Tyson, Turkey

Position: Pinch hitter
Birthplace: Elm City

First, Middle Names: Cecil Washington        Nicknames: Turkey
Date of Birth: Dec. 6, 1914     Date and Place of Death: Feb. 17, 2000
Burial: Cedar Grove Cemetery, Elm City

High School: Undetermined
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, NC

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 225
Debut Year: 1944       Final Year: 1944          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1944

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

Turkey Tyson had one day in the big leagues. He pinch hit in the ninth inning of a meaningless game and popped out to third. It was a brief interlude to a 15-year career down on the farms. Tyson bounced around minor-league clubs, from Tallahassee, Florida, to Utica, New York, accumulating a .300 career batting average and acquiring a reputation as a boisterous, fan favorite. After a very public feud with Cuban opponents that had a nasty, racial overtone, Tyson wore out his welcome up North and returned to North Carolina where he became a minor-league legend as a player and manager.

George and Jennie Tyson named the first of their two children Cecil when he was born in December 1914 in Elm City in Wilson County, but everybody called him Turkey most of his adult life. Some said it was because he once visited the country of that name with a baseball team. Others claimed it was the gobbling sound he made whenever he got a hit.[I]

Tyson began playing baseball at an early age on teams representing Elm City. “We would play teams from different communities, and a lot of times the teams would end up fighting among themselves,” he remembered many years later.[II]

The games certainly got more structured and less violent when he entered Oak Ridge Military Institute in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1932, probably to finish high school and then to enter the junior-college program that the school offered. His real motivation, however, was to play ball. The private school was something of a baseball factory, having sent a number of its students to the major leagues.[1]

A year after graduating in 1936, Tyson was chosen to play and teach baseball in England.[2] The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress, which supported amateur baseball, sponsored the trip as a way to lobby for the sport’s addition to the Olympics

Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers when he returned home, Tyson played his first professional ball for Dodgers’ farm teams in Tallahassee and Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1938. They were the first of the nine different minor-league clubs that he would play first base and manage over the coming decade. His solid hitting, all that gobbling as he ran up the first base line, and his full-throated arguments with umpires made him a favorite of hometown fans wherever he went.

Tyson was in Utica in 1944, playing for the Phillies’ Class A Blue Sox, when he was called up to Philadelphia. The 29-year-old rookie had his one at bat on April 23 and was back in a Utica uniform a couple of days later.

The Blue Sox won the Eastern League pennant the following season but not without controversy. Many ballplayers were in military uniforms that year, America’s third in World War II. To fill rosters, the league had encouraged the signing of players from Cuba. Their numbers had increased dramatically since the start of the war, creating tension with some American players and coaches in the league. Resentment toward the Cubans was becoming a major problem, noted Louis Pickelner, the sports’ editor of the newspaper in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a league city. “Abuse of Cuban players is reaching a point which requires drastic action to save the game we reverently call our ‘National Pastime’ from being smeared by unsportsmanship ,” he wrote in July 1945.[III]

If the problem had a face, it would have looked a lot like Turkey Tyson’s. It’s hard to know how it all started and who should shoulder the burden of blame from 70-year-old newspaper accounts. Clearly, though, the Cubans were a bit brash. Maybe they thought they had something to prove to these Yanquis, but they played a brand of ball that Ty Cobb would have found familiar. They slid hard into bases, sometimes with spikes high. They barreled into catchers on plays at home and, when pitching, threw at batters.

Tyson seems to have been a favorite target, probably because he griped and complained to umpires and angrily confronted the offenders. The league’s owners fined and suspended him twice for his public displays. His second and longest suspension of 15 games came after he charged the mound with a bat during a game with Williamsport’s Rebels. Constrained by teammates, Tyson returned to the dugout without inflicting any physical harm, though he may have shouted the “N” word at the Cubans several times during the short journey. At the end of the inning, Dan Parra, a Rebels’ Cuban pitcher, charged across infield with two bats to confront Tyson. Again, teammates interceded and a truce was called with no one getting hurt.

Parra’s more lenient sentence from the league – a three-day suspension – triggered even more resentment among some of the league’s American players, coaches, and sportswriters who publicly proclaimed their support for Tyson, one of their own, while ridiculing the foreigners’ faulty English and even their food preferences. Pickelner, however, wasn’t among them. “A guy like Turkey Tyson, a double offender of the code of fair play, can very well wreck the entire structure of the Eastern League if not put in his place once and for all,” he wrote.[IV]

Little wonder, then, that Tyson expressed relief when he signed with the Durham, North Carolina, Bulls in 1947. The Class C club was a couple of steps down from the Blue Sox, but he was home again. “I didn’t like it up there, and I wanted to get back down home,” he said.[V]

He had his best year with the Bulls that season, hitting .349 and driving in 105 runs. He also set a Carolina League record with 74 assists at first base. It formed the foundation of a reputation Tyson would build over the next five years playing or managing four different minor-league clubs in North Carolina. He was colorful, quotable and considered a smart baseball man. At the end of his career when he was old enough to be the father of many of the youngsters he managed, Tyson was the wizened sage of the diamond.

He returned to Elm City in the offseasons where he was the most-famous man in the town of 800. He hawked tobacco as an auctioneer and swapped mules. “I’m a mule trader in the winter months,” he said in 1948. “I’ll buy mules and I’ll trade mules.” Most farmers around Elm City told reporters that Turkey could drive a hard bargain.[VI]

There was no reason to leave town after 1952, the year Tyson quit as manager of the local Leafs in Rocky Mount, a Class D team that occupied the lowest rung in the minor-league hierarchy. The team wasn’t very good and was going nowhere and the old mule trader couldn’t inspire them to do better. He abruptly quit in the middle of the season.

Tyson settled in with Hester, whom he had married in 1950, as Elm City’s famous son. He was elected as a town alderman in 1963 and served five terms. His brother, George, was mayor for much of that time.

He died in 2000 at age 85.


Footnotes
[1] What’s now called Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, Max Wilson, and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).
[2] Pitcher Max Wilson of Haw River, North Carolina, also made the trip. He made brief appearances in the major leagues in 1940 and 1946. See his profile for a more information.

References
[I] Temple, Bob. “Elm City, 1,000 in Population, has many Distinguishing Features.” Sunday Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), February 12, 1950.
[II] Cockrell, Bennett. “Cecil ‘Turkey’ Tyson Has Fond Memories.” Nashville (NC) Graphic, November 16, 1990.
[III] Pickelner, Louis, “A Little Extra.” Williamsport (PA) Sun-Gazette, July 20, 1945.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Quincy, Bob. “Leafs’ New Pilot Stopped Show at Coronation of Britain’s King.” Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount, NC), January 30, 1948.
[VI] Ibid.

 

Wilson, Max

Position: Starting pitcher, relief pitcher
Birthplace: Haw River

Date of Birth:  June 3, 1916    Date and Place of Death: Jan. 2, 1977, Greensboro
Burial: Pine Hill Cemetery, Burlington

High School: Burlington High School 
College: Oak Ridge Military Institute, Oak Ridge, N.C.

Bats: L             Throws: L        Height and Weight: 5-7, 160
Debut Year: 1940       Final Year: 1946          Years Played: 2
Teams and Years: Philadelphia Phillies, 1940; Washington Senators, 1946

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
12        0          1          0          9.15     19.2     11        -1.1

 Max Wilson was a star in high school and a statewide sensation by the time he graduated from college. He was the “famous” Max Wilson in newspapers by then. Because shameless excess was the hallmark of good sports writing at a time when the reading public wasn’t so easily insulted, “marvelous Max” was also the “midget,” the “half pint,” the “tiny tosser.” Writers marveled that such a little guy – young Max was 5-7 and maybe 155 pounds soaking wet – could throw so hard.

Regardless of his size, there was no denying Wilson’s talent. The boy could pitch. In high school, in college, for the mill teams that flourished around his home in Burlington, among the hand-picked amateurs sent to England to showcase the American sport, even for the Navy during World War II, Wilson was always the best pitcher on the squad, usually leading his teams to championships.

Where it counted though, in the big leagues, Max Wilson was a dud. He made two trips to the majors, six years apart. In a dozen games and almost 20 innings, Wilson compiled an embarrassing 9.15 earned-run average, walking as many as he struck out. See, said the doubting scouts at the time, the “tiny southpaw” is just too small. Maybe. More likely, like so many promising kids before him and since, Max Wilson for the first time faced the best hitters on the planet. Johnny Mize or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams didn’t play on the Tower mill team or make the trip to England.

Born in 1916, Max was the eldest of Earl and Veta Wilson’s three boys. They grew up in Haw River in Alamance County where Earl was a superintendent in a knitting mill.

Wilson pitched his Burlington High School team to consecutive state championships in 1934-35. He struck out 20 batters in a game his senior year, starting a streak of 66 Ks in 38 innings.

When school ended for the summers, Wilson worked in the mills and pitched for their very competitive baseball teams.

The summer of 1937 was the exception. The now-defunct U.S. Baseball Congress invited Wilson and about 100 other amateurs to Miami that spring to try out for teams that it would send to England to promote the sport. The organization, which supported amateur baseball, was lobbying for baseball to be added to the Olympics. Wilson made the cut and went 13-0 in England that summer.

His fame was solidified back home in Guilford County, at what is now Oak Ridge Academy.[1] After returning from England, Wilson enrolled in the private military school’s junior-college program. By then, the school had acquired a reputation as a baseball incubator, having graduated a number of major leaguers. Wilson threw a perfect game against Wingate Junior College in 1938, striking out 25 of the 27 batters. Only one hitter managed to put the ball in play. Nine days later, he pitched a no-hitter, striking out 18. Wilson yielded just four hits in a 10-1 win in his next outing, fanning another 18. He led Oak Ridge that year to the state junior college baseball title.

He became the “famous one” in newspaper accounts, and major-league teams considered signing him despite the misgivings about his size. Connie Mack, a shrewd judge of baseball talent as the longtime manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, wrote to a friend in North Carolina who knew Wilson that he “would like to take a chance with this youngster and am wondering if you could see him and have him get in touch with me pertaining his joining our club.”[I]

A cocky Wilson told a sportswriter in 1938 that he intended to play major-league ball after graduating from Oak Ridge in the spring. “It just wouldn’t be worth my time to fool with the minor class of ball,” he said, “but I fully realize that my size is a handicap if I do get in the majors.”[II]

Wilson, of course, had no say in the matter. The Cleveland Indians beat Mack and signed Wilson after graduation,  assigning him to their farm team in Springfield, Ohio. Though it was a Class C league, the lowest in the minors, Wilson didn’t gripe and considered his 8-4 record a success. “And the other reason is that I proved to myself and a lot of other guys that a little fella can stay in there with the rest of ‘em,” he said.[III]

The Indians, though, apparently had second thoughts. They traded Wilson to the Philadelphia Phillies after the season. He won 35 games over the next two years in the minors and was called up to Philadelphia at the end of the 1940 season. In three games that September, the 24-year-old lefty gave up 10 runs in seven innings.

It was back to the minors. Wilson had his best season in 1941, going 19-9 with a 2.39 ERA in a Class B league. Who knows what would have happened if Japan hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor that December.

Wilson enlisted in the Navy soon after the attack. As a petty officer third class, he pitched spectacularly during the 1943 Norfolk Navy World Series, winning three games, two by 1-0 shutouts. Wilson pitched again in the service’s World Series two years later while stationed in Honolulu, throwing a 4-0 one-hitter in the second game.

He was 30 when the war ended, and his best pitching days were behind him. Wilson fared just slightly better in his second call up to the majors, this time with the Washington Senators in 1946. He gave up another 10 runs in almost 13 innings of relief. His career was over.

Wilson and his wife, Emogene, moved to Greensboro in the 1950s where they raised their two sons and Wilson worked for S&W Distributors. The boys, Robbie and Max, would later pitch for N.C. State University. Their dad never missed a home game.

Wilson died in 1977. He was only 60.

Footnote
[1] Oak Ridge Academy occupies an important place in the history of baseball in North Carolina.  The school, which traces its roots to the 1850s, was considered one of the best prep schools in the state in the late 19th century. Under coach Earl Holt, the school’s baseball program during the first decades of the 20th century developed more than a dozen major-league players, including Jackie Mayo, Dick Burrus, Al Evans, Pete Shields, Chubby Dean, the Ferrell brothers (Wes and Rick), and the Hayworth brothers (Red and Ray).

References
[I] Hayden, Wesley. “They’re Taking Notice.” Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), May 13, 1938.
[
II] Beerman, William L. “Pardon Me, But…” Daily Tar Heel (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC), May 13, 1938.
[
III] Bedingfield, Gary. “Max Wilson.” Baseball in Wartime, April 24, 24 2008. http://baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wilson_max.htm

 

 

Covington, Wes

Position: Left field
Birthplace: Laurinburg

First, MIddle Names: John Wesley
Date of Birth: March 27, 1932           Date and Place of Death: July 4, 2011, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Burial: Cremated

High School: Laurinburg Institute; Hillside High School, Durham, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1,205
Debut Year: 1956       Final Year: 1966          Years Played: 11
Teams and Years:  Milwaukee Braves, 1956-61; Chicago White Sox, 1961; Kansas City Athletics, 1961; Philadelphia Phillies, 1961-65; Chicago Cubs, 1966; Los Angeles Dodgers, 1966

Career Summary
G            AB         H         R          RBI      HR      BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1075    2978   832   355     499    131   . 279     .337     .466      9.2

The Bears of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a Boston Braves’ minor-league affiliate, featured two African-American sluggers in 1952, roomies Wes Covington and Henry Aaron. Covington hit 24 home runs that year, Aaron a mere nine.  “At that point, if people had known that one of our players would someday be the all-time, major-league home-run leader, everybody would have assumed that Covington would be the guy,” Aaron would later write in his autobiography.[I]

Of course, that’s not how it turned out. While he had a productive career in the majors that included appearances in three World Series, Covington never became a baseball immortal like his old roommate. Injuries afflicted him and, by some accounts, a big mouth hampered him. The authors of an encyclopedia about the Philadelphia Phillies summed up the career of the team’s former left fielder: “Wes Covington lasted 11 years in the major leagues because of a bat that made a lot of noise and in spite of a mouth that did likewise…. (He) specialized in long home runs and long interviews that tended to get people around him a bit testy.”[II]

Born in Laurinburg in the state’s Sandhills, Covington’s childhood remains a mystery. There’s nothing in the historical record about his parents or any siblings. Neither do we know anything about his growing up in Scotland County.[1]

Covington attended Laurinburg Institute, a historic African-American prep school founded in 1904 at the request of Booker T. Washington. It produced a number of basketball stars, such as Charlie Scott and Sam Jones, and one fine jazzman in Dizzy Gillespie.

Football is what likely drew Covington to Hillside High School in Durham, though, where the 6-1, 205-pound teenager was the fullback and ran 100 yards in under 10 seconds. He was considering several football scholarship offers, including one from what is now North Carolina State University, in 1951 when his life changed.

He was asked that year to play the outfield in an annual game of high-school all stars from North and South Carolina, though Covington had never played prep baseball. He impressed a Braves’ scout, who offered him a contract. Covington decided to take the money and forget football. “You know how it is,” he recalled a few years later. “I needed a few dollars; they had a few dollars. Good deal. Besides, my wife, then my sweetheart, asked me to play baseball instead.”[III]

The Braves were a struggling franchise when they signed Covington and were destined to abandon Massachusetts for Wisconsin at the end of the season. They assigned the 20-year-old to their farm team in Eau Claire where he was joined by Aaron, a teenage shortstop.

They endured the hardships of professional baseball’s slow and uneasy erasing of the color line. They were refused motel rooms in North Dakota and meals at restaurants on the road. They ate on the team bus or in the kitchen with the help. They stayed at the local YMCA while white players roomed with Eau Claire families. A local restaurant owner cancelled his promotion of offering a free steak dinner to Bears’ players who homered because the team’s biggest sluggers were black. Residents stared. Many had never seen a black man. “I felt like a sideshow freak,” Covington said.[IV]

Milwaukee Braves (L-R): Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Bob Buhl, Wes Covington and Bob “Hurricane” Hazel, circa 1957-1958. Photo: Atlanta Braves

 

A gregarious, confident man with a rich baritone voice and an ever-present smile, Covington took it all in stride, remembered Bobby Malkmus, who played with him in the minors before teaming up on the Braves. Covington remained a loyal teammate despite the racial barriers, he said. “He was a tremendous guy, easy to get along with,” Malkmus said. “We got along really well. He was a good ballplayer and a good friend. [There was] no black and white situation with him; he was just a good teammate, kind of a jolly person.”[V]

Drafted by the Army in 1953, Covington spent the following year playing ball on bases in Kentucky and Virginia. That was followed by a season in the minors and a winter playing in Puerto Rico where Covington led the league in RBI and tied for the lead in hits. Then, it was on to Milwaukee.

Covington debuted in 1956 with pinch hits to help the Braves win several games. He hit .283 in limited play but already began infuriating pitchers with his drawn-out routine before each at bat. “In the time it takes for Covington’s ritual of hand dusting, cap adjusting, spike cleaning and deep scowling, the Senate could hold a dozen filibusters,” Baseball Digest noted.[VI]

Batting coaches looked at the kid’s odd batting stance – a low crouch with the bat held almost parallel to the ground – and wondered how he ever hit a ball. One writer called it a Caveman Grip, noting that he looked “like a man with a hoe handle waiting at a rat hole for a mouse to appear.”[VII]

Despite all that, the starting left fielder’s job was Covington’s when the 1957 season began. Since arriving in Milwaukee, the Braves had risen up the ranks of the National League with an infusion of young talent. Hall of Famers Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn were buttressed by masher Joe Adcock, speedster Billy Bruton and solid regulars like Johnny Logan and Del Crandall.

Covington faltered at the start of the season and was sent back to the minors. He returned a month later and hit .287 with 21 home runs in 96 games, helping the Braves win their first pennant in almost a decade. Covington played in every game of the World Series against the New York Yankees, though he only hit 208. Never known for his defensive skills – “They don’t pay outfielders to catch balls,” he once explained — he made two stellar catches that preserved victories. The Braves won in seven games.[VIII]

After hurting his knee during spring training, Covington was sidelined for the first month of the 1958 season. He had another productive year — .330-24-47 – and the Braves went back to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees.

Those back-to-back years would be Covington’s best. An ankle injury shortened his 1959 season. His batting average dropped to .279 and he hit just seven home runs. The next year was even worse. Covington was grossly out of shape when he reported to spring training. Still hobbled by the bad ankle, he lost his starting job and hit just .249.

Yet, Covington continued his annual tradition of holding out for more money. Before he signed his 1961 contract, the Braves would have to meet certain conditions, Covington said.  “Two hundred hitters don’t give ultimatums,” sneered the Braves’ General Manager John McHale.[IX] Covington eventually signed but he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in May then to the Kansas City Athletics and finally three weeks later to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Covington was good in Philadelphia. He appeared in more than 100 games in each of his four full seasons with the Phillies and hit better than .280 and averaged 14 home runs and 53 RBI a year. He was one of the team’s most-popular players in the clubhouse and in the stands, and kids loved to copy his batting stance.

Gene Mauch

His relationship with Gene Mauch was another matter, however. He chaffed under the manager’s platoon system and complained often and in public. Mauch, in turn, said the outfielder was prone to “pop off and pop up.”[X]

Many Phillies fans soured on Covington after the team’s historic collapse in 1964 when they lost 10 straight with 12 games to play, forfeiting a pennant in the process.  Covington hit .150 during the streak with no homers or RBI. He spent the offseason grumbling in the papers about the collapse and then reported 15 days late for spring training.  “(Covington) kept hollering and kept popping off,” a local newspaper noted.  “Nobody wants to listen to a mean, tough grumbler when that grumbler is hitting .220. The Phillies lost the pennant, and Covington went around town all winter telling people whose fault it was, and never even mentioned Wes Covington’s name.”[XI]

Covington lasted one more contentious season in Philadelphia. He was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1966 and played a handful of games before being released. He then signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was an effective pinch hitter on a pennant-winning team. He made one appearance in the World Series and struck out. It was his last at-bat in the majors.

Always careful with his money, Covington had numerous businesses outside baseball. He owned a barbecue restaurant in Philadelphia and real estate in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. His company grew to one of Philadelphia’s largest janitorial services.

His move to Canada in the 1970s is surrounded by mystery. Several newspapers reported in 1974 that Covington “departed to another country to escape creditors.”[XII] The Society for American Baseball research, in its biography of Covington, said that “tax issues” forced the move.[XIII] Whatever the reason, Covington ran a sporting-good store in Edmonton, Alberta, then worked 20 years in advertising for the Edmonton Sun newspaper. He died of cancer at age 79, survived by his third wife, Pat, and two daughters.

His .466 career slugging percentage is fifth among North Carolina players with at least 1,000 at bats. His 131 home runs is 11th on the list and his .279 lifetime average is tied for 20th.

Footnote
[1] We can presume that as a young boy, Covington would have been drawn to McDougal Funeral Home in Laurinburg, probably many times, to gawk at “Spaghetti,” the mummified remains of an Italian carnival worker who was murdered near town in 1911. The body was on public display for the next 61 years. By Covington’s time, Laurinburg was as well known for its mummy as it was for its stately oaks. Cancetto Farmica was finally buried in 1972 after an Italian-American congressman drew national attention to his undignified treatment, but his longevity as a ghoulish tourist attraction says something about the culture that surrounded the young boy.

References
[I] Aaron, Henry with Lonnie Wheeler. I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
[II]
Sturgill, Andy. “Wes Covington.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/4c0a3ba4.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Hawthorn, Tom. “Wes Covington, baseball player (1932-2011). Tom Hawthorne’s Blog.” https://tomhawthorn.blogspot.com/2011/07/wes-covington-baseball-player-1932-2011.html.
[V]
“Wes Covington, 1957 World Series hero dies at 79.” Baseball Happenings, July 7, 2011. https://www.baseballhappenings.net/2011/07/wes-covington-79-1957-world-series-hero.html
[VI] Sturgill.
[VII] Hawthorn.
[VIII] Sturgill.
[IX] Sturgill.
[x] Fitzpatrick, Frank. “Popular Slugger With Odd Stance Starred for Phils.” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, July 20, 2011.
[XI] Sturgill.
[XII]
Metrocavage, Paul D. “Gary Diminick Meets With Bell of New Football League.” News Item (Shamokin, PA) April 18, 1974.
[XIII] Sturgill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zachary, Tom

Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Graham

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

Career Summary
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.

Babe Ruth sends a Tom Zachary curve ball to deep right field for his record 60th home run. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“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.[1] 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.[2]

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]

A city’s hopes were on the mound with Tom Zachary during Game 6 of the 1924 World Series.

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.

Footnotes
[1]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. 
[2] 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.

References
[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.
[III] Hunter.
[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.
[VI] Rainey.
[VII] Hunter.

Coble, Dave

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Monroe

First, Middle Names: David Lamar
Date of Birth:  Dec. 24, 1912  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 16, 1971, Orlando, FL
Burial: Lakeland Memorial Park, Monroe, FL

High School: Undetermined
College: Wingate University, Wingate, NC; University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 183
Debut Year: 1939       Final Year: 1939          Years Played: 1
Team and Year: Philadelphia Phillies, 1939

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
15        25        7          2          0          0          .280     .280     .320     -0.2

First, it was the Washington Monument. Then, a skyscraper in Cleveland. Pretty soon baseballs were being tossed off tall structures and even out of airplanes and blimps all over the major leagues, and down on the ground players tried to catch them. Some lost teeth or broke noses. One was knocked clean out.

John Lardner, Ring’s son, was a pretty fair sportswriter himself. He once tried to explain what he called “the morbid lure” of this odd pastime that flourished during the early part of the 20th century. He thinks Walter Johnson inadvertently had something to do with it. The great Washington Senators pitcher and Hall of Famer was the hardest thrower anyone had ever seen in that era before radar guns. He was called The Big Train because, after all, locomotives were the fastest things anyone had ever seen. Gabby Street, Johnson’s catcher on the Senators, liked to encourage the legend of Walter’s blinding speed. A ham of the first order, Street often showed newspaper photographers how he shoved a raw steak in his mitt to protect his hand.

“And when fertile minds began to speculate on the possibility of this great catcher holding real, superhuman speed – the speed of gravity – there was the Washington Monument ready at hand,” Lardner wrote.[I]

It didn’t take much to persuade Street in 1908 to try and catch a baseball thrown from atop the 555-foot obelisk. He needed several chances to do it, but he did it. And the stage was set.

Ruth Law Oliver stands next to an airplane while dressed in the government aviation uniform. She flew over the Western Front during World War I and was the only woman permitted to wear the uniform for non-military purposes in France. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Wilbert Robinson, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, agreed during spring training in Florida 1915 to try and catch a ball thrown from a low-flying plane. The pilot, the famous female aviator Ruth Law Oliver, forgot the baseballs on the ground. She tossed out a grapefruit that she had planned to eat for lunch.  It fell 525 feet. Uncle Robbie caught it, but it exploded in his mitt, covering him to juice and ooze. Robertson thought it was blood.

“Help. I’m dying. I’m bleeding to death,” the stricken manager yelped.

Legend insists that’s how the Grapefruit League got its name.[II]

Several less impressive stunts were performed over the next few years – balls tossed from bridges and low-flying balloons and such. Then, in 1938, two Cleveland Indian players bested Street. They caught balls that fell more than 700 feet after being thrown from the city’s railroad terminal.

 

Into this history stepped Dave Coble. He had grown up in a large family down in Monroe in Union County. His father, John, was a railroad engineer. Coble’s childhood history is sketchy, but we know he played baseball at what was then Wingate Junior College, a Baptist school in the North Carolina  town of the same name, and then at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  

Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson

Coble played three years of minor-league ball, before being bought by the Philadelphia Phillies in April 1939. It’s impossible to imagine a modern manager saying something like this now, but here’s what Doc Prothro told reporters about his new catcher: “I know Coble is a poor hitter and doesn’t stand much chance against big-league pitching. But he is a good receiver. I don’t mind telling you I am buying him mainly for his hustle.”[III]

Why the 26-year-old rookie was chosen the following month to take part in a publicity stunt is lost to history. The union that represented local white-collar newspaper employees wanted to throw baseballs from the observation deck of the William Penn statue atop City Hall and then auction them off for charity. The woeful Phillies, a team headed for a 106-loss season and desperate for anything to boost fan interest, gladly supplied the players. Coble was to join his manager in the tossing, but his fear of heights assigned him to the ground for the catching.

A crowd estimated to be at least 10,000 people – more than would attend the Phillies game later that day – showed up on May 10 to watch Coble and three other players try to catch baseballs that Prothro dropped 521 feet above the street. He would throw a ball until one was caught. It’s not clear if all the players went for each ball or if they agreed on some order, but there is a goofy newspaper photo of them in uniform wearing leather football helmets and gazing intently into the air, their gloves ready to make the catch.

The players couldn’t actually see the balls when they began their descent. They were notified by shortwave radio when each ball was dropped. Coble caught the first one on a bounce. The wind caught one and pushed it into the crowd, scattering spectators. Another bounced off a concrete traffic island a hundred feet away. Finally, on the ninth try, Coble caught the ball on the fly.[IV]

Physicists from Penn Institute were on hand to calculate the ball’s speed. Some newspapers reported it traveled at 83 miles an hour. The Big Train would yawn. Other reports had the speed at 125 mph. That’s more like it.

Coble told reporters that catching it, no matter how fast it was traveling, felt like “a man jumping into my arms.” All the newspaper stories were in agreement on this point: “So great was the impact that Coble nearly went to his knees.”[V]

Another photo shows Coble triumphantly holding up the captured, speeding spheroid as the crowd cheers.

The beginning of the end of this odd fad came two months later when Joe Sprintz, a player with the San Francisco Seals in the minor leagues, attempted to break the Cleveland record by catching a ball thrown from the Goodyear Blimp floating 800 feet off the ground. He missed and broke his jaw and five teeth. He was also knocked out cold.

As for Coble, that catch at City Hall was the highlight of his major-league career. The Phillies demoted him in August after he appeared in just 15 games.  He would serve in world War II and then play or manage in the minors until 1953. He was also a scout for the Philadelphia Athletics.

He was selling real estate in Orlando, Fla., when he died in 1971. His obituary lists no surviving spouse or children and makes no mention of the day he famously caught a bullet falling from the sky.

References
[I] Lardner, John. “Old Monumental Stunt Becoming Ordinary.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) May 13, 1939.

[II] Clair, Michael. “Grapefruit League Earned Its Name From a Prank.” MLB.com, March 13, 2020. https://www.mlb.com/news/wilbert-robinson-caught-grapefruit-from-a-plane.
[III] Associated Press. “Doc Prothro Buys Catcher for ‘Hustle.’” Knoxville (TN) Journal. 6 April 1939.
[IV] Fitzpatrick, Frank. “Cloudy with a Chance of Baseballs.” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, May 10, 2014.
[V] “Rookie Catches Ball Traveling 125 m.p.h.” San Bernardino (CA) Sun, May 12, 1939.