Ray Prim

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

The history of baseball is filled with one-season wonders whose unexpected rise and success capture the imagination and interest of fans and sportswriters. One of those sentimental stories belongs to southpaw Ray Prim, who at the age of 38 led the National League in ERA (2.40) as a member of the pennant-winning Chicago Cubs in 1945. Prim broke into Organized Baseball in 1928, pitched briefly for the Washington Senators (1933 and 1934), spent a miserable season with the Philadelphia Phillies (1935), and logged 60 innings for the Cubs in 1943. With major-league rosters decimated by World War II, Prim was given another chance. Described as “almost invincible” by J.G. Taylor Spink, editor of The Sporting News, Prim seemingly came of nowhere to win 11 of 15 decisions and post a microscopic 1.27 ERA in 113⅓ innings over the final three months to lead the North Siders to an equally unexpected pennant.1

Raymond Lee Prim was born on December 30, 1906, in Salitpa, then called River Hill, an unincorporated village of a few hundred souls in Clarke County, Alabama, about 75 miles north of Mobile in the southwestern park of the state. His parents were Howard H. and Martha Lucretia (Cleveland) Prim, both native Alabamians of Scotch-Irish heritage. The Prims were farmers, and welcomed six children into the world between 1901 and 1915 (Jessie, Howard, Ray, Hannis, Harry, and Nora). The adolescent Ray was introduced to baseball on sandlots and town teams which provided the rural communities of the area an important source of entertainment. A natural right-hander, Ray suffered a hand injury as a youngster and began to throw left-handed. When his ragtag local nine traveled about 12 miles southeast to the closest city, Jackson, with a population of about 1,500, to challenge any willing teenagers, Prim was supposedly spotted by the Jackson High School baseball coach. That coach ultimately persuaded Ray to attend the school, where the rugged southpaw starred on the diamond as well as on the gridiron, where he was a halfback.

Prim’s first taste of Organized Baseball was short-lived. Upon graduating from high school in 1928 he signed with the Alexandria (Louisiana) Reds in the Class D Cotton States League. The 21-year-old saw action in 22 games as an outfielder and went 4-11 on the mound, but left the team in August to enroll at Alabama Polytechnic University, then known colloquially as Auburn. While a broken left shoulder ended Prim’s football endeavors in his freshman year, his baseball aspirations looked bright. Described by Montgomery, Alabama, sportswriter Stuart Stephenson as a “sharpshooter, who has everything but a big time fastball,” Prim was one of four players on coach John Sheridan’s Tigers who signed professional baseball contracts in the late spring of 1930.2

Prim resumed his baseball career with the Greensboro (North Carolina) Patriots in the Class C Piedmont League. “It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” said Prim of joining the St. Louis Cardinals chain gang.3 After splitting his 12 decisions and posting a 6.24 ERA in 1930, Prim refused to take a salary cut the following season, and was released. He quickly caught on with the Durham (North Carolina) Bulls in the same league, winning 16 games and logging 204 innings. The Baltimore Orioles in the Double-A International League purchased his contract as the season closed.

A broken foot limited Prim to 24 games with a dismal 5.57 ERA in 160 innings for two Class B teams in 1932, after which Baltimore sold his contract to its intraleague opponent, the Albany Senators. Finally competing against players who had or would have major-league experience, Prim responded by winning a team-high 14 games and attracting the attention of big-league scouts. Prim’s late-season ascent to the majors was delayed when Commissioner Kenesaw Landis was forced to settle a dispute between the Chicago Cubs (who claimed they held an option on the pitcher) and the Boston Braves, who wanted to purchase Prim. Landis rejected Chicago’s claim, enabling Albany to sell the hurler to the highest bidder.4

Outbidding the Braves, the Washington Senators acquired Prim in early September 1933. Led by player-manager Joe Cronin, the Nationals had been in a tight pennant race with the New York Yankees for much of the season, before pulling away in August thanks to a 13-game winning streak. Ineligible for the World Series, Prim spent most of his month with the Senators as a batting-practice pitcher, preparing his teammates for their likely opponent in the fall classic, the New York Giants, and their eventual MVP-winning hurler, Carl Hubbell. Like “King Carl,” the southpaw Prim relied heavily on a screwball, which very few pitchers threw at the time. After an inauspicious debut against the Philadelphia Athletics on September 24 (six baserunners and three runs in four innings of relief), Prim made his first start on October 1, also against the Athletics, at Griffith Stadium. In what proved to be the longest outing of his career, Prim held Connie Mack’s squad scoreless on four hits through 10 innings before yielding five hits and three runs in the 11th to pick up the loss.

Prim seemed primed to land a spot in on Washington’s aged staff at his first big-league spring training, in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1934. The club’s three top hurlers from the previous season were in their mid-30s (20-game winners lefty Earl Whitehill and General Crowder were 35; and Lefty Stewart was 33), and 28-year-old Monte Weaver had suffered from stomach problems. According to an Associated Press report, Prim worked closely with Senators coach Nick Altrock, a former big-league, southpaw pitcher, to develop his screwball and curve.5 Boy wonder Joe Cronin was confident that his pitchers would once again lead the club to another pennant. “We have the best team,” he said, and added, “I’m counting on Ray Prim as the best of the rookies. He’s been showing up like a million dollars in spring training.”6 Cronin should have asked for a refund. Prim started and was pummeled in the fourth game of the season, and was ultimately demoted to Albany in early June after yielding 11 runs in 14⅔ innings. Back in the IL, Prim developed a severe case of plantar warts on his feet, which made walking difficult, let alone pitching. He logged only 89 innings and posted an unsightly 5.06 ERA.

One of the few “victories” Prim enjoyed in ’34 was on August 28 when Ethel D. Harkins said “I do” at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in York, Pennsylvania. Prim had met his future wife two years earlier while a member of the York White Roses of the New York-Pennsylvania League. They had one child, James, whom they adopted as a boy in 1937.7

Prim’s commitment to baseball must have been tested in 1935 when he was with four different clubs in a six-week span. Convinced that Prim was not the answer to their pitching questions, the Senators sent the left-hander to Albany in March.8 The soft-spoken Prim traveled 12 miles from Biloxi to Albany’s camp in Gulf Shores, but was there for only about a day before being sold on a conditional basis to the Boston Braves.9 Just as the Braves prepared to break camp and travel north to Massachusetts, Prim got his walking papers and was returned to Albany, where he started the season. He logged 42 innings before being sold again – this time to the Philadelphia Phillies. The perennial second-division team was seemingly in perpetual need of pitching playing in the bandbox Baker Bowl, whose unforgiving right-field foul pole was a mere 280 feet from home plate. In his third appearance for the Phillies, Prim notched his maiden victory in the big leagues, allowing five hits and a run in 4⅔ innings of relief against the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals in Sportsman’s Park on May 21. He finished the season with a 3-4 record, made 29 appearances, including six starts, and had a 5.77 ERA in 73 1/3 innings. In December Philadelphia sold Prim to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. It would be eight years before Prim donned another big-league uniform.

Prim faced only two batters (neither of whom he retired) in a Millers uniform before he was sold to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. Playing for the Angels in sunny Southern California must have agreed with the Alabamian. Given Prim’s 54-57 record and ERA in excess of 5.00 in parts of seven seasons in the minors, it was highly unlikely that anyone would have predicted that he would develop into one of the most effective and consistent hurlers in the PCL over the next seven seasons. From 1936 to 1942 Prim went 128-84, and was regularly among the circuit’s leaders in wins and innings pitched. Thrice he notched at least 20 victories (1937, 1939, and 1942). In a golden age of baseball on the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles played for the league championship three times during Prim’s tenure (1939, 1940, and 1942), but lost each time. Prim’s most memorable game might have been one that he lost. On August 30, 1938, he was locked in a pitchers’ duel with San Diego’s Dick Ward, who held the Angels hitless for 13⅔ innings.10 Both hurlers completed the 16-inning contest, won by the Padres 1-0.

One of the most popular players on the club, Prim acquired the nickname “Squire” for his elegant, sophisticated appearance, if not for his age. A good-looking man whose streaks of gray in his dark hair gave him a dignified aristocratic air, Prim stood 6-feet tall and weighed about 180 pounds. Despite having left the Deep South in his early 20s, he retained a Southern drawl. The Prims took root in the Los Angeles area, establishing year-round residence in the temperate climate.

Prim’s success with the Angels gave rise to rumors of his eventual acquisition by the Chicago Cubs, whose owner, Philip K. Wrigley, also owned the Angels, or by another big-league team. But as seasons went by and Prim grew older, those rumors died down and it appeared unlikely that the “Squire” would get another chance on the big stage. World War II changed everything.

The Cubs had floundered since winning the pennant in 1938, their fourth in 10 seasons. After a fourth-place finish in 1940, the North Siders had posted three consecutive losing seasons, including sixth-place finishes in 1941 and 1942. Having lost their only two lefties to the war effort after the ’42 campaign (24-year-old Vern Olsen and hard-throwing 21-year-old Johnny Schmitz), the Cubs took a chance on the graybeard Prim, whom they acquired from the Angels.

Despite the Cubs’ recent troubles, Chicago beat writer Edward Burns boldly predicted that Chicago would win the pennant in 1943 because of a pitching staff that seemed on paper to be among the best in baseball.11 The Cubs held spring training for the first of three seasons in French Lick, located about 280 miles south of the Windy City in southern Indiana, in accordance with Commissioner Landis’s order to conduct camp north of the Mason-Dixon line (excepting the two St. Louis teams) to conserve resources. Skipper Jimmie Wilson was counting on a quartet of 30-something former 20-game-winning workhorses to lead the Cubs to glory: holdovers Claude Passeau, Bill Lee, and Lon Warneke, and offseason acquisition Paul Derringer from the Cincinnati Reds. The club was also bolstered by prospects Dick “Kewpie” Barrett, who had won 27 games for Seattle in the PCL, and Hank Wyse, a 20-game winner for Tulsa in the Class A1 Texas League. Prim, one of only three left-handers in camp (along with Bob McCall and Hank Miklos) among the 18 pitchers, “looks more like a businessman than the usual conception of a left-handed pitcher,” wrote Burns in the Chicago Tribune. But Prim’s competitive spirit and easy-going demeanor impressed the scribe. “[Prim] stayed in the business after numerous disappointments and is now confronted with his biggest success at an age much more advanced than that at which many players succumbed to the Old Man with the Scythe.”12 After yielding just one earned run in eight relief appearances and 10 innings, the 36-year-old Prim won consecutive starts for the first time on his career, defeating Philadelphia and Brooklyn at Wrigley Field. Hit hard in his next three starts and suffering from a pulled rib muscle,13 Prim resumed his role as mopup artist. He finished the season with a staff-low 2.55 ERA in 60 innings in 29 appearances, and won four of seven decisions for the Cubs, who finished in the second division for the fourth straight season.

In 1944 Prim chose to remain in Los Angeles and train with the Angels instead of reporting to the Cubs and the cold and dank weather of French Lick. His brief return to the big leagues seemed to be over when the Cubs assigned him to their PCL affiliate as the season got under way. The “Squire” responded with his best year in Organized Baseball, winning 22 games and posting career bests in ERA (1.70 ERA in 286 innings), complete games (27), and shutouts (6), while leading his club to the championship final, which they lost for the fourth time in six seasons. Blessed with impeccable control, Prim walked only 40 batters.

Prim’s 22 victories for Los Angeles earned him another shot with the Cubs, who granted him permission to train with his former club in the PCL before reporting to Chicago to start the 1945 season. Described by Chicago sportswriter Edgar Munzel as “just another guy using up space on the bench,” Prim made 15 appearances, including six starts, and had a 4.85 ERA in 52 innings through June as swingman as the North Siders fought to play .500 ball. Beginning with 6⅓ innings of scoreless relief in which he collected more hits than he allowed (three to two) to pick up the win against Philadelphia in Shibe Park on July 6, Prim put together one of the most unlikely stretches a Cubs pitcher had ever had. The “ancient lefty,” whom teammates and sportswriter called “Pop,” “Pops,” or “Pappy,” for obvious reasons, recorded his first big-league shutout in the first game of a doubleheader on July 13, blanking Boston on four hits at Wrigley Field.14 “The gray but sometime vigorous lefty,” wrote Ed Burns in the Chicago Tribune, “[was] the man on both offense and defense,”15 as the hurler collected two hits and knocked in his only run of the season. [Prim had 18 hits in 100 major-league at-bats]. Five days later “Pops” shut out Brooklyn on seven hits. Though his streak of 27⅓ scoreless innings ended in his next start, Prim won his fifth straight decision. “[I]t takes a little time for me to get co-ordinated,” said the modest and unassuming pitcher. “I simply have to wait to get my squeaky hinges oiled up.”16 Led by the league’s best pitching staff (Wyse, 22-10; Passeau, 17-9; Derringer, 16-11; and midseason acquisition Hank Borowy, 11-2; and the affable Prim), the Cubs moved into first place on July 8 and survived a furious challenge from the St. Louis Cardinals to capture their first pennant since 1938. Described by Munzel as “the most effective member” of the Cubs’ pitching staff in the heated pennant race, Prim posted a posted a hard-to-fathom 1.27 ERA in his final 113⅓ innings, completed eight of 13 starts among 19 appearances, and won 11 of 14 decisions.17 “The clever left arm of graying [Prim] is writing one of baseball best perseverance stories,” gushed Jerry Liska of the Associated Press.”18

One month after Japan surrendered to the United States to end World War II, the much-anticipated fall classic featured a rematch of the 1935 World Series between Chicago and Detroit. In accordance with the wartime travel restrictions still in place, the Series was played in a 3-4 format. The Cubs won two of the first three games played in Briggs Field, and headed to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, where they had posted the best home record in the NL (49-26). Prim, who finished the season with a 13-8 record, logged 165⅓ innings and led the NL with a 2.40 ERA and fewest hits per nine innings (7.7), got the call in Game Four. “My arm doesn’t get tired,” he said. “It’s been waiting too long for this chance.”19 Cubs manager Charlie Grimm seemed genuinely excited for his hurler. “Prim has done a hell of a job for this ballclub all summer,” said “Jolly Cholly.” “He’s nearly 40 years old and bustin’ to pitch his first World Series ballgame. ... If ever a guy earned a starting pitching job in this series, Ray has.”20 Everything started out well for Prim, who retired the first 10 Tigers he faced. The next four batters reached base, sending Prim to the showers. Hank Greenberg lined an RBI single, followed by Roy Cullenbine’s RBI double. Derringer relieved Prim, but allowed two inherited runner to score in the eventual 4-1 loss. In the Cubs’ 12-inning victory in Game Six, Prim faced two batters in a forgettable relief appearance, blowing a save opportunity in the eighth inning. He yielded a deep fly ball to Doc Cramer scoring Joe Hoover, and a towering home run by Greenberg; both runs were unearned. Behind their 25-game winner, southpaw Hal Newhouser, the Tigers, affectionately called “nine old men and one lefty,” won Game Seven to hand the North Siders their seventh straight World Series defeat since 1907.

The oldest player on the Cubs’ roster in 1946, Prim injured his elbow in his first start of the season, on April 21 against St. Louis at Wrigley Field. After a 12-day layoff, he made what proved to be his last big-league start on May 4, hurling 7⅓ innings against the New York Giants. But with swelling and pain making pitching difficult, he was confined to the bullpen. He reinjured his arm on May 19, and was subsequently placed on the voluntarily retired list. In late August Prim returned to make his final nine appearances (all in relief) to finish the campaign with a 2-3 record and only 23⅓ innings pitched.

After training with the Cubs on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, the 40-year-old Prim was given his outright release to the Angels in 1947. His 19th and final season in Organized Baseball was delayed by a severe case of the mumps.21 He finally took the mound in late May, but made only nine appearances, logging 39 innings before retiring.

In parts of six seasons in the majors, Prim went 22-21, started 34 of his 116 appearances, and posted a 3.56 ERA in 351 innings. He chalked up 204 wins and 154 losses, and logged 2,990 innings in the minors. In 2005 he was elected to the PCL Hall of Fame.

After serving as a roving pitching instructor for the Cubs in 1948, Prim retired to Southern California with his wife, Ethel, and resided in Los Angeles County. According to Prim’s Hall of Fame questionnaire, he was a longtime automobile salesman for Ostrom Chevrolet.

Prim died at the age of 88 on April 29, 1995, in Sebastopol Convalescent Hospital. The cause of death was lung cancer. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Prim’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record, and Ancestry.com.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, September 27, 1945: 4.

2 “Morning Musings,” Anniston (Alabama) Star, April 10, 1930: 13. The others were Sol “Buck” Carter (who had a cup of coffee with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1931), Jim Crawford and Ben Newton. See Anniston Star, February 8, 1931: 12.

3 The Sporting News, September 13, 1945: 7.

4 The Sporting News, August 31, 1933: 3.

5 Associated Press, “Training Camp News,” Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star, March 9, 1934: 11.

6 Bill Braucher (NEA), “ ‘We Have the Best Team’ Says Cronin,” The News (Frederick, Maryland), April 10, 1934: 6.

7 “Crosses Continent to His Future Foster Parents,” Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania), May 26, 1937: 7.

8 Associated Press, “Washington Trades Ray Prim to Albany,” Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania), March 22, 1935: 19

9 Plain Speaker (Hazleton, Pennsylvania), March 23, 1935: 10.

10 Associated Press, “San Diego Moundsman Chalks Up Record in Whitewashing Angels,” Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune, August 30, 1938: 2.

11 Edward Burns, “Jim Wilson and Writer Reach Agreement Cubs # 1 Over St. Louis, Brooklyn,” Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1943: B1.

12 Edward Burns, “Cubs Have a Spot for Lefty Prim,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1943: 27.

13 The Sporting News, September 13, 1945: 7.

14 Edward Burns, “42,047 See Cubs Beat Dodgers, 5-0; Lose, 9 to 5,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1945: 23.

15 Edward Burns, “Sox Lose, 3-2; Cubs, Prim Beat Braves, 2-0,” Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1945: 14.

16 The Sporting News, September 13, 1945: 7.

17 Ibid.

18 Jerry Liska (Associated Press), “ ‘Pappy’ Prim Is Cubs’ Anchor in Flag Race,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1945: 3H.

19 Liska.

20 Frank Kenesson (United Press), “World Series Is Packed With Sentiment; Old Timers Seek Glory,” The Bee (Danville, Virginia), October 6, 1945: 8.

21 The Sporting News, May 28, 1947: 21.