SABR

Jim Prendergast

This article was written by Tom Harkins.

Those Americans who grew up in the Great Depression, went to fight in World War II, returned home, and went to work bringing the country back to life are now called, thanks to Tom Brokaw, the “Greatest Generation.” Such a man was James Bartholomew Prendergast -- who also happened to play professional baseball. He worked hard to reach the pinnacle of his profession, used the rights open to him as a citizen to fight the establishment when he felt he was being denied a say in his own future, and even turned to politics as a way of giving back to the country that had given him so much.

Jimmy Prendergast was born on August 23, 1917 in the rough, dockside section of Brooklyn bordering the Gowanus Canal. He was the eighth boy born into a working class Irish-American family; his only sister would soon follow. Their father died while Jim was three or four, and he was raised by his older brothers, two of whom became NYPD officers. His brothers taught young Jimmy to be a fighter. His children remember their father relating tales of his involvement in “pranks” during times of labor difficulties on the Brooklyn docks where some of his brothers were longshoremen and active in their profession’s local union.

During his very early years in Brooklyn, Jimmy suffered an accident which may have actually improved his pitching ability. After he burnt his hands on the kitchen stove, doctors spread and stretched them out on boards that separated the fingers while the burns healed. This stretching of his hands may well have helped Prendergast pitch better, as his top pitches were his sinker and curve, both of which are best delivered from a long-fingered grip.

Jim’s first serious exposure to baseball was in high school, where he teamed at Brooklyn Tech with his future teammate on the 1948 Braves, Tommy Holmes. Prendergast pitched well at Tech, winning his first game with a shutout. He also showed he could hit for power, and at one point while he was pitching in the Reds organization later on, it was suggested that he consider making the move to the outfield. He preferred to stay on the mound.

Prendergast may have pitched some batting practice at Ebbets Field during his high school days. He did come to know then-Dodgers coach Casey Stengel, who both gave him some tips and steered him towards his first professional contract. After leaving Brooklyn Tech in 1934, Prendergast was signed by GM Bob Quinn of his hometown Dodgers and sent to the Hartford (CT) Senators of the Northeastern League. In the midst of the Depression, with $100 in his pocket, 17-year-old Jimmy left home to seek his fortune in professional baseball.

His sojourn at Hartford proved too difficult for the youngster and, with Quinn’s help, he found himself at a more suitable level, playing semipro ball around York, Pennsylvania. While pitching in this region, no longer under Dodger contract, Jim was scouted and signed by Gene McCann of the New York Yankees, who assigned him to the Butler Yankees of the Class “D” Pennsylvania State Association. He played for Butler in 1936 and also spent some time with the Bassett (Virginia) Furnituremakers of the Bi-State League. Overall he appeared in nine games, pitched 41 innings, and posted a 3-2 record.

The next season saw Prendergast splitting time with Augusta (GA) Tigers of the South Atlantic League and the Palatka (FL) Azaleas of the Florida State League, posting a fine combined 16-10 record with an ERA under 3.50. In 1938, he toured the country with four teams: he played two games for the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, another 11 in the Pacific Coast League -- with both the Seattle Rainiers and the Hollywood Stars, but spent the bulk of his time with the Southern Association Birmingham Barons. His combined totals in 25 appearances were four wins, three losses, and an ERA over 4.50.

In 1939, he joined a team with which he would stay for three seasons; ironically, it was the Arkansas Travelers, again in the Southern Association. Prendergast became a mainstay of the Travelers staff, and his time in Little Rock produced a record of 36 wins versus 43 losses in 120 appearances. He struck out 302 while walking 202, with an ERA around 4.00.

Despite his losing record, the Cincinnati Reds, probably assessing that Jimmy was a good pitcher on a poor team (the Travelers were a second-division club whose combined record during Prendergast’s tenure was 198-225), drafted him after the 1941 season. The 1942 National League Green Book pointed out that Prendergast had settled down in Little Rock, becoming their biggest winner and “caught the eye of the Cincy scouting staff, peerless pickers of pitchers.”

Prendergast was scheduled to attend spring training with the Reds in 1942 but after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of ’41 he chose to report to another training venue instead: the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The circumstances surrounding his enlistment illustrate the close-knit, protective and supportive family in which he was raised. Jim had received a draft notice earlier, but because he was helping to provide for his widowed mother, the draft board allowed an older brother, Woody, to take his place. When he received a second notice from the Selective Service, another brother, Walter, again offered to be taken in Jim’s place. This time, however, Jim decided to enlist and reported to OCS. The Reds placed him on the National Defense List, where he stayed for the duration.

Jim received his commission as a second lieutenant in December 1942 and after a brief furlough in Brooklyn reported back to Georgia. He pitched in the spring of 1943 for the Fort Benning Infantry team managed by Capt. Hank Gowdy, who as a Boston Braves catcher back in 1917 had been the first major league enlistee in World War I. Gowdy later coached Jim with the Reds in spring training, and it was he who reportedly suggested that the hurler consider a move to the outfield. There was more important work to do, however; Lt. Prendergast was assigned to the European theater, where he served in a combat unit that saw action in France, Austria, and Germany. He was promoted to captain, and pitched a little on Army teams when not engaging the enemy.

Returning from military service, Prendergast was reinstated to the Cincinnati roster in February 1946 and reported to the Reds’ spring training camp in Tampa. In late March, he was optioned by the team to its top farm club, the Syracuse Chiefs of the International League. He spent two successful seasons at Syracuse; in ’46 he was 17-10, and in 1947 he really shined, posting a 20-15 record with a 3.08 ERA while leading the league in wins, complete games (24), and innings pitched (257). Although this superlative campaign didn’t prompt a promotion to the Reds, it did warrant interest from the Braves --who purchased Prendergast’s contract from Syracuse in November 1947. Braves GM John Quinn was the son of former Dodgers GM Bob Quinn, who had signed young Jim right out of high school. This capped off quite a year for the left-handed hurler; in addition to his mound exploits, he had met and courted the woman who would become his wife and partner for life. Jim and Terese O’Donnell, a registered nurse from Syracuse, were married on November 27, 1947 just a week after he became a member of the Boston Braves.

When the newlywed reported to the Braves spring training camp in 1948, however, he found he was one of many hurlers fighting for final roster spots. With so many pitchers in camp he didn’t see a lot of Grapefruit League action, but he pitched well enough in the opportunities he had -- most notably an April 2 outing against the Cardinals in which he pitched three perfect innings. After that game manager Billy Southworth commented that he wanted to see more of Jim Prendergast; in addition, it was reported that day that the Braves farmed out two pitchers to San Diego.

In the end, Jim made the club as one of 14 pitchers on the Braves roster. It was expected he would be used primarily in relief, but his is first big league appearance was a start in the second game of a doubleheader against the Giants at Braves Field on Sunday, April 25. It was not a sterling debut. Prendergast surrendered five runs in 2 2/3 innings pitched and picked up the loss as the Braves were shut out by the Dodgers, 6-0.

His next two outings were both in relief of Charles “Red” Barrett. On May 2, using a borrowed glove (his was one of nine gloves stolen when the Braves clubhouse at the Polo Ground was burglarized), Jim pitched two scoreless innings and gave up a single hit in a 5-1 Barrett loss. The next Saturday, against some of his former Syracuse teammates now with the Reds, Prendergast’s sinker must have been working well as he retired four batters on “infield taps” and allowed but one hit on a “slow roller.”

The following day versus the Cardinals, he relieved Warren Spahn with one out and two on in the seventh. He struck out Terry Moore for the second out, but then gave up three straight hits to Stan Musial, Whitey Kurowski, and Enos Slaughter. When the dust had cleared, four runs had crossed the plate: two charged to Spahn, who got the loss, and two to Prendergast in only one-third of an inning.

This poor showing kept Prendergast out of action for 10 days, but he did manage to survive the final roster cut. His next time on the mound came on the 20th, when the Braves suffered their worst defeat of the year; the Pirates scored 13 runs on 17 hits while not allowing a Boston runner to reach second base. This time Jim relieved Barrett with the bases loaded in the fourth, giving up four hits in another third of an inning. He faced five batters, surrendering two triples and two singles, and his only out was recorded when the pitcher bunted foul with two strikes.

Once again, it was over a week before Jim next toed the mound. This may have been because of his shaky performances or it may have been due to the weather. Although the doggerel, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” didn’t appear in print until September, during the month of May the Braves were rained out twice -- once before and once after back-to-back performances by their two aces.

On May 28 the Braves lost to the Dodgers, 7-5, with Prendergast allowing a single in one inning following Bob Hogue in relief of Spahn. This game was the first of the season in which the Braves donned their “sateen” uniforms. Described by a Boston Post writer as “shimmery circus suits” and “musical comedy raiment”, these odd outfits with the stripes down each arm were designed to be seen easier by fans during night games. The players disliked them because they were cold in cool weather and hot in warm, and the equipment manager didn’t like them because they had to be dry cleaned after each use -- yet still shrunk. Jim Prendergast’s sateen uniform # 38 was sold in the summer of 2006 by Leland’s auction house for $6,704.82, an amount which exceeded any annual salary earned by Jim during his professional baseball career.

Red Barrett lost both ends of a June 12 doubleheader at Cincinnati, entering the record books with the dubious achievement. He started and lost the first game, and was on the hook as a reliever in the nightcap. With the score tied in the eighth inning of the second game, Prendergast relieved Barrett in a 9-9 contest and inherited batter Johnny Wyrostek with a 3-0 count. Jim proceeded to throw ball four on the first pitch, a walk charged to Barrett. He then surrendered a single to Hank Sauer, sending Wyrostek to second -- and Jim to the showers. Bill Voiselle replaced Prendergast and allowed Wyrostek to score on a sacrifice fly, the run that caused the loss to be charged to Barrett.

The next day, Jim bounced back when called upon to start the second game of another doubleheader at Crosley Field -- gaining the win by allowing six hits and three runs in five complete innings. He left the game leading the Reds 5-3, and the bullpen held it for his first (and only) major league victory. The win kept the Braves in a first-place tie with the Giants in the National League race, and showed the respect the team (at least temporarily) had in its rookie hurler.

The Braves’ third doubleheader in five days was at home against the Cubs on Bunker Hill Day, June 17. Voiselle was credited with both victories in relief as the Braves rallied twice in late innings. The game was significant outside the pennant race for a reason unknown at the time; famed artist/illustrator Norman Rockwell was there taking photographs for a future Saturday Evening Post cover. In producing the lifelike illustrations for his cover art, Rockwell often first took photos on site and used them to paint on canvas in his Stockbridge, Mass. studio. The September 4, 1948 Post cover is considered one of Rockwell’s classics. Entitled “The Dugout”, it shows a sad and despondent Cubs team sitting dejectedly in their Braves Field dugout while visible behind them in their front rows rabid and vociferous Braves fans are delighting in the Cubs’ misfortune. Although Prendergast didn’t appear in either game or on the magazine cover (no Braves player or coach did), Jim’s wife, Terese, was photographed that day along with the wife of coach Freddie Fitzsimmons. In the issue, Rockwell shows the photos he took of the two wives and how he included them among the screaming Braves fans. An issue of this magazine is still a proud possession of the Prendergast family. (Frank McNulty, visiting team batboy for the Braves, can also be seen on the cover standing glumly in front of the dugout in a Cubs uniform.)

The next appearance by Prendergast after his lone win came on June 24 in a mop-up role, as the Braves were trounced 11-2 at home by the Cards. He pitched the last two frames and gave up three hits and two runs. His final outing was on June 29 in another blowout, as he hurled the last inning and a third (giving up three hits) of an 11-3 Cardinals victory at St. Louis. The Boston Globe foreshadowed of the end of Jim’s stint with the Braves in the same issue in which it reported Jim’s swansong. The paper’s front page story on June 30 reported that Braves owner Lou Perini had sent his private plane to Rochester, New York to bring to Boston newly signed high-school pitching phenom Johnny Antonelli.

The Braves had offered a large bonus and beat out several other teams to sign the 18-year-old left-hander, who was described by the Boston Post as baseball’s best young pitching prospect since Bobby Feller. Because Antonelli had to be put on the major league roster due to the “bonus baby” rules of the time, 30-year-old lefty Prendergast became expendable. On June 30 GM Quinn gave Jim his outright release, sending him to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. His final major league stats: 1-1 with a 10.26 ERA over 16 2/3 innings in 10 games.

Prendergast reported to the Brewers promptly and pitched well in 17 games, mostly as a starter. In 87 innings he was 8-2 with seven complete games, an ERA of 3.10, and a strikeout to walk ratio of better than three to one. Despite his good stats, the Braves neither recalled him for the late-season pennant run nor voted him a World Series share. Both Antonelli and Paul Burris, who pitched in just four and two games respectively, did receive shares through the intervention of the commissioner’s office.

If the Braves were waiting to see how Prendergast did in a second stint with the Brewers, they could not have been impressed. Pitching with Milwaukee in the first half of the 1949 season, he slumped to 5-8 with an ERA of 4.25. Starting in the second half of the ’49 season Jim made a lengthy attempt to reprise his success at Syracuse, but in a season and a half with the Chiefs he posted a 13-23 record with a lofty ERA of close to 5.50 in 51 games.

Although the 1950 season was Prendergast’s last in organized baseball, it was not his last as a professional ballplayer; for two winters he also played winter ball in Cuba. As a member of the Marianao Tigres, he played with several past and future major leaguers. Among his teammates were Rollie Hemsley, Sr., Tommy Lasorda, Minnie Minoso, Negro League Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge, and his 1948 Braves comrade, Charles ‘Red’ Barrett. The team was managed by Cuban legend Dolph Luque.

Jim shared many stories of Cuban baseball with his children, the oldest of whom accompanied him to Cuba to escape the harsh upstate New York winters. American players were treated as celebrities in Cuba, with some featured in cover stories in the Cuban equivalent of Life magazine.

Returning from Cuba in 1951, however, Prendergast was not treated like a celebrity by the Syracuse front office. Citing his poor performance in 1950, the Chiefs offered Jim a contract with a significant salary cut -- which he refused to sign. On April 25, Syracuse traded him to the Texas League’s Beaumont Roughnecks for Ralph Buxton, a journeyman reliever with two cups of coffee in the majors. The drop in level for Prendergast, from AAA to AA, brought with it a reduction of salary from $1100 to $750 a month. Although both the trade and pay cut were permitted under the reserve clause of his prior contract, Jim still refused to sign; when he failed to report to Beaumont, he was suspended from organized baseball.

Ever the fighter, Jim immediately retained Frederic Johnson, the attorney who had successfully represented former Giants outfielder Danny Gardella in his suit involving the reserve clause that then bound players to the teams that owned their contracts. Gardella, who had been suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler when he jumped to the Mexican League, had his case settled out of court and had been allowed to return to baseball. Prendergast’s suit was filed in the Federal District Court in Syracuse in late April 1951, with Jim seeking $150,000 in damages.

Johnson argued that the reserve clause “continually tendered materially to hamper Prendergast in negotiating for salary and employment.” The defendants argued that under former rulings organized baseball was exempt from anti-trust legislation, relying upon Justice Holmes’ 1922 decision in the Federal League cases that baseball was an “exhibition” and not a “business.” Prendergast’s case was eventually dismissed in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision in the Toolson case (Toolson, a Yankees minor leaguer, had also challenged the reserve clause). Perhaps not surprisingly, Prendergast would never be employed in organized baseball again.

Although his pro sports career was over, Prendergast held a position in business that he had first obtained thanks to his work in baseball. While pitching for the Syracuse Chiefs he had worked doing sales and promotions for the William Simon Brewery in the Syracuse area, and as his court case was pending Jim worked fulltime for the Buffalo-based brewery. He returned to his Syracuse home on the weekends, a situation which continued for a few years until his growing family seemed to dictate relocation to Buffalo. The Prendergast family grew to eight children, six boys and two girls. Jim stayed involved with breweries and beer distributorships for many years; after leaving William Simon, he subsequently worked for Ballantine, Carling, and Dow.

For Ballantine he served as the company’s sports director when they were a major media sponsor of both the Yankees and the New York Football Giants. In this capacity he brought team highlight films to show to various organizations. His son Peter remembers an incident in 1963 or 1964 involving Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. His father was shepherding the star hurler to an appearance for a Ballantine sales promotion, and had Bouton pick up Pete and his brother at school in his flashy convertible. Imagine the joy in the young boys’ hearts as they road around Buffalo with a Yankee hero.

Prendergast was also active in numerous civic, community, and church activities in Buffalo. A lifelong Democrat, he took part in local politics and ran for Tonawanda town supervisor in 1959 and U.S. Congress in 1964 (both times unsuccessfully). He also faithfully coached his sons’ youth baseball teams, and was able to combine all these interests in a way that showed both his sense of humor and his competitive spirit. Much to the dismay of his Republican neighbors, he provided his team with uniforms which were proudly and defiantly labeled “Little Democrats.” His children said that he frequently took them to see Buffalo’s minor league team, but as a former player he found it difficult to simply sit and watch. Retiring from beer sales left Jim feeling restless at home, so he launched a realty agency which his son Joe still runs. In 1994, on his 76th birthday, Jim Prendergast passed away after a long illness, in his home surrounded by his family. It was a fitting end for a true member of the “greatest generation” who also happened to play our national pastime.

Note

This biography originally appeared in the book Spahn, Sain, and Teddy Ballgame: Boston's (almost) Perfect Baseball Summer of 1948, edited by Bill Nowlin and published by Rounder Books in 2008.

Sources

Interview with Peter Prendergast on Monday, August 20, 2007 in Buffalo, NY.

Prendergast clipping file from Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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