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Before Leury Garcia and Alexei Ramirez, there was Frank Isbell and Sam Mertes

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The only other time the White Sox pitched two position players in the same game, they had a lot more fun with it

Depending on your attitude, Robin Ventura did something sad, awesome, desperate and/or hilarious by pitching both Leury Garcia and Alexei Ramirez in the White Sox' 17-6 loss to Oakland on Tuesday night.

Whatever it was, it was certainly historic. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Ventura became just the second White Sox manager to pitch two position players in the same game ... and the other one, Clark Griffith, did it during the second year of the franchise's existence back on Sept. 28, 1902.

If the past is precedent, Ventura's usage of his infielders on the mound was quite restrained. For that matter, the fans at U.S. Cellular literally could've gotten far more involved in the proceedings.

Of course, the circumstances were a little more excusable for Griffith 113 years ago, and not just because the American League was still finding its footing. Beyond the infancy of the entire system, Griffith was sending his Sox out for the final game of the season, and it was the second game of a doubleheader against the Browns in St. Louis. The game was meaningless for both teams, so the tone was set in the first game according to the Chicago Tribune, which described it as "a loosely played exhibition game in which little life was displayed by the White Sox." (The paper must have had high standards for the team, since the Sox lost that game 10-9. Then again, they won the title in their inaugural season.)

The second and final game was even more unconventional, as both teams decided to put the lineups on "shuffle." The White Sox opened with only three players in their typical positions -- and somehow that looks tame compared to Jimmy McAleer's Browns, who only had Joe Sugden in his usual spot behind the plate. The Tribune laid out the batting orders thusly:

St. Louis Normally 9/28/1902 Chicago Normally 9/28/1902
Jesse Burkett OF SS Sammy Strang 3B 3B
Charlie Hemphill OF 2B Jimmy Callahan P/OF SS
Emmet Heidrick OF 3B Danny Green OF CF
Jack Powell SP RF Sam Mertes OF C
Bobby Wallace SS SP Tom Daly 2B 2B
Barry McCormick 3B CF Frank Isbell 1B SP
Bill Friel UT 1B Ed McFarland C 1B
Joe Sugden C C Clark Griffith SP LF
Bill Reidy SP LF James Durham SP RF

So yes, according to this lineup card, the White Sox threw a first baseman at the Browns, and the Browns threw a shortstop at the Sox.

Unlike Garcia and Ramirez, however, Isbell was no stranger to pitching. He appeared in 13 games for the Cubs in 1898, making nine starts, completing seven, and posting a respectable 3.56 ERA over 81 innings. Likewise, his St. Louis counterpart Wallace pitched in 56 games over three years for the Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s before switching full-time to shortstop in 1897, a change that resulted in a Hall of Fame career.

Mertes, on the other hand, had no pitching experience. He was a well-rounded player with plenty of power for the time (his nickname was "Sandow"), as well as speed for 40-plus steals and an arm that he used to rack up assists in the outfield. He also had no catching experience. 1902 was the first season that shows him donning the tools of ignorance, and he logged just seven whole innings wearing 'em.

However, that may be counting him a few innings short, depending on whose account of the story you believe. From the Tribune's account, it sounds like Mertes only caught the first frame:

Isbell made his appearance on the slab for Chicago, with Mertes handling the big mitt and mixing up the signals. Isbell let St. Louis get two runs in its half of the first inning. This looked bad, so Chicago did the best it could by reversing matters and sending Mertes to the slab and placing Isbell behind the bat. Isbell was not so bad on the slab. With Mertes it was different. He had Reidy beaten by a wide margin when it came to slow calls, and towards the close of the game he did a few rapid fire stunts which made [Jack] Harper take a back seat.

And that account seems to line up with the corresponding lines on their Baseball-Reference.com pages:

  • Isbell: 1 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
  • Mertes: 8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K

But the St. Louis Republic gives a different version of the story, and even has a different starter:

For Chicago, Isbell and Mertes put on the sketch, "The Reversible Battery." Mertes went to the box in the first inning, while Isbell donned the mask and windpad. In the second round "Izzy" tried his hand at pitching and "Sandow" did the receiving. Thus they alternated throughout the game. Jimmy Callahan did stunts in the shortfield and Eddie McFarland covered first base in a sweater of hue that would have insured him a job as matador at a bullfight.

It's also depicted on the page as part of a larger feature called "What the Cartoonist Saw at Sportsman's Park":

Isbell-Mertes cartoon

Since the game was played in St. Louis, the Republic's version of the story has far more detail. Picking between the two, I'm inclined to believe this version, although I'd like to see if there's a third newspaper that can serve as a tiebreaker.

Either way, both papers agree that whether it was Isbell or Mertes on the mound in the ninth inning, he didn't get a chance to record the final out himself. The game was called due to fans, with the Tribune's deck saying the crowd "tired of the sport" in the ninth inning. The Republic elaborates:

With two men out in the ninth inning and the score 10 to 4 in favor of Chicago, Reidy came to bat just as the crowd swarmed on the field. The police could not check the advance and Umpire Sheridan called the game. Then the enthusiastic fans made a rush for the St. Louis bench, charged the players and carried off every bat in sight as souvenirs.