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.          

 

Fetzer, Bill

Primary Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Concord

First, Middle Names:  William McKinnon
Date of Birth:  June 24, 1884  Date and Place of Death: May 3, 1959, Butner, NC
Burial: Oakwood Cemetery, Concord, NC

High School: Concord High School, Concord, NC
College: Davidson College, Davidson, NC

Bats: L Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1906        Final Year: 1906          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1906

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1          1            0          0          0          0          .000     .000     .000     0.0

In college and down in the minors, Bill Fetzer was known for prodigious drives that bounced off church steeples. Though he stood only five-foot-ten inches and weighed no more than 180 pounds, he was called Big Bill because of his big blasts. It figures, then, that a slugger like that would appear in one major-league game as a pinch hitter and strike out.

He had much more success after baseball as a winning football and baseball coach at three, major North Carolina colleges.

The third of five children, William McKinnon Fetzer was born in 1884 in Concord, North Carolina. His mother, Zeta, was a doctor’s daughter. His father, Pendleton Bernard, or “P.B.,” owned a drugstore and popular general store in town.

The youngster took up baseball at an early age, as this item in an 1895 edition of his hometown newspaper would seem to attest. “While playing ball Tuesday evening in the yard of his home on Fetzer Avenue, Master Willie Fetzer let a ball pass through his hands, striking him on the upper lip, which cut a hole through it,” the paper reported. “His teeth were not loosened, however. The hurt was quite painful to the little fellow.”[I]

Fetzer continued his ball playing at the local high school and, starting in 1901, at nearby Davidson College, where he played second base and was an all-conference halfback on the football team.

He started his professional career four years later just up the road in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Class D Hornets and was considered one of the best players in the Virginia-Carolina League.

After the season, Fetzer got a job at Fishburne Military School, an all-boys boarding school in Waynesboro, Virginia. He would teach there in the offseasons for several years and eventually became the school’s athletics director.

He moved up a notch in 1906 to the Class C Red Sox in Danville, Virginia. He was hitting .262 and led the Virginia League in home runs with five when the Philadelphia Athletics bought his contract in September. Manager Connie Mack sent Fetzer in to pinch hit for Socks Siebold on Sept. 4 in a game that the Athletics would win 10-3. Fetzer struck out in his only major-league at bat.

He was back in Danville the following season and continued to hit long homers. One left fans and his teammates in awe. “The drive was more than 700 feet from the home plate when it hit a church steeple and thus stopped in its flight, which no doubt would have gone over 1,1,00 feet,” a newspaper reported. “The grandstand yelled for fully five minutes, playing had to be stopped by the umpire until the fans and the players on both teams regained their equilibrium.”[II]

Fetzer played or managed in the minor leagues until 1915 when he replaced his brother, Robert, as Davidson’s head football coach. He also managed the baseball team and was the school’s athletics director. Over five seasons, Fetzer’s football team compiled a 17-11 record, with three ties. Davidson adopted a nickname in 1917 that reflected the ferocity of Fetzer’s football squad. The school’s teams had been informally called the “preachers.” The football team fought with such tenacity against Georgia Tech that year that some Georgia newspapers reported that the undermanned opponents played like “wildcats.”

After two years at what’s now N.C. State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he was the head football coach for two seasons and baseball skipper for one, Fetzer moved the short distance to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1921 to coach football and baseball at the University of North Carolina. He was joined by his brother, Bob, on the football team — they called themselves associate head coaches. Bob handled the paperwork and all administrative duties while Bill was the on-field coach.[1]

The brothers won 30 football games over the next five seasons and tied for first in the Southern Conference in 1922 with a team that went 19-1. It lost only to Yale University after the referees in the Yale Bowl recalled three UNC touchdowns. In protest, the Fetzers returned to Yale the following season with a team of scrubs and lost 53-0. An opposing team can’t win there anyway, Bill told the newspapers.

His UNC baseball teams were also successful. They won 70 games, while losing 37.

Fetzer and his wife, Dorothy, continued to live in Chapel Hill after his coaching days. They had a son there. Fetzer died of a heart attack in 1959.

Footnote
[1] Robert Allison Fetzer was known affectionately as “Coach Bob” to thousands of UNC students, alumni and Chapel Hill residents. He first coached track and was named athletics director when the position was created in 1923. He left in 1952 to become the executive director of the John Motley Morehead Foundation. He was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1965. He died three years later.

References
[I] A Hole Through His Lip.” Daily Standard (Concord, NC), April 3, 1895.
[II] Willy M. Fetzer Breaks Ball Record.” Concord (NC) Times, July 19, 1907.

Upright, Dixie

Primary Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Kannapolis

First, Middle Names: Roy Theophilus
Date of Birth: May 30, 1926    Date and Place of Death: Nov. 13, 1986, Concord, NC
Burial: Greenlawn Cemetery, China Grove, NC

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

Bats: L Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-0, 175
Debut Year: 1953        Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: St. Louis Browns, 1953

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
9          8          2          3          1               1       .250     .333     .625       0.0

Dixie Upright hit everywhere he went in the minors. At his first stop in 1947, a lowly Class D league in Oklahoma, he scorched the ball at a .360 clip. Promoted up the ladder, he continued to hit: .336 in Class B, .343 in Class A, .300 in Class AA. Once, in a doubleheader in Memphis, Tennessee, he reached base nine consecutive times. He often challenged for batting titles each season and was among the league leaders in home runs and runs batted in. When he was done after 12 seasons in the minor leagues, he boasted a career .311 average. Yes, Dixie could hit.

About the only place he didn’t was in St. Louis, Missouri. The American League’s Browns bought his contract in 1953 after Upright had hit .318 for the Memphis Chicks the previous season. He appeared in nine games in early May as a pinch hitter. He got two hits, including a home run against future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon of the Cleveland Indians. It wasn’t enough, however. The Browns sold him to the Chicago Cubs who promptly sent him back to the minors, where he remained until he retired in 1958. By the way, he hit .343 that final season.

“He would always say that he was good with the wood but not the glove,” said his wife, Marcelle, years later.[I]

After a season as a minor-league scout, Upright returned to Kannapolis, North Carolina, where he was born in 1926. His father, Gother, spent most of his life working for Cannon Mills, the local company that then was the largest towel and sheets manufacturer in the world. His mother, Marie, had her hands full with seven children. Roy Theophlus was the second oldest of the brood.

Growing up, he was known as Bud to his brothers and sisters and to everyone else in town. Like so many other Southerners, he was tagged with the unimaginative nickname during his first year in the minors. It stuck. He was forever Dixie, even to his family and friends back home.

Upright played first base and the outfield at Kannapolis High School and for the local American Legion team. He enlisted in the Army after graduating in 1944 and spent World War II at a base in California. He was playing semipro ball in Kannapolis after his discharge when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him to his first professional contract.

After his career, Upright sold furniture at several local stores. He served on the executive board of the local Chamber of Commerce and raised money for the blind and for disabled children as a member of the Lions and Optimists clubs. For his humanitarian efforts, Upright received the state’s Governor’s Volunteer Service Award.

He died of an undisclosed illness in 1986 at age 60. His obituary lists no children.

Reference
[I] DeAdwyler. Ted. “R.T. ‘Dixie’ Upright, Ex-Baseball Player.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, Nov. 15, 1986.

Whisenant, Pete

Primary Positions: Centerfield, leftfield
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.