DeLancey, Bill

Primary Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Greensboro

First, Last Names: William Pinkney
Date of Birth:  Nov. 28, 1911 Date and Place of Death: Nov. 28, 1946, Phoenix, AZ
Burial: St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, Phoenix, AZ

High School: Bessemer High School, Greensboro
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 185
Debut Year: 1932       Final Year: 1940          Years Played: 4
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1932, 1934-35, 1940

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
219      598    173      79        85        19       .289     .380     .472     4.0

At age 22, Bill DeLancey was a promising rookie and a fiery leader on the famed Gas House Gang that won a World Series. At 23, he was bed-ridden in a hospital and wracked with pain from a serious lung disease. At 35, he was dead.

Everyone who saw DeLancey play during his brief major-league career agreed that he was one of the game’s best young catchers. The kid had it all: a potent bat, a powerful throwing arm and the leadership skills that can’t be taught. “The greatest young catcher baseball ever looked at,” Frankie Frisch, DeLancey’s manager on the St. Louis Cardinals, told Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter. “Another Dickey, Cochrane or Hartnett. Maybe better.”[1][I]

William Pinkney DeLancey was born in 1911 to a large Irish family that eventually numbered 14 children. His parents, William and Rosa, ran a boarding house in Greensboro and worked in cotton mills.

DeLancey played baseball at old Bessemer High School on teams that starred his older brother, Jimmy, who was also a catcher.[2] Bill would take over when his brother moved to first base. He didn’t land the regular catching job until his senior year.[II]

After graduating in 1930, DeLancey played briefly for semipro teams near home and then for several independent minor-league clubs. The Cardinals signed him in 1932 and sent him to their Class C affiliate in Springfield, Ohio. DeLancey was the best player on a team that won a pennant. He hit .329 with a .414 slugging percentage, thanks largely to his 20 triples – proof that the kid could run, a rarity for a catcher — and 18 home runs. He also knocked in 110 runs to lead the team.

The Cardinals called DeLancey up at the end of the season. He made his debut on Sept. 11, 1932 at the Polo Grounds in New York and singled off Carl Hubbell, the Giants’ Hall of Fame pitcher.

After an equally impressive year the following season with the Cardinals’ top farm team in Columbus, Ohio, DeLancey was slated to back up veteran catcher Virgil “Spud” Davis on the big-league club in 1934. This, however, was the Gas House Gang, a bunch of talented, hard-nosed players who would win 95 games and the World Series.[3] Made up mostly of veterans, the team featured five regulars who would hit at least .300, a 30-game winner in Dizzy Dean, four All-Stars and seven future Hall of Famers.[4]

Frisch was understandably reluctant to put such a group in the hands of a rookie catcher. DeLancey didn’t get his first start until May 30. He went 4-for-5 with a triple and a homer and knocked in four runs. He also dispelled any doubts his manager had.

DeLancey started almost half the games the rest of the way. He responded by hitting .316, which included 18 doubles and 13 homers. He also threw out almost half the base stealers.

As talented as he was standing at the plate, DeLancey may have been even better behind it. A good defensive catcher, Cardinals’ pitchers preferred throwing to him. It was a varied bunch that included the young, phenom brother duo, Dizzy and Paul Dean, and grizzled veterans Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines. They all respected DeLancey’s fearlessness and trusted his judgment behind the plate. “On the field, he knew everything,” Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, wrote in his autobiography. “He knew the movements of the baserunner backwards and forwards and learned the hitting traits of batsmen overnight. He anticipated managerial tactics and acted on his judgment. He had a remarkable pitching sense.”[III]

He also had a short fuse. DeLancey could be prickly. He argued with and swore at umpires and even at his manager. Frisch, at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, also played second base. He advised the youngster before one game to try and lay off high fastballs because he was popping them up. On his next at bat, DeLancey deposited a high fastball on the roof of the Cardinals’ Sportsman’s Park. “That’s how much you know, you dumb Dutchman,” he snapped when he got back to the dugout.[IV]

It was a measure of the trust that Frisch had developed in his bad-tempered backstop that DeLancey started every game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. He only hit .172, but that included three doubles and a homer. He also expertly handled the pitching staff through the seven games and angered an umpire.

Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers’ manager and catcher, relayed the details to reporters. Umpire Brick Owens judged the first pitch DeLancey saw in the fifth game to be a strike. DeLancey snapped out a few choice expletives. The umpire told him they would cost him $50.

“Why don’t you make it a hundred, you thieving bum?” DeLancey responded.

Owens did.

“Make it two,” DeLancey screamed.

Owens obliged.

Cochrane then interceded, advising the kid to shut up before he spent his Series money on fines.[V]

Kenesaw Landis, the baseball commissioner, later ruled that umpires weren’t empowered to levy fines. He reduced DeLancey’s penalty to the original $50.

All that aside, the starting catching job was DeLancey’s in 1935, but a nagging cough prevented him from claiming it. Though he appeared in 103 games, DeLancey hit just .279 and often appeared weak.

After the season, DeLancey, a chain smoker, was hospitalized with a lung infection that the newspapers reported to be pneumonia. He didn’t improve, and doctors later said that fluid was accumulating in the lining of his lungs, and they suggested that DeLancey move to the Southwest where the dry climate would aid his recovery. [5]

DeLancey took his doctors’ advice. He and his wife, Frances, a nursing student he had met in Dayton, Ohio, and their baby daughter, Doris Ann, moved to Phoenix, Arizona. DeLancey was so weak when he was released from the hospital that he had to be carried to the train on a stretcher. He was bed-ridden for eight months, and his lungs had to be drained every 48 hours. The Cardinals paid for the training to teach Frances how to perform the task.

He recovered well enough that he managed the Cardinals’ new farm team in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for three seasons, starting in 1937. The club won back-to-back pennants.

DeLancey returned to the Cardinals in 1940. By then, his story had captured the hearts of baseball fans – a World Series hero at 22 and a deathly ill hospital patient a year later. Writer Marlowe Branagan of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah summed it up in the dramatic fashion of the time: The white, hot, penetrating sun of the Arizona wastelands and the dead-game heart of a Mick who was sick combined in 1936 to fight a lonely battle that few survive.”[VI]

There would be no storybook ending this time, no comeback for the ages. DeLancey played in only 15 games in 1940. He retired for good two years later.

He returned to Arizona where he was a salesman for a sporting-goods company. He and Frances had another daughter.

His health worsened, though, and DeLancey died on Thanksgiving Day in 1946. It was also his 35th birthday.

[1] Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett are all in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
[2] The school , which held its first commencement in 1906, was in Bessemer, then a small community near Greensboro. It was merged with Page High School in 1963.
Though its exact origins are debated, the nickname certainly derived from the team’s general shabby appearance and rough on-the-field tactics. A “gas house” at the time was a factory that converted coal to “town” gas for cooking and lighting. They were common in most cities before the advent of natural gas. Foul-smelling, they were in the worst parts of town.
The players who were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Pitchers Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines; infielders Leo Durocher and Frisch; and outfielder Joe Medwick.
Pleurisy is a symptom of numerous diseases and conditions — viral and bacterial infections, congestive heart failure, autoimmune disease, lung cancer, to list a few – but the exact cause of DeLancey’s was never publicly reported. Newspapers later reported that he suffered from tuberculosis, which can lead to a buildup of fluid around the lungs.

[1] Rice, Grantland. “Sportlight.” Ignacio (CO) Chieftain, March 12, 1943
[II] “With N.C. Boys in Majors Yesterday.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 26, 1934.
[III] Ayers, Thomas. “Bill DeLancey.” The Society for American Baseball Research.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Associated Press. “Umpire Fines DeLancey $200 for ‘Slander.’” Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, October 8, 1934.
[VI] Branagan, Marlowe. “Down the Middle.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), February 18, 1941.