Dave Cole

This article was written by Austin Gisriel

Dave Cole, a gregarious right-hander who spent six seasons in the big leagues with the Braves, Cubs, and Phillies, was the kind of pitcher who has been frustrating scouts and managers for over a century: he couldn’t control the lively fastball and sharp curve that he possessed. Cole pitched only 237 2/3 innings in the course of his big-league career and was almost always caught in a maddening cycle: he couldn’t get into games because he lacked command, and because he didn’t accrue many innings in any given season—he threw only 14 2/3 in 1953—he couldn’t sharpen his control. The 6’2”, 175-pound Cole amassed a 6-18 lifetime mark.

He was born David Bruce Cole to Bruce and Anna May Cole on August 29, 1930, in Williamsport, Maryland, a town of about 1,500 people along the Potomac River some eight miles south of Hagerstown in western Maryland. The third of five children, he was a standout athlete at Williamsport High School, and was a member of the Maryland state champion soccer and basketball teams in 1947 and 1948, respectively.

It was baseball, of course, in which Cole truly excelled. He pitched for the Williamsport town team, as well as the Morris Frock American Legion team in Hagerstown. He was first scouted by the Boston Braves’ Johnny Ogden while pitching Legion ball. Invited to work out for the Braves, Cole spent five days in Boston during the second week of September 1947.1

Upon his return from Boston, and pitching for the Boonsboro Yellow Jackets, a neighboring town team, the 17-year-old Cole faced former major leaguer and fellow Williamsporter Boots Poffenberger in an exhibition game at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium on September 12. Poffenberger was pitching for the Cumberland Amvets and arranged the exhibition, which Cole lost 8-3, thanks largely to eight errors, three of which he committed himself. The 1,250 fans who turned out for the game saw Cole strike out 10, although Poffenberger, who was tutoring the high schooler, doubled in his only time at bat.2

Cole fanned 19 Hagerstown High batters in a seven-inning contest during his senior year in 1948, and routinely recorded strikeout totals in the teens. Upon graduation from Williamsport High, Cole inked a two-year major-league contract with the Braves for a reported $6,000. Hagerstown’s Daily Mail reported that the Pirates, Athletics, Cubs, and Yankees had also shown interest in Cole.3 New York wanted to send Cole to Wake Forest College “all expenses paid” according to Daily Mail sports editor Dick Kelly, “but like most youngsters, Dave is raring to get started in organized ball.”4

Dave and his high school and Legion batterymate Donald “Laco” Anderson traveled to Boston to work out with the Braves in June. (Anderson would later sign with the Cubs and spend two years in their farm system.)

Eventually assigned to Class B Pawtucket of the New England League for the second half of the 1948 season, Cole pitched 62 innings, earning five victories in seven decisions. He also walked 37 batters. Assigned to Jackson (Mississippi), the Braves Class B affiliate in the Southeastern League in 1949, Cole pitched 203 innings, the most he would ever total in a single professional season. He issued 151 walks for a BB/9 ratio of 6.7. According to Anderson, Cole was not wild in the traditional sense; he would barely miss the strike zone. “Dave was on a fine line, control-wise,” recounts Anderson. “I could catch him and never get dirty.”5

Despite the lack of command, Cole was promoted to AAA Milwaukee to begin the 1950 season where his BB/9 dropped to 4.8 and his K/9 ratio stood at 8.6 in 112 innings. A September call-up just a few days after his 20th birthday, Cole lost his major-league debut on the 9th when he gave up a run on two hits in one inning against Philadelphia. That would be the only earned run that he would yield in eight innings of relief work that included three more appearances. The rookie struck out eight while walking only three.

Cole passed another milestone the next month when he married high school sweetheart Connie Kreps. Connie and another couple had driven north to bring Dave back to Williamsport when the season ended on October 1. Boston concluded its season at the Polo Grounds, and Connie and her compatriots were making the Giants’ home their first stop. Listening to the game on the radio, they heard Dave enter in relief of Warren Spahn, but Connie and her friends got lost trying to find the ballpark. By the time they arrived, the game was over. The disappointment didn’t last long, however.

“On our way home, Dave said, ‘Why don’t we get married?’” related Connie, who had just graduated from Williamsport High School in June. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t care; whenever you want to.’ He said, ‘Let’s get married Saturday night.’ Saturday was October 7, and we got married.”6

Nine months later, Dave Cole Jr. was born on June 28, 1951. Six days later, Cole received his first starting assignment after making nine previous relief appearances. Losing 3-1 to the Phillies in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader, Cole allowed two earned runs in 7 1/3 innings while yielding five walks and totaling no strikeouts. Despite the loss and the walks, he was being hailed as a future star.

Boston Traveler reporter Nick Del Ninno quoted Braves pitching coach Bucky Walters as saying, “[Cole’s] going to be a great pitcher. He’s done it all himself. He works hard. I’m not going to take any credit for his good showing.” Del Ninno also reported in the same article that “Cole is being sought by practically every National League club.”7

Indeed, the Braves were deep in pitching. Spahn, Johnny Sain, and Vern Bickford had won 21, 20, and 19 games, respectively, in 1950. Consequently, the team sought to upgrade its offense. Boston had been trying to pry Andy Pafko from the Cubs, but no deal was struck before Chicago instead traded the hard-hitting outfielder to Brooklyn. It was reported that had Dave Cole been included in the deal, Pafko would have been dealt to the Braves.8

Cole was assigned that first start by manager Tommy Holmes, who had replaced Billy Southworth when the latter resigned on June 19. The Boston papers reported that Holmes intended to give his young hurlers Cole and left-hander Chet Nichols plenty of opportunity to succeed, but after a July 8 start against the Giants in which Cole surrendered five walks, five runs, and two homers in six innings and a disastrous start at Pittsburgh in which he yielded three walks and four runs without recording an out, it was back to the bullpen. Manager Holmes lamented that “If he can ever get his control lined up, he’ll be just plain murder.”9 Reporter Steve O’Leary opined that Cole “is inclined to try too hard when he gets into a jam. That’s when he has his real trouble locating the plate.”10

Cole pitched only seven innings over four appearances during the next five weeks. Then on August 29, his 21st birthday, he was given an emergency start against the Cubs at “the Tepee” in Boston. The “emergency” was that the Braves had just traded Sain to the Yankees that afternoon for cash and an AA pitching prospect toiling in Kansas City by the name of Lew Burdette.

Cole pitched into the ninth inning, yielding only one run on three hits and striking out six. But after walking Chuck Connors, his sixth free pass on the day, and then running the count to 2-0 on Gene Hermanski, Holmes brought in reliever Bob Chipman. Chipman recorded the final two outs to preserve Dave Cole’s first major-league victory.

Starting again on Sunday, September 2, Cole lost at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, tossing five innings and giving up five runs, although none were earned. He started the second game of a doubleheader the following Sunday, again against the Phillies, but this time back in Boston. Cole pitched a complete-game, 4-1 victory—with nine walks. He also went 3-for-3 at the plate, including a two-run double and a homer to left.

A pattern of radical inconsistency was becoming established, however; good performances (the nine walks notwithstanding) were followed by terrible outings. In his next start at St. Louis on the 15th, Cole failed to record an out as he gave up a run, a hit, and three walks to the first four Cardinals hitters in a game the Braves lost 10-1. In a September 20 article “by Dave Cole as told to Bill Grimes,” Cole wrote about how difficult it had been to master his control. Praising Bucky Walters for his patience, Cole said after the Cardinals game, “Walters has prescribed a new routine which we hope will be the answer to my problem. He has instructed me to cut down on my wind-up, stop trying to hit the corners of the plate and gamble that I’ll fool the batters with pitches over which I have control. He seems to think that with the wind-up I’ve been using, I generate too much speed and the ball gets out of control.”11

In his final appearance of the season in relief against Brooklyn on the 27th, he walked only one, but yielded five hits and five earned runs in just 1 1/3 innings while mopping up in a 15-5 loss.

Cole’s final numbers for the 1951 season included a 2-4 record, a 4.26 ERA, and 64 walks and 33 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings for a Braves team that went 76-78 and finished in fourth place in the National League.

Despite the walks, the Braves still believed that they had a future star on their hands. The Boston press wrote glowingly of the Braves’ young pitching, often pairing Cole with 20-year-old Nichols.12 Cole spent the off-season speaking at various Hot Stove banquets in and around Hagerstown, a fact that manager Holmes was happy to hear, as he believed that such appearances would help his prize prospect gain confidence. “Once Dave finds his self-confidence, he should be a top flight hurler,” said Holmes.13

Whether it was a faulty windup or a lack of confidence, the 1952 season was more of the same, but in even fewer innings. Walking 42 in 44 2/3 innings, Cole recorded a 1-1 record with a 4.03 ERA. He received two starts of the season in April, and the results fell into the same pattern. At Philadelphia on the 20th in the second game of a doubleheader, Cole pitched seven innings, giving up only one run and walking only two in a 2-1 Braves victory. In his next appearance, a start on the 30th at Pittsburgh, he walked eight in two innings in what would prove to be an 11-5 loss. The Braves would go 2-20 in games in which Cole appeared, and only 64-89 on the season. Boston’s slow start got manager Holmes fired at the end of May. He was replaced by Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm.

Aside from his victory in Philadelphia, the high point of Cole’s season came on July 9 when the Boston Braves stopped in for an exhibition game against their Class B Interstate League affiliate, the Hagerstown Braves. Pitching before 3,436 hometown fans, Cole threw a complete-game five-hitter in winning 8-3. He walked five and struck out six. Cole would rank this game as one of his two biggest thrills in professional baseball to that point, the other being his first major-league victory against the Cubs.14

The 1953 season was eventful for both the Braves and the Coles. The team relocated to Milwaukee, and Connie Cole was pregnant again with what proved to be twin girls, Karla and Karen, who would be born in November. In the days before disposable diapers, the generosity of Cole’s roommate, Eddie Mathews, proved invaluable to Connie. The Blatz Brewing Company sponsored a “Best Brave of the Week” prize, which Mathews and Andy Pafko won four times each, more than any other Brave. One week, Mathews won a dryer, which he had delivered to Connie who, with a two-year-old and another (actually, others) on the way, now remained in Williamsport, rather than living in a rented home in the Boston suburb of Wellesley as the couple had done the previous two seasons.

“He sent it to me!” said Connie, who was clearly still pleased at the memory. “Eddie Mathews gave it to me because he won that prize so many times before, and he was going to get it again, but he gave it to Dave. I was lucky to have a washer and dryer in 1953!”15

The Braves were still high on their young prospect heading into spring training, and Cole was optimistic that he was “going to get every chance to make the grade as a starting pitcher.”16 He told Hagerstown’s Daily Mail sports editor Dick Kelly that “You can’t learn control in the bullpen or by pitching batting practice. The only way to learn how to keep that ball where you want it is to take your regular turn on the mound.”17

Not pitching regularly had been a private complaint to Connie. “He used to complain about that. He said that he pitched his arm away in the bullpen just warming up.”18

Connie must have heard a great deal of complaining in 1953 as Dave totaled a miniscule 14 2/3 innings for the entire season, giving up 14 runs and 14 walks to go along with 13 strikeouts. The Braves, however, were a much improved club in 1953. Their 92 wins were good for a second-place finish in their first season in Milwaukee. Such success meant that manager Grimm simply could not afford to give his erratic right-hander any work with the team now playing meaningful games throughout the season.

Whatever his frustrations must have been, Cole remained an affable, entertaining teammate. Grimm held an “unlaxing” day at his farm near St. Louis, where the Braves were playing their next-to-last season series, and The Sporting News reported that Grimm played the banjo, Mathews played guitar, and “Dave Cole gave several imitations of Johnnie Ray which sounded as good, almost, as the original.”19

“Dave entertained every team he was on,” recalled Connie. “He had a great sense of humor. He was so funny! He just made me laugh all the time. No matter where we went, wherever he played, he had all his teammates gathered around him. Everybody wanted to be friends with him; they’d all want to hang out at our house because Dave was so funny. Even after he came out of baseball, he still wanted to entertain!”20 Former American Legion teammate and lifelong friend Laco Anderson agreed. “He could tell jokes for hours!”21

Though they would miss their personable teammate, Braves players thought it best for Dave when he was traded to the Cubs on March 20, 1954, for shortstop Roy Smalley. Cole stated that “he was sorry to leave Milwaukee and the many friendships he enjoyed there,” but added, “I think it’s the break I’ve been waiting for. I’m anxious to pitch just as much as possible, and I should have the opportunity with the Cubs, whereas I didn’t with the Braves.”22

Clearly, the Braves were becoming frustrated by their wild young hurler, as Hagerstown’s Morning Herald reported in the article announcing the trade that “there was talk at one time last season that the Braves might convert Cole—always a good hitter—into an outfielder. The switch never panned out, though.”23

Bothered by a sore arm since spring training, Cole was placed on the disabled list on May 1, having thrown only one exhibition inning for the Cubs. By June, however, Cole pitched in an exhibition game against the Toledo Sox of the American Association and was placed on the Cubs active roster a few days before the end of the month. Chicago sold pitcher Turk Lown to Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League to make room for Cole. Writing for The Sporting News, Edgar Munzel noted the irony that “Lown’s primary weakness, which he never did overcome, was wildness. Cole is cut of the same pattern. The only difference is that nobody has given up on Cole as yet. He’s a comparative novice who still has a chance to attain winning form before patience finally has run its course.”24

After three relief appearances, Cole made his first start on July 6. Lasting only one third of an inning against his old Milwaukee teammates, Cole surrendered four runs on four walks in a 14-3 drubbing. In his next start against Brooklyn on the 18th, he surrendered six runs and five walks in 4 2/3 innings, yet in keeping with his maddeningly inconsistent pattern, he shut out the Phillies, 4-0 in a six-walk, six-strikeout performance on the 24th. He finished the season with a 3-8 record and a major-league career-high 14 starts. His 84 innings pitched would also be his career-high; his 6.6 BB/9 would represent a full-season low.

Rather than returning to Williamsport for the winter, the entire Cole family ventured to the Caribbean, where Dave pitched for Ponce in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Dave’s teammates included an 18-year-old Cincinnati outfield prospect named Frank Robinson, who would earn a place in Cole family lore. The future Hall of Famer “sat directly behind us on the airplane coming home,” related Connie. “One of us had Davey and one of us had the twins, and one of the twins was crying. Frank said, ‘Let me hold her’; so he held one of the twins on his lap all the way home from Puerto Rico.”25

Even after observing Cole’s inconsistency, Cub coach and former catcher Bob Scheffing had stated in August that Dave could be one of the Cubs’ “outstanding pitchers in a year or two.”26 Eight months later on March 19, 1955, Cole was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies. Cole had been enthusiastic about his trade to the Cubs, but upon hearing that he had been dealt to the Phillies, he could only remark, “That’s too bad. They’re the only club I can beat.”27 He appeared in seven games, including three starts (each of which he lost) before Philadelphia traded him to Brooklyn for Ron Negray.28 The Dodgers immediately assigned him to St. Paul of the American Association where he continued to be plagued by wildness, walking 53 in 64 innings to go with a 3-7 record.

Brooklyn assigned pitching coach Joe Becker and scout Al Campanis to work with Cole in spring training. As a result, Dodgers officials believed that they had discovered the source of the 24-year-old’s lack of control: Cole wasn’t placing his thumb on the ball properly.29 Now that he had found the secret to good control, there was talk that he would make the Dodgers’ staff, being one of eight “prospects” who had been invited to the World Champs’ major-league camp. Four of those prospects were pitchers: Cole, Ralph Mauriello, Mel Waters, and Don Drysdale.30 Drysdale made the team, going 5-5. (Mauriello would appear in three games for the Dodgers in 1958, while Waters would retire from professional baseball after that same season, having never appeared in the majors.) Cole was assigned to Montreal, going 5-6 in 73 innings and walking 45.

Dave Cole would spend one more season in professional baseball, playing for three different minor-league teams, including Chattanooga, which at the time was an AA affiliate of the Washington Senators. The Senators were interested in signing Cole for the 1958 season, but when they wanted to assign him to a minor-league affiliate, and with Dave Jr. about to start first grade, the right-hander decided that it was time to retire. He was 27 years old.

Cole went to work in the sporting goods department at Sears in Hagerstown, then worked at Mack Truck as an industrial engineer when that plant opened in Hagerstown in the early 1960s. Shortly after reporting to Mack, he and Connie opened a confectionery store in Williamsport, but sold it after a few years. In 1971, a second son, Darin, was born to the Coles. Dave retired from Mack in 1987 and was elected to the Washington County (Maryland) Hall of Fame in 1998. An active member of his hometown community, he belonged to the Williamsport Lions Club, the Potomac Fish and Game Club, and served on the town council. Connie and Dave maintained a winter home in Orlando, Florida, for almost 20 years beginning in 1992, and Dave would occasionally visit former teammates.

He died on October 26, 2011.

Despite his inability to ever harness his control, Dave Cole never expressed any regrets about his professional career. “I never heard him say ‘if’; that old famous word ‘if,’” said Laco Anderson. “I never ever heard him complain about what he would have done different.”31

 

Sources

I would like to thank Connie Cole and Laco Anderson for their time and memories.

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, I also accessed baseball-reference.com.

 

Notes

1 “Cole To Pitch For Boonsboro,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Morning Herald, September 12, 1947, 22.

2 J. Suter Kegg, “Tapping on the Sports Keg,” Cumberland (Maryland) Sunday Times, September 14, 1947.

3 “Dave Cole Signs Major League Contract With the Boston Braves,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Daily Mail, June 12, 1948, 10.

4 Dick Kelly, “The Spotlight on Sports,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Daily Mail, June 12, 1948, 10.

5 Laco Anderson, personal interview, November 24, 2014.

6 Connie Cole, personal interview, December 1, 2014.

7 Nick Del Ninno, “Cole Stars in 1st Start, Appears Certain to Stay,” Boston Traveler, July 5, 1951.

8 Bill Grimes, “Kid Pitchers To Get Breaks Under Holmes,” unattributed newspaper, June 22, 1951. From Connie Cole’s scrapbook.

9 Steve O’Leary, “Nichols Upsets Baseball Adage,” unknown paper, August 24, 1951. O’Leary worked for the Associated Press, and his coverage of the Braves often appeared in The Sporting News, but the clipping cited from Connie Cole’s scrapbook was not from there.

10 Ibid.

11 Dave Cole as told to Bill Grimes, “Control Top Problem of Braves’ Dave Cole,” unknown paper, September 20, 1951. From Connie Cole’s scrapbook.

12 While Nichols would lead the NL in 1951 with a 2.88 ERA, he would notch a 3.64 career mark to go along with a 34-36 record in nine major-league seasons.

13 Special to the (Hagerstown, Maryland) Daily Mail, “Dave Cole And Former Hagerstown Stars Rate High In Boston Braves’ 1952 Plans,” undated. From Connie Cole’s scrapbook.

14 Dick Kelly, “Dave Cole Heads To Spring Training Hoping To Pitch More Often For The Braves,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Daily Mail, February 17, 1953.

15 Cole.

16 Kelly, February 17, 1953.

17 Ibid.

18 Cole.

19 “Braves ‘Unlax’ at Shindig Pitched at Cholly’s Farm,” The Sporting News, October 7, 1953, 11. Johnny Ray was probably the most popular singer, especially with teenagers, of the early 1950s. His hits included “Cry” and “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.”

20 Cole.

21 Anderson.

22 Joe Snyder, “Dave Cole Goes to Cubs In Trade Sending Roy Smalley to Braves,” (Hagerstown, Maryland) Morning Herald, March 22, 1954, 10.

23 Ibid.

24 Edgar Munzel, “Sore Armed Cole Hack’s Hope For Mound Help After Bruins Ship Lown,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1954, 10.

25 Cole.

26 John C. Hoffman, “Rough Trip Brings Bruises For Bruins Along With Losses,” The Sporting News, August 11, 1954, 10.

27 John C. Hoffman, “Bruins Uneasy Seat Crowded as Cutting-Down Time Nears,” The Sporting News, March 30, 1955, 18.

28 The Phillies also included cash in the deal. Negray would pitch two years for Philly, amassing a 6-6 record.

29 Gus Steiger, “Brook Hurlers Face Cole War,” probably in the New York Daily Mirror with a dateline of “Vero Beach, February 27. From Connie Cole’s scrapbook.

30 The Sporting News, February 1, 1956, 2.

31 Anderson.