This article was written by John F. Green
The southpaw first arrived in the big leagues in 1922 with the Washington Senators; he spent the entire season with the club, and at 18 years of age was the youngest player in the American League. Joining a pitching staff anchored by the legendary Walter Johnson, who had already won over 300 major-league games, Brillheart notched a 4-6 record in his rookie campaign, and was 0-1 in limited action in 1923. An opportunity in the National League came in 1927 with the Chicago Cubs, when he won four games and dropped two. In 1931 a brief fling with the Boston Red Sox resulted in 11 appearances without a decision.
James Benson Brillheart was born in Dublin, Virginia, on September 28, 1903. He was the first of 11 children of James Walter Brillheart and Gillie Gertrude Smith Brillheart. The future hurler’s father was a wagon and coach builder, and in 1913 had a two-story structure erected in Dublin to expand his business interests. He opened a general store on the bottom floor, and today, the Brillheart name still appears at the top of the building.
Young Jim, who became known as “Buck” to family and close friends, attended Dublin High School and was the star hurler on the baseball team. Brothers Walter, Jerry, and Glenn also took up the game in high school and moved on to higher competition in the area. Walter, a right-hander, pitched in the lower minors from 1928 to 1931, with a career won-lost record of 10-24. Buck moved on from Dublin High to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, where a successful 1920 season with the Maroons led to a professional contract with Greeneville of the Appalachian League in 1921. The 5’11” 170-pounder launched his long career with a 4-7 mark, completing 10 of 11 starts with the Tennessee club.
The colorful Joe Engel, born and raised in Washington, D.C., may have “discovered” Brillheart. There is no proof of this, according to Rod Nelson, who co-chairs the SABR Scouts Committee, but circumstances indicate that Engel, a pitcher who won just 17 games in five seasons with the Senators, had a line on all diamond prospects in the area. The Engel obituary in the New York Times edition of June 13, 1969 states: “Clark Griffith, manager of the Senators, offered Engel a job as Washington’s one-man scouting staff. Engel’s first purchase was Stanley “Bucky” Harris, who later managed several major-league teams.” Other prominent Washington signings by Engel included Joe Cronin, Ossie Bluege, Buddy Myer, Doc Prothro, and Goose Goslin.
Brillheart made his major-league debut on April 17, 1922, with two innings of relief against the Philadelphia Athletics, and was touched for two runs and four hits. He made five more relief appearances before getting a start on May 30 at Boston, where the rookie staggered to his first major-league win, 5-3. He was rescued after 6-2/3 innings having served up two runs, four hits, and 10 walks.
Buck didn’t get another starting call from manager Clyde Milan until July 8, when he hurled a 4-2 victory over Detroit. He went the distance, scattering eight hits, walking three, and striking out four, including Ty Cobb. He wasn’t as fortunate when he opposed Cleveland on July 19; the Virginian worked the first seven frames of a 4-1 loss. His pitching line was four runs (two earned), seven hits, six walks, and two strikeouts.
Another month passed before his fourth start, a 7-3 complete-game loss to St. Louis. The Browns broke the game open with four runs in the seventh inning, and banged out 13 hits off the left-hander. A week later, on August 16, Buck’s teammates provided him with 11 runs, and he responded by holding the White Sox to three runs and nine hits. Eight Washington runs in the bottom of the sixth broke a 3-3 tie.
Washington’s Tom Zachary started the August 26 game at home against the Tigers, and departed after one inning with a 2-0 lead. Brillheart took over in the second frame and was charged with the 8-5 loss; only five runs were earned, but he allowed 14 hits, two walks, and a hit batsman over the final eight innings. The youngster suffered another defeat on September 2 when Alex Ferguson of the Red Sox pitched a complete-game four-hitter for a 3-0 win. The score was 1-0 when Buck left the game after seven innings; he gave up just three hits, but walked six.
Brillheart’s fourth and final win of the season was a cheap one; on September 11 he was given credit for the 12-3 victory over the Red Sox. He departed in the fifth inning with a 7-2 lead, and Walter Johnson came to his rescue, twirling the last five frames to earn a save. Modern-day scoring would have credited the Big Train with the victory, as Buck hadn’t pitched the required five innings.
Jim’s last two starts of the campaign resulted in defeats. On September 18 at Detroit, he pitched four innings and was charged with four runs as the Tigers triumphed, 11-5. On September 29 at Philadelphia, he left in the third inning after allowing six runs in the 8-4 Athletics victory.
Donie Bush succeeded Milan as Washington skipper in 1923, and all of Brillheart‘s work was out of the bullpen. He made his initial appearance against New York on April 24 at Yankee Stadium. “The House That Ruth Built” had opened six days earlier on Opening Day, with 74,200 fans in attendance, at the time the largest crowd ever. Only 8,000 were on hand the day Buck came on in relief of George Mogridge with one out in the first inning. The scoreless game got out of hand in the bottom of the second, when the Yankees scored three runs on a walk and four straight hits. He was charged with the 4-0 loss, and was used in 10 other relief outings through June 20. With a seasoned mound crew led by Johnson, Mogridge, and Zachary, the 19-year-old Brillheart, burdened with an ERA of 7.00 and control problems, was sent to Shreveport in the Texas League to work in a starting role. It had to be tough to leave the Senators, a club on the rise. Washington climbed to fourth place in the AL, and fielded a lineup with five .300 hitters: Muddy Ruel, Joe Judge, Goose Goslin, Nemo Leibold, and Sam Rice. The keystone combination of Bucky Harris and Roger Peckinpaugh led the league in double plays.
Shreveport provided Brillheart with steady work in his half-season there, but the Gassers won only 50 games, and finished the ’23 year buried in the basement. In 21 games, Jim was only 4-11, and years later in an oral interview with SABR’s Tom Hufford, remarked that he “wasn’t used to the heat and humidity.” Shreveport had two outstanding hitters, though, both 21 years old and on their way to the Show: future Hall of Famer Al Simmons and the colorful Smead Jolley. Buck returned home after the season, and on November 3, 1923, married Gertie Lake Lester at the Dublin Methodist Church. And on February 4, 1925, their only child was born: James Benson Brillheart Jr.
The 1924 season saw Brillheart, still under contract to the Senators, close to home in the Class B Virginia League. He started the year with Norfolk and won 13 games but when the Tars ran into financial trouble, Washington moved Jim to the Richmond Colts, a club gunning for the Virginia League pennant. His nine victories helped Richmond take the championship trophy. Buck’s numbers in ’24 were good: 22 wins against 14 losses, a 3.38 ERA, 25 complete games, and 140 strikeouts in 277 innings. He was recalled by the Senators after the season, too late to share in Washington’s World Series win over the New York Giants.
Brillheart was with the Senators for spring training in 1925, but was traded to Memphis for right-handed hurler Harry Kelley before the season-opener. He remained with the Southern Association club for two campaigns, and was reunited with manager Clyde Milan, the skipper at Washington in 1922. In ’25 he logged a 9-7 record in 32 games, with a 4.53 ERA, and the following year improved to 17-9 and a 4.03 ERA in 241 innings pitched in 51 games.
On February 25, 1927, the Chicago Cubs boarded a westbound train in the Windy City, headed for their California spring training base on Catalina Island. One of the train’s passengers waving from a window was Jim Brillheart, acquired by Chicago from Memphis on October 1, 1926, in the Rule 5 draft. Chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley owned Catalina Island as well as the Cubs, and had the team’s workouts moved offshore from Pasadena, California, in 1922.
The training regimen on Catalina provided Brillheart with a venue to display two of his talents: pitching and fishing. He showed enough in spring drills to stick with manager Joe McCarthy’s diamond nine, and undoubtedly enjoyed casting a line to capture the big game fish in the Pacific Ocean. Buck’s initial National League appearance came in the tenth game of the 1927 season on April 25 at Wrigley Field. He retired two of the three batters he faced after relieving Sheriff Blake in the ninth inning of a game won by Cincinnati, 11-9. A memorable pair of games took place at Braves Field on May 14 and 17 as Chicago won a pair of extra-inning games from Boston. The Cubs’ Guy Bush hurled all 18 innings for a 7-2 victory on the 14th. The second contest (on the 17th) lasted 22 frames, and Brillheart, again in relief of Blake, retired the two hitters he faced in the ninth to preserve a 3-3 tie, and was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the frame. Bob Osborn took over in the tenth and pitched 14 innings of shutout ball to notch the 4-3 win. Boston’s Bob Smith worked all 22 innings to suffer the loss.
Buck made his first start on May 31 at Pittsburgh, and was touched for nine runs on 13 hits and three walks before replaced by Osborn in the eighth inning. The reliever was charged with the 10-9 loss. On June 6 at Wrigley, Brillheart earned his first NL triumph, working all 11 innings and allowing two earned runs and 11 hits as the Cubs beat the Braves, 4-3. Four days later he recorded another win in extra frames, going all 10 innings as Chicago outlasted Brooklyn, 5-4.
Results were mixed in Brillheart’s remaining starts. He pitched 6-2/3 innings against the Giants at Wrigley, and left with the score tied at three; Osborn picked up the 4-3 win in relief. On June 21 in St. Louis, the Cardinals bombed the 23-year-old lefty; he gave up six runs and nine hits in 4-1/3 innings in a 12-3 loss. He rebounded on June 27 at Cincinnati, going the distance in the 11-4 Chicago victory. Perhaps his best outing as a Cub occurred in the first game of a twin bill on Independence Day at Wrigley Field. Although he didn’t get credit for the 2-1 win over the Reds in 10 innings, he pitched well, giving up just three hits, three walks, and an unearned run. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the ninth, and Bush, relieving in both games, picked up two victories.
On July 9 at Pittsburgh, Buck toiled in a complete-game loss, 4-0, allowing three earned runs on seven hits. At Boston on July 15, Brillheart was relieved in the seventh inning with a 9-6 lead, having allowed six runs (three earned) and nine hits. Bush recorded the save, pitching hitless ball over the final 2-1-3 frames. Jim was given credit for his fourth win of the season; it would be his final one in the Show.
At the Polo Grounds on July 20, Brillheart took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, ran into trouble and was replaced by Blake. Pinch-hitter Mel Ott laced a pinch-hit double off the reliever to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs in the 5-4 New York win. Travis Jackson knocked in three runs, including a two-run homer. On August 1, Chicago beat Philadelphia, 6-5, at Wrigley; Brillheart started and pitched seven shutout innings before weakening in the eighth with a four-run lead. He gave up a pair of runs on 11 hits, but two relievers allowed the Phillies to tie at 5-5. Chicago lefty Percy Jones was the winning hurler.
Brillheart’s final start came on August 27 in Philadelphia; he worked into the seventh with a 5-1 lead but weakened, and the Phillies tallied three times to cut the margin to 5-4. They evened the score off reliever Charley Root in the eighth, but the Cubs put up a five-spot in the ninth and won, 10-6. The victory went to Root. Brillheart pitched another five games in relief, the last on September 14. His inability to hold leads late into several late-season starts undoubtedly led to Chicago’s acquisition of veteran left-hander Art Nehf from Cincinnati on September 4. Along with Nehf, Percy Jones, the other southpaw on the staff and in his sixth year with the Cubs, was used in both starting and relief roles for the remainder of the season. Buck took a place on the bullpen bench and stayed there until the campaign ended.
The Cubs finished in fourth place in the National League race, with an 85-68 record, 8-1/2 games behind Pittsburgh. Chicago outfielder Hack Wilson tied for the league lead with 30 homers, and Root led all major-league hurlers in wins with 26. Overall, Brillheart’s season record wasn’t all that bad: a 4-2 won-lost mark and a 4.13 ERA. He toiled in 32 games, fifth on the staff, and totaled 128-2/3 innings, fourth among Chicago hurlers. The Cubs moved Buck over the winter, however, packaging him in a trade with Minneapolis of the American Association for right-hander Pat Malone, who went on to log 105 wins in seven seasons with Chicago.
Brillheart became a workhorse for Minneapolis from 1928 through 1930, leading the league in games pitched all three seasons and garnering 53 victories. In 1929 he totaled 20 wins and paced AA pitchers in strikeouts. After the 1930 campaign he was given another chance in the Show when chosen by the Red Sox in the Rule 5 draft. Three seasons away from being rescued by Tom Yawkey’s bankroll, Boston had finished in the American League cellar in 1930. Buck stuck with the club after spring drills, and saw action in the second game of the season at Yankee Stadium. Entering the game in the sixth inning with the Red Sox trailing, 6-2, he was a bit wild, issuing four walks along with one hit, giving up a run in the eighth. The inning before, manager Shano Collins, rather than replacing him with a pinch-hitter, allowed his right-handed batting pitcher to hit, and Buck responded by lacing the only home run of his major-league career, a two run-shot. He was lifted for a hitter in the ninth when the Red Sox tied the score, but the Yankees tallied in the bottom of that inning to win, 8-7.
Boston called Jim’s number just 11 times, and his only start came on June 3 at Fenway Park against Cleveland. He pitched to only five batters as the Indians roughed him up for three runs on three hits and a walk, with Joe Vosmik’s two-run single chasing the left-hander after only one out. The Red Sox rallied later to tie the score, but Vosmik homered in the 11th inning to decide the game in Cleveland’s favor, 5-4. With the Red Sox residing in the basement, Brillheart drew his release the following day, and was finished as a big-leaguer, hurling only 19-2/3 innings for Boston, without a decision and an ERA of 5.49. But he had that round-tripper to savor as he returned to Minneapolis to finish out the 1931 season
Buck slumped at Minneapolis, dropping 15 of 23 decisions, and kept his suitcase packed in 1932. He began that year with the Millers, but after working in 21 games and a 3-1 record, was shipped to Newark of the International League. He was used sparingly by the Bears, and in 13 games was 1-1 before he was peddled to the Memphis Chickashaws. With the Southern Association club he won three and lost three in 10 appearances. Ironically, all three teams he played for in 1932 were pennant-winners.
Soldiering on, Buck moved over to Nashville the next two years, playing under skipper Chuck Dressen. The Vols fielded competitive teams both seasons, finishing second in ’33 and third in ’34, with Brillheart contributing 31 wins in the two campaigns. The Texas League was next for the veteran southpaw; from 1935 through mid-season of 1939 he toiled for the Oklahoma City Indians. He was a steady performer, registering 17 victories or more each year, and the team won pennants in ’35 and ’37. In mid-season of 1939 Buck was sold to Shreveport in the same circuit, and posted 18 wins between the two clubs. He remained at Shreveport through 1942, with a combined 31-25 won-lost record in three seasons.
The Texas League, along with many other circuits, went on a three-year hiatus after 1942, suspending play for the duration of World War II. Remaining teams were scrambling for players, and the San Diego Padres purchased Brillheart from Shreveport. By this time in his career Buck’s pitching resume had changed; the hurler with the “sneaky” fastball had become the “crafty left-hander.”
San Diego was a bustling town in 1943, with its aircraft plants turning out warplanes around the clock and service personnel being transported to and from the South Pacific battle zones. The Pacific Coast League’s Padres struggled during the war years to put a product on the field that would please the patrons at its bayside Lane Field ballpark. The clubhouse became a revolving door as the Padres struggled, finishing seventh, eighth, and sixth from 1943 through 1945. Brillheart was a starting hurler in 85 games during that period, with a record of 32-41.
Pepper Martin had been selected to manage the Padres in 1945, and was back the following season. With former players returning from the armed forces for the ’46 campaign, Brillheart, now 42 years old, was removed from the active roster and became the team’s pitching coach. San Diego management was hopeful for improved play on the field with different faces in the lineup, but it was déjà vu. With the club in sixth place in early September, Martin was dismissed, and Buck took over as skipper for the remainder of the season. The Padres hired Ripper Collins to pilot the club in 1947, and Brillheart returned to coaching the team’s hurlers.
San Diego purchased the Tacoma franchise in the Class B Western International League during the winter of 1947-48, and named Brillheart to manage its new farm club in 1948. The Tigers were a competitive outfit, and finished the year in fourth place. Buck was called back to San Diego in September to become the Padres’ interim skipper after the firing of Collins. Ironically, it was the second time Buck replaced a former member of the St. Louis Cardinals “Gashouse Gang” as San Diego manager. Jim Fuller, a San Diego sportswriter, was instrumental in forming a Hot Stove League early in 1949. Included in the founding group were several local businessmen and two Padre veterans: Tony Criscola and Jim Brillheart.
Buck was back in the Western International League in 1949, but as skipper of the Spokane Indians. The club had a good season, finishing third in the pennant race and leading the league in attendance. On occasion the veteran southpaw took the mound in relief, and on August 13 at Vancouver, with a tired hurling staff and a doubleheader on tap, Brillheart wrote his name on the lineup card to start the opening game. Although he hadn’t started in almost four seasons, he threw a complete-game, five-hitter and beat the Capilanos, 5-2. The victory was the 317th in the Virginian’s long career, and his last hurrah as a pitcher.
In 1950 Buck returned as manager at Tacoma, where he remained for the final two seasons of his professional career. Cleveland and San Diego had negotiated a working agreement, and Brillheart had more talent to work with. The Tigers battled the Yakima Bears tooth-and-nail in ’50, but lost the pennant by a single game. When Tacoma slumped to sixth in 1951, Jim announced his retirement after 31 seasons in baseball.
He returned to Virginia and found employment as an ironworker in Roanoke, where the family lived until Buck’s retirement from the construction industry. A move back to their hometown of Dublin was the final stop for the Brillhearts, where Buck, a great lover of the outdoors, spent many hours fishing, hunting, and talking baseball with family and friends. James Benson Brillheart passed away at the Radford Community Hospital on September 2, 1972, and is buried in Dublin Cemetery. He was 68 years old. His wife, Gertie, died on December 4, 1985, and is buried next to her husband. Their son, James Benson Jr., lives in a rest home in Virginia.
Jim Brillheart was honored posthumously in 1976 with induction into the Roanoke College Athletic Hall of Fame. He is one of four Roanoke College athletes to play in the major leagues, the others being Doc Ayers, Bill Kay, and Ben Sanders. And in 2009, through the efforts of SABR’s Tom Hufford, Buck was elected to the Pulaski County Baseball Hall of Fame.
I was fortunate to see Jim Brillheart pitch for my San Diego PCL Padres, and often wondered how he could get hitters out with the soft stuff he threw to the plate. He was over 40 years old, for Pete’s sake, and even I was able to hit high school pitchers with more velocity than old Jim. At that time, however, I had no idea that he had been a major-leaguer, as well as a big winner in the high minors most of his career. The gentleman knew his craft, and I like to think that Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, who won 416 games in the major leagues, was smiling down from baseball heaven on August 13, 1949, after his 1922 Senators teammate won the 317th game of his career. I’ve been a San Diego Padres fan since 1936, and am grateful that players like James Benson Brillheart came along to fill the gap between the 1936 Padres PCL team of Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr, and the later National League clubs of Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman.
Jim Brillheart file, Baseball Hall of Fame Library & Research Center, Cooperstown, New York.
Brandes, Ray, and Bill Swank. The Pacific Coast League Padres, Volumes I & II, San Diego: The San Diego Padres and the San Diego Baseball Historical Society, 1997.
Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1993.
Johnson, Lloyd, and Miles Wolff, eds. Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. 3rd ed. Durham, NC: Baseball America, 2007.
Vitti, Jim. The Cubs on Catalina. Darien, CT: Settefrati Press, 2003.
Lee, Bill. The Baseball Necrology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland 2003.
Hufford, Tom. J.B. Brillheart Was County’s Pro: The Southwest Times, Pulaski, Virginia, 1971.
Telephone conversations and Emails from Glenn A. Brillheart: August 6, 2009, January 20 and February 6, 2010.
Emails from SABR member Tom Hufford: December 19, 2009, and February 11 & 16, 2010.
Thanks to SABR member Ray Nemec, the Roanoke College Office of Sports Information, and to James Benson Brillheart III.