Hand-crank Twirler: The Byron Houck Story, Pt. 2

COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. - Byron Houck, an unbeatable pitcher in his finer moments, walked almost every batter, until forced to resign at his lowest points with the Philadelphia A’s. Houck was released from the A's in 1914 and refused to report to Baltimore, a minor league club. Babe Ruth, still unknown, had played with the minor league Orioles earlier that year, in his first professional baseball team as a pitcher before signing with Boston.

Houck saw it as a step down. It was either play in the majors or quit baseball. Instead, he negotiated a deal with the newly formed Federal League team, the Brooklyn Tip Tops.

The fired-up pitcher seemed to have nothing to lose when he disclosed how the A’s won the World Series in 1913, after manager Connie Mack tipped off batters to incoming pitches, among other offenses. Houck continued speaking to the Morning Oregonian in Dec. 1914.

In the articles, Houck also revealed that although the emery ball was recently outlawed, that pitchers in the Federal League could still use their fingernails, instead of hidden emery boards in their gloves to scuff the ball, “doctoring” it and causing it to rotate differently. The outlaw league would also allow spitball’s which were also illegal in the majors.

When the season was over, Houck spent the winter in Portland. He was hitting inside the earliest batting cage in downtown Portland, an apparatus that threw nine pitches for 5 cents. Houck also joined the Portland Golf club, but was barred from competition, reasoning that the rule’s stated professionals were not allowed to play in tournaments. In Feb. 1915, Houck traveled on vacation with his wife, Kittye to Haynes Inlet near Coos Bay for ten days to visit with his sister, before heading back into training to a remote part of Brown Wells, Miss.

Houck Not Wanted

By April 2, 1915, the Coos Bay Times reported that Houck had not been asked by his new team’s manager to report for spring training, leaving the pitcher mystified as to what could have happened. He signed a three-year deal, at $3,500 per year with Brooklyn with free agency after two years, but it seemed as though long-term contracts were mere scraps of paper in the Federal League as well, which was quickly falling apart. Houck was dropped by the BrookFeds, and by late April, Houck was demanding they live up to the contract.

To avoid a lawsuit, by November, Houck was the first player to take advantage of the Federals to cancel a long-term contract on a 50% basis, half the money called for and Houck became a free agent.

“Compromise or sue was the way Walter Ward put it to me,” said Houck in a Nov. 5, 1915, interview with the Morning Oregonian, “so of course I had to compromise on the last year's salary. Now I am in bad with organized baseball and in the cold with the Federal League. There is no place for me to play ball unless I can get on with some other Federal club, so I guess my baseball days are over.”

It was Houck’s second time quitting baseball. And an unfortunate stroke of luck for the Houck family when his wife was badly hurt in what Houck described as a “railroad wreck” in Utah around that time. Ms. Houck collected $75 for her injuries, though the extent of the injuries were not known.

After the articles were released in the Morning Oregonian, it seems as though Houck’s career was purposely sabotaged by the team's leadership by purposely benching him and then, sending him to a Colonial circuit “farm league” in New England where Houck believed he pitched very well with a healthier arm, though he expressed enthusiasm for a different occupation all together.

“Players have been making big money the last couple of years, but I don’t think they will make this hay very much longer, so I am reconciled to quitting the diamond. Give me some good job outside the game and I will be happy.” Houck admitted.

Houck returned to baseball, this time on the roster for the Pacific Coast League team, the Portland Beavers in March 1916. With a sore arm, he was out the first three weeks of spring training. In April, “the broken arm pitcher” returned, suffering from bouts of wildness, but showed good form half the time, including games against the Vernon Tigers in May that year; a team Houck would later join.

Byron could still throw spitballs in the Pacific Coast League, so Houck signed with the Beaver’s again in 1917, and reported to Honolulu with a ukulele, singing a hula. At the same time, his wife, Kittye was praised for her singing in a quartet for the Ad Club of Portland meeting, at an event that included a motion picture screening.

Vaudeville In-Law’s

Kittye Houck Isaacs Barnard was sister of Sophye Barnard Anger, a vaudeville star who with her husband, Louis Anger became a popular musical comedy duo. In Dec. 1917, Sophye was headlining with “Poor Butterfly” at the fabled New York Hippodrome, while her husband Lou was thrust into the business end of entertainment by producer Joseph Schenck, and then, managed the careers of vaudeville and film stars Al St. John and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton.

Anger famously poached Arbuckle from a movie set in New Jersey in 1916, to come to work for Schenck for $5000 per week, plus 20% of the film's profits, and a silver Rolls Royce to sweeten the deal. Arbuckle became the highest paid comedian in the world, and in the newly emerging film industry, he formed Comique Film Corporation. Anger convinced his friend in vaudeville, Buster Keaton, to come to one of Arbuckle’s movie sets.

On his arrival, Arbuckle put Keaton in a scene and was immediately offered $40 a week to work for the corporation, Anger serving as manager for both Keaton and Arbuckle at 20% commission, when most agents made 10%. Keaton would go on to become a fast-rising star under Arbuckle’s direction in 1917.

In a League of His Own

After Houck’s stint with the Beavers, he was reluctantly drafted to the St. Louis Browns of the major leagues. He would be back in the majors, but the amount offered was not much more than that of Portland, and a monthly wage offered rather than a lump sum for the season. It was at first refused by Houck, but the contract was signed a month later with an order for Houck to report to Shreveport, La. for training.

In Houck’s final year in the majors, he saw an opportunity to pitch against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics on July 11, 1918. In his return to Shibe Park, Houck gave up three runs to the Mackmen in the first inning, and later took the loss against the A’s, defeated 8-5, all due to his wildness.

Houck also faced the Boston Red Sox in August, during Babe Ruth’s penultimate year. Ruth played left field, first base, and pitched in one of four games that season, missing the only game Houck pitched in relief, giving up one hit at Fenway Park.

While Houck was hardly given an opportunity to pitch for the Browns in the majors, he was still scouted for a high paying job at a shipping yard with the Willamette Columbian Shipbuilders League. Houck used the offer in a plea with St. Louis Browns management, urging them to put him in more games or he’ll go to shipyard. Houck waited for a response from the Browns and missed his initial window for admission in the Shipbuilders League, but the League made an exception by Sept. 1918 and signed Houck to the Tacoma Foundation Co.

Tiger Lore

Lore for Houck’s career began to drastically change in 1919, when in February, it was announced that the St. Louis Browns sold Houck to the Vernon Tigers, near Los Angeles. Houck pitched several good games for the Browns and after the season closed in September, went to the shipyards in Washington, staying near the coast because he could make more money.

As fate would have it, Louis Anger, Houck’s brother-in-law, convinced Fatty Arbuckle to purchase the Vernon Tigers in a deal that closed in May 1919. Arbuckle assumed controlling ownership and presidency of the club, with Anger as co-owner and a board director. Anger was a Svengali for Arbuckle, advising him on every single business investment and decision made.

With the Vernon Tigers, Anger saw an opportunity to take the baseball club to new heights, drawing in spectacular crowds to the small, industrial town with Hollywood stars and champion prized fighters. The City of Vernon located an hour from Hollywood grew to infamy by being home to Doyle’s Bar, where it was known as the “world’s longest bar” with a 100 ft. long bar, 37 cash registers, and as many bartenders. Holes were drilled in the ceiling where security could watch rowdy patrons.

The City of Vernon, population 400, was one of two “wet” towns in Southern California in 1919, the other being Venice, where the Tigers also previously played. As waves of prohibition closed bars throughout the country, Doyle’s was one of the last places in the region where you can watch a prize fight and visit the bar between rounds.

It's also not a coincidence that the founders of the town built a baseball stadium right next to Doyle's bar; it was common for players to go for a drink between innings. As Arbuckle took on ownership of the team, entertainment on the field ensued with Keaton’s hijinks that drew in thousands in attendance to the small town. Keaton was a well-known baseball fan, routinely playing games on nearby fields with cast and crew between filming.

“As far back as I can remember, baseball has been my favorite sport. I started playing the game as soon as I was old enough to handle a glove. A sand lot where baseball was being played was the first thing I looked for whenever The Three Keaton’s played a new town.” Buster is quoted saying in his autobiography.

The Vernon Tigers was a wild team indeed, as noted in a legendary, minor league championship game on Oct. 11, 1919, with a hot spitball, Houck struck out seven batters in three innings. Umpire Towman examined the ball and threw it out, irritating Houck and the Tigers staff. But a riot ensued when the umpire called a runner out at first in the sixth inning, when the managers and players swarmed the field, and began hammering on the umpire.

Police stepped in to separate the crowds. The game was delayed for over 15 minutes, but it continued, with the Tigers eventually winning the game in front of a capacity crowd of 7,000 people. The Tigers would take the series and later, the championship pennant. Houck went on to win the game 2-1.

The Vernon Tigers was only a temporary investment for Arbuckle, the movie star quickly sold his interest in the rowdy team after the season.

Houck Cranks Camera

It was in December 1919 that Houck announced again that he may quit the national pastime, this time, he had lined up for himself a job as a cameraman at one of the moving picture studios in Los Angeles. Houck spent the winter in Hollywood with his wife Kittye, who under Anger’s management and likely Arbuckle and Keaton’s direction, spent the winter learning to operate a studio camera.

In March 1920, Houck notified the Tigers that he would like to continue turning the motion picture camera crank and announced his retirement from baseball. But in late April, Houck changed his mind again, this time giving a leave of absence from the motion picture business to rejoin the Tigers.

Surprising allegations hit national headlines in Oct. 1920, where subpoenas were issued to management and players of the Vernon Tigers, including Houck, to testify in a coastal scandal. Babe Borton, former first baseman for the team, was charged with attempting to buy games by bribing a player $1700, around $30k today, to throw games, but Borton admitted that he had only offered $500.

Barton also charged that this was the reason which allowed Vernon to win the pennant in 1919, alleging that the team had slush fund, which came from “sure thing gamblers”. Borton insisted the fund was raised by Vernon players, including Houck, who appeared as a witness in the case.

Difficult to ignore, is the fact that the Chicago White Sox were also implicated in a controversy involving game-fixing, in which eight players were indicted of throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in return for cash from a gambling ring run by Arnold Rothstein. It was famously known as the Black Sox Scandal.

It was another low moment in Byron’s career, he would resurface in January 1921, resigning from baseball again. Reiterating his retirement in April 1921 to operate a movie camera, only to change his mind again and rejoin both the Vernon Tigers the following year in May 1922 and the Beavers in July.

Houck in Hollywood

Shortly after joining the Beavers in Portland, Houck received a telegram from his wife, who was still living in Hollywood. He departed back to Los Angeles. In August, he announced his retirement from making films to stay with the Tigers in Vernon. And after a battle with encephalitis, Byron’s wife, Kittye passed away in March 1923.

It was a difficult loss for Houck, who dropped out of the public eye for almost a year, until a production credit in a movie suddenly surfaced for the twirler. In theaters across America, Houck was billed as cameraman for Sherlock Jr., released in May 1924. The early Buster Keaton feature would be regarded as a pioneering film for special effects camera tricks.

Keaton later said, "every cameraman in the business went to see that picture more than once trying to figure out how the hell we did some of that." Keaton hired Houck as camera operator for the innovative movie, recognizing that the former pitcher gathered enough experience with the motion picture camera to task him as photographer for the feature. In 2005, Time magazine listed Sherlock Jr. as one of the All-Time 100 Movies.

Houck would go on to help Keaton film and photograph his next two feature films, The Navigator and Seven Chances in 1924, then joined Fatty Arbuckle’s productions company to photograph a few short films after Arbuckle’s notorious scandal in 1925.

Byron then rejoined Buster’s crew in 1926 as Keaton was gearing up to shoot a civil war comedy that brought him and his entire film crew, including Houck, to the little town of Cottage Grove in Oregon, near the University, where Houck once pitched. It would prove to be a good stand-in for the story set in Marietta, Ga. and Kelley Field, a good place to play baseball during the film's down time.

The Twirler and The General

In the third and final part of The Byron Houck Story, we’ll look back at his time in Cottage Grove working with Keaton’s crew during the making of The General. We’ll also see where Houck disappeared for several years, essentially ghosting the movie industry before his return to Cottage Grove in 1950, and his involvement in construction at the WOE Exposition.

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