SABR

Benn Karr

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Ben Karr wanted to leave the family farm in Mount Pleasant, Mississippi, and see the world. He’d gone through the public schools in Mount Pleasant and spent a couple of years at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  Then he was offered the opportunity to play professional baseball and he signed on. “I took a pro contract because it gave me, a farm boy, a chance to see the country,” he said many years later. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have stayed in college.” [1]

However, when Karr completed a player questionnaire for the Hall of Fame, he was asked the standard question, “If you had it to do all over, would you play professional baseball?” He wrote his answer: “Yes.” Perhaps he was of two minds on the subject, which wouldn’t be altogether unusual.

Born at home on the farm at Mount Pleasant, Ben (who later picked up another “n” in his first name, as well as the nickname Baldy) was the fifth of seven children reported in the census of 1900. His father was Joseph H. Karr and his mother Helen Jones Karr, both native Mississippians though of South Carolina and Georgia/Mississippi parents respectively. After baseball, Karr himself turned to farming in the area of Earle, Arkansas.

Karr did play semipro ball in Jackson, and perhaps that’s where he was first noticed. His first professional play was for the Memphis Chickasaws in 1914. He wasn’t fooling too many batters, but then again the seventh-place team wasn’t giving him a lot of support. His record was 2-10 in 15 games; the team finished seventh in the eight-team Class A Southern League. The Detroit Tigers were interested, nonetheless, and took an option on him on August 10.

Karr’s travels began to take him further in 1915; he split the season between the Mobile Sea Gulls (9-14, also a seventh-place finisher) and, more briefly, the San Francisco Seals (1-2). He’d begun the year with the Seals and served notice right away that he might have some special talent. Facing the Vernon Tigers on April 25, “a complete stranger direct from Detroit with cinders in his hair,” the unheralded Karr threw a near-perfect game, allowing just one scratch hit in the 2-0 win. [2] On May 19 Mobile purchased his contract.

Most of 1916 was in the Texas League, where he was on a Chattanooga contract and pitched 20 innings (0-3). He was sent to Texas and was 9-9 in combined work for the Dallas Giants and then Galveston. In 1917 Karr split his time between Galveston and Waco, and produced another disappointing record (the Galveston Pirates finished last in both 1916 and 1917), 3-10 – but with an earned-run average of 2.85 in 139 innings of work. As a batter, he hit .279 with a pair of home runs.

The World War beckoned and Karr was called to serve in the Army, spending part of 1917 and most of 1918 (a year and a half in all) in the infantry, most of the time working as a cook at Camp Pike, near Little Rock, Arkansas. Near the end of 1918, he got into two games for the Little Rock Travelers and won them both – the first time he’d posted a winning record.

The Travelers kept Karr in 1919 and he had an excellent year (21-13, 1.90 in a full season of 336 innings). He was indeed busy; the Boston Globe said he “pitched three games a week for Little Rock … and played in the outfield or at first base or ran a turnstile when not pitching.”[3] He ended the season throwing both games of a doubleheader, winning both despite throwing 23 innings. His 1919 season earned him an invitation to join the Boston Red Sox, and he showed excellent control in spring training and a good screwball, impressing veterans on the team and manager Ed Barrow. “Pitcher Karr Making Good” said a subhead in the March 7, 1920, Boston Globe. A report later in the month assessed him as “one of the new pitchers who really looks good all the time.”[4] Karr wasn’t seen as one of the top six men on the staff, but as a good addition to the team.

His April 22 debut was disappointing. All he pitched, officially, was one-third of an inning in Washington.

After scoring four runs in the top of the fifth, the Red Sox held a 5-0 lead and starter Allen Russell had allowed just one hit through the first four innings. In the fifth, however, Russell loaded the bases and then walked in a run. Karr was called upon, and got the third out of the inning. In the bottom of the sixth, he was hapless. Two hits, a wild pitch, and two walks resulted in one run scored and the bases loaded. There was still nobody out. Barrow halted play and beckoned in Harry Harper. A single drove in two runs, a couple of more singles followed before the inning was done, and Karr was charged with four runs and the loss. 

On June 20 in Cleveland he got his first win. This time it was the Red Sox overcoming a 5-0 deficit. Karr helped offensively, starting “two rallies with clean singles to right,” drawing a walk another time up, and scoring three runs. The Red Sox built up a 10-6 lead. Karr’s performance hit a sour note when he loaded the bases in the top of the eighth with nobody out; Russell came in to relieve, all three runs scored, but no more and the Sox held on for a 10-9 win. Karr was in the right place at the right time again on July 2, with another 10-9 win, this time in ten innings, with Karr holding the Senators to two hits in the last two innings of the game.

Karr finished the season 3-8, leading the league in games finished with 19, but with a poor 4.81 ERA. He hit .280 at the plate, with one home run and 15 RBIs. He appeared in 26 games as a pitcher, but in 57 in all – working in the other 31 games as a pinch-hitter. After the season ended, Karr married Gussie Cunningham on November 3.

Karr improved significantly in 1921, shaving more than a run off his earned-run average (to 3.67), and posted the only winning record of his major-league career (8-7, for the fifth-place 75-79 Red Sox). He won five of those games between August 18 and September 5.

In 1922 Karr pitched the second game of the season, a 5-2 five-hitter against the visiting Philadelphia Athletics. Nine days later he held the Athletics to one run on seven hits. Both were complete-game wins. They were his two best games of the year. At year-end he was 5-12 with a 4.47 ERA, and it was back to the minor leagues. He was sent to Atlanta on February 17, 1923.

Karr enjoyed a superb couple of seasons playing for the Crackers: 21-14, 3.12 in 1923 and 23-10, 2.75 in 1924, leading the Southern Association in wins and in strikeouts (127) in the latter year.

Through a deal in December, Karr became part of the Yankees organization, but by January 23 he’d been returned to the Crackers. There was some thought that they had been interested in him as much as a pinch-hitter as a pitcher, but in the end they weren’t sufficiently interested in him at all.[5]

The Indians invited Karr to spring training in 1925. In the words of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Henry P. Edwards, he was “signed largely for relief work as he not only is an iron man, but one who is noted for his control and courage under fire.”[6] Both parties had gotten over the problem in September 1924 when Karr was sold to Cleveland but refused to report. His demand was 10 percent of the $10,000 purchase price. He was given $500 but then refused to report until he was given another $500. He refunded the money he’d been given to cover his transportation to Cleveland. He was still holding out in January 1925.[7]

Given the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues once more, Karr responded and won his first five games, three as a starter and two in relief. On May 14 he not only pitched a complete game opposite Boston’s Red Ruffing, but his bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth won the game, 4-3. Karr’s streak was snapped on May 28 though he allowed just four singles in a complete-game loss to the St. Louis Browns. The rest of the season didn’t play out nearly as well as it began, and he finished the season 11-12, with a 4.78 ERA.

Karr’s 24 starts in 1925 dwindled to just seven in 1926, though he appeared in nearly as many games overall, working much more in a relief role. His final record was 5-6 with a 5.00 earned-run average. In 1927 his ERA crept up to 5.05. In his last major-league game, on July 3, he got the equivalent of a modern-day save. He was traded three days later to New Orleans for pitcher Walter Brown and played the rest of the season for the Pelicans; he was a very good 11-4, with a 3.48 ERA. Karr pitched for the Pels in 1928 and 1929, too, winning 13 games each year and with similar ERAs. In 1929 he hit a career-high three home runs. He wasn’t much of a hitter. Even in the 13 seasons he played minor-league ball, his average was just .234.

Karr pitched through spring training with New Orleans in 1930, but failed to play in the regular season; he had a final year with Little Rock once more in 1931 (6-5, 4.50 ERA). He dipped back in, briefly, as the last of seven (!) managers for the Batesville White Sox of the Northeast Arkansas League in 1936.

His life over the three decades that followed is as yet unknown.

Karr died in Memphis of a coronary on December 8, 1968. He’d been in the Veterans Administration hospital for pneumonia and was experiencing kidney problems as well. He was survived by his wife, Gussie.

December 18, 2011

Sources

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




[1] The Sporting News, December 21, 1968

[2] Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1915

[3] Boston Globe, June 21, 1920

[4] Boston Globe, March 21, 1920

[5] New York Times, January 24, 1924

[6] Washington Post, April 4, 1925

[7] The Sporting News, September 25, 1924 and January 22, 1925

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