SABR

Rollie Stiles

This article was written by Matthew Clifford.

Most pitchers toiling for the St. Louis Browns in the 1930s merited little distinction. Rollie Stiles, who was with the club in 1930-31, at first glance seems to fall within that category. A losing career record, an ERA near 6, a WHIP near 2 call for oblivion. However, Stiles does rate distinction, if only for a particular achievement that gained importance with age. He was the last person living to strike out Babe Ruth in a major league game.

Rolland Mays Stiles was born in the small railroad town of Ratcliff, Arkansas, on November 17, 1906. The addition of train rails running through the scenic farmlands of Ratcliff added excitement and prosperity to a community of one hundred and fifty residents. Rolland’s father worked as a farmer while Mrs. Stiles produced six children, five boys and one girl, Rolland the youngest. His Scotch-English parents came to the Arkansas farmlands with high hopes for all their children. Baseball became a daily activity for young Rollie by the time he was five – he soon joined a local farm baseball team roster with his older brothers. The farm communities in northwest Arkansas created their own baseball teams and each would compete during the spring and summer months.

Stiles attended a small three-room schoolhouse. By the time Rolland reached high school, he had reached six-foot-one allowing him to lend his talents to the local basketball team. Horace Carpenter, a teacher at the high school, noticed the athletic capabilities Rollie displayed in basketball and baseball. Carpenter was a close family friend who insisted on taking talented Rollie with him to the state of Oklahoma to expose and develop the teen’s athletic skills. During an interview in 2006, Rollie recalled, “He [Carpenter] wanted me out there for basketball more than anything else.”1

Stiles’ parents released their son in 1925 to Carpenter, who took him to Helena, Oklahoma. He immediately enrolled at Helena High School to complete his senior year and continue his desires in the school’s athletic department – performing as a triple achiever on the baseball, basketball and football teams. Rollie obtained a college basketball scholarship prior to graduating from Helena High. After graduating, he moved to Durant, Oklahoma, to attend Southeastern State Teachers College, a university specifically designed with a two-year program that provided sophomores with lifetime teaching degrees. There he suited up with the Southeastern State Savages basketball team in the fall of 1926.

Stiles kept time available to enjoy his personal hobbies of hunting fowl and throwing a few pitches now and then. In the spring of 1927, Rollie took the mound for Southeastern State. That summer, fate brought Stiles to a county fair in Ada, Oklahoma, where he pitched in a baseball tournament. Before he left the fairgrounds, a talent scout for the Tulsa Oilers, a baseball team from the Class A Western League, approached the Rollie. The Oilers were a farm club of the American League St. Louis Browns.

Stiles signed a contract, dropped out of school and returned to Arkansas during winter break in 1927. “So when I went home for Christmas that year I told my parents I’d signed a baseball contact to play baseball with Tulsa Oklahoma”, explained Stiles in a 2006 interview. “That was the start of my career.”2 The twenty-one-year-old pitcher packed his bags and headed for Tulsa in the spring of 1928. Before Rollie could unpack, however, he received his walking papers, sent to the class C Muskogee Chiefs of the American Association.

Rollie met a baseball manager who would teach him how to pitch. His new boss, Otto Williams, took young Stiles under his wing. “My first year in professional ball I didn’t know a thing”, explained Stiles in a 1933 interview. “Otto taught me a lot about the game, most of all the ways to pitch – right and wrong.”3 Rollie completed spring training and Williams put him on the mound in April. Stiles ended up throwing 269 innings for the Chiefs in 1928.

He was reassigned to the Tulsa team of the Western League in September, joining the Oilers, who were near clinching the 1928 WL pennant. Tulsa manager Marty Berghammer immediately put Stiles to work in three games at the end of the season.

Rollie handled sixteen innings, credited with two wins for the Oilers before the team went on to the champion playoffs. He was not allowed to participate in the playoffs since he was not entitled to be on the post-season roster. However, Berghammer promised the rookie compensation since he had produced two wins, which helped win the pennant. “So the manager told me that I wasn’t eligible to be on the lineup in the playoff,” remembered Stiles in a 2006 interview. “The manager said, if we win, I’ll send you some money. Sure enough he did. He sent me a check when the season was over and the playoff was settled.”4

Rollie returned to the Oilers in 1929. During spring training, the rookie pitcher was tagged with the nickname “Lena” by his teammates. The story behind the epithet involves another baseball player from the major leagues named William Graves Styles. Styles was welcomed into the majors in 1919 as a catcher for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. In 1918, Styles was given the nickname “Lena” when he stepped to the plate during his time at the University of Alabama. During one collegiate contest in particular, he choked up on his pine bat with the bases full.

As Styles was preparing his swing, a local fan yelled, “Lean on it, Styles!” and William obliged by delivering a grand slam, gaining the nickname “Lena.” Sportswriter, Harold “Speed” Johnson explained Rollie’s nickname in the popular 1933 publication, “Who’s Who In Baseball.” Johnson explained, “He gained the nickname ‘Lena’ because there was an older catcher known by that title and the boys called him “Lena” just like all the Weavers are ‘Buck’ and all the Youngs ‘Cy.’ Boys are inclined that way.”5 The coincidence of the similar last name (similar by sound, not spelling) branded Rollie with the permanent moniker “Lena.”

Berghammer had plans on winning the 1929 Western League pennant and Stiles was a major element of the strategy. Rollie pitched 290 innings in ’29 and made the Tulsa history books on June 30 when he threw a no-hitter against the Des Moines Demons. The Browns brought him up to spring training in 1930.

Browns president Phil Ball had appointed Bill Killefer as team manager for the 1930 season. Killefer worked for the Browns as a coach during the 1927-1929 seasons and the promotion excited St. Louis fans. In February, Killefer told the press that he was looking forward to meeting the new additions to the Browns staff at spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida – especially the pitching recruits.

The Associated Press printed Killefer’s spring workout plans with an interesting headline: “Three Recruits Over Six Feet – They make ’em big where the St. Louis Browns’ scouts hunt ivory. Three of this year’s recruit scale six feet or more while two of the yearlings also are behemoths. Chad Kimsey, towering 6 feet 3 inches, Dick Coffman and Rolland Stiles, 6 feet 2 inches, Earl Caldwell six feet one inch and Herman Holshouser an even two yards.”6

On June 19, Rollie made his major league debut at Fenway Park in Boston as the Browns challenged the Red Sox. The rookie handled two innings in relief. Four days later, Killefer put Rollie on the mound during the first game of a doubleheader at Yankees Stadium in New York.

The Arkansas kid faced the Yankees’ “double-trouble” hitters, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He held them homerless; however, he gave up six runs in the 6+ innings he pitched. Less than a month later, the A’s Jimmie Foxx hit a home run off Stiles, but he broke even by striking Foxx out before the game ended. He remembered pitching against Foxx and the Philadelphia team during a 2007 interview. “It was murder having to go out and pitch to the Athletics. They had [Al] Simmons, Foxx, [Mickey] Cochrane and [Jimmy] Dykes. You had to struggle with everybody on that club.”7

Bill Killefer used Stiles as reliever most the season and planned to bring Rollie back in 1931. The pitcher’s 1930 contract price was set at $2,700 and would increase to $3,000 the following year. He was grateful for his paycheck since most of the United States was unemployed and suffering the pains of The Great Depression. "Everybody thinks they're worth more, but I was always satisfied,” explained Rollie in a 2004 interview. “I was making a little more than the average mechanic and they got ninety-five cents an hour."8

The St. Louis Browns visited Yankees Stadium on June 5, 1931, and Killefer put Rollie in the game to relieve right-hander Harry “Rip” Collins during the first inning. Stiles handled pitching duties until the sixth inning. Before Killefer gave Rollie the hook, the pitcher was able to take a memory with him. During the fourth inning, Babe Ruth stepped to the plate. On the hot June afternoon, Stiles fanned Ruth. “Ruth was a good size man,” recalled Stiles in a 2006 interview. “He was a very nice fella. I rode him all the time in batting practice. But he expected it. Everybody rode him. He was a pretty nice guy.”9

Rollie found some free time on his schedule and attended a dinner dance in St. Louis. A Sportsman’s Park clubhouse attendant befriended the pitcher at the social function and asked for assistance on a double date with two girls from St. Louis. Stiles’ clubhouse companion made sure to explain that he was interested in “the one in the blue dress” to ensure Rollie would not get confused during the date – since the two females they would be escorting were sisters.

Regardless of the warning, Stiles could not deny his curiosity for the girl in the blue dress after the double date had ended. Every day the pitcher had time off in St. Louis, he would meet her at the amusement park or at the Fabulous Fox Theater in downtown St. Louis. Their semi-serious relationship continued as Rollie travelled with the Browns.

On September 6, 1931, the Cleveland Indians came out to play in a doubleheader with St. Louis. Rollie appeared in both games but ran into some trouble during the second contest. Cleveland’s Johnny Hodapp came to bat, and Stiles threw a pitch that strained ligaments in his arm – forcing the pitcher to take the bench until the end of the season. The ’31 Browns came in fifth – one notch higher than their previous ranking at the end of the 1930 season. Stiles ended the year with a 3-1 pitching record, appearing in 34 games.

During the winter, Rollie returned to Ratcliff to visit family. Part of his vacation he spent composing a written proposal for his St. Louis sweetheart. The letter found its way to Missouri, and the girl in the blue dress happily accepted the pitcher’s proposal. Rollie married Margaret Edna Herget in early 1932.

The Browns decided to send Rollie to their farm affiliate, the Wichita Falls Spudders from the Texas League. Added to the Texas League in 1920, the town folk identified their ballclub with their local oil drill machine operators – known as the “spudders.”

Similar to the Browns, the Wichita Falls club was suffering financial difficulties. To help ease the economic burden, the Wichita Falls Spudders ballclub migrated to the nearby town of Longview in May 1932. The team was renamed the Longview Cannibals taking its name from a sportswriters earlier description of the Longview team defeating the San Antonio Missionaries team in 1895. The writer had mentioned the Missionaries being “eaten up” by Longview and the name stuck.

Henry “Hank” Severeid, a former major league catcher, managed the 1932 Spudders-Cannibal squad. He had also worked in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) as a boss of the Sacramento Senators and the Hollywood Stars. The St. Louis Browns hired Severeid to take over the Wichita Falls Spudders in 1932. Hank called on Rollie to appear in 12 games for the Spudders/Cannibal team and the pitcher earned three wins and seven losses. The Browns dropped Stiles from the Longview team during the last months of the ’32 season, selling him to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.

After the confusion of a shifting address and a trio of uniform changes had calmed, Rollie appeared in 16 games for the Brewers and earned a 1-5 pitching record. He was reassigned to the St. Louis Browns before the A.A. season ended. Rollie took a pay cut when he rejoined the Browns as President Ball trimmed Stiles’ 1931 salary of $3,000 a year down to a lowly $1,800.

The pitcher was happy to answer to his old St. Louis skipper, Bill Killefer – but only for a short while. Ball released Killefer as team manager in July 1933 and pilot duties fell to team coach Al Sothoron. Two weeks into his managerial debut, Rogers Hornsby, who would act as playing-manager of the team, replaced Sothoron.

Rollie had formed bittersweet opinions while working with Hornsby throughout the 1933 season.

In a 2007 interview, Stiles candidly expressed his personal thoughts about Hornsby: "That has to be the darkest part of my career. He was a great ball player. I’ll say that for him. But his personality was altogether different. I don’t really want to say anything more on that subject. I can’t ever remember anyone being happy that they played for Rogers Hornsby."10  When the season ended, the pitcher looked forward to the winter hunting season. “I like to collect guns of all kinds and working and training my bird dogs,” Rollie explained in a 1933 interview. “I like to raise young bird dogs.”11

The addition of Hornsby as team pilot couldn’t stop the bleeding of the ailing Brownies. The team came in dead last in the American League with a 55-96 record. Only 88,000 fans attended Sportsman’s Park to cheer the Browns in 1933 – a substantial economic difference in comparison to the ticket receipts from Yankees Stadium’s annual 728,000. At one game, the Browns drew just 33 customers, a record low game attendance figure according to Sportsencyclopedia.12

In 1934 Stiles was sent back to Milwaukee to play for the Brewers and his old team coach Al Sothoron while his wife Margie stayed at the Stiles residence in St. Louis. On July 3, 1934, Rollie learned that his time with the Brewers was over. Sothoron used Stiles in 43 games, and the pitcher recorded 10 wins and 12 losses before being traded to the Kansas City Blues. The only benefit to the trade was the team’s location: it was closer to St. Louis than Wisconsin.

The Brewers gained a 36-year-old pitcher named William “Slim” Harriss in exchange for 27- year-old Stiles. He was upset by the transaction since Harriss was an older pitcher who had earned a mediocre 3-8 pitching record while working for the Blues. Rollie recalled his confusion in a 2006 interview. “I was traded for an old pitcher. He had been a dandy. However, he was right at the end of his career. He was with Kansas City so Milwaukee traded me to Kansas City for him. Now I think a couple of the businessmen were out drinking because both teams wondered , “What in the hell is going on?” “A trade like that?” And the pitcher I was traded for, he come up to me and says, “What the hell do you think is going on?”13

Rollie left Milwaukee and joined Kansas City, managed at the time by Roger Peckinpaugh. Stiles stayed with Kansas City in 1935 and his pitching improved as he handled more innings than any other hurler on the squad did. Rollie collected 13 wins and 11 losses for Kansas City in 1935. The following season he returned to the Blues and appeared in six games before being traded back to the Texas League to play for the Dallas Steers.

After spending months in the Texas heat, Rollie earned a 7-9 pitching record when once again he was traded, this time to the New Jersey Giants of the International League. Rollie packed his bags, and he and Margaret settled in New Jersey. In 1937 Stiles proved a workhorse, handling more innings than the other members of the pitching staff. Rollie stayed in New Jersey for three years with the Giants. Stiles’ years with the Giants were the most enjoyable of his baseball career. “I think I enjoyed Jersey City the most. That was the International League. I enjoyed that league the most of all big league and minor leagues. We enjoyed it. The wife enjoyed it. And the friends we had there were really good friends.”14

In the winter of 1939, Stiles was cut from the Giants and traded to the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern Association. His wife returned to their home in St. Louis while Rollie travelled to Tennessee to meet his new manager – former major league outfielder, Kiki Cuyler. Despite having the pleasure of working with Cuyler, Stiles was getting tired of being bounced around the minor leagues. At the end of the season, the Lookouts traded Rollie to the Knoxville Smokies, but the pitcher refused the offer. He decided that it was time to bid farewell to his career in baseball and returned home to Missouri.

In 1941, Stiles found full-time work at Procter & Gamble in downtown St. Louis, employed in their shipping and production departments. In 2006, he proudly described the popularity of P&G during an interview with a St. Louis newspaper, "They were the biggest and best soap company in America.”15 His duties included handling products like Tide detergent, Folger’s ground coffee and Crest toothpaste.

He was an employee with P&G until he retired in 1969. He and his wife adopted a son, Gary, in 1942. Two years later, Rollie and Margie adopted another son, Rick. Shortly after the couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary, Margaret Stiles passed away in November 1997.

In April 2004, Rollie Stiles and his baseball career began making newspaper headlines. The St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame gave the Bob Burnes Award for “A Lifetime Achievement In Professional Baseball” to the ninety-seven-year-old pitcher. On July 15, 2005, Rollie was recognized as an honored guest at the St. Louis Cardinals ballpark, Busch Stadium. In June 2006, he was invited to the Missouri Athletic Club as a guest of honor at the St. Louis Browns reunion. A month after attending the Browns reunion, he became the oldest living former major league player. He achieved that milestone when Howard “Howdy” Groskloss, died at his home in Vero Beach, Florida, at the age of 100 on July 15, 2006. Groskloss formerly played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates of the National League for three years (1930-1933).

Less than a month after Howdy’s death, former major league pitcher Elden Auker died at the age of 95. The newspapers printed Auker’s obituary describing the former Detroit Tigers player as “the only pitcher alive that faced Babe Ruth in a major league game.” Prior to his death, newspapers interviewed Auker in 2004, who explaining this distinction. Apparently, he had forgotten about Brownie pitcher Rollie Stiles – who was alive and well in a retirement community in Missouri. A baseball box score dated June 5, 1931, proved Auker’s claim erroneous..

Rollie Stiles was the last living pitcher who could accurately claim a pitching appearance (and a strikeout) against the late great Babe Ruth. On November 17, 2006, Rollie celebrated his 100th birthday and his recent recognition as the oldest living major league baseball player. The surprise celebration included a guest list of family, friends and a few reporters who visited the party at the Bethesda Terrace independent living center in St. Louis.

Stiles received additional honors in January 2007 when he received the award for “Meritorious Service To Sports” at the 49th annual Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) banquet at St. Louis’ Millennium Hotel. Major League Baseball Commissioner, Bud Selig, personally presented the award to Stiles. Seven months after he received his prestigious award, 100-year-old Rolland Mays “Lena” Stiles died in his sleep at Bethesda Terrace on July 22, 2007. Rollie rejoined his late wife, Margie at Resurrection Cemetery in Affton, Missouri.

The recognition of “the oldest living major league baseball player” carried on to 99-year-old Bill Werber after Stiles passed away. Werber, a former New York Yankees infielder was also recognized as Babe Ruth’s last living Yankees teammate.

 

Sources

Online

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org

Baseball Almanac

Baseball Hall of Fame Museum

Baseball Hall of Fame Library

BaseballLibrary.com

Net54Baseball.net

Sportsecyclopedia.com

Almanacpark.blogspot.com

Edattanacio.blogspot.com

Thestlbrowns.com

Ksdk.com

Stlouissportshalloffame.com

SABR Encyclopedia (SABR Members)

Books

McCombs, Wayne, ed. Baseball In Tulsa (Arcadia Publishing, Mount Pleasant, SC, 2003)

Newspapers

The Sporting News (1930-1965)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2004-2007)

The Suburban Journals (2004-2007)

The New York Times (1930-1933)

The Associated Press (1930-1933)

The United Press (1930-1933)

Personal Correspondence

Rex Hamann (Author of American Association Website), telephone interview, 11/12/2012

R. Emmet McAuliffe (St. Louis Browns Fan Club), telephone interview, 11/14/2012

Helen Marecek (Rollie Stiles’ niece), telephone interview), 08/11/ 2013

Greg Marecek (President of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame), telephone interview, 08/13/2013

Joan Thomas (Author), email correspondence, 09/08/2013

Ed Attanacio, (Author of Life On The Edge Blog Website), email correspondence, 09/08/2013

Additional assistance

Freddy Berowski (National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum records review request)

Greg Marecek (providing an audio copy of KSDK Stiles interview from 10/25/2006)

Rich Romine (correspondence with Stiles relative Jymmye Hitch-Banhart 07/27/2007)

Danielle Clifford (research assistant)

Bill White (Paulson Photography historian)

Chad Sullivan (research assistant)

 

Photo credit

Courtesy of The Charles Conlon Collection

 

Notes

1 Julie Randle, “Oldest major league player goes extra innings,” Suburban Journals, St. Louis, November 21, 2006.

2 Cordell Whitlock, “Oldest living major leaguer lives in St. Louis,” KSDK News, St. Louis, October 25, 2006.

3 Harold Johnson, Who’s Who In Baseball, Chicago: Buxton Press, 1933.

4 Whitlock, “Oldest living major leaguer lives in St. Louis.”

5 Johnson, Who’s Who In Baseball.

6 Associated Press, “Three Recruits Over Six Feet,” Niagara Falls Gazette, February 28, 1930, 26

7 Ed Attanacio, “Rollie Stiles: The Oldest Living Baseball Player,” www.edattanacio.blogspot.com, May 17, 2007

8 Joan Thomas, “Oldest Living Browns Player Remembers, “ www.thestlcardinals.com, September 19, 2004.

9 Whitlock, “Oldest living major leaguer lives in St. Louis.”

10 Ibid.

11 Johnson, “Who’s Who In Baseball.

13 Whitlock, “Oldest living major leaguer lives in St. Louis.”

14 Ibid.

15 Randle, “Oldest major league player goes extra innings.”

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