Kenneth William Penner was a baseball lifer. From the time he broke into organized ball as a 17-year-old pitcher in 1913, until his final pitch, thrown at the age of 47, Penner spent parts of 28 seasons in the minor leagues, pitching for 17 teams in 11 leagues and four classifications. In between, the right-hander realized two brief stints 13 years apart in the major leagues, and when he was through as an active player, spent another 15 years as a minor-league manager and major-league scout before succumbing at the relatively young age of 63.
Penner’s formative years are largely a mystery. Born April 24, 1896, in Booneville, Indiana, he was the son of W.D. Penner and Florence (Cox) Penner.1 While Florence was a presence in Penner’s life well into the 1940s, beyond the initials W.D., we know nothing about his father. By all appearances, W.D. died early in Penner’s life, as the 1900 census lists the future major leaguer living with his mother, then 27 years old and “widowed,” in the home of Penner’s maternal grandmother, Mary M. Cox, in Spencer, Indiana. Also residing in the home at that time were eight more of Mary’s ten children, plus Mary’s parents, John W. and Millie Lamar. With 13 people living under the same roof, it must have been rather cramped quarters for the 4-year-old Ken.
From that point until his start in professional ball, we lose sight of Penner as a young man. In 1913, though, his professional career began as he made five appearances with the Columbus (Mississippi) Joy Riders, of the Class D Cotton States League, pitching a total of 35 innings. How he joined that team is unknown, but by the following year Penner was a full-fledged ace, as he moved to the Cadillac Chiefs of the Class D Michigan State League and tossed a team-leading 277 innings in 38 games, winning 14 and losing 18. (Penner walked 94 batters in his 277 innings; it was the first of several seasons in which he posted impressive control totals.) In 1915 Penner moved on to the Keokuk (Iowa) Indians of the Class D Central Association, where he was even better, posting an 18-14 record in 269 innings over 37 games with a WHIP (walked plus hits per inning pitched) of 1.056, a performance that earned him a brief promotion to the Class B Central League, where he pitched twice for the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Black Sox. There, he dazzled, walking just one batter in 11 innings and finishing with a WHIP of just 0.818. He was just a year away from appearing on the major-league stage.
Little evidence can be found that might provide a clue to Penner’s pitching skills. Online resources are devoid of strikeout totals, and box scores of his games are equally scarce, so it’s difficult to judge what kind of pitcher he might have been. Rather than possessing overpowering stuff, however, it’s more likely, given his totals of hits allowed totals and minimal walks, that Penner was a nibbler, a control pitcher, more than a strikeout artist. If so, in 1916 he was at the top of his game. That season found him in Marshalltown, Iowa, pitching for the Marshalltown Ansons of the Class D Central Association. He and a left-hander named Phil Slattery, who had pitched three games for the Pittsburgh Pirates the previous season, each posted 22-11 records, with Slattery tossing a team-leading 303 innings, and Penner 287. Penner walked just 62 with a WHIP of 0.997 and a miserly 1.41 earned-run average; he allowed just 45 earned runs in his 51 appearances. So impressive must Penner have been that year that in July a newspaper reported that “Cleveland is now after pitcher Ken Penner of Marshalltown. There is little doubt but what the former Keokuk starter will go up at the end of the season.”2 In addition to Cleveland, the New York Yankees had also expressed interest in Penner, reports also said. In the end, the Indians obtained his services; in September, Penner was sold to Cleveland.
Penner made his major-league debut on September 11, 1916, pitching the seventh and eighth innings of a 9-1 home loss to Detroit. The next day he again faced the Tigers, allowing one hit in two-thirds of an inning. In neither of those appearances did he allow any runs. On the 15th, again at home, Indians manager Lee Fohl called on the 20-year-old rookie to start against the Philadelphia Athletics, and Penner got his only major-league win, tossing seven strong innings while allowing just six hits and two earned runs in a 3-2 Cleveland victory. Penner also started the team’s final game of the season, the second game of a doubleheader on October 1 at Cleveland’s Dunn Field, but this time he was not as effective: In three innings he allowed four hits and four earned runs, and was the losing pitcher as the Indians lost to the White Sox, 8-4. In his brief trial, Penner had split two decisions and posted an ERA of 4.26 in 12⅔ innings. They were the only games he ever pitched in the American League.
When spring training rolled around, Penner was back in the minor leagues, and with a new team. In January 1917 the Portland Beavers announced that they had obtained Penner from Cleveland, and he went on to have a solid year in the Pacific Coast League — 21 wins and a 3.33 ERA in 59 games and 375⅓ innings. It was the first of many stops over the next 13 years, as Penner’s career took a nomadic turn. Between 1917 and 1928 he pitched for teams in Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City; Portland again; Sacramento; Vernon, California; Wichita, Kansas; Vernon again; and then three seasons with the Houston Buffaloes. Throughout, he proved a durable, effective starter, averaging over that span 39 games, 280 innings and 13 wins per season. Four times he was a 20-game winner.
Perhaps Penner’s wins would have been greater but for a freak automobile accident in 1918. That year he joined the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League. The Bees trained in Porterville, California. Having started slowly in the spring because of a case of measles, Penner had recovered by the end of March and was positioning himself as the ace of the Bees’ staff. On March 24, the Bees traveled from Porterville to Bakersfield for a game. Boosters had supplied the team with a fleet of automobiles in which to travel, and Penner was a passenger in one of the vehicles. En route, the driver of Penner’s car lost control, a tire blew, and the car swerved and tipped over. All the occupants were pinned underneath the car. All escaped serious injury except Penner, who suffered a cracked collarbone broken ribs. His injuries kept him out for more than a month; Penner returned on May 2, but for the season he appeared in just 16 games, tossing 117⅔ innings. It appears to be the only serious injury he ever incurred.
By 1920 Penner, still just 24 years old, had already logged seven seasons in the minor leagues and totaled 98 wins. That season he joined the PCL’s Sacramento Senators and began one of his longest sustained engagements, four consecutive seasons. Indeed, for the remainder of his life Penner’s baseball career would be primarily identified with California’s capital.
As with many of the pitcher’s moves, tracking down the specifics of how he came to join the Sacramento club is difficult. Although he pitched for Portland in 1919, there’s some indication that Sacramento wasn’t his initial destination in 1920. Reporting in January about the proliferation of athletes, specifically baseball players and boxers, taking up golf as a way to stay in condition (“Many Ball Players Take to the Links to Keep in Shape for Coming Season” was the headline in the January 16 edition of the Twins Falls Daily News), the press noted the “number of athletes in both classes making use of the Los Angeles municipal golf links in Griffith Park.” Penner was one of the players identified as a regular visitor to the links, but he was identified as “Penner of the Vernon club (author’s italics).” He wouldn’t take the mound for Vernon until 1924. In 1920 Penner led Sacramento in innings pitched and hurled five shutouts. In his four full seasons in Sacramento, he pitched in 181 games, an average of 45 per season, and averaged 282 innings per year. In all, usually toiling for bad teams, he won 59 games for Sacramento, with a 3.64 ERA, and walked just 269 batters in 1,126 innings. Eventually, Penner also made Sacramento his home.
If Penner found winning difficult in Sacramento (his overall winning percentage was just .453), his fortunes were dramatically different in Houston. Following a poor start at Vernon in 1925 (2-6, 5.47 ERA in 18 games), the right-hander had been sold outright to Wichita Falls, a Cardinals affiliate in the Class A Western League, where he’d again been a big winner, crafting a record of 19-6. In the offseason, though, as had become customary, Penner was sold to the Buffaloes, where he spent the next three seasons. There, he finally joined a winner, although with the conclusion of each season his return was always questionable. After a largely pedestrian 1926 campaign, in 1927 Penner won 19 games and the league ERA crown (2.54); his wins and innings pitched were second on the team. The following season was even better. Finishing with a record of 20-8, Penner combined with pitchers Bill Hallahan, Jim Lindsey, and Frank Barnes to win 88 games and the Texas League pennant. It was Penner’s final 20-win season.
One game during the 1926 season gives a glimpse into Penner’s other baseball skills. On July 12, in a game against the San Antonio Bears, the pitcher was called on to pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the Buffaloes trailing 1-0 and the bases empty. “After he hit for two bases in a pinch,” a sportswriter said, “Ken Penner spoiled an excellent chance to score when he tried to stretch the hit into a three-bagger and was thrown out on third, retiring the side to give the Bears the opening game of the series, 1-0.”3 It’s not known if Penner frequently pinch-hit, but by all accounts he was a relatively good hitting pitcher: In 2,410 at-bats, he batted .242 and hit 15 home runs.
Despite Penner’s impressive performances for the Buffaloes, each winter of his stay with the team found him moved to another affiliate. In February 1927 Houston president Fred Ankenman “announced that pitcher Sylvester Johnson had been traded to the Syracuse, International League, team for Kenneth Penner. Penner pitched for the Buffaloes last summer, and was sold in the fall to Syracuse.” Johnson, however, “protested against coming to Houston,” and thus Penner was sent back to the Buffaloes.4 Then, in August of 1927, it was announced that “Ken Penner of Buffs Will Go to Syracuse: Penner and Tex Carleton have been sold to the Syracuse International league club in an outright cash deal,” effective at the close of the season.5 In November it was reported that “six or seven Syracuse batterymen are likely to go to the Cardinal Training Camp [sic] when it opens” including “four or five pitchers, one of whom is almost certain to be Ken Penner.”6 Yet again, though, Penner opened the season with Houston, as in February 1928 team president Ankenman announced, “The official release to the Houston Buffaloes of two pitchers, Ken Penner … and Frank Barnes.” Curiously, the story related that Penner and Barnes “are procured from Rochester, International League … in a deal that takes pitcher Herman Bell and an unannounced sum to Rochester.”7 There was no explanation how Penner ended up with Rochester.
Nor is it clear how he wound up with his new team in 1929. As the season began, Penner had joined the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association. That stay turned out to be one of his best performances in several years, as Penner, who typically allowed over a hit per inning (entering the season he had given up 4,392 in 4,235 frames, an average of 1.03) allowed only 170 hits in 191 innings while walking just 51, a 1.157 WHIP; with a 3.25 ERA, he also won 13 of 20 decisions. More importantly, though, the right-hander drew the attention of major-league scouts, and on August 2, 13 years after his previous major-league stint, Indianapolis announced the “sale of Ken Penner, to the [first place] Chicago Cubs.”8 (The deal also included pitcher Claude Jonnard and cash.) Penner, who was in Kansas City with the Indians on August 1, the day the deal was made, was to leave that night and join the Cubs the next day in Chicago, in time for the beginning of their four-game series with Brooklyn.
If, in the end, the 33-year-old Penner failed to make much of a splash with the Cubs, neither did he prove a mistaken signing. After making his first appearance in the Brooklyn series, on August 6, when he held the Robins hitless over the final 1⅔ innings of a 5-4 Cubs loss, he appeared four more times before the season’s end. In four of his five outings Penner did not allow an earned run, although sloppy fielding by the Cubs in his final game, on September 4 in St. Louis, charged Penner with six unearned runs and the loss, his only decision. Penner’s final ERA of 2.84 in 12⅔ innings was the highlight of the month he spent on the mound as a Cub. When Chicago lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, Penner was not on the Chicago roster.
In nine major-league games, Penner finished 1-2, with a 3.55 ERA in 25⅓ innings.
Whether or not he was ever again considered for a chance to pitch in the major leagues is unclear. In any event, if his time with the Cubs proved eventful, it was undoubtedly eclipsed by his marriage that year to Thelma Lamar. They remained married until Penner’s premature death; by all accounts they were childless.
In 1930 Penner joined the Louisville Colonels of the American Association. He remained with the Colonels for six years, through the 1935 season, and managed the team his final two seasons. Over the next four years, now in his 40s, he pitched for and managed teams in Crookston, Minnesota; Montgomery, Alabama; and Bellingham, Washington; in 1940 he managed the Pocatello (Idaho) Cardinals, in the Class C Pioneer League.
During his time in the Cardinals organization it’s likely that Penner met Pepper Martin. In 1941 and 1942, when the Gas House Gang alumnus was managing the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League, Penner was a coach for the team. In 1943 he succeeded Martin as the Solons’ manager, and over those two seasons, Penner, now past 40, pitched the final ten games of his minor-league career. He finished with a 28-season record of 331-284.
Penner’s final season in uniform was as manager of the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in 1944.
It was only fitting that Penner remained in the game virtually until the end of his life. In 1945 he joined the St. Louis Cardinals scouting staff, and by 1957 he was the team’s West Coast scouting supervisor. In that year Penner was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and the end came relatively quickly.
By October 1958 Penner was bedridden and required 24-hour attention. More than 30 major and minor leaguers who resided in the Sacramento area appeared in a benefit game at Sacramento’s Edmonds Field that raised over $4,000 for the popular former major leaguer who had spent 43 years in the game he loved.
Penner died on May 28, 1959, at his home in Sacramento. He was cremated at Sacramento’s East Lawn Crematory.
This biography appears in "Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
Sincerest appreciation is given to SABR member Bill Mortell for his diligent genealogical research.
Penner’s player file from the National baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
Corsicana (Texas) Daily Sun
Galveston (Texas) Daily News
Joplin (Missouri) New Herald
Ogden (Utah) Standard
Oakland (California) Tribune
San Antonio Express
San Antonio Light
Syracuse Daily Herald
Twin Falls (Idaho) Daily News
Waterloo (Iowa) Evening Courier
- 1. Curiously, while both online sources and Penner’s death certificate list Booneville as his birthplace, multiple sources in his National Baseball Hall of Fame file say that he was a native of Florence, Alabama.
- 2. Waterloo (Iowa) Evening Courier, July 14, 1916.
- 3. San Antonio Express, July 13, 1926.
- 4. Galveston (Texas) Daily News, February 27, 1927.
- 5. Corsicana (Texas) Daily Sun, August 24, 1927.
- 6. Syracuse Herald, November 29, 1927.
- 7. San Antonio Light, February 29, 1928.
- 8. San Antonio Express, August 2, 1929.