SABR

Luke Stuart

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Luke Stuart was a long-time minor league infielder who, in the course of a brief three-game major league sojourn in 1921 with the St. Louis Browns, established an American League feat that went unrecognized for more than seven decades.

Through the efforts of SABR's Records Committee in the mid-1990s, Stuart ascended from total obscurity to be accorded official recognition for being the first American League player to hit a home run in his first plate appearance. Stuart supplanted Earl Averill, a Hall of Fame outfielder who had previously been recognized as the first, in 1929.

Luther Lane "Luke" Stuart was born on May 23, 1892 in Alamance County, North Carolina, in a rural area outside the city of Burlington. He was one of eleven children of Patrick Stuart and his wife Mary Perry Stuart, both North Carolina natives born just before the Civil War. When Luke was eight years old, the Stuart family was living on a rented farm in Coble Township in Alamance County, according to the 1900 U.S. Census.

After his family moved west to the Greensboro area, Stuart attended Guilford College in that city and played shortstop on its baseball team during the 1913 and 1914 seasons. Stuart was the leading hitter on the 1913 team, compiling a .415 batting average for one of the best squads in the school's history (including a 13-1 record).

Following his school's 1914 season, Stuart began a journeyman minor league career close to home. Stuart played two years at shortstop for the local Winston-Salem team in the Class D North Carolina State League, which was comprised of teams from the larger cities in central and western North Carolina. After hitting .237 in 115 games for Winston-Salem in 1915, Stuart moved up to the Class B Texas League for the 1916 and 1917 seasons.

As a second baseman for Galveston in 1916, Stuart hit .263 in 142 games, the best batting average of his minor league career. His days as a starting infielder were soon over, however, as the Galveston team disbanded shortly into the 1917 Texas League season. Stuart landed with the Houston club, but was downsized to half-time status for the rest of 1917, playing mostly third base and outfield rather than his usual spots at second base or shortstop.

Stuart was out of baseball for both 1918 and 1919, as he joined the military. After the war ended, Houston put Stuart on the voluntarily retired list. Returning home to Greensboro, he lived on his father's farm in Morehead Township, outside Greensboro and managed a local garage, according to his declarations in the 1920 U.S. Census. The Stuart family seems to have prospered, as the census indicated that Patrick Stuart owned the farm, which was located on Guilford College Road.

In 1920, Stuart was coaxed out of baseball retirement by Lee Gooch, a fellow North Carolinian who had played briefly in the major leagues. Gooch managed the Richmond team in the Class B Virginia League, where Stuart helped lead the team to the first-half championship, narrowly missing being league champion when Richmond lost the seventh game of the playoff series.

The Richmond experience eventually led to his short major league trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1921. Stuart and player-manager Gooch had tied for the league lead in home runs in 1920 with eight apiece. Stuart's prowess as a power-hitting second baseman probably caught the eye of St. Louis manager Lee Fohl during the 1920 season. Fohl was a scout for the Browns in 1920, after being fired as Cleveland manager during the 1919 season, and before being elevated to manager of the Browns for the 1921 season. Richmond player-manager Gooch had played for Fohl in Cleveland.

Fohl needed a second baseman, after regular second sacker Joe Gedeon was banished by the Browns for his fringe role in the Black Sox scandal (Gedeon was later officially banned from organized baseball). While Billy Gleason started at second base for the Browns early in the 1921 season, Fohl used several other players there before Marty McManus settled into the regular role by season's end.

In the middle of the 1921 season, Stuart joined the Browns in late July during the team's east coast road trip. He appeared in three of the thirteen games the Browns played in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington before the team headed back to St. Louis.

At the Polo Grounds on July 28 with the Browns down 6-0 against the Yankees, Stuart substituted in the field in the late innings for second baseman Jimmy Austin, a 41-year-old veteran. Stuart did not bat, but picked up one assist in the field.

On August 8, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, Stuart again played in the late innings of a blowout, this time for McManus. Washington scored seven runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to push the score to 16-3 when St. Louis came to bat in the top of the ninth inning against future Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson. With a 13-run lead, there were likely few spectators left in the stands, and probably even fewer newspaper writers. Those who stayed witnessed Stuart crack a two-run home run off Johnson to make the final score 16-5.

The newspapers did not even spell his name correctly. "Johnson let up in the Browns' ninth and Gerber hit to left," the Washington Post reported the next day. "Stewart [sic], who had taken McManus' place at second base, crashed a home run to the far corner of left field." The newspaper did correctly spell his name as "Stuart" in the box score. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published almost the identical article that appeared in the Washington Post.

St. Louis manager Fohl gave Stuart one chance to leverage his round-trip swat, starting him at second base the next day, August 9. Stuart went 0-2 in two at-bats against Washington pitcher George Mogridge, before Fohl replaced Stuart at second base with McManus, in a game that eventually went 19 innings before the Browns won 8-6.

While his teammates returned to St. Louis following their road trip, Stuart was shipped out to Tulsa of the Western League. "The St. Louis Browns have recalled Billy Gleason from Tulsa and transferred him to Columbus and to replace him with Tulsa Luke Stuart, the Virginia leaguer, has been shifted to Tulsa," The Sporting News reported in its September 15 edition. "Stuart, during his stay with the Browns, achieved the distinction of hitting a home run off Walter Johnson. On that account he is said to have objected to the demotion, but was told he could choose between Tulsa and nothing. He accepted Tulsa."

Stuart finished the 1921 season then played a few more seasons in Tulsa before finally hanging up his baseball glove for good.

During his three-game major league career, Stuart compiled a .333 batting average and a 1.333 slugging percentage on the strength of his one home run in three at bats. But if anyone recalled Stuart's brief trial in the majors, it was because he hit a home run off Walter Johnson, not that he hit the homer in his first major league at bat. Eight years later, when Earl Averill matched Stuart's feat, the Indians' heralded first-year player gained acclaim for the feat. The New York Times reported on April 17, 1929: "Earl Averill made his major league debut by driving one of Earl Whitehill's shoots over the right-field fence in the first inning."

Some of the local North Carolina papers noted Stuart's feat, but they could not compete with the publicity that Averill received for doing it. In March 1930, the Greensboro Daily News noted in a story about former Guilford College players who made the major leagues that Stuart "has one very unusual distinction gained in his short stay under the big tent. In his first time at bat in his first big league game, he hit a home run on the first ball pitched him by Walter Johnson."

A 1987 article in Baseball Quarterly Reviews got the ball rolling for Stuart to receive notice for his feat in the baseball record book. In the mid-1990s, the Complete Baseball Record Book published by The Sporting News finally recognized Stuart as the first American League player to hit a home run in his first major league at bat.

After leaving baseball, Stuart once again returned to North Carolina and worked many years for the Pilot Real Estate Company in Winston-Salem. Stuart died in Winston-Salem at the age of 55 on June 15, 1947, the victim of an apparent suicide.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported that a janitor found Stuart's body slumped on a chair at the Pilot Real Estate Company, with his wrists slashed and a pistol near the body. There was also a note, contents undisclosed, left for this brother Albert. "It is believed that Mr. Stuart took his own life because of illness," the Journal noted.

At his death, Stuart's survivors included nine siblings and several nieces and nephews. He was buried in the Stuart family plot at New Gardens Friends Meeting Cemetery at Guilford College in Greensboro.

Sources

Bevis, Charlie. "Major League Short Stories," Baseball Quarterly Reviews, Volume 2, Number 4 (1987).

Complete Baseball Record Book. "Home Run in First Major League At-Bat," The Sporting News, 2003.

Harper, James. "Quakers Have Placed 10 Stars in Majors," Greensboro Daily News, March 16, 1930.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Stuart's Official Individual Batting and Fielding Record, and National Association card.

Winston-Salem Journal. "L. L. Stuart's Funeral Set For Today," June 17, 1947.

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