SABR

Blix Donnelly

This article was written by Gregg Omoth.

On October 5, 1944, after nine years in the minor leagues, 30-year-old rookie pitcher Blix Donnelly reached the pinnacle of his baseball career by winning a World Series game. Donnelly entered the second game of the 1944 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth inning as a reliever with the score tied 2-2, no one out; Mike Kreevich of the St. Louis Browns was on second base. Donnelly struck out the first two batters he faced, surrendered a walk, and then ended the inning with a strikeout of Mark Christman. He retired the Browns in the ninth and tenth innings with little trouble. In the 11th inning, with George McQuinn on second, Christman laid a bunt down the third base line that Donnelly fielded with his bare hand and tossed to third to get the runner. The play was heralded as the defensive play of the World Series and one of the better defensive plays in World Series history. He received credit for the win when the Cardinals scored in the bottom of the 11th inning. The Cardinals would go on to win the series, four games to two, and his Game Two performance would be the highlight of his eight-year major league career.

Born Sylvester Urban Donnelly on January 21, 1914 in Olivia, Minnesota, a small farming town with a population around 1,500 in southwestern Minnesota, Blix obtained his nickname from his father at a later date.[i] Blix’s father, Charles, was born in Wisconsin and migrated to Minnesota, where he became a barber in Olivia, a trade that Blix would learn and practice during the baseball offseason. Blix’s mother, Elizabeth, was born in Minnesota to French immigrants and married Charles in 1913. Blix was the first of three boys born to the Donnellys, the others being Gordon, born in 1916, and John, in 1924.

Donnelly attended grade school in Olivia and graduated from Olivia Public High School in May 1932. While in high school he played football, basketball, and baseball, but he made his mark pitching for the baseball team. In the summer of 1932 his pitching led the Olivia junior-league team to the state playoffs. In Olivia’s final game of the tournament, Donnelly had 21 strikeouts in a 12-7 loss to a South St. Paul team led by future major leaguer Mickey Rocco.[ii]

Donnelly spent the next two years working while playing town ball for Olivia’s team in the summer. He also picked up some extra money pitching for neighboring town teams. It was during the summer of 1934 that Donnelly made an impression on George Thompson, an umpire from the Northwest Umpires Association, which led to an invitation to a three-day baseball school held at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis.[iii] Donnelly was one of 30 players from outside the Twin Cities area invited to the school free of charge. Another 11 Twin Cities-area players were invited free of charge while 227 other youngsters paid to attend the school.[iv] Two other future major leaguers also attended the school that year, Jimmy Pofahl and Mickey Rocco. The attraction of the school was the opportunity to pitch in front of Mike Kelley and the Minneapolis Millers staff.  Donnelly’s small size at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds did not impress the Millers, but his fastball did get him a tryout and contract with Superior (Wisconsin) of the Northern League in 1935. 

Playing for Superior in 1935, Donnelly pitched 228 innings, attaining a record of 15 wins and 15 losses and leading the league with 184 strikeouts. In the offseason, Duluth, also of the Northern League, made a trade with Superior to obtain him for the 1936 season.   He rewarded Duluth with a record of 11-19 and 232 strikeouts in 214 innings. His durability allowed him to lead the Northern League in losses, wild pitches, walks, and strikeouts. At the end of the season he entered the St. Louis Cardinals organization when Branch Rickey of the Cardinals purchased the Duluth franchise.

In 1937 the Cardinals assigned him to Bloomington of the Class B Three-I league. Midway through the season the Bloomington club folded, and his contract was transferred to Decatur (Illinois) in the same league.[v] His 31 games would lead the league in appearances. In 1938 he pitched one game for Decatur before being sent to Daytona Beach in the Class D Florida State League for the remainder of the season. The highlight of the 1938 season was a game against Gainesville in which he struck out a league-record 19 batters.[vi] In 1939 he returned to Daytona Beach, where he pitched his first no-hitter as a professional and, the fans selected him to their midseason All-Star team even though he served a suspension during the season for arguing with an umpire.[vii]  He also did a stint as interim manager for the Daytona Beach team while the organization changed managers during the season.[viii]

Springfield (Illinois) of the Western Association was Donnelly’s destination in 1940. Illness limited his work, but he did pitch a no-hitter against Joplin on July 15.[ix] The Springfield team tried to sell him to the Fort Worth team of the Class A Texas League in the spring of 1941. After a brief tryout, Fort Worth told him he was too small to make it as a pitcher[x] and returned him to Springfield. Upon his return to Springfield, Donnelly went on to win 28 games with only 6 losses and set a Western Association record for strikeouts with 304.[xi] During the 1941 season he led the Class C Western Association in innings pitched, complete games, wins, and strikeouts. Late in the season he was sent to Sacramento of the Double-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) where he appeared in three games. In 1942 he returned to Sacramento and won 21 games pitching for the PCL champions. It was in Sacramento that Donnelly first played for manager Pepper Martin. In 1943 Martin went to Rochester of the International League as manager, and Donnelly was assigned to Martin and the Red Wings after spring training. On August 17, Donnelly threw a no-hitter against the Jersey City Giants, winning the game 4-0.   He ended the year with 17 wins and an earned-run average (ERA) of 2.40, putting him in good position for the following year with the Cardinals.

In the spring of 1944 Donnelly made the Cardinals roster out of spring training. With the pitching staff limited by World War II, Donnelly’s 4-F draft status[xii] gave him the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues after nine years in the minors. Donnelly was known for having a good fastball and curve but erratic control. His minor-league statistics support that reputation with a large number of strikeouts, walks, and wild pitches. A starter through most of his minor-league career, he worked out of the bullpen for the Cardinals in 1944, appearing in 27 games with only four starts.   He pitched well and completed the year with two wins, one loss, and an ERA of 2.12 for the National League pennant winners. At the start of the World Series Donnelly was viewed as a limited relief pitcher but, given the opportunity, he pitched two scoreless innings in Game One and won the next one in relief. After the World Series he returned home to Olivia, where on the night of October 24 more than 1,000 people honored Donnelly at the Olivia Armory for his fine play in the World Series.[xiii]

A solid spring training in 1945 earned Donnelly the opportunity to be a starting pitcher for the Cardinals. The Sporting News named him to its midseason All-Star team.  He completed the season with a record of 8 wins and 10 losses and a career high 23 starts.   This included a one-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 27.

In 1946 Donnelly went to spring training with hopes of being in the starting rotation; however, a strong postwar Cardinal pitching staff forced him to the bullpen for the start of the season. A sore arm limited his appearances, and during the All-Star break the Cardinals sold him to the Philadelphia Phillies for the $7,500 waiver price.[xiv] The Giants also put in a waiver claim on Donnelly, but the Phillies claim was accepted due to their worse record.[xv]  He pitched well for the Phillies the remainder of the season, appearing in 12 games, including eight starts.

He began the 1947 season pitching out of the bullpen. Phillies manager Ben Chapman thought of Donnelly as a reliever, believing that he was not strong enough to go a full nine innings.[xvi] In late July a rash of injuries to the pitchers in the Phillies rotation gave Donnelly an opportunity to start 10 games, and he finished the year strong.[xvii] For the year, he had a career-high 38 appearances. Going into spring training in 1948, he was guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation based on his strong finish in 1947. He started 19 games for the Phillies and appeared in seven more in relief that season. In the fall of 1948 he was able to mix his passion for hunting with baseball by appearing in the Pheastival Week exhibition game in Huron, South Dakota.   The game between major- and minor-league players was an attraction to kick off the South Dakota pheasant-hunting season.[xviii]

Donnelly returned to the Phillies in 1949 and worked mainly out of the bullpen. Injuries limited him to 10 starts and 13 relief appearances. However, Phillies management still had faith in him and viewed him as potentially one of the better relief pitchers in the league. They believed he would be an important part of an improving ball club that could compete for the pennant in 1950.

Donnelly headed into spring training in 1950 as the Phillies’ top relief pitcher. During the year he would be supplanted in this role by Jim Konstanty, who would win the National League Most Valuable Player Award. Donnelly’s limited role and minor injuries led to only 14 appearances. The Phillies went on to win the pennant but lose to the Yankees in the World Series in four games. Donnelly did not pitch in any of the World Series games and was the oldest player on the young team known as the Whiz Kids. 

In 1951 Donnelly was the odd man out on the Phillies pitching staff at the end of spring training. An accident with a firecracker burned the forefinger of his pitching hand and limited his work during spring training.[xix]  The Phillies sold him to the Boston Braves, led by his old Cardinals manager, Billy Southworth, on April 16, 1951 after he refused assignment to the Phillies’ minor-league team in Baltimore.[xx] After he appeared in six games, the Braves released Donnelly due to his poor pitching performances. The Phillies signed him to a contract with Baltimore of the International League on May 12, 1951; he pitched the remainder of the season with Baltimore, winning seven games. In 1952 he returned to Baltimore as a player-coach. Pitching in 44 games, he won just five while losing 11.  He retired at the end of the season at the age of 38. In 1953 his contract was transferred to Richmond, but he remained retired.

After retiring from baseball Donnelly moved back to his hometown of Olivia.   He worked in a number of businesses, including a barbershop, water conditioner sales, and outboard motors sales[xxi], and he owned a business selling anhydrous ammonia.[xxii] He died in Olivia on June 20, 1976, from cancer at the age of 62. He was survived by his wife, Helen, and son, James.

Note

A version of this biography appeared in the book Minnesotans in Baseball, edited by Stew Thornley (Nodin, 2009).

Sources

 “Blix Donnelly is Fan Artist with the Cats,” Brownsville (Texas) Herald, February 19, 1941.

“Blix Donnelly Makes Good in Major League: Olivia Boy is Winning Pitcher in Second Game of World Series,” Olivia (Minnesota) Times, October 12, 1944.

“Butlers Beat Ganzels, Even School Series,” Minneapolis Morning Journal, September 1, 1934.

“Donnelly Got His Start Here,” Minneapolis Star Journal, October 5, 1944.

“Donnelly’s Pitching Best Ever: Sports Writers Join in Praise of Local Man with Cardinals,” Olivia Times, October 12, 1944.

Dunkley, Charles, “Blix Donnelly Earns Spurs” Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune, October 6, 1944.

Hall, Halsey, “Kels Sweep Along,” Minneapolis Journal, August 29, 1934.

“O’Dea to Braves Donnelly to Phils,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, July 9, 1946.

“Olivia Honors Blix Donnelly at Program,” Olivia Times, October 26, 1944.

“Olivia Will Fete Ball Hero,” Albert Lea Evening Tribune, October 17, 1944.

Wesloh, Harry, “Eyes of Baseball World on Olivia in Fall of 1944,” Olivia Times, October 3, 1994.

Baumgartner, Stan, “Big Role for Little Blix in Drive to Lift Phillies Out of Basement,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1947.

Baumgartner, Stan, “Fuming Phillies point for Giants Club – They’d Most Like to Beat,” The Sporting News, March 7, 1951.

Baumgartner, Stan, “Little Blix Out of Pigeonhole on Blue Jays: Typed as a Relief Specialist, Donnelly Wins Starting Role for Next Year,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1947.

“Daytona Beach’s Hopes Ride on Draws from Rookie Camp,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1939.

“Feast in Pheasants and Base-Hits in Dakota Pheastival,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1948.

“Injury Jinx Strikes Phillies Early,” The Sporting News, March 7, 1951.

Lieb, Frederick G., “Cards Check Stumbles; Deal Off Pair for Checks,” The Sporting News, July 17, 1946.

“Major Flashes” The Sporting News, July 24, 1946.

Ruhl, Oscar, “Boiling Anger Steamed Up Blix: ‘Wanted to Show Billy Southworth’: Too Little Tag Always Irked Bird Relief Ace,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1944.

Snow, John, “Blix Donnelly’s Wiffing Blitz Tops 17-Year-Old W.A. Mark,” The Sporting News, November 20, 1941.

The Sporting News, July 13, 1939.

The Sporting News, November 9, 1960.

The Sporting News, July 22, 1937.

Weber, Al C., “No-Hit Games 80 Percent Luck, Says Donnelly After His Third,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1943.

Roberts, Robin and C. Paul Rogers III, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Photo Credit

The Topps Company






[i] Charles Dunkely, “Blix Donnelly Earns Spurs,” Duluth News Tribune, October 6, 1944, p. 13.


[ii] “Blix Donnelly Makes Good in Major League: Olivia Boy is Winning Pitcher in Second Game of World Series,” Olivia (Minnesota) Times, October 12, 1944, p. 1.


[iii] “Donnelly Got His Start Here,” Minneapolis Star Journal, October 5, 1944, p. 24.


[iv] Halsey Hall. “Kels Sweep Along.” Minneapolis Journal, August 29, 1934, p. 20.


[v] The Sporting News, July 22, 1937, p. 2.


[vi] “Daytona Beach’s Hopes Ride on Draws from Rookie Camp,” The Sporting News, March 9, 1939, p. 3.


[vii] The Sporting News, July 13, 1939, p. 12.


[viii] John Snow, “Blix Donnelly’s Whiffing Blitz Tops 17-Year-Old W.A. Mark,” The Sporting News, November 20, 1941, p. 19.


[ix] “Blix Donnelly is Fan Artist with the Cats,” Brownsville (Texas) Herald, February 19, 1941, p. 26.


[x] Oscar Ruhl, “Boiling Anger Steamed Up Blix: ‘Wanted to Show Billy Southworth,’” The Sporting News, October 12, 1944, p. 9.


[xi] Snow. “Blix Donnelly’s Wiffing Blitz Tops 17-Year-Old W.A. Mark.” p. 19.


[xii] Al C. Weber. “No-Hit Games 80 Percent Luck, Says Donnelly After His Third.” The Sporting News, August 26, 1943, p. 4.


[xiii] "Olivia Honors Blix Donnelly at Program,” Olivia Times, October 26, 1946, p. 1.


[xiv] “O’Dea to Braves Donnelly to Phils.” St. Louis Post Dispatch, July 9, 1946, p. 5B.


[xv] “Major Flashes,” The Sporting News, July 24, 1946, p. 27.


[xvi] Stan Baumgartner, “Big Role for Little Blix in Drive to Lift Phillies Out of Basement,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1947, p 12.


[xvii] Stan Baumgartner, “Little Blix Out of Pigeonhole on Blue Jays: Typed as a Relief Specialist, Donnelly Wins Starting Role for Next Year,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1947, p. 22.


[xviii] “Feast in Pheasants and Base-Hits in Dakota Pheastival,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1948. p. 13.


[xix] “Injury Jinx Strikes Phillies Early.” The Sporting News, March 7, 1951, p. 18


[xx] Stan Baumgartner, “Fuming Phillies point for Giants Club – They’d Most Like to Beat.” The Sporting News, April 25, 1951 p. 8


[xxi] The Sporting News, November 9, 1960, p. 28


[xxii] Robin Roberts and C. Paul Rogers III, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996
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