The list of National League batting champions from the Thirties and early Forties contains many familiar names: Hall of Famers like Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize and Stan Musial and stars such as Pete Reiser and Dixie Walker. Amidst this listing is an obscure name, Debs Garms. Little known, he is now recalled as the answer to baseball trivia questions — “Who broke up Johnny Vander Meer’s string of hitless innings?” or “Who won the National League batting title in 1940?” Several years ago, as if to underscore his obscurity, a booklet on batting champions devoted two pages to Garms, “Who Is Debs Garms?”1
There are several reasons for his anonymity. Garms played in an era of all-time greats including Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth. He was a regular for less than five seasons, never made the All-Star team, and was not a player whose personality or habits generated colorful stories.
Despite this seeming lack of credentials, he was always sought for the attitude and hustle he brought to a team. Playing for five managers who eventually made the Hall of Fame, Garms was a fierce competitor on the field. He was a welcome addition to the Cardinal championship teams of the early 1940s despite his better playing days having passed.2 All this considered, who was Debs Garms?
Garms was born in Bangs, Texas, a town with a population of less than 1,000. He was the eighth of ten children born to Louis and Nancy Alwilda (Willie) Garms. Although several baseball books list his birth date as June 26, 1908, he was actually born on June 26, 1907.3 Like many players from his era, he was older than his “official” birth date.
Debs was named in honor of early twentieth century socialist, Eugene Debs. His parents, not content to name him after a prominent socialist, subsequently named Debs’ younger brother after socialist Victor Berger. Neither Debs nor Berger liked their given names, Berger eventually changing his to Kinnie. Although Debs was chagrined at his parents’ choice for his name, he kept it, subsequently showing his independence by deciding he would be known as Debs C. Garms, the C. in honor of a friend whose name was Charlie.4
Family members recalled that Debs, even as a small child, was often found with a ball in his hand. His interest in baseball was later encouraged when his older sister Maye married William Jennings Bryan Harriss, otherwise known as “Slim,” who became a pitcher for the A’s and Red Sox in the 1920s. Garms caught his first glimpse of major league baseball after having driven Maye up to Philadelphia in the spring of 1926 to be with her husband. While Debs was thrilled to observe the A’s playing ball, the trip was not without penalty, as his absence delayed his graduation from high school by a year.
Upon graduation, Garms attended Howard Payne University. He joined the track team as a sprinter and played on the college baseball team. At one of his games Carl Williams, manager of the Wichita Falls Spudders, scouted Garms. Garms later recounted, “I hit a couple of triples and as Casey Stengel used to say, I had ‘live’ legs so Williams wanted to sign me.” Shortly thereafter, Garms was signed to a minor league contract by the St. Louis Browns to play for the Abilene Aces of the West Texas League.5 Although Garms could never quite believe he was getting paid to play a game he loved, this decision eventually caused him to regret that he did not complete college. Years later when his son David was playing ball and generating some interest from major league scouts, his father told him he would not sign a contract for his then underage son. He wanted David to obtain a college degree.
In 1928, Garms’ first year with Abilene, he hit .313 while playing shortstop.6 That season would prove typical of his career. Garms hit for a solid average with little power, showed speed on the bases but was not particularly impressive in the field. He later recalled to his son that his play at shortstop caused fans seated behind first base to be on the lookout whenever he let loose a throw. Whether this was an exaggeration or not, comments about his fielding ability would prove to be less than flattering over the years.
Garms worked his way up through the minors the next several years joining the Wichita Falls Spudders of the Texas League in 1931. On joining the Spudders, he was moved to center field to take advantage of his speed. At Wichita Falls, Garms acquired an important fan base of one. Ambers Goff loved to watch the Spudders play. As Goff was too young to attend games by himself, his older sister Hampton frequently took him see them play. A combination of poor attendance and the rarity of women at Spudder games soon caused Garms to note her presence.7 Hampton and Debs soon found they were mutually attracted to more than baseball and eventually became engaged.
In 1932 Garms had a breakout year for the Spudders, hitting .344. Based on his performance, Garms was called up to the St. Louis Browns in August and immediately put into their lineup as the center fielder. He had joined the weakest franchise in baseball. Sixth in 1932, the Browns would not climb higher for another decade. Undercapitalized and playing before crowds averaging 1,500 per game, they could not field a competitive team. It made for a rather dismal environment, contributing toward a lackadaisical club atmosphere.
Illustrative of this was an incident Garms recalled occurring shortly after joining the club. One evening while in his hotel room, Garms heard a knock on the door, and answering it, was confronted by an upset hotel manager and a hopping mad — and soaked — policeman. They demanded to know if Garms had thrown a water-filled balloon out the window at the policeman. Garms had no knowledge of the act. Only after looking out the window and realizing the balloon could not have come from his room did the manager and policeman depart. A few minutes there was another knock on the door. This time it was Manager Bill Killefer. Garms could not figure why the manager wanted to visit with a lowly rookie until Killefer said, “Guess I got that policeman pretty good.” Killefer’s prank did not quite square with Garms’ image of a major league manager.
Despite the Browns’ status, Garms was glad to be a major leaguer, making a salary of $5,000 per year, all the money in the world it seemed to him, especially at the depth of the Great Depression. Debuting on August 10 in St. Louis, he played against a Yankee lineup that included the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey. Garms obtained his first major league hit and stolen base as the Browns lost yet another game to the Yankees.8 Garms mostly played center field that year and ended the season hitting .284. While becoming a major leaguer was a substantial achievement, Garms took a more significant step three days after the season ended when he married Hampton Goff on September 28. They would be married fifty-two years.
The Browns started the 1933 season poorly and by late June were in last place. Their efforts were not helped by a series with the A’s during which Garms saw the most powerful display of hitting he ever witnessed in his career. “Jimmy Foxx was the most devastating hitter I ever saw. In six games, including a Sunday doubleheader he hit six homers against us.” During that series Foxx also had six singles, four doubles and a triple. Years later Garms recalled playing left against Foxx when he hit a ball so hard and deep that by the time Garms turned around it was out of the park.9
In describing Foxx, Garms took note that while he played against Ruth it was during the twilight of Ruth’s career. Still, Ruth left an impression on Garms. Ruth frequently hit tremendously high pop ups generating a great deal of spin, making them almost impossible to catch. As the ball often eluded fielders circling in vain, Ruth would steam into second with a double, laughing at his frustrated opponents.
With the Browns in last place, Browns owner Phil Ball decided to fire Killefer. Rogers Hornsby was hired as manager (Allan Sothern had managed eight games on an interim basis), as Ball put it, to make the players “kick their heels.”10 Hornsby would be the first of five Hall of Famers Garms played for and the most difficult. Years later Garms recalled that while he never played for a bad manager, he did not particularly care for Hornsby, an opinion shared by almost everyone who played for the irascible Texan.11 “He was egotistical, and he thought everyone should be a great hitter, just because he was.” Hornsby had numerous rules such as not letting hitters swing on 3 and 1 or 2 and 0 pitches. He fined pitchers $50 if they threw a strike on a 0-2 pitch, which led Garms to witness the funniest incident he ever saw in baseball. During one game pitcher a rookie pitcher who had control problems found himself with a 0-2 count on the batter. His next pitch inadvertently slipped in for a called strike three. Knowing he was about to lose $50, the pitcher came off the mound screaming at the umpire that the pitch should have been called a ball!12
Taking over the club on July 29, Hornsby saw very little of Garms during the 1933 season. A little over two weeks after Hornsby became manager Garms jumped for a ball in a game and, landing awkwardly, injured his knee. As Garms later related, “I was really in pain. They brought out a stretcher for me, and carried me off the field. Hornsby told me to go to the clubhouse and be ready for the second game of the doubleheader. Well I missed the rest of the year.” He had damaged the cartilage in his knee as well as suffering tendon injuries. This injury would bother Garms intermittently the rest of his career. His injury came when Garms was leading the team with a .317 average.
In 1934 Garms came back to hit .293, but his career with the Browns was essentially over. He was pegged by Hornsby as a singles hitter on a team devoid of power and would play little over half the games. His future as a Brown was foretold in an article on the team’s chances for the upcoming 1935 season when Garms was described as an outfielder that, despite being a good hitter, “doesn’t field so well.”13
When the season started Garms played in few games, mostly as a pinch hitter. In May he was farmed out to the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League. An article in The Sporting News commenting on his demotion echoed the same observation made in spring, “Garms is a splendid hitter, but his fielding has always been a trifle shy of accepted major standards.”14 It was more than a simple demotion, however. Years later in a history of the Browns, Bob Burnes, long-time writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, wrote that Hornsby, “fired Debs Garms and [George] Blaeholder because he found them laughing in the clubhouse after a particularly horrendous defeat.”15
The actions were taken after the Browns blew a large lead to the Washington Senators. Garms was reputed to have come into the clubhouse, tossed his glove aside and said, “Well fellows what movie will we see tonight?” Bobo Newsom proceeded to do imitations of characters from a radio show. Hornsby was livid at the nonchalant attitude of his players after defeat. That night he told Garms he was being sent to the San Antonio Missions. Newsom was sold to the Senators, and Blaeholder, who pitched poorly during the game, was sold to the A’s.16
While the loss of a game may have triggered Hornsby’s actions, the Browns were facing one of their periods of financial hardship, and Hornsby’s sales of Blaeholder to the A’s and Newsom to the Senators were probably made to stabilize the ledgers. The incident does not ring true with respect to Garms, as he was known for an intense attitude toward the game. While he may have commented about going to a movie, it is worth noting that although his son David had never heard this story, he did point out that his father rarely went to the movies and suggested his comment was one of sarcasm rather than nonchalance.17 This may have been a difference in intent not picked up by the notoriously humorless Hornsby. The most likely scenario is that Hornsby simply came to believe that Garms could not help the club and demoted him.
In commenting on Garms demotion The Sporting News (TSN) echoed earlier moments, that Garms was “a splendid hitter but his fielding has always been a trifle shy of accepted major [league] standards.”18 Garms was livid about his demotion but determined to show he belonged back in the majors. With the Missions he turned in a solid performance, hitting .294 and leading the league in triples. The next year he hit .316, and led the league in hits, his performance earning him a trip back to the majors when the Boston Bees drafted him in September 1936.19
The Bees were a step up from the Browns although they, too, were often in precarious financial straits. At the time of Garms arrival, however, they were about to catch lightning in a bottle with two thirty year-old plus rookie pitchers, Lou Fette and Jim Turner, who would each win twenty games in the 1937 season. Managed by Bill McKechnie, the Bees finished a surprising fifth, narrowly missing the first division by a game. While their pitching and fielding ranked at the top of the National League, their offense was dead last. What little offense they had was not aided by Garms’ powerless .259 average. Though Garms received repeated praise for his willingness to play third and all outfield positions when others were hurt or slumping, his status as a major leaguer was tenuous.20 He was in almost the same position he found himself with the Browns at the start of the 1935 season, hanging on by a thread.
McKechnie’s guidance of the Bees to fifth place gained him Manager of the Year Award as well as a two-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds. The Bees hired Casey Stengel to replace McKechnie. Although Stengel was considered something of a clown among baseball fans before his successful career with the Yankees, those with a deep understanding of the game knew he had a gift for getting the most out of his players.21
Garms came to appreciate this talent of Stengel at the onset of the Bees’ 1938 spring training. As Garms recalled, Stengel approached him almost immediately to discuss his hitting technique:
“‘They tell me there’s a man on that infield you like pretty well.’ I knew he [Stengel] meant the second baseman. I must have hit 150 or 200 balls down that way the previous year. Then Case said: ‘Young man, if you’re ever going to make a living up here in the big leagues, you’ve got to learn to bunt and to hit the ball by the third baseman….’ Casey told me to make the third baseman my target, and hope that I missed him.”22
After being a pull hitter throughout his career, Garms found it difficult to change his approach but realized pitchers were exploiting his weakness; unless he made an adjustment he would be out of the majors. He worked on going with the pitch to left if it was outside and pulling it if it was inside. He also sought to improve his bunting skills. Here again, Stengel guided him, “In order to lay down a perfect bunt, the top half of the ball must meet the bottom half of the bat near the sweet spot. Never bunt the ball on the end of the bat or the trademark. That makes it hard to control. Also, you must angle the bat as the pitched ball approaches you. The angle of the bat controls the direction you want the ball to go.”23
Garms worked hard on these aspects of his game; within a few years he would be among the premier bunters in the league. However, when the season started, he found himself on the bench. Stengel, despite advising Garms to change his style of play, simply had too many other players on his roster that he regarded as having better potential. This perception was not limited to Stengel. A local Boston paper noted that several Bees, including Garms, were likely to be cut from the team. Reporter Vic Stout, commenting on Garms wrote, “…Garms, although one of the most likeable fellows on the team, doesn’t seem to fit into the picture. He is incapable of playing a good third base, and his chances of being retained as an outfield reserve are small since Stengel has four left fielders now in Johnny Cooney, Roy Johnson, Bobby Reis and Max West. So it is practically a certainty that the Texan will not be around for long.”24
As the ax was preparing to fall on Garms, fate stepped in. Umpire Bill Klem tossed Stengel out of a game at Pittsburgh on May 9 in the top of the 10th inning. The Bees proceeded to load the bases with two outs. Absent Stengel, Garms was called on to pinch-hit and singled in the winning runs.25
A few days later Stengel put Garms into the lineup against Brooklyn Dodgers’ knuckleball pitcher Forest “Tot” Pressnell. While Pressnell limited the Bees to four hits, Garms collected three of them. Shortly thereafter, the Bees cut several players from their roster, but Garms wasn’t among them.
Stengel began to use Garms more as the Bees went on a seven-game winning streak and climbed from seventh to third place. He played an instrumental part in several of those victories. On May 17 the Bees beat the Pirates 1-0 despite being limited to one hit, a single by Garms that kept the game-winning rally alive.26 Several days later he dragged a bunt single and eventually scored the winning run.27 On the 25th, he opened the eleventh inning with a double against the Reds, again scoring the winning run.28
Several weeks later, Stengel reflected on Garms’ performance with Vic Stout, a sportswriter covering the Bees. While instrumental in changing Garms’ hitting style, Stengel was stunned by how Garms had responded:
“Garms is a fine example of why managers grow old and grey-haired in a hurry. Down South [spring training] it looked as though [Eddie] Mayo, [Gil] English and even [Harl] Maggert ranked way ahead of Garms for my third base choice. And even after nearly a month of the league games it looked as though Garms was the worst of our rather poor lot of third base prospects. I’ll admit the fellow has fooled me completely. It looks now as if the best move I’ve made since managing this club came the afternoon in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago when I put him out there on third base. I shudder every time I think how I might have unloaded him.”29
His hot hitting continued the next several weeks with Stengel platooning him against right-handed pitchers. This strategy kept him out of the lineup on June 11 in Cincinnati against left-hander Johnny Vander Meer. Vander Meer no-hit the Bees; four days later he duplicated the feat against the Dodgers, becoming the only major league pitcher to throw consecutive no-hitters.
On June 19 Vander Meer faced the Bees again. By now Garms was playing every day as his average had soared above .350. Vander Meer held the Braves hitless through the first three innings. Stengel, always the psychologist, walked by Vander Meer to his coaching position before the fourth inning started and said, “John we’re not trying to beat you, we’re just trying to get a base hit.”30 Over forty years later Vander Meer recalled Stengel’s comment as having “put the bee on me.”31 Garms, second up in the inning went off field on a two and one pitch, punching a single to left-center. It broke up Vander Meer’s 23 1/3 hitless innings and continued Garms’ eighteen-game hitting streak. After the game, Vander Meer was quoted as saying “I’m glad that’s over. I only wish the first man up could have hit and ended the strain.”32 Vander Meer later recalled thinking he could almost hug Garms for ending the mounting pressure he faced. Garms continued to hit well the rest of the season, finishing at .315 seventh in the league. The most memorable event for Garms that year did not occur on the ball field, however. On July 24 his son David was born at the Harvard infirmary in Boston. While it was a joyous event, the arrival of David may have affected Garms’ play two days later. Hitting against Paul Derringer of the Reds, Garms hit what was an apparent double to break up a no-hitter. While his head may have been in the clouds with David’s arrival, Garms’ feet were unfortunately off the ground as he was called out for missing first base. He quickly recovered from this mental gaffe and after the season, in recognition of his overall play, Garms garnered several votes in the selection of Most Valuable Player, an honor that went to Ernie Lombardi.
As the 1939 season began, Garms was assured for the first time in his career of opening the season as a regular. His confidence was helped immeasurably during spring training when baseball’s patriarch Connie Mack approached him and said “Young man, you can hit the ball,” after watching Garms take batting practice.33
Garms came close to matching his performance the previous year. He was among the league leaders in average most of the season; a late slump caused him to fall below the charmed .300 mark, finishing at .298. Despite the Bees’ preseason efforts to better their team through trades, a series of injuries and a less effective pitching staff doomed them to seventh place. Their substandard performance and lagging attendance placed the Bees in financial straits. To alleviate their situation, they initiated a series of player transactions involving cash to increase liquidity.
If the Bees were selling players, the Pirates were buying them. After several years of finishing in the first division, the Pirates staggered to sixth place in 1939. That finish cost manager Pie Traynor his job. Frankie Frisch, hired to replace Traynor, inherited a team with poor morale as the Pirates were still reeling from loss of a pennant during the last week of the 1938 season.
Frisch was an intense individual who hated the thought of losing and was considered an ideal person to improve the Pirates’ performance. After having been let go as manager by the Cardinals toward the end of the 1938 season, Frisch had broadcast games for the Bees in 1939 and become aware of the playing potential and attitude various Bees possessed.
Early in January, Frisch spoke with Charles “Chilly” Doyle, sports reporter for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, about the upcoming season. Frisch made it clear to Doyle that he would remold the Pirates into a hustling ball club. Frisch did not mention in the interview his suspicion that several Pirate veterans including Lloyd and Paul Waner as well as others would have to improve their attitude or be replaced. Doyle observed that Frisch had made a few player purchases from the Bees but was considering making other “splash” transactions. He was still looking to revamp the roster as spring training commenced where, as he described, he would be “cracking the whip” to insure the Pirates would begin the season in a proper frame of mind.34
During the first week of March 1940 Garms drove his family from Texas to Florida, where the Bees held spring training. Upon arrival at camp, he was informed the Pirates had purchased his contract. The Pirates, Garms realized, were holding spring training in San Bernardino, California, across the continent. After spending a few hours resting, Garms packed his family back into the car and drove them home to Texas, and then boarded the next available train to join the Pirates in California.
Frisch had been impressed by Garms while broadcasting for the Bees and purchased him even though he did not have a spot in the lineup for him. Frisch told Doyle, “Garms will be available for infield and outfield duty. I like his style, especially his spirit.”35 In a series of articles Doyle continually emphasized the positive attitude Garms brought to the Pirates through his competitive play.
While describing Garms’ ability and attitude, Doyle touched on the weak link in Garms’ game, his fielding. “Although he is not a top flight man in the infield or outfield speaking defensively, Garms is a great hustler.”36 It was an observation that would continually plague his career and ultimately shorten his stay with the Pirates.
Observations on Garms’ defense were almost always negative. Occasionally they were specific. While Garms was with the Bees an article noted that occasionally Garms throws sailed. His trouble with “sailing” a throw was reminiscent of his first year in professional baseball when his throws from shortstop occasionally landed in the seats behind first base. In a Baseball Magazine article on him, Garms thought his most difficult play at third was the ball hit straight at him and in the outfield when he had to take a ball on the hop.37 While it is plausible that later in his career constant shifting between third and the outfield exacerbated his fielding woes, it is also significant to recall that concerns with his defense were voiced when he played only the outfield. As Garms worked himself into shape, this shortcoming received scant attention. Garms was hitting well over .400, serving to deflect any in-depth observations about his defense.
Sun-Telegraph sports editor Harry Keck, profiled Garms’ life away from the diamond at this time, indicating Garms was more than the one dimensional sports figure typically portrayed in the press. Keck noted that after a game Garms would most often be found smoking a cigar in the hotel lobby after a steak dinner. While he enjoyed talking baseball, he could easily be induced to discuss raising livestock on his 250-plus-acre spread near Sunset, Texas. Keck’s profile clearly indicated Garms was mindful of developing a way to support his family after his playing days were over.38
During spring training there was speculation about Pirate shortstop Arky Vaughn winning the batting crown. Vaughan, who won the title in 1935, led the regulars in batting during spring training with a .406 average. Garms, unheralded, had ended spring training with a mark of .472. Later he would recall, “That whole year , the baseball looked as big as a grapefruit coming up to the plate.”39
Garms hustled through spring training, hitting well and was named opening day right fielder, replacing Paul Waner. Waner’s drinking problems and casual approach to the game had angered Frisch.40 Waner never could get back into the lineup on a sustained basis, playing in just 89 games, receiving his unconditional release after the season ended. He would eventually sign on with Garms’ old team, the Bees, where he would obtain his 3,000th career hit in 1942.
That Garms was a starter is at odds with the current perspective that he was just a part-time player during the 1940 season, a perspective that disregards the fact that after having worked his way into the Bees’ lineup in 1938, he played virtually full time. Garms limited playing time in 1940 came about, not because of managerial discretion, but because of a knee injury he suffered in Boston in early May, an injury that for the most part kept him out of the lineup for the better part of two months.41 He reentered the lineup in a game against the Giants on June 16 and got three hits to help the Pirates win, only to reinjure his knee the next day. While occasionally pinch-hitting the next several weeks, he did not start regularly until July 20.
By then the Pirates were in sixth place. Frisch, disconcerted because of indifferent play, made several changes to the lineup including replacing the slumping Lee Handley at third with a now healthy Garms. Making the most of his opportunity that day, Garms got four hits to drive in five runs as the Pirates beat the Bees.
Garms hit .481 against his former teammates that year. He later recalled to his son that Bees pitchers consistently pitched him low and away all season. Garms was baffled that they would continue pitching to his off field hitting strength until he was approached by a Bee pitcher one day and asked what the location of a pitch was that he made a hit on the previous day. Garms replied “low and away,” and the pitcher replied that Stengel had jumped on him for NOT pitching low and away. Why Stengel persisted in forcing pitchers to work towards Garms’ strength seemed odd. Later, Garms mused that perhaps Stengel was upset he had been sold to the Pirates; and that perhaps it was Stengel’s way of trying to prove a point to the Bees management.42
Garms also had a chance to remind Stengel of his competitive instincts. During another game against the Bees with Al Lopez catching, Garms put his bat out to bunt and saw from the corner of his eye that Lopez was moving out of his catching crouch to pounce on the bunt. He pulled his bat back, and the ball hit the umpire on the kneecap. Grimacing with pain, the umpire told Lopez in no uncertain terms never to pull that stunt again.
Garms didn’t just pick on the Bees. Years later Bobby Bragan, who was a rookie catcher for the Phillies in 1940, recalled that Garms used the entire field to hit and was very tough on his team. Bragan’s memory over sixty years later was correct; Garms hit .431 against the Phillies.43
Garms continued to hit well. Now batting third in the lineup, he hit .400 in July, raising his average to .345 as the Pirates climbed into fourth place on the strength of an eight-game winning streak. During those eight games Garms hit a torrid .480. Little notice was made at the time that Garms’ rising average had moved past Giants catcher Harry Danning, who was listed in newspapers as the nominal leader in batting.
In late August, Chilly Doyle observed that although Garms had the highest average in the league he would have to amass 400 at bats to be the legitimate champion, difficult to achieve given his early season injuries. It was the first time Garms’ name was associated with the batting race. The next day Doyle revisited the situation, writing that Garms might fall short of the requirement, not because of having missed so many games but because the 400 at bat requirement did not take into account his walks. At this point Frisch, thinking Garms needed 400 at bats to qualify for the title, began to bat him leadoff.
Garms ended August at .369, well ahead of second baseman Bama Rowell of the Bees who at .329 was listed as the league leader in virtually all baseball publications. Almost two weeks later Dixie Walker of the Dodgers had overtaken Rowell, who was down to .320 while Garms’ average had climbed to .384. Although the lead would subsequently change almost daily between Jimmy Gleeson, Johnny Cooney and Lombardi, none could push their average above .320, at that time the lowest average to lead the National League in hitting.44 Individuals who were knowledgeable about the game noticed this statistical deficiency. Peter Hinkle, a fan, wrote a letter to the New York Times asking “for an explanation of the extraordinarily low batting averages in the National League this season. It appears that the man who eventually succeeds in hitting .325 will win the title. Normally it takes a mark of .350 or better to win the individual batting championship.”45
Several days later in an interview with the Washington Post, Dizzy Dean sounded off on a number of subjects including the National League batting race. Dean pointed out that Johnny Cooney, “An old converted pitcher is right up there for the batting title with .317 whereas back in the old days Frankie Frisch or Jim Bottomley would hit .350 and finish sixth.”46 TSN questioned why batting averages were so low in the National League, noting that Lombardi was leading the league with a .319 average. “Not since 1919, when Ed Roush led with a .321 mark has the National League’s top batter turned in a figure as low as that owned by Ernie Lombardi…”47
Garms’ performance stood in stark contrast to that of the listed leaders. On the day Hinkle’s letter was written, Garms’ average reached a season-high .387. He was sixty points ahead of the listed leaders and being noticed by others than Doyle. John Lardner, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, argued that Garms should be declared the champion. After noting that Walker was leading the league at .319, Lardner argued, “So what would you say to a fellow in that same league who is hitting .388 [sic]?” Lardner extolled Garms’ accomplishments, noting that a near seventy-point advantage “is too much difference.”48
This said, the assumption continued that to lead the league one needed 400 at bats. Shirley Povich in his Washington Post column “This Morning” observed, “Both big leagues two years ago passed a rule at the behest of the Baseball Writers Association demanding that a player must go to bat 400 times in a season before he can win the league batting championship… that rule this year eliminates Debs Garms of the Pirates, who is leading National League hitters…”49
Soon after Povich’s observation, the Reds came to New York to play the Giants. In an interview with Reds manager and coincidentally, Garms’ former skipper, Bill McKechnie, the assumption about qualifications to lead the league in hitting was debunked. McKechnie was asked if Garms was as good as his average reflected. While he commented that Garms had not performed that well for him, McKechnie conceded that Garms’ high average “must account for something.” McKechnie then asked, “What’s this I hear about a batter having to be at bat 400 times to be eligible for the championship?” A reporter replied that this was erroneous, “That’s all wrong. I asked Ford Frick [president of the National League] about that and he said that so far as he knows that is an American League rule and has not been adopted by the National League.”50 After that interview, on September 16 the Times began to list Garms as the leader. Garms at .380 was now 63 points ahead of Lombardi.
All this controversy culminated in an official announcement released by the National League on September 19 that essentially stated that Garms had to play just 100 games to win the title. Frick formally confirmed what he had said a few days before, that there were no rules governing qualifications for the title. “The batting title is simply unofficial and never has been subject for league legislation.” The article noted, “It is apparent the whole batting championship situation is in a state of confusion and that Garms, with the only respectable average in the league has a chance to be considered.”51 Bill Brandt, spokesperson for Frick, said that although there were no rules governing qualifications it, “he thought 100 games would be a sufficient prerequisite for the championship.”
At the time of this announcement eleven games remained to play, and Garms needed to appear in only seven to meet that qualification. In a prophetic observation, the Chronicle, noting the wide spread between Garms and his nearest competitor mentioned, “His [Garms’] mark is so much better than any of the others it doesn’t make much difference whether he gets a hit or not.”52 Virtually every comment on the situation noted the confusion about having to attain 400 at bats dated from when the American League gave five hundred dollars to the batting leader based on a minimum of 400 at bats. While turmoil over the rules continued, the strongest argument for awarding the title to Garms continued to be the margin he enjoyed over his rivals. This was reflected in comments from fans like Ernest Kerstein who wrote the Times stating Garms should be champion because he “will lead the batters by a wide margin.”53
Two days after the announcement was made, the Pirates played a doubleheader against the Reds. In the second game, with the score tied, the Pirates filled the bases. Garms came to bat and promptly hit a two-out single to win the game with his fifth hit of the game. He was now hitting .379.
It was Garms’ last hit of the season as he went into a 0-for-23 slump. On the 25th, Garms played the second game of a doubleheader against the Cubs, marking his 100th game of the season. The season ended on September 29 with Garms going zero-for-five. Interestingly enough, Arky Vaughan, mentioned in spring training as a contender for the title went two-for-three in that game to raise his average to an even .300 average.
For the season Garms played 103 games and had 127 hits in 358 at bats, finishing with a .355 average, and 36 points ahead of Lombardi who had 376 at-bats in an injury-shortened season. Garms was 38 points ahead of Chicago’s Stan Hack, who had played in 149 games. He also led the majors, squeaking by Joe DiMaggio’s American League leading .352 mark. Despite being regarded as a singles hitter Garms finished sixth in slugging with a .500 mark and struck out only six times the entire campaign to achieve a superlative ratio of one strikeout per sixty at bats. Thanks in part to Garms, the Pirates maintained their hold on fourth place.
Controversy over Frick’s decision continued after the season ended. While TSN supported Garms as champion it suggested qualifications for batting titles be made uniform throughout baseball. TSN argued that Garms should be the batting leader because of the wide margin he enjoyed over his rivals, as well as carrying the added burden of being asked to play various positions during the season, referring to his having split his time between third base and all three outfield posts in 1940.
Most of the opposition to Frick’s decision centered on Garms not having the 400 at bats required in the American League — that what was good for one league should be good for another. Resentment particularly emanated from Chicago, where Cub fans felt that Hack should have been declared champion based on his full season performance. Counter to that argument was an observation made by several including columnist Bob Ray that had Garms gone 0-for-42 to achieve the 400 at bats his “adjusted” average at .318, still would have been one point higher than Hack.54
TSN declared, “As there has never been a similar situation… when a player led the loop with such a high average and participated in a limited number of games…” going on to say that 100 games were enough for the title. TSN‘s recollection of history was hazy as on three previous occasions, titles were awarded to players with fewer than 400 at bats.
In 1914, because of injuries, Ty Cobb was limited to 345 at bats yet won the title. Cobb was probably awarded the title because his past performance suggested he would have won it if he had played the full season. In 1926 Bubbles Hargrave, a catcher for the Reds, had 326 at bats, and was awarded the title, the position of catcher somewhat mitigating the requirement to have played in more games. In 1932 Detroit’s Dale Alexander was awarded the title with 392 at bats. Except that Alexander’s gaining the title cost Jimmie Foxx the Triple Crown, none of these cases raised questions that these titles were tainted by limited playing time.
In retrospect, the controversy over Garms’ winning of the batting title could be attributed to several factors. First, in viewing Garms’ accomplishment, he was described as “coming out of nowhere” or being “a surprise champion.” This was based in part on the timing of Frick’s announcement that Garms would be eligible when only ten days were left in the season. Second is Garms’ prior history. Although Garms had previously hit .300, he had not gained a reputation as a proven hitter like earlier batting champions such as Mize, Lombardi, or Medwick.
Garms became champion largely because of peculiar circumstances that existed as the season ended. Observations made at the time were correct; averages were declining. The National League batting average for 1939 was .272. In 1940 it fell to .264. In 1941 it descended to .258. This downward tendency reflected in the averages of league leaders. From 1937-1939 under current qualifications, twenty-four full time players hit .320 or better. During the 1940-1942 seasons only one full-time player, Pete Reiser, hit over .320 (.341). In September 1940 no one in the league was at .320, which was unsettling to those interested in seeing statistical standards maintained.
The low averages contrasted sharply with Garms’ performance, which was in the .380 range when Frick issued his statement. The disparity between what was expected and Garms’ performance was too great to ignore. If Garms’ average had been in the .320-.330 range, one wonders whether Frick would have taken the same action. In an odd twist of circumstance, Garms’ performance may have been enhanced by his early season injuries. His play in prior years declined as the season ended; quite possibly the slightly built ballplayer experienced fatigue. Perhaps the time he was out of the lineup with injuries in May and June allowed him to retain his stamina for the August-September batting surge. It also may have delayed the onset of the slump he did experience at the very end of the season.
Garms’ controversial title would not immediately force a change in rules governing how championships were determined, but it served notice that guidelines were lacking. Two years later Ernie Lombardi was awarded the title based on less playing time than Garms’. Although his position as catcher probably helped being favorably considered, it is noteworthy that the closest mark to Lombardi’s .330 leading average was Enos Slaughter’s .318. If Slaughter had been recognized, his mark would have been the lowest to lead the league to that point in time. Rules for qualifications were ultimately changed, initially to 400 at bats, then to the present requirement of 3.1 plate appearances per game.
When queried about his father’s attitude toward this controversy, David Garms related that Debs had an almost detached attitude. Aside from recalling that Frisch had moved Garms to leadoff in order to garner more at bats, the elder Garms had little to say about his being awarded the championship. He seemed to be content to let others worry about the numbers while he concentrated on playing the game.
Garms went back to his ranch at Sunset, Texas, after the season, no doubt thinking a batting title might gain him a higher salary, which he could parlay into more livestock. He would spend time hunting, often with Hampton, who was then reputed to one of the best shots in Texas. When official averages were released in late December confirming that Garms won the title, reporters came out to his ranch and found him with Hampton, son David and Hampton’s parents who were helping to operate the ranch. Garms was harvesting a crop of corn and tending to livestock and explaining to reporters how he “seasoned” his bats by leaving them exposed in his yard during the winter.55
The same article noted there were rumors of the Pirates trading Garms. A week before, a similar comment was made in TSN, “…there is something brewing on Debs Garms…”56 While trade rumors came to naught, Garms believed they emanated from Larry MacPhail of the Dodgers.57
Despite his successful season, Garms came into the 1941 season without the guarantee of a regular position. “Debs Garms will play a lot,” commented Frisch, but in the same interview he announced his third baseman was Lee Handley and his outfielders were Vince DiMaggio, Bob Elliott and Maurice Von Robays.58
Garms’ position remained unsettled as the season opened. He played the first game of the season at third and sat out a few games. Over the next few weeks he played third, left field and pinch-hit until the middle of May when he tore the cartilage in his knee.59 He pinch-hit exclusively the following several weeks. Although Garms made three straight pinch hits in June, he was only hitting .209 the first week in July. Garms pinch-hit a single against the Cubs on July 6 which was to be the first of seven straight pinch hits. His sixth straight pinch-hit, a single against the Dodgers on July 25, set the major league record for consecutive pinch hits. The next day he pinch-hit a homer against the Dodgers for his seventh hit to add to his record. It gave Garms satisfaction that the record he broke was set by Hornsby in 1933. Curiously, while all papers, including the Sun-Telegraph made note of Garms’ seven straight pinch hits, none mentioned that he had broken Rogers Hornsby’s record. That home run would be the last of his major league career.
Garms’ record for consecutive pinch hits would subsequently be “lost.” In 1952 when Harry “Peanuts” Lowrey made seven straight pinch-hits he was credited with breaking Hornsby’s record of five straight hits, rather than tying Garms.60 In 1958 when Dave Philley made eight straight pinch hits, it was Lowrey’s record that was referred to, not Garms’.61 Several recent publications still note that Lowrey broke Hornsby’s mark. While baseball record keepers might not have known of his feat, Garms was perfectly aware of his accomplishment. In an interview with Pete Kendall of the Cleburne Times-Review in 1982, Garms mentioned breaking Hornsby’s record.62
The streak ended on August 3 when Garms unsuccessfully pinch-hit against the Giants. Beginning with his three consecutive hits in mid-June, Garms had gone ten-for-eleven as a pinch-hitter. Garms, hitting .316, reached his high water mark for the year; he eventually faded to a season-ending .264. The Pirates finished fourth again, a disappointment which triggered a look toward the future, based on younger players.
On December 5, 1941, the Pirates announced the sale of Garms to the St. Louis Cardinals, who assigned him to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League. In an interview with Doyle, Frisch explained he had numerous infield and outfield recruits and regulars; and at 34 Garms, while a good hitter, did not figure to “improve his defensive qualifications which were admitted by all managers to be below the major league standard.”63 The Pirates had finished dead last in fielding in the National League in 1941, and Garms was a part of that problem as evidenced by a sub-par .911 fielding percentage at third. Despite these drawbacks, a sense of regret encompassed the transaction. Garms was a solid hitter, especially when pinch-hitting, a popular player and contributed a positive attitude to the team with his competitive spirit.64
Garms was philosophical about his demotion. Contacted at his ranch Garms noted: “I’ve had my day and know it. Baseball is one game you can’t stay in until you are 99. Last year was my worst, but I had a pretty good average in pinch-hitting and I thought maybe Frisch might keep me for that.” He added he had no managerial ambitions and that he would not play in a league lower than A-1. “If I can’t play in any of the better leagues I will quit and retire out here on the farm. I’m just a farm boy at heart and like it.”
These comments reflected the essence of the man. Garms played the game of baseball with a passion obvious to all who competed with him, but he did not let the game control him as had happened with so many others. He had a life and interests outside baseball. Garms later told his son he was happy with his life in that he had been able to play baseball and be a rancher. His outlook on life was shared in a conversation with Hub Miller, a writer for Baseball Magazine:
“I know I’ll never be a great ballplayer or make a lot of money up here in the majors. At least I don’t think so. But I do have this ambition. I want to be able to stay around long enough to give my wife and family the things they ought to have. I want my boy to have a good education, which is something I didn’t get. I want my wife to be comfortable while we’re growing old together. Sure things go tough for you a lot of times in this game. But when I begin to get down a little I think of those things I just mentioned and I snap out of it in a hurry.”65
Being sold to the minors at age 34 after a poor season interrupted by injury normally does not auger well for a return to the majors. These were not normal times, however. Garms’ sale to the Solons was contracted on December 5, 1941. Two days later Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States went to war. Although not initially apparent, baseball like all American society was profoundly affected by World War II. The war would eventually bring Garms back to the major leagues.
In coming to the PCL, Garms was joining a league considered on a near par level with the majors. Pepper Martin was the manager of Sacramento. In Martin, Garms found a kindred spirit, and they soon became close friends. They both exhibited intense competitive desires in their play. Off the field they shared an affinity for music. Several articles noted that Garms, who specialized on the mouth harp, and Martin who played accordion, might assemble a Pacific Coast League version of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mudcat Band, a quartet that had regaled baseball fans in the late 1930s with their attempts at, rather than perfection of, musical pieces.66
The Solons had fifteen players who had been or would play in the majors. Blix Donnelly and Tony Freitas anchored their pitching staff. The offense was led by outfielder Buster Adams, who hit 27 home runs and catcher Ray Mueller, who drove in 102 runs. Garms hit .316 while driving in 96 runs and tied for the league lead in triples.
Sacramento led the league into July when the Los Angeles Angels passed them. The Solons stayed close, but by the last few days of the season they were two games behind with seven games left to play — all against the Angels. The Angels won the first two games to open up a four-game lead with five left to play. The following day they carried a 4-1 lead into the eighth only to lose it and the game in the ninth.
The next day in the first inning the Solons loaded the bases when Garms came to the plate and hit a grand slam homer. The Solons went on to win the game and sweep the rest of the series, winning the pennant by one game. In the ensuing playoffs, Garms singled in the winning run against the Seattle Rainiers to win the opening game; however, that would be the Solons’ last gasp as they lost the next four and were eliminated from postseason play.
Garms’ performance with the Solons was not lost on the Cardinals. David Garms said his father related that the Cardinals, locked in a tight pennant race with the Dodgers, had tried to recall Garms during the season. Solon President Phil Bartelme allegedly balked at losing one of his most valuable players in the thick of a pennant race, and the transaction was not made.67
If the Cardinals had need of Garms for the 1942 pennant race, their need for an experienced outfielder was more urgent in 1943. With the armed services expanding, guidelines for drafting individuals were broadened to meet the increased demand. Late in 1942 draft regulations expanded to include eighteen- and nineteen-year-old men. This change wiped out a whole class of potential major league players and forced teams to look elsewhere to fill their rosters. By the start of the 1943 season over 200 major leaguers were in the armed services. The Cardinal outfield had been particularly hard hit, shorn of two starters, Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter. As the war continued, it became clear older men who were exempt from the service would fill rosters.
To help fill their roster, the Cardinals transferred Garms from Sacramento to St. Louis. Garms had come full circle in returning to St. Louis, breaking in with the lowly Browns and now joining the World Champion Cardinals. Despite losing players to the military, the 1943 Cardinals were still deep in talent thanks to the largest farm system in baseball. Garms would join the Cardinals as a part-time player; despite this he viewed his seasons with them as the highlight of his career. For most of those years, he would be the oldest player on the team. He was the elder statesman or as one Cardinal historian described, a player who was,” “of the breed championship teams often need to achieve the right chemistry for a stretch drive.”68
While devoid of power with a mediocre average and just passable as a fielder, Garms was regarded as a steadying influence on younger players, impressing them with his attitude toward the game and desire to win as well as helping them develop their skills. Outfielder Danny Litwhiler specifically acknowledged Garms’ teaching him how to bunt, passing on skills he learned just a few years earlier from Casey Stengel.69 Always a decent person, Garms’ personality meshed with that of manager Billy Southworth, who Bill James described in his study of baseball managers as “quiet, warm and agreeable.”70 These terms could have applied equally as well to Garms.
Early in the 1943 season, stories in the press repeatedly mentioned that Garms was exceptionally fast and could outrun most of the Cardinals, a team known for their speed. Stan Musial’s autobiography recalls Garms, running and winning a race against New York Giant Johnny Rucker in the Polo Grounds, the outcome stunning not only the Giants but the Cardinals as well.71
The race was part of an effort to raise money for the National War Fund with the Cardinals and Giants staging several events between games of a doubleheader on June 30. One of the events was a 60-yard race. The Giants entered three players in the event including Rucker, who was considered the fastest runner in baseball. Garms represented the Cardinals. As they lined up, the 26-year-old Rucker assumed a standing position; Garms, hearkening back to his college experiences, took a sprinter’s starting stance.
The gun went off and Garms, never headed, beat Rucker by several feet. His announced time stunned the crowd. At 6.1 seconds he was a tenth of a second off the indoor world record. Subsequently, flabbergasted officials remeasured the course and found it was fifty-five, not the proscribed sixty yards long. This discovery barely lessened the image of a 36- year-old (then reported as 35) cigar-smoking ballplayer, in full uniform, besting one of the fastest men in the game. Garms later told his son that he was lucky it was a straight course as running the bases would not have favored his bad leg and that at sixty (or fifty-five) yards he had reached the distance his stamina allowed in keeping ahead of his competition. Word of Garms’ exploit was duly noted coast to coast by various newspapers.72
The Cardinals made a shambles of the 1943 pennant race, winning 105 games, beating the Reds by eighteen games. Musial had a breakout year winning his first batting title and Most Valuable Player Award, and Mort Cooper led the National League with twenty-one wins. In his role as a utility player, Garms filled in at third, left and right and on one occasion he even played shortstop. Showing he could still pinch-hit, he batted .300 coming off the bench. The Cardinals met the Yankees in the World Series and bowed to them in five games. Garms appeared in two games, going hitless in five at bats and making the last out of the Series.
The 1944 National League pennant race was almost identical to the 1943 season. The Cardinals again won 105 games, winning the pennant by fourteen and a half games. Garms, seeing less playing time, hit just hit .201. Just as the war allowed him to continue his big league career, it also allowed others to play who ordinarily would not have made the majors. Garms found himself in a game with such a player on June 10 when the Cardinals faced the Reds. With the Reds down 13-0, Reds manager Bill McKechnie decided to bring fifteen-year-old Joe Nuxhall in to pitch. Nuxhall had two outs when he walked Garms and realized the next batter he would face was Stan Musial. Losing his composure at the sight of Musial, he never did get the third out, giving up two hits, five walks and five runs before being taken out of the game.73 It would take eight years for Nuxhall to resume his major league career. Nuxhall remains to this day the youngest player to have ever appeared in a major-league game.
Unfortunately for Garms, the most memorable event of the season was another situation involving Musial when they collided on a play in the outfield. The impact stunned both players, knocking them to the ground. Garms later recalled that everyone ran out of the dugout to check on Musial while virtually ignoring him as he lay sprawled on the ground. It was a vivid reminder of their relative importance to the club. Garms suffered cuts above his eye, across his nose and bruises to his arms and legs. Musial hurt his right leg and ankle. Garms returned to the lineup in a few days. Musial was out for nine games; his absence cost him a 200-hit season and an outside chance at beating Dixie Walker for the batting title. Musial noted this incident in his autobiography, mentioning that Garms not being able to hear out of one ear might have caused the collision, a statement that left Garms puzzled as his hearing in both ears was perfect.74 75
On a lighter note, Garms’ eight-year-old son David began to “broadcast” for the Cardinals. David owned the “Ethan Allen All-Star Baseball Game” and, playing the board game while at the ballpark, began to “broadcast” his simulated games. His “announcing” was observed by several of the Cardinals and relayed to the radio announcers, who eventually invited David to call actual plays on the air. David enjoyed his job immensely, making subsequent appearances in the broadcasting booth. He still possesses a photo of him sitting on Dizzy Dean’s lap in front of a microphone as well as an article from a fan suggesting that he should replace Dean as broadcaster.76
Both Garms and Musial recovered to play in the World Series against Garms’ old team, the Browns. This time the Cardinals would prevail in a tough six-game series. Garms went hitless, appearing twice as a pinch hitter. Receiving a winner’s share of the proceeds, just in excess of $4,600, made up for any regrets over his lack of performance in the Series. The Cardinals were World Champions; it would be Garms biggest thrill in baseball. With earnings from the series, Garms was able to present Hampton a more appropriate wedding ring than he was able to afford when they married.77
While Garms’ performance in 1944 was substandard, the overall level of play continued to drop as more players were drafted into the service. This development ensured Garms’ return for the 1945 season. The Cardinals arranged for his knee to be operated on by Dr. Robert F. Hyland a week after the season ended, demonstrating their belief that he was a valued team member. Although late in Garms’ career, the operation corrected a problem he had dealt with intermittently for several seasons.
Unlike 1944, the 1945 season for the Cardinals was disappointing. In January they lost Musial to the Navy. Morale of the team was also affected when manager Billy Southworth’s son Billy Jr. lost his life in the crash of a military flight at Flushing Bay, New York in February 1945. After the crash, repeated attempts were made to recover Southworth’s body. Whenever the Cardinals visited New York, Southworth went out on the Bay in attempts to find his son’s body. It was a mark of his relationship with Garms, that Southworth asked Garms to accompany him on these journeys.78
The 1945 Cardinals finished second to the Cubs. Garms, who believed Musial was the best ballplayer he ever had played with, thought his absence cost the Cardinals their fourth straight pennant. Toward the end of the season as the war was ending and it became clear veterans would return to play in 1946; Southworth called Garms into his office and asked if Garms wanted to manage in the Cardinal farm system. Despite knowing he would be released after the season, Garms declined Southworth’s offer He later recalled, “I didn’t like traveling. The main thing I liked about baseball was playing it. I didn’t want to be away from home anymore after I quit playing.”79 In his last season, Garms hit .336 in 74 games, pinch-hitting at a .385 pace. Although he had not played enough to qualify, his .336 batting average would have placed him third in the league.
Garms’ last major league game was on September 25. Called on to pinch-hit in the eighth inning, he hit a run-scoring triple against the Cubs. It was Garms’ 54th career pinch-hit, then placing him sixth all-time; his .273 pinch-hitting average placed him fifth all-time. Playing in just over 1,000 games, he finished his career with a .293 average. He was released that December. Garms would have retired to his ranch except for the pleas of Pepper Martin that he come back for one more season to play, this time with the San Diego Padres in the PCL.
Garms warned Martin that he could no longer throw (he described a three- hop throw to third from right as his best effort), and the rest of his game was not up to par. Nevertheless, Martin wanted him so Garms joined the Padres in 1946. It was not a happy experience. The Padres were a sub-.500 club, and Martin faced disciplinary problems throughout the season.80 Garms hit an undistinguished .270 while playing third and the outfield. During the season Garms was taken ill, and doctors diagnosed a possible heart attack. Although that prognosis was never verified, Garms was told to give up smoking. He was soon back in the lineup — and experiencing a new diet thanks to the firm intervention of Hampton. Toward the end of the season he decided to retire. Shortly after he made this decision, Garms fell victim to the hidden ball trick. It confirmed his decision to retire was right.
Garms play in the PCL benefited at least one player. When Garms told Southworth of his intention to play in the PCL, Southworth asked Garms to keep his eye on ballplayers that might have potential with the Cardinals. Garms was impressed with the play of Seattle first baseman Earl Torgeson and let Southworth know of his observation. Garms’ tip helped encourage Southworth to bring Torgeson to the majors, where he enjoyed a long career.
So Garms retired, purchasing a ranch at Glen Rose, Texas. Unlike many ballplayers, Garms was exceptionally grounded; baseball was a phase in, rather than a definition of, his life. Occasionally he received offers to coach. One was made by Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, but nothing could persuade him off his spread until the 1950s when a severe drought forced him to initially sell some of his acreage and cattle, then, as conditions worsened, sell his ranch and move into town in 1959. There, he worked as foreman for a lime quarry operation, eventually serving on the school board for Glen Rose Independent School District.
In the 1960s as Major League Baseball came to Houston, Garms attended a few Colt .45 games.81 He was able to connect with Musial after a game, and he saw Joe Nuxhall pitch for the Reds toward the end of his career, which had began twenty years earlier when the then fifteen year-old faced Garms in his first major league game.
Garms became a favorite of local sport writers in the Glen Rose area, reminiscing about players he had faced or played with, “Grove and Mungo were the fastest, Dean had pinpoint control” or commenting on how players could improve their game. Speaking of Texas Rangers outfielder, Mickey Rivers in a 1976 interview, “…If Rivers could bunt, there’d be no telling what he would hit. He’s so fast.”82 Additionally, during his interviews Garms always advocated Hack Wilson for the Hall of Fame because of his tremendous season in 1930 when he drove in a major league record 191 runs. Garms was ultimately gratified when Wilson made the Hall in 1979.
During interviews, Garms did not confine himself to just baseball. One interviewer noted he spent more time talking about country and western singer Marty Robbins than in describing his career. The interviewer further observed that Garms, while willing to talk about other players “wouldn’t brag on himself.”83
He was also interviewed for the local high school newspaper. After outlining Garms’ career, correspondent Mike Allen described Garms in retirement:
“Most days students can see Mr. Garms out working his yard, making sure it meets his meticulous standards. He has served on the school board here, back when his son David was a student. The plaque on the front of the high school bears evidence that he was a member of the board that built the present high school.”84
At about this time, he became acquainted with Jim Gibbs, whose family were members of the same church the Garmses attended. Gibbs, who later went on to a career as a journalist, eagerly sought Garms out to talk baseball or help him with his game. Gibbs recalled Garms advising him that:
“What you want to do is to watch the ball all the way into your bat,” he said. “It’s an interesting sight to see because, when I was playing, I would watch the ball meet the bat and you could see the ball flatten out a little bit as it connected with the bat. And then, once you did that, you could put the ball anywhere you wanted it.”
Gibbs also recalled Garms’ abiding interest in the current game. Once after church he approached Garms to talk about a no-hitter thrown by a Kansas City Royal (probably Jim Colborn). “Man I would hate to face that guy,” Gibbs stated. Garms replied very matter-of-factly, “Really? I’d LOVE to face that guy. You see, Jim, the tougher the pitcher, the better it seemed I hit against him because I was concentrating that much harder.” He also said he wished he could have batted against Nolan Ryan. “It would be fun to try to break up one of Ryan’s no-hitters. It would have also been interesting to compare him to Vander Meer. Is he a better pitcher? Hard to say without stepping into the box against him.”85
Garms’ possible heart attack in 1946 notwithstanding, his health had remained good over the years. David recalled coming to visit his dad on his seventieth birthday. Arriving at Debs’ house and coming up the walkway David heard his name called out. Looking up he saw his dad, still spry, high in an oak tree pruning away dead branches. Several years later however, while watching a ballgame on TV, Debs asked his son a question about a play that confused him. It was the first inkling David had that things were not right. Debs was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mercifully, the disease moved quickly. A little over a year later on December 16, 1984, the seventy-seven-year-old Garms passed away.86 Hampton, who had withstood her own illnesses to take care of Debs, joined him less than a year later.
Stories noting the passing of a National League batting champion invariably focused on his career accomplishments but occasionally caught the essence of the man. In one article former major leaguer Bobby Bragan, who had played against Garms, was asked for comment. After describing Garms’ abilities, Bragan noted that “He was soft-spoken and everybody respected him.”87
Years earlier, baseball writer Chilly Doyle wrote a piece for the Sun-Telegraph extolling the ability of Stan Musial, who had grown up in Donora, near Pittsburgh. After describing Musial’s skills, Doyle then asked himself the question, “Who’s Your Favorite Ballplayer?” Doyle, who covered major league baseball for over forty years, noting that his favorite player was no longer with the Pirates, went on to say:
“My boy probably will not make the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, yet if humility, mother of all virtues, were a prime requisite Debs Garms would be in. Debs is the type of player that is satisfied to get his name in the box score and let it go at that. In the seven years I have known him I have not heard Garms say anything worse than ‘gol ding it.’ His clean speech is in contrast to that of some scattered players who are not even careful of their talk in the clubhouse and when women and girls are seated in nearby boxes. Yet there is no fireball pitcher in the game who can make little Debs flinch at the plate.”88
Doyle was right; Garms did not make the Cooperstown Hall of Fame; however in 2004 he was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony Garms’ career exploits were recounted. His induction was reported in various local Texas newspapers. Upon reading about the induction of Garms, a friend of David Garms called to congratulate him on his father’s posthumous induction into the Hall. David knew nothing of the induction. Subsequently, however, upon contacting the Hall, a special ceremony was arranged by officials for David and his family. At the event, David was given a painting of Debs. The painting was based a photograph of Garms weathering his bats at his ranch after the 1940 season when he led the major leagues in batting. He was able to play the game he loved, follow a vocation he desired, raise a family and earn the respect of all along the way.
Read Greg Erion’s account of his research on Debs Garms’s life and career in “Debs Garms, the BioProject, and I,” from the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal.
1 Thom, John, Champion Batsmen of the 20th Century, (Los Angeles: Bat & Ball Press, 1983) 53-54.
2 The five: Rogers Hornsby, Bill McKechnie, Casey Stengel, Frankie Frish and Billy Southworth.
3 Interviews with David Garms on August 29-30, 2006
5 Trinkle, Jim, “The Name is Debs,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 22, 1972
6 All minor league statistics for Garms are courtesy of Ray Nemec
7 Because of poor attendance the Spudders moved from Wichita Falls to Longview in May 1932.
8 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
9 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
10 Alexander, Charles C., Rogers Hornsby: A Biography, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998) 187.
11 Pete Kendall, “Debs Will Never Forget ‘Rog’” Cleburne Times-Review, April 25, 1982.
12 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
13 Edward J. Neil, “Plate Power Demanded of Browns,” Washington Post, March 12, 1935, 18, 20.
14 Dick Farrington, “Hornsby Seeks New Owner for Browns,” The Sporting News, May 30, 1935, 1, 2.
15 Burnes, Bob, “Baltimore Orioles” in The American League, ed. Ed Fitzgerald, 216, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955.
16 “George Blaeholder Dies; Pitched 11 Years in A.L.,” The Sporting News, January 7, 1948.
17 Phone interview with David Garms on May 20, 2007.
18 “Hornsby Seeks New Owner for Browns,” The Sporting News, May 24, 1935
19 The Boston Braves were known as the Bees for the 1936-1940 seasons.
20 Various articles. The Sporting News, June 22, July 1, September 2, 1937.
21 Goldman, Steven, Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2005).
22 Dick Farrington, “Casey’s Hints Aided Holmes,” The Sporting News, December 7, 1944, 5, 6.
23 Litwhiler, Danny, Danny Litwhiler, Living the Baseball Dream, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006) 176.
24 Vic Stout “Couple of Bees Due to Buzz Elsewhere,” May 12, 1938.
25 New York Times, May 9, 1938
26 “Bauers Yields One Hit but Bees Beat Pirates 1-0.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 18, 1938.
27 “Shoffner Hits With Two on to Defeat Bryant” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 23, 1938.
28 “Garms, With McFadden Top Reds in 11th, 2-1.” New York Times, May 26, 1938.
29 Vic Stout, “Debs Had Ticket to Bush League,” June 1, 1938.
30 Goldman, 177.
31 Dave Anderson, “Vander Meer Held His Breath,” New York Times, July 10, 1983, 6.
32 New York Times, 20 June 1938.
33 Pete Kendall, “Deb will Never Forget ‘Rog’,” Cleburne Times-Review, April 25, 1982.
34 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, January 4, 1940.
35 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, March 4, 1940.
37 Vic Stout “Debs Had Ticket to Bush League” June 1, 1938 and “The Bees Only .300 Hitter of 1938” Baseball Magazine, February 1939.Clifford Bloodgood.
38 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 12, 1940.
39 San Angelo Standard Times, June 21, 1981.
40 Parker, Clifton Blue, Big and Little Poison: Paul and Lloyd Waner, Baseball’s Brothers, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, In., 2003)
41 Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 19, July 5, 6, 21, 25, August 1, 1940.
42 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006
43 Interview with Bobby Bragan on November 21, 2007.
44 Larry Doyle led the league at .320 in 1915 and Tony Gwynn would subsequently lead the National League in batting in 1988 with a National League all-time low .313 average.
45 “Low 1940 Batting Averages,” New York Times, September 14, 1940.
46 “Just a Joke,’ Says Diz Dean of N.L.,” Washington Post, September 18, 1940.
47 “Batting Slump Hits Both Majors,” The Sporting News, September 20, 1940.
48 John Lardner, “Who’s N.L.’s best hitter? Read on and be surprised.” San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 1940.
49 Shirley Povich, “To Whom It May Concern:” Washington Post, September 15, 1940
50 Harry Keck, “National League’s Times-at-Bat Myth Exploded by McKechnie’s Curiosity,” Pittsburg Sun-Telegraph, September 21, 1940
51 “Garms Given O.K. in Batting Race,” Washington Post, September 19, 1940.
52 “Hitting Crown: Garms May Beat Out Joe D’Mag,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 1940.
53 New York Times, September 16, 1940
54 Bob Ray, “The Sports X-Ray,” Los Angeles Times, December 30, 1940.
55 Charles J. Doyle, “Rancher Debs Hardens Himself and His Bats With Outdoor Life,” The Sporting News, December 26, 1940.
56 “Mingling with the Majors at Chicago,” The Sporting News, December 19, 1940.
57 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006
58 “Frisch Checks In at San Bernardino Camp,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1941.
59 “Elliot Beaned, DiMaggio Suffers Charley Horse in St. Louis,” The Sporting News, May 29, 1941 and Pete Kendall, “Debs Will Never Forget ‘Rog’,” Cleburne Times-Review, April 25, 1982.
60 “Peanuts Sets Major Mark — Seven Pinch Hits in Row,” The Sporting News, June 18, 1952.
61 “Philley’s Eight Pinch Blows in a Row Set Major Record,” The Sporting News, October 8, 1958.
62 Kendall, “Debs Will Never Forget ‘Rog.”
63 Charles J. Doyle, “1940 Batting Champ Sold by Pirates to Coast Club,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, December 5, 1941 and The Sporting News, December 11, 1941.
64 The Pirates would fall under .500 to fifth place in 1942.
65 Hub Miller, “The Women’s Influence in Baseball,” Baseball Magazine, July 1945, 266. Son David did get a good education graduating from Texas Christian University and embarked on a career as a research chemist & engineer.
66 The Sporting News, April 15, 1942 and Barthel, Thomas, Pepper Martin, A Baseball Biography,(Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 171.
67 Garms, August 29 & 30, 2006.
68 Borst, Bill, The Best of Seasons: The 1944 St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995) 277.
69 Danny Litwhiler, Living the Baseball Dream, 176.
70 James, Bill, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today, (New York: Scribner, 1997), 115.
71 Musial, Stan as told to Bob Broeg, Stan Musial: “The Man’s” Own Story, (NewYork: Doubleday & Company, 1964) 272.
72 “Giants Top Cards in Tenth, Then Bow in Nightcap of Benefit Doubleheader,” The New York Times, July 1, 1943 and Braven Dyer, “The Sports Parade,” Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1943.
73 Mead, William B., Even The Browns: The Zany, True Story of Baseball in the Early Forties (Chicago: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1978), 206.
74 Musial, Stan Musial: “The Man’s” Own Story, 272.
75 Interviews with David Garms on August 29-30, 2006. Garms’ comment to his son after reading Musial’s biography.
78 Billy Southworth Jr.’s body eventually washed ashore in August 1945 and was buried with appropriate military honors.
79 Kendall, “Debs Will Never Forget ‘Rog.”
80 Barthel, Thomas, Pepper Martin, A Baseball Biography, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 183-184.
81 From 1962 through 1964 the Houston Astros were known as the Houston Colt .45s.
82 Kirk Dooley, “He had an eye for the ol’ ball,” undated, article from David Garms’ file.
83 Pete Kendall, “Garms to be honored in adopted home town.” Cleburne Times-Review, undated.
84 Mike Allen, “Major League Player Lives Here,” Glen Rose Tigers, February 15, 1979.
85 Emails from Jim Gibbs, December 17, 2007.
86 Garms on August 29-30, 2006.
87 Peter Townsend, “Garms: ‘One of the best hitters,’ Bragan recalls,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, D mber 17, 1984.
88 Charles J. Doyle, “Chilly Sauce” untitled, undated column from the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. Article supplied from the file of David Garms.