Wade Lefler clipped Lou Gehrig by one percentage point in 1924 to repeat as the Eastern League batting champion. In the same month of September, Lefler contributed three clutch pinch-hits, helping catapult the Washington Senators to the 1924 American League pennant. The rookie then argued that he was short-changed for his late-season heroics, receiving but one-fifth of a share of the Senators’ World Series championship haul. A year later, the budding counselor made the law his life-long profession. Lefler’s nine total major-league at bats only tell a small part of his story.
Wade Hampton Lefler was born on June 5, 1896, in Cooleemee, North Carolina, the fourth of seven children of Charles (Charley) Deems Lefler, a farmer, and Eva Mae (Swicegood) Lefler. In 1913, Wade and a classmate prevailed in a debate competition for Cooleemee High School, arguing against amending the North Carolina Constitution to give “Votes for Women.”1 The duo qualified for the first annual final contest of the High School Debating Union of North Carolina, hosted at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.2 In 1915, Lefler attended Weaver College, a Methodist junior college in Weaverville, North Carolina, and was on the debate team there also, arguing the merits of “That the United States government should own and control the railroads with her bounds.”3 He also was the “second-string” catcher on the school team.4 The next year he transferred to Trinity College (now Duke University), where his dark complexion earned him the now-derisive nickname of “Dago.”5 When he became the starting catcher and usual leadoff batter. That summer he played on a Statesville championship team in the amateur Western Carolina League.6
After the 1917 college season, the left-hand hitting Lefler signed with the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, making the uncommon jump directly from collegiate to AA ball.7 Owner-manager Jack Dunn signed “the receiver after seeing him make two home runs in one college game.”8 In his first professional game, in July, he fell victim to sunstroke, and had to be carried off the field.9 Nonetheless, after less than ten games with Baltimore, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics purchased him. However, when Mack learned that Wade had already enlisted for World War I, he turned him back without a trial. Lefler was placed in Class 1 military status in February 1918. He served as a first lieutenant, then captain10 during the fall of 1918 before being discharged the next February.11
Upon Lefler’s return to baseball, Dunn proclaimed during the Orioles spring training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that “that fellow Lefler, my young catcher, will be as good as Earl Smith,” who had just torn up the IL with Rochester in 1918 on his way to the majors.12 Lefler, at 5’11” and 162 pounds, had “already become a favorite.”13 Early reports crowed that “Jack Dunn, the baseball cradle-robber, had picked up a few more $15,000 beauties.”14 Lefler hit .281 with 12 extra-base hits in 78 games for the Orioles in his first full pro season, wresting the starting catcher role from veteran Ben Egan. The 1919 Orioles won the International League by eight games over the Toronto Maple Leafs, and were later ranked as one of minor league baseball’s Top 100 teams of all time.15
In 1920, Lefler hit .336 with 20 extra base hits in 94 games for Baltimore, now splitting time between catcher and first base, typically playing first when Orioles’ star first sacker Jack Bentley took the mound. He returned to the Orioles in 1921, as Baltimore won their third pennant (of seven!) in a row.16 But his throwing arm worsened during the season, so he transitioned out of the catching spot, playing 41 games in the outfield, 38 at first base, and only 27 behind the plate.17 He hit .316 with 27 extra-base hits in 115 games. Dunn had multiple offers for Lefler’s services, but since his asking price was too high, no deals were completed.18 Over the years of the Baltimore dynasty from 1919 through 1925, Leffler was one of many players for whom Dunn asked a large sum of money. It was later surmised that Lefler was “a victim of baseball jockeying and a target of a vindictive club owner.”19 After the 1921 season, he requested a bump in salary, which Dunn flatly refused. Dunn then tried three times to pass Lefler through International League waivers, which Buffalo, Reading, and Toronto would not allow. Dunn therefore threatened to thwart future waiver claims unless “these clubs kept their hands off.”20
In January 1922, Lefler was finally traded by Dunn within the IL to the Newark Bears, which Dunn also owned,21 for infielder Jimmy Walsh.22 Lefler reported late, due to completing his law degree at Trinity, and slumped, hitting only .259 in 58 games before being moved to the Augusta (Georgia) Tygers of the Class B South Atlantic League. He again underperformed during his stay in the Peach State, hitting but .236 in 61 games.
In 1923, Lefler contemplated quitting pro ball to begin his law practice, but finally signed with the Worcester Panthers of the Class A Eastern League. Playing first base and outfield, he won the league batting title at .369.and was picked up by the Boston Braves. Lefler and fellow rookie and practicing attorney and judge Hunter Lane “compared law briefs” in the Braves’ 1924 camp in St. Petersburg, Florida.23 Lefler suffered a broken nose when he was struck in the face by a ball in an exhibition game, but still broke camp with Boston. He made his major league debut on opening day, April 16, in Philadelphia against the Phillies. Called on by player-manager Dave Bancroft to pinch hit for Rube Marquard in the top of the sixth inning with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Braves down, 3-1, he struck out against Hal Carlson. A week later, Boston returned him to Worcester. Lefler was the first player to reach the majors from Trinity College/Duke University.
Lefler collected 210 hits and won the Eastern League batting title again, beating out 21-year-old Lou Gehrig of the Hartford Senators by one percentage point, .370 to .369. The Washington Senators, who were in the heat of an epic pennant race with the Yankees, acquired him for potential pinch-hitting duty. He reported to the Senators on September 10 in Philadelphia, the first stop of their season-ending 20-game road trip.24
On September 18, Lefler made his Senators debut in Cleveland against the Indians. Pinch hitting for Russel, he “singled off George Uhle with Washington runners on second and third.”25 Lefler’s knock, with the Senators down 4-0, got them back in the ballgame, which they eventually won, 9-5. Washington and New York thus remained deadlocked atop the American League table with 10 games to go. The Evening Star headline declared “Lefler’s Debut Auspicious.”26 Two days later, in the top of the second inning, he pinch-hit for Walter Johnson after Sir Walter, pitching on two days’ rest, was pounded for four first-inning runs, and grounded out to second base. On September 26 at Boston’s Fenway Park, Lefler’s third appearance for the Senators was as a pinch-hitter for Earl McNeely in the eighth inning. His single accounted for Washington’s only run in a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox. The loss broke Johnson’s 13-game winning streak and reduced the Senators’ lead to a single game.27
The next day, Lefler answered manager Bucky Harris’s call off the bench in the top of the fifth inning. The Senators were down, 4-2, but had the bases loaded. The rookie belted a three-run double off Howard Ehmke to put Washington up, 5-4. The Senators won, 7-5, and, due to the Yankees loss to the Athletics, clinched a tie for the pennant, being two games up with two to play.
The local Boston Globe byline read that Lefler was “Up from the Minors to Help Washington to a Pennant,” the “man of the hour,” and that “18,000 fans went cuckoo when Lefler’s drive got away from (Ike) Boone with the bases full in the 5th.”28 Even the Brooklyn Daily Eagle acknowledged that “Washington all but clinches pennant by winning as Yankees lose.”29 His minor league town paper, the Baltimore Sun, chimed in that “his timely double virtually won the American League pennant for the Senators yesterday.”30 The Washington Star co-headline read: “Pinch-Hitting for Firpo] Marberry, Rookie Drives Three Runs over Plate for Lead.”31
The Senators clinched the American League flag the next day. Then Lefler went 2-for-4 with a double off Ehmke while batting cleanup in the meaningless final regular season game against the Red Sox at Fenway. The Senators then won a legendary seven-game World Series thriller against the New York Giants. Lefler, unfortunately, was unavailable for the World Series as he was not on the Senators’ roster before September.
On the same day Game Five of the World Series was taking place, the Senators officially drafted Lefler for the 1925 season. Newspaper reports explained that “Washington drafted Wade Lefler, a player it already had, a player who is responsible for the Nats participating in the World Series. No wonder the Nats wanted him for next year but rather than pay the price asked for him, they got him by draft.”32
Shortly after the Senators’ triumph, the winners’ shares were disbursed. Lefler was quite upset, as he was voted only a one-fifth share, the same as the batboy and clubhouse boy, while substitute infielders Ralph Miller and Tommy Taylor received two-thirds of a share. 33 Lefler claimed:
I feel that I am entitled to at least one-third of a share. While I naturally am pleased at being on a championship team and that I was able to help some in bringing the pennant to Washington, baseball is a business with me and I don’t think I am being properly paid for value received.34
He received $1,150, with “the players chipping in $50 each to make up Lefler’s purse. He is a lawyer and doesn’t have to play ball.”35 Still, Lefler “raised a howl, and kept on howling until he was punished by being sent to Memphis.”36 Almost certainly due to his boisterous complaints, Washington traded Lefler, along with third baseman Tommy Taylor, to Memphis in December for third baseman Doc Prothro and pitcher Harry Kelley.37
The Sporting News chimed in on the drama, with an article titled “The Tale of a Squawk that Boomeranged,” which included the prescient statement regarding Lefler that “his name may never again appear in a box score.”38 Writer Charles Foreman’s opinion was that “the recruit’s blow helped mightily in turning the tide in Washington’s favor in that thrilling race down the stretch.”39 After all, the difference between a World Series share and runners-up share in the American League was collectively over $200,000. According to Foreman:
Lefler’s hits, it must be admitted, were mighty valuable. Without them the Senators would have surely lost two games, possibly three. Just two games separated them from the Yankees at the close of the season. Without Lefler’s hits would they have been champions? Ask [Yankees manager] Miller Huggins.40
With Memphis in 1925 for spring training, Lefler broke a toe on his right foot when he was hit by a pitch in an exhibition against Indianapolis.41 In June, he “was almost knocked out when a hot grounder from Bogart’s bat took a bad bound and crashed into his right eye,” adding insult to Memphis’s 14-0 trouncing by New Orleans. 42 By mid-June, Lefler was hitting at a .347 clip for manager Clyde Milan, although that barely made the top fifteen of the Southern Association batting table.43 He slumped in the second half, however, to end up at .307.
The next spring, Lefler, “the young outfielder who won the pennant for the Washington Senators in 1924,” was sold by Memphis to New Haven.44 He was to report to their training camp in Suffolk, Virginia, but never showed. Instead, he headed back to North Carolina., where he helped finance new baseball fields with the Newton Athletic Corporation,45 and was named secretary at the new corporation’s first stockholders meeting two weeks later.46 By June, he was player-manager for Newton in the new semipro Western Carolina League, which typically played on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In a June victory, “Wade Lefler’s hefty Indians made it six straight,” with the manager belting a homer for good measure.47
In September 1926, Lefler married Eunice Gertrude Chilcoat in Amory, Mississippi. In the wedding announcement, Lefler was listed as a member of the law firm of Lefler and Dennis and manager of the Newton, North Carolina, baseball club.48 The Leflers welcomed a daughter, Laverne, in 1929, a second daughter, Trudye, in 1935, and a son, Wade Jr,. in 1937.
In the fall of 1926, there was chatter that Lefler might manage the Knoxville Smokies of the South Atlantic League the next season, if he could only be extricated from his contract with Memphis, which still owned Lefler’s rights after he had refused to report to New Haven.49 That never materialized.
By 1933, Lefler was still playing first base for Newton, but he became a city attorney for the City of Newton and a clerk of Catawba County Superior Court. He was later elected as president of the North Carolina Clerks Association. In 1950, Lefler was named as an attorney for the Catawba County school system.50 In 1955, daughter Trudye was appointed president of the University of North Carolina Athletic Association.51
In 1979, Wade’s wife passed away. Two years later, on March 6, 1981, Wade Hampton Lefler, 84, “the dean of Newton attorneys,”52 passed away. He was survived by his son, Wade Jr., a doctor; daughters Laverne and Trudye; and brother Hugh.53
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to those sources shown in the Notes, the author used Baseball-Reference.com.
1 “‘Votes for Women’ in High School Debates,” News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), February 25, 1913: 5.
2 “Pleasant Garden Wins the Final,” Daily Tar Heel (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), March 13, 1913: 1.
3 “Weaver Exercises to Begin Tomorrow,” Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, May 22, 1915: 7.
4 “Final Exhibition Game is Unraveled,” Asheville Citizen-Times, April 21, 1915: 8.
5 “Orioles May Lose Catcher Lefler,” Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1918: 7.
6 “Statesville is Collecting Club,” Charlotte News, June 15, 1916: 11.
7 “Notes,” Salisbury (North Carolina) Evening Post, July 10, 1917: 2.
8 “Birds to Open April 6,” Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1919: 23.
9 Charles J. Foreman, “The Tale of a Squawk that Boomeranged,” The Sporting News, January 22, 1925: 6.
10 “Lefler Signs His Contract,” (Baltimore) Evening Sun, March 1, 1919: 8.
11 “Dunn Books Contest,” Evening Sun, March 28, 1919: 24.
12 C. Starr Matthews, “Playing the Game,” Evening Sun, March 31, 1919: 10.
13 “Young Birds Show Off,” Baltimore Sun, March 31, 1919: 7.
14 C. Starr Matthews, above.
15 Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright, “Top 100 MiLB Teams: 35. 1919 Baltimore Orioles,” MiLB.com website: http://www.milb.com/milb/history/top100.jsp?idx=35
16 See Alan Cohen, “Baltimore’s Forgotten Dynasty: The 1919-25 Baltimore Orioles of the International League,” The National Pastime, SABR, 2020: https://sabr.org/journal/article/baltimores-forgotten-dynasty-the-1919-25-baltimore-orioles-of-the-international-league/
17 “Wade Hampton Lefler,” Baseball Hall of Fame Player File (Baseball-Reference.com does not list Lefler’s games at catcher or first base for 1921).
18 Lefler was one of many players for whom Dunn asked a very high price, the most famous being Lefty Grove.
19 “Lawyers Try Job with the Boston Braves,” Brooklyn Eagle, April 9, 1924: 28.
20 Same as above.
21 “Jack Dunn May Sell His Yanigans,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Times, August 3, 1922: 8.
22 “Departure of Lefler Makes Situation More Acute” Baltimore Sun, January 29: 1922: 18.
23 “Lawyers Try Job with the Boston Braves,” Brooklyn Eagle, April 9, 1924: 28.
24 “Lefler Joins Griffmen for Pinch-Hitting Trial,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 11, 1924: 30.
25 “Washington and New York Remain Deadlocked in Thrilling A.L. Race” Record-Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), September 19, 1924: 16.
26 John B. Keller, “Harris Sees Victory” Evening Star, September 19, 1924: 28.
27 “Veteran Twirler Forced to Leave Game After Being Hit on Elbow by Pitched Ball” BridgeportTelegram, September 27, 1924: 18.
28 “Up from the Minors to Help Washington to a Pennant” Boston Globe, September 28, 1924: 21.
29 “Senators Win on Lefler’s Doubles with Bases Full,” Brooklyn Eagle, September 28, 1924: 42.
30 “Washington Comes Through with Victory over Red Sox” Baltimore Sun, September 28, 1924: 13.
31 “Nationals Victors in Hectic Battle; Wade Lefler Stars,” Evening Star, September 27, 1924: 1.
32 “Tribe Drafts 4 from Shrubbery” Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 9, 1924: 16.
33 “Record Set for Series Receipts” Plain Dealer, October 11, 1924: 20.
34 “Lefler May Quit Champs; Gets Raw Deal” Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), October 15, 1924: 14.
35 “Lefler Peeved Over Series Split,” Cincinnati Post, October 15, 1924: 10.
36 “Lefler Bought by New Haven; Was Once Hero” Chattanooga Times, April 1, 1926: 10.
37 “Nats Trade Wade Lefler,” Plain Dealer, December 5, 1924: 22.
38 Charles J. Foreman, “The Tale of a Squawk that Boomeranged,” The Sporting News, January 22, 1925: 6.
39 Foreman, “The Tale of a Squawk that Boomeranged.”
40 Foreman, “The Tale of a Squawk that Boomeranged.”
41 Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 31, 1925: 7.
42 “Chicks Defeated” Nashville Banner, June 4, 1925: 15.
43 “Notes” Dayton (Ohio) News, June 20, 1925: 7.
44 “Lefler Bought by New Haven; Was Once Hero” Chattanooga Times, April 1, 1926: 10.
45 “Charters Issued by the Secretary,” Asheville Citizen-Times, April 13, 1926: 11.
46 “Newton Lays Plans for Great Year on Diamond,” Charlotte Observer, April 25, 1926: 16.
47 “Newton Wins Sixth Consecutive Event” News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), June 17, 1926: 11.
48 “Former Major Leaguer to Marry in September” Charlotte Observer, August 29, 1926: 27.
49 “Saturday Will Continue as Bargain Day in Sally,” The Sporting News, November 11, 1926: 5.
50 “Newton School Lawyer Named,” Charlotte Observer, August 26, 1950: 14.
51 “Lefler a Leader,” Charlotte News, May 14, 1955: 5.
52 “Noted Attorney Dies,” Hickory (North Carolina) Daily Record, March 7, 1981: 12.
53 “Newton Obituaries,” Charlotte Observer, March 8, 1961: 15.