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Sunday, May 3, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Forgotten Tragedy: Saga Of Ross `Pep' Youngs -- 1920S Baseball Star's Career Often Overlooked

Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - So much about Ross Youngs and his rare baseball career seems unforgettable, yet most of it has been forgotten.

In triumph, he was a superb right fielder, hitter and baserunner on the best New York Giants teams of the legendary John McGraw era. In tragedy, he was the Lou Gehrig of the '20s, a hustling young athlete from Texas who died in his prime.

Youngs was only 30 when he died Oct. 22, 1927, in his hometown of San Antonio. He was a victim of Bright's disease, or nephritis, an inflammation of the kidneys that medical science was not yet able to overcome.

But unlike Gehrig, the Iron Horse of the New York Yankees who died of a rare muscle disease at 37 on June 2, 1941, Youngs never had an opportunity to stand at home plate and say thanks and farewell to a packed stadium of hushed fans.

He played his last game for the Giants on Aug. 10, 1926. Too sick to continue, Youngs went home to San Antonio, still optimistic he could recover and return to his club in '27.

Dick Kinsella, the Giants' scout who discovered Youngs in 1916 when he played for Sherman, Texas, in the Western Association, visited him in San Antonio early in the '27 season and had to fight back the tears at the sight of Youngs, his body wasted away from 170 to little more than 100 pounds. "The hand of fate is heavy upon him," Kinsella told McGraw and the Giants, confirming what they had feared despite Youngs' positive letters to them.

A two-mile procession followed his body to Mission Park South Cemetery. At his graveside were his estranged wife, Dorothy, who brought their baby daughter Caroline, whom he had never seen, from New York for the funeral. They were yet another symbol of the sad ending to a remarkable career.

`GREATEST OUTFIELDER I EVER SAW'

Typically, the guy popularly known as "Pep" Youngs was a gamer to the end. His nephew and namesake, 62-year-old Ross Middlebrook Youngs, says his father told him that a doctor pronounced his uncle dead once, "then he came back and lived three or four more weeks."

In '26, his final season, Youngs hit .306 in 95 games, although his health was so poor McGraw hired a male nurse to travel with the team. Always a favorite of the demanding McGraw and dedicated to the manager and club that gave him a shot in the big leagues while still a teen-ager, Youngs also tutored his 17-year-old successor in the art of playing right field in the strangely shaped Polo Grounds. The kid was named Mel Ott.

Youngs hit .322 in 10 seasons with the Giants (1917-26) and appeared to be McGraw's choice to some day succeed him as manager. McGraw, who retired in 1932 after 33 years as a major-league manager, including 30 with the Giants, called Youngs "the greatest outfielder I ever saw on a baseball field."

Sure, the right fielder for the Yankees during Youngs' prime years was a power-hitting ex-pitcher named Babe Ruth. McGraw respected Ruth's impact on the game but rated him well below Youngs in the field.

"Ruth knows batters, and he plays them correctly," McGraw said. "He can camp under a high fly as well as the next man. He has one of the greatest throwing arms ever seen in the outfield. But when you have said this, you have said it all. Babe is rather clumsy. He isn't especially fast. He's not a great outfielder. Pep Youngs is all these things, and he also has a whip as deadly as a rifle."

McGraw said this in '24, when Youngs also had his finest season as a hitter (.356). Pep already enjoyed other distinctions.

In the Game 3 of the '21 World Series against the Yankees, he became the first player in Series history to get two hits in an inning when he doubled and tripled in an eight-run seventh. The Giants won, 13-5, and took the Series, five games to three. In the '22 Series, they swept the Yankees in four games with Youngs hitting .375.

Still, the swift, aggressive Texan was a truly fearsome figure in the field.

In an exhibition game with the Chicago White Sox in the spring of '23, Willie Kamm singled to right field but Youngs rifled a throw to home plate that trapped Earl Sheely, who was trying to score from second. Pep sprinted in from right field, joined the rundown between third and home and tagged Sheely out. Thus he earned both an assist and putout.

So skillful was Youngs at fielding balls off the wall at the Polo Grounds, which measured only 259 feet down the foul line, that Waite Hoyt said, "He played that carom as if he'd majored in billiards."

And nephew Ross Youngs, born two years after his uncle's death, said his father, Arthur Byrd Youngs, told him about some of Pep's other fielding gems in the Giants' home park. "Once he ran into the stands, scampered up a few rows among the fans and caught a foul. Another time he raced in, made a shoetop catch of a Texas Leaguer and tagged out a runner between first and second for an unassisted double play."

Frankie Frisch, another Giants star of the Youngs era who went on to more greatness with the St. Louis Cardinals, years later put Young's ability in perspective for a later generation of fans:

"He was built like Enos Slaughter, short, stocky and played with Enos' hustle - and had even more ability."

Youngs had other admirable qualities. By all reports, he was friendly, caring and generous. Too generous, in fact. When he died, it was estimated he was owed $16,000 by his many debtors, and his family never collected a penny of it.

He didn't drink or smoke but loved to bet $100 per hole when he played golf at the San Antonio Country Club. Since he could shoot in the 60s and was considered the best golfer in major league baseball, it wasn't much of a gamble.

But after his early death, this legend soon gained another quality. The memory of Ross Youngs became invisible.

In '36, the Baseball Writers of America voted to elect the first class for new Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Youngs finished 20th and in succeeding years received little support, finally disappearing from the ballot.

It wasn't until 1972 that Youngs was elected to the Hall of Fame as a Veterans Committee candidate. Former commissioner Ford Frick, an old baseball writer who remembered Youngs in his prime, championed his cause. So did Bill Terry, the old Giants teammate and Hall of Fame first baseman who took the job that Youngs didn't live to fill - as McGraw's successor.

So it went for Ross Youngs for so long - unforgettable in life, forgotten in death.

GREAT SHOW BUT NEVER A SHOWMAN

Although he was one of the biggest stars in America's biggest city during the Golden Age of Sport, the quiet, dutiful Youngs simply played great baseball for the glory of the Giants.

His daring style on the basepaths made the fans gasp. He may have been the best of his era at breaking up double plays with his fierce bodyblocks on the pivot man at second base. But whenever they cheered him for any type of play, he awkwardly touched his cap and hurried into the dugout. In his way, he gave a great show but never was a showman.

San Francisco attorney Duane Garrett, a collector and auctioneer of baseball memorabilia and also a historian of the Giants franchise on both coasts, believes the chemistry of those historic Giants teams probably increased Youngs' natural modesty and later anonymity.

"First, McGraw had a dominant personality, and Youngs, the ideal team player, readily accepted it," Garrett said. "Also, look at all the future Hall of Famers on those Giants teams. Frankie Frisch, George Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, Travis Jackson, Casey Stengel, Dave Bancroft, Bill Terry. With so many other stars around him, Youngs quietly played his own brilliant game."

Ross Middlebrook Youngs was born April 10, 1897, in Shiner, Texas, the second of three sons. His father was a railroad worker but suffered disability and moved his family to San Antonio when the boys were young. He made some money from ranching, then left his family. His wife, Henri Middlebrook Youngs, then reared her sons in a close, strong family.

"She ran a small hotel in downtown San Antonio, and my dad got a newspaper route to help support the family," the surviving Ross said. "I heard from an old friend that my dad was a better ballplayer than Ross, but he became a used-car salesman in San Antonio. The youngest brother, Jack, wound up with Humble Oil in Houston as an accountant. Ross was a good in all sports - a star running back in football, a 9.8 sprinter when that was a great time for 100 yards, a fine golfer - but baseball always was his love."

While attending West Texas Military Institute (now TMI) in San Antonio, Youngs received football scholarship offers from major colleges across the nation but wanted a professional baseball career. He played briefly for Austin in the Texas League in 1914, hitting only .097 in 10 games. In '15, he went to Brenham (Mid Texas League) and Waxahachie (Central Texas League), but both leagues disbanded during the summer.

He first flourished as a switch-hitting infielder at Sherman in 1916, hitting .362. Giants scout Kinsella recommended Youngs so highly that McGraw paid the Sherman club $2,000 for him and told Youngs, 19, to report to the Giants' spring camp in Marlin, Texas, in 1917.

McGraw loved Youngs' natural athletic ability and his attitude but realized he was not a good infielder, making too many plays off balance and hurrying his throws. He farmed him out to Rochester of the International League and told manager Mickey Doolan: "I'm giving you one of the greatest players I've ever seen. Play him in the outfield. If anything happens to him, I'm holding you responsible."

Pep Youngs played splendidly for Rochester, hitting .356 in 140 games before McGraw recalled him to the Giants to finish the season. He hit .346 in seven games, and McGraw knew he had a new right fielder. In 1918, Youngs' first full season in the majors, he became purely a left-handed hitter and finished with a .302 average.

A special bond soon developed between McGraw and Youngs. It gained another dimension when McGraw brought the Giants to San Antonio for spring training the next few years.

"John McGraw was like a father to him," said nephew Ross. "He was grooming Ross to succeed him someday. Ross' death must have hurt him as deeply as it did our family.

"About 25 years ago, I was helping with a Sunday morning service at Alamo Heights Presbyterian. Afterward, I was visiting with a group of people when a woman stopped and shook my hand. She said she was John McGraw's daughter, was passing through San Antonio with her husband on a trip, and wanted to meet me because her father always spoke so fondly of Ross. I wish we could have talked more, but then she was gone."

After Youngs' death, McGraw had two photos on the wall of his clubhouse office. One was of Youngs, the other of legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson, who had died of tuberculosis in 1925, nine years after he pitched his last game for the Giants.

ILLNESS EVIDENT IN '24 SERIES

There are three theories about how Pep Youngs contracted Bright's disease.

His nephew said, "My dad said Ross would never drink water during a game because he was afraid it would slow him down. That might have hurt his kidneys."

Some baseball people believed Youngs seriously injured his kidneys when he threw so many crossbody blocks at second base to break up double plays.

McGraw biographer Charles C. Alexander said Youngs' severe urinary tract infection resulted from migration of an earlier streptococcal throat condition into his kidneys. Alexander credited this information to Dr. Jesse H. DeLee of San Antonio, "who has thoroughly investigated Youngs' medical history."

Whatever the cause, the disease appeared to first affect Youngs in the 1924 World Series. After hitting a career-best .356 during the season, his average dropped to .185 as the Washington Senators beat the Giants, four games to three.

In 1925, he slumped to .264, his only Giants season under .300. Besides his health worries, Youngs also had personal problems that year.

In October 1924, Youngs married Dorothy Pienecke, a young woman from Brooklyn whom he had met at a resort hotel in the Berkshires. The Giants made a post-season trip to England to play before the queen, and the newlyweds honeymooned in Europe.

When they returned to San Antonio for the off-season, conflict soon developed between Ross' bride and his mother. By the time their daughter, Caroline, was born in December 1925, they were separated. In his last year of life, Ross filed for divorce but never pursued the action.

Caroline had only one memory of her father. When she was 3, the Giants dedicated a memorial tablet in the Polo Grounds honoring her father. She remembered pulling the cord to unveil it.

The tablet was placed on the right-field wall which Youngs had played so well and it cost the Giants nothing. The club planned to pay the expense for the tablet, but so many fans wanted to contribute that the Giants agreed to let them share in the tribute. Donations were limited to $1 each.

Nephew Ross Youngs thought the tablet was moved to San Francisco when the Giants franchise transfered there in 1958 but recently learned it wasn't.

It seems that when the club hurriedly packed to leave New York, the tablet vanished. Just like the memories of Ross Youngs and his extraordinary career.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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