Babe Ruth was irreplaceable. So when the end finally came for Ruth during the first game of a doubleheader on May 30, 1935, Boston Braves manager Bill McKechnie sent in outfielder Hal Lee to replace the irreplaceable. Lee was accustomed to playing in the shadows of other stars of the 1930s, including Chuck Klein and Wally Berger. After replacing Ruth that day, Lee had a double and four singles across both games, showing glimpses of why he was once considered a promising prospect in the National League. Hal Lee ultimately fell short of those prospect expectations, but at least for a few seasons, he was a bright spot on otherwise downtrodden teams of the Depression era.
Hal Burnham Lee was born on February 15, 1905, in Ludlow, Mississippi. Many baseball reference books show Lee’s first name being Harold, and though Hal is a shortened form of that name, U.S. Census reports, Lee’s draft card, and his grave marker all imply that his name was simply Hal. Hal Lee was the first of five children born to Dr. Harry Otho and Johnnie (née Majors) Lee. Following brother Percy in 1908, the Lees welcomed a set of triplets (one boy and two girls) in 1912. Dr. Lee was the third generation of Lee men to reside in Ludlow, a town situated in central Mississippi, about 50 miles northeast of Jackson. After studying medicine in Memphis and Atlanta, Harry returned to Ludlow and served as a physician to the citizens of Scott County. His 1934 obituary proclaimed him to be beloved by many in the surrounding counties and stated he was one of the few remaining real country doctors.1
After starring in several sports in the Scott County schools, Hal enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, where he became one of the most decorated athletes to ever play for the Choctaws. The right-handed throwing and hitting Lee starred as a shortstop for the baseball team, and lettered in basketball and track as well, but he especially excelled in football. Hal was immensely popular at Mississippi College and came to be commonly known as “Sheriff.” The reason for the nickname is not known but one would think it derived from him being captain of the football and baseball teams and leading the basketball team to a 1928 conference championship. The nickname was used sparingly over his first few years in professional baseball but never really stuck in the majors. But for as long as he lived, any mention of him in his home state of Mississippi referred to “the Sheriff.” Lee’s two brothers also played football at Mississippi College, but in a tragic coincidence, both died during their junior years there. Percy died in November 1929 after suffering fractured vertebrae in the team’s Thanksgiving Day game. Youngest brother James, one of the triplets, died in January 1934, following an emergency appendectomy.
“Sheriff” Lee spent the summer before his senior year in 1927 playing for a semi-pro team in McComb, Mississippi.2 Hal considered football his favorite sport, but at a time when professional football wasn’t as popular, he knew baseball was the better career choice. He contacted fellow Mississippi College alumnus, Brooklyn Robins pitcher Watson Clarke, to ask his manager, Wilbert Robinson, for a tryout while the team was in St Louis.3 Lee headed back home from the tryout without an offer, but Brooklyn’s Southern regional scout, Nap Rucker, was advised by Robinson to keep tabs on the youngster. Rucker watched him and was impressed enough that he offered a contract. Brooklyn assigned Lee to the Macon Peaches in the Class B South Atlantic (“Sally”) League; he joined the team in June after he finished school and received his degree in Secondary Education.
After a brief trial at third base Lee was moved to the outfield by Macon manager Wilber Good. Standing 5’11” and weighing 180 pounds, Hal didn’t necessarily appear to be a power hitter, but he was strong for his size and made an immediate impression in Macon with his bat. Although he did not join the Peaches until late June, he finished the season tied for sixth in the Sally League with fifteen home runs. It was a successful debut season, but Lee didn’t take time off to reflect on it. Once the season was complete, he followed his former Mississippi College coach, George Bohler, to Auburn University where Lee became an assistant to head football coach Bohler. He also assisted Bohler in coaching basketball that winter, and in the ensuing years he followed Bohler to Louisiana Tech in the same roles. Hal was lucky to find an open spot on his busy calendar in November 1928 to wed the former Gertrude Mae Hall.
The Macon Peaches opened the 1929 season in a new ballpark, Central City Park. During an April 8 exhibition game Lee hit a shot over the center fielder’s head that rolled 450 feet to the fence for an inside-the-park grand slam.4 It was the first home run in the park that would later be known as Luther Williams Park, a ballfield that is still in use today and has provided the background for many baseball movies over the years. Before the season had even started Brooklyn papers were already expressing excitement about Lee being “…young, strong, and an enthusiastic swinger”5 whose batting style evoked images of Chick Hafey. After batting .359 for Macon in 86 games, Lee was promoted to the Atlanta Crackers of the Class A Southern Association where he hit .342 to finish the season.
During the 1929-1930 winter season, Lee succeeded Bohler as Auburn’s head basketball coach, but his 1-10 record caused little concern that he might give up on his baseball career. When the Brooklyn Robins set out for Clearwater, Florida to start spring training, Lee was one of the invitees for a spot in the outfield. Lee seemed to check off the boxes that Robinson was looking for in a left fielder. He proved himself capable of holding down an outfield position defensively, and though his hitting was considered spotty it was also “of the long variety.”6 Hal made the Robins’ opening day roster, then made his major league debut on April 19 in the ninth inning of the second game of the year. He entered the game as a pinch hitter for pitcher Ray Moss and was struck out by Boston Braves pitcher Ben Cantwell without lifting the bat off his shoulder.7 In his first three months, Lee got into only nine games (starting two of them) and went 0-for-16. He finally got his first hit on July 21, and he made it a memorable one. With the Dodgers down 9-2 at home in the second inning of the second game of a doubleheader against St. Louis, Lee was sent in to pinch hit for pitcher Jumbo Elliot. With two runners on he drove a pitch from Al Grabowski over the right field wall. The feat matched that of Cardinals rookie George Puccinelli, who also hit a pinch-hit three-run homer for his first major league hit in the first game earlier that day.
Following the breakthrough home run, Lee went through another rough spell and was hitless in six more at-bats through the end of August. With Brooklyn vying for a pennant, Lee was banished to the bench for the first three weeks of September. He certainly could have benefitted from a season at Class A Atlanta, but Brooklyn had already sent him to the minor leagues on option twice and would have had to pass him through the waiver wires for a third option. Other major league teams could have claimed him; thus, Brooklyn kept him on the roster for the entire season. Hal seemed to take the growing pains of being a rookie in stride and maintained confidence in his hitting abilities. One reporter colorfully quoted manager Robinson as saying about Lee “Whenever we can use a pinch hitter…this darned kid gets up and parades up and down in front of me.”8 Finally, with Brooklyn out of the pennant race by September 24, Lee was put back in the lineup and played every inning of the final four games of the year. He finished the season with an encouraging streak of five hits in fourteen at-bats, though all five hits were singles.
If Lee was going to have a successful second season in the majors, it was going to come in a Phillies uniform. Having wasted Lee’s age 25 season on the bench to avoid losing him to waivers, Brooklyn wasted no time trading him after the conclusion of the 1930 season. He was packaged with Jumbo Elliot and Clise Dudley and sent to Philadelphia on October 14 in exchange for infielder Fresco Thompson and star outfielder Lefty O’Doul, who had just followed up a National League batting title in 1929 by hitting .383 in 1930. Like most of the deals the cash-strapped Phillies were making at the time, the trade involved a cash consideration, in this case, it was thought to be $25,000 going to the Phils.9 Soon after the trade, an article by Thomas Holmes of the Brooklyn Eagle said Robinson had looked forward to seeing what Hal could do in 1931 for the Dodgers. Lee managed only six hits in 37 at bats in 1930, but only had five strikeouts, and Robinson explained that bad luck was at least a part of his problem in Brooklyn. “He bangs away at a good one and some fielder couldn’t get out of the ball’s path if he tried.”10
That same article by Holmes noted how “Lee really flashed enough in a Brooklyn uniform to indicate that he might develop into the traditional hard-hitting Philadelphia outfielder, and he is already a better fielder than most of the Phillies.”11 Holmes’s prediction eventually came to fruition, but not in 1931. Lee won the left field position to start the 1931 season but was batting .159 on May 8 when he lost his starting position to Fred Brickell. His average climbed to around .220 in August, but he was finally demoted to the minors. Back with Atlanta, Lee finished the season on a tear, hitting .424 over 32 games.
Any concerns about Lee being able to hit major league pitching were squelched in 1932. After he again earned the starting left field role out of spring training, Lee proved Holmes’s prediction to be correct and he finally displayed the power that he had hinted at in the minors. He hit 18 homers to finish behind only Klein and Don Hurst on the Phils. His 10 triples tied for seventh in the NL, and his 42 doubles tied for fifth. Batting predominantly seventh in the lineup, he hit .303 across 149 games to help complete an all .300-hitting outfield with Klein, the league MVP, and Kiddo Davis. The Phillies were the top team in the league in batting average, runs, and home runs playing in the hitter-friendly confines of the Baker Bowl. However, Philadelphia finished fourth that year because they also had the NL’s worst pitching staff, with league highs in hits and runs allowed. Lee chased batted balls around Baker Bowl all year long. He finished at or near the top of the league standings for left fielders in several defensive categories like putouts and assists. But with so many chances he also led all NL left fielders with 12 errors.
Although he swatted double-digit home runs in 1932, Hal acknowledged that his batting approach wasn’t suited for power hitting. He choked up on the bat and hit somewhat flat-footed with the theory that “Before you can hammer the ball, you’ve got to hit it, and if you’re not going to hit it, all your hammering won’t do much harm.”12 In fact, Lee’s strikeout percentage in 1932 was well below the league average, while his home run percentage was twice the league average. His method of batting was an indication that his 18 home runs may have been a fluke.
Sure enough, as quickly as Lee’s power influx appeared in 1932, it vanished just as quickly in 1933. He was hitting .287 in mid-June but had yet to hit a single home run. On June 15, the eighth-place Phillies traded Lee and team captain Pinky Whitney to the seventh-place Boston Braves. Whitney was considered the main piece of the trade, but after his promising 1932 season, Lee now found himself on the other side of a “Philadelphia” deal, in which the Phillies give up superior players in exchange for inferior players and substantial cash. Reportedly, the Phillies badly needed cash due to poor attendance both at home and on the road.13 In exchange for Whitney and Lee the Phillies received Wes Schulmerich and Fritz Knothe and cash reported to be between $40,000 and $75,000.14 Whitney and Lee were similar in that they were both fiery competitors on the field, but soft-spoken and mild-mannered off it. The two reportedly were good friends and after the trade, they roomed together and could usually be found together, though a single word might not be exchanged between the two.15
The Braves were counting on Lee to provide steady play in left field alongside star Wally Berger. Hal batted a less-than-stellar .221 for the rest of the 1933 season and could only muster one home run. Lee provided above average defense in left field, however, and the Braves improved to fourth place by going 60-40 after acquiring Lee and Whitney.
Hal snapped back into place in 1934, however, when he hit .292 and led NL left fielders with a .982 fielding percentage. At one point in May, Lee’s name was atop the batting leaders in the NL, and his average even touched .400 for a day. The highlight of Lee’s season was hitting three home runs in a game on July 6 in Philadelphia to beat his former teammates, 16-13. But overall his power hitting was mediocre, even away from pitcher-friendly Braves Field. He finished with only eight home runs, becoming the first modern-day player in the National League to hit three home runs in a game and have ten or fewer total in a season.16 Lee, however, didn’t feel the expansive dimensions of Boston’s Braves Field had anything to do with his lack of home runs. “I doubt if it makes any serious difference to me which park I play in or what pitcher I face. They’re all hard, but they’re all part of the day’s work.”17
The Braves finished a respectable fourth again in 1934. However, they had not finished higher than fourth in the league since 1916. Concerned with losing fans to the crosstown Red Sox, and facing financial difficulties, Braves owner Judge Emil Fuchs signed 40-year-old Babe Ruth in February 1935 to draw in fans. All but washed up, Ruth was nevertheless brought in to play in the outfield. Lee found himself in a three-way platoon in right field and left field with Ruth and Tommy Thompson. All three were getting significant playing time but none were performing well. As of May 29, the Braves were 9-23. Lee was hitting .216, Thompson was at .192, and Ruth was at .183. The logjam finally broke in a doubleheader in Philadelphia on May 30. After grounding out in the top of the first inning in game one, Ruth limped out to left field, favoring ailing knees that he had injured earlier that week. With two out, Ruth stumbled chasing a base hit which got past him for a triple, although he ended up throwing the batter out at the plate on a play scored 7-5-2 to end the inning. Ruth then removed himself from the game for what turned out to be the last time.18 A few days later the Braves granted Ruth an unconditional release, ending his legendary career.19
The Braves lost little power when Lee was out of the lineup, as he didn’t hit a single home run that year in over 400 at-bats (only Lloyd Waner had more at-bats without hitting a home run). Ruth was at least able to hit six in the month and a half he wore a Braves jersey (even though three of those came in one game). However, Ruth also presented a distraction in the clubhouse, and as pitcher Ben Cantwell recollected years later, the Braves lost more than a few games as “…the result of Ruth’s fielding – or lack of it – in left field.”20 Once Ruth left the team and Lee had the left field role to himself, his batting average climbed quickly. After reaching a high of .328 in July, his average settled at .303 in late August when his season ended early due to a broken thumb. Lee was the only regular player to bat .300 or higher on the 1935 Braves, a team that finished 38-115 and is widely acknowledged as one of the worst ever.
Though Lee had provided some highlights for the otherwise dismal 1935 team, his power never materialized, and his season was considered a disappointment. In 1936 Boston rebranded as the Bees in hopes of erasing all memories of the past year’s debacle. They did improve to sixth place, but Lee slumped to a .253 batting average, a 50-point drop from the previous year. Hal was hitting .300 in early July but, as in other years, he faded during the dog days of a long season in which he appeared in a team-leading 152 games. He hit only three home runs in 1936 and, to add insult to injury, he led the league by hitting into 23 double plays. Hal’s name had occasionally come up in trade talks over the previous two seasons, and Boston may have wished they had jumped at one of the chances. The Bees didn’t think Lee would contend for an outfield spot in 1937, and in January he and pitcher Ben Cantwell were both sold outright to the Jersey City Giants, the International League farm team for the New York Giants.
Cantwell returned to majors in 1937 with New York, but Lee played out the season for manager Travis Jackson’s Jersey City team. He batted .292 to lead the team, and he even contributed ten home runs, so he was optimistic about a return to the majors. Before the 1938 season it looked like Lee might be part of a formidable Jersey City outfield with major league veterans Babe Herman and Fred Lindstrom.21 Lee got off to a rough start though, and then he fractured his ankle in May, ending any chance for a return to the big leagues. Lee’s final career line in the majors was a .275 batting average with 33 home runs, and he was never part of a team that finished better than fourth in the NL. Lee returned from the injury but was dealt to Nashville in August to finish out the year with Chuck Dressen’s Volunteers in the Class A1 Southern Association, where he hit .370 at age 33.
Lee moved on to the Dallas Rebels for the next two seasons. There were confusing times in Dallas in 1939 when a typical Dallas scorecard might show two Hal Lees; outfielder Hal G. Lee was also on the team. The former major leaguer Hal B. Lee took over managing duties for Dallas in 1940 and led the team to a sixth-place finish in the Class A1 Texas League. Hal and his old friend Pinky Whitney were both mentioned as candidates to possibly manage the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Roses in the Interstate League for 1941,22 but neither was hired. Lee instead returned to Mississippi and played for the Vicksburg Hillbillies in the Class C Cotton States League.23
When the war broke out Hal went to work for the Ingalls Corporation shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Many industrial teams during the period included former major league players, and the Ingalls team was no different. Their lineup included one-time major leaguers Lee and Sam Leslie. In 1947 Lee, at the age of 42, could still be found playing on local diamonds in Pascagoula. When Cleveland Indians scout Ivy Griffin came to the Mississippi Gulf region looking for talent, he signed a Pascagoula catcher, but also offered Lee a job to manage and play for the Indians farm team in Cordele, Georgia, in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. Other than playing regularly and batting over .300 in his 40s, his most noteworthy accomplishment in Cordele was managing an Indians minor league camp team that included Harry Simpson, making him the first black player to appear in organized baseball in northwest Florida.24 Cleveland dropped Cordele as an affiliate after 1949 and Lee finally hung up his spikes for good.
With his playing career at an end, Lee went back to work at the Ingalls shipyard, where he worked as a welding foreman until retiring in 1973. He raised three children (sons Hal Jr. and Peter and daughter Bari Lynn) with his wife Gertrude, was active in his church, and remained involved in community sports as a coach, umpire, and referee. He was elected to the Mississippi College Athletics Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1973 (along with fellow alumni Harry Craft and James Edwards) and inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1975. Hal Lee died in 1989 at the age of 84. Gertrude passed away in 1993, and the two are interred together at Jackson County Memorial Park in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The Mississippi College Library provided information on Lee’s graduation and college degree.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum provided the player file for Hal Lee.
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Rick Zucker and fact-checked by Tony Oliver.
Photo credit: Trading Card DB.
In addition to sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted www.ancestry.com for family history, www.baseball-reference.com for major league stats, SABR Guide To Minor League Statistics, 3rd Edition, and the Sporting News Player Contract Cards Collection.
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America, Inc., 1993).
Nemec, David, and Dave Zeman. The Baseball Rookies Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
Rice, Stephen. “Pinky Whitney,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/Pinkey-Whitney/
The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum web page: https://msfame.com/inductees/hal-b-lee/
1 “State Joins Scott County in Mourning Dr. H.O. Lee,” Daily Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), October 16, 1934: 12.
2 Charles B. Gordon, “Modern Grid Trends Scored by Goat Hale,” Enterprise-Journal (McComb, Mississippi), November 22, 1949: 6.
3 Thomas Holmes, “Blond Slugger Insists Upon $12,000 Contract; ‘Sheriff’ Lee Signs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 21, 1929: 22.
4 The centerfield fence has since been brought in to 402 feet.
5 Thomas Holmes, “Trio of Robin Recruits Ring Welkin with Line Drives,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 5, 1929: 28.
6 Lou Niss, “Regular Post for Lee If Hitting Improves,” Times Union (Brooklyn, New York), April 1, 1930: 15.
7 John Stamm, “Five Mississippi Sports Greats Join Hall of Fame,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), March 18, 1975: 22.
8 Thomas Holmes, “Hal Lee May Become Traditional Slugger in Phillie Uniform,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 21, 1930: 30.
9 “Brooklyn Robins Get Philly Stars,” Evening Sun (Hanover, Pennsylvania), October 15, 1930: 3.
10 “Hal Lee May Become Traditional Slugger in Phillie Uniform.”
11 “Hal Lee May Become Traditional Slugger in Phillie Uniform.”
12 Hal Lee’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
13 Stan Baumgartner, “Schulmerich, Outfielder, and Knothe, Infielder, Sent Here Along with Bundle of Money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1933: 15.
14 “Braves Ready to Start Their Climb,” Boston Globe, June 17, 1933: 6; “Giants Loom in Pennant Scramble,” Boston Globe, June 17, 1933: 6.
15 “Hal Lee Going Good at Plate with Tribesmen,” Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun, May 23, 1934: 8.
16 Bert Sugar and Ken Samelson, The Baseball Maniac’s Almanac, 5th Edition (New York: Sports Publishing, 2019), 41.
17 John J. Ward, “He Bats .300 For the Braves”, Baseball Magazine, January 1936: 359.
18 “Phillies Take Two from the Braves,” Boston Globe, May 31, 1935: 20. “Sport Chatter,” Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Sentinel, May 31, 1935: 8.
19 Gerry Moore, “Ruth is Released by Braves,” Boston Globe, June 3, 1935: 1.
20 Charles Love, “Ben Cantwell Pitched Too Well for His Own Good In 1935,” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), August 27, 1960: 14.
21 Lindstrom was attempting a comeback after not playing regularly for the past two seasons, but he was cut before the season started.
22 “Holdout Whitney After Another Job,” Tulsa (Oklahoma) World, March 13, 1941: 12.
23 Baseball-reference.com shows a Harold Rexford Lee playing for Gadsden (Alabama), Vicksburg (Mississippi) and Ocala (Florida), all in 1941. Harold Rexford Lee’s Sporting News contract card shows him playing for Gadsden and Ocala in 1941, but not for Vicksburg. Various articles in 1941 reference Vicksburg’s Hal Lee as “Sheriff” and as the former manager of Dallas. A Jackson, Mississippi newspaper indicates that Vicksburg picked up Hal Burnham Lee in July 1941 to play second base. Purser Hewitt, “Pickin’ Up Little Chips,” Clarion-Ledger, July 10, 1941: 12.
24 Wesley Chalk, “Spartanburg Takes 4-2 Win Over Cordele,” Pensacola News Journal, March 21, 1949: 2.