Wade, Ben

Position: Relief pitcher
Birthplace: Morehead City

First, Middle Names: Benjamin Styron
Date of Birth:  Nov. 25, 1922 Date and Place of Death: Dec. 2, 2002, Los Angeles
Burial: Cremated

High School: Morehead City High School, Morehead City, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-3, 195
Debut Year: 1948       Final Year: 1955          Years Played: 5
Team(s) and Years: Chicago Cubs, 1948; Brooklyn Dodgers, 1952-54; St. Louis Cardinals, 1954; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1955

Career Summary
G         W        L          Sv        ERA     IP         SO       WAR
118     19       17        10        4.34     371.1   235      1.0

Ben Wade didn’t display his real talent, as it turned out, on the pitching mound. Prone to wildness and home runs, he bounced around the National League in a five-year career as an average major-league pitcher. He showed his real skill later, as a scout and then longtime scouting director for the Los Angeles Dodgers. His ability to project the type of players youngsters would become was the foundation for a decade of Dodgers’ dominance.

Wade and his older brother, Jake, who pitched eight years in the American League, join Tom and “Tobacco Chewin’ “Johnny Lanning of Buncombe County and Gaylord and Jim Perry of Williamston as North Carolina’s only brothers who pitched big-league ball.

Benjamin, born on November 25, 1922, was the last of a large brood of Wades that filled the small house on Fisher Street in Morehead City. His father, Jacob, worked on commercial fishing boats and his mother, Lorine, whom everyone called Lovie, probably had her hands full with eleven children.

Like his two older brothers, young Ben grew to have an aptitude for baseball. When he was 14, he led his American Legion Juniors team to a regional championship. “Ben was the only pitcher we had,” Joe DuBois, manager of the Morehead City Chamber of Commerce, recalled more than a decade later when Wade became a local celebrity by making it to the major leagues. “When he pitched we won and when he didn’t, he played first base. There were many games he won with his hitting. There was an important contest against Kinston which he won by hitting two homers.”[I]

The team lost to Hamlet, North Carolina, for the state title and then disbanded when financial support dried up.

Ben, though, went on to star on the baseball team at old Morehead City High School. His brothers Charles Winfield, known to all in town as Croaker, and Jake, had played for the school’s predecessor Charles S. Wallace School. Croaker, an outfielder, advanced as far as the minor leagues and also managed in the minors. The Wade boys became the now-demolished schools’ most-famous alumni. A ballfield at a city park near the school was named in their honor.

Wade was 17 when he played his first professional ball with New Bern, North Carolina, in the Coastal Plain League. The Cincinnati Reds signed him in 1940 and sent him to their farm club in Durham, North Carolina.

He was working his way up the Reds’ farm system when World War II intervened. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1943 and spent three years playing ball at air bases in Florida and California.[II]

Picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates after his discharge in 1946, Wade was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the season. He was in a hurry to get to the big leagues. “But when I got out of service I tried too hard to make up for lost time and hurt my arm,” he noted several years later. “The trouble was up in my shoulder and I couldn’t raise my arm up high without real pain, so I had to learn how to pitch sidearm.”[III]

The Cubs wanted him to undergo surgery, but Wade refused. Instead, he sidewinded his way to 31 victories in two minor-league seasons and earned a brief call up to Chicago in 1948. He walked four and gave up four runs in five innings of work and was sent back down to the minors.

The Brooklyn Dodgers bought his contract after the 1949 season, and Wade began to mature as a pitcher. He started throwing overhand again in 1951 and went 16-6 with the Hollywood Stars to lead the Triple A Pacific Coast League in winning percentage.

The Dodgers brought him to Brooklyn for the new season, hoping that the 29-year-old rookie would bolster a starting rotation that would be without its ace, Don Newcombe, who was drafted into the Army. Wade’s first start, against the crosstown rival New York Giants at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, was less than auspicious. He walked five and gave up two home runs in a 3-0 loss.

Wade, though, went on to have his best year in the majors in 1952, winning 11 games in 24 starts with a 3.60 earned-run average, or ERA. He pitched well as a reliever the following season with seven wins and a 3.79 ERA and made his only World Series appearances that fall. They didn’t go well. He gave up four runs in a little over two innings of work in two games.

After he stumbled to an ERA of over 7.00 through the first half of the 1954 season, the Dodgers put Wade on waivers. The St. Louis Cardinals picked him up and relegated him to mop-up roles out of the bullpen. He was back with the Pirates in 1955 but was released after eleven games. Wade spent six years pitching on the West Coast for five teams in the Pacific Coast League and retired in 1961 to become a scout for the Dodgers, who had by then moved to Los Angeles.

He was promoted to scouting director in 1973 and supplied the team with the players who won eight pennants and four Word Series’ titles. Mike Piazza, Rick Sutcliffe, Orel Hershiser, Mickey Hatcher, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, John Wetteland, Fernando Valenzuela, and Eric Young were among the players drafted during his tenure. Seven of them won rookie of the year awards.

Not only could he accurately forecast a kid’s future on a baseball diamond, Wade also knew veteran talent when he saw it. He watched Tommy John throw against a wall in 1975 and predicted he would return to the mound. A year earlier, the talented Dodger lefthander was the first player to have what was considered radical surgery to repair a torn ligament in his pitching elbow. During his yearlong recuperation, no one was sure he would ever pitch again. “The only people who thought I would were my wife, Sally, Ben Wade and me,” John said at the time.[IV]

John returned to the Dodgers in 1976 and won 164 games over the next 14 seasons, retiring in 1989 at age 46 with 288 career victories.[1]

Though he’s remembered as one of baseball’s shrewdest judges of talent, Wade suffered through a series of bad amateur drafts in the late 1980s that left the Dodgers with few high-level prospects in their minor leagues. He was forced to retire in 1990 after thirty years in the Dodgers’ organization.

Wade and his wife, Betsy, had moved to Pasadena, California, in the early 1950s when he first played for Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League. A Morehead City native, she married Wade in 1948. They had two children. Betsy died in 1979, and Wade married Marjorie Cocks two years later. He died in December 2002 after a long bout with cancer.


Footnote
[1] Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, known colloquially as Tommy John surgery, is now a common surgical procedure in several sports, especially in baseball. The ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body or from a cadaver. Eighty percent of the pitchers who have the surgery return to pitch at the same level.  

References
[I] Herbert, Dick. “The Sports Observer,” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), May 14, 1952.
[II] Bedingfield, Gary. “Ben Wade.” Baseball in Wartime, August 29, 2008. https://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/wade_ben.htm.
[III] Holmes, Tommy. “Wade Must Wait for the Big Day.” Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, April 17, 1952.
[IV] Verrell, Gordon. “Dodgers Make Room for T.J.?” Independent (Long Beach, CA), Nov. 6, 1975.