July 3, 2008
By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
A proud son recalls with relish a favorite story oft told by his famous father: Babe Ruth is up with two strikes, figuring that the callow Detroit rookie on the mound would never dare throw him a fastball over the plate. Maybe he would toss a teasing curve to lure him into chasing a bad pitch.
Ownie Carroll, freshly graduated from Holy Cross in the summer of 1925, could read the Babe's mind. With his usual moxie, the 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound righty challenges the Babe with a letter-high fastball. A startled Ruth unleashes a prodigious home-run swing and misses. Strike three.
The Babe trots toward right field as young Carroll strides off the mound. They cross paths. Ruth knows well that Carroll had pitched at The Cross for Jack Barry '10, his dear friend and former Red Sox player-manager.
"Kid, if you ever do that again, I'll hang you out there on that flagpole!'' snaps Ruth. That would be some "friendly advice" that Carroll would never forget.
Owen T. Carroll, Jr., '51, who played for Jack Barry a quarter of a century after his father, loves recounting such tales that intertwine their shared connections to baseball and Holy Cross. He can detail how his father would walk amongst baseball immortals, at times holding young Owen by the hand.
No doubt, being the second coming of the great Ownie Carroll -- at Holy Cross and back home in New Jersey -- had to be a blessing and a burden at the same time.
"My claim to fame at Holy Cross was being in the infirmary for three days with Bob Cousy,'' quips a self-deprecating Owen Jr. In fact, Owen Jr. had an abundance of athletic talent, playing basketball his freshman year and baseball for four years as a utility infielder. He played semipro ball for teams like the Point Pleasant (N.J.) Pelicans and for Army service teams during his two-year hitch.
The words flow more easily nowadays as Owen Jr., age 77, recaps his father's exploits at Holy Cross and in the big leagues. Long ago, this son of a legend escaped the enormous shadow of his father's celebrity, succeeding on his own as a life-insurance executive. He is married to a prominent educator, Anne Carroll, and helps run her academic consulting firm in Colorado.
Make no mistake -- in the 1920s, his father loomed as a true sports icon, capturing national headlines with his amazing talent. He drew crowds of 25,000 at Fitton Field, at Fenway Park and Braves Field in Boston -- and elsewhere -- while battling collegiate powerhouses.
Carroll had a phenomenal 50-2 career record--losing only to Princeton and Boston College as a sophomore. Deservedly, Carroll is considered by most experts as the greatest college pitcher of all time.
This July 4th, Carroll -- along with Jackie Robinson of UCLA and Texas coach Billy Disch (1911-1939) -- is entering the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, founded in 2006 in Lubbock, Texas. Last year, Jack Barry, Lou Gehrig of Columbia, Christy Mathewson of Bucknell and Joe Sewell of Alabama were enshrined in the Hall's inaugural veterans class (for pre-1947 stars).
In 1977, Carroll was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame for his remarkable 25-year coaching career at Seton Hall (1948-72). Under Carroll's tutelage, the Pirates played in two College World Series, had a record of 341-185 and, in 10 seasons, posted a winning percentage of better than .700. Carroll was the first person elected to the Pirates' Hall of Fame. And, in 1957, he was enshrined in the second class of the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
Stories of his derring-do abound. With him pitching, Holy Cross dominated Eastern collegiate baseball. He was surrounded by College Hall of Famers such as Albert "Hop" Riopel '24 and Ken Simendinger '24 in the outfield and Doc Gautreau '25 at second. In the Carroll Era (1922-25), Holy Cross compiled an astounding record of 100 victories, 9 losses and 1 tie. Undefeated in three seasons, Ownie threw 16 shutouts and 16 one-hitters -- winning half his team's victories and pitching in many more.
His feats sound mythical -- but were witnessed by legions of fans.
In May 1922, the frosh Carroll two-hits Harvard, driving in the tying run in the ninth and stealing home in the 15th inning for the victory.
As a sophomore, on April 25, 1923, Carroll loses to Princeton, 1-0, when the Tigers' Moe Berg doubles and scores the game's lone run. Berg became a catcher for the Red Sox (and four other clubs), while gaining notoriety later as a government spy and scholar who spoke a dozen languages.
That season, on June 18, Carroll loses a 4-1 Bunker Hill Day game to Boston College before a record crowd of 30,000 at Braves Field. A few days later, his lifelong friend, Albert "Hop" Riopel, makes a circus catch in the ninth at Fitton Field before 25,000 to preserve Carroll's 2-0 win over Boston College.
On May 7, 1924, Carroll strikes out 17 batters in 15 innings to beat Princeton, 3-2.
As a senior against Yale, Holy Cross is leading by one in the ninth. The Bulldogs load the bases with nobody out. Barry beckons to Carroll sitting on the bench. Without warming up, Carroll strides to the mound and strikes out three Yalies on nine pitches to preserve a 7-6 victory.
June 13, 1925 is declared "Ownie Carroll Day." The late Harry Worcester Smith, a prominent Worcester citizen, chairs the celebration committee and presents Carroll a cash purse. Carroll pitches his last game, beating NYU 6-1.
A week later, Carroll takes the mound in Fenway Park in his major league debut, hurling for Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers. Reportedly he signed for $28,000 -- a staggering amount in that era. To the cheering of a packed house, Carroll leaves that game in the seventh inning, his Tigers leading the Red Sox, 6-5.
Not only did Ownie Carroll '25 bring athletic glory to Holy Cross with his sensational 50-2 pitching career, he played a strong role in the adoption of the College's nickname, the Crusaders.
The story goes something like this:
In 1923, the Boston Herald sent sportswriter Stanley Woodward to cover the Red Sox, who were playing a series against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. The Holy Cross baseball team, coached by Jack Barry, was staying at the Hotel Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. So was Woodward -- a Worcester native who had started his newspaper career with the Worcester Evening Gazette.
Woodward met up with Barry in the hotel lobby. Barry invited him to come to Holy Cross' practice as the team prepared to play Princeton the next day.
In his 1964 autobiography Paper Tiger, Woodward recalls the scene:
"I went out to the park with the team and hung on a strap in the trolley car between Owen Carroll, the great pitcher, and Doc Gautreau, the second baseman who later played for the Braves. On the way out to the park the Doctor, always a great conversationalist, brought up a matter that was bothering him.
`They have a new paper up at the college called the Tomahawk,' he (Gautreau) said. `They are trying to get a name for Holy Cross teams and I am afraid they are going to call us "the Chiefs" to go with the name of the newspaper. It is a lousy name and we would like you to help us get a better one. Ownie and I think `the Crusaders' would be a good name -- what do you think of that?'"
Woodward reports he started calling Holy Cross teams the "Crusaders" in the Boston Herald. "I disclaim credit for the name. It originated either with Gautreau or Carroll," writes Woodward.
This recollection by Woodward came 41 years after his confab with Gautreau and Carroll in Philly. He also recalls that Carroll lost to Princeton, 2-0, the next day. However, the minor details in his book are a bit shaky. The Tomahawk wasn't inaugurated until February 1925, so the Tomahawk reference attributed to Doc Gautreau may be inaccurate due to Woodward's faulty memory. Perhaps Woodward confused the 1923 trip -- during which Carroll beat Princeton, 1-0, on April 25 -- with the 1925 trip when Carroll beat Princeton, 4-1, on April 15.
Woodward died shortly after the 1964 publication of the autobiography. Long out of print, the book was republished in paperback last year.
In any event, because a Boston newspaper had adopted Crusaders, that sobriquet carried a certain cachet when the students put the issue of an official nickname to a vote in the fall of 1925. With the support of graduating heroes Carroll and Gautreau, "Crusaders" won in a landslide and the unofficial "Chiefs" bit the dust.
Woodward's career moved upward as he went from the Boston Herald in 1930 to the New York Herald Tribune where he became a legendary sports editor known as "The Coach." There he mentored a stable of gifted writers--including the incomparable Red Smith.
Carroll had a decent nine-year pro career hurling for Detroit, the New York Yankees, the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1926, he was optioned to Toronto in the International League for seasoning and began drinking milkshakes to put on some heft. With a 21-7 record, Carroll led his team to the Little World Series crown. Back in Detroit, Carroll had his best years. In 1927, he posted a 10-6 record and, in 1928, he went 16-12 with 19 complete games and a 3.27 earned run average in 231 innings.
Over-pitched and plagued by a tired, sore arm, Carroll was traded three times for three future Hall of Famers (from the Tigers to the Yankees for Waite Hoyt; from the Yankees to the Reds for Sunny Jim Bottomley; and from the Reds to the Dodgers for Dazzy Vance).
His legendary pitching, however, is only a slice of his riveting story.
"Ownie's fame is widespread,'' gasps a 1925 edition of the Tomahawk, the student newspaper. "His unparalleled achievements bespeak his ability, but they do not tell of his graciousness, his manly conduct, his model sportsmanship ... the finest athlete who ever wore the Purple!"
Carroll had it all. He was a humble hero, popular among his peers. The faculty and his senior classmates held a testimonial banquet on June 4, 1925 in his honor. He was Hollywood handsome. He had a beautiful tenor voice, singing solos for weddings and funerals from his days as an altar boy. He was a hometown hero. At St. Benedict's High in Newark, N.J., Ownie was an all-state all-star for four years in basketball and baseball. His schoolboy pitching record was a phenomenal 49-2.
Carroll was a devout Catholic, a First Friday Mass regular, throughout his life. He was the rare ballplayer who never cursed or drank. The always-coy Barry tried to keep pro scouts from badgering Carroll by telling them Ownie was studying for the priesthood. That was not much of a stretch.
His best friend in high school, Eugene O'Keefe, became his Holy Cross roommate for four years. O'Keefe became a Jesuit, a missionary in the Philippines and a prisoner of war in the infamous Cabanatuan Camp -- dramatized in Hampton Sides' 2002 bestseller, Ghost Soldiers. Carroll married O'Keefe's sister, his beloved Evelyn.
"My father was a natural athlete and gifted in many other ways,'' says Owen Jr. "They tried to lure him into politics and entice him to run for Congress, but he knew he could only tell the truth. With his good looks and singing voice, he had offers to go into show business, but he couldn't stand phonies. His integrity and moral rectitude was a blessing, yet an obstacle to many career paths.''
Ownie retired from pro ball in 1934, settling down with Evelyn in New Jersey. They had four children: Owen Jr.; Bobby, who lives with his wife Nancy in Texas and who played second base for his dad at Seton Hall; Marie Evelyn, who married George Sundstrom and whose daughter Mary Judith is a 1984 Holy Cross graduate; and Joan, wife of Paul Jamison and mother of seven children.
Carroll worked for many years as a training instructor for the Newark Police and Fire Academy. In 1948, he took the head baseball job at Seton Hall. The Pirates still play on Owen T. Carroll Field.
"With dad it was family first. He was very devout and extremely loyal to proven friends. He remained very close to guys like Hop Riopel," Owen Jr. says. "As a coach and parent, he'd let his children and players make their own decisions. He was fair and consistent. And he had this magical way of getting others to follow what he would mildly suggest."
Owen Thomas Carroll died at 72, on the weekend of his 50th Holy Cross reunion. Upon learning of his death, his classmates of 1925 sent his family their condolences, conveying how they missed him dearly. After all, he was a legend, the best ever and always.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.