Woody Rich, all too briefly, was a pitching phenom. He entered his first major-league training camp, in 1939, barely noticed amid all the attention given to fellow rookie Ted Williams. By the end of March he was being compared to the great Pete Alexander, and reliable witnesses were predicting he would win 20 games. He roomed with Ted Williams, but only one of them would go on to major-league glory. The other, alas, would hurt his pitching arm. Rich never fulfilled the high hopes of March 1939, but he did go on to pitch 19 more years professionally, and make several minor-league all-star teams. Not so bad, really.
Woodrow Earl “Woody” Rich was born to David Henry and Callie Lane Rich on March 9, 1916, near in Morganton, North Carolina. The Riches had owned a family farm, and raised eight children—five sons and three daughters—with Woody being the fifth child in the batting order. Morganton is in the western part of the state, a rural area about sixty miles east of the Smoky Mountains. Woody had the typical childhood of a farm family in the 1920s and 1930s—hard manual labor, and recreation when time permitted.
Rich graduated from Morganton High School in 1935, and began his baseball career pitching semipro ball in nearby Valdese, North Carolina. According to a story told later by Red Sox farm director Billy Evans, he was in the area on a scouting mission when he ran into an unnamed former major-league player who was down on his luck. Evans gave him five dollars, and the grateful ex-player tipped him off to Rich. Evans sent scout Fred Hunter to look Rich over, and the Red Sox landed him for the cost of the five dollars.
In 1937 the big right-hander (6-feet-2, 185 pounds) made his professional debut with Clarksdale, Mississippi, of the Class C Cotton States League. There he finished 12-15 in 32 games with a 4.42 earned run average. He was a straight overhand thrower, but the next year at Little Rock (Southern Association) he was made into a sidearm pitcher by manager Doc Prothro, and he flourished despite early-season wildness. He walked nearly twice as many hitters in 1938 as he had the year before, but still finished 19-10 with a stellar 2.48 ERA. On September 6 he fulfilled the dream of most pitchers by hurling a no-hit, no-run game against the Atlanta Crackers, the club that went on to win the league championship.
Rich attended the Red Sox training camp of 1939 in Sarasota with the idea that he was a year or so away from helping the club. Although fellow recruits Ted Williams and Jim Tabor were practically handed starting jobs in right field and third base, Rich was the unexpected sensation of the camp, enough so that he made the starting rotation. In his first two spring appearances, against the Braves and Reds, he allowed three hits, no walks, and no runs. Coach Tom Daly compared Rich’s delivery–side-arming and nonchalant–and his effect on batters to his old teammate Grover Cleveland Alexander. Bill McKechnie, the Reds manager, was equally impressed. “If he doesn’t win twenty, I’ll be surprised” said the Hall of Fame skipper.
Asked to explain how he got his strong right arm, he told writer Burt Whitman, “When I wasn’t plowing, chopping wood or hoeing corn, I used to throw a lot of stones at snakes and birds. Maybe that’s how I developed my arm. But if, as you say, I’ve got big, powerful looking wrists I reckon I got them from hoeing that corn and chopping that wood.” He added, “We used to make bats out of hickory logs, but maybe we didn’t have enough bats. But we had plenty of birds and snakes.” He credited Herb Pennock, Red Sox coach, with working with on throwing the ball to the catcher’s glove and ignoring the batter. But he reserved more praise for teammate Lefty Grove, who taught him control and confidence.
In early April the Red Sox and Reds broke camp and made their way north playing exhibition games in different towns. On April 7 they played a game in Lexington, North Carolina, about 90 miles from Woody’s home town of Morganton. His neighbors took up a collection so that his father could come to the game in a taxi. Rich’s father did not know anything about baseball, and said that Woody had learned the game by playing with “the Negro folk” in the area. Woody started and lost the game.
In his first regular-season major-league game, April 22 at Fenway Park, Rich beat the Athletics on a six-hitter, 6-2. Rich got two hits himself, and handled six chances on the mound. After pitching poorly in relief, he got his next start on May 5 and pitched the Red Sox into first place with a three-hitter, which beat the Tigers by a 4-1 score. By the end of May he had won four of his six starts and appeared primed for a big rookie year. Fellow rookie Ted Williams, Rich’s roommate, was doing all right for himself as well.
On May 26 Rich won his fourth game, becoming the team’s leading winner, by beating the Senators at Fenway Park, 4-2. Late in the game, while making a throw to first base, he hurt his arm and after just a few more pitches had to be removed from the game. It was first thought to be a strained bicep, and not overly serious, but the pain lingered. Within a few days he could not raise his arm.
Rich did not start again until July 4, but he didn’t survive the first inning in a game the Red Sox won 18-12. On July 17 he lasted only into the third. After a few more rough outings, in early August, the Red Sox finally sent Rich down to Louisville. The Red Sox had only one reliable pitcher, Lefty Grove, and manager Joe Cronin felt that the loss of Rich was the primary reason they could not hang closer to the Yankees that season. Rich finished 4-3, 4.91 for Boston, and 2-2, 5.10 for Louisville.
Rich returned to Sarasota in 1940, apparently recovered. He introduced a new delivery in which he twisted his body away from the batter before throwing the ball, thus hiding the ball a while longer. “I’m pleased with this new development in Rich,” said Cronin, “because it ought to make him a better pitcher, more effective against the general run of big-league batters.” The skipper added, “When a pitcher feels confident that a new wrinkle will help him, the battle is half won.” But Rich did not pitch as well, and was sent to Louisville, and then to Scranton. For the season he finished 1-2, 6.58 for Louisville, 6-4, 2.60 for Scranton, and then pitched well in 11 2/3 September innings for the Red Sox, including a win when he started the season’s final game.
After a few tough outings early in the 1941 season, Rich was released outright to Louisville. After pitching nine games for that club, and then 23 for San Diego (Pacific Coast League), Rich was sold to Indianapolis (American Association) in December 1941. After a 10-10 season for the Indians in 1942, the St. Louis Browns drafted Rich, but released him back to Indianapolis in April. Except for a brief stint with the Boston Braves in 1944, Rich spent five seasons at Indianapolis, 1942 through 1946. While there he won 26 games and lost 38. For the Braves, he split two decisions with a 5.76 earned run average in seven games
Pictures from this time suggest that Rich was no longer the lanky pitcher he had been when he reported to the Red Sox. Hub Miller wrote about Rich in an article about players with weight problems in Baseball Magazine in 1947. “One of the most tragic cases in the memory of the writer is that of Woody Rich. … But Rich’s fame was short-lived. He did stay with the club long enough to win a few games and, at times, showed flashes of greatness. But the boy had such an uncontrollable appetite that he soon was fat and well beyond big league hurling condition. It was not long before he even had trouble winning in the higher minors.” A note in his Hall of Fame file from 1958 says he weighed 220 pounds, 35 more than his listed weight in the encyclopedias.
After the 1946 season, Indianapolis released Rich and he resurfaced the following season with Anniston, Alabama, of the Class B Southeastern League. In fact, he spent most of three seasons there. In 1947 he finished 19-10 with a league leading 197 strikeouts and a 3.32 ERA. The next season (during which he pitched 3 games for Shreveport of the Texas), Rich returned to Anniston and posted a 17-10 record while pacing the circuit in strikeouts (196) and ERA (2.48). In both seasons he was named to the post-season all-league team. In 1949 his record fell to 10-11, but he still had a 2.81 earned run average.
By the 1950 season Rich was 34 years old, but not finished playing baseball by a long shot. He pitched for Greensboro, North Carolina, of the Class B Carolina League that year, and finished 16-9 with a league leading 2.41 ERA. Again, he was all-league. In 1951 he moved on again, to St. Petersburg of the Class B Florida International League. This time he put up a 25-6 ledger and a 2.34 ERA. In 1952 he pitched for Memphis of the Class AA Southern Association, and finished 13-10.
The 37-year-old kept pitching. He pitched three more games for Memphis at the start of the 1953 season (1-0), then joined the Forest City Owls of the Class D Tar Heel League, where he finished 11-2, 2.65. Returning the next season (and managing the club briefly), Rich started 3-2 1.85, but the league folded in June, and he spent the rest of that season and the next two with High Point-Thomasville of the Carolina League. He had three more good seasons—13-6, 19-4, and 17-12, at ages 38 through 40. In the middle season he led the league in wins and was voted all-league.
Rich finally started to slow down at age 41. He pitched 29 games for Savannah in the Sally League in 1957, winning his two decisions with a 2.48 earned run average. The next season he started just 1-5 for Charlotte in the Sally League, then finished the year in Boise, Idaho, winning six and losing four in the Pioneer League (Class C). After pitching in the Deep South for so long, the move to Boise must have been an adventure for old Woody. At any rate, his career had come to an end. In his two decades of minor league action, Rich finished with 250 wins and 174 losses, to go along with his 6-4 major league record.
Woody had married Durline Walker (born in August 1917 to Wade H. and Sarah Ann Chapman Walker) in 1935, before he started his baseball career, and the couple raised a daughter, Martha Joan (born February 22, 1936). They settled in Indianapolis sometime during his five-year stint there, and remained after his baseball career ended. Woody worked as an auto mechanic. He and Durline returned in 1968 to their hometown in Morganton, where they spent the remainder of their days in a log cabin. Their grandchildren knew them as “Pop” and “Deah”.
Woody died on April 18, 1983, in Valdese General Hospital, after battling lung cancer for a year. He left behind Durline, his wife of 48 years, daughter Martha, and eight grandchildren. Late in his life Woody answered a note from the Hall of Fame that sent him his complete professional record. He thanked the sender, and sent a brief note saying that he hurt his arm pitching against Washington and “it never came around after that so that is about all I can think up.” After his sore arm, Woody Rich pitched 19 more seasons, many of them pretty well.
Woody Rich player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The News Herald (Morganton, NC), April 20, 1983.
Baseball Magazine. March 1937.
Christian Science Monitor. May 17, 1939; May 6, 1940.
The Sporting News. March 30, 1939.
Boston Globe, 1939.
US Census, 1920.
Susan Morgan, email correspondence, December 2011.