Position: Starting pitcher
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
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.
“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. 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.
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]
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.
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.
 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.
[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.
[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.