This article was written by Bill Nowlin
There’s a saying that if you play a game in the major leagues, you can live on that fame for the rest of your life. To some extent, Regis Leheny may have done just that. He appeared in two major-league ballgames, with the 1932 Boston Red Sox, and played – apparently – but a handful of minor-league games. Yet this seems to have cemented his reputation back home in the Steel City.
Left-hander Regis Leheny was seen as a real prospect, but he never quite panned out. He was born to Pittsburgh Police Lieutenant Peter Leheny and his wife – perhaps named Sadie — on January 5, 1908, but saw little time in organized baseball and remains one of those ballplayers we know rather little about. By the 1920 Census, he was living with his father and younger sister, Ellinor. There’s no mention of Pete having a wife at home at the time, though Regis and Ellinor’s mother is noted as having come from England, while Peter was a native Pennsylvanian. Peter listed his own parents as both coming from England. It’s possible that Regis’s mother had died, though the census was not always that accurate at the time. Peter was at the time of the census working as a laborer in a paper mill.
As for Regis, we know little about his childhood and surprisingly little even about his years in the minor leagues. At age 19, he played for the Cathedral Chapel team in Pittsburgh’s City League and pitched two no-hitters. A clipping in the files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame reports that Pirates manager Donie Bush looked him over and took him on the road with the Pirates for a while in the summer of 1927. “The youngster made an excellent showing in warming up the batters and he proved an apt student when coached by the older moundsmen. Accordingly, it was decided to take him to Paso Robles, although he is not under contract.” [Unattributed February 9, 1928, news clipping which is the one item in Leheny’s file at the Hall of Fame.] Paso Robles, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, was where the Pirates held spring training that year. Leheny joined some Pirates in their four-day train trip across the country to Paso Robles. The clipping continued: “An effort will be made later to place him in some good minor league circuit where he can obtain the necessary experience. Regis is a likable lad who quickly became popular in the Pirate ranks and he is delighted at the opportunity to glean some valuable spring schooling in a big league uniform.” Regis didn’t make the big-league club but on March 19, manager Donie Bush farmed him out to Salisbury in the Class D Eastern Shore League for further experience. Records for the team are not available, and the league folded on July 10. Little is known of what Leheny did before this brief sighting and immediately after, though at some point (according to his Army enlistment papers) he got in two years of college.
He seems to have bounced around the minors for a few years. A Leheny with an unknown first name pitched in four games for the Scranton Miners in July and August of that same year, with a record of 0-3, sometimes appearing in boxscores as “Leheney.” This likely was Regis Leheny, but that remains uncertain. Regis himself was found by SABR researcher Ed Washuta as pitching in at least the June 11 game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 1 1/3 innings without a decision. Washuta also found a Leheny throwing in four games for the Class B Canton Terriers between June 22 and July 4, going 2-1 despite giving up 15 hits, 23 walks, two wild pitches, and a balk in just 22 1/3 innings of work. He struck out 10. [E-mail from Ed Washuta, October 28, 2009]
Regis hooked on with the Boston Braves in spring training 1931. A Burt Whitman article in the March 19, 1931, Sporting News dubbed him “the kid southpaw who was with Toronto for a time last year and whom Braves manager Bill McKechnie signed up in or around Pittsburgh last winter.” Further, Leheny was said to be making “a very good impression on the Braves. He has a remarkably good assortment of curves and a fast one which certainly does not limp up to the plate.” Whitman later wrote that Leheny was “going great guns” and that Braves manager Bill McKechnie was “willing to go on record to the effect that Leheny will be a good and winning pitcher this year.” He faced the Yankees at least twice during the exhibition season, pitching much better the second time around against Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and company. He opened the season with the club but was released by the Braves on May 13. Given another look later in 1931, he still didn’t make the grade, and never appeared in a major-league game for Boston’s National League ballclub.
On May 12, 1932, Leheny was signed by the Boston Red Sox as a free agent. This was a team that needed all the help it could get, mired in last place almost without a break for nearly a full decade. Leheny weighed 180 pounds and stood 6-feet-1 or maybe a half-inch less.
Quickly brought on board, he first saw major-league action on May 21 against the Philadelphia Athletics in the first game of a doubleheader swept by the A’s. Leheny was the fifth of six pitchers in the 18-6 first game and surrendered three hits in two-thirds of an inning. He got the last out of the third inning and the first out of the fourth, but the runs kept coming and he was charged with four of them. It wasn’t an impressive debut. His name was misspelled as “Leheney” in most box scores and omitted entirely from the Washington Post’s. The Red Sox moved on from Philly to Washington, and Leheny was called upon the very next day to pitch the final two innings in a 7-1 loss to the Senators. Shirley Povich of the Post noted his appearance, remarking on the scouting report that the Red Sox must have had on the Nats’ Carl Reynolds: “Leheney, a Boston pitcher whom nobody had ever heard of before he stepped into the box in a relief shift, disposed of Reynolds on a hump-back slow ball. Here was a pitcher breaking into the majors, who had never pitched to Reynolds before, and his first pitch was a slow ball, which only seasoned pitchers attempt. Leheney must have known something.” [Washington Post, May 23, 1932]
In the May 22 game, one more run was recorded next to Regis’s name. He’d appeared in two games and faced 16 batters. He threw 2 2/3 innings, striking out one but walking three and surrendering five hits, charged with five earned runs. His lifetime ERA is thus 16.88. Leheny had one at-bat, but failed to get a hit. He had two chances in the field and performed to perfection. It was his pitching that was the problem — even for the woeful 1932 Red Sox, who finished 43-111.
Leheny was found back in Florida in the spring of 1933. The New York Times reported that he was in St. Petersburg and that “he is supposed to be trying for a job with the Cincinnati Reds over in Tampa, but when he warms up at all it is with the Boston Braves.” John Kieran described him in the Times as “a man without a country … a rookie without a ball club” and told a tale that appears to be related to his brief tenure with the Braves, saying that Leheny was “put on the blacklist by the other players for something that was not his fault. The train on which the team was traveling pulled into Pittsburgh at 4 AM and the Pullmans were side-tracked to allow the players to continue their slumbers undisturbed. But a brass band was there to greet Regis, the home-town hero, and the musicians banged away until the outraged ball players tossed Regis off the train and told him to take his greeters with him.” Lacking a good night’s rest may have had something to do with the left-hander’s inability to succeed. Kieran wrote that “Regis is a pitcher when he gets around to it, and some say he would be a fairly good pitcher except for a tendency to wildness and a habitual tired feeling that keeps him from working too hard.” [New York Times, March 27, 1933]
What Leheny did after this is largely unknown. At the age of 33, in Pittsburgh, he enlisted in the United States Army some nine months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His enlistment records state that he was single and without dependents at the time, and had been working in construction and maintenance as a skilled painter.
After baseball, at some point, Leheny became a candidate for the Pennsylvania state legislature, running from Pittsburgh’s Fourth Ward, but was not elected. The only relative we could locate is a second cousin, Patrick Leheny, who – like Peter Leheny, Regis’s father – worked in the police force, retiring as a commander. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Pittsburgh. They said that Regis married a woman named Mary Lou and they had a daughter, Kathleen, but they lost contact with Kathleen after Regis’s widow died early in the 21st century. They understood that Kathleen had married and lives in Maryland, but did not know her married name. There was another ballplayer in the family, through marriage: Nancy’s brother William McClain, was signed by the Yankees and pitched for three seasons in 1960-62, rising as high as Class A ball with Augusta but no further.
Patrick recalled Regis taking him to a few games at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, going into the clubhouse and even being given a cap by Phil Rizzuto. Regis was apparently on good terms with players on both sides of the field, and with people around the Oakland area of Pittsburgh, where he lived. Regis was remembered by Patrick and Nancy as a genial man, and quite a handsome one, but unambitious. He didn’t ever hold a regular job, but worked from time to time as need be, more than anything helping out his wife, Mary Lou, who worked at Cantor’s Restaurant in Oakland. It’s where the two of them first met.
Regis had no regular profession but somehow just managed to get by. “Everyone knew him when I was a kid,” said Patrick Leheny. “He used to come and take me a lot of places. Everybody would say ‘Hi’ to him and talk baseball with him. Easy to get along with, nice and easy. He used to spend a lot of time at Cantor’s greeting people. People would come in there to say hello to him. ‘Hi, Reg!’ He was the amazement of the family. He just did odd jobs here and there, if somebody needed a helping hand. He was very well-liked and very well-respected in the community, so he could just about go anywhere he wanted.” Nancy allowed that he may have sort of been “America’s Guest.”
We do know that Regis died at age 68 in Pittsburgh, to little fanfare, in November 1976 and is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery. Cousin Patrick said, “He wasn’t a drinker, but I think he had a problem with his liver.”
For this article, the author relied on interviews with Nancy Leheny on October 25, 2009, and with Patrick Leheny on November 18, 2009. Other sources are listed within the text.