Elmer Leifer played in only nine major-league games, being called up to the Chicago White Sox by team owner Charlie Comiskey at the end of the 1921 season. The most remarkable feature of Leifer’s baseball career, and maybe of his entire life, was his comeback from a near-fatal injury on the ballfield that occurred a year later. While playing for Little Rock in the Southern Association, he collided with a teammate, future Hall-of-Famer Travis Jackson, while chasing a fly ball. Jackson’s injuries kept him out of the lineup for a little more than a week, but Leifer’s were life-threatening, and it was thought his promising baseball career was over. However, he resumed his career the very next year in Minot, North Dakota.
Elmer Edwin Leifer was born on May 23, 1893, in Clarington, Ohio, one of six children born to Daniel and Caroline Leifer. Sometime before 1900, his family relocated to eastern Washington state,i where he graduated from Ewan (Washington) High School. Leifer made Washington his home the rest of his life. The Leifer family were likely farmers; Daniel Leifer was listed frequently in the local newspaper, the Colfax Gazette, as a party to land and livestock transactions. In 1911 Elmer, and his older brother, Clarence, were listed under “Current Expense Claims Allowed” by the Whitman County Commissioners; Elmer owed $11.25 for labor, and Clarence, $20.25 for labor and team.ii
Numerous sources say that Leifer’s professional career began in 1917, but long before that he was playing amateur, semipro, and professional baseball. He began as a pitcher, caught the eye of F.C. Farr, owner of the Spokane Indians in the Northwestern League in December 1913,iii and was invited to the Spokane training camp in the spring of 1914. Leifer didn’t make the team, and was released to the Modesto club in the California State League.iv This league disbanded in early July, and there is no evidence that Leifer ever pitched in Modesto.
Leifer first made headlines when he struck out 32 batters in a 19-inning game, then called a “world’s amateur record,” while pitching for his local Ewan town team in June 1915.v He also pitched in eight games for the Spokane Indians the rest of 1915. A review of box scores in the Spokane Daily Chronicle shows that he allowed 41 hits in 45⅔ innings, struck out 21, and walked 25. Despite a 1-4 won-loss record, he made a favorable impression on team management and was invited back the following year.
Instead of returning to Spokane, Leifer moved on to play with the Butte (Montana) Miners, also in the Northwestern League, in 1916 and 1917. There he played for and with player/manager Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity. Leifer’s 1916 season in Butte is absent from his individual professional record, but “Elmer Leiter” is listed as a member of the Miners in baseball-reference.com, clearly the same man. Due to his speed, and injuries to other players, Leifer was switched from the mound to the outfield while in Butte and “almost immediately, the lad began to hit.”vi Now in the lineup every day, Leifer hit .352 for the Miners in 1917. In midseason he was sold to the New York Americans with the understanding that he would finish the season in Butte and report to the Yankees in the spring.vii No information could be found to indicate that he ever tried out for the New York club.
With the country’s growing involvement in the World War, Leifer registered for the draft while living in Montana, but there is no record of his having served on active duty or overseas. Many young men were being drafted into the armed services at this time, creating opportunities in baseball for players like Leifer that they might not have otherwise had. In addition, on the West Coast, many players quit their teams for better pay working in the naval shipyards. Leifer went to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and opened the 1918 season as the team’s regular left fielder. In early May he broke an ankle sliding into third base and had not yet returned to the lineup when the Pacific Coast League suspended play for the season on July 14. In 1919, Elmer started the season with Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) in the Western Canada League, and finished the year with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League.
In 1920, with Moose Jaw again, Leifer pitched in eight games and had a record of five wins and one loss. For some reason, instead of playing the outfield, he was the club’s regular third baseman. Playing out of position, he committed 28 errors in 94 games. Still, he had a solid season at the plate, batting .326 in 100 games. Leifer returned to Moose Jaw in 1921, and took over as manager in early June. One of the players Leifer managed was a future member of the New York Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, shortstop Mark Koenig. Leifer was purchased by the Chicago White Sox on July 22 for $1,200,viii but he stayed in Moose Jaw until the team disbanded in early August, at which time he began negotiations with the White Sox, and eventually joined the big-league club in September.
Because many of their best players had been thrown out of baseball as a result of the Black Sox scandal, the 1921 Chicago White Sox were a second-division club, and were playing out the schedule in September when Leifer joined the team. He had an RBI single in his first game for the White Sox, against the Browns in St. Louis on September 7. He played left field in one game and third base in another, and was a pinch-hitter in his other major-league appearances. Leifer had three hits, all singles in ten at-bats over nine games, his last being on September 27 in Philadelphia against the Athletics.
In the spring of 1922 the White Sox optioned Leifer to their top minor-league club, the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. On May 10, 1922, Little Rock was playing the Crackers in Atlanta. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Atlanta third baseman Fred Graf lifted a popup behind second base, and both center fielder Leifer and shortstop Travis Jackson gave chase. The two players collided violently while the ball dropped and Graf circled the bases for a home run.
Leifer and Jackson were taken to Grady Hospital in Atlanta and initially it was thought they had merely suffered cuts and bruises, as it was announced that they would accompany the team on its next road series, in Birmingham. Jackson’s injuries were relatively minor, and he returned to the Travelers’ lineup ten days later. But after further observation of Leifer, it was determined that he had suffered a fractured skull and a severed optic nerve, costing him the sight in his left eye. His physician indicated that he would be hospitalized for at least a month, and many news outletsix were reporting that Leifer would never play baseball again.
In the minor leagues in 1922, there was no disabled list. When a player was injured, the team usually played shorthanded until he was healthy enough to return, or, as a last resort, a tight-fisted team owner would purchase a replacement player from another organization. Leifer’s own Little Rock team, in first place in the league at the time of the accident, was more concerned about how his absence would affect their pursuit of the league pennant, rather than the seriousness of his medical condition. Travelers management complained that they had to continue with a roster of 15 instead of 16, and had to shift several players into different positions. However, in an unusual display of sportsmanship, the Nashville club offered Little Rock the loan of two of its players.
Neither team owners nor the league felt any obligation to provide for Leifer. Southern Association President John D. Martin reasoned that since he was injured providing entertainment to the public, his care was a public rather than a private matter. Martin did give his approval for a fundraising effort, initiated by the Mobile club, in which each player contributed $5. The Mobile players also went into the stands before games to collect money from fans to assist with Leifer’s medical bills. Martin said this would “give the fans an opportunity of showing their appreciation of the worthy efforts of a clean, young ball player who was maimed for life while trying to entertain them.”x Soon players from the other clubs in the Southern Association joined in, and eventually more than $5,000 was raised.
It was unclear how long Leifer was hospitalized in Atlanta, and there are reports of his spending time in a Chicago hospital as well. But at some point he returned to his home in Washington and “there under the care of surgeons was patched up. ... One eye had to be removed.”xi The Sporting News reported in its January 11, 1923, issue, “Last week (Leifer) submitted to an operation that will improve his breathing apparatus as well as polish up his personal appearance.” Remarkably, just four months later, Elmer was back playing baseball.
The Class D North Dakota League was organized in 1923 and would operate for just the one season. The Minot franchise hired longtime minor league player Herb Hester as manager and he stocked his team with players from the West Coast, among them Leifer. Hester likely remembered Leifer from his stint with Butte when Hester was playing with Great Falls. Leifer not only returned to professional baseball, but returned to the pitching mound as well, making Minot’s three-man pitching rotation, and was named the team’s Opening Day starter.
Leifer had a solid season in 1923, hitting .242 (he often played the outfield when not pitching). No pitching statistics were ever published, but based on a review of box scores printed in league newspapers, he pitched in 22 games that season. He showed some rust and occasional wildness but, aided by strong offensive support from his Minot teammates, recorded an unofficial record of 15 wins and just five losses. This is another season that had not previously been recorded in Leifer’s professional record. After the season, he returned to his home in Spokane.
That was Leifer’s last year in Organized Baseball, but he bounced around the Western US and Canada playing independent ball for a few more years. In 1924 he played for an independent team from Pasco, Washington, in the Blue Mountain League and in 1925 reportedly won 26 games pitching for a team from Climax, Saskatchewan.xii In the early part of the 1926 season, Leifer played with teams from Champion and Lethbridge in the Alberta Southern League.
In July 1926 Leifer pitched in what was called the “International Baseball Tournament” in Regina, Saskatchewan. (It was boasted that the “five best teams in the entire Northwest will compete.”) Tournament organizers created interest by advertising that Leifer was one of many “former big league stars,” along with former Black Sox Happy Felsch, who would participate in the tournament.xiii Leifer pitched for his old Climax team in the tournament and this is the last evidence of Elmer Leifer playing baseball.
After his retirement from baseball, Leifer married Leola Mock on April 16, 1931, near his home in Washington, but there were no records found of the couple having had children. In addition to Elmer and Leola, the 1940 US Census listed one other household member, 24-year-old Donna McCaully, their maid. City directories for Everett, Washington, from the 1930s list Leifer’s occupation as mill worker, and Leifer’s 1942 draft registration card listed his employer as the Robinson Manufacturing Company of Everett.xiv He remained in eastern Washington until his death on September 26, 1948, in Everett, at the age of 55, and he is buried, along with his parents, at the Pine City Cemetery in Pine City, Washington.
ii Pullman (Washington) Herald, December 15, 1911.
iii Seattle Daily Times, December 1, 1913.
iv Spokane Daily Chronicle, July, 19, 1915.
v Boise (Idaho) Statesman, June 29, 1915.
vi Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 17, 1917.
viii New York Times, July 24, 1921.
ix The story of the collision and the players’ injuries was reported in newspapers in Southern Association member cities as well as in The Sporting News.
x The Sporting News, May 25, 1922.
xi The Sporting News, June 7, 1923.
xii Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald, May 20, 1926.
xiii Regina (Saskatchewan) Leader, July 27, 1926.