SABR

Bill Weir

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Bill Weir pitched portions of four seasons with Boston of the National League, compiling a 6-4 lifetime record during 1936-1939, before embarking on a 25-year career as a telephone company employee.

Moving straight from the campus of the University of New Hampshire in June 1936 to pitch for Boston Bees, as they were known then (rather than the Braves), Weir made a big splash in his rookie season by hurling two shutouts in September 1936. He developed arm trouble, however, and only pitched in portions of the next three seasons before leaving baseball in 1940.

William Franklin Weir was born on February 25, 1911 in Portland, Maine. He was the oldest of four children of Leon and Florence Weir, both natives of Maine, growing up with two brothers (Leon Jr. and Herbert) and one sister (Elizabeth). Weir's father, whose parents were born in Canada, worked for the telephone company. In 1924 Weir's father moved the family from Maine to Massachusetts to become the telephone company's general employment supervisor in the Boston office. The Weir family lived in Melrose, a town ten miles north of Boston.

Weir initially attended Melrose High School, where he played varsity baseball during the 1929 and 1930 seasons. In May 1929, the "sophomore star pitcher," as the Melrose Free Press tabbed him, pitched a no-hitter against Wakefield High School, striking out three and walking three in the 4-0 victory. The newspaper also printed a picture of the left-handed pitcher in his Melrose High uniform.

Forsaking his senior year at Melrose High, Weir attended the Holderness School in Plymouth, New Hampshire during the 1930-31 school year. Weir was a three-sport star at Holderness, being a leading scorer as quarterback for the football year and center lineman on the ice hockey team in addition to continuing his pitching exploits for the baseball team. Weir compiled a 4-2 record, highlighted by a 9-2 victory on May 2 over Kimball Union Academy in which he struck out 21 batters.

After his one year at Holderness School, Weir attended the New Hampton School during the 1931-32 school year. He was a three-sport star also at New Hampton, which was located about ten miles south of Holderness School in New Hampton, New Hampshire.

Weir continued his education at the University of New Hampshire, where he played baseball for four years, one year on the freshman team (1933) and three years on the varsity (1934-36) under the tutelage of Coach Hank Swasey. During his three years as a varsity pitcher, Weir never lost a game for the Wildcats. In 1936, Weir led UNH to a 12-1 record.

Two victories in his senior year were memorable ones for Weir. A 9-2 victory in April over Bates College inaugurated UNH's new baseball diamond, Brackett Field. In attendance that day was UNH President Ted Lewis, himself a former major league player with the Boston Nationals in the 1890s. It was the last baseball game that Lewis ever saw, though, as he died four weeks later. On May 28, Weir pitched a no-hitter against Northeastern University, with Boston Bees president Bob Quinn attending the game played at Huntington Field in Brookline, just outside Boston. Weir struck out 15 batters in the 17-0 rout.

Several major league teams approached Weir to obtain his pitching services, including the World Series champion Detroit Tigers. In June when the Tigers were in Boston to play the Red Sox, Detroit manager Mickey Cochrane watched Weir work out at Fenway Park. But when Weir finished his collegiate pitching career on June 13, he waited just three days before signing with the Boston Bees, as a result of the efforts of scout Jack Onslow. On June 25, Weir made his National League debut with the Bees in the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs.

"Billy Weir, late of the University of New Hampshire and a Melrose lad, left-handed for the Bees the last three innings. It was Billy's big time debut and he did finely," the Boston Herald reported. After the Cubs reached Weir for two unearned runs in the top of the ninth inning, the Herald noted that "Weir showed he had the proper intestinal fortitude in the face of this atrocious support and got the dangerously thumping Gill on called strikes for the last out in the first of the ninth." As a batter in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on first and second, Weir "walloped a hit off the right field pavilion wall" to score one run, but was later tagged out in a rundown between second and third bases.

After pitching exclusively in relief for two months, Weir made his first start for Boston on August 20 (no decision in five innings against Philadelphia) and moved into the starting rotation in early September. While his record was unimpressive in his next four starts, at one win and three losses, Weir had held Brooklyn scoreless for eight innings in his lone victory on September 7 before yielding one run in the ninth and had shutout Cincinnati for six innings on September 13 before succumbing to a 2-1 loss.

In his last two starts in 1936, Weir pitched shutouts against Philadelphia and New York. On September 19, Weir limited Philadelphia to four hits and struck out seven in a 5-0 win, as no runner reached second base until the ninth inning. Five days later, in the second game of a doubleheader, Weir yielded just six hits in a 4-0 blanking of New York, after the Giants had clinched the National League pennant in the first game.

Weir was clearly an up-and-coming pitcher for the sixth-place Bees, a team that had recently emerged from bankruptcy when Emil Fuchs was ousted as president in 1935 and Bob Quinn installed as the new president. As a left-handed pitcher on a team loaded with right-handed hurlers, and resident of the local town of Melrose that would attract spectators to the ballpark, Weir had a bright future ahead of him with Boston.

Boston manager Bill McKechnie sang the praises of Weir at the Boston Baseball Writers Association dinner in February 1937. "Billy Weir is one of the most talented pitching prospects I have ever seen in my experience in the major leagues. He is a strong youngster, learns quickly and has plenty on his fast ball," McKechnie told the audience. "If he continues to show the improvement this year that he showed in the short time he was with the Bees in 1936, I wouldn't trade him for Dizzy Dean!"

Following his impressive debut with Boston, Weir returned to UNH in the fall of 1936 to complete the course work needed to obtain his degree. Weir's going back to school, while admirable from an educational perspective, seemed to derail his baseball career, however. Weir put on an extra fifteen pounds over the winter and reported overweight to the Bees' spring training camp in Bradenton, Florida. The newspaper writers took to calling the 5' 8" pitcher "stocky" rather than the more benign "little" or "diminutive."

Weir injured his arm in the spring of 1937, probably the result of two factors. First, he tried to pitch his way into shape, which may have been the wrong approach to dropping the extra pounds. Weir's desire to develop a better curve ball may also have exerted unneeded pressure on his arm. In an October 1936 interview in The New Hampshire, the UNH student newspaper, Weir said that he had been a power thrower in his college days and needed to develop more as a pitcher in the major leagues. Weir acknowledged that he needed a better curve ball to complement his fastball.

Although Weir made the Bees team in spring training, he didn't start a game until two weeks into the 1937 season, when on May 3 he six-hit the New York Giants in a 3-1 victory. "Weir's performance was particularly pleasing to McKechnie because the youngster reported to spring training camp many pounds overweight and in no condition to deliver effectively," the Christian Science Monitor reported on May 4. "Hard work since the arrival of the Bees in the North, however, has whipped Billy into fine shape, and if yesterday is an indication of his condition, his rivals are due for a troublesome summer."

After a loss and a no-decision, Weir didn't getting the starting call again until May 30. Although yielding just two hits in four innings, Weir left the game in the fifth inning "suffering from a sore arm," the Boston Globe reported the next day. The arm condition had been festering for several weeks, according to a June 10, 1937 account in The Sporting News. "This clever youngster, who looked undefeatable at the season's start, began to suffer from severe pains in his pitching arm a couple of weeks ago and twice was taken out of a game at his own request, when he notified Manager McKechnie he would not be able to finish." After medical attention to his arm, the doctors determined that he had bursitis. Weir sat out the summer before rejoining the Bees to pitch three games in relief during late August and early September.

The highlights of the 1937 season for Weir came in early June with his left arm in a sling. On June 5, he was honored on Bill Weir Day at National League Field between games of the Sunday doubleheader. At a ceremony at home plate, he was presented with a watch and fob by Dr. C.L. Martin of UNH. A week later, on June 14, Weir was awarded his Bachelors of Science degree at the UNH commencement ceremony.

Weir staged a comeback in spring training in 1938, making the Bees team now under the direction of manager Casey Stengel. "Little Bill Weir, who was handicapped during nearly all of last season with a sore arm, reported here entirely cured and may duplicate the sensational pitching he showed in 1936," The Sporting News optimistically reported in its March 10, 1938 issue. Stengel, unlike McKechnie, was not enamored with Weir. After just five relief appearances during the first two months of the season (the last on June 6), Weir was optioned to Hartford of the Eastern League where he pitched the rest of the 1938 season, with less than stellar results (2-8 record in 14 games with a 4.92 earned run average).

With his stock clearly down, Weir failed to make the Bees in spring training 1939 and was optioned to Toronto of the International League. Weir had bouts of impressive pitching, compiling an 8-11 record for the last-place Maple Leafs, including a five-hit shutout over Newark on April 29 and a no-hitter against Baltimore on May 16. Recalled to the Bees in September, Weir made two mop-up relief assignments, for a total of just two and two-thirds innings. His last major league appearance occurred on October 1, 1939, when Weir, looking much like the promising pitcher he was back in 1936, pitched near-perfect ball against the New York Giants in the last two innings of the Bees' 1939 season.

Because Boston was out of minor league options on Weir, he needed to make the Bees in the spring of 1940 or be released. "I'm in great condition," Weir told reporters on an early train from Boston to Bradenton for spring training, with Weir the only player among a corps of newspaper writers. "My arm feels strong again. Before the snowstorm I'd been running from three to five miles every day. When the snow came, I was still able to get in plenty of hard work."

Weir went north with the Bees from Bradenton, but Manager Stengel had no inclination to keep him on the roster. As was the custom in the 1930s, Boston did not make its final roster cuts during spring training in Florida but rather once it finished its exhibition tour on the way north to Boston. Weir didn't pitch after March 30, including any of the five-game series with the Senators in Washington or in the annual city series with cross-town rival the Red Sox. Three weeks into the regular season, Boston sent Weir to the Philadelphia Athletics on a 30-day trial, but he was soon returned to Boston for his release.

Newspapers generally attributed Weir's inability to succeed with the Bees to his lack of control of pitches. Weir did, indeed, finish his major league career with more walks (50) than strikeouts (42).

Weir posited another explanation in a March 1940 interview published in The New Hampshire. "Weir declared that his auspicious debut in the majors was a handicap rather than an asset to his chances. He claimed that his early success erased his thirst to improve. He expected to be batted all over the field and when that particular situation did not materialize, he felt his success and he slipped."

An overlooked facet of Weir's early success was that he was at least two years older than many of his peers while in high school and college. Weir was 21 years old when he entered UNH and was 25 years old during his senior year in college. By throwing baseballs against younger competition, Weir's major league potential was overstated. Weir actually played at a "baseball age" two years younger than his actual age. Newspaper accounts of his major league days consistently understated his age by two to three years, such as the Boston Globe account on February 25, 1937 that declared, "Mr. Weir was observing the 24th anniversary of his natal day." In fact, it was his 26th birthday.

A third element that hindered Weir's baseball success was his perspective that there was life after baseball. As a college graduate, if he didn't make it in major league baseball, he could leave the game for a good-paying job back home. By the late 1930s Weir's father was an executive with the telephone company, having been promoted several times since moving to Boston, and could easily arrange a job there for his son. Because Weir often made statements to the newspaper writers about a post-baseball life, many baseball people no doubt believed that Weir lacked the drive to be a major league pitcher.

"I could begin right now applying the knowledge passed along to me in college," Weir told the Christian Science Monitor in February 1937. "And I'd follow that course without hesitation if I didn't think that baseball held a future for me." In a March 1938 article the Lowell Courier-Citizen wrote that if he should "find that he has lost his stuff and will have to struggle in the minors, you may be sure he'll sever the bond which binds him with Organized Baseball." Weir told the newspaper: "Unless I stage a comeback next year, I'll get right out of baseball."

When Weir was demoted in mid-1938 to the minor leagues, the Hartford Courant reported upon Weir's arrival in the city, "Weir's case is one of the few in baseball where the player, if he fails to make good in major league baseball, will retire. Weir Sr. has a spot for his son in his business, and Weir's baseball after that will be in the role of a spectator." Indeed, following his transfer to the Athletics, the Christian Science Monitor reported on May 9, 1940, "Weir could step into a well-paying position with his father, but will not do so until he is positive that baseball is not his career."

After his 1940 release by the Bees, Weir stayed in sports for a while, working for Horace Partridge Sporting Goods in Malden, Massachusetts. When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and became a gunnery officer. After the war, Weir availed himself of his father's influence and worked for New England Telephone. He eventually moved to the Chicago, Illinois area, where he made a home in Arlington Heights with his wife and two children, William H. and Pamela.

In 1973, Weir retired at age 62 from Illinois Bell after 25 years of service to the telephone company. In retirement, he was head of public relations for the Lake Shore Club in Chicago for three years. Weir relocated to Anaheim, California in 1976, where he died on September 30, 1989.

Weir was posthumously inducted into the UNH Athletic Hall of Fame in the fall of 1989. He is one of just four inductees that played major league baseball, the others being Steve Slayton (three games in 1928), Carlton Fisk (1969-1993), and Rich Gale (1978-1984).

Sources

Anderson, Will. "William Franklin Weir," Was Baseball Really Invented in Maine? Anderson & Sons Publishing, 1992.

Boston Evening Globe. "Weir Gets First Look at Training Camp," February 25, 1937.

Boston Herald. "Weir of Wildcats and Melrose Looks Good in Box, at Bat in Bees Debut," June 26, 1936.

Christian Science Monitor. "Bees' Manager Pleased With Young Bill Weir," February 25, 1937.

Christian Science Monitor. "Weir Determined to Make Grade With Bees This Trip," February 28, 1940.

The Dial. [Holderness School publication], June 1931.

Hartford Courant. "Calling 'Em Right," June 16, 1938.

Lowell Courier-Citizen. "Diamond Dust," March 3, 1938.

Manchester Union. "Weir Twirls No Hit, No Run Game for U. of N.H.," May 30, 1936.

Melrose Free Press. "Billy Weir Pitches No-Hit, No-Run Game for Melrose H.S. Against Wakefield," May 17, 1929.

The New Hampshire. "Ex-New Hampshire Ace at Bradenton," March 5, 1940.

The New Hampshire. "Weir, Major League Hurler, Former NHU Star is Back," October 6, 1936.

Weir, Barbara. Correspondence between Weir's sister-in-law and author, 2004.

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