Whisenant, Pete

Positions: Centerfield, left field
Birthplace: Asheville

First, Middle Names: Thomas Peter
Date of Birth:  Dec. 14, 1929  Date and Place of Death: March 22, 1996, Port Charlotte, FL
Burial: Cremated

High School: Paw Creek High School, Paw Creek, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-2, 190
Debut Year: 1952       Final Year: 1961          Years Played: 8
Teams and Years: Boston Braves, 1952; St. Louis Cardinals, 1955; Chicago Cubs, 1956; Cincinnati Redlegs, 1957-60; Cleveland Indians, 1960; Washington Senators, 1960; Minnesota  Twins, 1961; Cincinnati Reds, 1961

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
465   988    221     140     134      37       .224     .284     .399     1.6

 An intense competitor, Pete Whisenant was thought to be just a few steps from stardom when he signed his first professional contract as one of North Carolina’s most-prized prep players. It was not to be, however. After an eight-year career on seven big-league clubs, Whisenant retired as a reserve outfielder with a .224 career batting average.

He had short careers as a major-league coach and minor-league manager after his playing days and longer ones as the director of a popular baseball camp and as a businessman who owned vending machines and sold baseball memorabilia. That last endeavor led to a partnership with Pete Rose, the game’s all-time hits leaders, that didn’t end that well.

Born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1929, Thomas Peter Whisenant grew up in Paw Creek, in western Mecklenburg County, after his mother, Pearl, married Jim Todd, a local farmer. Murphy Barnes, Whisenant’s father, was a longtime resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he worked for the United States Department of Agriculture.

Paw Creek, now a neighborhood of Charlotte, was then a small village of cotton mills six miles from the city. Baseball players were another community export. Whisenant grew up idolizing Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger, and Whitey Lockman, an older local boy who made it to the majors a few years before he did. Bill Baker had proceeded them both. Ken Wood and Tommy Helms would make it later.[1]At one time,” Whisenant said, “that small mill village had more major-league ballplayers than the entire state of Arkansas.”[I]

He was the captain of the high-school baseball team and a starter on its basketball squad, though he had a habit of fouling out of games. A star on the local American Legion team, he was chosen in 1946 to a team of Eastern prep all-stars who played their Western counterparts in a game in Wrigley Field sponsored by Esquire magazine. The teenager had never ventured far from home and was awestruck by the sprawling station in Cincinnati where he had to change trains to Chicago. “Grandpa, this place is bigger than all of Paw Creek,” he wrote on the back of a postcard of the station that he mailed home.[II]

The Eastern team lost 10-4, but Whisenant had three of the team’s six hits and shared the dugout with Manager Honus Wagner. Ty Cobb piloted the opposing team. Imagine the stories that must have impressed the folks back home.

Whisenant was considered “the finest major-league prospect in the country” when he graduated in May 1947. Major-league scouts and college recruiters had filled the stands during that final season. “You should have been out here Monday night,” one reported. “There were so many bird dogs out here that they should have worn badges to keep from signing up each other.”[III]

Scouts camped out on the kid’s front porch for two weeks trying to get his name on a contract. Gil English, a former major-leaguer from High Point, North Carolina, finally did. The Boston Braves had to pony up about $100,000 in current dollars for the teen’s signature.

Whisenant spent several years in the Braves’ minor leagues and was expected to make the big-league club in 1951, but he joined the Navy rather than be drafted.

When he returned to the Braves the following spring, the six-foot, two-inch Whisenant had filled out to 190 pounds. He hit well in exhibition games and covered a lot of ground in centerfield. Old hands noticed that like Ted Williams the rookie spent a good deal of time when he wasn’t chasing down fly balls practicing his swing. They also saw that unlike the Boston Red Sox star Whisenant wasn’t an indifferent fielder. In fact, he was considered one of best defensive outfielders in the Braves’ system. His can-do demeanor also left an impression. “I like the boy,” said Braves’ Manager Tommy Holmes. “He has that old-time spirit. He’s a fiery competitor.”[IV]

He made his debut with the Braves in April 1952 but lasted only 24 games before being sent back down to the Class AAA club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He reappeared in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955 and then the Chicago Cubs the following season, his best in the big leagues. He played in 103 games and had career highs in home runs (11) and batting average (.239).

Whisenant became a valuable reserve and pinch hitter for the Cincinnati Redlegs for three seasons, starting in 1957.[2] He had five pinch-hit homers that year. He played his last two years on three teams before returning to Cincinnati in 1961. Whisenant retired as an active player in the middle of the season and became the batting coach on a team headed to the World Series. He paced the dugout with a bat, swatting sleepy players and malcontents. He was the consummate cheerleader and Manager Fred Hutchinson’s right-hand man. “Pete Whisenant was our rah-rah guy,” pitcher Joey Jay remembered. Old-school in his outlook, Whisenant was irritated by players discussing their investments or one, Jim Brosnan, pecking away at his typewriter.[3] “Think baseball, nothing else” was his constant litany.[V]

Released as the Reds’ outfield coach at the end of the 1962 season, Whisenant started a vending machine company in Evansville, Indiana, and moved it to Punto Gordo, Florida, seven years later where he also directed a baseball clinic for boys that Rose and Johnny Bench, Reds’ teammates, sponsored. He ran the popular clinic each winter into the mid-1970s.

Whisenant and Rose signed a contract in 1979 to capitalize on Rose’s assault on Cobb’s career hits record.[4] They were to sell souvenirs and merchandise bearing the caricature known as Little Charlie Hustle. They were to split the profits. Rose sued Whisenant over the character in 1985. Whisenant countersued two years later, claiming that Rose’s company sold merchandise without paying him. The lawsuits were settled out of court and the details were never disclosed.

Whisenant had better luck with the Modesto A’s in California. He managed the A’s to the California League championship in 1982. Billy Martin, the Oakland A’s manager, got his good friend the job as skipper of the club’s Class A affiliate. During his one season at Modesto, Whisenant was described variously as “cantankerous,” “hard-living,” “hard-drinking,” and a “masterful motivator.”[VI]

He was promoted to manage the Double A Huntsville Stars in 1983 but was fired at mid-season and moved to Costa Rica.

“He was tough on the outside and soft on the inside,” his son, Pete Jr., said.[VII]

Whisenant, who was married three times, had seven children.

He was living back in Cincinnati in 1996 when he died in Port Charlotte, Florida, of liver failure.  


Footnotes
[1] Bill Baker was a catcher in the National League in the early 1940s. Whitey Lockman was an outfielder in the major leagues for 15 years, starting in 1945. Ken Wood, also an outfielder, debuted three years later and played for eight years. Tommy Helms was an all-star and Gold Glove second baseman and shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1960s. Baker was the only Paw Creek native. See their profiles for more information.
[2] The Cincinnati Reds officially changed their name to the Redlegs in 1953 because they wanted to avoid getting caught up in McCarthyism’s consuming search for communists in government and business. They became the Reds again in 1959.
[3] A modestly effective relief pitcher, Jim Brosnan was known as an intellectual and was called The Professor by teammates because he puffed on a pipe and read books during games. He later wrote controversial books that, for the first time, realistically depicted life in a baseball locker room.
[4] Rose broke the record on September 11, 1985 with his 4,192nd hit.

References
[I] Heiling, Joe. “Astros Walking on Air Over Super Helms-Man.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 21, 1973.
[II] Lawson, Earl. “Red’s Helms – Courage Wrapped in a Small Package.” Sporting News (St. Louis. MO),
January 13, 1968.
[III] Howe, Ray. “Here’s Howe.” Charlotte (NC) News, April 30, 1947.
[IV] Warner, Ralph. “City’s Pete Whisenent Thrills Holmes, Braves With His Spirit,” Charlotte (NC) Observer, March 23, 1952.
[V] Murray, Jack. “O’Toole ‘Tried’ to ’61.” Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer, Oct. 9, 1970.
[VI] “Modesto’s A’s Championship Skipper Whisenent Dies.” Modesto (CA) Bee, March 23, 1996.
[VII] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Campbell, Paul

Position: First Base
Birthplace: Paw Creek

First, Middle Names: Paul McLaughlin  

Date of Birth:  Sept. 1, 1917   Date and Place of Death: June 22, 2006, Charlotte, NC
Burial: Forest Lawn West Cemetery, Charlotte

High School: Paw Creek High School 
College: Brevard College, Brevard, NC

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-10, 185
Debut Year: 1941       Final Year: 1950          Years Played: 6
Teams and Years: Boston Red Sox, 1941-42, 1946; Detroit Tigers, 1948-50

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
204   380    97       61        41        4         .255     .308     .358     -0.9

A long career in the major leagues requires skill, of course, but a bit of luck sometimes doesn’t hurt. Paul Campbell was a bit short on the hitting skills expected of first basemen, and he had the awful luck of playing on the same teams with some big-hitting ones.

Though he was a part-time player for six years, Campbell lasted more than 50 years in professional baseball as a minor-league manager and coach, a front-office executive and a scout.

Born in the small community of Paw Creek in western Mecklenburg County, Campbell and his two younger sisters grew up in nearby Charlotte where their father, Charles, worked first in a cotton mill and then managed a grocery store that he later owned. He would be murdered in the store in 1959.

Campbell played competitive baseball as a 12-year-old on the Chadwick-Hoskins Mill team, which played in one of the industrial leagues that flourished in North Carolina through the middle of the last century. He was a fan favorite in American Legion ball, hitting .407 for the Charlotte, North Carolina, club in 1934.

Two years later, after attending junior college in Brevard, North Carolina, Campbell signed his first professional contract with the Danville Leafs in Virginia. He got his first call to the big leagues in 1941 after two solid years for the Boston Red Sox’s Class AA franchise in Louisville, Kentucky. Campbell appeared in one game at first base for the Sox before being demoted. He made it into 26 games when the Red Sox beckoned again the following year, but he hit a paltry .067.

Tradition was working against him. First base in the major leagues has always been a power position. The guys who play there are usually big and bulky and hit a lot of home runs. Think Lou Gehrig or Harmon Killebrew, Hank Greenberg or Albert Pujols. Campbell, at 5-10 and 185 pounds, was small in comparison and never hit more than 15 homers in a season and that was back in Class D ball.

He was also trying to take the job from two of the most prolific power hitters of their era. Though at the tail end of a Hall of Fame career, Jimmie Foxx was still a dangerous hitter when Campbell first joined the Red Sox. Rudy York, who hit almost 300 homers during his career, held the job when Campbell returned from World War II in 1946.

Campbell had joined the Army Air Force three years earlier and had toured American air bases in England playing baseball.

Sent back down to Louisville again after appearing in only 28 games for the Red Sox in 1946, Campbell was frustrated. “I have to convince myself that I can play ball,” he said at the time. “For the last five seasons, I’ve been at-bat only 41 times. I’ve played only three full seasons since the start of 1942. Sitting on the bench with the Red Sox in 1942 and again last season after three years in the service has made me feel uncertain of my ability. I don’t know whether I can play because I haven’t had a chance to play.”[I]

But at 29, Campbell turned in his finest season in 1947. In 152 games with Louisville, he batted .304 with 71 RBIs, received MVP honors and prompted manager Harry Leibold to say: “There’s no finer fielding first baseman anywhere. I think he would be a handy guy for any big-league club to have around.”[II]

Campbell was excited to get a fresh start with the Detroit Tigers in 1948, but the results were same – hitting .270 or thereabouts with no power led to sparse playing time. After five more years in the minors, Campbell retired as an active player in 1954.

He was a minor-league coach, manager and executive before becoming a scout for the Cincinnati Reds in 1958. Campbell was promoted to traveling secretary six years later, a position he would hold until 1978. He would continue scouting for the Reds in some fashion until his retirement in 1993, 57 years after his first professional job in Danville.

Campbell and his second wife, Lillian, — his first, Mary Ellen, had died in 1961 – retired to the Charlotte area, where Campbell died at age 89 in a nursing home.

References
[I] Bedingfield, Gary. “Paul Campbell.” Baseball in Wartime, 2008. http://www.garybed.co.uk/player_biographies/campbell_paul.htm.
[II] Ibid.

 

 

Baker, Bill

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Paw Creek

Full Name: William Presley

Date of Birth:  Feb. 22, 1911  Date and Place of Death: April 13, 2006, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Burial: Unity Church Cemetery, Woodleaf

High School: Boyden High School, Salisbury

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-0, 200
Debut Year: 1940       Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 7
Team(s) and Years: Cincinnati Reds, 1940-41; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1941-43, 1946; St. Louis Cardinals, 1948-49

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
263      588      145      45        68        2      .247     .328     .316     0.6

Bill Baker spent a decade in the minor leagues as an everyday catcher before getting his shot in the majors in 1940. Though he would spend seven years with three National League clubs, Baker was never more than a backup catcher.

Born in the rural community of Paw Creek in Mecklenburg County, William Presley Baker was the second of Iva and Lawrence Edward’s seven children. Edward, a merchant, moved the family to nearby Salisbury when Bill was 14 and opened a clothing and dry good store. Years later, Baker would often return home during the off seasons to work in his father’s store.

A football and baseball player at Boyden High School, Baker began playing semipro baseball around Charlotte after graduating as jobs became scarce at the start of the Great Depression.

Baker signed his first professional contract in 1931 to play for the Greensboro Patriots in the Class C Piedmont League. He was an outfielder and pitcher but converted to catcher the following year on the advice of a teammate. He would be a dependable starting catcher over the next eight years in the minors.

Baker was 29 when the Cincinnati Reds, the defending National League champions, finally called him up as a backup to Ernie Lombardi, an established star and future Hall of Famer. Baker appeared in only 27 games that year. The Reds won another pennant, and Baker singled in one his four at bats in the World Series against the Detroit Tigers.

Two years in the Navy during World War II interrupted a major-league career in which Baker never saw much playing time. His best year was 1943 with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he hit .273 in 63 games.

After quitting as an active player after the 1949 season, Baker coached for a couple of years and umpired in the minor and major leagues until knees ravaged by years of squatting forced his retirement from baseball in 1959.

Baker returned to North Carolina and settled in Granite Quarry in Rowan County with his wife, Valdois. They had married in 1936 and had lived in Woodleaf, a small community near Salisbury where they raised three children.

In Granite Quarry, Baker was elected as a town alderman and served as commander of the local American Legion post. His work as commissioner of the county’s American Legion baseball earned him induction to the N.C. American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.

Bill and Valdois had been married for 52 years when she died in the summer of 1989. Over the years, Baker had become one of the oldest living major-league veterans. He eventually moved to the Myrtle Beach, S.C., to be closer to his daughter, Susan. He died there at age 95.