April 21, 1938: 31-year-old knuckleballer Tot Pressnell makes impressive debut

This article was written by Mike Lackey


Tommy Holmes, the longtime Brooklyn Daily Eagle baseball writer, once said that Forest “Tot” Pressnell “isn’t very quick.”1 Holmes was referring to Pressnell’s fastball, but he could have been describing his entire career.

Tot Pressnell – the nickname was an endearment bestowed upon the youngest of eight children2 — wasn’t the type to make a big impression on scouts. He was a quiet sort, who “greets the boys with a cheery ‘good morning’ in the a.m., then clams up for the rest of the day.”3 He was a compact 5-foot-10, 175-pound right-hander who got by on that modest fastball, a curve, and his chief weapon, a knuckleball he’d picked up in the 1920s while pitching in an industrial league in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio.4 He signed his first professional contract at age 23 and then spent eight years in the minor leagues, the last five with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.

Pressnell became quite a favorite in Milwaukee. He posted a 19-9 record in 1936 and claimed three victories (two in relief) in the Junior World Series as the AA champion Brewers beat the International League champ Buffalo Bisons four games to one.5 The following year, he went 18-12 and finished fifth in balloting for the American Association’s Most Valuable Player.6 On August 10, 1937, four days after his 31st birthday, the Brewers hosted “Tot Pressnell Night” at Borchert Field and presented him with a new Oldsmobile. A month later, his contract was purchased by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Pressnell’s big day finally came on April 21, 1938. Dodgers manager and former pitcher Burleigh Grimes tapped Pressnell to start the third game of the season, the rubber match in a three-game series in Philadelphia. Before a Thursday afternoon crowd of 2,000, Pressnell “broke into the National League as if it belonged to him,”7 shutting out the Phillies 9-0.

He struck out three, walked two, and didn’t exactly dominate the opposing batters. Mainly, he baffled them, as one headline put it, with the knuckleball.8 He gave up nine hits, but only two “rattled the tin” that covered the outfield walls at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl.9 Brooklyn countered with 15 hits, including three apiece by Goody Rosen, Cookie Lavagetto, and Dolph Camilli. Every Dodger except Pressnell got at least one hit; even he walked twice and scored a run. Brooklyn opened a 2-0 lead in the first inning and chased Phillies starter Hugh Mulcahy in the fourth with a five-run rally, highlighted by Tom Winsett’s two-run double.

Philadelphia nearly scored in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Phillies led off with fourth straight singles but failed to bring home a run. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin disposed of the game in 11 paragraphs and the Philadelphia Record in 10, but each devoted four paragraphs to this odd sequence of events. Here’s what happened:

Chuck Klein led off with a single to right and went to second on Earl Browne’s single past first base. Morrie Arnovich hit a bouncer that appeared ticketed for right field, but it struck Browne on the leg between bases and caromed toward second base. By rule, Browne was out and Arnovich was credited with a single; Klein was unable to advance. Pinky Whitney followed with a fly ball that ticked off the screen above the head of left fielder Ernie Koy. Klein, holding up in case the ball was caught, only reached third. Pressnell retired George Scharein on a pop fly and struck out Bill Atwood to end the inning.

The rookie received measured praise for his victory. After all, as Holmes noted, “he was only pitching against the Phillies.”10 But Pressnell got full marks for pitching a shutout in the Baker Bowl, where it was only 280 feet down the right-field line11 and “a pop fly over the second baseman’s head means a home run.”12

Pressnell’s was the last shutout pitched in the Baker Bowl. Only 25 more major-league games were played there13 before the Phillies abandoned the decrepit facility at midseason to become tenants of the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park.

Tot Pressnell lasted until 1942 in the major leagues. He pitched three more shutouts, including a two-hitter and a three-hitter, and retired at age 36 with a record of 32-30. Then he went home to Findlay, Ohio, and took his time for the rest of his life. He died in 2001 at 94.

 

Sources

In addition to the game story and other sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI193804210.shtml

http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1938/B04210PHI1938.htm

 

Notes

1 Tommy Holmes, “Dodgers to Show Fans 7 New Players in Yank Series,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 10, 1938: 39.

2 Tot Pressnell, interview with the author, March 1994.

3 “Casey Draws Line on Demonstration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 16, 1938: 20.

4 Pressnell, “A Short History of My Life and Baseball Career,” presented as part of “Findlay’s Finest Professional Athletes From the Past,” panel discussion at the University of Findlay, October 17, 1999.

5 Bob Bailey, History of the Junior World Series (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc., 2004), 149-54.

6 Edgar G. Brands, “Red Kress Named as Most Valuable in A.A.,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1937: 2.

7 Bill Dooly, “Dodger Rookie Blanks Phils, 9-0,” Philadelphia Record, April 22, 1938: 19.

8 John J. Nolan, “Brooklyn Rookie Baffles Phils,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 22, 1938: 25.

9 Holmes, “Flock Faces Giants Cheered by Pressnell’s Work,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 22, 1938: 16.

10 Holmes, “Flock Faces Giants.” The Phils were in the midst of a 13-year stretch in which they never finished higher than seventh, and lost at least 100 games six times in seven years.

11 Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Co., 2006), 173.

12 Pat Robinson, International News Service, “Dodger Rookie Most Likely Unknown Hurler in Loop,” Bradford (Pennsylvania) Evening Star and Bradford Daily Record, April 22, 1938: 8.

13 Retrosheet.org, “1938 Log for Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, PA.”

Additional Stats

Brooklyn Dodgers 9
Philadelphia Phillies 0


Baker Bowl
Philadelphia, PA

 

Box Score + PBP:

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1930s ·

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