December 28, 2007

Give Another Hoiah!

Dec. 28, 2007

By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

For you Crusaders who like swapping stories in the Hot Stove League, let me tell you the "Legend of Two Jiggers," a baseball yarn guaranteed to take the chill off.

The first Jigger is a Holy Cross Hall of Famer who now resides in Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. The other Jigger--also a terrific Holy Cross athlete--is buried in St. John's Cemetery in Worcester. The dearly departed were brothers, both known in their rich lifetimes as Jigger Statz.

Arnold "Jigger" Statz '21, aptly interred in the City of Angels, may be the most overlooked Crusader superstar ever. Indeed Jigger's 4,093 base hits during his pro career aren't even etched into his plaque that graces the College's Wall of Fame at the Hart Center.

Note, in the history of professional baseball, only Pete Rose (4,683, including 427 in the minors), Ty Cobb (4,397, including 206 in the minors), Hank Aaron (4,095, including 324 in the minors) and Stan Musial (4,101, including 471 in the minors) had more hits than our own Jigger.

Jigger reached the rarified 4,000-hit plateau uniquely. As a switch-hitting leadoff man for the Pacific Coast League's Los Angeles Angels, Jigger slapped 3,356 hits during 18 minor-league seasons. He added 737 base-knocks as a major leaguer. Only Rose and Aaron played more games of professional baseball than Jigger. His 3,473 games played (from 1919 through 1942) is third on the all-time list.

Aside from Statz' stats at bat, Jigger was also considered by his contemporaries as one of the best center fielders who ever played the game.

Born in 1897 in Waukegan, Ill., Arnold Statz, the oldest of John and Sarah Statz' seven children, moved to Worcester as a young lad. His father, a German immigrant, worked for U.S. Steel.

Because Arnold was a diminutive little mite, his family and neighborhood pals referred to him as "jigger," an alternative name for that annoying pest better known as a chigger. Throughout his life, Jigger Statz was rarely referred to by his first name, much the same way as Arnold Auerbach was rarely called anything but "Red," except by his star, Bob Cousy '50, and family members.

Statz grew into a local hero. He played shortstop for St. Paul's grammar school and outfield for city champion Worcester Classical High. And he played such a splendid game of golf--winning junior titles at Worcester Country Club and elsewhere--some theorized his nickname had come from the old-time golf club known as a jigger.

In 1917, Jesse "The Crab" Burkett, who resides in the baseball Hall of Fame, coached at Holy Cross and recruited Statz. In 1918, the Crusaders won the New England baseball title, and the next season captured the Eastern Intercollegiate Championship as Statz, Rosy Ryan and their mates posted a 47-4-1 record during those two campaigns.

Jigger signed with the New York Giants in July of 1919--after his sophomore year--thus beginning a stunning 24-season pro baseball odyssey. He played all or parts of eight seasons in the majors with the Giants (1919, 1920); the Boston Red Sox (two games in 1920); the Chicago Cubs (1922-25) and the Brooklyn Robins (1927-28). In 1923, Jigger hit .319 for the Cubbies with 209 hits and 10 homers in 655 at-bats. He also stole 29 bases.

Jigger's real fame, however, came on the West Coast in the Pacific Coast League, where extended schedules of 200 games or more were not uncommon.

"The Greatest Angel of Them All" sang out a headline in the Los Angeles Times when Jigger died, at age 90, in Corona Del Mar, Calif., on March 16, 1988.

Exaggeration?

Not at all. Because Jigger Statz, a 5-foot-7-inch, 150-pound speedster, not only belted out all but 737 of his 4,093 hits as an Angel, he also thrilled crowds with his sensational fielding.

"That old Angels' center field who had a hole cut into the pocket of his glove could really catch the ball," once recalled Ted Williams, who started his career in the Pacific Coast League.

Statz, along with Joe DiMaggio, was voted to the Pacific Coast League All Century (1903-1955) team. With good reason. Consider that he holds the record for most seasons (18) playing for the same minor-league team. He turned down many chances to return to the parent-club Cubbies from 1929 on.

"It was a warm climate, the intimate ballparks and the competitive salary that I liked about the Pacific Coast League," he once explained during a magazine interview.

Jigger, who did love the good golfing weather, was a superb contender in this sport as well, winning many amateur championships along the West Coast. So stay he did, becoming the PCL's all-time leader in every longevity category, including--most games, at-bats, singles, doubles, triples, runs, outfield putouts (6,872) and assists (263).

Examine his final 1926 stats: Statz hit .354 in 199 games with 291 hits, 68 doubles and 18 triples, while scoring 150 runs. With a fielding percentage of .997, he committed just two errors in 604 chances.

As a fleet-footed fielder, Jigger had an uncanny ability to position himself--and he cut out the palm of his glove to get a better feel for the ball. His speed was remarkable, evidenced by 466 steals with the Angels. In 1934, at age 36, Statz stole 61 bases, including six in one game.

Spending his last three seasons as the Angels' player-manager, Statz retired in 1942 just before his 45th birthday. He scouted for the Cubbies' organization and filled in as an acting manager for the Cubs' Visalia, Calif., farm club in 1948 and 1949. He lived comfortably in retirement, from his wise investments in oil and real estate.

Now for the rest of the story ...

The other Jigger, John Statz, was born in Worcester in 1915--the bookend brother, as five Statz sisters were sandwiched in between the two Jiggers. Because he was 18 years younger than his well-known brother, John was quickly tagged with the nickname "Jigger," too.

In his own fashion, John Jigger Statz '37 became a star as well. He played second base for Worcester's North High and served as senior class president.

"My dad played in his brother's shadow," John's son Bob told me at the time of his dad's death in 1998. "I think he decided to concentrate on golf so he could outdo his older brother at something. He was very competitive."

At Holy Cross, his dad did become a golfing standout. A member of the Crusaders New England championship team of 1936, Statz was elected captain of the 1937 team, which featured Crusader Hall of Famers Willie Turnesa '38 and Gerry Anderson '38.

John idolized his only brother. Though separated by years and, often, by 3,000 miles, the two Jiggers remained very close. John, a successful businessman with U.S. Steel, would talk much more about his brother than about himself. He would recall his older sibling bringing him to games and letting him sit on the bench next to baseball legends such as Giants manager John McGraw--or play catch with the likes of Grover Cleveland Alexander.

The two Jiggers lived interesting and rewarding lives. John and Ruth, his wife of 58 years, had three sons; Arnold and his wife, Grace, had three daughters and a son. Both were decent, devout family men and always-proud Crusaders. And, lest we forget such trivia, Arnold had 4,093 base hits as a pro.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 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.