The Yankees ace's true destiny was not to wear pinstripes or be enshrined in bronze
Die-hard Yankees fans may think of Waite “Schoolboy” Hoyt as a hero because of his essentially flawless performance in the 1921 World Series, his status in 1927 as the best pitcher on the best team in baseball history, or the way his two victories helped sweep the Yankees to a championship in 1928. He has a plaque at Cooperstown to attest to such heroics.
The real heroes, as Joseph Campbell defined the notion, are those who leave home, face challenges, experience new things, make discoveries and return home to share their insights with others. By that standard, we are all heroes. Waite Hoyt surely was, and then some, but not just because he was there at the birth of modern-day baseball and rubbed elbows with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Hoyt’s heroic journey was a bona fide odyssey, almost Homeric in its scope – which, okay, is an exaggeration. But consideration of the full sweep of his 84 years reveals a character who fascinates not just because of what he accomplished but also for what he encountered.
Babe Ruth was interesting because he was Babe Ruth. Waite Hoyt was interesting because he was interesting.
His journey began in Brooklyn, in the shadow of Ebbets Field while it was being built. As a youngster he jumped the gates and was chased through the stands by Charlie Ebbets, Jr. Near his home also stood the Polo Grounds, bastion of the baseball Giants, whose name alone evoked something of mythic proportions in young Waite’s mind.
His beautiful mother, Louise, who called herself Lucia, was obsessed with respectability and all things proper. His quirky father, Addison, an alcoholic, was a baseball nut and vaudeville actor. His favorite high-school teacher, Miss Scoville, saw a bright future for Waite as a journalist. When Addison taught him how to catch and throw a baseball, however, his natural abilities were evident and his destiny all but preordained.
So talented was our hero that the New York Giants signed him to a contract when he was just 15 years old, the youngest-ever professional baseball player at the time. He hadn’t even finished high school. His English teacher, Miss Scoville, told him he was making a big mistake. The following year, against his mother’s wishes but with his father’s dreams, he left home to play in the minor-league circuit, the equivalent of running off to join the circus.
For three years, Waite struggled, not only with becoming a better pitcher but also against the world in which he found himself. Thrown in with a cast of relentlessly roguish and sometimes cartoonish characters nearly twice his age, while living and playing under the roughest of conditions, his life was diametrically opposed to everything his mother wanted for him. His father, on the other hand, could not have been more proud.
Waite learned plenty about life, from bathtubs bobbed with beer cans to conversations with a madam to cold-blooded murder just outside his bedroom window. What he didn’t learn much about was baseball. Frustrated by his lack of progress he decided to quit, and after an interlude as a single-semester college student, went home to Brooklyn to plan his future.
Out of the blue, Waite was visited first by a man who offered him a job in a tire factory and then another whose business was building ships. Both jobs were really about playing semi-pro baseball on a company team in what was known as the Industrial League. Waite took the job with the shipbuilder just as his pitching skills blossomed, soon leading first to a contract with the Boston Red Sox and then a trade to the New York Yankees.
For the next ten years, Waite had his ups and downs but did well enough to seal his destiny as one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, and everything that went with that, up to and including a fistfight with Babe Ruth, and an afternoon drinking champagne with Al Capone.
He also found a measure of respectability, marrying his childhood sweetheart, moving to the suburbs, buying a car, planting a garden and fathering two children. His mother and his wife didn’t get along, though, and any notion of domestic bliss was an illusion.
With his celebrity – and Waite was famous at the time – came nightclubs, women as well as opportunities to make more money off the field than on it. Once again, he fell into his father’s footsteps as a song-and-dance man on the vaudeville stage, hanging out with the likes of Mae West, Jimmy Durante and the Marx Brothers. This was definitely more lucrative and appealing than his other attempt at a career, as a mortician.
The show business life was not good for Waite’s physical fitness, and his pitching suffered. Yankees manager Miller Huggins begged him to give up vaudeville, but Waite ignored him. Huggins then died suddenly, Waite’s marriage collapsed, and within months he was first traded to the lowly Detroit Tigers, and then bounced from team to team for about the next 10 years, never regaining his former glory.
Waite’s odyssey might have ended here, coming full circle in that his final release from baseball occurred in Brooklyn, where it all began. But our hero’s journey continued.
At age 38, re-married to a glamorous, wealthy socialite and with a newborn son, Waite decided to pursue a career as a radio broadcaster, which combined his interests in baseball, show business and, yes, journalism. It was not a straight path, however, in many ways yet another odyssey of failures. Waite felt like a rookie all over again, this time hazed by the entrenched professional announcers who assumed a former ballplayer could not cut it in the fledgling new field of radio sports.
This last leg of Waite’s journey brought him to what he eventually embraced as his true home, Cincinnati, Ohio, for 24 years as the beloved voice of the baseball Reds. Cincinnati was, of course, named for the legendary and heroic Roman emperor, Cincinnatus, famous for choosing to return to his farm after saving Rome in battle, the inspiration for George Washington’s peaceful transition back to Mount Vernon.
Waite was not welcomed as a conquering hero, as most of the community initially saw him as an interloper, just passing through on his way back to New York City. This changed in a surprising way.
Alcoholism runs in Waite’s family, dating back to his father and grandfather and extending to his son. All those years in vaudeville didn’t help him fight his congenital enemy. Shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, Waite disappeared on a bender for several days. His recovery began after he checked himself into a hospital, but it wasn’t a good look, especially since his radio sponsor was a beer company. Incredibly, the sponsor and the baseball community rallied around him.
This was the true turning point in the Waite Hoyt odyssey. From then on, “Schoolboy” became something of an oracle of history and wisdom among Cincinnati’s baseball fans. His well-told tales became the stuff of legend, relayed in detail as though handed down through baseball gods between innings and during game-day rain delays.
During his Cincinnati homecoming, Waite Hoyt also came to resolve the purpose of his journey, which he saw as the product of a series of self-inflicted conflicts.
“Schoolboy’s” true destiny was not to wear pinstripes or become enshrined in bronze, but rather to share his story with others, in the hopes that they would learn from, build upon, and hopefully be inspired by, the highs and lows of the life he lived.