Position: Starting pitcher
First, Middle Names: Woodrow Earl
Date of Birth: March 9, 1916 Date and Place of Death: April 18, 1983, Valdese, NC
Burial: South Mountain Baptist Church Cemetery, Morganton
High School: Morganton High School
College: Did Not Attend
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-2, 185
Debut Year: 1939 Final Year: 1944 Years Played: 4
Teams and Years: Boston Red Sox, 1939-41; Boston Braves, 1944
G W L Sv ERA IP SO WAR
33 6 6 0 5.06 117.1 42 0.5
Woody Rich had all the makings of a great Depression-era newspaper hero. He was a shy farm boy from the hills of North Carolina – the kind of kid sportswriters ended up calling “Rube.” He had come out of nowhere with lightning in his right arm. Before he had even thrown a ball in a regulation, big-league game, the sports scribes primed the pump by comparing him to the legendary pitchers of yore. The lanky string bean, it seems, was being groomed to take his place among the pantheon of star athletes who had been born and had lived on the sports pages – Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Seabiscuit. Times were tough, and readers thirsted for heroes.
Woodrow Earl Rich came along at the right time. He had indeed been born on a farm outside Morganton in Burke County in 1916. He was fifth in the batting order of David and Callie’s eight children.
His high-school years are murky. Some newspapers reported at the time he debuted in the majors that he had pitched for the two years he attended Morganton High School. Others note that he lasted only a semester before dropping out to work for a hosiery mill and play for a semipro team. Paying jobs during the Depression were paying jobs, after all. That would seem to agree with Rich’s military discharge records that list the eighth grade as his highest level of education. To confuse matters even more, a profile of Rich compiled by the Society of American Baseball Research notes that he graduated from high school in 1936, though no source is cited.
Of this there is no doubt: he married Lucy Durline Walker, a minister’s daughter, a year earlier when he was playing for a semipro team in Valdese, North Carolina. In was there that the myth begins to take form with the tale of his discovery by the Boston Red Sox. It has it all: the kindly club executive, the touching act of charity, and the sense of wonder at first seeing the rising, unknown star. The details varied with the telling, but it went something like this: Billy Evans, a former umpire, directed the Red Sox farm system. He ran into another former umpire or maybe it was a former player on one of his scouting trips. Anyway, the guy was down on his luck and Evans, known as a soft touch in an industry famous for its hard dealings with players, gave him $5. A year later, the grateful ex-ump — or was it ex-player? – wrote Evans about this kid pitching for Valdese who was, according to one newspaper account, “quite a propeller of the pellet.”[I]
Evans went south to look for himself. “You can knock me over with a five-dollar bill if this kid hasn’t got the motion of a Grover Cleveland Alexander or a Dizzy Dean,” he recalled. “He’s as loose as a goose.”[II]
And so it started.
Evans signed Rich on the spot, of course. The kid had no formal training as a pitcher. His father, who knew nothing about baseball, said his son learned the game by playing with “the Negro folk” at home.[III] All that considered, Rich’s first season as a professional with Boston’s lowest-level farm club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1937 wasn’t so bad – 12-15 with a 4.42 earned-run average.
Evans thought he was ready to move up to Class A Little Rock, Arkansas, but Travelers’ Manager Doc Prothro wasn’t so sure. He kept Rich on the bench for the first three weeks of the 1938 season. Evans, though, kept pestering him. Prothro finally relented and sent Rich into a game after his starter had been rocked for five runs. The bases were loaded with no out when Rich took over. He retired the side with no further damage and didn’t allow a run the rest of the way, allowing the Travelers to come back and win. He won 19 games that year, including a no-hitter against the powerful Atlanta Crackers, who featured two of the league’s leading hitters.
The stage was set.
Rich grabbed the spotlight in the spring of 1939 at the Red Sox’s training camp in Sarasota, Florida. He didn’t allow a run in his first two appearances, and his smooth, sidearm motion reminded Coach Tom Daly of the guy he used to catch with the Chicago Cubs a decade earlier. “When Woody started to loosen up and put a little something on the ball with that sidearm delivery of his, I saw ol’ Alex all over again,” Daly said, referring to Alexander. “Their styles are almost identical.”[IV]
The scribes needed no further invitations. They started writing stories about this sensational rookie in Sarasota – strike that, make it the best pitching prospect since the Big Train himself, Walter Johnson.
Rich roomed that spring with another Red Sox rookie with a future, a bean pole of an outfielder named Ted Williams. While Williams was a brash, loud-talking city kid from San Diego, Rich was the quiet farm boy. “He’s a man of one word,” a reporter noted. “His favorite monosyllables are ‘Yeah’ and ‘nope.’”[v]
But when he let loose, there were gems like this: “When I wasn’t plowing, chopping wood or hoeing corn, I used to throw a lot of stones at snakes and birds,” Rich told one of the writers that spring. “Maybe that’s how I developed my arm. But if, as you say, I’ve got big, powerful-looking wrists I reckon I got them from hoeing that corn and chopping that wood. We used to make bats out of hickory logs, but maybe we didn’t have enough bats. But we had plenty of birds and snakes.”[VI]
Or this reaction when seeing Yankee Stadium for the first time: “Garsh!”[VII]
The rube from Palookaville who becomes a star has a long and treasured history in baseball. Writers reminded their readers that no one had ever heard of Elba, Nebraska, before Alexander came along or Humboldt, Kansas, before Johnson. Their successor Lefty Grove, then dominating the American League, came from Lonaconing, Maryland, which was down the road from Nikep somewhere up in the mountains. “Morgantown,” as it was often misspelled, could be next.
Rich did his part when the season opened, winning four of his first six games. He was among the leading pitchers in the league when he took the mound on May 27, but he had to leave the game after hurting his arm while making a throw to first base. The injury wasn’t thought to be serious, but he couldn’t raise his arm within a few days. He didn’t get another start until July 4 but couldn’t survive the first inning. He lasted only three innings two weeks later. After a few more rough outings, the Red Sox in early August sent Rich to their farm club in Louisville, Kentucky, where he remained for the rest of the season.
The Red Sox gave him second and third chances in 1940 and ’41 but he never regained the form that reminded people of Ol’ Alex. The city’s National League entry, the Braves, called him up in 1944, hoping he’d shine during the talent-depleted war years. He didn’t. He was shipped out after seven games.
Rich’s major-league days were over but his baseball career was just beginning. His arm was strong enough to allow him to pitch 14 more years in the minor leagues, often quite effectively. After a one-year stint with the Marine Corps at the end of World War II, Rich spent the late 1940s with the Class D Anniston, Alabama, Rams. He won 19 games in 1947 on a last-place team and led the league in strikeouts. He made the All-Star team the following season and won two games in the league playoffs. The appreciative Rams held a Woody Rich Night in his honor at their home ballyard in 1949. Not much later, Rich abruptly left the team to pitch for a semipro club in Iowa.
His arm obviously wasn’t the problem. His weight, however, may have been. Rich’s waistline expanded as his career lengthened. The 155-pound kid who reported to Clarksdale in 1937 routinely tipped the scales at 230 a decade later when he became “Big” Woody Rich. “Portly” and “bulky” were also common adjectives. He was prominently featured in a 1947 article in Baseball Magazine about players with weight problems. “One of the most tragic cases in the memory of the writer is that of Woody Rich,” Hub Miller wrote. “But Rich’s fame was short-lived. He did stay with the club long enough to win a few games and, at times, showed flashes of greatness. But the boy had such an uncontrollable appetite that he soon was fat and well beyond big-league hurling condition. It was not long before he even had trouble winning in the higher minors.”[VIII]
Approaching 40, it was the “venerable” Rich who led the Hi-Toms of High Point and Thomasville, North Carolina, to back-to-back Carolina League championships in 1955 and ’56. He won 49 games in his three years with the Hi-Toms, but they would be his last productive seasons. Rich retired in 1958 at age 42.
He lived with his wife and their daughter, Martha, in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he was an auto mechanic. They returned to Burke County in 1968 where they lived in a log cabin near Valdese. He died in 1983 of lung cancer.
 Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of the pitching stars of baseball’s Deadball Era, won 373 games in a 20-year career that took him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Dizzy Dean, another Hall of Famer, was a four-time All-Star who led the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s.
[I] Hurwitz, Hy. “What About It.” Boston (MA) Globe, January 31, 1939.
[III] Armour, Mark. “Woody Rich.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/woody-rich/.
[IV] Moore, Gerry. “Woody Rich Reminds Tom Daly of Old Alex.” Boston (MA) Globe, March 9, 1939.
[V] Cuddy, Jack. United Press International. “Young Tar Heel Arrives in Big City and – Garsh.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), April 21, 1939.