Prince, Don

Primary Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Clarkton

First, Middle Names:  Donald Mark

Date of Birth: April 5, 1938    Date and Place of Death: Nov. 8, 2017, Myrtle Beach, SC
Burial: Hammond Cemetery, Nichols, SC

High School: Floyds High School, Nichols, SC
College: Campbell University, Buies Creek, NC; East Carolina University, Greenville, NC

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-4, 200
Debut Year: 1962        Final Year: 1962          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Chicago Cubs, 1962

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
1          0          0          0          0.00     1.0       0          0.0

Don Prince pitched one inning in the major leagues and seven years in the minors, but this really isn’t a story about his life in baseball. He was later a successful insurance agent and enthusiastic private pilot. This isn’t about annuities or aviation, either. This is, instead, a sad tale about how a brother’s fidelity – yes, some might bluntly call it his stupidity – led him down a dark path where federal agents posing as hit men lurked in the shadows. This is a story about how Don Prince, baseball pitcher, insurance salesman and pilot with a wife, children, a house at the beach, and all the trappings of a good life, turned to murder to save his brother.

Donald Mark Prince was born in 1938 in Clarkton, a small farming community in southern Bladen County. His brother, Roger DeWitt, who went by the name Bill, was born a year later. Their father, Woodrow, raised tobacco, first in Bladen and then on leased land in adjoining Columbus County.

On a rainy night in 1951, Woody went to out to the tobacco barn. He was wet and barefoot when he plugged in the heater. The resulting electrical shock killed him instantly. The consequences of the tragic accident were immediate and would ripple through the brothers’ lives for decades.

With no way to support herself and her children, the widowed Carrie Prince moved just across the state line to Nichols, South Carolina, to be closer to her family. That’s where Don played high-school baseball and basketball. After graduating in 1956, he played the same sports for two years at Campbell Junior College, now a university, in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He would be inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1968. Prince then went on to what’s now East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, for his teaching certificate. He would teach and coach in North Carolina high schools during the offseasons throughout his baseball career. His basketball team at Hoke High School in Raeford would go the state finals in 1966.

Prince signed his first professional contract in 1958 with the Chicago Cubs and spent all but a year of his career in their minor leagues. A career sub-.500 pitcher, he had his best year that first season when he was 11-6 with 3.76 earned-run average for the Cubs’ Class D club in Paris, Illinois. The Cubs summoned him to Chicago for the end of the 1962 season. He pitched a hitless ninth inning in a 4-1 loss to the New York Mets on Sept. 21 but was sent to the minors the following year. He finished his career in 1964 in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system.

Back in Raeford, Prince continued to teach and coach but began selling insurance on the side. Within a couple of years, he opened an agency that he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1968. He apparently did quite well. He and his wife, Jill, bought a house in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, where they raised their two children. Prince learned to fly small planes and became an avid aviator. Life threw him a curve in 1977 when Jill died, but Prince pressed on.

Dark clouds started gathering the day in 1955 when Billy E. Graham, a prominent and wealthy tobacco farmer in Olanta, South Carolina, met brother Bill at a tobacco warehouse, where the teenager was selling boiled peanuts. Impressed with the boy’s salesmanship, Graham, a bachelor, started looking out for Bill after learning that he came from a poor family and had no father. They were “really close,” the Florence County sheriff would later say. Graham, he said, “had practically raised” Prince.[i]

After graduating from high school, Bill moved into Graham’s handsome brick house with its velvet wallpaper and sunken bathtub. In the garage was the Cadillac Graham liked to drive around town. A million dollars in show horses grazed in the surrounding pastures. The two eventually started a business to farm the more than 3,000 acres of tobacco, and Bill was the beneficiary of a $500,000 life insurance policy on Graham that he had bought from his brother.

The clouds thickened as the relationship slowly came apart when interest rates rose and commodity prices fell in the late 1970s. Crops failed during the drought of 1979-80, and Graham was bankrupt. He lost it all: the Cadillac, the show horses, the handsome brick house with its velvet wallpaper and sunken tub. By 1985, it was only the generosity of friends that kept him from becoming destitute. One bought the old house from the bank and allowed Graham to move back in. He had been living in a string of seedy motels.

Bill Prince, however, wasn’t among those who aided the broken man who had once treated him like a son. In fact, Graham by then thought that Prince was trying to steal his land. Untangling the byzantine financial arrangements between the two that fueled Graham’s suspicions and ultimately led to the ugly night of June 10, 1987 requires diving into the murk of federal crop loans and land-bank rules, an unsavory task not necessary for our purposes here. All we need to know is that Prince and several partners, who included Charlie Dorn Smith, the president of a bank in Olanta, formed a business in the early 1980s to lease and farm Graham’s land and pay off his substantial debt to federal agencies. It didn’t work out, and a jury in a civil lawsuit later brought by Graham determined that Prince and his partners owed the bankrupt farmer more than $200,000.

The storm broke on that June night when fire engulfed the handsome house on the edge of town. By the time the flames were quenched, the house was a charred ruin. Graham’s badly burned body was found in his second-floor bedroom. The coroner ruled that he had died of smoke inhalation. In other words, an accident. Prince paid the undertaker $3,500 to bury his former partner and benefactor.

Rumors about the death of the popular resident circulated quickly through the small farming town. “People were not satisfied with the results of the investigation,” said Mayor Kelton Floyd. “No names were called, but they did not believe that the man just burned.”[I]

New evidence persuaded authorities to exhume the body.  This time two .32-caliber bullets were found in its skull. Almost two years later, in 1989, Prince and Smith were charged with hiring a killer to execute Graham and set the fire. Prince, then 51, was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison. Free on bond while his case was appealed, he fled two years later when the state supreme court refused to order a new trial.

This is where Don Prince re-appears. He would later admit that he helped his brother for the year that he was on the run. Diagnosed with cancer, Bill was hiding in Puerto Rico, but Don brought him home for treatments. He made sure he kept his doctor appointments, paid his medical bills, and helped run the farming business in Olanta. All the while, he urged his brother to turn himself in. Bill was captured in a motel in Knoxville, Tennessee, in August 1995 and began his life in prison.

Don was a frequent visitor. He continued to manage Bill’s affairs and worked with his lawyers. His talks with his brother soon turned from crop prices and family matters. To prepare for the new trial that they hoped the courts would order, the brothers discussed ways to persuade the two key witnesses to recant their testimony.  When neither seemed willing, Bill noted that one of his prison mates was getting out. He knew someone who would kill the witnesses, Bill said. That prisoner, though, was also an FBI informant.

That’s how it came to be that Don stepped out of his car at a rest stop on I-20 in South Carolina on Dec. 8, 1995. He had driven from Wrightsville Beach to pay the hit man who had killed one of the witnesses and to arrange for the murder of the other. The assassin showed Don a photograph of the dead man – doctored, it turned out — and Don handed him $5,000. The FBI undercover agent slapped the cuffs on Don. “The things you do for your brother,” he said disgustedly.[II]

The brothers were convicted the following year. Bill got 15 years added to his sentence. Don got 17. In a letter to his wife before their convictions, Bill asks about the wellbeing of his brother’s children. “I know that they are really hurt with everything that is going on,” he wrote. “But I hope they will understand that everything is my fault. I will never be able to forgive myself for the problems that I have caused everybody. But if it would be any consolation. I would have done the same for Don.”[III] Bill died in prison in 2003.

After his release, Don moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he died in 2017.

References
[I] “3 More Arrested for 1986 Olanta Murder.” The Item (Sumter, SC) April 7, 1989.
[II] United States v. Don Prince, No. 97-4329; United States v. Roger DeWitt Prince, a/k/a Bill, No. 97-4334 (4th Cir. 1999). https://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinions/Unpublished/974329.U.pdf.
[III] Ibid.

 

Whisenant, Pete

Primary Positions: Centerfield, leftfield
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.

Wade, Ben

Primary 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
Teams 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.

Footnot
[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.

 

Abernathy, Ted

Primary Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Stanley

First, Last Names: Theodore Wade
Date of Birth:  March 6, 1933   Date and Place of Death: Dec. 16, 2004, Gastonia
Burial: Gaston Memorial Park, Gastonia

High School: Stanley High School
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 215
Debut Year: 1955       Final Year: 1972          Years Played: 14
Teams and Years: Washington Senators, 1955-57; Senators, 1960; Cleveland Indians, 1963-64; Chicago Cubs, 1965-66; Atlanta Braves, 1966; Cincinnati Reds, 1967-68; Cubs, 1969-70; St. Louis Cardinals, 1970; Kansas City Royals, 1970-72

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
681    63      69       149      3.46   1148.1 765      16.0

Awards/Honors: Fireman of the Year, 1965, 1967; Boys of Summer Top 100

One of the best relief pitchers to come out of North Carolina, Ted Abernathy occupies a special niche in the evolution to the modern major-league bullpen. He and a few of his contemporaries — Clay Carroll, Stu Miller, Don McMahon and Hoyt Wilhelm of Huntersville – are the first links in a decades’ long chain that ended with Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith and the other great closers of the modern era.

When Abernathy debuted in 1955, pitchers who started games were expected to finish them, as it had been since the days of Cy Young and Kid Nichols. Relief pitchers were either sore-armed veterans trying to hang on or inexperienced kids hoping to impress. Managers turned to them only in dire emergencies, usually with the game’s outcome already determined. None would think of bringing one in at an important juncture late in a game to preserve a lead.

Fourteen years later, when the well-traveled Abernathy was done scrapping his knuckles in the dirt of every big-league pitching mound with his unusual submarine delivery, managers viewed their bullpens differently. They still expected their starters to go the distance, but the good pens had a quality reliever who could take over if the starter faltered and who could pitch well enough to hold on to the lead. There was, by that time, even a statistical category to quantify what that pitcher did. The “save” didn’t exist as an official stat when Abernathy was a rookie.

He accumulated 149 of those new-fangled saves. While that’s good enough for third place among N.C. pitchers, the total isn’t much by modern standards – Rivera and Hoffman, for instance, have more than 600 career saves. But those numbers helped spark a profound strategic change in the game and they marked a pretty good finish for a pitcher who re-invented himself at least twice to become one of the most effective relievers of his era.

A Star in Stanley

Ted Abernathy restored to an underhanded throwing motion after a shoulder injury and surgery. Source: MLB

Abernathy and his two brothers grew up on a farm during the depths of the Depression in Stanley, a small community in northern Gaston County, where their parents, Wade and Genora, also worked in a textile mill.

At Stanley High School, Abernathy had a normal overhand pitching delivery. After an arm injury, however, he found that throwing sidearm was less painful. Abernathy used the new delivery to help Gastonia’s American Legion team win a state championship and to impress scouts when he pitched in an industrial league after graduating.

The Washington Senators signed him before the start of the 1952 season and sent him to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the first stop in their minor-league system. Abernathy was a sensation, winning 20 games with a 1.69 earned-run average, or ERA, while leading the league in strikeouts with 293.

Abernathy spent the next two years in the Army and was discharged in time to join the Senators for spring training in 1955 where teammates compared him to Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell, a recently retired National League all-star whose sidearm delivery and meanness made him genuinely feared by hitters.[1]

No one told Mickey Mantle, it seems. The N.Y. Yankees’ future Hall of Famer launched a long, three-run home run against Abernathy when he made his debut in relief on April 13. Abernathy was used as a spot starter and in long relief during that rookie season. He won five games, which included the only two shutouts of his career.

Sent to the minors in 1956 to work on his control, Abernathy returned to the Senators in September. On a cold night in Boston, the Abernathy who helped change baseball started to painfully take shape. He surrendered seven runs to the Red Sox in an 8-4 defeat that night. After the game, his pitching elbow swelled to the size of a grapefruit. Back then, you iced it and continued to pitch. That led to a shoulder injury that caused Abernathy to miss the 1957 season.

After pitching a year in the minors, Abernathy underwent surgery in 1959 to remove bone chips in his elbow and fix ligaments in his shoulder. He rejoined the Senators the following season, but seemed destined to be, at best, another sore-armed, bullpen castoff.  At age 30, he had made 34 starts in the majors and had appeared in 39 other games as a reliever and wasn’t very good in either role with an ERA close to 7.00.

Abernathy came back, though, throwing underhanded, a submariner, and, for the first time in years, without pain. “I was going to have to be a reliever, and a reliever with something unusual going for him is at an advantage,” Abernathy explained years later. “So, I went to the submarine pitch.”[I]

The Submariner

There haven’t been many major-league pitchers who throw that way. Because they are such a rare breed, batters have difficulty adjusting to an odd throwing motion that they may be seeing for the first time in their lives. Good hitting is all about split-second timing. Batters, from thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown toward them from Little League onward, are accustomed to seeing the ball released at specific points above the pitchers’ shoulders. It’s from those points that the hitters’ brains begin making all the calculations necessary that will get the needed body parts moving in unison to hit the ball when it arrives at home plate less than two seconds later. A ball that comes from somewhere south of the knees throws a wrench in all that, delaying the batters’ response just long enough to make a difference. [2] Abernathy threw from such a low arm angle – he literally did scrape his knuckles in the dirt — that the ball came at a hitter from shoe-top level, rising as it approached home plate. Add his size – 6-foot, 5-inches and 215 pounds – and the experience could be intimidating for the batter.

Abernathy, though, was facing the best hitters in the world. Throwing them off their game with a weird pitching motion would take some practice. After two ineffective appearances in 1959, the Senators released Abernathy. He would disappear from the majors for three years.

Abernathy used the time to hone his new delivery in minor-league way stops like Austin, Louisville and Vancouver. He put it all together in Salt Lake City, Utah, which was home to the Cleveland Indians’ club in the Pacific Coast League. Abernathy went 7-3 there in 1961 with a 3.72 ERA, all in relief. He was even better the following season for the Jacksonville, Florida,  Suns, Cleveland’s top farm club. Abernathy appeared in 45 games with a 1.88 ERA and helped the team win the International League flag.

After a strong start with the Suns to open the 1963 season, Abernathy was called up to Cleveland and recorded his first save on May 28. He established himself that year as a dependable and valuable reliever, appearing in 43 games, earning 12 saves while pitching to a 2.88 ERA. He faltered a bit the next season but still saved 11 games.

The Save Leader

Jerome Holtzman, right, sits with Don Zimmer, then the Chicago Cubs manager, in the dugout in this 2004 photo. Holtzman invented the “save.” Photo: Chicago Tribune

Wilhelm, Carroll and the others were also entering games to preserve leads. Recognizing this developing trend, Jerome Holtzman, the legendary Chicago Tribune sportswriter known in the press box as “The Dean,” in 1959 created a new statistic to quantify the value of these late-inning specialists. He compiled these saves assiduously until they became an official stat 10 years later. Using Holtzman’s numbers, The Sporting News combined saves with wins to determine the Fireman of the Year Award.[3] 

Pitching for the Chicago Cubs in 1965, Abernathy appeared in a record 84 games and set another in saves with 31. He won his first Fireman award. Abernathy won his second two years later with the Cincinnati Reds with 26 saves and a 1.27 ERA.

The knock on Abernathy had always been that he couldn’t string together two consecutive successful seasons. In 1968, though, he was almost as good as he had been the previous year. He appeared in 78 games, winning 10 of them and saving 13 others with a 2.46 ERA.

Judging that Abernathy’s time was about up, the Reds in 1969 traded the 35-year-old reliever to the Cubs, who sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals a year later.. Abernathy pitched in 11 games for the Cards before being shipped to Kansas City, Missouri. He had two more effective years and pitched his last major-league game, at age 39, on Sept. 30, 1972.

Abernathy played a year in the minors before retiring. He ended up in 681 games, third among North Carolina pitchers. His career 3.46 ERA is tied for 15th place among Tarhell pitchers with at least 500 innings.

He returned to Gaston County with his wife, Margie, his high-school sweetheart. They had married in 1952 and had two sons. Abernathy worked for a home builder in nearby Dallas and later for his son’s landscaping business.

Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Abernathy was living in a nursing home in Gastonia when he died on Dec. 16, 2004 at age 71.

Footnotes
[1] The great New York Times sportswriter Red Smith wrote that Blackwell was “built like a slouchy flyrod, being composed largely of arms and neck and ears.” Another writer thought his delivery looked like “a Picasso impression of an octopus in labor.” That unorthodox delivery combined with a surly disposition to make Blackwell feared. “I was a mean pitcher,” Blackwell said in retirement. He won 22 games in 1947 when he was the most-intimidating pitcher in baseball. Though he was a perennial all-star, Blackwell spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, perennial losers. (Corbett, Warren. “Ewell Blackwell.” The Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ewell-blackwell/.)
[2] Submariners are a rare breed of pitchers. Abernathy filled a gap in the chain between Joe McGinnity, Carl Mays and Elden Auker and Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry.
[3] Jerome Holtzman, a Chicago native, worked for his hometown newspapers for more than 50 years. He was considered the dean of American baseball writers. After his retirement in 1999, he was the official historian for Major League Baseball until his death in 2008.

Reference
[I] Gajus, Greg. “Ted Abernathy and his remarkable 1967 season.” Redleg Nation, May 17, 2015. https://redlegnation.com/2015/05/17/ted-abernathy-and-his-remarkable-1967-season/.

 

Culler, Dick

Primary Position: Shortstop
Birthplace: High Point

Full Name: Richard Broadus
Date of Birth:  Jan. 15, 1915   Date and Place of Death: June 16, 1964, Chapel Hill
Burial: Floral Garden Park Cemetery, High Point

High School: High Point High School 
College: High Point University

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-9, 155
Debut Year: 1936       Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 8

Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1936; Chicago White Sox, 1943; Boston Braves, 1944-47; Chicago Cubs, 1948, N.Y. Giants, 1949

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
472      1527    371      195      99        2          .244     .320     .281     2.4

Though he played parts of eight seasons in the major leagues, Dick Culler saw most of his playing time on rosters depleted by World War II. After baseball, Culler returned to his lifelong home of High Point where he owned a sporting-goods store, founded a company that mass produced team-autographed baseballs and was a prominent business and community leader.

Richard Broadus Culler was the most-athletic of Claude and Della’s five children. Known by his middle name throughout his childhood, Culler played Little League baseball and three sports — basketball, baseball and soccer — in high school. At High Point College, he was the player/coach for a state championship soccer team, an all-conference basketball player and captain of the basketball and baseball teams his senior year. His number 9 basketball jersey was retired after his final season in 1936 when he was named the most-outstanding athlete to play at the college.

The Philadelphia Athletics signed him in September of that year, and Culler appeared in nine games before the end of the season. He spent some of his $500 signing bonus on a used Ford when he married his college sweetheart, Evelyn Williams, a month later.

The newlyweds settled in High Point, which would always be Culler’s home. He would return each offseason to work in hosiery mills, furniture plants, service stations or at the local YMCA. Culler would also referee high-school and college basketball games to stay in shape. He would become one of the best refs in the Southern Conference. Culler would quit in 1948 after a call during a N.C. State College game in Raleigh led to an altercation with fans that almost turned into a brawl. “No man should have to take that kind of abuse,” he would say later.[I]

The A’s released Culler at the start of the 1937 season, and he spent the next six years in the minors acquiring a reputation as a good-fielding, light-hitting shortstop. Culler did, however, have something that few other players possessed when America entered the war: a 3-A draft classification that exempted him from military service because he was supporting a wife and two children.

The Chicago White Sox signed Culler in 1943 as a backup for their all-star shortstop, Luke Appling, another High Point native. He played in just 53 games and was sold to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the American Association at the end of the season.

Culler hit .309 against wartime-depleted pitching, which was good enough for the last-place Boston Braves. They signed the 30-year-old to be their starting shortstop for the 1945 season.[1] Culler hit well enough — .262 — in his first full major-league season to keep his job when the regulars returned in 1946. He once again played solid defense and hit just enough as a full-time shortstop.

Culler sprained his ankle to start the 1947 season and found himself sharing the job with two war veterans when he returned four weeks later. He also landed in Manager Billy Southworth’s doghouse by complaining to reporters about his playing time. “I don’t like riding the bench,” said Culler, who was hitting just .248 at the time. “Either I play every day or I’m quitting.”[II]

How strained was the relationship? In seventh inning of one game, Southworth told the bench-warming Culler to get his glove after watching his shortstop make his third error of the day. The manager was nearsighted and couldn’t quite make out the numbers on the outfield scoreboard. He asked a coach what the score was.

“They got us 6-2, Skip,” replied the coach.

Southworth turned to Culler. “Sit down,” he said. “We ain’t giving up yet.”[III]

The Braves traded Culler to the Chicago Cubs at the end of the season. He would play in just 55 games over the next two years and retired at the end of the 1949 season.

Culler went back to the sporting-goods store he had opened in High Point in 1946 and the Autographed Ball Company, which he had founded two years later after perfecting a way to reproduce players’ signatures on baseballs. He sold the team-autographed balls at ballpark concessions stands throughout the major leagues. The company went out of business in 2014.

Coaching American Legion baseball and YMCA basketball became Culler’s athletic outlets in retirement. He took the High Point team to the “Y” finals in 1953. Its opponent was a team from Philadelphia, the Christian Streeters, that featured a 6-11, 16-year-old named Wilt Chamberlain. The kid was averaging 33 points a game during the tournament, but Culler devised a defense that held him to 15. His team lost anyway.

Culler, Evelyn and the kids lived on a 200-acre farm south of town. He raised cows and became a pillar of the community. He was president of the merchants’ association, the director of the Chamber of Commerce and the executive director of the Downtown Development Corp. that spearheaded the first effort to revitalize High Point’s downtown.

For 17 months, starting in 1963, Culler was in an out of hospitals with what doctors diagnosed as inflammation of his intestines. He died of organ failure in June 1964. Culler was only 49.

Footnote
[1] By 1945, the wartime shortage of players was acute: almost 500 current or former major leaguers were serving in the armed forces. Eighty percent of the starters on opening day rosters in 1941 were missing when the teams took the field four years later.

References
[I] Hodges, Bill. “Dick Culler, 1915-1964.” High Point (NC.) Enterprise, June 17, 1964.
[II] Utley, Hank and Warren Corbett. “Dick Culler.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/dick-culler/.
[III] Hodges.