Virgil Cheeves

This article was written by Chris Rainey

Poet Alexander Pope gave us the phrase “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Nowhere is this optimism more prevalent than among fans at baseball spring training. In 1921 the Chicago Cubs, under former star and new manager Johnny Evers, went to Catalina Island for spring training for the first time. They stayed only a week before moving on to Pasadena. In that brief time, it became obvious that young Virgil Cheeves was destined to join Grover Alexander, Jim Vaughn, and Lefty Tyler on what fans hoped would be a dominant staff.

Fans dream of adding a young phenom to their team and Cheeves put stars in their eyes. At six feet tall and 190 pounds, he was a powerful-looking lad. The fans had seen his fastball in a September call-up and now were excited because “Alexander is instructing him in the fine points of the game.”1Growing up in Texas, Cheeves had been around professional baseball for years. He remarked, “I just naturally had to learn how to play.”2

Virgil Earl Cheeves was born on February 12, 1901, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His parents were Cherokee descendants, Ruben Tolbert and Minnie Ella (Karr) Cheeves. The parents were from Mississippi and moved about the Texas/Oklahoma region. (Of their six children, the first and last were born in Texas, the others in Oklahoma.) Virgil’s grandfather was a farm laborer; Ruben learned carpentry and passed that trade down to his five sons.

Cheeves spent his first decade in Oklahoma before moving to Dallas, Texas, where he attended Bowie High School for a year.3 In 1919 he was an outfielder and pitcher in the Dallas City League for team called Kahns. In 1920 he was signed by the Eastland Judges in the Class D West Texas League. He made his professional debut in the town of Mineral Wells on May 1 against the Resorters in front of 2,000 spectators. He struck out seven and walked four on his way to a 9-3 victory. His pitching opponent was Henry Meade, who went on to lead the circuit in wins.4

The Eastland team finished in last place. Cheeves was its ace and won 14 of 26 decisions, including both ends of an August 26 doubleheader, before being purchased by the Cubs. He debuted at Forbes Field on September 7. With the Pirates ahead 7-4 he entered the game in the eighth and retired Bill McKechnie, Charlie Grimm, and Babe Adams in order. The Chicago Tribune called him “Paul” and noted that he threw with a “free motion.”5

Cheeves was given his first start on September 17 in Philadelphia. In the opening frame he walked Johnny Rawlings and gave up a triple to Cy Williams, then shut down the Phillies through seven innings on four hits. The Cubs rallied for three runs in the ninth for the victory. Sweetbread Bailey got the win with relief help from Alexander.

Cheeves made three more September appearances for the Cubs. He had no decisions and would have had a sparkling ERA except for the St. Louis Cardinals, who plated four runs on him on September 27 in a 16-1 win. He returned to Texas and worked as a carpenter that winter.

The Cubs opened training on Catalina. The players stayed in a newly built hotel, but as part of their regime to get into shape walked three-quarters of a mile to another hotel for breakfast. They then headed for the practice field. After practice they had dinner at their residence hotel. Evers welcomed 15 pitchers to camp; five were rookies. Cheeves, joined by fellow rookies Percy Jones and Buck Freeman, made the Opening Day roster.

Cheeves’s deceptive motion made his offerings difficult to pick up and he popped “his fast ball into the big mitt with a bang.”6In addition to the fastball, Cheeves claimed to be “the first” to use the knuckleball in the major leagues.7Lew Moren and Eddie Cicotte are recognized as using the knuckler before Cheeves’s arrival. Where and when he learned to throw it is unknown.

The excitement about the pitching staff was short-lived. The Cubs won six of eight to open the campaign, but Tyler was not himself. Despite all the hype, Cheeves, at age 20, was not the first rookie into the rotation. That honor went to Freeman, age 24, who pitched slightly more than Cheeves with nearly the same results for the season. Cheeves got his first start on May 19 versus the Giants but was pulled in the third. He did not join the rotation until June 25, when he beat Cincinnati, 6-2. He was described as “hurling as steady and true as an old timer.”8

When Evers was replaced at the helm by Bill Killefer, Cheeves remained in the rotation. He posted an 11-12 mark for the season. He earned a reputation as the “Giant Killer” with four wins over the New York squad. Two were complete games and the others were in short relief. His lone shutout came on September 18, when he gave Brooklyn six hits in a 1-0 victory. Cheeves returned to Dallas for the winter.

Cheeves was part of a group of players who went to California early in 1922. Killefer had concerns about his weight and training and wanted to get an early look. The players spent 10 days in February and most of March on Catalina Island. Cheeves was hobbled with a leg or foot injury, but was ready for action when exhibition games with Vernon of the PCL started. He was used in relief during the series.

The Cubs broke camp and played games in California against other PCL clubs and then headed cross-country, making stops along the way. Cheeves was given starting assignments and pitched a complete game, 11-1 win over Wichita on April 6 to show he was ready for the season. He lost his first start, in Cincinnati, but beat the Reds and Eppa Rixey when they had a rematch in Chicago on April 21. A first-inning shelling by the Cardinals in his next start sent Cheeves to the bullpen for a couple of weeks.

Killefer brought Cheeves out of the pen when the Giants came to town on May 13. Cheeves took his mastery of the Giants to a new level with a 3-0 win. His control was off (six walks), but he scattered seven hits. Killefer brought him back three days later for the series finale. This time Cheeves allowed six hits and two runs, but triumphed, 3-2, to help the Cubs split the four-game series. Cheeves credited his knuckleball for his success against the Giants. He had six more decisions against the Giants that year. But five were losses and his killer mystique was gone.

After a pounding by the Giants in early August, Cheeves was relegated to the bullpen. He started games only when doubleheaders piled up and forced Killefer to use an extra arm. That was the case in the first game of a September 22 twin bill in Philadelphia. In the midst of four doubleheaders in as many days, Cheeves went all 11 innings in a 7-5 win. He closed out the year at 12-11 with a 4.07 ERA. The team finished in fifth place.

Cheeves was an early arrival on Catalina again in 1923. Optimism was high as the Cubs felt a first-division spot could be theirs. Writer Hugh Fullerton enthusiastically predicted that “Cheeves is ripe” and would certainly win 60 percent of his starts.9He was way off the mark as an elbow injury restricted Cheeves to only eight starts, none of which he won. The Cubs finished fourth, but Cheeves was only 3-4 with a 6.18 ERA. On November 10 he was sold to Wichita Falls in the Class A Texas League.

The announcement of his release in the Chicago Tribune was one of the few times Cheeves’s nickname of “Chief” appeared in print.10  As with many Native Americans before him, he was given the ethnic moniker. Some players objected to nicknames hung on them. Cheeves was quite the opposite and included “Chief” as part of his signature on his Hall of Fame questionnaire.

Despite the sale to Wichita Falls, Cheeves’s name was included in numerous news stories about a pending Cubs-Cardinals swap. The premise was that Charlie Hollocher wanted to get closer to home. The Cubs were supposedly offering Hollocher, cash, and others for Rogers Hornsby. Nothing materialized; it took four more years for the Cubs to snag Hornsby.

Cheeves worked as a starter and reliever for the Spudders. On June 13 he lost 4-1 to Shreveport. His record stood at 2-1 with an 8.36 ERA, but the Cleveland Indians saw something they liked and purchased him on June 16. The Indians also sent pitcher Logan Drake as part of the deal.11 The Tribe wasted little time in putting Cheeves to work. He started against the Tigers in Detroit on June 22. Cleveland took a 1-0 lead, but Cheeves walked two and gave up two hits to start the second inning. Given a quick hook by manager Tris Speaker, he was replaced by Dewey Metivier, who allowed two sacrifice flies and a 4-1 lead. “Metivier, who pitches one good game a season,” settled down and earned a 7-5 victory with eight innings of work.12

Cheeves appeared in seven more games, all as a reliever and all Cleveland losses. In his eight games he hurled 17 innings with no decisions and an 8.47 ERA. After nearly three weeks of inactivity he was released to Kansas City of the American Association. The Blues were in last place and Cheeves did little to change that status. He was used in three games, all against the Minneapolis Millers. On August 26 the Blues won 11-6 in his start. His next two starts resulted in losses by 11-7 and 14-4.

Plans were for Cheeves to rejoin Cleveland in spring training in 1925. But on February 14, he and outfielder Tom Gulley were released to Little Rock of the Southern Association. By mid- April he had not reported to Little Rock. This led to a series of unflattering articles about Cheeves’s attitude. His conditioning was always an issue, but it was especially bad while at Cleveland. He also had something of a stubborn streak and did not follow the advice of coaches and other mentors. Coupled with an arm that had lost some zip, this made many feel he had squandered his talent.13

Cheeves may well have known his arm was not ready for use in February and March and that explains his failure to show at Little Rock’s training camp. In June he signed with Meinert’s Gymnasium Club, of Dallas. Meinert’s was one of the better semipro teams in North Texas.14  How Cheeves fared is unknown, but his arm must have responded because he was back in the professional ranks in 1926 with the Terrell Terrors of the Class D Texas Association.

Cheeves’s younger brother David had a tryout with the San Antonio Bears and was released. He signed with Terrell and persuaded Virgil to join. Virgil debuted in late June and dropped his first four decisions. He finally got into the win column with a victory over Austin on July 25. He closed out the season with a 5-4 record in 12 games.

In February 1927 Cheeves joined the New York Giants at their training camp in Sarasota, Florida. Cheeves looked strong at the start of camp, but after a pounding on March 28 by the St. Louis Browns, his status was cloudy. He earned a roster spot and in his first appearance went three innings against the Phillies in a 9-6 loss. He relieved in two more losses in May. On May 21 New York sold Cheeves and Jack Bentley to the Newark Bears of the International League. Cheeves provided minimal support to the success of the third-place team in his 14 appearances. He had a 3-6 record and a 6.05 ERA. Nevertheless, he was invited to spring training the following year. He reported at 212 pounds and showed little desire to lose the weight or work hard. He was quickly released. Returning to Texas, Cheeves played semi-pro ball and married Lilly Elizabeth Durham. The couple had a daughter, JoAnn Elizabeth, born on August 14, 1931. Lilly died in January 1945.

Manager Del Pratt of the Waco Cubs (Texas League) invited Cheeves to a tryout in 1929. He made the team and debuted on April 20 with a superb 9-1 win over San Antonio. He won three of his first four15  before slowly unraveling. His record dropped to 3-8 before he was released. Cheeves was back in the semipro ranks by the end of June. He put in a few more seasons of semipro before hanging his glove up for good. He also branched out into construction rather than just carpentry.

The 1940 census lists the family in Alamosa, Colorado, where Cheeves worked as a timekeeper for the WPA, the federal government’s work program. Virgil and Lilly returned to the Dallas area, where Lilly died. He was remarried in 1963, to Allie Dillard Cox, an older widow. She died on September 17, 1973. Cheeves retired, but still worked as a seasonal employee of the Dallas school system. He died of congestive heart failure at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas on May 8, 1979, and was buried beside Lilly in Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by David Kritzler.

 

Notes

1 ‘Chicago Cubs Have Wizard Kid Pitcher,” Oakland Tribune, January 2, 1921: 8.

2 Ibid.

3 High-school information from Cheeves’s Hall of Fame questionnaire. Oak Cliff HS was also mentioned in newspapers during his semipro days.

4 “Eastland 9 Mineral Wells 3,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 1, 1920: 3.

5 “Pirates Find Vaughn Who Can’t Find Arm,” Chicago Tribune, September 8, 1920: 24.

6 “Big Change in Evers, Comes With Year,” The Sporting News, March 10, 1921: 1.

7 Cheeves mentioned the knuckler twice on his Hall of Fame questionnaire.

8 James Crusinberry, “Cheeves Balks Moran As Cubs Clout Pill, 6-2,” Chicago Tribune, June 26: A2.

9 Hugh Fullerton, “Cubs, First Division Club, May Finish Near the Top,” Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1923: 17.

10 “Chief Cheeves Draws Trip to Wichita Fall,” Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1923: 15.

11 “Cheeves, Ex-Cubs Hurler, Is Sold to Cleveland,” Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1924: 25.

12 Harry Bullion, “Dauss Weakens in Closing Innings and Cleveland Takes Final Game, 7-5,” Detroit Free Press, June 23, 1924: 12.

13 “Virgil Cheeves’ Case Is a Good Lesson to Youth,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 10, 1925: 24.

14 “Meinert’s Team Will Play Denison Squad,” Dallas Morning News, June 11, 1925: 19.

15 “Cheeves and Glazner Take Slab Saturday,” Dallas Morning News, May 4, 1929: 19.