This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Herb Welch played in almost 1,000 games in the minor leagues, but his time in the majors was limited to 13 games in 1925 for the Boston Red Sox. Welch was a shortstop and committed eight errors in the 13 games, which likely doomed his chances for further work at the big-league level despite a solid .289 batting average.
Welch was born on October 19, at Ro Ellen, Tennessee, six miles east of Dyersburg and about 85 miles northeast of Memphis. He is listed in most contemporary databases as born in 1900, but his sister Lurleen wrote that the family Bible listed his date as October 19, 1898. Welch himself, completing a player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, agreed on the date but said it was in 1905. This may have been his “baseball age.” Ballplayers often made themselves out to be younger than they were, but a seven-year discrepancy is quite unusual.1 Welch batted left-handed but threw right-handed. He was 5-feet-6 and listed at 154 pounds.
Welch’s father, Hugh Welch, was a farmer in Dyer County, Tennessee. His mother, Annie (born Nancy Ann Smith), gave birth to six known children: Etta, Willie, Herbert, Sallie, Louise, and Lurleen. Herbert grew up on the farm and at the time of his September 1918 registration for the draft listed his employer as Hugh Welch, his father. Welch served in the 26th Infantry, 1st Division, US Army.2 He reported graduating from RoEllen High in 1921.
Welch’s professional baseball career began in Paris. Playing for manager Tuffy Fowlkes at Barton Field in Paris, Tennessee, in 1922, the 21-year-old first made his mark in the Class-D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League (the Kitty League). He was asked back and played in 1923 for the Parisians, batting .286 (we lack statistics for 1922).
This got Welch a promotion to Class B and he played in 1924 for the Danville (Illinois) Veterans in the Three-I League (the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League). Partway through the season, he joined the same league’s Decatur Commodores. If so, it appears to have been for only a brief time. He hit for a combined .280 batting average. He appears to have been signed to a major-league organization during the time he was with Danville: “Dutch Welch of Danville was taken in by Rudy Hulswitt of the Boston Red Sox recently.”3 The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that his contract had been sold to Boston and quoted Hulswitt, a Red Sox scout, as saying Welch was one of the best-looking infielders he’d seen for some time.4
In 1925, Welch was back with Danville and played 16 games there but was released in May. A Springfield, Illinois, newspaper explained, “It seems that the Vet fans got on the youngster and made life so miserable that he couldn’t do himself justice.” The problem may have been that he was too quick on his feet. “According to the Vet scribes, he was covering so much ground that many of his miscues would have gone for hits with other men on duty. He played fine ball on the road, but upon reaching home began to lose confidence.”5
Welch was placed in the Class-B Michigan-Ontario League, playing for the Flint Vehicles, and appeared in 122 games, batting .348 with 10 homers – all of which should have restored his confidence. He stole 26 bases.6 On September 14 he was one of six players recalled and brought to Boston. The Red Sox had little to lose by trying out some of their prospects; they had finished the day before dead last, 47½ games out of first place.
Welch debuted in Boston on September 15 against the St. Louis Browns. He was 2-for-3. He played in both halves of a September 17 doubleheader against the Browns and was 1-for-3 in each game, with a triple to right-center driving in Ira Flagstead, and a single and another RBI in the nightcap. The next morning’s Boston Herald enthused about his defense, too: “Little Welch at short looked like a ‘sweetheart.’”7 He’d made an error in the first game, but Boston swept the pair, 2-0 and 4-0, so perhaps it was overlooked.
In a doubleheader against the visiting Indians on the 19th, however, Welch made three errors and those were definitely noticed. Burt Whitman wrote in the next day’s Herald (shades of Danville?), “At Fenway Park Saturday little Dutch Welch, shortstop of the Red Sox, was handled roughly by the fans.”8 Just that morning, the Globe had run a large photograph of him, exclaiming about the “fine work” he’d been doing. The Globe’s game story on the 20th frowned on the fans who “jeered” him on an “off-day,” noting that two of the errors were ones that any veteran ballplayer well could have made. The Herald later commented on his range and his throwing arm.9 The same edition of the Herald said, “(T)he little lad continually displayed keen ball, evidence enough of why he was brought up from the bushes to be given a shot at the big leagues.”
Welch played in 13 games – every one of them a home game – and made the aforementioned eight errors for an .893 fielding percentage. He had only the two RBIs, though a .289 batting average. He struck out six times, and drew no walks.
After his 1925 season (his fielding percentage at Danville had only been .901), Welch switched from shortstop to the outfield. He played in 1926 and 1927, and then – after a year (1928) in which he did not play – 1929 and 1930 for the Mobile Bears, often in the outfield and often at third base. It was Class-A baseball in the Southern Association. The team was associated with the Red Sox, having as successive managers Duffy Lewis, Milt Stock, and – beginning in the middle of 1928 – Rudy Hulswitt, who had first signed Welch. We do not have available statistics showing how well he did, but one doesn’t get hired year after year without providing satisfactory work.
At one point, in Pensacola on March 16, 1930, Welch and Mobile played an exhibition game against the Red Sox. Welch was 1-for-4. Mobile lost, 9-1.10
After that Welch played with Baton Rouge and then Pine Bluff in the Cotton States League in 1931 and 1932 respectively, and then for El Dorado in 1933. He took off a couple of years from baseball and then returned to where he’d begun – the Kitty League – playing for the Portageville Pirates.11 In Class-D ball, he hit .327 for Portageville his year with them, 1935. One of the reasons for Welch’s time off may have been reflected in his March 1934 marriage to Charlie May Saler. The marriage ended in divorce, without children.
For the next three years (1936-38) Welch served as player-manager for the Kitty League’s Jackson (Tennessee) Generals. He took over the role of skipper partway into the 1936 campaign. That year’s team finished fourth in the eight-team league. Welch hit .352 in the 66 games he played in. He played in more games (111 and 122) in 1937 and 1938, batting .326 and .319 respectively. The Generals finished fifth in 1937, but were second-place finishers in 1938, just missing the pennant by a game and a half. Jackson beat Lexington in the playoffs, and then beat Hopkinsville in the finals.
In 1939 Welch was hired to manage and play for Jonesboro, a White Sox-affiliated team in the Northeast Arkansas League, a four-team Class-D league. The team did not fare well, indeed going through three managers in the course of the season. Welch was the first; he finished the season back in the Kitty League, batting .347 (at the age of 40) with the Bowling Green Barons, playing their first season. He’d somewhat replicated his 1938 finish: Bowling Green came in second – also by a game and a half – and won both rounds of the postseason, beating Owensboro and then Mayfield. The manager, Rip Fanning, bailed out during the finals with Bowling Green and Mayfield tied at two wins apiece in the best-of-seven series because he couldn’t get a commitment from the club for 1940 and claimed he had other offers that could not wait. Welch took over as manager and Bowling Green won the next two games.12 He could certainly take credit for the .347 average, but not for guiding the team to the playoffs.
The Hopkinsville Hoppers bid for Welch’s services and he began 1940 managing the team, but was replaced during the season by Hal Sueme. The Hoppers finished in last place, 44½ games out of first.
At this point, we lose track of Welch in the historical record. His obituary in The Sporting News provides no clues. The obituary that ran in several papers reported that he had been a “one-time scout for the St. Louis Cardinals” and played with Memphis and managed Union City and Paris, as well as Jackson and Bowling Green. How much of that is accurate, we don’t know.13 Again, Lurleen Welch supplied details, reporting that he had operated a grocery store, worked as a meat inspector for the state of Tennessee, and been a night-club operator. Welch himself said he was the owner and manager of a beer tavern, Dutch’s Drive Inn.
Welch died of acute liver failure due to cirrhosis in a Memphis hospital on April 13, 1967.14
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Welch’s player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Lurleen Welch’s note was on a subsequent player questionnaire submitted to the Hall of Fame after Herb Welch’s death. She may have been of a mindset to be more precise; she had worked as director of the Dyer County Department of Welfare (Human Services). She emphasized that he had no middle name, just the initial “M.” Cliff Kachline of the Hall of Fame wrote Miss Welch in 1976 to attempt to pin down the discrepancy. She still lived in the same home in RoEllen and her response was the citation in the family Bible.
2 This, according to Lurleen. He himself said “No” when completing his own questionnaire.
3 Evansville (Indiana) Courier and Press, August 12, 1924.
4# Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 17, 1924.
5 Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield), May 21, 1925.
6 Boston Globe, September 14, 1925.
7 Boston Herald, September 18, 1925.
8 Boston Herald, September 20, 1925.
9 Boston Herald, September 25, 1925.
10 Boston Herald, March 17, 1930.
11 The Sporting News, April 29, 1967.
12 The Sporting News, October 5, 1939.
13 See, for instance, the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle and the Trenton (New Jersey) Evening Times of April 16, 1967.
14 The Sporting News, April 29, 1967, incorrectly reported his death as occurring in Dyersburg. The Tennessee Department of Public Health Certificate of Death says it occurred at Baptist Hospital in Memphis.