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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tyson, Turkey

Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Elm City

First, Middle Names: Cecil Washington        Nicknames: Turkey
Date of Birth: Dec. 6, 1914     Date and Place of Death: Feb. 17, 2000
Burial: Cedar Grove Cemetery, Elm City

High School: Undetermined
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, NC

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 225
Debut Year: 1944       Final Year: 1944          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1944

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

Turkey Tyson had one day in the big leagues. He pinch hit in the ninth inning of a meaningless game and popped out to third. It was a brief interlude to a 15-year career down on the farms. Tyson bounced around minor-league clubs, from Tallahassee, Florida, to Utica, New York, accumulating a .300 career batting average and acquiring a reputation as a boisterous, fan favorite. After a very public feud with Cuban opponents that had a nasty, racial overtone, Tyson wore out his welcome up North and returned to North Carolina where he became a minor-league legend as a player and manager.

George and Jennie Tyson named the first of their two children Cecil when he was born in December 1914 in Elm City in Wilson County, but everybody called him Turkey most of his adult life. Some said it was because he once visited the country of that name with a baseball team. Others claimed it was the gobbling sound he made whenever he got a hit.[I]

Tyson began playing baseball at an early age on teams representing Elm City. “We would play teams from different communities, and a lot of times the teams would end up fighting among themselves,” he remembered many years later.[II]

The games certainly got more structured and less violent when he entered Oak Ridge Military Institute in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1932, probably to finish high school and then to enter the junior-college program that the school offered. His real motivation, however, was to play ball. The private school was something of a baseball factory, having sent a number of its students to the major leagues.[1]

A year after graduating in 1936, Tyson was chosen to play and teach baseball in England.[2] The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress, which supported amateur baseball, sponsored the trip as a way to lobby for the sport’s addition to the Olympics

Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers when he returned home, Tyson played his first professional ball for Dodgers’ farm teams in Tallahassee and Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. They were the first of the nine different minor-league clubs that he would play first base and manage over the coming decade. His solid hitting, all that gobbling as he ran up the first base line, and his full-throated arguments with umpires made him a favorite of hometown fans wherever he went.

Tyson was in Utica in 1944, playing for the Phillies’ Class A Blue Sox, when he was called up to Philadelphia. The 29-year-old rookie had his one at bat on April 23 and was back in a Utica uniform a couple of days later.

The Blue Sox won the Eastern League pennant the following season but not without controversy. Many ballplayers were in military uniforms that year, America’s third in World War II. To fill rosters, the league had encouraged the signing of players from Cuba. Their numbers had increased dramatically since the start of the war, creating tension with some American players and coaches in the league. Resentment toward the Cubans was becoming a major problem, noted Louis Pickelner, the sports’ editor of the newspaper in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a league city. “Abuse of Cuban players is reaching a point which requires drastic action to save the game we reverently call our ‘National Pastime’ from being smeared by unsportsmanship ,” he wrote in July 1945.[III]

If the problem had a face, it would have looked a lot like Turkey Tyson’s. It’s hard to know how it all started and who should shoulder the burden of blame from 70-year-old newspaper accounts. Clearly, though, the Cubans were a bit brash. Maybe they thought they had something to prove to these Yanquis, but they played a brand of ball that Ty Cobb would have found familiar. They slid hard into bases, sometimes with spikes high. They barreled into catchers on plays at home and, when pitching, threw at batters.

Tyson seems to have been a favorite target, probably because he griped and complained to umpires and angrily confronted the offenders. The league’s owners fined and suspended him twice for his public displays. His second and longest suspension of 15 games came after he charged the mound with a bat during a game with Williamsport’s Rebels. Constrained by teammates, Tyson returned to the dugout without inflicting any physical harm, though he may have shouted the “N” word at the Cubans several times during the short journey. At the end of the inning, Dan Parra, a Rebels’ Cuban pitcher, charged across infield with two bats to confront Tyson. Again, teammates interceded and a truce was called with no one getting hurt.

Parra’s more lenient sentence from the league – a three-day suspension – triggered even more resentment among some of the league’s American players, coaches, and sportswriters who publicly proclaimed their support for Tyson, one of their own, while ridiculing the foreigners’ faulty English and even their food preferences. Pickelner, however, wasn’t among them. “A guy like Turkey Tyson, a double offender of the code of fair play, can very well wreck the entire structure of the Eastern League if not put in his place once and for all,” he wrote.[IV]

Little wonder, then, that Tyson expressed relief when he signed with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in 1947. The Class C club was a couple of steps down from the Blue Sox, but he was home again. “I didn’t like it up there, and I wanted to get back down home,” he said.[V]

He had his best year with the Bulls that season, hitting .349 and driving in 105 runs. He also set a Carolina League record with 74 assists at first base. It formed the foundation of a reputation Tyson would build over the next five years playing or managing four different minor-league clubs in North Carolina. He was colorful, quotable and considered a smart baseball man. At the end of his career when he was old enough to be the father of many of the youngsters he managed, Tyson was the wizened sage of the diamond.

He returned to Elm City in the offseasons where he was the most-famous man in the town of 800. He hawked tobacco as an auctioneer and swapped mules. “I’m a mule trader in the winter months,” he said in 1948. “I’ll buy mules and I’ll trade mules.” Most farmers around Elm City told reporters that Turkey could drive a hard bargain.[VI]

There was no reason to leave town after 1952, the year Tyson quit as manager of the local Leafs in Rocky Mount, a Class D team that occupied the lowest rung in the minor-league hierarchy. The team wasn’t very good and was going nowhere and the old mule trader couldn’t inspire them to do better. He abruptly quit in the middle of the season.

Tyson settled in with Hester, whom he had married in 1950, as Elm City’s famous son. He was elected as a town alderman in 1963 and served five terms. His brother, George, was mayor for much of that time.

He died in 2000 at age 85.


Footnotes
[1] What’s now called Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, Max Wilson, and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).
[2] Pitcher Max Wilson of Haw River, North Carolina, also made the trip. He made brief appearances in the major leagues in 1940 and 1946. See his profile for a more information.

References
[I] Temple, Bob. “Elm City, 1,000 in Population, has many Distinguishing Features.” Sunday Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), February 12, 1950.
[II] Cockrell, Bennett. “Cecil ‘Turkey’ Tyson Has Fond Memories.” Nashville (NC) Graphic, November 16, 1990.
[III] Pickelner, Louis, “A Little Extra.” Williamsport (PA) Sun-Gazette, July 20, 1945.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Quincy, Bob. “Leafs’ New Pilot Stopped Show at Coronation of Britain’s King.” Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), January 30, 1948.
[VI] Ibid.

 

Gulley, Tom

Positions: Right field, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Garner

First, Middle Names: Thomas Jefferson
Date of Birth:  Dec. 25, 1899  Date and Place of Death: Nov. 24, 1966, St. Charles, AK
Burial: Roselawn Memorial Park, Little Rock, AK

High School: Tallahatchie Agricultural High School, Charleston, MS
College: Mississippi College, Clinton, MS

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 178
Debut Year: 1923       Final Year: 1926          Years Played: 3
Team(s) and Years: Cleveland Indians, 1923-24; Chicago White Sox, 1926

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
25      58        12       10        9          0         .207     .303     .345     -0.1

Tom Gulley was born on Christmas Day and drowned in a freak accident on Thanksgiving 66 years later. In between, he had a brief major-league career and a more substantial one in the minors where he often challenged for batting titles. After baseball, he spent two decades in Arkansas politics, winning elections as a sheriff, alderman, tax collector, and judge.

Thomas Jefferson Gulley was born in Garner in 1899, the fifth of Robert and Annie Gulley’s seven children. The family moved to Hammond, Louisiana, by the time Gulley was nine and then to Brookhaven, Mississippi. He attended Tallahatchie Agricultural High School, a boarding school about 200 miles from home in Charleston, Mississippi. We don’t know if he played baseball there.

He was the leading hitter for Mississippi College, a private Baptist school in Clinton, and a star running back on the football team.

The Cleveland Indians invited Gulley to their spring training camp in Dallas, Texas, in 1922 and told him to come back when he finished college. He signed with the team after graduating the following year and appeared in two games. He was sent to Lakeland, Florida, and led the Florida State League in hitting in 1924. He appeared in eight more games for the Indians that year.

After hitting .378 for Little Rock, Arkansas, in the Southern Association the following season, Gulley found himself with the Chicago White Sox in 1926. He had his last and longest stint in the majors: Sixteen games and thirty-five at bats. He hit just .229.

Gulley spent the next six years in the minors, most of them with Montreal, Canada, in the International League. Even Canadian summers were too cold for a Southern boy, he said when first joining the Royals. Gulley acclimated quickly, however. He hit better than .320 while in Canada and became a feared slugger.

Failing eyesight that doctors attributed to a sinus condition forced Gulley to retire in 1932.

He returned to Little Rock where he had lived since at least 1930. Gulley had married a local girl, Donnie Holiman, two years earlier. They would have two children.

Gulley opened a drugstore and coached youth teams. The store and its soda fountain quickly became the hangout for every kid in town.

He won his first election in 1933 as a town alderman. He won successive terms until he was appointed deputy sheriff in 1941. Elected sheriff five years later, Gulley would be the head lawman in Pulaski County for twelve years. He was elected county tax collector in 1960 and county judge six years later.

 A couple of weeks after that election, on Thanksgiving Day, Gulley and a friend went on a deer hunting trip. The car he was driving rolled down the ramp to the St. Charles, AK, ferry and across the 60-foot-long barge before crashing through a restraining cable and into the White River. The friend jumped from the station wagon before it plunged into the water. Fishermen found Gulley’s body a week later about three miles downstream.

 

Watlington, Neal

Positions: Catcher, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Yanceyville

First, Middle Names: Julius Neal
Date of Birth:  Dec. 25, 1922  Date and Place of Death: Dec. 29, 2019, Yanceyville
Burial: Yanceyville Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Yanceyville

High School: Bartlett Yancey High School, Yanceyville
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0. 195
Debut Year: 1953       Final Year: 1953          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1953

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
21        44        7          4          3          0        .159     .213     .182     -0.3

Neal Watlington went off to war in 1943. Unlike other ballplayers of his generation, Watlington actually fought the enemy. He didn’t play ball to entertain the troops. He was one of them who slogged through France and Germany. He went back home to Yanceyville in Caswell County when it was all over with a Purple Heart for wounds he would always pass off as mere “nicks.” He later played a few weeks in the big leagues and then settled in to become a pillar of his hometown. He died in 2019, a few days past his 97th birthday, as one of the oldest-living ballplayers.

Born on Christmas Day in 1922, Julius Neal Watlington was the only son among Julius and Laura’s seven children. As a teenager, he worked in his father’s general store and played baseball and football for the local high school.

He signed his first professional baseball contract with the Mayodan, North Carolina, Millers of the Class C Bi-State League. “Back in 1941 when I was 17 and just out of high school, a team of the old Bi-State League ran out of catchers,” Watlington explained later. “They asked if I’d catch a few games. I caught two games, got my release and forgot about it. So did everybody else. But a couple of years ago somebody went through some records, discovered those two games and added six years to my career.”[I]

That career was interrupted by war. Watlington joined the Army in 1943 and arrived in Europe with the 89th Infantry Division two years later. He spent six months on the front driving a Jeep and operating a machine gun as the division fought its way from northern France into Germany. He was hit in the hands and head by artillery shrapnel but told an interviewer in 1953 that the wounds were “nothing worth talking about.” Patched up, Watlington was wounded again but never applied for a second Purple Heart. “What do I need two for?” he once told his son.

Stuart Watlington, his only child who became a lawyer in Yanceyville, once offered to take his elderly father to Europe to revisit the battlefields. “I was so glad to get home,” Watlington said, “why would I want to go back?”[II]

When he arrived home in 1946, he worked at Caswell Knitting Mills in Yanceyville and played amateur baseball. A local fan recommended him to New York Giants’ scout Herb Brett, who signed him a year later to play with the Giants’ Class C Danville, North Carolina, Leafs. He hit .328 with 21 doubles and was one of the team’s offensive leaders.

Watlington was also the pride of Yanceyville. The local Rotary Club sponsored a Neal Watlington Night in Danville and hundreds of his Caswell County neighbors showed up to present him with a pocket watch.

He spent the next five years playing for the Giants’ Triple A farm clubs. He was a tobacco auctioneer in the offseasons and delighted his teammates with demonstrations.

The Philadelphia Athletics acquired Watlington before the start of the 1952 season. Manager Jimmy Dykes called him up from the Class AAA club in Ottawa, Canada, when the starting catcher, Joe Astroth, was injured in the middle of the season. The 30-year-old rookie debuted on July 12 against the Boston Red Sox and singled in his first at bat against Hal “Skinny” Brown, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native.

Watlington appeared in only 21 games and was used mostly as a pinch hitter, ending his only big-league season with a .159 batting average. “Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he explained. “Both of them had good years, and there just wasn’t any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”[III]

After five more years as a solid Class AAA catcher, Watlington retired from baseball in 1958 and returned home to run the department store that he and his wife, Katherine, had bought five years earlier. Watlington’s on the Square was a downtown fixture for more than 50 years.

During that time Watlington became one of the most-respected men in town. He coached youth baseball teams and was the president of the Rotary Club, a board member of the Chamber of Commerce, an elder at the Yanceyville Presbyterian Church, and a charter member of the local Veterans of Foreign War post.

At 75, Watlington decided to plant a few fruit trees in his back yard. Within two years, he planted more than 200 apple, peach and pear trees and worked the orchard until his late 80s.

At the time of his death, he and Katherine had been married for 67 years. She died about six months later.

References
[I] Obituary: Neal Watlington (1922-2019).” RIP baseball, https://ripbaseball.com/2020/01/06/obituary-neal-watlington-1922-2019/
[II] Ibid.
[III] Diunte, N. “Neal Watlington, Former Philadelphia Athletics Catcher Dies at 97.” Baseball Happenings, January 6, 2020, https://www.baseballhappenings.net/2020/01/neal-watlington-former-philadelphia.html

 

Deal, Lindsay

Player Name: Deal, Lindsay
Position: Right field, pinch hitter
Birthplace: Lenoir

First, Middle Names: Fred Lindsay
Date of Birth:  Sept. 3, 1911    Date and Place of Death: April 18, 1979, Little Rock, AK
Burial: Pine Crest Memorial Park, Alexander, AK.

High School: Oak Hill High School, Lenoir
College: Rutherford College, Rutherford College, NC; Lenoir-Rhyne University, Hickory, NC

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 175
Debut Year: 1939       Final Year: 1939          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Brooklyn Dodgers, 1939

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
4          7          0          0          0          0      .000     .000     .000     -0.2

Though he played just three weeks in the major leagues, Lindsay Deal shocked the barons of baseball and captured headlines on sports pages around the country by persuading the sport’s authoritarian commissioner, who had a soft spot for minor leaguers, to come to his aid in a contract dispute with a major-league owner. Even with such help, Deal lost the argument and may have killed his career in the process by earning the owners’ lasting enmity. Though he was an excellent defensive outfielder who hit .300 in the minor leagues, Deal only got that one, brief shot at the big leagues at a time when players routinely journeyed to and from the minors.

He quit after 13 years in professional baseball and became a law-enforcement officer in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was positioned to write what might be the most important letter in the history of the Baltimore Orioles.

The oldest of Fred and Mamie Deal’s seven children, Deal grew up in the Little River section of Caldwell County, outside Lenoir, where Fred delivered the mail. He attended old Oak Hill High School and then Rutherford and Lenoir-Rhyne colleges where he played baseball and basketball.

A year after graduating, Deal signed his first professional contract in 1935 with the Knoxville, Tennessee, Smokies of the Class A Southern Association. He spent the next four years in the low minors, in places like Little Rock, Arkansas, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, honing his batting skills and earning rave reviews from managers and sportswriters about his defensive prowess. Deal was hitting .316 for the Montreal Royals in 1939 and was considered one of the best outfielders in the International League, then one step down from the majors, when the Dodgers brought him to Brooklyn at the end of the season. Used as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement, Deal appeared in four games and didn’t get a hit. The Dodgers sent him back to their farm team in Montreal at the end of the year.

Deal protested to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis that he “hadn’t been given a fair trial.”[I]Team owners had hired Landis, a federal judge, as baseball’s first commissioner to restore the game’s reputation in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, when players on the Chicago White Sox were suspected of throwing the 1919 World Series. Landis famously banned eight of the players for life and would go on to rule baseball with an iron hand for almost 25 years.

Though he was a slight man at 5-6 and 130 pounds, Landis was an intimidating presence. His finely chiseled features seemed to be locked in a perpetual expression of seriousness. He allowed his snow-white hair to grow to tragedian lengths and topped it with a battered, black hat. Landis’ small frame seemed to disappear in his oversized clothes with stiffly starched stand-up collars that hinted at a personal rigidity. “They hired him right out of Dickens,” Leo Durocher once quipped.[II]

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, ruled the sport with an iron fist for almost 25 years, but had a soft spot for the kids down in the minors. Photo: Major League Baseball

When he took the job as commissioner, Landis laid out his hard terms. The owners had to “yield all their rights – even the right to think.” He could fine players and owners any amount. He could suspend them, even ban them forever. There was no appeal. Landis was the court of last resort. As a result, players and owners alike quaked when they were called to his Chicago office.

Landis could be as unmoving as the mountain in Georgia after which he was named when it came to the game’s integrity.[1] He rooted out gamblers and shady players, banning 18 of them during his tenure. Even the gods weren’t spared. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth all crossed the commissioner and each paid a price.

Less known was Landis’ fight against farm clubs owned by major-league teams. On the federal bench, Landis was sympathetic to the underdog and the little guy and very hard on labor. He was the trust-busting judge who had slapped a $29 million fine on Standard Oil Co.

Branch Rickey’s innovation seemed like another trust to Landis. Rickey, who then ran the St. Louis Cardinals, pioneered the modern minor-league system in the 1920s.  Before then, farm teams were independent, and their owners sold or traded their best players to the big-league clubs. Under Rickey’s system, which was soon adopted by all the owners, major-league teams owned all their farm clubs, moving young players from one team to the next to fill gaps on the field or save money in the ledgers. The players, who were contractually bound to the teams for as long as they played, had no say in the matter.

The system abused the youngsters, Landis charged, and allowed teams to hoard players and hide them from other teams in defiance of the rules at the time. Landis waged a long and, in the end, losing campaign against the new farm system. He, for instance, freed minor leaguers on a case-by-case basis, either individually or by the busload. Landis freed 73 Cardinals’ farmhands in 1938. A year later, he made 90 players in the Detroit Tigers farm system free agents.

Deals’ appeal, then, found a willing audience. Landis ordered the Dodgers to invite the rookie to spring training in 1940 and give him a chance to make the club. The Dodgers and Deal couldn’t agree on a contract, however, and Landis interceded again. The Associated Press reported that the commissioner conferred by phone with the team and the player and, for the first time, fixed a contract amount.

That set the sporting press abuzz. “So, there you have it, a new worry for the men who have fortunes invested in baseball,” wrote a sports editor in Ohio. “Landis can tell them which players they must take to camp and how much they must pay for their services.”[III]

An angry Larry McPhail, the Dodgers’ president, complained to reporters that Landis hadn’t set a contract amount but had merely made “suggestions.” Landis replied, with a wry smile, “Everyone knows that all I do is make suggestions.”[2][IV]

Whatever Landis said didn’t help. Deal started the year in Montreal and then was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the middle of the season. He spent eight more years in the minors, the last as a player-manager in Greenville, Mississippi, and retired at the end of the 1948 season.

Deal returned to Little Rock, where he had been living since at least 1939. He raised five children there and spent his life after baseball as a deputy sheriff, a state trooper and a U.S. marshal.

In 1955, Deal wrote to Paul Richard, then in his first season as the Orioles’ general manager. The two had played together as minor leaguers in Atlanta. Deal urged Richard to take a look at a senior at Little Rock High School named Brooks Robinson. Deal attended church with the Robinsons and had watched the boy grow up. “I think he measures up to having a good chance in major-league baseball,” Deal wrote in a bit of understatement. “Brooks has a lot of power, baseball savvy and is always cool when the chips are down.”[V]

Richard dispatched two scouts to Arkansas. They signed the kid with a $3,000 bonus. Robinson, of course, would become a legendary Oriole, playing 23 years and setting a standard for defensive excellence at third base. A perennial All Star and Gold Glove winner, Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.

The man who discovered him didn’t live long enough to attend the induction ceremony. Deal died in 1979 at age 69.


Footnotes
[1] Landis’ father, Abraham, was a surgeon in the Union army during the Civil War. He named his son, born a year after the war in 1866, after a battle in Georgia where he was wounded by a cannonball. “Kennesaw” is the correct modern spelling of the mountain, but one “n” was accepted in the late 19th century.
[2]
It’s not clear from the existing records what Landis said and what McPhail understood. It’s unlikely, though, that the commissioner ordered the Dodgers to pay Deal a certain salary, as some of the first media reports implied. It is clear, however, that Deal, regardless of his salary, was the loser. He was sent to the minors and never returned to the major leagues.

References
[I] The Associated Press. “Landis Fixes Salary of Brooklyn Player.” The Daily Illini (University of Illinois, Champaign, IL), March 28, 1940.
[II] Busby, Dan. “Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Society for American Baseball Research. 2020. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/kenesaw-landis/.
[III]Schlemmer, Jim. “McCarthy’s Plan to Stand Pat Means Better Team for Akron; Landis Now Deciding Salaries.” Akron (OH) Beacon Journal. March 28, 1940.
[IV] The Associated Press. “Deny Landis Set Deal’s Salary.” The Daily Illini (University of Illinois, Champaign, IL), March 29, 1940.
[V] Hatter, Lou.  “U.S. marshal paved the way for signing.” The Baltimore (MD) Sun. July 29, 1983.