After a slow start for the first four weeks of the 1944 season, the Detroit Tigers jelled as a club, climbed into pennant contention, and finally fell one game short of winning the American League flag. In the end, the pitching of a tall recruit right-hander, James Ruffus Gentry, helped fuel Detroit’s pennant run. Speaking with a Southern drawl and appearing unruffled by the pressure of big league baseball, the 6’1″ 185-pounder from Daisy Station, North Carolina, pitched his only full season in the majors in 1944, producing a 12-14 record and a 4.24 ERA for the Tigers.
But on September 17 against the Indians in Cleveland, Gentry came close to realizing every pitcher’s dream — hurling a no-hitter. Leading 3-0 in the ninth inning, the Bengal fastballer gave up a scratch single and a double. Bearing down with two outs and runners at second and third base, he struck out the last batter and walked off the mound with a two-hit shutout.
Earlier, Gentry pitched a no-hit, no-run game as a minor leaguer. On Easter Sunday, April 25, 1943, with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League (IL), Jim hurled an 11-inning no-hitter. In his first regular-season outing the hard-throwing right-hander, mixing his assortment of fastballs, sliders, and sharp-breaking curves, blanked the Newark Bears, 1-0. When the contest was over, Gentry had struck out ten, walked three, and allowed only three balls to be hit out of the infield. Toronto’s Urban Shocker had pitched the IL’s only previous 11-inning no-hitter in 1916.
Gentry produced his best season ever for Buffalo in 1943, fashioning a ledger of 20-16 and an ERA of 2.65 on a Bisons team that played well until mid-August, but finally fell to seventh place. The club ranked sixth in team hitting at .241 and last in fielding with 239 errors. Still, Gentry, a workhorse, led the league in three categories: innings pitched with 285, strikeouts with 184, and walks with 143. If he could improve his control and perhaps his intensity, it seemed like the lanky right-hander had the natural talent to become a good big league pitcher.
Late in the 1943 season, the Tigers called up the 25-year-old. Tall and strong, “Rufe,” as sportswriters now called him, made his major league debut against the Cleveland Indians at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium on September 10. In the second game of a Sunday doubleheader, the recruit pitched well, scattering six hits. But he lost, 1-0, when, with two outs, Cleveland’s Hank Edwards lofted a high fly to right field that dropped into the first row of the overhanging second deck. Right-hander Jim Bagby, who spaced seven singles, earned the win for the Indians.
Gentry went 1-3 with a 3.68 ERA for the Tigers in September. Two of his losses came by scores of 1-0, and he defeated the White Sox, 8-2. Considering his impressive performance with Buffalo and his creditable showing as a Tiger, Detroit’s management had reason to think he could be one of the league’s top rookies in 1944. By adding Gentry to a solid pitching staff anchored by Hal Newhouser and Paul “Dizzy” Trout, the Tigers hoped to win the AL pennant.
While Gentry showed flashes of great promise in 1943 and 1944, his accomplishments never matched the club’s expectations. His is an interesting baseball story, but ultimately a sad one. He was a pitcher who had the talent and ability necessary for a successful big league career — but he never found the right combination of team, personnel, timing and, perhaps, good fortune.
Further, when spring training began in 1945, the last year of World War II, Gentry made a questionable decision. When Detroit refused to give him a raise, he rejected the contract offer and chose to hold out. But in an era where the Major League Baseball contract contained the “reserve” clause binding a player to his club in perpetuity, Gentry had little bargaining power. He could hope his holdout would hurt the team’s pennant chances, and perhaps management would compromise. Gentry’s holdout backfired. Detroit won the American League pennant and the 1945 World Series. Overall, when the once promising right-hander disappeared from the big league record books after the 1948 season, he had pitched parts of five years in the majors and compiled a lifetime record of 13-17.
James Ruffus, the second son of Grover and Elsie Gentry, was born May 18, 1918, in the hamlet of Daisy Station, a flag station on the Norfolk and Western Railway just north of Winston-Salem. Along with two brothers and one sister, Jim grew up on the family’s small farm. When the youth was old enough, he helped with the chores, learned to hunt, and played baseball. Because his family was poor, Jim quit school after the sixth grade to work. Life was tough during the Great Depression, especially in rural areas of the South. By the time he was a teenager, the hard-working young man — who loved hunting with his raccoon dogs — had good arm strength. Whenever he found time, he pitched sandlot ball.
Later, Gentry worked for Hanes Hosiery in Winston-Salem and pitched for the mill team in the City League. In 1939, after being recommended by Zinn Beck, business manager of the Winston-Salem Twins, a Detroit minor league club in the Class B Piedmont League, the 21-year-old Gentry tried out and made it with Landis of the Class D North Carolina State League. Relying mainly on his moving fastball, Jim helped his club with a 12-6 record and a 3.24 ERA. He struck out 98 in 150 innings, and he won nearly one-third of his team’s games. Still, Landis finished in last place with a 37-74 ledger, 35 games behind first-place Mooresville.
In 1940 the fastballing right-hander was sent to Fulton, Kentucky, another Tigers-controlled club that played in the Class D Kitty League. Gentry topped the circuit in games pitched (45), hits allowed (297), and losses (17). But he fanned 167 and won 14 games with a 4.19 ERA, while batting .276 with six homers. Managed by Vincent Mullen, the undermanned Tigers placed seventh, 19.5 games behind first-place Bowling Green.
In 1941 the Tigers promoted Gentry to Class B ball. The “speedball king” (as local writers dubbed him) pitched for Winston-Salem, a Detroit farm club in the Piedmont League. Often performing in front of friends and neighbors, he gave the Twins a 14-18 record with a good 2.96 ERA. Jim led the circuit in losses, but he won nearly a fourth of his team’s games. When the season was over, Jake Atz’s team occupied the cellar of the eight-team loop with a 54-82 record, 29.5 games behind first-place Durham.
In the offseason Gentry’s contract was sold by Detroit to Buffalo, which seemed a world away from Daisy Station. At first Jim didn’t want to make the move. But several letters and telegrams persuaded him to report to spring training at Fort Pierce, Florida. His delay made him appear lackadaisical about professional baseball. He arrived a week late, carrying just one suitcase. Jim worked out for one week, left for home, and returned three days later with his bride, Hazel Lee Lawson. Befriended by veteran players and wives, the newlyweds traveled to Buffalo and set up housekeeping. Manager Al Vincent soon warmed to Gentry and began calling him Rufe. Later, the quiet couple raised a son, Jim, born in 1942, and a daughter, Judy, born in 1946.
In the first of his two Bisons seasons, Gentry had control problems. In 1942 he worked in 43 games, starting 23 times. He finished 10-13 with a 5.65 ERA. Part of his losing mark came from his ratio of strikeouts (80) against walks (122). In 1943 the lanky right-hander improved his repertoire. In spring training he learned a slider from teammates Floyd Giebell and Jack Tising. Rufe also learned to take some speed off his blazing fastball to improve his pitch location. As a result, he enjoyed the 20-16 season capped by his 1-3 stint for Detroit.
Actually, Gentry’s 1943 performance was impressive, considering Buffalo’s lack of hitting and fielding. Greg Mulleavy’s managing skills helped keep the Bisons in playoff contention until mid-August, when the team slumped to seventh place. Buffalo ranked sixth in IL team hitting (.241) and last in fielding, committing 239 errors. Still, Rufe won 20 games.
Manager Steve O’Neill’s 1944 Tigers fielded a good club with two standout pitchers. In 1943 Dizzy Trout enjoyed his first great season, leading the circuit with 20 wins. Trout lost 12, but he fashioned a fine ERA of 2.48. In 1944 the Indiana right-hander, who wore glasses, spun down-home yarns, and relied on his trademark fastball, posted a 27-14 record and the AL’s best ERA, 2.12. Southpaw Hal Newhouser, who showed potential with an 8-17 record in 1943, turned his career around the following season. Allowed to start every fourth day, the Detroit native won the AL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1944 and 1945, the only pitcher in history to be voted MVP twice in a row. In 1944 Newhouser paced the league with 29 wins (he lost nine) and 187 strikeouts while compiling a 2.22 ERA over 312.1 innings.
Detroit also had good hitting. Slugging first baseman Rudy York batted .276 with 18 homers and 98 RBI. Outfielder Dick Wakefield — after being discharged from the Navy in early July — swung the hottest bat in the AL, hitting .355 with 12 homers and 53 RBI in 78 games. The Tigers averaged .263 as a team, with third baseman Pinky Higgins (.297), center fielder Roger “Doc” Cramer (.292), and utility player Jimmy Outlaw (.273) making steady contributions.
Gentry ranked third in Tigers with 12 victories. Working in 37 games (all but seven were starts), Rufe pitched 203.2 innings, completed 10 games, recorded three shutouts, and went 2-0 in relief. He whiffed 68 batters, but his league-high 108 bases on balls contributed to several of his losses.
On March 24, 1944, ten days after his expected arrival, Gentry stepped off the train in Evansville, Indiana, and joined the Tigers for spring training. The rookie brought along his wife Hazel and the couple’s 16-month-old son, despite the local housing shortage. Explaining he could not book transportation sooner due to heavy wartime travel by military personnel, Rufe quickly signed his 1944 contract.
Based on his minor league record, the Tigers planned to use the durable Gentry as a starter. Steve O’Neill, Detroit’s second-year pilot, told reporters Rufe — tabbed the “coon hunter from Daisy Station” by local scribes — should help the Tigers considerably. “He worked every third day at Buffalo and pitched 285 innings,” O’Neill said, “much more than any pitcher we had in 1943.”
The war’s manpower drain would affect the Tigers in 1944, but how much? Starters drafted into the military service included flychaser Dick Wakefield, the “bonus baby” from the University of Michigan who led the league in 1943 with 200 hits and 38 doubles while pacing Detroit with a .316 mark; second baseman Jimmy Bloodworth, who hit .241 with six homers and 52 RBI; right-hander Virgil “Fire” Trucks, who went 14-8 in 1942 and 16-10 in 1943; and veteran right-hander Tommy Bridges, who won 12 games, lost seven, and posted a 2.39 ERA in 1943.
Detroit’s Jack Zeller worked hard to add players to the roster, including infielder Eddie Mayo, acquired from the Athletics. In 1944 Mayo played second base for Detroit and hit .249 with five homers and 63 RBI. Zeller also found Chuck Hostetler, a 39-year-old outfielder who began his long minor league career in 1928 but was playing semipro ball in Kansas by 1943. Hostetler batted .298 for 90 games, and he was a reserve in an outfield usually consisting of Outlaw in right, Cramer in center, and Wakefield–who reported to Detroit that July 13–in left.
To supplement the pitching of Trout, Newhouser, and Overmire, Zeller employed an assortment of hurlers, notably Gentry, rookie right-hander Zeb Eaton, 32-year-old lefty Roy Henshaw, and 6’4″ right-hander Joe Orrell, who had debuted with Detroit the previous August.
Like other major league clubs, the Tigers carried several players, such as Gentry, who had been classified 4-F in the draft. Those Selective Service classifications led to the label “wartime baseball,” a stereotype meaning the majors were staffed by subpar players during the war. Newhouser, who suffered a heart murmur but was otherwise in good health, was rated 4-F. The “wartime” tag helped keep “Prince Hal” out of the National Baseball Hall of Fame until 1992.
Still, Detroit started slowly in 1944. While the St. Louis Browns set an AL record by winning the club’s first nine games, the Tigers played better on the road, losing 12 of their first 13 contests at friendly Briggs Stadium. When the All-Star game was played at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh on July 11, Detroit ranked seventh, but the club was only eight and a half games out of first place.
At that point, Wakefield–who had taken Navy pilot training and was discharged once the Navy figured it had enough pilots for the duration of the war–arrived in Detroit. Thereafter, the former University of Michigan star averaged .355, but he lacked the at-bats to qualify for the batting title. (Cleveland’s playing manager and shortstop, Lou Boudreau, who played 150 games, won the crown with a .327 mark.) Still, with Trout and Newhouser going strong, Wakefield leading all American League hitters, and a variety of Tigers making good contributions at different times, Detroit climbed into the pennant race.
Steve O’Neill’s rotation for most of the season featured Newhouser, Trout, Gentry, Overmire, and John Gorsica. But Gentry pitched inconsistently most of the season. On April 19, the second day of the season, he lost his first start at St. Louis, 3-1. Hurling eight innings at Briggs Stadium, Rufe struck out two. But he gave up three runs on seven hits and a season-high eight walks. Gorsica blanked St. Louis in the ninth, but the outcome had been decided.
Gentry didn’t last the distance in his next two starts. On April 23 in the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader at Cleveland, the Indians roughed up the right-hander for eight hits and three runs in six innings. Newhouser worked three hitless frames and won in relief, 4-3, thanks to a three-run homer in the eighth by Hack Miller. Six days later, facing Cleveland at Briggs Stadium, Gentry worked the first 5.1 frames in what turned out to be a 12-inning contest. He gave up five walks, six hits, and six runs. Newhouser, Detroit’s fifth pitcher, hurled the last two innings and lost when Russ Peters and Mickey Rocco doubled in twelfth, giving Cleveland a 7-6 victory.
On Thursday, May 4, Gentry pitched a complete game against the Browns at Sportsman’s Park, spacing six hits, but Detroit lost, 2-0. Ace right-hander Nels Potter, who was 19-7 in 1944, whitewashed the Tigers on five singles, including a one-out base hit by Gentry as he started Detroit’s best hope for a run in the fifth. After Joe Hoover singled, Potter retired the next two hitters and blanked Detroit the rest of the way, preserving his shutout, improving to 3-1, and helping the Browns win their twelfth game in fifteen starts.
Three days later Gentry pitched the eighth and ninth innings against the White Sox in Detroit in relief of Newhouser. With Detroit trailing 2-1, Rufe gave up two runs and two hits. The Tigers fell, 4-1, but Newhouser took the loss, dropping his record to 3-3. Gentry’s next start didn’t come until May 13, when he faced the Red Sox at Boston’s Fenway Park. He worked the first six frames, yielding four runs on ten hits. But the Red Sox bunched five hits in the fourth, scoring three times, and Skeeter Newsome’s single brought home another tally in the sixth. Detroit lefty Jake Mooty, the former National Leaguer, pitched well in relief, but the Red Sox won, 4-2.
Two days later, facing the Athletics at Shibe Park, Stubby Overmire worked eight solid innings but left trailing, 2-0. The Tigers scored twice and tied the game in the top of the ninth. Pitching in relief of 6’4″ recruit Bob Gillespie in the bottom of the inning, Gentry walked to the mound with the bases loaded and two out. Frankie Hayes smashed a grand slam off Rufe, giving Philadelphia a 6-2 victory, and Gillespie lost his only decision for Detroit in 1944.
Finally, on Thursday, May 18, Gentry celebrated his 26th birthday by winning his first game. He tossed a 1-0 shutout at A’s in Shibe Park, improving his ledger to 1-3. The Tigers backed him with four double plays, and Rufe drove home the game’s only run in the eighth. The right-hander singled sharply to left field after Chuck Hostetler had collected his second single of the game and advanced to second on Paul Richards’ sacrifice.
But at Briggs Stadium six days later, the A’s broke the Tigers’ six-game winning string and defeated the Daisy Station native, 8-4. Rufe lasted only 1.1 innings, yielding five runs on four hits and two walks. The big blow came in the second after Gentry had departed in favor of 6’2″ right-hander Walter “Boom-Boom” Beck, who gave up Frank Hayes’s sixth homer–and second grand slam in eight days. Don Black pitched a two-hitter until the ninth, when the Tigers drove him from the mound by scoring four runs.
Gentry, who now owned a 1-4 record, bounced back four days later in Detroit. With the Tigers still mired in the second division, he hurled a complete-game victory in the second tilt of a Sunday twin bill against the Senators. Rufe held the Nats to seven hits while fanning four and walking three batsmen. Washington scored both runs in the fourth inning when they bunched three hits. But the Tigers amassed 18 hits, paced by Jimmy Outlaw’s grand slam in the first, and won, 15-2. Gentry’s record was now 2-4.
At home on Thursday, June 1, Gentry pitched well against the Yankees but got no decision. Rufe contained the Bronx Bombers, spacing six hits over the first eight innings. Thanks in part to Paul Richards’ two-run homer in the fourth, Rufe took a 3-2 lead into the top of the ninth. But when Mike Garbark doubled, Steve O’Neill pulled Gentry and called for Trout. Diz got two outs but then walked George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss. O’Neill quickly summoned Newhouser, who yielded a game-tying pinch single to Al Lyons. But Newhouser got the third out and came through with seven innings of scoreless ball. In the sixteenth frame, the Detroiter racked up his ninth win, 4-3, when reserve outfielder Don Ross cracked a long double to score Jimmy Outlaw, who had scratched a single.
Three days later, also in Detroit, the Tiger split a doubleheader with the Red Sox. Dizzy Trout won the opener, 2-1, picking up his seventh victory, but Gentry lost the nightcap, 5-1, leaving him with five losses against two wins. Rufe lasted four innings, allowing three runs on four hits and three bases on balls. Boston collected a total of nine hits and won, 5-1. The split left Detroit in third place with a 24-22 record, 3 ½ games behind the first-place St. Louis Browns.
Rubber-armed Rufe endured an up-and-down June. In his next start at Cleveland on June 14, in the opener of a midweek doubleheader, he produced his second shutout and third win, firing a six-hitter to stop the Indians, 3-0. Newhouser’s hurling and Detroit’s 14-hit attack led to an easy win in the second game, 11-3. Four days later, in the second game of a Sunday twin bill at St. Louis, Gentry lasted just 4.2 innings, surrendering seven hits and five runs. Trout finished the contest, Rudy York smashed a two-run homer in the ninth, and Detroit won, 7-5. Newhouser won the opener, 7-3, becoming the first AL pitcher to win ten games. On June 22 Gentry picked up his fourth victory by hurling a complete game against the Indians in Detroit. The Tigers won, 4-3, when Joe Orengo doubled home a run in the eighth.
On June 25, trying save a win for Detroit against the Browns in St. Louis, Gentry came out of the pen to replace Trout in the tenth inning. Trout, who already surrendered 13 hits, gave up a leadoff single to Gene Moore. Milt Byrnes greeted Rufe with a game-winning double, but Trout took the 5-4 loss. When Newhouser lost the second game, 5-2, the victory gave the Browns–the eventual 1944 pennant winners–11 wins in 14 games over the Tigers. Three days later in Washington, Gentry lost to the last-place Senators, 4-1. The right-hander worked six innings, gave up four runs on four hits and five walks, fanned four, and saw his record dip to 4-6.
Gentry endured a tougher month in July, losing five out of six starts and winning just once–a six-inning relief stint on July 20 against the Senators. In that game, Boom-Boom Beck, near the end of a major league career that began in 1924, worked only two innings. O’Neill summoned Gentry in the third, and the right-hander pitched six innings, allowing seven hits but only one run. When he tired and gave up a run in the ninth, Newhouser took over and saved the game. Prince Hal’s relief work gave Detroit a badly-needed 7-6 victory, thanks partly to the big bats of Rudy York, who drove in four runs, and Dick Wakefield, who hit his third homer in seven days. Meanwhile, Gentry improved his record to 5-10.
Before that, Rufe lost his seventh game to the Athletics at Shibe Park. On July 2, working the nightcap of a Sunday doubleheader, Rufe allowed four hits in six innings but lost, 2-0. Ford Garrison hit a two-run homer in the second to provide the margin of victory, while right-hander Jesse Flores blanked the Tigers on four singles. On July 6 at Fenway Park, Gentry worked only two innings, surrendering seven hits and five runs before departing with no outs in the third. Three Bengals hurlers paraded to the mound, but the Red Sox blasted them all, amassing 20 hits and crushing the Tigers, 13-3. One day later in New York, Rufe hurled a scoreless eighth inning after Stubby Overmire departed. But the Yankees won, 3-1, handing Overmire his eighth loss.
On Sunday, July 9, just before the All-Star break, Detroit played a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, with all proceeds designated to benefit the Red Cross. Trout lost the opener, 4-3, on Russ Derry’s pinch single with the bases loaded in the ninth. Gentry started the second game, but his control wasn’t sharp, and he gave up nine hits and eight runs in five innings. Joe Orrell worked three scoreless frames in relief, but New York won, 8-2.
Gentry, facing the White Sox in Detroit July 16 in the opener of yet another Sunday twin bill, struggled through three innings. Altogether, he surrendered six hits, three walks, and six runs. O’Neill lifted Rufe with none out in the fourth. Boom-Boom Beck blanked the Sox over the last six frames, but Chicago won, 7-2. Rufe suffered his fifth straight loss, dropping his mark to 4-10, while Trout earned victory number twelve in the nightcap, 7-3.
But against the Senators on July 20 in Detroit, Gentry enjoyed a good outing, winning in relief. He bailed out Beck in the third and blanked Washington until the ninth. However, five days later, also at home, Gentry suffered his eleventh defeat at the hands of the third-place Red Sox. After hurling three scoreless innings, the North Carolinian allowed one run in the fourth inning and four more in the pivotal fifth, when Boston took a 5-0 lead. Jim Tabor collected four of Boston’s 16 hits, including his fifth homer, and the Red Sox prevailed, 7-3.
Gentry finished July against the Yankees on July 29, working eight strong innings, holding New York to one run, but falling short of a victory. Tired, Rufe sat down one batter in the ninth before yielding a second run on Russ Derry’s pinch double, a sacrifice by Snuffy Stirnweiss, and a single by Bud Metheny. With the score tied at 2-2, Herschel Martin singled, sending Metheny to third base. Steve O’Neill brought in Dizzy Trout, and he stopped the rally. Trout collected victory number fifteen in the extra inning, 3-2, when he drove home the game-winner with a sacrifice fly.
Gentry fared better in the “dog days” of August than he did in July, winning two in a row before losing two starts. On August 12, a scorching day in Washington, O’Neill saw the North Carolina rookie struggle through five innings, giving the Senators five runs on seven hits and three bases on balls (he also fanned three). But the Tigers pounded out 12 hits and scored 12 runs, and John Gorsica hurled four shutout innings to help Gentry win, 12-5. Four days later, while visiting Boston on an eastern road trip, Gentry gave a strong performance, scattering seven hits but allowing only two runs, despite six walks. After Rudy York belted a three-run homer to deep center in the seventh, Gentry–who gave up solo runs in the first and third innings–checked the Bosox for the rest of the afternoon, winning, 4-2, and improving his ledger to 7-11.
But in Boston on August 19, Gentry lasted only 1.2 innings, as the Red Sox ripped him for four hits and four runs. Altogether, Boston clubbed three Detroit hurlers for 12 hits and won, 9-1. Gentry took the mound two days later in New York, but he lasted only 1.1 innings against the heavy-hitting Yankees. He gave up three hits and three runs–including a solo homer by Herschel Martin in the first and triples by Nick Etten and Mike Garbark in the second, sandwiched around Gentry’s only free pass. O’Neil called for Roy Henshaw, who worked 3.2 innings, and John Gorsica, who finished the contest. But the Yankees rode the early 3-0 lead to a 5-1 win, thanks to strong clutch pitching by recruit right-hander Walter Dubiel, and Gentry’s record fell to 7-13.
But the worst was to come. After Hal Newhouser won, 5-3 and picked up victory number 21 in the opener of a doubleheader against the first-place Browns on August 27, Gentry relieved Beck in the second inning of the nightcap. He retired two batters but gave up two runs on four hits, before being replaced by Roy Henshaw. Still, the Browns pounded Gentry and five Tiger moundsmen for 17 hits en route to a 17-3 win.
In September, however, Gentry, sometimes termed lackadaisical in his attitude toward the game, rebounded for his finest month of the season. He started six games and won five, the first four in a row. His only loss came September 25, when the Philadelphia A’s beat him, 2-1, despite a complete-game performance in which he scattered six hits. Dueling right-hander Russ Christopher, who also spaced four safeties, Gentry preserved a 1-1 tie into the eighth frame. Irvin Hall led off with a double, Ford Garrison singled over second base, and the A’s held on for the triumph, stopping Gentry’s four-game winning streak.
Before that, on September 2 at sweltering Sportsman’s Park, Gentry pitched 6.2 innings against the Browns, allowing three runs on five hits. He issued seven free passes, but St. Louis stranded 13 runners against five Tiger hurlers. After Henshaw replaced Gentry but got nobody out, John Gorsica retired the last hitter in the seventh. When the Tigers came from behind to score two runs each in the eighth and ninth to win, 6-3, Gorsica got the win–his only victory in the last two months of the season–thanks to a fine relief job by Stubby Overmire in the ninth.
On Wednesday, September 6, in Chicago, Gentry pitched the distance to stop the White Sox, 3-2. Scattering eight hits, Rufe walked three but struck out four hitters. Thirty-eight-year-old flychaser Doc Cramer paced Detroit with a single and triple, and he scored two runs. More important for Detroit, Gentry’s performance against the White Sox was the turning point of his season. Three days later against the Indians in Detroit, he won his second in a row, this time in relief. Rufe entered the game in the fifth frame with a 6-5 lead, after Stubby Overmire, the starter, worked only two innings, and John Gorsica pitched two more. The Tigers won their eighth game of their last ten, 15-6, ripping four Tribe hurlers for 18 hits.
Gentry had found his groove, and his pitching in September boosted Detroit’s pennant hopes. He delivered his best performance of the season in a twin bill at Cleveland Stadium on Sunday, September 17. After Overmire hurled a 7-2 victory in the opener, Gentry’s 3-0 victory put the Tigers into first place, a half-game ahead of the Browns and two games in front of the third-place Yankees.
In fact, Rufe flirted with a no-hitter through eight innings. In the bottom of the ninth with the Tigers ahead, 3-0, Lou Boudreau led off with a shot through the box. Gentry deflected the ball, shortstop Joe Hoover fielded it cleanly and fired to first, but Boudreau beat the throw for a single. Gentry induced Pat Seerey to bounce into a double play, leaving the bases empty and two outs. Ken Keltner ripped a double to right, the only solid smash of the game. Displaying his usual calm demeanor, Gentry wrapped up his two-hitter by getting Buddy Rosar to bounce out to shortstop. He walked off the mound with a two-hit shutout and a record of 10-13.
But even Gentry’s best performance was not always smooth. In the fourth inning he suddenly suffered a spell of wildness, a characteristic of his season, and he walked the bases full with two outs (he issued six free passes in the game). Oris Hockett came in to pinch-hit for Ray Mack, and Gentry fanned him–one of his five strikeouts. Rufe then struck out right-hander Eddie Klieman, ending the threat. Steve O’Neill said afterward he was one pitch from lifting Gentry when the inning finally ended. Thereafter, North Carolinian retired 14 hitters in a row.
Commenting on Gentry’s performance, Steve O’Neill told the Cleveland Press he didn’t realize Rufe had a no-hitter until Doc Cramer mentioned it in the ninth. “I wasn’t too surprised by the performance he gave,” O’Neill said. “He’s looked great in his last three starts. He has lots of stuff. His fastball does things and he has a good curve, but he lacks confidence in his hook.
“When he misses with the curve, he depends too much on his fast one, and the batters wait for it. When he feels he can control that curve he’s going to be tough to beat.”
Thus, O’Neill neatly summarized Gentry’s inconsistency in 1944. He sometimes displayed erratic control and didn’t have enough confidence in any pitch but his fastball. As Hall of Fame teammate Hal Newhouser explained in a 1995 interview, “A good pitcher must have ball movement and pitch location. Without both, the hitters can beat you. I was as fast at ever at age sixteen, but until I learned to control my pitches and have the ball moving on every pitch, I did not win consistently.”
Still, Gentry was finally proving tough to beat. On Friday, September 22, he spaced six hits and beat Boston, 7-4, in the first game of a doubleheader at Briggs Stadium. He looked shaky when he gave up two hits and two runs in the first inning. But Rufe settled down, allowed only four more hits, and pitched the distance, despite walking five batters. His teammates backed him with 12 hits, notably a grand slam homer by Dick Wakefield, his third four-bagger in three days. Working in relief, Boom-Boom Beck won the nightcap, 8-6, thanks to three Tigers runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth. The two wins kept the Tigers one game ahead of the Browns.
But on the following Monday, the Athletics stopped Gentry’s winning streak, 2-1. The loss left Detroit and St. Louis tied, and New York three games behind.
On Friday, September 29, Gentry won his twelfth game of 1944–and fifth in six starts–in the opener of a doubleheader against the Senators. He scattered nine hits over 7.2 innings, and John Gorsica saved Detroit’s 5-2 win. But the Tigers fell in the nightcap, 9-2, as the Senators blasted an overworked Dizzy Trout. Detroit’s sterling right-hander pitched a remarkable 352.1 innings in 1944, starting 40 times, completing 33 games, and allowing 304 hits–all league highs. On September 30 Newhouser won his twenty-ninth game, stopping Washington, 7-3.
Finally, on Sunday, October 1, the last day of the season, St. Louis won the pennant. The Browns topped the Yankees, 5-2, thanks to three homers, including a pair of two-run shots by former Tiger Chet Laabs. As fate would have it, Trout and the Tigers fell to Washington’s righthanded knuckeballer, Dutch Leonard, 4-1. The Senators won with a three-run fourth inning, and the big blow was a two-run blast off the bat of Stan Spence.
Gentry’s season was a mixed success. Despite his slow start, his poor July, his mixed success in August, and his overall losing record, he won five of his last six games, and he won seven times in August and September. Without those wins, Detroit would have been out of the pennant race.
As H.G. Salsinger of the Detroit News observed in late February 1946, “A strong-armed right-hander, Ruffus did not look like much of a pitcher until the last two months of the season. He arrived overnight, figuratively speaking, and the way he pitched in the last six weeks he looked to be a certain winner. It would have surprised no one who watched him throw in those last six weeks if he had turned in 20 victories.”
Consequently, when contracts arrived in early 1945, Rufe believed he deserved a raise. But Jack Zeller was a tough, experienced negotiator who knew the ins-and-outs of baseball, and he had a free hand dealing with players. Zeller disagreed with Gentry’s written request for a raise–even though they differed by only $1,000. When the general manager refused to make a deal or even invite Gentry to Evansville, Indiana, where the Tigers were again holding spring training, Rufe, an easygoing but stubborn individual, refused to budge. Finally, in early August he told Detroit he was ready to sign. But Zeller, after learning Gentry was not in condition to pitch at the major league level, told him to stay home. Later, talking to Detroit News baseball columnist H.G. Salsinger in Lakeland on February 27, 1946, Zeller called not offering Gentry the additional $1,000 “his biggest mistake as general manager.” The problem: Zeller had to buy three pitchers in August 1945 to shore up Detroit’s weary staff: Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves, for $25,000; George Caster of the St. Louis Browns, for $10,000; and Henry “Prince” Oana of Buffalo, for $5,000.
According to Salsinger’s story dated August 8, 1945, Gentry had been offered the same salary as he received in 1944. Rufe refused and, Salsinger wrote, “demanded the same salary the club was paying Harold Newhouser, who won 29 and lost 9 games last year. The club did not think Ruffus worth as much as Harold, but Ruffus insisted in his demands and said that if the club did not meet them he would stay home. He stayed home. He’s tired of staying home but the club thinks he got tired too late to do the team any good.”
Speaking in a 1997 interview, Gentry explained why he held out: “They didn’t treat me fair. Steve O’Neill told me if I was a college man, they would have treated me right. But I wasn’t, and they ran over me.”
In any event, Gentry missed the 1945 season. Detroit replaced him with right-hander Les Mueller, who fashioned a 6-8 record. Also, veteran Al Benton, Detroit’s 6’4″ right-hander, returned from two years in the service and went 13-8. Further, Virgil Trucks, the Tigers’ fireballing right-hander, received his discharge after spending two years in the Navy.
On September 30, 1945, needing one victory to capture the pennant over Washington, Steve O’Neill started Trucks in the first game of a doubleheader on a rainy Sunday afternoon against the Browns in St. Louis. Virgil lasted until the sixth frame before tiring, but he departed with the Tigers ahead, 2-1. Newhouser worked in relief and held the lead until the eighth, when the Browns took the lead, 3-2. But in the top of the ninth, Hank Greenberg slugged a one-out grand slam homer, and, with Al Benton finishing the game, Detroit won, 6-3.
The second game was rained out, but the season-ending victory gave the Tigers the 1945 AL pennant by one and a half games over the Senators. Detroit then defeated the Chicago Cubs in an exciting seven-game World Series. Each winning player’s share of the championship money was $6,400. Thus, Gentry lost about $13,000 altogether, counting the salary he would have earned for the Tigers in 1945. Perhaps worse, he forfeited a season’s worth of pitching experience at the major league level.
Gentry returned his contract in early 1946 without looking at the figure. But the year he spent away from baseball didn’t help him. He made the Tigers’ roster during spring training, but when the season began, he worked only three innings in two games, issuing seven walks, striking out one hitter, and compiling a huge ERA of 15.00.
Gentry’s once blazing fastball had lost speed, and Detroit optioned him to Buffalo. He never recorded another decision in the majors. In 1946 the right-hander was struggling through a comeback season with Buffalo, going 10-8 with a 5.18 ERA in 25 games, when disaster struck. After shooting pigeons out of the beams at Buffalo’s Offerman Park for several days, the longtime hunter was cleaning his .22 rifle in the groundskeeper’s workshop. The gun was clamped in a vise, but it accidentally discharged, mangling Rufe’s right index finger. There are conflicting stories about how the incident occurred, but the upshot was Gentry’s season was ruined. He vowed to come back.
By early 1947 Gentry’s hand was healed, but his index finger was crooked, his shoulder was sore, and he was not in good baseball condition. He threw only one-third of an inning for the Tigers in April. On May 6 Detroit optioned Rufe to Dallas. The taciturn hurler acquitted himself in the Texas League, producing a 12-9 mark with a 3.41 ERA.
According to former Tiger Red Borom, speaking in 2007, “I remember Rufe as a tough competitor who never missed a turn on the mound when he was with us at Dallas in 1947. It was my understanding that he was only making $6,000 a year with Detroit in 1944, and it was unbelievable that Zeller wouldn’t agree to his moderate request of a $1,000 raise. I was always sorry Rufe wasn’t with the 1945 Tigers. I enjoyed knowing him.”
Forced by the injury to adjust, Gentry became a breaking-ball pitcher. Detroit gave him a four-game look in 1948, but the sore shoulder slowed him. He spent most of the summer pitching for Buffalo, where he produced a 3-9 record and a 5.65 ERA.
After racking up an 11.63 ERA to go with a 1-0 record for Toledo of the American Association and then pitching in one game for Little Rock of the Southern Association in 1949, the once hard-throwing hurler gave up on baseball, returned to Winston-Salem, and worked as a brick and stone mason. He and Hazel lived on the family’s farm, where they raised their son and daughter. Rufe also enjoyed his old pastimes of hunting and fishing, until emphysema slowed him down in the 1980s.
But whenever he thought about baseball, Gentry had mixed feelings. He never had the chance to pitch for a club with a winning record, except for Detroit in 1944. Also, he made the fateful decision in early 1945 that damaged his career. Afterward, he stoically endured hard times. Regardless, the right-hander gave the national pastime his best shot. Over nine minor league seasons Rufe hurled 1,617 innings in 283 games, finishing with a 96-103 record and a 3.88 ERA. In the majors he was 13-17 with a career ERA of 4.37.
But on a few exciting afternoons, Gentry placed himself among the game’s finest. He proved his talent with the no-hitter in Buffalo. Also, he pitched four shutouts in 1944, his only full season in the American League. More importantly, during the month of September, the right-hander’s performance helped keep the Tigers in pennant contention.
On September 17 the rookie from Daisy Station caught a glimpse of fame through eight no-hit innings against Cleveland, finally clinching a much-needed victory for Detroit with a two-hit shutout. In the end, Rufe Gentry showed the talent and potential for developing into a stellar pitcher for the Tigers. But his refusal to sign a 1945 contract, combined with later injuries, effectively derailed his once-promising big league career.
This article about Jim “Rufe” Gentry’s baseball career is revised and expanded from an earlier version published in Oldtyme Baseball News in 1998. The Gentry story is based on statistics from The Baseball Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 9th edition, 1993); for minor league stats, I am indebted to Pat Doyle, creator of the Professional Baseball Player Database (version 6). Other sources include clippings from the Gentry file in the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library; game stories for Detroit’s games in the 1944 season from the New York Times; interview with Rufe Gentry, January 1997; interview with Red Borom, February 2007; Joe Overfield, “Rufe Gentry: Buffalo’s Last 20-Game Winner,” Bison Tales, March 1994, pp. 30-33.