Among the 17 spitball pitchers exempted when the pitch was banned, Doc Ayers was unique. He was the only one who hurled with an underhand motion. Several newspaper accounts from his playing days refer to him as pitching underhand, which was exceedingly rare among spitball pitchers. An article in the Washington Post stated that “Ayers is one of the most peculiar pitchers in the business. His greatest asset is an underhand ball which he shoves up from his shoe tops, about the same style as Carl Mays of the Boston Red Sox. He hasn’t a great curve ball, but has a fast one that is mighty hard to get hold of.”
Yancey Wyatt Ayers was born in southwestern Virginia, near Fancy Gap in Carroll County on May 20, 1890, the son of Mary Sheppard and Jefferson Davis Ayers, a livestock trader. When he was a student at nearby Woodlawn High School, he tried out for the baseball team. As he was big for his age, with powerful arms and shoulders, he aspired to be a catcher. He did not make the grade as a backstop, but he loved the game and determined to find a spot where he could play. In 1911 he enrolled in the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond (now a part of Virginia Commonwealth University.) While there he bought a book on pitching, and when the call came for baseball tryouts he reported as a pitcher. He made the team and pitched for the college during the spring of 1912. At the end of the spring term a scout for the Richmond club of the Virginia League signed him. He left college to become a professional baseball player. However, because of his stint in medical school the nickname “Doc” stuck with him.
The young man had a very successful rookie season, winning 25 games for the Richmond Colts in the Class C Virginia League in his very first year in Organized Baseball. At the end of the season, Richmond sold him to the Washington Nationals. The next spring Washington manager Clark Griffith ordered Ayers to report to the Nationals’ training camp in Charlottesville. Doc refused to report on the designated date, apparently wanting to complete another school term first. Griffith and baseball officialdom cracked down on the reluctant hurler. The Washington Post reported: “Manager Griffith announced tonight that he had recommended to President Ban Johnson of the American League that Doc Ayers, the Richmond hurler, who has refused to report here despite orders, be placed on the ineligible list. There is no question but that the American League president has already complied with the request. This means that Ayers will be forced to pay a $100 fine before he is allowed to join the Nationals or any other professional team. The Old Dominion city boy is touted as one of the likeliest looking pitchers that has ever worked in the Virginia State League, and there is no question that he made a serious mistake in not agreeing to forsake his studies in order to take a chance in the big league, where he might have made his fortune.”
The league decided not to fine him for reporting late, and Ayers was optioned back to Richmond. On May 3 he made his first appearance of the 1913 season, winning a two-hit shutout over Norfolk 2-0. Evidently, missing spring training did not diminish his effectiveness. Doc was the best pitcher in the league that year, with a league-leading 29 wins, and he also led the circuit in winning percentage at .784 and in strikeouts with 390, averaging well over a strikeout per inning pitched. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 13 to one. On July 27 and 29, 1913, he won three games in two playing days. In a Saturday doubleheader he pitched five scoreless innings in the first game and nine in the second game, winning both, putting Portsmouth down without a run in 14 innings. As no games were played on Sunday, the next playing day was Monday. Ayers came in a game against Norfolk in the ninth inning with the score tied 2-2. He held the opposition scoreless for three innings until Richmond won the game in the eleventh. That gave him a total of 17 shutout innings in two days.
Ayers made his major league debut with the Washington Nationals on September 9, 1913. He appeared in four games that fall, winning one and losing one. Washington finished second to the Philadelphia Athletics, the eventual World Series winners. Had it not been for a meltdown by his team’s defense, he would have won his first major league start. As Charles Faber has written:
“If the young man who took the mound that September afternoon in 1913 at the American League Park in the nation’s capital was nervous, he had a right to be. Called up after a sensational season with the Richmond Colts in the Virginia League, he was making his first major league appearance at the age of 23 with only two years of experience in the lower minors. Although he had mowed down the opposition with ease for the Colts, he knew there was a great difference in the caliber of hitters he had faced in the lowly Class C circuit and those who toiled in the major leagues. However, any nervousness manifested in the game was exhibited by his supporting cast, not by the young spitballer. Doc, as he was called, pitched well, allowing only five hits in seven innings, three of which were flukes. Not a run should have been scored off him. In the seventh inning the home team’s defense fell apart. Misplays came thick and fast. The opposing St. Louis Browns scored five unearned runs in that inning alone, seven in the game as the Washington fielders committed a total of seven errors. The Washington Post reported: ‘The Nationals staged their worst exhibition of the season at the Georgia avenue grounds yesterday afternoon.’ The young pitcher was tagged with an undeserved defeat. Undaunted, he came back a few days later to shut out the Philadelphia Athletics on four hits to gain his first major league victory. Admittedly, the Mackmen had already clinched the American League pennant and were resting some of their regulars, but the win served notice that Doc Ayers was on his way.”
During his sophomore season in the majors, Doc was involved in a very unusual play. In 1914 one of the bitterest rivalries in baseball was between his Washington team and the World Champion Philadelphia Athletics. On April 29 Doc Ayers entered the contest at a critical time. The Washington pitcher, Joe Engel, had been pitching well, going into the sixth inning with a 3-1 lead. In the bottom of that frame Eddie Collins led off with a walk. Successive hits by Frank “Home Run” Baker, Stuffy McInnis, and Amos Strunk followed. Collins and Baker scored to tie the game at 3-3 and knock Engel out of the game. In came the rookie, Doc Ayers, with runners on second and third, nobody out, and Jack Barry at the plate. The A’s were famous for executing the double squeeze, and Barry was one of the best bunters in the game. Few teams attempt the double squeeze, but the A’s were experts at it. As the pitcher winds up, both runners take a flying start, so when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand the runner on third is almost home and the runner who was originally on second has already passed third base. If the batter puts down a perfect bunt, both runners will score. On the first pitch by Ayers, the Athletics attempted the double squeeze, but Barry fouled off the pitch. Washington’s catcher John Henry did not expect the A’s to try the double squeeze again, but just to be safe he called for a waste pitch, wanting it so far outside that it would be impossible to hit. Again the A’s were off and running. The pitch came in high and outside, but not quite far enough outside. Barry reached out and hit a low liner toward first base. Chick Gandil raced in, caught the ball in the air, and threw it to third baseman Eddie Foster, who relayed the ball to George McBride at second base. Both runners were caught off base for a triple play. Young Doc Ayers had thrown two pitches and had gotten three outs. Doc won the game 6-4, but the rest of the season was a bit of a disappointment as he finished by winning only 11 games while losing 15.
In 1915 Ayers lived up to the promise that had been seen in him. During a spring exhibition game against the Brooklyn Robins he struck out eight consecutive batters. This was his best year in the majors. He won 14 games against 9 losses, had an excellent earned run average of 2.21, ranked fourth in the American League in fewest base runners allowed per nine innings, and compiled the fifth lowest batting average by opponents.
Late in the spring of 1916 Ayers suffered a badly sprained thumb, which kept him out of action for much of the season. During the layoff he allowed himself to get out of shape, bulking up to 200 pounds, 15 pounds above his normal playing weight. When he did return to the mound, he did not pitch with his usual effectiveness. At this time Doc was living on a farm near Hillsville, Virginia. During the off-season he worked himself back into shape, and lost the excess weight. The contract offered to him for 1917 called for a decrease in salary, based on his poor 1916 performance. Doc held out briefly, but in late February he and manager Clark Griffith reached a compromise. A bonus clause was inserted in Doc’s contract, providing that if the pitcher won a certain number of games in 1917 he would receive additional money. No figures were released.
Ayers won 11 games in 1917 and 10 games in the war-shortened 1918 season. As Doc had a wife and a child, he was deferred from the draft. It was expected that he would join some of his teammates at the Alexandria Shipbuilding Company. Instead, he returned to Carroll County to work on his farm during the off-season.
In 1919 Doc got off to a terrible start with the Nationals, losing all six of his decisions. On June 25 the Washington club traded Ayers to the Detroit Tigers for Eric Erickson, a young Swedish-born pitcher who was believed to have lots of potential. Erickson did not meet expectations in the nation’s capital, winning only 30 games in his four years in Washington. However, that was 18 victories more than Doc was able to garner for Detroit. His nine-year major league career ended in May 1921.
The Sporting News printed a rather odd article about Doc’s departure from the major leagues:
“The Detroit club last week asked waivers on Doc Ayres [sic], and no one claimed him, the waiver price being $4000 these days and thereby more than one good man slipping by. Ayers in his sojourn with the Tigers more than earned his pay, but with a new pitching staff Cobb will not need him as a stop-gap. In Dr. Ayers’ retirement from baseball…the game loses one of its finest gentlemen, with manners and character that set him apart from the run of fellows. Having dentistry as a profession to fall back on the Doc, after 10 years of big league service, probably will return to his Virginia home and forget about baseball for the business of fixing teeth.”
Ayers did not retire from baseball at that point, but pitched nearly three more years in the minors. He had moderate success in the Double A American Association before retiring in 1923, winning ten or more games each year.
However, what is unusual in the Sporting News piece is the reference to dentistry. Charles Faber has seen no other linkages of Doc to that profession, and it is almost certain that he was never a dentist. Some sportswriters were fascinated by the fact that Doc had attended medical school, and references to him as a physician are routine in the writings of the times. Some writers had already conferred the M. D. degree upon him.
For example, a 1917 report in the Washington Post read as follows: “Dr. Yancey Wyatt Ayers, the Nationals’ underhand flinger, is in Washington, coming here from his mountain home in Hillsville, Va., for the express purpose of unraveling the tangle now existing between him and Manager Griffith over a contract for 1917. Just what the final settlement will be is strictly a matter of conjecture. The Hillsville M. D. and his boss will be closeted today, when it is expected that an amicable agreement will be reached.”
Writing in the Washington Post about a game in Boston also in 1917, J. V. Fitzgerald penned these lines: “Doc Ayers is a real honest-to-goodness doctor in the making. After today he can play physician as often as he likes to the world’s champion Red Sox. The prescription he handed them in the seventh inning of the game with the Nationals at Fenway Park this afternoon pulled them out of the sick bed of defeat and put them on the road to rapid recovery. It read ‘Two runs to be filled at once,’ and that was enough to yield the Red Sox a 5 to 4 victory over the Griffmen. In the first six innings Physician Ayers didn’t hold out much hope for the Red Sox. In that time he was acting as chief surgeon for the Nationals and making a good job of it with the aid of the Griffmen themselves. Had he kept at his task instead of helping the ailing Red Sox, all would have been well. But a doctor is bound to answer the call of distress and Ayers, as becomes his profession, answered the sick summons. He prescribed the most curing of all ills pills for a baseball club and the Red Sox took them as good children are supposed to take sugar-coated pellets and cry for more. His prescription was in the form of five bases on balls and these coupled with a sacrifice hit that the sickly, at the time, Red Sox injected to help themselves in their recovery, made for two runs, and the game.”
One leading baseball researcher, Tom Hufford, knew Doc Ayers personally. He wrote that to his knowledge Ayers never practiced either medicine or dentistry. Doc was a part-time farmer, who managed or coached a semipro team in Pulaski, Virginia, in the mid-1920s, and worked as an automobile salesman for various Pulaski car dealerships for the next 35-40 years or so.
In 1914 Doc married Elizabeth Brown Dunlap at the home of a Methodist minister in Pulaski. According to Hufford, Doc purchased a farm near Draper in Pulaski County, where the couple lived the rest of their lives in a big white frame house. Their son Yancey Wyatt Ayers Jr. was born about 1917, and a daughter Nancy was born about 1923. The 1920 U. S. census for Pulaski County listed Doc as a farmer; the 1930 census showed his occupation as automobile salesman.
Yancey Ayers died in a hospital in Pulaski, Virginia, on May 26, 1968. He, his wife, and their son are buried in a family cemetery on his farm, which lies along a frontage road alongside I-81, just west of the State Route 99 exit to Pulaski. Although there is no name sign on the cemetery, it is sometimes called the Grantham Cemetery.
This article is adapted from a chapter on Doc Ayers in Charles F. Faber and Richard B. Faber, Spitballers: The Last Legal Hurlers of the Wet One (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2006).
Personal correspondence Tom Hufford to Charles F. Faber, July 19, 2004
Billy Evans, “An Unusual Performance,” Harper’s Weekly, 58 (May 23, 1914.)
The Sporting News
The United States Census of Population, 1920, 1930.
Yancey Wyatt Ayers
May 21, 1891 at Snake Creek, VA (USA)
May 26, 1968 at Pulaski, VA (USA)
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