Chet Hoff spent most of the ’90s as the oldest living ex-major leaguer. He’d been born on May 8, 1891, and caught on with the New York Highlanders (not yet known as the Yankees) in 1911, when the team played on Hilltop Park in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. He played with the Highlanders for just three seasons, and then played for the Browns in 1915, but in the ’90s he considered himself a Yankee still.
In 1911, Hoff started pitching for his hometown team Ossining: he beat Croton and Tarrytown. Then, Hoff explained: “The day after that, a friend of the family, a Wall Street broker (Al Buckhout) who was friends with Mr. Hal Chase, went and told him he had a young ball player up in Ossining and wondered if he could get a tryout. So I went down and tried out.”
After the tryout Chase said, “See that locker over there? There’s a uniform and that’s for you. Come out with our regular players today.”
In 1991, after he’d turned 100 and appeared as one of Willard Scott’s centenarians on the Today show, a local newspaper in Florida tracked him down and told the story of Hoff’s debut:
The cool winds of autumn were just beginning to stir up the infield dirt at New York’s Hilltop Park, but Highlanders ace Russ Ford already had been blown away for nine runs by the Detroit Tigers.
“Hey, rookie,” Highlanders manager Hal Chase said, beckoning down the bench toward young Chet Hoff. “Go out there and tell Russ to come sit down. You’re taking over.”
Hoff, who had joined the 1911 American League squad a few days earlier and had yet to appear in a game, shot off the bench like a firecracker. Although his team trailed 9-3, Hoff strode proudly to the mound and dug his spiked shoe into the soft clay, watching as a big left-hander settled into the batter’s box.
“I pitched him a couple of fast ones inside, and he fouled them off,” recalls Hoff, now 100 and the oldest living former major-leaguer. “The third ball, the catcher gave me a sign for a pitchout, just outside the plate to see if he’d go after it. But he didn’t fall for it.
“He didn’t see the curveball yet, and the catcher called for the curve. And I throwed him the fastest curveball he’d ever seen. He didn’t even get the bat off his shoulder. The umpire yelled, ‘Strike three, you’re out!'”
The victim? Ty Cobb, who finished that season leading the league in batting (.420), RBIs (144) and stolen bases (83).
“I didn’t know who he was,” Hoff said. “The next morning, the newspaper had a headline on the front that said, ‘Hoff strikes out Ty Cobb.’ I almost passed out.”
Hoff added: “They hated him because he was a good player and a rough player. But when he got out of a baseball uniform and come home to dinner, he was the greatest fellow you ever wanted to talk with.”
And he said this about Cobb going into the stands after a man in a wheelchair one day: “Detroit was in town, and I was on the bench, and some fans up in the stands were getting on Cobb, and he couldn’t take it any more. Well, Cobb went up in the stands and beat a guy up. He did his duty and came right back.”
Hoff wound up his major league career by getting Shoeless Joe Jackson on a grounder to second. Then he played semi-pro ball, worked for Rand McNally in Ossining, N.Y., and moved to Ormond-by-the-Sea, in Florida, in the mid-’50s.
In the ’90s, he complained about modern salaries: “The salaries these guys get today are outrageous. When I was pitching, you had to go nine innings a game or you couldn’t hold a job. You were gone. The best I ever got was $450 a month. It was good pay in those days. That was better than working for a living and getting $20 or $25 a week.
“I don’t blame the players for making the money they do, although I think a million dollars a year is more than any player is worth. But if the owners are dumb enough to pay it, why not take it.”
More to the point, he said, “Once a Yankee, always a Yankee,” but added that “the Yankees need some help.” This was in 1991, with the Yankees sinking down toward the bottom of the A.L. East.