Jones, Charley

Player Name: Jones, Charley
Position: Left Field
Birthplace: Alamance County

First, Middle Names: Benjamin Wesley Rippay         Nicknames: Baby, Knight of the Limitless Linen

Date of Birth:  April 30, 1852       Date and Place of Death: June 6, 1911, New York
Burial: Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery, Queens, NY

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 202
Debut Year: 1875        Final Year: 1888          Years Played: 12
Teams and Years: Keokuk Westerns, 1875; Hartford Dark Blues, 1875; Cincinnati Reds, 1876-77; Chicago White Stockings, 1877; Cincinnati Reds, 1878; Boston Red Stockings, 1879-80; Cincinnati Red Stockings, 1883-87; New York Metropolitans, 1887; Kansas City Cowboys, 1888

Awards: NC Sports Hall of Fame, 1992

 Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
895   3741  1115    733      553      56       .298    .345    .444     26.3

Charley Jones, as baseball historians insist, is likely the first North Carolinian to play in what’s now the major leagues. He was in the vanguard of professional athletes who, in the 1870s, began to transform a game played by amateurs, mostly in Eastern cities, into a national sport that would reach into every crossroad hamlet and schoolyard playground in America.

Despite what his plaque says at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame or what previous biographers have written, much of Jones’ life before baseball remains a mystery. We don’t even know with certainty who is parents were or where in the state he was born. Frankly, much of what has been written about his early life is wrong.

The picture becomes clearer after Jones stepped onto a baseball diamond. He had, for instance, weaknesses for fine clothes, fast women, and hard liquor. Guess which one of them may have led to his delicious and oddly suggestive nickname, The Knight of the Limitless Linen? He also was a demanding player who insisted on being paid and refused to take the field when he wasn’t. That so irritated team owners in the infant National League that they blacklisted him. He has the distinction, then, of being one of only two North Carolinians banned from baseball.[1]

First and foremost, though, Charley Jones was a gifted baseball player at a time when most people didn’t know what that was. He helped set the standards by which we now judge players. In his 12 seasons in the three professional leagues of his day, Jones became the pro game’s first slugger. He led the National League in home runs, was the first to hit two in one inning, and was always among the leagues’ leaders in slugging and driving in runs. More than 400 North Carolinians followed Jones into the major leagues, but few have been better hitters. He remains among the state’s leaders in 10 career offensive categories, including second in triples (102) and seventh in batting average (.298). It was that bat, along with being the first, that likely earned him that hall of fame plaque in 1992.

Who Is Charley Jones?
In describing the new inductee, officials at the state hall simply repeated what others had written about Jones: He was born in Alamance County in 1852, his father likely died in the Civil War, and his mother passed on from some unknown cause, leaving the orphan to be raised by a relative in Indiana.

Those biographies report that Jones was born Benjamin Wesley Rippy, also spelled “Rippay” and Rippey” in the official records, the fifth of Abel and Delilah Rippy’s seven children. Nothing in those records, however, supports that basic family history. If not for a notation in a marriage register in Ohio in in 1886, there would be no official evidence that Benjamin Wesley Rippy became Charley Jones, the baseball player. Abel and Delilah in the 1850 census list a son named Benjamin, who had been born a year earlier, but he would be crippled by rheumatism as an adult and never play baseball. It seems doubtful that they would give two sons the same first name. Anyway, two Benjamins don’t appear in the Rippy household in the 1860 census.

Had there been another Benjamin, the boy would have grown up knowing his parents. Delilah lived until 1885. If he served in the Confederate army, Abel survived the war only to be murdered by a drunken son more than 20 years later.[2]

Neither do the existing records provide a clue as to why the boy was raised by Reuben Jones, a wagonmaker in Indiana. He’s the alleged relative who took in the young orphan and whose surname the boy adopted. Reuben, a native of Virginia, married a North Carolina girl, Susan Doswell of Caswell County, in 1843. Neither of their genealogies indicates that either was related to Abel or Delilah, though Susan’s mother is unknown as are Delilah’s parents. It’s possible that Susan and either Abel or Delilah shared a parent or were otherwise related through this unidentified link.

The Joneses lived in Rockingham County, where Reuben worked for the railroad, when the census takers came around for the 1850 count. Rockingham borders Alamance. Though traveling any distance by horse or buggy on the dirt roads of mid-19th century North Carolina was a chore, we can’t discount the possibility, no matter how slim, that the Joneses and Rippys knew each other, and that young Benjamin was the result of a relationship that grew too familiar.

Brad Rippey offers another possibility. A cousin of Abel’s, he has spent decades researching the family’s history. He’s convinced Jones isn’t Abel’s son, but he’s probably a Rippy or Rippay because the name isn’t common and Jones used it for that marriage license. Early biographers, Brad Rippey speculates, simply connected Charley with the wrong family. A better choice, he thinks, is William Rippey, who married Mary Truitt. She married Abraham Jones after Rippey died in 1837 and had several children with him. One may have had a child named Benjamin, who was orphaned and was raised by Reuben, who may have been related to Abraham.[I]

How the original story came about is anyone’s guess. The few existing biographies are short and list no original sources. They all cite each other. Newspapers offer no help either. Though Jones was among the most-popular players of his day, little was written about him that survives in digital newspaper archives. Sports writing, like professional baseball itself, was in its infancy in the 1870s and ‘80s. They would grow up together. Reporters in Jones’ day didn’t write feature stories about players. Nor were they much interested in their personal lives unless women, cops, booze, or wads of cash, preferably in some combination, were involved. If he had been an illegitimate child, Jones also had reason to avoid talking about his childhood.

Reuben and Susan were in Gibson County, Indiana, in 1860 with an eight-year-old whose fading, handwritten name on a census form looks like “Beryl.” Could it be “Benji?” No relationship is listed for the boy in the census, but it’s noted that he was born in North Carolina. In 1870, Beryl or Benji disappears from the Jones’ household and Wesley Jones, 18, appears in the census as a “farm laborer.” He, too, is listed as having been born in North Carolina. They are likely the same person.

As an adult, Wesley “Charley” Jones certainly treated Reuben and Susan as his parents, and they apparently thought of him as their son and only child.  Jones’ son, Charley Jr., lived with them for a time, and they list the boy as their grandson in the 1880 census. Reuben named Charley and his son as his only heirs. On Charley Jones’ death certificate Reuben and Susan are identified as his father and mother.

Neither do we know anything about Jones’ baseball career before he turned professional, but we can make some educated assumptions. Indiana was still on the edge of the frontier when Reuben and Susan moved there, probably in the mid- to late-1850s. They joined thousands of new settlers who had been lured to the southwestern corner of the state by the cheap farmland that became Gibson County. The Evansville and Terre Haute Railroad, which arrived in Princeton, the county seat, in 1852, gave those farmers easier access to markets. It may have also brought baseball to that remote corner of the state.

Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ, was the site of many amateur baseball games in the 1850s and ’60s.

A Railroad Story
Many ball-and-stick games were played in colonial America, but the one we’ve come to call baseball evolved from the game played in New York since the early 1800s, first on Manhattan Island and later in neighboring Brooklyn, now a New York borough but then a separate city. By 1840, amateur clubs formed throughout the two cities to promote the game as a healthy form of outdoor recreation. Discard the modern notion of neighborhood sports clubs. These weren’t beer-bellied bar denizens who got together on weekends to drink and hit a baseball around. The clubs attracted doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, firemen, butchers, and others who made up the growing cities’ emerging middle class. Women, Catholics, and blacks, of course, need not apply. These were white, Protestant men with money, the political connections that allowed them to find plum patronage jobs for favored team members, and the time to recreate.

They also took their baseball seriously. The clubs practiced a couple of times each week and played intrasquad games. By the 1850s, they had summer schedules of games against each other using common rules that they had approved at annual conventions. Over time, the teams were identified with the regions in the cities or the institutions that provided most of the members. Doctors and medical students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Manhattan, for instance, formed one club. Fire stations started many others. People living near those stations, in those neighborhoods, or connected with those institutions began rooting for their teams. By 1860, they were paying to see them play. The sports fan was born.

In those years just before the Civil War, New Yorkers took their form of baseball on the road, playing other clubs on the East Coast from Boston to Baltimore and spreading the seed from which their game took root. Living in the country’s most-populous city that was fast becoming its commercial and financial center with its busiest port, biggest banks, and numerous rail connections, New Yorkers got around, and many took baseball with them. It rushed out to California along with the city’s gold seekers in the 1850s and found a home in San Francisco. It became a major diversion in hundreds of Union Army encampments during the Civil War, and many of those soldiers took the game back home.

Maybe returning veterans brought baseball to Gibson County, but it likely arrived earlier with the railroad. The transformation of an amateur game into a national sport with professional leagues is a railroad story, notes baseball historian John Gilbert. Just as the Boeing 707 allowed the Major Leagues to expand to the West Coast in the late 1950s, the dramatic growth of rail lines a century earlier took an urban game to villages all along the line. “The small Vermont towns of Irasburg, Brandon and Pawlet all had baseball clubs before the state’s largest cities because they were on advancing railroad lines,” Gilbert writes. “If you draw a line on a map connecting Hamilton, Burlington, St. Thomas, London, Ingersoll, Guelph, and Toronto — southern Ontario cities where Canada’s first baseball clubs appeared between 1856 and 1860 — you will be tracing the lines of the Great Western Railway, which linked Niagara Falls, near Buffalo, to Windsor, near Detroit, in 1854.”[II] Railroad growth in the booming Midwest was especially dramatic. Indiana, for instance, had about 20 miles of rails in 1840. By the Civil War, it had more than 2,000.[3]

It’s likely, then, that baseball stepped off the Evansville and Terra Haute, maybe with an immigrant New Yorker, and took hold in Princeton. It’s also likely that young Charley Jones first played for a local amateur club before he took up with a team in Ludlow, Ohio, in the mid-1870s. The teams probably paid him under the table.

A Professional Game
The early amateur clubs in New York had strict rules banning direct payments to players, though the larger and more-influential clubs often found city government jobs for their stars. As baseball expanded across the country, many of the new clubs weren’t as committed to the amateur ethic. Players also began demanding a share of the proceeds when fans started paying to watch them play. So many clubs were paying their players by 1869 that the association that governed amateur baseball created a professional category.  Several of the larger clubs broke away two years later and formed the short-lived National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional team sports league of any kind.

Jones debuted in 1875, its last year, with the association’s Keokuk Westerns in Iowa. The team was awful, winning just one of its 13 games before disbanding, but the 23-year-old outfielder was second on the team in hitting and knocked in 11 runs. No one else had more than five. After the Westerns, Jones showed up halfway across the country in Hartford, Connecticut, where he appeared in one game that season for the association’s Dark Blues.

The league wasn’t very competitive. The Boston Red Stockings, winner of four of the five pennants, finished first in that final year with a 71-8 record. Though it won 54 games, Hartford was second, 18.5 games behind. Neither was the league financially stable or particularly well run. Teams came and went, and there was no central authority to enforce the rules.

The six strongest teams bolted in 1876 and formed the National League of Professional Baseball Teams, or simply the National League.[4] Jones turned down offers from Boston and Chicago to play center field for the Cincinnati Reds. He became the star of another bad team. The Reds won only nine games that first season, but he led the team in hitting with a .286 average. On May 2, he became the second player in the National League to hit a home run when he blasted one in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Stockings, today’s Cubs. An opposing player had edged Jones for first honors when he homered two innings earlier. Jones hit three more that season. They were the only home runs hit by the team.

The Panic of 1873 and the resulting depression created financial turmoil during the early years of the new league. Club turnover was constant. Only two of the original teams, Chicago and Boston, would make it to 1880. The cash-strapped Reds looked to be an early casualty. The team disbanded in June 1877, and the defending champ White Stockings signed Jones and another Reds’ player. The Reds, however, raised enough money to keep the team going within days of the signings, and Jones made it clear he wasn’t happy in Chicago. The Reds petitioned the league to return Jones, but the request went nowhere. A Cincinnati lawyer wrote a letter to the White Stockings, appealing to the team’s sense of fair play. “We, as you probably know, have succeeded in reorganizing the base-ball club here. The task has been a hard one, and even now we find that it will be almost impossible for us to get along without Jones… I ask you, as a favor that our club will always appreciate, that you will honorably release Jones and permit him to rejoin us.”[III]  It worked. After two games, Jones was returned to the Reds. It was, indeed, a different time.

Jones established himself as a star in the young league over the next two seasons. He hit better that .300 each year and led the team in triples and runs batted in. He also hit five of its 11 home runs.  He cemented his reputation as a power hitter in 1879 while playing for the Boston Red Stockings, now the Atlanta Braves, with nine homers, which led the league. He also scored 85 times, almost a run a game, and knocked in 62. Those also led the league. His nearly flawless play in center made him one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. There was little doubt after June 10, 1880, who was baseball’s home-run king when Jones became the first to hit two homers in an inning in a 19-3 shellacking of Buffalo.

Jones’ potent bat wasn’t much help to the fading Red Stockings, though. The team that had once been the cream of the National League, winning back-to-back pennants in 1877-78, was losing more games than it won as the 1880 season ground on, and its finances were even more precarious. Jones hadn’t wanted to return to Boston when the season began because of disputes with manager Harry Wright and with team co-owner Arthur Soden, a notorious penny-pincher, who was often slow to pay his players. Jones had held out to start the season, not for more money but just to be paid.

Banned From Baseball

Arthur Soden

His contract called for Boston to pay him $250 on the first of each month during the season, $1,500 in all, wrote the late Lee Allen, the former historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. By late August, Jones apparently grew weary of constantly haranguing Soden for his back pay. While the team was on its way to Cleveland, Jones demanded that Wright pay him the $378, about $12,000 when adjusted for inflation, that he claimed he was owed. When the manager turned him down, Jones refused to play. Wright cabled Soden, who suspended and fined Jones for insubordination. The league blacklisted him in 1881, ending his National League career.[5] Banned from the diamond, Jones took his beef to the courtroom. He won when a judge later that year ordered the club to give Jones a game’s gate receipts to pay what it owned him.

While the court victory must have been satisfying, Jones was still out of baseball. Unemployed, he and a partner opened Star Laundry in a three-story building on Lodge Street in Cincinnati, Ohio. It would become the largest in the city.

Jones cut quite a dashing figure in town. Handsome and ruggedly built, he stood close to six feet tall and was always neatly barbered and dressed in the latest fashions. An equally fashionable woman usually accompanied him. His sartorial splendor may account for the “knight” reference in his nickname, which has origins as mysterious as its recipient’s. The “limitless linen” part may slyly refer to his reputation for bedding desirous women, but it likely alludes to something more mundane, his laundry business.

Tending to the laundry was all Jones had to do for two years. He was about to resume his baseball career when the American Association of Professional Base Ball Clubs formed at the end of 1881. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, which had been thrown out of the National League for selling alcohol at its ballpark, was a founding member of the new league, and it dearly wanted its old star back. The new association initially agreed that its teams wouldn’t sign players on the older league’s blacklist who had been booted for drunkenness, dishonesty, or other “venal” reasons.[IV] The policy was carefully worded to accommodate the Red Stockings, which promptly signed Jones. The National League, though, retaliated. American Association teams that signed any blacklisted players, it announced, wouldn’t be allowed to play exhibition games against National League clubs. Fearing the loss of revenue and publicity that such games could generate, the new league agreed to honor the blacklist, and the Red Stockings promptly voided Jones’ contract. They worked it out after that first season, and Jones was back in the distinctive Cincinnati uniform with its high, red leggings in 1883.

He resumed where he had left off, becoming one of the league’s leading hitters over the next four seasons while establishing himself as a local star. “Charley Jones is very popular in this city, where he has a host of friends,” a Cincinnati newspaper noted. “He has been playing ball for many years, and his name to known to everyone, from the small boy who witnesses the games from the telegraph pole to the spectator in the grandstand.”[V]

There was, however, one person in town who wasn’t a fan, at least not in 1885. Jones had been living with C.F. Arnold, who referred to herself as Anna Jones, though there’s no evidence that the two had ever been married. Neither do we know if Arnold is the mother of Jones’ only child, who was born in 1877. That little Charley lived with his grandparents in Indiana would seem to indicate that his mother was out of the picture. Newspapers later that year began linking Jones with Louise Horton, a married woman. Jones left Arnold, claiming they weren’t married. “Since that time, she has dogged him about and threatened vengeance,” a newspaper reported.  “Miss C.E. Arnold is a good-looking lady, aged 31, stylish and spirited – in fact, awfully spirited. She reminds one of an A1 conductor constantly surcharged with electricity.”[VI]

On the night of Dec. 14, she approached Jones on a downtown street. He tried to give her some money to shake her off.  “She followed him and gave him his several pieces of her mind in a subdued but energetic tone of voice,” the newspaper said. Jones tried to ignore her.

“I’ll fix you,” Arnold is quoted as saying. She reached into her pocket and came out with a handful of cayenne pepper, which she threw in his face. Jones snorted and howled in pain. He was taken to a nearby drugstore, and a doctor was called. He applied some ointments and said there shouldn’t be any lasting damage.

Anna was arrested. “Well, I did it simply because I thought I would make him suffer a little for what he has made me suffer,” she told the reporter in a “saucy tone.” A presumably bleary-eyed Jones bailed her out.[VII]

After a “sensational divorce suit,” Horton married Jones the following July. The clerk of court in Hamilton County, Ohio, recorded that the happy groom’s name was “B.W. Rippay.” It’s the only surviving official record linking Jones to a Rippey family. Either the marriage didn’t last or Horton died before her husband because Jones’ death certificate lists him as “single” at the time of his death.

His baseball career wound to its close at the end of the 1880s. Whether it was the lasting effects of the pepper or just the combination of age and hard living, Jones’ batting average plummeted and his defensive skills deteriorated as he kicked around the American Association in his final two seasons. Pitchers on the New York Metropolitans in 1887 even complained about his poor fielding. He retired the following year after appearing in only six games for the Kansas City Cowboys.

Jones umpired for a few years before once again disappearing into the haze of history. Fittingly, it seems, his end is as mysterious as his beginning. We know he settled in New York City at some point because that’s where he died in 1911 of tuberculosis. He was a night watchman. North Carolina’s first professional baseball player and one of the game’s earliest sluggers is buried in an unmarked grave off the Long Island Expressway in Queens, New York.

Footnotes
[1] A judge banned Gus Brittain of Wilmington, NC, from baseball in 1946 for helping incite a brawl as a minor-league manager. He had played briefly for the Cincinnati Reds in 1937. He was reinstated in 1948 but had retired from baseball.
[2] Albert Rippy, 35, confessed to shooting his father after an argument at Abel’s home in Alamance County on Oct. 5, 1888. Albert said he was drunk, overdosed on morphine, and temporarily insane at the time of the shooting. A jury found him guilty the following March and sentenced him to hang. The state Supreme Court, though, ordered a new trial after finding that the trial judge had failed to give the jury proper guidance about insanity pleas. Albert agreed to a reduced charge of manslaughter and, in October 1890, was sentenced to 10 years in the state penitentiary.
[3] Before the advent of routine and safe passenger air flight, baseball teams traveled by train, forming an intimate bond that lasted more than 70 years. That closeness is seen today in baseball terms that have their roots in the rail yard. A “double header,” two games played by the same teams on the same day, is a train with two locomotives on its front  ends. A pitch in a batter’s “wheelhouse” is one he can “turn around” and usually hit with authority. It’s originally a turntable at the end of the line to send trains back to where they came. “Schedules” used to be just secondary financial forms appended to the main form. They still are to the Internal Revenue Service. By the mid-19th century, because of the railroad and baseball, they became lists of intended events and times.
[4] The six teams that left the National Association to form the National League were the Boston Red Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Brown Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, and New York Mutuals. They were joined by the Cincinnati Reds and the Louisville Grays to make up the eight-team league.
[5] Player discipline was a major issue in the early years of the National League. The infractions ranged from insubordination to throwing games for gamblers. Four players on the Louisville club were banned permanently for such dishonesty. But players were tossed for lesser causes, such as drunkenness and poor play. Individual clubs decided who to suspend or ban. The league started the blacklist in 1881. Players weren’t given the chance to defend themselves before being added.

References
[I] Email exchange with author.
[II] Gilbert, John. “Baseball and the Railroad.” How Baseball Happened, September 12, 2020. https://howbaseballhappened.com/blog/great-western-rrhttps://howbaseballhappened.com/blog/great-western-rr.
[III] “If Jones Refrains From Any More ‘Baby’ Whining.” Baseball History Daily. https://baseballhistorydaily.com/tag/charley-jones/.
[IV] Hershberger, Richard. “The First Baseball War: The American Association and the National League.” Baseball Research Journal, Society of American Baseball Research, Fall 2020.
[V] “Charley Jones Released by Cincinnatis.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, August 1, 1886.
[VI] “Square in the Eyes.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, December 15, 1885.
[VII] Ibid.

 

 

 

Hodgin, Ralph

Positions: Left field, third base
Birthplace: Greensboro

First, Middle Names: Elmer Ralph
Date of Birth:  Feb. 10, 1915  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 4, 2011, Burlington, NC
Burial: Guilford Memorial Park, Greensboro

High School: Jamestown High School, Jamestown, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 167
Debut Year: 1939       Final Year: 1948          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: Boston Bees 1939; Chicago White Sox 1943-44, 1946-48

 Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
530      1689    481      198      188      4          .285     .330     .367     5.1

When he took the mound at Briggs Stadium in Detroit on that cold, windy April day for his second start of the 1947 season, Hal Newhouser could legitimately claim to be the best pitcher in the American League. Playing for his hometown Tigers, the 26-year-old lefty had won 80 games over the past three years and two Most-Valuable Player Awards.

The pitcher who faced the visiting Chicago White Sox on that April day, however, wasn’t that Hal Newhouser. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe the stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie carried with it the raw rookie, the wild Newhouser of 1939 or ’40 who walked six or seven batters a game.

In any case, the Tiger hurler walked the leadoff hitter, Floyd Baker, in the first of what would be five free passes in a few innings of work that day. He then grooved a fastball to shortstop Luke Appling, a North Carolina boy and two-time batting champion, who promptly lined it to the gap in right for a double, sending Baker to third. Newhouser struck out Dave Philley for the first out and issued an intentional walk to load the bases for a double play. Up stepped Ralph Hodgin, all five-foot, 10-inches of him. Sportswriters liked referring to him in print as the “little left fielder” or the “little lefty” when he was batting since he hit from that side of the home plate.

At 32, Hodgin was getting on in baseball years and, unlike Newhouser, had just a couple of major-league seasons to brag about. As a rookie back in 1943, he had hit .314 for the White Sox, finishing second in the league’s batting race. He had followed that up by hitting close to .300 the next season, while striking out only 14 times in nearly 500 at bats. The Sporting News had reported then that Hodgin was “a splendid fly hawk, has a fine arm and is a tough little left-handed hitter.”[I]

But then, the little guy could always hit.

The second-youngest of seven children, Hodgin had grown up on his family’s dairy farm in Friendship, a community founded by Quakers in western Guilford County. When he wasn’t helping his father, Elmer, milk or feed cows, Hodgin had played baseball, first at old Jamestown High School and then for independent teams near home.[1]

Signed by the Tigers in 1935, he had been the second-best hitter in all of the minor leagues that season after batting .387 for the club’s Class D franchise in Fieldale, Virginia. He had continued to hit as he graduated through the minor leagues – from Charleston, West Virginia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Evansville, Indiana, to Hartford, Connecticut. The Bees, which had bought Hodgin’s contract in 1937, had called him to Boston two years later where he played in 32 games in his first major-league season and hit only .208.[2]

Hodgin had toiled three more years in the minors, including a season with the San Francisco Seals of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in 1942. There, he had been the team’s best and most-consistent hitter. Some had said at the time that he was the Seal’s best outfielder in a decade. “He’s the quiet type, saying little in the clubhouse or on the bench, but he hustles all the time,” a reporter had noted at the time.[II]

White Sox coaches had certainly liked Hodgin’s bat when they drafted him from the Seals after the season, but they may have been more enamored of his draft status. Hodgin had married Frances, or Frannie, Huckabeee in 1939 and they had an infant daughter. As the family’s only means of financial support, Hodgin was temporarily excused from serving in the armed forces at a time when World War II was quickly depleting team rosters. A reliable bat that could remain in the lineup, at least for a little while, was an attractive proposition.

It had paid off during Hodgin’s first two years with the Sox, but he had missed all of the 1945 season and part of the next one after his draft board reconsidered his status and cancelled his deferment. He was inducted into the Army in January, but the war was over before he finished training.

When he dug into the box on April 21, 1947, Hodgin was eager to re-establish himself as a hard-hitting regular. We don’t know where in the count it happened because 73-year-old records aren’t that precise, but at some point in the at bat Newhouser unleased a fastball. He rarely hit anyone with errant pitches. But this one hit Hodgin. In the right temple. At a time when few players wore protective batting helmets.[3] The sound of ball hitting bone cracked through the stadium, and Hodgin went down as if shot. A hush settled over the old ballyard as the 7,000 or so spectators held their collective breath. The umpires called for a stretcher and Hodgin was carried off the field. Doctors at the hospital said later he suffered a concussion and a bad bruise. They expected him to fully recover.

Newhouser lost the game and would end up having an off year dominated by wildness, losing as many games as he won. He would recover, however, and pitch effectively for eight more seasons. His plaque now hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hodgin’s major-league career effectively ended on that cold afternoon. He was out for three weeks and was ordered back to bed after playing in one game and complaining of headaches. Though he hit. 294 in the 59 games, Hodgin seemed tentative at the plate.

He declared himself fully recovered when he reported for spring training in 1948. “I’m feeling fine,” he said. “At first I had some short lapses of memory, then some terrible headaches. But my head has not bothered me at all during the past few months.”[III]

The little guy who could always hit lost his aggressiveness at the plate, batting just .266, and a few steps in the outfield. The White Sox sold him to Sacramento, California, in the Pacific Coast League at the end of season. Hodgin ended his major-league career with a .285 lifetime average, 14th best among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats.

Hodgin spent the next eight years playing or managing in the minors. He won a Carolina League championship with the Reidsville, North Carolina, Luckies in 1952. He retired from baseball four years later and drove trucks or was a dispatcher for oil-delivery companies in Greensboro. He and Frannie had moved there with their two surviving daughters.

Frannie died in 1995. Hodgin was the oldest surviving White Sox and the fourth-oldest major leaguer when he died in 2011 at age 96.

Footnotes
[1] Jamestown High School opened in 1915 on a prominent hill in town. It functioned as a high school until Ragsdale High opened in 1959. The building housed an elementary school until 1982 when it underwent extensive renovations and reopened as the Jamestown Public Library six years later. The Classical Revival-style brick building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
[2] The National League’s Boston franchise had several names since its founding in 1870 as the Red Stockings. Sportswriters began calling the team the Beaneaters in the late 1880s, but the Braves became the official nickname in 1912. Bob Quinn bought the financially struggling franchise in 1936 and renamed it the Bees. Five years later, a new owner, Lou Perini, changed the nickname back to the Braves. The team has kept the name despite moving twice, first to Milwaukee, WS, and  then to Atlanta, GA.
[3] A few batters as far back as the early 1900s devised crude protective helmets after being struck in the head by pitches. The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 became the first major-league team to require its players to wear helmets during the regular season. The Washington Senators, the NY Giants, and the Chicago Cub quickly followed. It would be another 15 years, though, before the National League required helmets. The American League followed two years later, but the requirement wasn’t strictly enforced and many players ignored it. Finally, Major League Baseball began strictly enforcing the mandatory use of batting helmets during the 1971 season.

References
[I] “20 Players Move Up From Coast League.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 12, 1942.
[II] McGee, Jim. “Hodgin Hustlin’ Outfielder.”  Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 12, 1942.
[III] “Ralph Hodgin Fully Recovered.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), March 10, 1948.

 

 

 

 

 

Gooch, Lee

Position: Left field
Birthplace: Oxford

First, Middle Names: Lee Currin
Date of Birth:  Feb 23, 1890   Date and Place of Death: May 18, 1966, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Wake Forest Cemetery, Wake Forest, NC

High School: Horner Military School, Oxford
College: Wake Forest University, Wake Forest, NC; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 190
Debut Year: 1915       Final Year: 1917          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Cleveland Indians, 1915; Philadelphia Athletics, 1917

 Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
19       61        18       4          8          1          .295     .338     .377       0.2

Lee Gooch was worried. Wake Forest College invited him to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1960 to manage a team of baseball alumni against the varsity squad. It was the school’s way to honor one of its most-illustrious coaches, the skipper who had won more than 60 games in two glorious seasons, coming just shy of a national baseball championship. He had made the little Baptist school, then still in its hometown of Wake Forest, North Carolina, the talk of the state.[1]

But it was only two seasons more than a decade earlier and Gooch, 70, wondered whether anyone would remember or care. He had arrived early at Ernie Shore Field and fretted, nervously chain smoking while pacing the dugout as the stadium slowly filled.

The place was packed when the announcer finally got around to introducing the participants. The fans applauded generously when each player took his place along the foul line. “When the announcer called his name, Gooch removed his hat and his white hair glistened in the sun,” a newspaper reported. “The cheers were long and loud, a moment of emotion at a homecoming at the ballyard.”

Gooch let the applause shower over him, his body rigid, his face firm. They remembered. He fought back tears as he returned to the dugout.  “Here,” he said, handing his half-filled pack of cigarettes to a bystander, “take these things. I quit smoking, on doctor’s orders, years ago.”[I]

Lee Currin Gooch was born in 1890 on the family farm outside Oxford, the seat of Granville County. His father, Daniel, died when Gooch was a teenager. His mother, Mary Alice, or Allie, moved her large family of nine children to town, where she ran a boarding house.

Gooch played baseball and football for four years at Horner Military School in Oxford.[2] He graduated in 1912 at age 22, old for a high-school senior. He entered Wake Forest, then in neighboring Wake County, and was the leading hitter on the 1913 team that won a state championship. It’s puzzling, then, that the team’s hitting star would leave for the University of North Carolina. Before reporting to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1914, Gooch played outfield for the Winston-Salem Twins, his first professional team.

Newspaper reports imply that Gooch wasn’t happy about his lack of playing time at UNC and quit before the season ended to sign with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in the old North Carolina State League.

He got his first taste of the major leagues in 1915 when he appeared in two games for the Cleveland Indians. He hung around a little longer two years later, playing in 19 games for the Philadelphia Athletics. He was released and spent the rest of the season playing or managing for minor-league clubs in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina.

A war in Europe then intruded. Gooch was drafted in September 1917 and assigned to the Army’s 81st Infantry Division at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. Before being shipped to the Western Front the following August, Sgt. Gooch married Mary Holding, a local Wake Forest girl he had met while in school.

The division was at the front lines near Verdun, France, in early November 1918. Gooch, by then a second lieutenant, was with the 322nd Regiment that captured the ruined village of Moranville on the morning of November 9. Though it suffered heavy casualties, the regiment had to withdraw to a safer position by nightfall. It was preparing to try again two days later when the battlefield went eerily silent. The armistice had been signed. The war was over. The division returned to the United States in June 1919.

Gooch spent the next 10 years playing and managing in the minors, first in such far-off places like Maine and Washington state and later closer to his home in Oxford and then nearby Henderson, North Carolina: Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville and Rocky Mount. As a player, he was known for his potent bat and slick outfield defense. Only twice did his average dip below .300, and he hit three home runs in a game in 1927. He won two pennants as a manager and even tried his hand coaching the kids at Trinity College, now Duke University, in Durham for one season.

Approaching 40 in 1929, Gooch retired from baseball to spend fulltime on his second career, the one that paid the bills. He had managed or owned tobacco warehouses in the offseasons since the early 1920s.

Gooch had been out of baseball for two decades when he took over the Wake Forest team in 1949. He said that he was “glad to get back to my first love.”[II] He also said he liked his club’s chances. He inherited a veteran team with 15 returning players, including future All-America’s Charlie Teague at second base and Gene Hooks at third. Russell Batchelor, the conference’s best catcher, was back, as was a trio of savvy pitchers: Vernon “Deacon” Mustian, Moe Bauer and Harry Nicholas.

The team sent a message in the opener by pounding out 15 hits in trouncing Randolph Macon College, 14-1. The umpires mercifully called it off after five innings because of heavy rain. They followed that up with another 15 hits, including four homers, in an 11-5 walloping of Cornell University. Two Deacon pitchers then combined to toss a no-hitter against Lumberton’s minor-league team. Wake Forest beat them 17-0 two weeks later.

The winning streak reached 20, one of the longest in collegiate history in the state. Their games were drawing overflow crowds. Good pitching and harmony were the ingredients of success, their rotund coach said. “There’s not the least bit of friction,” Gooch noted. “When a sub goes in, he slapped on the back by the man he replaces. There’s hustle, spirit, fight and scrapping on every play. The boys go all out to win.”[III]

Wake Forest ended up 38-6. Against college teams, it lost only two games. The runaway winner of the Southern Conference faced Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA double-elimination tournament. Wake won two straight. The heavily favored University of Southern California, the defending national champion, was next. The Deacons won two 2-1 thrillers, both going extra innings, to advance to Wichita, Kansas, for the final round. No North Carolina college baseball team had ever advanced so far. Only the UNC basketball team in 1946 had been the runner up in a national collegiate tournament.[3]

The formidable Texas Longhorns, a perennial baseball powerhouse, proved to be too much. They handed Wake its worst drubbing of the year in the first game, getting 15 hits on the way to a 8-1 victory. The second game was even worst, a 10-3 loss.

More than a thousand fans, though, greeted the Deacons when they landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport after the tournament. Their coach, though, wasn’t with them to bask in the applause. He followed on a train. Like a lot of baseball players, Gooch was very superstitious. He carried a rabbit’s foot wherever he went, never rode on airplanes and wouldn’t allow photographers in the dugout during games.[IV]

The Deacons again had the class of the conference in 1950, and everyone expected them to repeat as champions. Many thought they would win it all this time. Though it won 31 more games and the Southern Conference, the team faltered in the first round of the NCAA tournament, losing to eventual champion University of Alabama.

After two championship seasons, amassing 69 wins in 81 games, Gooch retired. He was 60 and getting too old, he said. The tobacco warehouses needed his attention, he said.

He and Mary lived their final years in Wake Forest. She died in 1959. Gooch died of a heart attack seven years later.

Footnotes
[1] Founded in 1834 in Wake Forest, the school moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1956.
[2] James Hunter Horner opened a secondary school on the outskirts of Oxford in 1855. His nephew, Jerome Horner, turned it into a military school in 1880. It was a great success until a fire burned down the barracks in 1913, the year after Lee Gooch graduated. It reopened in Charlotte, North Carolina, a year later and officially closed in 1920. (Anderson, Jean B. “Horner School,” NCPedia, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/horner-school).
[3] The 1949 tournament was the third NCAA-sanctioned tournament to determine a national baseball champion. The championship round was played for the first and only time in Wichita, KS. It moved to Omaha, NB, in 1950 where it’s been ever since.

References
[I] Helms, Herman. “Homecomings, at 76, Can Be Painful.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, April 10, 1960.
[II] “Gooch Named Deacon Coach for Baseball.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Feb 13, 1949.
[III] Associated Press. “Gooch Attributes Wake’s Success to Team Spirit.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, May 11, 1949.
[IV] Garrison, Wilton. “Wilton Garrison’s Sports Parade.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, February 24, 1951.

 

 

Whisenant, Pete

Positions: Centerfield, left field
Birthplace: Asheville

First, Middle Names: Thomas Peter
Date of Birth:  Dec. 14, 1929  Date and Place of Death: March 22, 1996, Port Charlotte, FL
Burial: Cremated

High School: Paw Creek High School, Paw Creek, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 190
Debut Year: 1952       Final Year: 1961          Years Played: 8
Teams and Years: Boston Braves, 1952; St. Louis Cardinals, 1955; Chicago Cubs, 1956; Cincinnati Redlegs, 1957-60; Cleveland Indians, 1960; Washington Senators, 1960; Minnesota  Twins, 1961; Cincinnati Reds, 1961

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
465   988    221     140     134      37       .224     .284     .399     1.6

 An intense competitor, Pete Whisenant was thought to be just a few steps from stardom when he signed his first professional contract as one of North Carolina’s most-prized prep players. It was not to be, however. After an eight-year career on seven big-league clubs, Whisenant retired as a reserve outfielder with a .224 career batting average.

He had short careers as a major-league coach and minor-league manager after his playing days and longer ones as the director of a popular baseball camp and as a businessman who owned vending machines and sold baseball memorabilia. That last endeavor led to a partnership with Pete Rose, the game’s all-time hits leaders, that didn’t end that well.

Born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1929, Thomas Peter Whisenant grew up in Paw Creek, in western Mecklenburg County, after his mother, Pearl, married Jim Todd, a local farmer. Murphy Barnes, Whisenant’s father, was a longtime resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he worked for the United States Department of Agriculture.

Paw Creek, now a neighborhood of Charlotte, was then a small village of cotton mills six miles from the city. Baseball players were another community export. Whisenant grew up idolizing Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger, and Whitey Lockman, an older local boy who made it to the majors a few years before he did. Bill Baker had proceeded them both. Ken Wood and Tommy Helms would make it later.[1]At one time,” Whisenant said, “that small mill village had more major-league ballplayers than the entire state of Arkansas.”[I]

He was the captain of the high-school baseball team and a starter on its basketball squad, though he had a habit of fouling out of games. A star on the local American Legion team, he was chosen in 1946 to a team of Eastern prep all-stars who played their Western counterparts in a game in Wrigley Field sponsored by Esquire magazine. The teenager had never ventured far from home and was awestruck by the sprawling station in Cincinnati where he had to change trains to Chicago. “Grandpa, this place is bigger than all of Paw Creek,” he wrote on the back of a postcard of the station that he mailed home.[II]

The Eastern team lost 10-4, but Whisenant had three of the team’s six hits and shared the dugout with Manager Honus Wagner. Ty Cobb piloted the opposing team. Imagine the stories that must have impressed the folks back home.

Whisenant was considered “the finest major-league prospect in the country” when he graduated in May 1947. Major-league scouts and college recruiters had filled the stands during that final season. “You should have been out here Monday night,” one reported. “There were so many bird dogs out here that they should have worn badges to keep from signing up each other.”[III]

Scouts camped out on the kid’s front porch for two weeks trying to get his name on a contract. Gil English, a former major-leaguer from High Point, North Carolina, finally did. The Boston Braves had to pony up about $100,000 in current dollars for the teen’s signature.

Whisenant spent several years in the Braves’ minor leagues and was expected to make the big-league club in 1951, but he joined the Navy rather than be drafted.

When he returned to the Braves the following spring, the six-foot, two-inch Whisenant had filled out to 190 pounds. He hit well in exhibition games and covered a lot of ground in centerfield. Old hands noticed that like Ted Williams the rookie spent a good deal of time when he wasn’t chasing down fly balls practicing his swing. They also saw that unlike the Boston Red Sox star Whisenant wasn’t an indifferent fielder. In fact, he was considered one of best defensive outfielders in the Braves’ system. His can-do demeanor also left an impression. “I like the boy,” said Braves’ Manager Tommy Holmes. “He has that old-time spirit. He’s a fiery competitor.”[IV]

He made his debut with the Braves in April 1952 but lasted only 24 games before being sent back down to the Class AAA club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He reappeared in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955 and then the Chicago Cubs the following season, his best in the big leagues. He played in 103 games and had career highs in home runs (11) and batting average (.239).

Whisenant became a valuable reserve and pinch hitter for the Cincinnati Redlegs for three seasons, starting in 1957.[2] He had five pinch-hit homers that year. He played his last two years on three teams before returning to Cincinnati in 1961. Whisenant retired as an active player in the middle of the season and became the batting coach on a team headed to the World Series. He paced the dugout with a bat, swatting sleepy players and malcontents. He was the consummate cheerleader and Manager Fred Hutchinson’s right-hand man. “Pete Whisenant was our rah-rah guy,” pitcher Joey Jay remembered. Old-school in his outlook, Whisenant was irritated by players discussing their investments or one, Jim Brosnan, pecking away at his typewriter.[3] “Think baseball, nothing else” was his constant litany.[V]

Released as the Reds’ outfield coach at the end of the 1962 season, Whisenant started a vending machine company in Evansville, Indiana, and moved it to Punto Gordo, Florida, seven years later where he also directed a baseball clinic for boys that Rose and Johnny Bench, Reds’ teammates, sponsored. He ran the popular clinic each winter into the mid-1970s.

Whisenant and Rose signed a contract in 1979 to capitalize on Rose’s assault on Cobb’s career hits record.[4] They were to sell souvenirs and merchandise bearing the caricature known as Little Charlie Hustle. They were to split the profits. Rose sued Whisenant over the character in 1985. Whisenant countersued two years later, claiming that Rose’s company sold merchandise without paying him. The lawsuits were settled out of court and the details were never disclosed.

Whisenant had better luck with the Modesto A’s in California. He managed the A’s to the California League championship in 1982. Billy Martin, the Oakland A’s manager, got his good friend the job as skipper of the club’s Class A affiliate. During his one season at Modesto, Whisenant was described variously as “cantankerous,” “hard-living,” “hard-drinking,” and a “masterful motivator.”[VI]

He was promoted to manage the Double A Huntsville Stars in 1983 but was fired at mid-season and moved to Costa Rica.

“He was tough on the outside and soft on the inside,” his son, Pete Jr., said.[VII]

Whisenant, who was married three times, had seven children.

He was living back in Cincinnati in 1996 when he died in Port Charlotte, Florida, of liver failure.  


Footnotes
[1] Bill Baker was a catcher in the National League in the early 1940s. Whitey Lockman was an outfielder in the major leagues for 15 years, starting in 1945. Ken Wood, also an outfielder, debuted three years later and played for eight years. Tommy Helms was an all-star and Gold Glove second baseman and shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1960s. Baker was the only Paw Creek native. See their profiles for more information.
[2] The Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to the Redlegs in 1953 because they wanted to avoid getting caught up in McCarthyism’s consuming search for communists in government and business. They became the Reds again in 1959.
[3] A modestly effective relief pitcher, Jim Brosnan was known as an intellectual and was called The Professor by teammates because he puffed on a pipe and read books during games. He later wrote controversial books that, for the first time, realistically depicted life in a baseball locker room.
[4] Rose broke the record on September 11, 1985 with his 4,192nd hit.

References
[I] Heiling, Joe. “Astros Walking on Air Over Super Helms-Man.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 21, 1973.
[II] Lawson, Earl. “Red’s Helms – Courage Wrapped in a Small Package.” Sporting News (St. Louis. MO),
January 13, 1968.
[III] Howe, Ray. “Here’s Howe.” Charlotte (NC) News, April 30, 1947.
[IV] Warner, Ralph. “City’s Pete Whisenent Thrills Holmes, Braves With His Spirit,” Charlotte (NC) Observer, March 23, 1952.
[V] Murray, Jack. “O’Toole ‘Tried’ to ’61.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, Oct. 9, 1970.
[VI] “Modesto’s A’s Championship Skipper Whisenent Dies.” Modesto (CA) Bee, March 23, 1996.
[VII] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wright, Taffy

Position: Right field, left field
Birthplace: Tabor City

First, Middle Names: Taft Shedron   Nickname: Taffy
Date of Birth:  Aug. 10, 1911  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 22, 1981, Orlando, FL
Burial: Meadowbrook Cemetery, Lumberton, NC

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1938       Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 9
Team(s) and Years: Washington Senators, 1938-39; Chicago White Sox, 1940-42, 1946-48; Philadelphia Athletics, 1948

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1029  3583    1115    465      553      38        .311     .376     .423     16.7

To be blunt about it, Taft Wright tended to look more like the fat guy at the end of the bar than a ball player. Throughout his 20-year career in professional baseball, he endured all the adjectives sportswriters could conjure: Tubby, stocky, plump, round, rotund, roly-poly. One writer noted he was built like a “beer can.” Burton Hawkins of the old Evening Star in Washington got it right, though, when he wrote in 1939, “Taft Wright will plaster major-league pitching as long as he can waddle up to the plate.”[I]

For most of the nine years that he played in the big leagues, Wright was one of the top hitters in baseball. No less a judge than Hall of Famer Bob Feller ranked Wright among the most-dangerous hitters he faced in the American League, along with Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Gehringer. In 75 career at-bats against Feller, Wright hit .320, about 100 points higher than the league average.[II]

An intense competitor, he viewed every at bat as a fierce struggle with a pitcher who was trying to take money out of his pocket and food off his table. He hated all pitchers and himself if he didn’t smack one of their offerings to an outfield gap. Spraying line drives all over the field, Wright hit .300 most seasons and challenged for the batting title in a couple of them. He finished with a .311 career batting average, the highest among North Carolina players with at least a thousand at bats. He’s in the top 20 in six other offensive categories.

Playing the outfield was another matter entirely. Wright was a born designated hitter. Unfortunately, the position was more than a half a century in the future when he was born

That would have been in 1911 in Tabor City, a tobacco and lumber town on the South Carolina line in Columbus County that in Wright’s day also turned out crates for strawberries and watermelons. Someone once asked Taft Shedron Wright why a son of the then solid Democratic South was named after a Republican president. “I dunno,” he responded. “The family must have run out of names.”[III][1]

Isaac and Rosa Jane moved with their four children to Lumberton, about 30 miles away in Robeson County, by the time Taft was nine years old. There, Isaac worked in a cotton mill and in tobacco fields.

Fred Wright, the catcher for the town team, drafted his younger brother to pitch. Taft joined the team as a teenager and fancied himself a pretty good pitcher. When he tried out for a team in the Piedmont League in 1931, however, Wright was cut during spring training.

Pitching for a semipro textile team in Lancaster, South Carolina, the following year, he was on the mound in an exhibition game against the Class B club in Charlotte, North Carolina. His pitching didn’t impress Jimmy Dobbs, the Charlotte manager. His line drives, however, did. “Son, a fellow who can hit like you doesn’t have any business pitching,” Dobbs told him. He invited Wright to join his club as an outfielder the following season.[IV]

He did and went five-for-five in his professional debut, capping the performance with a grand slam in the ninth inning. The Washington Senators signed him in 1934, and Wright spent three seasons in their minor leagues, hitting better than .300 in two of them.

The 5-foot, 10-inch Wright reported to the Senators’ spring training camp in 1938 tipping the scales at 220 pounds. Manager Bucky Harris ordered him to run laps in the outfield wearing a rubber suit. Despite his weight and suspect outfield play, Wright made the team because there was no denying that the rookie could hit.

He started the season platooning with fading star Al Simmons in right field, but that arrangement lasted eight days. After dropping a fly ball in a critical spot during a game, Wright was sent to the bench as a pinch-hitter. Appearing in 100 games, only 61 of them in the field, he finished the season hitting .350, but he didn’t qualify for the batting title, which Boston’s Jimmie Foxx won with a .349 average.

Though he hit .309 in 129 games the following year, the Senators traded Wright at the end of the season to the Chicago White Sox. He started the 1940 season with an 18-game hitting streak and battled teammate Luke Appling, a fellow North Carolinian, for the lead in the race for the batting title most of the year. Wright cooled at the end and finished with a .337 average, good for seventh place.[2]

The White Sox sent Wright and two other players – dubbed the Fat Man Club – to a resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to boil off some flab before the new season began. A coach went along to guard the mashed potatoes. Wright caught the flu, spent time in the hospital and missed the first two weeks of the 1941 season. He was hitting .300 by mid-July, though, and finished with .322 average while knocking in a career-best 97 runs.

Teammates by then were accustomed to the particularly harsh criticisms Wright would hurl at himself whenever he was retired by a pitcher for whom he had little respect, which was most pitchers. That guy was on the mound to make a fool of him, he’d tell them. His job was to return the favor. “I don’t worry now,” Wright told a reporter at the time. “I know every time I’m up there, the pitcher’s going to give me one good ball. That’s the baby I’ll park down his throat.”[V]

This was war and he went to the plate prepared for battle. “I used to study a pitcher every minute he was on the mound,” Wright recounted years later. “I might not remember his name, but I knew what was his best pitch and what he liked to throw in a situation.”[VI]

He was in the middle of another .300 season in 1942 when the Army drafted Wright in August for a real war. He spent World War II playing baseball.

Wright was 34 when he returned to the White Sox in 1946 and for the first time in his career finished a season batting less than .300. He rebounded the following year and even challenged Boston’s Williams for the batting title, but he had become a slap hitter with only 17 extra-base hits.

His final two seasons in the majors were desultory affairs. He batted just .235 in the last one, 1949, as a pinch hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics.

He played or managed in the minor leagues for five more years. Wright was hitting .406 for Ottawa, Ontario, in 1953 when he fractured his skull after getting hit in the head by a pitch. He spent a month in the hospital. When he was released, the team tossed a party for the International League’s leading hitter. Six thousand fans showed up. “There was something fine and wholesome about the tribute to leftfielder Taft Wright…” the Ottawa newspaper commented. “It had the appearances of a spontaneous outpouring of affection and esteem for a good sportsman, one who is no glamour boy by most standards but who has caught the imagination of baseball enthusiasts here by quietly going about his business and turning in a workmanlike job whenever called upon.”[VII]

Hobbled by a bad knee, Wright made the tough decision to quit for good in 1955. “You don’t do that,” he said years later. “They quit you, is what happens.”[VIII]

Wright had sold his farm in Lumberton in 1947 and had moved to Orlando, Florida. That’s where he settled after baseball with his wife, Marie, and their three children. He could be found most days at the Taft Wright Bar and Package store downtown. It didn’t take much prompting to get him talking about growing up with little during the Depression, or playing semipro ball at age 17, or pulling a Feller fastball to gap in right. “Playing baseball is all I ever wanted to do,” said the old ballplayer, who actually was that fat guy at the bar.[IX]

Failing health forced Wright to sell the place. He tended bar at a local VFW hall until he died of a heart attack at age 70.


Footnotes
[1] William Howard Taft, the 27th president, was a great baseball fan who played second base as a youngster and started the tradition of presidents throwing out the first ball at season home openers. Taft first did that on April 14, 1910 at a Washington Senators’ opener.
[2] The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio won his second consecutive batting title in 1940 with a .352 average. Luke Appling was second at .348.

References
[I] Corbett, Warren. “Taft Wright.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/taft-wright/.
[II] Brietz, Eddie. Associated Press. “Dopey Dean. Charlotte Clown May Get Schacht’s Old Role.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 9, 1940.
[III
] Condon, David. “Taffy Wright Was a Big Sox Hit.” Chicago (IL) Tribune, Oct. 28, 1981.
[IV
] Corbett.
[VI] Conzelman, Jimmy. International News Service. Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), March 12, 1941.
[VII] Beebe, Bob. “Taft Wright – Could Be a Designated Hitter.” Minneapolis (MN) Star, March 28, 1973.
[VII] Ruby, Earl. “Ruby’s Report.” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), July 28, 1953.
[VIII
] “Taft Wright… Toasting Baseball.” Orlando (FL) Sentinel. April 1, 1973.
[IX]
Ibid.