Andy Pilney (COURTESY OF BILL LAMB)

Andy Pilney

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Andy Pilney (COURTESY OF BILL LAMB)A three-game sub for the 1936 Boston Bees, Andy Pilney was a member of an elite but cheerless fraternity: All-American college football players whose hopes for a similarly sterling career in pro baseball were disappointed. Pilney lands in the middling rank of this group, his diamond fortunes falling somewhere between those of major league mediocrities like Jim Thorpe, Ernie Nevers, and Vic Janowicz and the fate of Don Hutson and John Elway, college gridiron greats who never rose above the minors.

Like many other cup-of-coffee big leaguers, Andy Pilney led a full and rewarding life away from baseball. He is best remembered, however, for a single afternoon on the football field in November 1935. With Notre Dame down, 13-0, in the fourth quarter, Pilney spearheaded the furious three-touchdown comeback that gave the Fighting Irish a stunning victory over undefeated Ohio State in college football’s first Game of the Century. Our subject’s September 1996 obituary also included mention of his World War II military service, tenure as head football coach at Tulane University, and involvement in local Louisiana politics. The following paragraphs offer a baseball-centric recap of this eventful, multi-dimensional life.

Anton James Pilney was born on January 19, 1913, in small-town Frontenac, Kansas, an unlikely but congenial landing spot for turn-of-the-century immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was born into a blended family that eventually grew to nine children parented by mechanic James Emil Pilney (1882-1964) and his wife, widow Emma Mollinger (née Hauner, 1883-1957), both natives of Bohemia. When Andy, as he was always called, was still a toddler, the Pilney family relocated to Dillonvale, Ohio, a rural hamlet not far from the border with western Pennsylvania. About 15 years thereafter, the Pilneys moved again, this time to Chicago. And it was as a Windy City schoolboy athlete that Andy Pilney first gained prominence.

At Harrison Tech High School, Pilney was a three-sport standout, sandwiching a winter turn on the varsity swim team between star performances on the football and baseball fields. But press attention focused mostly on his exploits on the gridiron. A “triple-threat halfback and a marvel at zigzag runs,”1 Pilney led Harrison to a 44-6 victory in the 1931 Chicago city title game with two long touchdown runs and a TD pass.2

Two days later, the sports section headline of a Chicago newspaper announced: “Pilney Heads All-City Team of Daily News.”3 He was a unanimous choice. Behind two more touchdowns by team captain Pilney, Harrison then capped a 13-0 season with an intersectional victory over undefeated Miami High on Christmas Day, 18-7.4 Far less newsprint was devoted to the fact that Pilney was also the Harrison Tech center fielder and an all-city baseball team selection in his senior year.

Following graduation, Pilney matriculated to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he became a physical education major. There, as in Chicago, Andy’s ball carrying, passing, and punting generated reams of newspaper copy. His outstanding performance in the Fighting Irish outfield received only periodic press mention. Despite the imbalance in sports page coverage, Pilney was arguably better as a baseball player. In fact, his college football career proved quite uneven. A detailed account of Pilney’s play for Notre Dame elevens, however, is beyond the scope of this profile. Suffice it to say that both the Fighting Irish (3-5-1) and their ballyhooed backfield recruit struggled during Pilney’s sophomore season, and that both showed marked improvement the following fall season when Notre Dame went 6-3.

Despite the demands of spring football practice, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Pilney,5 a right-handed batter and thrower, established himself as the Notre Dame right fielder and cleanup hitter as a sophomore. And his three-homer/six-RBI game against the University of Chicago in late May drew considerable newsprint attention in the Midwest.6 (This is the only discovered press mention of a 1934 Notre Dame baseball game.) But like their gridiron counterparts, the inexperienced Irish baseball team suffered through growing pains in Andy’s first campaign, posting only an 8-11 record.

The following year, Pilney again split time between spring football practice and the Notre Dame outfield. He got off fast at the plate, going 9-for-16 in the first four Irish games of 1935. In a forerunner of his fall heroics, his bases-loaded hit in the bottom of the 10th propelled Notre Dame to an early-season win over Ohio State, 4-3.7 Six weeks later, he did it again with a bases-loaded single, this too in the bottom of the 10th, to give ND a season-ending win over Michigan State, 2-1.8 Notwithstanding shaky pitching, the Irish registered an improved 11-7 log for the season, with Andy Pilney and his .400+ batting average leading the way.

Pilney could have batted .4000+ and he would still be regarded almost entirely as a Notre Dame football hero. His date with destiny arrived on November 2, 1935, when 81,018 fans jammed Ohio Stadium in Columbus to see an undefeated Notre Dame eleven square off against an unbeaten Ohio State squad. It was the first-ever football meeting of these two Midwestern gridiron powerhouses and college football’s first Game of the Century.9

With the Buckeyes leading, 13-0, in the fourth quarter, Pilney replaced Bill Shakespeare at left half/defensive back and drove ND to two touchdowns with an unstoppable display of running and passing.10 That pulled Notre Dame to within a point, 13-12. But when the game-tying extra point try was blocked, things looked bleak for the Irish – and even bleaker when an ensuing onside kickoff was recovered by Ohio State. But with time running down, a jarring Pilney tackle produced the midfield fumble that Notre Dame desperately needed.11

On the first play of Notre Dame’s game-deciding possession, Pilney darted around right end, cut back across the field, and raced down the far sideline until he was driven out of bounds inside the OSU 20-yard line. He never got back up, the tackle having torn ligaments in his left knee. As the stretcher-bound Pilney was being carried to the locker room, a Shakespeare-to-Wayne Millner touchdown pass gave Notre Dame a stunning last-second 18-13 victory.12

The Ohio State game was the concluding one of Andy Pilney’s college football career, as the knee injury finished him for the season. But it was a glorious farewell. The following day in his nationally syndicated column, famed sportswriter Grantland Rice extolled “Pilney’s dazzling rushes and his accurate passing [that] cut Ohio’s defense into scarlet ribbons. … Pilney today gave one of the finest exhibitions of all-around football that a great crowd ever saw on any field at any time.”13 Although he sat out Notre Dame’s final three games, the performance against Ohio State was enough to land Andy Pilney on several All-American elevens.14

After the season, Pilney received offers from teams in the National Football League, with the Detroit Lions being his most ardent suitor.15 But he chose to stay in school, looking instead toward a future in baseball and coaching. “Pilney has his heart set on a major league career. He is a star outfielder on the Notre Dame team and will play in his third varsity season on the Irish nine this season,” reported a Midwest newspaper in February.16 “A coaching job would appeal to him, especially during the next two seasons, if he could obtain one at a university where he could work on his masters while coaching. … Pilney is interested in boy guidance work and has had considerable experience working with boys since his high school days at Harrison Tech in Chicago.”

His knee injury healed, Pilney began his senior baseball year right where he had left off the previous spring, hitting a home run and two singles in a season-opening victory over Toledo, 7-6. A week later, his bases-loaded ninth-inning single plated the 5-4 winner against Illinois.17 Paced by the hitting of Pilney (.346) and first baseman Andy Scafiti (.348), Notre Dame posted a sparkling 16-3 (.842) record for the 1936 season. Individually, our subject recorded the second-highest batting average, while leading the team in base hits (27) and runs scored (25).18 The only disquieting note: “his fielding was below the 1935 standard,”19 a harbinger of defensive problems that would haunt Pilney’s pro career.

In early June 1936, Pilney was awarded his Bachelor of Science degree by Notre Dame and promptly set about fulfilling his major league baseball and coaching ambitions. Regarding the latter, Pilney signed a three-year contract to coach the football team at Archbishop Weber High School in Chicago.20 He also worked out at Wrigley Field for the Boston Bees, perennial National League also-rans then currently in town to play the Cubs.21 On the morning of June 12, Pilney inked a Boston contract.22 Hours later, he was in uniform and seated on the Bees bench.23

Andy Pilney (COURTESY OF BILL LAMB)With Boston behind, 5-0, in the top of the fifth, Andy Pilney made his major league debut as a pinch-hitter for Bees starting pitcher Danny MacFayden. Facing tough side-arming right-hander Tex Carleton, Andy popped out to third. He then returned to the bench to witness the remainder of the game, eventually a 17-1 laugher. Five days later, Boston manager Bill McKechnie called on Pilney to pinch hit again, this time in the bottom of the ninth with the Bees trailing St. Louis, 10-2. Righty Cardinals reliever Les Munns struck him out.

On June 26, 1936, Pilney appeared in his third and final major league game. With the Bees trailing in the bottom of the ninth, Pilney was sent to second base as a potential game-tying pinch runner for Tony Cuccinello. He made it as far as third but died there when a Mickey Haslin groundout ended the contest in the Pirates’ favor, 2-1. Shortly thereafter, Pilney was optioned to the Syracuse Chiefs of the Class AA International League.24 In his three games with Boston, Pilney had gone 0-for-2 at the plate, with the distinction of never having played in the field.

Upon his arrival in Syracuse, Pilney was immediately thrust into the action. He made a successful debut with a pinch-hit single in the first game of a doubleheader against Baltimore. Placed in the starting lineup for the second game, he played an errorless left field while going 1-for-3 with a run scored. Thereafter, Chiefs manager Nemo Leibold declared that Pilney “gave a good account of himself. … From what I saw of him, he looks like he has the makings of a good baseball player.”25

But from there, Pilney’s bat went cold, and he soon found himself ensconced on the Syracuse bench. Nevertheless, the handsome and affable newcomer remained popular with teammates, management, and fans. During a series against the Rochester Red Wings, he informed a local sportswriter that “I like baseball a lot. Of course, I don’t see enough action to do anything startling, but Double-A ball suits me. It’s considerably faster than college baseball, of course, and you have to be on your toes because the pitching is so much better.”26

Some weeks later, Pilney expounded on his future plans. “I’ve had offers to play with several [NFL] clubs … and I sure would enjoy a season against those big leaguers,” said Andy. “But I feel that I have a worthwhile future in baseball, and football injuries certainly would not add to my speed. I’m going to devote the next three seasons to baseball and many thereafter if I make the big league grade. Otherwise, I’ll concentrate on football coaching.”27

Pilney did little to enhance his chances of returning to the bigs with his play in Syracuse. In 48 games for a bad (59-95, .383) Chiefs club, he batted a soft .233 (30-for-129), with little power (just 12 extra-base hits). Despite exceptional foot speed and natural athleticism, Pilney also proved a defensive liability, posting substandard fielding numbers (53/4/7 = .891 FA) in the outfield. Yet Boston was not about to give up on the prospect. He was recalled at season’s end28 and thereafter reserved by the Bees for the 1937 campaign.29

That fall, Pilney returned to Chicago to take up his duties with the Weber High football team, launching the coaching career that would continue through the next quarter-century. And in November, he entered an even longer-term relationship: a 60-year marriage to high school sweetheart Florence Rokos. A post-wedding photo of the happy couple in their nuptial attire was subsequently published in newspapers throughout the heartland.30 In time, the arrival of Andrea (born 1939) and Dennis (1941) completed the Pilney family.

With its aging outfield corps in need of fortification, the Bees invited Pilney to their 1937 spring training camp.31 But he failed to impress and was optioned to the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Miners of the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League before the Bees headed north.32 Pilney did not report immediately, however, detouring to Chicago in order to arrange for coverage of the phys ed and anatomy classes that he was now teaching at Weber High.33 His reception once in Scranton was not a warm one. After an errorless 1-for-5 game for the Miners, Pilney was demoted to the Columbia (South Carolina) Senators of the Class B South Atlantic League. The Scranton Tribune declared (remarkably after only a one-game audition) that “Pilney failed to measure up to a Class A ballplayer either at bat or in the field.”34

A more hospitable welcome awaited Pilney in Columbia, where he quickly became a local favorite. During home stands, he was a frequent speaker at YMCA and Boys Club gatherings, sometimes showing the now-available newsreel of the Notre Dame-Ohio State classic to enthralled young audiences. More important, he revived his promotion prospects with a decent season for a last-place (52-84, .382) Columbia club. Despite a late season slump, he batted a respectable .283 (115-for-407), with 15 stolen bases.35 Ominously, his 24 extra-base hits included only a meager two home runs, and his outfield defense was again below par (16 errors/.937 FA). Still, a top-tier minor league club, the Indianapolis Indians of the Class AA American Association, wanted to engage the services of the former Notre Dame star. To that end, a deal was worked out in December whereby Boston retained Pilney’s contract rights while optioning him to Indianapolis.36

Playing for future Hall of Fame inductee Ray Schalk, Pilney doomed whatever chance he may have had for recall by Boston with mediocre, at best, output with the Indians. In 81 games, he batted .260, without a home run in 265 at-bats. The following spring, Pilney failed in his final chance to impress Boston club brass. Outrighted to the Hartford Senators, the Bees’ affiliate in the Class A Eastern League, he batted a punch-less .278 in a 20-game stint and then drew his unconditional release. Pilney finished the 1939 season with the Erie (Pennsylvania) Sailors of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where both his batting (.244) and fielding (.916) averages signaled that, at age 27, he had reached the end of the line in professional baseball.

Andy Pilney’s time in Organized Baseball may have been behind him, but a long football coaching career still lay ahead. In 1941, he transferred from Weber to another local institution, St. Mel High School, an all-male Chicago schoolboy sports power run by the Christian Brothers.37 In addition to guiding St. Mel’s football fortunes, Andy was also placed in charge of the basketball team and assigned to teach history courses.38 The following year, Pilney ascended to the college ranks, serving as an assistant coach at Washington University in St. Louis.39

Although America was now fully immersed in World War II, Andy Pilney, a married man with two children, was an unlikely military draft target. Notwithstanding that, he enlisted in the US Navy in spring 1943.40 Commissioned as an ensign, he was assigned to physical training instructor duties, spending the conflict stateside, mostly at the Navy pre-flight school in Athens, Georgia.41

Honorably discharged at the war’s end, Pilney relocated to Louisiana, where he took the job of backfield coach at Tulane University.42 In 1954, he assumed the post of head football coach for the Green Wave. Regrettably for him, his ascension to the top job coincided with an administration decision to deemphasize the football program, at least in terms of resources and recruitment. Tulane would continue to play a cutthroat Southeastern Conference schedule throughout the Pilney regime. Predictably, he enjoyed little success, having only two winning campaigns during his eight-season tenure at the helm. He was dismissed at the end of the 1961 season following a 62-0 drubbing by LSU. Still his 25-49-6 (.339) record was not without a few highlights: upset Tulane victories over national title contenders Auburn (1955) and Ole Miss (1956), and a victory over Navy in the 1958 Oyster Bowl.

After leaving coaching, Pilney spent the remainder of his working life as a sales representative for a concrete company. He also got involved in local politics, winning a seat on the Jefferson Parish (County) district council in 1963. During his 12 years in office, Councilman Pilney “was credited with helping to pave 110 miles of parish roads and building an east bank hospital and Lafreniere Park.”43 All the while and thereafter, he was an active member of the American Legion and Notre Dame alumni organizations.

Late in life, Pilney became a resident of a nursing home in Kenner, Louisiana. He died there on September 15, 1996. Anton James “Andy” Pilney was 83. Following a Funeral Mass, his remains were interred at Lake Lawn Park Cemetery in New Orleans. Survivors included his widow Florence, plus two children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and half-sister Rose Oliphant.

An obituary contains the following Andy Pilney observation regarding a life spent in athletic endeavors: “I think sports are important not just because I make my living from teaching football. … Sports can improve a man’s whole approach to life and make him operate better mentally, too.”44 Whatever its general application, the statement certainly proved true for its speaker.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Terry Bohn.

 

Sources

Sources for the biographical info imparted above include the Andy Pilney file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census reports and other government records accessed via Ancestry.com; and certain of the newspaper articles cited in the endnotes. Unless otherwise noted, stats have been taken from Baseball-Reference.

 

Notes

1 Bob Starrett, “Harrison Boasts Best Prep Grid Team in History This Season,” Chicago Daily News, September 18, 1930: 24.

2 See “Harrison Overwhelms Mt. Carmel, 44-6,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1931: A1.

3 Chicago Daily News, December 8, 1931: 25.

4 “Harrison Tech Routs Stingarees, 18-7,” Miami Herald, December 26, 1931: 9. It was Miami High’s first defeat in three years.

5 Per the player questionnaire completed by Pilney himself. Current baseball authority listings are slightly different.

6 See e.g., “Pilney Stars as Clouter,” Denver Post, June 3, 1934: 48; “Big Leagues Take Notice,” (Springfield) Illinois State Journal, May 30, 1934: 40; “Pilney Leads Irish to Win over Chicago,” Chicago Daily News, May 23, 1934: 26. Notre Dame clobbered the Maroon, 19-6.

7 Per “Pilney Hit in Tenth Beats Ohio State, 4-3,” Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1935: 25.

8 See “Pilney’s Hit Wins for Irish, 2-1,” Evansville (Indiana) Courier-Journal, June 2, 1935: 12.

9 An estimated 8 million listened to the game on radio.

10 A play-by-play account of Pilney’s heroics appears in the South Bend (Indiana) Tribune, October 31, 1936: 18. Andy rushed for 105 yards in ten carries and completed seven of nine passing attempts.

11 The fumble by reliable OSU fullback Dick Beltz was his only one of the 1935 season.

12 The 1935 Notre Dame v. Ohio State game was preserved on film in its entirety and can be viewed today on YouTube.

13 See Grantland Rice, “Fighting Irish Rally and Win,” Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times, November 3, 1935: 1.

14 The most prestigious poll that put Pilney in an All-American backfield was that of NEA sportswriters. Notre Dame did not fare as well. With Pilney and several other injured starters out of the lineup, the Irish limped to a 7-1-1 finish, good for only ninth in the final AP poll. Undefeated Minnesota was declared the unofficial national champion. Ohio State (7-1) placed eighth.

15 As reported in “Coach Potsy Clark Hopes to Sign Some College Grid Stars,” Brooklyn Citizen, March 31, 1936: 11; “Detroit Lions Hope to Sign Stars,” Columbus (Indiana) Republic, March 30, 1936: 4; and elsewhere.

16 See “Ohio State Game Not So Thrilling to Pilney as Sophomore Debut against Pittsburgh,” (Battle Creek, Michigan) Enquirer & Evening News, February 11, 1936: 9.

17 See “Pilney Does Another Merriwell; Irish Win,” Chicago Times, April 26, 1936: 79.

18 Per 1936 Notre Dame stats published in “Scafiti Paces Irish Hitters,” South Bend Tribune, June 12, 1936: 33.

19 See “Gaul, Pilney Get Tryouts with Major League Clubs,” South Bend Tribune, June 9, 1936: 15.

20 Per “Pilney to Sign as Grid Coach at Weber High,” South Bend Tribune, June 10, 1936: 18. See also, “Dick Walsh’s Comment,” Albany (New York) Times-Union, June 27, 1936: 13.

21 See “Andy Pilney Joins Bees,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1936: 17; “Gaul, Pilney Get Tryouts with Major League Clubs,” South Bend Tribune, June 9, 1936: 16.

22 As reported in the Greensboro (North Carolina) News, June 13, 1936: 13.

23 Pilney credited Father Robert Quinn, a Dominican priest and the son of Boston Bees GM Bob Quinn, with inducing the club to sign him, per the Andy Pilney TSN player transaction card.

24 Per “Senator Notes,” Albany Times-Union, June 28, 1936: 21.

25 Per an Associated Press wire dispatch published in the Lock Haven (Pennsylvania) Express, June 30, 1936: 10; Chicago Daily News, June 29, 1936: 16; San Antonio Light, June 29, 1936: 8; and elsewhere.

26 Jack Tucker, “Andy Pilney Comes to Town; Stays on Bench as Mates Get Bumped: Talks of Notre Dame,” Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, July 11, 1936: 14.

27 Dick Walsh, “Hero of Grid Win Prefers Baseball as a Career,” Albany Times-Union, September 1, 1936: 18.

28 Per “National League Recalls,” The Sporting News, September 17, 1936: 2.

29 The Sporting News, November 26, 1936: 6.

30 See e.g., Clarksville (Tennessee) Leaf-Chronicle, November 11, 1936: 21; Tipton (Indiana) Tribune, November 11, 1936: 6; Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, November 10, 1936: 33.

31 Jack Ledden, “Seen and Heard in the Sports Realm,” South Bend Tribune, January 26, 1937.

32 Per the Scranton (Pennsylvania) Tribune, April 16, 1937: 17. See also, (Hazelton, Pennsylvania) Standard-Sentinel, March 16, 1937: 14.

33 As reported in the Scranton Tribune, April 16, 1937: 17. In Chicago, Pilney was “granted a special leave of absence” from his teaching responsibilities by Weber High administrators. See “Coach Andy Pilney,” Scranton Tribune, May 5, 1937: 17; “Pilney Here for a Trial,” Scranton (Pennsylvania) Times, May 3, 1937: 19.

34 Scranton Tribune, May 12, 1937: 19.

35 Per 1937 SALLY League stats published in The Sporting News, November 18, 1937: 6.

36 “Andy Pilney, Famous Grid Star, Obtained from Boston Bees for the Indian Outfield,” Indianapolis News, December 16, 1937: 30.

37 ‘Andy Pilney Is Named Coach at St. Mel High,” Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1941: 25.

38 According to Berwyn (Illinois) Life, February 19, 1941: 9.

39 See “Washington U. Picks Gorman,” New York Times, February 13, 1942: 28.

40 “Football Coach Sworn into Navy,” El Paso (Texas) Herald, April 26, 1943: 10.

41 “Andy Pilney at Athens Navy Pre-Flight School,” Indianapolis Star, July 28, 1943: 17; “Pilney, Former Bears’ Coach, Now at Athens, Ga.,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 28, 1943: 17.

42 As reported in “Andy Pilney Signed as Backfield Coach at Tulane under Frnka,” Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, February 7, 1946: 10; “Andy Pilney Signed as Backfield Coach at Tulane,” New Orleans States, February 6, 1946: 16; and elsewhere.

43 According to his obituary. See “Anton ‘Andy’ Pilney, 83, Former Tulane Coach, Dies,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 17, 1996: 79.

44 Same as above.

Full Name

Anton James Pilney

Born

January 19, 1913 at Frontenac, KS (USA)

Died

September 15, 1996 at Kenner, LA (USA)

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