Red Downs

This article was written by R. J. Lesch

“Liquor has put me out for the third time,” said Jerome Willis “Red” Downs to a police detective upon his arrest for armed robbery in 1932. “First, it caused me to lose a place in the big league, where I might, by this time, have been a successful manager. The second time it threw me out of the Coast League. And now it’s got me into this jam.” [1]

Downs was born on August 22, 1883. Most sources give his birthplace as Neola, Iowa. Jerry Clark (author of Anson to Zuber: Iowa Boys in the Major Leagues) puts Downs’s place of birth as Downsville, a nearby town which no longer exists but, according to Clark, had been founded by Downs’s grandfather. Downs’s father, Willis, was a liveryman who co-owned a stable in Neola and was on Neola’s City Council the year Neola was founded in 1882 [2]. This would appear to support the Neola birthplace.

No matter where Jerry first sprang into the world, he soon settled into life on Fifth Street in Neola with his parents, Willis and Emily, his sister Jessie May, and his uncle Albert [3]. Neola was a small town of barely 200 residents, but it produced a lively town ball team which competed effectively with clubs of all levels across western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. After a tough loss to Omaha’s Western Association ballclub in 1900, the Omaha Bee wrote, “Those same pumpkin rollers from the town of Neola acquitted themselves quite admirably and the professional team … had to play ball clear to the limit to capture the victory.” The Neola Erins claimed the unofficial western Iowa championship in 1899, and then posted a 16-6 record in 1900.

Downs and fellow redhead James Morgan alternated between the mound and shortstop for Neola in both years. Both would eventually reach the major leagues. The club also featured future minor-league standouts Bill Zing and Fred Steele.

Downs played the first half of the 1901 season for Neola, and then caught the attention of the Fort Scott, Arkansas, club. Fort Scott joined the new Missouri Valley League in 1902, with Downs on the squad that year and 1903. Downs had a preseason trial with Omaha of the Western League in 1904, but did not catch on and returned to Fort Scott for the regular season. He bumped up to Guthrie (Oklahoma) of the Western Association in 1905, then to the pennant-winning Topeka White Sox of the Western Association in 1906, where he led the league with nine home runs.

The Detroit Tigers brought him up for his first big-league action in 1907. He debuted on May 2 in center field between Matty McIntyre and Ty Cobb, and collected a single in four at-bats. He took over the starting second base job from Germany Schaefer and held it through most of the season. His batting average of .219 was lackluster even by the low-hitting standards of the day, however, and his fielding, never his strong suit, was error-ridden. Schaefer reclaimed second base and held it through the 1907 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, while Downs watched from the bench.

Downs returned to second base midway through his second year with the Tigers. He started there for each of the first two games of the 1908 World Series, a rematch against the Cubs. He went one for six in his only Fall Classic experience. His lone hit was a double during the Tigers’ three-run seventh inning in Game One. After Detroit dropped the first two games, however, Jennings moved Schaefer back to second base and Downs to the bench, where they remained for the final three games.

The Chicago White Sox acquired Downs during the offseason. He boarded the club’s train to California for 1909 training camp, but when the train stopped in North Platte, Nebraska, en route, Downs did not reboard the train with the rest of the club [4]. Instead, Downs spent 1909 with Minneapolis of the American Association. Downs played every day, improved defensively, and earned praise from manager Jimmy Collins, who called Downs the best infielder in the AA [5]. The big leagues beckoned again: Millers owner Mike Cantillon sold Downs to Washington, managed by Cantillon’s brother Joe. Downs was called east for the final few games of the 1909 AL season, but Downs declined, choosing instead to return home to Iowa rather than to make the long trip east for a few games.

Jimmy McAleer, replacing Cantillon at Washington’s helm, was less impressed by Downs, and instead opted for veteran infield help. Washington released Downs to Columbus [6], where he played the next two seasons. Downs blossomed as a hitter, and became one of the anchors of the Columbus “Steamroller Offense” along with Bunk Congalton, George Perring, and Bill Hinchman [7]. Downs’s 1910 season ended a few games early; on September 17, not long after collecting six hits in six at-bats in a game against Indianapolis, Downs was struck in the head by a pitch. He returned, playing first base for a time, in 1911, and regained his batting eye.

Brooklyn took Downs in the September 1911 draft, and he was projected to start at second base [8]. One month into the 1912 season, after getting Red into only nine games, Brooklyn changed its mind. The Superbas either sold Downs to Chicago for cash [9] or released him outright to be picked up by the Cubs [10], depending on the source. With the Cubs, Downs found himself in action immediately, filling at shortstop for the injured Joe Tinker, then at second base. “Jerry Downs is proving a good substitute for Johnny Evers,” wrote The Sporting Life on August 3, 1912. “The lad can bat some.”

Over the winter, the Cubs released Downs to Indianapolis [11]. In June, after a solid start, Downs was dealt to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, where he would spend the next five years [12]. Downs hit well, though his fielding was occasionally erratic, and was a key player for the 1915 PCL pennant winners. Seals manager Harry Wolverton named him field captain in June 1916 [13].
Downs earned another promotion midway through the 1917 season. Club owner Henry Berry fired Wolverton abruptly in June, even though Wolverton had the Seals atop the standings again. Berry named himself manager at first, but relinquished increasing control to Downs until, by August, Downs was the manager. The Seals suffered injuries and dissension, but clinched the 1917 PCL pennant on the final day of the season, taking a doubleheader from Oakland, despite a furious challenge from Doc Crandall’s Los Angeles club [14].

The 1918 campaign went poorly, however, as Downs found himself battling new Seals owner Charles Graham. “Graham has been anxious to have full charge,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, noting that “Graham has virtually managed the club, with Jerry playing a deep-thinking part.” In light of Downs’s own comments at the beginning of this article, it is possible to speculate that Downs might have succumbed to the bottle during this period, and that Graham might have been stepping in for reasons other than personal ego. However, there is no direct evidence of this.

Downs resigned from the Seals on July 1, leaving them in Graham’s hands in fourth place. “I’m tired of baseball,” Downs declared, “and I want a rest, so I have quit.” He added, “I may go into the automobile game,” referring to his off-season sales job. However, five days later Downs signed with the Los Angeles Angels [15] and joined that team for its stretch run as it captured the PCL pennant during the war-shortened 1918 season. Downs was in the lineup as the Angels defeated Vernon five games to two in the postseason championship series, which took place at the end of July.

Downs maintained connections with baseball, hoping to land another managerial job. He was an instructor at the “National College of Baseball” in Burbank, California, in 1922, along with “Death Valley Jim” Scott and Sam Crawford [16]. Two years later, after chipping in with ten other ballplayers to provide a funeral for a former colleague, Downs helped organize the Professional Ball Players of America. The organization carried on for a number of years, assisting ill and needy former ballplayers [17], and Downs served as a Director of the organization through 1925.

The next time Downs made headlines, it wasn’t for baseball. In March 1932, Downs and another man, armed with pistols, robbed the Everard Jewelry Store in Los Angeles’s Biltmore Hotel, making off with $52,000 in jewelry. They were arrested a week later, and Downs confessed to the robbery.
On June 25, 1932, Downs entered San Quentin, sentenced to five years to life for first-degree robbery [18]. He served about three and a half years, during which time he resumed his association with baseball by heading up the prison baseball team [19]. He was paroled on the condition that his uncle Albert in Council Bluffs could provide him with work, which Albert did [20].

Red Downs died in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on October 19, 1939. His death certificate gave the cause of death as cirrhosis of the liver. He is buried in Row 82 of Neola Township Cemetery, Pottawattamie County, Neola Township, Iowa.


Many thanks to Cappy Gagnon for pointing me toward the two Reds from Neola (Downs and Morgan). Thanks also to Dick Beverage, David Nemec, Ray Nemec, Dan O’Brien, Ron Selter, Joe Santry, Dick Thompson and Paul Wendt for their assistance.


[1] Los Angeles Times 1932-03-29
[2] See, and the Neola Centennial book, 1982.
[3] 1885 Iowa Census
[4] Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1909
[5] Washington Post, July 27, 1909
[6] Boston Globe, February 9, 1910
[7] Joe Santry, historian, Columbus Clippers, correspondence
[8] The Sporting News, April 4, 1912
[9] Retrosheet transactions information
[10] Sporting Life, May 25, 1912
[11] The Sporting News, 1913-01-23
[12] Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1913
[13] Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1916
[14] Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1917
[15] Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1918
[16] Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1922
[17] Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1941, column by Paul Zimmerman
[18] Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1932
[19] Harold Seymour, The People’s Game, page 425
[20] Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1935

Full Name

Jerome Willis Downs


August 23, 1883 at Neola, IA (USA)


October 19, 1939 at Council Bluffs, IA (USA)

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