Date of Birth: April 29, 1898 Date and Place of Death: Dec. 15, 1981, Greensboro Burial: Moriah Methodist Church Cemetery, Greensboro, NC
High School: South Buffalo School, Guilford County, NC College: Did Not Attend
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-3, 170 Debut Year: 1925 Final Year: 1925 Years Played: 1 Team and Year: Philadelphia Athletics, 1925
Career Summary G W L Sv ERA IP SO WAR 2 1 0 0 5.40 5.0 2 -0.1
Tom Glass was in the major leagues for only four days. He pitched five innings in two games, winning one of them thanks to one of the greatest late-inning comebacks in baseball history.
Connie Mack, manager and part owner of the Philadelphia Athletics, bought Glass from the Canners of Cambridge, Maryland, in the Eastern Shore League in September 1924. Though the Class D team played at the lowest level of the minor leagues, the youngster had won 31 games in two seasons. Glass reported to Philadelphia the following year and joined a talented group of A’s rookies that included Lefty Grove and Mickey Cochrane. In his debut on June 12 in the A’s Shibe Park, Glass took the mound in the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox with his team already down 13-0. He gave up a run on a couple of hits in the 15-1 loss.
Mack called on him again three days later against the Cleveland Indians. He entered the game in the sixth in a little better shape – the A’s were down just 12-2. He yielded three more runs, only one was earned, in his three innings of work, but this time the Athletics didn’t roll over. They scored a run in sixth and the seventh and 13 in the eighth. Glass got the win in the 17-15 victory that Baseball Roundtable, a highly respected website, considers the greatest late-inning comeback. The outburst in the eighth included seven singles, a triple, a home run and three walks. Ten different players crossed the plate and in one stretch, ten straight batters reached base.[I]
Mack apparently wasn’t impressed because he released Glass a week later. His major-league career over almost as soon as it started, the 27-year-old returned home to Guilford County, North Carolina.[II]
Glass was born there in 1898. He was among the 10 children that David and Mary Magnolia, known as Maggie, would raise on their farm along South Buffalo Creek northeast of Greensboro. He attended South Buffalo School and played for local semipro teams after graduating around 1916.
Before joining the Canners, Glass pitched professionally for Reidsville, North Carolina, in the Bi-State League and for the Newark, New Jersey, Bears, in the International League. His control and Popeye forearms developed from years on the farm set him apart. “Glass has hams on the end of his arms like a steam shovel’s scoops. He could make a living dredging for oysters any time he quit baseball,” a Newark newspaper reporter noted. “But most rooks are (as) wild as Barnum’s alleged wild man from Borneo. This fellow is as accurate as the pitching needle on a sewing machine. You never saw better control.”[III]
After his release from the Athletics, Glass got married and eventually moved to Greensboro where he worked as a carpenter and house painter. His wife, Pearl, died in 1964. He died in 1981. They apparently had no children.
Footnotes Lefty Grove was the dominant pitcher of his era. He won 300 games in a 17-year career and is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Catcher Mickey Cochrane played 13 years, won two Most-Valuable Player Awards and ended with a .320 average. He, too, is in the Hall of Fame.  Along with Tom Glass, Connie Mack released a catcher named, according to the newspapers at the time, James Fox. Glass’ career was over, but Jimmie Foxx came back in 1926 and would become one of baseball’s most-feared sluggers. Double X would play 20 years and win three Most-Valuable Player Awards, two batting titles and a Triple Crown. He’s enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  South Buffalo School opened in 1902 on the site of Gillespie Park Elementary School in Guilford County. It accommodated about 40 students. A larger building was built in 1916. The current building was completed in 1929.
Positions: Left field, third base Birthplace: Greensboro
First, Middle Names: Elmer Ralph Date of Birth: Feb. 10, 1915 Date and Place of Death: Oct. 4, 2011, Burlington, NC Burial: Guilford Memorial Park, Greensboro
High School: Jamestown High School, Jamestown, NC College: Did Not Attend
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-10, 167 Debut Year: 1939 Final Year: 1948 Years Played: 6 Teams and Years: Boston Bees 1939; Chicago White Sox 1943-44, 1946-48
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 530 1689 481 198 188 4 .285 .330 .367 5.1
When he took the mound at Briggs Stadium in Detroit on that cold, windy April day for his second start of the 1947 season, Hal Newhouser could legitimately claim to be the best pitcher in the American League. Playing for his hometown Tigers, the 26-year-old lefty had won 80 games over the past three years and two Most-Valuable Player Awards.
The pitcher who faced the visiting Chicago White Sox on that April day, however, wasn’t that Hal Newhouser. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe the stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie carried with it the raw rookie, the wild Newhouser of 1939 or ’40 who walked six or seven batters a game.
In any case, the Tiger hurler walked the leadoff hitter, Floyd Baker, in the first of what would be five free passes in a few innings of work that day. He then grooved a fastball to shortstop Luke Appling, a North Carolina boy and two-time batting champion, who promptly lined it to the gap in right for a double, sending Baker to third. Newhouser struck out Dave Philley for the first out and issued an intentional walk to load the bases for a double play. Up stepped Ralph Hodgin, all five-foot, 10-inches of him. Sportswriters liked referring to him in print as the “little left fielder” or the “little lefty” when he was batting since he hit from that side of the home plate.
At 32, Hodgin was getting on in baseball years and, unlike Newhouser, had just a couple of major-league seasons to brag about. As a rookie back in 1943, he had hit .314 for the White Sox, finishing second in the league’s batting race. He had followed that up by hitting close to .300 the next season, while striking out only 14 times in nearly 500 at bats. The Sporting News had reported then that Hodgin was “a splendid fly hawk, has a fine arm and is a tough little left-handed hitter.”[I]
But then, the little guy could always hit.
The second-youngest of seven children, Hodgin had grown up on his family’s dairy farm in Friendship, a community founded by Quakers in western Guilford County. When he wasn’t helping his father, Elmer, milk or feed cows, Hodgin had played baseball, first at old Jamestown High School and then for independent teams near home.
Signed by the Tigers in 1935, he had been the second-best hitter in all of the minor leagues that season after batting .387 for the club’s Class D franchise in Fieldale, Virginia. He had continued to hit as he graduated through the minor leagues – from Charleston, West Virginia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Evansville, Indiana, to Hartford, Connecticut. The Bees, which had bought Hodgin’s contract in 1937, had called him to Boston two years later where he played in 32 games in his first major-league season and hit only .208.
Hodgin had toiled three more years in the minors, including a season with the San Francisco Seals of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in 1942. There, he had been the team’s best and most-consistent hitter. Some had said at the time that he was the Seal’s best outfielder in a decade. “He’s the quiet type, saying little in the clubhouse or on the bench, but he hustles all the time,” a reporter had noted at the time.[II]
White Sox coaches had certainly liked Hodgin’s bat when they drafted him from the Seals after the season, but they may have been more enamored of his draft status. Hodgin had married Frances, or Frannie, Huckabeee in 1939 and they had an infant daughter. As the family’s only means of financial support, Hodgin was temporarily excused from serving in the armed forces at a time when World War II was quickly depleting team rosters. A reliable bat that could remain in the lineup, at least for a little while, was an attractive proposition.
It had paid off during Hodgin’s first two years with the Sox, but he had missed all of the 1945 season and part of the next one after his draft board reconsidered his status and cancelled his deferment. He was inducted into the Army in January, but the war was over before he finished training.
When he dug into the box on April 21, 1947, Hodgin was eager to re-establish himself as a hard-hitting regular. We don’t know where in the count it happened because 73-year-old records aren’t that precise, but at some point in the at bat Newhouser unleased a fastball. He rarely hit anyone with errant pitches. But this one hit Hodgin. In the right temple. At a time when few players wore protective batting helmets. The sound of ball hitting bone cracked through the stadium, and Hodgin went down as if shot. A hush settled over the old ballyard as the 7,000 or so spectators held their collective breath. The umpires called for a stretcher and Hodgin was carried off the field. Doctors at the hospital said later he suffered a concussion and a bad bruise. They expected him to fully recover.
Newhouser lost the game and would end up having an off year dominated by wildness, losing as many games as he won. He would recover, however, and pitch effectively for eight more seasons. His plaque now hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hodgin’s major-league career effectively ended on that cold afternoon. He was out for three weeks and was ordered back to bed after playing in one game and complaining of headaches. Though he hit. 294 in the 59 games, Hodgin seemed tentative at the plate.
He declared himself fully recovered when he reported for spring training in 1948. “I’m feeling fine,” he said. “At first I had some short lapses of memory, then some terrible headaches. But my head has not bothered me at all during the past few months.”[III]
The little guy who could always hit lost his aggressiveness at the plate, batting just .266, and a few steps in the outfield. The White Sox sold him to Sacramento, California, in the Pacific Coast League at the end of season. Hodgin ended his major-league career with a .285 lifetime average, 14th best among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats.
Hodgin spent the next eight years playing or managing in the minors. He won a Carolina League championship with the Reidsville, North Carolina, Luckies in 1952. He retired from baseball four years later and drove trucks or was a dispatcher for oil-delivery companies in Greensboro. He and Frannie had moved there with their two surviving daughters.
Frannie died in 1995. Hodgin was the oldest surviving White Sox and the fourth-oldest major leaguer when he died in 2011 at age 96.
Footnotes  Jamestown High School opened in 1915 on a prominent hill in town. It functioned as a high school until Ragsdale High opened in 1959. The building housed an elementary school until 1982 when it underwent extensive renovations and reopened as the Jamestown Public Library six years later. The Classical Revival-style brick building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.  The National League’s Boston franchise had several names since its founding in 1870 as the Red Stockings. Sportswriters began calling the team the Beaneaters in the late 1880s, but the Braves became the official nickname in 1912. Bob Quinn bought the financially struggling franchise in 1936 and renamed it the Bees. Five years later, a new owner, Lou Perini, changed the nickname back to the Braves. The team has kept the name despite moving twice, first to Milwaukee, WS, and then to Atlanta, GA.  A few batters as far back as the early 1900s devised crude protective helmets after being struck in the head by pitches. The Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 became the first major-league team to require its players to wear helmets during the regular season. The Washington Senators, the NY Giants, and the Chicago Cub quickly followed. It would be another 15 years, though, before the National League required helmets. The American League followed two years later, but the requirement wasn’t strictly enforced and many players ignored it. Finally, Major League Baseball began strictly enforcing the mandatory use of batting helmets during the 1971 season.
References [I] “20 Players Move Up From Coast League.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 12, 1942. [II] McGee, Jim. “Hodgin Hustlin’ Outfielder.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), November 12, 1942. [III] “Ralph Hodgin Fully Recovered.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), March 10, 1948.
First, Last Names: William Pinkney Date of Birth: Nov. 28, 1911 Date and Place of Death: Nov. 28, 1946, Phoenix, AZ Burial: St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, Phoenix, AZ
High School: Bessemer High School, Greensboro College: Did Not Attend
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-11, 185 Debut Year: 1932 Final Year: 1940 Years Played: 4 Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1932, 1934-35, 1940
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 219 598 173 79 85 19 .289 .380 .472 4.0
At age 22, Bill DeLancey was a promising rookie and a fiery leader on the famed Gas House Gang that won a World Series. At 23, he was bed-ridden in a hospital and wracked with pain from a serious lung disease. At 35, he was dead.
Everyone who saw DeLancey play during his brief major-league career agreed that he was one of the game’s best young catchers. The kid had it all: a potent bat, a powerful throwing arm and the leadership skills that can’t be taught. “The greatest young catcher baseball ever looked at,” Frankie Frisch, DeLancey’s manager on the St. Louis Cardinals, told Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter. “Another Dickey, Cochrane or Hartnett. Maybe better.”[I]
William Pinkney DeLancey was born in 1911 to a large Irish family that eventually numbered 14 children. His parents, William and Rosa, ran a boarding house in Greensboro and worked in cotton mills.
DeLancey played baseball at old Bessemer High School on teams that starred his older brother, Jimmy, who was also a catcher. Bill would take over when his brother moved to first base. He didn’t land the regular catching job until his senior year.[II]
After graduating in 1930, DeLancey played briefly for semipro teams near home and then for several independent minor-league clubs. The Cardinals signed him in 1932 and sent him to their Class C affiliate in Springfield, Ohio. DeLancey was the best player on a team that won a pennant. He hit .329 with a .414 slugging percentage, thanks largely to his 20 triples – proof that the kid could run, a rarity for a catcher — and 18 home runs. He also knocked in 110 runs to lead the team.
The Cardinals called DeLancey up at the end of the season. He made his debut on Sept. 11, 1932 at the Polo Grounds in New York and singled off Carl Hubbell, the Giants’ Hall of Fame pitcher.
After an equally impressive year the following season with the Cardinals’ top farm team in Columbus, Ohio, DeLancey was slated to back up veteran catcher Virgil “Spud” Davis on the big-league club in 1934. This, however, was the Gas House Gang, a bunch of talented, hard-nosed players who would win 95 games and the World Series. Made up mostly of veterans, the team featured five regulars who would hit at least .300, a 30-game winner in Dizzy Dean, four All-Stars and seven future Hall of Famers.
Frisch was understandably reluctant to put such a group in the hands of a rookie catcher. DeLancey didn’t get his first start until May 30. He went 4-for-5 with a triple and a homer and knocked in four runs. He also dispelled any doubts his manager had.
DeLancey started almost half the games the rest of the way. He responded by hitting .316, which included 18 doubles and 13 homers. He also threw out almost half the base stealers.
As talented as he was standing at the plate, DeLancey may have been even better behind it. A good defensive catcher, Cardinals’ pitchers preferred throwing to him. It was a varied bunch that included the young, phenom brother duo, Dizzy and Paul Dean, and grizzled veterans Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines. They all respected DeLancey’s fearlessness and trusted his judgment behind the plate. “On the field, he knew everything,” Branch Rickey, the Cardinals’ general manager, wrote in his autobiography. “He knew the movements of the baserunner backwards and forwards and learned the hitting traits of batsmen overnight. He anticipated managerial tactics and acted on his judgment. He had a remarkable pitching sense.”[III]
He also had a short fuse. DeLancey could be prickly. He argued with and swore at umpires and even at his manager. Frisch, at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, also played second base. He advised the youngster before one game to try and lay off high fastballs because he was popping them up. On his next at bat, DeLancey deposited a high fastball on the roof of the Cardinals’ Sportsman’s Park. “That’s how much you know, you dumb Dutchman,” he snapped when he got back to the dugout.[IV]
It was a measure of the trust that Frisch had developed in his bad-tempered backstop that DeLancey started every game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. He only hit .172, but that included three doubles and a homer. He also expertly handled the pitching staff through the seven games and angered an umpire.
Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers’ manager and catcher, relayed the details to reporters. Umpire Brick Owens judged the first pitch DeLancey saw in the fifth game to be a strike. DeLancey snapped out a few choice expletives. The umpire told him they would cost him $50.
“Why don’t you make it a hundred, you thieving bum?” DeLancey responded.
“Make it two,” DeLancey screamed.
Cochrane then interceded, advising the kid to shut up before he spent his Series money on fines.[V]
Kenesaw Landis, the baseball commissioner, later ruled that umpires weren’t empowered to levy fines. He reduced DeLancey’s penalty to the original $50.
All that aside, the starting catching job was DeLancey’s in 1935, but a nagging cough prevented him from claiming it. Though he appeared in 103 games, DeLancey hit just .279 and often appeared weak.
After the season, DeLancey, a chain smoker, was hospitalized with a lung infection that the newspapers reported to be pneumonia. He didn’t improve, and doctors later said that fluid was accumulating in the lining of his lungs, and they suggested that DeLancey move to the Southwest where the dry climate would aid his recovery. 
DeLancey took his doctors’ advice. He and his wife, Frances, a nursing student he had met in Dayton, Ohio, and their baby daughter, Doris Ann, moved to Phoenix, Arizona. DeLancey was so weak when he was released from the hospital that he had to be carried to the train on a stretcher. He was bed-ridden for eight months, and his lungs had to be drained every 48 hours. The Cardinals paid for the training to teach Frances how to perform the task.
He recovered well enough that he managed the Cardinals’ new farm team in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for three seasons, starting in 1937. The club won back-to-back pennants.
DeLancey returned to the Cardinals in 1940. By then, his story had captured the hearts of baseball fans – a World Series hero at 22 and a deathly ill hospital patient a year later. Writer Marlowe Branagan of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah summed it up in the dramatic fashion of the time: “The white, hot, penetrating sun of the Arizona wastelands and the dead-game heart of a Mick who was sick combined in 1936 to fight a lonely battle that few survive.”[VI]
There would be no storybook ending this time, no comeback for the ages. DeLancey played in only 15 games in 1940. He retired for good two years later.
He returned to Arizona where he was a salesman for a sporting-goods company. He and Frances had another daughter.
His health worsened, though, and DeLancey died on Thanksgiving Day in 1946. It was also his 35th birthday.
Footnotes  Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett are all in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The school , which held its first commencement in 1906, was in Bessemer, then a small community near Greensboro. It was merged with Page High School in 1963.  Though its exact origins are debated, the nickname certainly derived from the team’s general shabby appearance and rough on-the-field tactics. A “gas house” at the time was a factory that converted coal to “town” gas for cooking and lighting. They were common in most cities before the advent of natural gas. Foul-smelling, they were in the worst parts of town.  The players who were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame: Pitchers Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes and Jesse Haines; infielders Leo Durocher and Frisch; and outfielder Joe Medwick.  Pleurisy is a symptom of numerous diseases and conditions — viral and bacterial infections, congestive heart failure, autoimmune disease, lung cancer, to list a few – but the exact cause of DeLancey’s was never publicly reported. Newspapers later reported that he suffered from tuberculosis, which can lead to a buildup of fluid around the lungs.
References  Rice, Grantland. “Sportlight.” Ignacio (CO) Chieftain, March 12, 1943 [II] “With N.C. Boys in Majors Yesterday.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 26, 1934. [III] Ayers, Thomas. “Bill DeLancey.” The Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bill-delancey/. [IV] Ibid. [V] Associated Press. “Umpire Fines DeLancey $200 for ‘Slander.’” Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, October 8, 1934. [VI] Branagan, Marlowe. “Down the Middle.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), February 18, 1941.
Date of Birth: May 7, 1905 Date and Place of Death: July 1, 1968, Albemarle Burial: Guilford Memorial Park, Greensboro
High School: Pomona High School, Greensboro College: Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Ga.
Bats: R Throws: R Height and Weight: 5-11, 178 Debut Year: 1926 Final Year: 1932 Years Played: 2 Teams and Years: Philadelphia Athletics, 1926; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1932
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 116 374 92 44 60 6 .246 .290 .393 0.3
To be honest about it, Dave Barbee didn’t amount to much in the major leagues, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t much of a ballplayer. Barbee set records in the minors and absolutely terrorized the competitive industrial leagues that flourished last century amid North Carolina’s textile mills and tobacco factories.
To those blue-collar, lunchbox-toting workers struggling through the Great Depression, David Monroe Barbee was a star.
It’s hard for modern baseball fans to imagine a time when that their sports’ stars didn’t command princely contracts or exhibit their skills in palaces of flashing neon, $2,000 ground-level box seats and $10 hot dogs. They can’t imagine a Dave Barbee.
Even in his day, no one flocked to Shibe Park or Forbes Field to watch Barbee play during his two brief stints in the majors. But over on the West Coast, he was a major draw. Fans packed little Dugdale Field in Seattle and Wrigley Field in south L.A. – Gary Cooper, George Raft and William Powell among them – to watch Barbee launch towering shots into the grandstands while setting minor-league home run records.
Later, back in North Carolina, Barbee became something of a legend among factory workers from Wilson to Wilkesboro. They’d crowd into little municipal parks and fenced-off pastures to watch Barbee tear through the opposing company team.
It was a time in baseball when a man didn’t have to don a fancy uniform, play in a big city and be named Ruth, Cobb or Gehrig. He could make a living and name for himself playing a game he loved down in Class C Greensboro, over at Double A Chattanooga or as the company ringer on the Sanford Spinners or the Burlington Bees.
That’s Dave Barbee. Though he appeared in less than 200 major-league games, Barbee would until the day he died always consider himself to be a ballplayer.
He was the second of three children born to Ada and Joe Barbee. The 1910 and ’20 censuses have them living in Morehead, a township in Guilford County that now makes up most of southwestern Greensboro. Joe Barbee listed his occupation in the 1910 count as “spraying trees with a machine.” Ten years later, he reported being a railroad inspector.
His son, David, attended old Pomona High School, a historic Classical Revival style building that’s now apartments on Spring Garden Street in Greensboro. Its shining moment came in 1923 when little Pomona, led by Dave Barbee, won the state baseball championship. Barbee hit a home run and pitched a three-hit shutout in the title game.
He played two seasons in the outfield at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and, as a freshman, had a key role in the school’s conference championship in 1924.
Signing on with his hometown Greensboro Patriots in the Class C Piedmont League in 1926, Barbee became the “Gate City Crasher,” hitting .372 with a record 29 homers. Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, acquired him on July 24 and inserted him in the lineup five days later against the Cleveland Indians. Barbee belted a triple on the second pitch he saw. But it was downhill from there. He hit .190 with one homer in 19 games, and Mack released him.
Barbee returned to the minors and became one of the most fearsome hitters in the Double AA Pacific Coast League. From 1928-31, he hit .325 with 146 doubles, 26 triples and 126 home runs. He led the league in homers twice and would be inducted into its hall of fame in 2014.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bought Barbee’s contract, and he became the Bucs’ starting leftfielder in 1932, his only full season in the majors. Though he had a respectable year — .256-5-55 – Barbee found himself back in the minors where he would remain until he quit professional baseball in 1935.
Barbee and his family — wife, Annie, and their young son, David Jr. – settled in Burlington where Barbee was an inspector for Burlington Mills. One suspects, though, he was really hired as a ringer for its baseball team.
For at least the next five years, Barbee dominated the industrial leagues, his exploits reported in newspapers across the state. He even caught the attention of far-off, big-city journals. Washington’s Evening Star reported in October 1937 about a series of games pitting Barbee’s Burlington team against McEwen Hosiery Mills for the industrial-league championship. Barbee, the paper noted, went 10 for 14. Half his hits were homers. “Sportswriters down there swear the series is on the level,” the paper concluded.
Such hitting lines were the norm. At the mid-point of the 1940 season, for instance, Barbee was hitting .491 with 10 homers in just 39 at bats.
His trail then disappears, re-emerging years later in Stanly County. There, a death certificate filed with local health authorities, notes that David Monroe Barbee, 63, died on July 1, 1968 of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the form’s space for Usual Occupation, are these words: “PLAYER OUT FIELD.” In the Industry field is this: “BASE BALL.”
Date of Birth: Jan. 31, 1926 Date and Place of Death: Dec 30, 1993, Winston-Salem, NC Burial: New Goshen United Methodist Church Cemetery, Greensboro
High School: Dudley High School, Greensboro College: N.C. A&T State University, Greensboro
Bats: L Throws: R Height and Weight: 6-5, 210 Debut Year: 1954 Final Year: 1957 Years Played: 4 Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1954-57
Career Summary G AB H R RBI HR BA. OBP. SLG. WAR 91 271 66 30 36 4 .244 .311 .358 -0.1
Tom Alston’s story isn’t a happy one. He possessed a tormented soul. He heard voices that told him to slit his wrists and to set a church on fire. He was sent off to mental hospitals where electrodes were attached to his head. He couldn’t hold a job, never married. He lived in abject poverty until rescued by friends he didn’t know he had. And in the end, cancer got him.
This should be an inspiring story. Because Tom Alston was among the pioneers of baseball. He was the first black man from North Carolina to play in the major leagues, the first to don a uniform for the St. Louis Cardinals.
But, no, this is not a Jackie Robinson tale of courage and perseverance. Maybe it could have been had Alston stuck around the majors for a while. Yes, maybe Tom Alston’s story would be different if he could have only hit an inside fastball.
Seven years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, St. Louis was still very much a Southern town. Most of its stores and restaurants wouldn’t serve blacks. The owner of its baseball team, Fred Saigh, refused to sign them. The Cardinals had the sport’s largest radio network, blanketing the South and Midwest, and the team had cultivated a white, Southern fan base. Its ballpark would be the last to abolish segregated seating. When Robinson played there as a visitor, Cardinal players yelled from the dugout that he was a black bastard and worse. Their manager, Eddie Stanky, told the local newspaper that he didn’t think that should offend anyone.[I]
The changes began in 1953 when Anheuser-Busch bought the team. The new owner, August A. Busch Jr., was by no means a civil-rights crusader, but he was an equal-opportunity capitalist. He wanted to sell beer to everyone, regardless of race. By then, most of the 16 major-league clubs had black players on their rosters. Busch decided it was time for his Cardinals to have a few as well. He hired a Negro League veteran to search out the best black ballplayers and signed more than a dozen in his first year of ownership.
That search eventually led to Tom Alston.
Thomas Edison Alston grew up in the black community of Goshen, which has since been swallowed up by Greensboro. He was one of five sons and two daughters of Shube and Anna Alston, a maid who brought home newspapers from the houses she cleaned. Young Tom became an avid reader of the sports pages and later had a paper route delivering a black newspaper.
His segregated Dudley High School didn’t have a baseball team. Tom played in the pastures around the house with broom handle bats and balls made of twine. He joined the Navy after graduating in 1944 and played his first organized baseball. Alston continued playing after his discharge at what was then called the Negro Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, now N.C. A&T State University, in Greensboro. He hit .400 during his three years on the varsity team.
Alston played for black semipro teams after graduating in 1951 with a degree in physical education. He signed his first professional contracts a year later, first in the Class C Southwestern International League and then with the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League, the country’s premier minor league that had produced superstars like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.
Lefty O’Doul, former major-league star himself and the Padres manager, gushed about his 6-5 first baseman, who was agile in the field and fast on the base paths. “I believe Tom has a chance of hitting 50 homers this year,” he said at the start of the 1953 season. “He has improved so much I can hardly believe it.”[II]
Alston hit only 23 but knocked in 101 runs while batting .297.
The Cardinals came calling. They bought Alston’s contract from the Padres in January 1954 for $100,000. They also threw in four players. Baseball people then were shocked that Busch would pay so much for an unproven player.
Alston’s reaction? “I can’t believe it,” he said. “Me on the same team with Stan Musial?”[III]
The Cardinals made the signing a media event, renting a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood, with Busch himself arriving from St. Louis to sign the contract. Sportswriters sipped Bud while nibbling on caviar. “The only blacks in the room were me and the valet who served the beer,” Alston recalled years later.[IV]
Although he was the black, $100,000 man, Alston didn’t remember any open resentment. “The Cardinals had the rap of being bigoted,” he later said. “I didn’t experience anything real bad. None of the players were friendly to me, but they weren’t rude.”[V]
National League pitchers were far from friendly. They soon discovered Alston’s weakness: He couldn’t hit high, inside fastballs. Alston batted only hit .181 in June of his debut with no home runs. Brooks Lawrence, a black, rookie pitcher who joined the Cardinals that month, was Alston’s roommate. “I’d wake up some nights and hear him praying,” Lawrence told author Peter Golenbock. “He’d be saying, ‘I can hit. I know I can hit.’ And he’d go out the next day and he wouldn’t hit anything.”[VI]
At the end of the month, the Cardinals sent Alston down to Class AAA Rochester. He would get token call-ups for the next two seasons, only because Busch insisted on it.
By then, the voices had started. Alston later said he began hearing them during his first year with the Cardinals but told no one. In 1956 or ’57 – Alston was never firm on the year — a woman’s voice told him, “It’s time to meet your maker.” He drove out into the country of Guilford County and slit his wrist with a razor blade, luckily inflicting only a minor wound. Deputy sheriffs found him and sent him home.[VII]
Alston was a wreck at the start of the 1957 season. He had lost 15 pounds and his behavior was erratic. “The poor guy is so weak, the bat seems to be swinging him,” Musial said.
The Cardinals sent Alston to see a doctor, who hospitalized him for “a nervous condition.” He saw a psychiatrist for the first time. “He didn’t ask no questions or nothing,” Alston told an author in the 1990s. “He just administered shock treatment.”[VIII]
He returned briefly to the Cardinals in September and went home to live with his father after the season. Alston never returned to baseball.
He was arrested for assault a few months later, in early 1958, and spent 30 days on a chain gang before his sentence was suspended. One night that September he set fire to the New Goshen Methodist Church. It was the church where he had grown up and had taught Sunday school and where he would be buried. Alston offered various explanations over the years. He had an argument with his sister and did out of spite; the voices told him to set the fire because the congregation needed a new building.
The fire did about $500 worth of damage.
Alston was arrested but was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial. He spent the next eight years in a state psychiatric hospital. Two months after his release in 1967, Alston set fire to his apartment and was committed again. Released in 1969, Alston remained on drugs for the rest of his life. His later interviews ranged from lucid to barely coherent. He never married or held a steady job, subsisting on Social Security disability benefits.
N.C. A&T inducted Alston into its sports hall of fame in 1972. He had shown up occasionally on campus to give batting tips to varsity players.
By 1990, Alston was destitute and living in a nursing home when Joe Garagiola called. The former Cardinal catcher and longtime broadcaster had heard of Alston’s plight. “He was so lonely,” Garagiola remembered.[IX]
Garagiola was one of the founders of the Baseball Assistance Team, or B.A.T., which provides financial aid to needy players and their families. With B.A.T.’s help, Alston was able to move into his own apartment.
The Cardinals invited him to a game where he threw out the first ball and recognized his place in team history.
Alston was diagnosed with prostate cancer soon afterwards and spent his last months in hospice. He died at age 67 on Dec. 30, 1993.
Alfred Fleishman, a rabbi and a columnist for a Jewish newspaper in Indianapolis, noted at the time that Augie Busch had asked him to talk with Alston when the Cardinal signed him, to try and prepare him for what life might be like in a city like St. Louis. When the rabbi was done, Alston put a hand on his knee.
“Mr. Fleishman, I guess you are trying to tell me there are people who don’t like Negroes. I am a Negro. I know that,” Alston said. “I guess what you and Mr. Busch want to know is how I feel. I’ll be glad to tell both of you. I feel sorry for them. I don’t think you have to pity people who don’t like you because they don’t have the same color of skin as you, don’t cut or comb their hair the same as you, don’t wear the same clothes and don’t go to the same church as you. You gotta pity people like that.”
“That’s what I’ll never forget,” Fleishman concluded in his column. “The only tragedy with Tom Alston was that he couldn’t hit major-league pitching and dint last a full season. Too bad.”[X]
References [I]Costello, Rory. “George Altman.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/george-altman/. [II]Ibid. [III]Ibid. [IV]Ibid. [V]Ibid. [VI]Golenbock, Peter. The Spirit of St. Louis. New York: William Morrow and Co., 2000. [VII]Costello. [VIII]Ibid. [IX]Ibid. [X]Fleishman, Alfred. “Using Dignity, Not Chutzpah.” Jewish Post (New York). January 19, 1994. Footnote Augie Busch told the press that his scouts and manager, Eddie Stanky, were urging him to sign Alston. Stanky, however, threatened to resign if he did.