SABR

Mike Meola

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Mike Meola was a product of sandlot baseball in Manhattan who became a journeyman right-hander with a 0-3 record in three seasons in the majors, and 115-116 in 12 minor-league seasons.

He was born as Emile Michael Meola to Italian immigrant parents Pascuala and Filomina Meola. His father was a contractor in the refuse business in 1920 who had come to the United States in 1881. The couple had five sons: Morris (or Maurice), Joseph, Emile (Mike), Richard, and Alexander. In 1920, when Mike was 15, most of the sons were listed as chauffeurs. Come the 1930 Census, Mike was a professional ballplayer but listed with the family on Christopher Street in Lower Manhattan. Pascuala was gone by then, but every one of Mike’s four brothers gave his profession as contracting in the automobile business. Other than a family tradition of liking to be considered contractors, we don’t know exactly what they all did. Morris boxed professionally for a while, as did Joe.

In Mike’s case, though, it’s clear enough that he pursued a life on the diamond. In 1928, he started the season pitching in the Class D Blue Ridge League for the Martinsburg Blue Sox before moving to the rival Chambersburg Maroons. The New York Yankees took over the Chambersburg club for the 1929 season and cut him loose. He tried to link back up with Martinsburg, but instead wound up with another Blue Ridge League team, the Hagerstown Hubs. [Washington Post, February 13, 1929]

He wasn’t that good, 4-11 in his time with the Maroons, and then 12-12 with the 1929 Hubs (individual line scores of some of the Martinsburg games are available, but his statistics with the team are not). He seemed to struggle with his control in Hagerstown, with 103 walks, but improved that part of his game. Nonetheless, at the end of his minor-league career, he still had a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.411. He closed 1929 as the winning pitcher, throwing the final two innings of one-hit relief as the Hubs beat Martinsburg in the 10th inning of the deciding game of the Blue Ridge League playoffs.

Mike began 1930 with Hagerstown (5-6) but in June was purchased by Washington, which sent him to Chattanooga. He pitched in several games for the Chattanooga Lookouts, who optioned him to the Montgomery Lions, where he won his last four games for the Southeastern League team, striking out 14 in the last of the four. Manager Roy Ellam said Meola had “plenty of speed, but needs a better change of pace.” [Washington Post, August 15, 1930] The August 24 Post said that Montgomery considered him a “strikeout king” and a “wonder man” and said that Washington owner Clark Griffith thought he’d be with Washington in 1931. Instead, he pitched for the Charlotte Hornets. Washington placed him back with Chattanooga. Meola pitched for the Lookouts through spring training and well into May, even helping beat the Cincinnati Reds in an early April exhibition game. Confusingly, he’s shown as 2-3 with Charlotte in 1931 and 4-1 in 1932. And at the end of 1931, in between, he is carried on organized baseball’s roster as voluntarily retired from Charlotte. [The Sporting News, December 3, 1931]

Near the end of 1932, Meola pitched for the semipro Bushwicks of Brooklyn in a September exhibition game against the New York Giants.

In 1933, despite an unimpressive and hard-to-trace minor-league record, Meola became a member of the Boston Red Sox, training with them in Sarasota, Florida. “Meola and Johnson Star” read part of a New York Times headline on April 4 as the Red Sox beat Newark with a four-hit shutout in Jersey City. He was among the Red Sox party thrown about in the wee morning hours when the train carrying the team derailed, killing two of the train crew. Meola’s major-league debut came on April 24. The Red Sox lost, 16-10, to the Philadelphia Athletics. Meola threw the last inning in relief, giving up six runs on five hits before he finally got the third out. The score was 10-6 before he came in, so Ivy Andrews was assigned the loss. On April 30, Meola pitched in two games. The first game wasn’t too taxing – he faced one batter, securing the last out in the bottom of the eighth as the Yankees won at Yankee Stadium, 11-2. He was called on again in game two, again getting every man he faced to close the game, three of them, one on strikes. New York won that one, too, 8-3, and didn’t have to bat in the ninth. Meola was sent to Jersey City to pitch for the Skeeters.

Looking back on 1933, Meola saw a horrendous 23.14 earned-run average in the major leagues and a 7-12 record with a 5.12 ERA for Jersey City, which couldn’t have cheered him that much more even if a number of the losses came because the Skeeters were a last-place team. The next year, Meola really turned things around. The Los Angeles Angels brought him to the Pacific Coast League, trading some money and a catcher to Jersey City. A Chicago Cubs scout had been watching Meola and recommended him to the Cubs-affiliated Angels, saying he was a “major-league prospect of the first magnitude … one of the best young pitchers in the minor leagues.” He was reported to weigh 190 pounds (he was 5-feet-11) and “sturdily constructed to stand a lot of work.” [Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1933] He was taken by the Angels, the headline read, “to supply needed zest.”

How the scout discerned his potential, we don’t know, but he did bring some zest to the Angels. He was one of the last to sign, but when his contract turned up on February 16, it was accompanied by a self-confident letter reading in part, “Although my record with the lowly Jersey City club last year wasn’t as good as it figured to be, I didn’t have to take off my hat to any pitcher in the International League. I figure I ought to win at least twenty-five games for the Angels this year provided you don’t sell me to the majors before the season in over.” He added that he’d been doing a lot of boxing to keep in shape. [Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1934] After he turned up, the paper reported his nickname as Tarzan and called him a “large, lumpy right hander looking more like a Rassler than a pitcher,” and said he was telling Angels fans all they should worry about is whether he was going to win 25 games or 30. [Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1934]

One dramatic moment came before the regular season got under way. As Meola was leaving his downtown hotel, Los Angeles police handcuffed him, saying, “You’re just the guy we’re looking for. You’re wanted for murder in Chicago.” As the wagon was summoned, a couple of newsboys vouched for him as the new pitcher for the Angels, and he was released. Meola believed it was all a practical joke, but the officers insisted he was a double for a well-known racketeer.” [The Sporting News, March 22, 1934]

Mike came through, if not at such lofty levels, with a 20-5 season (2.90 ERA) in 1934 and a 19-8 year in 1935 (his 3.00 ERA led the league). The Angels won the pennant and the playoffs in 1934 and came in second, losing to the Seals in the playoffs in 1935. On November 28, 1935, still officially on the Chicago Cubs roster, he was traded to the St. Louis Browns for pitcher Fay Thomas and cash, ticketed to play for manager Rogers Hornsby. A lot of the Browns’ hopes rested on Meola coming through.

Meola’s first game for the Browns took place at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, on April 17 against the Cleveland Indians. He pitched the 10th inning after his team had tied the game 10-10 in the bottom of the ninth. He faced eight batters, allowed four hits, walked one, and threw a wild pitch, allowing three runs and losing the game. It was his only decision for St. Louis. He appeared in eight more games, all in relief, with the last one, on May 11, being the worst (seven earned runs in one inning – the White Sox were already ahead 12-6 when he came in to pitch the ninth, so he wasn’t given an L.) Two days later, on May 13, he was sold outright to the Syracuse Stars, the International League affiliate of his first major-league team, the Red Sox. He was 7-10 for the Stars, and then brought to Boston in time to get his first major-league start in the second game of an August 12 doubleheader against Philadelphia. He lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up all six runs (four earned) in a 6-0 loss.

Meola started three games and relieved in three games for Boston in 1936. He never won a major-league game. The third loss (second for the Red Sox) came in a complete game against the Browns, in St. Louis, on September 12. He’d pitched a very good game, and it was tied 2-2 after nine innings – but he got only one out in the 10th when Harlond Clift took third on Moose Solters’ single, then scored when Beau Bell singled to win the game. Meola had one more inning on a major-league mound and retired all three batters. But he wasn’t invited back.

In December, the Red Sox sent Meola and outfielder Dusty Cooke to Minneapolis for slugging outfielder Fabian Gaffke. Mike wasn’t pleased with the move, and told Millers owner Mike Kelley that he didn’t intend to report because he was a major-league pitcher. Bold talk for an 0-3 pitcher with an 8.16 earned-run average. Kelley told Meola to prove it by finding a job with a major-league club. [The Sporting News, January 7, 1937] Meola failed, and next turned up in Toronto, “rescued from semipro ball” by Maple Leafs manager Dan Howley. [The Sporting News, May 20, 1937]

He wound up playing for Toronto in 1937 and 1938. He won 10 games both years, losing 17 in ’37 and eight in ’39. Mike began 1939 with the Leafs again, but in early June was swapped back to Syracuse for catcher Tommy Heath.

He quit the game in 1940 and became a demolition contractor in New York for P. Meola and Sons, but kept his hand in semipro ball for the Bushwicks and others. He also was part-owner of a liquor store in Brooklyn. [The Sporting News, May 9, 1940] He moved to New Jersey and was active in church and Republican Party affairs in the Fair Lawn, New Jersey, area where he made his home. Meola died suddenly on September 1, 1976, at the age of 70, leaving behind his wife, Anna (Martocci); their daughter, Vivian (who married and lived in Tarzana, California); a son, Emile; and his four brothers.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in this biography, the author consulted Jack Slattery’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

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