Graham, Moonlight

Player Name: Graham, Moonlight
Position: Right field

Birthplace: Fayetteville
First, Last Names: Archibald Wright  Nicknames: Moonlight, Doc

Date of Birth:  Nov. 12, 1877 Date and Place of Death: Aug. 25, 1965, Chisholm, MN
Burial: Calvary Cemetery, Rochester, MN

High School: Davidson High School, Charlotte, NC
College: University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC; University of Maryland-Baltimore, Baltimore, MD

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-11, 170
Debut Year: 1905       Final Year: 1905          Years Played: 1
Team and Years: New York Giant, 1905

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1          0          0          0          0          0          0          .000     .000     0.0

Few baseball fans have ever heard of Johnny O’Connor, Henry Stein, Eddie Hunter, Terry Lyons or any of the other 43 non-pitchers who played in one major-league game but never got a chance to hit. They were in the big leagues just long enough for that proverbial cup of coffee. Their dreams merely patted them on their heads. All but one were quickly forgotten. Because of a mysterious nickname, that exception has achieved baseball immortality.

There’s no evidence that anyone ever actually called Archie Graham “Moonlight” while he was alive. If they didn’t refer to him by his first name, his teammates and sportswriters down in the minors likely called him Doc because that’s what Graham was, a medical doctor. That’s what the townspeople of Chisolm, Minnesota, where he practiced for almost 50 years, called him. The nickname appears in print once, soon after Graham reported to the majors. Where it came from is anyone’s guess. Some have speculated that Graham’s speed had something to do with it. The problem with that explanation, however, is that no standard dictionary suggests that “moonlight” was ever used as slang or in an idiom to describe someone who was fleet of foot. Others think his moonlighting as a doctor in the offseason was the genesis, but he was a licensed physician for only the last two years of his minor-league career.

Whatever the reason, it was “Moonlight” Graham that appeared in the Baseball Encyclopedia that W.P Kinsella received as a Christmas gift. It was Moonlight that caught the novelist’s eye. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful name. This is better than anything I could invent,’” Kinsella remembered decades later.[I]

 A character of that name based on the real Graham appeared in Kinsella’s 1982 novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, the Chicago White Sox star who was expelled from baseball after being suspected of helping throw the 1919 World Series. From the book came the hit movie Field of Dreams seven years later. That’s how it came to pass that an unknown player whose career line consists of a long string of zeros was portrayed by Burt Lancaster no less and grew into a baseball myth more than two decades after his death. There is now a Doc “Moonlight” Graham Festival every August in Chisholm. A Moonlight Graham Scholarship Fund provides college money to deserving high-school students. A biography was written about him and the Moonlight Graham Podcast features athletes who never made it. Moonlight Graham has become the surrogate for every ballplayer who was denied their chance at greatness.

The truth is more mundane. Graham had a few good years in the minor leagues, but there’s nothing in the numbers to suggest a budding superstar. Neither do we really know what he thought about his brief big-league showing or about his baseball or medical careers. There are no surviving letters, no quotes in newspapers. No one wrote about him until the movie was released after he died. That’s one of the problems with post-mortem fame, especially for someone who toiled quietly in the backwater along the Canadian border. Graham’s life, while he was living it, wasn’t considered remarkable enough for his contemporaries to record his thoughts or to preserve details about him. Speculation and myth-making filled the void.

None of that is to suggest that Graham’s life isn’t worth celebrating. He was a beloved town doctor, who got the people of Chisholm though flu epidemics and bouts with cholera. He birthed their babies, comforted their dying. His pioneering research on childhood hypertension was respected by his peers.

There is every indication that once his playing days were over, Dr. Archie Graham never looked back. The mythological figure hints of that in the movie. When asked about his short big-league career, Lancaster’s Graham famously says, “If I‘d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”

Alexander and Katherine Graham were probably satisfied enough that their second child, Archibald Wright, born in 1877 had become a respected doctor after trying his hand at baseball. Education was important to the Grahams. Alexander had been the captain of the baseball team at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill before the Civil War. He fought with the 3rd North Carolina Regiment and was captured at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina in 1865. He attended Columbia University after the war and became a lawyer. Alexander went home to Fayetteville, where he worked tirelessly to establish a public-school system, serving as its first superintendent.

 At a time when college-educated women were a rarity in North Carolina, Katherine had a degree from Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Grahams sent each of their nine children to college, another rarity. One son became a lawyer. A daughter was a college professor. Frank Porter became president of the University of North Carolina and then a United States senator.

Alexander moved the family to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1888 to become the city’s school superintendent. A firm believer in physical fitness, he expected all his children to complete a daily exercise program. Archie grew up to be best athlete in the family. He played baseball and football on Charlotte sandlots and then at Davidson High School, where he developed an interest in science and medicine.

Like his father, Graham played baseball at UNC, making the varsity team during his sophomore year in 1898. He was the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the next three seasons.

Archie Graham played center field for UNC. Photo: UNC

Graham remained in Chapel Hill for two years after his graduation in 1901 to take courses for medical school. He played minor-league baseball in the summers, probably to earn extra money.

Always an exceptionally fast runner, he bulked up to about 170 pounds when he entered the University of Maryland’s medical school in Baltimore in 1903. He was the school’s halfback on the football team each fall and the centerfielder each spring. Lax rules allowed him to continue in the minor leagues in the summers.

The New York Giants bought Graham’s contract in September 1904 from Manchester, New Hampshire, after he hit .272 that season in the New England League. Graham joined the Giants after graduating from medical school the following May. “He is fast on his feet and a strong hitter,” The New York Evening World reported. “(Manager John) McGraw believes he has in Graham a great find.”[II]

The same newspaper a couple of weeks later used the name that would open the door to fame. The new player, the World reported, “is known as ‘Moonlight’ because he’s supposed to be as fast as a flash.”[III] Before Field of Dreams was released, this is the only reference to Graham and the nickname that appears in online archives that include millions of newspaper pages from every state dating back to the 1860s.

Graham made his debut about a month later, on June 29, against Brooklyn at the Superbas’ Washington Park.[1] McGraw sent the rookie in to play right field in the eighth inning of a lopsided game the Giants would win 11-1. He was in the on-deck circle getting ready to bat when the Giants’ last out was recorded in the top of the ninth.

He went back to bench until July 5 when he was sold to the Scranton Miners of the New York State League. This may have been what’s now called a rehab assignment. The New York Times noted that Graham was “unavailable” to play while with the Giants. That could have meant that a lingering injury, maybe from his football days at Maryland, prevented him from playing. The Miners had an informal working agreement with the Giants and would have sold Graham back to New York when he was healthy enough to play.[IV]

Graham probably killed any hope of returning to the Giants, though, when he skipped the last five games of the Miners’ season to take post-graduate medical courses in Baltimore. The team was more than 15 games out of first, but that wouldn’t have made a difference to McGraw, who demanded loyalty and dedication from players. Though newspapers reported that Graham, who hit .288 in Scranton, would get another chance with the Giants, McGraw left him off the reserve list for the 1906 season. Though he reported to spring training, it was clear that Graham wasn’t going to make the team. He remained with Scranton.

Eddie Ashenbach, a career minor leaguer who managed the Miners that season, remembered a fast, scrappy player. “Graham was not much of a batsman but was chain lightning on the bases and in the outfield,” Ashenbach wrote in his memoirs. “He had some scruples about playing Sunday baseball, his father having strictly forbidden him to play on the Sabbath.”[V]

Ashenbach couldn’t afford having one of his player sit out Sunday doubleheaders, especially on a club playing for a pennant. Graham agreed to play by his middle name Wright. “He was quite a fighter while in the game and his aggressiveness once led him into a fracas on a bright Sunday at Scranton when he and the umpire indulged in a battle of fisticuffs in the middle of the diamond,” Ashenbach wrote. “On another Sunday at Syracuse, Graham, alias Wright, had a glorious day at the bat. Out of four times up, he hit out a home run, two three-base-hits and a single. He was very much pleased at his big day’s work, and after the fourth time at bat he rushed wildly up to the press-box saying to the reporters, “Look here, boys, my name is not Wright today, it’s Graham.” Four hits killed off the alias.”[VI]

It’s important to note that the manager never once referred to his outfielder as “Moonlight.”

Graham was practicing medicine by 1907, when he received his Pennsylvania license.  He opened an office in Scranton and saw patients in the offseason during his final two years in the minors. He intended to make Scranton his home when he retired from baseball after the 1908 season but a chronic respiratory condition forced him to look for a cleaner, drier air.

Soon after his retirement, Graham accepted a residency at a Chicago hospital. He was attending a medical conference at the end of 1908 in Rochester, Minnesota, when he saw an ad in the local paper for a doctor in Chisholm. He wired his resignation to Chicago and boarded a train.

The mining town, 70 miles from the Canadian border in Minnesota’s Iron Range, was the last stop on the line. Connected by rail to Duluth and with plenty of mining work nearby, Chisholm had boomed since its incorporation in 1901. About 6,000 people lived there when Graham got off the train. He didn’t know any of them as walked the streets of a town that smelled of burnt wood. A forest fire several months earlier had destroyed a significant portion of Chisholm. The fire was so bad that many residents had sought refuge in Longyear Lake at the edge of town.

Walking past construction crews rebuilding whole blocks of town, Graham found the hospital and announced himself as Chisholm’s new doctor. He would remain for 57 years.

Dr. Archie Graham provided free eye glasses to the children of Chishol, MN. Photo: Duluth News Tribune

“When he first came here, he was regarded as something of a quack,” Veda Ponikvar, the founder of The Chisholm Free Press and Tribune, told a reporter in 1994.[VII]

Graham soon became the trusted physician to the immigrant miners and their families who had come to America from Croatia, Serbia and other eastern European countries. He became a familiar sight, walking around town in his black, flowing overcoat, its pockets filled with fruits that he’d give to kids that he met. He’d go to local high school games, tending the needs of the injured and treating the home team to a bag of oranges or a crate of apples. He was, they said, “the friendliest man in Chisholm.”[VIII]

For years, people all over the county sent Graham used eyeglasses. Every Saturday, the children of Chisholm could go to Doc Graham’s office for a free eye exam and a pair of glasses. “And there were times when children could not afford eyeglasses or milk or clothing,” Ponikvar wrote. “Yet, no child was ever denied these essentials because in the background there was always Dr. Graham. Without any fanfare or publicity, the glasses or the milk or the ticket to the ballgame found their way into the child’s pocket.”[IX]

Graham over the years conducted numerous studies on the effects of hypertension in children. He presented his finding in 1941 at a conference at the Mayo Clinic. Two doctors at the conference joined with Graham, and their combined research showed that kids could get high blood pressure, contrary to the then prevailing theory.

Kinsella, who interviewed dozens of townspeople to learn about Graham, was relieved that his subject had such a sterling reputation. “I mean, what I was afraid of, was that this was going to be a guy who sat in the American Legion bar and bragged about playing in the major leagues for 40 years,” the author said.[X]

Graham, who was also the physician for city schools since 1911, was elected to the school board in 1963. In failing health, he retired two years later. He was dead within a month.

Bob McDonald, Chisholm High School’s basketball coach for 50 years, noted that baseball was important to Graham but it was nothing compared to being the town’s doctor. “That’s the big item you see,” he said. “In baseball, you kind of help yourself and you entertain. Athletics are like that, you entertain people. But he comforted people.”[XI]


Footnote
[1] Washington Park, between Third and Fourth avenues on First Street in Park Slope, opened in 1898 and was the second Brooklyn ballpark. It closed in 1912 when Ebbets Field was completed. Part of the clubhouse wall still stands on Third Avenue as a wall for a Con Edison yard. It’s likely the oldest remnant of a major-league ballpark still in existence. (“Washington Park.” Ballparks.com. https://ballparks.com/baseball/national/washin.htm.)

References
[I] Olberman, Keith. “’Moonlight Graham Remembered.” Countdown with Keith Olberman. NBC News, 2013. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8423741.
[II] Keenan, Jimmy. “Moonlight Graham.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/moonlight-graham/.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Shieber, Tom. “A Glimpse of Moonlight.” National Baseball Hall of Fame, https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/short-stops/a-glimpse-of-moonlight.
[VI] Ibid.
[
VII] Betts, Jack. “Doctor Moonlight.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, October 23, 1994.
[VIII] Ibid.
[IX] Olberman.
[X] Olberman.
[XI] Olberman

 

Anderson, Fred

Position: Starting pitcher, relief pitcher
Birthplace: Calahaln

Full Name: John Frederick
Date of Birth:  Dec. 11, 1885  Date and Place of Death: Nov. 8, 1957, Winston-Salem
Burial: Salem Cemetery, Winston-Salem

High School: Oak Ridge Academy, Oak Ridge, NC
College: Davidson College, Davidson, NC; University of Maryland-Baltimore

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 180
Debut Year: 1909       Final Year: 1918          Years Played: 7
Teams and Years: Boston Red Sox, 1909, 1913; Buffalo Buffeds, 1914-15; N.Y. Giants, 1916-18

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
178      53        57        8        2.86     986.1   514      3.4

Dr. Fred Anderson was a spit-balling dentist, certainly the only one in the history of baseball. For parts of seven seasons during the second decade of the 20th century, Anderson made baseballs do funny things by legally lathering them with his saliva. In the off season, he reached into patients’ mouths to practice his other craft.  

That made Anderson unusual in another way. Unlike most players of his era, he wasn’t a slave to autocratic team owners wielding contracts that gave them complete control over their hires’ careers. He could afford to be independent. If he didn’t like the money an owner offered for his services, Anderson had the option of being a fulltime dentist or a collegiate baseball manager instead or even jumping to another major league.

He actually did all of those things before retiring from baseball with a 2.86 earned-run average, or ERA, third-best among North Carolina pitchers with more than 500 major-league innings. Anderson settled in Winston-Salem, not too far from his ancestral home, where he practiced dentistry for almost 30 years.

Andersons’ ancestors had helped found Calahaln, a small community in western Davie County. John Frederick was born there in 1885, the youngest of four siblings. Their father, John, was a pioneering physician in the area who died when little Freddy was less than a year old. He and the rest of the family lived with an older sister, first in Mocksville, the county seat, and then in Statesville in Iredell County.

Fred attended a private school in Boone, North Carolina, and then Oak Ridge Military Institute east of Greensboro, North Carolina, where he started pitching for the school team. It was at Davidson College, in the town of the same name near Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1906 that Anderson began lubricating the ball. Many young pitchers at the time were experimenting with spitballs in the hopes of imitating “Big Ed” Walsh, a Pennsylvania coal miner who would dominate the American League for the next seven seasons by throwing spitters.[1]

After graduating from Davidson in 1907, Anderson played for semipro teams. That May, he married Mary Coiner of Statesville. They would have a daughter, Elsie, born in 1909, but the couple broke up three years later. Mary married another ballplayer and moved to Tennessee, taking Elsie with her. Anderson would marry Clementine Tise in 1921. They would have no children.

Anderson finished dental school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore in 1909 and then signed his first professional contract with the Wilson, North Carolina, Tobacconists of the Eastern Carolina League. Though it occupied the lowest rung of the ladder to the majors, the Class D league would become famous because on the nearby Rocky Mount team that season was Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. His two seasons with the Railroaders would exact a heavy toll after Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympic Games. He was stripped of the medals because his time in Class D baseball violated amateur rules. The medals would be restored to the Thorpe family in 1983.

Though no Jim Thorpe, Anderson was a pretty good specimen himself at 6-2 and 180 pounds. He won 10 games by July for Wilson when the Boston Red Sox signed him. Anderson made his major-league debut on Sept. 25, 1909 in the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. He yielded just three singles but left in the eighth inning trailing 3-1 because of two costly errors. The Sox would come back and win the game in extra innings.

The Red Sox likely didn’t expect a guy who pitched in just one major-league game to be so demanding, but Anderson wouldn’t accept the contract that the team sent him for the 1910 season. He wanted more money. Ballplayers then rarely won such disputes. Their first contracts legally tethered players to their teams for life and they couldn’t offer their services to other major-league clubs. Without that freedom, players had little leverage in contract negotiations. All they could do was hold out, usually for a few weeks. Most eventually signed on the owners’ terms. Dr. Anderson, however, had other, equally lucrative, skills. He hung up his shingle in Statesville, started seeing patients and sat out the year. In retribution, the Red Sox sold his contract to minor-league Sacramento for the 1911 season. Anderson didn’t show up in California when the season started and spent another year as a fulltime dentist.

Finally, in 1912, the Red Sox and their independent-minded pitcher agreed on a contract, and Anderson reported to the team’s training camp in Hot Springs, Arkansas., that spring. He didn’t make the team, however, and spent two seasons in the minors. The Red Sox gave him another look in August 1913, but Anderson was awful, losing six games while giving up almost six runs a game.

With his future as a ballplayer looking bleak, Anderson took a job after the season as the baseball manager at what is now North Carolina State University. He would direct the team for the next three seasons. Anderson hinted to the newspapers when he took the job that his playing days were over.[I]

If he was seriously thinking about quitting, Anderson changed his mind in 1914 when the Buffalo Buffeds of the renegade Federal League made him an offer. He said the money was too good to turn down. [II] The league had started as a minor league but declared war on baseball in 1913 by actively recruiting players from the two established major leagues by offering higher salaries and the freedom to move from team to team.  Many made the switch. [2]

Anderson pitched well for Buffalo, winning 19 games during the league’s last season in 1915, but he had his best years when he rejoined established baseball with the New York Giants. Anderson had a great first half for the Giants in 1916 and a dismal final few months when he was the least effective pitcher on the team. He attributed it to a sore back, but John McGraw had other ideas. The wily Giants’ manager had watched from the bench as Anderson’s erratic spitter fooled opposing batters for a few innings, but they would usually got the measure of it the more they saw it. McGraw started limiting Anderson’s exposure by using him more and more as a relief pitcher. The strategy worked. Pitching mostly from the bullpen in 1917, Anderson led the National League with a 1.44 ERA. He was almost as good the following season, which was shortened by America’s entrance into World War I.

Anderson joined the Army’s aviation corps at the end of the year, but the war was over by the time he finished training in late 1918.

His baseball career was also done. Another contract dispute played a part, but so did changing times. Anderson may have sensed that his days were numbered. Spitballs had always been controversial. Doctoring the ball, many thought, wasn’t very sporting.  A ball stained by tobacco spittle and mud could also be dangerous. Batters had a hard time seeing such balls, especially late in games in the failing light on unlit fields. Ty Cobb thought there was another reason why the spitter was falling out of favor in the dawning era of Babe Ruth and the slugger. “Freak pitches […] were outlawed when the owners greedily sold out to home runs,” he wrote in his autobiography.[III]

Team owners voted after the 1919 season to limit spitball pitchers to two per team. After a Carl Mays’ spitter struck Ray Chapman in the temple and killed him in August 1920, the owners banned the spitball but exempted the 17 pitchers who threw them. When they retired, the spitter would be illegal. Burleigh Grimes, the last spitballer, retired in 1934.

Anderson left after the 1918 season. He was a dentist in Charlotte for a short time but was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, two years later. He and his new wife, Clementine, settled in the South Fork section of Forsyth County, and Anderson practiced in the city until his retirement in 1948.

Suffering for two years with an undisclosed illness that was likely terminal, Anderson shot himself in 1957.

Footnotes
[1] Walsh spent all but the final season of his thirteen-year career with the Chicago White Sox. Throwing primarily a spitter he won 195 games during his career, including 40 in 1908. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946.
[2] Anderson was one of four North Carolina natives who played in the short-lived league, which folded after the 1915 season. For a more complete description of the league and its effects on major-league baseball, see the Ducky Yount
profile.

References
[I] Nowlin, Bill. “Fred Anderson.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/fred-anderson/.
[II] “Anderson Signs With Federals.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), March 15, 1914.
[III] Cobb, Ty with Al Stump. Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball. New York: Doubleday, 1961.

 

 

 

Culler, Dick

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.

 

 

Abernathy, Woody

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Forest City

First, Middle Names: Virgil Woodrow
Date of Birth:  Feb. 1, 1915    Date and Place of Death: Dec. 5, 1994, Louisville, Ky.
Burial: Resthaven Memorial Park, Louisville, K

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-170
Debut Year: 1946       Final Year: 1947          Years Played: 2
Team and Years: N.Y. Giants, 1946-47

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
16        1          1          1          3.64     42.0     6          0.3

Woody Abernathy spent five years as a professional baseball player, including 16 games in the major leagues. He spent much of the rest of his life repairing looms at a textile mill in South Carolina.

Virgil Woodrow Abernathy was born in 1915 in Forest City in Rutherford County where his father, Sam, worked in a cotton mill. Abernathy also worked in the mills as a teenager and started playing semipro baseball for local factory teams. He was signed by the Boston Bees of the National League in 1938 and began his professional career a year later for the team’s Class D affiliate in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Abernathy enlisted in the Army in 1943, but there’s no available record of how he spent the next three years. He returned to the minor leagues in 1946, playing for the New York Giants’ Triple A team in Minneapolis. He would appear in 14 games for the Giants that year, mostly in relief. Abernathy made two more appearances in 1947 before his major-league days were over. He ended up pitching 42 innings with a respectable 3.64 ERA.

He and his wife, Mary, lived the rest of their lives in Chesnee, South Carolina, where Abernathy was back in the mills repairing machines. He did that for 30 years before retiring.

 Abernathy died in 1994 at age 79.

 

Coan, Gil

Position: Outfield
Birthplace: Monroe

First, Middle Names: Gilbert Fitzgerald
Date of Birth:  Jan. 18, 1922   Date and Place of Death: Feb. 5, 2020, Brevard, NC
Burial: Gillespie Evergreen Cemetery, Brevard

High School: Mineral Springs High School, Mineral Springs, NC
College: Brevard College, Brevard

Bats:    L          Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 180
Debut Year: 1945       Final Year: 1956          Years Played: 11
Teams and Years: Washington Senators, 1946-53; Baltimore Orioles, 1954-55; Chicago White Sox, 1955; N.Y. Giants. 1955-56

Career Summary
G          AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
918      2877    731      384      278    39        .254     .316     .359     1.9

Gilbert Fitzgerald Coan was a 23-year-old, fleet-footed kid outfielder when he debuted with the Washington Senators in 1946. He would play 10 more years in the major leagues, most of them for the woeful Senators. The team, a charter member of the American League in 1901, had once been competitive back in the days when Walter Johnson commanded the pitching mound and Goose Goslin and Sam Rice roamed the outfield.

But by the time Coan arrived, the Senators could count only three winning seasons since their last pennant in 1933 during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Frustrated fans had resurrected the ditty about Washington that Charles Dryden, a legendary baseball writer, coined during an earlier period of team futility: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.

Senator fans had reason to hope, though, when Coan took the field on that April afternoon. The team had finished in second place in a wartime-depleted league in 1945. This new kid was considered a can’t-miss prospect. Many thought he would play a big part in that brighter future.

“Gil Coan was the most promising rookie ever to arrive on the Washington baseball scene,” declared Joe Engel, the Senators’ chief scout who had discovered Goslin, Rice and Bucky Harris. Coan, he said, was the best of them all.[I]

The third son of George and Florence Coan’s four boys, Gil was born in Monroe but grew up in nearby Mineral Springs, in a house next to the Methodist Church. Coan would become a lifelong Methodist.

He played baseball and football for the local high school, and Duke University was considering entice him to Durham, North Carolina, with a football scholarship, but Coan headed for the mountains instead. He enrolled in what was then Brevard Junior College in 1940 where he played baseball and, more importantly, met Dovie White.

The two married in September 1941, when Coan dropped out of college to take a job at the Eucusta Paper plant that paid 40 cents an hour. He remained after Pearl Harbor because he was ineligible for the battle fields after a childhood infection had required amputating a portion of his left thumb.

While playing for the company’s baseball team, Coan caught the eye of Washington scouts who signed the Papermaker in 1944 and shipped him off to their minor leagues, first to Kingsport, Tennessee, then to Chattanooga. Coan tore the cover off the ball. He hit over .330 in the minors while playing all three outfield positions and was named The Sporting News’ Minor League Player of the year in ’45 when he hit .372 and stole 37 bases.

Alas, the Cinderella story came to an end in Tennessee. The rookie didn’t take Washington by storm as well. Coan hit .209 in just 132 at bats – welcome to The Show, kid – and was sent back down to the minors for more seasoning.

 
Gil Coan, left, with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in 1946. Photo: Major League Baseball

Coan returned a year later. This time he made noise, hitting .500 in 42 at bats. This time he would stick around.

While he and the Senators never fulfilled the lofty expectations of the rookie’s first afternoon, Coan compiled a solid, workman-like career while mostly playing for a laughingly bad team. His best year was probably 1951 when he hit over .300. He even got some votes for Most Valuable Player. During a game against the New York Yankees that April, Coan tied a major-league record by hitting two triples in one inning. His second three-bagger gave the Senators the lead, which of course they relinquished. They eventually lost the game. And, so it went.

When he hung up it up in 1956, Coan had played in over 900 games and had over 2,800 at bats. He got a hit about a quarter of the time. Respectable. “I got to travel all over the country and meet great people just because I could hit a ball and run fast,” is the way Coan summed it up to an interviewer several years ago.  “I was a pretty decent player, nothing special.”[II]

He was also a pretty fast runner. So fast, in fact, that someone thought it grand promotion to match him against a racehorse. It was fan appreciation night in 1956. Coan had spent the last two years bouncing around baseball. He had been traded to the New York Giants a year earlier and was playing for their minor-league Millers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Here’s Coan’s description: “I was fairly well-known for being a fast runner, you know?… and they asked me to race a horse from the right field wall to home plate. They gave me a little head start on this horse that they got from some local racetrack, but I won. They gave me $25 and I was thrilled.”[III]

Coan retired soon afterward and returned to Brevard. He was only 34. He bought an interest in Brevard Insurance Agency, which he owned outright by 1962. He would actively sell insurance until he retired at age 65. His grandson, Jay, later ran the agency.

While selling insurance and real estate, Coan managed the Brevard College baseball team for a couple of years and a was longtime member of the school’s board of trustees.

Coan and Dovie lived in a house overlooking Glen Cannon Country Club. He would stop by his cattle farm that he sold to his son, Kevin, to feed the cattle. He’d also stop by Gil Coan Field, the ballfield at Brevard College, to watch the kids play. After the field was renamed in his honor in 1994, Brevard residents would often see him mowing the grass or lining the infield.

Dovie died in November 2019. She was 97. She and Coan had been married for 78 years. Coan died three months later. Also 97, he was one the last remaining players of the original Baltimore Orioles and one of the oldest major-league players still alive.

“I think I was a part of baseball history that fans appreciated more than any other,” Coan said once. “Baseball gave me an entrée that would have never been available otherwise.”[IV]

References
[I] Willis, C. Norman. Washington Senators All-Time Greats. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2011. 272.
[II] Attanasio, Ed. “An Interview With Former Ballplayer Gil Coan.” Sports Collectors Digest.com, 2013. https://sportscollectorsdigest.com/news/an-interview-with-former-ballplayer-gil-coan
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.