This article was written by David Mendonca
Catcher Milt Welch, who made a single appearance for the Detroit Tigers, was the last surviving player from the 1945 World Series championship team. In fact, that was his only game in the majors. Welch became part of the club of big-league players (nearly 1,000 strong) who realized their dream for just a day.
Welch was just 20 years old when he had his “cup of coffee.” He had made the Detroit roster as a reserve coming out of spring training in 1945, but did not get his chance until June 5, in a blowout at Cleveland. “I had no business being there,” he recalled in 2016. “I wasn’t that good. I was too young. All of the good players were in the Army.”
Shortly thereafter, Welch was sent down to the minors. His five-season pro career lasted through early 1947.
Milton Edward Welch was born, along with his twin brother Melvin, on July 26, 1924 in Farmersville, Illinois. They were the last of six children born to Lloyd Welch, a farmer, and his wife Olga (née Manetz). Melvin, a middle infielder, would eventually play five seasons in the minors (1942; 1946-49) — but never a day in the majors. Before the twins came three daughters (Pauline, Elberta, Josephine) and a son (Robert). It’s notable that five of the six siblings reached the age of 90. The one who didn’t, Josephine, was 82 when she died.
In Farmersville, Welch grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio — the Gas House Gang of the 1930s featuring Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, and Pepper Martin — and learned to play baseball, starting in the fifth grade.
“Our folks split when I was eight or nine years old,” Welch recalled. “He remarried and I grew up without a father. Mom was left with six of us kids to feed.”1 The 1940 census shows that Olga Welch supported her family by working as a janitress at Farmersville Community High School. The two eldest daughters, who still lived at home, contributed too. Elberta also worked at the high school, as a librarian, while Pauline was a maid in a private home.
Welch added, “When we were young there were different men around town who helped us learn how to grow up to be men. When I got to playing baseball in high school, I would see my father parked far away watching me play.”2 By then, he and Melvin were among the better players on the Farmersville High team. While playing there in 1942, Milt was seen by Al Unser, a reserve catcher for the Tigers. “Al was from a nearby town in Illinois,” recalled Welch. (Unser’s wife, Ruth, was from Farmersville.) “He used to umpire some of our high school games in the fall after he was done playing in September,” to supplement his income. It was Unser who suggested to Welch that he should try out for the Tigers the following spring.
“He invited me to spring training in Hagerstown, Maryland,” said Welch. “He just said, ‘Meet me in Hagerstown,’ and I said ‘Okay!’”
Just 18 in the spring of 1943, Welch traveled the nearly 600 miles to Maryland by train. “Paid my own expenses,” he said. “If I didn’t sign a contract, I was out that money and had to pay my way back home. Fortunately, they signed me and refunded my expenses.”
By then, World War II was in full swing. Welch’s draft status, however, was 4F.3 He had a heart murmur.
The Tigers assigned Welch to play for the Lockport (New York) Cubs, a Class D team in the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League. He appeared in 99 games in his first professional season, batting a solid .284 with 14 doubles in 342 at bats. Among his teammates was future major-league outfielder Jim Delsing (1948-1960), who became a close friend of Welch’s.
In 1944, Welch was promoted to the Hagerstown Owls, a Class B team in the Interstate League. He put together his best season in professional ball, batting .302 in 129 games and 441 at-bats. Among his 133 hits were 13 doubles, 3 triples and 4 homers.
As World War II drew near its conclusion in 1945, many of the best players in the majors were still serving in the military. Quite a few others were also working in war plants. Among them were two men who had caught some games for the Tigers in 1944: Al Unser and Hack Miller.4 Two other Detroit players, pitcher Roy Henshaw and infielder Bubba Floyd, also decided to stay at their war plant jobs instead of playing baseball. As a result, the Buffalo Bisons of the Class AA International League (Detroit’s top farm club, to which Welch had been promoted), sold the contracts of Welch and Ed Mierkowicz to the big club.5
For the first several weeks of the season, Welch served as bullpen catcher. (The team’s two main receivers, Paul Richards and Bob Swift, were also 4F.6) Finally, on June 5 in Cleveland, Welch got his chance in a real game.
Detroit began that day in second place in the American League with a 20-15 record, two games behind the front-running New York Yankees. By the end of the fifth inning, the Tigers found themselves trailing the Indians 8-0. With one out in the sixth, Detroit manager Steve O’Neill replaced his battery of Art Houtteman, who had relieved starter Les Mueller, and Richards. In came 18-year-old southpaw Billy Pierce, a future major-league All-Star, and the 20-year-old Welch.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t know what I was doin’,” said Welch, looking back at that day with a laugh. Nonetheless, with Welch calling the signals, Pierce blanked the Indians over the final 2 2/3 innings, allowing just one hit, walking three and striking out two. Pierce went on to a highly successful 18-year career in the majors, twice winning 20 games in a season and finishing with 211 victories in all.
Welch also gunned down an Indian base runner attempting to steal. He made two plate appearances, but came away without a hit, striking out in his first at bat and lining out to left in his second. Cleveland, behind the six-hit pitching of right-hander Red Embree, went on to win the game 9-0.
“He (O’Neill) threw us in when the game was gone,” remarked Welch. “He gave us a chance to play, otherwise I’d have never been in a game.”
“A few [of the frontline players] were just starting to come back [from military service],” Welch added. Hank Greenberg came back in the middle of the year [for Detroit]. And that’s what put us over the top.” Greenberg, a future Hall of Famer, returned to the Tiger lineup on July 1, hitting a home run in a 9-5 win over the Philadelphia Athletics, helping the Tigers open up a 3½ game lead over the fading Yankees. Detroit, which finished 88-65, held on to win the AL pennant by a game and a half over the second-place Washington Senators. In the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the Tigers captured their second championship in franchise history.
Welch, of course, was no longer with the big club when all of that happened. Shortly after his major-league debut, he was sent back to Buffalo, along with Pierce, Houtteman, and John McHale. The Bisons’ manager was Hall of Famer Bucky Harris. Welch finished the year there batting just .181 in 41 games.
He played his final two seasons of minor league ball (1946 and ’47) for the Danville Leafs, a Class C affiliate of the New York Giants in the Carolina League. In his first season for the Leafs, Welch put up solid numbers, batting .267 with 30 doubles, 3 triples and 4 homers in 438 at bats. But the next year he appeared in just 15 games, batting a meager .182. At the age of 22, he was cut and was out of professional baseball.
In all, Welch played five seasons in the minors, hitting .271 in 1,403 at bats. He collected 380 hits, including 61 doubles, 9 triples and 9 homers.
“I loved it,” Welch said, of playing in the minors. “What kid wouldn’t? Nineteen, twenty years old…there’s something wrong with ya if you didn’t enjoy that kind of life. We had lots of fun. We were just kids.”
During his minor-league days, Welch earned $150 a month with meal money of $1 a day when his teams were on the road. “You paid your own room and board,” he said.
After being cut, Welch continued to play semi-pro ball for “seven or eight years.” While he was playing semi-pro, he met a pretty girl at a beauty pageant by the name of Arlene Ruth Spiel. She became his wife on June 18, 1947. They remained married until her passing at the age of 89 on June 7, 2015.
Welch opened a clothing store with a partner in South Dakota shortly after their marriage. After he sold his part of the business to become a traveling salesman for Levi Strauss, Milt and Arlene lived in Montana and Texas before finally settling down in Eugene, Oregon in 1967. Together they had three sons: Doug, who is retired from the sheriff’s department in Springfield, Oregon; Stewart, a minister in Arizona; and Richard, a financial planner in Eugene.
Welch retired in 1984 and remained in Eugene before his death at the age of 94 on February 9, 2019. “I had a good marriage of 68 years, and a good family. And I learned to be honest and work hard, that’s the best advice I could give them.”7
Grateful acknowledgment to Milt Welch for his memories (in-person interview with Dave Mendonca, March 18, 2015 and follow-up by telephone, June 15, 2015). Unless otherwise indicated, all Welch quotes come from those interviews.
The author also accessed 1930 and 1940 census data from myheritage.com, census-online.com, and 1940census.archives.gov
1 Milt Welch, quoted in “These Eyes Have Seen,” a website that documents and shares the stories of elders in celebration of them, April 10, 2016 (http://theseeyeshaveseenproject.tumblr.com/post/142562181572/milt-welch-91-all-my-life-growing-up-in)
3 “Walker Cooper, DiMaggio Are Still Unsigned,” Associated Press, March 14, 1944.
4 Sam Greene, “Tigers Again Ace-High on Hill, with Aid Promised Diz and Hal,” The Sporting News, March 22, 1945, 18.
5 Cy Kritzer, “John Stiglmeier Disposes of Stock, Severs All Relations with Bisons,” The Sporting News, April 5, 1945, 7.
6 Sam Greene, “Rich on Hill, Tigers Vision Top Division,” The Sporting News, April 19, 1945, 7.
7 “These Eyes Have Seen” interview.