SABR

Butch Wensloff

This article was written by Christine Putnam.

He played in only forty-one games in his Major League career, but took home two World Series rings. During his ten years playing professional baseball, he earned such nicknames as Iron Man, Buster, and Butch. No matter what they called Charley Wensloff, one thing was certain: He knew how to pitch. His fastball, curve, and knuckleball baffled some of the best hitters in the game. He pitched through illnesses and injuries from the scorching Texas heat of his first professional season to the high pressure of taking the mound at Yankee Stadium.

Wensloff broke into the majors under the critical eye of manager Joe McCarthy. After World War II he returned from military service to play for Bucky Harris on a team destined for the fall classic. On the Yankees he was surrounded by players destined for the Hall of Fame. And yet, Wensloff never felt intimidated.

Charles William Wensloff was born on December 3, 1915, in Sausalito, California. He was the first child of Charles William Wensloff, Sr. and his wife, Lucy (Machado) Wensloff. Although the family grew to include two more sons, the elder Charles did not stick around long. By the time his namesake was six years old, Charles Sr. left the family and soon lost touch with his sons. His mother remarried, but Wensloff quit school after his freshman year of high school and took various jobs to help his family. He pitched for local semipro teams, where he developed a good fastball and a knuckleball.

In 1937, Wensloff was twenty-two years old, married, and starting his first season in professional baseball. The five-foot-eleven, 185-pound right-hander joined the El Paso Texans of the Class D Arizona-Texas League, where he found the intense heat of a Texas summer much different than the cool coastal climate of his native San Francisco Bay area. Most of his teammates were young and unmarried. Local sportswriters took a liking to the quiet youngster, who compiled a 17-10 record with a 4.67 ERA in 233 innings. Wensloff returned to Sausalito and continued to pitch on local teams through the winter.

In 1938 Wensloff moved up to the Joplin (Missouri) Miners in the Class C Western Association. The move was a fortuitous one, as Joplin was part of the New York Yankees farm system. Despite the opportunity, Wensloff began his career with the Yankees organization on a sour note. He wanted more money. For a while it seemed that his career would be derailed before it began. Eventually he signed a contract without a pay raise.

Wensloff joined the Joplin starting rotation and faced greater challenges than anything he had seen in the local semipros or Texas. He finished the 1938 season with only a 13-13 record, but a respectable 3.48 earned run average. He suffered through heat stroke and tonsillitis that caused him to miss several starts, yet he still made a few headlines. One, in the Joplin Globe of May 28, read: “Wensloff Pitches Route for Miners,” 1938. In that game, he struck out eleven Hutchinson, Kansas, batters on his way to the victory. He also earned a reputation as an ambitious, disciplined player. Despite his illnesses, he always returned to the mound stronger and better.

Wensloff remained with Joplin for the 1939 season, where he finished the season with a spectacular 26-4 record. During the off-season, he returned to Sausalito with his wife, the former Helen Swearingen, and their newborn son, Charles Glenn Wensloff, where he worked on a survey crew.

Wensloff’s work at Joplin earned him a promotion to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, one of the Yankees’ two top farm teams, for 1940. He was now closer than ever to achieving his dream of playing for a big league club.

When he reported for spring training, Blues coaches criticized the follow-through on his delivery to the plate. Wensloff did not say a word, but a sportswriter back in Joplin, Porter Wittick of the Joplin Globe, who continued to follow Wensloff’s career, wrote that the Blues “forgot that Charley’s forearm looks like a barrel, and his chest and shoulders are as solid as rock. And if they want to know more, Charley isn’t afraid of anything.”1

By the time he made his first start for Kansas City, in April 1940, he had solved the problems with his pitching mechanics, and took everyone by surprise with a dominating debut. “Charley Wensloff, pitching his first game in any sort of fast company, won for Kansas City Sunday and gave Columbus only two hits,” wrote a sportswriter for the Toledo Blade.2

Wensloff spent three seasons with Kansas City, from 1940 through 1942. He compiled a 49-26 record and demonstrated he had the ability and control to pitch in the big leagues. In 1942, he had a 21-10 record with twenty-five complete games. His fearlessness on the mound and readiness to pitch whenever he was needed earned him the nickname Iron Man.

The New York Yankees called him up for the 1943 season. Wensloff, spending his winter in Sausalito working at the docks in San Francisco Bay, wasted no time returning his signed contract to New York. At spring training, manager Joe McCarthy was quickly impressed with Wensloff. He told the press, “Wensloff has everything, including a well-controlled knuckler.”3 With so many star players in the military or doing war work, McCarthy figured that the rookie pitcher had a good chance to do well in 1943.

Wensloff made his Major League debut on May 2, 1943, against the Washington Senators at Washington. He pitched a complete game and gave up only seven hits but lost, 4–1. He started again on May 7, against the Philadelphia Athletics, and won, 6–2, allowing just six hits without a walk.

By the end of June, Wensloff had a 4-4 record despite a .248 ERA. “Wensloff is definitely a contender for the majors’ ‘hard luck’ championship this year,” wrote The Sporting News.4 His four losses were by scores of 4–1, 3–0, 3–2, and 5–3.

Despite his unlucky start, he earned a reputation as one of the best rookie pitchers in the American League. “Wensloff has more stuff than any other new pitcher in the major leagues,” wrote Dan Daniel in The Sporting News. “He is fast, has control, boasts a fine curve and mixes in a tough knuckler.”5 J.G.Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, agreed: “American Leaguers say Wensloff of the Yankees is the best new pitcher in the majors.”6

Wensloff also made a few rookie mistakes. In the sixth inning of a game on June 20, he disagreed with umpire Ernie Stewart’s strike zone. Wensloff threw his glove down on the mound and was ejected. On July 31, his third inning balk allowed the tying run to score in a game the Yankees would eventually lose, 7–6. Nevertheless, McCarthy relied on the rookie as his third starter in the rotation through the season and considered him as a potential starter for the World Series.

Wensloff pitched his first Major League shutout on September 29 against Chicago. By the end of the season, he had a 13-11 record and ranked third behind Spud Chandler and Hank Borowy in strikeouts by Yankees pitchers. But McCarthy reconsidered placing the rookie in his World Series rotation and to use him in relief. Wensloff spent the entire 1943 World Series warming up in the bullpen. He received his World Series share and ring, but he never threw a single pitch in the Yankees’ five-game Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. McCarthy later suggested that if the Series had gone to a sixth game, Wensloff would have started.

Wensloff was unhappy with the Yankees contract offer in 1944 and chose to hold out. Unable to come to terms, the Yankees and Wensloff agreed he should be placed on the voluntarily retired list. He spent the remainder of the war away from New York, but not baseball. In April 1945 the Yankees optioned the twenty-nine-year-old to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League so that he could play baseball and perform civilian war work. He pitched well in his limited appearances for the Padres, but the military draft ended his season. On July 2 he was inducted into the U.S. Army.

In 1946 World War II was over, but Wensloff was one of seven Yankees still in the military. He wasn’t discharged until mid-August, and though the Yankees wanted him to report immediately, Wensloff felt that he was not in shape for big league competition. Instead, he pitched for the San Francisco area Moffatt Mantecas through September.

Despite Wensloff’s refusal to join the team in 1946, new Yankees manager Bucky Harris told the press that he wanted the tough right-hander on his pitching staff in 1947. “Those who saw Charley before he went into the Army know that he is topflight big league,” Harris said.7 On December 31, 1946, Wensloff was placed on the Yankees’ active players list. He signed and returned his contract. Three years after the rookie watched the World Series from the bullpen, he returned for his sophomore season in the Bronx.

Wensloff was one of thirty-three Yankees chosen by Harris to take part in a 1947 series of fourteen spring training games in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Cuba. He started the spring in good form, but something happened to his arm when he threw a curveball in a game in Havana. A year later, a doctor said Wensloff told him that “he felt a sharp, tearing pain in the back of his right arm just above the elbow. . . . He continued to have aching pain in this region for the remainder of the 1947 season.”8 The pain in his arm kept him sidelined for the remainder of spring training and through the start of the season.

Wensloff finally made his 1947 debut on June 4, forty-five months after the end of his rookie season. Pitching in relief against the Detroit Tigers, he gave up three runs in four innings. His sore pitching arm limited his appearances, though there were occasional moments of brilliance. He earned his first two victories in July, during the Yankees’ nineteen-game winning streak from June 29 to July 17. On July 12 he beat the St. Louis Browns, 12–2, for his first victory of the season. He added another win four days later against Cleveland, 8–2. Wensloff’s win gave the Yankees their seventeenth straight victory and broke the club’s record of consecutive wins set by Miller Huggins’s Yankees in 1926.

Wensloff ended the season with a 3-1 record and a 2.61 ERA. But he pitched only 51 2/3 innings and had just one complete game. He did finally make a World Series appearance. He pitched the eighth and ninth innings of Game Six, allowing no hits or runs as the Yankees lost to the Dodgers, 8–6.

After a long winter, Wensloff felt his arm was healed enough for him to deserve a better contract from the Yankees for the 1948 season. He joined several teammates who held out for more money. As the other players signed their contracts and made their way to spring training in Florida, Wensloff remained unsigned at his home in California. When the Yankees continued to refuse his salary demands, he asked to be traded.

Few could understand why any player would give up the opportunity to be a Yankee. “There must be 50 or 60 hurlers in the league eager to be traded to the Bombers,” Dan Daniel wrote in The Sporting News, “but Wensloff wanted it the other way. Man bites dog.”9 The Yankees offered him to the New York Giants, but they weren’t interested. The Philadelphia Phillies agreed to take him in a conditional deal, but Wensloff refused to report, forcing the Phillies to return him. Finally, the Cleveland Indians picked him up for a sum just over the $10,000 waiver price.

Wensloff made his Cleveland Indians debut on May 4, 1948, in relief. He gave up a two-run home run in the tenth inning that gave the Philadelphia Athletics a victory over the Indians. It was the last time he took the mound as a Major Leaguer. The sore arm never healed. He could not pitch without pain. The Indians tried to return him to the Yankees, but it was too late. They sent him to the Mayo Clinic, but doctors advised him against surgery. “They said, ‘Go home,’ which he did,”

Helen Wensloff said years later, Dr. James Dickson of the Cleveland Clinic informed the Indians in a letter dated May 15, 1948: “I feel confident that he is never going to be able to do strenuous pitching.” Wensloff returned to his home in Sausalito. His Major League career was over, but he continued to pitch for local teams.

In 1949 local newspapers speculated that he might get that sore arm back in shape and return to the Major Leagues. But the arm never healed. The former big league pitcher worked at a variety of occupations including roofing and commercial fishing. He continued to play and manage local baseball teams. In 1969 he was inducted into the Marin County Athletic Hall of Fame for his work in establishing a Little League team near his Mill Valley home. Wensloff died in San Rafael, California, on February 18, 2001, at the age of eighty-five.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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