recalled. “That’s when I bought a couple of lots down in Florida. Shit, if it wasn’t for a gold mine, oil well, and an okra farm—tore my playhouse down a little bit.

“We used to get a lot of guys pitchin’ things in the clubhouse. I’ve been taken a few times in my life. Ballplayers are pretty gullible, and I’ve been gullible a few times, I guess. I was going to get rich in the oil field, going to get rich on my okra farm….I bought five acres’ worth with my series share. I knew where Appaloosa Bay, Florida is, but I never saw the farm. The feds had their nose in that one for a while.

“I had a $7,500 gold mine in Texas. Did have. I was with the St. Louis Browns then, training in San Antonio, when this guy started talking. Hell, I went out there and started panning gold myself. The guy was a pretty good mining engineer, I guess, but ain’t nothing ever happened. My wife was still in Florida and I called her. We had some bonds, and I said, ‘Send me $3,500 worth of bonds.’ Cashed those s.o.b.’s in. Then I wintered there part of one winter and sunk the rest of my dough in there.”

Chief was more or less a loner, he admitted, though he was close friends with future Hall-of-Famer Charlie Gehringer. “We roomed together for five years,” Chief said. “We both had the reputation of being real quiet. I’ve read that one story about a thousand times, I suppose, the one where we’re having breakfast together and I supposedly say, ‘Pass the salt, Charlie.’ ‘You could have pointed,’ Charlie says.

“Charlie and me would go out at night and have our fling, of course. Hell, we wouldn’t know each other the next day. We didn’t pass our stuff on to the other ballplayers. Charlie and I always clicked together. I used to kid Charlie. He’d say, ‘Fix me a drink, Chief.’ I’d say, ‘What the hell do you think you are—a star?’

“We’d go out and hang on a pretty good one some nights. Charlie would be out there at second base the next day, hung over. He’d be all right as a rule. But there was one time in Boston when we were out all night with Father E. J. Reed, a good friend of Charlie’s. He liked to sing. Liked to drink, too. The next day we didn’t get back to Fenway until infield practice was over.

“It was cloudy, but the elements looked very favorable for a game. Charlie started the game, but he just couldn’t do it—he had to upchuck. But the elements saved him. Went ahead and washed us out that game. Call it divine intervention.”

Chief was traded to the St. Louis Browns early in the ’36 season and was part of their starting rotation for two years. He played for Washington in 1938, drifted around in the minors, then resurfaced for three games with the Tigers in ’44.

“It was fun while it lasted,” Chief said. “I remember around 1930 we had an outfielder by the name of Elias Funk join the team. Liz Funk. He was involved in about the funniest thing I ever saw on a baseball field.

“We were up in Boston playing the Red Sox, and you know how Fenway Park used to have all those pigeons around center field? Well, Liz was playing center one afternoon, and it was bright and sunny out.” George Uhle was on the mound for the Tigers and Earl Webb was the batter.

“Webb smacked one out to center field,” Chief continued. “Ol’ Liz was out there picking his nose or eating peanuts or something—not paying attention, in any case—when the ball was hit. Liz looked up into the sun and couldn’t find the ball. Just at that time some pigeons went flying in front of him. So Liz took off in one direction after the pigeons, while the ball went sailing past him the other way.

“I guess those Boston fans must’ve been wondering, ‘Look at that crazy son of a bitch chasing pigeons.’ John Stone, who was playing left field, finally ran down the ball, but by that time Webb had already circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. The fans really let Liz have it. I think if there’d been a hole in the outfield, he would’ve buried himself in it.”

And so it went, Chief sucking down a longneck, tapping the ash off a cigarette, spinning stories. He was bewildered by his cable TV service (“I don’t know what the hell’s going on”) and anxious to wash his living room curtains (“If the weather ever opens up”). He had taken care of his wife of 52 years, Mabel, after she suffered a stroke, then fell into a funk for years after she died.

“I sleep downstairs now,” he said. “Got a phone down there. Got my TV set down there. I’m not independently rich by a damn sight, but gettin’ along. When I get to feeling a little dumpy, I don’t need a doctor to diagnose my case. Sleep when I want to. I like to stay in the sack. Hardly ever get to bed before midnight. Hardly ever get up before nine o’clock. I putsy around, do my own cooking, own laundry, mending, everything. I’m housebroken.”

I asked about his nickname. He said he was playing ball in Cushing, Oklahoma in the 1920s and rooming with a full-blooded Kiowa when others started calling him “Chief,” too. “Am I really Indian?” he said. “Well, I’m one-thirty-second Cherokee on my mother’s side. Maybe more, but whoever figured that out quit checking. Probably afraid of what they might find.”

In Montreal, the local Iroquois tribe had a home-plate ceremony where they made him an honorary chief. He was given the name “Ranantasse,” which means “strong arm.” Chief had a picture of the ceremony on the kitchen wall. He said it was one of his prized possessions. I told him if he had the chance to take it to a studio in Hays, I would gladly pay to have an oversize negative and print made from it. (No scanners then.)

A few days later, the precious photo—frame, glass, and all—arrived at my house in an oversize manila envelope that Chief had wrapped in so much tape that the package resembled a mummified Egyptian boy king. I was amazed that he had sent it, essentially to a stranger, and equally amazed that it had gotten to Detroit in one piece. I took the picture to a shop to be reproduced, then shipped it back (in sturdier packaging) to Kansas.

I never made it out to Kansas again, though I talked with Chief by phone a couple of times. He died of dementia in a rest home in 2001, just three months shy of his 98th birthday.

Of all the old-timey ballplayers I’ve met over the years, Chief remains my favorite. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why. Part of it, I’m sure, is because he reminded me so much of my grandfather, an ex-cavalryman (he was part of Black Jack Pershing’s expedition that chased the Pancho Villa and his bandits around Mexico) and Detroit fireman who was a rounder back in the day. Grandpa, whose firehouse was near Navin Field, used to gamble and drink with Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, and other ballplayers in the 1920s and ‘30s. For all I know, at some point he and Chief might have shared a drink at a blind pig.

More than that, I think, was Chief’s nonchalance. He was bemused by life, befuddled by technology, but despite being repeatedly kicked in the ass, he maintained a good-natured equanimity.

“Well, I’ve been through the mill,” he told me. “I’ve slept on the ground, in straw stacks, depots, and boxcars. I’ve slept in the richest homes, and I’ve slept in the poorest shacks. I don’t think I’d change anything I’ve been through. I’ve got no regrets. Que sera, sera.”