Narron, Sam

Position: Catcher
Birthplace: Emit (Johnston County)

First, Middle Names:  Samuel Woody
Date of Birth:  Aug. 25, 1913  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 31, 1996, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Antioch Baptist Church, Middlesex, NC

High School: Wakelon School, Zebulon, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1935        Final Year: 1943          Years Played: 3
Team and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1935, 1942-43

Career Summary
G          AB       H          R          RBI       HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
24        28       8          0          1            0          .286     .310     .286      0.0

 

Sam Narron expected to be paid $125 a month after signing his first professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934. He could use the money. Though only 20, he was the head of his family after the death of his elderly father. He had a mother and three siblings to care for back on the farm in Johnston County, North Carolina. This was his first job that paid real money, at least while the baseball season lasted.

He found himself in Albany, Georgia, to start the following season, however, catching and playing third base in a Class A league. His monthly pay was cut $35, but Narron didn’t squawk. He vowed instead to improve and convince his coaches that he deserved a promotion to a higher and better-paying league.

The famed tightwad Branch Rickey took notice. No one could squeeze a dollar harder than the Cardinals’ general manager, particularly if it was meant for one of his players. “Rickey believes in economy in everything except his own salary,” a sports columnist at the time quipped.[I] He could also be a bible-thumping moralist who regularly raged against the evils of Communists, liberals, and liquor. He had a fondness for oratorical excesses that could, noted The New York Times’ venerable Arthur Daly, make a hitter’s batting line sound like the Gettysburg Address. As a baseball executive, however, Branch Rickey was a man far ahead of his time, a pioneering innovator in an industry of plodding money men. With the Cardinals, he remade baseball by building the first modern minor-league system. With the Brooklyn Dodgers a decade later, he helped reshape America by bringing Jackie Robinson to the major leagues. In his players he valued loyalty above all else, and in Sam Narron, Rickey believed he had found a loyal man.

When minor-league play ended in 1934, Rickey promoted Narron to the big club for the final three weeks of its season. That the burly farm boy had led the Georgia-Florida League with a .349 batting average was a powerful recommendation, but his bat apparently wasn’t needed in St. Louis because Narron appeared in only four games. He was, however, paid $100 a week. “Nobody told Sam Narron that Branch Rickey had given him that $300 September assignment with the Cardinals as a reward for having a fine disposition in the spring,” wrote a St. Louis sports columnist. “But it actually was that.”[II]

From then on, Rickey looked after Narron. He was the one who had suggested that he switch positions from third base to catcher to improve his opportunities in the big leagues. Though he made the switch, Narron remained in the minors for most of his playing career, but Rickey brought him back up as the third-string catcher on two pennant-winning Cardinals’ teams in the early 1940s. Narron followed Rickey to Brooklyn, New York, where he became the Dodgers’ bullpen catcher after he retired as a player. He ended his career as the Pirates’ bullpen chief when Rickey moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In both places, he coached on pennant-winning teams.

Though his major-league playing career consisted of a mere 24 games spread over three seasons, Narron could count more than 30 years in professional baseball when he finally returned to the family farm for good. He raised tobacco and became a baseball ambassador. In retirement, he was a tireless promoter of the sport, especially in Eastern North Carolina, where he spoke at meetings of hot-stove leagues and attended high-school, American Legion, and college games, proudly showing off his World Series rings. If a guy like him could wear one, he’d tell the kids, so could they if they worked at it. Having a benefactor like Branch Rickey somehow didn’t figure into those inspirational bromides.

Narron’s kin seemed to provide living examples of dedication’s fruits. His son, also named Sam but called Rooster, played in the minor leagues. His grandson, another Sam, pitched briefly in the majors before becoming a pitching coach. His nephew, Jerry, also a catcher, played eight years in the majors and managed for five more. Since the mid-1930s, seven other family members played organized ball, making Sam Narron the patriarch of one of North Carolina’s most-prolific baseball families.

Most of his people came from Emit, a farming community in northeastern Johnston County. Middlesex, about six miles up the road in neighboring Nash County, is the closest place of any size and where the mail was likely postmarked. Baseball references can be forgiven, then, for mistakenly listing it as Narron’s birthplace.

He was the youngest of five kids. Their father, Troy, was 50 when he married their mother, Rachel, who was half his age. He was 65 when Narron was born and he died when the boy was 11.

Like his older siblings, Narron worked in the family’s tobacco fields and grew into a stout teenager by the time he attended Wakelon School in nearby Zebulon, North Carolina, in the early 1930s.[1] He played baseball, basketball, and football at the high school and would in old age fondly recall the boys changing into their uniforms before games at Kermit Corbett’s barbershop downtown.

Annie Rose Southerland was one of those beloved teachers that all schools at the time seemed to cultivate. According to Narron’s later telling, she recognized that the boy could play and in 1934 wrote a letter to Rogers Hornsby to tell him so. Hornsby was, at the time, with the St. Louis Browns, at the end of an illustrious 17-year career that would earn him a berth in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. More importantly to Southerland, Hornsby was a parttime instructor at the Ray Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs, Arkansas, then the place where several big-league teams went to get in shape each spring.[2]  Schools that employed big leaguers to instruct kids who aspired to professional careers weren’t uncommon in the towns where the teams trained. They would proliferate when spring training later shifted to Florida.

Hornsby replied that the school would welcome her former student. “I shall always be indebted to Miss Southerland,” Narron said more than 20 years later. “It was through her inspiration and help that made it possible for me to attend the Ray Doan Baseball School. She truly had a hand in helping to shape my future.”[III]

No scholarship offer came with the letter, however, and Narron didn’t have the tuition money. His former classmates, though, came to his aid. “Oh, they were great. They got together and began to play benefit basketball games,” he remembered. “The proceeds went to help pay for my tuition at the baseball school. I shall always be grateful to these fellows.”[IV]

With the donated tuition money in his pocket, Narron stuck out his thumb in the spring of 1934 and hitchhiked the 600 miles to Little Rock. He did well enough at the school to attract the attention of a Cardinals’ scout, who invited Narron to a tryout camp in Greensboro, North Carolina. The team signed him to that first contract after his performance there and sent him that summer to play with its farm team in Martinsville, Virginia.

After his reward callup to St. Louis a year later, Narron was warming up a pitcher on September 15 when Bill DeLancey, the Cardinal’s starting catcher and a fellow Tarheel, ran out to the bullpen to fetch him. Manager Frankie Frisch wanted him to pinch hit. Narron made his debut that inning against the New York Giants’ future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. “I was so nervous, excited and scared that I would have probably swung if Hubbell had made a pick-off attempt toward first base,” he remembered.[V] He grounded out.

Desperate to fill the roster hole created when DeLancey had to unexpectedly leave the team because of a lung ailment, the Cardinals had all their catching prospects in training camp before the 1936 season. Among them were Narron and Cap Clark, a North Carolinian from Alamance County. An emergency appendectomy in March dashed any hope Narron may have had in making the team, and its lingering effects limited him to just 57 games that season for the Cardinals’ farm club in Sacramento, California.

He spent the next five seasons in the minor leagues, including a summer playing for the Tourists in Asheville, North Carolina. Rickey called him up to the majors in June 1942 to be the third-string catcher on a team heading for a pennant. Though he appeared in only 10 games and not at all in the World Series, his teammates voted him a full winning share of $6,192.53. Narron also spent much his time in the bullpen the following season as the Cardinals won 105 games and cruised to another pennant. He did get into the Series that year, appearing as a pinch hitter in Game 4, a 2-1 loss to the New York Yankees.

The Cardinals assigned him to their farm club in Columbus soon after the Series, but Narron chose to retire instead. He spent the following season at home on the farm raising tobacco.

Rickey had left the Cardinals at the end of the 1942 season to become the president and general manager of the Dodgers. He signed his old catcher in 1945, and Narron spent three seasons in the minors before retiring as an active player in 1949 and becoming the team’s bullpen coach and catcher. He did the same for the Pirates after Rickey became their general manager in 1951. He retired for good in 1964 with 28 at bats in the major leagues but with four appearances in the World Series – two as a player with the Cardinals and two as a coach, one with the Dodgers in 1949 and other with the Pirates in 1960.

He put that all behind him and returned to Emit. That’s where his roots were, where he and his wife, Susie, raised their two children. He got back to growing tobacco and started promoting the sport that made him who he was. He suffered from Alzheimer’s late in life and died of congestive heart failure in 1996.

Two years later, the family started a scholarship fund and an awards program in his honor. The Sam Narron Award has been given each year since to the Johnston County high-school player who best exhibits the skills, desire, and determination needed to succeed in baseball. Some scholarship money accompanies the award.

“He was a baseball purist,” a prep coach who knew Narron noted upon his death. “He had great faith in young people and continued to follow the game and teach it as he thought it should be.”[VI]

Footnotes
[1] Wakelon School opened in 1908, one of the nearly 3,000 schoolhouses built in North Carolina in the first decade of the 20th century as part of Gov. Charles B. Aycock’s crusade for public education. The town later used the handsome brick-and-stone building as an elementary school. A drug manufacturer bought the building in 1986 and used it for office space. Voters in 2007 approved repurchasing Wakelon for a new town hall. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
[2] Ray Doan, a sports promoter, ran the school, also known as the All-Star Baseball School, in Hot Springs, AR, from 1933-38. Some baseball players were instructors, including Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean, Burleigh Grimes, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Rogers Hornsby. At the height of its popularity, the school attracted as many of 200 students a year. Doan moved the school to Mississippi and then to Florida where it eventually faded amid the abundance of similar schools. Critics charged that schools like Doan’s merely pocketed tuition fees from teens with big dreams but little talent. Sam Narron is the only school attendee who made it to the major leagues.

References
[I] McCue, Andy. “Branch Rickey.” The Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/branch-rickey/.
[II] Stockton, J. Roy. “Extra Innings.” St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, February 9, 1936.
[III] “Earpsboro Scribblin’s.” Zebulon (NC) Record, July 19, 1955.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Futrell, Brownie. “The Gas House Gang Rides Again in Tar Heel Memory.” Washington (NC) Daily News, September 11, 1973.
[VI] Ham, Tom. “Baseball Loses Fine Ambassador.” Wilson (NC) Daily Times, January 3, 1997.