In 1923, after watching a rookie infielder seize everything catchable on the left side of the diamond, the late Clark Griffith exclaimed, "Well, we won't have to worry about third base on this team for the next 10 years."
Griffith was wrong, by a good measure. Ossie Bluege was on the job for the Senators for the next 17 years, giving them such wizardry at third base that for most of his career there was doubt that he had an equal in either major league.
Ossie died Monday at his home in Edina, Minn. He was only days shy of his 85th birthday, lately a frail fellow sometimes confined to a wheelchair. Death was due to a stroke. It had to be something sneaky, or Ossie would have gloved it and thrown it out.
The Senators never won a pennant without Bluege holding down third base for them. Those were the glory days in baseball in Washington, 1924 and '25 and 1933, with Ossie the last surviving link to all three of those pennants. Gone, too, are his buddies, Bucky Harris, Walter Johnson, Joe Judge, Roger Peckinpaugh, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Muddy Ruel, and the boys of '33, Joe Cronin, Earl Whitehill, Heinie Manush, Joe Kuhel and Buddy Myer.
Unequaled since in any civic demonstration was Washington's outpouring of affection for those 1924 Senators who beat John McGraw's New York Giants in the World Series. A hundred thousand lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the victory parade, the enthusiasm best exemplified by the float from the Cherrydale (Va.) Fire Department flaunting its banner that read: "Let Cherrydale Burn."
Bluege was the quiet man in the Senators' famous Peck-to-Harris-to-Judge infield that in 1924 set double play records. Starting many of them was Bluege, but he suffered the same obscurity as the forgotten third baseman (Harry Steinfeldt) in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance ballads. Seemingly, third basemen don't fit into baseball verses.
But from the men who played the game with him or against him there was no lack of tributes to Bluege for his skills at pouncing on scorching ground balls, or teasing bunts, or streaking line drives.
When the nation was admiring the third base artistry of Brooks Robinson of the Orioles in the 1970 World Series and acclaiming him the finest glove man of his time, American League President Joe Cronin joined in the applause. After one of Robinson's wizard jobs, Cronin would say in admiration, "That's another Ossie Bluege play."
Playing third base was Bluege's passion, and according to Harris, "he was the only player I ever knew who skipped batting practice to stay out there and work with his glove. We had to order him to take his turns at bat."
In 1931, when the White Sox visited Griffith Stadium, their rookie third baseman, Billy Sullivan, was late for a clubhouse meeting. They found him on the dugout steps intent on studying Bluege taking infield practice. Sullivan explained, "I've been out here watching that cat play third base."
Bluege originally reported to the Senators in 1922 as a shortstop from Peoria in the Three-Eye League, and occasionally he played short as well for the Senators. This once led catcher Luke Sewell to point to Bluege and remark: "There are the best two infielders I ever saw. I'd pay my way into the park to see him play."
Bluege once explained why he played the most shallow third base in the American League. "The territory the third baseman must cover is shaped like a cone that gets wider the farther the distance from the plate. If you've got the reflexes, you can play in close and steal a lot of hits away from those guys."
He prided himself on his reflexes. As manager of the Senators after his playing days, he had surprisingly little sympathy with an infielder who was hit on the mouth by a bad hop. "It shouldn't happen," he said. "Never got hit in the face by a bad bounce. In 17 years I never did. Okay, I got hit in the side of the head. Both sides. But never in the face. You can always turn your head in time. Try it and see what quick action you get."
On the Senators, Bluege was content to let his managers, Harris and Cronin, do the screaming at the umpires. He had a reputation as the quiet third baseman, who had never been thrown out of a game.
But he fell from grace on that score in his first season as manager of the Senators. He got the thumb in a confrontation with umpire Ed Rommel at Boston's Fenway Park.
What choice profanity had Bluege used that got him thrown out? What had he called Rommel? "I didn't call him any names," Bluege said. "I only told him 'What Bucky Harris called you last year goes for me, too.' "
It was a sadness for Bluege in his late years that "third basemen who couldn't carry my glove" were put in the Hall of Fame. He named a couple. Nothing personal, he said, but he also said they ought to take a look at his record and ask some people who saw him play. It is a fair request.