New biography looks at the life and career of the Squire of Kennett Square
By Steven Hoffman
When Keith Craig started work on a biography about Herb Pennock, he knew that the Squire of Kennett Square's accomplishments on the baseball field were great. Pennock is considered one of the game's top southpaw hurlers of all time. The quintessential “crafty left-hander,” Pennock has been immortalized in the Baseball Hall of Fame as a result of his 241 victories over 22 major league seasons that included four world championships with the mighty New York Yankees teams of the 1920 and early 1930s. But Craig wanted to focus as much on Pennock the man as he did on Pennock the immortalized pitcher. The result of five years of research is “Herb Pennock: Baseball’s Faultless Pitcher,” which was published this spring by Rowman & Littlefield. The 344-page book traces Pennock's life from the time he was growing up in one of Kennett Square's most affluent families to his extraordinary career in baseball that included, in significant ways, baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, and Jackie Robinson.
Craig is a professional writer from New Jersey who has freelanced for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, as well as the Chester County Press and its family of regional magazines when he lived in Chester County. He loves the game of baseball, and played it at Florida State University. Each January, he serves as the master of ceremonies for the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association’s annual banquet. The Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association celebrates the achievements of local baseball players and Pennock is a local hero for some baseball fans in the area. Craig said that a conversation with two of that organization’s leaders, Bob Burton and Prissy Roberts, actually set him on the path to writing a book about Pennock.
“I have to give credit to Bob and Prissy,” Craig said. “They were the driving forces behind the book.”
What really inspired Craig to slide Pete Rose-style into the project was a lingering allegation of racism that had been leveled against Pennock—by by one source decades after the fact.
In the late-1990s, before Craig became involved with the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association, officials in town considered putting up a statue of Pennock, but those plans plummeted like a sinking line drive when concerns were raised about the racism charge. Was the Squire of Kennett Square, a man who was born into a well-respected Quaker family, a racist? Craig was hoping that his research would turn up evidence one way or the other to determine whether there was any truth to the allegation.
“Initially, it was the biggest curiosity,” Craig said. “And the more I found out about Pennock, the more interesting he became.”
A Kennett Square boy
Herb Jefferis Pennock was born into one of Kennett Square's most prominent families on February 10, 1894. He was the fourth child of Theodore and Mary Louise Pennock. The Pennock homestead was located at approximately where the Walmart is situated along Route 1 today. While he was growing up, Pennock attended the Cedarcroft Boarding School in Kennett Square, and as he approached his last years in high school he didn't know what he would pursue after he graduated. Herb’s father wanted him to go to the University of Pennsylvania, but the young man wasn't so sure. He knew that he loved playing baseball, but he was a smaller boy and was far from a standout among the local players. He was a weak-hitting first baseman at Cedarcroft, and his brother, George, was a pitcher on that team. When George left the team, a teammate suggested that Herb be given a chance because he had a curve ball with a lot of movement. Herb was smooth and intelligent on the mound, and he could pitch to his spots—a rare quality for any pitcher, especially a young one.
“He was not a hard thrower, but he was a winner,” Craig explained. “He had this studiousness about him. He would study the batters and find their weaknesses.”
Pennock threw a no-hitter with Earle Mack catching behind the plate. Earle was the son of Connie Mack, the legendary manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, and just like that the small left-hander from Kennett Square was getting a lot of attention from professional scouts.
Craig explained that on the day after Pennock graduated from high school, Connie Mack was sitting at the family’s kitchen table signing him to play professional baseball. Three days later, Pennock was pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics.
To Craig, the lesson to be taken away from this part of Pennock's life is that if you have a passion for something, you should pursue it, no matter how improbable it seems. Pennock was just six feet tall and weighed 160 pounds. He debuted with the Philadelphia Athletics on May 14, 1912. Two years later, still only 20 years old, Pennock was 11-4 with a 2.79 ERA for the team.
While he was pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics, Craig explained, Pennock still lived a normal life in Kennett Square. He would take the train in to the city when there was a game, and he would return home on the train in the same evening. He was well-liked by his neighbors, and was known to donate gloves and baseballs so that local kids could play the game.
By 1915, Pennock had established himself as a major league pitcher, but Mack wasn’t pleased with the young team's development. The manager felt that Pennock lacked ambition on the playing field, and he let him go to another American League team, the Boston Red Sox, for the cost of the waiver price. Mack would later say that releasing Pennock was the worst baseball decision he ever made.
Pennock debuted with the Red Sox in 1915, and continued to demonstrate effectiveness on the mound even though he was often relegated to a spot in the back of the rotation. He joined the Navy in 1918, and by 1919 found himself back in the Boston rotation. He won 16 games in 1919 and 1920, and seemed poised to become one of the best pitchers in the game.
But that wasn't going to happen with the Red Sox. The team was in the process of selling off many of its top players, usually to the Yankees. Boston's sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees changed the course of baseball history, but when Pennock was sold to the Bronx Bombers in 1922, it set the stage for a baseball dynasty to be born.
Between 1923 and 1933, the Yankees reached the World Series five times, winning in 1923, 1927, 1928, and 1932. Pennock was an integral part of the team's success, winning a total of 162 games. He was at his best in big games, compiling a 5-0 record in the World Series.
Yankees manager Joe McCarthy who, like Connie Mack is a legendary figure in the history of the game, once famously said, “I'm going to pitch Pennock in spots this season—tough ones.”
Craig noted that during his career Pennock pitched in a number of different roles, including as a relief pitcher, and handled every assignment with the same level of determination.
Friendship with Babe Ruth
Pennock fit right in with the game's greats. He struck up a friendship with Babe Ruth, who was unquestionably the game’s brightest star at the time. Pennock would even read the Babe’s mail for him. The Sultan of Swat would visit the Kennett Square area with Pennock many times, and while they were in town they would hunt together or enjoy the Pennock family's sprawling property. Pennock loved to ride horses. He grew flowers and vegetables on the farm. He and his wife, Esther, would sometimes take The Babe dancing.
Craig explained that Pennock and Ruth were, in many ways, exact opposites, both on and off the field. Pennock was so easy-going and relaxed that Connie Mack mistook his natural demeanor for a lack of ambition. Pennock was known as a gentleman and grew up in an affluent family, while Ruth came from a poor family and was well-known for his wild partying.
“They were really inseparable,” Craig explained.“Babe Ruth came to Kennett Square because he and Pennock were friends.”
Pennock retired at the age of 40 in 1934, but that didn't mean that he was leaving the game. He was hired as the general manager of a farm team in the Red Sox organization in 1935. He then spent a few years as a first base coach and pitching coach with the Red Sox, and then he was named the assistant supervisor of Boston's minor league system in 1939. He was then promoted to the position of director of minor league operations for the team. In 1943, Bob Carpenter, Jr., whose family owned the Philadelphia Phillies, hired Pennock to serve as the team's general manager. Pennock began the process of rebuilding a talent-starved farm system by focusing on the acquisition of as much young talent as possible. He went about this task with the same intelligence and precision that he utilized on the mound.
But in 1948, less than two weeks before his 54th birthday, Pennock collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. He was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame later that same year. His last work in baseball led to the Phillies' 1950 “Whiz Kids” team that made it to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history.
Pennock had been honored with the greatest accolade a major league player could receive. His hometown of Kennett Square had honored him on “Herb Pennock Day.” He had spent most of his life playing or working in the major leagues without controversy. Appropriately, Craig spends plenty of time painting a full picture of Pennock the man and Pennock the pitcher before exploring the controversy that clouds a hall of fame career today.
The telephone call
Harold Parrott worked as a sportswriter for a newspaper in Brooklyn before becoming the traveling secretary for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was working in that role in May of 1947 when a telephone conversation allegedly took place between Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and Pennock. A month earlier, the Dodgers had enlisted Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier. In his book, “The Lords of Baseball,” published in 1976—three decades after the fact—Parrott claimed that Pennock used a racial slur to describe Robinson, and warned the Dodgers' general manager not to bring him with the rest of the team when they traveled to Philadelphia to play a series against the Phillies. There was even a threat that the Phillies would boycott the games.
“That telephone call is impossible to corroborate,” Craig said. “In 1947, no one involved put Parrott's claim on the record. By 1976, no one involved was still alive to question the claim. The exact words of the telephone conversation are lost to history.”
Craig pointed out that before Parrott's book, there had never been such an allegation leveled against Pennock. After Parrott's book, the story about Pennock became a part of the larger story of the racial integration of the game, and was repeated in several other subsequent baseball books. Other sources have claimed that it was Carpenter on the telephone with Rickey, not Pennock.
What is known for certain is that fans and players everywhere treated Robinson roughly during his first seasons in the big leagues. Fans and players in Philadelphia were particularly hard on the Dodgers' heroic trailblazer, and the Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman, was brutal in his taunts of Robinson.
It’s also very true that the Phillies were woefully slow to sign a black player to the team. However, Craig pointed out that they were in the middle of a five-year plan that emphasized the development of young players when the Dodgers brought Robinson up to the major leagues in 1947. Most of the players in the Negro League were already experienced players, and would not have fit into the plan that the Phillies had spent years putting into place.
During his research, Craig spoke to several members of the Pennock family and many people who knew the baseball player and his family, and there was never any indication that Pennock strayed from his Quaker ideals and his gentlemanly behavior that he was well-known for.
In fact, Pennock is on record as saying that the game would be better as a result of the Robinson signing. He was also quoted as saying that the Phillies would sign any player that would make the team better. And yet, the allegation exists.
Craig said that it was distressing to him that one mention in one book, at a time when there was no corroboration and no evidence to support the claim, continues to cloud a hall of famer's life and legacy.
Despite all his research, Craig could not find the piece of evidence that would prove or disprove whether Pennock opposed the racial integration of baseball. He did find out quite a bit about how the man lived his life, and by all accounts it was a life well-lived.
Consider the compelling story of Florence “Gig” Simon, a black woman who lived just outside Kennett Square. She was looking for an escape from her abusive husband when she wound up at the Pennocks' home.
The Pennocks didn't just offer temporary refuge, they opened their home to Simon. She moved in with the family and helped Herb and Esther raise their children, Joe and Jane. Gig Simon grew old in the Pennock home.
“She stayed with them for the rest of her life,” Craig explained. “She was a part of the family.”
Gig Simon is even buried adjacent to the Pennocks in the Union Hill Cemetery in Kennett Square.
To Craig, Pennock's treatment of Simon says a lot more about his attitudes and about what kind of person he was than one telephone call that can probably never be verified.
“I think his actions, and his family’s actions, speak volumes,” Craig said.
The title of Craig's book comes from an article that was written by John Kieran, a sports reporter for the New York Times, who once referred to Pennock as “baseball’s faultless pitcher.”
That isn't true, of course. Pennock, like everyone else, had his faults.
But was he a man who would use a racial slur to describe a Dodgers' rookie who was changing the game forever? After spending five years researching Pennock's life and career, Craig remains unconvinced of the merits of the allegation.
“I went into this trying to be objective,” Craig said. “and I firmly believe that he did not say that. With all the research I found, Herb Pennock was a good guy. I feel like the controversy was blown out of proportion a little bit. Pennock was certainly multi-dimensional. He had his flaws, but they were few. He seemed to treat everyone equally. He was a gentleman. He was a tribute to Kennett Square.”