Chester “Red” Torkelson, a chipper sorrel-topped spitballer, lived out all his boyhood daydreams in the American League shortly before reporting to the army during World War I. Never recalled to the big tent, he remade his career in several minor leagues as a player, manager, and popular baseball clown.
Chet was the eldest of Knute and Louise Torkelson’s four children. His father came to America from Norway at age four; his maternal grandparents emigrated from Norway, too. His parents married in Wisconsin in 1893 and soon moved to Chicago, where they began their family. Knute was the recording secretary of the Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local No. 181. Years later he unsuccessfully sought election as Chicago’s city clerk on the Independent Labor Party ticket.
His first son left faint tracks in the Windy City until he was seventeen. Although his name is missing from the records, newspaper articles and box scores from 1914 mention Red Torkelson first pitching for the Adrian Fencevilles (also called the Tots) in the Class C Southern Michigan League.1 He drew more attention later that season by playing in a Chicago semipro league, in which he “won twelve out of the thirteen games with the Topaz.”2
The next season an umpire recommended Torkelson to the manager of the Cedar Rapids Rabbits in Iowa’s Class D Central Association. “I will not bother by telling you what I have got, but will let you see for yourself,” the cocky hurler wrote to the club’s business manager.3 A sports-page poet penned a colorful word portrait of the confident new hurler:
With red hair his dome was covered,
Wondrous hair and marvelous dome,
And his knees were to each other
Strangers each one to its neighbor. …4
Fans attending a spring game in Fayette between the Bunnies and Upper Iowa University let Torkelson know that his reputation for cockiness had preceded him. “When ‘Red’ mounted the mound the crowd rushed to the lines yelling, ‘You chesty guy from Chicago. You stuck up boob with a glass arm. We’ll take the brass out of your bean,’” a Cedar Rapids sportswriter wrote. “But Torkelson merely whispered to himself, ‘Watch me show these bushers that I’m there.’” The scribe noted that the pitcher’s “self-esteem is of the democratic sort. His pride is entirely in confidence and not in putting on airs foreign to baseball.”5
A Cedar Rapids sportswriter dubbed Torkelson the “Rabbit flinger from the stock yards district of Chicago.”6 Red’s performance didn’t match his confidence, and the club dropped him and hurler Tom Buttle in mid-May. The Waterloo Jays promptly snapped up both players. After the Chicagoan beat Muscatine Muskies for the second time that season, a Waterloo paper said Torkelson, although a bit wild, “proved that he merits a longer trial in the Central Association.”7
Working with manager Jay “Doc” Andrews, Torkelson began coaching when not pitching. “That Doc considered proud ‘Red’ his pet can be inferred from the fact that Torkelson coaches on first while Doc does the general stunt on the third base line. When Doc thinks of something vigorous to shout he yells, ‘Red, one out, right at ’em,’ and ‘Red’ echoes. … He yells with as much energy when there is nothing doing as he does when the game is afire.”8
The new skillset wasn’t enough to save a light-hitting pitcher, though, Waterloo releasing him in mid-July 1915. Torkelson then played semipro ball well into the fall for Frederika, State Center, and Clemons, Iowa. In mid-September at State Center, he beat the popular multinational and multi-racial barnstorming All Nations baseball club.
The carrottop failed to latch on with a league team the following spring and returned to independent ball with Rockwell City, Iowa, a club stocked with several “Central association castoffs.”9 Torkelson threw a no-hitter with 18 strikeouts versus Ackley on June 10. The Central’s Marshalltown Ansons (named for hometown hero Cap Anson) signed him the next month.
Torkelson found success in Marshalltown. A Cedar Rapids paper said he also laid claim to “the rather doubtful honor of being the ‘noisiest man in the Central association.’”10 He backed up his noise with an 11-3 record in 25 games and a .296 batting average as the Ansons captured the league championship. Afterward he pitched in a semipro tournament in Chicago.
Returning to Marshalltown in 1917, Torkelson earned a flashy 20-6 record in 30 games. When he tossed a two-hit, 4-0 shutout July 18 on the road versus the Waterloo Loons, a Washington Senators scout said Torkelson had “certainly shown himself to be a comer.”11 An Ansons fan recommended both the voluble redhead and third baseman Ferd Eunick to Indians owner James Dunn, an old classmate. “The man who boosted the pitcher said he was a little crude, but that he boasted a wonderful spitball and had the nerve of a burglar.”12
Cleveland bought Torkelson’s and Eunick’s contracts for $500 each after the Ansons repeated as Central champs. The twirler’s future was uncertain, however, because America had entered the First World War in April. A few big leaguers were getting draft notices, and Torkelson had recently passed his draft physical. He probably also knew that his old manager, Doc Andrews, once a practicing physician, had been commissioned in the army’s Medical Corps.
Torkelson wanted to make the most of his time in Cleveland. “He blew in like a fresh breeze from the Hawkeye State,” Dunn recalled. Torkelson greeted him jauntily: “Well, I’m here—your pitcher has arrived. … Yes, and I’m in great condition and ready to go—they can’t stop me.”13
He reached Cleveland nurturing a boyhood dream of pitching to Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Nap Lajoie. The matchups hardly seemed likely to happen in 1917. Cobb’s Detroit Tigers played in the American League, true, but Wagner was nearing the end of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League, while Lajoie was a player-manager with Toronto in the Class AA International League. Baseball’s gods gave Torkelson the nod anyway.
Indians manager Lee Fohl sent both Marshalltown men into action versus the Tigers at home August 29. Cleveland trailed 9-0 in the sixth inning as Eunick took over third base and Torkelson relieved starter Jim Bagby. The hurler found himself facing the Georgia Peach in the first inning of his first game in the majors. First up, though, was Tiger third baseman Ossie Vitt.
Vitt tested the rookie with a bunt. Torkelson slipped on the grass fielding the ball, but nabbed the runner with a throw to first base. Cobb came up next. Torkelson had waited for him his whole life. “Cobb fanned and threw his bat away furiously as the crowd jeered.”14 The third man up was outfielder Bobby Veach, a career .310 hitter, and the redhead fanned him too.
“[N]o rookie, it must be admitted, ever pitched a more glorious first inning than did the nervy chap from Iowa,” gushed Cleveland sportswriter Henry P. Edwards, “… and if that was not glory enough for one round, he led off in Cleveland’s half with a single to right field. He did not look so good the rest of the way, but what youngster could maintain such a pace?”15
Cleveland lost the lopsided contest, 15-1. “This auburn-haired hero looked like a combination of [Walter] Johnson and [Pete] Alexander for one inning, in which he fanned both Cobb and Veach,” a Detroit paper sniffed, “but he paid the penalty of this rashness later and was massaged for seven hits and six runs, numerous bases on balls being interwoven with the bludgeoning.”16 The rookie had a second reckoning, though, with Cobb in the eighth. He walked him, then picked the ferocious bag stealer off first base.
Torkelson started his first game in Cleveland on September 2 versus the St. Louis Browns. He threw five and a third innings before handing the ball to Fritz Coumbe in a 7-4 victory. “Although Red did not go the entire route,” Edwards wrote, “he won his way into favor of the Cleveland fans, and that is some feat, for the Sixth City rooters are extremely skeptical.”17 But greetings from the pitcher’s draft board dampened his victory.
“Lee Fohl … had put the stamp of approval on the auburn-domed lad from Chicago, and Torkelson was preparing to transfer his baggage to Cleveland, when he was named, along with seven other Cleveland ball players, to join the colors,” a Marshalltown newspaper said. “‘Red’ is ready to respond and is more eager to whiff the kaiser than he was to turn the Georgia Peach back on strikes.”18
Torkelson had time yet to pursue his boyhood dream. Fohl handed him the ball when the Pirates visited Cleveland for an interleague exhibition game September 6. Torkelson had to wait a bit to face Wagner, who was hurt and sitting on the bench. “My hip was entirely too bad to permit me starting the game,” the Flying Dutchman said later.19
Two thousand Cleveland fans who had been promised Wagner clamored to see him. The game was tied 1-1 after eight innings, Torkelson and Pittsburgh’s Bill Evans both going the distance. “At the beginning of the ninth the yell, ‘Wagner, Wagner,’ became so great that the coal baron from Carnegie slouched out from the bench to bat for [Tony] Boeckel after two were out.”20 The nervous rookie walked his idol on four pitches. Forced out at second to end the inning, Wagner then grabbed his glove and trotted to third base.
Cleveland catcher Josh Billings was the first batter in the bottom of the frame. He promptly smacked one toward Wagner, who snared the ball on a bad hop and threw to first. “Wagner’s throw would be taken by [Fritz] Mollwitz in four out of five times, but the low toss eluded the first baseman and the catcher reached second.”21 The next batter was Torkelson, who tried and failed to bunt Billings over. “Hit it out,” a fan hollered from the first base pavilion. “Hit it out and win your own game.”22
The rookie almost did it, lofting the ball to the left field wall and sending Billings home with a walk-off hit. “I used to dream of pitching against Ty Cobb, Hans Wagner and Larry Lajoie,” Torkelson said afterward. “I have pitched against two of the three already and only Larry is left. Then, when I join the army I can feel satisfied in having pitched against the greatest three batsmen of modern times.”23
Improbable as ever, Torkelson reached his goal eleven days later, when Cleveland visited Toronto’s Island Stadium for a late-season exhibition game with the International League champion Maple Leafs. How could Fohl do anything but hand his redhead the ball?
The Chicagoan opposed Al Gould, who had pitched for Cleveland earlier in the season. Both men tossed gems, Torkelson allowing only two hits during a 1-0 Cleveland victory. Lajoie got a walk and a long fly ball to left field before Coumbe relieved Torkelson after six innings. Despite the boyhood dream realized, the game was a fairly somber affair.
“The contest was witnessed by 6,000, a third of whom were soldiers back from the front,” Edwards wrote. “Scores were without legs or arms, and some of the Indians who had been eager to don the khaki lost some of their enthusiasm after getting a look at the tale told by those silent reminders of the world’s war.”24
Torkelson next took the mound September 24 in Philadelphia, beating three Athletics pitchers, 5-4. He was wild and sat down for the ninth inning, Edwards reported, but “probably figures he won his own game as in the second inning he planted a single in left field and that scored a run.”25 Five days later Torkelson suffered his first and only major league loss, in the opener of a doubleheader sweep by the Senators in Washington.
The game was scoreless when Washington left fielder Mike Menosky batted in the fourth inning with the bags full. “Red turned to me and winked as much as to say this is something pretty soft,” Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman remembered. “Then Menosky hit the next ball pitched over the right field wall securing three runs ahead of him.”26 The rookie surrendered a dozen hits and a walk while striking out two in five innings during the 11-2 loss.
Torkelson posted a 2-1 record over four regular season games during the single month he spent with the Cleveland club (plus a high earned run average of 7.66). “‘Swede’ Torkelson, a burly right hander, made an excellent impression,” Baseball Magazine said, botching his nickname.27 And the glory of his encounters with Cobb, Wagner, and Lajoie increased with retelling on various sports pages. At least one account had him whiffing all three.
Following the 1917 season Torkelson took the hill again for an all-star team facing Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants. He pitched five solid innings in the October 21 game versus Dick “Cannonball” Redding, then grew wild in the sixth and was relieved in the 9-3 loss. The army finally summoned him shortly before Christmas.
Torkelson left by train on December 19 for San Francisco with a thousand other Chicagoans. “His loss will be keenly felt,” a Cedar Rapids newspaper said, “as the Cleveland pitching staff was shot to pieces last summer and Torkelson was being relied upon to plug a portion of the gap.”28
The army assigned him to the 62nd Coast Artillery Regiment. While training during the winter Torkelson played for the Quartermasters at the San Francisco Presidio, a strong squad coached by Swede Risberg of the White Sox. During the spring, until the services prohibited the practice, he also pitched on Sundays for the Crockett club in the semipro Central California League.
The Cleveland club was in Washington when his troop train passed through the national capital in June 1918. “A delegation of Indians went to Union Depot at 8:30 Tuesday night to welcome Chester ‘Red’ Torkelson … who was en route from [the] Pacific coast to some point east, preparatory to sailing for the battlefield of France.”29
The 62nd continued its artillery training once overseas. “One night at La Havre ‘Red’ had his first experience listening to bombs dropping,” a San Francisco sportswriter reported. “He likens it to a reception he got from the Washington club one day when he was pitching against it.”30
One afternoon in France, on a date not recorded, probably near Bordeaux, Torkelson’s regimental team played the 342nd Field Artillery. The latter’s pitching staff included Pete Alexander, Clarence Mitchell, Win Noyes, and former Cleveland hurler Otis Lambeth. “I have not seen any of the Indians ‘over here’ except Red Torkelson,” Lambeth wrote later, “and that was some time ago when we beat his club.”31
Although the 342nd later saw combat, the 62nd didn’t reach the front before the armistice. Corporal Torkelson returned safely to America in February 1919, but the magic of 1917 didn’t return with him. Neither Torkelson nor Lambeth made the Cleveland roster that season. The redhead reported instead to the New Orleans Pelicans in the Class A Southern Association.
Torkelson was an immediate hit on the Southern circuit, imitating Nick Altrock, “Germany” Schaefer, and other popular baseball clowns. “‘Red’ has a lot of peppery chatter. His favorite is the army ‘Hep, hep,’ that he heard for months in camps over here and ‘over there,’ for Torkelson is one ball player who did not shirk the real fight,” an Iowa sportswriter wrote. “A falsetto ‘La, la,’ in imitation of some of the French girls he heard in France is another favorite expression.”32
“Well, I am away to a good start and it would not surprise me if I got back up there some place in a month or so,” Torkelson wrote to a northern sportswriter.33 But no matter how much he worked or wished, he never returned to the majors. The American Association banned his favorite pitch in 1920, and unlike the American and National leagues wouldn’t allow current spittballers to keep using it. Torkelson sometimes switched to playing the outfield, but his future in baseball was as a clown and later as a player-manager.
Umpire Harry “Steamboat” Johnson knew the redhead was equally capable of setting all jokes aside. Once while batting Torkelson objected to Johnson’s called strike. “‘Red’ stepped out of the box and began calling me everything he could think of, and ‘Red’ had an active mind,” recalled the ump, who ejected him. When the next batter, Martin “Buddy” Rezza, started chirping, Steamboat tossed him, too.34
Torkelson played with New Orleans through 1920, going 34-24 during the two years. He also was one of four Pelicans who married in a “matrimonial spree” during his second year there.35 Early the following season he was injured in a car crash that killed Rezza. After missing several months, he was traded to the Mobile (Alabama) Bears, for whom he posted a 3-7 record.
Following 1921 he pitched, managed, and clowned for five more seasons, first with the Beaumont Exporters in the Class A Texas League and the Vicksburg (Mississippi) Hill Billies in the Class D Cotton States League in 1922; then the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) Hubmen, Jackson (Mississippi) Red Sox, and Alexandria (Louisiana) Reds in the Cotton States in 1923, 1924, and 1925, respectively; and finally the Peoria (Illinois) Tractors in the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League in 1926.36
Through it all he kept up his diamond antics. He seesawed along the third base line as if walking a tightrope, dealt himself poker hands with oversized cards to distract opposing players, released colorful balloons decorated with pictures of stars he had once faced, and much more. (The Southern Association had banned Torkelson’s balloon act. “If a coacher is permitted to go on the lines with a balloon, why not with an airplane?” the league president asked.)37 “Although funny, clownish, and all that, ‘Red’ is a serious ballplayer, and yearns for a return to the big tent,” a Mississippi newspaper said in 1923.38
He still had the old swagger during his final, abbreviated season in professional ball, when the Tractors hosted the Minneapolis Millers in a preseason interleague game at Peoria. Coming to bat with the bases loaded, Torkelson “sauntered up to the plate … smiling blandly and swinging a wicked looking bat.”39 He slammed a bases-clearing shot to left-center, but didn’t last the full season.
Torkelson later returned to Chicago. A southern newspaper said he had “joined a motion picture concern” in 1923.40 Little came of it, but he stuck with the entertainment industry and operated a profitable bowling alley during the 1930s. Southern Association fans still remembered him as he occasionally traveled the south doing war work during World War 2. “Among the comedians of baseball, one of the funniest ever to me was Red Torkelson, who pitched for New Orleans back in 1921,” a Nashville columnist wrote in 1944. “His tight rope walking act and his one-man boxing bout in which he finally kayoed himself, they were pips.”41
The cheery former spitballer died suddenly on September 22, 1964, in Chicago, at age 70. He was survived by two brothers, a sister, and Edna Torkelson, his wife of 44 years. A death notice said Torkelson was a member of the Carpenter’s Union, Local 181, his late father’s old union. It made no mention of baseball.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Jan Finkel and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
Besides the sources listed in the Notes, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Baseball Biography Project proved helpful.
1 The Detroit Free Press and South Bend (Indiana) News-Times both listed an Adrian pitcher named Torkelson. The Cincinnati Enquirer later specifically mentioned Red Torkelson playing with the Michigan club.
2 “Hamilton Signs Lad from Chicago Semi-pros,” Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, January 15, 1915: 7.
3 “‘Umps’ Puts O. K. on Bunny Hurler,” Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, March 8, 1915: 5. Torkelson gave up two runs over two or three innings of relief during the 8-4 Cedar Rapids victory.
4 Vic, “‘Red’ Torkelson,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 11, 1915: 9.
5 “Torkelson’s Pride Very Elusive Goat,” Cedar Rapids Republican, April 25, 1915: 13.
6 J. V. Harris, “Red Sox Get Even Break in Series by Winning Last Game 15 to 6,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 11, 1915: 9.
7 “Jays Defeat Muskies Early in Wild Battle,” Waterloo (Iowa) Courier and Reporter, May 24, 1915: 8.
8 “Two Former Bunnies Here with Andrews,” Cedar Rapids Republican, June 23, 1915: 6.
9 “Where the Castoffs Go,” Marshalltown (Iowa) Times-Republican, May 25, 1916: 7
10 “Sport Notes,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 29, 1916: 6.
11 “Torkelson Holds Loons to Two Hits,” Marshalltown Times-Republican, July 19, 1917: 10.
12 Ed Bang, Memphis Commercial Appeal, reprinted in “How ‘Red’ Struck Out Lajoie and Cobb and Then Failed on Wagner,” Marshalltown Times-Republican, May 15, 1919: 8.
13 “Chet Torkelson’s Ways Add to the Gaiety of Baseball,” The Sporting News, March 20, 1919: 9.
14 “Jennings’ Entire Crew Emulates Great Ty Cobb,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 30, 1917: 11.
15 Henry P. Edwards, “Jennings’ Tigers Come to Town and Smother Fohl’s Indians, 15 to 1,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 30, 1917: 11.
16 E. A. Batchelor, “Tigers Maul Indians All Around Park,” Detroit Free Press, August 30, 1917: 11.
17 Henry P. Edwards, “Torkelson’s Hurling Too Much for Browns, and Tribe Wins, 7 to 4,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 3, 1917: 8.
18 “Tork’ Wins Berth; Is Called to Service,” Marshalltown Times-Republican, September 3, 1917: 6.
19 Charles J. Doyle, “Cleveland Captures Close Contest Over Buccaneers, 2 to 1,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, September 7, 1917: 10.
20 “Indians Beat Pirates in Exhibition Clash Played on Cleveland Lot,” Pittsburgh Post, September 7, 1917: 8.
21 Doyle, “Cleveland Captures.”
22 Henry P. Edwards, “Pirates Fool Fans Here, Play 8 Innings Without Wagner, Lose, 2 to 1,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 7, 1917: 15.
23 “Torkelson Wants to Pitch Against Lajoie,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 7, 1917: 15.
24 Henry P. Edwards, “Indians Shut Out Nap Lajoie’s Club of Flag Winner,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 18, 1917: 11.
25 Henry P. Edwards, “Tribe Wins Tenth Straight Game by Defeating Philadelphia 5 to 4,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 25, 1917: 9.
26 “Torkelson and Cicotte Were Badly Fooled,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 1, 1918: 11.
27 J. C. Kofoed, “American League Players in 1917,” Baseball Magazine, March 1918: 422.
28 “Torkelson Soon to Whiff the Kaiser,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 18, 1918: 8.
29 “The Morning After All Is Over—the Second Guess,” Washington Herald, June 19, 1918: 8.
30 Warren W. Brown, “Joker in Minor League Player Limit,” San Francisco Call, January 29, 1919: 14.
31 “Otis Lambeth Has Been Decorated for Bravery,” Oakland Tribune, November 30, 1918: 8.
32 Jack North, “Fifty Schools Are Already Entered in Drake Relay Meet,” Des Moines Tribune, April 7, 1919: 12.
33 “Baseball By-Plays,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1919: 4.
34 Steamboat Johnson, “New Orleans In Olden Days Was Tough on Umps,” Birmingham (Alabama) News, May 13, 1936: 14. Johnson erroneously recalled the incident as happening in 1925.
35 “Pelican Players on Matrimonial ‘Spree,’” Chicago Collyer’s Eye, June 19, 1920: 3.
36 In 2021 Baseball-Reference.com showed Beaumont as Torkelson’s final team. Articles and accounts in the Jackson (Mississippi) News, Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American, Alexandria (Louisiana) Town Talk, The Sporting News, and other newspapers, however, show longer service.
37 Zipp Newman, “Barons Tackle Pels in Five Games Here,” Birmingham News, May 18, 1921: 17.
38 “Hub Boss in Action.” Hattiesburg American, March 12, 1923: 5.
39 George A. Barton, “Millers Down Peoria in 10 Innings, 13-9,” Minneapolis Tribune, April 11, 1926: S-1.
40 “Red Torkelson Joins Up With Movie Company,” Nashville Banner, February 12, 1923: 8.
41 Fred Russell, Sideline Sidelights, Nashville Banner, February 10, 1944: 18.