This article was written by Jim Sargent
Few players in the years before World War II started their professional baseball careers in the major leagues, but “Bennie” Huffman broke into the Big Show in 1937 with the St. Louis Browns. If it had not been for a serious shoulder injury that summer as well as the later onset of World War II, Huffman probably would have enjoyed a longer major league career. Without a day of minor league experience, the left-handed batting catcher hit .273 with the Browns in his only American League season.
Born Benjamin Franklin Huffman on July 18, 1914, in Rileyville, Virginia, he grew up in nearby Luray during the aftermath of the Great War. Bennie loved sports and played sandlot baseball and football. By the time of the Great Depression, he was a high school student and a star athlete in Luray.
Hoping to complete his higher education near home, Bennie attended a small liberal arts institution near Harrisonburg, Bridgewater College, during the academic years of 1934-35 and 1935-36. Slender, rangy, and agile, the all-around athlete became a standout triple-threat back on the football squad as well as captain and catcher for the baseball nine. Thanks in part to Huffman’s leadership, Bridgewater won the final two games of the 1936 season over Randolph-Macon College to tie for the Chesapeake Conference’s baseball championship. Also, during the summers of 1934 and 1935 he had played in a college league at Front Royal. After completing his sophomore year, Bennie enjoyed a stellar season for Harrisonburg of the semipro Shenandoah League in the summer of 1936.
As a result of their baseball reputations, Huffman and almost 400 other young men attended Ray Doan’s Baseball School in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in February 1937. Rogers Hornsby, one of baseball’s greatest right-handed hitters, had managed the Browns since late in the 1933 season, and he took over the baseball school in Hot Springs that winter. Hornsby’s instructors included big leaguers such as right-handers Dizzy Dean and Lon Warneke. Bennie impressed everyone with his hot hitting during the camp.
As a result, Huffman became the only recruit the Browns invited to spring training. Bennie recalled hitting over .600 during the spring, and made Hornsby’s club. After signing a contract for $400 a month, Bennie was a big leaguer without playing a day in the minors.
“My biggest thrill in baseball was the opening day game in Cleveland,” Huffman recalled in a 2001 interview.
St. Louis played against the Indians on Friday, April 23, 1937, at Cleveland’s League Park. The Tribe beat the Browns, 9-2, as a crowd of 21,000 hometown rooters watched ace right-hander Johnny Allen (15-1 in 1937) scatter 10 hits but keep out of serious trouble all afternoon.
Right-handed hitting Rollie Hemsley, who enjoyed a 19-year major league career beginning in 1928, started behind the plate for the Browns. Hornsby inserted Huffman into the game after four innings. When the 5’11” 175-pound Huffman buckled on his pads, Earl Caldwell was pitching for St. Louis.
“I pinch hit in the fifth inning,” Huffman recollected. “Johnny Allen was pitching for Cleveland. Cleveland had a high right field fence in old League Park. I hit a line drive to the top of the fence in right field. It would have been a home run in any other park. I caught the rest of the game and hit another live drive against the right-field fence.”
The box score showed Huffman going 2-for-3 and scoring one run that afternoon, a promising start for his professional career. According to the game account published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bennie, batting for right-hander Tommy Thomas in the top of the fifth inning, banged a double into the right field corner. After an infield out, Huffman scored on a base hit by Ethan Allen. In the sixth Bennie lined a shot between first and second base. Hal Trosky, Cleveland’s slugging first sacker, made a good play on the ball and tossed it to Johnny Allen, covering first, for the out. Finally, in the eighth, Bennie singled into the right field corner, but was out when Bill Knickerbocker, the next hitter, bounced into a force play at second.
Although he did not play again for several days, Huffman soon proved his ability. By early June he became the club’s regular catcher. For the season the Virginia native appeared in 76 games, catching 42 of those. At the plate, he averaged .273 with one home run and 24 RBIs in 176 at-bats. Bennie was also 7-for-32 (.219) as a pinch hitter.
Except for a pinch-hitting appearance in Detroit on April 28, Huffman did not get into another game until May 10, when he started at home in Sportsman’s Park against the Washington Nationals. Led by rookie right-hander Julio Bonetti, the Browns topped the Nats, 6-3. St. Louis had the contest sewed up until Bonetti tired and allowed the visitors to score three runs in the ninth inning. Huffman doubled in four trips, but didn’t figure in the Browns’ scoring. Four days later the rookie from Bridgewater College went 2-for-3 and scored a run in a 6-5 win over the Detroit Tigers. The next day, May 15, Bennie singled and doubled in three trips against the Tigers, driving in two runs and scoring another as the Browns won, 11-5. In the series finale, he collected a single as Detroit and right-hander Roxie Lawson held on for a 5-4 victory.
Huffman got into six more games in May, but going 1-for-14 in those contests. Hemsley, a veteran receiver, continued to play well behind the plate, although his hitting tailed off by June. A .262 career hitter, Rollie batted just .222 with three homers and 28 RBIs while catching 94 games in 1937. As Hemsley racked up more hitless games, Huffman continued his solid batting, especially as the weather got warmer. For example, when the Browns lost to the Boston Red Sox, 6-5, in the first game of a double-header on June 6, Huffman singled twice in four at-bats, stole a base, and scored two runs. In the nightcap Hemsley was 0-for-4 as Julio Bonetti scattered eight hits and pitched the Browns to a 3-2 victory. The next day Bennie added a single and scored a run as St. Louis right-hander Oral Hildebrand won, 9-6.
On June 10 against Washington, Huffman drilled a bases-loaded double in the fourth inning to lift the Browns and southpaw Russ Van Atta to a 6-3 triumph. As June unfolded, it seemed that the better Huffman batted, the worse Hemsley hit. One of Bennie’s biggest days came in Washington on Sunday, June 20, when a caravan of car-pooling fans, estimated at 1,500, traveled up from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to honor the local hero. The Browns lost to the Nationals, 5-3, but Huffman singled, doubled, and scored a run.
Meanwhile, “Rollicking Rollie,” as writers sometimes called Hemsley, who was well known as a drinker and a carouser (he defeated his problem in 1939 with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous), ran into a conflict with Rogers Hornsby, himself a difficult personality and known to be hard-nosed in his treatment of players.
On June 30 in Cleveland, Huffman was hitless in one official at-bat as the Indians won, 10-3. But he was robbed of an extra-base hit thanks to a superb catch by Tribe flychaser Bruce Campbell, who leaped high against the fence in right-center to snare Bennie’s drive in the eighth. Earlier in the game, Huffman was involved in a play at the plate in which he wrenched his right shoulder.
The next day, July 1, St. Louis announced the recall of 23-year-old receiver Tommy Heath, a right-handed batter who would hit .233 and catch 14 games for the Browns. The next day Hornsby announced the 10-day suspension of “bad boy” Hemsley for an unspecified incident. When Hemsley was suspended, Huffman was batting .288, though he had yet to hit a home run.
Bennie, a line drive hitter who showed occasional power to right or right center field, continued to perform well, producing a pair of singles, one good for two runs, when the Browns fell to the Chicago White Sox, 10-5, on July 3. Heath caught both ends of the July 4th twin bill, and the second-year receiver enjoyed his best day ever, collecting four hits in eight at-bats. Huffman caught three games after the All-Star break, managing only three singles in thirteen trips during those games.
“I beat out Rollie Hemsley for first-string catcher,” Huffman remembered in 2001, “until I got hurt, the second time we went to Cleveland. Hal Trosky hit me in a collision at home plate, which hurt my shoulder. I could still throw hard, but I wasn’t accurate. I was the number one pinch hitter and caught a few games the rest of the season.”
Huffman hurt his shoulder in the play at home in the seventh inning against Cleveland on June 30, but the Indian who slid into him was Roy Hughes, not Trosky. Further, Bennie suffered a more serious injury on July 18 when he collided on the base paths with Philadelphia’s second baseman Wayne Ambler, who was moving to cover first base on a bunt play. Both players were knocked unconscious for ten minutes. Ambler suffered a broken jaw and missed almost six weeks, and Huffman, who hurt his throwing shoulder again, played little over the next two weeks.
At Yankee Stadium on August 1, Bennie returned to the Browns’ lineup and enjoyed one of his career highlights. Sent in to pinch hit in the eighth frame against rookie right-hander Spud Chandler, who had a 7-4 record in 1937 for the pennant-winning Yankees, Huffman recalled receiving a verbal barrage of heckling and abuse as he walked up to the plate.
Responding to fans who were hollering he couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield, the Virginia native drove a Chandler pitch into the right field stands for his only major league home run. But his two-run shot came in a losing cause, as the Yankees won behind several home runs, 14-5.
The next day one newspaper’s headline said, Home Runs: Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Huffman. “I kept that clipping,” Bennie reminisced. “That was pretty good company!”
Part of Huffman’s story, however, included his relationship with the “Rajah,” Rogers Hornsby. Evidently St. Louis’ front office took a dim view of Hornsby’s managing after three seasons in which the Browns finished no higher than sixth place. Bill Killefer, who managed St. Louis to a sixth-place ranking in 1932, started the 1933 season, but his record was 34-57 when he was fired. Coach Allen Sothoron took over briefly, piloting the club to a pair of wins in eight games. The Browns finally hired Hornsby, who produced a 19-33 ledger during the last third of the season.
On August 6, 1937, Shirley Povich, legendary sportswriter for the Washington Post, opined in his column “This Morning” that Hornsby had contributed to his recent firing due to his designation of Huffman as the starting catcher over Hemsley. Following a series between the Nationals and the Browns, Povich quoted several unnamed St. Louis players as saying, “The whole thing was a joke. Huffman couldn’t carry Hemsley’s glove. It was a crying shame to play the rookie as our catcher, but Hornsby tried to get away with it. He wasn’t concerned about the success of the Browns. He was more concerned about Huffman making good. Hornsby, you see, is half owner of the baseball school that Huffman came out of and he tried to make Huffman a first-year sensation, so it would reflect credit on his school and up the enrollment next year. That’s one of the things why Hornsby wasn’t popular with our players.”
Whether the Browns’ comments reflect sour grapes or useful insights is difficult to determine, partly because sportswriters in those times were seldom accurate with quoted comments. But considering Huffman’s lack of major league experience, Hornsby was taking a chance with a weak pitching staff by making Bennie the club’s top receiver. A great hitter himself, Hornsby may have been overly impressed with Huffman’s batting strengths. On the other hand, Hemsley, who hit as high as .309 in 1934, endured one of his worst seasons at the plate in 1937. His .222 average left him about 50 points below Huffman’s .273, a factor that made Bennie a good bet to help the Browns score more runs and thus win more games.
In any event, preparing for the 1938 season, St. Louis traded Hemsley to Cleveland for three players, rookie right-hander Ed Cole, infielder Roy Hughes, and catcher-first baseman Billy Sullivan. As it developed, Sullivan handled most of the receiving for St. Louis, averaging .277 with seven home runs and 49 RBIs. Tommy Heath was the backup, but he hit only .227.
Following spring training in 1938, the Browns, now managed by former catcher Gabby Street, optioned Huffman to last-place Baltimore of the International League. There he played sparingly, getting into 25 games, batting 51 times, and averaging only .118, with one double and four RBIs. Midway through the season Bennie was sent to Hartford of the Eastern League, where he played in 45 games. Getting 135 trips to the plate, he averaged a solid .267, producing nine doubles, three triples, one homer, and 17 RBIs, while Hartford finished fourth out of eight teams.
In 1939 Huffman was farmed out to San Antonio of the Texas League, where he spent three seasons. In 1939 and 1940 he split catching duties for San Antonio, hitting .303 and .224, respectively. But in 1941 he played 119 games, hitting .287 with 48 RBIs.
“I went to San Antonio of the Texas league, and my shoulder got better. I won the club’s most valuable player award in 1941. I was all set to come back to the Browns as the first-string catcher.”
Instead, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In January 1942 Huffman enlisted on a bigger team, the U.S. Navy, and he spent four years in the service during World War II. Bennie, whose job was to teach seamanship, also played ball for Navy teams at several bases, including the Norfolk Naval Training Station. In service ball he played alongside major league sailors such as Dom DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Mize, and Johnny Vander Meer.
On May 2, 1944, Bennie married Cornelia Overby; they’d be married 58 years. The sailor and the student nurse got one day off for the wedding, and the next day they were back on duty. The couple never had any children.
Later, in the spring of 1945, Huffman’s unit was shipped to Oahu. Bennie ended up playing in the Navy’s Pacific baseball tour in the spring of 1945. Two teams with 18 players each, most of whom were current major leaguers, played more than twenty exhibitions on western Pacific outposts such as Roi and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Ulithi and Peleliu in the Carolines, and Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas. Navy and Marine Corps personnel watched the well-played games. In his booklet Athletes Away, Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., estimated crowds as high as 5,000 to 6,000 watched most of the contests. Evidently the games fostered a spirited rivalry between the teams, thus helping boost the morale of service personnel fortunate enough to get a break away from wartime duties. The players also had their share of fun. For example, when one of the planes carrying athletes broke down on Peleliu, Crissey wrote that Huffman and right-hander Virgil Trucks “used the carbon dioxide extinguishers to keep the beer cold!”
After the war, Huffman played and managed in the minor leagues for four seasons. In 1946 he served as the player-manager of Gloversville-Johnstown of the Class C Canadian-American League. Hitting .317 with 40 RBIs, he led his club to a 53-67 record and a sixth place finish, 18½ games behind first-place Trois Rivieres of Quebec. In 1947 St. Louis sent Bennie to manage Springfield of the Class B Three-I League. Averaging .349 with 22 RBIs, he piloted the Browns to a 71-55 mark. Springfield tied Waterloo for third place, eight games back of the Danville Dodgers. Signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1948, Bennie moved to Michigan’s six-team Class A Central League. Batting .268, he managed the Muskegon club to a 73-66 season and third place, 16.5 games behind the league-leading Flint Arrows. In 1949 the White Sox sent Huffman, who turned thirty-five in mid-season, to manager Waterloo, Iowa, of the Three-I League. Hitting .298 in his final season as a player, Bennie led Waterloo to a 70-56 record and second place, 4 ½ games behind first-place Evansville. In 1950 he played just handful of games for Superior of the Class C Northern League, but he managed the Blues until July 1. The club later finished with a 68-57 ledger and placed fourth in the league.
Also, the White Sox organization valued Huffman’s talent for working with and appraising young players. As a result, beginning in 1952, he spent 32 years scouting for Chicago. He remembered his best “finds” included Minnie Minoso (probably first scouted by Abe Saperstein), and Harold Baines (signed in 1977), both of whom enjoyed good big league careers. The Virginia scout also recruited Fred Talbot (1959), Sam Ewing (1971), Pete Varney (1971), and Marv Foley (1975) for the White Sox. Finally, Bennie returned home to stay, living in retirement with Cornelia in Luray.
After his baseball career had ended, the former catcher and gridiron star was honored by his induction into the Middle Atlantic Major League Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. Later, in 1994, he received a final honor when he was inducted into the Bridgewater College Athletic Hall of Fame. For a young man who grew up in rural Virginia, loved playing sports, and enjoyed one memorable season in the major leagues, Bennie Huffman achieved a great deal more in the national pastime than most young men of his generation. He remained proud of his baseball experiences for the rest of his life, and enjoyed sharing his recollections with visitors to his home in Luray.
Bennie Huffman passed away on February 22, 2005.
This article about the baseball career of Bennie Huffman is a revised version of my story about his career that first appeared in Oldtyme Baseball News in 1997 and later on the web site of Baseball Library.
Major league statistics for the Huffman story came from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 9th edition, 1993). Minor league stats came from Pat Doyle’s Professional Baseball Player Database (version 6). I also found useful items in the Huffman file in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library. I wish to thank Tony Barkley, the archivist at the Alexander Mack Memorial Library of Bridgewater College, for interesting material about Bridgewater academics and athletics in the mid-1930s. I obtained valuable information in interviews with Huffman in 1997 and 2000, and I made copies of several stories from Bennie’s scrapbooks. For most major league game stories I used the ProQuest database, which I accessed through the web resources of the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa. The most useful game stories appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post one day after the dates indicated in the article. For Huffman’s debut game of April 23, 1937, I used the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Times stories dated April 24. In particular see Shirley Povich, “Browns Win From Nats; Bunch Hits,” Washington Post, June 11, 1937; “Huffman’s Career Real Story Book Tale,” in Povich’s column “This Morning” in Post, June 18, 1937; and Povich, “This Morning,” in Post, August 6, 1937, about Rogers Hornsby playing Huffman ahead of Rollie Hemsley. Also see “Shenandoah Valley Baseball Fans to Honor Huffman Here,” Washington Post, June 8, 1937, and “Caravan Set for Trek to Nats’ Park,” Post, June 13, 1937. For Navy baseball, I consulted Harrington E. Crissey, Jr., Athletes Away: A Selective Look at Professional Baseball Players in the Navy During World War II (Philadelphia: Archway Press, Inc. 1984). Finally, thanks to Rod Nelson for providing useful information about Huffman’s scouting activities.