When a baseball scout tried to sign him to a minor league contract, Webb, like York, was reluctant to leave home; but his father talked him into it, and at the age of 22, Earl made his professional debut as a pitcher for the Clarksdale (Miss.) Cubs.
(That same year, 1921, McKinley Morganfield was six years old and living in the Clarksdale area. Conceivably the lad who later became famous as Muddy Waters sneaked into a Cub game and began following Webb's career. Waters never wrote a song specifically about the feelings of a man who gets too little credit for hitting a lot of doubles, but he did write a blues number called Two Steps Forward. This is about as speculative as BATSABListics gets.)
Webb bounced around from Memphis to Pittsfield to Rocky Mount to Austin to Toledo to the New York Giants to Louisville to the Chicago Cubs to the minor league Los Angeles Angels and finally, in 1930, to the Red Sox. Along the way he became an outfielder. He hit .301 (with 18 doubles) in 102 games for the Cubs in 1927, but in the outfield, he admitted later, "I became the all-American stumbler. I have seen some mighty bad outfielders, but none of them had anything on me."
He had a good arm, though, and with the Red Sox he had a revelation in the field. "Seems queer," he was quoted as saying in 1932, "that none of the managers had ever been able to make me a better outfielder. Queer, too, that I had been unable to help myself until 1930. It came to me all at once. I had tried and tried to discover why it was that fly balls were just falling a yard or so out of my reach, and I finally tumbled to the fact that I was not getting the jump on the ball. I was waiting until the ball practically passed the infield before I made my break for it. I finally educated myself to start with the crack of the bat, and they do say that now I no longer can boast of being baseball's worst outfielder."
Webb still managed to lead the American League's outfielders in errors in 1931. But during the 1930 and '31 seasons he was Boston's regular rightfielder and best hitter. In 1930 he led the Sox in batting (.323), home runs (16) and RBIs (66) and hit 30 doubles—not bad for only 449 at bats. The Sox, however, finished dead last, 50 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics.
"Earl Webb was the only hitter we had on the Boston ball club," one of Webb's teammates, pitcher Milt Gaston, told Peter Golenbock, author of Fenway: The Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox. "In those days some watch company...used to give a watch for every home run you hit. Webby was the only guy on our club who hit home runs. Webby got one [watch] for himself and one for his wife, and when he went to bat, we'd say, 'Don't forget me, Webby.' "
But he hit only 14 homers in '31, when Gehrig and Babe Ruth were hitting 46 apiece. It's the 67 doubles we have to account for. When I first dug into this story, I figured the explanation was simple: Webb, a lefthanded hitter with moderate power, must have developed a patented swing, as they say, whereby he bounced a lot of ordinary fly balls off the Green Monster, Fenway's legendary leftfield wall, which stands 37 feet high and slightly more than 300 feet down the line from home plate. Many lefthanded-hitting Red Sox—Yaz, Fred Lynn and Boggs spring to mind—have fattened their averages and their doubles totals by whapping the ball over to the opposite field.
But then I read this in The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference: "In 1931 the lefthanded-hitting Earl Webb hit a major league record 67 doubles. He never hit half as many in a season again and was a slow runner, but the record was not necessarily attributable to the dimensions of his home park: the Green Monster, Fenway Park's notorious leftfield wall, was not erected until 1934."
To say that I was thunderstruck would be an understatement. If the Monster wasn't responsible in '31, what in the world was? Bit of a BATSABListic crisis.
So what kind of a park was Webb's Fenway? Everybody agrees that Fenway was built in 1912, that the leftfield barrier was roughly 320 feet from home plate and that it was reconstructed in 1934 into the Monster (which until 1947 wasn't green but was covered with advertising; will it be again?). One book devoted to the park features a photograph from 1912 showing a leftfield wall every bit as tall as the Monster is today—if not in fact taller. Judging by the size of a workman in the leftfield corner, I'd say the original wall was 40 feet high. So when Earl Webb hit 67 doubles, there was a high, eminently double-off-able wall in leftfield, roughly as close to home plate as it is today.