This article was written by Mark Armour
Bobby Reeves entered the major leagues like a comet, a famous collegiate star in two sports who skipped the minor leagues entirely. He did not have the career many expected of him, partly due to injuries and circumstances, but also possibly because the talent evaluators of the time might have been overly optimistic about his skills. When he died at age 88, he was honored for the long fruitful life he led and the impact he had on his native city.
Hill City, Tennessee, was a small town separated from the city of Chattanooga by the Tennessee River. Just a few scattered homes when General William T. Sherman marched through in 1864, it was developed in earnest when a ferry began operating in the 1880s, allowing easy access to the larger city to the south. In 1935 the city of 5,000 approved its annexation by North Chattanooga, which was itself incorporated five years later into Chattanooga.
Robert Edwin Reeves was born in Hill City on June 24, 1904, the fifth and last child born to Henry, a house carpenter originally from South Carolina, and Elizabeth Irene, who came from Alabama. Sisters Winnie and Mary and brother Henry Jr. preceded Robert in the family. By whatever name, Bobby Reeves spent the entirety of his non-playing life in what is now Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Reeves attended Chattanooga’s McCallie School, graduating in 1922. McCallie was a private college preparatory school, founded in 1905 and still operating today, one of the more illustrious such schools in the South. As a star halfback for the Blue Tornados, he earned All-city and All-Southern honors, also starring on the baseball team. More impressively, Reeves was awarded the prestigious Grayson Medal, given annually to the outstanding all-around person in the school.
Joe Engel, famed scout for the Washington Senators of the American League, tried to sign Reeves after his senior year of high school, but the Grayson Medal winner instead accepted a scholarship to attend the Georgia School of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, majoring in electrical engineering. He starred as a halfback for the football team in the fall, and did the same on the baseball diamond in the spring. In three years of varsity baseball, the right-handed hitting and fielding Reeves hit .344 over 62 games; in his senior year, serving as captain, he hit .404 with ten home runs, twice hitting three homers in a game–the only Georgia Tech player to accomplish this feat twice.
The Senators and Joe Engel had not forgotten Reeves, and finally signed him off the Tech campus in 1926, the player still short of his degree. Upon signing, the 5-foot-11 170 pound Reeves reported directly to the Nationals, who were the two-time defending league champions. His arrival was not without fanfare, with papers like the Atlanta Journal calling him the best shortstop in the South, amateur or professional. Reeves made his debut on June 9, getting hits in both plate appearances and fielding four chances at SS. His short-term role was sitting on the bench, as the Senators had a well-regarded shortstop in Buddy Myer, and were also set at second base, with player-manager Bucky Harris, and third base, with Ossie Bluege. Despite hitting just .224 in 49 at bats that first season, his all-around play did not dim the club’s enthusiasm for his future. Clark Griffith, the club’s owner and patriarch, called him a “future great.”
After the season the Senators dealt Buddy Myer to the Red Sox for Topper Rigney, another shortstop. When Rigney slumped early in the season the club handed the job to Reeves, and he played well right away. He was hitting in the .280s in late July, before a late-season slump dropped him to .255 on the season, over 112 games. Still, Connie Mack named him the league’s best shortstop for 1927.
Reeves’ defensive play, especially his throwing arm, drew compliments around the league. “Wow, whenever I see that kid cut loose,” raved manager Bucky Harris, “it makes every bone in an old fellow’s body like mine fairly ache.” Added teammate Walter Johnson, “Reeves is a fine ballplayer. Not only has he the best throwing arm I have seen in the American League, but he has the right spirit. A ball club with nine Bobs on them would take a lot of beating before they are licked.” Reeves was a fixture in the club’s future plans.
The following season Reeves started out hitting like a star, with an average of .358 in mid-June. Unfortunately, his fielding began to suffer, largely due to an injury suffered by left fielder Goose Goslin. Though Goslin could not throw the ball more than a few feet, the club needed his bat enough that he played the field anyway, forcing Reeves to roam out to left field on every ball hit there, to retrieve the ball from Goslin. In a double-header played in the heat on June 14, Reeves reportedly lost 13 ½ pounds. By mid-summer Reeves was worn out.
Without a reliable backup, Griffith sent Joe Engel out to the Midwest to find one, and Engel returned on July 10 with Joe Cronin, formerly with the Pirates but late of the Kansas City club in the American Association. Harris began subbing Cronin for Reeves, and soon Joe was getting most of the playing time. Reeves finished the season hitting .303 in 102 games, but with an alarming 36 errors in 66 games at shortstop. Still, most observers considered Reeves the better long-term player, but Cronin the steadier, though less spectacular, shortstop. The press began to doubt the wisdom of promoting Reeves directly to the major leagues from college.
After the 1928 season Griffith immediately strove to undo the mistake he had made trading Buddy Myer to the Red Sox. After several weeks of negotiating, he reacquired Myer on December 12. The holdup was Boston’s insistence on acquiring both Cronin and Reeves, and Griffith was naturally reluctant to part with both of his shortstops. In the end, the Red Sox settled for Reeves, Milt Gaston, Horace Lisenbee, and Grant Gillis to return Myer to the Nationals. Cronin, the lesser prospect, stayed in Washington to back up the infielders, but soon became one of the best players in the league.
On August 21, 1929, Reeves married Miriam Storm at St. John’s Church in McLean, Virginia. Storm came from a well-known McLean family. Miriam’s maid-of-honor was Mildred Robertson, who would later marry Joe Cronin. Sam West was best man, and Grant Gillis was one of the ushers. The Reeves set up house in Virginia, first with her parents and later on their own, and the wedding and the couple’s later goings on drew attention in the society pages in Washington. A note in the October 22, 1933 Washington Post will suffice as an example of Reeves’s new world: “[McLean, Va.] Miss Mildred Robertson, Washington, was the dinner guest Wednesday of Mrs. Robert Reeves.” During the seasons, the couple settled in Boston.
For his new club Reeves played third base, hitting .248 over a career-high 140 games. The Red Sox of this period were one of history’s worst teams, but an unidentified clipping from that season credits Reeves for staying positive in the losing environment. “He is one of the very few Red Sox players who talk it up. He chatters and is a pepper pot and everybody who has seen the Red Sox in recent years knows that they have not had any over-abundance of players who can whoop it up.” Meanwhile, however, Reeves’ skills were eroding, as he hit just .217 in 92 games in 1930, and .167 in 36 games in 1931. After the 1931 season his contract was sold to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. Reeves’ once promising major league career was now over. Having skipped the minor leagues on his way to the majors, he would spend the next four years there.
Reeves played two seasons for Portland, hitting .253 as the starting second baseman for the PCL champions in 1932, then .239 for the club the next year. After the 1933 season he was acquired by old friend Joe Engel, now general manager of the Chattanooga club in the Southern Association. Reeves played third base for the Lookouts in 1935, hitting .270 in 150 games and being named the circuit’s all-star at third base. The following season he briefly played with the Eastern League’s Albany (New York) Senators before returning to Chattanooga and hitting .243 in 101 games. After the season Reeves was sold to New Orleans, but he instead chose to retire from the game.
Sometime after his retirement from the game, his marriage to Miriam seems to have ended, and he eventually married the former Geneva Hogue and spent the rest of his days in Chattanooga. Reeves worked for many years with the Electric Power Board, retiring as supervisor of the heating and air-conditioning department. He volunteered for duty with the U.S. Army during the Second World War, serving in an anti-aircraft division.
Reeves thoroughly immersed himself in his beloved hometown. He taught at the Foster-Martin Sunday School Class at the United Methodist Church, where he was a member for 54 years and a long-time board member. He was also a member of the Northside Civitan Club, the Half-Century Club, and the Golden “M” Society of McCallie School. Both Georgia Tech and the city of Chattanooga inducted Reeves into their Halls of Fame for baseball.
Bobby Reeves died June 6, 1993, in a Chattanooga hospital, at the age of 88. He was survived by his wife Geneva, brother Henry, and several nieces and nephews. Reeves was buried at National Cemetery in Chattanooga. Honorary pallbearers included members of his old Sunday school class.
Among the many tributes paid to Reeves at his passing, Chattanooga News sportswriter Roy Exum wondered if Reeves were not the greatest athlete the city had ever produced, and called him “one of the finest people I have ever known in my life.”
In researching this story, the author relied heavily on The Sporting News historical archive accessed at www.paperofrecord.com, and Reeves’ clipping file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown. Thanks to SABR member Fred Worth for explaining what became of Hill City, and to SABR member Ed Washuta for Reeves’ minor league data. Important other sources included:
Obituary, Chattanooga News-Free Press, June 6, 1993.
Gordon Mackay, undated and unsourced clipping from Reeves’ Hall of Fame file.
Roy Exum, “‘Mister Reeves’ Was A Hero Long After He Quit Playing,” Chattanooga News-Free Press, June 6, 1993.
Washington Post, 1926-1929, via ProQuest on-line.