Infielder Bill Narleski may have lost some playing time due to serving more than three years in the infantry during the First World War, but he found that the Second World War gave him a couple of years he probably wouldn’t have otherwise had. His son Ray pitched for six seasons in the majors, winning 43 games at the big-league level.
Bill – he put his name down as Willie when he was in the Army – was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, sometime around the time the 19th century ended and the 20th century began. His death certificate presents the date as March 9, 1900, but Narleski himself reported it was June 9, 1899. Contemporary newspaper reports – probably the least reliable source, given that the date may have been fudged a bit to make him appear younger – give his birthdate as June 9, 1901. He was born William Edward Narleski.
His parents were both New Jersey natives of Polish descent. His father was Joseph Narleski, according to Bill’s death certificate, but his mother’s name was listed as unknown.1
Young Bill attended seven years of grammar school at Keasbey, New Jersey, an unincorporated community on the outskirts of Perth Amboy that was known for its clay and brick factories. He had no further formal education. On March 16, 1917, when he was perhaps 16 or 17, he enlisted in the Army just three weeks before the United States entered World War I. His infantry service ran until June 4, 1920. He had married earlier in the year, on February 15, 1920, to Marie Malinowski. She was a native of Poland.
Narleski went through basic training in El Paso, Texas, and served overseas, seeing combat in France. He was a private in Company E, 7th Infantry, 76th Division.2 Mustered out at Fort Devens, he returned to Camden, New Jersey, and took up work at a leather factory. He began playing semipro baseball around the same time and reportedly played for a number of teams including Wid Conroy’s Merry Widows. It was said that Narleski never hit below .300 in semipro ball except for one year in which he’d injured his shoulder.
Narleski was right-handed, standing 5-feet-9 and with a listed playing weight of 160 pounds. He began his minor-league career in 1921 with the Rocky Mount Tar Heels in the Virginia League, playing in 14 games and batting .283 with one home run. No records appear to be available for the 1922 season, though the Greensboro Daily News appraised him in May, writing that he was “a great fielder and punches the ball hard.”3 The following month, a Richmond newspaper commented on Narleski’s “spectacular fielding.”4 He had some power; though we lack final season records, as of the end of July, he already had a league-leading seven home runs despite a pedestrian .250 batting average.5 After the season, Narleski played some semipro ball again for the Camden City team.
Narleski began 1923 playing shortstop for Rocky Mount, the position at which he played his first several years (save 1926, when he played second base), and hit for a .270 average in 73 games, with seven home runs, before his contract was purchased on July 19 by the Greenville, South Carolina, club in the South Atlantic League; he played 52 games for the Greenville Spinners but hit only .201 for them.
Narleski (whose name was usually spelled “Narlesky” in newspapers throughout his career) began the 1924 season with Rocky Mount but again his contract was sold, to the Macon Peaches on May 27. Macon was in the same league, and Narleski’s season-ending stats are combined ones as was often the case at the time. He is shown to have hit .288 in 64 games, but without any homers. He did play quite a few games at second base for Macon.
In 1925 Narleski even got into some games at first base and in left field, playing Class C ball (all his prior teams had been Class B) for the Raleigh Capitals (Piedmont League). He hit .314 in 74 games.
It was back to Class B, the Southeastern League, in 1926, and Narleski hit .324 in 116 games combined between the Albany (Georgia) Nuts and the Jacksonville Tars. He hit seven homers and primarily played second base.
The Boston Braves had Narleski on their roster as the 1927 season began and appeared in very limited action during early spring training. He was placed with Jacksonville and even won a game (one of the two games in which he pitched), despite giving up seven runs in seven innings. Early in the season, he joined the Mobile Bears (Southern Association) and played 151 games, hitting .289. On September 12 the Boston Red Sox purchased Narleski’s contract from Mobile.
The Red Sox trained in Bradenton, Florida. Bill Carrigan was managing in the third year of his second go-round as manager, trying to help pull the team out of last place. He had several players to choose from at both shortstop and third base: Bobby Reeves, Wally Gerber, Grant Gillis, Jerry Standaert, and Narleski were among them. Originally on the second-string infield, Narleski impressed sufficiently in his springtime showing, hitting .333 and fielding well. In one game, on March 15, he “handled four seemingly impossible chances perfectly.”6 Thanks to his spirited play, Narleski picked up the nickname “Cap” as captain of the second team, but over the course of the exhibition season advanced to make the big-league team.7 Other news stories said he’d picked up the nickname because of his war service, though he hadn’t risen above the rank of private. He “has more chatter than a magpie,” declared the Boston Herald in Narleski’s second year with the Red Sox.8
On Opening Day of the 1929 season, Narleski pinch-ran in a losing effort, but on April 20 – his second appearance, again as a pinch-runner – Narleski scored the winning run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Jerry Standaert doubled him in from second base. The Boston Herald called Narleski a “scrappy, talkative kid … fields well, hits fairly well, although apparently a tough luck batter.”9 That sentiment – that Narleski was “Hard Luck’s oldest child” – was apparently seconded by men who had played with him in the Southern Association.10
Narleski’s first start, first at-bat, and first base hit all came in the May 1 game against Philadelphia. Playing shortstop, Narleski also drew a base on balls. The Athletics beat the Red Sox with ease, 24-6. It was 19-2 when Narleski doubled. Red Sox pitchers allowed 29 hits. Red Sox fielders committed five errors.
Narleski was used frequently and played in 96 games, though not in as many as any of the other infielders. He primarily played shortstop, but some second base and seven games at third. He hit well at the beginning of the season and was hitting .354 at the end of May, in the midst of a 13-game hitting streak, and .318 when June ended. He tailed off as the season progressed, missing a couple of weeks in August with a bruised ankle, and ended the year with a .277 average and a .333 on-base percentage, without a home run and with 25 runs batted in. Four of those RBIs came in the July 11 game, according to the dailies at the Hall of Fame, though contemporary box scores show him with just two. One way or the other, it was probably Narleski’s best game in the major leagues.
The Red Sox finished in last place in 1929, just as they did in the year that followed.
In 1930 Narleski played well in spring training (although at one point he lost control of his bat and it sailed across the field and hit pitcher Milt Gaston, his teammate, and nearly knocked him out). He made the team again and his eighth-inning single was the game-winner on Opening Day, a 4-3 win in Washington. He played in 39 games, through June 26. He hit for only a .205 average for manager Heinie Wagner and drove in just seven runs. On July 2, after not having been used for a week, Narleski was released outright to Indianapolis. There was a little more to the story; he was part of the consideration (along with Joe Cicero and Frank Mulroney) that Indianapolis received for sending Rabbit Warstler to the Red Sox.
Narleski played well there, batting .312 in 85 American Association games for Indianapolis and then, after a trade on August 5, for Columbus. He homered 12 times. The Texas League’s Houston Buffaloes bought his contract from Columbus in March 1932 and Narleski played one season, with ten homers and a .268 batting average. Two of the homers came in one inning, in an August 13 game against Tyler, Texas.
In early February 1933, Houston sold Narleski back to Columbus. He appeared in only 14 games, hitting .233, and was released on June 10 to the Elmira Red Wings of the New York/Penn League. He hit .262 in 102 games for Elmira. Never once had Narleski been on a pennant-winning team; Columbus did win the American Association title in 1933, but he was gone by that time. After the season Narleski was dealt to the Greensboro (North Carolina) Patriots, but they couldn’t get him to come to terms.
Narleski appears to have played for a number of semipro teams in the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area over the next dozen years. In 1938 he was said to have taken employment at New York Ship. At the time of the 1940 census he was living in Salem, New Jersey, and working as a truck driver for Mannington Mills, living with Marie and their four children, ranging in age from 14 to 5: William Jr., Raymond, Theodore, and Jeanette. Later, another son, Robert, joined the family.
During World War II Narleski played – at least in 1944 – for Limeport in the East Penn League, described as a “strong semipro circuit.” He was involved in some kind of controversy over his contract when he signed with the Wilmington Blue Rocks on August 8, 1944. It was his first time in Organized Baseball in 12 years. The matter was resolved in court, with Narleski initially being permitted to play for Wilmington six days a week and with Limeport on Sundays. Narleski was fined $5 and court fees. It was Limeport that prevailed in the legal action, and Limeport paid the fees. Narleski played in 17 games in 1944 for Wilmington, batting .305, before the judge apparently changed his mind, due to a regulation of the National Association preventing players from working at the same time in independent ball and Organized Baseball. He was suddenly released by Wilmington on August 23.11
In 1945 Narleski decided to play for Wilmington.12 He played in 127 games, batting .292. He was perhaps 45 years old. It was Narleski’s last year playing professional baseball. He reportedly played semipro ball until 1948.13
A newspaper article said Narleski had found work as a leather factory foreman in Woodlynne, New Jersey, but when he himself completed a player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1960 he said he worked at a first-class pipe fitter for New York Ship Corp. at Camden.
In a January 1990 interview, Narleski’s son Ray confirmed that he had worked at New York Ship until retirement, but that he had died before the day he received his first retirement check.14
Two of Narleski’s sons played some baseball. Ted played shortstop for UCLA and signed with the Indians in the footsteps of his older brother, Ray.
Ray Narleski (1928-2012) was a right-hander who pitched for six years in the major leagues (1954-59), five for Cleveland with a final year for Detroit, winning 43 big-league games. Their father had apparently not spoken much about his own days playing ball. “He encouraged them in their baseball efforts, and sought to give them sound advice,” reported the Dallas Morning News in a 1951 article reporting Ray’s joining the Dallas Eagles that year. “I think he used to play for Houston,” Ray told the paper. “He was a second baseman and shortstop. Mother told me that one time he hit two home runs in one inning, but he never talked about it and I don’t know whether she had the right information or not.”15
Bill Narleski had the opportunity to follow his son’s entire career, and at some point Ray no doubt learned that his father had played in 135 major-league games. Ray had two sons who played baseball professionally – Steven Narleski pitched eight years in the Indians system from 1976 to 1983, rising as high as Triple-A but never making it to the majors. Jeff Narleski played one year of rookie ball for the Chicago White Sox in the Gulf Coast League in 1977.
Bill Narleski died suddenly of an acute coronary occlusion on July 20, 1964, in Camden, New Jersey. Marie died in February 1981.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Narleski’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Jeannette Thomas, Bill’s daughter, did not know the names of her grandparents. Telephone conversation with Ruth Narleski and Jeannette Thomas on September 23, 2013.
2 Joseph C. DeLuca, “First of a Family Baseball Tradition,” South Jersey Magazine, Fall 1991.
3 Greensboro Daily News, May 18, 1922.
4 Richmond Times Dispatch, June 10, 1922.
5 Richmond Times Dispatch, July 30, 1922.
6 Omaha World Herald, March 15, 1929.
7 Washington Post, March 23, 1928.
8 Boston Herald, March 7, 1930.
9 Boston Herald, April 11, 1929.
10 Boston Herald, June 5, 1929.
11 The Sporting News, August 24 and September 7, 1944.
12 Trenton Evening Times, May 20, 1945.
13 “First of a Family Baseball Tradition.”
14 “First of a Family Baseball Tradition.”
15 Dallas Morning News, May 10, 1951.