SABR

Charlie James

This article was written by Russell Lake.

Some former major-league ballplayers are remembered for hitting an unforgettable home run, while others are remembered for a very successful business career after retiring from playing baseball. Charlie James, a St. Louis native who played for the Cardinals from 1960 to 1964, is remembered for both.

Charles Wesley James was born on December 22, 1937, a son of Charles S. and Josephine D. James. Charlie (spelled Charley during his baseball career) spent his Midwest childhood in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves. This tree-filled city, just southwest of St. Louis, is on the famous Route 66 and was the setting for the short-lived NBC television series Lucas Tanner. Longtime baseball broadcasters Harry Caray and son Skip Caray attended high school in Webster Groves.

James was active in baseball growing up. He was a pitcher until he gave it up after losing a kid’s league game, 5-4. He fondly remembered attending Cardinals games with his father at Sportsman’s Park before it was renamed Busch Stadium. Surveying the St. Louis ballpark from his seat during one of their outings, Charlie told his dad that someday it would nice to be a player down there on the field.

Webster Groves High School provided an abundance of sports activities for Charlie. Foremost, it is a football school, and the Statesmen square off on the gridiron to play nearby Kirkwood High School each Thanksgiving Day for the coveted Frisco Bell Award. By his senior year, in 1954, James had matured to a 6-foot-1, 195-pound fleet halfback. He accepted a football scholarship to play at the University of Missouri. James also received permission from football coach Don Faurot to play on the Missouri baseball team.

In 1956 James set a University of Missouri football record (since broken) for pass receptions (30) by a halfback, racking up 362 yards receiving and scoring one touchdown. While playing the outfield the following spring under the tutelage of John “Hi” Simmons, James caught the eye of the St. Louis Cardinals. One of their scouts, Joe Monahan, reported to the Cardinals’ brass that James had a good arm, better than average speed, and a chance to be a power hitter.

James suffered an injury in the 1957 football season but still led the Tigers with 12 pass receptions in a run-oriented offense under new coach Frank Broyles. Broyles left after one season for Arkansas and James started wondering about his own collegiate sports career. He and Jo Denty had discussed marriage, but they knew it would be tough with finances being so tight while he was in college. Even though his college baseball career covered just 41 games, he wanted to pursue playing baseball professionally, so he let the Cardinals know that.

Cardinals general manager Bing Devine, fearing that another team would reach out to James, offered him an estimated $15,000 bonus contract on January 6, 1958. After James accepted the offer, meaning he would bypass his senior season in baseball, a firestorm erupted from the Missouri campus. The anger toward the Cardinals organization involved new football coach Dan Devine, Don Faurot, and Hi Simmons, who all sounded off about St. Louis taking James away from them. Simmons charged that the Cardinals and other major-league clubs were becoming greedy and failing to cooperate with colleges that could provide a proving ground for professional baseball. Bob Broeg, the sports editor of the St Louis Post Dispatch, saw a long-range regional sports problem developing, so he decided to write about it.

Broeg interviewed James, then 20, to get his take on the heated words coming from the Missouri campus. James responded, “I’d like to emphasize two things. First, I let the Cardinals know I wanted to turn professional now. They didn’t influence me. Second, I was treated very well at Missouri and have high regard for the university, the coaches, and the fine folks I met in Columbia. It’s just that the changed bonus rule has enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted to do – that is, get a chance at professional baseball with a financial head start and, at the same time, be given the proper training in case I’ve really got the chance to reach the big leagues. And I’ve gone far enough in college now to know that I won’t quit without getting my degree.” 1 James was a junior in electrical engineering, so he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis to stay on track for his program of study. It was also announced that he and Jo would marry on February 1, 1958.

The Cardinals’ initial plan was for James to be assigned to Billings (Pioneer League), but they promised him a chance to make a higher-classification roster. James started the spring of 1958 in Daytona Beach with Houston (Texas League, Double-A) and performed well enough to make the team. He was a fixture in left field for the Buffs and manager Harry Walker. He was named Texas League Rookie of the Year. In 153 games he had 600 at-bats, 167 hits (66 for extra bases), and 104 runs batted in. His fielding average was .975 and he provided 17 assists with his outfield prowess and strong right arm.

James was promoted to Rochester (International League, Triple-A) for the 1959 season. He had another noteworthy season with a .300 batting average in 607 at-bats. His RBI total (79) was down from the previous year, but he had 182 hits (63 for extra bases). James was chosen for the International League all-star team. During the offseason he was as an engineering instructor at Washington University in St. Louis. It seemed that he was assured of making the 1960 Cardinals roster when he was invited to train with the club in St. Petersburg. When camp broke, he was assigned to start another season with Rochester. However, a lengthy batting slump took him out of the regular lineup for the first time in his minor-league career. The Cardinals front office decided that they had a lot of money ($50,000) invested in James, so he was loaned to Charleston, West Virginia (American Association, Triple-A), instead of continuing to sit on the Red Wings bench.

Charleston was an affiliate of the Washington Senators, and James soon caught fire again at the plate. He realized that he was holding the bat lower than he had in the past, so he raised his arms and started to hit again. The power numbers were down, but his average was .370 after 23 games when the Cardinals decided to bring him back to their organization for the purpose of promoting him to the big leagues. Charlie’s wife, Jo, had a different perspective on the ups and downs of minor-league life during that era. She felt she worked hard handling the issues that could affect a player’s career. She recalled, “Things were very different at that time. Charlie wasn’t near as nervous as I was. It’s harder on the wives.” 2

James and Tim McCarver were promoted to the Cardinals’ roster just before the July 31 trade deadline. James reported to the Cardinals on August 2 in St. Louis and suffered an embarrassing gaffe at the start of the game with the Milwaukee Braves. He looked at the dugout lineup card and saw his name on it, so he grabbed his glove and headed for right field prior to the National Anthem. Ken Boyer looked puzzled and asked James where he thought he was going when Charlie ran just behind third base. James looked up and saw Joe Cunningham standing in right field, so he quickly put on the brakes. Since there was no hole to crawl into, he returned to the dugout. Further analysis of the posted lineup provided him the realization that he had glanced at manager Solly Hemus’s scribbling and mistook Javier for James. Later, Charlie made his major-league debut, entering the game in the ninth inning as a defensive replacement for Stan Musial, who was playing left field.

Hemus said James would see a utility role for the remainder of the 1960 season. In his first major-league at-bat, on August 3, he grounded out to third in the seventh inning. He got his first major-league hit on August 9 in Philadelphia, a ringing double to center field off the Phillies’ Al Neiger. On August 12 in Pittsburgh he scored his first run and later singled to get his first RBI. The next day James got his first start as he patrolled right in Forbes Field and went 1-for-4. In St. Louis James hit his first major-league home run, on August 20 off Danny McDevitt of the Los Angeles Dodgers. It appeared that his line-drive solo blast would hold up for the margin of victory, but he made a bad throw from right field after fielding Gil Hodges’ double in the top of the ninth to allow the winning run to score from first base.

A month later, on September 20, James’s two-out pinch-hit single off Sandy Koufax (in a relief appearance) in the bottom of the ninth inning drove home two runs for a thrilling 3-2 victory. St. Louis was still in the hunt for the pennant and Hemus said that he played a hunch to send James to the plate with the bases loaded. James had been watching Koufax struggle with his control that inning so he figured that Sandy would start him out with a fastball. James was ready for it and although his bat splintered, the ball made it to left-center to drop in for the game-winning safety. This mental note that he made on Koufax would help him later in his career. In 43 games for the Cardinals in 1960, James batted .180 (9-for-50).

As the 1961 season began, James found himself in tight competition with Don Landrum and Don Taussig for an outfield position. GM Devine expressed disappointment that none of the young Cardinals outfielders really took charge of the situation during spring training to allow the team to move away from its current outfield platoon system. Charlie had several notable games during the season, including four three-hit games. On June 20 he had five hits in a doubleheader at Cincinnati. He had four RBIs against the Giants on July 8 and he was able to maintain a .300 average through July 23. He finished with a .255 average in 349 at-bats. His 84 starts found him in either right field (50) or left field (32), and he mainly batted from the sixth position in the lineup. The Cardinals chose to protect James in the 1961 expansion draft, and an August 30 article in The Sporting News listed him among the top National League rookies in 1961. However, while Charlie went back to his offseason job as a college instructor, local rumors circulated that he was going to be part of a nine-player trade with the Cubs involving outfielder George Altman. It was later reported that the Cardinals’ board of directors nixed the transaction at the last minute.

The 1962 season proved memorable for James, but the first part of the campaign did not look promising for his being a regular part of the lineup. Devine and manager Johnny Keane decided to surround center fielder Curt Flood with age and experience. Musial (age 41) was shifted to right field and the club acquired former All-Star Minnie Minoso (age 39) from the Chicago White Sox to play left field. Both moves had James facing another year of spot starts, pinch-running, and use as a late-inning defensive replacement. However, Minoso pulled a muscle in the second game of the season and then was severely hurt on May 11 when he ran into the left-field wall at Busch Stadium. Musial moved back to left, and Charlie got his chance. He had two hits, two RBIs, and three runs scored in a May 18 contest at Dodger Stadium. This raised his average to .351, after which he commented, “Getting into the game more often has been the big difference. You’re not as cold as you are coming off the bench now and then, and you don’t have to press as much.”3 The media noticed Charlie’s resurgence as Neal Russo penned a lengthy piece for The Sporting News on July 14 with the headline of “James Boy Rides Again – As Cards Headline Bandit.”

James had a Friday-night-performance phenomenon that proved quite newsworthy for the 1962 season. On Friday nights he batted .411 with 23 hits and six of his eight home runs (with 23 RBIs). For the season, he batted .276 with 59 RBIs and he added seven assists on the defensive side.

Two Friday performances stood out. On June 29 he hit a long first-inning home run off Harvey Haddix of the Pirates. The two-run shot at Busch Stadium flew down the line high over the left-field bleachers and landed outside the ballpark on Sullivan Avenue. Later he singled and scored, and then made a running grab of a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente to preserve a shutout for Curt Simmons. On September 22 against the Dodgers, James had the most memorable at-bat of his career. Most of the fans were at Busch Stadium that evening to see if Maury Wills would break Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen-base record. Sandy Koufax was back as the Los Angeles starter, as he had been troubled by a circulation problem with the little finger on his left hand. Koufax walked Curt Flood and Julian Javier, then retired Musial and Ken Boyer. Bill White walked on four pitches to load the bases and James came to the plate. Dodgers manager Walter Alston figured that Koufax would be fine if he got out of the first inning. James worked the count to 2-and-2 and Sandy fired a low fastball toward the outside part of the plate. Charlie shifted slightly and met the pitch on the sweet spot. The sound from the crack of the bat was unmistakable as a line drive soared toward the right-field pavilion roof. Dodgers outfielder Frank Howard had about one second to glance up and see the ball disappear high above him for a grand slam that started the St. Louis scoring in its 11-2 triumph. Almost 50 years later James still joked to those who ask him about it, “I closed my eyes and swung real hard.”4 But he also offered a serious analysis of the at-bat, “That was a big thrill. You couldn’t hit Koufax’s 100-mph fastball, but if the ball started at the knees, it would rise to belt high by the time it got to the plate. That was the only way you could hit it.” 5

Before the 1963 season, James knew his role would be more firm than the previous two campaigns. In the offseason, the Cardinals finally acquired Altman from the Cubs and he appeared set for the right-field spot. Musial hit .330 in 1962 and was in left field, but he was 42 years old and most likely in his last season. The local media had tagged James with the nickname of Chop-Down Charley. This label was due to his not walking much (10 BB in ’62) while trying to make contact and not pop the ball up. James was okay with the moniker, as he explained, “You don’t make big money waiting for walks, unless you get an awful lot of them.” GM Devine was pleased with James by acknowledging that each year Charlie had done a bit more that he was expected to. Meanwhile Charlie had completed his bachelor’s degree, continued his part-time teaching, and was finishing up his master’s degree at Washington University.

James took aim on Dodgers pitching again during the 1963 season, collecting three hits and three RBIs in a 9-5 win at Los Angeles on April 28. He had four hits and a tie-breaking three-run home run in the eighth inning in a 10-7 victory over the Dodgers in St. Louis on May 9. James hit this home run off Ed Roebuck, whom he admitted having trouble batting against because of his great sinker. James shifted in the outfield between left and right during the season and made several great catches up against the now-padded outfield walls of Busch Stadium. A possible trade (with Curt Flood) to Milwaukee was nixed by the Cardinals in mid-May and Charlie’s average hovered around .300 until mid-July. A late-season run at the pennant came up short, but James ended the 1963 season with a career-high 10 home runs and a .268 average.

Stan Musial’s retirement after 1963 created an outfield opening for the coming season. Manager Keane admitted that James had never been given a full shot at left field and added that he might be the one to fill the gap. For the 1964 season opener in Los Angeles, Keane batted Charlie in the cleanup spot, explaining that James had become consistent getting runners in from third. This move lasted for only five games as James batted only.158. He returned to the more familiar fifth position of the batting order and victimized Koufax with another big home run. The April 22 home opener attracted a then-record 31,410 excited fans as St. Louis hosted the Dodgers. James brought them all to their feet with a three-run first-inning home run off Sandy on the way to a 7-6 victory. Musial threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and was pictured in the clubhouse with James after the win.

James struggled with the bat through the early part of the season, and Keane rotated six outfielders around Curt Flood to try to find a consistent unit. Charlie raised his average to .262 until a 4-for-45 slump as well as the trade for Lou Brock drastically reduced his playing time. James was hitting .229 when Mike Shannon was recalled from the minors. The local youngster performed well enough in right field to leave Charlie as the odd man out. The Cardinals caught fire over the last half of the season, but James started in only four games from July 18 until October 3. He ended the season with a .223 batting mark, five home runs, and 17 RBIs.

Although James sat on the bench during the stretch run, he said that watching and later celebrating the 11-5 pennant-clinching win over the Mets on the final day of the 1964 season was his biggest thrill in professional baseball. He conceded that the Cardinals probably would not have won the flag had they not acquired Brock. James did get three pinch-hit opportunities in the World Series triumph over the Yankees, but he was hitless in those attempts. Almost 50 years later he still wore his World Series Championship ring proudly.

James did not get to savor the championship feeling in St. Louis for long, as he and pitcher Roger Craig were traded to the Cincinnati Reds on December 14, 1964, for starting pitcher Bob Purkey. It was hard to leave his hometown team, but James was glad to be going to a ballpark where he had hit well. Crosley Field had a short left field at 328 feet and center field was only 387 feet. James was hoping to play more and he knew that the Reds left fielder, Tommy Harper, had struggled during the previous season. At spring training in March 1965, Reds manager Dick Sisler stated that he thought that James could chase everybody out of left field. With Harper in left field, however, the Reds started out fast, leading the league after 17 games, so Sisler did not want to make any lineup changes. For James, that meant he was the one chased out as he started just six games for the Reds. He hit .188 at Crosley Field and .205 for the season. The high point was on June 22, 1965, in the ninth inning when his sharply struck pinch single to right field off Hal Woodeschick defeated the Cardinals, 5-4.

During the offseason the Reds traded Frank Robinson and initially planned to move Harper to right field. That meant the Reds’ left-field position was going to be available again during spring training. Cincinnati had hired Don Heffner as its new manager and he had James, Marty Keough, Art Shamsky, Mel Queen, and Dick Simpson competing for either the starting outfield job or a spot on the season-opening roster. Charlie did not make the cut as Cincinnati optioned him to Buffalo (Triple-A). He refused the minor-league assignment and retired on April 14, 1966. His final major-league at-bat was on September 27, 1965, at Los Angeles. James faced Johnny Podres as he batted for Ted Davidson in the fifth inning and rolled into a third-to-second-to-first double play.

At 28, Charlie James ended his major-league career with a .255 average in 1,406 at-bats. True to his Chop-Down Charley nickname, he managed only 48 walks. He slugged 29 home runs and drove in 172 runs. His fielding average for 411 games in the outfield was .976. James had completed his electrical-engineering degree work at Washington University in St. Louis and was ready to pursue a full-time job other than baseball. The best offer he received was from Bussmann Manufacturing. The company made small-voltage electrical fuses and had been part of the St. Louis area since 1914. Charlie was employed at Bussmann for five years when an opportunity arose to purchase a portion of Central Electric Co. in Fulton, Missouri, about 90 miles west of St. Louis. James became the president of Central Electric in 1972. The company manufactured industrial electric power equipment and had annual sales of about $1 million. He said he felt that the competition he had faced in baseball helped him with competition in the business world. It must have helped, because when he retired in 1998 Central Electric Co.’s annual sales had reached $22 million.

Charlie and Jo celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary in 2011. They raised two children, Shari and Sammy, and they had five grandchildren as of 2011. Fulton remained their home and they lived in a beautiful brick residence on a golf course. They were active in numerous local events, charities, and their church. Charlie said, “The (Missouri) baseball fellows and I still get together once a year for a golf outing in Fulton.”6 Besides golf, he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and spending time with Jo and his family. He was usually in the stands when one of his grandchildren played in a sporting contest. Asked about some of his special major-league baseball moments, Charlie James summed up one story with, “It was a nice honor to have a chance to play for my hometown team.”7

 

Sources

www.retrosheet.org.

www.baseball-reference.com.

Broeg, Bob. Memories of a Hall of Fame Sportswriter. Champaign, Illinois: Sagamore Publishing, 1995.

. "Cards' Signing of College Flyhawk Draws Fire From Mizzou Coaches." The Sporting News, January 15, 1958: 7.

Kahan, Oscar. “Redbirds Feather Flag Nest With Two Fledgling Phenoms." The Sporting News, August 10, 1960: 17.

Lewis, Allen. “Comeback for O'Toole Would Do It for Reds.“ Baseball Digest, April 1966: 40.

Murphy, Megan. KOMU.com. July 28, 2010 (accessed January 5, 2011).

Rains, Rob. Cardinals, Where Have You Gone? Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2005.

Russo, Neal. “James Boy Rides Again - as Cards' Headline Bandit." The Sporting News, July 14, 1962: 23.

. “Sadecki Twirls First Route Job of '62 in Stopping L.A." The Sporting News, June 2, 1962: 14.

. “Slugger Altman Sees Card Wall as Choice HR Target.“ The Sporting News, October 27, 1962: 11.

St. Louis Cardinals Yearbooks. 1960-1964.

Stockton, J. Roy. “Bing Weighs Plus, Minus Signs, Sees Redbird Rise." The Sporting News, April 5, 1961: 17.

—. “Charley the Champion.“ Mizzou Magazine, Summer 2009: 42.

—. United Press International “Former Cardinal Calls It Quits in Pro Baseball." In Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner, April 17, 1966: 2C.

 

Notes

1 Broeg, Bob. The Sporting News, January 15, 1958

2 Murphy, Megan. KOMU.com

3 Russo, Neal, The Sporting News, June 2, 1962

4 Russo, op. cit., July 14, 1962

5 Murphy, op. cit.

6 Rains, Rob. Cardinals, Where Have You Gone? Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2005. pp. 162, 163

7 Ibid.

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