SABR

Byron Humphrey

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

In Philadelphia early in 1938, manager Joe Cronin of the Boston Red Sox threw four rookie pitchers into an April 24 game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Emerson Dickman started, and was relieved by Charlie Wagner, Dick Midkiff, and Byron William Humphrey. Dickman took the loss. The 6-foot, right-handed Humphrey closed the game, taking over after Red Nonnenkamp pinch-hit for Midkiff in the eighth. The score was 9-4; With Humphrey pitching, Bill Werber doubled off the wall, reached third base on a fielder’s choice, and came in on a single. The final score was 10-4. The AP box score labeled the fourth Red Sox pitcher in the three places where his name appeared as Humphreys, Hump’s, and Hump’ys. 

In a May 4 box score, the AP labeled him H’phreys, Humpreys, and Humpries – each time adding on an “s” his name never had. The accompanying text called him Humphreys. Starter Jack Wilson did enough damage, giving up three runs in eight innings of work. Humphrey gave up another in the ninth, on a walk and three hits, before retiring the side with the bases loaded. The Tigers won, 4-1. Both times Humphrey pitched he threw one inning and each time he gave up one run. Hence, his 9.00 earned-run average.

On May 12 the Red Sox cut their squad to the 23-player limit by selling Humphrey to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. He had faced an even dozen batters in the big leagues. Until his dying day, the Missouri native never saw his name spelled correctly in a major-league box score.

He played four more years in the minor leagues but never had another winning record.

Byron William Humphrey was born to blacksmith Paris Humphrey and his wife, Madora Humphrey, on June 17, 1911, in or near Vienna, Missouri, which is about 40 miles south of Jefferson City, the state capital. He was the youngest of three children (William was 14 at the time of the 1920 Census, Elva was 11, and Byron was 9). The family lived in Richwoods, by road about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis, next door to Uncle Clyde and Aunt Effie and their three sons. Paris Humphrey had his own blacksmith ship. William was named Willard in the 1930 Census and in Byron’s obituary; he was a public-school teacher. Elva’s true name was perhaps Evelyn, again per the obituary. Byron was listed in 1930 as a laborer doing general farming, and Paris was now listed as doing farming as well. Byron said he attended elementary school in Iberia, Missouri, which was west of Vienna and 100 miles from Richwoods.[1] After eight years in elementary school, he spent two years at the Iberia Academy, also in Iberia. He said his ancestry was American and German.

Humphrey began his career in baseball in 1930, signed as a catcher and given a tryout by the St. Louis Browns, who had an affiliate in Joplin, Missouri. He was released before the season opened and came to play semipro ball in Iberia, only returning in 1932 to try out for the Cardinals’ Western Association team there. Once more he failed to make the grade as a catcher. He knew he had a good arm, so he decided to try to fashion himself into a pitcher. He was successful, being signed by the Joplin Miners later in the season. He had a hard time, and was 0-7 in 11 games. In 1934, however, he made the team from the start and won 18 games (against 15 defeats) for manager Wally Schang, working in 50 games and throwing 274 innings, with a 3.84 earned-run average. On August 12 he shut out Bartlesville in both games of a doubleheader. The Joplin club had a working agreement with the Boston Red Sox and the big-league team was interested. [2] Before this run of success, in January 1934, Byron had married Dorothy Wilson. The two had two daughters, Virginia and Paula.

Humphrey’s first visit to Red Sox spring training was in 1935. They asked him to play in Charlotte in 1935 for the Class B Piedmont League Hornets. Though the team finished in last place, Humphrey had a very strong season, 20-7, though with a 4.17 ERA at the higher level of play.

Humphrey’s 1936 season seemed to be an abbreviated one with the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association, but in the 49 2/3 innings he did get in, he put up a 4-1 record with a 1.99 ERA. The same season, however, a man named “Bill Humphrey” pitched for another Red Sox affiliate, the Double-A International League’s Syracuse Chiefs (with a 1-4 record).[3] They were one and the same man.

In 1937, the confusion apparently cleared up, Humphrey came back stronger and was 16-7 for Doc Prothro’s Little Rock Travelers with a 3.31 ERA. The team won the Southern Association pennant and the playoffs, but lost in the Dixie Series to Fort Worth of the Texas League. Humphrey lost the only game he pitched in the postseason, 3-2 to Fort Worth; the first of the three runs was unearned.

In 1938 he made the Red Sox during spring training and threw his two innings for the big-league club. After being sent down by Boston in the roster-trimming move, he spent the rest of the season with San Diego (9-12, 2.33 ERA). He spent the next two seasons and part of a third with the Padres. His 1939 season with San Diego was 9-15 (4.07 ERA) until he had to stop because of a sore arm. He returned in 1940 and was 13-14. The 1941 season was split between the Padres until, finally leaving the Red Sox system, he was sold outright to the Los Angeles Angels, a Chicago Cubs affiliate. In 1941, because of arm trouble, he asked the Cubs to send him to pitch for the Tulsa Oilers in the Texas League. They accommodated him and he was 3-7 (2.76 ERA) in this last season as a player. Traded to Oklahoma City in midseason, he refused to report and retired. [4]

After his playing career, Humphrey was out of baseball from 1942 until 1959, when he began scouting for Baltimore. He worked for the Orioles for ten years, covering Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Western Tennessee. The signing he took most pride in was that of Darold Knowles. He resigned at the end of the 1968 season, and worked six years as a scouting supervisor for the St. Louis Cardinals, through the end of 1974, when he retired. Humphrey kept his hand in the game at a more local level, managing Jefferson City’s Ban Johnson League team to a championship season. He took up work with the State Department of Education, working on the state’s school-lunch program out of offices in Jefferson City.

In 1981 Humphrey had quadruple bypass surgery, and lived more than a decade before succumbing on February 13, 1992, to a second massive heart attack following one he had suffered four days earlier. His widow later wrote, “Had Byron been born 60 years later, and after the Major League expansion, he could have died a millionaire. The millionaire era lacks something in sincerity that Byron’s era enjoyed which is sad.” [5]

After Humphrey’s death, chaplain Don Lucore said, “He is probably right now rounding up a bunch of old-terms in heaven to play a baseball game.” [6]

November 15, 2011

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Humphrey’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.






[1] See Humphrey’s player questionnaire which he completed for the Baseball Hall of Fame.


[2] The Sporting News, January 10, 1935, where he is listed as William Byron Humphreys, of Joplin. There is disagreement here with the information presented on Baseball-Reference.com which has him pitching in 1930 and 1931, but not 1933 – and never playing as a catcher. His Hall of Fame questionnaire says he started his pro career in 1933 – agreeing with this. Likewise, two sets of records from his Hall of Fame player file both start with 1933, and he wrote on one of them his agreement with the information. It’s rather complicated. Stories in The Sporting News have B.P. Humphrey as a catcher briefly with Joplin early in 1931 and a Byron Humphrey with Wheeling as a second baseman in June 1931. A pitcher named Clyde William Humphrey, who was with Wheeling in 1933, enjoyed a good minor-league career.


[3] The Sporting News, March 26, 1936, correctly lists him as Byron.


[4] Humphrey’s personal annotations in 1979 on a statistical record sent him by mail. The original is in the Hall of Fame player file. 


[5] Handwritten letter in Humphrey’s Hall of Fame player file.


[6] Unattributed obituary in Humphrey’s player file at the Hall of Fame.
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