Double Joe Dwyer: A Life In the Bushes

This article was written by Gerald Tomlinson

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

When Joe Dwyer was a kid in high school, his teammates on the Orange Athletic Association Meadowbrooks of Orange, New Jersey, a semipro outfit, watched him belt out more than his share of doubles. “I always had a penchant for two-base hits,” said Joe. That being the case (and nicknames being a big part of baseball) someone on the Orange A.A.’s-Joe wasn’t sure who-thought to call him “Double Joe.” The nickname stuck.

It proved appropriate, too, not only for Double Joe the semipro but right through his playing days in Organized Baseball. He didn’t generally lead the league in doubles, so the sobriquet can’t be said to characterize his career, but it did attain the ring of truth in Dwyer’s best season, 1936, when, along with a .383 batting average, he walloped a record 65 doubles for the Nashville Vols, a mark that no one in the Southern Association ever topped.

So impressive was Joe’s total of two-baggers in a single season that some sportswriters assumed the nickname had been given to him after the 1936 campaign. Not so: it was a classic case of life imitating art.

The man who became known as Double Joe was born Joseph Michael Dwyer on March 27, 1907, in Orange, New Jersey. One of five children, he started playing baseball early and showed great promise from the beginning. He had it all: he could hit, he could run, he could field, he could throw. Yet when Double Joe’s long baseball career was over, he had come to bat only eleven times in the major leagues, and the three hits he had garnered there were all singles. Even so, he was such a talented ballplayer, so clearly major-league material, that in many ways he is the quintessential might-have-been.

He started his career with a bang. Or it might be more accurate to say he started it with a toothache. One day, while still a sandlot player, he was walking down Main Street in Orange, his jaw bulging from a tooth extraction minutes earlier. He felt pretty low, pained and discouraged. But like Lana Turner on that soda fountain stool at Schwab’s Drugstore, Joe Dwyer was in the right place at the right time.

The guy who played shortstop for the Orange A.A.s was walking up the same street, mulling over a problem. His club had a game that afternoon against a semipro powerhouse from nearby Paterson-the Doherty Silk Sox-and he needed an outfielder. Two of the regulars, who were auditors during the week, had to work that Saturday. “The guy had seen me up at the playground,” Joe told me. “My mouth was sticking out like that, but he said, ‘Don’t worry, Joe. You’re not going to hit with your mouth.’ “

You can figure out the rest. The Orange A.A.s, with Joe Dwyer in center field, beat the favored Silk Sox 2-1. Joe put in a sizzling 4-for-4 day at the plate, and he did it against Milt Gaston, who had beaten the New York Yankees the Sunday before. The missing tooth, once so bothersome, was forgotten.

The Orange A.A.s, having seen what Joe could do, began paying him well to do it: $175 a month for playing two games a week, on Saturdays and Sundays. This outfit played against major-league teams and also against the top Negro clubs in the country. Fans paid a dollar to watch the games, and when such teams as the Detroit Tigers, featuring Ty Cobb, came to town, the AA.s really packed them in.

In 1924 Joe had a tryout with Rochester of the International League. They signed him. “But I was a kid,” he said. “Seventeen years old. They wouldn’t use me. When the season started, the manager, George Stallings, put me in as a pinch hitter. Against Baltimore I hit one out of the park, but other times I didn’t do so good. Stallings said, ‘Joe, we’re going with names this year. If you want to go down to a lower league, I’ll recommend you. But you’ll only get half as much money.”

Rochester had offered him a salary of $400 a month if he made the team. That was all right, but the prospect of playing full time for $200 didn’t attract him. “I told him, ‘I’m earning that much at home on weekends.’ It just didn’t appeal to me. So I went back to semipro.”

In 1924 and 1925 Dwyer worked in the Thomas A. Edison factory in West Orange, pressing out phonograph records. He left the Orange A.A.s and moved over to the Bloomfield Elks, a semipro club that played on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Washington, New Jersey, and Sunday doubleheaders in Bloomfield. His batting average hovered around .500, even though in some of the games he was facing major-league pitchers like Ownie Carroll and George Earnshaw and such great Negro League pitchers as Satchel Paige, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Cyclone Williams.

Said Joe of the black players: “They were the best I ever saw. They were big-league ballplayers. The Bacharach Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Philadelphia Stars, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Cuban All-Stars. Good? They were terrific.”

Dwyer could have gone on playing semipro ball for years, but the Newark Bears developed an interest in him and signed him for the 1926 season. They optioned him to Salem, Massachusetts, in the Class B New England League, where he hit .369 in 350 times at bat, cracking out eight home runs in the vast ballparks of that league (Salem’s right field fence was 435 feet away; Lynn’s was an incredible 500 feet down the line!). “After the pitchers I’d been facing in semipro,” he said, “these guys were easy.”

Dwyer expected 1927 to be even better but, he said, “I got into a little argument. I didn’t want to go back to the New England League. I figured my .369 average should count for something, and I said so. ‘You’ll do what we tell you,’ they told me. See, it was rough. What could I do?”

What he did was this: “I asked for my option money from Newark. They owed me $300. ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘we changed the rule.’ What do you think of that?  After I hit .369 for Salem, they wouldn’t pay me. And I needed the money. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Honest. But Paul Block, the new owner of the Bears, wouldn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t answer my letters. The business manager told me to forget it. The rules had been changed. They brushed me off.

“So I wrote a letter to Judge Landis. The Judge got on the warpath. He investigated. They owed me the money, of course. They waited awhile and finally sent it to me-$302.50. I had a lot of sodas that week.”

Was he glad he pursued the issue of the option money? “Naw, it probably ruined me. At least it didn’t do me any good. I was a marked man. The owners ran everything and stuck together. They put me down as a troublemaker. “

Joe spent not one year but four in the New England League. His second and third-year performances faded in comparison with that of his strong rookie season. He batted .289 in 1927 and .275 in 1928, but then bounced back in 1929. Playing for Lynn, he brought his batting average back up to .358, banging out 192 hits. This performance attracted the attention of Harold Meyers, a baseball club owner in northeastern Pennsylvania. A deal was made, and when the 1930 season opened Double Joe Dwyer took the field as a Wilkes-Barre Baron. He would spend the next six years there.

A bustling, crowded industrial city, Wilkes-Barre had a population of about 85,000 when Joe first played there (it is much smaller than that today). Located on the east bank of the Susquehanna, it lies at the heart of the Wyoming Valley’s once prosperous anthracite region and across the river from the city of Kingston, where Artillery Park used to stand. The wooden grandstand and bleachers of Artillery Park are gone now, but the old Barons’ playing field still exists. Left field in Artillery Park was where Joe Dwyer was to become a fixture and a favorite among local fans.

In joining the Barons, also a Class B outfit but in the faster New York Pennsylvania League, Joe was hoping for a better break, more rapid advancement. It didn’t happen. The league went up to Class A in 1933, and Double Joe was there to see it.

He started off strongly with the Barons. “We had a bunch of good ballplayers in 1930,” he said. “Especially pitchers: Johnny Miller, Dick Barrett, Johnny Tillman, Bots Nekola, Joe Martinski, John Milligan. The outfield was strong, too, with Matt Donahue in right field and Eddie Burke in center. They were all pretty good, the whole team. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been there. It was a tough league, and you had to produce or out you went.”

Dwyer produced. As the Barons fought their way to Wilkes-Barre’s first NYP pennant, he batted .363, collecting 187 hits, including 2B doubles, 13 triples, and 3 home runs. When asked about his low home run total, Joe replied, “That’s right, only three. You know, after Babe Ruth started belting them out of the park in the 1920s, the fans wanted homers. But how could I hit them? What fences! I batted left handed and pulled the ball. In Artillery Park it was 400 feet on the line, and 450 to right center.”

Except for the distant fences, Joe regarded Artillery Park as one of the best ballparks in the league. “The playing field, that is. The stands were a little antiquated, wooden, but it was a nice park to play in. Hazleton had the worst field. At Hazleton it was kind of rocky, and they had trees inside the fences.”

Those trees at Buhler Stadium, Hazleton, led to an incident that Dwyer recalled vividly. With the Barons leading Hazleton 4-2 in the top of the ninth inning, the Mountaineers loaded the bases. A humming line drive sent him racing back toward the trees. The ball was high, Joe leaped into the air, grabbed a limb with his right hand, and speared the ball with his gloved hand!

Dwyer tailed off a bit in the next two years, to .322 and .318. But then he rebounded with three .340-plus seasons in a row. He batted .351 in 1933, losing the league batting title in the final days to George McQuinn of Binghamton. In 1934 he chalked up a .343 mark, then closed out his years with the Barons by batting .363-the same average he had started with back in 1930.

Joe was now 28. He had played professional baseball for ten years, never higher than class A-and that high only because the NYP League, not Joe himself, got a promotion. He started nearly every game in those years, pounding out 1,598 hits for a batting average of .335.

Not bad. Where had it gotten him? Not far. It had given him a job during a period when 16 million Americans were out of work, and Joe, however disgruntled, never underestimated the importance of that. It made him a recognized and well-liked figure among baseball fans in Salem, Lynn, and Wilkes-Barre.

Catcher Bill Steinecke, whose years in the NYP League paralleled Dwyer’s, gave a player’s view of him in those days: ‘Joe was a fine defensive outfielder, with great speed, a good arm-one of the best all-around players in the league. He had the tools to be outstanding.” Pitcher Thornton Lee added: “One of the best young hitters I ever saw. Good discipline. A solid contact hitter who went with the pitch.”

The fans admired him, the players respected him, but if advancement to the majors is the name of the game, his ten years in the minors had been for nothing.

Why hadn’t Joe moved up, given his fine record and his obvious ability? The answer is not hard to find. Wilkes-Barre, like Salem and Lynn and many other small cities, operated an independent minor-league club. The operations were not part of a feeder system for the major leagues. Like their major-league counterparts, the owners were in business to make money, which they could do with a crowd-pleasing pennant contender.

Now, if they could make bigger profits by selling a homegrown star to a higher classification club, so much the better. But that star had to bring in more money on the market than he was likely to bring in through the turnstiles, and the bids for Joe Dwyer evidently were not high enough.

“They didn’t want a player with potential,” said Dwyer. “I learned that early, one day up in Salem. The manager had let a couple of young players go, and I said, ‘Gee, those guys had real potential.’ The manager said, ‘Yeah, and when they reach their potential, where will I be?’ You see what he meant? He had to win. I learned that lesson fast.

“They wanted performance right off the reel. If you were a kid, you had to play like a veteran. If you couldn’t help win ballgames for them, what good were you? You didn’t stay.”

On the other hand, if you did win ballgames, you might stay a lot longer than you wanted to. Joe found that out at Wilkes-Barre. Nor was this stuck-in-the-bushes complaint just his personal grievance; it was a fact of baseball life in the minors. Consider the story of Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, as told by Robert Obojski in his book Bush League:

Robert “Lefty” Grove, ace of the [International League’s] Baltimore Orioles pitching staff, was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics at the conclusion of the 1924 campaign for a record $100,600 . . . . In his five years with the Orioles, Grove won 109 games and lost only 35, having amassed 27 victories in each of his final two sessions. . . . Baltimore, of course, was not controlled by a big-league club at this time, and it could thus hold out for the best possible price for a star like Grove. If the Orioles had been operating under the aegis of a major-league outfit, there is no question that Lefty would have ‘graduated’ earlier.

The situation was doubly frustrating in the NYP League in the 1930s. Ball clubs in a couple of cities-Elmira and Binghamton-had become part of the growing system of major-league farm teams, and the players on those teams, unlike Joe Dwyer, were mobile. The St. Louis Cardinals kept close watch over players like Johnny Mize, Mort Cooper, Johnny Keane, and Billy Myers, moving them up and out of Elmira. The New York Yankees did the same thing at Binghamton with future major leaguers like Spud Chandler, Pinky May, Buddy Rosar, and Atley Donald.

What bothered Joe was that many of these farm system players went up whether they did well in the NYP League or not. “I fattened up on some future major leaguers,” Joe said. “And guys like Wally Moses and Terry Moore couldn’t get started at Elmira. Even Johnny Mize didn’t set the league on fire. Neither did Ralph Kiner for Albany later on. Mize and Kiner weren’t really home-run hitters until they got to the majors.”

Joe Dwyer went into organized baseball expecting to be a long-ball hitter, which he had been as a semipro. But the rightfield fences at Salem, Lynn, and Wilkes-Barre put a crimp in that. “You had to change your batting style just to keep your job,” he said. Which he did with notable success, becoming a drawing card.  Joe’s wife Ruth once heard Harold Meyers, the principal owner of the Wilkes-Barre club, say in an unguarded moment, “If we sold Joe, the bleachers would be empty.”

“I was at my best in those years,” Dwyer said. “Twenty-three,  twenty-four years old. I’d ask Mr. Meyers, ‘Doesn’t anyone want to buy me?’ He’d say, ‘No. I’m sorry, Joe. There are no buyers. Too bad. But if you don’t want to play ball here, you can always find another job.’ That was it: I could find another job in the middle of the Depression.”

What were Joe’s strongest recollections of those years? “You mean, what do I remember most about Wilkes-Barre?” he replied. “The owners.  They sabotaged my baseball career.”

Be that as it may, Joe Dwyer gave every indication of being bound for glory in 1936. The Wilkes-Barre owners, financially straitened by the end of the ’35 season, were compelled to sell Joe’s contract to Nashville of the Southern Association. Free from Harold Meyers and playing ball in a superior league, he improved on ten years of prior success. He came through with 230 hits in 600 at bats, including those never equaled 65 doubles and an impressive 117 runs batted in. His .383 batting average barely missed the title in the Southern Association, as Fred Sington, an outfielder for the Chattanooga Lookouts, finished with .384.

Dwyer’s superb year at Nashville finally gave him a shot at the majors. He went to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds, and when the season opened, he was on the team. He appeared only as a pinch hitter, however, collecting three singles in eleven times at bat, one each off Carl Hubbell, Freddie Fitzsimmons, and Joe Bowman.

Disaster struck early in Cincinnati. “In a game against St. Louis,” Joe recalled, “I slid into second base, Durocher dove for me, and I fell back, my right arm doubled over. I thought it was just a sprain, but it didn’t heal. It was really broken, a five-point fracture, and it pained all the time. But, you know, you get a chance and you try to play. They didn’t know what was wrong. But then my arm stiffened up. They wanted me to go back to Nashville. I wouldn’t go, and I was suspended.”

A couple of months later the New York Giants signed Dwyer and sent him to Jersey City in the International League. “I shouldn’t have signed that year. I shouldn’t have played. I was in agony. I had one arm. I know I was terrible, but I hit .263. Some guys don’t do that well with two arms. Still, everything went lousy in ’37 and ’38. I couldn’t hit a ball to right field because the arm wouldn’t give.”

That could have been the end of Joe’s baseball career, but he came back fairly strong with the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association in 1939, batting .315 for 79 games. He divided the 1940 season between Toledo (.310) and Little Rock in the Southern Association (.349). His last full season was 1941, when in 151 games for Little Rock he came to bat 589 times, collected 191 hits, including 33 doubles, and finished with a .324 batting average. “A pretty good year,” Joe remembered.

But apparently it was not good enough, for he took a salary cut after both Little Rock seasons and, according to a Len Goldin column in the Orange Courier, “when his 1942 contract called for another slash, Joe revolted.

“‘At that rate,’ he declared, ‘I’d have to pay to get into the ballpark in 1943 if I hit .300. So I refused to sign.’

“Joe didn’t sign either, and as a result he was suspended by the Little Rock club. His suspension stuck. He didn’t play ball at all. And then, in August, he received a call from George Weiss, the Yanks’ mastermind of their farms. . . [who] bought his contract from Little Rock, signed him, and sent him to Binghamton.”

The Triplets were in the Class A Eastern League, one step down from the Southern Association. This Eastern League was the old New York Pennsylvania League, renamed in 1938. Wilkes-Barre still had a franchise, and in 1942 Joe played against his former Artillery Park team, the pennant-winning Barons. The Barons had a star pitcher that year, right-hander Allie Reynolds, who set the all-time NYP-Eastern League record for shutouts in one season, 11. Nearly as impressive was the 1.96 posted by another future major leaguer, the Hartford Chiefs’ young lefty, Warren Spahn. Against Reynolds, Spahn, and the other Eastern League pitchers Dwyer hit .279.

Next year he went up to Double A again, and for the last three years of his career he played on what he regarded as practically his hometown ball team, the Newark Bears of the International League. In wartime 1943, 1944, and 1945 he appeared as a utility infielder in a total of 181 games for the Bears, compiling batting averages of .274, .281, and .267. Not bad, but hardly up to his old standards. The years had drained his abilities, and after the 1945 season Double Joe Dwyer called it quits.

“I had good luck when I severed from baseball,” he said abruptly, as if to shut off further memories.

GERALD TOMLINSON, a writer-editor, in his youth haunted Dunn Field in Elmira.