By Stan Grosshandler
There have been scores of players called "Doc" in the long history of major league baseball; however, the ones who earned the nickname by virtue of a degree in medicine have been few in number. Yankee pitcher George "Doc" Medich, who attends the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in the off-season, is the latest to try to combine the two unusual occupations. To achieve success in two such diverse fields takes unusual personal characteristics, and indeed these men have been unusual.
The rugged, scrappy Orioles of McGraw, Jennings, and Keeler had two physicians on their pitching staff just before the turn of the century. One, Jim McJames, was born James McCutcheon James. He pitched six years in the National League and his 27 wins in 1898 topped the Orioles staff. His career(s) was shortened by illness and death came in 1901 when he was only 28.
The second physician-pitcher was Erasmus Arlington Pond, who hurled four years in the Big Time and posted 18 wins in 1897. Arlie Pond received his medical training at the University of Vermont and at the University of Maryland, which has its medical school in Baltimore. It was there where he got lined up with the Orioles. The Spanish-American War interrupted in 1898 and Pond became an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Services. He served in the Philippines, and after leaving the Army in 1901, he became the chief medical official on the island of Cebu. He spent the rest of his life, one of dedication of service, in that remote area, except for a period during World War I when he returned to U.S. military services as Assistant Surgeon General of the Army. He died on Cebu in 1930.
Michael Powers, who broke in with the Louisville club of the National League in 1898, had longer service in the majors. He joined the Philadelphia Athletics as a catcher in the newly formed American League in 1901, and other than a short stretch with the Yankees, played the remainder of his career with Connie Mack's club.
Mike was more renowned for his skill behind the bat because his lifetime batting average was only .216.
Powers was the favorite receiver for Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank, and can attribute his only World Series appearance to the fact that Plank preferred him behind the plate. He was described by Lee Allen in The
American League Story as "representative of the new type of man who had come into baseball. Having attended Holy Cross and Notre Dame, he was a practicing physician." Powers was described by Alfred Spink in the book National Game in 1910 as a "universal favorite amongst the followers of the game. On the field he was always manly, loyal, discreet, courteous, and capable."
In 1905 Powers spent part of the season with the New York Yankees, or Highlanders, as they were called then. While there he caught pitcher Jim Newton, who was also a physician. This was probably the only instance of a complete M.D. battery.
The Athletics opened their new park, Shibe Park, on April 12, 1909. It was then the most modern baseball structure built. Before 30,000 fans the great Plank faced the Boston Red Sox with his favorite catcher behind the plate. Late in the game Mike began to suffer abdominal pains, but finished the contest won by the A's. He was then taken to a hospital where surgery revealed gangrene of the bowels. He was dead two weeks later at the age of 39.
Hubert "Shucks" Pruett, who received his medical training at the University of Missouri, joined the 1922
St. Louis Browns in time to be a member of the greatest team that now extinct franchise ever fielded. In a crucial September series with the Yankees, the young southpaw beat the powerful New Yorkers 5-1, but when he tried to relieve the next day he was defeated and the Yanks won the pennant by one game. He was primarily a relief pitcher and, although suffering a broken arm in 1923, came back later to pitch in the National League with the Phils, Giants, and Braves.
Pruett has always been very reluctant to talk about his baseball career; however, Dan Daniel wrote of his phenomenal success against Babe Ruth. "He was the only pitcher who really had the Indian sign on Ruth. During the 1922 season he fanned the Babe no fewer than 16 times. His best pitch was the fade away and he had tremendous success against Ruth with it. One day I recall he discarded his best pitch and threw the Babe a fast ball which was promptly hit over the roof.”
Probably the most successful of all the Diamond Docs was Bobby Brown, who signed with the Yankees in 1946 for a reported fifty grand. This helped him finance his education and he received his medical degree at Tulane in 1950. A left-hand hitting shortstop, Brown hit .341 at Newark in 1946 and was brought up to the parent club along with Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, and Vic Raschi. Shifted to third base, he spent eight years at the hot corner.
"The most memorable game I ever played in," relates Brown, "was the seventh game of the 1947 World Series, which was my first series. With two out in the fourth and Brooklyn ahead 2-1, I was sent up to hit for the pitcher with Billy Johnson and Phil Rizzuto on base. I was fortunate enough to hit a double and we went on to take the game and the series."
What the modest medical man does not point out was his fantastic success in series play. Pinch hitting in the 1947 series, he walked, hit two doubles and a single. This still stands as a series record for pinch hitters.
Playing for the inimitable Casey Stengel in the 1949 classic, he collected six hits in 12 trips to be the Yankees' top hitter. His double in the first game of the 1950 series against the Phils drove in the only run of the game. Playing against the Giants in 1951 he again led the Yankees with a .357 mark. His career World Series record was 18 hits in 41 at bats for a .439 average. This included 5 doubles, 3 triples, and 9 runs batted in.
Brown had served in the Navy in World War II and was recalled to service as a medical officer in 1952. He began a full-time civilian practice in 1954 after getting in a few more games with the Yankees.
The anecdotes about Brown (with his medical journals) and roommate Yogi Berra (with his comic books) became legendary -- thanks to journalistic enterprise. The reticent doctor passes this off by saying, "I do not have any specific humorous anecdote that I particularly care to relate. The humorous incidents and interesting sidelights of being on a successful professional ball club are every day occurrences.”
In summing up his career, Brown points out that "Baseball gave me the financial backing that enabled me to put myself through medical training debt free. The experience of playing with one of the greatest teams of all times was of tremendous influence in enabling me to adapt to the many crucial situations that frequently arise in medicine and in daily life. The atmosphere that pervaded the Yankee team at that time was one of tremendous dedication, effort, and desire for perfection that made a lasting impression on me. The ability to react to both winning and losing was of great importance; and the experience of being closely associated with such a group of tremendous athletes and people like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Vic Raschi was one of the great experiences of my life."
After being away from the game for nearly 20 years, the former World Series hero became an executive with the Texas Rangers in 1974.
Several other physicians have enjoyed lesser degrees of success in the diamond sport. John "Doc" Lavan was a slick fielding shortstop playing for several clubs between 1913 and 1924. His best season at bat was with the Cards in 1920 when he hit .289. He managed a couple of years in the American Association after he left the big leagues.
Another pitcher-physician who had moderate success in nine years of mound duty right after the turn of the century was William "Doc" Scanlan. Another hurler, Merle "Doc" Adkins, worked briefly with the Red Sox and Yanks in 1902-03. John "Bob" Poser, who now practices in Columbus, Wisconsin, was a hurler with the White Sox in 1932 and Browns in 1935. Bob said his greatest thrill "was just putting on that major league uniform. I would also have to include the game I started against the great Lefty Grove."
Men like these who had the rare ability to capitalize on intelligent minds and agile bodies are now nearly an extinct breed. Both baseball and medicine have become so specialized and time-consuming that trying to combine both careers at the same time would be an unusual undertaking. Doc Medich may be one of the last of the Diamond Docs.