First, Middle Names: David Lamar
Date of Birth: Dec. 24, 1912 Date and Place of Death: Oct. 16, 1971, Orlando, FL
Burial: Lakeland Memorial Park, Monroe, FL
High School: Undetermined
College: Wingate University, Wingate, NC; University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-1, 183
Debut Year: 1939 Final Year: 1939 Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1939
G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR
15 25 7 2 0 0 .280 .280 .320 -0.2
First, it was the Washington Monument. Then, a skyscraper in Cleveland. Pretty soon baseballs were being tossed off tall structures and even out of airplanes and blimps all over the major leagues, and down on the ground players tried to catch them. Some lost teeth or broke noses. One was knocked clean out.
John Lardner, Ring’s son, was a pretty fair sportswriter himself. He once tried to explain what he called “the morbid lure” of this odd pastime that flourished during the early part of the 20th century. He thinks Walter Johnson inadvertently had something to do with it. The great Washington Senators pitcher and Hall of Famer was the hardest thrower anyone had ever seen in that era before radar guns. He was called The Big Train because, after all, locomotives were the fastest things anyone had ever seen. Gabby Street, Johnson’s catcher on the Senators, liked to encourage the legend of Walter’s blinding speed. A ham of the first order, Street often showed newspaper photographers how he shoved a raw steak in his mitt to protect his hand.
“And when fertile minds began to speculate on the possibility of this great catcher holding real, superhuman speed – the speed of gravity – there was the Washington Monument ready at hand,” Lardner wrote.[I]
It didn’t take much to persuade Street in 1908 to try and catch a baseball thrown from atop the 555-foot obelisk. He needed several chances to do it, but he did it. And the stage was set.
Wilbert Robinson, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, agreed during spring training in Florida 1915 to try and catch a ball thrown from a low-flying plane. The pilot, the famous female aviator Ruth Law Oliver, forgot the baseballs on the ground. She tossed out a grapefruit that she had planned to eat for lunch. It fell 525 feet. Uncle Robbie caught it, but it exploded in his mitt, covering him to juice and ooze. Robertson thought it was blood.
“Help. I’m dying. I’m bleeding to death,” the stricken manager yelped.
Legend insists that’s how the Grapefruit League got its name.[II]
Several less impressive stunts were performed over the next few years – balls tossed from bridges and low-flying balloons and such. Then, in 1938, two Cleveland Indian players bested Street. They caught balls that fell more than 700 feet after being thrown from the city’s railroad terminal.
Into this history stepped Dave Coble. He had grown up in a large family down in Monroe in Union County. His father, John, was a railroad engineer. Coble’s childhood history is sketchy, but we know he played baseball at what was then Wingate Junior College, a Baptist school in the North Carolina town of the same name, and then at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Coble played three years of minor-league ball, before being bought by the Philadelphia Phillies in April 1939. It’s impossible to imagine a modern manager saying something like this now, but here’s what Doc Prothro told reporters about his new catcher: “I know Coble is a poor hitter and doesn’t stand much chance against big-league pitching. But he is a good receiver. I don’t mind telling you I am buying him mainly for his hustle.”[III]
Why the 26-year-old rookie was chosen the following month to take part in a publicity stunt is lost to history. The union that represented local white-collar newspaper employees wanted to throw baseballs from the observation deck of the William Penn statue atop City Hall and then auction them off for charity. The woeful Phillies, a team headed for a 106-loss season and desperate for anything to boost fan interest, gladly supplied the players. Coble was to join his manager in the tossing, but his fear of heights assigned him to the ground for the catching.
A crowd estimated to be at least 10,000 people – more than would attend the Phillies game later that day – showed up on May 10 to watch Coble and three other players try to catch baseballs that Prothro dropped 521 feet above the street. He would throw a ball until one was caught. It’s not clear if all the players went for each ball or if they agreed on some order, but there is a goofy newspaper photo of them in uniform wearing leather football helmets and gazing intently into the air, their gloves ready to make the catch.
The players couldn’t actually see the balls when they began their descent. They were notified by shortwave radio when each ball was dropped. Coble caught the first one on a bounce. The wind caught one and pushed it into the crowd, scattering spectators. Another bounced off a concrete traffic island a hundred feet away. Finally, on the ninth try, Coble caught the ball on the fly.[IV]
Physicists from Penn Institute were on hand to calculate the ball’s speed. Some newspapers reported it traveled at 83 miles an hour. The Big Train would yawn. Other reports had the speed at 125 mph. That’s more like it.
Coble told reporters that catching it, no matter how fast it was traveling, felt like “a man jumping into my arms.” All the newspaper stories were in agreement on this point: “So great was the impact that Coble nearly went to his knees.”[V]
Another photo shows Coble triumphantly holding up the captured, speeding spheroid as the crowd cheers.
The beginning of the end of this odd fad came two months later when Joe Sprintz, a player with the San Francisco Seals in the minor leagues, attempted to break the Cleveland record by catching a ball thrown from the Goodyear Blimp floating 800 feet off the ground. He missed and broke his jaw and five teeth. He was also knocked out cold.
As for Coble, that catch at City Hall was the highlight of his major-league career. The Phillies demoted him in August after he appeared in just 15 games. He would serve in world War II and then play or manage in the minors until 1953. He was also a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics.
He was selling real estate in Orlando, Fla., when he died in 1971. His obituary lists no surviving spouse or children and makes no mention of the day he famously caught a bullet falling from the sky.
[I] Lardner, John. “Old Monumental Stunt Becoming Ordinary.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) May 13, 1939.
[II] Clair, Michael. “Grapefruit League Earned Its Name From a Prank.” MLB.com, March 13, 2020. https://www.mlb.com/news/wilbert-robinson-caught-grapefruit-from-a-plane.
[III] Associated Press. “Doc Prothro Buys Catcher for ‘Hustle.’” Knoxville (TN) Journal. 6 April 1939.
[IV] Fitzpatrick, Frank. “Cloudy with a Chance of Baseballs.” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, May 10, 2014.
[V] “Rookie Catches Ball Traveling 125 m.p.h.” San Bernardino (CA) Sun, May 12, 1939.