This article was written by Dan Fields
As the leadoff or number-two batter for some of the highest-scoring teams in baseball history, Woody English scored 400 runs from 1929 through 1931 while playing shortstop or third base for the Chicago Cubs. As noted by Bill James, “English in 1930 had 214 hits and 100 walks, which enabled him to score 152 runs, and set up Hack Wilson’s 191-RBI season. He is one of [the] few players to have had 200 hits and 100 walks in the same season.”1 That year, English had 755 plate appearances — a single-season major-league record until 1938, a National League record until 1962, and still (as of 2014) a Cubs record. In 1933 he played in the first All-Star Game.
Not a large man, English had large hands. Their size was an asset to an infielder but a source of embarrassment as a child (he would hide them in class by sitting on them). English was also known for getting along with the notoriously prickly Rogers Hornsby, with whom he roomed during the second baseman’s stint with the Cubs. Said Bill James, “If you can get along with Rogers Hornsby you can probably get along with anybody, and that was English. He was a likeable, upbeat person who always had something good to say about everybody.”2
But he also had an impish side: English “was like ‘Peck’s bad boy’ in the grade-school books of the day. He looked innocent but wasn’t. English’s favorite prank was to crawl across the floor of a hotel lobby and sneak up on an unsuspecting businessman reading the newspaper. English would light the bottom of the paper and slip away as the newspaper caught fire.”3
Elwood George English was born on March 2, 1906, on a farm in Fredonia, Licking County, in central Ohio. He was the oldest of four children born to Wilbur English and Gladys (Carpenter) English. He attended primary school in Centerburg and played second base for the school team. In 1916 his uncle Paul Carpenter pitched in five games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. When English was only 12 years old, his father died at the age of 34. English moved with his mother to Newark, Ohio. He attended high school there and again played second base on the school team. In his senior year, the team didn’t lose a game.
After high school English worked part-time at local plants operated by the Pure Oil Company and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He played on the Pure Oil baseball team on Sundays and on another industrial company team during the week. In 1924 he tried out for semipro teams in Hamilton and Zanesville and played for the Zanesville Greys at shortstop. He captured the attention of Al Schweitzer, who had played outfield for the St. Louis Browns from 1908 to 1911. Schweitzer recommended English to the Toledo Mud Hens of the Double-A American Association. At the season’s close, English went to Toledo and signed a contract for the 1925 season for $300 a month. “It seemed like a million dollars to me,” he said later.4
English batted only .220 in 131 games with Toledo in 1925. “I was probably pretty good with the glove and I always had excellent speed,” he said, “so I guess that is why they stayed with me while I was having trouble at the plate. Jimmy Burke was the manager that year. In 1926 Casey Stengel took over and he was a real help to me in my hitting. Casey and I would go to the ballpark early and he would pitch to me and give me little tips here and there until my average began to pick up. I hit .301 that year and Casey was almost as happy about it as I was.”5 English had a .948 fielding percentage in 162 games at shortstop in 1926 and led the American Association in total chances at the position.
Late in the 1926 season, while the Mud Hens were on the road to play the Milwaukee Brewers, English learned from the local paper that he had been sold to the Chicago Cubs for $50,000. Cubs skipper Joe McCarthy had managed the Louisville Colonels in the American Association in 1925 and was impressed by English’s overall performance, despite a weak year at the plate. After his batting improved, McCarthy went after him.
English made his major-league debut on April 26, 1927; he was 21 years old. On June 7 the Cubs traded their starting shortstop, 32-year-old Jimmy Cooney, to the Philadelphia Phillies. The day of the trade, McCarthy told English, “You’re my shortstop now.”6 English batted .290 in 87 games during his rookie year, and his 23 sacrifice hits were second-most on the team. In 1928 he became the Cubs’ leadoff batter; that year, he had a .299 batting average in 116 games. In a July 21 doubleheader against the New York Giants, he hit two doubles in each game.
When Rogers Hornsby joined the Cubs in 1929, he told team president William Veeck that “he wanted a roommate who didn’t talk in his sleep, didn’t snore, didn’t get up early and didn’t come in late, didn’t whistle while shaving, and didn’t keep gin in his room.”7 Mild-mannered English filled the bill, and a team’s second baseman and shortstop would often room together so that they could talk over opposing hitters.
Said English, “Hornsby liked me. He taught me quite a bit about hitting. I didn’t weigh but 150 pounds. I choked the bat. He said, ‘Woody, you stand closer to the plate. Stand about even with it, and if anything, one foot a little bit in front of the other. Then you’ll get that curve ball before it snaps off too fast.’ He said, ‘Push the ball past the pitcher. You can run good. Make the pitcher cover first base, and you’ll beat him over there nine times out of ten.’”8 Of Hornsby, English also said, “You know, I liked the guy, because, see, he was so good to me, I couldn’t help but like him, but a lot of players didn’t like Rogers.”9
In 1929 English batted .276 in 144 games and was in the NL’s top ten in plate appearances (699), at-bats (608), runs scored (131), and sacrifice hits (21). From June 21 to July 26, he had a 34-game on-base streak. He also had a fine year defensively, finishing second among major-league shortstops in double plays turned (107) and third in fielding percentage (.955).
English said, “In 1929 we had a very powerful lineup. We had Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson, Riggs Stephenson, Kiki Cuyler. Kidding, we’d say, ‘Let’s get our eight runs early and then take it easy. That’s what we used to say.”10 But the Cubs faltered in the World Series, losing to the Philadelphia Athletics in five games. English had four errors in the first three games, including miscues against consecutive batters in the ninth inning of Game One, and he batted 4-for-21 (.190) during the Series.
English’s best year offensively was 1930. Playing in all 156 games, he set a major-league record with 755 plate appearances and led the NL with 320 times on base (still, as of 2014, a Cubs record). He finished third in the league in runs scored (152) and walks (100), tied for third in triples (17), fifth in at-bats (638), and in the top ten in on-base percentage (.430), hits (214), and total bases (326). He batted .335 and had 14 home runs. In December he eloped with Helen Golan, and the pair was wed by a justice of the peace in Crown Point, Indiana, just across the state line. English and Golan had been introduced by friends after a game in July 1930.
English had another outstanding year at the plate in 1931. Again playing in all 156 games, he batted .319 and finished first in the NL in plate appearances (727), second in at-bats (634) and times on base (277), third in runs scored (117), tied for third in hits (202), fourth in sacrifice hits (18), fifth in walks (68), and in the top ten in total bases (262), doubles (38), and stolen bases (12). He led the league’s shortstops in putouts (322) and was third in the majors in fielding percentage at short (.965). That year English was fourth in voting for the National League MVP Award and runner-up to Philadelphia’s Chuck Klein in The Sporting News’s sportswriters’ poll of the league’s MVP.
In February 1932 Emily Evans Haag of Newark, Ohio, filed a breach-of-promise suit against English. Writes Roberts Ehrgott in Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club, “Her attorney told the newspapers that his client had been engaged to English for three years. English had already tried at least once to settle things with Haag. A few weeks after he eloped with Helen Golan in December 1930, he had made his ex-fiancée a settlement offer of $1,500, which she declined.”11
English did not play in April because of a broken finger. When he returned, he had lost his old job at shortstop to slick-fielding Billy Jurges; English moved to third base. In early August, after Rogers Hornsby was let go as manager and team captain Charlie Grimm was named the new manager, Grimm picked English as his replacement as captain. In 1932 English batted .272 in 127 games, and he finished in the top ten in the NL in walks (55) and sacrifice hits (12).
After the Cubs won the pennant, English presided over the clubhouse meeting at which the players decided not to pay a World Series share to Hornsby, the departed player-manager, and to pay a half-share to infielder Mark Koenig, who was acquired in August from the Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League and played a key role in the pennant run. Hornsby filed a protest with Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, claiming that he was entitled to some World Series money. In a public statement, Landis turned down Hornsby’s plea, saying that the current players could distribute the shares as they saw fit.
As for Koenig, Babe Ruth and others on the New York Yankees accused the Cubs of shortchanging their former teammate by giving him only a half-share, and Landis summoned English to his home to discuss the allotment. Landis attended Cubs games regularly, in a box seat near the dugout, and English chatted with him when taking the lineup to home plate. Because Koenig had played in only 33 games with the Cubs, Landis told English that he didn’t think Koenig was entitled to a full share. English replied, “Judge, I never voted against Koenig to get a full share. Only two of the players voted against a full share for him and the vote had to be unanimous.”12 (English later revealed that the two holdouts were Billy Herman and Billy Jurges.)
In the 1932 World Series, which the Cubs lost to the Yankees in four games, English went 3-for-17 (.176). As third baseman, he had a clear view of Babe Ruth’s supposed called-shot home run off pitcher Charlie Root in the fifth inning of Game Three: “He’s got two strikes on him. The guys are yelling at him from our dugout. He’s looking right in our dugout, and he holds up two fingers. He said, ‘That’s only two strikes.’ But the press box was way back on top of Wrigley Field, and to the people in the press, it looked like he pointed to center field. But he was looking right into our dugout and holding two fingers up. That is the true story.”13 Added English, “Ruth would never do a thing like that, point. Charlie Root would have murdered him.”14
English led NL third basemen in fielding percentage (.973) in 1933. He played in 105 games and batted .261; he was in the top ten in the league in walks (53). Long after his baseball career, English said that his biggest thrill was playing in the first All-Star Game, at Comiskey Park on July 6, 1933. He flied out in his only at-bat and played two innings at shortstop.
In 1934 English batted .278 in 109 games, and Stan Hack took over as the starting third baseman for the Cubs. The following year English played in only 34 games owing to an ankle injury and an injured thumb, with a .202 batting average. He did not play in the 1935 World Series, which the Cubs lost to the Detroit Tigers in six games. In 1936 English played in 64 games and batted .247; he was not aware that he was marked for the trading block.
“I had no idea about it beforehand,” said English. “Burleigh Grimes had been with the Cubs and he went over to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. At the end of the 1936 season he told me that I would be playing for the Dodgers the next season I said ‘never.’ But he was right. I was down at Hot Springs during the winter when I got a letter from Bob Lewis, the traveling secretary, which said, ‘You are now the property of the Brooklyn baseball club.’ I felt pretty bad about it because I had spent my whole career with the Cubs. You hate to leave a place where you had been for 10 enjoyable years.”15
As of 2014 English was 12th in Cubs history in sacrifice hits (120), 17th in walks (498), 18th in runs scored (747), and 20th in times on base (1,774). He ranked in the top 25 in games (1,098), plate appearances (4,941), at-bats (4,296), hits (1,248), doubles (218), and on-base percentage (.368).
In 1937 English played in 129 games with the Dodgers, mostly at shortstop, and batted .238. That year he won a suit of clothes for batting a ball against a sign for Abe Stark’s store. The sign was located directly under the Ebbets Field scoreboard in right field, less than 350 feet from home plate. Said English. “The right fielder usually played right in front of the sign so it was almost impossible to hit it.”16 But he lucked out when Paul Waner slipped in the mud one day and the ball got past him. English went to the store and was greeted by “about 99 photographers,” he said. “Stark got a lot of publicity out of it and I got my new suit.”17 In December 1937 English and his wife, Helen, divorced.
English played in 34 games in 1938, with a batting average of .250. He appeared as a pinch-hitter during his final major-league game, on July 1, 1938; he was 32 years old. Over his 12-year career, he hit .286 in 1,261 games. In 2001, Bill James ranked English as the 59th best shortstop in baseball history.
After hanging up his spikes, English worked for a manufacturing plant in Chicago. During World War II, he worked at an airplane factory where O’Hare Airport was later built. In 1952 he got a call from an old friend asking if he would manage the Grand Rapids Chicks in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. English had a pretty good job, so he sought to discourage his friend by asking for a generous salary. The friend replied, “Can you come tomorrow?”18 English managed the team from mid-1952 to 1954, when the league disbanded. He led the team to a championship in 1953.
English returned to Newark, Ohio, in the early 1960s and worked for State Farm Insurance as a night supervisor; he retired in 1971. A section of Ohio’s Route 16 was renamed Woody English Parkway in his honor in 1996. There is also a gym at a YMCA in Newark that is named for him. English died in Newark on September 26, 1997; he was 91 years old. The epitaph on his tombstone in Fredonia Cemetery says simply “A Great Baseball Player.”19
Satterfield, Jerry, “Woody English’s major league baseball career remembered,” Newark Ohio Advocate, July 14, 2013.
Wilson, Terry, “Woody English: Played for Cubs in World Series,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1997.
1 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Free Press, 2003), 628.
3 Roger Snell, Root for the Cubs: Charlie Root and the 1929 Chicago Cubs (Nicholasville, Kentucky: Wind Publications, 2009), 134.
4 Eugene Murdock, Baseball Players and Their Times: Oral Histories of the Game, 1920-1940 (Westport, Connecticut: Mecklermedia, 1991), 293.
6 Murdock, 294.
7 Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 210.
8 Golenbock, 211.
9 Golenbock, 226.
10 Golenbock, 212.
11 Roberts Ehrgott, Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club: Chicago and the Cubs During the Jazz Age (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 292.
12 Murdock, 292.
13 Golenbock, 234.
15 Murdock, 298.
16 Murdock, 299.
18 Murdock, 301.