Fred Caligiuri’s career as a major league pitcher was brief, just seven starts and 11 other mound appearances over a little more than a calendar year. But for a day, at the end of the 1941 American League season, he was center-stage as events left baseball with one of its most enduring statistics: .406. And like many other promising young ballplayers whose main chance coincided with the eve of World War II, he spent three of what could have been his most productive baseball years in the service of his country.
At the time of his death in 2018, Frederick John Caligiuri was the oldest living former major-leaguer. A century earlier, he was born in West Hickory on October 22, 1918, he was the only son and fourth of five children of Forton and Bertha Gertsch Caligiuri.1 His older sisters were Pauline, Evelyn, and Viola; his fourth sister, Mary, was born two years later.
Forton, at age 12, emigrated with two brothers from Cortale, Catanzaro province, in Italy’s Calabria region to the United States in 1908. Bertha was a first-generation Swiss-American, born in northwestern Pennsylvania. Forton, guided by relatives to a lumber and tanning company in the area, met Bertha there. The couple settled in West Hickory, a village in remote, sparsely-populated, Forest County, Pennsylvania, 110 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.2 Forton rose to foreman in the tannery; Bertha kept house.
Caligiuri was a third baseman with the West Hickory town team by age 12 and played baseball and basketball at tiny Endeavor High School. A natural athlete at six feet, 190 pounds, he led the baseball team with his hitting and pitched on occasion. Caligiuri graduated in 1936 and worked for several months in the local tannery before setting out for the Les Mann Baseball School in Miami in the spring of 1937 to see what he could accomplish in professional baseball.
Scouts there quickly nabbed him for the unaffiliated Greenville (N.C.) Greenies of the Class D Coastal Plain League. “I had pitched a little in high school, but I thought of myself as an outfielder and I loved to hit,” Caligiuri remembers. “They liked my arm on throws from the outfield and told me to try pitching.” He did, logged 184 innings for Greenville in 1937, and went 8-15. Back at Greenville in 1938 and still learning, Caligiuri pitched an even 200 innings and improved to a 10-7 record.
By 1939, Caligiuri was maturing at Greenville, winning all eight of his decisions as prelude to a Coastal Plain League all-star season there in 1940. That year he notched 20 wins in 228 innings of work with a 3.57 ERA and launched three home runs as a pitcher who could hit. “The nearest I ever came to pitching a no-hit, no-run ballgame was in 1940. I beat Kinston [N. C.] 1-0 in ten innings, giving up two infield hits,” he remembered.
Scouting for the A’s, future Hall of Famer Chief Bender saw sufficient promise in Caligiuri’s steady progress at Greenville to sign him for Philadelphia’s Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks (Class B, Interstate League) club during the 1940-41 offseason. The Blue Rocks held spring camp near Luray, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. On the trip back to Wilmington in May 1941, the brakes on the team bus failed on a curve. The bus rolled over three times down an embankment and was kept from plunging further only when restrained by trees. Seven players, including Caligiuri, with arm and leg bruises, were slightly hurt. The team, spared, regrouped to open the Interstate League season on schedule; 72 years later Caligiuri still remembers how close he and his teammates came to death in a Skyline Drive gorge.
Looking past the close call to a new challenge, Caligiuri had a stellar season at the advanced level. He won 16 games with a 1.79 ERA, retired 21 consecutive hitters against Trenton, and was once again selected to his league’s all-star team. By August 15, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack, desperate for help for his sixth-place A’s, told writers, “There’s a pitcher at Wilmington who’s shown a lot of stuff. His name’s Freddy Caligiuri and he’s young and fast, just what we need.”
The A’s summoned Caligiuri to the majors at the end of the Interstate League season, bumping his salary to $3,000. Still only 22 and just five years removed from the wilds of Forest County, he got a September 3 start at Washington in his debut and pitched into the ninth. He yielded seven runs, only four earned, got two hits, including a triple, and drove in a run in his own cause, but got no decision. Phil Marchildon, relieving Caligiuri, took the loss in a wild 9-8 game.3
Mack gave Caligiuri a thorough look. Through September 21, he started three more times, each a complete game. He picked up his first win against Cleveland at home in Shibe Park on September 10, losing the other two, against St. Louis and at Washington.
Sunday, September 28, dawned with the A’s in a familiar place, eighth, at 63-89. The visiting Red Sox were second, but 17½ games behind New York.4 The season-ending doubleheader drew 10,268 to Shibe Park, one of the A’s’ better draws of the season despite their futility. The attraction was Ted Williams’ quest to hit .400; the A’s were also observing Lefty Grove Day.
The mystical .400 hadn’t been achieved in the American League since 1923 or the National League since 1930. Williams took a .3995 average (which would have rounded to an even .400) into the doubleheader and, despite suggestions that he sit out the seemingly-meaningless games, told manager Joe Cronin with typical Williams pugnacity, “A batting title is no good unless you play every game of the season.”
The Red Sox survived 12-11 in the opener despite a nine-run fifth inning by the A’s. Connie Mack had instructed his pitchers to challenge Williams rather than walk him, and three A’s pitchers, Dick Fowler, Porter Vaughan, and Tex Shirley, got the opportunity in the first game as the rest of the Red Sox added 12 hits to Williams’ four.
Williams was now over .400 without rounding but doggedly took left field behind another future Hall of Famer, Lefty Grove, obligingly starting the second game for Boston on his Day.5 Mack countered with Caligiuri, who retired the side in the first inning without incident, while the A’s rocked Grove for three runs in the bottom of the inning. Caligiuri faced Williams for the first time in the top of the second and yielded a single. The A’s added another run in the second, finishing Grove, and led 4-0 when Williams batted again in the fourth inning. As John Holway recounts in Ted, the Kid, Caligiuri had concluded, “it was clear that Ted could hit fastballs. The only way to get him out was to change up.” So he tried.
Williams responded by hammering a double roughly 460 feet to nearly dead center in spacious Shibe Park, smashing one of the public address speaker horns mounted on the outfield wall, but Caligiuri stranded him. The A’s pecked away against reliever Earl Johnson and were handily in command before Williams’ last at-bat. This time, challenging successfully, Caligiuri prevailed and got Williams out. 6 Williams’ two-for-three in the second game lifted him to .406 (rounded from .4057) for the season. Seventy-two years later it still stands as the last .400 season in Major League Baseball.
Boston catcher Frankie Pytlak homered in the top of the eighth to deny Caligiuri a shutout, but the rookie, despite facing and challenging Williams on an historic day, had himself a memorable six-hit, complete-game, 7-1 victory that salvaged a doubleheader split. 7
Caligiuri was one of 244 “virtual newcomers” to the 1942 major league reserve rosters reported by The Sporting News. With Pearl Harbor attacked in December 1941 and baseball moving into wartime, the inexperienced players represented 40.3 percent of the 605 reserved.
Connie Mack was upbeat. In February 1942, a Sporting News account found him “tired of looking at his men appear on the field in everything from burlap bag underwear to a night shirt.” He purchased each player a pair (light wool for summer; heavier for spring and fall) of blue-sleeved undershirts to complement new 1942 uniforms featuring blue home caps (replacing white and gray) and solid blue stockings. The shirts cost the club $7.50 per player and the total purchase for 30 players and coaches “amounts to a considerable sum,” Philadelphia Inquirer writer Stan Baumgartner, reporting for The Sporting News, concluded. A club official added, “We are going to be neat, clean, and snappy this season.”
Although the A’s would be sartorially set, they faced their enduring second-division problems again in 1942. But an optimistic Mack saw promise in his young pitching staff, telling the annual Philadelphia sportswriters dinner in late January, “Fred Caligiuri, Phil Marchildon, Roger Wolff, Dick Fowler, and Russell Christopher are all going to make you sit up and take notice.”
The Inquirer’s Baumgartner, a former major league pitcher himself, agreed that Caligiuri “made a favorable impression in the final weeks of last season,” as he covered A’s spring training in Anaheim, California.8 But there was concern as the end of camp neared. “The failure of the pitchers to reach the shape he hoped has stymied Mack. Dick Fowler and Fred Caligiuri have not reached the form expected,” Baumgartner reported for The Sporting News.
Concern was warranted. The 1942 A’s finished even more poorly than the 1941 club. They were 55-99 and eighth again, this time 48 games off the Yankees’ pace. They were better on the road than at home but did manage to out-draw St. Louis and Washington. Only Marchildon and Wolff fulfilled Mack’s predictions about the pitching staff. Marchildon was 17-14 (.548) for the .357 team, Wolff won 12, and Lum Harris, whom Mack hadn’t even mentioned in January, won 11.
But along with Fowler and Christopher, Caligiuri was a disappointment in the majors in 1942. Despite his shaky spring he opened the season as a member of the regular rotation, starting the third game of the season at Boston on April 16. He left trailing 5-1 after four innings and took the loss in a 19-4 Red Sox rout as Williams and his mates feasted on reliever Les McCrabb for 14 runs over four innings. Quickly out of the rotation, Caligiuri got his only other start on May 27 at New York and went another four innings, yielding seven runs and absorbing another loss. Between the starts he had pitched ineffectively in relief and in early June he was optioned back to Wilmington.
There, he revisited his minor league success with a 12-6 record and 2.19 ERA in 148 innings. He also hit .303 and his .424 slugging percentage, albeit in just 66 at-bats, led the Blue Rocks.
Mack re-called Caligiuri in September 1942. He pitched twice, a total of three innings on September 19 and 20. Although neither Caligiuri nor Mack knew it then, the September 20 appearance marked the last time the youngster who had shown so much promise would pitch in the major leagues. 9
In December The Sporting News reported that Caligiuri would return for 1943, noting that Marchildon and Jack Knott from the 1942 pitching staff had enlisted. But with World War II raging, Caligiuri was drafted into the Army in March 1943. “I got two contracts in the mail that winter,” he recalls, “one from Connie Mack and one from Uncle Sam.” His initial posting was to the New Cumberland Reception Center in York County, Pennsylvania, where he was a training instructor and pitched for the base’s 1943 team, which finished 44-6. He won 10, lost 1, and was also one of the leading hitters.10
Promoted to first sergeant after 11 months and reassigned to Army amphibious operations, Caligiuri served in English Channel transport, then in the Philippines and broader Pacific theater for the rest of the war. He was mustered out in March 1946 in time for baseball’s “when the boys came back” season but had been away from top-level competition for three years. Philadelphia gave him a look in spring training in West Palm Beach, but he didn’t impress and was released on May 8.
Caligiuri, now 27, caught on again at Wilmington, which had switched affiliations to the NL Phillies. Player-manager Jack Saltzgaver gave the right-hander a chance to work off his military rust and Caligiuri responded with 14 wins and a 3.51 ERA in 169 innings. Again, he hit well for a pitcher, with some power: .262/5 HR/.442 SLG.
Caligiuri had established that he could still succeed, at least in the mid-level minors. 11 But with the war over, established players still returning, and the burgeoning minors filled with younger prospects, it was time to for a 28-year-old with two major league auditions to move on. “I just didn’t have it anymore,” he remembers.
Fred had met Anne Quinn in Greenville while with the Greenies. They had married on June 19, 1941. After the 1946 Wilmington season they returned to western Pennsylvania and settled in Knox, Clarion County, about 30 miles south of West Hickory. There Fred went to work with his sister Viola’s husband as business manager of Chapman Motor Company, a Ford dealership. He was active in local civic and veterans’ clubs and headed up the new Knox Little League baseball program. 12
When an opportunity with a Ford-Mercury dealership in nearby Rimersburg opened in 1956, the family moved there and Fred joined Rimersburg Motors. He acquired the franchise in 1962 and operated a thriving, customer-service-oriented dealership until he sold the business and retired in 1980. On arrival in Rimersburg he had taken up golf, discovered a real affinity for the game, and played at least two rounds a week into his late eighties, often making pilgrimages to Myrtle Beach and Florida to tune his game after dreary, golf-less western Pennsylvania winters. “But I took Gary Player’s advice and stopped playing when I could hear my tee shots hitting the ground,” he quipped.
Fred followed baseball closely, especially the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Predictably, he was interested in how pitching staffs are managed today, with pitching coaches, closely-monitored pitch counts, six innings often considered an acceptable start, situational relievers, and closers. “In my day they didn’t fool with you after you got to the major leagues, and you were expected to pitch a whole game,” he commented. On the elaborate efforts today’s teams are putting into developing young pitchers, he offered, “You still can’t teach somebody to throw a hundred miles an hour, that’s got to be natural.”
The couple celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary in June 2013. Fred and Anne still lived in Rimersburg, but as Anne developed major health difficulties (she died in October 2014) and Fred broke a hip, they moved to an assisted living community in Charlotte, close to their only child, son Fred Jr., a principal with Easlan Capital of Charlotte, a real estate development firm.13
He celebrated his 100th birthday in October 2018 and was the oldest living former major-leaguer at the time of his death a month later on November 30, 2018.
Fred Caligiuri Jr., Charlotte, North Carolina.
Robert W. Creamer, Baseball [and Other Matters] in ’41 (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991; Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 271.
John B. Holway, Ted, the Kid (Springfield, VA: Scorpio Books, 2010), 312.
Frederick Turner, When the Boys Came Back: Baseball and 1946 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).
New York Times, September 29, 1941.
The Sporting News, Various issues, September 19, 1940, to December 25, 1946.
BaseballInWartime.com (Fred Caligiuri entry by Gary Bedingfield)
WhosAliveandWhosDead.com (Oldest Living Major Leaguers list)
Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY; Excerpts from Fred Caligiuri player file (Accessed by Eric Enders, Cooperstown, NY).
Transylvania County Library, Brevard, NC; Genealogical databases.
United States National Historic Landmarks, National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania (West Hickory Bridge).
Author’s telephone interviews with Fred Caligiuri, June 30, 2003, and April 3, 2013.
1 On October 22, 2017, Fred Caligiuri attained age 99. With the death of Chuck Stevens on May 28, 2018, Fred Caligiuri stands No. 1 on the list of oldest-living Major League Baseball players.
2 West Hickory is on the Allegheny River, which rises in Potter County in north-central Pennsylvania, curls northwest into New York State, then winds south through western Pennsylvania to join the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh, forming the Ohio River. At least in the first half of the 20th century, the distance between West Hickory and Pittsburgh could be described just as easily as 110 light-years as 110 miles.
3 Caligiuri recalls his first meeting with Connie Mack: “Right after they called me up I was sitting there on the bench. I didn’t know anybody and nobody was talking to me. Connie Mack came down the line, tossed me the ball and said, ‘You’re pitching today.’ Two years before I was in Class D, and here I was pitching in the major leagues.”
4 The A’s had last won more than they lost in 1933 (79-72) and managed their next winning season in 1947 (78-76).
5 Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove, who broke in with the A’s in 1925, had joined select company with his 300th win earlier in 1941, but was only 7-6 for the season when he started against Caligiuri on September 28. At the end of an illustrious career, Grove, 41, retired before the 1942 season. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1947.
6 Recollections differ on how the out was made. Some sources recall a fly to right, some a fly to left. Caligiuri himself remembers a “pop-up that carried far enough behind the shortstop that [left fielder] Elmer Valo caught it.”
7 The game was called because of darkness after eight innings.
8 Caligiuri recalls that the A’s traveled to San Quentin prison for a game against the inmates’ team during 1942 spring training. When the prison team ran short of pitchers, Mack lent them Caligiuri. Of pitching against his teammates, he said, “It gave me a chance to brush them back a little. And now I can tell people I spent some time as an inmate at San Quentin.”
9 Caligiuri remembers loving to hit so much that after pitching a complete game for Greenville in the first game of a doubleheader late in the 1939 season he persuaded manager Halley Wilson to let him play right field in the second game. “On a throw into second base I felt a little twinge in my arm. From then on I always had that when I pitched.”
10 Caligiuri and four New Cumberland teammates, brandishing bats, rated a photo in the May 13, 1943, Sporting News. 6.
11 Wilmington was in Class B in 1946 and remained at that classification for 1947. The minors had reorganized in 1946, creating AAA and doing away with A-1. While before reorganization there had been five leagues in the three levels above Class B, in 1946 there were seven. In 1947 there were eight.
12 The author grew up in Knox and was a weak-armed, light-hitting second baseman in the Little League program a few years after Caligiuri got it going.
13 Chapel Fowler, “Oldest living MLB player, at 99, lives in Charlotte. And he has a great story to tell,” Charlotte Observer, July 17, 2018. Accessed online at https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/mlb/article214192669.html on July 20, 2018.