SABR

Karl Drews

This article was written by Peter Mancuso.

One day in the mid-1930s, in the New York City borough of Staten Island, teenager Karl Drews anxiously watched as older boys of his small community of Eltingville climbed into a truck to go to a baseball team tryout. As the truck was about to depart, Drews pleaded with the older boys to take him along. Showing some compassion for their younger friend, they squeezed him in and headed off to the tryout. When the teenagers returned, the only kid to make the team was the youngest in the bunch, Karl Drews.1 This was despite not having played structured baseball until he was fifteen years old.2

Drews eventually became a Major League pitcher for the New York Yankees, St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Phillies, and Cincinnati Reds. The six-foot-four, 192-pound right-hander played professional baseball for twenty-one seasons, eight of which were in the Major Leagues.

Karl August Drews was born on Staten Island on February 22, 1920, to Karl and Anna (Theil) Drews. Both parents were born in Germany and had arrived in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. They were married in January 1918. The father was a dock foreman for a shipping line. By 1925 Karl and Anna had three more children: Walter, Hortense, and Roy. Karl’s brothers followed him into professional baseball. Walter a left-handed pitcher, and Roy a catcher, both played in the Minor Leagues.

While he was a teenager, Karl’s principal weapon was his fastball; then, while catching batting practice before a grammar-school alumni game, he broke a finger on his throwing hand and changed his grip on the ball, giving him a potent second pitch, a very effective sinker.3 More than sixty years after they played together as rookies, Yankees catcher Yogi Berra still recalled Drews and that very effective pitch.4

Veteran baseball scout George Genovese, who played with and against Drews on Staten Island, said he could throw as hard in his late teens as any top prospect of similar age, and in modern times would easily command a signing bonus in the high six figures or more.5

At New Dorp High School, Drews played baseball, football, and basketball, but he was best-known in the New York City Public Schools Athletic League for his pitching.6 He starred on his high school team, on amateur teams, and on the semipro Gulf Oilers. He led Staten Island’s team entry to the New York City championship in the New York Daily Mirror’s Borough League Tournament.

In the fall of 1938 Drews attended a Yankees tryout camp on Staten Island. Yankees coaches Bill Skiff and Benny Bengough were impressed with Drews and soon offered the high-school senior a contract.7 He signed and headed off that spring to Butler, Pennsylvania, where the Yankees had a farm team in the Class D Pennsylvania State Association. The nineteen-year-old had no trouble in Butler, going 16-5, with a 3.66 ERA in thirty-one games. After the season, Drews returned to New Dorp High School to make up the school time he had lost when he was bedridden after a bout with rheumatic fever.

He received his diploma in January 1940 and began a steady climb through the Yankees’ Minor League system. From 1940 through 1942, Drews saw duty in Akron, Ohio; Amsterdam, New York; Augusta, Georgia; Evansville, Indiana; and Norfolk, Virginia. In 1943, with the country at war, he attempted to enlist in the military but was medically rejected for a heart murmur that was a result of his rheumatic fever. He spent the year playing on Staten Island and working on the docks with his father.

Drews returned to the minors in 1944, where he went 14-8 for the Binghamton (New York) Triplets in the Class A Eastern League, and 1-3 in five games with the Newark Bears in the International League. In 1945 he finally spent a complete season with one team, Newark, compiling a 19-9 record with a 2.70 earned run average. On June 3 of that year, Drews and Nancy Lindboe, who had known each other growing up in Eltingville, were married.8

After the 1945 season Drews was among thirty-two members of the Yankees’ organization who flew to Panama to play for American troops stationed there.9 Drews went to spring training with the Yankees in 1946, but was sent to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, where he won fourteen games and lost nine. Called up by the Yankees in September, Drews made his big-league debut on September 8, starting against the Washington Senators. He lasted just two-thirds of an inning, giving up six runs on two hits and four walks. He later made two scoreless appearances, both in relief.

In 1947 Drews went to spring training with the Yankees again. He was now the father of a daughter, Geraldine, born the previous summer. Shortly before spring training ended, he broke a finger in a pepper game.10 Drews stayed behind when the Yankees headed north, but he was cleared to return to action by team doctors and arrived in Washington for a game against the Senators on April 19. He was one of four pitchers who followed starter Joe Page in the 5–2 loss. Drews gave up a hit and a walk in his brief relief appearance.11

In his first full Major League season, Drews had a 6-6 record with a 4.91 earned run average. Four of his six wins were in a relief role; but his best effort of the season was in a start against the Boston Red Sox on August 10 at Fenway Park. Drews pitched 8 2/3 innings, allowing only five hits and one run, and striking out nine before being removed because of a finger blister.

Drews pitched in two games of the 1947 World Series, and shortly before the first of those two appearances, he became a father for the second time. About five hours prior to his taking the mound at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in the third inning of Game Three, Ronald Karl Drews came into the world. After spending a sleepless night, Karl was en route to Brooklyn at 9:10 A.M. when his son was born. By the time he got to the visitors’ clubhouse, his teammates were already “whooping it up” as they had already gotten the news by telephone.12

The Yankees had won the opening pair of Series games at Yankee Stadium. Now, in Game Three, the Dodgers jumped out in the second inning, scoring six runs off Bobo Newsom and Vic Raschi. After New York got two runs in the top of the third, Drews came in to start the bottom of the inning. Nervous, and tired from lack of sleep, he hit the first batter, Gene Hermanski, who eventually scored. That was it for Drews; Spud Chandler came in for the Yankees to start the fourth.13

Drews pitched again in Game Six, at Yankee Stadium. At that point the Yankees led three games to two. He replaced Allie Reynolds with one out in the third and pitched two scoreless innings before being replaced by Joe Page.14

In 1948 Drews pitched in nineteen games for the Yankees, only two of which were starts. He won two, lost three, and had a 3.79 ERA. In early August the Yankees sold him to the lowly St. Louis Browns for the $10,000 waiver fee; he won three, lost two, and posted an 8.05 ERA with St. Louis.

Drews, who preferred to start, got his wish in 1949, with 23 starts in 31 appearances. He faltered badly, though, with a 4-12 record, the worst in his career, and a dismal 6.64 ERA. After the season the Browns sold his contract to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League for $10,000. On Memorial Day 1950, pitching against the Syracuse Chiefs, Drews raced to cover first base on a dribbler to the right side. Second baseman Eddie Pellagrini’s off-balance throw was low and wide, forcing Drews to stretch into the baseline, where batter Dutch Mele’s knee struck him in the temple.

The bloody gash was thought to have been a spike wound and was stitched. Drews attempted to fight off the dizziness and severe head pain for nearly a week, but eventually was taken to a hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered a fractured skull. Twelve hours of surgery were needed to remove three bone splinters from his brain and install a silver plate in his head. Drews later recalled, “I lay in that hospital and wondered what was going to happen to me. I figured the accident would finish me as a pitcher, and frankly I didn’t care much one way or the other. I wasn’t going anywhere or getting any younger. All the time I’d been in the Yankee chain I was a strange kind of guy; I worried about a heart murmur I was supposed to have. I got mean and morose. I was losing my taste for the game.

“Then a funny thing happened after the accident. I developed some sort of personality change. . . . I became a different guy off the field and a different one on it.” By late August, nearly three months after his injury, Drews was pitching again, winning six in a row before the season ended.

“When I came back to pitch, I found that I couldn’t hurry myself,” Drews said. “I used to be the type of pitcher who threw to the plate as soon as the catcher got the ball back to me. Because of the operation I couldn’t do it; I had to save my strength. Everything I did I had to do slower. . . . When I pitched before and was wild, I’d just keep throwing faster and faster and getting wilder and wilder. Now I took my time. The ball started going where I wanted it to go. It got to be so much fun I even stopped worrying about my heart.”15

The Orioles 1951 change in Major League affiliation from the Browns to the reigning National League champion Philadelphia Phillies was a fortuitous one for Drews. Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer had managed Drews in Norfolk eight years earlier. Impressed by the improvement in Drews’s control, Sawyer got the Phillies to purchase his contract just before the end of the season.16 Drews arrived in time to post one win in five appearances. Things got much better in 1952, when he started thirty games, winning fourteen (including two shutouts of the Dodgers) and losing fifteen with a 2.72 earned run average. In 1953, Drews had a 10-11 record, though his earned run average rose to 4.52.

Karl and Nancy Drews had left Staten Island in 1951 and moved their young family to Hollywood, Florida. The family had made a number of trips to Florida for spring training and Nancy Drews loved the climate. She was a swimming enthusiast and instructor.17

The thirty-four-year-old Drews was back in the bullpen in 1954. He made eight appearances for Philadelphia before his contract was sold to the Cincinnati Reds on June 15. With the Reds he got nine starts in twenty-two appearances, going 4-4 with a 6.00 ERA. Drews pitched in his last Major League game on September 20, as the Reds released him at the end of the 1954 season.

Drews threw hard enough and was just wild enough to keep batters on their toes. New York Post sportswriter Milton Gross had written in 1953 that teammates didn’t like it when Drews threw batting practice because they were afraid of his wildness.18 Earlier, in 1947, Ben Epstein of the Post wrote that when Drews had absolute control of his sinker his teammates couldn’t hit it and grew frustrated in batting practice. Even DiMaggio wouldn’t face him, Epstein wrote.

After four middling years in the high minors, Drews began the 1959 season with the Miami Marlins of the International League, but was released after two appearances. Drews, now thirty-nine, landed a spot in the Mexican League with the Mexico City Diablos. He returned to the Diablos in 1960, his final season as a player. His daughter Geraldine recalled how her father would write her from the road, making each letter in part a bit of a geography lesson by encouraging her to follow his travels on a map of the U.S. and Mexico.19

After moving to Florida, Drews had a variety of off-season jobs, among them selling cars and working as a lifeguard. Now, with baseball behind him, he could take a more permanent job and had more time for his family, particularly lending support to his children’s athletic endeavors. He worked as a regional sales representative in the sporting goods industry.

Three years after Drews settled into his new life, tragedy struck. On August 15, 1963, he was killed by a drunken driver while attempting to wave down passing vehicles for assistance after his car became disabled in Dania, Florida, a short distance from his Hollywood home. Drews had started out in the early morning to drive his daughter Geraldine to a swimming meet in Jacksonville.20

Drews was just forty-three-years old. He left behind his wife of eighteen years, his daughter, Geraldine, and three sons: Ronald, John, who was born in 1952, and Michael, who was born in 1954. Drews’s widow, Nancy, died in 2010.

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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