This article was written by Dick Thompson
It was late in the summer of 1993 and I was headed for Cape Cod to interview Bill Chamberlain of the 1932 Chicago White Sox. I was pretty excited, for gathering biographical data on New England-born major leaguers is my chief interest, and Chamberlain had been on my “want” list for a long time.
Do you want to hear a great Babe Ruth story? Or maybe read another Ted Williams interview? Well, not me. Give me a player who made just a brief big league appearance: they are the people with real stories to tell. I will always remember the afternoon I spent with 97-year-old Joe Burns shortly after the 1986 World Series. Burns had a minor league career that lasted close to twenty years, but he played in just five major league games. Burns’ recollections ranged from Hugh Duffy to Dwight Evans. His first big league hit came off Mordecai Brown on June 19, 1910. (Burns batted for Slow Joe Doyle, the pitcher, in the ninth inning of a 10-3 loss to Chicago at Cincinnati. Brown went the route for Chicago.) And Ty Cobb gave him tips on outfield play. Visiting with Burns was a great experience, and I was hoping for repeat performance with Chamberlain. I wasn’t disappointed.
Bill met me at the door of his daughter’s home in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. He had recently been released from a long hospitalization following an automobile accident. I found him quite frail and very modest. He didn’t think he had anything of importance to say. I told him SABR thought otherwise.
Chamberlain was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts, in 1909, and grew up in the nearby town of Milton, which was also the hometown of two other 1930s major leaguers, Elbie Fletcher and Charlie Devens. Devens came from money and took the private-school road to Harvard, the Yankees, and then Wall Street. It seems odd that two players from the same small town, debuting the same season in the major leagues, would not know each other, but Chamberlain said he never met Devens. Fletcher, who was seven years younger than Chamberlain, was a different story. “I can still see Elbie coming through the gate of the Milton Town Field,” recalled Chamberlain. “He was just a little kid then, with his glove tied to his belt. We always let him play a couple of innings. I never thought he’d grow up to be as big as he was.”
Following his graduation from high school, Bill attended the Dean Academy (now Dean Junior College) in Franklin, a local hotbed of baseball activity that both Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett had earlier attended, and St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire. He played semipro baseball in Canada, and with the Neponset Wanderers of the Boston Twilight League.
The summer of 1932 found Chamberlain in the amateur Cape Cod League. “I had just pitched a game against Falmouth. I was pitching for Harwich. A fellow [scout] came up to me. He asked me if I would like to try out for the Chicago White Sox. I agreed to meet the White Sox in New York, where they were playing the Yankees. I bummed rides from Harwich up to Milton Village, where I had two brothers who were cops. I borrowed 20 dollars from my sister and was off to New York. The next morning I worked out with the White Sox. Then we went up to Montreal, where I beat the Montreal club [of the International League] in an exhibition game. From there I went to Chicago. The club kept me there awhile, you know, kind of working out with the batters. They signed me to a contract and all of a sudden I’m in the big leagues.”
The White Sox were an awful team in 1932, finishing the season with a 49-102 record. Only the Red Sox prevented them from finishing in last place. Chamberlain made his major league debut on August 2. He started and pitched eight innings against the Washington Senators, allowing just four hits but losing the game, 4-1, as his teammates made three errors. His next start was against the St. Louis Browns. He gave up just two hits through the first six innings, and left the game trailing 2-0 after eight innings. The White Sox, who gave him no run support, lost the game 5-0.
Such was the pattern of Chamberlain’s luck as a major league pitcher. He appeared in 12 games for the White Sox that summer. He started five and lost all of them. But despite the fact that Chamberlain never won a big league game, he has plenty of big league memories.
These guys play real good-On August 23 Chamberlain pitched in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He came into the game in the second inning, after the Athletics had knocked out the White Sox starter. “I’m looking at the first hitter coming up. I said to myself, ‘Boy, this looks like Simmons.’ My catcher called for a curveball. I made the pitch. The ball was about three quarters of the way to the plate and I’m still thinking that this had to be Al Simmons. The ball broke down low and inside, a good pitch. I saw him shove his foot in the bucket and swing. The next thing I knew the ball was out in the stands. I started to laugh; I just knew it was Simmons. Luke Appling, our shortstop, yelled over to me. He said, ‘Billy, turn your head, don’t let the guys in the dugout see you laughing.’ I yelled back, ‘Gee, Luke, did you see him hit that ball?’ All I could think of was a Fourth of July bomb. You could hear it screeching out to the stands.” Chamberlain also gave up two home runs to Mickey Cochrane in that game. These were the only major league homers he allowed. No banjo hitters for Bill. When he gave up a homer, he did it with style. Simmons’s home run was the 200th of his career.
On August 29 Chamberlain lost a 4-3 game to Red Ruffing and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. He held Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Sewell, and Earle Combs all hitless, and in the process, notched his only major league hit off Ruffing. Not too shabby for a man who started the season pitching in the Cape Cod League.
“Do I remember my hit off Ruffing? It was a line drive over the shortstop. I remember getting thrown out at the plate later. I went to score, and Dickey had his foot just in front of the plate, and he gave me a kick along with it. He turned me around and tagged me out. I said to myself, ‘Boy, these guys play real good here in New York.’ I also struck out Lou Gehrig. He came up to me between innings and said I got him on a good pitch.
“I made a lot of good friends that year. I had a room at Appling’s place that summer. I went to the track with Red Faber and Eddie Collins; they were good friends and hung around together. My salary was $300 a month. They gave us six dollars a day for meal money and we dropped most of that on the horses.
“There was one game that ruined me. It was my last game of the year. I had pretty good luck up until that time. The game was in Cleveland. They got five hits and five runs off me and I didn’t get anyone out.
“As I look back at it, there was no reason that I couldn’t have made it. I had good control. Some guys were faster, but I had good control. Ted Lyons gave me the best advice, ‘Don’t let them hit the ball they want to hit. Make them hit your pitch.’ I should have listened closer.”
Nineteen thirty-two was Chamberlain’s only year in the major leagues. He played in the minors until the end of the 1938 season, making stops in the International, Texas, Eastern, New York-Pennsylvania, Northeastern, and Cape Breton Colliery leagues. He remembers playing for Rabbit Maranville in the minors. “When you wanted to throw a spitter, the ball went around the infield and when it came back from Maranville it was all loaded up. He loaded it up naturally. Then you hold the ball between the seams and let it go.”
Chamberlain quit baseball when he had the opportunity to join the Boston police force. “I stayed there for 30 years. I got a few commendations, and a couple of weeks off at different times for pinches I made. I was fairly good at getting information. The police force was a good job.” He retired in 1970.
Bill’s health started to worsen soon after our afternoon together. By the middle of autumn he had been admitted to a local hospital. I stopped in to see him when I got the chance, and no matter how bad he was feeling, he was always happy to talk baseball.
Just before Christmas I called Elbie Fletcher. I had some questions on some local minor leaguers from the 1920s and 1930s that I thought he could help me on. We had a nice talk. Elbie said we discussed players he hadn’t thought of in 30 years. I brought up Chamberlain’s name during our conversation and filled Elbie in on Bill’s health. Fletcher started to reminisce about baseball in Milton during the 1920s, and what a great high school pitcher Chamberlain had been. He laughed when I passed on Chamberlain’s recollection of Fletcher showing up at the local field with his glove tied to his belt, hoping the older kids would let him play in their game. “True,” he said, “all true.”
Bill Chamberlain passed away on February 6, 1994, Elbie Fletcher just over a month later. You can keep those Hall of Famers. Give me an afternoon with gentlemen like these any day.
This article was originally published in SABR’s National Pastime (Volume 15, 1995). The primary source for this article was the afternoon the author spent with Mr. Chamberlain in 1993. His recollections were checked via The Sporting News. The minor league records are courtesy of Ray Nemec.