SABR

Dick Midkiff

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Dick Midkiff had the uncommon experience of pitching for the Boston Red Sox two years before he made the major leagues. His Red Sox “debut” took place on June 1, 1936, in an exhibition game in Providence, Rhode Island, and he earned a prominent headline in a Boston newspaper: “University of Texas Pitcher Effective in Red Sox Debut.”i Respected sportswriter Edwin Rumill wrote, “[F]ans should be more than mildly interested with the debut of young Midkiff, late of the University of Texas.” Midkiff had been unbeaten in Southwest Conference baseball that spring and was understandably considered the top pitcher in the region. UT won the conference championships in both 1935 and 1936. He and Texas teammate Aubrey Graham had reported to the Red Sox in late May. Midkiff beat the Providence College team this day, 7-5. For the first six innings, he surrendered just four hits despite a strong wind, though in the last innings he was touched for four more. He struck out six and walked two.

And Midkiff was no slouch at the plate, either. Before the game, he’d boasted, “Pitchers aren’t supposed to hit in the big leagues, but I’ll show you how to slug that ball!” His demeanor and style reminded some of Dizzy Dean. Midkiff backed up his words with two hits, a single and a double, with two runs batted in (he scored two runs, too). Both Midkiff and Dean were the same height, 6-feet-2 and about 185 pounds, and Midkiff was redheaded and 19 years old. He was asked to report to the Syracuse Chiefs to start his career in professional baseball. Pitching at Double-A in the International League, Midkiff appeared in 12 games for Syracuse and was 1-2 (6.88 ERA); pitching for the rest of the season at Class B was much more suitable for his level of development: he was 6-3 (3.14) for the Rocky Mount Red Sox (Piedmont League).

In the spring of 1937, Midkiff (with another young collegiate pitcher, Emerson Dickman) was sent to the Southern Association’s Little Rock Travelers and was 13-8 for manager Doc Prothro, with a superb 2.83 earned-run average. He pitched and won the opening game of the Dixie Series that year, holding the Texas League’s Fort Worth Cats to five singles and shutting them out, 10-0. The Associated Press said he “had the situation well under control throughout.”

Dick Midkiff was the younger of two sons born to lawyer W. P. (William) Midkiff and his wife, Elfie Huggins Midkiff, in Gonzales, Texas. William Jr. was the first-born; Richard James Midkiff came along about four years later, on September 28, 1914. The elder Midkiff was a patent attorney. Gonzales was the county seat of Gonzales County and the site of the first battle of the Texas Revolution, with population over 5,000 at the time of Dick’s birth. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and pitched for the Longhorns, well enough to get the invite to Boston. Brother William played baseball in 1931 for San Benito and La Feria in the Rio Grande Valley League.

Come 1938, Midkiff trained in the springtime with the big-league club, and to the curveball he’d shown in 1937 had added a fastball that impressed manager Joe Cronin. None other than Jimmie Foxx said, “How can you get any good out of batting practice with a guy putting so much stuff on the ball?”ii He was brought to Boston and pitched well in the preseason City Series against the Boston Bees. He appeared in one early-season game, throwing three innings (the sixth, seventh, and eighth) against the Philadelphia Athletics on April 24 at Shibe Park. The Athletics had a 7-3 edge when he came in. He gave up two runs in the sixth and one in the eighth, three runs on four hits and a walk. He traveled with the team a couple more weeks but on May 14 was sent to Minneapolis to pitch for the Millers. There he joined another Red Sox prospect who’d been sent to Minneapolis before the end of spring training: Ted Williams.

The right-handed Midkiff didn’t have a particularly impressive stretch (2-5, with a 6.52 ERA), but the Red Sox needed pitching in Boston and he got the call, with pitcher Charlie Wagner being moved from Boston to Minneapolis. The July 12 Christian Science Monitor headlined: “Dick Midkiff May Bolster Shaky Red Sox Mound Staff.” Midkiff’s first start came at Fenway Park on July 16. He started against the St. Louis Browns and threw three innings, giving up six hits and four runs, and bore the 8-3 loss. Harlond Clift hit two home runs in the game, a three-run homer off Midkiff and a solo homer later in the game off reliever Lee Rogers.

Midkiff’s next appearances both came on the same day, when he pitched in both halves of a July 28 doubleheader against the White Sox in Chicago. He pitched a hitless bottom of the seventh in the first game, which Boston won, and then in the second game took over for Archie McKain in the bottom of the fifth and threw the remaining 4⅓ innings, allowing only one hit and walking one, gaining his first major-league victory. The Globe said he’d pitched “very effective ball.”

Besides the July 16 game, Midkiff had only one more start, on August 26 against the visiting White Sox. He threw seven innings and gave up six runs, but the game was a close 9-8 loss, decided after Midkiff had left the game. In all, Dick appeared in 13 games. He was 1-1 with a 5.09 ERA. He struck out 10 in 35⅓ innings, but walked 21. He had a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.811.

That was the end of Midkiff’s time in the big leagues, but he devoted another ten seasons to Organized Baseball, interrupted only by military service in World War II. His long stretch began, briefly, with Syracuse again but he was soon with the Baltimore Orioles (International League), where he pitched for most of 1939 through the beginning of 1941. He didn’t have a winning record, being 9-14, 10-12, and 1-1 with fairly high earned-run averages throughout, his 4.80 in 1940 being the best of the three seasons. His time in 1941 was split between Baltimore for the first 16 appearances and then Memphis (Southern Association) for 12 (with a 1-3 record).

Within two months of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Midkiff had enlisted in the US Army (signing up for the duration at Fort Sam Houston in Texas on February 6, 1942). He was discharged as a staff sergeant. He didn’t return to baseball until after the war, in 1946. On March 17, 1945, he married Dola Koerner. The couple had a daughter, Sharon Lynn.

Midkiff’s first year back was with the Birmingham Barons. He threw 112 innings and put up a 6-8 record for the seventh-place club in the Southern Association. Both 1947 and 1948 were spent pitching for Vicksburg in the Southeastern League (Class B). He won ten games each year, against six defeats in ’47 and 11 in ’48.

In 1949 and 1950, Midkiff pitched in Class C – for the Indians and the Cowboys. The Cotton States League’s Natchez Indians were his team in 1949; he was 8-4 with a 3.30 ERA. He was already being dubbed “The Old Warhorse.”iii In 1950 he played for the Del Rio Cowboys in the Rio Grande Valley League. (he made his home in Del Rio, Texas, until the time of his death. Though his ERA climbed a bit to 3.77, it was still good enough to lead the league. He enjoyed a gratifying 22-8 won/loss record, the 22 wins also leading the league. The Cowboys finished fifth in the eight-team league.

In 1951, the year after posting his only 20-win season, Midkiff earned his first no-hitter. He was pitching for the Brownsville Charros of the Class B Gulf Coast League. On June 21 he pitched the first nine-inning no-hitter in the league’s history, beating Port Arthur, 1-0. He allowed three walks and there were two errors by the Charros, but not a hit. Teammate Stan Goletz hit a home run for the only score. Brownsville finished in third place, but beat Harlingen in the first round of the playoffs and then Corpus Christi for the league championship. Midkiff was 9-6.

In his final year, 1952, Midkiff was named player-manager of the Charros, after the team was taken over and operated by the Downtown Lions Club.iv There was still a little fire in the belly. Both Midkiff and Port Arthur manager Carl Carter were ejected and fined for a fight during a game on May 13, promoted by Carter’s complaints that the Brownville pitchers were throwing at his batters. Even the 45 homers hit by the team’s Walter Sessi and his 179 RBIs were not enough to save the season for Brownsville and the Charros finished sixth. Midkiff was replaced as manager on August 20, and fellow pitcher Dick Gosselin assumed the responsibilities. Midkiff remained with the team, but the 7-2 record he held at the time of the late-season change was still his record at the end of the campaign. He’d had a 3.98 ERA.

For his 13 seasons in minor-league ball, Dick Midkiff was 115-93 with a career 4.23 ERA. His career batting average was .158 (with 12 homers).

After baseball Midkiff took up work as an accountant in Del Rio. He was on the job only a couple of years when he became afflicted with squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, which over a couple of years spread to his neck and carotid artery. At the age of 42, in the Veterans Administration hospital in Temple, Texas, he suffered a massive hemorrhage of his right carotid artery and died on October 30, 1956.v

 

Sources

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

 

Notes

i Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1936.

ii Boston Globe, March 11, 1938.

iii Natchez Times newspaper story on uncertain date in 1949 found in Midkiff’s player file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

iv The Sporting News, March 5, 1952.

v State of Texas death certificate.

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