- Threw out one future Hall of Famer (Larry Doby) trying to steal;
- Exchanged rundown throws with a second Cooperstown-bound player (George Kell) to catch a third (Luis Aparicio); and
- Reached base against a perennial All-Star (Billy Pierce).
Then he never played in the big leagues again. “I enjoyed being there, and I was disappointed when I left,” he said.1
Tommy Allen Patton was born on September 5, 1935, in Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of Philadelphia. U.S. Route 322—the Horseshoe Pike—runs through the center of the town, which was home to about 900 people at the time. Fewer than 1,800 live there today. Honey Brook was the birthplace of two other major leaguers before him: John Castle and Jim Spotts, both former Phillies who appeared in three games apiece in 1910 and 1930, respectively. “All I knew about them was what I could read in the Baseball Encyclopedia,” Patton said. “Nobody around here knew them or knew anything about them.”2
Patton’s father, Abram Hillard Patton, and grandfather, Samuel, were both carpenters. His mother, Irma Esther Patton (née Wilson), came from an even smaller town about three miles east called Suplee. There she grew up on her father’s 100-acre dairy farm with eight siblings. Before Abram and Irma’s son was old enough to begin school, the couple added a daughter, Virginia Lee, who grew up to be a teacher.
The Honey Brook Midgets were Patton’s first organized baseball team and he started out pitching. He liked the idea of playing every day, though, and became a full-time catcher by seventh grade. His skills were advanced enough that he was able to play six years with the varsity Raiders squad at Honey Brook High School ( the lower grades were in the same building). From grades nine through 12, Patton joined the basketball team as well.
Honey Brook had an intense sporting rivalry with Morgantown, five miles to the north. In 1952, however, coach Irwin Beebe convinced boys from both towns to join forces with nearby Coatesville for his Honey Brook Junior American Legion Wawasson Post 422 club. The team won the Chester County championship before falling to Swarthmore in the state finals.3
Throughout Patton’s high school career, he was followed by a man in his early sixties named Norman “Nubby” Weaver from nearby Terre Hill. Weaver had pitched professionally for two seasons in the New England League, including six wins for the 1914 Lowell Grays. One of his teammates with Lowell was Jimmy Ring, who later shut out the White Sox in Game Four of the infamous 1919 World Series. By the early 1950s, Weaver was a bird dog for the St. Louis Cardinals, reporting to Ollie Vanek, the scout who’d inked Stan Musial out of Donora, Pennsylvania—250 miles west of Honey Brook—in 1938. Shortly after Patton’s high school graduation in 1953, Vanek visited his family’s home to sign him for one of the Redbirds’ 18 minor-league affiliates. Negotiations stretched from afternoon into evening as the young catcher imagined buying himself a nice car, but his father didn’t approve of the plan and convinced Patton to accept $3,000. That was a grand short of the “bonus baby” threshold that —for better or worse—would have put him straight onto the big-league roster under the rules of the day.
The 17-year-old reported to Albany, Georgia, where he worked out for a week before debuting in the Class-D Alabama-Florida League with the Dothan Rebels. He batted just .197 in 58 games, but the 5-foot-10, 170-pounder was the only player in the whole circuit who reached the majors.4 One of his two home runs that summer was a ninth-inning grand slam to snap a scoreless deadlock on August 16.5 After two walks loaded the bases for him, Patton popped the first pitch over the fence and got an earful from the Fort Walton Beach Jets’ player-manager—a burly coal miner named John Streza—as he approached first base. “You little sonofabitch!” Streza warned. “The next pitch you see will be right at your ear!”6
In 1954, Patton returned to Dothan and starred as the Rebels reeled off a league-best 72-53 record. In 113 games, the right-handed swinger hit .305 with 18 doubles, six triples, nine homers, and 75 RBIs. He was the only player to reach base when Dothan was no-hit by the Andalusia-Opp Indians on May 2, walking and stealing before getting stranded at second.7 The Rebels’ pitching ace was a lefty named Spencer Davis who went 45-8 during Patton’s two seasons there. However, Crestview’s Marshall Renfroe—who’d start one game for the 1959 Giants—was the league’s only hurler with a major-league future. Two ex-big leaguers did suit up, however, including 40-year-old former Cleveland Indian Papa Williams, whose .403 batting average was only the circuit’s second best!
Patton got a taste of Single-A ball in 1955 with the South Atlantic League Columbus Cardinals. He batted .218 in 20 games and struggled with passed balls. He spent the bulk of the year playing for former Cardinals All-Star Whitey Kurowski’s Peoria Chiefs in the Class-B Three-I league. Slugger Gene Green, second baseman Wally Shannon, and relief pitcher Bob Duliba would all ascend to St. Louis before the decade was over. Patton was younger than them all, but held his own with a .285 average, including 17 doubles and three long balls in 326 at bats over 100 games.
After the season, Patton spent the first of his three winter ball campaigns with the Carta Vieja Yankees, who had won three of the last four championships in the Panama Professional League. Patton backed up Billy Shantz, a big-leaguer with the Athletics the previous two seasons. Shantz also managed the club in Patton’s subsequent visits, but Al Kubski was the skipper in 1955-56. “It was a great place to spend the winter. The weather was nice, and I enjoyed it tremendously.” Patton recalled. “It was a good vacation, and I got to see some of the country.”8
When Patton returned to the United States, the Cardinals sent him to the Double-A Texas League, where he was the number-one catcher for Harry “The Hat” Walker’s Houston Buffaloes. Houston romped to a league-best 96-58 record in 1956 with the youngest pitching staff in the circuit, led by Bob Mabe’s 21 victories and 195 strikeouts. Four other starters won in double figures, including Billy Muffett, who became a longtime pitching coach, and former Negro Leaguer Bill Greason. In 79 games, Patton batted .239, showing a modest amount of pop with 10 doubles and seven homers in 238 at bats. Two of the long balls came in his final game of the season, because the opposition threw at him his next time up. “I put my hands up to protect myself and got hit right in the back of the hand where all those little bones are,” Patton recalled. “I was underage at the time (he’d turn 21 the following week), so they got me a plane ticket back to Houston and we had to wait to get permission from my parents. I think it was two days later when they finally set the bone.”9
The Buffaloes won the league title and Dixie Series while Patton recuperated, but his teammates voted him a full $238.09 playoff share.10 Once healed, Patton returned to Carta Vieja for another winter. While he was in Panama, in the first week of December, the Baltimore Orioles spent $10,000 to pick him off the roster of St. Louis’s Triple-A Omaha affiliate in the Rule 5 draft. The Orioles had lost 24-year-old Tom Gastall—a strong-armed, bonus baby catching prospect—in a plane crash 10 days before the end of the 1956 season.
Baltimore issued Patton uniform number 10 when he arrived in Scottsdale, Arizona, for spring training. He got an autographed baseball from singing star Bing Crosby when the Orioles visited Southern California for an exhibition game.
Ahead of the regular season, Patton was ticketed for the Pacific Coast League to gain experience with the Vancouver Mounties. Baltimore’s starting catcher was Gus Triandos, the club’s leading homer and RBI man. Only the Yankees’ Yogi Berra would start more games or catch more innings among AL backstops in 1957. The primary reserve catcher was Joe Ginsberg.
However, Triandos suffered a minor back injury three games into the season. Patton—still in Honey Brook on his way to Canada—got an emergency call to come back to the Orioles. Normally, players weren’t eligible to return for 10 days after being optioned out, but Baltimore petitioned Commissioner Ford Frick to make an exception, and Frick agreed under the circumstances.11
Patton joined the Birds on Monday April 22 in Boston, where his childhood baseball favorite was beginning an age-38 season in which he’d bat .388. “When I got to go to Fenway Park, the Red Sox were taking batting practice and Ted Williams was in the cage, so I quick got up there behind the cage to watch him,” Patton recalled. “Baltimore’s manager was Paul Richards at the time, a former catcher, and he came up behind me, put his arm over my right shoulder and said, ‘Son, the man doesn’t have a weakness.’ That was all he said.”12
Richards told reporters that Patton would stay a few weeks before heading “someplace where he would have a chance to play regularly.”13 That was plenty of time for the Orioles’ pitching coach, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen—who loved practical jokes—to make sure Patton’s first visit to Yankee Stadium was memorable. As Baltimore’s team bus approached the ballpark in the Bronx, Brecheen promised to show the rookie around and directed him through a door once they got inside. Patton quickly discovered that he’d been shut inside the boiler room and had to seek directions to the visitors’ clubhouse once he escaped.
During Triandos’s absence, Richards started Ginsberg—a 30-year-old with his fourth team in four seasons—a dozen straight times behind the plate. Though the lefty-hitting Ginsberg had batted .186 against southpaws in 1956, Patton didn’t see action even when the Orioles faced a southpaw or played a day game after a night game.
On April 30, however, in front of a tiny Tuesday afternoon crowd of 4,470 at Comiskey Park, Ginsberg was injured by a foul tip in the bottom of the third. Before Patton could get onto the field, however, he had to overcome another one of Brecheen’s pranks. “As soon as Joe got hit, [Brecheen] knew I was going to be coming in,” Patton said. “We had a six- or seven-foot cyclone fence around the bullpen, and he snapped the lock on the gate so I couldn’t get out. I was ready to climb the fence, but then they got an attendant to get the key to unlock it.”14
Baltimore was already down two runs to Chicago’s Billy Pierce, the left-hander who’d started three of the last four All-Star Games for the American League. However, the Birds had the tying runs in scoring position when it was Ginsberg’s turn to hit with two out in the top of the fourth. After pinch-hitter Jim Pyburn struck out to end the inning, Patton donned his mask, chest protector, and shin guards to make his long-awaited major league debut. “I was nervous and thought maybe I was better off sitting on the bench,” he confessed.15
The Orioles’ starter, 30-year-old right-hander Ray Moore, would lead the league with 112 walks that season. Yet he had better control that afternoon. Moore retired the White Sox in order in the fifth, inducing a grounder and a short fly before Patton gloved a third strike for the inning’s final out. Baltimore closed within a run in the top of the fifth, as light-hitting shortstop Willy Miranda led off with a single and came around to score. Moore and Patton then enjoyed another perfect frame, with the rookie battling Chicago’s notorious wind to gather in a foul pop-up by shortstop Luis Aparicio. “I must have looked like a Little Leaguer making a couple circles around it, but I did catch it,” Patton said.16
Patton’s first at-bat came with two out and nobody aboard in the top of the sixth against Pierce. “My knees were knocking,” he admitted. “I was nervous, you bet.”17 Nevertheless, Patton pulled the ball towards third base and reached safely on an error by Bubba Phillips. The inning ended with Patton stuck at first, so he went back to work behind the plate. Doby drew a leadoff walk, and with one out, the White Sox tried to start something by sending him with “Jungle Jim” Rivera at the plate. When Rivera whiffed, Patton fired a bullet to Miranda at second base, and the Cuban tagged out Doby to complete an inning-ending double play.
In the seventh, Patton helped erase Aparicio by exchanging throws with Orioles third baseman George Kell in a rundown between third and home. As would Doby, both Aparicio and Kell eventually earned plaques in Cooperstown. Despite that crisp fundamental play, the White Sox blew the game open by scoring four times; neither side scored again. Patton grounded back to Pierce for the first out in the ninth and finished his debut game 0-for-2.
Though the Orioles faced another left-hander (Jack Harshman) the next day at Comiskey, Ginsberg returned to the lineup and collected what proved to be his only hit off a southpaw all season. At Tiger Stadium that weekend, Triandos returned to action; he went on to start a season-high 26 games in a row.
The Orioles tried sending Patton to their Double-A San Antonio Missions club but pulled him back when he was claimed on waivers. Next, Patton was sold to Kansas City and spent four days with the Athletics, but the deal was nullified because K.C. hadn’t been informed that they’d have to wait 30 days before optioning him out.18 Though Patton had appeared in only one game, he’d visited every American League park except Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC. “The Baltimore Orioles are finding it harder to get rid of catcher Tommy Patton than a visiting mother-in-law,” one newspaper observed.19
Patton described how he eventually came to leave the big club. “Richards had signed another couple of catchers, [Frank] Zupo and another boy that I can’t remember the name of. Well, he wanted to make room for one of them, and offered me some money to take my release and go. I shouldn’t have done it.”20
Zupo, who was still a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, joined the Orioles and notched the first of his three big-league hits on July 1. Patton wound up in San Antonio after all, where fewer than a handful of his teammates were younger than he was. One of them was a third baseman who’d just turned 20 named Brooks Robinson. Robinson had also been sent down from Baltimore, where he’d been Patton’s best friend on the team.21 The Orioles legend-to-be returned to the majors that summer, while Patton hit .261 with four homers and 28 RBIs in 71 games in the Texas League.
On August 28, Patton won a pre-game competition for catchers’ throwing accuracy by hitting a bucket placed on second base two out of five times. Before the season was over, he also picked up a lifelong scar when a foul tip wedged between two of his fingers, splitting one of the digits and landing him on the disabled list. Patton returned in time to go deep against his former club, the Houston Buffaloes, in the league finals, but San Antonio lost the best-of-seven series in the final game.
Instead of playing winter ball, Patton joined a teammate, lefty pitcher Dick Luebke, for six months of military duty that would finish just before the 1958 season. “He and I went into the service in San Antonio,” Patton explained. “We signed with the Army reserve unit in San Antonio and did our time.”22
Patton spent 1958 with Vancouver in the PCL under manager Charlie Metro. Still only 22, he backed up Charlie White, a 30-year-old who’d played parts of two seasons with the Milwaukee Braves after beginning his career in the Negro Leagues. Another former Negro Leaguer, Joe Durham, was the team’s best player. The Mounties went 79-73 behind a veteran pitching staff led by 15-game winners George Bamberger and Erv Palica. Patton appeared in only 52 contests, batting .188 with a pair of homers and 11 RBIs. For the third time in four years, he played winter ball in Panama with Shantz’s Carta Vieja club.
In 1959, Patton saw more playing time than he’d enjoyed in four years, but other than four games with Vancouver, he had to go back to Double-A to get it as the main catcher for the Amarillo Gold Sox, Baltimore’s new Texas League affiliate. The club managed a winning record but finished fifth in the condensed six-team circuit. Patton batted .270 in 105 games, with five homers and 37 RBIs. For part of the season, another future fixture in Baltimore, 23-year-old Cal Ripken, Sr., was one of his backups. That winter, Patton had an opportunity to play in the stronger Mexican League but decided against it because it involved flying and long bus rides, two things he didn’t enjoy.
A 24-year-old Patton began 1960 in the Double-A Southern Association with the Little Rock Travelers but was on the move after only eight games. When the Orioles purchased 34-year-old catcher Valmy Thomas from the Phillies organization in mid-May, they shipped Patton to Philadelphia’s Triple-A Indianapolis Indians club as part of the deal.
After only five games, however, the surprised Phillies discovered that he had a sore arm and sent Patton to their Williamsport affiliate in the Single-A Eastern League, just 125 miles northwest of Honey Brook. “I enjoyed it there in Williamsport,” Patton said. “It was a good league. There was a good orthopedic doctor there. They didn’t operate like they do now, so I got two years of physical therapy.”23 With three different clubs in 1960, Patton batted a combined .298, but disabled stints limited him to only 84 at-bats in 37 games.
On March 1, 1961, Patton married Nancy Lee Grimes, whom he’d known since high school but started dating seriously after the 1955 season before he went to Panama. Nancy was from Terre Hill, the same town as Nubby Weaver, the scout who’d helped Patton sign his first contract. In the first five years of their marriage, the couple had two sons. Michael Allen Patton was born first. His younger brother, Richard Lee Patton, died in a tragic automobile accident in 1988, shortly after earning his accounting degree.
Patton returned to the Williamsport Grays in 1961 and hit .241 with one four-bagger in 31 games for a second-place club featuring Danny Cater and Marcelino Lopez. When he returned home after the 1961 season, he received a letter from the Phillies informing him of his outright release. In addition to his one game with the Orioles, he’d played 670 games in nine minor-league seasons, batting .261 with 33 home runs. “Hustle every time you put on a uniform,” is his advice to current players.24
His mother’s uncle owned a large construction business in Philadelphia where his father had worked for a few years, but employment there required union membership, which seemed like too much trouble for something that might not last too long. Instead, Patton got a job as a production worker at the Pepperidge Farm plant in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, mixing the dough for the company’s Goldfish crackers and cookies. “Millions of cookies, and millions of Goldfish,” he described the 35 years he spent there before retiring. The oatmeal raisin cookies fresh out of the oven were his favorite.
Patton has not been on an airplane since 1960, something he doesn’t intend to change. He doesn’t enjoy boat trips either, meaning it’s unlikely that he’ll ever see Panama again. “It’s a beautiful land, and I would like to go back, but I’m not getting on a plane or boat,” he explained.25
New Holland, Pennsylvania, 10 miles west of Honey Brook, is where Patton settled. “I enjoy living here,” he said. “People are nice.” In the fall of 2016, he was inducted into the Twin Valley sports Hall of Fame. His home sits about 85 miles north of Baltimore and 50 miles west of Philadelphia, the last two organizations he played for. He very seldom ventures to the ballpark, but Patton watches lots of Phillies and Orioles games on TV. “Being retired, I get to see most of them…when they’re playing,” he remarked during baseball’s partial shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.26
Last revised: September 3, 2020
Special thanks to Tom Patton (telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, June 27, 2020).
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by William Lamb.
1 Tom Patton, telephone interview with Malcolm Allen, June 27, 2020 (hereafter Patton-Allen interview).
2 Patton-Allen interview.
3 Dr. Don Leisey, “Flashback: 1952 Honey Brook Baseball Team Wins ChesCo Championship”, Berks-Mont News, September 28, 2012.
4 “Flock of Flingers on Birds’ Arizona Roster”, The Sporting News, January 2, 1957:19. Baseball Reference lists him at a stockier 5’9” and 185.
5 “Sherman Club on Block”, The Sporting News, August 26, 1953: 36.
6 Patton-Allen interview.
7 “Anadalusia-Opp Ace Stops Dothan on No-Hitter, 1-0”, The Sporting News, May 12, 1954: 35.
8 Patton-Allen interview.
9 Patton-Allen interview.
10 “Buffs Collect $238 Apiece”, The Sporting News, September 19, 1956: 43.
11 “Orioles Option, Recall Patton”, The Sporting News, May 1, 1957: 38.
12 Patton-Allen interview.
13 Jim Ellis, “Ginsberg Hits His Way Off Oriole Block”, The Sporting News, May 1, 1957: 10.
14 Darryl Grumling, “60 Years Later, Honey Brook Native Patton’s One-Game Big League Stint As Unique As Ever”, Berks-Mont News, April 21, 2017.
15 Patton-Allen interview.
16 Grumling, “60 Years Later, Honey Brook Native Patton’s One-Game Big League Stint As Unique As Ever.”
18 Jessie A. Linthicum, “Orioles Spin Turnstile at a Million Pace”, The Sporting News, May 22, 1957: 15.
19 The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 11, 1957, p. 79.
20 Patton-Allen interview.
22 Patton-Allen interview.
23 Patton-Allen interview.
24 “An Interview With Former Oriole, Tom Patton.”
25 Patton-Allen interview.
26 Patton-Allen interview.