Gooch, Lee

Position: Left field
Birthplace: Oxford

First, Middle Names: Lee Currin
Date of Birth:  Feb 23, 1890   Date and Place of Death: May 18, 1966, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Wake Forest Cemetery, Wake Forest, NC

High School: Horner Military School, Oxford
College: Wake Forest University, Wake Forest, NC; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 190
Debut Year: 1915       Final Year: 1917          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Cleveland Indians, 1915; Philadelphia Athletics, 1917

 Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
19       61        18       4          8          1          .295     .338     .377       0.2

Lee Gooch was worried. Wake Forest College invited him to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1960 to manage a team of baseball alumni against the varsity squad. It was the school’s way to honor one of its most-illustrious coaches, the skipper who had won more than 60 games in two glorious seasons, coming just shy of a national baseball championship. He had made the little Baptist school, then still in its hometown of Wake Forest, North Carolina, the talk of the state.[1]

But it was only two seasons more than a decade earlier and Gooch, 70, wondered whether anyone would remember or care. He had arrived early at Ernie Shore Field and fretted, nervously chain smoking while pacing the dugout as the stadium slowly filled.

The place was packed when the announcer finally got around to introducing the participants. The fans applauded generously when each player took his place along the foul line. “When the announcer called his name, Gooch removed his hat and his white hair glistened in the sun,” a newspaper reported. “The cheers were long and loud, a moment of emotion at a homecoming at the ballyard.”

Gooch let the applause shower over him, his body rigid, his face firm. They remembered. He fought back tears as he returned to the dugout.  “Here,” he said, handing his half-filled pack of cigarettes to a bystander, “take these things. I quit smoking, on doctor’s orders, years ago.”[I]

Lee Currin Gooch was born in 1890 on the family farm outside Oxford, the seat of Granville County. His father, Daniel, died when Gooch was a teenager. His mother, Mary Alice, or Allie, moved her large family of nine children to town, where she ran a boarding house.

Gooch played baseball and football for four years at Horner Military School in Oxford.[2] He graduated in 1912 at age 22, old for a high-school senior. He entered Wake Forest, then in neighboring Wake County, and was the leading hitter on the 1913 team that won a state championship. It’s puzzling, then, that the team’s hitting star would leave for the University of North Carolina. Before reporting to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1914, Gooch played outfield for the Winston-Salem Twins, his first professional team.

Newspaper reports imply that Gooch wasn’t happy about his lack of playing time at UNC and quit before the season ended to sign with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in the old North Carolina State League.

He got his first taste of the major leagues in 1915 when he appeared in two games for the Cleveland Indians. He hung around a little longer two years later, playing in 19 games for the Philadelphia Athletics. He was released and spent the rest of the season playing or managing for minor-league clubs in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina.

A war in Europe then intruded. Gooch was drafted in September 1917 and assigned to the Army’s 81st Infantry Division at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. Before being shipped to the Western Front the following August, Sgt. Gooch married Mary Holding, a local Wake Forest girl he had met while in school.

The division was at the front lines near Verdun, France, in early November 1918. Gooch, by then a second lieutenant, was with the 322nd Regiment that captured the ruined village of Moranville on the morning of November 9. Though it suffered heavy casualties, the regiment had to withdraw to a safer position by nightfall. It was preparing to try again two days later when the battlefield went eerily silent. The armistice had been signed. The war was over. The division returned to the United States in June 1919.

Gooch spent the next 10 years playing and managing in the minors, first in such far-off places like Maine and Washington state and later closer to his home in Oxford and then nearby Henderson, North Carolina: Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville and Rocky Mount. As a player, he was known for his potent bat and slick outfield defense. Only twice did his average dip below .300, and he hit three home runs in a game in 1927. He won two pennants as a manager and even tried his hand coaching the kids at Trinity College, now Duke University, in Durham for one season.

Approaching 40 in 1929, Gooch retired from baseball to spend fulltime on his second career, the one that paid the bills. He had managed or owned tobacco warehouses in the offseasons since the early 1920s.

Gooch had been out of baseball for two decades when he took over the Wake Forest team in 1949. He said that he was “glad to get back to my first love.”[II] He also said he liked his club’s chances. He inherited a veteran team with 15 returning players, including future All-America’s Charlie Teague at second base and Gene Hooks at third. Russell Batchelor, the conference’s best catcher, was back, as was a trio of savvy pitchers: Vernon “Deacon” Mustian, Moe Bauer and Harry Nicholas.

The team sent a message in the opener by pounding out 15 hits in trouncing Randolph Macon College, 14-1. The umpires mercifully called it off after five innings because of heavy rain. They followed that up with another 15 hits, including four homers, in an 11-5 walloping of Cornell University. Two Deacon pitchers then combined to toss a no-hitter against Lumberton’s minor-league team. Wake Forest beat them 17-0 two weeks later.

The winning streak reached 20, one of the longest in collegiate history in the state. Their games were drawing overflow crowds. Good pitching and harmony were the ingredients of success, their rotund coach said. “There’s not the least bit of friction,” Gooch noted. “When a sub goes in, he slapped on the back by the man he replaces. There’s hustle, spirit, fight and scrapping on every play. The boys go all out to win.”[III]

Wake Forest ended up 38-6. Against college teams, it lost only two games. The runaway winner of the Southern Conference faced Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA double-elimination tournament. Wake won two straight. The heavily favored University of Southern California, the defending national champion, was next. The Deacons won two 2-1 thrillers, both going extra innings, to advance to Wichita, Kansas, for the final round. No North Carolina college baseball team had ever advanced so far. Only the UNC basketball team in 1946 had been the runner up in a national collegiate tournament.[3]

The formidable Texas Longhorns, a perennial baseball powerhouse, proved to be too much. They handed Wake its worst drubbing of the year in the first game, getting 15 hits on the way to a 8-1 victory. The second game was even worst, a 10-3 loss.

More than a thousand fans, though, greeted the Deacons when they landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport after the tournament. Their coach, though, wasn’t with them to bask in the applause. He followed on a train. Like a lot of baseball players, Gooch was very superstitious. He carried a rabbit’s foot wherever he went, never rode on airplanes and wouldn’t allow photographers in the dugout during games.[IV]

The Deacons again had the class of the conference in 1950, and everyone expected them to repeat as champions. Many thought they would win it all this time. Though it won 31 more games and the Southern Conference, the team faltered in the first round of the NCAA tournament, losing to eventual champion University of Alabama.

After two championship seasons, amassing 69 wins in 81 games, Gooch retired. He was 60 and getting too old, he said. The tobacco warehouses needed his attention, he said.

He and Mary lived their final years in Wake Forest. She died in 1959. Gooch died of a heart attack seven years later.

Footnotes
[1] Founded in 1834 in Wake Forest, the school moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1956.
[2] James Hunter Horner opened a secondary school on the outskirts of Oxford in 1855. His nephew, Jerome Horner, turned it into a military school in 1880. It was a great success until a fire burned down the barracks in 1913, the year after Lee Gooch graduated. It reopened in Charlotte, North Carolina, a year later and officially closed in 1920. (Anderson, Jean B. “Horner School,” NCPedia, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/horner-school).
[3] The 1949 tournament was the third NCAA-sanctioned tournament to determine a national baseball champion. The championship round was played for the first and only time in Wichita, KS. It moved to Omaha, NB, in 1950 where it’s been ever since.

References
[I] Helms, Herman. “Homecomings, at 76, Can Be Painful.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, April 10, 1960.
[II] “Gooch Named Deacon Coach for Baseball.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), Feb 13, 1949.
[III] Associated Press. “Gooch Attributes Wake’s Success to Team Spirit.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, May 11, 1949.
[IV] Garrison, Wilton. “Wilton Garrison’s Sports Parade.” Charlotte (NC) Observer, February 24, 1951.