Chuck Hostetler

This article was written by Marc Lancaster

The shame of it is that Chuck Hostetler was always known for his speed. Those legs got him noticed, whether in semipro industrial leagues or on dusty minor-league fields in Kansas and Oklahoma. So even now, it hurts a bit to watch the black-and-white images of Hostetler hurtling around third base at Wrigley Field before coming to a sprawling halt on all fours, palms sliding on the grass, as he blunders into one of the most notorious bloopers in World Series history.

“Hostetler’s Flop,” labeled instantly and immortalized on film for posterity, served as a cruel final scene in one man’s career but also an appropriate coda to the four-season spectacle that was wartime baseball. Two days later, Hostetler’s Detroit Tigers would prevail over the Chicago Cubs in Game Seven of the 1945 World Series. When baseball reconvened the following spring, 42-year-old outfielders had been consigned to history.

Charles Cloyd Hostetler was born on September 22, 1903, in McClellandtown, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh. He was the fourth of Isaac and Rella Hostetler’s five children1 but well removed from his older brothers, Gilbert (born in 1891), John (1893), and Byron (1897). Known as Charley, he got hooked on baseball from an early age; his father occasionally gave him whippings with a belt when the young boy didn’t return promptly from school because he got caught up in a ballgame.2

Isaac Hostetler made ends meet through a variety of jobs, including stints as a constable and a Pinkerton detective,3 but he eventually found work training horses and mules for the H.C. Frick Coke Company’s Ronco mine. One day in June 1919, a mule under Isaac’s charge kicked him in the head. Isaac was taken to Uniontown hospital with a fractured jaw and a concussion,4 but he never recovered and died a few months later. Rella Hostetler had died a few years earlier, so Charley moved in with his older brother John and his family at their home near Akron, Ohio. He soon found employment in the booming local tire industry, leaving school by the time he was 17 to toil at a rubber plant,5 but baseball remained at the forefront.

Hostetler played semipro ball for the General Tire and Rubber Co. factory team in the mid-1920s.6 This might have been the point at which a discrepancy about Hostetler’s age arose. Throughout his career in Organized Baseball, his birth date was listed in contemporary accounts as 1905, rather than 1903. No documentation exists from later in life to clarify the mistake, but his wife would later tell their children that Hostetler lied about his age in order to make himself more attractive to scouts.7

Who knows whether it helped his case, but Hostetler ended up signing for a trial with the Boston Braves during the 1928 season. He traveled to Chicago with the Braves, who were laboring to a seventh-place finish under manager Rogers Hornsby, but never saw action.8 Hostetler did, however, appear in 13 games with the Providence Grays that season, as he got his first taste of Organized Baseball.

Hostetler looked to be on the fast track toward the majors the following season, hitting .360 and stealing 35 bases in 104 games with the Akron Tyrites of the Central League. That prompted the St. Louis Browns to purchase his contract and ship him to Tulsa, where he finished the season,9 but the big leagues remained elusive.

Two years in Topeka followed, and with them came the publication of an apocryphal story that would cement Hostetler’s reputation as a speed demon. First widely disseminated in a Sporting News profile touting him as a possible challenger to the Yankees’ Ben Chapman as the fastest man in the game, it went something like this: Back in his Akron semipro days, Hostetler was working on a state highway truck in the offseason when he noticed an unfamiliar animal by the side of the road. Told by a co-worker that it was a fox, Hostetler demanded that the truck be stopped. Wearing work boots and “clad in a woolen jacket and heavy trousers,” Hostetler jumped from the truck and chased the fox some two miles before the panting animal finally surrendered in a corn field. The ballplayer wrapped the fox in his coat and carried it back to the truck, eventually returning the creature to the fox farm from which it had escaped.

“After I had chased him some distance, I wasn’t so sure I could catch him,” Hostetler said, “but I had at least made up my mind to make him put that other foot down before he ran away from me.”10

When Hostetler finally reached the majors in 1944, that tale was resurrected on more than one occasion.

In 1932 the Topeka club moved to Wichita, where Hostetler would have his most successful season on and off the field.11 He starred for the Class-A Aviators, hitting .338 in 108 games and posting a career-best .522 slugging percentage highlighted by 15 triples. Nice numbers, to be sure, but they were secondary to Hostetler’s good fortune in meeting Opal Hupp at a mutual friend’s birthday party.

Hupp, 21, had a higher profile around town than the hot-hitting outfielder. A “tall and striking blonde,” in the words of a news photo caption, she worked as a stenographer at a real-estate company in town12 and had been selected as “Miss Wichita 1932.” Her romance with Hostetler, eight years her senior, blossomed quickly over the objection of her parents, who were opposed to the relationship because being a ballplayer wasn’t a “real job.”13

It certainly wasn’t as stable a profession as a parent would like. After a teamwide dispute over ownership’s inability to make payroll led to the dissolution of the Wichita club,14 Hostetler signed on with Tulsa of the Texas League in 1933. It turned out to be a rough campaign on the field, including a career-worst .261 average, but there were a couple of highlights.

In July Hostetler was spotlighted by The Sporting News as one of a trio of minor-league outfielders worth watching. The other two were Albany’s Tommy Thompson, who made his big-league debut that fall and spent parts of six seasons in the majors, and an 18-year-old from San Francisco whom the sport’s bible referred to as “Joe De Maggio.”15

Later that year, three days before Christmas, Hostetler and Opal Hupp were married at the courthouse in Wichita.16

A better season for Tulsa in 1934 (.325, 31 doubles, 11 triples in 148 games) earned Hostetler a spot with Albany in the International League the following year. But he fouled a ball off the inside of his left ankle on the second day of the 1935 campaign, which sidelined him for a few weeks and hobbled his trademark speed throughout the season.17

That November Albany dealt him back to the Texas League, this time to Galveston,18 where Hostetler played two more years at what seemed to be the end of his career in Organized Baseball. He turned 34 near the end of the 1937 season and finally went looking for that “real job” his in-laws had desired.

He didn’t venture far from Galveston, taking a job on a mooring boat in nearby Baytown and playing semipro ball on the side to earn some extra money. That led to work with Humble Oil and ultimately a job back in Wichita at the Boeing factory after the US entered World War II and industrial mobilization kicked into high gear.19 In the meantime, the Hostetlers had a pair of boys, Charles and James, to join daughter Rella, who had been born about two years after they were married.

Hostetler never quit playing baseball, toiling for the Boeing plant team as often as his schedule would allow. One of the umpires who made the rounds locally was Clarence “Red” Phillips, a big right-hander who had pitched for the Tigers in 1934 and 1936 and had faced Hostetler when both were in the Texas League. Detroit, like every other team, was seeing most of the talent drained from its roster by the draft, and general manager Jack Zeller begged his scouts to pass along word of any talented players who might be of use. Phillips bird-dogged for the Tigers in Kansas, and in a “P.S.” to a letter he wrote to Zeller on February 27, 1944, he mentioned the possibility of signing Hostetler: “He is a free agent, hasn’t slowed up a lot. You know what kind of hitter he is.”20

Zeller found Hostetler’s phone number, gave him a call, and asked him to report to Tigers spring training in Evansville, Indiana, in a few weeks if he could get some time off work so Tigers manager Steve O’Neill could get a look at him.21 Hostetler was 40 years old – though listed at 38 – when he arrived for his first major-league spring training.

He hit well enough in Evansville to stick and opened the season as the Tigers’ fourth outfielder. In the second game of the season, April 19 against the St. Louis Browns at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium, Hostetler came on to pinch-hit for catcher Bob Swift against Browns starter Steve Sundra. He promptly delivered a single, one of just three hits the Tigers would collect off Sundra that day, and in the process became a footnote in baseball history as the oldest player to debut in the majors. Two pitchers later made their debuts at a more advanced age – Satchel Paige at 42 in 1948 and 41-year-old Diomedes Olivo in 1960 – but Hostetler remains the standard for position players.22

Hostetler made his first start on April 23 and went on a bit of a run, going 9-for-20 as April turned to May. After he went 3-for-5 with a double and triple at St. Louis on May 2, he wired his wife and told her to pack up and bring the family to Detroit. He had finally arrived.23

“I gave up the idea of playing in the majors a few years ago,” Hostetler said in midsummer. “When a fellow reaches 35 the thought of playing in the majors is wishful thinking.”24

Hostetler became something of a sensation, getting regular starts in right field as he kept on hitting. His average stayed mostly above .320 until the final week of June, and he hovered around .300 the rest of the season before finishing up at .298. His playing time waned down the stretch, as he appeared in only 10 games after July 30 and didn’t make a start after August 15. Nothing was wrong with Hostetler’s bat; outfield phenom Dick Wakefield had returned from a stint in the Navy in midsummer and started every game in right field from July 13 through the end of the season. His return pushed Jimmy Outlaw, who had been playing right, into left field – and Hostetler to the bench. But he was impressive enough in a shallow pool of contenders to earn a spot on The Sporting News’ all-rookie team, joining the Cubs’ Andy Pafko and the Cardinals’ Augie Bergamo in the outfield.25

The Tigers finished one game back of the Browns for the AL pennant in 1944 but returned much of the same club the following spring. Pinky Higgins and Dick Wakefield had departed for military service, but Zeller bolstered the lineup a week and a half into the season by acquiring Roy Cullenbine from the Cleveland Indians. That move and the celebrated midseason return of Hank Greenberg from his wartime service helped keep Hostetler on the bench for much of 1945.

He started three consecutive games in left field about a week before the Cullenbine trade but got only one more start the rest of the season, in the nightcap of a July 1 doubleheader. Hostetler stepped to the plate just 51 times all season and didn’t get a hit after September 2, but he was there with the Tigers when it mattered most, suiting up and taking his place in the dugout for the AL champs as the World Series began at Briggs Stadium.

There was little reason for Hostetler to see the field in the fall classic, given his limited playing time leading up to it. Having come so far after so long, though, Hostetler reportedly went to Steve O’Neill before the World Series and asked for a chance to make an appearance. “You certainly deserve it. You’ve played good ball this year,” the manager allegedly replied, before promising Hostetler he’d get his chance.26

O’Neill followed through in short order, sending Hostetler up to pinch-hit in Game One with the Tigers trailing the Cubs 9-0 in the ninth. Hostetler grounded to shortstop in that at-bat and did the same with his team down 3-0 in the ninth in Game Three. That left Game Six – with the Tigers on the brink of a championship – as his moment of infamy.

The Tigers once again trailed when Hostetler got the call; they were down 5-1 as he hit for Skeeter Webb to open the seventh. He again grounded to the left side but this time was safe on an error by third baseman Stan Hack. He moved to second on a groundout and was in scoring position for Doc Cramer, who singled to left. As Hostetler bolted for third, ready to arc toward home, O’Neill – coaching at third base – was mindful that the meat of his order was coming up: Greenberg, Cullenbine, Rudy York.

O’Neill threw up both hands but Hostetler was churning so hard he apparently didn’t see the stop sign as he rounded into foul territory between third and home. O’Neill then shouted for Hostetler to stop and the outfielder stumbled and slid, sprawling out perhaps 20 feet from the plate. Peanuts Lowrey’s throw from left finally reached Mickey Livingston at the plate as Hostetler scrambled to his feet and retreated toward third, but Livingston’s throw back was in plenty of time for covering shortstop Roy Hughes to tag the runner out.

Compounding the problem for Hostetler, Greenberg followed with a walk and Cullenbine and York both singled, putting the onus back on the wayward runner for derailing a big inning. There was plenty more action from there, with the Cubs adding two runs to take a 7-3 lead in the bottom of the inning and the Tigers then rallying to tie with four in the eighth, capped by Greenberg’s solo homer. But when Hack came through with a game-ending double with two out in the 12th to send the series to a Game Seven, Hostetler was in the crosshairs.

“That cost us a run and the game,”27 O’Neill told reporters, before later conceding, “That’s baseball. We had other chances and blew them.”28

Hostetler’s folly was immediately seized on by a bored press corps that had taken to mocking the poor quality of play at every turn. In the Washington Evening Star, columnist Francis Stann immediately drew a line from Fred Merkle to Hostetler and acidly predicted that the latter’s name would similarly become part of the lexicon: “We predict a bright and lively future for a ‘Hostetler.’ It will have an especial appeal at all conventions, bars and steeplechase races. It is pliable, flexible and fits a number of occasions.”29

The Tigers won Game Seven two days later behind MVP Hal Newhouser and Hostetler could call himself a World Series champion. But the stigma of a stumble that ultimately didn’t impact the final outcome of the series stuck with him.

“I never knew it at the time in Michigan during the Series when he fell,” said his daughter Rella, who turned 9 just before the World Series began. “Of course you know they’d have to publicize that. But that, I’m sure, just devastated him, because he was always quick and fast.”30

As waves of younger players returned from military service, Hostetler was not offered a contract for 1946. He was, however, welcomed back to Briggs Stadium on June 15 of that season when the Tigers raised their World Series and American League champions banners and presented members of the winning team with gold rings valued at $100.31

Hostetler drifted a bit after leaving the game. He moved his family to Arkansas, where he tried to keep a hand in baseball by working for a time as a sports announcer at KHOZ radio while also trying his hand at farming. But that didn’t take, and he ended up going back to work for Boeing.32 He had one final detour, in 1950, doing a stint as manager of a Class-D team in Chanute, Kansas, that went 35-89 under the guidance of four different skippers. After that, his only public connection with baseball came when sportswriters needed to dredge up a reference point for another player’s mishap.

But he never let the moment he couldn’t live down cloud his affection for the game that had sustained him for so long. “Baseball was dad’s life, it really was,” said his daughter. “Dad was so happy when he was playing ball.”33

The sacrifices Hostetler made to earn a living by working in tire and airplane plants eventually caught up with him, though. He was stricken with mesothelioma late in 1970 and spent about three months in the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, before returning to a cabin he had been renting in nearby Poudre Canyon. It was there that he died, on February 18, 1971, at age 67. He is buried at Blue Eye Cemetery, Blue Eye, Missouri.

“The last thing he did was he took the watch off of his wrist and laid it on the table, and that was it,” said his daughter. “Isn’t that something? So I’ve never worn a watch since then, because I think, ‘What’s the use of time?’”34

 

This biography originally appeared in "Who's on First: Replacement Players in World War II" (SABR, 2015), edited by Marc Z. Aaron and Bill Nowlin.

 

Notes

1 1910 US Census via Ancestry.com.

2 Rella Hostetler Boyce, telephone interview with author, April 25, 2014 (cited as Rella Boyce interview hereafter).

3 Ibid.

4 The Morning Herald (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), June 22, 1933.

5 1920 U.S. Census via Ancestry.com.

6 Greater Akron Baseball Hall of Fame website (acorn.net/gabhof/inductees/1996.html)

7 Rella Boyce interview.

8 Frederick G. Lieb, “Hustling Chuck Hostetler, Rookie at 38,” The Sporting News, May 18, 1944.

9 Ibid.

10 Jack Charvat, “Western Claims Hostetler Is Fastest Player in Game and Can Outrun Chapman,” The Sporting News, February 25, 1932. (Profiled on the same page is Birmingham radio announcer Eugene “Bull” Connor, three decades before he became synonymous with attack dogs and firehoses in directing the opposition to civil rights protesters in the city.)

11 Though there was a team in Wichita in 1931, there is some confusion regarding clubs in Wichita and Topeka that year. The Sporting News of February 25, 1932, referenced “The Wichita Club of the Western League, which played at Topeka last season …” There are 10 players on the 1931 Topeka team who were on the 1932 Wichita team.

12 1930 US Census via Ancestry.com.

13 Rella Boyce interview.

14 Lieb, The Sporting News, May 18, 1944. (Twelve years later, Hostetler was still upset enough to note to The Sporting News that Wichita still owed him $700 from the 1932 season.)

15 “Minors Worth Watching,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1933.

16 “Charley Hostetler in Double Harness,” Associated Press via San Antonio Express, December 23, 1933.

17 Lieb, The Sporting News, May 18, 1944.

18 “Trade Winds Blowing at Baseball Meeting,” Associated Press via Evening Independent, (St. Petersburg, Florida), November 20, 1935.

19 Lieb, The Sporting News, May 18, 1944.

20 William M. Anderson, The Glory Years of the Detroit Tigers: 1920-1950 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 352.

21 Lieb, The Sporting News, May 18, 1944.

22 Via baseball-reference.com Play Index, data from 1914-2014.

23 Lieb, The Sporting News, May 18, 1944.

24 Frank Eck, “Hustling Hostetler Peaks at 38,” Associated Press via Miami News, July 20, 1944.

25 Paul A. Rickart, “A’s Place Three Infielders on All-Rookie Team,” The Sporting News, October 19, 1944. (The man from that team who would accomplish the most in his career was the third baseman, future Hall of Famer George Kell of the Athletics – his .268 average and .609 OPS in 1944 proved to be career lows.)

26 “Baseball Livelihood Lost When Chuck Hostetler Fell,” International News Service via Palm Beach Daily News, December 15, 1945.

27 “Hostetler, Cropper, Joined Tigers as Top Base Runner,” United Press via Pittsburgh Press, October 9, 1945.

28 James Zerilli, “Missed Sign Cost Tigers Sixth Tilt,” Detroit Free Press, October 9, 1945.

29 Francis E. Stann, “Step Right Up, Folks – Funniest Show on Earth,” Washington Evening Star, October 9, 1945.

30 Rella Boyce interview.

31 Watson Spoelstra, “$100 Gold Rings Given to Members of ’45 Club,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1945.

32 Rella Boyce interview.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.