The Rise and Fall of the Nine Stooges

This is a story about caring. About living and dying with a group of players you’ve seen grow into a seemingly unstoppable force before they fall and smash like expensive china. This is the story of the Nine Stooges, of the 1934 Freaks League Coolidge Division, who recently pulled off the most incomprehensible swan dive out of contention that I’ve ever witnessed.

I’ve been an avid Strat-O-Matic Baseball gamer since ’64, just four years after Hal Richman invented the wonderful strategic tabletop pastime. Since then I’ve replayed countless full seasons, turning five of those projects into online blogs and subsequently into published books. Three years ago I launched the Freaks Leagues, full-season operations using past seasons in which I act as commissioner and enlist 12-14 “absentee managers” to take part in a 28-player draft and provide me with rotations and lineups. From there I roll all 162 games for each team—give or take a few “live” series—and report the daily action and update the scoreboard on our Facebook group page. These leagues are marvelous fun, allow me to keep my fictional writing sharp, and serve as a vibrant and frequently hilarious social media community.

The first Freaks League was 1973, followed by 1961 and, this year, 1934. Sports sim game blogger Paul Dylan took the ’73 championship with his One-for-Five Dotcoms. Mike Lynch, founder of Seamheads.com, won ’61 with the Wanderers, featuring both Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. With 1934, LA artist Greg Jezewski and co-manager Donald Gordon landed the top pick for their Nine Stooges team and wisely drafted ‘34 Triple Crown winner Lou Gehrig. After a cold opening month, the Stooges went on a tear, vaulting past the Top Deck Steinbecks, Tokyo Barnstormers, and Jack Benny Bengoughs into first place in the Coolidge Division.

For the next three months, the Stooges were practically unbeatable and seemed destined to face the Hoover Division’s Robert Johnsons in the best-of-nine ’34 World Series. On July 28, they led the Coolidge by a whopping 11.5 games. Ollie Bejma and Lonny Frey, parked atop their lineup to get on base for the bigger guns below, were doing just that. The Stooges were piling up six to seven runs a game without even trying. Here’s the lineup vs. righties they fielded practically all season:

  1. Ollie Bejma 2B
  2. Lonny Frey SS
  3. Jo-Jo Moore LF
  4. Lou Gehrig 1B
  5. Bill Dickey C
  6. John Stone CF
  7. George Selkirk RF
  8. Pepper Martin 3B

Gehrig had become a madman, winning game after game with late home runs. Stone, Selkirk, and Martin were clutch monsters at the bottom of the order. Their pitching rotation of Hal Schumacher, Curt Davis, Larry French, Rube Walberg, and Huck Betts wasn’t exactly lights-out, but it was effective enough to support the Stooges’ frightening offense. All seemed perfect with the “Nyuckleheads,” and Stooge Nation was pre-ordering World Series tickets….

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I was pretty young when the 1964 Phillies crashed and burned, but the memory of it burned into my little brain like a spider bite. There was precious little baseball analysis at the time, so most press coverage of the disaster revolved around the suffering Phillies fans rather than their skipper’s questionable pitching management. Gene Mauch’s control-freak nature and self-destructive “little ball” tendencies later enabled him to choke away two playoffs in his managerial stint with the Angels but losing ten straight games in the final week of ’64 was the debacle that stuck in people’s craw.

In 1978, I watched my Red Sox toss away a 14-game AL East lead over the Yanks after early August. The Bucky-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named one-game playoff is still the most devastating event of my baseball life, but at least that Boston team won every game in the season’s final week to force that dramatic playoff. Eight Octobers later, I had gone camping when a ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, so I never experienced that trauma firsthand. And when the 2011 Red Sox flushed a big August lead down the late September toilet, I was exasperated but, because the club had won two championships in the previous seven years, not even close to suicidal.

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These train wrecks were mere warm-up acts to what I just experienced with the 1934 Nine Stooges. The Freaks League is a fantasy creation, but when you invest your time, energy, and, in my case, creativity in a long fiction, you can’t help feeling part of it. (If you need concrete evidence of this phenomenon, I have just the right video for you.)

Throwing the Strat-O dice for 98 percent of the Stooges’ season, I felt quietly elated when they began winning nearly every day, as if it were my rolling and not the team’s quality that was responsible. As the Freaks League commissioner, I field no team of my own and am obliged to be completely impartial, yet it was impossible not to get taken in by the Stooges juggernaut. And when the games through August 18, 1934, showed them still comfortably in first place, there was no way to foresee what was about to happen.

From that date until the final day of the season, October 2, the Stooges went 11-40, including a ghastly 6-23 September. Their collapse was so drawn out that no one took it seriously until it was too late and was so severe that all five other Coolidge Division teams were able to re-join the pennant race. In the end, with the looming possibility of a three-way tie (also much like real 1964), the Fleet Dust Runners swept the Stooges in three lifeless games, enabling the Steinbecks and the Barnstormers to finish in a tie and go on to a best-of-seven playoff series.

Afterward I messaged Stooges management to process what had just happened. None of us had a clear answer. Sure, the team’s pitching staff ERA was fourth-worst in the league at 4.78, but team OPS and the 924 runs scored were third in the league, and Gehrig, who hit .357, with 54 home runs and 187 RBI, was a major MVP candidate. Were the real Stooges the scary-good team playing .700 ball for most of the year or the luckless, underachieving mess that took the field in April and September? They had their share of injuries, but no more than anyone else, and their lineups against lefties and righties remained largely intact.

But there were other things. Southpaw starters French and Walberg were getting lit up every time they took the mound. Unable to hit a lick in April, Gehrig had reverted to a “Cinderella” pumpkin in September.

During the team’s long hot spell, I and other league members took delight in raiding image archives, YouTube, and GIF banks for great comical Three Stooges material to post on the league page. Here was a drafted team that had an instant identity due to their real comedy fame, and it was easy to feel we knew them. While I prefer a four-team pig-pile of a pennant race, the Stooges’ inexplicable ineptitude seemed like a surreal blip likely to vanish in the final weeks. It never did, and now, in the midst of our World Series (between the Robert Johnsons of Cochrane, Gehringer, Simmons, and Hornsby, and the Top Deck Steinbecks of Frankie Frisch and Carl Hubbell), I find myself oddly depressed about the Stooges’ fate, almost as if I had been sitting in their imaginary dugout with them.

Lists of the best baseball movies of all time don’t usually include Fever Pitch, but I identified with that film instantly. That’s not because it was about the Red Sox, my real team of choice, but because it perfectly captured the obsessive nature of serious fan loyalty. Here’s an exchange in which the romantic leads, Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, discuss a possible getaway trip to Paris:

BARRYMORE: “But no, you don’t see us tangled up in the sheets with the Eiffel Tower in the window. You see the Mariners are coming and Pedro’s pitching Friday night.”

FALLON: “Saturday. Schilling’s on Friday.”

That kind of obsession can apply to any team, restaurant dish, book, TV show, or person you deeply care about. If it happens to be an assemblage of 28 players on a Strat-O-Matic club drafted more than seven months ago by people who aren’t even you, what the hell is the difference? Whether it’s fictional or not, triumph that suddenly turns into tragedy can be an all-consuming, devastating thing.

In this case, the “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” was on me.

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Jeff Polman lives in Los Angeles, writes about baseball and culture, and has had four historical baseball novels published. You should follow him on Twitter.

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