SABR

Johnny Broaca

This article was written by Jack Zerby.

At age 24, Johnny Broaca had seemingly limitless potential. His multiple athletic skills and academic prowess had lifted him from first-generation American working-class beginnings through a prestigious preparatory school to a Yale degree and a vital spot on the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees’ pitching staff. But a defiant, self-destructive temperament, more than a year voluntarily absent from baseball after walking out on his team, and fallout from a marriage that was over almost before it began left him hanging on as a marginal major leaguer only five years later. He was out of baseball by age 31 and by 36, was doing menial labor to minimize child support obligations and living, as he chose to do for the rest of his life, as a recluse.

John Joseph Broaca was born October 3, 1909, in Lawrence, Essex County, Massachusetts, a Merrimack River mill town about 30 miles north of Boston. He was the middle child of three born to Lithuanian immigrants John P. and Anna Broaca. Johnny’s father worked in a paper mill; his mother kept the Broaca apartment in an eight-family tenement in the Italian section of Lawrence.

Johnny grew up “playing baseball all of the time in my leisure and a lot of times when I should have been doing something else,” and at 12, was fascinated by an article in Boys’ Life magazine on the mechanics of pitching. “I studied that article harder than I studied my school lessons,” he recalled in a 1935 interview.

He was excellent academically at Lawrence High but had time to star in football, basketball, baseball, and track and won the Cregg Medal as the school’s outstanding student-athlete in 1928. Broaca finished his preparatory education with two years at Phillips Academy in nearby Andover. There, the right-hander concentrated on baseball and struck out 12 in a win over archrival Phillips Exeter Academy in his last start. Broaca credited both Mark Devlin, his coach at Lawrence High, and Phillips Andover coach Patsy Donovan, who had managed the Red Sox in the Deadball Era, with honing his skills.

Although his glasses, which he had worn since youth, gave him a somewhat owlish look on the mound, Broaca was a solid 5’11”, 190, and threw hard. He accepted a partial scholarship to Yale in 1930, lured by academics and the prospect of playing for coach Smoky Joe Wood, the former Red Sox standout. To supplement the scholarship and the minimal amounts his always-supportive family could contribute, Broaca took a job as a fraternity house waiter--possibly creating an inferiority complex that fueled insecurity and later anti-social behavior. “His family was poor compared to those of his classmates. That [job] alienated him from many of his teammates and classmates,” Bill Burt opined in his thorough 2010 North Andover (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune profile of Broaca written to remember the pitcher’s death 25 years earlier.

Broaca played freshman baseball at Yale in 1931 and quickly became the varsity ace in 1932, striking out 13 against Columbia in his second start as the Elis went 17-11. But he showed his first reported defiance of authority in April of his junior season, 1933, when he skipped practice for a week with a self-diagnosed sore arm. Wood suspended him briefly. Reinstated, Broaca complained of back and arm pain and refused to pitch when Wood tabbed him to start an early-May exhibition game in New Haven against a semi-pro team assembled by Yale baseball teammate and football legend-in-the-making Albie Booth.1 This time, Wood suspended Broaca for the season.

Major league scouts, including the Yankees’ Paul Krichell, had been monitoring Ivy League baseball and were well aware of the fireballing Broaca’s success. Broaca knew of the interest, promptly phoned Krichell to advise him of his availability, soon had a $3,000 Yankee contract, and left Yale. He joined the Yanks briefly in June but with Harvard product Charlie Devens already on the roster and better seasoned, the club assigned Broaca to their top farm team, the Newark Bears. There, after a look at the new arrival, manager Al Mamaux compared the Ivies: “Broaca is twice as good as Devens, and another year will prove it.”

This was prescient--Broaca spun a 7-2 record with a 2.04 ERA in 10 games over the rest of the Newark season and never again played in the minors.2

The bespectacled right-hander again showed his belligerence when he clashed with Yankee manager Joe McCarthy over his presence at spring training in 1934. In signing with the Yankees after being banished from the Yale baseball team as a junior, Broaca had interrupted his academic progress. But he had returned to classes in New Haven after the 1933 Newark season, was close to graduation as an English major, and wanted to complete his studies without another hiatus. Yankee management wanted ballplayers, not college students. Broaca stubbornly persisted, stayed at Yale, and missed all of what would have been his first spring training. He did, however, make it to Yankee Stadium for a weekend workout early in the season, prompting none other than Columbia product Lou Gehrig to assure McCarthy that Broaca was indeed ready for the major leagues.

Broaca got his Yale B.A. in English in the spring of 1934 and reported to the Yankees.3 On June 2 McCarthy gave him a start against the A’s in Philadelphia. He lasted only one-plus inning in his debut, yielding five runs, four earned, on five hits, a walk and a hit batsman. He escaped without a loss when New York rallied to win, 9-8. He performed much better a week later in Yankee Stadium as he drew another start against Philadelphia and tossed a complete-game three-hitter, although he absorbed a 4-2 loss.

Impressed, McCarthy started Broaca five days later against St. Louis, another of the 1934 American League’s lesser lights. He continued his good work, notching a one-hit shutout. Six walks somewhat marred the effort, but the rookie had picked up his first major league win and was on his way to a 12-9 record as the AL runner-up Yankees’ No. 3 starter behind future Hall of Famers Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing.

Broaca used his first spring training, in 1935, to grouse about perceived slights when he bristled to reporters that Boston’s bedraggled Braves, under owner Judge Emil Fuchs and manager Bill McKechnie, had once refused to give him, an outstanding local prospect, a tryout despite his having “begged” for it. “A player, like a prophet, is without honor in his own country,” the English major lectured writers later in the summer when he raised the point again.

But at least Broaca was off campus and in camp this time. McCarthy liked what he saw, and predicted 18 wins for the now-25-year-old. “That does not seem too optimistic a prediction,” noted New York World Telegram writer Dan Daniel, stringing for The Sporting News. Citing Broaca’s 4-0 win against the Red Sox in his first start on April 18, Daniel observed, “the old-young man [was] cool and his control was splendid.”

Indeed, Broaca sailed through the season, falling only slightly short of McCarthy’s prediction at 15-7, beating every other American League club in the process, and failing to reach at least .500, at 1-2, against only the pennant-and-Series-winning Detroit Tigers. Broaca lowered his ERA from 4.16 in 1934 to 3.58, the best he would ever post, and, with 201 innings worked was once again the Yankees’ No. 3 starter behind Gomez and Ruffing, although he won more games than Gomez. He pulled in a share of New York’s second-place AL money, augmenting his $5,000 salary.4

Despite the all-around athletic ability Broaca showed at Lawrence High, Phillips Andover, and even Yale, where he was a heavyweight boxer of some repute, he was a notoriously bad hitter. He hit .030 in his rookie season, 1934, and turned in his best average, a pitiful .150, the next year. Over five seasons in the majors he struck out 119 times in 277 plate appearances, with 10 walks and 13 sacrifices. All 23 of his hits were singles. Typical of Broaca’s worldview, attitude seems to have played as much a part here as any ineptitude--he took batting practice reluctantly if at all, preferring to rest in the clubhouse and was loath to take the bat off his shoulder in game at-bats. “There was [a] game,” John Carmichael reminisced in the February 3, 1973, Sporting News, recalling abysmal pitcher hitting as the American League prepared to use a designated hitter for the first time that season, “when Johnny stood there with the stick on his shoulder and took two straight strikes. When the third toss came by, he turned and walked back to the bench. As he sat down, he looked up and saw umpire Bill Summers standing in front of him. ‘I’m sorry, Johnny,’ said Bill, ‘but you’ll have to come back. That was ball one!’”

The Yankees cruised to the 1936 American League pennant by 19½ games over second-place Detroit. Broaca had received a 60 percent raise to $8,000 and was once again firmly in McCarthy’s starting pitcher mix. But newly-acquired Monte Pearson’s stellar season pushed Broaca to No. 4 in the rotation and he was used ten times in relief. He won 12, lost 7, and pitched a career-high 206 innings, but his ERA jumped to 4.24. As deep into the season as August 22, Broaca beat the Red Sox 9-6 with a 13-inning complete game and was never more than seven days between appearances, but his last start, on September 27 at Washington, was ominous. Reminiscent of his debut start two seasons before, he retired only six of the 14 batters he faced, gave up five runs, and avoided a loss only when the Yankees forged a tie before falling, 10-5.

Before that start, Dan Daniel had speculated in the September 17 Sporting News that Broaca lined up, behind Ruffing, Pearson, and Bump Hadley, as the Yankees’ fourth starter in the upcoming “Subway Series” with the Giants.5 He was on the Series roster, but didn’t pitch in any of the six games the Yankees needed to dispatch their cross-town opponents. Only six Yankee pitchers appeared: Ruffing got two starts and Hadley and Pearson one each, while Lefty Gomez, used more lightly than usual late in the season, stepped up with two starts, winning Game 2 and the clinching Game 6. Pat Malone and Johnny Murphy pitched a total of 7-2/3 innings in relief as Broaca sat, disappointing Yale alums hoping for the first World Series appearance by an Eli grad.

The 1936-37 offseason proved pivotal for Johnny Broaca--dramatically impacting both his life and baseball future. He had been engaged about a year earlier, on January 8, 1936, to Cordelia France Ireland, 22, of Orleans, Massachusetts, a graduate of Bridgewater Teachers College.6 She and Johnny had met while Broaca spent part of his Yale summers pitching for Orleans in the Cape Cod League. The January 16, 1936, Sporting News reported the engagement noting, “The wedding will take place in the spring.” Within a month, however, the same paper reported, “John has postponed the nuptials until after the World’s Series. The Yankee front office denies that it induced John to delay, but gossips say [general manager Ed] Barrow scared Broaca by shooting him financial bulletins denying two can live as cheaply as one.”

The wedding was postponed until October 22, 1936. Broaca’s $6,430 World Series share allowed Cordelia to accompany him to 1937 spring training.

Although events within the year would shatter the image, all appeared well for the newlyweds as they took in the St. Petersburg sunshine. The ugly start at Washington the past September was a seemingly distant memory as Broaca earned reinstatement to McCarthy’s 1937 rotation. He started the Yankees’ fourth game of the season at home against Philadelphia on April 26 and got a complete game win, 7-1, although he allowed 13 baserunners on six hits and seven walks. Ten hits and four walks followed in another complete game on May 2, but this time Broaca lost to Boston, 5-4. McCarthy let him sit for 17 days before a May 20 start against the White Sox in which he gave up 13 hits and three runs over the full nine. Those were enough to beat the Yankees, 3-1, as Broaca’s record dropped to 1-2.

Broaca’s decline continued through three more losing starts. He failed to get out of the second inning at Boston on May 31, and after the right-hander was shelled through five-plus in Chicago on June 8, McCarthy had seen enough. Broaca’s future with the Yankees was “shrouded in doubt,” the July 1, 1937, Sporting News noted. “The Yankees turned down some good offers for him before June 15. But if those offers were made again, it is likely one of them would be accepted.” McCarthy didn’t use Broaca again until more than a month later, summoning him to mop up in a 14-7 loss in Detroit on July 16. Dan Daniel, stringing in the July 22 Sporting News, provided the grim overview. “Johnny Broaca finished the game and in the eighth got about as unmerciful a shellacking as a Yankee hurler has been forced to undergo in some time.”7

The loss was hardly devastating to the Yankees, 49-23 and still leading the American League by 6½ games as they moved on to Cleveland. Broaca, though, characterized as “among the oddest men in baseball . . . bizarre . . .” in Veronica Gomez’s and Lawrence Goldstone’s 2012 biography of Ms. Gomez’s father Lefty, apparently thought himself above “taking one for the team” and didn’t report to Municipal Stadium for a team workout on July 18.

He had “jumped,” taken “French leave” in the jargon of the day, without a word to McCarthy or teammates. Daniel, again stringing in The Sporting News, ascribed Broaca’s action to the Detroit debacle; other reports were that Broaca, reminiscent of his Yale self-diagnosis, had been complaining of shoulder pain he attributed to calcium deposits. Later events indicated that Broaca was an especially immature and self-centered husband and his new marriage was already crumbling, which may well have been a factor.

Whatever the reason, McCarthy cut no slack. He immediately fined Broaca $250 and suspended him, and, when a reporter suggested that the walk-away might cost Broaca a World Series cut, McCarthy was quick to reply. “Might!” barked Joe, “He’s lost that already!”

Not that Broaca’s teammates of the day before were bothered. “Moody and aloof, he has few close friends among the players and his departure was greeted with marked indifference,” the New York Herald Tribune reported.

Unexplained short-term player absences were rare but had always been a part of baseball. But when Broaca failed to reappear in a few days, reporters started to look for him. Ominously, he wasn’t at home on the Cape with Cordelia, who was only two months away from giving birth to their child. He made no contact with the Yankees and was seen only sporadically at his parents’ home in Lawrence through the summer before he finally surfaced--to defend Cordelia’s divorce suit filed September 30, 1937, in Barnstable, Massachusetts.

Cordelia had delivered the couple’s son on August 20, and included requests for child support and alimony in her divorce action, brought on the grounds of “cruel and abusive” treatment.8 States would not begin to sanction no-fault divorce for several more decades, and in 1937, women seeking severance of their marriages faced the prospect of daunting public trials should their defendant-husbands elect to contest.

Broaca did, essentially on the issues of child support and alimony, so Cordelia was forced to air the couple’s troubles in open court in front of attentive sportswriters developing the “Broaca as fugitive” angle to the hilt. She testified of physical abuse beginning less than a month after the wedding, Broaca’s disgust at her announcement of pregnancy, his “commands” in January 1937 that she “get rid of the baby,” threats to cut her throat or shoot her or himself before he would pay her a cent, Broaca’s refusal to buy sufficient coal to heat the couple’s home during the 1936-37 winter, banishments into the snow, and Broaca’s absolute control of the couple’s finances to the point that she lacked adequate winter clothing.

Broaca tepidly denied the allegations of abuse, but reports of his testimony center primarily on finances. He contended that if there had been insufficient funds for coal or clothing, it was only because he was “easy come, easy go,” and “spent a flock of money on a flock of people” at lavish New York nightclub parties. “I was always good to my folks,” too, he added.

The court granted Cordelia a divorce on December 23, 1937, awarded her custody, set combined weekly alimony and child support at $18, and assessed $200 counsel fees against Broaca. With Broaca regularly in arrears, Cordelia found it necessary to have him court-summoned periodically to bring his payments up to date. While the Yankees, without Broaca since mid-July, had gone on to comfortably win the 1937 American League pennant and take a second consecutive World Series from the Giants, they faced a dilemma of sorts. Although waggish sportswriter Damon Runyon had tabbed Broaca “the first fugitive from a World’s Series,” the pitcher had contributed to an extent before he walked away from the pennant-bound club. Suspended, Broaca himself wasn’t eligible to receive whatever largess the Yankees might elect to bestow, so the team, obviously aware from newspaper coverage that his estranged wife had recently had a child, graciously paid her a partial-share $1,000 from their Series cut.9 Broaca raised the point two months later in the divorce proceedings, accusing his wife of collusion with the Yankees.10

Out of hiding after the divorce, Broaca spent the winter-spring of 1937-38 flirting with a heavyweight-boxing career, working out with the Haverhill (Massachusetts) High School baseball team, and pontificating about the Yankees through the press. “It would be easy to trade me. I would insist that that the Yankees pay me some of the money involved in the deal.”11

Obviously written off by the Yankees, still suspended and ineligible, Broaca dropped out of the news through the summer of 1938. He, rather than the Yankees, applied for reinstatement, which Commissioner Kenesaw Landis granted in early November. By virtue of baseball’s reserve clause, Broaca was active Yankee property again for the first time in 17 months, but the team wanted nothing to do with him, not even for assignment to the minors. Instead, they placed Broaca on waivers. The Cleveland Indians claimed him for the $7,500 waiver price on November 19, 1938.

Although he hadn’t pitched in a year-and-a-half, Broaca, still only 29, conducted a brief holdout with his new club before signing for $8,000--as much as his last reported Yankee contract. Whatever role Broaca might have seen for himself with the Indians, he started only two games and appeared in 20 others. He logged only 46 innings and managed a 4-2 record despite walking 28 against 13 strikeouts and a 4.70 ERA. Again, Broaca was aloof from teammates. “He was a little bit strange, a little weird at times, hard to figure. He sort of kept to himself,” Bob Feller remembered.

Ignoring his ineffectiveness and marginal role on the team, Broaca refused a $6,000 contract from the Indians for 1940, reminding writers that he was still a young pitcher and his best seasons were yet ahead. Unsigned, he went to spring training and pitched batting practice. On April 15 the Indians assigned his rights to Jersey City of the International League, but Broaca refused to report. Cleveland suspended him until June 6, when he was reinstated for a ballplayer’s death knell: “the purpose of unconditional release.”

Despite his erstwhile promise and a 44-29 record over 86 starts in 674 innings of major league work spanning parts of five seasons, Broaca was finished. Nothing came of his announced plans to play in a New England independent league, and by August 1941 he was pitching once or twice a week for the Caseys of the sandlot Boston Park League.

The World War II draft took him in 1943. Broaca’s age and eyesight kept him from overseas service; he pitched for the Fort Rosencrans Army Camp team in San Diego.

He was discharged in September 1945 and went back to Lawrence.

There, according to Bill Burt, “he basically lived the life of a recluse.” He made no attempt to use his Yale degree to enhance his ability to support Cordelia and his young son. Instead, he joined Local 175 and did the most menial of work--moving bricks, mixing mortar, cleanup, and ditch-digging--on construction sites, quickly establishing “an unwritten rule” with his co-workers. That rule was, “Don’t ask Broaca about baseball.”

Broaca’s niece, Madeline Varitimos, grew up in Lawrence and told Burt that although her uncle had an automobile, he walked everywhere, always alone. She also recalled that Broaca spent significant time watching youth baseball and adult softball at Lawrence’s Hayden-Schofield field. “He would always sit in the same spot. It was over by the third base side of the stands. He would just sit there quietly and watch. He was always alone.”

Interviewed in August 2013, Varitimos added, “He was Lithuanian.” She explained this to mean that those of Lithuanian heritage tend to be “either very family oriented . . . or not. My uncle wasn’t. He was a very private person and just had a different kind of temperament.”

Broaca was found dead of a heart attack on the floor of his apartment in Lawrence on May 16, 1985. He was 75.12

The niece told Burt she and her father elected not to contact Peter Broaca until after the funeral. When Peter met with them, he said, “It was a little strange. The fact is, he never tried to get a hold of me. I only lived in Boston, the South End. Maybe at some point I could have reached out to him. It just never happened.”

 

Sources

Veronica Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone, Lefty, An American Odyssey (New York: Ballantine Books, 2012), 202.

John Broaca with Dave Milliken, “Baseball Ambitions,” Boys’ Life, August 1935.

Bill Burt, “The Tragedy of Johnny Broaca,” North Andover (MA) Sunday Eagle-Tribune, May 16, 2010.

Ken Tingley, “World Series Fugitive Tops Baseball Disappearing Acts,” Oneonta (NY) Star, July 31, 1985.

New York Daily Mirror, October 14, 1937.

New York Daily News, October 1, 1937.

New York Herald Tribune, July 20, 1937.

New York Journal-American, December 13, 1937.

New York Times, April 16, 1940.

New York World Telegram, Various issues, May 3, 1933, through February 28, 1939.

The Sporting News, June 15, 1933, April 4, 1935, July 1, 1937, February 3, 1973, July 1, 1985.

Yale Daily News, October 27, 1999.

Baseball-Almanac.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org

Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY, Excerpts from Johnny Broaca file; Acknowledgment: Gabriel Schechter, SABR.

Yale University Alumni Records Archives, New Haven, CT.

Yale University Athletic Department - Sports Publicity, New Haven, CT; Acknowledgment: Sam Rubin.

Author’s telephone interview with Madeline Varitimos, August 7, 2013.

 

Notes

1 Later that year, Broaca, now salaried Yankee property and on the roster of the Newark Bears, “showed no awkwardness about going to the mound against Booth’s New Haven Chevies” in an exhibition game. He pitched a complete game and won, 13-5. New York World Telegram, July 18, 1933.

2 Conversely, Devens managed only a 5-3 record in 82 major league innings over 1932-34, and was out of baseball by 1935.

3 At one point, Broaca, considered an aloof loner by teammates and sometimes the object of their practical jokes, upset Lefty Gomez by calling him “Goofy.” Asked why he wasn’t bothered when other Yankees, including Pat Malone, himself a Juniata College man, also called him “Goofy,” Gomez replied, “Malone didn’t go to Yale.” Bill James, New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2003).

4 Adjusted for inflation to current dollars, Broaca’s $5,000 salary would be roughly $82,550 in 2013. In 1935 the average wage was $1,600 and the price of an average new car was $625. ThePeopleHistory.com (Article on 1935 prices).

5 The 1936 matchup was the first “Subway Series” since 1923.

6 The school, in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, is now Bridgewater State University, with an enrollment in excess of 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students. “Bridgewater State University,” U.S. News and World Report, 2011.

7 Broaca’s numbers that day were 11 batters faced in 1-2/3 innings, 6 hits, and 5 runs, all earned. The hits included home runs by Rudy York and opposing pitcher Eldon Auker.

8 The son, consistently identified as “John Jr.” throughout coverage of the divorce and subsequent court proceedings, is identified as “Peter Broaca” in the pitcher’s obituary and later profiles.

9 “This was the first time a player’s wife was ever given a share by direct vote of a team.” New York Daily Mirror, October 14, 1937. The Runyon “fugitive” quote also appears in this item.

10 A few brief internet profiles of and blogs mentioning Broaca make unsubstantiated statements that Cordelia Broaca had “flings” with one or more of Broaca’s teammates. Madeline Varitimos, Broaca’s niece, discounts these statements as rumors and remembers her mother describing Cordelia as “a wonderful woman and a lovely person.” Had there been truth to the statements, Broaca would have undoubtedly used them in his defense in the divorce proceedings.

11 Broaca had boxed with some success at Yale. Although he trained as a heavyweight in early 1938, and G. M. Ed Barrow wished him well as a boxer while dismissing any chance Broaca had for a future with the Yankees, there are no reports Broaca ever had a professional fight. Sid Mercer, “Broaca in Training For Career in Ring,” New York Journal-American, January 26, 1938.

12 Madeline Varitimos and her father organized and removed Broaca’s personal effects from the apartment. She remembers “a stack of cancelled checks from a doctor in New York who had worked on [my uncle’s] arm. He had kept them all those years.” They also found Broaca’s 1936 World Series ring, which they delivered to Peter Broaca.

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