Breaking the Slump|
Baseball in the Depression Era
by Charles C. Alexander
Columbia University Press, 2002 | Buy the book
Despite the expansion of publicly financed schooling over the past quarter-century and the proliferation of high schools and high-school graduates, many Depression-era ballplayers still had quite limited educations. Probably few were any more geographically literate than Roy "Peaches" Davis. A native Oklahoman who pitched at Nashville in 1935, Davis was to join the Cincinnati Reds the next spring. With the other Reds players, Davis received a letter from Larry MacPhail informing him that the team would train in Puerto Rico and inquiring whether he preferred to take an aircraft or a boat to reach the island. Replied Davis, "I prefer to drive down." [Sporting News, September 3, 1936, p. 3.]
Young men from rugged working-class backgrounds continued to be numerous at all levels of Organized Baseball. Typically, they'd made it through grade school and maybe a year or two of high school before dropping out to go to work and support themselves. Thus they pretty much bypassed adolescence -- that supposedly critical phase of maturation on which twentieth-century psychiatrists and psychologists, preoccupied with the lifestyles of the middle class, had become fixated.
Chuck Klein, for example, born on a truck farm outside Indianapolis, quit school to work for four years in an East Chicago steel mill, where he played for the mill's baseball team and eventually signed with Evansville in the Three-I League. "Players talk about double-headers on hot summer days," commented Klein in 1930. "They should stand an eight hour shift in a steel mill, without even time off for lunch." [F. C. Lane,“The Coming Star of the National League,” Baseball Magazine, October 1930, p. 493.]
Adam Comorosky, a ten-year big-league outfielder with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati (1926–1935), went to work at the age of twelve as a breaker boy in a mine at Swoyerville, Pennsylvania. Mine work, observed Comorosky, "teach[es] you values. If you're ever lucky enough to get a good job outside, you value that job." His own experience in the mines of southeastern Ohio made Ralston "Rollie" Hemsley, who became Bobby Feller's favorite catcher after his trade from the Browns, "realize what a soft thing baseball is. I wish some of these players . . . had to work all day in a mine for $6 -- they'd realize how lucky they are." [F. C. Lane,“A Pal for the Waner Boys,” Baseball Magazine, February 1930, p. 401; George Kirksey,“When a Feller Needs a Fella,” Baseball Magazine, June 1938, p. 334.]
Earl Webb, who hit a record sixty-seven doubles in 1931 for the Boston Red Sox, went to work in the coal mines in Tennessee at the age of twelve and later spent a dozen years in the minor leagues before finally making it to the big time to stay with the Chicago White Sox in 1927. Red Ruffing was another product of the coal mines: he dropped out of grammar school in Nokomis, Illinois, and took a job tending a mine ventilation system. Ruffing lost four toes on his left foot when it was caught between two coal cars -- a happenstance that turned the big redhead toward a pitching rather than an outfielding career.
Still another former miner was Danny Taylor, whose baseball odyssey up to 1932 provides something of a case study in what many young ball-players had to go through. At the age of thirteen, Taylor went down into the mines at Lash, Pennsylvania. Four years later, he moved up to a choice job as a weigher, but Taylor was determined to leave the mines and make a career in baseball. Signed by a Pittsburgh scout out of local semipro ball, he failed in Flint, Michigan, married, went back to his weigher's job, and then signed with Buffalo in the International League. Sold by Buffalo to Washington, he was successively optioned to Memphis, drafted by Brooklyn, sent back to Memphis, sold to the Chicago Cubs, sent down again to Reading (where he led the International League in batting), brought back up to the Cubs, and finally, now a father, traded to Brooklyn in mid-1932. (Released by Brooklyn in 1936, he drifted back to the minors, where he spent a couple more years.)
Native Chicagoan Phil Cavaretta signed with the Cubs at the end of his junior year at Lane Technical High School. After spending most of the 1934 season with Peoria (Three-I League) and Reading (International League), he came up to the Cubs to stay and played in the 1935 World Series. Why did he leave school? Cavaretta explained that his father, an immigrant, was out of a job, and "it was up to me to go out and try to make a buck." [Rich Westcott, Diamond Greats: Profiles and Interview with 65 of Baseball’s History Makers (Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1988), p. 133.]
Three of the more interesting baseball lives of the Depression era were those of Johnny Allen, Bill Zuber, and Edwin "Alabama" Pitts. Following the death of his father when Allen was seven, his mother placed her three children in an orphanage operated by the Southern Baptist Convention in Thomasville, North Carolina. Allen lived there for nine years, working at the orphanage's 600-acre farm and dairy. After leaving at seventeen, he held several clerking jobs at hotels in North Carolina and Virginia, but his prowess as a semipro pitcher-outfielder got him into professional ball, first in the Piedmont and South Atlantic Leagues and then, after the Yankees bought his contract, at Jersey City and Toronto. He went up to the Yankees to stay in 1932 at age twenty-six.
Bill Zuber, a husky pitcher whose eleven-year American League career began with Cleveland in 1936, was raised in Middle Amana, one of seven Amana religious colonies scattered across Iowa. Growing up, young Zuber had no games to play in an environment where piety and work governed peoples' lives. But later on, he started playing semipro ball and, in the common circumstance, signed on with a minor-league team and was eventually acquired by a big-league outfit. Although Zuber made his living in the secular world, every off-season he returned to Middle Amana to drive a tractor, tend cattle and hogs, and live according to the colony's strictures.
Early in June 1935, Alabama Pitts was about to be paroled from Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, after serving a term for having robbed a New York City grocery store at gunpoint. Pitts had knocked a lot of irretrievable baseballs over the walls in prison-league competition, and the Albany Senators, occupying last place in the International League, wanted to sign him to a $200-per-month contract. Pitts's parole board was agreeable, but National Association president William G. Bramham vetoed the idea on the grounds that no association franchise should employ a convicted felon. With sympathy for Pitts's cause growing in the press, Commissioner Landis stepped in, overruled Bramham (who claimed that Landis had earlier endorsed his ruling), and cleared Pitts to play anywhere within Organized Baseball. "Reputable people," said Landis, "have expressed to me their belief that there has been a complete reformation in Pitts' character." [David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (South Bend, Ind.: Diamond Communications, 1998), p. 377.]
On Sunday, June 23, Pitts made his debut before 7,752 in Albany in a doubleheader with Syracuse. Although he made two hits in his first appearance, it was soon evident that he couldn't handle tough professional pitching. After batting .233 over the remainder of the season, he drew his release and dropped out of Organized Baseball. Six years later, Pitts was fatally stabbed during a quarrel in a North Carolina dance hall. At the same time that Landis, the Albany owners and fans, and a great number of other people who followed Pitts's case saw nothing wrong with a paroled convict playing within Organized Baseball, nobody in a position of authority was ready to come out for the abandonment of the color line. Yet if all players from Class D to the major leagues still had to be certifiably Caucasian, their particular ethnic backgrounds changed significantly during the 1930s.
This essay is reprinted from the book, Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era by Charles C. Alexander.
Copyright © 2002 by Charles C. Alexander. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.