Moon, Leo

Primary Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Alamance County

First, Middle Names:  Leo
Date of Birth:  June 22, 1899  Date and Place of Death: Aug. 25, 1970, New Orleans, LA
Burial: Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans, LA

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: L         Height and Weight: 5-11, 165
Debut Year: 1932        Final Year: 1932    Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Cleveland Indians, 1932

Career Summary

G          W         L           Sv         ERA             IP          SO        WAR
1           0           0           0          11.12            5.2        1           -0.3

Leo Moon acquired a reputation as a “nightlifer” with a pretty mean fastball. During a minor-league career that spanned nearly two decades, he won almost 200 games in the daylight and danced the nights away in clubs from Minneapolis to New Orleans. His major-league career, however, lasted all of one game and consists of this ugly pitching line: 5.1 innings, eight runs, 11 hits, and seven walks. He wasn’t in the majors long enough to enjoy the big-city lights.

Born in the mill village of Bellemont in Alamance County in 1899, Moon was the youngest of William and Ellen’s six children. Their father farmed and worked in local cotton mills. Moon did the same while growing up and living all over the county from Graham to Swepsonville to Haw River. At 19, the kid they called Shine started pitching for semipro teams sponsored by the mills. Five years later, in 1924, a pitcher for the Patriots, a minor-league club in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, was injured in a knife fight and the team hired Moon to fill the rotation spot.

He would go on to pitch almost 3,000 innings for 14 minor-league teams over the next 17 years, winning 183 games along the way. He said in an interview late in his life that he was making $1,000 a month in 1927, or the equivalent of about $17,000 in 2022. Though he was already a successful minor-league pitcher with three 20-win seasons and was playing for a top-tier club, the Class AA Millers of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it’s unlikely that he was paid that much. Most major leaguers didn’t make that kind of money. In any case, Moon had more cash in his pocket than he had ever had before, and he learned that he liked spending it. “I was a poor boy with a lot of money,” Moon said in that 1962 interview. “You might say the bright lights dazzled me.”[I] His manager, Mike Kelly, worried that his ace might leave his fastball in the nightclubs. Moon worried that his reputation as a night owl might scare away big-league clubs.

For whatever reason, he didn’t get his shot until 1932, at age 33, when the Cleveland Indians bought his contract from the New Orleans Pelicans. Manager Roger Peckinpaugh sent his elderly rookie into his first game a few days later on July 9. His team was already down 6-3 to the Senators at Washington’s Griffith Stadium when Moon took the ball with one out in the third inning. Peckinpaugh left him in to finish the laugher that the Senators won 14-4. Moon was soon on a train back to New Orleans,

He pitched for six more seasons, coached for a year, and returned to the mound again in 1940 when he was 41. Though he won 12 games for a Class B club in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Moon retired after the season. “After a man reaches 35 it’s harder and harder to get into shape,” he said years later. “I saw the handwriting on the wall. My arm was still good – it’s never once got sore in my career – but my fastball was going.”[II]

He returned to New Orleans where he had lived for several years. He worked at the airport and at a plumbing warehouse. A degenerative optic-nerve disease slowly robbed him of his sight. He was totally blind for the last decade of his life. He had married twice and had three children. Moon died of an undisclosed illness in 1970.

References
[I] Hunter, Bill. “’Shine’ Moon, ‘Belinski of His Era, Can Recall Colorful Career.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), July 28, 1962.
[II] Ibid.

Hart, Jim Ray

Primary Position: Third base
Birthplace: Hookerton
First, Middle Names:  James Ray

Date of Birth:  Oct. 30, 1941   Date and Place of Death: May 19, 2016, Acampo, CA
Burial: Cremated

High School: Snow Hill Colored High School, Snow Hill, NC
College: Did not attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 185
Debut Year: 1963        Final Year: 1974          Years Played: 12
Team and Years: San Francisco Giants, 1963-73; New York Yankees, 1973-74

Awards/Honors: All Star, 1966; Boys of Summer Top 100

Career Summary
G            AB         H           R            RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1125    3783    1052    518      578      170     .278     .345     .467     +24.9

Jim Ray Hart was celebrating his successful major-league debut in the Giants’ clubhouse at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on that Sunday afternoon in July 1963. The 21-year-old sharecropper’s son from the cotton fields of North Carolina was a rising star. He had hit with power and consistency during his brief tenure in the minors, winning two batting titles and impressing old pros who compared him to the likes of Henry Aaron and Ted Williams. His performance that day in the first game of a double header suggested there might be something to such talk, that this kid with a booming bat might make it in the majors. Hart had two hits, knocked in a run, and scored one in a 15-inning thriller against the St. Louis Cardinals that his team won 4-3. The affable farm boy was all smiles afterwards, clutching the game ball his manager had given him and high-fiving teammates. One noted somberly, though, that he’d face Bob Gibson in the nightcap.

“Who’s Bob Gibson?” the rookie asked.[I]

In his first at bat against the fire-balling, future Hall of Famer, Hart heard a fastball sizzle by for a strike. He stepped out of the batter’s box, snuck a glance at the glowering Gibson, took a deep breath, and stepped back in. He did what all batters instinctively do when confronted with a hard-throwing pitcher: He began stabbing a hole in the dirt with the toes of his back foot to better attack the next fastball.

A cry went up in unison from his dugout: NO.

Every batter in the National League knew better then to dig in against Gibson, an unusually angry man when he stood atop a pitching mound. He considered the outer edges of home plate his exclusive territories and he guarded them fiercely. Batters who staked a claim by digging in or leaning out over the plate to better reach an outside pitch usually paid the price. Even the league’s luminaries, like Hart’s teammate Willie Mays, conceded the ground. Mays once unconsciously began toeing out a hole, remembered who was on the mound, and called time. He kicked dirt back into the indentation and smoothed it over with his foot before stepping back into the box. He was spared.

The fierce Bob Gibson was a threatening presence on a pitching mound.

A rookie from the bushes, however, is no Willie Mays. Gibson’s next pitch was another fastball, a menacing blur that was closing the 60-foot gap at 100 miles an hour. It seemed destined for Hart’s head, and the kid seemed slow to react. At the last moment, Hart, a right-handed hitter, raised his left shoulder in a reflexive act of defense and desperation. He heard something crack at impact.

It was a different game back then. While Hart was hauled to the hospital, the then-usual bean-ball war broke out at Candlestick. Juan Marichal, the Giants’ pitcher, threw at Gibson when he batted. That only made the angry man angrier, of course. He retaliated by sending Mays to the deck. Fines were issued, as were the standard denials about pitches thrown with malevolent intent. Though new to the majors, Hart had his lines down. “Gibson was just trying to pitch me tight, and the ball got away from him,” he said the next day from his hospital bed. “I don’t think he was aiming at me.”[II]

That bit of baseball theater overshadowed the facts that Hart’s collarbone was broken and that he would miss six weeks of his first season. More pain, unfortunately, awaited. On his fourth day back in mid-August in another game against the Cardinals, but this one in St. Louis, Hart was beaned by Curt Simmons. His plastic helmet prevented serious injury, but the resulting concussion drew a curtain on his debut season.

He bounced back to become a threatening presence in the middle of a potent Giants’ lineup. Hart hit 139 home runs during a five-year span, while driving in close to 100 runs a season and batting near .300. He was an All-Star in 1966, when he hit a career-high 33 homers.

Then, he was done. Almost as quickly as he had risen, Hart disappeared as a feared slugger. He remained in the majors for six more years but never again played a full season. He hit only 31 homers during the last half of his career as Injuries limited his playing time. An expanding waistline hinted at his lack of discipline, as did a life of hard drinking that began to exact its toll. Before he tamed his addiction, alcohol would reduce Hart to a desperate man in search of change on grocery store floors. The Giants finally sold him to the New York Yankees in the American League team, where he ended his career with a productive season as one of baseball’s first designated hitters.

Jim Ray Hart’s plaque on the  San Francisco Giants’ Wall of Fame.

Those first few years, though, were enough to place Hart among North Carolina’s top hitters. His .467 lifetime slugging percentage is fourth on the list of natives with at least 1,000 major-league at bats and his 170 home runs are eighth. He’s among the career leaders in eight other offensive categories. His +24.9 wins above replacement ranks him 27th on the Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100.

Born in 1941 near Hookerton in Greene County, James Ray Hart was one of Amos and Essie Lee’s six children. He spent his childhood working on the family’s cotton farm. Lifting those bales molded an impressive physique by the time he attended nearby Snow Hill Colored High School.[1] Hart played second base there and for semipro teams on Sundays.

The Giants signed him in 1960 for $500, or the equivalent of about $5,000 in 2022. He packed his clothes in two paper bags and reported to rookie camp in Salem, Virginia. “It was the first time I was away from home,” he remembered. “I was very nervous, got homesick.”[III]

Jim Crow laws prevented Hart from staying in hotels with the rest of the team. He and other Black players lived with local African American families or in boarding houses run by Blacks.

After hitting over .400 that summer, the 19-year-old was promoted to Fresno in the Class C California League in 1961. There he was an All-Star, leading the league with a .355 batting average while hitting 23 home runs and collecting 123 runs batted in.

Earl Weaver, then managing the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A club in Elmira, New York, in the Eastern League, saw Hart play the following season for the Giants’ affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts. “[Hart] can do everything in the field and hit for power and percentage,” the future Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager observed. “Every once in a while, a boy comes along who has all the tools. Hart is that boy.”[IV]

He lived up to the billing by hitting .337 that season to win another batting title. He was named the league’s Player of the Year and was selected as the third baseman on the Class A Minor League All-Star Team.

The Giants brought their prized prospect to training camp in Arizona in 1963. Lefty O’Doul, a batting instructor and former hitting star in the majors with a lifetime .349 average, declared Hart’s swing perfect. “He’s a natural,” O’Doul said. “I told him what I told Ted Williams years ago – don’t let anyone ever change your swing or style. You can’t improve on perfection.”[V] Even rivals gushed. Pete Reiser, a coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, compared that swing to Aaron’s. “Hart is the best hitter for his age I’ve seen in all my years in baseball,” he said.[VI]

The Giants sent Hart to Tacoma, their Class AAA club, when camp broke, but no one expected him to be in Washington long. There, Hart struck out four times one midsummer night. His manager, Andy Gilbert, approached the disconsolate player after the game. “Pack your bags,” he said, placing a hand on his player’s shoulders. Hart, who was leading the Pacific Coast League in hitting at the time, was shocked that he was being demoted after one bad night. “You’re going to San Francisco,” Gilbert said. [VII]

After his painful and brief first tour in the majors, Hart again reported to training camp in 1964. During exhibition games, he again seemed to get in the way of thrown balls. “Jimmy Ray was digging in so hard at the plate that he was locking himself in.” explained Hank Sauer, the Giants batting coach. “When a pitch came at him, he had trouble getting out of the way. And he tended to lean toward the ball instead of away from it.”[VIII]

Manager Alvin Dark threw at Jim Ray Hart’s head as a drill to evade errant pitches.

Manager Alvin Dark came up with a solution. Every day he stood on the mound and threw balls at Hart’s head. “Boy, things weren’t like this down in the minors,” said Hart after a session of ducking. “This sure is a funny game up here.”[IX]

Satisfied that Hart could dodge pitches and remain in the lineup, Dark moved Jim Davenport, long considered the best defensive third baseman in the league, to second to make room for Hart, who then made his manager look like a genius. He hit .286 with 31 home runs, a team rookie record, and finished second to the Philadelphia Phillies’ Dick Allen as the top rookie in the National League.

He played the best baseball of his life over the next four seasons. Wielding a massive 36-inch, 35-ounce bat, Hart became known for ferocious drives, even in lineups that featured sluggers like Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Bobby Bonds. “You could have your back turned and not see the hitter, and when that ball came off Jimmy Ray’s bat, it made a different sound,” said Jack Hiatt, a former catcher and a fixture on the Giants’ scouting staff at the time. “He hit the ball extremely hard. He hit a home run off of (Sandy) Koufax in Los Angeles that almost knocked the foul pole down.”[X]

Defense was the one flaw in his game. He led the league in errors at third in 1965 and had the lowest fielding percentage of all regulars at that position the following season. Baseball historian and analyst Bill James ranked Hart as the 74th best third baseman of all time in 2001. “He is a better hitter than 59 of the 73 men listed ahead of him,” James noted at the time. “This should tell you all you need to know about his defense.” Hart played about a third of his games in left field in 1968, the start of his gradual shift to the outfield. “Third base is just too darn close to the hitters,” he explained then. “It’s easier to relax (in left field) than it is at third base. You don’t have as many things to worry about in the outfield as you do in the infield.”[XI]

His weight was also becoming an issue. He ballooned to at least 30 pounds over his normal playing weight in 1968. “I wasn’t in shape by opening day, and I wasn’t closing day either,” Hart admitted after the season. “My muscles were crying after some of those nine-inning games, and I don’t like the way I got tired. I’ll be packing no more than my proper weight next season.”[XII] Team owner Horace Stoneham made it clear that’s what he expected. He gave Hart a $5,000 raise, to $30,000 ($260,000), but told him he’d be fined if he wasn’t in shape for spring training. Hart hired an exercise therapist in the offseason and reported to training camp in 1969 close to his normal playing weight but keeping it there would be a constant struggle.

Alcohol, though, was the bigger demon. For extra money, Hart’s father brewed corn whiskey that his son started drinking as a teenager. The problem was already evident during spring training in 1965 when Dark suspended Hart indefinitely for what the manager called curfew violations. Though he lifted the suspension after a game, Dark wanted to scare the kid. Mays and fellow North Carolinian Gaylord Perry also counseled him. “I did want him to do well, coming from my home state,” said Perry, a Giants’ pitcher and another sharecropper’s son. “He didn’t have anything growing up, like me. I had the same feeling inside that he had: This is my chance. Don’t give it up.”[XIII] 

It didn’t work. Throughout his time with the Giants, Hart drank a couple of beers in the clubhouse after games and then head to a bar for double shots of his favorite bourbon, I.W. Harper. He’d drink some more at home. “If I hadn’t been drinking, I’d have played another four or five years, no problem,” he said in 1991. “It got to the point I didn’t care about the game no more. Whether we won or lost, I didn’t care. I just wanted to go out and have a drink or two. I mean, this was every day.”[XIV]

In October 1968, he killed a pedestrian, Dorothy Selmi, while driving in San Francisco. The police and the district attorney investigated, and the Selmi family claimed in a civil lawsuit that Hart drove recklessly, but there’s no evidence that Hart was criminally charged and no public report on the outcome of the lawsuit. Neither was it ever revealed whether alcohol played a role in the accident.

Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham gave Jim Ray Hart an ultimatum: Shape up or ship out.

Plagued by injuries and alcoholism, Hart had his worst season in 1969. He dived back to first base during the opening week, jamming his right shoulder that caused him to miss half of the first 52 games. The injury would nag him for the rest of his career. He was getting hit by pitches again and fell down while trying to field a fly ball. The Giants wanted to trade him to the Phillies in May, but the injury got in the way. He managed to play in only 95 games, 24 as a pinch hitter, and only three games at third. He hit three home runs. After that dismal performance, the Giants cut Hart’s salary by a quarter, the largest reduction allowed by the rules at the time.

Hart was determined to bounce back. He saw a doctor for his ailing shoulder and reported to camp 10 pounds lighter. Stoneham wasn’t impressed. As the Giants opened spring training, the owner issued an ultimatum to Hart: Either play well and regularly during the spring or be sent to the minors or traded. “He isn’t taking care of himself,” Stoneham told the press, likely referring to Hart’s drinking. “I saw him head for his room here this morning at about 2:30. I’ve already told Jimmy how I feel and what I expect of him and anything even remotely short of that could cost him.”[XVI]

Hart started the season in the minors, but cortisone shots to his shoulder allowed him to come back and have a marginally better year with eight homers in 76 games. On one glorious night in Atlanta, Georgia, Hart hit for the cycle against the Braves and drove in six runs in one inning, tying a league record.

After Hart appeared in only 24 games in 1972, the Giants sold him to the Yankees at the start of the next season. It was the first year of the designated hitter. Used exclusively in that role, Hart had his last productive season: 13 home runs and 54 driven in.

He retired a year later and remained in San Francisco, where he had lived for more than a decade. Hart continued to struggle with alcohol. His home was repossessed and he was seen scavenging grocery store floors for lost change. After blacking out in the middle of an airline flight in 1988, Hart entered a rehabilitation center that he credited with saving his life. He retired as a warehouse worker for a supermarket chain in Sacramento, California

Married and divorced twice, Hart had four children and 12 grandchildren when he died of an undisclosed illness in 2016.

Footnote
[1] Built in 1925, the school was one of more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teacher’s homes built in the South during the early 20th century primarily for the education of African American children. The project was the product of the partnership of Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Booker T. Washington, the Black leader, educator, and philanthropist who was president of the Tuskegee Institute. Additions were built to the school in 1935 and in the 1950s. It closed when schools in Greene County were fully integrated in the 1970s. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

References
[I] Bergman, Irwin. “Jim Ray Hart.” Oral Interview, Society for American Baseball Research, 1975. https://sabr.org/interview/jim-ray-hart-unknown/.
[II] United Press International. “Hart on Shelf for Six Weeks.” Eureka Humboldt Standard (Eureka, CA), July 9, 1963.
[III] Bergman.
[IV] Trostler, Bob. “Jim Ray Hart.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jim-ray-hart/.
[V] Hanley, Jack. “Hart Everything They Say He Is.” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), March 27, 1963.
[VI] Associated Press. “Giants Have Great Talent On the Way.” Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, CA), Jan. 22, 1963.
[VII] Bergman.
[VIII] Trostler.
[IX] Ibid.
[X] Haft, Chris. “Giants Saddened by Death of Former All-Star Hart.” Major League Baseball, May 20, 2016. https://www.mlb.com/news/former-giants-3b-jim-ray-hart-dies-at-74-c179247248.
[XI]  Trostler.

[XII] Ibid.
[XIII] Haft, Chris. “Perry Remembers How It Used to Be.” Modesto (CA) Bee, July 24,2005.
[XIV] Trostler.
[XV] Kane, Tom Sr. “Forget the Turf: Keep Pitches Low.” Fresno (CA) Bee, Feb 25, 1970.

Henry, Snake

Primary Positions: First base, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Waynesville

First, Middle Names:  Frederick Marshall
Nickname: Snake

Date of Birth:  July 19, 1895   Date and Place of Death: Oct. 12, 1987, Wendell, NC
Burial: Montlawn Memorial Park, Raleigh, NC

High School: Wendell High School, Wendell, NC
College: Barton College, Wilson, NC

Bats: L Throws: L  Height and Weight: 6-0, 170
Debut Year: 1922        Final Year: 1923          Years Played: 2
Team and Years: Boston Braves, 1922-23

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
29       75       14        6          7            0          .187     .218      .267      -0.6

Fred Henry played in 29 games in the major leagues, stretched over parts of two seasons, and he didn’t do much in any of them, hitting a measly .187. His career Wins Above Replacement of -0.6 is among the lowest of any North Carolinian who played in the majors.[1] It means that his teams lost almost a full game over his short career with him in the lineup.

Yet, the man with the flimsy big-league resume was among the best minor-league players in history. During his 25 years in the minors, playing for 20 different clubs in 13 different leagues, Henry amassed almost 3,400 hits. He batted over .300 in more than half the seasons he played, finishing with a .304 average. His .345 in 1930 was an International League record until Jackie Robinson surpassed it 16 years later by a mere four points. Henry is among the career minor-league leaders in hits, games played, doubles and triples, an enviable tally that should earn him a spot in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Lillie and Marshall Henry had nine children, enough to fill a lineup card. Frederick Marshall, appropriately, was fourth, in the clean-up spot. He was born in 1895 in Waynesville, North Carolina, but the family moved halfway across the state to Granville County by the time he was five years old. By 1910, the Henrys had settled in Wendell in adjoining Wake County where Marshall was a lumber dealer and Lillie a milliner.

Fred played baseball at Wendell High School and then went off to what’s now Barton College, a private, religious school in nearby Wilson, North Carolina. After graduating in 1914, he signed his first minor-league contract with the Patriots, a Class D club in Greensboro, North Carolina.

He crisscrossed the continent over the next two-and-a-half decades moving up the minor leagues – from the Petersburg Goobers in Virginia and the San Antonio Bears in Texas to the Montreal Royals and Toronto Maple Leafs in Canada – and back down again to the Triplets in Binghamton, New York, and the Serpents in Tarboro, North Carolina. Along the way, he challenged for batting titles, won two Most-Valuable Player awards and was a perennial All-Star.

On one of his first stops, at the Wheatshockers in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1917, Henry acquired the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life. At a dinner to start the season, pitcher Ed Hovlik thought it important that all his teammates have sobriquets. He noted the agility and quickness of their new first baseman. “He presented me as ‘Rattlesnake’ Henry. I lost the rattle part of the handle,” Henry remembered. “Not a very pleasant-sounding name, is it?”[I] The name even followed him to Cuba, where he played years later. There, he was Senor Reptil.

Henry was hitting .343 for the Class A Pelicans in New Orleans in 1922 when the Boston Braves signed him late in the season. He finished out the season playing first base for the National League club while hitting .197. His limited engagement apparently didn’t impress anyone on the Braves because aging veteran Stuffy McInnis was signed to play first for the new season. Henry asked to be traded if he wasn’t going to play regularly. The Braves sent him back to New Orleans the next day.

He remained in the minors for almost two more decades. His last stop was in Kinston, North Carolina, playing and managing the Class D Serpents. The team lost the first 15 games of the 1939 season. The frustration became too much for Henry. In a game against the Greenies of nearby Greenville, North Carolina, he attacked an umpire over a call at third base, kneeing him in the groin, knocking him down, and then “stomping on his feet,” according to the judge at the suspension hearing. He threatened “to get” the umpire as he was escorted off the field.[II] Suspended for 120 days, Henry chose to retire. Ironically, the Eagles righted themselves and made it into the Coastal Plain League playoffs, losing in the final round.

By then, Henry was back in Richmond, Virginia, where he lived with his wife, Mary Jane. They were part owners of a popular, local grill in the early 1940s and then managed hotels, first in Florida and then in southeastern Virginia.

They moved back to Wendell, where Mary Jane died of colon cancer in 1963. Henry remarried in 1972 when he was 77 years old. He was 92 when he died in 1985.

Reference
[1] Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is an advanced statistic that attempts to summarize a player’s total contributions to his team by estimating how many games a team can be expected to win with the player in the lineup instead of an average player coming off the bench or called up from the minors. The player’s value to his team accumulates over the course of his career. The resulting number is expressed in plus or minus games. See Tarheel Boys of Summer Top 100 for a fuller explanation.

Footnotes
[I] Siegel, Morris. “’Snake’ Henry Settles Down After 25 Years of Baseball.” Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), March 24, 1941.
[II] “’Snake’ Henry Is Ousted for Attack Upon Empire.” The Enterprise (Williamston, NC), May 23, 1939.

 

Hodge, Gomer

Primary Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Rutherfordton

First, Middle Names: Harold Morris
Nickname: Gomer

Date of Birth:  April 3, 1944    Date and Place of Death: May 13, 2007, Saluda, NC
Burial: West Memorial Baptist Church Cemetery, Rutherfordton

High School: Rutherford-Spindale Central High School, Rutherfordton
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: Both       Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 185
Debut Year: 1971        Fina Year: 1971           Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Cleveland Indians, 1971

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
80      83        17        3          9            1          .205     .256     .277      -0.6

For a few weeks in the spring of 1971, a country boy from the hills of North Carolina with an endearing grin and an aw-shucks demeanor captured the hearts of the long-suffering fans of a moribund baseball team. He gave them something they hadn’t had in a decade: Hope. The dreams melted in despair as the loses again piled up and the season turned out like every other but this time, in the wake of the losing, a legend remained.

It all started quietly enough on Opening Day in Detroit, Michigan, when Manager Alvin Dark of the visiting Cleveland Indians sent rookie Harold Hodge in to pinch hit in the fifth inning. The switch hitter from Rutherfordton, North Carolina, had been a surprise, late addition to the team, surviving the final cut of spring training a few days earlier, on his 27th birthday as it turned out. Dark had said he chose the kid because of his determination and perseverance, not his modest .258 batting average compiled during his eight years for Indians’ minor-league teams.

Teammates on one those stops, in Burlington, North Carolina, had given Hodge the nickname Gomer because of his decided Southern drawl and his resemblance to Jim Nabors, the actor who played the popular Gomer Pyle on television.

In his major-league debut on that Opening Day, Hodge beat out a slow roller that barely trickled past the pitching mound to drive in a run against the Tigers’ ace Mickey Lolich. “It must have gone 150 feet,” he said afterward with a sly grin. “I count the bounces.”[I]

For the home opener in Cleveland, Ohio, two days later, Hodge arrived at Municipal Stadium in a borrowed sports coat and shirt and had $5 in his pocket. He had gotten sick on the team flight home. With the Indians trailing the Boston Red Sox 2-0 and with more than 40,000 fans looking on, Hodge stepped to the plate in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter again. He lined a double to left, scored on a base hit, and remained in the game at second base. In the bottom of the ninth with the Indians still down by a run, Hodge came up with two outs and runners on second and third. He singled cleanly to center for a walk-off 3-2 victory.

The magic continued in the final game of the series the next day when Hodge hit a pinch-hit double to drive in a run in a 7-1 Indians’ victory. The unknown and unheralded rookie was four-for-four in his major-league career. When reporters asked after the game how it felt to be batting a 1.000, Hodge in true Gomer-like fashion gushed an answer that would go down in team history, “1.000? Gol-l-lee, fellas, I’m batting 4.000.”[II]

The Indians’ faithful were besotted. The team hadn’t won a pennant since 1954 and had finished atop its division in the American League only once in 10 years. No player since Rocky Colavito in the late 1950s could draw reluctant fans to the drafty, old stadium. That spring they went to chant the kid’s name. The cry arose anytime in a game a pinch hitter seemed needed: “We Want Gomer, We Want Gomer. ” Local newspapers ran his picture on their front pages. In no time, the Gomer’s Gang fan club boasted almost as many members (2,600) as Rutherfordton had residents (3,200). “Fans loved him,” said Russell Schneider, a sportswriter who covered the Indians for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer in 1971. “Everybody loved being around him.”[III]

The object of this adulation didn’t quite know what to make of it all. “It’s been a shock to me,” Hodge said at the time. “I just wanted to make the team and now the phone at the motel where I’m staying never stops ringing with people calling up to talk. And my mother says she’s getting 75 calls a night back home from people who want to congratulate her.”[IV]

It’s likely that Lena Hodge’s boy was also the talk of the garment factory in Rutherford County where she worked. Her husband, William, was also likely shaking a lot of hands at the textile factory where he worked when he wasn’t toiling on the family farm.

Harold Morris Hodge, born in 1944, was the second of their two sons. Newspapers would later delight in relating how he played “pasture ball” as a young boy. “We used to break limbs from trees and use them like bats,” he told the sportswriters. “Then, when we’d saved enough money, we’d buy a brand-new baseball. We never bought too many, though, because we didn’t have no money. We’d hit the ball like crazy until the cover got tore off. Then, I’d hook some of my Pa’s black tape and cover the ball again.”[V]

Later in elementary school, Hodge and his friends played in a field behind the hospital after school, using bricks and tin cans for bases. He had no aspirations then to become a ballplayer, he told the writers. He only wanted to “learn how to get a mule to gee and haw and to lay corn straight.”[VI]

Baseball became a more serious endeavor when Hodge entered Rutherford-Spindale Central High School in 1960, but he first needed his father’s approval to play. Bill Hodge went to a game during Hodge’s sophomore year and saw his son hit two home runs. “It was the first time he came to watch me play ball,” Hodge remembered. “He didn’t want me to waste my time because chores had to be done on our farm, but after that it got to where my folks did most of the work and I played ball.”[VII]

Hodge pitched and played shortstop for three years during high school, making All-Conference each season and hitting .425 his senior year. He also played semipro ball and for the local American Legion teams during the summers.

The Indians signed him in September 1962 for $400 a month, or the equivalent of about $3,700 in 2022, along with a $1,000 ($9,700) signing bonus. He played in seven different cities as a minor leaguer over the next eight years, from Salinas, California, to Waterbury, Connecticut, along with a winter or two in Mexico, never hitting .300 or more than 10 home runs a season. His best year was in 1970 for the Indians’ Class AA club in Savannah, Georgia, where Hodge hit .291 with nine homers and 66 runs batted in.

After his four-at-bat burst, Hodge settled to his level, as all baseball players must. He struck out his fifth time up, but the Cleveland crowd gave him a standing ovation anyway. He then went hitless for a month. His 4.000 average plummeted to .222. “The pressure I’m feeling now is different from when I was 4-for 4 because of the fan club,” he said then. “I’ve gotten so many fans and gotten so many nice letters and they’ve said, ‘We don’t care if you get a hit, we know you’re a great guy,’ and I think about all those little kids.”[VIII]

He was a more than a bit relieved then on May 21 when he dumped a pinch-hit single over second base in the ninth to drive in the game-winner to beat the New York Yankees 8-7 at home, his second walk off in the young season. Gomer seemed to be all that was keeping the Indians from their accustomed quarters in the basement of the American League. You should ask for a raise, one the writers told him. “Oh never,” he responded. “In Mexico ball, they gave me a raise and the next night Horacio Pina hits me on the back of the head with a fastball. I ain’t dumb enough to ask for another one.”[IX]

About intelligence, Hodge resented how he was often portrayed by Northern sportswriters – the harping on his rural roots, his quotes that often exaggerated his accent and hinted that the speaker’s grasp of English was tentative at best. Even as storied a journal as Sports Illustrated wasn’t immune from this common failing among certain writers. After his drive was caught short of the wall 400 feet from home plate, Hodge had this to say in the magazine, “Dad gum it. If that ball had goed over the sign, I’d of called it a career.”[X]

Reading such stuff day after day obviously gets old. “I don’t like these reporters who make me sound dumb,” Hodge said. “The guy who plays Gomer on television acts dumb, but he makes his money doing that. I play baseball.”[XI] His manager knew better. “Don’t let that ‘dumbness’ fool you,” Dark said. “He knows what he’s doing all the time. He’s all business out there. He worked hard all spring.”[XII]

Despite his determination, Hodge got only 12 more hits after his game winner against the Yankees, though his 16 pinch hits for the season were three off the club record. His lone home run was a high fly ball that somehow ended nestled in the net atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston. In his last at bat, he struck out against the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Palmer. His final average dropped to .205, and the Indians again lost more than 100 games. Hodge was reassigned to the minors after the season. He never made it back on a big-league roster.

He was a player-coach for the Tribe’s Class AAA franchise in Portland, Oregon, for two seasons and then managed in minors for 30 years, twice winning skipper of the year honors. He retired to Rutherford County in 2004. “He was just a hometown, earthy kind of guy, and I think that’s what made him so endearing,” his wife, Linda, noted.[XIII]

Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Hodge deteriorated quickly. Near the end, when he could no longer speak or read, Linda contacted the Indians and asked fans to send cards and letters that could be read to him. Hundreds did.

Hodge died in 2007. “Gomer would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t blessed with an abundance of talent,” Schneider concluded. “He was a solid, hard-working country boy who played the game for the sheer love of it.”[XIV]

References
[I] Curry, George. “Gomer Is Tops in the Tepee.” Sports Illustrated, July 26, 1971.
[II] McIlroy, Will. “The Legend of Gomer Hodge.” It’s Pronounced ‘Lajaway,’ SweetSpot Network, April 6, 2012. http://itspronouncedlajaway.com/2012/04/06/the-legend-of-gomer-hodge/.
[III] Manoloff, Dennis. “Former Indian Harold ‘Gomer’ Hodge Dies.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), May 15, 2007.
[IV] Novak, Ralph. “Can Ex-Alamance Baseballer Rescue Cleveland Indians?” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), April 24, 1971.
[V] Spudich, Pete. United Press International. “Gomer Hodge Delights Cleveland Backers.” Times Recorder (Zanesville, OH), July 7, 1971.
[VI] Curry.
[VII] Spudich.
[VIII] Nold, Bob. “Gomer’s Gang Misses Hero’s Big Moment.” Akron (OH) Beacon Journal, May 22, 1971.
[IX] Curry.
[X] Ibid.
[XI] Novak.
[XII] Nold, Bob. “Indian Hero A Serious Country Bumpkin.” Akron {OH) Beacon Journal, April 13, 1971.
[XIII] Associated Press. “Gomer Hodge, ballplayer, coach for Pawtucket.” Boston Globe, May 15, 2017.
[XIV] Manoloff.          

 

Upchurch, Woody

Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Buies Creek

First, Middle Names:  Jefferson Woodrow
Date of Birth:  April 13, 1911  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 23, 1971, Buies Creek
Burial: Buies Creek Cemetery, Lillington, NC

High School: Buies Creek High School, Buies Creek
College: Campbell University, Buies Creek

Bats: R Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-0, 180
Debut Year: 1935        Final Year: 1936          Years Played: 2
Team and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1935-36

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
10        0          2          0         7.42     43.2     8          -0.3

Woody Upchurch was a star pitcher in the semipro leagues that flourished in North Carolina before World War II. He shined for teams like the Ayden Aces and the Dr. Pepper Bottlers.  Not so much, though, for the Philadelphia Athletics. He pitched 10 games over two seasons for the American League club, gave up almost eight runs a game, and was back in Ayden.

Jefferson Woodrow was born in 1911 near Buies Creek in Harnett County, one of Jeff Davis and Virginia Upchurch’s eight children. His father was a farmer and prominent merchant in town.

Upchurch attended Buies Creek High School and Campbell Junior College, a local school that’s now a university. He played baseball and football there. After graduating in 1930, he pitched for several independent clubs in the basement of the minor leagues in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Mississippi before graduating in 1932 to the Class B Bulls in Durham, North Carolina.

Connie Mack, manager of the last-place Athletics, was desperate for pitching when he signed Upchurch, the lefty ace of Ayden, North Carolina, at the end of the 1935 season. Considering his previous competition consisted primarily of shopkeepers and farmers, the rookie had a decent outing in his debut at Shibe Park in Philadelphia on Sept. 14. He pitched a complete game, giving up three earned runs in a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs. Upchurch appeared in nine more game stretching into the next season and was released in May 1936. He was back with the shopkeepers and farmers in Ayden within a week.

Upchurch was driving through Dunn, North Carolina, that October when a truck hauling bricks slammed into his car. He broke several ribs and his left arm, said the newspapers, was “badly mangled.” He recovered, but his pitching days were over.[I]

He managed semipro clubs for a couple of seasons before retiring to his farm near Buies Creek in 1940.

He and his wife, Agnes, had one child, Woodrow Jr., who became a prominent agricultural writer whose stories and columns ran in newspapers across the state.

Upchurch died in 1971 from complications of throat cancer.

Reference
[I] “Woody Upchurch Hurt in Harnett Accident.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Oct 10, 1936.