July 15 – Happy birthday Jake Powell
Those of you who have been long-time readers of my blog might remember this post I wrote last Christmas for the former Yankee third baseman and outfielder, Ben Chapman. In it, I described him as being one of the meanest players ever to put on a Yankee uniform and a racist. So you might think that open-minded Yankee fans would have breathed a sigh of relief when on June 14, 1936 the Yankees traded Chapman to the Senators for Washington outfielder Jake Powell. The problem was that Powell was probably even more ornery and a bigger racist than Chapman.
At first, the trade was a God send for New York. Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy put the Silver Spring, Maryland native in left field and moved his super rookie, Joe DiMaggio to center. Powell hit .302 during the balance of the 1936 regular season and a whopping .455 in the Yankees six-game victory over the Giants in that year’s World Series. But his bat cooled off quite a bit during the 1937 season and with young Yankee outfield prospects like Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller emerging from the farm system, he started seeing less and less playing time.
Powell’s ornery personality didn’t help matters. In a pre-game interview during the 1938 season, a reporter asked him what it was like to be a police officer in the off season. Powell replied he that he enjoyed cracking n—–s over the head and putting them in jail. Those comments earned him a suspension by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He was suspended a second time that same season when he got into a fist fight with Red Sox player-manager, Joe Cronin on the field after Powell was beaned by a Boston pitcher and then he again attacked Cronin underneath the stands in Fenway Park after the game. Manager Joe McCarthy loved Powell’s fiery play on the field and his willingness to do anything asked of him to help win a game. After his bigoted remarks, the Yankees forced Powell to tour saloons and social clubs in Harlem and apologize for what he said. He did exactly that without complaint.
During a 1940 exhibition game against the Dodgers, Powell suffered a concussion in a violent collision with a fence in the outfield. By the time he recovered, he had lost his spot on the Yankee roster and his contract was sold to a team in the Pacific Coast League. He got back to the big leagues by 1943 but only because of the player shortage caused by WWII. When the war ended so did Powell’s career. In 1948, the troubled outfielder ended his own life by shooting himself in the head in a Washington DC police station right before he was about to be booked for writing bad checks.
As a side note, Powell was involved in a very significant moment in Yankee franchise history. It took place in Washington DC’s Griffith Stadium on September 30th 1934. In the eighth inning, Babe Ruth hit a long fly ball to center field which was caught by Powell, who was then still a Senator. This was the final official at bat Ruth had in a Yankee uniform.
Powell shares his July 15th birthday with this former Yankee backup catcher.