SABR

Rex Cecil

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

It took quite an odyssey for right-hander Rex Cecil to get into his first major-league game. It was August 11, 1944, and he was in San Diego. It was a Friday. Cecil had been playing professional baseball since 1937, when he was 20 and pitching for the Vancouver Maple Leafs. He’d never played for a team farther east than Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He would turn 28 in October 1944. Then he got the word: On August 9 Boston Red Sox star Tex Hughson had pitched his last game for a while. He was to report for induction in the military. The Red Sox needed another arm. They had purchased Cecil’s contract from the Padres on July 31.1

Cecil hopped on an airplane on Friday afternoon. He got as far as Tucson, when he was asked to get off the plane because of a military priority. He “trudged the streets of Tucson for several hours searching for lodging.”2 The Red Sox were able to get him on a plane leaving Tucson late on the afternoon of Saturday, the 12th. It was a bit of an ordeal to fly cross-country in those days. He arrived in Boston around 12:30 P.M. on Sunday.

The Red Sox were in the middle of a long homestand and were hosting the St. Louis Browns. Barbara Tyler, secretary to GM Eddie Collins, got Cecil into a taxi and off to Fenway Park. He had never seen a major-league game. He had never even been in a major-league ballpark. The Browns were in first place at the time; the Red Sox were in second, 6½ games behind. There were 32,000 fans in Fenway. The temperature was reported by the Boston Globe to be 101 degrees.

The first game started at 1:30 P.M. The Browns had a 5-1 lead after 2½ innings. Starter Mike Ryba’s day was done. Cecil was getting fitted for a uniform and assigned number 31. The Red Sox tied it up by the end of five, but St. Louis took a 6-5 lead in the top of the eighth. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Leon Culberson hit his second home run of the year, a solo shot that tied the game and sent it into extra innings. The Red Sox had already used Ryba, Clem Hausmann, and Red Barrett. They asked Cecil to take over in the tenth. He got one quick out but then he gave up a single, hit a batter, and walked another batter. The bases were loaded with just one out. K and K: he struck out pitcher George Caster and then struck out second baseman Don Gutteridge, and the threat was subdued.

Cecil kept the Browns off the board for four innings (Culberson’s game-saving catch in the top of the 12th helped), and then pocketed a W when, with one out in the bottom of the 13th inning, Boston’s Bobby Doerr smacked a home run over the left-center-field wall. Doerr was a Padres alumnus, too. Cecil hadn’t slept, other than sitting up in the plane (and let’s recall there was pretty much no such thing as air-conditioning in 1944).

The day’s second game again saw the Browns jump out to an early lead – 6-0 after four innings. The Red Sox were hoping that time would run out before the 6:29 P.M. Sunday curfew, but no such luck. Five innings were completed, and it was an official game, the final score, 6-1.

The team’s new hero was asked what he would do that evening. “Plans? I gotta find myself a room somewhere in this man’s town.”3

Cecil’s next appearance was a start on August 16; he worked a complete game, but lost, 4-2. He worked in the regular rotation through the end of the season and wound up 4-5 (with a 5.16 ERA). His walks-to-strikeouts ratio was 1:1; he struck out 33 but he walked 33.

In 1945 Cecil was tapped to be the Opening Day pitcher for the Red Sox.

Rex Ralston Cecil had been born in Lindsay, Oklahoma, on October 8, 1916. His father, Joseph, and mother, Leanna (Garvin) Cecil, were farmers. Rex was the sixth of seven children. His older brother, George, had been optioned by the Portland Beavers but never played for them.4 His brother James Lonnie Cecil is found on Baseball-Reference.com as “Lou Cecil” – he played for Omaha (Western League) in 1935 and for Vancouver (Western International League) in 1937, both Lou and Rex on the same team for more than 40 games.5

Joseph had come from Arkansas, Lela (as she was called) came from Missouri. By 1930, Joseph had found work as a pumper in the oil fields and Long Beach, California, so Rex had been an Okie raised in Southern California. He played American Legion baseball in Long Beach, and graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

Cecil was signed by the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League for the 1937 season and then “farmed out to Vancouver, B.C., of the Western International League.” On April 7, as the Beavers were warming up to play San Francisco, one of Cecil’s pitches went wild and struck a Bay Area commercial photographer in the head, apparently fracturing his skull.6 Oddly, the very next day, while Cecil was again pitching batting practice at Seals Stadium, a line drive came back at Cecil, struck him, and “laid him low.”7

Cecil didn’t have a particularly good year for Vancouver (9-20); the Maple Leafs had a winning 74-60 record. He was just plain unlucky, said The Oregonian (Portland) in its January 23, 1938, edition, with a 3.43 earned-run average; the paper considered him the team’s “most promising rookie” from 1937.8

In 1938 Cecil spent most of the season playing for Bartlesville, another Class C team, where he was 6-9. He got into three games (seven innings in all) for the Beavers, and was 0-1. He’d actually started the season playing on option for the Tacoma Tigers, but the Tigers couldn’t afford to pay his salary ($2,250 – he said he hadn’t realized he was one of the “big money guys.”) 9 A badly pulled shoulder muscle kept Cecil from pitching for the latter part of 1938 and pretty much all of 1939 and 1940.10 He was very briefly with the Beavers in 1939, but the main story that made the news was when he was one of a few Beavers fined for “partying” in Seattle in May 1939; he was fined $25.11

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Cecil later admitted, “I had a reputation of being a sort of playboy when I was fooling around the minor leagues. Matter of fact, I did have a lot of fun and I wasn’t particularly eager whether I stayed in baseball or not. I wasn’t getting much out of it, so I didn’t care.”12

He was a holdout before the 1940 season; he could not be optioned out even under cover, and so was given his unconditional release in March. He played semipro ball during 1940.13 And he got married – to Faune Marguerite Merrithew, on July 3. The couple had two daughters, both born on March 27, three years apart – Penny Lee (1944) and Morna Gayle (1947).

Come 1941, Cecil was in the California League playing for Bakersfield. He won 19 games that season, and lost 14 with a 3.60 ERA. The Portland paper said he had won 27 games in all in 1942, splitting his time between Bakersfield and the Twin Falls Cowboys of the Pioneer League. And he played outfield while not pitching, batting .338.14

In 1943 Cecil joined the US Army, enlisting on February 3. He experienced a “stomach disorder,” however, and was honorably discharged in June. It was an ulcer that had resulted in 11 weeks of hospitalization.15 The disorder did not prevent him from playing baseball and he signed with the Padres on June 24 – taking the place of Al Olsen, who had been taken into the Army two weeks earlier. Cecil was well enough to win eight games (he lost ten) with a 2.89 ERA. On August 19 he won a two-hit, 2-0 game over Portland, then came on in relief in the day’s second game and was charged with the loss.

Cecil enjoyed a very good year in 1944, though there was a freakish game early on (April 18) when he struck out 16 Seattle batters but lost, 3-2. He doled out seven bases on balls. He had ten wins by May 25. There was another game against Seattle where he got a measure of revenge, hitting a home run in the 13th inning to win his own game, 1-0.

There was some talk about whether Cecil could become the first 30-game winner in the Coast League in more than a decade. There were also reports that teams, among them the New York Giants, had offered San Diego $30,000 for his contract. The Padres did the deal with the Red Sox, Cecil won his 19th game of the year on August 9, and he prepared to take the plane to Boston. He’d worked 246 innings for the Padres in 1944 with a 2.16 ERA. Part of the deal saw the Red Sox send San Diego three players from their Louisville affiliate – Lou Lucier, Joe Wood, Jr., and Pinky Woods.16

The year 1945 opened on a somber note; the day Cecil received a contract from the Red Sox was the day his mother died. Father Joe Cecil also died in 1945.

Cecil said that he’d strained his arm in the summer of 1944 and after he’d left San Diego, reported Jack Malaney in The Sporting News, “it was not the same Rex Cecil who reported to Boston. Never much of a fast ball pitcher, he wasn’t at all fast and his curve impressed only at times. Nothing was said about his bad arm; in fact, it was kept a secret. He went through the motions the remainder of the season.”17

Much more was expected of Cecil in 1945. He ran a wholesale fruit and produce business in Long Beach with one of his brothers that offseason, had rested his arm over the winter, and declared he was ready to go. No longer inclined to party, he said, “This major-league ball is different, You gotta be good up here and damned if I ain’t positive I can be good – I mean a good pitcher. So now I gotta show ’em. You wait and see. If I keep in shape – I mean if I don’t get hurt – there is no reason I shouldn’t win 20. I should be good for five years at least, because even if they don’t have me as a starting pitcher, I can be a hell of a relief pitcher, and then I’ll go back to the minors and manage a team.”18

The Red Sox selected Cecil to be their Opening Day pitcher in 1945. The game was at Yankee Stadium on April 17, and he started off nicely, allowing only two hits through the first six innings – though one was a home run by Russ Derry, a former farmer who’d joined the Yankees in August 1944. Boston added another run in the top of the seventh, and suddenly everything unraveled. A double followed by two singles brought in one run. Cecil’s pickoff attempt shot past Newsome covering second base and both runners moved up on the throwing error. Then first baseman Catfish Metkovich swung into action. Yankees catcher Bob Garbark hit an easy hopper, but Metkovich missed the tag when he tried to get Garbark coming into first. He fired home to cut down Joe Buzas coming in from third, but the throw went wild and two runners scored. Two errors were assessed – one for the missed tag and one for the errant throw. Garbark, who’d stayed at first, moved up on the pitcher’s sacrifice. Stirnweiss walked. Left fielder Hershel Martin hit a sharp grounder, which Metkovich booted, loading the bases. Third error, setting the stage for another home run by Russ Derry, this one a grand slam. With seven runs in, Clark came in to relieve Cecil but the game was over. Final score: Yankees 8, Red Sox 4. Three errors in one inning; Metkovich was only the second major leaguer to accomplish the feat.

Only two of the runs were earned; Cecil still got the loss. He pitched in seven games in 1945, all starts, and received a decision in each one. Cecil’s last game in the majors was on May 28; he lost to the Chicago White Sox. He wasn’t exactly hammered in the game, but in the fifth inning a sequence of six consecutive “cute little pokes which barely carried over the heads of the infielders” served to “knock Cecil off the rubber and down to the Louisville farm.”19

Cecil was 2-5 with a 5.20 ERA, and was indeed optioned to Louisville before the day was done. He was recalled in September but did not appear in a game. Instead he stayed with Louisville and pitched in the Little World Series. Cecil enjoyed a very good season with the Colonels, with a 2.96 ERA and a 10-9 record. He allowed the Newark Bears just one hit over ten innings in the second game of the Little World Series, and won Game Six, 5-3, giving the Colonels the Series championship.

In December the Red Sox sold Cecil’s contract outright to the Indianapolis Indians.

He pitched in the minors for the rest of the 1940s, 11-13 with Indianapolis in 1946, and then 13-11 back in the Pacific Coast League for Seattle and then Sacramento in 1947. He won 13 games again in 1948, for Sacramento, with 18 losses. In 1949 he pitched for Oakland, more in relief than as a starter. He was 3-3 in 24 games.

Cecil was out of Organized Baseball in 1950 and 1951, playing some semipro ball, but reappeared in 1952 with El Paso in the Class C Arizona/Texas League. He was 10-4 (3.49), and he pitched for El Paso and Mexicali in 1953 (a combined 21-12).

After baseball, divorced and in Long Beach, Cecil worked in construction for the Decker Roofing Company. He died of liver failure, at the age of 50 at the Veterans Administration Hospital, on October 23, 1966. The hepatic failure was due to passive congestion of lungs and nutritional cirrhosis.

 

Sources

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

 

Notes

1 San Diego Union, August 1, 1944.

2 Cleveland News, August 14, 1944.

3 Ibid.

4 George Cecil’s release was reported in the March 28, 1939, Oregonian.

5 See Rex Cecil's player questionnaire in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

6 The Oregonian, April 8, 1937. It was the same issue that said he had been "farmed out." The Seattle Daily Times of April 3, 1928, said he’d been playing "under cover" for Vancouver.

7 San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 1937.

8 The Oregonian, March 12, 1938.

9 The Oregonian, May 19, 1939.

10 The Sporting News, November 19, 1966.

11 The Oregonian, May 24, 1939.

12 The Sporting News, April 19, 1945.

13 The Oregonian, February 3, 1943.

14 Ibid.

15 The Sporting News, April 19, 1945.

16 The Boston Globe initially reported the trio as Johnny Lazor, Lou Lucier, and Joe Wood, Jr. See the August 1, 1945, edition. Later reports valued the deal, which included cash as well as players, at $50,000. See The Advocate (Baton Rouge) of September 10, 1945.

17 The Sporting News, April 19, 1945.

18 Ibid.

19 Boston Herald, May 29, 1945.

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