Narron, Sam

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Emit (Johnston County)

First, Middle Names:  Samuel Woody
Date of Birth:  Aug. 25, 1913  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 31, 1996, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Antioch Baptist Church, Middlesex, NC

High School: Wakelon School, Zebulon, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1935        Final Year: 1943          Years Played: 3
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1935, 1942-43

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
24        28       8          0          1            0          .286     .310     .286      0.0

 

Sam Narron expected to be paid $125 a month after signing his first professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934. He could use the money. Though only 20, he was the head of his family after the death of his elderly father. He had a mother and three siblings to care for back on the farm in Johnston County, North Carolina. This was his first job that paid real money, at least while the baseball season lasted.

He found himself in Albany, Georgia, to start the following season, however, catching and playing third base in a Class A league. His monthly pay was cut $35, but Narron didn’t squawk. He vowed instead to improve and convince his coaches that he deserved a promotion to a higher and better-paying league.

The famed tightwad Branch Rickey took notice. No one could squeeze a dollar harder than the Cardinals’ general manager, particularly if it was meant for one of his players. “Rickey believes in economy in everything except his own salary,” a sports columnist at the time quipped.[I] He could also be a bible-thumping moralist who regularly raged against the evils of Communists, liberals, and liquor. He had a fondness for oratorical excesses that could, noted The New York Times’ venerable Arthur Daly, make a hitter’s batting line sound like the Gettysburg Address. As a baseball executive, however, Branch Rickey was a man far ahead of his time, a pioneering innovator in an industry of plodding money men. With the Cardinals, he remade baseball by building the first modern minor-league system. With the Brooklyn Dodgers a decade later, he helped reshape America by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. In his players he valued loyalty above all else, and in Sam Narron, Rickey believed he had found a loyal man.

When minor-league play ended in 1934, Rickey promoted Narron to the big club for the final three weeks of its season. That the burly farm boy had led the Georgia-Florida League with a .349 batting average was a powerful recommendation, but his bat apparently wasn’t needed in St. Louis because Narron appeared in only four games. He was, however, paid $100 a week. “Nobody told Sam Narron that Branch Rickey had given him that $300 September assignment with the Cardinals as a reward for having a fine disposition in the spring,” wrote a St. Louis sports columnist. “But it actually was that.”[II]

From then on, Rickey looked after Narron. He was the one who had suggested that he switch positions from third base to catcher to improve his opportunities in the big leagues. Though he made the switch, Narron remained in the minors for most of his playing career, but Rickey brought him back up as the third-string catcher on two pennant-winning Cardinals’ teams in the early 1940s. Narron followed Rickey to Brooklyn, New York, where he became the Dodgers’ bullpen catcher after he retired as a player. He ended his career as the Pirates’ bullpen chief when Rickey moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In both places, he coached on pennant-winning teams.

Though his major-league playing career consisted of a mere 24 games spread over three seasons, Narron could count more than 30 years in professional baseball when he finally returned to the family farm for good. He raised tobacco and became a baseball ambassador. In retirement, he was a tireless promoter of the sport, especially in Eastern North Carolina, where he spoke at meetings of hot-stove leagues and attended high-school, American Legion, and college games, proudly showing off his World Series rings. If a guy like him could wear one, he’d tell the kids, so could they if they worked at it. Having a benefactor like Branch Rickey somehow didn’t figure into those inspirational bromides.

Narron’s kin seemed to provide living examples of dedication’s fruits. His son, also named Sam but called Rooster, played in the minor leagues. His grandson, another Sam, pitched briefly in the majors before becoming a pitching coach. His nephew, Jerry, also a catcher, played eight years in the majors and managed for five more. Since the mid-1930s, seven other family members played organized ball, making Sam Narron the patriarch of one of North Carolina’s most-prolific baseball families.

Most of his people came from Emit, a farming community in northeastern Johnston County. Middlesex, about six miles up the road in neighboring Nash County, is the closest place of any size and where the mail was likely postmarked. Baseball references can be forgiven, then, for mistakenly listing it as Narron’s birthplace.

He was the youngest of five kids. Their father, Troy, was 50 when he married their mother, Rachel, who was half his age. He was 65 when Narron was born and he died when the boy was 11.

Like his older siblings, Narron worked in the family’s tobacco fields and grew into a stout teenager by the time he attended Wakelon School in nearby Zebulon, North Carolina, in the early 1930s.[1] He played baseball, basketball, and football at the high school and would in old age fondly recall the boys changing into their uniforms before games at Kermit Corbett’s barbershop downtown.

Annie Rose Southerland was one of those beloved teachers that all schools at the time seemed to cultivate. According to Narron’s later telling, she recognized that the boy could play and in 1934 wrote a letter to Rogers Hornsby to tell him so. Hornsby was, at the time, with the St. Louis Browns, at the end of an illustrious 17-year career that would earn him a berth in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. More importantly to Southerland, Hornsby was a parttime instructor at the Ray Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs, Arkansas, then the place where several big-league teams went to get in shape each spring.[2]  Schools that employed big leaguers to instruct kids who aspired to professional careers weren’t uncommon in the towns where the teams trained. They would proliferate when spring training later shifted to Florida.

Hornsby replied that the school would welcome her former student. “I shall always be indebted to Miss Southerland,” Narron said more than 20 years later. “It was through her inspiration and help that made it possible for me to attend the Ray Doan Baseball School. She truly had a hand in helping to shape my future.”[III]

No scholarship offer came with the letter, however, and Narron didn’t have the tuition money. His former classmates, though, came to his aid. “Oh, they were great. They got together and began to play benefit basketball games,” he remembered. “The proceeds went to help pay for my tuition at the baseball school. I shall always be grateful to these fellows.”[IV]

With the donated tuition money in his pocket, Narron stuck out his thumb in the spring of 1934 and hitchhiked the 600 miles to Little Rock. He did well enough at the school to attract the attention of a Cardinals’ scout, who invited Narron to a tryout camp in Greensboro, North Carolina. The team signed him to that first contract after his performance there and sent him that summer to play with its farm team in Martinsville, Virginia.

After his reward callup to St. Louis a year later, Narron was warming up a pitcher on September 15 when Bill DeLancey, the Cardinal’s starting catcher and a fellow Tarheel, ran out to the bullpen to fetch him. Manager Frankie Frisch wanted him to pinch hit. Narron made his debut that inning against the New York Giants’ future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. “I was so nervous, excited and scared that I would have probably swung if Hubbell had made a pick-off attempt toward first base,” he remembered.[V] He grounded out.

Desperate to fill the roster hole created when DeLancey had to unexpectedly leave the team because of a lung ailment, the Cardinals had all their catching prospects in training camp before the 1936 season. Among them were Narron and Cap Clark, a North Carolinian from Alamance County. An emergency appendectomy in March dashed any hope Narron may have had in making the team, and its lingering effects limited him to just 57 games that season for the Cardinals’ farm club in Sacramento, California.

He spent the next five seasons in the minor leagues, including a summer playing for the Tourists in Asheville, North Carolina. Rickey called him up to the majors in June 1942 to be the third-string catcher on a team heading for a pennant. Though he appeared in only 10 games and not at all in the World Series, his teammates voted him a full winning share of $6,192.53. Narron also spent much his time in the bullpen the following season as the Cardinals won 105 games and cruised to another pennant. He did get into the Series that year, appearing as a pinch hitter in Game 4, a 2-1 loss to the New York Yankees.

The Cardinals assigned him to their farm club in Columbus soon after the Series, but Narron chose to retire instead. He spent the following season at home on the farm raising tobacco.

Rickey had left the Cardinals at the end of the 1942 season to become the president and general manager of the Dodgers. He signed his old catcher in 1945, and Narron spent three seasons in the minors before retiring as an active player in 1949 and becoming the team’s bullpen coach and catcher. He did the same for the Pirates after Rickey became their general manager in 1951. He retired for good in 1964 with 28 at bats in the major leagues but with four appearances in the World Series – two as a player with the Cardinals and two as a coach, one with the Dodgers in 1949 and other with the Pirates in 1960.

He put that all behind him and returned to Emit. That’s where his roots were, where he and his wife, Susie, raised their two children. He got back to growing tobacco and started promoting the sport that made him who he was. He suffered from Alzheimer’s late in life and died of congestive heart failure in 1996.

Two years later, the family started a scholarship fund and an awards program in his honor. The Sam Narron Award has been given each year since to the Johnston County high-school player who best exhibits the skills, desire, and determination needed to succeed in baseball. Some scholarship money accompanies the award.

“He was a baseball purist,” a prep coach who knew Narron noted upon his death. “He had great faith in young people and continued to follow the game and teach it as he thought it should be.”[VI]

Footnotes
[1] Wakelon School opened in 1908, one of the nearly 3,000 schoolhouses built in North Carolina in the first decade of the 20th century as part of Gov. Charles B. Aycock’s crusade for public education. The town later used the handsome brick-and-stone building as an elementary school. A drug manufacturer bought the building in 1986 and used it for office space. Voters in 2007 approved repurchasing Wakelon for a new town hall. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
[2] Ray Doan, a sports promoter, ran the school, also known as the All-Star Baseball School, in Hot Springs, AR, from 1933-38. Some baseball players were instructors, including Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, Burleigh Grimes, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Rogers Hornsby. At the height of its popularity, the school attracted as many of 200 students a year. Doan moved the school to Mississippi and then to Florida where it eventually faded amid the abundance of similar schools. Critics charged that schools like Doan’s merely pocketed tuition fees from teens with big dreams but little talent. Sam Narron is the only school attendee who made it to the major leagues.

References
[I] McCue, Andy. “Branch Rickey.” The Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/branch-rickey/.
[II] Stockton, J. Roy. “Extra Innings.” St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, February 9, 1936.
[III] “Earpsboro Scribblin’s.” Zebulon (NC) Record, July 19, 1955.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Futrell, Brownie. “The Gas House Gang Rides Again in Tar Heel Memory.” Washington (NC) Daily News, September 11, 1973.
[VI] Ham, Tom. “Baseball Loses Fine Ambassador.” Wilson (NC) Daily Times, January 3, 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wicker, Kemp

Positions: Relief, starting pitcher
Birthplace: Kernersville

First, Middle Names: Kemp Caswell
Date of Birth:  Aug. 13, 1906  Date and Place of Death: July 11, 1973, Kernersville
Burial: United Methodist Church Cemetery, Kernersville

High School: Undetermined
Colleges: Weaver College, Weaverville, NC; N.C. State University, Raleigh, NC

Bats: R             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-11, 182
Debut Year: 1936       Final Year: 1941          Years Played: 4
Teams and Years: New York Yankees, 1936-38; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1941

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
40      10        7          1          4.66    141.0   27        -0.1

Though he pitched in the major leagues for parts of only four seasons, Kemp Wicker spent almost half his life in baseball as a player and manager in the minors or as a scout. He was a member of some of the great teams in baseball history.

He was born on a farm in Kernersville in eastern Forsyth County in 1906, the youngest of Jasper and Alice Whicker’s five children. Notice the spelling of the family’s surname. That’s how it appears in census records and on birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and tombstones. It’s not known why the family’s only son chose the alternate spelling when he became a professional baseball player.

Wicker in 1926 pitched for Weaver College, a Methodist junior college in Weaverville, North Carolina.[1] Two years later, he was playing for North Carolina State College in Raleigh.

While at N.C. State, Wicker also pitched for minor-league clubs in Georgia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Over the next 27 years, he would play for or manage 20 different teams in the minors from Canada to Georgia.

The New York Yankees signed him in 1932, and he worked his way through their farm system, winning 20 games two years later for their Class A club in Binghamton, New York. He debuted with the Yankees in 1936 and spent three seasons shuttling across the Hudson River to and from their Class AA club in Newark, New Jersey. He won seven games and pitched 88 innings for the Yankees as a spot starter and reliever in 1937, his longest tenure in the majors. He also pitched a scoreless inning against the crosstown New York Giants in the fourth game of the World Series that year.

Wicker rubbed shoulders with the immortals during his brief time in the majors. The Yankees of his time were one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history, winning four consecutive pennants starting in 1936. Seven players in the dugout with Wicker would end up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.[2] As if that weren’t enough, Wicker also won seven games for the Newark Bears in 1937, considered to be the greatest minor-league team in history.[3]

Sold to the Dodgers in 1939, Wicker made a cameo appearance in Brooklyn two years later, but the rest of his career was spent playing or managing in the minors. He won back-to-back Sally League pennants as skipper of the Columbus, Georgia, Cardinals in 1946-47.

The fans were so impressed with his managing skills with that first team that they set aside a day to honor Wicker. The team won a pennant despite ranking seventh in the league in hitting and sixth in fielding and whose best pitcher won a mere seven games and whose best hitter batted just .298. “The fans figure the original Columbus had a cinch discovering America compared to Columbus Wicker’s discovery of first place,” an Associated Press reporter wrote.[I]

His last team, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, didn’t fare so well. It was mired in the basement when Wicker was fired in June 1954. He ended his baseball career as a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals.

Wicker never left the Kernersville area. That’s where he and his wife, Wilhelmina, raised their three children. That’s where he died in 1973, five years after being diagnosed with  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The disease had killed his former teammate Lou Gehrig, who gave the grim illness its popular name.

Footnotes
[1] Weaverville College was founded in 1851 by the local Sons of Temperance. The school was renamed in 1912 to honor Montraville Weaver who donated land for the first buildings. The Methodist Church merged it with Rutherford College in 1933 to create Brevard College in Brevard, NC. (Hill, Michael, “Weaver College.” NCPedia, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/weaver-college).
[2] The Hall of Famers on the 1936-39 Yankees: Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, Joe Gordon, Tony Lazzeri, and Red Rolfe.
[3] The 1937 Bears took first place in the International League in May and never looked back, winning the pennant by more than 25 games. Though they lost the first three games at home, the Bears won the last four to take the Junior World Series. Twenty-seven of the 32 players who suited up for the Bears that season appeared in the major leagues.

Reference
[I] Fullerton, Hugh Jr. Associated Press. “Sports Roundup.” Nome (AK) Nugget, July 20, 1947.

 

 

Wade, Ben

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Morehead City

First, Middle Names: Benjamin Styron
Date of Birth:  Nov. 25, 1922 Date and Place of Death: Dec. 2, 2002, Los Angeles
Burial: Cremated

High School: Morehead City High School, Morehead City, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-3, 195
Debut Year: 1948       Final Year: 1955          Years Played: 5
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1948; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1952-54; St. Louis Cardinals, 1954; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
118     19       17        10        4.34     371.1   235      1.0

Ben Wade didn’t display his real talent, as it turned out, on the pitching mound. Prone to wildness and home runs, he bounced around the National League in a five-year career as an average major-league pitcher. He showed his real skill later, as a scout and then longtime scouting director for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His ability to project the type of players youngsters would become was the foundation for a decade of Dodgers’ dominance.

Wade and his older brother, Jake, who pitched eight years in the American League, join Tom and “Tobacco Chewin’ “Johnny Lanning of Buncombe County and Gaylord and Jim Perry of Williamston as North Carolina’s only brothers who pitched big-league ball.

Benjamin, born on November 25, 1922, was the last of a large brood of Wades that filled the small house on Fisher Street in Morehead City. His father, Jacob, worked on commercial fishing boats and his mother, Lorine, whom everyone called Lovie, probably had her hands full with eleven children.

Like his two older brothers, young Ben grew to have an aptitude for baseball. When he was 14, he led his American Legion Juniors team to a regional championship. “Ben was the only pitcher we had,” Joe DuBois, manager of the Morehead City Chamber of Commerce, recalled more than a decade later when Wade became a local celebrity by making it to the major leagues. “When he pitched we won and when he didn’t, he played first base. There were many games he won with his hitting. There was an important contest against Kinston which he won by hitting two homers.”[I]

The team lost to Hamlet, North Carolina, for the state title and then disbanded when financial support dried up.

Ben, though, went on to star on the baseball team at old Morehead City High School. His brothers Charles Winfield, known to all in town as Croaker, and Jake, had played for the school’s predecessor Charles S. Wallace School. Croaker, an outfielder, advanced as far as the minor leagues and also managed in the minors. The Wade boys became the now-demolished schools’ most-famous alumni. A ballfield at a city park near the school was named in their honor.

Wade was 17 when he played his first professional ball with New Bern, North Carolina, in the Coastal Plain League. The Cincinnati Reds signed him in 1940 and sent him to their farm club in Durham, North Carolina.

He was working his way up the Reds’ farm system when World War II intervened. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1943 and spent three years playing ball at air bases in Florida and California.[II]

Picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates after his discharge in 1946, Wade was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the season. He was in a hurry to get to the big leagues. “But when I got out of service I tried too hard to make up for lost time and hurt my arm,” he noted several years later. “The trouble was up in my shoulder and I couldn’t raise my arm up high without real pain, so I had to learn how to pitch sidearm.”[III]

The Cubs wanted him to undergo surgery, but Wade refused. Instead, he sidewinded his way to 31 victories in two minor-league seasons and earned a brief call up to Chicago in 1948. He walked four and gave up four runs in five innings of work and was sent back down to the minors.

The Brooklyn Dodgers bought his contract after the 1949 season, and Wade began to mature as a pitcher. He started throwing overhand again in 1951 and went 16-6 with the Hollywood Stars to lead the Triple A Pacific Coast League in winning percentage.

The Dodgers brought him to Brooklyn for the new season, hoping that the 29-year-old rookie would bolster a starting rotation that would be without its ace, Don Newcombe, who was drafted into the Army. Wade’s first start, against the crosstown rival New York Giants at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, was less than auspicious. He walked five and gave up two home runs in a 3-0 loss.

Wade, though, went on to have his best year in the majors in 1952, winning 11 games in 24 starts with a 3.60 earned-run average, or ERA. He pitched well as a reliever the following season with seven wins and a 3.79 ERA and made his only World Series appearances that fall. They didn’t go well. He gave up four runs in a little over two innings of work in two games.

After he stumbled to an ERA of over 7.00 through the first half of the 1954 season, the Dodgers put Wade on waivers. The St. Louis Cardinals picked him up and relegated him to mop-up roles out of the bullpen. He was back with the Pirates in 1955 but was released after eleven games. Wade spent six years pitching on the West Coast for five teams in the Pacific Coast League and retired in 1961 to become a scout for the Dodgers, who had by then moved to Los Angeles.

He was promoted to scouting director in 1973 and supplied the team with the players who won eight pennants and four Word Series’ titles. Mike Piazza, Rick Sutcliffe, Orel Hershiser, Mickey Hatcher, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, John Wetteland, Fernando Valenzuela, and Eric Young were among the players drafted during his tenure. Seven of them won rookie of the year awards.

Not only could he accurately forecast a kid’s future on a baseball diamond, Wade also knew veteran talent when he saw it. He watched Tommy John throw against a wall in 1975 and predicted he would return to the mound. A year earlier, the talented Dodger lefthander was the first player to have what was considered radical surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. During his yearlong recuperation, no one was sure he would ever pitch again. “The only people who thought I would were my wife, Sally, Ben Wade and me,” John said at the time.[IV]

John returned to the Dodgers in 1976 and won 164 games over the next 14 seasons, retiring in 1989 at age 46 with 288 career victories.[1]

Though he’s remembered as one of baseball’s shrewdest judges of talent, Wade suffered through a series of bad amateur drafts in the late 1980s that left the Dodgers with few high-level prospects in their minor leagues. He was forced to retire in 1990 after thirty years in the Dodgers’ organization.

Wade and his wife, Betsy, had moved to Pasadena, California, in the early 1950s when he first played for Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League. A Morehead City native, she married Wade in 1948. They had two children. Betsy died in 1979, and Wade married Marjorie Cocks two years later. He died in December 2002 after a long bout with cancer.


Footnote
[1] Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, known colloquially as Tommy John surgery, is now a common surgical procedure in several sports, especially in baseball. The ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body or from a cadaver. Eighty percent of the pitchers who have the surgery return to pitch at the same level.  

References
[I] Herbert, Dick. “The Sports Observer,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 14, 1952.
[II] Bedingfield, Gary. “Ben Wade.” Baseball in Wartime, August 29, 2008. https://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wade_ben.htm.
[III] Holmes, Tommy. “Wade Must Wait for the Big Day.” Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, April 17, 1952.
[IV] Verrell, Gordon. “Dodgers Make Room for T.J.?” Independent (Long Beach, CA), Nov. 6, 1975.

     


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.


 

Zachary, Tom

Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Graham

First, Middle Names: Jonathan Thompson Walton
Date of Birth:  May 7, 1896    Date and Place of Death: Jan. 24, 1969, Burlington
Burial: Alamance Memorial Park, Burlington

High School: Undetermined
College: Guilford College, Greensboro

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-1, 187
Debut Year: 1918       Final Year: 1936          Years Played: 19
Team(s) and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1918; Washington Senators, 1919-25; St. Louis Browns, 1926-27; Senators, 1927-28; N.Y. Yankees, 1928-30; Boston Braves, 1930-34; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1934-36; Philadelphia Phillies, 1936
Awards: N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1966

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
533   186    191      23      3.73    3126.1  720      40.1

Tom Zachary was one of the best pitchers to come out of North Carolina. Only two pitchers from the state had longer major-league careers. Only four started more games. Only five won more. A crafty lefty known for his coolness under pressure, Zachary played in three World Series and won the three games that he started.

Few people, though, wanted to talk about any of that after Zachary retired to his farm in Alamance County. Everyone, however, wanted to know about the day he served up Babe Ruth’s 60th home run. “There’s probably been more talk about that pitch than any other one pitch in baseball,” Zachary pointed out more than three decades after that historic afternoon, “and it has made me somewhat of a baseball goat for years.”[I]

So, let’s get it out of the way.

Zachary was an established star in when he took the mound at Yankee Stadium on that Friday afternoon of Sept. 30, 1927. He was back with the Washington Senators, a team with whom he had had his best years. There was that one glorious season three years earlier when Zachary joined with the peerless Walter Johnson to lead the Senators to a championship. He had been traded to the hapless St. Louis Browns in late 1925, but they traded him back to Washington just a few weeks before his date with destiny.

The Senators arrived in New York for the season’s final three games against one of the greatest teams in baseball history. The Yankees, who would win 110 games and would sweep the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, had a star at almost every position. Six would end up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. No one, of course, was bigger than The Bambino.

Ruth had 57 homers entering the final series. He hit two in the first game to tie the record he had set in 1921. Ruth had faced Zachary many times, hitting eight home runs off of him, including two earlier in the season.

 Zachary pitched Ruth carefully in the first inning, walking him on four pitches. Ruth got hits the next two times up. He came up again in the eighth with one out and the score knotted at two. Yankee shortstop Mark Koenig was on third after having tripled. Ruth swung viciously at the first pitch and missed. He took the second for a ball.

Babe Ruth sends a Tom Zachary curve ball to deep right field for his record 60th home run. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I guess I could have thrown him one of my fastballs, but I didn’t want him to get hold of one of those,” Zachary remembered many years later.  “I threw him a good curve ball, the best I had, but it wasn’t enough. He hit it a mile.”[II]

The resulting whack of wood on ball echoed through the cavernous stadium as the 8,000 spectators rose in thunderous acclaim. The ball streaked on a line towards right field, clearing the foul pole by maybe 10 feet and landing deep in the bleachers. Zachary threw his hat down in disgust and watched the Babe trot around, spiking each base carefully. “I certainly wasn’t ashamed of Babe Ruth hitting the home run,” he said all those years later.  “I wasn’t too upset when he sent one of my pitches out of the park. It certainly was nothing unusual.”[III]

Here’s something that was unusual: Zachary never pitched an inning in the minor leagues. In his day, most players had long careers down in the bushes, either on their way up or on their way out. Not Zachary. He literally went straight from the school diamond to the American League. When his major-league career was over 19 years later, there was no hanging around for a few more seasons in the minors. Zachary simply went home.

Home was always the farm near Graham in Alamance County. Jonathan Thompson Walton was one of nine kids that Alfred and Mary Zachary, devout Quakers, raised there. Zachary was never a gentleman farmer, either. He was the real deal. He worked the fields as a kid and even wrote an article for an agricultural journal when he was a teenager about growing big tomatoes. He grew tobacco, corn and cotton during the season and, when all games were finally played, Zachary always returned to the farm, trading his uniform for bib overalls. He could always be found in the county’s country stores discussing crop prices with his neighbors.

For the young Zachary, baseball began looking like a real alternative to farming when he entered Guilford College in 1916.[1] He played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. He hit .345 his freshman year. He and Tim Murchison led a powerful team the following year that went undefeated.

Zachary that year locked up in a pitching dual with future big-leaguer George Murray of North Carolina State College that would become part of the state’s baseball lore. Each pitched 16 innings in a scoreless game. Murray struck out 20 while Zachary fanned 14. The game was called on account of “haziness” though the sun hadn’t set. The News & Observer of Raleigh speculated that the home plate umpire got hungry and “was no longer interested in baseball.”[IV]

With America at war, Zachary joined a Quacker Red Cross in 1918. While in Philadelphia for training, he persuaded Connie Mack to give him a tryout. Mack, the patrician owner and manager of the Athletics, the city’s American League franchise, may have been impressed with the well-spoken college kid whose manners and studious bearing were in marked contrast to most players of the day. Mack certainly liked what he saw on the field because “Zach Walton” pitched three innings against the St. Louis Browns on July 11. He was credited with the victory. He got his first start nine days later against the Cleveland Indians and won again.[2]

Major-league baseball was shut down in early September because of the war and Zachary never signed with the A’s.

After Zachary got a taste of the big time, his college days were over. When he returned from France in 1919, Zachary signed with the Senators and proceeded to pitch the best ball of his life. He would win at least 15 games in four of the next seven seasons, baffling hitters with an assortment of curve balls, screwballs and change ups.

In Game 6 of the 1924 World Series against the New York Giants, Zachary proved his worthiness in the clutch. Johnson, the Senators’ ace on whose right arm the team’s fortunes usually depended, lost the preceding game. The Giants would have to win just one of the final two games to claim the championship. Gloom settled over Washington.

Zachary gave the city hope. He scattered seven hits and had the Giants muttering in a 2-1 victory. It was his second win of the series. The incomparable Grantland Rice described the aftermath: “The depressing pass of gloom that had swept down upon Washington after Walter Johnson’s defeat has vanished in a day. When the king died after his valiant struggle, all hope perished… In the triumph of Zachary, the tom-toms are resounding on Pennsylvania Avenue and the balmy air is rife with the victorious lift of that human voice.”[V]

The reticent Zachary, who was always hesitant to talk about himself, was less whimsical but more to the point in describing his performance. “All batters look alike to me,” he said.  “I don’t get scared in the pinch. When there’s men on base and the going gets tough that’s when I get good.”[VI]

A city’s hopes were on the mound with Tom Zachary during Game 6 of the 1924 World Series.

Johnson redeemed himself by coming back on one day’s rest in Game 7 to win 4-3 in 12 innings and give the Senators the title.

The Yankees picked Zachary up on waivers in August 1928 when their lefthanded ace, Herb Pennock, went down with an injury.  Zachary won three games down the stretch and pitched well in relief. He started Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals and won 7-3, striking out seven.

Zachary had his best year statistically in 1929, going 12-0 with a 2.48 ERA. Sporting News declared him the best pitcher in the American League. Baseball references, however, recognize Lefty Grove of the A’s as the ERA leader because Zachary didn’t pitch enough innings to be eligible under today’s rules.

After Zachary struggled at the start of the 1930 season, the Yankees put the 33-year-old on waivers. Zachary would play for three teams, all in the National League, over the next seven years. He had losing records for mostly losing teams. He quit after the 1936 season at age 40.

He and his wife, Etta, settled into life on the farm with their two children. Etta was involved with the Parent-Teachers Association in Graham and was known for having a marvelous green thumb, winning awards for her flowers.

Zachary continued farming and attended banquets as a local baseball celebrity. He appeared often on the Guilford College campus and was inducted into its Athletics Hall of Fame in 1971. He had been selected for the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame five years earlier.

Oldtimers’ games were also on his schedule. He joined Ruth and other old Yankees at one such affair at Yankee Stadium in 1948. Ruth was dying of throat cancer. Sportscaster Mel Allen asked Zachary in front of a jam-packed house if he was the guy who served up the Big Guy’s record homer. When he played with the Yankees, Zachary would occasionally tell Ruth that his historic hit went foul. He hesitated for a second before telling Allen that he was on the mound that day.

Ruth, noticing the pause, walked over to Zachary, poked his chin up in his face and rasped, “You left-handed son-of-a-bitch, you still think that ball was foul, don’t you?

Zachary fondly looked at the great Bambino, the uniform hanging off his ravaged body, and replied, “No, Babe, it was a fair ball.”[VII]

Ruth died three months later.

Zachary suffered a stroke in late 1967 and seemed to recover, but he died of a second one 18 months later in January 1969.

Footnotes
[1]The small Quaker school in the community of Guilford College was something of a baseball factory in Zachary’s time. It produced a number of other major-league players, including Ernie Shore from East Bend, Rick and Wes Ferrell from Durham, Tim Murchison from Liberty and Rufus Smith from the community of Guilford College just down the road. 
[2] Zachary was always tight lipped about the short career of Zach Walton but it’s always been assumed he used the alias to protect his remaining year of college eligibility.

References
[I] Hunter, Bill. “Sports Roundup.” The Daily Mail (Hagerstown, Md), September 20, 1961.
[II] United Press International. “Tom Zachary Recalls Day Ruth Hit 60th. Galveston (TX) Daily News. September 8, 1961.
[III] Hunter.
[IV] Rainey, Chris. “Tom Zachary.” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b15fdeca.
[V] Hunter, Bill. “Former Major-League Pitching Great Tom Zachary Dies at 72.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC). January 25, 1969.
[VI] Rainey.
[VII] Hunter.