This article was written by Bill Hickman
Some men’s lives are tragically brief. Yet when they are over, we often find that these men have made their mark in the world. Former New York Giant John Bruton “Smokey” Carden was one such man. And because of the times in which he lived, an examination of his baseball history reveals a teammate who also fit this mold.
John Carden was born in Killeen, Texas, on May 19, 1921. He was one of 12 children (three died in infancy) born to parents who owned a 460-acre farm on land that is now Fort Hood. For as long as his sister Ila can remember, John was playing baseball as a youngster. He stayed on the farm nine miles outside Killeen through high school, and formed ties with his family that would continue beyond Killeen.
John’s story is one of courage, fighting to succeed, and an attachment to family and the world of East Texas. An observer who pictures Waco at the center of East Texas will find the important spots in John’s life 60 miles to the southwest (Killeen), 85 miles to the southeast (College Station), and 35 miles to the east (Mexia, pronounced muh-HAY-ya).
The pitching talent of this righthander became evident at Texas A&M University in College Station. Creating family continuity with his older brother Weldon (Red), who was an Aggie catcher on the 1941 and 1943 varsity teams, John lettered in baseball for the same team in 1942 and 1943. John was known alternately by his initials, J.B., and by “Smokey” in college. It’s easy to deduce the derivation of his nickname. A 1942 Aggie newspaper mentioned that John “has been smoking that fastball of his by many would-be hitters.” Former Aggie teammate Ira Glass remembers him as a “big ol’ boy who could throw that aspirin.”
In 1942, Smokey’s team won the Southwest Conference with a 13-2 league record and finished 19-3 overall. He won five of those league games, and no reports have been found to indicate a loss on his part. That team also contained another future major leaguer, Les Peden, who played third base behind John. Les moved to the position of catcher in the minor leagues, and appeared with the Washington Senators for nine games in 1953. Les remembers both Smokey and Weldon Carden as really good guys who were inseparable brothers. Cullen Rogers, the team’s left fielder who still carries his three-run homer past the 363-foot mark against the University of Texas as a proud memory, recalls Smokey as a “great guy and great winner.”
The Aggie team captain and catcher, J.D. Scoggins, was also a terrific ballplayer, but lost his life in combat on a beach in the Pacific during World War II. According to John Scoggins, his cousin J.D. was slated for the New York Yankees organization and had an excellent chance to become a major leaguer. Les Peden indicated that J.D. was the best athlete he saw at Texas A&M. Another of Smokey’s teammates, second baseman Ira Glass, played in the White Sox organization for five years and made it to the AA level with Shreveport before retiring from organized baseball.
In Smokey’s next year with the team, the Aggies tied for the conference title with a 6-2 record. It was a season in which Smokey and Weldon Carden connected successfully as batterymates. Smokey was the ace hurler of the staff, with fine performances like his season-opening, 13-strikeout win over Rice. Weldon picked off at least 10 runners that year, and contributed punch to the lineup with his bat. There were only three teams playing in the conference in 1943 due to World War II. Texas A&M was a military school, and its students were all considered to be in the military. This was a factor in the school’s being allowed to play the 1943 baseball season at the height of the war. As soon as the conference’s season was over, the team broke up and went off to active military duty.
Smokey moved on to the Marines, where he served for two-and-a-half years. He joined the Quantico, Virginia, baseball team in June 1944. He would become friends with Jerome Holzman, a fellow Marine who was later the official historian for Major League Baseball. The Quantico team included utility infielder Cal Ermer, who went on to play one game for the Washington Senators in 1947 and then to manage the Minnesota Twins in 1967 and 1968. By mid-August, Smokey had a 5-2 record. Included in these wins were a 6-1 beating of the Heurich Brewers, the defending champion of the Washington Industrial League, and a ten-strikeout five-hitter against the Warsaw, Virginia, civilian team. On August 19, he faced the Norfolk Tars Navy team, which was loaded with former and future major leaguers. He struck out seven Norfolk batters, but lost the game 11-5. According to the Quantico Sentry, the Marine base’s newspaper, his teammates committed six errors which “produced a mess of unearned runs.” On August 30, he got revenge on that same Norfolk Tars team. Facing a lineup which included multi-year major leaguers such as Eddie Robinson, Glen McQuillen, Clyde McCullough, and Hank Schenz, Smokey bested them with a 2-1 win on a six-hitter. He struck out six of them. On September 3, he struck out nine batters from the Navy Aeronautics Bureau in just five innings. With Quantico ahead 13-0 at that point, the Leathernecks’ manager gave Smokey the rest of the day off.
As the 1945 campaign began for Quantico, the Quantico Sentry was making statements such as: “Heading the returning veterans is Pfc. John (Smokey) Carden, sensational righthander, who breezed through opponents last year with his fiery fastball” and “In Carden, he (Quantico’s manager) has one of the finest righthanders in the services today.” During that season, the Quantico team would play three major league teams. As the staff ace, Smokey was called to be the starting pitcher in all three games. If it had not been for two critical fielding errors on the part of his teammates, he would have won two of those three games.
The first contest against major leaguers came on opening day of Quantico’s season, April 2, 1945. Smokey began well, by striking out the first two Boston Braves to face him. But things began to unravel in the second inning, as a single, “coupled with a costly infield error,” a hit batsman, followed by two more hits, led to Boston’s first two runs. The Braves scored three more runs in the third, and Carden was through for the day, as Quantico lost 7-0.
The May 7 game against the Philadelphia Athletics was the one which should have been a victory for Smokey. He held them scoreless for eight innings on only five hits. He struck out eight of the A’s, and only walked one. Quantico carried a 2-0 lead into the ninth. The A’s half of the ninth began with a single by Bill McGhee. An out moved him along to second. Joe Cicero then singled to center field, and McGhee scampered home to make the score 2-1 with one out and a man on first. Bobby Wilkins then hit a double-play ball to third base, but Cal Ermer dropped it, and everyone was safe. The A’s pitcher was up next, and he produced a sacrifice bunt which moved the runners to second and third. Two outs, and the Marines still led the game. Ed Busch next hit “a hard smash” to short, which the Marine infielder Taylor booted away, and the game was tied. That play was followed by Charlie Metro‘s double, and that ended the scoring with a 4-2 win for the A ‘s. It was a heartbreaking game for Smokey, but it set the stage for his most important game against major leaguers.
On August 3, 1945, Quantico played the New York Giants in an exhibition game before 5,000 spectators at the Post Diamond. Smokey handcuffed the Giants on two singles over the first seven innings. Future Hall of Famers Mel Ott and Ernie Lombardi combined for an 0-for-5 day at the plate against Smokey that game. This was particularly an accomplishment against Ott, not only because he was the Giants’ manager, but also in view of his just having smashed his 500th home run in his last game before this one and his recording two additional homers against the Phillies once he left Quantico.
So Smokey and the Marines carried away a 4-2 victory that day. He struck out three Giants batters, and had two hits himself in his three appearances at the plate. Though Carden tired in the eighth, and had to be relieved, he had left a lasting impression on the Giants. Former New York Giants 21-game winner Bill Voiselle, probably referring to this game, more than 50 years later recalls: “I do remember him pitching, and he pitched a good game. He may have beaten the Giants that day.” Voiselle is correct. Carden’s performance against the Giants caused them to remember him when he was finally discharged from the Marines. More details about this game may be found in an appendix below.
After the exhibition game against the Giants, Smokey went on to post an 18-7 record for the 1945 Quantico season, with an ERA of 2.55 In the last few weeks of the season, the Marine squad was carrying only two pitchers, so he was truly a workhorse. On one occasion, he played a double-header by relieving in the first game and pitching the entire second game. He was the winner in both. He also proved to be adept with a bat. He led the team with a .389 batting average and 35 hits, including two homers.
As his military career drew to a close, Carden signed with the Giants in May 1946 for a $2,000 bonus and reported directly to them without the benefit of any minor league experience.
He pitched in his sole major league game on May 18, 1946, in the Polo Grounds against the Chicago Cubs. On a cold and drizzly day when the reigning National League champions has already scored 12 runs against the Giants before he entered the game, he was given the chore of handling the Cubs in the eighth and ninth innings. Displaying the control problems of a big fastballer, he gave up four walks and four hits in two innings, leaving the game without a won-lost record, but with an ERA of 22.50.
Smokey finished the year at Richmond. He debuted against the Roanoke Rosox with a two-inning no-hit relief job. In his best game, which transpired on August 4, he shut down the Norfolk Tars 3-0 and yielded only three singles in his complete game. He outdueled Tex Hoyle, who would later on have major league experience with the Athletics. In another game, he bested future Cub Turk Lown with a 2-1 victory over the Newport News Dodgers. Altogether, he won six and lost eight for the Richmond Colts, but chalked up an impressive ERA of 2.84. After the season, he married Mary Ellen Focke (“Ellen”) on September 30, 1946.
Smokey started 1947 at Sioux City, but struggled with arm trouble. He missed three weeks of play in August due to elbow surgery following his stint with the Sioux City Soos. He moved on to Trenton. Once again, he was with a team that was going to enjoy success. The Trenton Giants, managed by Tommy Heath, moved from last place to first that year, winning 52 of its final 62 games and electrifying the entire community. John made his first start with Trenton on July 29 and beat Hagerstown 3-1 by hurling a three-hitter. On September 1, with 6,531 fans crammed into Dunn Field — capacity 3,500 — John pitched a four-hitter to beat future major-leaguer Curt Simmons and his Wilmington teammates by a score of 2-1. According to Trenton teammate and future New York Giant Bobby Hofman, Carden “was a great guy to have around if there was a fight.” Apparently, Smokey’s size and Marine status commanded plenty of respect in those situations. He stood 6-foot-5 and weighed 210 pounds.
Although Smokey’s arm surgery had helped him improve his pitching during the last part of the 1947 season, his arm still had not felt entirely comfortable. Some dental problems had infected his entire body and were indirectly causing difficulty for his right arm. In the fall of 1947, he had these problems taken care of, and he entered 1948 prepared for a stronger season.
John began 1948 on the New York Giants’ spring training roster, but the parent club did not retain him going into the season. Instead, he had a fine 11-5 record with the Knoxville Smokies in 1948. His Knoxville skipper was Dave Garcia, who would manage the California Angels and Cleveland Indians years later. Garcia recalls: “Carden was a tough pitcher on the mound. He would throw high and tight, followed by low and away.” Former Knoxville teammate and subsequent New York Giants pitcher George Spencer remembers John as a good friend and fastball pitcher with an exceptionally high leg kick. Neal Watlington, who was John’s batterymate at Knoxville, was destined to catch for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953. Neal describes John as having been “a real nice guy, very competitive, and as a pitcher, he had real good stuff.” John’s 1948 performance with Knoxville exceeded that of his fellow teammate, Hoyt Wilhelm, a future Hall of Famer. John posted an 11-5 record with a 3.47 ERA. Hoyt’s record was 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA.
A Sporting News account of Carden’s career listed him at Sioux City and Minneapolis as well in 1948. He was optioned to Minneapolis April 2 that year, but then outrighted to Sioux City April 13 without seeing any action for the Millers. Carden’s wife, Ellen, confirmed he was indeed at Knoxville all year.
Smokey was slated to play for Minneapolis team in 1949. He spent the off-season working on his father-in-law’s farm near his home in Mexia. On February 8, 1949, he was making final preparations to leave Mexia and report to spring training. Not wanting to leave his wife and her parents without telephone service, he ascended a power and telephone pole on the farm in order to fix a broken telephone line. In those days, it was standard practice for the owners of rural telephone hookups to be responsible for repairing their own lines. He had made such repairs before, but this time he accidentally touched a 2,300-volt rural electric power line, and was electrocuted.
In visiting the mourning family, Mel Ott and two other Giants conveyed their sense of confidence that Smokey was a player who had possessed the talent to make it back to the big leagues. The Mexia Daily News opined that “Carden was one of those rare individuals who seemed to like everyone, and in turn, was appreciated and admired by all who knew him.”
Cal Ermer, in a letter to this writer, gave a similar perspective, but in different words. Cal described Smokey as a “great guy, with a warm heart.” Cal went on to say, “I used to have people asking me about Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson and I would answer this way: ‘They were better people than they were ballplayers and Smokey belongs in that class.” Cal also had great respect for Smokey’s pitching ability and described him as a “gentle giant with a Nolan Ryan fastball and a good curveball.”
When John Carden died, his wife Ellen was pregnant with a son who would be born in June 1949. She subsequently married a man named Sam Webb, and John’s son is named John Wallace Webb. John Wallace in turn produced a son of his own, Brad Webb, who became a pretty fair pitcher at the University of Pittsburgh. No doubt, Smokey would have been very proud.
JOHN CARDEN’S EXHIBITION GAME AGAINST THE GIANTS
It was August 3, 1945. Mel Ott must have been a rather happy man that morning. He had just hit the 500th homer of his magnificent major league career two days earlier. Only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx surpassed him at this point. Ott was the toast of New York’s baseball world.
Ott also enjoyed taking his ball clubs to play military service teams. No one in baseball was more appreciated by the servicemen for his efforts to get close to them than Mel Ott. On this occasion, he would even fly his club down to Virginia to play Quantico. It was the standard operation for major league teams to travel by rail, because in 1945 air travel was viewed as having risks, but Ott was eager to play this game and then get his team back to engaging in the National League pennant race.
John “Smokey” Carden also had reasons to feel positive that morning. He had been named as the starting pitcher against the New York Giants, and the support and confidence of the whole Marine base was with him. He had pitched previously against the Braves and Athletics, so this was not his first taste of a major league challenge. According to The Quantico Sentry of August 2, 1945, Smokey “should have scored a 2-0 shutout over the Athletics had it not been for poor support by his teammates.” Smokey was the Leathernecks’ ace pitcher, with an 11-5 season record at this point, and was in a streak of 17 consecutive innings without yielding a run. His last win had been a two-hit 1-0 shutout of the Cherry Point, North Carolina, team. Today’s challenge would not be easy, because the Giants would be playing their regular lineup, including two future hall-of-famers, Ott and Ernie Lombardi. But Smokey would prove himself up to the task. More than 5,000 spectators would be there to see him put on a sterling performance.
Carden limited the Giants to two hits over seven innings. Ott faced him three times without success. Lombardi was up twice and out twice. Smokey did tire in the eighth, and gave up four straight singles, which led to his being replaced by Andy Steinbach, who finished the game for the Marines. But it was Carden’s performance which set the stage for Quantico’s 4-2 victory. According to The Quantico Sentry of August 9, “For seven innings, they (the Giants) were completely stymied by the smoking fast ball of Carden, who yielded only an infield single to Whitey Lockman in the third inning and a sizzling single to center by Phil Weintraub in the fourth.”
Smokey finished with a total of six hits given up in seven and a third innings, with three strikeouts. He also did well at the bat, with two singles in three trips to the plate. Afterwards, Mel Ott said that he didn’t see how Smokey could miss in professional baseball. Indeed, Ott may have lost a game, but he came away with a new prospect for the New York Giants. Although Ott himself had been shut down by Smokey, it was only a temporary break in his streak. After departing from Quantico, the Giants went on to play the Phillies for the weekend, and Ott slammed his 501st and 502nd homers against them.
JOHN CARDEN’S SOLE MAJOR LEAGUE GAME, MAY 18, 1946
On May 13, 1946, New York Giants Manager Mel Ott made an announcement to the press. John Carden had been discharged from the Marines and Ott had signed this blazing fastball pitcher. Carden was coming directly to the Giants and had been added to their roster. John would play in his only major league game five days later.
On May 18, John awoke to read headlines about President Truman’s seizing control of the railroads in order to prevent the looming economic disaster of a strike. A few hours later, the Chicago Cubs team was alerted to the bad news that they were probably destined that evening to take an overnight bus ride from New York City to Boston, rather than to enjoy the comfort of rail accommodations. The train schedules had not yet returned to normal.
The scheduled Cubs-Giants game of May 17 had been rained out. Now the two teams were facing another drizzly day at the Polo Grounds. There was a chill in the air. Only 11,871 fans were brave enough to partake of a ballgame in this weather. The game was to be the first of a doubleheader, but as the day progressed, conditions were to worsen and the umpires were to call off the second game.
The Cubs were not a happy lot when they came to bat in the first inning. They expressed their frustrations with the travel arrangements by flexing their offensive muscle. As a result, Giant starter Bill Voiselle lasted through only seven batters. A succession of New York Giant relievers took their turns on the mound. By the time John Carden arrived to start the top of the eighth inning, the score was already 12-3 in favor of the Cubs. We pick up John Drebinger’s account in the next day’s New York Times from there:
“Then came John Carden the 6-foot-5 righthander who recently was signed on emerging from the Marines. The Bruins really made hash of this young man’s major league debut. They quietly (scored) only once in the eighth without any hits at all. Two walks, a hit batsman (Andy Pafko), and an error by Carden himself accounted for that.
But in the ninth, they teed off with a vengeance. Two walks, a quartet of singles, and a well-aimed heave at second base which found neither Kerr nor Blattner at home gave the Cubs their second cluster of six (runs) for the wet afternoon and by that time everyone, including the umpires, had had enough.”
So the run count against John Carden for his two innings was seven, five of them earned. Since he only surrendered four singles, his wildness was the primary cause of his difficulties. Were his problems in finding the plate attributable to the weather or to the jitters associated with making a major league debut? I don’t know the answer to that, but surely the wetness and the temperature, which had dropped to 60 degrees by game’s end, had to be factors contributing to his disappointment in his outing.
Military and Organized Baseball Record
This information on John Carden comes with my gratitude to the many people who supplied it to me. Ellen Webb graciously shared recollections of her late husband’s life and baseball career. Ila Bretzius, J.B.’s sister, provided background on his life on the family farm, as well as his baseball experiences. Bill Carden, John’s nephew, clarified many aspects of his family life and opened the doors to conversations with others in J.B.’s family. John Wallace Webb has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the research.
Pat Doyle, who heads a service firm called Old Time Data, supplied most of the minor league statistical information. The major league statistics come from TOTAL BASEBALL VII. Davis Barker, a baseball researcher with substantial experience in tracing Texas college baseball records, supplied most of the information on Carden’s Aggie career. Todd Walters of Texas A&M’s Cushing Library provided some articles from the school paper, The Battalion, which gave accounts of 1942 Aggies games when Carden pitched.
Gene Sherman, former broadcaster for the Sioux City Soos, and Jerome Holtzman, Chicago Tribune sportswriter and president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, shared their recollections of friendships with Carden at Quantico. In fact, Gene Sherman drove John to the Polo Grounds when he first reported to the Giants. Greg Beston, who was working on a book on one-game major leaguers, supplied the date of Carden’s sole major league game. Randy Linthurst, a SABR member from Florida and former sportswriter, saw Carden pitch for Trenton in 1947 and supplied John’s history for that year, as well as the quote from the late Bobby Hofman.
Ira Glass, Les Peden and Cullen Rogers all shared their perspectives as John’s former Aggie teammates. George Spencer and Neal Watlington reflected on the 1948 season as Knoxville teammates. Dave Garcia not only managed Smokey at Knoxville, but the Garcia and Carden families lived in the same house while in that city. Dave discussed his memories of Carden with me during a telephone interview in 2003. Bill Voiselle, who pitched full seasons for the Giants starting in 1944 and moved to the Boston Braves about a third of the way into the 1947 season, recalled John’s hurling against the Giants.
Cal Ermer considered Smokey to be his best friend while they were teammates during the 1945 season at Quantico. The two visited New York together the first time Smokey was invited to meet with the Giants. Cal’s background as a major league manager lends additional support to the points he made about Smokey.
My other sources of information were: John Carden’s obituaries as they appeared in the Sporting News of February 16, 1949, and in undated clippings from the Mexia Daily News; the 1942 and 1943 Texas A&M yearbooks; the box score from his sole major league game; the New York Times of May 14 and 19, 1946; the April 1948 edition of Baseball Digest; several 1946 issues of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; the Richmond News Leader of September 9, 1947; and many 1944 and 1945 issues of The Quantico Sentry.