This article was written by Chris Betsch
America loves an underdog. It favors stories of players who weren’t given a chance because they were too small or didn’t have a traditional background, but they pushed and persevered and in the end made the team. Wayne LaMaster’s baseball career isn’t widely remembered today, but it is the classic underdog story of a player who wasn’t given much of a chance at first, but kept going year after year. He almost quit but gave it one more shot, and finally broke through to the majors. His time there spanned less than two years, but by just making it to a big league pitching mound after years of toiling in the minors, he went much further than most people expected he ever would.
Noble Wayne LaMaster was born February 13, 1907, in the small community of Speed, Indiana. Speed is part of the larger town of Sellersburg, which is located twelve miles across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. LaMaster’s father, also Noble, worked at the cement factory in town. His mother, Pearl, was a homemaker for Wayne and his two younger brothers, Herbert and Nelson. Wayne went to high school a town over in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he starred on the baseball team in 1924 and 1925. His senior yearbook noted how LaMaster dreamed of someday having his teachers watch him pitch for the Yankees, playing alongside heroes like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.1 While in high school he often faced off against cross-town rival New Albany and their star player Billy Herman. Soon after being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Herman recalled in an interview how he had been happy to get a single hit off LaMaster during an entire high school season.2
LaMaster was 5-foot-8 and weighed 140 pounds, and although he was a lefty with a “corking good fastball and several tantalizing serves,” teams found him to be undersized and he did not receive any offers to sign a contract out of high school.3 After graduation LaMaster continued playing in semipro leagues in Indiana, mostly with the Seymour Reds of the Southeastern Indiana League. Spending off-seasons with Seymour and other teams became a tradition he would maintain for several years.
To celebrate his twentieth birthday in 1927, LaMaster wed the former Dorothy Wolfe, and the couple settled on a farm in New Albany. The two of them also shared a February 13 birthday, and years later when asked why he chose that date for their wedding LaMaster figured, “I don’t have to buy but one present!”4 Word of LaMaster’s pitching in the semipro ranks reached scout Bruce Hayes, and Hayes signed him to join the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League for the 1927 season. LaMaster had a decent spring training for New Orleans, even pitching well in a March exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox, but he was farmed out to Jackson, Mississippi, in the Class D Cotton States League to work on his control with the Senators. Thus began a ten-year journey across the minors for Wayne LaMaster.
Over the next decade, LaMaster would make stops in Jackson, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; Decatur, Illinois; Terre Haute, Indiana; Charleston, West Virginia; Montreal; Baltimore; Milwaukee; and Louisville. In addition to his year in the Cotton States League, he would spend time in the Class B Southeastern and Three-I Leagues, the Class C Mid Atlantic League, and the Class AA International League and American Association. He had the fortune of being a Royal in Montreal and a Commie — the unfortunate moniker given by local newspapers to the Decatur Commodores. As one newspaper cleverly stated, “His affiliations from this time reads like the expense account of a travelling salesman.”5
He had solid, if unremarkable seasons in his first five years, but LaMaster found his stride in Charleston, playing three seasons for the Senators in the Mid-Atlantic League. In 1932 he led the circuit in strikeouts with 177. He set the league record with seven shutouts that season, and was the only unanimous All-Star that year as he led his team to a league title. He was tabbed as one of the bright prospects of the league, along with his roommate Claude Passeau (whom he had also teamed up with in Decatur), and Johnny Vander Meer of the Dayton Ducks.
Even though LaMaster was considered undersized for a pitcher, he piled up strikeouts with a deceptive fastball that snuck up on batters. Unfortunately, he was also prone to bouts of wildness. As often as LaMaster was near the top of leagues in strikeouts, he often could be found near the top in walks as well. His control issues also led to occasional scoring outbursts for opposing teams, and his ERA regularly sat above 4.00. But on the days when LaMaster could rein in his fastball, he was nearly unhittable. In June 1932, LaMaster came within one out of throwing a seven-inning perfect game against the Clarksburg Generals in the second game of a double header. LaMaster also knew how to handle a bat, and was often called upon to pinch hit in games or even play the outfield if the team was short a player.
Despite solid play over his three years with the Senators, LaMaster could never quite break through to the next level. In March 1933, the Baltimore Orioles of the International League gave LaMaster a tryout, but cut him prior to the start of the season. He pitched well enough but again his size was cited as a shortcoming. Montreal purchased his contract and he started the season with the Royals. He got off to a good start but also had a few rough games mixed in, and after ten appearances he was returned to Charleston in favor of less costly rotation options. After the 1933 season LaMaster was obtained by the Class A Chattanooga Lookouts.
By spring 1934 LaMaster was a seven-year veteran of the minor leagues, and if he was moving up to Class A ball with the Lookouts, he felt he deserved a higher salary. Chattanooga instead wanted to cut his pay, so he returned his contract unsigned, and was placed on the suspended list. Rather than wait out his suspension, LaMaster figured he was ready to move on from baseball. He returned home to New Albany to look for work, but the United States was deep into the Great Depression and jobs were not easy to come by in the area. After his suspension was lifted in May, he found his way back to Charleston for a third season6, and he proceeded to lead the league in strikeouts for a second time with 168.
For the 1935 season LaMaster got another chance playing at the AA level when the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association purchased his contract from Charleston along with that of Passeau, and this time he stayed (the Brewers released Passeau following spring training). He had a decent season, finishing with a record of 12-9 and an ERA of 4.65 with 105 strikeouts, but also with 103 walks. In November he was traded to the Louisville Colonels in exchange for pitcher Joe Heving. Heving played for the White Sox in 1933-34 and had refused to report to Louisville, instead sitting out the 1935 season, so the Colonels were happy to get anything for him.
The 1936 Colonels were managed by Burleigh Grimes, the fiery spit-balling Hall of Fame pitcher. While in Louisville, LaMaster added 25 pounds of weight and with it some pitching strength. Under Grimes he learned finer points of pitching and improved his control, and in the opinion of the manager became “a mighty fine pitcher.”7 Despite missing nearly a month with a bout of ptomaine poisoning, LaMaster compiled a 13-10 record and recorded 135 strike outs against 66 walks, a vast improvement over previous years. His hitting abilities came in handy as well, as Grimes often called on LaMaster to pinch hit, and he finished the season with a .270 average. Over the year LaMaster gained a reputation across the league as a streak buster. He ended eight-game and 16-game win streaks for the St. Paul Saints, a Minneapolis Millers seven-game win streak, a 26-game hitting streak for Jack Winsett, and an 11-consecutive-hits streak for Henry Steinbacher, one hit shy of the league record. But despite LaMaster’s performance, the Colonels finished next-to-last in the league, and in November Grimes moved on from Louisville to take over managing duties for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
LaMaster resumed his offseason ritual of joining the Seymour Reds, but his season in Louisville did not go unnoticed. On September 29, the Philadelphia Phillies, owners of the worst record in the National League, selected LaMaster as the first overall choice in the minor league draft. Although there were younger options across the minors, the Phillies went on the advice of scout Patsy O’Rourke and paid $7,500 for the rights to the 29-year-old.8 After ten years, eight teams, and 133 wins in the minor leagues, Wayne LaMaster was finally a big leaguer.
The 1936 Phillies had finished 54-100, topping only the Philadelphia Athletics in win/loss percentage. Expectations were not high for the 1937 squad to be much better, but newspaper columnists hoped that finding some new arms for the team could help them at least climb out of the cellar. LaMaster made his major league debut on opening day (April 19), coming into the game in the ninth inning of a 1-1 game against the Boston Bees. He was tasked with facing Boston star Tony Cuccinello with one out and two runners on base. Player-manager Jimmy Wilson, in an effort to keep the rookie calm, asked LaMaster, “What ball do you have the best control of, curve or fast ball?” LaMaster reportedly replied, “Both. Don’t worry about me Jimmy — don’t get yourself nervous.”9 LaMaster stifled the Bees’ threat and finished the game to get credit for the win when the Phillies won in the 11th inning. LaMaster was promptly added to the starting rotation, and he made his first start on April 24, earning a complete-game victory over the Dodgers.
LaMaster quickly surpassed the expectations of him, and he soon garnered national attention as one of the top new hurlers in the league. On May 26 he threw nine innings in a complete-game victory against Chicago, striking out ten Cubs. Soon after, The Sporting News hailed LaMaster as “one of the most promising freshman hurlers in either majors.”10 The pinnacle of LaMaster’s rookie season came on July 30, when he tossed nine shutout innings in a complete-game win at Cincinnati, striking out ten in the effort. The sole representative of the Phillies on the 1937 NL All Star Team was pitcher Bucky Walters, but NL manager Bill Terry recognized LaMaster’s fine first half of the season with an invitation to be the team’s batting practice pitcher.11 The Sporting News highlighted LaMaster’s season again in their August 12 edition, calling him “one of the finds of the season.” In this article and in some other publications he was referred to as “Icicle” for his cool composure on the mound.
LaMaster was a workhorse for the Phillies that year, along with a familiar teammate (for the fourth time), Claude Passeau. LaMaster started 30 games and appeared in another twenty as a reliever, not to mention one pinch-hitting appearance. He led the seventh-place Phillies that year with 15 victories, placing him eighth in the National League. He finished in the top 10 in the NL in appearances (third), games started (tenth), and even though it wasn’t an official statistic yet, he also had four saves, which would have ranked him sixth in the league. He struck out 135 batters that year, fifth among league leaders. On the downside though, he once again had streaks where he couldn’t find the plate or was too hittable, as he also finished seventh in the league in walks, second in both home runs and earned runs given up, and eighth in hits allowed. It did not help matters that the Phillies played their home games in the notoriously hitter-friendly Baker Bowl, with a right-field dimension of only 280 feet. For all his accolades that season, LaMaster ultimately led the National League with 19 losses, but he did help the Phils move in the standings — up one spot into seventh place.
That offseason, rather than join the Seymour Reds as he traditionally did, he instead had a procedure performed to “cure an ailment that affected LaMaster’s pitching” the previous year.12 There was no mention in the previous months about LaMaster’s arm ailing, and the article did not specify what the procedure was. The attending physician who reported the information to the press was Dr. Morton Wolfe of New Albany. Dr. Wolfe was a family physician in town, and he was also LaMaster’s brother-in-law. At least one news outlet reported that LaMaster had a growth removed, but no source was listed for the article.13 Most likely though, the procedure was performed to clean up LaMaster’s arm after such a heavy workload for the Phillies over the course of the year.
It can only be speculated what kind of operation LaMaster had done, but he was clearly not the same pitcher in 1938. Wilson was counting on LaMaster to be one of his big three starters, along with Passeau and Walters, and he was tabbed to take the hill on opening day. LaMaster got roughed up to open the year as he gave up eight earned runs over 7 2/3 innings. The Phillies lost 10 out of the next 11 games that LaMaster appeared in, his strikeouts were down, and his ERA never fell below 7.00. The low point of his season came on May 5 when LaMaster completed a statistical rarity by losing a game without even completing an at-bat. He started the game by working a 2-1 count to leadoff batter Stan Hack, but then left the game with arm pain. Tommy Reis entered and gave up two more balls to Hack. The walk was charged to LaMaster, and Hack came around with the first of 21 runs the Cubs scored that day. The Phils never came close and LaMaster was charged with the loss.
It wasn’t specifically mentioned in news reports, but LaMaster had clearly developed arm trouble. He was later diagnosed with having a chipped bone, a problem that would cause issues over the rest of his pitching career.14 Despite his impressive campaign in 1937, the Phillies started to look at other pitchers to try in their rotation. LaMaster still had the occasional good showing, including a five-hit shutout against the Bees on July 1, even adding two hits to help his cause. But the Phillies were officially looking to move on from LaMaster, as that same day he was placed on waivers.
The Brooklyn Dodgers did not have a lefty in their regular rotation and had been eyeing LaMaster since spring training. Burleigh Grimes had wanted to bring LaMaster with him from Louisville to Brooklyn, knowing what the southpaw was capable of if he could get his arm back in shape. On August 8 the Dodgers paid the $7,500 waiver fee to get LaMaster. The Phillies were in town that week, so LaMaster switched club houses and joined the Dodgers. About the same time Philadelphia received pitcher Max Butcher off waivers from the Dodgers. This was reported in some outlets as a trade, but it appears these were two separate waiver wire transactions.15 Brooklyn gave LaMaster’s arm a few weeks off, using him only in two pinch-hitting appearances. Though he did not have enough at-bats to qualify, he was actually leading the league with a .409 average at the time of the trade. He made his Dodger pitching debut on August 23 in a loss against St. Louis, then pitched in only two more games (taking a loss in one of them) before he was shut down for the season after being diagnosed with damage to the soft tissues of his left elbow.
In February 1939, LaMaster claimed his arm was ready for spring, and the Dodgers signed him to a deal for the upcoming season. New Dodger skipper Leo Durocher was hoping LaMaster could fill a starting role, as Van Lingle Mungo was also a question mark. But by March LaMaster was dealing with a tired arm after his pitching appearances, and after failing to retire a batter in an April spring training game against Detroit, he was sent to have his arm examined. On April 6 it was reported that LaMaster would have surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow. The recovery from the surgery was originally expected to take six weeks but lasted well into June. LaMaster started pitching exhibition games later that month, and it looked as though by July he would be ready to rejoin Brooklyn, but his days as a major league pitcher were over. That month the Montreal Royals sent pitcher Art Parks to Brooklyn in exchange for Boots Poffenberger. Poffenberger refused to show in Montreal, and on July 22 the Dodgers optioned LaMaster down in his place. LaMaster rejoined Grimes, who had taken over the helm for the Royals, and got some starts in hopes of being summoned back to the majors later. LaMaster made only four appearances for Montreal before being sent home for the remainder of the season to rest his elbow. He again joined the Seymour Reds for the offseason, but this time as a center fielder.
LaMaster was sold to Montreal outright on February 29, 1940. He pushed through his arm troubles to appear in 23 games for Clyde Sukeforth’s Royals, but he was no longer considered an option to be called up to join the Brooklyn staff. Despite a disappointing 2-7 record that year, he was back with Montreal for spring training in 1941, but did not break camp with the club. Instead, he was optioned to Durham of the Class B Piedmont league, and though LaMaster considered retiring and going into coaching, he reported to the Bulls. In his fourth game he helped shut out Winston-Salem, but afterwards he knew his arm was through. “I couldn’t even raise or straighten my pitching arm. I knew I was finished.”16 He did make one last-ditch effort later that year to stay in pro baseball when he tossed batting practice for the Toledo Mud Hens at Louisville’s Parkway Field, but his professional baseball career was at an end.
LaMaster returned to Indiana and went to work for the Louisville Cement Company and then for the Marhoefer Packing Company, and he enjoyed playing in golf tournaments with his wife Dorothy. He continued to play semipro baseball in the Southern Indiana and Louisville region for years, playing alongside other former major leaguers from the area such as Tommy Thevenow and Irv Jeffries. He retired in 1972 and enjoyed spending days on the course of his local golf club, even becoming club president. Some of his buddies on the greens had no idea that their golfing mate was a former major league pitcher. On one edition of Monday Night Football in the 1970s, LaMaster happened to be mentioned by commentator Howard Cosell.17 The next day Wayne’s friends were astonished to find out he was one and the same.
In 1988 LaMaster’s overall career in baseball was recognized when he was inducted into the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame. He passed away the next year on August 4, 1989, at the age of 82. Wayne and Dorothy did not have children, and for years she accompanied Wayne as he traveled across the country to the various stops in his career. She passed away in 1994, and the two are buried side by side in New Albany at Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park, located approximately two miles from the home of the author.
LaMaster’s major league stint was all too brief. One can only wonder what kind of career he would have had if he didn’t develop arm problems, but in the end LaMaster was able to say he was a major league pitcher. And he attained the dream of every kid of his generation by sharing a bench with Babe Ruth, as Ruth’s one year of coaching in the majors with the Dodgers coincided with LaMaster’s time in Brooklyn. For a small-town kid from Indiana who was too small to sign out of high school, Wayne LaMaster had a pretty good story to tell.
Last revised: June 29, 2020
This biography was reviewed by Bill Lamb and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
Much of the information on LaMaster’s early baseball career and events from after his career was referenced from his interview in the article “’Sellersburg Country Boy’ Recalls Baseball Career” from The Evening News, Jeffersonville, Indiana, May 2, 1977, 13.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame provided both LaMaster’s player file and a copy of the article “Little Lefty” by Clifford Bloodgood from the July 1938 edition of Baseball Magazine.
The web page www.paperofrecord.com was used to access the archives of The Sporting News.
The SABR Guide to Minor League Statistics, 3rd edition was referenced along with The Sporting News archives to verify LaMaster’s statistics in the minor leagues.
Cava, Pete. Indiana Born Major League Baseball Players: A Biographical Dictionary, 1871-2014 (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), 111.
2 “Hall of Famer Billy Herman Honored at Banquet,” The Evening News, Jeffersonville, Indiana, August 26, 1975: 8.
3 “LaMaster Farmed Out in Cotton States League,” The Tribune, Seymour, Indiana, May 17, 1927: 3.
4 Dudley, Bruce, “Difference Between A.A. and Big League Pitching is That You Can’t Let Up In Big League, LaMaster Says,” The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, January 5, 1938: 16.
5 “Phillies Sign 2 Portsiders for the Mound,” The Evening News, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, February 16, 1937: 14.
6 “Powell Throws Out Lines for New Players to Bolster Senator Team”, Charleston Daily Mail, May 7, 1934: 8.
7 Goren, Herbert, “LaMaster Gets High Rating as a Rookie Hurler,” New York Sun, April 29, 1937 (courtesy of Hall of Fame player file, page number unidentified)
8 “Lack of a Job Kept LaMaster Playing Ball,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2, 1937: 34.
9 Baseball Hall of Fame Library player file for Wayne LaMaster (article unidentified).
10 “National League Swings Left,” The Sporting News, June 17, 1937: 4.
11 “Wayne LaMaster, Major League Twirler, Here,” Seymour Daily Tribune, February 9, 1938: 5.
12 “Wayne LaMaster Recovering from Operation,” The Courier-Journal, November 5, 1937: 43.
13 “LaMaster Operated On,” St. Louis Dispatch, November 26, 1937: 16.
14 “LaMaster Shows Form on Mound in Brooklyn Camp Game at Clearwater,” The Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, March 8, 1939: 15.
15 “LaMaster Deal, Mungo Revival Spur Dodgers Anew,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 9, 1938: 12.
16 “’Sellersburg Country Boy’ Recalls Baseball Career,” The Evening News, Jeffersonville, Indiana, May 2, 1977: 13.
17 “’Sellersburg Country Boy’.