This article was written by Bill Nowlin
When Johnny Cash sang the Shel Silverstein song “A Boy Named Sue,” he was telling the fictional story of a boy given a girl’s name by a father who was about to leave him, so that the boy would grow up tougher and able to weather what life might throw at him. In researching Johnny Watwood’s family background, one wonders whether there was something of that in his background, or whether there was simply something like gender confusion on the part of the census taker.
John Clifford Watwood (as we understand his name today) was born on August 17, 1905, in Alexander City, Alabama. The city sits on the shores of Lake Martin and today has a population of around 15,000. Watwood was the first major leaguer to come from the city; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Kendall Graveman, who debuted in 2014, was the second.
Alvin V. Watwood, a blacksmith with a shop in Alexander City, was his father, and Kate McElvy Watwood his mother. The family was Scotch-Irish in origin. In the 1910 census, they had a child list as born in 1905 with the name Jewel. Though more commonly a girl’s name, it could have been a boy’s name – but the census said the child was a daughter. The 1920 census said the same (Jewel was a daughter), and the family had added two other children, Kathleen and Lois, but Lois was listed as a son. The 1930 census taker showed Alvin Watwood now working as a carpenter in a casket company, listed “Jewell” as a professional ballplayer and this time indicated he was the couple’s son. Kathleen was now named Ruby, and Lois (other evidence suggests his true name was Louis) was still listed as a son. The family tree feature of Ancestry.com shows Johnny Watwood’s name as Jewel C. “Lefty” Watwood. In the player questionnaire he completed for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Watwood gave his nickname as “Watty” and his name as John Clifford Watwood. That is also the name on his death certificate. Louis Watwood retired as a colonel in the United States Air Force.
Johnny, as we shall call him, went to the Alexander City public schools and then for two years to Auburn. (What is now Auburn University was Alabama Polytechnic Institute at the time.) He played end for the college team at football and starred as a first baseman for the baseball team.
In addition to his work as a blacksmith and casketmaker, Alvin Watwood also farmed, cotton and corn, as his father had done before him. He’s the one who pushed Johnny to go to college, telling him, “I want you to go down to Alabama Poly and learn to grow two bales of cotton where only one grew before.” Johnny said, “Well, I went to Auburn all right, but when I figured this cotton growing was not what it had been, I decided I would be an electric engineer.”1 And he would have been, except for a flood of the Mississippi.
Watwood talked about playing semipro ball in Alabama, which at the time in the South did not threaten amateur standing in college. “I was just through my freshman year in college when I got a job as a cotton inspector in Jackson, Miss. I discovered my principal duties were to make base hits and play the outfield for Jackson’s leading ‘amateur’ baseball team. We had a game scheduled in Baton Rouge, The old Mississippi (River) went on the rampage and we could not get back to Jackson. The Alexandria team of the Cotton States League also was marooned there. The club needed an outfielder and I was asked to join.” He signed as John Wainwright, but then word leaked out that Johnny Watwood and Wainwright were the same. Pro ball and college athletics were another thing, and without athletics, college didn’t interest him as much. Hence, he left school and went pro full time.2
Watwood’s first year in pro ball was 1927. As a center fielder with the Alexandria Reds of the Class-D Cotton States League, he hit .266.3 In 1928 he split the season almost evenly between Alexandria (62 games) and, later, the Class-A Texas League’s Shreveport Sports (72 games). Near the end of June, he was leading the Cotton States League in hitting, with a .370 average. There were six major-league scouts looking him over at the time.4 Watwood’s last game with Alexandria was on June 29. His contract was sold to Shreveport.5 He was hitting .367 when he left Alexandria, and wound up fourth in the league. With Shreveport, he hit .303. On July 31, on the recommendation of scout Charlie Stis, the Chicago White Sox purchased Watwood’s contract, with delivery expected for 1929.6
Billy Evans, the Cleveland Indians general manager, said he could have signed Watwood for $3,000. The groundskeeper at Alexandria had written him and urged him to sign the outfielder. Evans sent Charlie Hickman to check him out, and Hickman agreed he was a good hitter but didn’t have that much else to recommend him. The Indians offered $1,500 but Alexandria wanted twice that much. A couple of months later, scout Cy Slapnicka wired Evans from Shreveport saying that Watwood was worth $20,000 and they should grab him quick. “Then we find out that White Sox have an option on the whole Shreveport club, and that lets us out.”7
Watwood went to Dallas for spring training with the White Sox in 1929 and hit so well during the exhibition season that he earned a berth on the team. The White Sox hadn’t finished in the first division since 1920, the year the Black Sox Scandal became public. Ray Schalk had been replaced in midseason by Lena Blackburne during the 1928 campaign. This year – 1929 – they were hoping to finish in fourth place or perhaps better. It’s hard these days to imagine a manager declaring before the season began that he thought his team would finish any other than first, but Blackburne predicted fourth place a week before the season began.8 Sportswriter John C. Hoffman characterized Watwood as “another lad who will be reckoned with in the future.”9
Watwood’s debut came in a game against the St. Louis Browns on April 16. It wasn’t one to write home about. If his family and friends read Irving Vaughan in the Chicago Tribune, they would have seen that the sportswriter was not impressed. Sam Gray was pitching for the Browns, in St. Louis, and won, 3-1. Watwood committed one of Chicago’s three errors, but Gray “showed Young Watwood some pitching the youngster never before had seen. Twice Watwood was induced to sit down on strikes, once he tapped one to the pitcher, and in his fourth trip hoisted a foul near third.”10
The next day, though, Watwood was 2-for-4.
Watwood appeared in 85 games for the White Sox, batting .302 (third-best on the team). He hit two home runs, drove in 28 runs and scored 33. He rarely made the headlines. His triple in the top of the ninth on June 26 in Detroit sent home the second of two runs that gave the White Sox a 5-3 win, and on August 29 he drove in the first of two runs in a 2-1 win over Cleveland. Both were big hits, but neither was the game-winner. Watwood’s fielding left something to be desired; his fielding percentage in 1929 – thanks to 12 errors – was .942. The White Sox finished seventh, not fourth.
One man who saw Watwood in the spring of 1930 was the veteran manager John McGraw, who’d been hearing of him for a year. McGraw said, “There is one of the most natural hitters I ever saw.” In his second season with the White Sox, under new manager Donie Bush, Watwood produced the same .302 batting average (again, third on the team), this time over the course of 133 games. He drove in 51 runs and scored 75. Once again, though he more than held his own on the team, Watwood rarely had a dramatic hit. One time he won a game with a double, beating St. Louis 1-0 on July 31, but it was pitcher Ted Lyons who got the lion’s share of the headlines. It was his 17th win of the season. And Watwood’s double really only would have moved the baserunner ahead of him (it was Lyons) to third base, but Alex Metzler‘s throw in from the outfield actually hit Watwood and bounded away, allowing Lyons to score. It couldn’t be scored an error, so Watwood got an RBI even though it was only by happenstance that Lyons could run home. Playing first base in the first game of the September 6 doubleheader, Watwood did drive in the winning run in the bottom of the eighth in a 2-1 game, but it was Lyons, winning his 20th game, who got the headlines, beating Wes Ferrell and snapping Ferrell’s streak of 13 consecutive wins.
Watwood improved considerably in fielding in 1930, largely due to his work at first base. He had played outfield exclusively in 1929 – all three positions, but mostly in center field. In 1930 he played 62 games at first base, recording a .989 fielding percentage, and 52 in the outfield (.968). By career’s end, however, he had played only another 22 games at first base, of the 251 additional games he played, and wound up with a career .948 fielding percentage as an outfielder.
In the 1930 standings, the White Sox finished seventh yet again.
Right after the season was over, Watwood suffered a fractured skull, hit in the head by a Pat Malone fastball in the sixth inning of an October 5 city series game with the Cubs. He was briefly knocked unconscious and was carried from the field, too woozy to continue; X-rays in a nearby hospital showed the fracture.11 It was three weeks before he was able to leave the hospital.
The White Sox purchased the veteran Lu Blue in early April 1931 and so it was back to the outfield for all but four games for Watwood, who played in 128 games in all. He hit .283, with 47 RBIs and 51 runs scored. He earned the occasional headline. A ninth-inning two-out single on May 2 beat the Browns, and he had a big 5-for-5 day in the second game of the July 22 doubleheader in Boston. For the most part, Watwood was a steady performer at the plate, typically a little better than his teammates, though he never had a lot of power. He hit five home runs in his major-league career, with a slugging percentage of .363.
Watwood started the 1932 season wearing white stockings again, but before April was out he was wearing the red ones of the Boston Red Sox. An April 29 trade sent three White Sox (outfielder Smead Jolley, catcher Bennie Tate, and Watwood) to Boston for catcher Charlie Berry; at the same time, utilityman Jack Rothrock was sent from Boston to Chicago for the $7,500 waiver price. It was Berry the White Sox wanted most of all. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Trading of these players, particularly Jolley and Watwood, is further evidence of the White Sox’ determination to get the defensive strength so sadly lacking in recent years. Berry especially is expected to make the south side team more formidable.”12 The Red Sox were looking for better offense, and reluctantly let Berry go to get it.13
Watwood was hitting .296 at the time of the trade, right in line with his production the prior three seasons – though he had not driven in a run (he scored five). An amusing game, from the perspective of the ex-White Sox then with Boston, occurred on June 11. Jolley was 1-for-3 with a run scored, Tate was 2-for-4 with a run scored, and Watwood was 2-for-5 with two RBIs. Boston beat Chicago, 4-1. Watwood played both the outfield (46 games, all three positions) and first base (18 games) for Boston, and by season’s end had 30 RBIs, with a .246 average and a total of 31 runs scored. He was unable to finish out the season, due to an emergency appendectomy on September 23.
Watwood was back for baseball in 1933, but got off to a very slow start, and was batting .148 after seven games in left field. Relegated to fill-in roles, he was .133 after his final game on May 14. The next day the Red Sox sent him to the Yankees, with second baseman Marv Olson and some of new owner Tom Yawkey‘s money; new GM Eddie Collins acquired outfielder Dusty Cooke in return. Cooke had been playing for Newark, a Yankees farm club, and proved to be a good pickup for Boston. The Yankees really had no interest in or need for either Olson or Watwood, but money always comes in handy.
Watwood played in 109 games for Newark and hit .292. He played the next six seasons in the minors, though there was one brief return to the majors for two games in 1939.
In 1934 Watwood played for Syracuse. In 1935, it was Syracuse and Memphis. (Both teams were in the Boston Red Sox system, to which he had reverted after his time with Newark.) Watwood became part of the Cardinals chain in 1936 and played for Houston from 1936 into 1939, though he split the 1937 season with Rochester, another Cardinals farm club. He also managed Houston for the first part of 1937, but the team was mired in last place and prospects didn’t look good. On July 6 Watwood asked the team president if he could quit. Houston president Fred Ankenman worked out a deal with Rochester that sent Watwood there, and brought in Ira Smith to manage, along with first baseman Walter Alston.14 That December Watwood was brought back to Houston, where he played in 1938.
Watwood in 1939 saw time with Houston, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa, all in the Texas League. And he had two more appearances in the big leagues. On May 25 he was playing with Houston when the Philadelphia Phillies bought his contract on a conditional basis.15 He played first base in back-to-back games on May 28 and 29. He was 0-for-2 on the 28th and 1-for-4 on the 29th. He had only 15 chances, but committed an error on one of them. He was returned to Houston, which sold him to Oklahoma City on June 8 for cash. On June 27 Oklahoma City sold Watwood’s contract to Tulsa, but he announced he would refuse to report and would retire to his farm instead.16 He thought better of it, however, and within the next several days was playing first base for the Tulsa Oilers. He had played 28 games with Houston, 20 for Oklahoma City, and 64 for Tulsa.17
Watwood was a career .301 hitter in 1,024 games in the minor leagues.
Watwood worked as a “prosperous sporting goods merchant” during the offseason, one of his salespeople being catcher Glen Myatt.18 The work may not have survived the Depression, though. Fortunately, he had land. In 1940 Watwood was listed in that year’s US Census as “ballplayer, farmer” and lived in Brenham, Texas, with his wife, Erette.
Watwood was divorced at the time of his death, his professional given as “cattleman” by his surviving sister, Ruby. He suffered from COPD, arthritis, and peptic ulcer disease, but what got him was metastasized carcinoma. He died at the Goodwater Nursing Home in Goodwater, Alabama, where he had lived the last 10 years of his life.19 The date of death is March 1, 1980. He is buried in Alexander City.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Watwood’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 John C. Watwood, “How I Got My Start in Baseball,” Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1932, A3.
3 Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), March 28, 1928, 8.
4 Daily Herald, June 23, 1928, 7.
5 New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 30, 1928, 12.
6 Dallas Morning News, August 11, 1928, 10. The actual purchase was reported in an Associated Press dispatch in the August 1 newspapers.
7 Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 2, 1929, 26.
8 See Chicago Daily News writer John C. Hoffman’s story, which also ran in the Washington Post, April 9, 1929, 17.
9 Washington Post, April 9, 1929, 17.
10 Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1929, 25.
11 Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1930, 25.
12 Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1932, A 17.
13 See Boston Globe, April 30, 1932, 1.
14 Dallas Morning News, July 7, 1937, Sect. 2, page 2. This is the same Walter Alston later named to the Hall of Fame for his stellar managing career with the Dodgers.
15 New York Times, May 26, 1939, 30.
16 Dallas Morning News, June 28, 1928, Section 2, page 2.
17 Dallas Morning News, October 10, 1939, Section 2, page 5.
18 Chicago Tribune, May 2, 1936, 23.
19 Letter from Louis V. Watwood to baseball historian Bill Haber dated November 7, 1980. The letter is in Johnny Watwood’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.