Gene Woodburn, sometimes known as “Woody” or “Woodie,” spent two lackluster seasons (1911 and 1912) pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals under manager Roger Bresnahan. He had a curveball that consistently drew praise, but his wildness — which had plagued him in the minor leagues — kept him from having a long major-league career. In fact, the accomplishment with St. Louis that attracted the most attention had nothing to do with his skill as a player. According to many news stories, he was a talented ventriloquist who was able to fool his manager, teammates, opponents, and umpires into thinking they were being mercilessly heckled from the stands.
Although his professional career was short, Woodburn was closely involved with baseball in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, for more than three decades as a semipro player, a coach, an umpire, and an advocate for local ball teams, ballplayers, and facilities.
Eugene Stewart Woodburn1 was born on August 20, 1886, in Bellaire, Ohio, to Byron W. and Isadore (Howell) Woodburn. His father, and his father’s father, were blacksmiths.2 The family lived in various places in Ohio and Indiana before settling in Sandusky after the turn of the century. The move was likely prompted by the relocation of the Enterprise Glass works to Sandusky, given that the company had previously been in Bellaire, where our subject was born, and in Dunkirk, Indiana, where his younger brother Paul was born.
A 1901 article in the Sandusky Star-Journal about glass companies preparing to move to the city noted that “it is the ideal place of residence for glass factory workers, for during the hot months, when the factories are idle, they have opportunities for healthful and cheap recreation right at home.”3 Byron Woodburn and both of his sons worked in Sandusky glass works, and both Gene and Paul played on local baseball teams.
In September 1906 Woodburn was signed by the Lancaster (Ohio) Lanks in the Class C Ohio & Pennsylvania League. In a start on September 11, he walked 13 batters in a 5-0 loss, though one account said he “was unhittable when men were on bases, thirteen dying there.”4 He gave up single runs in the fifth and sixth innings; three more scored in the ninth, apparently after Woodburn was moved to right field and his place taken on the mound.
Woodburn was back with Lancaster at the beginning of the 1907 season but by early July had moved to the Class D South Michigan League. There he split the season between the Kalamazoo White Sox and the Flint Vehicles, finishing with a 4-7 record in 13 appearances. His best game was a 1-0, 12-inning win for Kalamazoo over Lansing on August 10, in which he struck out 12 while giving up five hits and just one walk.5
The 1908 season found Woodburn playing semipro ball back in Sandusky, including a June 8 game against a visiting team from Detroit in which he started in left field but moved to the mound in the fourth inning. The Sandusky Register noted that he “used his ‘spit-ball’ to good advantage” in the last two innings. The paper’s story on the game included a cartoon sketch of Woodburn with a caption saying he “had a puzzler that struck out eight men in six innings.”6 On June 19 Woodburn broke the strikeout record for Sandusky’s League Park, fanning 17 in a 4-2 win over a visiting team from Fort Wayne.7 In October 1908, after the end of the local season, Woodburn was given a contract by the Dallas Giants of the Class C Texas League.8
A 1909 season preview in the Dallas Morning News said Woodburn “gives promise of being a sensational flinger, and those who have seen him work think he has more stuff than any young right-hander who has shown here for his first lesson.”9 In his first appearance for Dallas, Woodburn pitched four innings of one-hit, no-run ball in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Browns. The game account in the Morning News praised Woodburn, saying “Take a young pitcher with no professional experience and give him his first engagement against a band of major leaguers, is it not expected that he will perhaps yield a few hits and probably a few runs?”10 (The reporter was apparently unaware that Woodburn had pitched professionally in 1906 and 1907.)
His next game, an exhibition against the New York Giants, was a different story: entering a 1-0 game in the fourth, he proceeded to give up 14 runs in a 15-1 loss. His final tally included 11 hits, six walks, two hit batsmen, and a wild pitch, prompting the Morning News reporter to quip that “Woodburn ought to have had a compass or some other instrument which would have enabled him to locate the plate.”11 Three weeks later he pitched effectively in another exhibition, throwing four innings and giving up three hits and one run against the Detroit Tigers.12
Woodburn lost his first two starts against Texas League opponents, let down by his fielders, who committed 14 errors in the two games. In his third start, he gave up a leadoff single in the first and no other hits in a 5-0 shutout of Waco. (The game was shortened to six innings to allow the Waco team to catch a train.)13 His bad luck was back in his next game as he lost 1-0 with the only run scoring on an error.14 His season ended on July 5 when he was taken out of a game with what was reported as a sprained muscle or tendon in his pitching arm.15 His season record in 13 games was 4-7. In 103 innings he gave up 57 hits and 43 runs, while striking out 68 and walking 49 with 16 hit batsmen.16 He returned to Sandusky, where he pitched several games for a local team and later for a team in nearby Huron, including a no-hitter on September 6.17
Woodburn was back with Dallas in 1910. He pitched in exhibition games against the Browns and the Giants, as well as the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association in March and against the University of Texas baseball team in April. Early on, he found he had a problem with calluses caused by his off-season work as a glass blower that involved gripping steel pipes and twisting them. He used solutions to soften his hands, allowing him to get a good grip on the ball.18 In several starts and relief appearances in April and May he was hurt both by problems with his control and by poor fielding.19
Released by Dallas in May, he played with a semipro team in nearby Ennis, Texas (including several games against his former team).20 Re-signed by Dallas, he was sent to play with a Texas League rival, the Waco Navigators, apparently on loan from Dallas.21 He was 0-5 with Waco before being cast off by Dallas for good in August.22
In 1911, Woodburn signed with the Duluth White Sox – also called the White Hopes – of the Class C Wisconsin-Minnesota League.23 Here he really came into his own as a pitcher. He won the home opener against the Red Wing Manufacturers 5-2, allowing three hits with 13 strikeouts and one walk.24 On June 6 he no-hit the Winona Pirates, 5-0.25 He had two other shutouts in June with 12 strikeouts in one and 10 in the other.26
In early July, the Duluth club turned down an offer of $1,000 for Woodburn from the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.27 Scouts from the Dodgers, the Indians, and the Cardinals all pursued Woodburn.28 On July 20 Cardinals manager Roger Bresnahan announced that the pitcher had been purchased from Duluth for $1,500.29 (A scout for the Red Sox told Duluth’s owner that if he had held out for a couple of more days, Boston would have paid $2,500 for Woodburn.30)
Woodburn’s ventriloquism attracted attention from his first days with the Cardinals. A Detroit Times article on July 26, the day before Woodburn’s first major-league game, noted that “He can make the water barrel talk from the inside out and with Steve Evans and Harry Sallee makes up quite the comedy trio.”31 The Elyria, Ohio, Evening Telegram, two days later, said that “When he is on the bench he can roast the umpire and the umpire can’t tell who is roasting him.”32 (Both papers got his name wrong, calling him “Harry” instead of “Gene.”)
In his major-league debut on July 27, against the Phillies in St. Louis, Woodburn pitched two innings of scoreless relief, allowing one hit, in a 4-3 loss. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which called him “George” instead of “Gene” — said “he looked very promising. First of all, he displayed a lot of confidence despite the fact that he was facing a strong team in his inaugural appearance as a big leaguer. But he showed a drop and curve ball that rivaled anything in the major league.”33
After another relief appearance, he made his first start against Boston in the second game of a doubleheader on August 6, a 5-1 loss in which he gave up just three hits in seven innings but walked seven.
His only victory came in spectacular fashion. On September 9 against the Pirates in St. Louis, he entered the ninth inning with a no-hitter and a 7-0 lead. A walk, a stolen base, and an errant throw by Woodburn on a ball hit back to the box led to one run with the batter reaching third. The next batter pushed a bunt down the first base line that was picked up by first baseman Ed Konetchy for what looked like an easy out. But Konetchy slipped on the soggy field, allowing Vin Campbell to reach first for the only hit of the 7-2 game.34 A Pittsburgh report referred to him as “Eugene Woodburn, ventriloquist and pitcher.”35
For the season, Woodburn, appearing in 11 games, had a 1-5 record with a 5.40 ERA, with 23 strikeouts and 40 walks in 38 1/3 innings.
Back with the Cardinals in 1912, Woodburn made his season debut against the Reds in St. Louis on April 21, giving up a run on one hit and three walks in an inning of relief in a 7-1 loss. After two more relief stints, he made his first start of the season against Christy Mathewson and the Giants in St. Louis on May 9, giving up 11 hits and eight walks in an 8-3 loss.
Woodburn’s only victory of the season came on May 23 when he pitched a scoreless seventh in a come-from-behind 11-10 win over the Reds. He made his second start two days later but was pulled in the second, having walked four and with a three-ball count on the next batter.36 He pitched in mop-up roles in his next three appearances before making his first start in nearly a month on June 19. Fielding a ball in the second, he tore a ligament in his pitching arm.37 Subsequently, he was out of action for a month.
Woodburn returned in late July and saw limited action in relief over the next few weeks before getting another start on September 3 in Cincinnati, a 7-1 loss in which he gave up seven runs on nine hits and five walks in six innings.38 He mopped up again on September 8, coming in after the starter had given up six runs in the first with no outs. Woodburn gave up another six over seven innings, as the Cardinals lost to Pittsburgh, 12-8. He got another start in Boston on September 16 but was knocked out in the second in an 8-4 defeat. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat headlined its story “Woodburn Gets Usual Beating.”39
His final major-league appearance was a one-inning relief stint in Pittsburgh on September 27 in which he gave up one run on one hit and two walks in a 4-0 loss to the Pirates. Overall, Woodburn had a 1-4 record with a 5.59 ERA, with 25 strikeouts and 42 walks in 48 1/3 innings.40 He was dropped by the Cardinals and assigned to Louisville of the American Association after the end of the season.41
A story, widely circulated in January 1913 and attributed to Bill Sweeney of the Braves, said that Woodburn’s ventriloquist antics were the reason he was sent to the minors after the 1912 season, in what Sweeney called “the last official act of Roger Bresnahan.”42 (Bresnahan was fired at the end of the season.)
Bresnahan himself, however, seemed to dispel that notion. Writing about Woodburn in the St. Louis Star two years later, Bresnahan told how, after being fooled himself by Woodburn, he came to enjoy the pitcher’s act. “This young man contributed much to the gayety of the team that year, and some of his adventures in the sleeping cars were screechingly funny,” he wrote.43 It appears much more likely that Woodburn’s control problems and overall poor pitching record over two years with the Cardinals were what led to his return to the minors.
Other references to his skill at throwing his voice appeared in many newspapers during his two years with the Cardinals. Victims, in addition to his manager, his teammates, and umpires, were said to include Johnny Evers of the Cubs and Hub Perdue of the Braves.
After a brief holdout for a higher salary,44 Woodburn joined the Louisville Colonels of the American Association for the 1913 season. He was praised for having “the widest curves” in the league but was criticized, as in the past, for lapses of control.45 Overall, he was 15-10 with a 4.00 ERA for Louisville, pitching 213 2/3 innings over 39 games, with 119 strikeouts and 105 walks.
In 1914, Woodburn was reported to be negotiating with the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League,46 but instead returned to Louisville. After pitching six games, posting a 1-3 record with a 4.55 ERA, he was released to Sioux City (Iowa) in the Western League and finished the season there. Overall, he was 6-7 with a 4.60 ERA, pitching 105 2/3 innings over 22 games with 64 strikeouts and 68 walks.
Woodburn pitched for semipro teams in Sandusky from 1915 to 1917, before getting one more crack at the professional ranks with the Waterbury (Connecticut) Nattatucks of the Class B Eastern League.47 Statistics are incomplete, but he was 5-11 in 18 games with just 44 walks in 130 innings, easily the best control numbers of his professional career.
Back in Sandusky, Woodburn continued to work at the glass factory. The 1915 city directory listed him as a “base ball player & glass worker.” In 1916 he was shown as “glassworker also ball player.” Ballplayer was not shown after that year.
He later worked for the city street department for 36 years, rising to be assistant superintendent.48 He and his wife, the former Ida Theisen — they met in Sandusky and married in Dallas in 1910 when Gene was playing in the Texas League49 — had two sons and two daughters.
Woodburn continued, into his 40s, to play semipro ball with a variety of teams in Sandusky and nearby cities and towns, including many sponsored by local factories. He also coached, managed, and umpired.50 He served on the executive committee of a new Merchant Amateur Baseball Association, beginning in 1930, telling the local paper he would devote as much time as he could spare to help youngsters have an opportunity to play ball and develop their skills.51 He also served on the committee managing a new baseball park and sports center.52
On his 47th birthday, August 20, 1933, Woodburn took the mound for the Light House Bread team, pitching four innings and getting the win over the H & S Bakers. “He showed fans he still has something left in that old arm,” reported the local paper. Woodburn said he hoped to pitch on his birthday every year until he turned 50.53 He pitched for an old-timers team as late as 1937, when he was 51. (The story about that game in the local paper mentioned his old-time ventriloquist tricks.)54 He was still coaching, umpiring, and helping young players into his 60s.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 Woodburn’s middle name is listed in different ways in different sources. Even his own signature is inconsistent. On his World War I draft registration form he signed it “Strett,” but the form recorded it as “Sterett”. On his World War II draft registration form he signed it “Stewert,” and the form recorded it as “Stewart.” Both of his sons, on separate questionnaires filled out for the Hall of Fame, spelled it “Stewart.”
2 United States Census, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910. The 1910 Census shows his father’s occupation as a blacksmith at a glass factory.
3 “Glass Factory,” Sandusky (Ohio) Star, June 7, 1901: 5.
4 “Old Time Hoodoos Were Blanked by Limric’s Benders,” New Castle (Pennsylvania) Herald, September 12, 1906: 3.
5 “Kalamazoo in 12,” Detroit Free Press, August 11, 1907: 13.
6 “At Sunday’s Ball Game,” Sandusky Register, June 8, 1908: 2.
7 “Local Strike-Out Record is Broken,” Sandusky Register, July 20, 1908: 2.
8 “Local Pitcher Gets Fine Job,” Sandusky Register, October 13, 1908: 2.
9 “No Worry About Pitchers,” Dallas Morning News, March 7, 1909: 31.
10 “Peters Is in Form; M’Aleer’s Men Lose,” Dallas Morning News, March 7, 1909: 30.
11 “Dallas Is Easy Victim for New York Giants,” Dallas Morning News, March 15, 1909: 11.
12 “Daring Work on Bases Enables Tigers to Win,” Dallas Morning News, April 3, 1909: 13.
13 “Woodburn Wins; Allows One Hit. Maloney’s Men Finally Get Together Behind the Husky Young Twirler,” Dallas Morning News, May 5, 1909: 12.
14 “Giants Shut Out in Both Contests,” Dallas Morning News, May 8, 1909: 12.
15 “Woodburn’s Arm is Injured,” Dallas Morning News, July 6, 1909: 2.
16 “Drucke Leading Pitcher for Texas League in 1909,” Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1909: 37.
17 “Gene Pitched No Hit Game,” Sandusky Register, September 7, 1909: 5.
18 “Woodburn’s Hands Too Hard,” Dallas Morning News, April 1, 1910: 11.
19 “Seven Errors Give Shreveport Game,” Dallas Morning News, May 25, 1910: 10.
20 “Woodburn Signs with Ennis,” Dallas Morning News, May 29, 1910: 10.
21 “Giants Go to Top When Houston Loses,” Dallas Morning News, July 16, 1910: 8.
22 Horace H. Shelton, “Texas League Notes,” El Paso Herald-Post, August 22, 1910: 9. Baseball Reference does not show Woodburn with Waco in 1910, but newspaper accounts of the team show him losing five games.
23 “Three Sandusky Men to Play with Duluth,” Sandusky Star-Journal, February 24, 1911: 7.
24 “Fans Welcome Advent of Minny League,” Duluth (Minnesota) News-Tribune, May 25, 1911: 1,6.
25 “Woodburn Pitches No-Hit Game; White Hopes Defeat Winona 5 to 0,” Duluth News-Tribune, June 7, 1911: 6.
26 “Woodie Hurls Tip-Top Bout,” Duluth News-Tribune, June 19, 1911: 3; “’Begrimed’ Hopes Win Sunday Contest, 3 to 0,” Duluth News-Tribue, June 26, 1911: 3.
27 “Kelly Would Buy Woodburn,” Duluth News-Tribune, July 2, 191: 1.
28 “Scouts After Two of Hopes,” Duluth News-Tribune, July 17, 1911: 13.
29 “St. Louis Buys Duluth Pitcher,” Duluth News-Tribune, July 20, 191: 6.
30 “Sullivan Looks Over White Sox,” Duluth News-Tribune, July 24, 1911: 1.
31 “Cardinals Have Pitcher Who Is a Ventriloquist,” Detroit Times, July 26, 1911: 6.
32 “Tough on Umpires Is Ventriloquist,” Evening Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), July 28, 1911: 3.
33 “Cardinals Take Drop but Should Not Stay in Second Division,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 1911: 7.
34 “Soggy Fields Spoils No=Hit Contest for Young Mr. Woodburn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 10, 1911: Part Two, 8.
35 W.J. O’Connor, “Locals Win, Then Lose,” Pittsburg Press, September 10, 1911: 9.
36 W.J. O’Connor, “Sallee Rescues Game Woodburn All but Tossed,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 26, 1912: Part Four, 1.
37 “Robinson Pitches Championship Ball and Pirates Win, 8 to 1,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 20, 1912: 13.
38 “Woodburn Given Chance, Is Wild,” Sandusky Register, July 24, 1912: 8.
39 “Woodburn Gets Usual Beating,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 17, 1912: 12.
40 There is a discrepancy in Baseball Reference between the player page and the game log. Per the game log, he only pitched 46 2/3/ innings and had a 5.79 ERA.
41 “Gene Woodburn Is Given a Release,” Sandusky Star-Journal, December 13, 1912: 9.
42 “Tells Why Pitcher Woodburn Lost His Job with Cardinals,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), January 18, 1913: 10.
43 Roger Bresnahan, “The Cardinals’ Ventriloquist,” St. Louis Star, January 20, 1915: 10.
44 “Big League Notes,” Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser, February 28, 1913: 12.
45 “Has Some Outshoot: Woodburn Is Credited with Widest Curves in A.A.,” Sandusky Register, June 3, 1913: 8.
46 “Two Colonel Holdouts,” Aberdeen (South Dakota) American, February 20, 1914: 5.
47 “Woodburn Gets a Job,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 21, 1918: 7.
48 Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995.
49 “Mr. And Mrs. Eugene Woodburn are Honored with Surprise Party,” Sandusky Register, April 12, 1935: 8.
50 There are numerous articles in the Sandusky papers documenting his participation in games.
51 “Hardball Players Met Sunday at Junior High,” Sandusky Star-Journal, March 30, 1931: 8.
52 “New Baseball Park and Sport Center Is Called ‘Esmond Athletic Field’,” Sandusky Register, July 11, 1931: 6.
53 “Bakers Handed One-Sided Setback by Bread team; Woodburn Takes to Mound,” Sandusky Star-Journal, August 21, 1933: 8
54 “Woodburn, Former Big-Leaguer, Is to Hurl for Oldsters,” Sandusky Star-Journal, September 1, 1937: 12.
55 “Series Hero Bill Wamby Here,” Sandusky Register, August 19, 1959: 14.
56 “To Celebrate Golden Anniversary Sunday,” Sandusky Register, April 4, 1960: 10.
57 “Eugene Woodburn, 74, Ball Player, Dies Here,” Sandusky Register, January 18, 1961: 14.
58 “Eugene Stewart ‘Gene’ Woodburn, Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/50521053/eugene-stewart-woodburn.