SABR

Cedric Durst

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

When Ted Williams was still in high school, he broke into baseball with his hometown San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. It’s said he wore a sweatshirt that he borrowed from Cedric Durst on his first day, because he couldn’t afford one.1 In his autobiography, Williams wrote, “On the road my roommate was Sid [sic] Durst, who had played with the Yankees during Babe Ruth’s days, and he said I woke him up at 6 A.M., yelling and jumping on the bed and swinging at imaginary pitches and telling him how great it was to be young and full of vigor.”2

Durst had indeed played with the Yankees, from 1927 into 1930, though on May 6, 1930, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for Red Ruffing and $50,000.

He played in 481 big-league games over seven seasons, and for some 17 years in the minor leagues, from 1921 to 1946.

Durst grew up in Austin, Texas, born to John and Hattie Durst, both native Texans. His birthday came on August 23, 1896. He was the couple’s first-born child. Later followed Gladys, Janice, and Johnnie. John Durst, of Dutch-English descent, worked as a salesman for a bookstore and later a stationery company. Hattie – Harriet – worked some as a music teacher. Ced’s education, as he reported it on a player questionnaire he returned to the Hall of Fame in 1960, was said to be four years of grade school and four years at Austin High School. Presumably there was secondary school in between. At the time of the 1920 census he held a job as a cotton sampler for a brokerage company. There were a lot of cotton brokers in the latter decades of the 19th century and the first few of the 20th.

Durst played semipro ball in Austin, and began his professional baseball career with Beaumont in 1921, in the Texas League, taking over in center field for Al Nixon. The first game he played was an exhibition game on March 15 against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and he threw one runner out at third base and cut another one down at home.3 Beaumont won the game, 4-3.

Durst was a left-hander and hit .274 in 159 games for the Class A Beaumont Exporters. He hit six home runs, stole 13 bases, and led the league in putouts and assists. The team placed seventh in the eight-team league. Durst was scouted by Leo Monahan of the St. Louis Browns and in the fall of 1921 the Browns purchased his contract.4

Some following the Browns in spring training enthused that Durst was “easily the best looking ballplayer who has come up to the American League in years.” The sportswriter who gathered that characterization suggested it was hyperbole, that Durst was “like so many rooks weak with the stick,” but he did allow, “Durst is making the oldtimers sit up and take notice by his fielding stunts, however.”5 Manager Lee Fohl was sufficiently impressed – the Baltimore Sun, for instance, said Fohl regarded him as “the find of the season” and Durst made the Browns as a utility outfielder.6 Durst got into his first game in the second half of a Memorial Day doubleheader, in the 15th inning (substituting for ejected right fielder Jack Tobin). In the bottom of the 16th, in his first big-league at-bat, he singled, was sacrificed to second, and scored the winning run on a single by Pat Collins.

Nine of Durst’s 15 appearances were as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. He didn’t hit any home runs and he didn’t drive in any runs but he did bat .333 and scored five runs. The Browns just barely missed winning the pennant, finishing in second one game behind the New York Yankees.

Durst appeared in three times as many games in 1922 (45), but didn’t fare as well on offense, hitting just .212, though he hit an unexpected five home runs in 85 at-bats. He drove in 11. He’d played first base in April, while George Sisler was out following an eye operation. Most of the rest of the year – except in July, when he played seven games in left field – he was used in pinch roles. Sisler had been the AL batting champion in 1922, with a .420 average – his second year hitting over .400. Writers thought perhaps the pressure of having to fill Sisler’s shoes was too much for Durst.

Durst’s 1924 and 1925 seasons were spent in the minors. Both years he hit over .340. The Los Angeles Angels had acquired him as part of a seven-player trade with St. Louis on January 26, 1924. They saw him hit 17 homers and bat a club-leading .342 in 185 games. (The Pacific Coast League played a much longer schedule than the majors.) At one point, Durst had a 24-game hitting streak.7 The Angels finished 1½ games out of first. The Browns had held an option on him, but did not exercise it.

Durst married Leona Campbell of Seattle on February 26, 1925, and the couple honeymooned in Canada. Just a couple of weeks later, the Browns placed him with the St. Paul Saints as part of a deal that brought them catcher Leo Dixon. Offered a contract with a pay cut, Durst said he would not report. Matters were worked out and Durst played in 168 games in the American Association that year (like the Coast League, the AA was Double-A), batting .348 with seven homers. His 226 hits led the league, but Joe Guyon beat him for the batting title.

The Browns brought Durst back to the majors in 1926 and he played in 80 games, hitting .237 (with a .310 on-base percentage) with three homers and 18 RBIs.

On December 20 the Yankees announced two deals that would result in their acquiring Durst and giving St. Louis pitcher Sad Sam Jones. The deal was an on-again, off-again one that was only consummated on February 8, 1927. Pitcher Joe Giard went to New York with Durst.

Durst was a reserve outfielder with Babe Ruth, Earle Combs, and Bob Meusel playing in almost every game. This was the famous “Murderer’s Row” Yankees; Ruth famously hit 60 home runs (and drove in 164 runs), while first baseman Lou Gehrig drove in 175. The Yankees went 110-44 and then swept the Pirates in the World Series. Durst did get into 65 games and collected 142 plate appearances. He hit for a .248 average (the team as a whole batted .307) and drove in 25 runs. His one World Series at-bat came in Game Three, when he pinch-hit for the catcher in the top of the eighth with two on and nobody out. He grounded out to second, but advanced the runners, both of whom scored to give New York an 8-0 lead.

Durst’s only other postseason experience came the very next year, in 1928. The Yankees swept the Series again, this time beating the Cardinals. Durst played in all four games, and was 3-for-9 at the plate. He drove in the go-ahead run with a second-inning single in Game Two and he lined a home run into the right-field bleachers to lead off the eighth inning in Game Four, extending New York’s lead to 7-2. Ruth homered two batters later. Both RBI hits came off future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander. Ruth’s homer was his third of the game. Lou Gehrig hit one, too.

In the 1928 regular season, Durst appeared in 74 games and hit .252 but drove in only ten runs. The story was told that he’d once hit a home run pinch-hitting for Babe Ruth. In the May 31 game, Lou Gehrig was ejected, Durst took his place at first base, and then homered off Bump Hadley. Durst hit only six home runs in his years with the Yankees. He’d taken Ruth’s place in a 1929 game when Ruth was out ill, but not as a pinch-hitter.

Durst had his most active season yet in 1929, playing in more than half the Yankees’ games (92) and driving in 31 runs with a .257 batting average. There was no postseason play since New York finished second.

Durst started the 1930 season with New York but played in only eight games (3-for-19 at bat) before he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Red Ruffing, who became a Hall of Famer during his years with the Yankees. The $50,000 in cash was an important ingredient in the trade for financially strapped Red Sox owner Bob Quinn. Durst was, wrote the Hartford Courant, “a capable outfielder.”8 The Boston Herald wrote, “Defensively, Durst is brilliant. Offensively, it is difficult to see how there can be a place for such a weak hitter here. The only chance he has to get going is to be in there every day, something he could not do with the star-studded Yankees and get into the hitting habit.”9

Play he did, working in 102 games for Boston, both in left field and in right. He certainly didn’t have the protection of a powerhouse lineup around him, though, and hit .245 with 24 RBIs.

The Red Sox felt they could do better and on February 7, 1931, Durst was released outright to St. Paul. It had nothing to do with the possibility of Durst being sanctioned for playing winter ball for the Los Angeles White Kings during the offseason, but was simply because manager Shano Collins wanted to go a little younger and felt there were sufficiently good possibilities available.10

Durst played two more years for the Saints – 1931 and 1932, batting an even .300 (with 11 homers) and then .314, with six home runs in 27 fewer games. In 1933, he went Hollywood. (The Saints sold his contract to the Hollywood Stars on January 28.) He played his next 12 seasons in the Pacific Coast League.

From 1933 through 1935, Durst played in 472 games for Hollywood, hitting .318 (with 24 homers) the first year, but then dipping below .300 for the first time in the minors (though not much below – he hit .299 in 1934). Noting that he had to cover more ground in center field than the Sears Roebuck catalog, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Braven Dyer saw Durst as the most valuable player on the team.11 In 1935, he hit .324.

Though he played the next two years for the San Diego Padres, Durst hadn’t really changed teams – the Stars franchise had relocated to San Diego. He hit .206 the first year and .293 the second, playing alongside both Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams in 1936 and then Williams in 1937.

On July 24, 1936, against the Mission Reds at San Diego, Ted Williams even pinch-ran for Durst in the tenth inning – and was the winning run in the game. Durst was, wrote the San Diego Evening Tribune near the end of the season, “far out in front in the voting for the most popular player on the Padre team.”12 He won a traveling bag and a suit.

He was more than a player, explained the San Diego Union. “Durst’s great value to the club is not entirely because of his ability as an outfielder or as a hitter, for he has proved himself a capable instructor and a willing one. Never happier than when working with young players, Durst has taught many the rudiments of the game and his tips on fielding and at the plate have proved a boon to youngsters breaking in.”13

In mid-May 1938, though, Durst’s contract was transferred to Hollywood (a new Hollywood Stars which had started up that year. The deal was a temporary one, more or less a loan for the remainder of the season. San Diego owner Bill Lane worked a deal that had Hollywood manager Red Killefer promise to give Durst his unconditional release at the end of the year – so that Lane would rehire him and install him as manager for the ballclub he planned to open in Salt Lake City in 1939.14 When Hollywood came to San Diego on a road trip at the end of July, Lane Field held a “Durst Day” for the man they called “Old Reliable.”15 In somewhat of a surprise move, Lane released manager Frank Shellenback on October 3 and named Durst as playing manager of the Padres for 1939. Six days later, Lane died.

In 1938 Durst hit .308 for San Diego/Hollywood teams combined. It was his last full year as a player. He was 41 years old.

Starting in January 1939, Durst wrote a series of articles for the Union which were meant to be instructive to young people. During the summer he purchased a house in the city and made it the family’s home. He assigned himself to play in a number of games for the Padres from 1939 through 1943 (a total of 283 at-bats over the five years), and hit for a .257 average over the span. He appeared in 73 games in 1939, but was the first casualty during spring training 1940 and played progressively fewer games in ’40 and again in 1941.

In the eight-team Coast League, the Padres finished fifth in 1939, then fourth, third, and fourth. Late in 1942, when World War II was well under way, Durst was released but was rehired to manage the 1943 team until he resigned on August 11, and a new manager was found in George Detore; the Padres finished seventh. San Diego finished in last place in 1944. Under Pepper Martin, they finished sixth in 1945 and 1946.

Durst still had five more years of managing in his career, first assuming the reins of the Quincy (Illinois) Gems of the Class B Three-I League in midseason, on July 14, 1946. He devoted 1947 and 1948 to the Triple-A International League’s Rochester Red Wings. Quincy finished in last place. Rochester finished fifth and then fourth. The Omaha Cardinals hired him that October for the 1949 season; they finished fifth in the six-team Western League. Rochester and Omaha were both in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. Quincy had been a Yankees farm club and Durst returned to the Yankees’ chain in 1950, taking over Grand Forks in the eight-team Class C Northern League later in the season. The Chiefs finished sixth.

Cedric and Leona had two children, Autumn and Cedric Jr. After 1950 his time in baseball was over. He admitted that it was a bit of an adjustment to be out of the game but he took a position as a special guard at Convair Aircraft in San Diego and was enjoying the work.16 As of 1955, he became chief of Convair’s 108-man police force.17

During the winters, Durst headed up the Coast League All-Stars, who played a month of exhibition games at Lane Field. He began that in 1947 and did it for at least six years. He also led some old-timer’s squads, from the 1950s into the late 1960s.

On February 15, 1971, Durst suffered a stroke shortly before noon at a Hot Stove League golf tournament at the San Carlos Golf Club. He died in San Diego’s Mercy Hospital the following day.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Durst’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Necrology, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 The Stars and Stripes, Pacific Edition, January 29, 1957.

2 Ted Williams, My Turn At Bat (New York: Fireside Books, 1988 edition), 40.

3 Philadelphia Inquirer, March 16, 1921.

4 The Rockford (Illinois) Republic of December 22, 1925, reported Monahan’s role.

5 Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, March 10, 1922. The word “phenomenal” was used in some other newspapers.

6 Baltimore Sun, March 10, 1922.

7 Riverside (California) Daily Press, October 13, 1924.

8 Hartford Courant, May 8, 1930.

9 Boston Herald, May 7, 1930.

10 Boston Herald, February 8, 1931.

11 Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1935.

12 San Diego Evening Tribune, September 1, 1936.

13 San Diego Union, March 8, 1938.

14 San Diego Union, May 16, 1938.

15 San Diego Union, July 24, 1938.

16 San Diego Union, January 11, 1952.

17 San Diego Union, March 22, 1955.

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