SABR

Peanuts Lowrey

This article was written by Dick Rosen.

Peanuts Lowrey, who was the 1964 Phillies’ first-base coach, enjoyed a 13-year career as a player with the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies, playing in 978 games. Regarded as one of the best utility players and pinch-hitters of his generation, he was usually found roaming the outfield but he also spent time as a utility infielder, mostly at third base. Lowrey was named to the National League All-Star team once, played in a World Series, and coached and managed after his playing days. He also had bit parts in a number of movies.

Born Harry Lee Lowrey in Southern California on August 27, 1917, he grew up in Culver City. Very little is known about Lowrey’s parents. His mother’s maiden name was Maria L. Machada.1 As for his father, no mention of him could be found in any references. Harry’s maternal grandfather owned a nearby ranch where the youngster lived during much of his childhood.2 Many of the popular Our Gang comedies were filmed there, and “Peanuts” occasionally appeared as an extra in them.3 His unusual nickname came either from the fact that his grandfather described him as “no bigger than a peanut,”4 or because actress Thelma Todd reportedly gained his good behavior by promising to buy him some peanuts.5

At Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Lowrey earned ten letters in baseball, football, and track and field. He ran the 100-yard dash in ten seconds. In his final high-school football game, he scored six touchdowns on runs of 65 yards or more.6 In 1937 he was signed by the Chicago Cubs as a shortstop and sent to the Moline (Illinois) Plow Boys of the Class B Three-I League, where he batted .304 in 45 games. He spent 1938 and ‘39 playing in the Class C Western Association. Since he was only 5-feet-8, Lowrey had to put up better numbers to be noticed. He did just that in 1939 with the St. Joseph (Missouri) Angels, hitting .344 with 15 home runs. He was promoted to Class A Tulsa, where he started the 1940 season, and was soon advanced to the Double-A Los Angeles Angels.

During the next season with LA, in 1941, Lowrey sat on the bench until regular third baseman Eddie Mayo was injured. Lowrey performed so well in Mayo’s absence that manager Jigger Statz made him into an outfielder to keep his hot bat (.330) in the lineup.7 In August Lowrey was named the Helms Foundation’s Southeastern California athlete of the month. At season’s end Peanuts counted 26 stolen bases to go along with a .311 batting average in 164 games. In 1942, he returned to the Angels, but spent the final nine games of the season with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. He made his major-league debut with the Cubs while they were in St. Louis playing the Cardinals on April 14, 1942 as a late-inning outfield replacement. He started in center field the next day, batting third in the lineup between Phil “Philabuck” Cavarretta and Bill “Swish” Nicholson, and went hitless. The next day he got his first hit, a single off Ernie White, in an 11-6 Cubs loss. After 27 games, hitting .190, he was sent back to the Angels for more seasoning. Lowrey became a Cubs regular in 1943, appearing in 130 games and batting .292. His 12 triples were third in the league, and 13 stolen bases placed him second.

On April 15, 1944, Lowrey entered the US Army at Fort Custer, Michigan, home to the Military Police Officers Candidate School. He became the player-manager of the camp’s baseball team during that summer. His military service was cut short, however when he received a medical discharge after six months because of “weak knees.”

Back with the Cubs in 1945, the last and perhaps most pathetic season of wartime baseball, Lowrey batted .283 as the Cubs won the pennant. When he was asked who he liked in the World Series between the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Herald American sportswriter Warren Brown replied, “This is one Series neither team can win.”8 Despite Lowrey’s .310 batting average, and .678 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), the Tigers won the World Series in seven games. Lowrey was selected as an All-Star in 1946 and remained with the Cubs until he was traded in a four-outfielder swap on June 15, 1949, to the Cincinnati Reds; the deal included Lowrey and Harry Walker for Frank Baumholtz and Hank Sauer. After so-so seasons with the Reds in 1949 and most of 1950, Lowrey was sold to the Cardinals in September 1950. and started a handful of games at second base, third base, left field, and center field but by 1953 had become a fill-in player. In 1954 he had only 61 at-bats, with a .115 batting average, and he was released after the season. He signed with the Phillies for 1955 and ended his playing career after 106 at-bats and a .189 average.

With his major-league playing career over, Lowrey returned to minor-league baseball with the Buffalo Bisons of the Triple-A International League in 1956, and then became the player-manager of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Double-A Southern Association in 1957. He managed the Austin Senators of the Texas League in 1958, was a player-coach with the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers in 1959, and briefly returned to managing with the Idaho Falls Russets of the Class C, Pioneer League in 1960.

Lowrey joined the Phillies on June 1, 1960, and remained as a base coach for seven years. During the tumultuous season of 1964, he coached at first base. After the 1966 season, he went back to the West Coast as a third-base coach for the San Francisco Giants. By 1969 Lowrey was the third-base and hitting coach for the expansion Montreal Expos. Next, he went back to his original team, the Cubs, in 1970 and coached at third base for two years. Then Lowrey returned to his Los Angeles home with the California Angels, and after four years he returned to the Cubs as a third-base, and finally, bench coach. In 1981 he retired, ending a 17-year coaching career and a remarkable 43-year professional baseball career that also included ten years as minor-league player, 13 as major-league player, and three as a minor-league manager.

One of Peanuts’ great skills as a coach was his supposed ability to steal opponents’ signs. However, one is left to wonder about the veracity of that statement if the following story is any example. Lowrey was managing a Cubs game in Herman Franks’ absence while Franks watched the game from a broadcast truck. There, Franks noticed how the center-field camera enabled him to pick up the catcher’s signs and thought that this would be a great opportunity to steal some signs. So he called Lowrey and told him he would call one for a fastball, two for a curve, three for a changeup. While Franks was calling numbers for the pitch, Arne Harris, the WGN producer, was calling numbers for the camera, and the poor guy switching the game was going crazy. The only thing wrong with the plan was that Lowrey was somewhat hard of hearing, and by the time Franks got through to him, the pitch had gone by. “They finally had to call it off,” Harris said, “because they were afraid someone was going to get killed.”9

While the major leagues had taken him away from his Southern California home, Lowrey returned during the winters in the 1940s to appear in offseason exhibition games, occasionally playing with future Hall of Famers including Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Ralph Kiner, and Bob Lemon.

In the winter of 1943-44, Lowrey was among 12 big leaguers who were put under investigation by Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for supposedly violating their major-league contract. The small amount of money that the players received was inconsequential; They had appeared in games with black players, and Landis was really interested in keeping baseball segregated. Landis never got to enforce his rules because he died in November 1944.

Part of the lure of Southern California for Lowrey was his home in Culver City and its proximity to Hollywood. During his extensive baseball career, he appeared in five motion pictures, beginning with Pride of the Yankees (1942), the biopic about the life of Lou Gehrig. He later appeared in The Stratton Story (1949) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) as ballplayers but had no speaking roles.

Lowrey shared memories about his film career in an interview with author Mickey Herskowitz in the June 1968 Baseball Digest.10 In the Stratton film, he tried his hand as a stuntman “[Jimmy] Stewart, like [Gary] Cooper, was awkward,” said Lowrey, “and all but the close-up scenes were by ballplayers. … In one scene they needed someone to catch the ball and tumble over. … They hired an ex-football player and he broke a leg on his first try. I volunteered and did a perfect tumble. But when the movie was released, that scene tumbled on the cutting room floor.” The picture is climaxed by a Stratton pitching comeback in an exhibition game with the Houston Buffs. During the dramatic ninth inning, outfielder Clarence Maddern climbs the wall to haul down a line drive and helps save the game for Stratton. “Clarence never did that when he was a Cub,” quipped Lowrey.

In The Winning Team (1952), Lowrey actually played three roles. This movie, a biography of Grover Cleveland Alexander, starred future President Ronald Reagan as Alexander and Doris Day as his wife. In the action scenes, Lowrey doubled for Frank Lovejoy, who portrayed Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, Alexander’s manager with the Cardinals. Lowrey also appeared in thr movie with a full beard as a player for the House of David team. Lowrey told his own story about this film:

“I was the player that plunked Reagan with a ball between the eyes as he was heading for second. We used a cotton ball. And when I hit him I shouted, ‘Look out!’ But the director said, ‘Cut!’ He figured I would get an extra $350 for having a speaking role. So we reshot the scene, and after I hit Reagan, I had to look sad and keep my face down as Reagan was sprawled on the ground. And when Alex hit the skids and joined the House of David team, I donned a beard along with Hank Sauer, George Metkovich, and Al Zarilla for that role. We once broke for lunch and had to eat with our full beards. We then went back on the field with soup-stained beards.” Bob Lemon did most of the pitching for Reagan in the film.

Lowrey’s final movie role was in 1955, when he was an extra in Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie was based very loosely on the military life of Ted Williams.

In his baseball career, Lowrey played every position except pitcher and catcher. Though fairly short in stature, he played first base for six innings in one game with the Phillies in 1955. An excellent pinch-hitter, he hit .500 in that capacity for the Cardinals in 1952. That same season he broke a major-league record held by Ty Cobb, and since eclipsed by Dave Philley and Rusty Staub, with seven consecutive pinch-hits. In 1953 he had 21 pinch-hits, and a .344 average off the bench. Lowrey always had a soft spot in his heart for the Cubs: “Even when I played and coached against them. I always wanted to see them win.”11

Lowrey was a teammate of Eddie Waitkus, whose near-fatal shooting by a deranged woman was the source for Bernard Malamud’s book The Natural (1952), and the popular film of the same name (1982). On the eve of first baseman Waitkus’s shooting in 1949, Lowrey had met Waitkus and pitcher Russ Meyer at a Chicago bar prior to the shooting. Unbeknownst to Lowrey, Ruth Ann Steinhagen the perpetrator, had a “crush” on him as well, and he could have been the next victim.12

Peanuts Lowrey died on July 2, 1986, at the age of 68, of congestive heart failure in Inglewood, California. According to Lowrey’s obituary, he had been hospitalized at the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital after he had undergone open-heart surgery the previous month. Lowrey was survived by his wife of 48 years, Miriam (Close) Lowrey, and daughters Judy, born in 1943, and Melinda, born in 1950. A son, Harry Jr., died in 1943 at the age of 4. Lowrey is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum, Culver City California.

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.


Sources

http//www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/lowrey_peanuts.htm.

http://baseballinwartime.blogspot.com/2010/06/remembering-peanuts-lowrey.html.

California Department of Public Health: Vital Statistics - Birth, and Death Indices.

Mickey Herskowitz, “When Lowrey K.O.’d Ron Reagan”, Baseball Digest, Vol. 27 No. 7, August 1968, 58-60.

The Internet Movie Database,

www.imdb.com, Peanuts Lowrey Filmography, accessed January 7, 2013.

Bob Verdi, “Cubs’ Telescope Just Won’t Focus,” Chicago Tribune, February 4, 2001. Accessed online February 1, 2012.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-02-04/sports/0102040420_1_cubs-leo-durocher-telescope.

William F. McNeil, The California Winter League: America’s First Integrated Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002).

Obituary, “Harry ‘Peanuts’ Lowrey Dies,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1986, 3.

Ron Rapoport, “Bulls Only Employ Serious Cheerleaders,” Chicago Sun Times, February 8, 2001.

 

Notes

1 Ancestry.com, State of California Birth Index, Social Security Death Index, Baseball-Reference.com.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Charles Chamberlain, “Harry Lowrey Breaks Into Print as Top Factor in Cubs’ Climb,” San Antonio Express, August 1, 1943, 8. This article mentions Lowrey’s uncle describing him as “small as a peanut,” and says Lowrey got his chance to play center field when Phil Cavarretta was shifted from the outfield to play first base. It also states that Lowrey hit .375 during the club’s last 11 home games.

7 “Stage a Big Night for Peanuts Lowrey,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 15, 1941, 31.

8 Patrick J. Harrigan, The Detroit Tigers: Club and Community: 1945-1995 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 12.

9 Bob Verdi, “Cubs’ Telescope Just Won’t Focus,” Chicago Tribune, February 4, 2001. Accessed online: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-02-04/sports/0102040420_1_cubs-l....

10 Herskowitz, “When Lowrey K.O.’d Ron Reagan,” Baseball Digest, Vol. 27 No. 7, August 1968, 58-60.

11 Obituary. “Harry ‘Peanuts’ Lowrey Dies,” Chicago Tribune July 4, 1986, 3.

12 Furman Bisher, “Waitkus’ Strange Admirer,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1972, 12. Steinhagen admitted under questioning that she also had “crushes” on Lowrey and actor Alan Ladd.

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