Zack Taylor

This article was written by Norm King

The long and the short of it is that Zack Taylor was the manager who sent 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate to pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns against the Detroit Tigers in 1951. But Taylor was not simply a straight man in an owner’s stunt, for he spent 58 years in professional baseball as a respected player, coach, manager, and scout. He had legendary teammates like Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth, was involved in some of the game’s greatest and goofiest moments, and learned from great managers like John McGraw and Joe McCarthy.

James Wren Taylor was born on July 27, 1898, in Yulee, Florida, the son of William Taylor, described in The Sporting News as a turpentine distiller, and Mattie Taylor.1 James was a baseball prodigy with skill beyond his years; he was so good that the baseball coach at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, brought him up at age 14 to catch for the college team.2

Taylor combined playing baseball with his studies at Rollins for three years. When he was 17, he caught the eye of Birmingham Barons manager Carlton Molesworth and shortstop Roy Ellam when the Barons played Rollins in an exhibition series. Molesworth and Ellam recommended the youngster to Dutch Jordan, manager of the Valdosta Millionaires of the Class D Florida-Alabama- Georgia League. Taylor signed with Valdosta in 1915, thus beginning his long career in Organized Baseball.

It’s quite impressive that Taylor had such a long career in the game because one wouldn’t guess that based on his minor-league progression. Before reaching the majors in 1920, his path through the minors looked like a bad report card. From 1915 through 1919, he played in succession at Classes D, D, D, A, and C. And like a bad report card, his statistics at Valdosta weren’t anything you’d be proud to show Mom and Dad; in 64 games that first year, he hit only .150 and showed very little extra-base power, with only five doubles, but no triples or home runs.

In 1916 Taylor joined the Dothan (Alabama) club, which, with Valdosta, had moved from the now defunct Florida- Alabama-Georgia League to the new Class D Dixie League. His numbers were slightly better with his new team; in 61 games, his batting average rose to .224, but he still suffered from a power shortage, with only five extra-base hits, all two-baggers.

Taylor played for Dothan again in 1917, then moved up to the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Class A Southern Association the following year. Statistics aren’t available for either season, but Taylor’s 1918 campaign is noteworthy because that’s the year he received his presidential nickname. According to a biographical article on Taylor in The Sporting News in 1948:

“The new (St. Louis) Brownie manager picked up the nickname Zack in 1918 while with Chattanooga. The moniker is a contraction of the first name of the twelfth president of the United States — Zachary Taylor — although the new Brownie manager is not even a distant relative. … According to Zack, a stepdaughter of Zeke Lohman, a pitcher for Chattanooga at the time, was responsible for the nickname. A great kidder, she ribbed the catcher about being related to old Rough and Ready Taylor, and the players and baseball writers proceeded to hang the name on him.”3

Zack and Zeke were teammates for only that one season, as Taylor dropped down to Class C with the Charlotte Hornets of the South Atlantic League in 1919. By this time he was 20 years old and more physically mature. He hit .282 and began to show more extra-base power, with 12 doubles, 4 triples and even a home run. He played in 94 games, his highest total up to then, according to the available statistics.

Taylor’s play was good enough to catch the attention of Brooklyn Robins scout Nap Rucker, who signed Taylor to a contract. The signing was conditional upon Taylor’s recovering from a knee injury, but it healed in time for the 1920 season.

It would be fair to say that Taylor spent virtually all of his first three seasons with the Robins riding the pines. In his first year, the Robins won the National League pennant, but he played in only nine regular-season games and didn’t appear at all in the World Series. In fact, from 1920 through 1922, Taylor got into just 46 games with the Robins, and managed only a cumulative .217 batting average with zero home runs and a total of 15 RBIs. The team finally sent him down to the Memphis Chickasaws of the Southern Association during that 1922 season to get him some playing time. With the Chickasaws, Taylor got into 54 games and hit .247. The time spent actually playing served Taylor well in establishing him as a legitimate major-league catcher beginning with the 1923 season.

In the early 1920s, the Robins did not have what would today be considered a “Number One” catcher. In 1920 Otto Miller appeared in 90 games behind the plate, while Ernie Krueger saw action in 52 games, and Rowdy Elliot was in the lineup for 41. Miller again caught the majority of games in 1921, 91, while Krueger appeared in 65 and Taylor 30. In 1922 Hank DeBerry saw action in 85 games, while the aging Miller appeared in 59 games, Bernie Hungling 39, and Taylor 7. Perhaps manager Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson, for whom the Robins were named, was quite particular about what he expected from his catchers, having carved himself a Hall of Fame career at the position.

Nonetheless, in 1923, when Taylor was finally ready to assume a larger share of the catching responsibilities, Robinson still did not name an everyday catcher; Taylor started the most games, 83, while DeBerry started 58 contests and rookie Charlie Hargreaves 11. Any illusions that Taylor had of being a power hitter must have been gone by this time, because he had no home runs, but he hit a solid .288 with a respectable 46 RBIs in 337 at-bats. It is difficult to assess Taylor’s defensive statistics for the season, for while he tied for the league lead in assists (118) and runners caught stealing (66), he also had the most errors by a catcher (16) and the most passed balls (13). He deserves credit for being at the top in assists and runners caught stealing because he caught fewer than 90 games. Taylor actually tied Chicago Cubs catcher Bob O’Farrell for the league lead in assists, but O’Farrell caught in 40 more games. As for Taylor, leading in errors and passed balls indicates that he was inconsistent defensively that year.

Robinson divided the catching duties again in 1924, with Taylor starting the most games (92), followed by DeBerry (59) and Hargreaves (3). Taylor had a good year offensively, hitting .290. He also hit his first major-league home run, a solo shot off the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jimmy Ring on June 1 at Ebbets Field. Defensively, he led the league in fielding percentage at his position (.988), and wasn’t among the league leaders in errors or passed balls.

Taylor started 89 games at catcher in 1925, and had an excellent season offensively. He hit .310 with three home runs, both career highs. He had another up-and-down year behind the plate –second in the league in errors (17) and assists (102). He again led the league in passed balls (9) and both stolen bases allowed (64) and runners caught stealing (60).

Although Taylor and DeBerry competed for playing time, they were good friends off the field. In fact, they both married girls from the same small town, Atoka, Tennessee. Taylor and his wife, Marguerite, stayed married until Taylor’s death in 1974 and had one son, Ed.

The teammates also weren’t above ribbing each other. On September 8, 1925, DeBerry, who was Dazzy Vance’s regular catcher, wasn’t available to catch for Vance during the first game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, so Taylor donned the “tools of ignorance.” Vance pitched a one-hitter for a 1-0 Robins win, prompting Taylor to tell DeBerry that he didn’t know how to catch for Vance. Five days later, also in the first game of a doubleheader and with DeBerry behind the plate, Vance pitched a no-hitter in a 10-1 trouncing of the Phillies.

“Hank was fully entitled to give me the works with: ‘Well, I guess I showed you how to catch (Vance) today,’” said Taylor.4

Camaraderie and a good season aside, the Robins traded Taylor to the Boston Braves on October 6, 1925, as part of a six-player deal. The change of scenery allowed Taylor to claim the catching spot as his own, at least for the 1926 season. He appeared in a career-high 125 games for the Braves, and batted .255 with no home runs and 42 RBIs. Defensively, he again led the league in several categories, some good, some bad, including assists (123), double plays turned as a catcher (17), passed balls (13), stolen bases allowed (59), and runners caught stealing (59).

Taylor got off to a slow start with the Braves in 1927, hitting only .240 with one home run, when on June 12 he found himself part of another multiplayer trade, this time to John McGraw’s New York Giants as part of a deal that landed the Braves infielder Doc Farrell. Taylor got into 83 games with the Giants, and finished the season with a .234 average. The unimpressed Giants put him on waivers, and the Braves picked him up again just before the 1928 season.

Taylor tied his career high in games played in 1928 with 125. He hit only .251 with two home runs and 30 RBIs. His glove work again left people scratching their heads, as he led the league in both passed balls (11) and stolen bases allowed (62), while finishing third in fielding percentage, at .985.

Until this point in his career, Taylor hadn’t known any postseason success. That all changed in 1929, a year in which he experienced the lows and highs of being a professional athlete. The low was when the Braves put him on waivers in early July. The high came on July 6, when the pennant-bound Chicago Cubs claimed him to replace future Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett, who missed virtually all of the 1929 season with a sore arm. For the season, Taylor played in 98 games and batted .266 with one home run and 41 RBIs. He even got a vote for MVP. As an article in the Pittsburgh Press stated:

“The beginning of the present season for Zack was a dreary enough prospect — catching whatever balls batters opposing the Braves whimsically chose to let drift pass — but now it looks like the world series for Mr. Taylor.”5

Taylor also got to play in a World Series for the first time, although maybe he wished he hadn’t. That year the Cubs lost to the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics in a fivegame affair and Taylor was behind the plate in all of them.

That Series included two of the most famous games in World Series history. Amazingly, Taylor was not one of Howard Ehmke’s 13 strikeout victims when the A’s veteran set a World Series strikeout record in Game One, although Taylor had only two at-bats and didn’t play the whole game. He was also behind the plate in Game Four, when the A’s scored ten runs in the seventh inning to erase an 8-0 deficit. Taylor at least had a sacrifice fly to drive in a run, which probably didn’t make up for having to watch the A’s turn the field into a life-size pinball machine in that one frame. For the Series, he batted .176 with three RBIs.

Taylor’s playing career dwindled after 1929. He remained a backup with the Cubs until 1933, played four games for the Yankees in 1934, and returned to Brooklyn for 26 games in 1935. Overall in those six seasons, he appeared in 107 games and batted .184, with one home run and 19 RBIs.

During his final stint in Brooklyn, Taylor was sent to the Reading/Allentown Brooks of the Class A New York- Pennsylvania League as a player-manager. This was the first stop in his long post-playing career in baseball. Taylor went on to cut his Baltimore chops with managerial posts in San Antonio of the Class A1 Texas League and in Toledo of the Double-A American Association. After a coaching stint with the St. Louis Browns in the early 1940s, he got his first taste of managing a major-league team when he replaced Luke Sewell as Browns pilot late in the 1946 season and compiled a 13-17 record with a team that went 66-88 for the season.

Taylor expected to get the manager’s reins for 1947, but didn’t, and so caught on with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He lasted one season in Pittsburgh before returning as the Browns skipper for 1948.

The Browns were poor cousins to the other occupant of Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals. (The Browns owned the ballpark and the Cardinals were their tenants.) One of the lesser-known ways in which World War II turned everything upside down was that the Browns won the pennant in 1944, the only time in the franchise’s time in St. Louis that they made the World Series. Playing both “home” and “away” games in the same ballpark, they lost to the Cardinals in six games.

When players returned from the war to the major leagues, the Browns crashed to reality, and it was this ragtag outfit that Taylor managed from 1948 to 1951. In his four years as manager, the team’s records were 59-94, 53-101, 58-96, and 52-102. These terrible won-lost totals reflected less on Taylor’s managerial skills and more on how the Browns operated. Good players were few and far between, and those who showed any talent were sold off to pay the team’s debts.

In Taylor’s last season as skipper, Bill Veeck bought the club and pulled some stunts in order to bring fans to the ballpark, stunts that brought the team notoriety but little else.

Oddly enough, the idea of using a little person in a game was not new to Taylor. When Veeck approached him about doing it, Taylor told him that John McGraw once had the idea of having one on the team in case the Giants needed a base on balls in the ninth inning of a game. Veeck made sure no rules barred the idea, and on August 19, 1951, Gaedel led off the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. “We got Detroit out in their half of the first inning,” said Taylor. Frank Saucier was our leadoff man but I sent up the midget to hit for him.”6

Naturally, Tigers manager Red Rolfe and home-plate umpire Ed Hurley questioned Gaedel’s appearance. Taylor produced a legitimate player’s contract, so Gaedel was able to take his rightful place in the batter’s box. He walked on four pitches, was replaced by a pinch-runner, and was never heard from again.

Five days after that, a section of fans made Taylor’s evening easier by getting to vote “yes” or “no” on certain strategy options in the Browns’ August 24 game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Whether the fact that the Browns won the game 5-3 influenced Veeck’s decision to fire Taylor at the end of the season is not known.

Taylor continued on in baseball for another 22 years. He finally retired in 1973 at the age of 75 while serving as a scout for the Montreal Expos and that was only because the state of Florida wouldn’t renew his driver’s license due to his eyesight.

“If you can’t drive, you can’t get out to see the players.…,” he said.7

He also ran a catching school for youngsters from 1968 almost until his death.

Taylor died at age 76 on September 19, 1974, of an apparent heart attack at his home in Orlando, Florida.

 

This biography appears in "Winning on the North Side: The 1929 Chicago Cubs" (SABR, 2015), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.

 

Sources

AP, “Fans Will Direct St. Louis Browns in Game Tonight,” Florence (Alabama) Times, August 25, 1951.

Richman, Milton, “Above Everything Else, Zack Taylor Was For Real,” Warsaw (Indiana) Times-Union, September 20, 1974.

Baseball-Reference.com

SABR.org

  • 1. “Zack’s Tracks,” The Sporting News, November 12, 1947.
  • 2. Rollins College baseball records go back only to 1947.
  • 3. “Zack’s Tracks.”
  • 4. “Zak [sic] Taylor Was an Actor in Many Baseball Thrills,” Pittsburgh Press, December 24, 1944.
  • 5. “Sun Shining Now for Zack Taylor,” Pittsburgh Press, August 27, 1929.
  • 6. “Taylor Still Likes to Talk About Midget,” Florence (Alabama) Times, March 13, 1960.
  • 7. Milton Richman, “Above Everything Else, Zack Taylor Was For Real,” Warsaw, (Indiana) Times-Union, September 20, 1974.