Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
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BACKSTORY Wrong Side of the Wall

I was at a party at my Uncle Fred and Aunt Norma's house. Fred is my father's younger brother. I overheard Norma say, "Get it Domingo, Get it Domingo," and the relatives who were listening laughed.

It turned out that my Uncle used to have nightmares from which he'd wake up yelling "Get it Domingo." I asked about it.

The story was that when my Uncle was sixteen, he played for his local semipro baseball team, Berk's Giants, in Los Angeles. (The team was sponsored by Berk's gas station and auto repair shop.) He was the youngest player on the team, and its star pitcher.

In the 1945-46 season, his team won its league championship. The prize was that they would play an exhibition game against a team made up of major and minor league players from the St. Louis Browns; a major league team that came out to Los Angeles for spring training.

Before the day of the game, my Uncle injured his arm. He could barely move the arm or throw a ball and the doctor said his baseball career was over.

But baseball meant everything to him, and especially the upcoming game. He decided that he'd try to pitch anyhow.

And he did. And because of his bad arm, he baffled the professionals from the Browns. If he could have thrown the ball like usual, they probably would have clobbered hiim. But instead, he threw nothing but crazy, slow, completely unpredicatable pitches that were buffetted on their way to homeplate by the breeze and physics. The Browns couldn't hit him.

Berk's Giants couldn't much hit the Browns' pitcher either. That was Blackie Schwamb, a scary, six-foot-six, mean looking beanpole of a guy who threw the ball as hard as anyone in baseball and who also had a crack curveball.

By about the eighth or ninth inning, miraculously, Berk's Giants were leading the Browns one to nothing. Schwamb had walked a couple of guys, and a couple of guys managed to get bloop hits just by the luck of sticking their bat out in the right place at the right time.

And, most miraculously, my Uncle, with all his junk pitches, was throwing a no hitter.

Finally, in the ninth inning, Clint Courtney, then a minor leaguer, but before long a respectable major league catcher, came to bat. Courtney had been hurling abuse at my Uncle throughout the game. Fred got two strikes on him, but then tried throwing a pitch the way he normally did. It came in straight to the plate with nothing on it and Courtney clouted it.

The ball flew high out into center field, where Berk's Giants centerfielder, Domingo Amestoy played. Domingo gave chase. My Uncle screamed, "Get it Domingo. Get it Domingo."

But Domingo couldn't get it and Clint Courtney broke up the no hitter with a hit.

My father, who was the catcher in that game, recalls that the Browns went on to win the game. My Uncle Fred says that he got the next batters out and won the game.

It was the last game he ever pitched. He went to art school, then into commercial art, then a successful career in sales and finally back to art. He is now the world's most successful and well-known painter of race horses. But to this day he swears he'd have gladly given up all his success in life, just to be a baseball pitcher.

I asked him what happened to the opposing pitcher, Blackie Schwamb. He told me that he seemed to recall that Schwamb had gone on to the major leagues, but that in the off season he was a gangster in Los Angeles. That he had finally committed a murder, got caught, and went on to become the greatest prison baseball player of all time, playing against teams made up of major and minor leaguers who came to San Quentin and Folsom prisons.

That sounded like a good story. I looked up Schwamb in a baseball encyclopedia. He hadn't been in the major leagues for long. I wrote some people in baseball to ask if they knew if he was still alive and where he was. No one knew. I had a friend who worked in the California Department of Motor Vehicles. I asked her if she could see if they had a listing for a Ralph Richard Schwamb who was born in 1926, and if they did, could she forward a letter for me to his last known address. They did. She did. He wrote me back.

I spent about a week interviewing him but couldn't interest any magazines in buying an article about him at the time. Then I got offered a job in Hong Kong and I left the country for 11 years. About two years after I returned to the U.S. I came across the transcripts of my interviews with Schwamb. I decided to start looking into the story again.

By then, he was dead, but the internet had become available. Thanks to the internet I was able to track down a great many people who had played ball with him, grown up with him, served time in prison with him. I started doing more research and interviewing and eventually it snowballed into my first book.