Obscurity of the Day: Rube Appleberry

In baseball lore there’s no shortage of tales about the corn-fed plowboy who appears out of nowhere at a big league tryout, pitching 100-mph curveballs and hitting balls out of the park like birdshot from a shotgun. Among the earliest and most famous is Ring Lardner’s novel You Know Me Al. The 1916 story was immensely popular, and begat a string of imitators that has still yet to cease.

In the newspaper comic strip realm, Lardner’s novel itself was adapted as a daily strip that lasted almost four years, despite being hobbled by the semi-pro artwork of Dick Dorgan. Other strips plied the same trade, though, and today we look at one called Rube Appleberry.

The story of this phenomenal baseball player started not on the newspaper comics page, but on radio. In a WGN series initially titled Big Leaguers and Bushers that hit the air in 1932, Rube took the baseball world by storm in stories mainly written by Paul Fogarty. The radio series is pretty well forgotten today, and apparently no recordings are available of the episodes, but seems to have enjoyed some popularity back then. One aspect of the program that may have helped garner fan interest is that the names of real major league clubs and players were freely used. Despite Rube Appleberry generally besting all the major league stars that were named, apparently the real players had a distinct fondness for the program, and sometimes appeared on the show playing themselves.

The problem with baseball radio shows (and comic strips) is that once the baseball season is over, what do you do? The standard solution is to have the hero turn out to be a superstar in ALL sports. Once the baseball season is over, your leading man becomes a champion quarterback, then a great point guard, then a superb goalie, etc. etc. until, thankfully, baseball season finally rolls around again.

Big Leaguers and Bushers followed that formula, and that was probably its eventual undoing. Fans can get over their disbelief that someone could be the ultimate player in one sport, but in every one? Come on now. The series left the air in 1935 after its third season.

Fogarty, though, wasn’t content to give up on the character and somehow hooked up with Al Demaree, veteran of several different baseball strips, to provide art for a newspaper comic strip. Demaree had begun his comic strip career, believe it or not, while he was himself pitching in the major leagues. His major league career spanned 1912-19, and he left baseball with a more than respectable 2.77 lifetime ERA. Though Demaree was no Rembrandt of the comics page, his cartooning was perfectly fine, and his name in the masthead of a baseball strip certainly gave fans a respect for the strip right from the get-go.

The John F. Dille Company syndicate took on the strip, but had little luck selling it. That could be because the theme was already considered too hackneyed, and frankly it was. The strip debuted on August 3 1936 and seems to have had its final strikeout as of June 19 1937. Dille always numbered their strips so late-comers could start at any time, so for those keeping score, the ending number was #276.

It may seem odd that the strip was tagged out in the middle of the baseball season, when readers would be most interested in it, but the answer seems to lie in extenuating circumstances. According to one newspaper that commented on the end of the strip, creator Paul Fogarty had fallen ill and could not continue to produce it. I don’t buy that, though. The real reason seems to be that Fogarty convinced WGN to give the radio show another chance. The show returned at the end of August 1937, but didn’t last long. And that, then, was finally the end of Rube Appleberry’s extra innings.

For more about Rube Appleberry, check out this history of the radio show, and read Alex Jay’s Ink-Slinger Profile of Al Demaree coming up tomorrow here.

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