At 8:35 a.m. Oct. 23, the morning after the Chicago Cubs advanced to the World Series, Jason Cannon received the following text from a childhood friend:
“Orval Overall … look him up and be amazed at where he came from and what he did!”
Cannon, who grew up in Visalia and immersed in baseball, had never heard of Orval Overall. (Nor, I suspect, have many of you reading this.) So he Googled the name. What Cannon found out did amaze him. To the point where the grad student spent the past week researching and absorbing every scrap of knowledge about Overall he could get his mouse on.
Cannon had never heard of Orval Overall. (Nor, I suspect, have many of you reading this.)
Born in Farmersville on Feb. 2, 1881, into a prominent Tulare County family, Overall grew up to a be a two-sport star at Cal (football and baseball) who then went on to a seven-year career in the National League.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander (“He was a huge guy for his era,” Cannon noted) for a five-year stint with the Cubs during one of the great dynasties of baseball’s Deadball Era.
Overall wasn’t some benchwarmer, either. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, in 1908, Overall pitched a three-hitter in the 2-0 clinching Game 5 victory over Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers.
Which means the last time the Cubs won the World Series, two players with deep central San Joaquin Valley ties played instrumental roles.
This opened my eyes to just how far back and just how deep the Valley’s baseball tradition really runs.
Jason Cannon, doctoral student in American history
Besides Overall, whose feats have largely been relegated to the dustbin of history, that Cubs team also featured Fresno’s Frank Chance, the first baseman-manager immortalized in the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” double-play combination described in the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” Chance was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“Isn’t that incredible?” Cannon said. “I knew the Valley had great baseball tradition – I grew up around it – but when you stop and think about the fact that 108 years ago, before Wrigley Field was even built, two Valley kids were part of the nucleus of one of the great ballclubs of that era.”
Cannon definitely grew up around baseball. His father, Jim, pitched on a College of the Sequoias state title runner-up in 1970. He remembers playing pickle ball in the front yard with a 7-year-old Beau Mills. After graduating from Golden West High, he interned for the Visalia Oaks (now Rawhide) and Fresno Grizzlies.
As a doctoral student studying American history, Cannon thought he knew a lot about Valley baseball history.
As a graduate student at Texas Christian University studying for his doctorate in 20th century American history, Cannon thought he knew a lot about Valley baseball history.
But he had never heard of Orval Overall until lifelong friend and fellow Visalia native Scott Casares shot him a text after hearing the name of a familiar town on a Fox postgame show describing the 1908 Cubs roster.
“They dropped ‘Farmersville, California” as (Overall’s) hometown and I was like, ‘Farmersville? No way!’ ” Casares said. “I thought, ‘This is crazy!’ ”
Since Casares sent that initial text, the two friends have been on a nonstop, weeklong research kick.
“It lit a fire to find out as much as we could about him as possible,” Cannon said.
Between the both of us, we’re spurring each other on. ‘This is what I found!’ ‘This is what I found!’ It’s been fun and exciting.
With his access to the TCU main library and its collection of newspaper archives, Cannon went to work reading old articles. He requested (and received) a file on Overall from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He went on eBay and for $50 purchased a 1911 baseball card of Overall’s issued by Piedmont Cigarettes.
“It’s pretty easy to find the statistics,” Cannon said. “Getting to the stories took a little digging around, but when I started digging story after story jumped off the page.”
Cannon found a 1947 Bakersfield Californian article published upon Overall’s death that told a story about Overall pitching a tournament game in Southern California as a teenager. The home-plate umpire? None other than Old West legend Wyatt Earp.
The home-plate umpire? None other than Old West legend Wyatt Earp.
“Wyatt Earp is behind the plate calling balls and strikes, and apparently he’s doing a less-than-stellar job,” Cannon recounted. “The parents were so upset with his strike zone they ended up forcing him out and getting someone else.”
Cannon unearthed another gem, which he read in a 1911 edition of the Chicago Herald-Examiner, that described a camping trip Overall and his wife took with friends (including fellow Cubs pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and his wife) in Yosemite National Park.
The story goes that some in the group were afraid of bears. Overall hatched the idea of pitching the tents in a circle, so those in the middle would be protected, while he slept in the front and “stood” guard. To liven things up, others in the group smeared bacon outside Overall’s tent and even placed a few slices beneath his mattress.
“Apparently in the middle of the night he got woken up by a bear sticking his head in the tent and he grabbed the tent pole from the middle and started swinging, chased him off and then did combat with the bear,” Cannon said.
There’s been some great source material.
Cannon doesn’t know if the tale is factual, or if the author (well-known Chicago scribe Hugh Fullerton) added some of his own embellishments. But it sure makes a great story.
“Whether (Fullerton) wrote it in all seriousness or kind of tongue in cheek, I think it speaks to the epic nature of Overall’s physical presence, his good-naturedness as well as his ability to take on all comers,” Cannon said.
Cannon learned about Overall’s father, Daniel Griffith Overall, who was a prominent rancher in what’s now Lemon Cove and also served as county sheriff. He also learned about Orval’s post-baseball career, which included ranching, mining and banking as an officer at Security First National Bank, as well as his failed run for Congress in 1918.
The 37-year-old plans to keep researching – he still needs to review the Visalia Times archives and others – to eventually put together a biography.
“I want to write about him,” Cannon said. “Orval is the type of guy who deserves a comprehensive biography. It’s Valley history and California history.”
History that’s never been more relevant now with the Cubs back in the World Series.