Youngs, Ross Middlebrook [Pep] (1897–1927)


By: Frank Jackson

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 2022

Updated: May 1, 2022


Ross Middlebrook “Pep” Youngs, professional baseball player, was born on April 10, 1897, in Shiner, Texas, to Stonewall Jackson “Jack” Youngs and Henrie (Middlebrook) Youngs. (Some sources have erroneously given his name as Royce.) His father, who worked for the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad, managed a local baseball team in 1903 and 1904. After his leg was crushed in a work-related accident, he was forced to seek other employment, so he and his wife Henrie ran a hotel near the Shiner railroad station. When Ross was ten years old, his parents moved to San Antonio to operate a boarding house. In addition, his father maintained a modest herd of cattle outside of town. He was listed as a cotton buyer on the 1910 census. At some point, he left the family, leaving Henrie Youngs to support Ross and his two brothers, Arthur and Jack, Jr.

Ross Youngs, though small in stature (he eventually topped out at 5’8”), was a gifted athlete. He ran track and played baseball, basketball, and football (and later excelled at golf) at various San Antonio schools, most notably at the West Texas Military Academy (later named Texas Military Institute).

Perhaps just as important in his athletic development was his part-time job at Block Stadium. The local baseball park, which opened in 1913, hosted the Philadelphia A’s that year for spring training and then became the home of the Texas League Bronchos. Located on the southern fringe of downtown, the stadium was named after cigar store owner Morris Block, who had owned the team since 1905. During Block Stadium’s inaugural season, Youngs began hawking concessions there and became acquainted with manager George Stinson and the players. At age sixteen, Youngs was allowed to participate in infield drills, pitch batting practice, and shag flies with the team. In a meaningless game late in the season (August 26, 1913), Stinson inserted Youngs as a second baseman into the lineup. The 2–0 loss to the Galveston Pirates was an inauspicious debut (he had no hits in three at bats with two strikeouts), but his fielding was good enough to inspire a write-up in the San Antonio Express. It also marked the first time in his professional career when he was shortchanged on his last name, having been identified not as Ross Youngs but as Ross Young.   

In 1914 Youngs returned to his duties at Block Stadium, but before the season was over he found himself a member of the rival Austin Senators. The Senators, were managed by Walter Frantz, a former Broncho, who had been impressed by young Youngs. The Senators, a woeful team, finished the season at 31–114 and endured a thirty-two-game losing streak. Youngs played twelve games at second base and shortstop and hit a mere .145 batting average (8 hits in 55 at bats), but considering his youth (he was seventeen) and the fact that the Texas League was one of the better minor leagues, it was not a bad showing.    

In 1915 Youngs continued his professional baseball career in the small town of Bartlett, Texas. The Bearcats were a member of the Middle Texas League, which had been founded the season before. As a Class D circuit, it was the lowest level in professional baseball.  The precarious financial position of the league was obvious; it folded during the 1915 season. Nevertheless, Youngs was able to compile some respectable statistics (a .264 batting average with twenty-five stolen bases), which attracted the attention of the Waxahachie Athletics of the Class D Central Texas League. Here Youngs kept up the good work (.274 with sixteen stolen bases) until that league also collapsed. 

Since the 1915 season was still in progress elsewhere in Texas, Youngs migrated to Lufkin to play for that town’s team in the semi-pro East Texas League. During his brief sojourn there, he attracted the attention of Roy Aiken and Walter Salem, who scouted for the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League. He was offered a contract and would have finished the season in Houston, if not for a hurricane that destroyed the Buffs’ home park. Remarkably, Youngs’s peripatetic professional baseball summer occurred between his junior and senior years at the West Texas Military Academy.

During his senior year at the Academy, he starred on the gridiron, but even though a number of colleges were interested in recruiting him for football, he returned to Class D baseball in Texas in 1916, this time with the Sherman Lions of the Western Association, where he was reunited with Walter Frantz, his manager at Austin. Youngs came into his own, as he won the league batting title with a .362 average while leading the league in hits (195) and runs scored (103). Frantz wrote to John McGraw, longtime (1902–32) manager of the New York Giants, who sent his scout, Dick Kinsella, to get a closer look. The scout seconded Frantz’s praise, and McGraw acquired the rights to Youngs for $2,000.

Youngs, only nineteen year old when he reported to the Giants’ spring training facility at Marlin, Texas, in 1917, made an immediate impression on McGraw, who dubbed him “Pep” for his hustle. Even so, McGraw felt that Youngs needed a bit more seasoning, so he sent him to the Rochester (New York) Hustlers of the International League, a circuit just one step away from the major leagues. The assignment was not only a jump in class, it was also the first time Youngs had played for a team not located in Texas. He did not disappoint with a .356 batting average.  Hustlers manager Mickey Doolan had groomed him to play outfield because McGraw thought Youngs was better suited to be a “suburbanite” (as some sportswriters referred to outfielders) than an infielder. 

Youngs made his major league debut with the New York Giants on September 25, 1917, in a 5–3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was not a memorable debut, as he went 0 for 4 in the leadoff position. The next game resulted in another 0 for 4 performance. After a couple of off days, he finally picked up his first two hits, including his first triple, in a 4–2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Having broken the ice, he went on to hit .346 (9 for 26) in his “audition” with the Giants. Youngs played primarily centerfield during his brief (seven games during the Giants’ final road trip of the season) tour of duty in 1917, but in 1918 he was shifted to right field, where he spent the rest of his major league career, aside from an occasional appearance at second base. 

Though he had only turned twenty-one just days before the opening of the 1918 season, Youngs was ready for the big time. Playing at New York’s Polo Grounds, in full-time duty in his official rookie year, he hit .302 (143 for 474, including a league-best twenty-three-game hitting streak). The only flaw in his season was leading the league in strikeouts (his total of forty-nine, however, would qualify him as a contact hitter a century later). His 1918 season was the first of seven consecutive .300+ seasons. In 1919 he improved to .311 (formerly a switch-hitter, he was convinced by manager McGraw to bat left-handed exclusively to capitalize on his speed) and led the league in doubles with thirty-one. That year he led National League outfielders in assists, with twenty-three. He tied for the lead (with the Cardinals’ Cliff Heathcote) in 1920 with twenty-six. From 1920 through 1923 the Giants held spring training in San Antonio, which was still his off-season home. In 1920 Youngs had one of his best seasons and boosted his batting average to .351 with a career-best 204 hits. The following year, he managed to drive in 102 runs, his career best in that regard, despite hitting only three home runs. 

Unlike some baseball stars, Youngs was just as impressive during the post-season as he was in the regular season. He had ample opportunity to shine in October, as the Giants won National League pennants from 1921 through 1924. The first three World Series, all against the Yankees, were the first all-New York match-ups. They were not the first all-city series (that distinction belonged to the Chicago White Sox and Cubs in 1906), but the 1921 and 1922 match-ups, which the Giants won, were the first to be played at one ballpark, as the Yankees were tenants of the Giants at the Polo Grounds. The Yankees, who had played second fiddle to the Giants, started to turn the tables on the Giants after acquiring Babe Ruth before the 1920 season.

Youngs, having played on four consecutive pennant-winners, had his salary boosted to $13,750 per season. A strep throat infection kept him sidelined for three weeks in 1924, but neither the disease nor the layoff appeared to affect his performance. His batting average peaked at .356 in 1924 when he was twenty-seven years old. The first indication of any problem was his performance in the World Series when he hit just .185 (5 for 27) against the Washington Senators after hitting a composite .328 in the 1921–23 contests against the Yankees.

On October 11, 1924, the day after the Giants lost the series to the Senators, Youngs married Dorothy Pienecke of Brooklyn. Their “honeymoon” consisted of a European goodwill tour with the Giants and Chicago White Sox. The tour was cut short and so was the honeymoon, as the marriage was troubled from the start. 

The 1925 season was the only one in which Youngs failed to hit .300. Suffering from stomach issues and fatigue all season, he hit a mere .264. He somehow rallied (perhaps with the help of a full-time male nurse hired by McGraw) to hit .306 in 1926. Nevertheless, the Giants slipped to fifth place with a record of 74–77. It was the team’s only losing season during Youngs’s tenure. He was not around at the conclusion of the team’s disappointing season, as his legs swelled up in August. He played his final game on August 10, 1926. The 2–0 victory over the Chicago Cubs was a blah finale, as he went 0 for 3 with a sacrifice bunt. Whether he realized it or not, at age twenty-nine his career was over. Pep Youngs finished with a .322 career average (1,491 hits in 4,627 at bats). He left a legacy of sorts by tutoring seventeen-year-old Mel Ott in the nuances of playing right field in the Polo Grounds. Ott went on to play twenty-two seasons for the Giants and retired as the career National League home run leader with 511 and enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

After spending a good deal of the off-season at Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in San Antonio, Youngs missed 1927 spring training and remained home during the regular season. He returned to the hospital in early October. He was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, or what today might be called chronic nephritis or kidney inflammation. Doctors speculated that the strep throat infection that bothered him during the 1924 season had migrated to his kidneys. Youngs died on October 22, 1927, in San Antonio and was buried there in Mission Burial Park South. At the time of his death he was separated from his wife. Reportedly, he never met his daughter Caroline, who was born in December 1925. Curiously, Youngs was something of a soft touch, as various debtors owed him a total of $16,000 at the time of his death; the family never collected.   

A few weeks prior to Youngs’s death, the major league home run record of 60 in one season was set by Babe Ruth. McGraw had once said he would not have traded Ross Youngs even-up for the Babe. Though McGraw was sparing in praise for his players, that was not the case when it came to Youngs, of whom he said, “The game was never over with Youngs until the last man was out. He could do everything a ball player should do and do it better than most players. As an outfielder he had no superiors, and he was the easiest man to handle I ever knew. In all his years with the Giants, he never caused one minutes’ trouble for myself or the club. On top of all this, a gamer ballplayer than Youngs never played ball.”

Though he had managed many outstanding players, McGraw had pictures of only two on his office wall. One was Christy Mathewson (who had also died prematurely, two years before Youngs), the other was Ross Youngs. When McGraw retired, he took the pictures home with him.

In 1928 a plaque honoring Youngs was installed at the Polo Grounds. The inscription, authored by New York sportswriter John Kieran, stated: “A brave untrammeled spirit of the diamond, who brought glory to himself and his team by his strong, aggressive, courageous play.  He won the admiration of the nation’s fans, the love and esteem of his friends and teammates, and the respect of his opponents.  He played the game.” The plaque disappeared after the Giants moved to San Francisco following the 1957 season and has never turned up.

Though Youngs was one of baseball’s best in his day, his short career worked against him when it came to posthumous honors. When he died in 1927, there was no Baseball Hall of Fame, and even after it opened its doors in 1939 he took a back seat to players with longer careers. He was finally inducted in 1972. Since the rules specified a player must have a minimum of ten seasons, Youngs just made it under the wire. Without the seven games he played in 1917 at age twenty, he would not have qualified, no matter how illustrious his statistics during his nine full seasons. He was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

Paul Adomites, David Nemec, Matthew D. Greenberger, Dan Schlossberg, Dick Johnson, Mike Tully, Peter Palmer, Stuart Shea, Hall of Fame Players: Cooperstown (Lincolnwood, Illinois: Publications International, Ltd., 2007). Charles C. Alexander, John McGraw (New York: Viking, 1988). Baseball Reference.com: Ross Youngs (https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/youngro01.shtml), accessed April 28, 2022. Frank Graham, The New York Giants: An Informal History of a Great Baseball Club (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002). Frank Jackson, “Crossing Red River: Spring Training in Texas,” The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History 26 (2006). David King, Ross Youngs: In Search of a San Antonio Legend (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2013). David King, San Antonio at Bat: Professional Baseball in the Alamo City (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). National Baseball Hall of Fame: Ross Youngs (https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/youngs-ross), accessed April 28, 2022. C. Paul Rogers III, “Ross Youngs,” Society for American Baseball Research (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ross-youngs/#_edn53), accessed April 28, 2022. San Antonio Express, July 20, 1919; April 10, 1930. San Antonio Light, March 9, 1927; October 26, 1927.

Categories:
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Baseball)
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Frank Jackson, “Youngs, Ross Middlebrook [Pep],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/youngs-ross-middlebrook-pep.

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May 1, 2022
May 1, 2022