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.