The ball came off the bat of Walter Sessi, the unlikeliest of heroes for the 1946 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Sessi debuted with the Cardinals in 1941 and was hitless in 13 at-bats. After missing four seasons while serving in World War II, the powerful but slow-footed outfielder found a role on the 1946 club as an exclusive pinch-hitter. One of his two major-league hits was a key game-winning home run during the Cardinals’ pennant race with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Walter Anthony Sessi was born on July 23, 1918, in Finleyville, a small town in Western Pennsylvania 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. His parents were Alfred and Helen (née Till), and Walter had four siblings: Harvey, Gilbert, Helen, and Marcella. Alfred, known as “Butch,” was an excellent baseball player, catching for the Odd Fellows and Finleyville Independents while working in the wholesale meat and grocery business.2 In December 1936, when Walter was 18 years old, Alfred died at the age of 43 after an extended illness.
Walter attended high school in Monongahela, making the seven-mile commute from Finleyville, at least on occasion, by hitch-hiking.3 He played a year of basketball and three years of football as a halfback and left-footed punter. On the baseball diamond, the strapping left-hander played outfield, first base, and occasionally took the mound as a pitcher. By the time he graduated in 1936, the blond-haired, broad-shouldered lad was 6-foot-3 and weighed 205 pounds.4 Walter played several seasons of sandlot ball in the Peters Creek League and played center for an independent league basketball team called the “Ex-Highs” the winter following graduation.
In the summer of 1936, Sessi was one of 337 young ballplayers from Western Pennsylvania who attended a four-day tryout camp for the Greensburg Redwings, a St. Louis Cardinals farm club.5 Sessi was among 10 players offered a contract to play in the following season. In March 1937, Walter traveled to Albany, Georgia, for a Cardinals minor league camp. From Albany, he was farmed out to the Kinston (North Carolina) Eagles of the Class D Coastal Plain League. Sessi hit .250 in 22 games for Kinston, where the ballfield was “one size smaller than a Texas ranch.”6 He was also battling a sore foot which made it difficult to run. He was transferred to the Shelby Cardinals of the North Carolina State League, where he hit .392 in eight games before being released.7 Sessi was able to catch on with the Thomasville Chair Makers, another North Carolina State League team, where he received heat treatments for his foot and hit for a .314 average (22-for-70). After Thomasville made another acquisition that cost Sessi his roster spot, he was transferred to his fourth team of the year, the Mountain State League’s Williamson (West Virginia) Colts, with whom he was batted .330 (36-for-109). “I didn’t hit a home run all year,” he said after the season, “but I don’t ever remember hitting into a double play.”8
After playing in four Class D leagues in 1937, Sessi found stability with Williamson, his home for the entire 1938 season. Sessi played right field and was teammates with another Western Pennsylvania native, a 17-year-old left-handed pitcher named Stan Musial. On June 27, Monongahela’s Republican, reported that Sessi ended an 18-inning affair versus Beckley with a game-winning home run.9 On August 2, he played in all nine innings of the league’s All-Star Game.10 He ended the season with a .314 average, 25 home runs, and a league-leading 126 RBIs.11 Following the baseball season, Walter helped organize and coach a youth football team in Finleyville and helped his brothers work in the local meat market.
Sessi played two games with the Columbus (Georgia) Red Birds in April 1939 before being sent to Williamson for a third consecutive season. The outfielder mashed Mountain State League pitching to a tune of .372 with 21 home runs, 125 RBIs, and a .619 slugging percentage.12 His play earned another spot in the league’s All-Star Game by way of a unanimous vote.13
Sessi advanced to the Class B Mobile Shippers in the Southeastern League for the 1940 campaign. He got off to a blistering start, and as of May 29 was leading the league with a .382 batting average and 35 RBIs.14 The right fielder ultimately did not keep us this torrid pace, finishing the season with a .286 average and 11 home runs. Following the season, Sessi remained in Mobile and took a job as an assistant carpenter.15
In 1941, Sessi ascended to the Class A Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League. Bulked up to 230 pounds, the powerful lefty hit .301 with 28 doubles, 16 triples, 14 home runs, and 98 RBIs.16 On September 10, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Cardinals purchased Sessi’s contract from Houston and recalled Musial, since converted from pitcher to outfielder, from Rochester. Sessi made his major-league debut on September 18 as a pinch-hitter for shortstop Marty Marion. The Cards were trailing the Boston Braves 4-1 in the ninth inning when Sessi strolled to the plate to face Manny Salvo. The rookie popped out to third base. Sessi started three games in right field down the stretch, including the last two games of the season when St. Louis was eliminated from playoff contention, and was hitless in 13 at-bats. Following the season, with America’s involvement in World War II imminent, he was among the first major leaguers drafted by the United States Army.
Sessi was stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and then served in the European Theater of World War II. In total, he spent 52 months in the Army and missed the 1942 through 1945 seasons. Walter married Mary Louise Eastburn, a native of Mobile, Alabama, and the couple had a daughter, Carol, in 1944. Following his military service, the first lieutenant reported to spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1946 competing for the first base job. The big lefty showed that he still possessed a powerful stroke during Grapefruit League play when he hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run against the New York Yankees on March 19.17 As one reporter described, Sessi was “too slow to play outfield and too clumsy to play first base,” but to be sent to the minors, he would have to pass through waivers, and another team was sure to claim him.18 So, Sessi stayed with the big club and was exclusively utilized as a pinch-hitter. His at-bats were infrequent; through the first 77 games of the season, he was 0-for-7 with a walk. After starting his career 0-for-20, Sessi’s first big-league hit finally came on July 13, 1946. The Cardinals hosted the New York Giants at Sportsman’s Park and trailed 6-3 in the sixth inning. Sessi was called on to pinch-hit for reliever Red Barrett and singled to right field off Giants’ reliever Ken Trinkle. Sessi came around to score later in the inning on an RBI hit by Musial.
From the bench, Sessi had the opportunity to watch the Cardinals rattle off wins and Musial produce numbers that would earn him the Most Valuable Player award. St. Louis and the Brooklyn Dodgers were in close battle for the National League lead. The two teams split a key four-game series between August 25-27. In the first game of the series, Sessi pinch-hit in the ninth inning as the potential tying run and struck out. Another plate appearance later in the series ended in the same result.
Entering action on August 28, the Cardinals and Dodgers were dead even, each with a 75-47 record. That day, the Cards hosted the Giants for a double-header. After St. Louis won the opener 13-8, the second game was a pitcher’s duel between the Giants’ Bill Voiselle and the Cardinals’ Ken Burkhart. The Giants broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth inning to take the lead. In the bottom of the ninth, Voiselle retired the first two batters before Marty Marion kept the Cards’ hopes alive with a single. With relief pitcher Al Brazle due up, St. Louis manager Eddie Dyer called on Sessi to pinch-hit. As the hefty southpaw swung two bats to warm up, many of the 8,523 fans in attendance began to head for the exits. Those that stayed booed and derided Dyer’s choice. “Back to Houston, ya bum,” yelled one fan from the box seats.19
“Sessi!” exclaimed one veteran sportswriter, “I’ve never seen the guy do anything but whiff. This is horrible!”20 One attendee recalled that some fans littered the field with seat cushions and bottles, and the game was halted to clear the debris.21
Sessi swung and missed badly on a first-pitch fastball and then watched strike two. Voiselle threw a fastball outside, but Sessi wouldn’t bite, and the count was 1-2. The next pitch was fastball down and in, and as St. Louis Star and Times reporter V. Vernon Tietjen described, “Sessi unleashed his whole massive into one gigantic swing, and there was a crack like a shot from a .45.”22 The ball sailed on a line over the right-center field wall and, after striking an iron beam of a light standard nearly 400-feet from home plate, bounced back on to the field. A confused Sessi stopped at second base until umpires gave the home run signal. He was mobbed at home plate by his teammates. Teammate Terry Moore declared it the hardest hit ball he had ever seen.
“Did you hear those fans boo me and Sessi?” said Dyer after the game, still trying to catch his breath from the excitement. “You have to use a left-handed power hitter in a situation like that. The wind was blowing toward right. And I had that guy a whole year at Houston in 1941. I know he can hit that ball out of any park if he connects.”23
Sessi struck out in his next two pinch-hitting opportunities and never stepped foot in a major-league batter’s box again. He finished his career two-for-27 for an .074 batting average, but his walk-off home run helped St. Louis edge out Brooklyn to win the National League pennant. The Cardinals defeated the Boston Red Sox to capture the World Series crown.
During the off-season, the Cardinals sold Sessi to the Dodgers for the waiver price of $10,000.24 Sessi spent spring training with the Dodgers in Havana, Cuba, and was reportedly unhappy with being traded to Brooklyn and having little prospects of playing regularly.25 At the end of camp, the Dodgers sent him to the Montreal Royals, their Triple-A affiliate in the International League. In 130 games with the Royals, Sessi played outfield and hit .262 with 20 home runs. He struck out 55 times and drew 87 walks for an OBP of .405. Among his teammates and good friends on the team was Roy Campanella.26 In 1948, Sessi returned to Montreal, hitting .280 in 22 games before being sent to the Mobile Bears, a Dodgers’ Double-A farm club, where he hit .280 with 10 home runs and 86 RBIs in 109 games.27
In 1949, Sessi was sent outright to another Dodgers Double-A affiliate, the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League. Limited to 88 games due to an illness, he hit .255 and experienced a drop-off in power with three home runs and 27 RBIs. That year, he and Carol had their second child, Walter Anthony, Jr. Sessi spent the 1950 and 1951 seasons with the independent Abilene Blue Sox of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League, hitting over .300 both years with 23 and 18 home runs, respectively.
In 1952, he caught on with the Brownsville (Texas) Charros, an independent club in the Class B Gulf Coast League. The team was run by a 125-member Lion’s Club, and most of the non-playing staff was composed of volunteers.28 Sessi turned 33 years old during the season but played as if he found the fountain of youth. His statistics were eye-popping. In 552 at-bats, he accumulated 207 hits for a .375 average, blasted 45 home runs, and drove in 179 runs. He led his league in home runs, RBIs, and runs scored. He reached base in half of his plate appearances and had an OPS of 1.188. Feeling well physically and playing at a slimmer 220 pounds, he attributed some of his struggles earlier in his career to appendicitis, which was treated surgically in 1950. “I never worry about how I’m hitting anymore,” he said during the standout season. “I just try to hit the way the wind’s blowing and take what comes.”29 The league’s official scorers voted him to the All-Star team, and he was selected as the circuit’s Most Valuable Player.30
Sessi returned to Brownsville in 1953, but he could not replicate his MVP season. In 137 games, he hit .236 with 14 home runs. He spent his final two years in pro ball playing for the Lake Charles (Louisiana) Lakers of the Class C Evangeline League. In 1954, he hit .333 with 25 homers and in 1955 concluded his career by batting .271 with 16 four-baggers. In his 14-year minor-league career, he hit a total of 250 home runs and accumulated 1,878 hits.
Walter’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he had a second marriage to Willie Inez (Whatley). Following his baseball career, Sessi lived in Mobile and owned a floor-finishing business. A quarter-century after he left his mark in Cardinals’ lore during the 1946 pennant race, Sessi and his teammates gathered in St. Louis for a reunion. Each player received an inscribed clock and copy of Bob Broeg’s book: “Super Stars of Baseball.”31
Walter Sessi died on April 18, 1998 in Mobile. He is buried at Memorial Gardens in Mobile.
This biography was reviewed by Darren Gibson and David H. Lippman and fact-checked by Jeff Findley.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.
1 V. Vernon Tietjen, “Two Strikes, a Ball, and Sessi Digs in for Game-Winning Punch,” St. Louis Star and Times, August 29, 1946: 26.
2 Alfred Sessi Obituary, Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania), December 11, 1936: 6.
3 Frank M. Cox, “Walter Sessi Leaves for Card Camp Tomorrow,” Daily Republican, March 19, 1937: 6.
5 “Card Farm Signs 10 Ball Players,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 2, 1936: 20.
6 Frank M. Cox, “Speaking of Sports,” Daily Republican, June 14, 1937: 4.
7 George Von Benko, “Monongahela Grad Sessi Reached the Major Leagues,” Herald-Standard (Uniontown, Pennsylvania), August 8, 2016, https://www.heraldstandard.com/sports/mon_valley/monongahela-grad-sessi-reached-the-major-leagues/article_f522f3fd-5755-5728-a63f-ce192b79820c.html, accessed April 13, 2021.
8 Phil Fair, “Speaking of Sports,” Daily Republican, September 9, 1937: 6.
9 “Walt Sessi Breaks Up 18-Frame Tilt with Eighth Homer,” Daily Republican, June 27, 1938: 5.
10 Phil Fair, “Speaking of Sports,” Daily Republican, August 16, 1938: 4.
11 “Sessi Once Couldn’t Get Job,” Selma Times-Journal, August 18, 1940: 7.
12 “Sessi Once Couldn’t Get Job.”
13 “Two Players Chosen by Unanimous Vote in Mountain State All-Star Tilt,” Cincinnati Inquirer, July 31, 1939: 9.
14 “Walter Sessi Takes Over Batting Lead in Southeastern with .382,” Selma Times-Journal, June 2, 1940: 6.
15 E.M. Caseber, “Sessi Boys Receive Employment,” Daily Republican, October 4, 1940: 7.
16 “Musial Sees Big League Action, Drives Two Runs Across Plate for Cards in Game with Boston,” Daily Republican, September 18, 1941: 2.
17 Martin J. Haley, “Blow Brings 4th Straight Card Victory,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 20, 1946: 20.
18 V. Vernon Tietjen, “Smashes 4-Bagger in 3-2 Victory Over Giants; Held Job with Birds on G.I. Bill,” St. Louis Star and Times, August 29, 1946: 26.
19 Tietjen, “Smashes 4-Bagger in 3-2 Victory Over Giants; Held Job with Birds on G.I. Bill.”
20 Tietjen, “Smashes 4-Bagger in 3-2 Victory Over Giants; Held Job with Birds on G.I. Bill.”
21 “Another Sessi,” Breese Journal, July 25, 1985: 5.
22 Tietjen, “Two Strikes, a Ball, and Sessi Digs in for Game-Winning Punch.”
23 Tietjen, “Two Strikes, a Ball, and Sessi Digs in for Game-Winning Punch.”
24 “Sessi Released to Dodgers on Waivers,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1947: 19.
25 “Sessi Wants to go Back to Minors,” Moberly Monitor-Index (Moberly, Missouri), March 6, 1947: 9.
26 Harold Burr, “Rookie Catcher May Work Flock Opener,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 3, 1948: 6.
27 “Sport Notes,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 7, 1949: 11.
28 “Notes and Chatter from Minor League Clubs,” News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), July 8, 1952: 14.
29 Lorin McMullen, “About Hornsby Firing, Method, Merit of It,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 12, 1952: 15.
30 “Charros to Hold Walt Sessi Night,” Brownsvile Herald, September 10, 1952: 1.
31 Neal Russo, “Sisler’s Convict Talk Steals Show,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9, 1971: 14.