Third baseman Ty LaForest had one of the best home debuts in Boston Red Sox history. Just 21 months later, he was dead.
LaForest was a local kid, called up to the big leagues after a superlative season in Double-A (then the top minor-league classification). Playing his first game on the road in Washington on August 4, 1945, he did pretty well. LaForest played in both games of a doubleheader, and went 3-for-8 with a double, two runs batted in, and three runs scored. It was a long, long road trip and LaForest appeared in 24 games away from home before he got to Fenway Park. He was hitting .273 at the time.
On August 26 the Red Sox hosted Philadelphia in a doubleheader. The Boston Globe’s Clif Keane wrote of the game, “Byron LaForest, a scrawny-looking Dorchester kid, with muscles that looked no bigger than eggs rolled in a handkerchief, crashed big league baseball in sensational fashion in his first appearance before the home folk.”1
In the opener, LaForest was 2-for-3 (with a base on balls) when he came up in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, nobody on base, and the Red Sox losing, 3-2. He hit a solo home run a few feet inside the right-field foul pole to tie the game; the Red Sox scored once in the bottom of the tenth for a 4-3 win (giving Boo Ferriss his 20th win of the season). In the second game, LaForest was 1-for-2 with a home run (over the left-field fence, giving the Red Sox a 3-1 lead) when he came up to bat again in the bottom of the eighth. The Athletics had just tied the game, 3-3. This time, LaForest had a runner on base, and he doubled in his teammate with the go-ahead run, leading to another 4-3 victory. It was a 5-for-7 day, one of the most spectacular home debuts of any Red Sox player in history. The games were played in front of 24,039 including 1,675 servicemen.
He’d later said, “My father is a quiet fellow. He never thought I’d go very far as a ball player. But that day they say he was all over Fenway Park shaking hands with people.”2
From the time he joined the team in early August, LaForest had played almost every game that remained on the schedule. In just the two months of August and September, he appeared in 52 games. However, his hitting tailed off; he finished with a .250 average. He had two home runs (the two on his home-debut day) and drove in 16 runs.
There was no Rookie of the Year award at the time, but Philadelphia manager Connie Mack said his choice would be LaForest, even over Boston’s 21-game winner, Boo Ferriss: “Ferriss is a fine pitcher, but LaForest is a day-in and day-out competitor whose strong arm, fine fielding and consistent hitting mean more to a team in the long run.”3
Biron Joseph LaForest was his given name, bestowed on him in Edmundston, New Brunswick, when he was born on April 18, 1917.4 The LaForest family moved to the Boston area in 1921. Byron (the spelling of his first name was adjusted) attended Catholic school in Watertown for eight years, and then started at Waltham High School. He said kids called him “Ty” instead of “By” simply because it was easier.
He played baseball but was told he was too small to play professionally. He was 5-feet-5 and weighed no more than 120 pounds at the time. (His obituary in The Sporting News said he weighed only an improbable 84 pounds.) After his sophomore year in high school, LaForest dropped out and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Depression-era federal work-relief program. He grew a few inches more, and put on more than 30 pounds during his 17 months in the CCC, a good part of which was spent fighting fires. He then took a job in a grocery warehouse in Boston while playing for the Lynn Frasers, a local semipro team.
LaForest was relatively small even as a major leaguer, measuring at most 5-feet-9 and weighing 150 to 160 pounds, but he was a tough young man. A Boston Globe report in August 1945 called him “chunky,” however, and put his weight at 186.5
LaForest’s son Gary reported to the Hall of Fame that his dad finished his studies at Dorchester High School. Ty’s father, Henry, worked as an automobile mechanic. His mother, Mary Laura (Martin) LaForest, kept house, raising Byron and his five younger siblings: Maurice, Patrick, Gertrude, Annette, and Frederick.
At the age of 24, Byron married Gladys Marion Hanson, in October 1941. The couple had two sons, Theodore and Gary.
LaForest’s first foray into professional athletics was as a boxer, but he gave it up when he got married. (J.G. Taylor Spink, the editor of The Sporting News, wrote that his pro ring career lasted one bout.)6 Ty also played in the Boston Park League in 1941 and 1942, playing center field for the Linehan Club. Indeed, he played semipro baseball in the Boston area park leagues for several years, and had a couple of big-league tryouts but was rejected. Scouts considered him too small. “I hung around Fenway Park for four years, just begging to catch the eye of a Red Sox scout,” he said. “Hugh Duffy was conducting his morning baseball classes then, but a fellow weighing only 140 pounds might just as well have stayed in bed and read Dick Merriwell novels. You just weren’t big enough to attract any attention.”7
Ty (the nickname he preferred) finally succeeded in getting noticed by a Red Sox scout, Jumping Joe Dugan, at a baseball school the old ballplayer operated. Dugan was keeping an eye out for players to fill the roster gaps left as many major leaguers went off to military service in World War II. LaForest had tried to enlist, but was rejected because of a perforated eardrum, and was classified 4-F, and thus not subject to the draft.
Dugan introduced LaForest to Red Sox farm director Herb Pennock, who set up a tryout with Hugh Duffy, who liked the young man’s hustle. He signed LaForest in December 1942 and showed some empathy for his status as the father of a young boy, assigning him to play under Nemo Leibold with Scranton of the Eastern League rather than at a lower rung on the ladder, entitling LaForest to a somewhat larger salary.8
Ty’s first season with Scranton was a partial one, 62 games in 1943, and he hit .248 before his season was cut short by a broken ankle or leg (accounts differ) in August. It was his drive and perseverance that impressed manager Leibold.
LaForest went to spring training with the Red Sox in 1944 and was part of an amusing first day. The team first worked out at Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts, and on that first day – March 17 – Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe reported that there were more team executives present than there were players – six execs and four players. Manager Joe Cronin was there and he hit balls to a makeshift infield of Jim Tabor at third base, LaForest at short, Joe Wood at second base, and Tony Lupien at first.9 LaForest was living in Fields Corner, Dorchester, at the time, so making it across town had not been so difficult. Cronin filled in at shortstop the next day, and LaForest moved over to second base. Other players began to arrive over the next week.
LaForest blossomed with a full year under his belt in 1944, hitting .296 and driving in 102 runs for Scranton while also leading the league in stolen bases. He was a fiery player, at one point firing his bat “high against the grandstand” after being called out on strikes in a game in Albany on July 23.10 A vote of Eastern League managers placed LaForest as utility outfielder on the league’s All-Star team. His .983 was the best fielding percentage of outfielders in the league.
Promoted to the Double-A Louisville Colonels in 1945, LaForest had a tremendous season, playing every position in the infield and outfield except first base. More importantly, he was hitting .353 through 91 games when he got the call to join the Red Sox. In a game against the Minneapolis Millers on May 14, he had a 6-for-6 day, setting an American Association record at the time. He claimed his biggest thrill, though, was a come-from-behind game-winning homer he hit in the bottom of the ninth off Indianapolis’s Ed Wright – some 375 feet and over the right-field fence. LaForest hit right-handed but was “a dead right-field hitter.”11 Unsurprisingly, the league’s baseball writers selected him to the 1945 All-Star team.
When the Red Sox’ Jim Tabor went in the Army after the 1944 season, they tried to fill in with Jim Bucher and Jackie Tobin, but Bucher sprained his ankle and Tobin’s hitting went south. LaForest, however, had come on strong in Louisville and got the call.
When he reported in Washington, team trainer Win Green had a couple of questions to put to him. Why was he missing two front teeth? “I just stood up when I shoulda kept sittin’ down,” Ty said, indicating, he’d “got into some kinda fight and didn’t do so good.”12
Then there was the six-inch-long scar on his right forearm. Bit by a pig? That’s what he said. A few days before he was summoned to the Red Sox, there was a carnival night in Louisville to attract more fans to the ballpark. There was a $40 war bond prize for anyone who could catch a greased pig and carry it 80 yards. LaForest won, but bore a scar after being bitten by the pig. ”I don’t blame him much. I was handling him pretty rough, I guess,” Ty commented. He caught a couple of guinea hens, too, during the animal-catching activities. “I hope the guys in the big league won’t think I was clumsy enough to get myself spiked like that,” he added. “It was that squirming pig that upset me.”13
He told reporters that he’d been waiting a long time to play at Fenway Park. His father had taken him to his first game at Fenway at the age of 9. “Ever since then I’ve been looking forward to this day. I’ve waited 17 years and all of a sudden I’m in a Red Sox uniform starting my first big-league game. I think I’m ready for it. But I wish I were in better shape. I’m a little train weary and I’ve still got owl eyes for night ball.”14 His first hero on the Red Sox had been Ike Boone, a right fielder who posted a couple of outstanding seasons in the mid-1920s.
When LaForest made his debut in that August 4 doubleheader in Washington, he was playing on maybe an hour’s sleep, having stayed up on the train to Washington. The second game of the twin bill featured two noteworthy events. During the 12-run fourth inning, Boston’s Tom McBride drove in six runs with a bases-loaded double and a bases-loaded triple. And the game also featured the pitching of Washington’s Bert Shepard, back from work as an Army Air Force pilot in World War II. Shepard had been shot down and captured by the Germans, and was playing with a prosthesis after losing his leg following the crash of his plane. It was his only big-league game but he was – by far – the best pitcher for the Senators in the 15-4 game, throwing the final 5⅓ innings and allowing just one run.
Sportswriter Fred Lieb noted Ty as a “prospect for the future,” but in 1946 a raft of returning veterans filled the rosters and the Red Sox management felt LaForest might benefit from more time in the minor leagues. When cutdown time came, on March 30, manager Joe Cronin sent LaForest back to the Colonels for more seasoning. Pinky Higgins and Rip Russell played the hot corner in Boston, as the Red Sox captured their first pennant in 28 years.
LaForest was with Louisville for 52 games and then, under an option agreement with the Athletics, went to the Toronto Maple Leafs for another 53 games. He hit for a combined (and disappointing) .228. He was formally recalled to the Red Sox at the end of the season but did not appear in a game.
Over the winter of 1946-47 LaForest contracted pneumonia and was still in a weakened condition when he reported for spring training in 1947. The March 5 issue of The Sporting News reported that Louisville had sold his contract to San Antonio in the Texas League. He collapsed after just three days in training camp, suffering what was later diagnosed as a heart attack. After eight days in an area hospital, he drove himself back to Boston – no small undertaking in the days before the interstate highway system was built – and soon entered Symmes Hospital in Arlington, Massachusetts, where he died of congestive heart failure due to aortic regurgitation (in which a leaking heart valve prevents blood from pumping properly) at 4:30 in the afternoon of May 5.15 He’d just turned 30 less than three weeks earlier.
An updated version of this biography appeared in “Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II” (SABR, 2015), edited by Marc Z. Aaron and Bill Nowlin.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed LaForest’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Boston Globe, August 5, 1945.
2 Boston Globe, May 6, 1947.
3 The Sporting News, September 20, 1945.
4 Several sources have given the year of his birth as 1919. Dr. Jean-Guy Poitras (Professor Emeritus at the Edmundston campus of the Université de Moncton) verifies that LaForest was born on April 18, 1917 in Edmundston and baptized the next day at the city’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. E-mail to author from Ray Shearer of Edmunston on December 23, 2014. Thanks to Mr. Shearer for contacting Dr. Poitras to resolve any question on this matter.
5 Boston Globe, August 3, 1945.
6 The Sporting News, August 23, 1945.
7 Ibid. LaForest meant to say Frank Merriwell. Frank, the title character in the novels, had a half-brother, Dick.
8 Tommy Fitzgerald of the Louisville Courier-Journal, appearing in The Sporting News, July 19, 1945.
9 Boston Globe, March 18, 1944.
10 The Sporting News, August 3, 1944.
11 Boston Globe, August 3, 1945. The homer was mentioned in the August 5 Globe.
12 Washington Post, August 6, 1945.
13 Undated August 1945 newspaper article by Sam Greene found in LaForest’s Hall of Fame player file, which attributed the scar to stumbling and scraping his arm – but holding on to the pig.
14 Boston Globe, August 5, 1945. This would validate his birthdate as in 1919, if he was reporting accurately.
15 Certificate of Death, Commonwealth of Massachusetts.