Major-league teams are constantly on the search for talent. Even before teams had minor-league systems they had working relations with specific teams to supply talent. Players were sent up to the big club for a tryout, frequently after the minor-league team was out of its pennant race. Cleveland manager Tris Speaker realized early in 1924 that the Indians did not have the talent to compete for the pennant. He was unafraid to tap into his minor-league connections and give a youngster a look-see. That helps explain why 22 pitchers toed the rubber for the Tribe that year. (The league median was 14.) In September Speaker even went so far as to bench himself so that outfield prospects could be evaluated. Outfielders given a trial this way were Sumpter Clarke, Tom Gulley, and Joe Wyatt.
Loral John “Joe” Wyatt was born in Petersburg, Indiana, on April 6, 1900. His parents, both Hoosier natives, were Thomas J. and Willa A. (Nelson). Joe was the middle of three boys, Nasby was born in 1897 and Fred in 1903. Thomas was a farmer at the time of Joe’s birth, but left the fields for a job as a weigh boss at a coal mine near Princeton, Indiana. The boys all attended Princeton schools, where they excelled as athletes. Nasby led the basketball team in scoring his senior year and Joe duplicated that feat in his final season. Princeton did not have a baseball team for the high school so the boys honed their baseball skills on local summer teams.
After graduation Joe was inducted into the infantry for the duration of the World War. He made no mention on his Hall of Fame questionnaire of combat or deployment. After his discharge he joined Nasby working in the rubber factories in Akron, Ohio. Factory work was a short-term means of making money to attend college. Joe entered Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he played basketball and baseball, joined Sigma Chi fraternity and graduated with a business degree in 1924. He hit over .300 as a freshman and sophomore and played on championship teams in 1923 and 1924. He was the captain his senior year and teamed with his brother Fred in the outfield. The June 6 Cleveland Plain Dealer raved about Joe’s talent as a “hard hitting, fast outfielder … who made only one error” his whole career at Wabash and hit over .500 his last two seasons. In fact, during a stretch in 1923 he went 17-for-26 at the plate. Wyatt was brought up to Cleveland after graduation and spent a week or two with the club learning the ropes, but seeing no action, before he was sent to Kansas City in the Double-A American Association.
Wyatt made his first professional appearance on July 1, 1924, in St. Paul. He batted leadoff for Kansas City, going hitless and having no chances in center field. That was his only action with Kansas City before he was returned to the Indians, who promptly sent him to Terre Haute of the Class B Three-I League on July 7. He played 61 games for the Tots, was recalled at the end of the season and saw action in four games with the Indians. He made his major-league debut in a doubleheader in St. Louis on September 11. He went 0-for-2 in the first game and 2-for-5 in the second. He played again the next day and then in a home game against the Philadelphia Athletics the day after. He played right field in all four games while Sumpter Clarke handled center field. When Wyatt went to the bench, Tom Gulley had an audition in right field. Eventually Speaker inserted Riggs Stephenson in right field for the rest of the year.
Wyatt went to spring training with Cleveland and eight other outfield candidates in 1925 at Lakeland, Florida. He showed a fine glove and a strong arm, but was optioned to Terre Haute on March 24 for more seasoning. He played in 128 games, hitting .308 with 13 homers. In mid-July the Indians canceled their option on Wyatt. The Indianapolis Indians of the American Association purchased his contract just before the close of the Three-I League season. Wyatt played 14 games with them, mostly in left field. His bat was cool for the first few games, but from September 19 to the end of the season on the 27th he hit a torrid .531 (17-for-32) with four doubles. Indianapolis welcomed Wyatt back for the 1926 season. On July 5 he was acquired by the Columbus Senators, also in the American Association. Between the two teams Wyatt saw action in 131 games, 95 as an outfielder and then some third base during August with Columbus. He hit .308 overall.
In 1927 Wyatt was back at Indianapolis, where he was the fourth outfielder, but was second on the team to Reb Russell with a .329 batting average before he was sold to New Orleans in the Class A Southern Association. Suffering a demotion despite hitting well was tough. Wyatt struggled in 52 games with the Pelicans, hitting only .255. But he fielded brilliantly and provided some timely hits as the Pelicans stormed back in the second half of the season. Eleven games behind Birmingham on July 4, New Orleans captured the pennant by 5½ games. The comeback earned the Pelicans a berth in the Dixie Series against Wichita Falls of the Texas League. The series opened in Wichita Falls before 15,000 fans in cool, football-like weather. The Spudders won the pitchers’ duel 2-0 with Wyatt getting the only long hit for New Orleans, a double. The Pelicans dropped the next three games with Wyatt seeing only a pinch-hit appearance in Game Four.
Wyatt was a no-show at spring training in 1928 and the Pelicans sold his contract to Decatur in the Three-I League. Decatur listed ten outfielders on its roster. Now back in Class B, Wyatt chose to leave the game and find other ways of earning a living. He rejoined Nasby in Akron to work in the rubber factories. By mid-May he was a starting outfielder on the Firestone Non-Skids, a crack industrial team. The Firestones played in the Double-A Industrial League, which included teams from Akron, Canton, and Cleveland. Wyatt had his finest game in that league on September 2 when he banged out three triples and a sacrifice fly, walked, and stole a base. Firestone went on to be the Ohio Industrial champion and played in the National Baseball Federation Championship, losing out to champion Indianapolis Power and Light. The Firestones played a more independent schedule in 1929 and did not fare as well. Wyatt made only a few appearances in their lineup.
Wyatt returned to Indiana in late 1929 or early 1930 and went into sales for a refinery while living in Vincennes. Later he switched to sales in the beer/liquor industry. He eventually headed his own distributorship, J&N Beverages Inc. in Vincennes. During his days as a salesman he met Erma Kortz of Lewisville, Indiana. The couple married on February 4, 1935. They resided in Henry County, Indiana, for a few years and then moved back to Vincennes. Erma gave birth to four daughters, Jennie, Joetta, Jarvis, and Kim. Joe retired from business in the late 1960s and was on a hunting trip near Oblong, Illinois, in early December 1970 when he was accidentally shot and killed. He is buried in Vincennes.
Thanks to Brian Spangle at the Knox County (Indiana) Public Library, who provided Wyatt’s obituary, and to Linda Petrie of Wabash College for the contents of his file there.
Special thanks to Princeton, Indiana, sports historian and retired baseball coach Tim Nonte for information on Wyatt. Nonte has written a book on Princeton High School basketball and continues to research baseball in the area.
State Times Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Dallas Morning News
New Orleans Times-Picayune
Princeton (Indiana) Daily Clarion
The Sporting News
Wyatt’s file at the Baseball Hall of Fame
Wyatt’s file at Wabash College