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Dutch Levsen’s historic feat and meteoric downfall

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Baseball in the Roaring Twenties experienced great heights due to the advent of consumerism. But one player tells the depressing story of the dangers of this way of life.

Image via The Sprouting News

In baseball, we often pick out one or two particular players to tell the story of certain eras on the field, to represent an entire generation of forgotten events. For many, Babe Ruth undeniably assumes this role for the 1920s, as his towering home runs signified the end of the dead ball era and the reinvention of the game. But to tell the tale of the 1920s as a whole, rather than label baseball an abstraction, it is necessary to turn to a largely forgotten player. For many who have heard of Dutch Levsen, his name is just the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the last person to start and win both games of a doubleheader?” While this undoubtedly celebrates the peak of his career, the distinctness of his years in the majors is hidden in the folds of the 1920s.

The 1920s was one of the most economically prosperous decades in America’s history, behind only the 1950s. The recent victory in World War I gave many Americans a sense of invincibility that reverberated throughout life, and efficiency was the name of the game. New products hit the market daily and were gobbled up by eager consumers, creating a revived middle class that feasted on advertising and the appearance of luxury. Many viewed the Roaring Twenties as the golden age of America, ushering in new counterculture movements centered on female sexuality and empowerment, led by the likes of Clara Bow and Mary Pickford. Capitalism was in full force, wrapped in the shiny branding of the American Dream. Underneath the wrapping lay a careful arrangement of racism, worker exploitation, and misogyny; for those privileged enough, though, the decade was full of hope and social progress.

Likewise, the 1920s were seen as the golden age of baseball. The mass production of the radio made the game accessible to Americans across the country, broadening its fanbase and rooting it more firmly in the country’s fabric. People everywhere were captivated by the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby, and baseball became a link between strangers. The Negro Leagues were established, and several female ballplayers were making names for themselves in various independent leagues, which gave the appearance of a progression toward equality. From the outside, the 1920s was a time of innovation and barrier-breaking; the impossible no longer seemed as such.

One particular baseball player, Dutch Levsen, speaks to the unique aspects of the 1920s. A college graduate in 1919, Levsen signified a shift from farming independent leagues for talent to recruiting amateurs from colleges. He began his professional baseball career in 1923 with the Cedar Rapids Bunnies of the Mississippi Valley League. That same year, Time Magazine and Warner Brothers assumed production, opening America to new means of accessing information and disseminating culture. School programs, parks, and playgrounds received increased funding, filling American youth with promise and visions of inheriting the prosperous country their parents had built.

In Cedar Rapids, the 24-year-old Levsen awed onlookers with his electric fastball and sharp curve, which led him to 19 victories that season. He was so impressive that Tris Speaker, scouting for the Cleveland Indians, signed him in September. Levsen pitched four scoreless innings in relief over three games, but the team ultimately decided he needed more seasoning, and so he spent the next two years playing for Terre Haute of the Three-I League. There, he continued his winning ways, and made the Indians Opening Day roster in 1926, with the expectation of assuming the number two position in the rotation behind George Uhle.

The 1926 Indians were a fine team, anchored on the diamond by the veteran Speaker and on the mound by George Uhle. With the addition of Levsen, they hoped to climb up the standings, with eyes on capturing the pennant. As the year wore on, America continued its ascendency, expanding into Nicaragua, completing the first trans-Atlantic telephone call, and generating the strongest economy in the world. Likewise, the Indians and Levsen began their assault on the league. In July, Levsen became the first pitcher that season to beat each of the teams in the division, and looked primed to overtake the Yankees for first.

By August, Levsen’s reputation had spread throughout the league, and he was tabbed to become “one of the leading hurlers of the circuit” within the next year or two. [1] On August 28th, the Indians played a doubleheader against the Red Sox. Levsen pitched the first game, completely stifling the Red Sox bats, holding them to one run on four hits over nine innings. After the game, second baseman George Burns said to Levsen, “pitch the second game, Emil, and I’ll buy you the best hat in town.” [2] Levsen, either in dire need of a new hat or unable to resist a challenge, asked Speaker if he could start the night cap in place of Uhle, who had already thrown over 200 innings that season and could have used some pre-playoffs rest. Realizing this, Speaker acquiesced. Levsen again twirled a complete game, allowing one run on four hits.

However, his victory came at a steep cost, as he was hit hard the remainder of the season. In his final six starts, he gave up 25 percent of his season’s total earned runs; his ERA ballooned from 2.96 after the doubleheader to 3.41 by season’s end. The following spring, Levsen’s arm almost gave out entirely, and he struggled to a 6.37 ERA before being relegated to relief, throwing just 80 innings over 25 games that season. Though he entered the 1928 season believing his shoulder was healed and expecting to regain his 1926 form, [3] he fared far worse than the preceding year. He allowed 25 runs on 39 hits and 31 walks in 41.1 innings and did not pitch after July 31st.

In March of 1929, the Indians released Levsen, ending his baseball career. Several days later, the stock market suffered the first of a series of monumental and devastating crashes. After three short years in the major leagues, Levsen was relegated to overseeing youth programs while the country around him withered. For years, Levsen attached himself to middling projects aimed at increasing youth baseball participation. Then, in 1934, Major League Baseball embraced the New Deal; it understood that these social and employment programs, when combined with baseball, could stimulate the economy. That year, youth participation in Iowa jumped to 4,000 boys across 200 teams. Levsen, like the country, was lifted to his feet by the New Deal, and although his playing days were long behind him, he enjoyed many successful years directing Iowa youth baseball.

Alone, Levsen was a promising pitcher whose career ended prematurely due to an unfortunate injury. But no event or life is independent of society. And so Levsen, whose career spanned much of the 1920s, tells a cautionary tale of American hubris. Both the country and the pitcher were believed by many to be indestructible and infallible, and both suffered the consequences. Both were pushed too far by those who fundamentally misunderstood the restraints each faced — banks could not loan out money they could never collect, and Levsen could not throw 300 pitches without his shoulder paying the price. Greatness is not something one maintains through frivolity, and the rampant hubris of the time squandered the greatness of Levsen and many other youth.

Notes

[1] Fitchburg Sentinel, August 23, 1926, p.8.

[2] George Burns in Baseball Digest, August 1986.

[3] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 17, 1928, p. 11.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.