On July 30, 1948, the New York Giants were within one out of a franchise-record four consecutive shutouts when Chicago Cubs lefty swinger Bill Nicholson connected for a drive into shallow right field. Les Layton, inserted in the game as a defensive replacement in right, raced to the ball. He seemingly secured the out as second baseman Jack Conway, also a late insert for defensive purposes, was furiously peddling backwards in the same pursuit. Conway crashed into Layton, causing the ball to fall helplessly for a double. The franchise record was dashed when baserunner Andy Pafko, on first following a hit by pitch, scored easily on the play. Largely responsible for this missed opportunity,1 Conway was demoted to the Minneapolis Millers less than five days later, destined to never return to the major leagues.
In truth, the decision to demote Conway had already been made days before. Manager Leo Durocher, who’d taken the Giants’ helm from Mel Ott two weeks earlier, had met with team president Horace Stoneham to discuss a variety of personnel moves. One such move was Conway’s demotion. The native Texan garnered one more appearance on July 31 before his replacement arrived from Minneapolis. Though he would continue in the minors as both player and manager for eight seasons more, Conway’s major-league pursuits thus ended with less than 400 plate appearances – a far cry from what a once-promising career offered.
Jack Clements Conway was the only child born to Frank Lee Conway and Elizabeth (“Lizzy”) Conway (nee Metzer) on July 30, 1918. The infant appears to have been named in memory of Frank’s parents, James (“Jack”) and Clementine Conway (Frank and his sister Helen were given up for adoption at Clementine’s early passing). Frank was born in the Bryan-College Station region of Texas but may have spent a portion of his childhood in Houston following his adoption. He eventually returned to the Bryan area where he met and married Lizzy, also a native of that Central Texas region. They’d settled in Bryan but moved to Austin before Jack’s 12th birthday, Frank supporting his family as a paint contractor in the home construction industry.
A particular prowess in sports appears to have come naturally to Jack Conway. Though little is known of Frank’s abilities, his extended family included relatives who garnered considerable athletic success on the collegiate basketball and professional tennis courts. The athletic gene seemingly inherited by Jack manifested itself in prep basketball and baseball. Buttressed by a fine academic record as well, Conway graduated from Austin High in May 1935 and eventually earned a spot in the University of Texas infield. In 1939 Jack was anointed team captain during the final season of famed head coach “Uncle” Billy Disch. He led the Longhorns to a 15-0 conference campaign – the first unbeaten conference team in 20 years – while capturing All-Conference shortstop honors (as selected by the conference coaches).
Renowned for his ability to spot talent, “Uncle Billy” may have seen in Conway a mirror-image of himself – slight of build, Disch’s seven-year minor-league career lacked heft from the plate, as would Conway’s years later. But what Jack lacked in power he made up for in other areas. Weeks removed from his captaincy with the Longhorns, he was manning shortstop in the Cleveland Indians organization. It is not known if other teams scouted Conway, but had he the opportunity to look one year into the future – when Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau seized and thereafter maintained the shortstop position for ten years – Jack might have considered signing with another franchise.
Conway’s initial placement provides a fleeting glimpse into the esteem Jack was held by Cleveland: he was assigned to Oklahoma City in the Texas League (A-1) as the team’s second-youngest non-pitcher. But Jack’s time in Oklahoma proved short. One of the assets Conway brought to the game was his superb work with the glove. But this asset evidently failed him in his professional debut when The Sporting News reported on the “release of Jack Conway, the Texas University flash, who couldn’t find his fielding legs at shortstop.”2 Yet another demotion ensued until Jack settled in with the Indians’ Class C affiliate in the Middle Atlantic League. Thereafter he captured the bulk of play at shortstop (over future Hall of Famer Bob Lemon) while striking the ball at a brilliant .322 pace. Returned to Class A in 1940 with the professional jitters behind him, Jack placed among the Eastern League shortstop leaders in fielding percentage. Impressed with the rapid development of their budding 21-year-old prospect, Cleveland chose to protect their investment by placing Jack on its 40-man roster.
The 1940 Indians missed the World Series by one game and there was little reason to change its core makeup. The same did not apply to the roster’s remainder. When the team reported to camp in February-March 1941, Conway was one of 16 new faces competing for a backup role. Cleveland faced the age-old dilemma encountered by every competitive team with a promising youngster: trying to find playing time for him. Judging that the 22-year-old would garner more experience in the minors – particularly in light of the fact that the incumbent shortstop, Boudreau, led the league in games played in 1940 – the team reassigned Conway to the Eastern League. Excepting home runs, Conway’s 1941 numbers nestled among the Wilkes-Barre Barons’ team leaders in offense while placing among the league leaders with 12 triples. The Writers’ Association selected Conway as the league’s all-star shortstop. This success afforded Jack a September call-up. On September 9, in a lopsided win over the Philadelphia Athletics, Conway made his major-league debut as a late inning defensive replacement. He reached base on an error. Twelve days later, in another lopsided contest over the St. Louis Browns, Conway was awarded a pinch-hit role resulting in a run-scoring single before taking the field. When the season closed, war would ensure Jack’s next major-league appearance would not occur for another five years.
Days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Conway was granted a military deferment due to an unspecified eye ailment. The deferment allowed him to report to his new assignment in 1942 – a promotion to the International League (AA) – and his standing appears to have preceded him in Baltimore. The Sporting News reported “the [Orioles’] shortstop job is all Conway’s if he lives up to his reputation.”3 He appears to have met and exceeded expectations:
“[Conway] has put the stamp of class on this Oriole infield. Quick and smooth and boasting a marvelous arm, Conway makes a perfect mate for [the second baseman].”4
“[Conway and third baseman Bob Lemon] have been covering the left side of the infield like a blanket.”5
Conway’s emergence helped solidify the Orioles’ defense and Baltimore was off to its best start in five years. Thus it was a surprise to both team and fans alike when Jack, alongside three teammates, abruptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 18. Conway was posted to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia. Playing for the richly talented military base team through 1945, Conway was generally forced to yield shortstop to fellow-sailor Phil Rizzuto while he manned third base.
At various times through the war years Conway and Rizzuto were joined by stalwarts such as Bob Feller and Dom DiMaggio to produce some very successful campaigns (ex.: winning 92 of 100 gamesin 1942). A year later, Conway’s name appeared prominently among the exhibition box scores as he led Norfolk to a 6-0 victory with a five-hit attack over his former Baltimore teammates. When Rizzuto was transferred to another military base in 1944, Jack reclaimed shortstop for the Norfolk squad, where he remained until his November 8, 1945, release date.
In 1946 the major leagues instituted a one-year rule in favor of returning servicemen. Having been carried on the 40-man roster during the course of the war on the National Defense List, these players could not be assigned without clearing waivers. The Indians were thus compelled to keep Conway on the parent club or risk of losing him. But these concerns were laid to rest in spring training. “One of the most impressive rookies ever to step on an exhibition diamond has been the 26-year-old ex-sailor, Jack Conway,”6 reported The Sporting News. Seemingly assured a spot on the major-league roster, a lingering challenge persisted.
Boudreau remained ensconced at shortstop, the only difference being his appointment as player-manager since 1942. He had little incentive to remove himself from the lineup. In comparison to his teammates, Boudreau’s offensive numbers were spectacular on an anemic team whose sixth-place finish represented the franchise’s lowest mark in an 18-year span. By late-June Conway had garnered a mere nine at-bats.
Injury and ineffectiveness plagued Cleveland’s starting lineup, forcing Boudreau to platoon at four positions (no player started more than 79 games at catcher, centerfield, first and second base). On June 28, Boudreau turned to Conway to fill the void at second base. Two days later Jack erupted with a four-hit, five-RBI performance against the Chicago White Sox that ensured his place in the lineup throughout the remainder of the season (including limited play at third base and shortstop). Excluding a collar on either side of the July 9 All Star Game, Conway’s .278 – team average: .245 – through July contributed to the team’s only winning month of the season. A 0-for-15 slump in August slowed this surge, but Jack finished the campaign with single-season career highs in nearly every offensive category. As the season came to a close, a bright future seemingly beckoned to Conway as the Indians’ future second baseman. This welcoming beckon disappeared before the World Series concluded.
On October 11, 1946, Cleveland acquired future Hall of Famer Joe Gordon from the New York Yankees. Despite Conway’s valiant efforts the following spring – including a Grapefruit League .300 average – second base would be Gordon’s by dint of his illustrious career. Relegated to the bench, Conway captured a mere 56 plate appearances throughout the 1947 season, nearly 20 percent of which was garnered when Boudreau was forced to sit four days with injury in mid-August. The following January owner-president Bill Veeck sold Conway to the New York Giants.
Good fortune shone on Conway when the 1948 season opened. Inserted into the starting lineup when the Giants’ second baseman was injured, Jack raced to a .318 pace before a severe charley horse sidelined him as well. By the time he recovered the team’s regular starter – Bill Rigney – was healthy again and Jack would not see another plate appearance until late-May. Despite capturing his only major-league homer on July 11 – a ninth inning walk-off home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers in his only at-bat of the game – his season came to an abrupt end a month later due to the Durocher-induced demotion. Conway garnered the exact number of plate appearances (56) as he had the previous season. Assigned to the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association (AAA), Jack did not take kindly to the demotion and refused to report before changing his mind. He finished the 1948 season as the Millers second baseman, his .315 average seemingly indicating that he’d learned all the lessons required at the minor-league level. Before the calendar year ended he was sold to the Indianapolis Indians.
In 1949, the American Association was an offensive-laden league in which Conway participated fully. He struck a career-high 13 home runs while returning to his familiar shortstop position, eventually pacing the Indians to their first championship season in 21 years. His productive output caught the attention of the San Francisco Seals’ owner who purchased Conway for the 1950 season. The success in the American Association did not transfer to the Pacific Coast League. In 1951, Conway became expendable when the Seals acceded to the wishes of their newly-affiliated parent club, the New York Yankees, by turning the shortstop position over to a 24-year-old prospect. Sold back to the American Association, Jack was briefly suspended by his new employer, the Toledo Mud Hens, when he unsuccessfully attempted to renegotiate his contract. At some point during his career Conway began wearing glasses, a matter that drew national attention in 1951 as one of the league’s few bespectacled backstops when pressed into service as an emergency catcher.
Traded to the Philadelphia Athletics organization in March 1952, Conway slumped in limited play (.195-3-20), prompting the Ottawa A’s to offer him a coaching-only contract the following season. The 34-year-old middle infielder was determined to stay on the field and was granted permission to arrange a trade himself. When this failed, he secured his release and in May 1953 signed with the Shreveport Sports (AA) in the Texas League. Used solely as a backup to shortstop Joe Koppe, Jack again saw limited play. When the Chicago White Sox approached him with an offer of a minor-league managerial post in the spring of 1954, Conway successfully secured his release from the Sports and accepted the nod.
Conway remained with the White Sox organization over the next three years, ushering the careers of prized-prospects Fritz Ackley, John Romano and Jack Kralick while still finding room to insert himself into 28 games over the first two seasons. In 1954, he over took the helm of the Dubuque (Iowa) Packers in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League and led the Class D affiliate to an 18-game improvement in the win column from the prior season. Quickly promoted to Colorado Springs the next year, Jack led the Sky Sox to a last-to-first Western League championship that earned him a share in Manager of the Year honors (as determined by a poll of the league’s scorers, writers and broadcasters). But this budding success did not sustain. Injuries so plagued the Sky Sox in 1956 that Conway was forced to use pitchers in the outfield and first base in order to concoct a starting nine. The team plummeted to a second-division finish that spelled Conway’s last season as a manager (though it is unclear whether he resigned or was terminated).
Jack returned to Austin, Texas, where he pursued a career in sales and work as a clerk. During the war years he had married his college sweetheart, Dorothy Marie Svacek,and spare time was spent enjoying the company of their two children. In the early 1960s the family moved to Waco, Texas, perhaps to be closer to Dorothy’s family (she was raised 25 miles north in the community of West). The marriage would not survive and Jack remarried in 1966. He and his second wife eventually found employment as house parents at the Methodist Children’s Home. In 1976, Jack was interviewed by a Waco newspaper regarding their ministry-like employment: “I’m really enjoying working with these children. …Our little boys and girls surprise us nearly every day with something new. We’re just happy to be at Methodist Home and to have a part in this outstanding institution.”7 On June 11, 1993, at the age of 74, Jack Conway passed away. He is buried in Rosemound Cemetery in Waco.
A college standout and strong minor-league prospect, Jack Conway’s once-promising major-league career never materialized – in large part due to the superb talent blocking his advance. A lifetime .223 hitter, he showed a unique preference for night ball. At the time still an occasional event, from 1946-1947 Conway’s performance under the lights was a considerably better .256. But talented he was. Decades later, the athleticism inherited by Jack reappeared on the prep and college tennis courts through his son, the baseball diamonds through his grandsons.
The author wishes to thank the following persons for their assistance herein: Melba McNeely Stewart, a cousin of Jack Conway; Ben Latham, Jack Conway’s son-in-law; Melinda Conway, his daughter-in law; staff personnel at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco; Jack Titus Jr. for loan of the The Cactus 1940; and Austin High School registrar Gina Desha, librarian Angie Reeve and archivist Jenna McEachern. Further thanks are extended to Don Hammack for editorial and fact-checking assistance.
The Cactus 1940, published by Texas Student Publications Inc., University of Texas Austin
1 Sixty-four years later the franchise finally reached the four-consecutive shutout threshold: June 25-28, 2012.
2 “Fans See Wilcy Moore’s New Job In Jeopardy As Okla. City Buys Watwood,” The Sporting News, June 15, 1939: 1.
3 “Baltimore Retreading With Cleveland Spares,” The Sporting News, February 26, 1942: 1.
4 “Thomas All Keyed Up Over Oriole Keystoners,” The Sporting News, April 2, 1942: 2.
5 “Baltimore Fans Sweet On Young Bobby Lemon,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1942: 2.
6 “Makeup of Indians’ Lineup Finds Old Hands in Charge,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1946: 10.
7 “Varied Backgrounds Merge,” The Waco Citizen, February 17, 1976: 3.