SABR

Del Gainer

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

They called him the Sheriff – and not only did he serve as a deputy U.S. marshal in Wheeling, West Virginia, from 1935 to 1947 in real life, but his younger brother Dee Bee Gainer became a deputy sheriff in Randolph County, West Virginia, as well. Law enforcement ran in the family; a 1912 mention in Sporting Life indicated that Gainer’s father, Mathew, was a deputy sheriff in Harpertown, West Virginia, at the time.i

The two brothers were among the eight children of Mathew and Lydia Gainer. Dellas Clinton Gainer was the second-born, coming into the world on November 10, 1886, in Montrose, West Virginia. The Gainers were a farming family and by the 1900 census Del and his older brother, Howard, were both listed as farm laborers. Their younger siblings were Dora, Emma, Summer, Glenn, Stella, and Dee Bee. The family lived in the community of New Interest, West Virginia. Glenn Gainer later advised the Hall of Fame that Del had attended school for six years, but apparently not continued.

In Albert Squire Bosworth’s work A History of Randolph County, West Virginia, From Its Earliest Exploration and Settlement to the Present Time, the author informs us, “As a young man (Del) was employed in the paymaster's office of the West Virginia Central Railroad in Elkins.”:ii

Gainer’s career in baseball began in Class D ball, with Grafton in the 1909 Pennsylvania-West Virginia League. He scored 59 runs that year, tops among players in the six-team circuit, making the news occasionally such as with his four-hit game against Parkersburg on July 9. Gainer hit .317 in 74 games and his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers on August 2. Two months later, on October 2, he debuted in the major leagues for Hugh Jennings’ championship team. The Tigers had already clinched the pennant and Gainer appeared in the final two games of the season. The team had just returned home after a road trip to face the visiting Chicago White Sox and was accorded a parade from the train depot to the park. In the game Jennings had Gainer take over for first baseman Tom Jones in time to collect his first two at-bats in the big leagues, but he was hitless. The game ended as a 6-6 ten-inning tie. The two teams traveled to Chicago for the final game of 1909 the very next day. Gainer played first base for the full game and was 1-for-3 at the plate, a single, but the Chicago Tribune assessed him three errors both in the game story and the box score (he’s listed with just one in official records).

In 1910 Gainer played for Fort Wayne in the Class B Central League. He hit equally well, .311 in 136 games holding down first base. Even early in the season, he was drawing notice: “First baseman Gainer, of Fort Wayne, is looming up as a find. He is an expert bunter.”iii Starting in 1911, it was the big leagues for most of the decade; he did not return to minor-league play until 1920.

With Jim Delahanty coming over from Washington to handle first-base duties, Gainer was a backup in 1911 and again in 1912, but he showed well in 1911 when given the opportunity, hitting .302 and driving on 25 runs while scoring 32 in 70 games. A four-hit game on May 1 against Cleveland saw him steal two bases and score twice, sharing the story with teammate Ty Cobb, who stole three bases. Gainer would likely have played more but for a broken wrist suffered from a pitch by Jack Coombs of the Philadelphia Athletics in the first inning of a home game on May 20. He rejoined the team in early July, but the fracture did not heal well, and even a month later, there were questions as to when Gainer might next be able to play. It wasn’t until August 18 that he was able to get back into a game. Three days later, he singled in the top of the 11th against New York, advanced to third base on two fielder’s choice plays, and then scored the winning run on an error. The Tigers held first place for the first half of the season, but were passed by the Athletics in the second half. Team owner Frank Navin ascribed the team’s falling short to “the absence of Gainer,” adding, “He was the cog that we had needed to fix the infield right for two years. He gave the infield the confidence that inspired sharp and fast fielding, and made the pitching job comparatively easy. The minute he was put out with a broken arm that confidence was lost, and began to slip.”iv

Gainer got a good pay raise for 1912, though he was seeking more. In any event, he suffered a sprained ankle sliding into third base in a game on May 3, and had to be carried from the field.v George Moriarty handled most of the first-base work in 1912, and Gainer – limited to 52 games –hit only .240. The Tigers hadn’t been sure of Moriarty’s ability to handle first base and had asked veteran outfielder Sam Crawford to be prepared to handle work there as well.

Gainer played in 105 games in 1913, scoring 47 runs but batting in only 25. He hit for a .267 average, but was overall a disappointment to a team that expected more from him. Minor but repeated injuries robbed him of more playing time. The Boston Globe even noted early in 1914 that he’d “seldom played a dozen games” without sustaining another injury.vi One of the highlights of the season came when Gainer caught fire in New York in mid-June and “figured in nine of the fourteen runs which the Tigers picked up during the series. Ty [Cobb] and Sam [Crawford] were completely overshadowed by Gainer throughout. … Taking Gainer out of the series, it would be difficult to locate the Tigers at all.”vii After the season, he said he was considered quitting the game because of the injuries he’d suffered, including those to another ankle and a thumb. He was operating a bowling alley in Elkins, West Virginia, during the offseason, but also let it be known that he’d been approached by men from the Federal League hoping he’d join that effort to form a third major league.viii He said he’d been offered $20,000 to play for the Baltimore Federals for three years, and was the next-to-last Tiger to sign, but entered into a three-year contract with Detroit on February 5.ix

The new manager of the Boston Red Sox, Bill Carrigan, reportedly made a good cash offer to the Tigers a couple of weeks before the 1914 season, but Gainer had been hitting well in spring training and manager Hugh Jennings said he intended to keep him at least until the season started. Detroit had finished in sixth place for two years in a row, however, and some changes did need to be made. Young first baseman George Burns played very well for the Tigers and Gainer appeared in only one game for Detroit, coming in late in a game on May 14. On May 24 his contract was sold to the Red Sox for a reported $7,500.x

Almost right after reporting to the Red Sox, Gainer was injured again – a charley horse – and was unable to play. Frustrated, the team put him on waivers on July 18 but there were no takers. Gainer appeared in 38 games for Boston in 1914, batting .238. He played the outfield in six games at a time when Tris Speaker was hurt. Over the wintertime, Sox owner Joe Lannin decided he would keep Gainer, a backup for popular first baseman Dick Hoblitzell, instead of seeking to trade him. It was a smart move. Hobby did play well for the Red Sox in 1915, but not quite as well as 1914, and Gainer got a chance to get into about half the games, too. He appeared in 82 games and hit .295, with 29 RBIs – his batting average second only to that of Tris Speaker. He didn’t get much time in the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, but was 1-for-3 in the one game he appeared in. He pinch-hit for Hobby in Game Three and grounded into a double play, but then singled to lead off the eighth and scored on Duffy Lewis’s game-tying home run. The Red Sox won the game on Hooper’s homer in the ninth, and later won the Series.

Gainer also got into only one game in the 1916 World Series, but he made it count. It was Game Two, played in Boston at Braves Field (which the Red Sox had borrowed for its larger capacity) and Gainer pinch-hit for Larry Gardner in the bottom of the 14th inning of a 1-1 matchup between two southpaws, Brooklyn’s Sherry Smith and Boston pitcher Babe Ruth. As the day grew dark and this clearly would be the final frame, Hoblitzell drew his fourth base on balls of the game to lead off and Lewis sacrificed him to second. Carrigan had the speedier Mike McNally run for Hobby and asked the right-handed Gainer to hit for the left-handed Gardner. Gainer slashed a single between third and short and into left field, where Zack Wheat had been playing deep. The hit scored McNally with the winning run. “Del Gainer, Hero” read the subhead in the Hartford Courant.

During the regular season, Gainer had backed up Hoblitzell, typically hitting against left-handed pitchers, appearing in 54 games and batting .254 with 18 RBIs. But he’d come up big in his biggest moment of the season. He had not been among the Red Sox players who took part in a postseason exhibition game in New Haven to raise a little more cash, but the entire team was penalized for the actions of the dozen who did and had the traditional world champion emblems (the equivalent of today’s championship rings) withheld.

Gainer played the same role in 1917 that he had become accustomed to – platooning with and backing up Hoblitzell at first base. He got into almost the same number of games as in 1916 – 52 – but this year hit for a .308 average and drove in 19 runs. Though he had not played much, his average when he did play was second only to Babe Ruth’s. Boston finished in second place, nine games behind the Chicago White Sox. His biggest headline came after a game on August 21 in Chicago when he and White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil got involved in a brief bout in the White Sox dugout after the game. Gandil claimed that Gainer had tried to spike him in the fourth inning. (The account in the Hartford Courant did indeed say that Gainer had “slid viciously into first with his spikes high” and that Gandil had been just able to get out of the way.)

With the World War in full swing, 11 Red Sox enlisted in military service and Gainer was among them, having signed up for the Navy and doing work in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. He did not play professional baseball in 1918, though the depleted Red Sox were able to win yet another World Series. Gainer did play first base early in the spring for the Navy team organized by Jack Barry, but then Yeoman Second Class Gainer set sail under sealed orders in May. He didn’t travel too far, however, and by summertime was playing for the Atlantic Fleet team, losing the Navy championship to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station team in a game in Chicago at the Cubs’ Weeghman Park (now Wrigley Field).xi In December 1918 Red Sox owner Harry Frazee engineered a major trade that sent outfielder Duffy Lewis and pitchers Ernie Shore and Dutch Leonard to the Yankees. It was the first of many deals that saw the Red Sox sell off their stars to New York. (After the 1919 season Babe Ruth’s contract was sold – and numerous other deals followed.)

Gainer was back for what proved to be a final season with the Red Sox in 1919. The Brooklyn Dodgers looked to acquire him in April, but he didn’t clear waivers. The Red Sox had Gainer work in the outfield during spring training and he was indeed used almost as often there as at first base during the season. He remained in a utility role, appearing in 47 games (playing much of July, but not that much in other months) and hitting for a .237 average with only 13 runs batted in. The Boston Globe’s James C. O’Leary concluded, “He was a free hitter, but did not fit well in the outfield.”xii Two days before Christmas of 1919, Gainer’s contract was sold for cash to the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association.

The Brewers got themselves a good deal. It just took a while to bear fruit. Gainer hit .386 in 1920, but in just 37 games, thanks to yet another injury, a badly-sprained ankle in May. Then he hit .340 in 1921, over the course of 135 games. In December 1921 the Brewers sold his contract to the St. Louis Cardinals. His role was, once more, to serve as an understudy at first base.

Gainer had a hugely successful start with St. Louis in 1922, driving in five runs on Opening Day as the Cardinals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 10-1. He got steady work throughout the season, appearing in 43 games, hitting .268, and driving in 23 runs. A bases-loaded single on July 20 beat the Boston Braves in the tenth inning, and a timely homer helped win a game on August 10, also against the Braves. And Gainer ended his major-league career with a bang, hitting a three-run homer in his last at-bat, against the Chicago Cubs on September 30, 1922.

Gainer didn’t play in Organized Baseball in 1923, due to some machinations a little beyond his control. He was meant to be sent to Syracuse and play the outfield, but there had recently been adopted a rule that no players could come into the International League without being subject to the draft. There was a bit of a standoff and the deal was called off. St. Louis then wanted to “shunt him off to the Houston farm” but Gainer refused to go to Houston. There was an attempt to place him with the other St. Louis team, the Browns, to fill in for the ailing George Sisler, “but Del, in a peeve, refused to consider even that sort of a proposition and declared himself done with baseball.”xiii

In January 1924 Gainer signed with the Houston Buffaloes, the Single-A Texas League club in the St. Louis system and hit .350 with a career-high 15 homers. In 1925 he batted .328 and matched the 15 home runs, and in 1926 he started the season hitting .296 before (finally) being moved to Syracuse at the very end of the season. In 1927, with Double-A Syracuse, he hit .329. He maintained the pace with a .328 season for Rochester in 1928 (this was the same Syracuse team, but the team had moved to Rochester; Gainer was working largely as a coach and pinch-hitter) and had a .344 mark for Baltimore in 1929, at age 42.

Gainer managed, as the first of three managers, in 1930, for the Fairmont (West Virginia) Black Diamonds in the Class C Middle Atlantic League.

He returned to farming and in 1936 was appointed deputy U.S. marshal. His younger brother had helped him find the job. “Dee told him of an opening for a deputy U.S. marshal’s job in Judge Baker’s court in Wheeling. Dee had actually been offered the job, but having a good job in Randolph County as a deputy sheriff, and not wanting to move, he recommended his brother Del. Del served as a deputy U.S. marshal in Wheeling from 1935 to 1947. He not only found a job in Wheeling with Judge Baker, he also married Pauline Alberta Edwards, Judge Baker's secretary. Del and Pauline had one daughter, Barbara Ellen “Bobbi” Gainer. Bobbi Gainer Lindquist resides in Fort Collins, Colorado.”xiv Del and Pauline married in August 1937.

Gainer died of a “sudden heart seizure” in Elkins, West Virginia, on January 29, 1947.xv He was 60 years old.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Gainer’s player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Sporting Life, August 31, 1912.

ii The Bosworth book was recently republished (2010) by Nabu Press.

iii Sporting Life, May 28, 1901.

iv Washington Post, December 10, 1911. Hugh Jennings had said the same thing, as reported in the October 14 Sporting Life.

v New York Times, May 4, 1912.

vi Boston Globe, April 9, 1914.

vii New York Times, June 17, 1913.

viii Washington Post, January 27, 1914.

ix Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1914, and Hartford Courant, February 6, 1914.

x Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1914.

xi Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1918.

xii Boston Globe, December 24, 1919.

xiii Sporting News, May 3 and May 10, 1923.

xv The Sporting News, February 5, 1947.

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