SABR

Bill Baker

This article was written by Jack Zerby.

Bill Baker immersed himself in baseball as a player, coach, umpire, and youth program leader. His playing skills were just adequate--good enough to hold a roster spot over seven seasons on three clubs, including a World Series champion, but with enough deficiencies that he rarely started. And when he finally reached the majors as a 29-year-old-rookie, fate placed Bill Baker on the periphery of an event baseball still measures among its greatest tragedies.

Coming of age at the dawn of the Great Depression, Baker had the benefit of regular employment as he bounced coast-to-coast around four organizations with his stops including teams in each of the then-highest-classification minor leagues operating in the 1930s.i He began as a pitcher and outfielder, and although he found a more useful niche as a catcher and was the everyday receiver in most of his minor league seasons, Baker was relegated to backup and bullpen duty in the majors. He was 38 when he appeared in his last major league game and spent the next season coaching in the majors before a final season as a player-coach back in the high minors. Baker then began a five-year climb up the umpiring ladder, culminating in one year of service as a National League arbiter. Damaged knees from a lifetime of catching finished his umpiring and sent him home to North Carolina and a life of community service, American Legion baseball, and automobile sales before retirement.

William Presley Baker was born February 22, 1911, in Paw Creek, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, near Charlotte. He was the first-born son and second of seven children of Lawrence Edward and Iva Davenport Baker, both native North Carolinians of Dutch-English extraction. Edward was a merchant, while Iva tended the busy Baker household. When Bill was 14 the family moved 45 miles northeast to Salisbury, Rowan County, where Edward operated a clothing and dry goods store.

Six feet tall and 200 pounds, Bill took naturally to both baseball and football at Salisbury’s Boyden High School, but he graduated at the onset of the nation’s economic ills in 1929-30, which made the potential of a regular baseball paycheck look attractive. A right-hand-hitting catcher in high school, he played semi-pro baseball around Charlotte before breaking into Organized Baseball in-state and getting into 13 games as an outfielder with the 1931 Greensboro Patriots of the Class C Piedmont League. Baker failed to impress there and dropped a level to the Cardinals’ Cotton States League affiliate in Monroe, Louisiana, to start the 1932 season. There he still played in the outfield, but hit a promising .313 with nine home runs in 46 games and met a teammate, Frank “Pop” Kitchens, who would change the course of his career. Kitchens, a career minor-league catcher, saw potential and began to work with Baker to develop his skills behind the plate.ii

By June of that season Baker’s improved hitting and new position versatility advanced him to the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association (Class A). Baker caught 15 of his 39 Nashville games, and except for a one-game appearance in 1946 at first base while with the Pittsburgh Pirates, never played another position. Despite moving to a higher level, he continued to hit well at Nashville (.316).

Baker solidified himself as a dependable minor-league backstop over the next two seasons. He stayed at Nashville and became the regular catcher in 1933, hitting .274. The Philadelphia A’s organization signed Baker for 1934, keeping him in Class A with the Williamsport Grays of the New York-Pennsylvania League. His .335 there was only tenth-best in a hitters’ league but landed him on the all-star team and caught the attention of Yankee scout Paul Krichell, who plucked Baker away from Connie Mack for $6,000 at the end of the season.

In 1935 Baker began a string of five straight years in the top minors. The Yankees’ International League club, the Newark Bears, was his first stop. A .303 average sharing catching duties with Willard Hershberger earned Baker a trip to 1936 spring training with the Yankees, where a more-heralded rookie, Joe DiMaggio, was also in his first Yankee camp. Baker wasn’t able to dislodge Joe Glenn as Bill Dickey’s backup, but returned to Newark as the Bears’ regular catcher and hit .296. Hershberger appeared in only 16 games before the Yankees assigned him to Oakland in the Pacific Coast League.

During that offseason--on November 16, 1936--Bill married the former Valdois Foster back home in Rowan County, where he worked in his father’s store. The couple established their home in Woodleaf, a small community near Salisbury. Valdois remained there raising the Baker children--Susan, William B., and Stanley--while Bill pursued his baseball career.

The 1937 leg of Baker’s minor league journey took him once again to spring training with the Yankees in St. Petersburg, then to the Pacific Coast League and the Yankees’ Oakland Oaks affiliate as Hershberger moved back to Newark. In the Coast League, Baker held his own at .292 and New York reserved him for 1938 but, still flush with catchers, assigned him to Kansas City in the American Association, then released him in April. Baker stayed in the American Association, landing on the Indianapolis Indians roster.

Indianapolis was unaffiliated, but had ties with both the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds and in June 1938 the Cubs acquired Baker’s contract. He was Cubs’ property over the rest of the 1938 and 1939 seasons, but remained at Indianapolis, where his manager was former catcher and future Hall of Famer Ray Schalk. Bill caught regularly for Schalk and continued his success at the plate, but Chicago still deemed him dispensable and sold him Cincinnati at the end of the 1939 season.iii

Baker, now 29, warranted an invitation to 1940 spring training in Tampa with the reigning National League champion Reds guided by manager Bill McKechnie. The Reds had veteran starter Ernie Lombardi and Baker’s former Newark teammate Willard Hershberger returning behind the plate but, as The Sporting News reported on March 14, “[McKenchie’s] policy is to try out his young players and see what they can do, knowing full well what to expect from his veterans.iv So he has let Bill Baker and Dick West do the bulk of the catching, with Baker being especially impressive back of the bat and also with the war club in his hands. In his first five swings against big league pitching the husky catcher from the Indianapolis club delivered five singles and drove in three runs, which is par on any ball field.”

West had caught in only seven games for Cincinnati in 1939 and The Sporting News reported “Dick still has plenty to learn about being a catcher.” It was obvious Baker had caught McKechnie’s eye as a third catcher when the skipper included him among 25 Reds who traveled from Tampa to Miami and Havana for exhibition games in mid-March. His spot was secured when he made the trip north with the Reds for the April 16, 1940, opener against the Cubs at Crosley Field.

With Lombardi, an established star, and Hershberger, who had hit .345 in 195 plate appearances for the Reds in 1939, ahead of him, Baker couldn’t have had illusions about serving much more than bench and bullpen duty as a rookie. But he had stuck with it, fulfilled a dream, and made his major-league debut on May 4 as an 11th inning defensive replacement as the Reds eked out a 3-2 win at home over the Philadelphia Phillies. Baker survived a potential demotion when, having acquired outfielder Johnny Rizzo for Vince DiMaggio and still needing to reduce the roster from 26 to 25 by May 16, the Reds in “somewhat of a surprise” to The Sporting News, released veteran outfielder Wally Berger, once one of the premier hitters in the National League and a McKechnie favorite from their days together with the Depression-era Boston Braves.

Baker’s first start and first hit both came two-plus months later in the opening game of a July 28 doubleheader in Philadelphia. Baker hit fifth, the usual catcher’s spot in McKechnie’s 1940 order, and his single gave him a major league batting average and drove in a run in a 7-1 Cincinnati win.

A tragedy unparalleled in baseball history struck the 1940 Reds as July rolled into August. Despite a few nagging injuries earlier in the season which had pressed Hershberger into duty, Lombardi caught regularly until a sprained ankle on July 26 necessitated even Baker’s getting that first start to spell Hershberger. But in the midst of the Reds’ quest to repeat as National League champions, McKechnie wasn’t inclined to use a rookie catcher, and the moody and intensely-private Hershberger was forced into handling the pitching staff daily and also maintaining what he could of Lombardi’s vital offensive presence.v The Reds lost a doubleheader in Boston on August 2, their sixth loss in eight games. Baker had caught the first game, but Hershberger, still doubting himself over a pitch call made earlier in the week in a loss to the Giants, went hitless in five at-bats in the second game, which the Reds lost 4-3 in 12 innings. Seeing Hershberger fail to even attempt to field a swinging bunt in that game, McKechnie sensed something was wrong with his catcher and engaged him in lengthy conversation through dinner and the rest of the evening until he was satisfied his intervention had succeeded. But Hershberger’s demons prevailed. Before another twenty-four hours had passed, he was dead.vi

The shocking loss of Hershberger necessarily hastened Lombardi’s return, but on August 8 The Sporting News reported that he had “lost his true stride, especially at bat, while disabled.” He continued to hobble, injured the little finger on his left hand on September 2, and by September 15 his sprained ankle had deteriorated to the point that he was back on crutches.

Over their grind to the pennant following Hershberger’s death, Lombardi still managed about half the catching starts and Dick West, recalled from Indianapolis in September, started a handful of games. Charles Alexander’s Breaking The Slump speaks to the rest: “Although shaken by their teammate’s suicide, The Reds were seasoned professionals whose uppermost concern was gaining another pennant and another World Series check. McKechnie had had coach Jimmie Wilson, who’d caught a total of seven games over the past two years, placed on the active-player roster. The forty-year-old Wilson and Bill Baker divided the catching chores for the remainder of the season, as the Reds, threatened by Brooklyn for a couple of weeks in August, pulled away from the competition.”vii

While Alexander recognizes Baker’s contribution down the stretch in 1940, fellow baseball historian Bill James credits only Wilson in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract: “[The Reds] had a rookie, Bill Baker, but he didn’t hit and didn’t field, so Wilson came out of retirement to catch for the Reds the last two weeks of the season.”

For the record and perspective, Lombardi had 32 catching starts over the 63 games after July 31, Baker had 16, Wilson 10, and West 5. Wilson also doubled as acting manager while McKechnie scouted the American League champion Detroit Tigers during the latter days of the season in preparation for the World Series.

Cincinnati had been closed out in four games by the Yankees in the 1939 World Series and wanted redemption. But they faced Detroit with Lombardi and the catching situation as looming concerns. Tom Swope of the Cincinnati Post wrote as Sporting News correspondent on September 26: “The question of whether Lombardi is going to be able to catch in the Series is the only fly in the Reds’ ointment a week before the big games start. The Reds without Lombardi are simply not the Reds.”

A “crippled” Lombardi, Baker, and Wilson made the Series roster. The Reds took the Series, four games to three, finishing with a tight 2-1 win at home on October 8, Paul Derringer besting Bobo Newsom. At 40, Wilson played in six games, was excellent defensively, and added six singles and a crucial Game 7 sacrifice in 18 plate appearances. Lombardi was limited to four plate appearances with a single, while Baker got into three games with four plate appearances and something to recall for a lifetime--a single in the 9th inning of Game 1, mopping up for Wilson in a 7-2 loss. None of the Cincinnati catchers drove in a run in the Series, but Wilson scored two runs and Baker collected another memory, scoring a run in relief of Lombardi in the third game, another Cincinnati loss.

Baker had filled his role adequately in 1940 as a rookie and had a World Series championship to show for it. He didn’t hit (.217 with a double, triple and 7 RBI in 27 games) nearly as well he had in the minors, but he was errorless behind the plate. He was, however, well below the 1940 National League average in stopping stolen bases, successful against only three of 18 attempts.

This body of work kept Baker on Cincinnati’s 1941 spring training roster, which listed four catchers: Lombardi, Baker, Dick West, and Neil Clifford.viii During camp the Reds brought in another catcher, veteran Johnny Riddle, whose brother, Elmer, pitched for the Reds. Lombardi was late to camp with a salary dispute and lingering pain in his damaged ankle, and Tom Swope had kind words for Baker in the March 27, 1941, Sporting News: “Riddle joined the Reds at a time when Lombardi was still limping badly and West was handicapped by a sore arm. Bill Baker then was the only physically sound backstop in camp and he has done a lot to strengthen his chances of remaining with the team by catching and hitting ably.”

Baker did make the Opening Day roster, but by early May he had been in only one game and with Lombardi slumping, McKechnie tried a catching shakeup. When West got the call to start on May 4, Baker could probably see the handwriting on the wall. Whatever Baker’s suspicions, McKechnie used him as a pinch-hitter in a 9-1 loss to the Cubs on May 11 and the next day he was gone, sold to Frankie Frisch’s Pittsburgh Pirates.

Baker was again a third catcher in Pittsburgh, behind Al Lopez and Spud Davis, but The Sporting News reported “the presence of Bill Baker on his club makes Frisch feel comfortable.” Frisch tried him out on arrival, giving Baker six starts from May 13 through the end of the month. He then played only sporadically until September, when he got another ten starts as the Pirates were wrapping up a fourth-place finish, 19 games behind Brooklyn. Baker hit only .224 in 35 games with his new team, but showed a good batting eye with 11 walks and nary a strikeout.

The Pirates reserved Baker for 1942 and he remained with the club through the season, once again No. 3, this time behind Lopez and Babe Phelps, acquired in the offseason. Oddly, an injury kept Baker in the majors. In mid-July, Pittsburgh had worked out an option arrangement with Toronto that would have brought in Burgess Whitehead, a serviceable prewar second baseman, at the close of his International League season, with Baker going to Toronto immediately. But, catching an exhibition game against the Pirates’ Albany farm club, Baker broke a bone in his throwing hand. Toronto nixed the deal and Baker went to the disabled list instead of the minors. His 1942 season was over by July 21, with one start and 18 plate appearances as Pittsburgh also fizzled, proving the sagacity of local Sporting News correspondent Charles “Chilly” Doyle, who had labeled the club “run-of-the-mill” in midseason. The Pirates finished fifth, 36½ games behind St. Louis.

The Selective Service Act had been enacted in September 1940, and Baker registered the next month, with “Woodleaf, Rowan County, N. C.” lined out on his draft card and replaced by “c/o Cincinnati Base Ball Club.” As 1943 dawned he was draft-exempt because of dependents and the Pirates reserved him again. Al Lopez was still on hand, but Phelps was gone and the vicissitudes of wartime baseball finally bumped Baker up a spot to second string. He responded with his best season in the majors, appearing in 63 games, coming to the plate 199 times, hitting .273, and topping it off with his first major-league home run on July 30 in Forbes Field--a sixth-inning shot off the Giants’ Cliff Melton, a fellow North Carolinian.ix Baker’s batting eye, which may have been a factor in his ability to stick on rosters, was still keen--he walked 22 times against only six strikeouts. The Pirates finished six games over .500 and moved up a notch to fourth place.

Baker and eight other Pirates remained draft-exempt for 1944, but he opted for the U. S. Navy in March and spent part of his two years of service catching for the Great Lakes Naval Base’s Bluejackets. The team, managed by Lt. Cmdr. Mickey Cochrane, finished 48-2 in 1944, when Baker was on the roster. The pitching staff he helped handle included Tiger standout Virgil Trucks and former Tiger Schoolboy Rowe.

Baker was discharged to civilian life on December 20, 1945, and reinstated to the Pittsburgh reserve list on December 31. The January 3, 1946, Sporting News included him, with the omnipresent Lopez and Bill Salkeld, in the Pirates’ catching picture, but Baker, now 35, was on the fringe at best. He caught in 41 games, played first base in part of another, and hit .239; but again walked more times (12) than he struck out (6).

Coming off a seventh-place finish, the Pirates reserved Baker again for 1947, but “Chilly” Doyle observed “Baker seems to be getting close to the end of his major career” in a preseason story. That prediction was accurate. Although Lopez was traded to Cleveland during the 1946-47 offseason the Pirates went with younger catchers and set Baker, who never appeared in a game, adrift.x He landed with the Cardinals’ Columbus American Association (AAA) club, where he hit close to his minor-league norm (.276) in 108 games. The Pirates finished seventh again, this time without Baker.

Catching was cited as a problem when the Cardinals opened 1948 spring training. Del Wilber was projected as No. 1, with Del Rice to platoon against left-handed pitching. Twenty-two year-old Joe Garagiola made the Opening Day roster, but by July 4, Baker, among the American Association’s top hitters, was promoted to replace Garagiola. As Wilber, who hit .190 for the season, faded, Baker shared the catching with Rice the rest of the way, starting 34 games through the heat of July, August, and September. His .294 batting average and .373 on-base percentage were useful as St. Louis bounced around the National League pennant race with Boston, Brooklyn, and Pittsburgh, finally finishing second, 6 ½ games behind the Braves.xi

Baker was still with the 1949 Cardinals behind Rice and Garagiola after May 18 roster cuts, but saw little action, batting only 32 times. The last one was a pinch-hit strikeout on August 1—Baker’s last major league at-bat. He was released August 19.

A non-playing coaching stint with Frankie Frisch’s 7th-place Cubs occupied Baker in 1950, but he went to 1951 spring training with Toledo of the American Association. Not dissuaded by seeing him pinch-hit into a triple play against them in a spring training game, the Syracuse Chiefs picked up Baker, now a creaky 40, as a player-coach a few days later. He had his last moment of glory as a player, albeit now back in AAA, when he drove in four runs with two doubles on May 16 against Baltimore.

Baker finished his playing career with one pinch-hit appearance for the Little Rock Travelers (AA, Southern Association) in 1952 before being released on May 6. But his love for the game took him immediately into umpiring. He signed on with the Class D North Carolina State League on June 1 and spent the 1952 season working in and around Salisbury. He stayed near home with a shift to the Tar Heel League, also Class D, in 1953, then moved up to Class B and the Carolina League for the 1954 and 1955 seasons. He spent 1956 umpiring in the American Association (AAA).

Then, Baker reached the umpiring pinnacle when he and Vinnie Smith from the Pacific Coast League were added to the National League staff for 1957 as replacements for Larry Goetz and Al Barlick, who were both sidelined for the year with medical problems. Baker was assigned to the Frank Dascoli, Frank Secory, and Stan Landes crew and stayed with them most of the season. His debut in major league blue was on April 16 at Wrigley Field. As the 1957 NL season progressed, players and managers became increasingly vocal about what they perceived to be short-fuse, “rabbit ears” ejections, particularly by the Dascoli crew. Baker stayed under the radar until a July incident involving Pittsburgh manager Bobby Bragan.xii Four of Baker’s ten dismissals on the season came in the final two innings of the first game of a Phillies-Cardinals doubleheader in St. Louis on August 4. In the top of the eleventh, Baker, at home plate, called the Phillies’ Rip Repulski out on a foul tip third strike and Willie Jones, batting next, protested to the point of getting Baker’s thumb. The ensuing rhubarb saw him also banish Solly Hemus, who was on deck, and manager Mayo Smith. Cardinal Ken Boyer drew Baker’s fourth heave-ho contesting a third-strike call in the bottom of the twelfth as the Phillies, down two players and their manager, still prevailed 5-4.

Goetz retired after the 1957 season, but Barlick returned for 1958, forcing the league to make a choice between Baker and Smith. Smith got the nod; Baker returned to the American Association for 1958 and 1959. By then, his knees, ravaged by two-plus decades of catching and another eight years umpiring, dictated his baseball retirement.

Baker returned home to North Carolina and settled in the Rowan County community of Granite Quarry, near Salisbury. Until retirement in 1973 he worked as an automobile salesman for Raney Motor Company and later Aaron Chevrolet and regaled his customers with stories from his years in baseball. “And he was successful,” Salisbury sportswriter Mike London recalled. “Who didn’t want to buy a car from a man who had played in the World Series?” Baker was active in the Civitan Club and the Presbyterian Church and was elected a Granite Quarry alderman. He served as Commander of the local American Legion post, and his work as commissioner of Rowan County American Legion baseball earned him induction to the North Carolina American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame with the class of 1974-75.

Bill and Valdois had been married for 52 years when she died in the summer of 1989. Over the years Baker had become one of the oldest living major league veterans and he ultimately moved to the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area to be closer to his daughter Susan. He died there at age 95 on April 13, 2006, and is buried at the Unity Presbyterian Church cemetery in Woodleaf, Rowan County, North Carolina.

 

Sources

Charles Alexander, Breaking The Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 257.

Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds (New York: Putnam, 1948).

Steven R. Bullock, Playing For Their Nation: Baseball and the American Military During World War II (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004) 79.

Bill James, Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2003) 412.

Mitchell Conrad Stinson, Deacon Bill McKechnie: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012) 180.

Mike London, “Remembering Bill Baker,” Salisbury (NC) Post, April 16, 2006.

Will Wedge, “Yank Rookie Has Hard Task,” New York Sun, March 11, 1937.

Brian Wigley, Frank Ashley, and Arnold LeUnes, “Willard Hershberger and the Legacy of Suicide,” The National Pastime, No. 20, 2000, 72-76.

Cincinnati Sunday Morning Star, August 3, 1940.

Salisbury (NC) Post, William Presley “Bill” Baker obituary, April 14, 2006.

The Sporting News, Numerous issues, April 1931 through November 1957.

Baseball-Reference.com.

Retrosheet.org.

Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY, Excerpts from Bill Baker Player File (Accessed by Gabriel Schechter, SABR).

Bill Baker Player/Umpire Card, The Sporting News (Accessed through Retrosheet.org).

Transylvania County Library, Brevard, NC, Genealogical databases.

 

Notes

iThe International League, the American Association, and the Pacific Coast League, all Class AA. Class AAA was created in 1946.

ii“Pop” Kitchens was 46 years old and in his 23rd minor league season when he worked with Baker at Monroe. He first caught in the minors in 1907, four years before Baker was born. The work with Kitchens was apparently so meaningful to Baker that his Sporting News Player Card carries the annotation “Tutored by Pop Kitchens.”

iiiBaker hit .307 in 1938 and .338 in 1939 for Indianapolis.

ivThe Reds of the late ‘30s had an apparent penchant for Yankee catching prospects. On December 3, 1937, the Yankees traded Hershberger from their Newark roster to Cincinnati. He stuck with the Reds and debuted in the majors on April 19, 1938, two seasons before Baker.

vAt the close of play on July 26, 1940, the Reds were 59-25, with an 8½-game lead over Brooklyn.

viHershberger’s father had committed suicide and Hershberger told McKechnie of his intention to do the same. But “McKechnie counseled and consoled Hershberger over the course of several hours until gradually the young man’s mood lifted and his despondency passed.” McKechnie thought the crisis had been averted. Hershberger, who roomed with Baker at the team’s hotel, ate breakfast with the team the next morning but told Baker he was not feeling well enough to accompany the team to the ballpark then for the first game of a second consecutive doubleheader, but “would be out later.” When Hershberger didn’t appear during the first game, McKechnie dispatched a Hershberger confidant to return to the hotel to check. He found Hershberger with his throat slashed, a suicide, in the bathroom of the room he shared with Baker. Hershberger, who used an electric razor, had rifled through Baker’s shaving kit, found a safety razor, and removed a blade. [Brian Milligan, The 1940 Cincinnati Reds: A World Championship and Baseball’s Only In-Season Suicide, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005); The Sporting News, August 8, 1940.]

viiThe lead was at 4 games at the close of play on August 19. The Reds finished the season on September 29, 12 games ahead.

viiiWilson had moved on to manage the Cubs.

ixBaker hit his second, and only other, home run in the majors on September 2, 1946, off Paul Erickson of the Cubs at Forbes Field.

xLopez was traded for Gene Woodling, who played 22 games for Pittsburgh in April and September 1947. Traded to the Yankees at the end of the 1947 season, Woodling tore up (.385/22/.483) the Pacific Coast League with San Francisco in 1948, then went on to six solid years with the Yankees in 1949.

xiIn 338 plate appearances Rice hit .197, with an on-base percentage of .298. Baker had 134 plate appearances.

xiiOn July 31, Bragan returned to his dugout after ejection by Landes, but then strolled back to third base with an orange drink carton and two straws. When the umpiring crew assembled there to confront him, Bragan offered them a drink. The incident cost Bragan a fine, drew broad coverage in The Sporting News including a photo of the third-base confab, and may well have played a part in Bragan’s being replaced by Danny Murtaugh before the end of the season.

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