Chakales, Bob

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Asheville

First, Middle Names: Robert Edward            Nickname: The Golden Greek
Date of Birth:  Aug. 10, 1927  Date and Place of Death: Feb. 18, 2010, Richmond, VA
Burial: Westhampton Memorial Park, Richmond, VA

High School: Benedictine High School, Richmond, VA
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 185
Debut Year: 1951       Final Year: 1957          Years Played: 7
Teams and Years: Cleveland Indians, 1951-54; Baltimore Orioles, 1954; Chicago White Sox, 1955; Washington Senators, 1956-57; Boston Red Sox, 1957

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
171     15       25        11        4.54     420.1  187      0.3

Bob Chakales was a serviceable and, at times, effective relief pitcher during his seven years of bouncing around the American League. When he retired, he turned an avocation, golf, into a lucrative second career building courses all over the country.

Edward Peter – Eddie Pete to all who knew him – and Blanche Chakales (pronounced SHACK-ulls) named the first of their six children Robert Edward when he was born in August 1927. Eddie Pete was the son of Greek immigrants who had settled in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1902, the year Eddie Pete was born. His family moved around, first to Salisbury, North Carolina, by 1910 and then to Asheville 10 years later, where Eddie Pete met and wooed Blanche Wiggs.

They both had jobs when The Depression began two years after their first child’s birth — Eddie Pete was a waiter and Blanche sold women’s clothing in a downtown store – but they moved to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, by 1930 where Eddie Pete repaired hats for a dry cleaner. They moved again, when Bob was in the fifth grade, to Dunn, North Carolina, where his father opened a café.

The youngster kicked around the town’s sandlots playing pick-up baseball games with the other kids. “We used to stitch corncobs together to make balls,” he remembered.[i] He was also an expert marbles shooter and once won the state shooting contest.

When he got older, Chakales played for a youth league, which posted its statistics in a downtown barber shop. “Every week the baseball stats were prominently displayed for everyone to see. I was hitting so well I could get a free lollipop anytime I wanted,” he said.[ii]

As a teenager, he played third base for the local American Legion team. When he was hort of pitching one season, his coach asked him to take the mound for one of the last games. Chakales won, and he was a pitcher when the new season began.

The family moved again, this time to Richmond, Virginia, soon before Chakalas started high school. The American Legion team, though, wanted him back so badly that Dunn’s mayor, Herbert Taylor, offered him room and board to return for one season. Taylor even went to Richmond and drove the team’s star hurler back. Chakales opened the season striking out 18 and pitched Dunn into the state finals. He was named the tournament’s outstanding pitcher.

There was a price for stardom, however. The mayor was an undertaker, and Chakales spent the summer in his funeral home, sleeping above the coffins and corpses. During a vicious thunderstorm one night, one of the bodies sat up on the table, not that uncommon under the right combination of rigor mortis and tendon contraction, it was explained to him later. The terrified kid bolted out of the building and aimlessly ran across town in the pelting rain. “A funeral home is no place for a young person to spend their summer,” he later decided.[iii]

Three-sport stardom awaited Chakales at what was then Benedictine High School, a Catholic military school in Richmond known for its strong sports programs.[1]  He pitched, played quarterback, and was a guard on the basketball team. He won eight in a row, which included a no hitter, and batted .353 his senior year in 1945 when he was named to the all-state teams in all three sports.

Colleges came calling, but the offer that intrigued Chakales the most was the one that arrived from the Philadelphia Phillies, who invited the youngster to a tryout at their home field, Shibe Park. The team’s scouts were impressed enough that they offered him a contract that included a $7,500 bonus, equivalent to about $100,000 today, and $4,000 for college, though he would never attend. He signed, of course, and pitched that summer in the low minors.

After a year in the Army playing for the base team at Fort Lee, Virginia, Chakales spent three more years at the bottom of the minor leagues, pitching for the Phillies and then the Cleveland Indians, who picked him up in 1949. His breakout came a year later in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the Indians’ Class A franchise. He won 16 games, while giving up an average of just two runs a start, and was named an Eastern League All-Star. He made the jump to the majors the following spring.

We don’t know if Chakales brought his nickname with him to the big leagues or how frequently he was called the Golden Greek. Its origins are apparent but whether he acquired it on the sandlots of Dunn, as a three-sport prep star, or in the minor isn’t.

He did arrive at the Indians’ training camp in Tucson, Arizona, lugging 10 suits, 17 pairs of pants, and 25 shirts. “Man, I didn’t come here just for a visit. I came here to stay,” he explained.[iv] Hal Lebovitz of the Cleveland News was much taken with the youngster, calling him “a likable rookie with a friendly smile … as colorful as Dizzy Dean’s … something like a character in a Ring Lardner yarn.”[v]

Unless he pitched like Dean, it wasn’t likely that a rookie just up from the depths of Class A would break into one of the best starting rotations in baseball history. It included future Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Early Wynn and Bob Lemon and featured three pitchers who would win 20 games in each of the next two seasons.[2] “With any other major-league team, he would be a starting pitcher,” manager Al Lopez would later say of Chakales.[vi]

He broke camp as a reliever, but he managed to start 10 games that year, his career high. He won just three of them, but his earned-run average, or ERA, of 4.74 was respectable. His walks – 43 in just 68 innings – were not, however.  Chakales would average about five walks a game throughout his career, a number that likely contributed to his frequent travels to the minors.

That’s what he did over the next three years with Cleveland, moving up and down to and from its Class AAA team in Indianapolis, Indiana, appearing in a total of 15 games for the big-league club. He was traded in June 1952 to Baltimore and gave the Orioles three months of solid pitching. Working mostly out of the bullpen, he appeared in 38 games with a 3.73 ERA.

Two trades later, Chakales was in Washington in 1956 and probably his best season in the major leagues. He pitched 96 innings for the Senators and limited opponents to about four runs a game.

The next season was his last in the major leagues. He spent it split between the Senators and Boston Red Sox and pitching sporadically and ineffectively. After three more years in the minor leagues, Chakales retired in 1961.

He and his wife, Anne, who were married in 1952, had never left Richmond. They would raise five children there. Chakales sold insurance after he retired and played a lot of golf. He and a partner later built par-three golf courses and then championship courses, including the original TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, Florida, the site of the PGA’s Player’s Championship. “I was gone more than I wanted to be,” he said of his second career.  “I was good at what I did, but fearful I would not get that next job – so fortunately I had many offers so I kept my plate full.”[vii]

He was 83 when he died in Richmond in 2010.

Footnotes
[1] Benedictine monks from Belmont Abby, North Carolina, opened a military college in Richmond, VA, in 1911. It was a high school by the time Bob Chakalas enrolled in 1942. The high school still exists and is now called Belmont College Preparatory School.
[2] The 20-game winners on the Cleveland Indians’ pitching staff in 1951 and their win totals were Bob Feller, 22; Mike Garcia, 20; and Early Wynn, 20. In 1952, the 20-game winners and their win totals were: Wynn, 23; Garcia, 22; and Bob Lemon, 22.

References
[i] Nowlin, Bill. “Bob Chakalas.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bob-chakales/.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wright, Taffy

Position: Right field, left field
Birthplace: Tabor City

First, Middle Names: Taft Shedron   Nickname: Taffy
Date of Birth:  Aug. 10, 1911  Date and Place of Death: Oct. 22, 1981, Orlando, FL
Burial: Meadowbrook Cemetery, Lumberton, NC

High School: Undetermined
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 180
Debut Year: 1938       Final Year: 1949          Years Played: 9
Team(s) and Years: Washington Senators, 1938-39; Chicago White Sox, 1940-42, 1946-48; Philadelphia Athletics, 1948

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
1029  3583    1115    465      553      38        .311     .376     .423     16.7

To be blunt about it, Taft Wright tended to look more like the fat guy at the end of the bar than a ball player. Throughout his 20-year career in professional baseball, he endured all the adjectives sportswriters could conjure: Tubby, stocky, plump, round, rotund, roly-poly. One writer noted he was built like a “beer can.” Burton Hawkins of the old Evening Star in Washington got it right, though, when he wrote in 1939, “Taft Wright will plaster major-league pitching as long as he can waddle up to the plate.”[I]

For most of the nine years that he played in the big leagues, Wright was one of the top hitters in baseball. No less a judge than Hall of Famer Bob Feller ranked Wright among the most-dangerous hitters he faced in the American League, along with Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Gehringer. In 75 career at-bats against Feller, Wright hit .320, about 100 points higher than the league average.[II]

An intense competitor, he viewed every at bat as a fierce struggle with a pitcher who was trying to take money out of his pocket and food off his table. He hated all pitchers and himself if he didn’t smack one of their offerings to an outfield gap. Spraying line drives all over the field, Wright hit .300 most seasons and challenged for the batting title in a couple of them. He finished with a .311 career batting average, the highest among North Carolina players with at least a thousand at bats. He’s in the top 20 in six other offensive categories.

Playing the outfield was another matter entirely. Wright was a born designated hitter. Unfortunately, the position was more than a half a century in the future when he was born

That would have been in 1911 in Tabor City, a tobacco and lumber town on the South Carolina line in Columbus County that in Wright’s day also turned out crates for strawberries and watermelons. Someone once asked Taft Shedron Wright why a son of the then solid Democratic South was named after a Republican president. “I dunno,” he responded. “The family must have run out of names.”[III][1]

Isaac and Rosa Jane moved with their four children to Lumberton, about 30 miles away in Robeson County, by the time Taft was nine years old. There, Isaac worked in a cotton mill and in tobacco fields.

Fred Wright, the catcher for the town team, drafted his younger brother to pitch. Taft joined the team as a teenager and fancied himself a pretty good pitcher. When he tried out for a team in the Piedmont League in 1931, however, Wright was cut during spring training.

Pitching for a semipro textile team in Lancaster, South Carolina, the following year, he was on the mound in an exhibition game against the Class B club in Charlotte, North Carolina. His pitching didn’t impress Jimmy Dobbs, the Charlotte manager. His line drives, however, did. “Son, a fellow who can hit like you doesn’t have any business pitching,” Dobbs told him. He invited Wright to join his club as an outfielder the following season.[IV]

He did and went five-for-five in his professional debut, capping the performance with a grand slam in the ninth inning. The Washington Senators signed him in 1934, and Wright spent three seasons in their minor leagues, hitting better than .300 in two of them.

The 5-foot, 10-inch Wright reported to the Senators’ spring training camp in 1938 tipping the scales at 220 pounds. Manager Bucky Harris ordered him to run laps in the outfield wearing a rubber suit. Despite his weight and suspect outfield play, Wright made the team because there was no denying that the rookie could hit.

He started the season platooning with fading star Al Simmons in right field, but that arrangement lasted eight days. After dropping a fly ball in a critical spot during a game, Wright was sent to the bench as a pinch-hitter. Appearing in 100 games, only 61 of them in the field, he finished the season hitting .350, but he didn’t qualify for the batting title, which Boston’s Jimmie Foxx won with a .349 average.

Though he hit .309 in 129 games the following year, the Senators traded Wright at the end of the season to the Chicago White Sox. He started the 1940 season with an 18-game hitting streak and battled teammate Luke Appling, a fellow North Carolinian, for the lead in the race for the batting title most of the year. Wright cooled at the end and finished with a .337 average, good for seventh place.[2]

The White Sox sent Wright and two other players – dubbed the Fat Man Club – to a resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to boil off some flab before the new season began. A coach went along to guard the mashed potatoes. Wright caught the flu, spent time in the hospital and missed the first two weeks of the 1941 season. He was hitting .300 by mid-July, though, and finished with .322 average while knocking in a career-best 97 runs.

Teammates by then were accustomed to the particularly harsh criticisms Wright would hurl at himself whenever he was retired by a pitcher for whom he had little respect, which was most pitchers. That guy was on the mound to make a fool of him, he’d tell them. His job was to return the favor. “I don’t worry now,” Wright told a reporter at the time. “I know every time I’m up there, the pitcher’s going to give me one good ball. That’s the baby I’ll park down his throat.”[V]

This was war and he went to the plate prepared for battle. “I used to study a pitcher every minute he was on the mound,” Wright recounted years later. “I might not remember his name, but I knew what was his best pitch and what he liked to throw in a situation.”[VI]

He was in the middle of another .300 season in 1942 when the Army drafted Wright in August for a real war. He spent World War II playing baseball.

Wright was 34 when he returned to the White Sox in 1946 and for the first time in his career finished a season batting less than .300. He rebounded the following year and even challenged Boston’s Williams for the batting title, but he had become a slap hitter with only 17 extra-base hits.

His final two seasons in the majors were desultory affairs. He batted just .235 in the last one, 1949, as a pinch hitter for the Philadelphia Athletics.

He played or managed in the minor leagues for five more years. Wright was hitting .406 for Ottawa, Ontario, in 1953 when he fractured his skull after getting hit in the head by a pitch. He spent a month in the hospital. When he was released, the team tossed a party for the International League’s leading hitter. Six thousand fans showed up. “There was something fine and wholesome about the tribute to leftfielder Taft Wright…” the Ottawa newspaper commented. “It had the appearances of a spontaneous outpouring of affection and esteem for a good sportsman, one who is no glamour boy by most standards but who has caught the imagination of baseball enthusiasts here by quietly going about his business and turning in a workmanlike job whenever called upon.”[VII]

Hobbled by a bad knee, Wright made the tough decision to quit for good in 1955. “You don’t do that,” he said years later. “They quit you, is what happens.”[VIII]

Wright had sold his farm in Lumberton in 1947 and had moved to Orlando, Florida. That’s where he settled after baseball with his wife, Marie, and their three children. He could be found most days at the Taft Wright Bar and Package store downtown. It didn’t take much prompting to get him talking about growing up with little during the Depression, or playing semipro ball at age 17, or pulling a Feller fastball to gap in right. “Playing baseball is all I ever wanted to do,” said the old ballplayer, who actually was that fat guy at the bar.[IX]

Failing health forced Wright to sell the place. He tended bar at a local VFW hall until he died of a heart attack at age 70.


Footnotes
[1] William Howard Taft, the 27th president, was a great baseball fan who played second base as a youngster and started the tradition of presidents throwing out the first ball at season home openers. Taft first did that on April 14, 1910 at a Washington Senators’ opener.
[2] The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio won his second consecutive batting title in 1940 with a .352 average. Luke Appling was second at .348.

References
[I] Corbett, Warren. “Taft Wright.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/taft-wright/.
[II] Brietz, Eddie. Associated Press. “Dopey Dean. Charlotte Clown May Get Schacht’s Old Role.” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 9, 1940.
[III
] Condon, David. “Taffy Wright Was a Big Sox Hit.” Chicago (IL) Tribune, Oct. 28, 1981.
[IV
] Corbett.
[VI] Conzelman, Jimmy. International News Service. Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), March 12, 1941.
[VII] Beebe, Bob. “Taft Wright – Could Be a Designated Hitter.” Minneapolis (MN) Star, March 28, 1973.
[VII] Ruby, Earl. “Ruby’s Report.” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), July 28, 1953.
[VIII
] “Taft Wright… Toasting Baseball.” Orlando (FL) Sentinel. April 1, 1973.
[IX]
Ibid.

Crowder, General

Player Name: General Crowder
Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Winston-Salem

First, Middle Names: Alvin Floyd      Nickname: The General
Date of Birth:  Jan. 11, 1899   Date and Place of Death: April 3, 1972, Winston-Salem, NC
Burial: Forsyth Memorial Park Cemetery, Winston-Salem, NC

High School: Did Not Attend 
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 5-10, 170
Debut Year: 1926       Final Year: 1936          Years Played: 11
Team(s) and Years: Washington Senators, 1926-27; St. Louis Browns, 1927-30; Senators, 1930-34; Detroit Tigers, 1934-36

Awards: All Star, 1933; N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, 1967

Career Summary

G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
402   167    115      22       4.12      2344.1 799    28.3

For six years starting in 1928, the great Lefty Grove was the only pitcher who won more games than Alvin Crowder, a durable and dependable right-hander who was so eager to be called into service that he was known as The General. He won at least 20 games three times, appeared in three World Series and was chosen to pitch for the American League in the inaugural All-Star Game.

A lifelong resident of Winston-Salem, Crowder retired after 11 seasons as one of the best pitchers North Carolina has ever produced. His 167 career victories is eighth-best among natives who pitched at least 500 innings in the major leagues. His 150 career complete games is sixth on that list and his almost 2,350 innings pitched are 10th. In all, Crowder is among the top 20 in 13 pitching categories.

Walter Johnson, a pretty fair pitcher himself, managed Crowder on the Washington Senators and had this to say about his ace: “Pitchers like Crowder come along once in a generation. He’s got everything – speed, curve, control and sense. There was many a time when I’d look the bench over for a pitcher to work the day’s game. Crowder would say, ‘Gimme the ball.’ And he went out and won 15 straight.”[I]

Born in 1899, Alvin Floyd Crowder grew up in the Broadbay section of southeastern Forsyth County, about eight miles from Winston-Salem. His father, George, was a blacksmith and a farmer and his mother, Emma, was a homemaker who took care of Alvin and his sister, Maggie.

Young Alvin quit school after the fifth grade to help on the family farm. He worked in a cotton mill when he was 14 and played baseball on the company team. He was also a mechanic at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston Salem and a riveter in shipyards in Alexandria, Virginia. He continued to play amateur and semipro ball.

Crowder joined the Army in 1919 and was stationed in Siberia and then the Philippines, where he volunteered for the base team to break the monotony of Army life. He found out he could pitch. By the time he was transferred to San Francisco in 1922, Crowder had established a reputation as a hard-throwing right hander. He is said to have won 19 in a row in the military league. He also moonlighted with area semipro teams.

Discharged that June, Crowder signed with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League. He pitched one inning with the championship team and was released in the offseason. He had better luck the following year back home with the Winston-Salem Twins of the Class C Piedmont League, winning 10 games in his first full professional season.

He proved to be a rubber-armed pitcher for the Birmingham, Alabama, Barons in 1925, leading the Class A Southern Association in appearances with 59 while logging 226 innings. Because he would take the ball at any time, teammates called him The General after Gen. Enoch Crowder, the Army provost marshal who instituted the draft lottery during World War I.          

After he won 17 games in less than three months of the 1926 season, the Washington Senators bought his contract for $10,000, or about $147,000 when adjusted for inflation. Crowder reported to the reigning American League champions in mid-July with the team struggling to remain above .500. He made his big-league debut on July 24, tossing a complete game 3-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, and ended the season with a 7-4 record.

An “ulcerated stomach” and a sore right arm interrupted Crowder’s spring training in 1927 and contributed to a disappointing sophomore season. After tossing a complete game to win his first start, he lost three in a row and was relegated to the bullpen. The Senators traded him in July to the last-place St. Louis Browns for fellow North Carolinian Tom Zachary. Crowder’s struggles continued with the Browns, as he won only one of his eight starts.

The 1928 season began with more of the same. Inconsistent and wild in his first three starts, Crowder was again sent to the bullpen. He worked his way back into the rotation in June and reeled of 10 straight wins, including nine complete games. Often pitching on short rest, he won 21 for the season, including the last eight in a row. In one game, he struck out Ty Cobb three times. Yes, the fuzz was off the 41-year-old Georgia Peach, who was playing in his last season, but the game’s greatest hitter hadn’t whiffed three times in a game since his rookie season 23 years earlier.

Crowder became known as a workhorse and was among the American League leaders in games, complete games and innings pitched. He was also an excellent fielding pitcher, making only seven errors in 450 total chances. After making an error against the New York Yankees on May 19, 1932, he went the rest of his career without making another one.

Speaking of the Yankees, Crowder beat the best team in the league consistently and even handled its star, Babe Ruth, with relative ease. “My success against them,” he said, “came from … studying the pitchers around the league. I tried to see what type of pitch each Yankee hit well, especially what they didn’t pull, and used it against them.”[II]

Back with the Senators in 1932, Crowder may have had the best season any pitcher in that franchise not named Walter Johnson ever had. He led both leagues in wins with 26, reeling off 15 straight at the end of the season, and proved to be the most-durable pitcher in the majors. He threw 327 innings in 39 starts, often on three days’ rest. “If you’d let him, he’d pitch every day,” marveled Manager Johnson. “His arm is made of rubber, and he doesn’t know the meaning of fatigue.”[III]

The Senators cruised to the American League pennant in 1933, their first in 12 seasons. Crowder won a league-high 24 games and logged more than 299 innings, second in the league. He was one of five pitchers chosen to represent the American League in the first All-Star Game that year. He always considered it his greatest achievement in baseball. “I don’t think a greater honor could be bestowed on any player, unless it would be admittance to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame,” Crowder said 25 years later.[IV]

He bombed, however, in his two starts in the World Series, which the New York Giants won in five games.

The General was 35 when the new season began and seemed to have lost his stripes. He had a 4-10 record and an earned-run average, or ERA, approaching 7.00 when the Senators shipped him to Detroit in August. He became the Tigers’ cagey veteran, going 5-1 the rest of the way for a World Series bound team. He appeared in another Series, losing his only start to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Crowder relied on instincts and an assortment of sliders, sinkers and off-speed pitches and methodical precision during his last full season in the majors in 1935. He won five of eight starts in June to keep the Tigers in contention and then won all five of his August starts, but age caught up with him. Physically drained, he lost all three decisions in September as the Tigers limped to their second-consecutive pennant. He took the mound in Game Four of the World Series in a chilly, windy Wrigley Field and the magic returned one final time. Crowder limited the Chicago Cubs to five hits in a complete-game victory that gave the Tigers a commanding 3-1 series lead. They won it two days later.

While Crowder was on the mound for his only Series win, his wife, Ruth, lay gravely ill in a Winston-Salem hospital. They had married in 1924, and she had been in poor health since the early 1930s.

In a story that doesn’t pass the smell test, a reporter for United Press International wrote that Crowder was close to tears in the clubhouse after the game. “His wife heard the game over the radio,” an unnamed teammate is quoted as saying. “The doctors told him that if won the game it would help her a great deal to get well. Hell, I’d like to see the guy bust right out crying. He’d feel better and nobody would mind.”[V]

Crowder developedl igament problems in his throwing shoulder during spring training in 1936. He had an ERA over 8.00 in limited playing by late June. He left the team and retired in the offseason. Ruth died several weeks after Crowder returned home. He married Joan Brockwell, a nurse in Chapel Hill, in September. They would have two children, Kathryn and Alvin Jr.

He led efforts to bring professional baseball back to Winston-Salem, which had been without a team since 1933. His Winston-Salem Twins, an unaffiliated team in the Class B Piedmont League, lost its first 28 games to begin the 1937 season. Crowder managed the team during the first 20 of those losses.[1] He secure an affiliation with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the following season and sold his majority stake in the team in 1939, but he continued to play an active role through the 1940s.  

Crowder owned a farm in Germanton in Forsyth County during much of his baseball career but he was living in Winston-Salem when he died of heart disease in 1972.


Footnote
[1] The Winston-Salem Twins’ 28-game losing streak was second only to Muskogee in the Southwestern League, which lost 38 straight in 1928. (“The General Finally Wins One.” Sporting News [St. Louis, MO], June 10, 1937.)

References
[I] Mallette, Mal. “Old Yank-Stopper Crowder Predicts They Will Stay Up Another Decade.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 12, 1958.
[II] Wolf, Gregory H. “General Crowder.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/general-crowder/.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] “All Other Thrills Combined No Equal to All-Star Pick in Crowder’s Book.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), July 9, 1958.
[V]
United Press International. “Al Crowder is ‘Man of the Hour’ as Tigers Praise him in Clubhouse.” Daily Illini (University of Illinois, Champaign, IL), October 6, 1935.

 

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