“The telegram must of got there ahead of me, told them to pitch me inside.”
I met Ralph McLeod at a reunion of Boston Braves players in the fall of 1995. I was familiar with his major league record, six games with the Bees in 1938, from the Macmillan Encyclopedia, but I knew nothing about him as an individual. My theory is that anyone who played in the major leagues, regardless of his length of service, has a great story to tell. I interviewed Ralph at his Quincy, Massachusetts home shortly after Thanksgiving, 1995.
My next-door neighbor was Fred Doe, a grumpy old guy. I hardly ever spoke to him, he was always puttering around the yard. If I ever hit the ball over in his yard, he yelled at me. I never thought he thought much of me. I was having quite a year in high school. He asked me if I ever thought of professional ball. He said, “Well, I have a few contacts with the Braves.” I was shaking in my boots. He asked me, “How would you like to go over and meet a few of the Braves?” The Braves took me in and tried me out for three or four days. This was when Babe Ruth was playing with the Braves. I had my picture taken with Ruth and Joe Dugan. On Mr. Doe’s recommendation the Braves signed me, but from what I understand they didn’t think I was going to make it, but as a favor to Mr. Doe, they took me in.
Fred Doe’s major league career consisted of two games in the Player’s League in 1890. He was, however, one of the most interesting nineteenth century baseball figures in New England. During the 1880s and 1890s he played for or managed most of the New England League teams. Fred Doe is worth a story of his own.
I wanted to go to college but those were depression years. I attended Thayer Academy [in Braintree, Massachusetts] in 1936, then joined McKeesport in the Penn State League after the academic year was over. That was quite a league, a rough league… those coal miners. They had one ballpark, it was in Monessen, right on the Monongahela River. In back of the ballpark was a big factory. It belched out this black smoke. They had to stop the game because it blotted out the sun. It was real dark, and until the smoke rolled away we couldn’t play.
I moved on to Columbia, [South Carolina in the South Atlantic League] in 1937, that was a Class B. I was signed to Zanesville. We went down to spring training in Evansville. There were three clubs there: Columbia, Zanesville, and Evansville. We were all in the same ballpark. I guess Eddie Onslow, the Columbia manager, took a liking to me. He grabbed me from Zanesville. About a quarter of the way into the season Eddie said, “You signed a Zanesville contract and you’re getting Zanesville money,” which was Class C. Eddie said to write to Bob Quinn, which I did. I got a letter back. He said he wasn’t in the habit of changing contracts in midseason but if I had a good year he would take me to spring training with the big club. Eddie said not to worry about Quinn’s word, he always did what he said. So later I ended up one of the highest-paid players on the Hartford club.
Columbia was a nice experience; nice town, nice people. In Columbia we played a 16 or 17 inning game on a Saturday night. We had to go to Columbus, Georgia for a double-header the next day. We went 400 miles by bus. We made it about noon the next day. They were school-type buses, not the luxury ones. The roads weren’t too good as I remember.
I started in making $100 a month down at McKeesport. Then I went up to $150 a month at Zanesville. Of course, I played in Columbia, but I never got that raise. Then at Hartford I was making $400 a month which was good money. My major league contract was just a continuance of the Hartford contract, we didn’t get that boost. I guess today they have a minimum in the majors but we didn’t have that then.
Down in Columbia we got 50 cents a day, not a meal. We used to play in Jacksonville. Between Columbia and Jacksonville there was a stand, “ALL YOU CAN EAT–FRIED CHICKEN–25 CENTS”. We used to stop there all the time.
I was fortunate in my career to meet up with good managers who taught you good baseball. Eddie Onslow, Babe Ganzel, and Jack Burns, all great managers. Eddie Onslow put his heart and soul in baseball. It’s a wonder the man didn’t have a nervous breakdown. We had a club so bad down there in Columbia, we were so far in last place you couldn’t see the next club. We had a lot of big college players that didn’t prove out.
[I was] scared stiff and didn’t have much of a chance [in spring training with the Bees in 1938]. It was more of an obligation on Bob Quinn’s part that got me there. Never played at all, just intrasquad games. They were pretty set on the older guys. When they played someone I stayed home with the other rookies.
I went to Evansville from Bradenton. I didn’t know where I was going. I was signed to a Hartford contract, but there was no guarantee I would stay there. Again, than god for Eddie. [Onslow had moved up to manage Hartford in 1938]. I played mostly right field in Hartford. I was always the leadoff hitter. When I got hot Eddie moved me down to fourth. Those ballparks of the Eastern League were big parks.
We didn’t know we were going to be called up [to the major league club]. John Quinn came in at the end of the season and said, “You, you, you, you and you.” I had been ready to go home. Art Doll, myself, Tom Early, Barney [George Barnicle], and Al Moran. I was scared stiff. The five of us called up together stuck close. I was nervous, but at least we didn’t have to worry about playing in front of big crowds. Some of the veterans were real good to us. Al Lopez, Debs Garms, and Tony Cuccinello come to mind. I knew Elbie Fletcher from playing against him in high school, so that was a big help. [Casey] Stengel never said a word to us. He didn’t pay much attention to rookies.
McLeod’s first big league hit came off Paul Dean in the first game of a scheduled doubleheader on September 21, the day the great hurricane of 1938 hit New England.
I remember that. I think I remember it. I wasn’t too much of a pull hitter, and I guess the telegram with that news must of got there ahead of me. I always got pitched inside. I think I blooped one over the first baseman. [Because of the storm, the second game was called off before it became official]. Part of the outfield fence blew down. They had to stop the game and make up new ground rules. Balls hit to center ended up foul in left.
In the-off season [the winter of `38-’39], Elbie Fletcher, Vito Tamulis, Joe Callahan and myself worked in Gilchrist’s [department store] as salesmen. We didn’t do much. We were there for show purposes mostly. Elbie met his wife Martha there. She was a beautiful girl. I used to say, “What do you see in Elbie? I’m eligible and your going with Elbie.” They were a great pair, married for over fifty years. Elbie and I were great friends. I miss him a lot.
Max West, Han Maggert, and I rented a place in Bradenton [during spring training in 1939]. I didn’t get much show down there. Dan Howley of Toronto came up to me and said, “How would you like to play in Toronto, Mac?” I said, “Any place to play, all I’m doing here in working out.”
My first manager in Toronto was Jack Burns. He was replaced by Tony Lazzeri. The war was about to start up. Italy was going to side with the Nazis. Tony was not too popular a man up there in Toronto.
[Rogers] Hornsby managed Baltimore. He never let the pitcher or catcher run the game. He always had a set of signals. He used to sit on top of the water bucket so everyone could see them. We had Flea Clifton and Jack Burns, who had played for Hornsby. He never changed his signals, we always knew what was coming. Anytime you had an 0-2 count and hit the ball, the pitcher was fined. One day Clifton got up there and was down two strikes and no balls. Just before the pitcher released the ball he flopped down in the batter’s box. He knew he was going to be hit. They came back to Hornsby saying, “They know your signals over there. Let us pitch our own game.” He was a stubborn old bird. I see a lot of that in today’s baseball. They are always looking over into the dugout and I assume that’s what it’s for.
I was recalled to Boston in midseason for about a week but never played. Then I went back to Hartford.
McLeod started off 1940 in Hartford playing for Eddie Onslow’s brother, Jack.
Jack Onslow was just the opposite of Eddie. Eddie was a fellow who could get along with anyone. Jack was a stubborn old coot, a nice guy, but a stubborn old coot. He released me, which I was thankful for. I got in touch with Babe Ganzel and ended up with St. Paul for the year. Babe came from Quincy. I knew his brother, John. I wrote him a letter saying my services were available. He said, “How soon can you get here? I’m hurting for outfielders.” I was on the train the next day.
Babe was a great fellow. He was good to the ballplayers, to the extent he was too good. He had a veteran ball club: Art Herring, Bill Swift, Ollie Bejma, Georgie Stumpf, and Eddie Morgan. St. Paul was a beautiful city. I loved playing there for Babe.
I was sixty-seventh on the list in the very first draft. When they took all the 4-Fer’s out, all the Fore River [shipyard] workers out, and all the married men out, I dropped to number three. That was in February of 1941. We were supposed to go in for a year, but when Pearl Harbor was bombed they just said, “You’re in for the duration.” I got it marked in the back of my head; four years, ten months and twenty days.
I was in the infantry. I started out in the coast artillery, but that didn’t last long. I was in the 75th Division. Our first action was the breakthrough up in Belgium. The Germans floated a few people down behind our lines. I’ll always remember the first action… the night before Christmas… cold… snowy. Then after that settled down we went down and joined the French in the Colmar area. Then we joined the British up in Holland. We got bounced around to different places. We ended up in Dortmund, Germany. We saw a lot of action. I lost a lot of good friends.
Cold is not the word for it. But you got used to it. When we had long marches, we started off with an overcoat. Of course, to carry an overcoat with an M-1 is pretty heavy. The first thing you discarded was the overcoat, no matter how cold it was. All we had was a Red Cross sweater underneath our GI jacket. Come nighttime you cut off a few fir branches and put them on top of the snow, get your roll out, get inside, put your shoes in there so they wouldn’t freeze and sleep away. It’s an experience I wouldn’t want to go through again.
After the war we played baseball all over Europe. Not many of the guys played in the majors but there were a lot of guys who had played professionally in the minors. But I had missed almost four years of not touching a baseball. I remember playing a game against [Ewell] Blackwell, the old Cincinnati pitcher. He blew them by me so fast I couldn’t see them. That game was in France, just outside Paris. I think he was in the Air Corps. He made me look foolish.
There was no sense in me going back to St. Paul. You lose five seasons and you can’t go back at the caliber when you left. I didn’t even bother to notify St. Paul.
Ralph McLeod worked from 1948-1980 as a member of the Quincy Fire Department. As of 1996, he and his wife, Barbara, had been married for more than fifty years. They had two children and four grandchildren. He remained very active as he neared his eightieth birthday. He played volleyball twice a week and looked as if shagging a few long flies wouldn’t have bothered him in the least.
This article was originally published in SABR’s National Pastime (Volume 16, 1996). The primary source for this article was a long interview the author did with Mr. McLeod in 1995. The minor league records are courtesy of Ray Nemec.