Obituary: Chet Hoff

AS THE 1998 World Series looms, baseball fans can look back upon this season as perhaps the most memorable in the game's history.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's race to eclipse the home run record set by Roger Maris in 1961 received international attention and brought thousands back to the stadiums they had deserted following the last player's strike. It ended with McGwire swatting an unbelievable 70th on the final day of the season, a new benchmark that seems likely to stand for years to come.

Earlier in the year, on 13 May, the rookie Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood struck out a record-equalling 20 batters and, aged just 20, earned himself the nickname "The Strikeout Kid". Three days later, the New York Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins as David Wells of the Yankees pitched that rarest of baseball phenomena, a perfect game (where no batter successfully progresses to first base): the Yanks went on to amass 114 victories, a League record. In September, the Baltimore third-baseman Cal Ripken Jnr voluntarily withdrew from his team's starting line-up after 2,632 consecutive games, putting to an end the sport's most famous "streak".

What must Chet "Red" Hoff have made of it all? Although he didn't live to see McGwire's 70th homer, he had borne witness to the game's many highs and lows from the earliest days of the century and was, at the time of his death, aged 107, its oldest former major league player.

A pitcher, Hoff played in the major leagues for just four years, making his debut in 1911. A native of Ossining, New York, he was signed by the New York Highlanders following a try-out set up by the owner of the local semi-professional club, the Ossining Colts. He struck out the first batter he faced, the legendary "Georgia Peach", Ty Cobb, perhaps the finest hitter in the game's history.

In 1912, the Highlanders' management, concerned that their name looked awkward on newspaper headlines, changed the team's name to the New York Yankees. Hoff became an early fixture at their first ballpark, Hilltop Park, before moving on in 1913. In 1914 he played for a minor-league team in Rochester before joining the St Louis Browns in 1915 for what would prove to be his final season as a major-leaguer.

Over those four years he accrued a 2-4 record and an admirable ERA (Earned Run Average - calculated by dividing the total number of earned runs by the number of innings pitched and then multiplying by nine - the maximum number of innings) of 2.49.

Hoff spent the next three years in the minor leagues before returning to Ossining and the Colts. Among the exhibition games he later played with the club were several against a team of convicts from the infamous Sing Sing prison (Ossining was formerly known as Sing Sing).

Hoff was a long-time employee of the cartographers Rand McNally, and retired to Florida in 1956. He maintained an avid interest in America's National Pastime until his death, and was, according to his daughter, "partial to the Yankees".

Paul Wadey

Chester Hoff, baseball player: born Ossining, New York 8 May 1891; married (two daughters); died Daytona Beach, Florida 17 September 1998.

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