One of Lou Gehrig’s teammates on the Yankees from 1923 to 1925 was a 5-foot-7, 155-pound outfielder by the name of Whitey Witt. Whitey remembered Lou’s first appearance in a Yankees uniform, remarking, “You could tell from the start that he was headed for greatness. He was quiet at the time and I guess always remained that way.”
Born Ladislaw Waldemar Wittkowski in Orange, Massachusetts, while still in his teens he attracted the attention of legendary manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics. When he made his first appearance in a major league game, Connie Mack said his name was too long for the lineup card and dubbed him Whitey Witt because of his blond hair. He would later anglicize his name to Walter Lawton Witt.
Traded to the Yankees after the 1921 season following a contract dispute with the notoriously tight-fisted Connie Mack, Whitey found himself playing right field in a game with the St. Louis Browns on September 16, 1922. More than 27,000 St. Louis fans jammed Sportsman’s Park to cheer on their home team in a three-game series that could determine which team won the American League pennant. With the grandstand, pavilion and bleachers filled to capacity, extra box seats had been built just for this series and an overflow crowd stood along the foul lines behind ropes.
The Yankees led 2-1 when the Browns came to bat in the ninth inning of the first game of the series. With the heart of the lineup due to appear, the home crowd was described as being “in a fever of expectancy and hope.” Eddie Foster, the Browns’ hard-hitting third baseman, lofted a long fly ball to deep right-center field. “Long Bob” Meusel raced over from right field and Whitey ran from center field.
Whitey, who was wearing sunglasses, suddenly fell to the ground. A heavy glass pop bottle flew through the air, “glinting maliciously in the afternoon sun, and struck Witt on the forehead.” Whitey would later recall, “I was running toward the crowd from which the bottle was thrown when it struck me square in the forehead. It literally knocked me off my feet.” Meusel caught the ball, then ran to his stricken friend. Ballplayers and spectators rushed onto the field. Witt lay unconscious with blood running from his forehead.
Right-center field was a confused scene as Yankees Wally Pipp and Aaron Ward, along with Ken Williams of the Browns and Yankee trainer Doc Woods, carried Whitey to the dugout, the injured man “hanging limply over the arms of those carrying him.” Police sprinted to the scene and attempted to arrest the “rabid rooter” that had thrown the bottle. Some witnesses said an older man had thrown the projectile from the bleachers. Others said it had been a young boy who tossed the bottle before disappearing in the crowd. Still more claimed that a man of about twenty had thrown the glass missile. Mounted police joined the milling throng and finally pushed spectators, now totaling in the hundreds, back behind the rope lines
Yankees catcher Bootnose Hofmann helped carry Whitey down the steps to the bench, followed by Manager Miller Huggins carrying the offending bottle. Huggins turned the evidence over to Umpire Billy Evans, who, in an eerie coincidence, had himself been beaned in that same ball park fifteen years earlier by a bottle thrown on September 15, 1907. When St. Louis fans strenuously objected to a call Evans had made, a frenzied fan threw a full bottle of soda at the umpire, fracturing his skull and sending him to a local hospital. After being arrested, the young man admitted he had thrown the bottle at Evans, but claimed he had done so in a moment of intense excitement. Billy Evans refused to press charges and the boy was later released from custody.
Meanwhile, Doctor Robert Hyland, team doctor for the Browns, examined Whitey Witt and would report, “The blow from the bottle caused a severe contusion and laceration of the forehead and slight concussion of the brain.” After cleaning the wound, Dr. Hyland closed it with two stitches and advised Whitey, who had regained consciousness, to take a few days off. The patient was taken to his room in the Buckingham Hotel, where he would give the following statement:
“I did not know what struck me until after I had been carried into the clubhouse and Miller Huggins showed me a pop bottle he had picked up on the field. I was running after Foster’s fly when Meusel called for the ball. I slackened my pace a trifle, but kept my eyes on the ball to be ready to grab it on the bounce if Meusel missed the catch. All of a sudden there was a blinding flash in front of me, and I fell on the ground.” He concluded by saying, “I’m mighty glad the bottle did not strike me in the eye.”
Philip Ball, owner of the St. Louis Browns, offered a $500 reward for the arrest and conviction of Witt’s assailant. The Pennant Rooters Club kicked in another $50. Sam Breadon, owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, matched Ball’s $500 reward. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, upped the purse by another $1,000, making a total of $2,050.
When Whitey Witt walked up to the plate in Sportsman’s Park to take batting practice the day after his injury, he received a tremendous ovation from the packed stadium as a public apology for the way he had been treated. When Bullet Joe Bush, the leading Yankees pitcher, jogged to the outfield to shag flies, he also brought a roar from the crowd, this time of laughter. Bush appeared decked out in a catcher’s mask, chest protector and shin guards, all worn on the back of his body to protect himself from harm. The crowd greatly appreciated the humorous stunt.
While the St. Louis newspapers were apologetic over the Whitey Witt incident, writers in New York were not so forgiving. The Daily News called the perpetrator a “cowardly hound,” “a wild-eyed St. Louis fan” and a “ruffian.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle claimed “the bottle was heaved by a rabid St. Louis fanatic,” then railed against “the yellow-streaked mongrels who throw missiles at umpires or players in the national game.” It opined that “six months on the rockpile” or “a year or two in the penitentiary” would put a halt to future bottle throwing. The Herald wrote that inside Sportsman’s Park “the St. Louisan sheds all evidences of civilization.” According to one witness, Whitey “stepped on the neck of said bottle and said bottle, favoring the Browns, because it was made in St. Louis, up and flew right into the face of the speedy fielder.” Another columnist noted that every possible scenario had been put forward other than “Witt picked up the bottle and hit himself on the head” in front of 27,000 blind witnesses.
The great “pop bottle mystery” was finally put to rest by Ban Johnson who endorsed the fantastic story that Witt had stepped on a bottle already resting on the ground in such a way as to flip it up into his own forehead. This theory had originally been proposed by James P. Hon, a salesman from Evansville, Indiana who had been at the game. Hon’s magical explanation allowed Ban Johnson to halt any additional investigation into the affair when he accepted this bizarre explanation from the only apparent eyewitness in the entire stadium. Hon received World Series tickets, round trip train fare between St. Louis and New York, where the Yankees and Giants would battle for the world championship, and $100 expense money. As for the St. Louis Browns, the team came in second in the American League, leaving the New York Herald to put an end to the Whitey Witt saga: “In St. Louis, where the infants start life by hurling their nursing bottles at the rest of the family and grow up to be full fledged pop bottle throwers, there is much sorrow over the conclusion of the season.”
As for the innocent victim of this strange pop bottle episode, Whitey retired from the major leagues in 1926 and spent the remainder of his life on a farm near Salem, New Jersey. He started a tavern called Whitey’s Irish Bar, but sold it in 1945. A careful investor, Whitey enjoyed a comfortable life playing golf, gambling under a large tent in his yard, showing mementoes of his days with the Yankees and reminiscing at the American Legion post until his death on July 14, 1988 at the age of ninety-two.