SABR

Ray Martin

This article was written by Jim Gormley.

With its long winters and cold, rainy springs, New England has never been a hotbed for scouts hunting baseball talent. There have, however, been ballplayers through the years who have overcome these weather woes to shine brightly enough that they can’t be ignored. Ray Martin was one such prospect -- a pitcher so strong he was toeing the rubber at Braves Field just a few months out of high school.

Raymond Joseph Martin was born in Norwood, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1925. His father was a house painter and later a night watchman at the Charlestown Navy Yard. His mother was a secretary at the Plimpton Press in Norwood. Ray was an only child.

Martin lived across the street from a large field known as White Mike’s. It was named for the owner, white-haired Mike Curran. It was there that Ray developed his athletic skills, as his dad would hit fungoes to the neighborhood kids. It was a family affair; his uncle built a backstop and his father made a home plate for the daily games. And the day after a local parish priest, Father MacAleer, made Ray a pitcher for the St. Catherine’s School team, his dad came home with a catcher’s mitt to help him make the transition from the infield positions he had usually played.

Another major leaguer groomed on the same field was Richie Hebner.

Ray’s uncle worked for the Public Works Department and with the Martin house so close to White Mike’s, the town stored the playground athletic supplies on the Martin front porch. The family was well supplied with bats, balls, bases, and catcher’s equipment. Each of the playgrounds in the community had a ball team, and Ray and the other young players rode their bikes or walked to all parts of Norwood for regular games umpired by the playground instructors. Many of these instructors were themselves former high school athletes.

Opportunities abounded. There was a strong twilight league for boys up to 21 years of age, and there were playground teams for “midgets” (those up to 12 years old) and “intermediates” (ages 13-15). There was also junior high baseball during the school year; the St. Catherine’s school Ray attended, which went through grade nine, had a strong spring team as well as a summer CYO squad. Many of the other churches sponsored uniformed teams, as did various social clubs.

Norwood was clearly a good place to grow up if you liked to play ball, and Martin was one of the best in town. In the summer before his senior year of high school, Ray led Norwood to the 1942 state American Legion title under the coaching of John Dixon, who had himself pitched the town to a state championship in 1927 and later made the Boston College Hall of Fame for football and baseball. An assistant coach on the previous year’s Legion squad was Marty Callaghan, another Norwood High ballplayer, who had made the majors with the Cubs and Reds in the ’20s and ’30s.

During Martin’s senior year, Norwood also won the state high school title by defeating Dalton High, 3-2, at Fenway Park. Ray, who threw and batted right-handed, was the winning pitcher as he struck out 12 in a nine-inning six-hitter. This completed an undefeated year for the hurler, which included a 23-strikeout game against Boston Trade in a regular-season contest. At one point in that game, he struck out 17 in a row, and the 23 total whiffs broke the state record held by Danny MacFayden of Somerville High. Danny had gone on to pitch for the Braves from 1934 to 1939 (he also pitched for the Red Sox, Yankees, and Reds in a 17-year major-league career) and actually scouted Ray in ’43.

In the 1943 high school tourney opener, Ray had defeated Brockton, 1-0, striking out 17 in 13 innings. Then, playing first base to rest his arm, he led Norwood to a 6-4 win over St. Mary’s of Lynn by blasting a 425-foot home run to center at Braves Field. He then defeated Arlington, 4-1, striking out another 17 in the Eastern Massachusetts final. (The winning hits against both Brockton and Dalton were made by first baseman Ed Praino, whose induction into the Navy was delayed one week so he could play in the tourney.)

After Martin’s unbelievable tournament performance, Braves scout Jeff Jones signed the 6-foot-3-inch, 185-pound multisport athlete on June 21, 1943. In signing with the Braves, Ray turned down interest from the other hometown team (the Red Sox) as well as the Yankees, Cubs, and Philadelphia Athletics. His rationale was clear. Joining another franchise would have meant an assignment to the minors and an unfamiliar environment. Columbia University, Boston College, and Holy Cross had also recruited Ray, but the Braves offered both a bonus of $4,000 and a promise that he would go right to the majors. Knowing that he would likely be trading in his glove for a gun and World War II service at the end of the season, he wanted his family -- including his grandfather, who never missed a Norwood High School or Legion game -- to have the opportunity to see him pitch in Boston.

The majors were a lot different than high school ball, as Braves manager Casey Stengel reminded Martin upon meeting him. “What the hell are you doing here?” he asked Ray. “You should be pitching regularly in the minors.” Martin agreed with his manager, as he recalled later: “I didn’t know how to use my legs and I only threw with my arm.” Despite this indoctrination, he actually did get into two games for Boston in 1943. He relieved in the ninth with the Braves losing to the Cubs, 7-1, on July 2, and retired Lennie Merullo, Claude Passeau, and lifetime .300 hitter Stan Hack on seven pitches. In his one other outing he pitched two innings and gave up three hits, a walk, and three earned runs.

There was then no phone in the bullpen at Braves Field, so Stengel had hand signals for each of his relievers to get loose and to bring them in. Ray remembers there were two pitching rubbers in the unenclosed bullpen, which ran along the right-field line. “Only one had a mound. They were worried the right fielder might run into it so the other rubber was just on a flat spot. It made it tough to adjust when you came in to go back to throwing off the mound.”

Amazingly, in addition to his big-league work, the 18-year-old Martin got to pitch to Babe Ruth that summer. The Braves held an exhibition game for the war effort and Ruth, who retired as a Brave in 1935, pinch-hit. A nervous Ray’s first pitch was in the dirt. The second went to the backstop. “Phil Masi, the catcher, called time after The Babe said something to him and walked out to the mound,” said Martin “I asked what Ruth said. Masi said Ruth told him to remind me that nobody came to see me and to just throw one where he could get a good swing. I threw one belt high, and Ruth hit a long fly to the warning track for an out. As I passed the clubhouse after the game, I saw Ruth changing and heard him yell out, ‘Hey Kid, nice pitch!’ as he raised a beer bottle in salute.” (Martin also got Ted Williams out twice during his five-inning stint.)

Shortly after that unforgettable moment, Martin’s 1943 season ended on August 17 as he entered the Army. When he arrived at Fort Devens, Massachusetts (about 40 miles from Boston), with a trainload of other inductees, he was met by former Braves infielder Ray “Skippy” Roberge, who told him he was being sent to Grenier Field in New Hampshire. When he asked why, Roberge replied, “They need a pitcher.” In fact, Martin was told the next day that he could go home and report in five days. His father wound up driving him to Grenier Field, where Ray served as an MP in the Army Air Corps until he was shipped out to Europe in January 1945 with the Ninth Infantry.

His unit marched across Germany, finally meeting the Russians at the German border eight days after the war was over. Martin’s most intense battle experience came in March at the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine, where 50,000 Germans were attempting to retreat. “We were under heavy artillery fire and only had about a minute and a half between shelling to get our troops across the bridge,” he recalled. “We could only send about a dozen across at a time. Ten days later the bridge collapsed from the effects of the battle. The towers at either end still stand as a memorial.” Fellow Braves pitcher Warren Spahn, a platoon sergeant stationed at the bridge, was one of those wounded in this ongoing battle; he just escaped death when the bridge fell moments after he walked off it.

While in the service Martin pitched three times against fellow National Leaguer Ewell Blackwell. One of the games was a 13-inning, 1-0 loss. He also played some hockey while in Germany at the rink Hitler had built for the Winter Olympics, employing skills learned as a defenseman on Norwood High’s hockey team. He even got to play some football (his favorite sport) in the service; he had also been the starting fullback for the undefeated 1942 Norwood squad. In addition, Ray was scheduled to pitch in the European Theater of Operations Armed Services World Series that September until he was hospitalized for five weeks in Munich for complications from food poisoning.

Discharged from the service on April 17, 1946, after 33 months, Martin was optioned by the Braves to Evansville of the Three-I League on May 16. There he compiled a 7-9 record, pitching 119 innings, striking out 74, and walking 55 while recording a mediocre 4.69 ERA. The next year he went to spring training with the big-league club, but after not appearing in a game through May was sent to Hartford of the Eastern League to continue his development. He threw 171 innings in a 6-10 season with a 4.63 ERA, and pitched 11 complete games. Despite his lackluster record, he was brought up to the Braves at the end of the minor-league season.

Shortly thereafter, on September 27, 1947, Martin won his first and only big-league game -- a 2-1 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers at Braves Field. The Dodgers had already clinched the National League pennant, but still played Eddie Stanky, Jackie Robinson, Pete Reiser, Spider Jorgenson, Stan Rojek, and Duke Snider that day. Martin, wearing number 24, gave up seven hits, walked four, and struck out two in the complete game. A crowd of 7,720 attended the afternoon contest that lasted a brisk 2:07, and they went home happy as Tommy Holmes banged a two-out single past third in the bottom of the ninth to bring in Connie Ryan with the winning run.

“Billy Southworth, Braves manager, made it easy for me. I didn’t know I was going to start until I got to the park,” Martin recalled. “There weren’t many of my friends there so I wasn’t too nervous.”

That May, before his demotion to Hartford, Martin had been involved in a bizarre incident at the Polo Grounds. Boston’s starting pitcher showed up under the weather from a night of heavy drinking. Ray, at the time, was shagging balls in the outfield. “That’s all we ever did. The Braves didn’t believe in wasting time on hitting if all you did was pitch. For the regular pitchers, who were expected to go the whole game, it didn’t seem to matter since they batted every four or five days. The manager [Southworth] came by and said, “You better get ready. He’s in no shape to throw today.” Asked who the pitcher was, Martin would only smile.

Shortly thereafter, as Martin was warming up, the scheduled starter appeared and started throwing. “I asked the manager who was pitching. He said, ‘He is. He pitches better when he’s been drinking anyway.’” The pitcher did pitch -- and won.

These goings-on went unreported, but another odd occurrence did make the papers. “The night before that game, our clubhouse at the Polo Grounds was broken into and eight of us had our gloves, spikes, and other equipment stolen,” Martin said. “When we were out on the field I saw the clubhouse manager bringing out gloves from the Giants for us to use in the game. We even had to borrow spikes from them. Vern Bickford, another of our pitchers, was one of those to lose his stuff.”

On January 8, 1948, the Braves re-signed the now 23-year-old Martin, who again reported to spring training. He threw well in Florida and came north with the big club, but got into only two early games. While he didn’t allow a hit over two innings, it was not enough to keep him from being sent to the Braves top farm team, Milwaukee, of the American Association, on April 28. “The manager wanted to bring in players who had been with him in St. Louis. I was the second youngest pitcher at 23. Johnny Antonelli was only 18. The average age of the pitchers was 29.”

There may have been another reason why Martin was sent down. In the clubhouse one day Southworth noticed a religious medal hanging from Ray’s neck. “He ordered me to take it off. I said no. The medal was given to me by Father Mac (the Norwood priest mentioned earlier who organized youth sports and had died suddenly of the flu). I wore it all through the war. I even told those in the front office about this incident, I was so upset.”

Ray went a solid 10-7 in Milwaukee in 144 innings, while back home the Braves won the pennant. He did get to watch the World Series games in Boston, but not in uniform. “My wife and I sat out in the right-field pavilion. I remember saying to her, ‘Aren’t you glad you knew someone who could get us tickets?’”

After spring training in 1949, Martin was again sent to Milwaukee, on May 8. He went just 6-11 that season, throwing 142 innings with a 4.37 ERA. “I enjoyed Milwaukee…friendly people in the organization and fine coaches. My wife [Claire Canniff, whom he had married in November 1948] was made to feel welcome immediately. Within a day, four of the other wives had taken her under their wings.

“I remember pitching against Minneapolis and getting pounded in one inning. It was as though they knew what I was throwing. When I got back to the dugout a coach said I was tipping my curve. As I took my stretch I was rotating my wrist early. He asked if I knew what I had to do and I said yes. The first time I had a runner on I rotated the wrist and threw a fastball inside. The batter hopped out of the box and started yelling at his dugout, ‘That’s no curve!’”

It was also in Milwaukee, during Martin’s first season there, that he was involved in an unusual play. On July 6, 1948, Kansas City Blues outfielder Leon Culberson (who had earlier played for the Red Sox) stole second when the Brewers catcher, Frank Kerr, missed a pitch and the ball got stuck in umpire Harry King’s mask. Kerr tore the mask off, but couldn’t remove the ball as Culberson took second and Martin yelled for King to throw the mask (and accompanying ball) to him. The umpires wound up ruling that the ball was still in play and allowed the stolen base.

Martin returned to Milwaukee in 1950. He went 11-13 with a 4.00 ERA in 180 innings. After the ’50 season, the Braves told Ray he would be with them in spring training the next year. However, on October 4, 1950, the Braves traded him, along with Mickey Haefner, to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League for Jim Wilson. The righty Wilson had been 21-11 for the Rainiers the previous year, when he led the league in victories.

In Seattle, Ray joined 12 former major-leaguers, including Marv Grissom, Bill Salkeld, Emil Verban, Wes Hamner, and Steve Nagy. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was the manager, and regularly took batting practice. “You could see why he was a great hitter,” said Martin. “He had tremendous bat control and put on some real exhibitions in practice. There were some fine players in the league such as Chuck Connors, who played for the Dodgers and also with the Boston Celtics. Jim Rivera was another; he could really run. Gene Baker was a fine shortstop who later played for the Cubs.

“The Pacific Coast League was interesting and very competitive. Every Monday was an off day and you actually played a longer season than the majors. You were usually two weeks on the road. This was still before the majors expanded to the West Coast and there were just 16 major league teams. There were a lot of very good players in the league.”

After appearing in nine games during 1951 for Seattle, including a stint on the disabled list in May, Ray was sent to the Atlanta Crackers to specialize as a relief pitcher. He appeared in 30 games, winning three and losing five in 71 innings with a 4.31 ERA. He finished with a flourish, as he pitched no-hit ball in his last nine innings of relief.

Martin’s last professional contest was in Atlanta. Dixie Walker, the manager and former Dodger, called him in to hold a 4-2 lead with the bases loaded and no outs. He threw one pitch. It went to the second baseman, who began a triple play to end the game.

With that efficient ending, Ray retired at season’s end. “I really hated the minor league bus rides and I did not want to hang around the minors waiting for another shot at the majors,” he said. “I basically lost interest. I figured that since I did not have a college education I should take a job with good training. I went to work for General Electric. Skip Roberge was also working there. After a couple of years I went to Picker X-Ray and stayed with them more than 30 years as a sales manager, calling on doctors and hospitals [selling medical supplies] throughout the Northeast.”

When he first left organized ball, Martin did some weekend barnstorming throughout New England with a semipro club. “Our team was dressed as a Georgia chain gang. We would pile into two or three cars and play a game on Friday night, two on Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t make much money but it was a way to keep playing. Charley Shea, a former Boston College player and Braves farmhand, was our catcher.”

Ray, his wife, and their young daughter, Susan, moved to Portland, Maine, for a few years in the late 1950s as Picker expanded into that area. Ray was away most of the week calling on clients; when it was time for his daughter to start school, however, the family moved back to Norwood. After retiring from Picker he worked part time as a greeter and pallbearer for the Gillooly Funeral Home in his hometown.

For many years, until declining health made it impossible, Ray regularly attended Boston Braves reunions as well as the 2002 SABR convention in Boston (where he was on a Braves panel). He maintained close ties with Boston teammates Tommy Holmes, Sibby Sisti, and Johnny Sain, and even did some baseball card shows with other Braves in the 1980s and ’90s. He was inducted into the Norwood High School Athletic Hall of Fame in the late 1980s, and was a frequent guest on the local cable station and at the Norwood Historical Society, speaking on the community’s athletic history. He was also involved in youth hockey and baseball coaching during the ’60s and early ’70s.

He may not have made it big with the Braves, but Martin was still a big winner -- and a favorite son -- in his hometown. Perhaps his career is best summed up by Dixie Walker’s comment to Billy Southworth during the 1947 game that was to be his only major league victory. Southworth asked Walker midway through the game as he passed the Braves dugout what sort of stuff Martin had. Walker replied “He’s nobody’s cousin!”

Note

This biography originally appeared in the book Spahn, Sain, and Teddy Ballgame: Boston's (almost) Perfect Baseball Summer of 1948, edited by Bill Nowlin and published by Rounder Books in 2008.

Sources

The bulk of the information came from six interviews with Ray Martin from March to June 2007. With me was Charley Parker, the right fielder who threw out the tying run at home plate in 1943 to preserve the win over Dalton in the state championship game. I also used the Norwood Daily Messenger from 1942 to 1952 and files of the Norwood Historical Society. SABR links were also useful, particularly with box scores and newspaper accounts of major- and minor-league baseball.

Some facts come from a transcription of Martin’s appearance at the 2002 SABR convention in Boston.

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