SABR

Preacher Roe

This article was written by Warren Corbett.

How do you throw a spitball? “The idea is to get part of your grip wet, and the other dry. When the ball leaves your hand, it slips off your wet fingers and clings, just tiny-like, to the dry part on your thumb. The ball jumps on account of it. If it’s a good ’un, it drops like a dead duck just when it crosses the plate. … When you let go you squeeze a little more on the fingers. Did you ever squeeze a peach pit, or a watermelon seed, and let it shoot out? It’s like that.”i

Preacher Roe confessed his crimes to Sports Illustrated the year after he retired from baseball. He wasn’t telling major-league hitters anything they didn’t know; they had been complaining for years about his illegal wet one while the bony left-hander was a mainstay for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Boys of Summer.

Elwin Charles Roe was a country doctor’s son from Arkansas. New York sportswriters, with Roe’s connivance, turned him into one of their favorite stereotypes, the bumpkin in the big city. He went along, playing up his hillbilly roots with a semiliterate drawl, but he had attended Harding College, a Church of Christ school in Searcy, Arkansas, and taught high-school math in the offseasons.

He was born in Ash Flat, Arkansas, on February 16, 1916, one of seven children of Dr. Charles Edward Roe and Elizabeth Ducker Roe. His father was a right-handed pitcher who played semipro ball until he was past 60. Another Arkansas major leaguer, Marlin Stuart, claimed to have lost games to both father and son, 25 years apart. One summer Dr. Roe organized a team with his six sons, his son-in-law, a grandson, and himself to play against nine men who were running for sheriff.

And how did Elwin become Preacher? Well, it was like this: “One day when I was three years old my Uncle Bathis (my daddy’s only brother) asked me what my name was. I said to him, ‘Preacher.’ Don’t know why I said that but it’s stuck with me ever since.”ii Or maybe like this: “It came from his grandma,” a longtime friend, Kay Matthews, said. “As a child, Preacher was a nasty little cuss and she called him that hoping he would grow up to be a preacher.”iii Or maybe it was because of the Methodist minister with his horse and buggy: “He and his wife didn’t have any children and everywhere they went they took me with them in that buggy. My mother thought I associated liking the preacher with what I’d like to be called.”iv

Preacher he was, and he could throw fire and brimstone. In American Legion and college ball, he recalled, he would strike out 16 and walk 17. He struck out 26 in one 13-inning game (some sources say 11 innings) against Arkansas Tech. Cardinals scout Frank Rickey, Branch’s brother, signed him when he was one semester short of his degree in 1938. He used part of his $5,000 bonus to buy new uniforms for the Harding College team. He also married Mozee Vida Clay, whom he had known since childhood.

Roe joined the Cardinals late in the 1938 season. On August 22, as he told it, pitcher and fellow Arkansan Lon Warneke took the rookie into the clubhouse to teach him how to dip snuff. Manager Frankie Frisch picked that moment to call Roe into his first game, against Cincinnati, with the Cardinals trailing 5-2 in the fifth inning. Roe gave up four runs in 2⅔ innings in his debut. Then he disappeared into the Cardinals’ vast farm system for five years. He played on a Columbus, Ohio, team that won three straight Junior World Series championships from 1941 to1943. Columbus manager Burt Shotton said, “He was fast as hell and wilder than any human I ever saw.”v

Frankie Frisch had moved on to manage Pittsburgh and acquired Roe in trade for two young major leaguers, pitcher Johnny Podgajny and outfielder Johnny Wyrostek, plus cash. Roe started the Pirates’ opening game in 1944 and lost, 2-0, when St. Louis’s Max Lanier held Pittsburgh to two hits. Roe always reminded people that he got one of those hits, but that was a fluke; he was generally helpless at the plate. For much of the season he was sweating out his military draft status. He was declared unfit for service because of a back injury suffered when a tree fell on him the previous winter. He went 13-11 with a 3.11 ERA.

In 1945, pitching against weak wartime competition, Roe led the National League in strikeouts and lowered his ERA to 2.87, with a 14-13 record. He had conquered his wildness, walking fewer than two batters per nine innings. Measured by wins above replacement, he was the NL’s best pitcher. He was chosen for the All-Star team, but the game was canceled because of wartime travel restrictions. At 29, Roe appeared to be on his way to a stellar career.

Roe’s offseason job was teaching math and coaching boys and girls basketball at Hardy High School in Arkansas. During a game in February 1946 he disputed a referee’s call and the ref slugged him. He banged his head on the floor and fractured his skull. Reporting a month late to spring training, Roe tried to fight through headaches and dizzy spells, but completed only one of ten starts with a 5.14 ERA and went home in August. While he was weak and struggling, he credited catcher Al Lopez with giving him a makeover, changing his position on the rubber and shortening his delivery.

The 1947 season was no better. The Pirates fell to seventh place while Roe went 4-15 with a 5.25 ERA and just four complete games. But if you looked closely, you saw that the Pirates scored no more than two runs in ten of those losses. Branch Rickey, who had watched Roe develop in the Cardinals system, was looking closely.

After the season Rickey brought Roe to the Brooklyn Dodgers, with third baseman Billy Cox and utility infielder Gene Mauch, in exchange for pitchers Vic Lombardi and Hal Gregg and the star outfielder Dixie Walker. True to his nickname, Walker had asked to be traded because he didn’t want to play with Jackie Robinson. Cox was suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder after combat service in World War II. Roe said Rickey got “an infielder who’d been shook real bad and a skinny pitcher with a busted head.”vi

Roe had recovered his health, but not his fastball. After the head injury, he said he could throw hard only a few times a game. He remade himself as a control pitcher who relied on changing speeds, among other things. One day during spring training in the Dominican Republic, manager Leo Durocher warmed up his new pitcher on the sidelines. As one of Roe’s tosses got away from him, the manager shouted, “What’s that?” Roe replied, “Just a slider.”vii Durocher knew better. Roe had decided it was time to break out the spitball he had learned in the minors. Catcher Roy Campanella told him not to bother with a sign for the pitch; Campy had caught plenty of spitters in the Negro Leagues and knew one when he saw it coming.

To load up the baseball, Roe reached up to his cap and spat on the meat of his hand, then tugged at his belt and transferred the moisture to his fingertips. When opponents caught on, he went through the same motions and had another pitch, the fake spitter. Batters, expecting the expectoration, could be surprised by a mediocre fastball.

Roe was 32 when he joined the Dodgers and became successful and famous. In 1948 he cut his ERA in half, to 2.63, and led the league in fewest walks per nine innings while going 12-8. Burt Shotton, who replaced Leo Durocher as manager in July, contrasted the new Roe with the wildman he had known in Columbus: “[H]e’d got to be a pitcher, because he knew where to throw the ball and he had a change of speed, though not his old speed. Didn’t seem like the same pitcher.”viii

In 1949 Don Newcombe joined the pitching staff, completing the nucleus of the Boys of Summer with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, and Carl Furillo, the team that would win five of the next eight NL pennants. The Dodgers battled the St. Louis Cardinals for the lead all summer. The clubs met in St. Louis for a September showdown, with the Cardinals leading by a game and a half. After Max Lanier shut out Brooklyn in the first game of a doubleheader, Roe turned the tables in the nightcap. He held the Cardinals to two singles in a 5-0 victory. The Dodgers took the rubber game of the series to move up to one-half game behind St. Louis. They went on to win seven of their last nine and clinched the pennant on the final day. Roe finished 15-6 with a 2.70 ERA and the league’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio, nearly 2.5. He made the first of four consecutive All-Star teams as a Dodger.

In the opening game of the 1949 World Series at Yankee Stadium, Allie Reynolds allowed Brooklyn only two hits as he and Newcombe matched zeroes until the bottom of the ninth. Tommy Henrich’s home run gave the Yankees the victory. Roe started Game Two against Vic Raschi. His parents were in the stands, the first time his mother had seen him pitch in the majors. The Dodgers took the lead in the second on Robinson’s double and Hodges’ two-out single. The Yankees’ biggest threats came after errors by Roe and Reese, but the pitcher escaped both times. In the fourth Johnny Lindell’s line shot tore off half the nail on the ring finger of Roe’s glove hand. The team doctor drilled a hole in the nail to relieve the swelling, and Roe pitched the rest of the game with a bandaged, throbbing finger. (He later learned it was broken.) He allowed just six hits and walked none; only one Yankee reached third base. After Brooklyn finished off the 1-0 victory, Branch Rickey hugged his naked, dripping-wet pitcher in the clubhouse and proclaimed, “That boy is an artist – a supreme artist.”ix Roe called the shutout the highlight of his career, but it was the Dodgers’ only win in the Series. Roe’s finger was so swollen he couldn’t put on his glove and was unable to start the do-or-die fifth game, when the Yankees pounded six Dodger pitchers for ten runs.

The Dodgers again fought for the pennant until the last day in 1950 before losing to the Phillies Whiz Kids. Roe and Newcombe compiled matching 19-11 records; Roe’s 3.30 ERA was the best on the team. He served up 34 home runs, tied for the league lead with another left-handed junkballer, Ken Raffensberger. The long ball was Roe’s biggest weakness, because he refused to give in to hitters. “There is no defense against the base on balls,” he said. “…I would rather risk a homer than the base on balls.”x He was a chronic nibbler who routinely threw more than 125 pitches in complete games that often lasted nearly three hours.

Roe said he threw a fastball, a changeup off his fastball, a curve and slider, changeups off his curve and slider, and a screwball. He didn’t mention the spitball, but batters did. Stan Musial, whose 12 home runs off Roe were the most by any hitter, said he always tried to avoid getting to two strikes, because he knew that’s when he would see a spitter. Teammates called the pitch a Beech-Nut curve after Roe’s favorite brand of chewing gum. When a hitter complained and the umpire asked for the ball, Roe would roll it to the plate. Or, if the umpire ordered Campanella to hand over the ball, Campy would drop it and step on it to erase the evidence.

“I’m always aiming for the corners, never throwing the same pitch twice or what the hitter is expectin’,” Roe said. One day Ron Northey struck out on an unexpected fastball and screamed, “That’s the last fastball you’ll ever bust past me.” Roe shouted back, “That’s the last one I’ll ever throw you.” The next time Northey came up, Roe ran the count to two strikes and blew another fastball by him. “[T]hat incident helped create a distrustful attitude among all the hitters. None of them believes the Ol’ Preach any more and they get downright suspicious of me on the mound.”xi

Roe, with his wife, Mozee, and sons, Elwin Jr. and Tommy, lived each summer in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, where several other Dodgers rented houses. But they returned home to the Ozarks when the season was over. He moved his family across the state line to West Plains, Missouri, about 50 miles from his hometown, in search of better schools for the boys.

The nearby town of Salem, Arkansas, asked Roe to help raise money to install lights at its baseball field. A local bank agreed to a loan for the lights in return for his promise to pitch in a fundraising game each fall. In one of the exhibitions a teenager playing center field behind him ran down a long fly ball and Roe asked his name. It was Bill Virdon, a West Plains High School star and future NL Rookie of the Year. “I knew when I saw that boy going after that ball, that he wasn’t no farmer,” Roe said.xii The games continued for several years until the loan was repaid, and the ballfield was named Preacher Roe Park.

Roe’s best season was Brooklyn’s most heartbreaking. He won his first ten decisions in 1951 and another ten in a row in the second half. He finished 22-3 with a 3.04 ERA, recording career highs in victories, starts, innings, and complete games. His .880 winning percentage is still the National League record for a 20-game winner. The Sporting News named him the National League Pitcher of the Year. But the Dodgers blew a 13-game lead in August and September to finish tied for first place with the New York Giants. Roe did not pitch in the playoff, when Bobby Thomson hit “The Shot” that won the pennant for New York.

In 1952 Roe again started fast, winning his first seven decisions. Manager Charlie Dressen began pacing the 36-year-old, usually giving him at least four days’ rest between starts. His 3.12 ERA was about the same as the year before, but writers labeled him a disappointment because he won only 11 games. The Dodgers rebounded from their devastating playoff defeat to win the pennant, setting up another World Series against the Yankees.

The teams split the first two games of the Series before Roe gave Brooklyn the lead in Game Three. He held the powerful Yankee lineup to six hits. Two of them were solo homers by Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize, but the Dodgers hung on to win, 5-3. Roe labored, walking five and throwing 156 pitches. Dressen used him out of the bullpen in the last two games of the seven-game set, but he did not figure in the decisions as the Yankees beat the Dodgers again.

Roe’s career was winding down in 1953, when he turned 37. Making only 24 starts, he saw his ERA climb to 4.36, but managed an 11-3 record for a club that won 105 games. The highlight of Roe’s season was his sole big-league home run, on July 7 off Pittsburgh’s Bob Hall. As Roe rounded the bases, his teammates laid down a congratulatory carpet of towels between home plate and the dugout. “I reckon it means that I’ve finally come out of my slump,” he said.xiii Roe was a lifetime .110 hitter with just four extra-base hits in 722 at-bats.

He got one more chance at the Yankees in the 1953 World Series. After New York won the opening game, Roe started against another left-handed craftsman, Eddie Lopat. “They make you feel like grabbing a bat and running up to the plate,” Hall of Fame lefty Carl Hubbell remarked. “But when you get there how many times do you think you’ll get solid wood on the ball? They out-think you, mixing screwballs, knucklers, curves, and fastballs, changing speeds on everything and always throwing where they want to. When you talk about pitching, that’s what you mean.”xiv

The Dodgers carried a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning. They had touched Lopat for eight hits; Roe had allowed just two. Phil Rizzuto narrowly missed a home run in the second when his long fly ball bounced out of Carl Furillo’s glove and dropped for a double. The Yankees thought it had hit a fan in the front row and fallen back onto the field, but the umpires disagreed.

Billy Martin led off the Yankees seventh with a homer to tie the score. Roe said he hit a high curveball, “the greatest mistake since they invented buttermilk.” In the next inning Hank Bauer singled and Roe threw Mickey Mantle a slow screwball that Mantle golfed into the left-field seats for a game-winner. “I don’t see how he hit it,” Roe said. “It was way below his knees.”xv The Yankees took the Series in six games.

Bothered by arm and leg problems, Roe appeared in only 15 games in 1954. He was obviously finished, but the Dodgers included him, along with his roommate, Billy Cox, in a December deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Roe announced his retirement, and the Orioles couldn’t talk him out of it.

Years after the car wreck that left him paralyzed, Roy Campanella named Roe as the best pitcher he ever caught: “He was a guy who knew what he was doing every second of every minute.”xvi When Roe’s spitball confession appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1955, some of the sportswriters who had built his legend denounced him as a cheat, but a few pointed out that he was far from the only pitcher with damp fingers. Roe was paid $2,000 for the story. He said he did it because he wanted to see the spitter legalized. Commissioner Ford Frick and American League President Joe Cronin agreed with him, but baseball’s rules committee did not.

Soon after he retired to West Plains, Roe drove Mozee to buy groceries and chatted with the store owner while she shopped. When she came to the checkout counter, he told her, “Just push ’em on out, they’re ours. I bought the store!”xvii He called the little corner grocery “Preacher Roe’s Super Market” and ran it for two decades. He coached youth baseball teams and was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce, First United Methodist Church, and the Rotary Club. The community honored him by naming one of its main streets Preacher Roe Boulevard.

Roe was elected to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Hall of Fame. His memoir, When Baseball Was Still a Game, was published in 2005. In the 21st century a Boston rock band adopted the name “Preacher Roe.” The pitching preacher died at 92, of complications from colon cancer, on November 9, 2008.

Roe served as an instructor in more than 20 fantasy camps at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. He stopped attending when Mozee got sick, but returned after her death in 2002. In one of his last appearances he told the campers, “Now fellows, I want to leave you with this. Live every day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right.”xviii

 

Notes

i Dick Young, “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch,” Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1955, online archive. http://si.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1129878/index.htm accessed April 30, 2013.

ii Dick Young, “Why Preacher?” Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1955, online archive. http://si.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1129882/index.htm accessed April 30, 2013.

iii David McCollum, “Sports Club Audience Hears Praise Choruses for Preacher Roe,” Log Cabin Democrat (Arkansas), June 9, 2009. http://thecabin.net/stories/060909/spo_0609090019.shtml, accessed May 31, 2013.

iv Cynthia Wilber, For the Love of the Game (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1992), 299.

v The Sporting News, August 30, 1950, 3.

vi Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 303.

vii New York Times, March 21, 1948, S2.

viii The Sporting News, August 30, 1950, 3.

ix New York Times, October 7, 1949, 36.

x The Sporting News, August 30, 1950, 3.

xi New York Times, March 24, 1954, 23.

xii Dave Malone, “Interviewing a Local Legend: Preacher Roe and Ozark Culture,” in Peter Carino, ed., Baseball, Literature, Culture: Essays 2002-2003 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004), 191.

xiii New York Times, March 24, 1954, 33.

xiv Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 1953, 12.

xv Chicago Tribune, October 2, 1953, C5.

xvi Afro-American (Baltimore), August 7, 1965, 9.

xvii Wilber, For the Love of the Game, 299.

xviii Chris Gutierrez, “Roe Knows Dodger Baseball,” mlb.com, November 7, 2003. http://losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20031107&content_id=600786&vkey=news_la&fext=.jsp&c_id=la, accessed May 31, 2013.

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