By Bartee Haile
Fifty-one years after playing in his last major-league game, a talented Texan tragically struck down in the prime of life finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Aug. 7, 1972.
Four or five years after Ross Middlebrook Youngs’ birth at Shiner in 1897, his father moved the family to San Antonio. Little Ross had just turned ten, when his dad walked out leaving his mother to raise their three sons.
While Henrie Youngs worked night and day to support her boys, Ross excelled at athletics. He starred in every sport West -Texas Military Academy (Texas Military Institute of today) had to offer. But baseball was his first love, and he turned down football scholarships from several big-name colleges in favor of the bush leagues.
The teen’s career got off to a rocky start in 1915. He played briefly for Brenham and Waxahachie in the Mid-Texas and Central Texas leagues only to have both go bust.
But 1916 was a different story. As a switch-hitting infielder for a club at Sherman, he was hitting .362 when Dick Kinsella caught him in action. One look was all it took for the New York Giants scout to label Youngs a “can’t-miss” prospect, and on his recommendation John McGraw bought the 19 year old’s contract for $2,000.
The next year, the legendary manager invited the youngster to the Giants’ spring training camp in, of all places, Marlin, Texas. He seconded his scout’s opinion but decided Youngs was not suited for the infield.
McGraw sent him to Rochester with a blunt warning to the manager: “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.”
Youngs feasted on International League pitching for a .356 batting average in 140 games before McGraw called him up for the last week of the season. Four singles, two doubles and three triples in 26 at-bats convinced the Giants skipper that the hustling Texan he nicknamed “Pep” was ready for the big leagues.
Any other rookie his age might have been awed by a roster that boasted half a dozen future Hall of Famers but not the confident kid from the Lone Star State. Sticking to the southpaw side of the plate, he soon proved he was a Giant in his own right by batting .302 in 1918, .311 in 1919 and .351 in 1920, second only to fellow Texan Rogers Hornsby.
From the beginning, Youngs was one of the most exciting players in the game. A terror on the base path, he broke up countless double plays with body-block slides.
His defensive feats were the talk of baseball and bordered on the unbelievable. On one memorable occasion, Youngs started a rundown between third base and home plate with a perfect throw, sprinted in from right field to join the chase and tagged the runner out.
In Game Three of the 1921 World Series against the hated Yankees, Youngs made history with two hits in the same inning. The Giants went on to win the best-of-nine championship and the following year humiliated the Yankees in four games with a .375 contribution from their right-fielder.
The first sign that something was not quite right with Youngs came in the 1924 World Series that the Giants lost to the Washington Senators. After posting a career-best batting average of .356, he experienced a post-season slump going five for 27.
Youngs assured McGraw, with whom he had developed a close father-son relationship, that it was nothing more than fatigue. He promised to spend the off-season sleeping and be raring to go in the spring.
But in 1925 Youngs struggled to just stay on the field, as he battled a variety of health problems ranging from viral infections to undiagnosed stomach trouble. His performance at the plate dropped 92 points from the previous year, and he lost more than a step or two in the outfield.
Youngs was clearly a sick man, when he reported for duty in 1926. Yet somehow he summoned the strength to play in 95 games and hit an amazing .306.
By August, he was 15 pounds lighter than opening day and as weak as a kitten. At McGraw’s insistence, he went home to San Antonio where doctors at last figured out what was wrong. He was suffering from an inflammation of the kidneys called Bright’s Disease, and there was no cure.
At Youngs’ funeral in October 1927, the most moving eulogy was given by his heartbroken manager. “He was the greatest outfielder I ever saw on a ball field,” McGraw said mournfully. “The game was never over with Young until the last man was out.”
Until the day he retired, John McGraw kept two framed photographs in his office. The first was of his immortal pitcher Christy Mathewson and the second was of the surrogate son he had hoped would someday take his place.
Comparisons are often made between Lou Gehrig and Ross Youngs because both ballplayers went to an early grave. The big difference is that, unlike the beloved Yankee, the ball-of-fire from Texas never got the chance to say good-bye.
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