: November 25, 2008
Rufe Gentry: A Tiger During the Second World War by Jim Sargent
Our Readers' Submissions Vault
We don\'t publish enough articles about major league baseball during World War Two. This fascinating account of a journeyman pitcher who nearly tasted immortality in 1944 appeared on our pages in February, 2001.
James Ruffus "Jim" Gentry pitched one full season in the major leagues, producing a 12-14 record and a 4.24 ERA in 1944. But on September 17 against the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tiger right-hander came close to realizing every pitcher\'s dream-hurling a no-hitter.
Gentry did pitch a no-hitter as a minor leaguer. On April 25, 1943, while playing for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, Jim pitched an 11-inninng no-hitter.
Mixing his assortment of fastballs, sliders, and sharp-breaking curves on Easter Sunday, Gentry blanked the Newark Bears for an 11-inning victory. When he finally walked off the mound, he had struck out ten, walked three, and allowed only three balls hit out of the infield.
Toronto\'s Urban Shocker, who later won fame with the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Browns while compiling a 187-117 lifetime record, pitched the International League\'s only previous 11-inning no-hitter in 1916.
Gentry produced his best season ever for Buffalo in 1943, finishing with a ledger of 20-16 and an ERA of 2.65. He also led the league in three categories: innings pitched with 285, strikeouts with 184, and walks with 143. If he could improve his control, it seemed like the promising right-hander had the talent to become a good big league pitcher.
Late in the 1943 season, the Tigers called up the lanky 24-year-old. "Rufe," as sportswriters now called him, made his major league debut against the Cleveland Indians on September 10. He pitched well, scattering eight hits. But he lost, 1-0, when Hank Edwards connected for a home run in the ninth.
Gentry went 1-3 with a 3.68 ERA for the Tigers in September. He lost twice by 1-0 scores, and he defeated the White Sox, 8-2. Considering his impressive performance with Buffalo and his creditable showing as a Tiger, Detroit\'s management had reason to think he might become the American League\'s rookie of the year in 1944. By adding Gentry to a solid staff anchored by Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout, the Tigers had a chance to win the AL pennant.
While Gentry showed flashes of great promise in 1943 and 1944, his accomplishments never matched the expectations. His is a classic baseball story, but a sad one. He was a pitcher who had the skills necessary to enjoy a successful big league career-but he never found the right combination of club, personnel, timing, and luck.
Further, as spring training began in 1945, the last year of World War II, Gentry made a questionable decision. When the Tigers refused to give him a raise, he refused to sign a contract, electing to hold out for the season. When he retired after the 1948 season, he had pitched parts of five years in the majors and compiled a lifetime record of 13-17.
Born on May 18, 1918, in the hamlet of Daisy Station, not far from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, James was the second son of Grover and Elsie Gentry. Along with his two brothers and one sister, Jim grew up on the family\'s small farm. When he was old enough, the youth helped with the chores, learned to hunt, and began playing baseball.
Because his family was poor, Jim quit school after the sixth grade to work. During the Great Depression, life was tough in rural areas of the South. By the time he was a teenager, the hard-working young man had good arm strength. Whenever he found the time, he pitched sandlot ball.
Later, Gentry worked for Hanes Hosiery and pitched for the mill\'s team. At age 21 he tried out with Landis, a Tiger farm club in the class D North Carolina State League. Relying mainly on his moving fastball, Jim came through with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 3.24. He struck out 98 in 150 innings, and he won almost a third of his team\'s games. Still, Landis finished in last place with a 37-74 ledger.
The next season the fastballer was sent to Fulton, Kentucky, in the Kitty League. Gentry topped the class D circuit in games pitched (45), hits allowed (297), and losses. But he fanned 167, produced a record of 14-17 with a 4.19 ERA, and batted .276 with 5 homers-even though his club ranked seventh.
In 1941 the Tigers promoted Gentry to class B ball. The "speedball king" (as local writers dubbed him) pitched for Winston-Salem, a Detroit club in the Piedmont League. Often performing in front of friends and neighbors, the right-hander had a 14-18 record with a 2.96 ERA. He led the circuit in losses, but his team finished in last place with a 54-82 ledger.
In the offseason Gentry\'s contract was sold by Detroit to Buffalo, which seemed a world away from Daisy Station. At first Jim didn\'t want to make the move. But several letters and telegrams from the ball club persuaded him to report to spring training at Fort Pierce, Florida.
Gentry arrived a week late, carrying one suitcase. He worked out for a week, left for home, and returned three days later with his new bride, Hazel Lee Lawson. Befriended by veteran players and wives, the couple traveled to Buffalo and set up housekeeping. Manager Al Vincent warmed up and began calling him Rufe. Later, the quiet couple raised a son, Jim, and a daughter, Judy.
In the first of his two Bison seasons, Gentry suffered control problems. In 1942 he worked in 43 games, 23 of which were starts. He finished at 10-13 with a 5.65 ERA. Part of his losing mark came from his ratio of strikeouts, 80, against walks, 122.
In 1943 the 6\'1" 180-pounder picked up two assets. In spring training he learned a slider from teammates Floyd Giebell and Jack Tising. Rufe also learned to take off speed in order to improve his pitch location. As a result, he enjoyed the 20-16 season which he followed with the 1-3 stint for Detroit.
Actually, Gentry\'s 1943 performance was impressive, considering Buffalo\'s lack of hitting and fielding. Greg Mulleavy\'s managing skills helped keep the Bisons in playoff contention until mid-August, when the team slumped to seventh place. Buffalo ranked sixth in team hitting (.241), last in fielding, and committed 239 errors. Still, Rufe won 20 games.
For 1944 Steve O\'Neill\'s Tigers featured a strong club anchored by two fine pitchers. Dizzy Trout hurled an iron-man 352 innings, which led the league. The bespectacled right-hander posted a 27-14 record and the AL\'s best ERA, 2.12. Southpaw Hal Newhouser paced the circuit with 29 wins (he lost only 9) while compiling a 2.22 ERA over 312 innings.
Detroit also had solid hitting. Slugger Rudy York batted .276 with 18 homers and 98 RBI, while Dick Wakefield -- after being discharged from the Navy in July -- hit .355 with 12 homers and 53 RBI in 78 games. The Tigers averaged .263 as a team, with Pinky Higgins (.297), Doc Cramer (.292), and Jimmy Outlaw (.273) making steady contributions.
Gentry ranked third in Tiger victories with his 12-14 record, and Stubby Overmire was fourth at 11-11. Working in 37 games (all but seven were starts), Rufe pitched 203 2/3 innings, completed 20 games, recorded four shutouts, and went 2-0 in relief. He whiffed 68 batters, but his league-high 108 bases on balls led to several early losses.
The Tigers battled the Browns and the Yankees for first place most of the season, but Gentry pitched inconsistently until the final month. On April 19 he lost his first start to St. Louis. In his second outing the Cleveland Indians knocked him out of the box. His next appearance resulted in a loss to St. Louis.
Finally, on May 18, Rufe hurled a shutout against the Philadelphia Athletics. But in his next start, the A\'s defeated him. And so his season went-at least through August.
But in September Gentry hit his stride and boosted Detroit\'s hopes for the flag. He pitched his best game at Cleveland Stadium on Sunday, September 17. After Stubby Overmire hurled a 7-2 victory in the first game of a twin bill, Gentry\'s win lifted the Tigers into first place. Working on a no-hitter, Gentry suffered a spell of wildness and walked the bases full with two outs in the fourth (he walked six that afternoon). But he escaped the jam by fanning pinch-hitter Oris Hockett. The Tar Heel native then retired 14 hitters in a row.
Gentry\'s no-hitter lasted through eight innings. In the bottom of the ninth, Lou Boudreau led off with a shot through the box. Gentry deflected the ball, but it went for an infield single. Pat Seerey bounced into a double play, Ken Keltner lined a double to right center, and Rufe wrapped up his two-hitter by inducing Buddy Rosar to ground out.
Detroit won, 3-0, and the two victories boosted the club half a game ahead of St. Louis and two games ahead of New York.
Afterward, commenting on Gentry\'s performance, Steve O\'Neill told the Cleveland Press, "He\'s looked great in his last three starts. He has lots of stuff. His fastball does things and he has a good curve, but he lacks confidence in his hook.
"When he misses with the curve, he depends too much on his fast one, and the batters wait for it. When he feels he can control that curve he\'s going to be tough to beat."
In fact, Rufe was tough to beat in late September. Before facing the Indians, his record was 9-13. The two-hit shutout was his third straight win. On Friday, September 22, at Briggs Stadium, Gentry spaced six hits and beat Boston, 7-4, in the first game of a double-header.
Three days later, on Monday, the Athletics stopped his winning streak, 2-1. Rufe yielded six hits, but the A\'s bunched a single and a double in the eighth to produce the winning run. The loss left Detroit, St. Louis, and New York in a three-way tie for first.
Gentry won his 12th game, and the fifth in six starts, in the opener of a double-header against the Washington Senators on Friday, September 29. Rufe scattered nine hits over seven and two-thirds innings, and John Gorsica saved Detroit\'s 5-2 win.
But the Browns blasted a tired Trout in the nightcap, and Detroit fell, 9-2. St. Louis won the pennant on the last day of the season, as Dizzy lost to Dutch Leonard and Washington, 4-1.
Gentry\'s season was a mixed success. Despite his slow start, his league-leading figure on walks, and his losing record, he won five of his last six games. Without those victories, Detroit would have fallen from pennant contention.
Consequently, when contracts arrived in early 1945, Rufe believed he deserved a raise. General manager Jack Zeller, knowing that owners had total control of ballplayers, disagreed with Gentry\'s written request for a raise-even though they differed by only $1,000.
When Zeller refused to make a deal, Rufe, an easygoing but stubborn individual, decided to hold out. In August, when he told Detroit he was ready to sign, Zeller told him to stay home.
Speaking in a 1997 interview, Gentry explained why he held out:
"They didn\'t treat me fair. Steve O\'Neill told me if I was a college man, they would have treated me right. But I wasn\'t, and they ran over me."
Gentry missed the entire 1945 season. Detroit replaced the North Carolinian with Les Mueller, who fashioned a 6-8 record. Also, veteran Al Benton returned from two years in the service and went 13-8. The Tigers won the pennant and defeated the Chicago Cubs in an exciting seven-game World Series. Each winning player\'s share of the championship money was $6,400.
Rufe returned his contract in 1946 without looking at the figure. But the year he spent away from baseball didn\'t help his pitching. He made the Tigers during spring training. But when the season began, he worked only three innings in two games, issuing seven walks, striking out one hitter, and compiling an ERA of 15.00.
Gentry\'s once blazing fastball had lost speed, and Detroit optioned him to Buffalo. He never recorded another win or loss in the big leagues.
The right-hander was struggling through a comeback season with Buffalo, going 10-8 with a 5.18 ERA in 25 games (he led the league with 113 walks), when disaster struck. After shooting pigeons out of the beams at Buffalo\'s Offerman Park for several days, the longtime hunter was cleaning his .22 rifle in the groundskeeper\'s workshop.
The gun was clamped in a vice, but it accidentally discharged, mangling Rufe\'s right (pitching) index finger. The accident could have been worse, but his season was ruined.
Gentry vowed to come back. His hand was healed by early 1947, but his arm was sore. Detroit optioned the former fireballer to Dallas after he worked one-third of an inning. He pitched well in the Texas League, producing a 15-9 mark with a 3.41 ERA.
By then Rufe had become a breaking-ball pitcher. Detroit gave him a four-game look in 1948. But a sore shoulder slowed him. He spent most of the summer pitching for Buffalo, finishing with a 3-9 record and a 5.65 ERA.
After that season, he gave up baseball, returned to Winston-Salem, and worked as a brick and stone mason. He enjoyed his old hobbies of hunting and fishing, until emphysema slowed him down in the 1980s.
Reflecting on Rufe\'s baseball story, he seldom pitched with winning clubs, he made a fateful decision in early 1945 that really damaged his career, and he stoically endured hard times and tough breaks.
Regardless, the right-hander gave the national pastime his best shot. Over nine minor league seasons Rufe hurled 1,552 innings in 266 games, finishing with a 98-96 record and a 3.87 ERA. In the majors he was 13-17 with a career ERA of 4.37.
But on a few exciting afternoons, Gentry placed himself among the game\'s finest. He proved his talent with the no-hitter in Buffalo. He also pitched four shutouts in one big league season, which is a solid accomplishment.
Further, during the month of September 1944, Rufe Gentry\'s strong right arm helped keep the Tigers in pennant contention. The rookie from Daisy Station flirted with fame through eight no-hit innings against Cleveland, finally clinching a much-needed win for Detroit with a solid two-hitter. In the end, Rufe deserved better treatment than he received from the Detroit franchise.