He batted .400 for his major-league career, never committed an error, but was 0-1 as a pitcher. He appeared in four games — one in 1950 and three in 1952. His name was James Curtis Atkins, a big 6-foot-3, 205-pouind Alabaman who batted left-handed and threw right-handed. He pitched for 13 years in the minor leagues.
Atkins’s first year was 1941, pitching 15 innings to a 1-1 record for Texarkana in the Class-C Central States League. But his career was cut short because he had only been 19 when he signed a contract with the Tigers affiliate and – as a minor – needed his father’s consent. His father did not consent, and so Jim had to go home.1 For the next four years, he was in military service. He stuck with baseball, though, and finally made it – albeit briefly – to the big leagues.
Atkins was born in Birmingham on March 10, 1921. His father, Alonzo, was a locomotive fireman; his mother, Annie Mae (Green), was a homemaker who raised three children – Robert, James, and Betty. The family typically had one or two lodgers in the house. At the time of the 1940 census, Robert worked as an apprentice machinist in a pipe shop and James was working as a laborer, doing odd jobs. He had attended Phillips High School in Birmingham, and Paul Hayne Vocations School; he had envisioned taking up work in the electrical field.2
He played YMCA ball as a youngster, but by the age of 16 began playing with North Birmingham’s Ball Paley Grocery team in a men’s baseball league. When he was 13, the manager of their team was a brother to Clay Bryant, who later pitched for the Cubs.
In 1941, Atkins was spotted by Detroit scout Eddie Goostree while filling in at shortstop for a semipro team at Stockham Pipe and Fittings of Birmingham. Goostree “talked me into getting on a train the next day and going to Detroit for a tryout…Jack Zeller, the general manager, told me, ‘Well, you can’t make it at shortstop,’ which I knew, but Zeller signed me as a pitcher.
“Zeller asked me what I wanted to sign. I told him I wanted a new car and his hat. Well, he gave me the hat and told me to go to Texarkana and if I stayed down there for thirty days or so he’d send me the money for a car…I got down there and I had a girlfriend back home and I was in love and all like that and not old enough to sign a contract and my dad didn’t sign it so I came on back home. I had one win and one loss and two hits in six at-bats, one of them a home run. But, anyway, I came back and went in the service.”3
It wasn’t necessarily that Alonzo Atkins had crushed his son’s dreams. Jim told Rob Trucks that one of the people in the office at Texarkana said they had a check for him, and another denied it, and Jim was skeptical enough regarding matters that he called his father and told him not to sign. He added, “Back then Detroit had 95 or 100 ballplayers with improper signings and so I told him not to and I came on home.” He returned to playing ball in Birmingham, but then enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.
He wasn’t one of those servicemen who primarily played baseball during the war. He played very little until after he’d made sergeant and was in Guam in 1944 working as an engineering chief on a C-47 aircraft. A few of the men stationed there got up a scrub team (they didn’t even have catcher’s gear) and started playing against the Seabees and some of the sailors. Word got around that Atkins was pretty good and a radioman named Jim August mentioned Atkins after he’d been called back to Hawaii.
Atkins himself was called back, and thought he was being sent on to China. In the meantime, he had his first hot shower in over a year and some sandwiches that outclassed anything he’d had for a similar period of time. He was told that his service commitment was up but they wanted him to play baseball for them in Honolulu so he did for five or six months. White Sox pitcher Ted Lyons was the manager, and Bob Kennedy and Ted Williams were among the players on the team. Shortly after the war was over, Atkins was sent back to the States.4
Ted Lyons had apparently been trying to get him a shot with the White Sox, but Atkins said he returned home and fell in love. He married Voncile B. Stubbs, a bookkeeper in a laundry in Montgomery, in July 1946; and took up work at Stockham again. But he “got mad down there one day and quit and signed with New Orleans.”5 He’d been hoping to get into an apprenticeship program, and the company just kept him doing unskilled work, so he left. The head of the company called him and offered to put him in the program, but he said it was too late. But Atkins did ask to pitch for the company team until they played the Acipco team. That request granted, he beat Acipco, and was spotted by a former Stockham employee who had a contact with the Class-D Alabama State League team at Geneva.
He threw four innings of hitless relief in his debut for the 1946 Geneva Red Birds, an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and thus the New Orleans Pelicans. Over the three months remaining in the season, Atkins was 20-5 with a 2.75 earned run average. In an odd quirk, he says he never went on the road with the team, but pitched almost every other night at their home games. The team, under manager Chuck Holly, finished second in the six-team league, but won the playoffs. Atkins’s20 wins led the league.6
He was advanced to Double A for 1947, and pitched in the Southern Association for the New Orleans Pelicans. At the substantially higher level he was 8-7 with a 4.31 ERA, and missed a considerable period of time due to a split finger. . The New Orleans Times-Picayune suggested he might have pitched better had he not tried to tough it out: “He probably hid the seriousness of his injury and allowed himself to be used in games where his ears were pinned back.”7
Although the Pelicans became affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates after 1947, something was worked out – informal agreements of the kind were still not unusual at the time – and Atkins stayed with the team (he was 8-8, 5.72 in 1948) into 1949, when he was traded to the Birmingham Barons (along with catcher Red Mathis) for Pete Modica on July 5. He had been 7-5 for New Orleans at the time; he’d started strong but begun to show signs of inconsistency.
The Barons were both his hometown team and a Red Sox farm club. He was a combined 13-10 (4.85) and then an improved 12-8 with a 3.12 ERA in 1950. On September 15, his contract was officially purchased by the Red Sox and he joined the Boston club.
Atkins only got into one game that year – on September 29 at Fenway Park against the Washington Senators. Starter Walt Masterson gave up four runs in the first three innings, so manager Steve O’Neill pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the third. Atkins took over, after the Sox had scored two runs. He walked two and threw a wild pitch in the top of the fourth, but yielded no runs. He got through the next three innings well, as Boston tied it up, then scored two more and held a 6-4 lead. In the top of the eighth, Sam Dente singled for the Senators and Hal Keller came up. “I had two strikes on him,” Atkins told Trucks, “and usually a left-handed hitter won’t hit a high pitch, but I threw one up over his head and he tomahawked that thing for a home run. He hit it in the bullpen out there in right center. You don’t think about a left-hander being a highball hitter. They might be a highball drinker but you look for them to be a lowball hitter“8 That tied the game. After another out and a walk, O’Neill asked Ellis Kinder to take over for Atkins. Walt Dropo won the game for Boston in the bottom of the ninth, tripling in Vern Stephens.
“I thought Jim Atkins did a very fine job,” said O’Neill after the game. “He took over after the Senators had blasted Walter Masterson for three homers and stopped their shenanigans with the shillelagh…that two-run blast by Hal Keller was something that might have happened to anybody.”9
Atkins trained with the Red Sox in the spring of 1951, but was optioned to the Louisville Colonels in March. He had an excellent year. His 18 wins led the American Association (he was 18-9, with 17 complete games) and he was named to the league’s All-Star team.
Manager Lou Boudreau looked him over in the spring of 1952, and he broke camp with the team—though it seemed he was something like an afterthought. Joe Cashman of the Boston Record observed on April 2 that Atkins had been “almost completely ignored during the Florida stay,” appearing in only one game, and that Boudreau “was never heard to mention Atkins while discussing new pitchers who had a chance to be retained.”10
He started on April 21, a Ladies Day at Fenway Park against Washington, and gave up single runs in the second and third, then saw the Red Sox tie it in the bottom of the fifth. They might have scored more but for umpire Joe Paparella’s ruling that a batted ball had struck baserunner Dropo. In the top of the eighth inning, the score still tied 2-2 and with one out, he gave up a single and then a double. He intentionally walked Pete Runnels to load the bases. Bill Wight took over and recorded an out, but the tie-breaking run scored on a sacrifice fly. Atkins bore the loss. Gene Mack Jr. of the Boston Globe termed his work a “fine pitching effort.”11 He was 2-for-3 at the plate.
He pitched a scoreless inning to end the May 8 game against the White Sox. On May 10, he came in to relieve in the seventh inning. The Yankees had already scored six runs in the inning. Because of an error fielding a fly ball to center field, the two inherited runners scored. Atkins walked two and allowed three hits, facing 12 batters and seeing five runs cross the plate. He finished the game. It was the last game in which he appeared. That same day he was optioned to Baltimore after the game.
He was later asked what he had besides a fastball. “I had a knuckleball,” he said. “The last pitch I threw in the major leagues was a knuckleball to Yogi Berra and he popped it out to the shortstop. I use that as my claim to fame.”12
Noting that in his 15 big-league innings, he’d walked 11 and struck out two, he was asked if he had difficulty controlling the knuckleball. “I didn’t realize I was all that wild but I guess I was.”13
He did leave with a 3.60 career ERA. But he was 31 years old and Boudreau had been talking up a “youth movement” for the team. It didn’t seem like he had a future with Boston.
He was 9-7 with a 4.34 ERA in Baltimore but broke a bone in his hand and only got into 20 games.
In early May 1953, Atkins was dealt to the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. He had 14 complete games for the seventh-place Oaks (77-103). Atkins himself was 9-15, 4.24, one of the wins a seven-inning no-hitter in a doubleheader in San Francisco on August 25. In 1954 he was primarily used in relief, with 14 starts and 34 relief appearances. His ERA increased to 5.12.
In January 1955, the Oaks sold his contract to the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League. He was 9-17 for Beaumont (with a decent 3.84 ERA) but was dealt on to Nashville on August 9. With Nashville, he was 2-3. He started 1956 with Nashville (4-5) and was sold to San Antonio during the season, where he was 10-12, with ERAs of 4.05 and 4.37.
He said, “I played as long as I was making the same money playing ball as I would at skilled labor.”14 He was about ready to quit after the 1956 season, “but then Birmingham got my contract and Eddie Glennon talked me into playing.”15 The manager in 1957 was Johnny Pesky, who he’d known since their brief times together as teammates with the Red Sox. Pesky used him primarily in relief (nine starts out of 45 appearances.) Asking Pesky when he could get more starts, he was told “probably never” as he was too valuable in relief; he worked 192 innings. In one game, he threw 10 2/3 innings of hitless relief, in a game the Barons won in 13 innings. He was 14-5, with a 3.14 ERA, a nice way to leave the game, going out with a good record.
He and Voncile had two sons, and Atkins figured it would be better for him to be around home more, so he left the game.
He didn’t return to skilled labor, but instead worked the next 20 years for Metropolitan Life Insurance as a salesman and eventually assistant manager.
One of his fonder memories, it seems, concerned Piper Davis, who he’d known growing up in Birmingham. He’d known Piper and Artie Wilson and Sam Hairston, all active in the Negro Leagues, and all players that Atkins had watched play at Rickwood Field, as he sat in the white section. “I liked to go because they had some showmanship to it,” he said.16 Piper had worked for Stockham as well. Atkins said that Hairston claimed, “I sent ol’ Jim to the big leagues.” How was that? “The rock battles that we used to have whenever he was a kid and I was a kid.” Atkins laughed, “White and black throwin’ rocks at one another.”17
Did he have any regrets, Brent Kelley asked him. “No. Not one.” Then he admitted, acknowledging that he had perhaps been just shy of the amount of talent it had taken to stick in the majors: “The only regret, I was about 50 years too soon. Football and basketball and baseball, they’ve expanded so much that they’ve got to have inferior talent playing up there as to what they had in the ’50’s.”18
Jim Atkins died on February 28, 2009, in Hanceville, Alabama. He is buried in Birmingham.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Atkins’ player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts Committee, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Brent Kelley. “Late Bloomer Jim Atkins Was A No-Hit Whiz in the Minors,” Sports Collectors Digest, June 26, 1996: 116.
2 Heilbroner Baseball Bureau index card and Atkins’ player questionnaire, both on file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
3 Rob Trucks, interview with Jim Atkins on October 16, 2001 at Cullman, Alabama, posted at http://www.eyeglassesofkentucky.com/2005_06_01_archive.html
4 This detail comes from the Rob Trucks interview.
6 Holly later told Atkins that some time afterward he applied for a job scouting for the Boston Braves. Asked for an example of someone he’d signed, he named Atkins. He got the job. See Rob Trucks interview.
7 Wm. McG. Keefe, “Viewing the News,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 24, 1947: 28.
9 John Drohan, “Yanks’ Ears Were Glued to Radio,” Boston Herald, September 30, 1950:
10 Joe Cashman, “Atkins Mystery Man of Hose Mound Staff,” Boston Record, April 2, 1952: 26.
11 Gene Mack Jr., “Umpire’s Decision Provokes Row as Sox Lose, 3-2,” Boston Globe, April 22, 1952: 10.
15 Kelley, 117.
17 Kelley, 116.
18 Kelley, 117.