Billy Myers

This article was written by Charles F. Faber

At times his nerves compelled him to almost give up the game he loved, but Billy Myers always came back with grace and good humor. Nicknamed the Jaguar, he helped Cincinnati win two consecutive National League pennants. Myers never won the affection of the fans, but he was popular with his teammates and with knowledgeable sportswriters, who appreciated his spirited play.

William Harrison Myers was born in Enola, Pennsylvania, on August 14, 1910. Enola, a suburb of Harrisburg, is on the west bank of the Susquehanna River in the eastern part of Cumberland County. During Billy’s childhood, the area was home to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Enola Yards, the world’s largest freight yard. Billy’s father, William Henry Myers was a hostler, a railroad engineer who drove locomotives to designated sections in the roundhouse to be cleaned, serviced, or repaired. His mother Ellen (nee Wagner1) was the daughter of a stone mason. Billy was the fifth of the couple’s six children. His oldest brother, Myrle, was a locomotive engineer. His youngest brother, Lynn, like Billy, became a professional baseball player.

As a youngster Myers developed a nerve problem that plagued him throughout his career.2 Because of his nerves, he refused an early invitation to play semipro baseball. Shortly after graduating from Enola High School, he agreed to join a team, where he was seen by major-league scouts. At the age of 17, Billy Myers joined the St. Louis Cardinals system. During his first spring training he quit the team without explanation and went home. Cardinal officials talked him into coming back and assigned him to the Waynesboro Red Birds in the Class D Blue Ridge League. In 1929 he started his slow advancement on the Cardinal ladder --Waynesboro, the Fort Wayne Chiefs in the Class B Central, and the Danville Veterans in the Three I League, another Class B circuit.

Also in 1929 Myers entered the seas of matrimony. He married Evelyn Dorothy “Ev” Yarnell, who had grown up with him in the same West Fairview district of Enola. She was the 18-year-old daughter of a stone mason and had not finished high school. Myers was 19 at the time. Not all teen-age marriages work, but this one did. It lasted the rest of her life. The couple had one child, a son named Edward, born in 1935.

The 1930 season found Myers back in Danville. He tried his hand at pitching, but a 2-7 record convinced him to get off the mound and back to the shortstop position where he belonged. He never pitched in Organized Ball again. He hit well enough in 1930 to earn a promotion to the Houston Buffaloes in the Class A Texas League. The 1931 Buffaloes, led by Joe Medwick and Dizzy Dean, were one of the best Class A teams ever, but Myers had trouble hitting Texas League pitching, so he was back in the Three-I League again in 1932. On July 14, that loop became one of the 12 minor leagues to disband because of the Great Depression. The Cardinals sent him to Rochester in the Class AA International League -- an unexpected promotion. In 1933 he was back with another Red Wings club, Elmira, in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League. His career had been up and down for half a dozen years. Finally, in 1934 he was off the roller coaster. He hit .313 for the Columbus Red Birds of the Class AA American Association and attracted the attention of major league executives.

Larry MacPhail of the Cincinnati Reds said he knew Myers was a comer when he saw him in spring training in 1934.3 But Cincinnati manager Bob O’Farrell wanted to go with Gordon Slade at shortstop, so the Reds passed on Myers at the time. In June MacPhail sent scout Bobby Wallace to look at Myers. Wallace liked him in all respects but one; he was weak on fielding balls hit directly at him. Myers learned to dash in on such balls instead of waiting for them. On August 6 the New York Giants bought him for $30,000. Earlier, the Reds could have purchased him for one-third that amount.

On November 1 the Giants acquired Dick Bartell from the Phillies. They no longer had a need for a shortstop. What they needed was a versatile infielder, who could play various positions, including third base. They wanted a young pitcher with great potential. The Reds had both. They sent veteran infielder Mark Koenig and pitching prospect Allyn Stout to New York in exchange for Billy Myers. MacPhail had wanted to get Myers earlier, when he was less expensive, but he still considered him a real bargain. Numerous baseball men said that Myers will become the country’s greatest shortstop, citing his exceptionally strong arm, speed to burn, and sure pair of hands.4

Myers never became the country’s greatest shortstop, but he became a very good one, good enough to help the Reds win two consecutive pennants, good enough to play major-league baseball long after Koenig’s career was over, and long after the Giants realized that Stout would never live up to his potential.

The Cincinnati club that Myers joined in 1935 was in sad shape. It had not finished in the first division since 1926 and had dwelt in the National League basement four consecutive years, 1931-34. Powel Crosley, Jr. had purchased the nearly bankrupt club in 1933 and was determined to restore it to its days of glory. No progress was evident before 1935. The club had two genuine stars – pitcher Paul Derringer and catcher Ernie Lombardi. The rest of the cast was composed of has-beens and never-weres.

On Opening Day, April 16, 1935, Myers made his major-league debut. The 24-year-old right-handed shortstop was not a big man at five-foot-eight, 168 pounds, but he had a big day at the plate that spring day at Crosley Field. Facing the Pittsburgh Pirates and future Hall of Fame pitcher Waite Hoyt, Myers went three-for-five, with a run batted in and a stolen base. Fellow rookie Ival Goodman chimed in with two hits, but it wasn’t enough, as the Pirates pounded four Cincinnati pitchers and hammered out a 12-6 win.

Of course, Myers couldn’t keep on hitting like he did on Opening Day. He hit .267 for the season, ten points higher than his career average in the majors. Chuck Dressen, the Cincinnati manager in 1935, named Myers captain of the team. It is unusual for a rookie to be named team captain, and it was probably a mistake in this case, for it got Myers off on the wrong foot with Cincinnati fans. The youngster took the job seriously and thought part of his responsibility was to argue with the umpires on every close call. Fans wearied of his frequent losing arguments, which delayed the game to no avail. They started booing him when he protested a call and booed his sometimes erratic play at shortstop. Myers, with his jangled nerves, was sensitive to taunts form the grandstand.5 Nevertheless, he remained the Reds’ captain for six years.

The Reds didn’t fare as well as fans hoped, finishing sixth in 1935 and falling all the way to the cellar in 1937. During this sad season they made some changes that soon would propel them to better things. The Reds acquired fielding marvel Harry Craft to patrol centerfield and Lonny Frey to cover second. They brought Frank McCormick back from the minors. In 1938 they made two even more important changes. They acquired ace pitcher Bucky Walters from the Phillies and hired a future Hall of Fame manager, Bill McKechnie. These moves paid immediate dividends, as the Reds climbed out of the basement and advanced all the way to fourth place, their best finish in more than a decade.

In 1939 the Reds solidified their starting lineup with the acquisition of veteran third baseman Bill Werber. Werber took charge of the infield, making it into the best fielding infield in the league. He played with all-out effort, pep, and hustle. His hustling, scrappy attitude rubbed off on the Reds keystone combination. He told his younger teammates to bounce on the balls of their feet like a jungle cat. He gave them nicknames. Frey was Leopard, Myers was Jaguar, and he was Tiger. Big easy-going, first baseman Frank McCormick, the best hitter on the club, wanted to be a Jungle Cat, too. Werber refused, saying McCormick didn’t hustle all the time.6 The big firstsacker turned up his energy a notch and was admitted into the Jungle Club a month later and given the name Wildcat. McCormick went on to lead the league in hits and runs batted in. In the vote for National League Most Valuable Player, he came in second to teammate Bucky Walters.

According to Werber, Myers was one of the best-liked of all the Reds and had the sharpest needle. He delighted in jabbing Lombardi, Derringer, or McCormick, but it was always in good fun with no meanness behind it. Werber said Myers was a key to their success, but he began to wear down during the 1939 pennant fight. One day he came into the clubhouse before a doubleheader, looking pale and drawn. He slumped down on a stool and began nibbling on an apple. He said his wife wouldn’t give him anything to eat because he refused to scrub the kitchen floor.7

Werber wrote that after a spring exhibition game in New Orleans, he, Myers, and two teammates went to the famous upscale restaurant, Antoine’s, for dinner. Growing up a railroad engineer’s son in Enola, Pennsylvania, Myers had little experience with Cajun food or menus printed in French. He asked the waiter for a recommendation and was told the specialty of the house was Pompano en Papillotte, so he ordered it. When the entree was delivered, he asked how to eat it. He was told to cut it up with his knife and eat the pieces with a fork, just like it was catfish. After the meal, he was asked how he enjoyed it. “Lousy,” he replied. Werber said that response was understandable, as the naïve young man had eaten the paper bag in which the fish was cooked.8

Pitching and defense carried Cincinnati through the 1939 season. The Reds allowed far fewer runs than any other National League club that season. Myers contributed to the excellent defense. It was said that one of the keys to the Reds triumph was their keystone pair of Myers and Frey. Although neither was league’s best at his position, together they formed a much stronger combination than any of the other contenders could put on the field.9 The Cincinnati infielders did everything well – covered territory, made the double-play pivot, stole signs, and rarely struck out. Myers was particularly adept at anticipating where a ground ball would be hit and at stealing signs. Writer Talmage Boston quoted Bucky Walters as saying of the infielders, “They were all good, fast, and smart.”10 Myers had his best year at the plate in 1939, hitting .281. He led all National League shortstops in double plays and was second in both assists and putouts. Unfortunately, he also led the league in errors.

Between them, Walters and Derringer won 49 games, the most by any two teammates since Dizzy and Paul Dean won 49 games for the 1934 Cardinals. Walters won the Triple Crown for pitchers, leading the circuit in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average.

The Reds won the National League pennant in 1939, their first flag in 20 years. They faced the powerful New York Yankees in the World Series and tasted defeat in four straight games. Myers hit well in the brief Series, going 4-for-12, with a triple. His fielding error in the ninth inning of Game Four allowed the Yankees to tie the score and deprived the Reds of a win. Baseball historian Lee Allen wrote that the error should not have been charged to Myers, but to Frey who made a high throw to second that Myers couldn’t handle.11 Myers was not the goat of the Series, however. That unhappy distinction was awarded unfairly to Ernie Lombardi, who lay helpless at the plate as Yankee baserunners ran over his prone body to clinch the championship.

It was pitching and defense for the Reds again in 1940. For the second year in a row, Cincinnati allowed the fewest runs by opponents and led the league in earned run average and fielding percentage. The club set a new National League fielding record with an average of .981. Despite the tragic death of Willard Hershberger and injuries to Frey, Myers, and Lombardi, the Reds won the National League pennant by a margin of 10 games over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

After clinching the pennant, the Reds were in danger of losing their shortstop. During the last week of the regular season, Myers left the club. Cincinnati’s general manager, Warren Giles, tracked him down and eventually reached him by phone in Columbus, Ohio. Lee Allen reconstructed the phone conversation.

Giles: “If you don’t come back and play in the World Series, I’ll fine you what salary you have coming and see that you aren’t cut into the Series, and you’ll never play another game.”

Myers: “I don’t care. I have personal problems and I don’t care if I ever play again. And I don’t want any money.”12

After two more phone calls, Myers agreed to rejoin the club. The press was told that Myers had gone to Columbus on personal business with the club’s permission. Although the nature of his personal problems was never made public, it was almost certainly associated with his fragile nerves. Allen wrote that Myers made numerous errors, mostly on comparatively easy chances, but he came up with plays frequently that were simply uncanny. According to Allen, Myers was blessed with superlative natural ability.13

Myers was back in good health and in the club’s good graces when World Series time rolled around. After four straight world championships, the Yankees did not qualify for the 1940 Series. The American League was represented by a very good Detroit club. The Series was expected to feature Detroit’s offensive power versus Cincinnati’s airtight defense. The Sporting News polled ten of its correspondents. Five picked the Reds; four chose the Tigers, and one said it was too close to call. All predicted the Series would go six or seven games.14

The Tigers were powered by Hank Greenberg, who led the American League in slugging average, slugging plus on-base percentage, doubles, home runs, total bases, and runs batted in. His teammate Rudy York was second in RBIs, ahead of such future Hall of Fame stars as Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams.

The Series lived up to its advance billing. The clubs alternated wins. The veteran Newsom bested Derringer in Game One, 7-2. Newsom’s father, who had journeyed up from South Carolina to see his son pitch, died of a heart attack in a Cincinnati hotel room the next day. Walters defeated Schoolboy Rowe in Game Two, 5-3. The Tigers took Game Three, 7-4. Derringer won Game Four, 5-2. Newsom shut out the Reds in Game Five, 8-0. Walters pitched a shutout in Game Six and helped the Reds win, 4-0, by contributing a home run to his own cause.

The final game matched Detroit’s Buck Newsom against Derringer, each making his third start of the Series. Derringer was pitching on two days’ rest, Newsom after only one day off. Both pitchers were in top form. Detroit led, 1-0, going into the bottom of the seventh inning. Frank McCormick led off with a line drive double off the left field fence. Jimmy Ripple, who had replaced the light-hitting Harry Craft late in the season, lined a double off the right-field screen, knocking in McCormick with the tying run. Jimmy Wilson, who had come out of retirement to catch after the death of Hershberger and an injury to Lombardi, sacrificed Ripple to third base. Lombardi, limping on his injured foot, came up as a pinch hitter and was intentionally walked with Lonnie Frey coming in to run for him. The next man up was Myers. With a count of three balls and a strike, Myers flied deep to center, Ripple scoring the go-ahead run on the sacrifice fly. Derringer made the 2-1 lead hold up and the Reds were world champions. Billy Myers was an unlikely hero.

Cincinnati fans went crazy with a spontaneous and uninhibited celebration. The downtown streets became an instant bedlam. Police blocked off the area and refused to permit automobiles to enter. An out-of-control group of revelers pushed a streetcar off the tracks and upset it. Lee Allen wrote that there had been wild celebrations before, but the 1940 celebration in Cincinnati was the most riotous of all.15

Despite his World Series heroics Myers was deemed expendable. Cincinnati fans, even though considered among the best in the baseball world, had never accepted him. On December 4 he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jim Gleason and shortstop Bobby Mattick. Myers played only 24 games for the Cubs in 1941, spending part of the season with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs farm team in the Class AA American Association. He made his last appearance as a major-league player on September 26 at the age of 31. In his final game he played second base at Crosley Field and was 0-for-3 against his former club, the Cincinnati Reds.

After retiring as a player, Myers worked as a scout for many years with various major-league clubs. In 1966 he was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. William Harrison Myers died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on April 10, 1995, at the age of 84. He was buried in Rolling Green Memorial Park in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, not far from his native Enola. He shares a tombstone with his wife, Ev, who preceded him in death.

 

Notes

1 Ellen’s maiden name is sometimes spelled Wagoner; sometime Waggoner.

2 Myers’s nerve problems were seldom mentioned in print. Information about them is taken from his biography in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum.

3 The Sporting News, December 27, 1934.

4 Ibid.

5 Lee Allen, The Cincinnati Reds, New York: G. P.. Putnam’s Sons, 1948, 282.

6 Bill Werber and C. Paul Rogers III, Memories of a Ballplayer, Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 2001, 166.

7 Ibid., 181.

8 Werber and Rogers, 50.

9 David Okrent and Harris Lewine, eds., The Ultimate Baseball Book, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1871, 191.

10 Talmage Boston, 1939: Baseball’s Pivotal Year, Fort Worth: Summit, 1994, 66.

11 Allen, 274.

12 Allen, 282.

13 Ibid, 282-83.

14 The Sporting News, October 4, 1940.

15 Allen, 286-87.