ST. LOUIS (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) — At some point, perhaps between the first and second home run Babe Ruth hit off the Stanford multi-tasking sensation and St. Louis Browns pitcher, the Sultan of Swat offered some career advice to young Ernie Nevers.
“You’ve got good speed, kid,” Ruth was believed to have said. “For my sake, I hope you stick to football.”
Stick to sport?
That wasn’t Nevers’ style.
Not when he could excel at several.
On Christmas Day, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara rushed Nevers back into the headlines for another holiday feat, one that hasn’t been eclipsed in almost nine decades. Kamara scored six rushing touchdowns against Minnesota on Friday and tied the record set by Nevers on Thanksgiving Day in 1929. A fullback for the Cardinals … of Chicago … Nevers scored six rushing touchdowns against Red Grange and the Chicago Bears on Nov. 28, 1929. A “one man team” according to some descriptions, Nevers added four extra points to set a pro football record with 40 points. It hasn’t been matched since.
Nevers had his No. 1 retired at Stanford and was part of the inaugural class at both the college football hall of fame (1951) and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963). While his football legend unfolded elsewhere – in Duluth, at the Rose Bowl, up there in Chicago – the crossroads of his multi-sport stardom was in St. Louis. It was there that he pitched three seasons for the Browns, facing Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the 1927 Yankees. That same year he played professional football, and according to some histories signed a professional contract with a barnstorming basketball team to make $300 per game and become that rare three-sport pro. The basketball team was based in St. Louis.
At Stanford, if there was a sport, Nevers likely lettered in it, and beyond being one of the best all-around college football players ever, he also pitched 37 consecutive scoreless innings for the Cardinal.
Less than a year after his final football season with Stanford, Nevers made his big-league debut with the Browns on April 26, 1926. Against the visiting Cleveland club at Sportsman’s Park, Nevers struck out as a pinch-hitter for the final out of a 12-1 loss.
Tris Speaker was watching from center field.
If Nevers had reached base, George Sisler would have grabbed a bat.
Looking through the box scores from Nevers’ baseball career at Baseball-Reference.com is like walking the halls of Cooperstown. The Minnesota native had two doubles in his big-league career, but one of them came off of Walter “Big Train” Johnson. On July 10, 1927, Nevers entered a game in relief against the Philadelphia Athletics at Sportsman’s Park. He doubled and drove in two runs to tie the game, 7-7. The box score gives him credit for two RBIs, though his career batting only shows one RBI. The tie was fleeting. In the next inning, the top of the sixth, the A’s regained their lead with three runs of Nevers. A part of that rally? Ty Cobb.
In 44 games for the Browns from 1926-28, Nevers went 6-12 with a 4.64 ERA. He started 12 of those games, and in 178 1/3 innings for St. Louis struck out 39 and allowed 13 homers. His career was retrofitted with two saves for the 1927 season, but that modern stat cut both ways and the final appearance he had at home for the Browns is now considered a blow save. His last big-league game was May 4, at Washington, and he retired three of the five batters he faced and the lone run he allowed was unearned and came on a sacrifice fly. Red Barnes, Alabama Crimson Tide captain and quarterback in the ’27 Rose Bowl, hit it.
The Browns sold Nevers’ contract to a club in the Pacific Coast League for $7,500 after the 1928 season and as Ruth suggested baseball would lose its speed for the righthander. He last pitched as pro baseball player shortly before scoring the record 40 points for the Cardinals in Chicago.
Nevers’ performances in football would merit such awards as one of the best college football players of all time, one of the top 100 greatest players in pro football (as recently as 2010), and a postage stamp. After his playing career, Nevers would coach football, serve in the military, and become a television host. He died in 1976 at 73.
In Nevers’ major-league career, two batters – only two – struck out as many as two times against the righthander. One was Urban Shocker.
Shocker, a righthanded pitcher, led the American League with 27 wins for the Browns before the Browns traded him back to the Yankees in 1924 as part of a three-team, two-league deal that brought Bullet Joe Bush to St. Louis. (“Shocker is a mighty smart hombre out there on the mound,” Ruth said of the aging pitcher, according to SABR’s Bio on Shocker. “He has control – and he has a lot of knowledge up there under that old baseball cap of his.”) Shocker would win 18 games for the Yankees in 1927, pitch two innings for them in 1928, collapse while throwing batting practice later that season, and die a few months later in Denver. His SABR bio says he died of pneumonia and heart disease. He was 37.
Shocker is buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
The other hitter that Nevers struck out twice was Ruth.
While Nevers’ six-touchdown, 40-point show has been his enduring addition to football history, his place in baseball history comes down to two pitches. One, Ruth hit for his eighth home run of 1927, and the other Ruth hit for his 41st home run of that season – on his way to the absurd, then-unthinkable, record of 60 home runs. In a loss to Shocker on May 11, 1927, Nevers allowed a two-run homer to Ruth in the first inning to break a scoreless tie. The last time Ruth faced Nevers in that game he struck out. A few months later, Gehrig tagged a home run off Nevers, and then in late August the Yankees were back at Sportsman’s Park, back in St. Louis, back to face the Browns, and Nevers was back in the bullpen.
The career advice from Ruth did not come with a date when it was quoted in a 1980 article for a football game magazine by Nick Peters of the Oakland Tribune, though Ruth would have sauntered onto the field against Nevers just as fall arrived, as a season with the Duluth football club beckoned. Nevers was an All-American football player, a legend for snapping the casts off his both ankles one day and within a week returning punts and rushing for 114 yards against Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl. A description of Nevers in the Great Falls Tribune from February 1925 reads: “Nevers is a star fullback on the football team, one of Stanford’s best baseball pitchers, plays a rattling good game at forward on the basketball team and can throw the javelin.”
The article begins: “Ernie Nevers, the 200-pound pound athlete of Stanford university (sic) is pressing for honors the best all-around athletes in the annals of the west.”
Nevers took name recognition to the mound.
On Aug. 27, 1927, he entered the game against the Yankees at Sportsman’s Park for the top of the fifth, replacing Sad Sam Jones. No, seriously, Sad Sam Jones. Browns great Sisler was at first base. Leo Dixon was behind the plate. The umpire was Pants Rowland. And the first batter Nevers faced was Ruth. The Bambino tripled to deep center. Gehrig followed with a walk. Gehrig stole second before Nevers could get an out. But the righthander settled and got three consecutive groundouts. Ruth scampered home on Tony Lazzeri’s. The Murderers’ Row would greet Nevers in the top of the sixth as well, and Ruth socked a deep sacrifice fly to add to the Yankees’ lead.
In the eighth, Nevers faced Ruth for a third and final time in the game. Ruth turned on a pitch and drove it deep into the right-field seats for his 41st home run of the season.
They would face each other again in September at Yankee Stadium.
Shocker was again the starter for the famed Yankees, on his way to a complete-game victory, and Nevers was in to clean up a mess. He pitched three scoreless innings. And the two times he faced the Babe he dodged the Ruthian power. In the bottom eighth, with two outs, the bases empty, and Gehrig on deck, Nevers avoided Ruth. He’d get a groundout from Gehrig to end the inning but only after in his final pitches to Ruth on Sept. 9, 1927, Nevers handed him a walk.
They both had bigger runs ahead.
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