Vic Sorrell

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

With his spectacles and quiet demeanor, Vic Sorrell gave the impression of a professor or preacher instead of a baseball lifer. After a standout career as a high-school and collegiate star in North Carolina in the early 1920s, right-handed pitcher Sorrell debuted for the Detroit Tigers in 1928. Toiling during some of the team’s leanest years, Sorrell was a consistent workman, averaging 234 innings and almost 14 wins per season over a five-year period (1929- 33). His arm gave out just as the Tigers took center stage in the American League with pennants in 1934 and 1935, and he did not see action in either World Series, leading one writer from the era to suggest that “fate is unkind to Sorrell.”1 After his 15-year career in Organized Baseball, Sorrell skippered the North Carolina State Wolfpack baseball team for 21 seasons (1946-66).

Victor Garland Sorrell was born on April 9, 1901, to Julius Judson and Lela Frances (McGee) Sorrell. The Sorrells and their five sons (Waylon, Ottis, Vic, Elvin, and Bernice) lived on a 400-acre farm in Morrisville, North Carolina, about 15 miles northwest of Raleigh in the heart of tobacco country. Vic’s father, nicknamed Bugs, died in 1910; mother Fannie raised the boys, instilling in them a work ethic that Vic displayed his entire life. “My father used to say,” Vic Sorrell Jr. told the author in an interview, “that baseball was easy compared to picking a hundred pounds of cotton every day on the farm.”2 Vic and his oldest brother, Waylon, were the athletes in the family, and by all accounts they played baseball whenever they could. Getting his start in sandlot baseball, Vic initially made his reputation as a hard-throwing third baseman for Cary High School and for a semipro team in nearby Leesville. But with such a powerful arm, Sorrell was converted into a pitcher and his fate was sealed. According to his son, there was a lot of competition for his father’s services; consequently, he switched high schools as a junior, and led Clayton High School (about 30 miles from Morrisville) to the state championship. Returning closer to home to play for Cary in his senior year, Sorrell once struck out 21 batters.

After graduation, Sorrell helped run the farm, the family’s sole source of income, and continued to play semipro baseball. In the fall of 1922 he entered Wake Forest University, which at the time was located just north of Raleigh. He began studying law, but later noted, “I never had any intention of becoming a lawyer.”3 After playing for the freshman and varsity teams in his first year, Sorrell helped lead the Deacons to conference titles in his sophomore and junior years. As a junior he won his last eight games while surrendering just three runs.4 During his senior year, Sorrell was involved in controversy that led to his being declared ineligible to compete in college athletics.

Because of his success with Wake Forest, Sorrell was recruited by the Blue-Grays, a semipro team in Bluefield, a bustling coal town and rail center in southern West Virginia, on the Virginia border. At the time it was common for college players to play semipro baseball and be paid under the table, though it was not technically legal. For two summers (1924-25) Sorrell worked menial jobs during the day and pitched in the evenings and weekends for the Blue-Grays in the local coalfield league. His teammates included his future batterymate for the Tigers, Ray Hayworth, and outfielder Ethan Allen. Wake Forest’s archrival, North Carolina State, had protested already in 1925 that Sorrell should be declared ineligible because of his “professional” status. Protests against Sorrell (as well as other Wake Forest players) intensified the following season, leading to Sorrell’s loss of eligibility. But during his time in Bluefield, Sorrell found a close confidant in a local sportswriter Virgil “Stubby” Currence, whose friendship and influence in Bluefield sports played a large role in Sorrell’s life for decades thereafter.

Despite his loss of eligibility, Sorrell’s dreams of a career in the big leagues were far from over. By his junior year at Wake Forrest he had attracted major-league scouts, notably from the Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators, the latter being the closest big-league team, about 270 miles away. Sorrell’s son relayed a story his father often told about his signing. “My father was in a barbershop and a man walked in. He asked if my father was interested in playing professional baseball. My dad thought he was joking. And he said, ‘I may be from the sticks, but I’ve been in the city enough to know that you’re pulling my leg.’ The man then showed him his credentials as a scout for the Detroit Tigers.” That person was longtime Tigers scout William Thomas “Billy” Doyle, who signed Sorrell to a minor-league contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1926.

Sorrell’s first season in professional baseball was delayed when he came down with a case of the mumps. “It was lost time,” he said. “I was naturally anxious to make it up. I began to work a little too soon. The result was a sore arm. It bothered me all season.5 With a blazing fastball, he tossed a two-hitter in his first start, on July 19. Splitting his time between starts and relief appearances, Sorrell was described as “superb,” posting an 8-0 record and a 3.08 ERA in 73 innings.6 On a staff that boasted five pitchers who won at least 15 games, Sorrell helped lead the Maple Leafs to the Junior World Series title, defeating the Louisville Colonels. An article in The Sporting News said that Sorrell, the league’s hardest-to-hit hurler, had the “makings of a great right-hander,” and was particularly enamored with his overhand curve. “The drop of the ball made the mighty Niagara flush for a week,” the paper said.7 Sorrell was praised for his discipline and unmatched work ethic, especially along with manager Dan Howley, who was given credit for making Sorrell “the best-looking rookie in minor-league baseball.”8

Sorrell excelled in his sophomore season with Toronto, going 14-8 with a 3.93 ERA in 190 innings. According to one source, by the end of the season “every major-league club had a man watching Sorrell somewhere.”9 Sorrell seemed to possess the intangible qualities of a winner. Sportswriters noted his “unmistakable grit” and competitive attitude, as much as the “speed” of his pitches.10 After the season, Toronto balked at selling Sorrell’s contract; however, the Maple Leafs ultimately agreed to trade him to Detroit for proven big-leaguer Rip Collins, who had just come off a 13-7 season for the Tigers in 1927.

A quiet and gentle man, not known as a conversationalist, Sorrell looked back on his years with Toronto and often told a story that revealed the strange whims and fate of baseball. In his first year with Toronto, he was a teammate of Carl Hubbell, who struggled and was forbidden to throw the screwball for fear of injury. “I was promoted and sent to the Tigers,” Sorrell’s son remembered his father saying with understated humor, “while Hubbell was demoted and finally traded to the Giants.”

Sorrell reported to his first big-league spring training in 1928. Coming off their sixth consecutive winning season, the Tigers were about to enter the lowest point of the club’s history with six consecutive second-division finishes and just one winning season before the team’s unexpected pennant in 1934. Breaking into the Tigers’ rotation seemed like a daunting task. The team boasted five legitimate starting pitchers, each in his 20s, who had won at least ten games and logged at least 170 innings in 1927 (Earl Whitehill, Lil Stoner, Sam Gibson, Ken Holloway, and Ownie Carroll). The Sporting News opined that “[Sorrell] will see little actual experience in the AL,” and would probably be slated for the bullpen.11

Sorrell debuted on April 22 by pitching the last four innings, yielding three hits, in a blowout against the Chicago White Sox at Navin Field in Detroit. Little used in the first three months of the season, Sorrell logged 10⅓ innings in a complete-game loss (while walking 10) to the Boston Red Sox on May 16. He earned his first big-league win six days later against the St. Louis Browns, 6-3, despite allowing 15 baserunners in 6⅓ innings. With Gibson, Holloway, and Stoner failing to duplicate their success from the previous season, Sorrell moved to the starting rotation on July 1 and made 18 consecutive starts to conclude the season. Against the reigning World Series champion New York Yankees, on July 26 in Detroit, he was involved in arguably the most frustrating game of his career. The New York Times reported that Sorrell gave “Waite Hoyt the battle of a lifetime” in a game tied at 1-1 after 11 innings. But Sorrell “crumbled to dust” in the 12th, surrendering 10 hits and 11 runs as 15 batters came to the plate. He inexplicably finished the game, a 12-inning loss.12 Sorrell finished his rookie campaign with an 8-11 record and 4.79 ERA in 171 innings. His manager, George Moriarty, a former umpire who led the team to a sixth-place finish and failed to connect with his players during his two years as the Tigers’ skipper, was forced out after the season.

The Tigers looked to former Washington Senators player-manager Bucky Harris to lead the team back to prominence. Harris’s positive and confidence-building approach to the game had an immediate impact on his players. The club got off to a good start in 1929, playing .500 ball through mid-July. Sorrell, one of the hottest pitchers in the league during the first half of the season, played a prominent role in the club’s resurgence. After splitting his first six decisions, he won a career-best seven consecutive starts, including six complete games. He tossed his first of eight career shutouts, an eight-hitter at Fenway Park against the Red Sox’ Red Ruffing (who fell to 0-11). But the second half of Sorrell’s and the Tigers’ season was as terrible as the first half was promising. The Tigers were a classic all-hit, no-pitch team; they led the AL in batting (.299) and runs scored (927) behind great seasons by Dale Alexander, Charlie Gehringer, and Harry Heilmann, who combined for 363 runs batted in; however, the pitching staff ranked last in team ERA (4.96). In what started out as a breakout season, Sorrell instead won just four of his last 16 decisions. In the final three months of the season he struggled with control. Batters hit a whopping .345 against him, and his ERA approached 7.00, as the Tigers limped to another disappointing sixth-place finish.

In a turnabout, Sorrell enjoyed his best season in the big leagues in 1930, a season better known as the “Year of the Hitter,” when AL records were established in runs scored (6,670) and highest ERA (4.65). Sorrell’s season started out slowly. He tossed a complete game to defeat the Cleveland Indians for his first victory of the season, and then was pummeled in his next three starts. Harris moved him to the bullpen for about three weeks to work on his control. After four appearances and two wins, Sorrell was back in the starting rotation for the rest of the season. On August 4, he tossed a 12-inning complete game to defeat Ted Lyons and the Chicago White Sox, 7-3, courtesy of Gehringer’s second home run of the game, a walk-off grand slam. Five days later, Sorrell blanked the Red Sox on nine hits at Fenway Park for his second career shutout. He finished the season with a career-high 16 wins (11 losses) and an impressive 3.86 ERA in 233⅓ innings. His 124 adjusted ERA, fifth-best in the AL, was a career best.

For most of his career, Sorrell struggled with his control. He walked more than 100 batters for three consecutive years (1929-31) and finished with more career walks than strikeouts. “My control is not all that I could wish,” Sorrell said in an interview in 1930 and explained the dilemma that most all pitchers faced. “[I] bear down hard in order to get by at all, and the more you bear down, the less easy it is to put the ball where you want it.”13

Contemporary newspaper accounts often pointed out that Sorrell did not look like a typical baseball player. He was among the few major leaguers who wore eyeglasses, which gave him a “decidedly studious look.”14 Of average build (5-feet-10 and 180 pounds), Sorrell had a dignified air with dark eyes and fine facial features. According to his son, Sorrell was in a serious car wreck not long after he began his professional baseball career and his dark hair turned prematurely white because of the shock of the event. Consequently, Sorrell appeared older than he was. “It looks as if I were getting whiter each season,” Sorrell said jokingly in 1932. “But lack of control didn’t cause the white hair. That came as a result of an auto accident.”15 His teammates gave him a number of nicknames, all of which played on his appearance and background as a former college standout: Professor, Lawyer, Philosopher, and Baby Doll were monikers throughout his career.

The Tigers slumped to seventh place in 1931 and tied a franchise record with 93 losses. Though not a star, Sorrell was “regarded as the steadiest of the Tigers pitchers.”16 He enjoyed some of his best games of the year against the Yankees. In six starts against them, he went 3-1 with four complete games and a 2.94 ERA. Two of the wins came during a two-week period in June. First, he tossed a ten-inning six-hitter to defeat Lefty Gomez in the Bronx. The other was a wild contest at Navin Field. Though Sorrell was not at his best (he surrendered 12 hits and seven walks in 11 innings), he picked up the win in dramatic fashion when Johnny Grabowski, pinch-hitting for Sorrell, executed a perfect walk-off squeeze bunt to score Marty McManus for an exciting 8-7 win. Sorrell’s third extra-inning complete-game victory of the season came in his next to last start, a 3-2 victory over the Senators at Griffith Stadium. Sorrell finished the season at 13-14; however, in 13 of the losses, the Tigers scored three runs or less (23 runs total). En route to setting career highs with 32 starts, 19 complete games (sixth best in the AL), and 245 innings, he also issued a career-high 114 walks. Eleven of them came in a complete-game 4-1 loss to the White Sox on September 6. The umpire of that contest was his former manager, George Moriarty, who had returned to umpiring after his stint as the Tigers’ skipper.

Sorrell played on a winning team for the first time in his big-league career in 1932 as the Tigers improved to 76-75. Contributing to the team’s success was consistent pitching: Earl Whitehill, Sorrell, Whit Wyatt, and Tommy Bridges each logged more than 200 innings. Sorrell, the Professor, got off to a good start and enjoyed arguably the best month of his career in May, winning all five of his starts. On May 10 against the Red Sox, he tossed the first of two career two-hitters and did not issue a walk. In his seventh year of professional ball, Sorrell exhibited better control of his fastball and curve, walking 3.0 batters per nine innings (down from 4.2 the previous year). “One thing I have done,” said Sorrell of his improved control, “is develop a moderately effective change of pace.”17 Sorrell’s season ended prematurely in September when he came down with arm problems.18 Manager Harris permitted him to return to North Carolina after his third ineffective outing of the month. Sorrell finished the season with a 14-14 record, but was again a hard-luck loser. In 12 of his losses, the Tigers scored three runs or fewer.

A common refrain in Sorrell’s career was that he was a better pitcher than his record indicated. His 1933 season illustrates that point. He was winless through May, having lost all six decisions even though his 3.99 ERA was lower than the league’s season average (4.28). The Sporting News once noted that “hard luck ... has beset Sorrell almost constantly throughout his career.”19 Locked in a scoreless duel with the Red Sox’ Lloyd Brown, Sorrell surrendered a walk-off single with two outs in the 11th inning to lose in heartbreaking fashion, and his record fell to 3-10. Described as a “crafty, untroubled workman, careful to keep himself in shape,” Sorrell demonstrated his stamina in a ten-day period in August when he pitched 37 innings.20 It started with an 11-inning complete-game six-hitter to defeat the White Sox 3-2 on August 4. On two days’ rest, he went the distance against the Indians, limiting them to eight hits in a 6-3 victory. Taking the mound against the White Sox at Comiskey Park on August 13, Sorrell pitched a career-high 17-inning complete game. Facing 70 batters, Sorrell surrendered 17 hits (15 singles), and earned the improbable win when Hank Greenberg scored on Frank Doljack’s triple. In his last season as a front-line starter, the remarkably consistent Sorrell logged 232⅔ innings, completed 13 of 28 starts (also relieving eight times), and posted a career-low 3.79 ERA. He won only 11 times; in 11 of his defeats, the Tigers scored just 15 runs.

The Tigers overcame a sluggish start in 1934 (16-16 at one point) to cruise to a team-record 101 wins and their first pennant since 1909. Their success was the result of a perfect combination of shrewd acquisitions and great seasons from key players. Before the season Detroit acquired catcher-manager and 1934 MVP Mickey Cochrane from the Philadelphia A’s and Goose Goslin from the St. Louis Browns; and pitcher Firpo Marberry from the Washington Senators a year earlier. Younger players, like Bridges (22 wins), Schoolboy Rowe (24 wins), Elden Auker (15 wins), and first baseman Greenberg enjoyed breakout seasons, and veteran second baseman Gehringer batted .356 with a career-high 127 runs batted in. As part of the best staff in his career, Sorrell lacked the consistency he enjoyed in previous seasons and, with a surplus of young arms, was used less regularly than ever. He lost his spot in the starting rotation in late July after a poor outing dropped his record to 6-6 and raised his ERA to 4.44, and made only seven appearances in the last two months of the season. He was on the roster but did not pitch in the club’s dramatic seven-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Just when the Tigers reached the heights of baseball, Sorrell’s arm was beginning to give out. Immediately after the World Series, rumors swirled that Sorrell (who had won just six of 15 decisions and posted a 4.79 ERA in 129⅔ innings) would be traded.

Sorrell endured the constant chatter about his imminent release during his last three campaigns (1935-37) with the club. On the cutting block during spring training in 1935, Sorrell remained on the squad when Marberry developed arm problems and Carl Fischer was sold to the White Sox in mid-May. The veteran made only six starts the entire season, but tossed complete-game victories in four of them. Facing the Yankees in the second game of a doubleheader on July 23 to determine first place, “the ugly duckling of the Tigers pitching staff ” pitched the most important game of his career, an eight-hitter to maintain Detroit’s half-game lead over New York.21 With only one appearance in September, Sorrell was once again on the sidelines as the Tigers secured their second consecutive pennant, and he did not play in the club’s historic World Series victory over the Cubs that captured the team’s first championship.

“Hanger-on Sorrell Is a Tiger Lifesaver” exclaimed The Sporting News early in the 1936 season when Sorrell was unexpectedly thrust into the starting rotation.22 He hurled complete games in his first four starts, won three of them, including a masterful three-hit shutout over the Red Sox. He improved his record to 5-1 with a complete-game victory over Boston at Fenway Park on June 9. It proved to be Sorrell’s last win as a starting pitcher and the final complete game in his big-league career. After turning back the hands of time in the first half of the season, Sorrell struggled after July 1, posting a 7.43 ERA in 49⅔ innings to finish with a 6-7 record and a 5.28 ERA in 131⅓ innings.

Like so many players whose contributions to their teams deserve a more dignified ending, Sorrell saw his career with the Tigers come to an ignominious close in June 1937 when he was sent outright to Toledo of the American Association. An 0-2 record and 9.00 ERA with the Tigers was followed by 6-5 ledger and a 5.22 ERA with the Mud Hens.

Sorrell was lured back to Bluefield, West Virginia, one year after his big-league career ended. According to his son, Sorrell and sportswriter Stubby Currence had maintained a close friendship since the pitcher’s coalfield league days in 1924. Currence persuaded Sorrell to pitch for the Bluefield Blue-Grays, recently admitted to the Class D Mountain State League. Down-to-earth and level-headed, Sorrell was a popular, beloved figure in the town of 25,000 residents. He took the mound for the Blue-Grays in his final three years of professional baseball (1938-40), went 26-11, and managed the club in in 1939 and ’40. He announced his retirement after the 1940 season, and 15 years in Organized Ball. In his ten years with the Tigers he was 92-101, logging 1,671⅔ innings with a 4.43 ERA.

Sorrell returned to his home town of Raleigh. During World War II he served in the Navy at the Wilmington Shipyards and also pitched for his base’s team.23 In the late 1940s he worked as a bird-dog scout for the Tigers for three years.24 He was the head baseball coach at North Carolina State University from 1946 to 1966. During his 21 years as skipper of the Wolfpack, Sorrell fielded competitive teams (though he never won an Atlantic Coast Conference title) and finished with a 223-196-5 record. He also coached his son, Victor Jr., in the early 1960s. Sorrell retired as the longest-serving coach in the school’s history (his 21 years were tied by his successor, Sammy Esposito). “It’s been a wonderful experience,” Sorrell said before his last game on Vic Sorrell Day, April 23, 1966. “I’ve had my ups and downs both in the major leagues and here at N.C. State, but these past 21 years have been the happiest of my life.”25

Throughout his life, Sorrell was described as a dignified gentleman. His son said he never heard his father raise his voice but twice: once when he caught his ear in an old door and once on the baseball diamond when his son was a youngster and served as batboy. It’s no wonder that one of Sorrell’s favorite stories about his baseball career involved a loud—some might say uncouth—man. As a rookie in 1928, Sorrell struck out the veteran Ty Cobb, who was in his last year of big-league ball. After Cobb was punched out on a called strike, he argued and cursed with the umpire for what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably just a fraction of that. It would be hard to think of two people with more divergent personalities than Sorrell and Cobb. Vic Sorrell died May 4, 1972, in Raleigh at the age of 71. According to his death certificate, cirrhosis of the liver was the cause of death. He was buried at the Raleigh Memorial Park.

 

This biography is included in the book "Detroit the Unconquerable: The 1935 World Champion Tigers" (SABR, 2014), edited by Scott Ferkovich.

 

Sources

Newspapers

New York Times

The Sporting News  

Online sources

Ancestry.com

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.org

Other

Telephone Interview with Victor Sorrell Jr. on May 12, 2013.

Vic Sorrell player file, Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.

  • 1. Stubby Currence, “They’ll Never Play Any Benefits for Vic,” Bluefield Daily Telegraph, March 14, 1936, 10.
  • 2. The author expresses his gratitude to Victor Sorrell Jr., whom he interviewed per telephone on May 12, 2013. All quotations from him are from the interview.
  • 3. John J. Ward, “Vic Sorrell of the Detroit Tigers,” Baseball Magazine, July 1930, 356.
  • 4. “NC Sports Hall of Fame to Induct Wake Forest AD,” WakeForestSports.com, April 21, 1999. http://www.wakeforestsports. com/genrel/042199aaa.html
  • 5. Ward.
  • 6. “Vic Sorrell Starring on Toronto Outfit,” Gastonia (North Carolina) Daily Gazette, September 16, 1926, 2
  • 7. The Sporting News, October 14, 1926, 2.
  • 8. Al Nickerson, Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer, April 12, 1927, 3.
  • 9. John Foster, “Pitcher Sorrell’ Toronto [sic] Gets Chance with Detroit,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mirror, March 14, 1928, 28.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. The Sporting News, April 5, 1928, 1
  • 12. James R. Harrison, “Yankees Win 12-1; Then Lose 13-10,” New York Times, July 27, 1928, 15.
  • 13. Ward.
  • 14. Henry P. Edwards, “Sorrell Only Needs to Master Control to Become One of Baseball’s Great Pitchers,” Albany (New York) Evening News, January 2, 1932. 8.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. The Sporting News, August 13, 1931, 5.
  • 17. Ward.
  • 18. The Sporting News, September 22, 1932, 3.
  • 19. The Sporting News, May 21, 1936, 2.
  • 20. The Sporting News, December 14, 1933, 3.
  • 21. The Sporting News, August 1, 1935, 1.
  • 22. The Sporting News, May 21, 1936, 2.
  • 23. “Sorrell Having His Big Day,” Gastonia (North Carolina) Gazette, April 22, 1966, 14.
  • 24. The Sporting News, May 20, 1972, 39.
  • 25. “Sorrell Having His Big Day.”