SABR

Boots Poffenberger

This article was written by Austin Gisriel.

He pitched only 267⅓ innings in parts of three major league seasons, but Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger was the character in all of baseball in his day—and his day included such notable characters as Dizzy Dean and Van Lingle Mungo. While amassing a modest 16-12 career record, the right-hander holds the lifetime mark for funny stories per innings pitched. Writing a retrospective on Boots in the early 1970s, Detroit Free Press reporter Joe Falls was astounded to find 52 clippings on Boots in the paper’s files, or about 1.5 per week for the nine total months that Boots spent with the Tigers.1

To his managers and the sportswriters who covered him, he was the proverbial pitcher with the million-dollar arm and 10-cent head. Or more accurately, a man's arm with a boy's brain. The former got him to the Detroit Tigers in 1937 at the age of 21. The latter kept him in trouble for the rest of his career. Boots not only marched to the beat of a different drummer; he frequently heard an entirely different band. Indeed, he allegedly missed one game because he had been out late in a Chicago nightclub, having appointed himself conductor of the house orchestra.

As exasperated as his managers and coaches must have been, no one ever seemed to actually get mad at Boots. He was honest and never made excuses for himself. He was a true innocent. If that boyish brain got him in trouble, it also attracted genuine affection from almost everyone who knew him. More than one sportswriter compared Boots to another well-known American boy, Huckleberry Finn.

Boots did not spend his boyhood along the Mississippi, but he did grow up along the Potomac in Williamsport, Maryland, some eight miles south of Hagerstown and 75 miles upstream from Washington, D. C. His mother, Sophia, had Boots when she was 19 and his sister, Maxine, one year later. Their father, Charles, left Sophia when Boots was four years old; by all accounts Boots raised himself. Named for his grandfather who captained a boat on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which paralleled the Potomac, Boots fished and hunted and grew up largely unsupervised in the countryside that surrounded the small Western Maryland town. Time and again, sportswriters would excuse Boots’ behavior as the result of his upbringing, or lack thereof.

Boots played on the Williamsport Wildcats town team and showed enough promise that Billy Doyle, a scout for the Detroit Tigers, signed him to a professional contract in 1934. Boots—he never went by his given name—was signed as an outfielder, but pitched that first season at Charleroi, Pennsylvania in the Class D Penn State Association. The next year at Fieldale, a Class D Bi-State League team, Boots notched a .288 batting average and gained a reputation as an excellent fielder, but when he pitched and defeated Mt. Airy in both ends of a twin bill, he was destined for the pitching mound. The following year at Charleston, West Virginia, in the Class C Mid-Atlantic League, he gained a reputation as an eccentric and a playboy.

By 1937, Boots was playing for Beaumont in the Texas League. His record stood at 9-2 in June when the Detroit Tigers, who were getting desperate for pitching when Schoolboy Rowe went down with an arm injury, called him up. They had intended to bring up Boots’s teammate, Stan Corbett, a 25-year-old right-hander, but Corbett was on the “casualty list,” and so Boots was summoned instead.2

Upon his arrival in Detroit in early June, Cletus Elwood Poffenberger declared to his teammates, "Just call me 'Boots' and on time for meals. I'm here to stay. I am just a young punk from a small town and I don't know what the hell it is all about, but boy I can blow that apple in there and when I get smartened up a bit, I'll give those batters plenty to worry about."3

It's hard to imagine this declaration being well-received. This was a time when brash rookies were held in contempt, no doubt even more so in a clubhouse that included future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and player-manager Mickey Cochrane. (Cochrane was not there when Boots arrived, having suffered a severe beaning by Bump Hadley in Yankee Stadium on May 25. The resulting fractured skull ultimately ended his playing career. Coach Del Baker was managing in Cochrane's absence.)

Regardless of what the Tiger veterans might have thought of the brash rookie, they must have been impressed when, in his first major league appearance on June 11, Boots defeated future Hall of Famer and fellow Marylander, Lefty Grove.

The Tigers already trailed the Boston Red Sox 4-2 with only one out in the third and the bases loaded, when Del Baker summoned Boots from the bullpen to relieve starter George Gill, who had made his own major league debut only the month before. Boots induced a double play grounder off the bat of catcher Gene Desautels to get out of the inning, and the Tigers took the lead in their half of the third, scoring three runs. Boots held Boston to only one more tally while pitching the final 6 2/3 innings, and Detroit won 6-5. Sporting News columnist Richard Farrington noted the victory in his column, adding that Poffenberger "had never seen a major league park before joining the Tigers a few days before."4

The Detroit press loved Boots's irrepressible, boyish nature, which meant that he was always good for a quote, often a colorful one. Almost immediately the scribes began calling him "The Baron," because "Cletus Elwood Poffenberger" sounded like a royal moniker as far as they were concerned.

He was certainly regarded as royalty back in Williamsport. Not only were his neighbors and former amateur teammates proud of his victory; word had begun to circulate that Boots would stop off in his hometown when the Tigers traveled from Detroit to Washington to play the Senators. A busload of friends traveled to Griffith Stadium where they got to see Boots win again in relief, this time in a 15-innng, 9-8 defeat of the Senators.

Boots returned to Williamsport after that game, and when it rained all the next day he remained at home, not leaving until the following morning. According to an interview Boots gave in 1940, he neglected to inform Del Baker that he was staying the extra day. He joined the team in Philadelphia, but the Tigers gave Boots “a fit, said it was against the rules. I didn’t know any better.”5 This claim was certainly conceivable, and in any case the Tigers imposed no punishment. In retrospect they might have wished they had, for this would hardly be the last time that Boots would operate on his own schedule.

Making his first start on July 1, his twenty-second birthday, Boots suffered his first poor outing, a 15-8 shellacking at the hands of the White Sox in Chicago. Boots didn’t make it out of the third inning while giving up four runs. Perhaps, however, Boots was a bit distracted as he was about to take on another kind of major league responsibility. The Baron had announced that he was getting married to Miss Josephine Brown of Charleston, West Virginia, whom he had met the year before while pitching there. At 5'2" and less than 100 pounds, Jo was a brown-eyed, brown-haired bride who would not turn 20 until October 17 of that year. Jo was not even a baseball fan until she met Boots.6 It was a sudden decision, although decision may be too strong a word to use in the case of Boots Poffenberger. As the future would amply demonstrate, Boots acted as he saw fit at any given moment.

Whatever nervousness Boots might have had about getting married, it certainly did not surface the day before the ceremony, when he faced future Hall of Famer Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians in Detroit. Feller was coming off a sensational rookie season, but was having arm trouble in his sophomore year. Boots went the route in a 3-2 victory.

The following day, Boots and Jo were married at a friend's house in Flat Rock, Michigan, some 25 miles south of Detroit.

In late July, Boots' friends and neighbors in Williamsport decided to honor him with a "Boots Poffenberger Day" at Griffith Stadium when the Tigers came to play the Senators in early August. The committee chose Sunday, August 8—the three-year anniversary of Boots' professional debut with Charleroi—and sold tickets for $1.25 which was $.15 more than the actual price printed on the ticket. The committee explained that the extra money would "go toward a suitable and appropriate gift for Poffenberger to be presented on that day."7

Jo was presented a large basket of flowers as well and said, “I looked out for [Boots] last year and here I am this year—looking out for him more than ever."8

"Looking out for Boots," however, was a full-time occupation. Bud Shaver, a writer with the Detroit Times, penned a column on Poffenberger's fastball as well as his reputation for eccentricity. The headline read in part, "Poffenberger Has It . . . He's Three-Ring Circus."

Shaver ended the column by listing Boots' peculiar habits, which included "talks in his sleep, carries good luck charms all over his person, won't go near telephones, sleeps through team meetings, talks with bleacher fans and goes on buying sprees."9 This list of eccentricities may sound like the result of a sports writer's imagination, but it sounded accurate to Boots’ long-time friend Laco Anderson, particularly concerning the strangest habit on the list. “I never ever seen him use a telephone,” says Anderson.10

Jerry Knode, Boots’s stepson, observed the same thing. “He’d let it ring or he’d just get up and walk out. I have no idea [why he did that]. Boots was Boots.” The Tigers were beginning to find out what that meant.11

So was Jo. By September she had filed for divorce, but the couple made up at some point during the off-season. In fact, Jo acted as Boots’ agent when General Mills came calling, looking to use Boots in a Wheaties ad. A Wheaties representative initially offered $100, the same fee that Bob Feller received. Jo countered with the fact that Feller was hurt half the year, and she received an additional $50.12 The copy reads, “Spectacular young Tiger pitcher, Boots Poffenberger, is out to beat his 1937 record. The ‘Baron’ is one of a whole flock of Wheaties-eating Bengals. He says, ‘You'd be surprised how many Tigers put 'em away every morning!’ ”

However, when called upon to do so by the Wheaties folks on live radio one day during the season, Boots didn’t say so. Jerry Knode tells the story:

The way I understood it, he come down there in Detroit [to the hotel lobby] and he was getting breakfast and it was live then; they didn’t have recordings. The Wheaties man paid him the night before and when he come down [he was] to tell ‘em he was going to have Wheaties for breakfast. When they asked him what he was going to have for breakfast he told ‘em “A beer and a steak!”

Boots denied this story to John Steadman in a 1967 interview, saying "Anybody who knows me knows that isn't true. I'd either be icing a case of beer in the bathtub or be out at a bar," but Jerry believes the story to be accurate.13 Articles throughout the scrapbooks that Jo kept reveal that Boots would admit to an adventure on one occasion and then deny it on another occasion.

Regardless, Boots was a highly regarded rookie after compiling a 10-5 record in 1937, but his eccentricities simply wouldn’t allow him to sustain his early success. He held out for more money for the 1938 season, apparently believing that he was strengthening his case when he declared in a blaring headline that appeared in The Sporting News of February 10, "Boots Poffenberger Decides to Be Good to Be Better: 'If I Can Win Ten Staying Up at Nights, What Can I Do in Shape?' He Asks."

By the end of May Boots’s record stood at 4-1, but the drinking and the night-life (lights weren’t installed at Briggs Stadium until 1948) were taking their toll. Mickey Cochrane, back at the helm for Detroit, imposed a curfew primarily because of Boots. Quite naturally Boots was the first to break it. Fining him and threatening him with demotion, Tiger management kept talking to their young pitcher, who would swear that this time he had reformed, only to return to his errant ways almost as soon as the conversation ended.

As Charles P. Ward of the Detroit Free Press wrote, Boots "will tell how he promised to be a better boy and how he stepped out of the office and promptly forgot the promise. Poffy is not to be blamed for forgetting. That is the kind of guy that Nature made him. Poffy didn't have any say in the matter."14

Finally, Boots was sent down to Toledo on August 2, where he went 8-3 and stayed out of trouble under manager Fred Haney. Recalled in September, Boots finished the 1938 season with a 6-7 mark.

Perhaps Boots never reformed because he truly never grasped the idea that he was irresponsible. He reported late and overweight to spring training in 1939. Listed at 5’10” and 178 pounds by baseball-reference.com, Boots weighed 200 pounds by late 1937, and he stayed around that weight for the rest of his life, even during his hitch in the Marine Corps. (His official Marine Corps height is listed as either 5’8” or 5’9”.)

As for being overweight, Boots had a very logical explanation. "Boots Poffenberger says he's overweight because the Tigers made him get up too early . . . Instead of letting him snooze, the Baron pointed out, they rolled him out at 8 a.m., and he had to eat breakfast, luncheon and dinner . . . By sleeping until 1 in the afternoon he would require only one meal."15

The Tigers had enough, and one day after farming out Boots to Toledo they sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers, appropriately enough on April 1, 1939. The national press took great delight in writing about baseball’s most eccentric player joining baseball’s goofiest team. Before they were the “Boys of Summer,” the Dodgers were the “Daffiness Boys.” The misfits were managed by Leo Durocher, who proclaimed that he could handle the notorious Mr. Poffenberger.

It didn't take very long for Mr. Poffenberger to irritate Mr. Durocher. Brooklyn's very first road trip of the season was a three-game set in Philadelphia over the weekend of April 21-23. The Dodgers were staying at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, which had a large clock on the wall behind the desk surrounded by smaller clocks telling the time around the world. According to Leo Durocher in his 1947 book, The Dodgers and Me, Boots arrived back at the hotel 30 minutes past the midnight curfew on Friday night, walking right past Brooklyn's skipper who was seated in the lobby. The next day Durocher confronted Boots who claimed that he had returned at 11:00.

"I was right there," growled Durocher, "and the clock in the lobby said 12:30."

"Maybe," shrugged Boots, "Maybe the clock you looked at said that. But one of them little clocks said 11:00 and that was the one I went by."16

When Boots jumped the team in Cincinnati on May 23 after totaling only five innings of work on the season, the Dodgers suspended him for one month, then sent him out to their top farm club in Montreal. Boots started for Montreal, never made it there, announced his retirement, and was ultimately placed on Commissioner Landis’s list of banned players at Brooklyn’s request.

Upon his banishment, Boots filed for unemployment from the Michigan Unemployment Commission, which would have granted him up to $16 a week for 13 weeks. On September 22, the Commission announced, “the papers are ready to be mailed”; however, they couldn’t find Boots. The Baron never cared about money even when it was being handed to him for not having a job.17

Realizing that Boots still had value, however, the Dodgers sought his reinstatement to organized baseball. It was granted, and the Dodgers sold Boots to the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association (SA). There, in 1940, Boots won 26 games during the regular season and three more in the playoffs in what turned out to be the calmest and most productive season of his career.

Managed by long-time minor league skipper Larry Gilbert, who had a reputation for handling flakes and troublemakers, Boots never missed a start and never got in trouble. The Vols would go 101-47, sweep Chattanooga in the first round of the SA playoffs, defeat Atlanta in the second round, and knock off Houston of the Texas League four games to one in the Dixie World Series.18

Everyone, most especially Boots, thought that his stellar record would ensure his return to the majors, but it was not to be. Not only did his reputation precede him, but so did the simple fact that he didn’t miss enough bats. His walks-and-hits-per-innings-pitched (WHIP) rate was 1.655 and he had a low strikeout rate. Accordingly, Boots returned to Nashville in 1941.

He was finding a nice groove when his season came undone. By his own admission Boots had returned to the bottle in order to battle the blues that came with not returning to the majors. Inebriated before an emergency start against Knoxville on June 24, Boots liberally cursed umpire Dutch Hoffman’s strike zone throughout the game. This was unusual behavior for Boots. By the fifth inning, Hoffman decided to tolerate no more and ejected the drunken Baron, who promptly nailed Hoffman with the baseball. Hoffman was uninjured as he warded off the ball with his balloon chest protector, but Boots’ prospects of ever returning to the majors were permanently damaged. Southern Association President Trammel Scott suspended Boots for 90 days and Larry Gilbert immediately released him.

Within a month, however, Boots was pitching for the Bona Allen Shoemakers of Buford, Georgia, one of the top semi-pro teams in the country. The Baron announced that he liked Buford and was content to play there for the foreseeable future. That future lasted approximately six weeks before Boots jumped the Shoemakers. On December 6, 1941, Nashville sold Poffenberger’s contract to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.

Posting nine wins and 10 losses for the Padres in 168 innings in 1942, Boots recorded an ERA of 3.86, which was slightly better than the league average. However the problem, as it had been in the past, was that he walked 80 batters, struck out only 40, and surrendered a runner and a half per inning. He was impressing no one.

Upon receiving his induction notice, Boots joined the Marines in April, 1943. Reporters wondered how baseball’s wild child would fare under Marine Corps discipline, but Boots did well in the service. Of course, he never completed boot camp, being assigned almost immediately to the Parris Island baseball team, one of the top service teams in the country. Reassigned to the Fleet Marine Force team in Hawaii in early 1945, Boots finished out the war pitching in paradise.

Returning to San Diego in 1946, Boots was not the only Padre whom new manager Pepper Martin rubbed the wrong way, but he was the only Padre to jump the team. In keeping with his well-established pattern, Boots felt bad and apologized the next day, but the Padres refused to take him back. The Baron signed with the Hagerstown Owls of the Class B Interstate League for the 1947 season. Hagerstown was only eight miles up the road from his home in Williamsport, but that didn’t stop Boots from jumping the Owls at the end of June.

Having endured plenty from her man-child husband, Jo jumped Team Poffenberger after 10 years of marriage and obtained a divorce.

Boots returned to the Owls for the final three weeks of the 1948 season. Always good with the bat, he was used mainly as a pinch-hitter. Now 34, Boots gave it one more try in 1949, but a sore arm in the spring limited his innings and he retired in May.

Boots played for and managed the Williamsport Wildcats while working sporadically at the Fairchild Aircraft plant in Hagerstown. He married the former Hanna Knode in 1959 and went to work in the new Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown in 1960 as a heat treater. Boots continued to hunt and fish and appear on sports writers’ lists of baseball’s most colorful characters.

The Baron lived to the age of 84, which, given his drinking, may be the most remarkable statistic of his remarkable life. By the summer of 1999, he had developed prostate cancer, a disease that would take his life on September 1. He is still a revered figure in Williamsport, where those who knew him are quick to share their Boots Poffenberger stories.

For his part, Boots never expressed regret about the career that might have been. His cousin, Jack Rupp, stated:

You know I asked him one time, “Do you ever regret what you did?” and he said, “Nope, I have no regrets. You gotta figure where I was at. Born and raised in Williamsport; I didn’t have nothing. I didn’t have a nickel! This guy got me, put me on a train, got me a suit of clothes, met me up there, bought me more clothes, and gave me $600. I was the King of Detroit for a while! No, no regrets.”19

 

Notes

1 Joe Falls, “Legend of Boots Not Exaggerated” and “‘Joe, Joe, It’s Me—Boots Poffenberger!’” Detroit Free Press undated clipping, but from 1972 or 1973 during the Mack Truck Convention in Detroit, attended by Boots.

2 Leo Macdonnel, “Poffenberger Slated to Go to Minors,” Detroit Times, July 21, 1938. Corbett never did play in the major leagues.

3 Charles P. Ward, Detroit Free Press, March 30, 1938.

4 Richard Farrington, “Fanning With Farrington,” The Sporting News, June 17, 1937.

5 Fred Russell, “Sideline Sidelights: Poffenberger’s Side of It,” dateline March 20, 1940.

6 Unattributed, “Bride’s Prophecy Made On Saturday At Swimming Pool Proves To Be Valid,” undated clipping in one of Jo’s scrapbooks.

7 “‘Poffenberger Day’ Fixed For Sunday, Aug. 8, In Washington,” Daily Mail, July 22, 1937.

8 Unattributed, “Bride’s Prophecy Made On Saturday At Swimming Pool Proves To Be Valid,” clipping in one of Jo’s scrapbooks.

9 Bud Shaver, “Shavings--” Detroit Times, undated.

10 Personal interview with Laco Anderson of Williamsport, MD, August 10, 2013.

11 Personal interview with Jerry Knode of Williamsport, MD, August 11, 2013.

12 Charles P. Ward, “Ward to the Wise,” Detroit Free Press, undated.

13 John Steadman, “In character-rich game, Poffenberger was a jewel,” http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1999-09-05/sports/9909040420_1_poffenberger-gehringer-cochrane, September 5, 1999.

14 Charles P. Ward, Detroit Free Press, undated, but sometime around July 24, 1938.

15 Unattributed, undated in one of Jo’s scrapbooks.

16 Leo Durocher, The Dodgers and Me (Chicago: Ziff Davis Publishing, Co., 1948) p 43-44.

17 Associated Press, “Cletus Poffenberger Again Among Missing,” Hartford Courant, September 23, 1939.

18 The 1940 Vols would be hailed by Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright as the 47th greatest minor league team of all time. http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=47

19 Personal interview with Jack Rupp of Williamsport, MD, August 21, 2013.

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