This article was written by Craig Cleve
Edwin Elliott Carnett was a jack-of-all-trades. In a career that spanned three decades, Carnett held just about every job available in baseball, including bus driver and general manager. And although his name is not immediately recognizable to fans, he managed to make it to the big leagues twice — both as a pitcher and a position player. He roomed with three Hall of Famers, nearly came to blows with Boston Bee manager Casey Stengel, tutored Bob Feller on the finer points of the slider, and hit .400 in the minor leagues. Carnett saw it all and was willing to relate it to anyone willing to listen. One of the rare ballplayers who lived to 100 years old, Carnett was recognized as the oldest living former major-leaguer at the time of his death in 2016.
Carnett was born in Springfield, Missouri, on October 21, 1916, and moved at an early age to Ponca City, Oklahoma, with his parents, his brother, Charles, and his younger sister, Maxine. His father had been a teacher and later worked in the insurance business. Brought up during the Great Depression, Ed understood how fortunate his family was to have a working father. His mother understood, as well, and didn’t protest too loudly when Ed brought less fortunate schoolmates home for dinner.
Discovering baseball at an early age and idolizing New York Giant pitcher Carl Hubbell (a fellow Oklahoman and left-hander), Ed got to see Hubbell pitch in the 1933 World Series against the Washington Senators. Always outgoing, he struck up a conversation with Hubbell before a game, mentioned their Oklahoma connection, and returned home with a scorecard signed by the entire Giant team.
Ed’s pitching drew attention from big league scouts by the time he was a senior in high school. Signed by the Cubs in 1935 and assigned to their minor league team in Ponca City, Ed played his first pro season in front of the home crowd, winning 19 games.
His fine rookie season led to an invitation to spring training with the Los Angeles Angels–the Cubs’ top farm club in the Pacific Coast League. He trained with the Angels and pitched well in his spring outings. A freak accident during a “pepper” game led to a serious shoulder injury that ruined his chances with the Angels and jeopardized his career.
“I had the team made,” he remembered, “but when that happened, I couldn’t break a pane of glass.”
After three poor outings at the start of the Angels’ regular season, Ed was reassigned to Ponca City. His pitching woes continued, and he lost his first ten decisions of the year.
Ponca City manager Mike Gazella could have benched his left-hander but instead made a magnanimous gesture. Impressed by Ed’s hitting, he placed him in the outfield for several weeks. Relieved from the rigors of pitching, Ed’s shoulder slowly mended. In time, Gazella put him on the mound again. Ed pitched a complete-game victory in his first game back and proceeded to win his next sixteen decisions. Incredibly, his 1936 record at Ponca City was 16-10–ten consecutive losses followed by sixteen consecutive victories!
The Cubs moved him up to Tulsa in 1937, where he won fifteen games. That success led to a season with the Angels, where he pitched in hard luck, posting just a 3-6 record.
Looking for another left-hander on their staff, the Cubs, fresh from a National League pennant in 1938, brought Ed to spring training in 1939. He trained with the team on Catalina Island and roomed for a time with Cub pitcher Dizzy Dean. Dean had nicknames for his favorite teammates and foes, and he called Ed “Pistol Head.” Once, after Dean had been reassigned to Tulsa, he went to visit Ed in Oklahoma. He greeted Ed’s mother at the door with, “Are you Pistol Head’s momma?”
The arrangement with Dean was the beginning of an uncanny coincidence. Over twenty-plus years pro ball, Ed roomed with some of the greatest names in baseball. In addition to Dean, they included Warren Spahn with the Boston Bees, Phil Rizzuto with Kansas City, Eddie Lopat with the White Sox, and Allie Reynolds with the Indians.
“They were all a bunch of good guys. I sent them all up to the big leagues and the World Series!” he jokes.
Ed pitched well during exhibition games during spring training in 1939, but Cub manager Gabby Hartnett gave him a choice: stay with the Cubs and collect dust in the bullpen, or go to Milwaukee in the American Association and pitch regularly. Ed opted for the latter. He did manage a day of good-natured revenge against the Cubs later that year. Pitching the distance in a 7-6 victory over the Cubs in an exhibition game in June, Ed struck out Hartnett with the bases loaded to end the game.
“He was the first one to grab me and give me a big hug!”
Ed went just 4-11 with the Brewers in the American Association and was traded to the Yankee organization in exchange for catcher Clyde McCullough in 1940. After posting a 6-3 record with a 2.77 ERA in just 13 games with Binghamton of the Eastern League, Ed caught the attention of Boston Bee manager Casey Stengel, who put Ed in his bullpen to start the 1941 season.
His first appearance was against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He struck out the first batter he faced–“Pistol” Pete Reiser, who would go on to win the National League batting championship that year. The Dodgers roughed him up after that, and he did not pitch again for several days.
On a cold day in Boston, Stengel sent him in against the Giants without the benefit of warming up. After Ed walked the first two batters, Stengel pulled him. In the clubhouse, Ed and Stengel exchanged heated words and had to be separated from each other. Ed’s outburst earned him a trip back to the minors.
By 1943, he was back in the Coast League, this time pitching for the Seattle Rainiers. Still feeling the effects of his shoulder injury and frustrated by a series of one-run defeats, Ed complained to manager Bill Skiff that he was through on the mound. Skiff let his pitcher vent for a while. Then, just as Gazella had done at Ponca City, he put Ed in his outfield for the remainder of the season.
Ed sparkled offensively, his average reaching .330 at times. A hand injury on a play in the outfield caused his average to drop, but he finished the season hitting an even .300. Skiff was impressed with Ed’s grit and convinced Chicago White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes to give Ed a try in 1944.
When Ed took the field for Chicago in 1944, he joined a short list of major leaguers who began their careers as pitchers, but stayed in the majors after converting to position players: Rube Bressler, Babe Ruth, Johnny Cooney, Willie Smith, and Bobby Darwin, among others.
As an outfielder and sometime first baseman with the White Sox, Ed batted .276 in 457 at-bats. He drove in 60 runs, second on the staff to the great Hal Trosky. He struck out just 35 times and hit a single home run off the Yankees’ Walter “Monk” Dubiel.
He was traded in the off season to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Oris Hockett and was batting just .219 in thirty games when the Navy drafted him in June of 1945.
While going through his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Base just north of Chicago, Ed made the acquaintance of Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller. Feller was recently returned from active duty in the Pacific and now managed the Great Lakes baseball team.
Feller was in the process of perfecting a slider to complement his magnificent fastball and vicious curve. Hearing that Ed knew how to throw a slider, Feller had a jeep pick him up from his outfit and drive him to the baseball diamond. Ed schooled the great pitcher on the finer points of the pitch and even donned the catching gear as Feller worked on his mechanics.
After the service, Ed returned to the Rainiers and was recommended for a manager’s position in the Western International League. The announcement was made while Seattle was in Oakland playing the Oaks. Oakland manager Casey Stengel heard the news and hunted Ed down in his hotel. The two shared a long conversation about managing. When it was over, Stengel brought up their confrontation in the Boston Bee clubhouse five years earlier.
“You would’a really tried to whoop me?” Stengel asked.
“Yeah, I would’ve tried,” Ed replied.
“Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” Stengel offered. “I don’t have any resentment toward ya.”
Ed managed the Vancouver Capilanos of the Western International League in 1946, lasting about half a season. When Rainier first baseman Earl Torgeson went down with an injury, Ed was called back to Seattle. His own season ended with a knee injury on a base-running play.
After several teams and leagues, he landed with the Borger Gassers of the West Texas-New Mexico League (WT-NM) in 1948. The WT-NM was known for cozy ballparks, desert air, poor pitching, and prodigious offense. Both playing and managing Borger, Ed put up the best offensive numbers of his career. He batted .409 with 230 hits, 33 home runs, and 161 RBIs.
“If you hit a home run in a close ballgame, they’d stick money through the fence. Hell, I got about $350 one night for hitting a home run to win a ballgame.”
When he wasn’t in the outfield or at first base, Ed often took the mound to relieve his shell-shocked young pitchers. One afternoon, Ed gave up two home runs to Amarillo’s Bob Crues, who was en route to 69 home runs and 254 RBI’s that season. Not to be outdone, Ed hit three home runs of his own that day.
Ed remained in the WT-NM for several seasons. At Borger, in 1951, he pitched, played first base, managed, served as the general manager, and even drove the team bus. A Sporting News article that year heralded him as “Mr. Five Jobs.”
His playing and managerial career ended in 1955 with Gainsville and Ponca City in the Sooner State League, before he took a job running a country club in Burlington. He later worked for a chemical company, rising to the level of vice-president in charge of sales and marketing.
In 2012, the former Seattle Rainier returned to the Emerald City at age 95 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a Mariners game at Safeco Field. The Mariners wore throwback Rainiers jerseys and the Los Angeles Angels wore PCL Angels uniforms from 1955.
In October 2016, Ed celebrated his 100th birthday and was recognized as baseball’s oldest living former major-leaguer. He was married for more than 75 years to the former Marilee (MaryLee) Diffenderfer. They met at a county fair in her hometown of Lebanon, Missouri, after the 1940 season and married three months later. Ed and Marilee had three children, Jim Ed, Carol, and Susan.
He died on November 4, 2016, at his home in Ringling, Oklahoma, surrounded by his family.
Cleve, Craig Allen. Hardball on the Home Front. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004.
Ed Carnett, interview by author, January 29, 2001.
Ed Carnett, interview by author, March 2, 2001.
Ed Carnett, interview by author, March 21, 2001.