Farmer Hal from Yoncalla: Hal Turpin of the Pacific Coast League

This article was written by Dave Baldwin - Eric Sallee - Dave Eskenazi

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 28, 2008)


In 1994, Dave Eskenazi traveled to Yoncalla, Oregon, to visit one of the Pacific Coast League’s all-time great pitchers, Harold “Hal” Turpin. As a ninety-first-birthday present, Eskenazi handed Turpin a packet of letters written to him by some of his former Seattle Rainiers teammates.1 A quiet, reserved man who shunned publicity, Turpin was visibly touched by words reflecting the great esteem the players felt for “Farmer Hal.” An ace on one of the most dominant teams in PCL history, Turpin was a 20-game winner for Seattle teams that won regular-season pennants in 1939, 1940, and 1941 and league playoff championships in 1940, 1941, and 1942.

The letter writers mentioned the experience of playing with the Rainiers and recounted the current whereabouts and fortunes of elderly teammates. They reminisced about visiting Turpin’s farm to hunt and fish during the offseasons. And they wrote with admiration about Turpin’s pinpoint accuracy and his unusual sidearm knuckleball.

Turpin was not a member of the privileged class nor was he an overnight success. He was a humble farm boy who understood the value of hard work and perseverance. Born on September 28, 1903,2 in a farmhouse midway between Scotts Valley and Yoncalla, Hal was the youngest of the nine children of Missouri native Joseph Turpin and his wife Cynthia, née Cellers. He attended school in Scotts Valley until his father died and he was needed to work the family farm. Although not a student, Turpin did find time to travel to Yoncalla to play for the high-school baseball team. In 1921 he joined the Yoncalla town team, and it was then that he initially had success as a country hardball pitcher. Becoming expert at farmwork and playing baseball on the side, Turpin took his burgeoning pitching skills on the road, playing for Oregon teams in North Bend, Cottage Grove, and Albany.

In 1926, while playing for the Albany team in the semiprofessional Willamette Valley League, Turpin was invited to Portland to try out with the San Francisco Seals, who were playing the Beavers in a PCL series at Vaughn Street Park. Impressing Seals manager Nick Williams, the 22-year-old Turpin was signed for the 1927 season.

Early in his career, the five-eleven, 185-pound right-hander used a conventional overhand delivery and relied on a lively fastball and sharp-breaking curve. From 1927 through May 1935, Turpin struggled with inconsistency and arm problems, causing him to bounce from team to team. After winning 6 games and losing 4 in 97 sporadic innings in 1927, the Seals sent him to Little Rock of the Southern Association, where he won 23 and lost 23 over two seasons. He married Georgia May Wallace in Roseburg, Oregon, on December 26, 1928; San Francisco gave the newlyweds a belated wedding present when they brought Turpin back to the Pacific coast and the Pacific Coast League after the 1929 season. The Seals dealt him to Seattle in the midst of a pennant-winning 1931 season. From Seattle he went to Denver in the Western League, where he won 13 games in 1932, creating enough interest that Portland bought his contract for the 1933 season. After winning 15 games and leading the league with 32 complete games for a poor Beaver team in 1934, Turpin was released when he struggled early in 1935. He had been relieving one day, starting the next, or not pitching at all for ten consecutive days. Sportswriters blamed that routine for the sore arm that caused his poor showing. At age 31 and after nine years in the minor leagues, Turpin’s record stood at 86 wins and 92 losses, a .483 winning percentage. He had a sore pitching arm, a wife, 4-year-old son Wallace, and a farm to take care of. He had arrived at a crossroads.

With the motivation that only people who love baseball can understand, he chose the road to Des Moines for a second attempt in the Western League. It was there that he discovered his arm did not hurt if he threw the ball sidearm. He also discovered that the new sidearm slants were deceiving to hitters and, perhaps best of all, he could still throw the ball exactly where he wanted it to go. At this point, Turpin became a consistent winner who never experienced recurring arm pain again. As a sidearmer he won 185 games and lost 111 (a .625 percentage), a complete turnaround from his conventional overhand days. After catching on with Des Moines, he finished the season by winning 12 of 20 decisions. In 1936, he was a 20-game winner for the first time, leading the league in wins and complete games, and was named to the Western League All-Star team.

In 1937, the Seattle Rainiers hired Des Moines manager Spencer Abbott. He brought his ace with him. Turpin’s prior PCL record with San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland had been mediocre—50 wins, 65 losses—but with a new arm angle and renewed confidence he was brilliant over the next 10 seasons, winning 153 and losing 93. During the Rainiers’ dynasty, he led the PCL with 23 wins in 1939, 28 complete games in 1940, and winning percentage in 1941 (.769) and 1942 (.719). He was a 20-game winner in four consecutive years, 1939 through 1942, and averaged 289 innings pitched per season.

Newspaper headlines barked “Farmer Hal Does It Again!” and Turpin became a West Coast celebrity representing a city that consistently led the league in attendance.

“Hal Turpin was always an amazement to me,” said teammate Paul Gregory, a member of a Rainiers’ stellar pitching staff that also included Tracy “Kewpie Dick” Barrett. “I couldn’t understand how he could get people out until they decided that he was one of the original slider pitchers,” Gregory recalled. “He had an excellent slider and could throw it in a knothole. His control and his movement on the ball without remarkable speed gave him the winning edge” (Dobbins, 92).

Another sidearm pitch that made Turpin highly effective was the knuckleball. Gregory called it Turpin’s “Sunday pitch,” the one a veteran pitcher used in a pinch. Turpin gripped his knuckler by digging his fingertips into the seam, flicking the fingers forward as he released the ball. This finger action eliminated most of the spin on the ball, producing a pitch that behaved erratically. Many knuckleball pitchers have used this method of gripping and releasing the knuckleball, but nearly all threw the pitch using an overhand or high three-quarter delivery.

A sidearm delivery usually results in an inadvertent topspin, which destroys the fluttering effect. Turpin, however, found a way to avoid the spin. Rainiers’ catcher Buddy Hancken recalled that Turpin’s knuckleball had unique flight characteristics because of the odd arm angle at release. On its way to the catcher it might dart off in any direction—completely unpredictable. The pitch was described as nearly unhittable.

Turpin, who was “one of the quietest individuals to ever wear the Seattle baseball livery,” managed to give an interview wherein he credited much of his success to knowing the hitters’ weaknesses and being able to control the location of his pitches. “Control is the secret of my pitching,” he said.

All my life, even in a bunting game, or when warming up, I am aiming—I’m aiming at the left knee, the right shoulder, or the buckle on the belt. Most young pitchers don’t want to learn ball enough to take pains. They just bust the ball loose. Another thing, I study the hitters. I know what they like to hit, and then give them something else. Then, I used to learn from good pitchers, doing what they did. But mostly I just know where the ball is going when I throw it (Brougham).

Royal Brougham, the legendary Seattle sportswriter, had this to say about Turpin:

He’s in perfect condition 365 days of the year. When the baseball season is over, Hal changes into overalls and puts in the fall crop of hay, wheat and oats on an $18,000, 100-acre Oregon farm. He gets in the winter’s work and takes care of the stock. Up at 6, in bed at 9, he is practically ready to pitch the day he reports at camp in the spring (Brougham).

Rainiers manager Bill Skiff said, “Hal is a manager’s type of ball player. He’s always in shape and always ready to pitch. Every spring he works as hard as the youngest rookie in the camp” (Keller). Skiff declared that he wouldn’t trade Hal for four new tires—and this was during wartime, when rubber was scarce.

On April 12, 1942, Turpin approached perfection. Against the Padres in San Diego, with two out in the ninth and a 2–2 count on pinch-hitter Cedric Durst, Turpin threw what appeared to be the third strike to end the game. Durst turned and carried his bat back toward the dugout, but umpire Bill Doran came trotting after him to explain that he had called the pitch a ball. Durst went back to the plate and Turpin walked him on the next pitch. Durst was San Diego’s only baserunner in a 2–0 Seattle win. Turpin’s no-hitter bested one of the 1994 letter writers, Padre right-hander Frankie Dasso, in a game that lasted 97 minutes.

Pitching a quick game was not unusual for Turpin. Beer baron Emil Sick had rescued Seattle’s PCL team from bankruptcy after his friend, New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, convinced him that owning a baseball team was good for beer sales. “They had a blue law in Seattle at that time, and you couldn’t sell beer on Sundays,” said ex-Rainiers outfielder Edo Vanni,

so we never pitched Hal Turpin on Saturday night. We’d pitch Dickie Barrett, and he’d pitch a three-hour game and that would be their [management’s] best beer night. Turpin would pitch the Sunday afternoon game when we were going on the road because he’d pitch the game in one hour, twenty minutes, and we’d catch the train in time (Dobbins, 119).

The Rainiers paid Turpin handsomely; several sources reported he was one of the highest-paid players in the minor leagues. It is not surprising, then, that major-league teams were not willing to pay Turpin enough to justify his leaving the Rainiers and putting too much distance between hm and his farm. Popular opinion during Turpin’s era suggested that the PCL was “major league,” at least in the western half of the nation, and he was content staying put. Even during the World War II years, when major-league talent became scarce, Turpin remained with the Rainiers and close to his farm. Turpin, when the United States entered the war in 1941, was 38, too old for military duty.

In fact, the farm was always on his mind. Turpin raised cattle and sheep and harvested hay, oats, and wheat crops. His wife, Georgia May, recalled, “Harold ran the farm from the pitcher’s mound.” In Seattle and on road trips he scoured the PCL cities for farm equipment, for the war effort had created metal and rubber shortages, and machinery was hard to come by. It also created a manpower shortage, and in 1943 Turpin left the Rainiers in midseason and returned to the farm because he could not find anyone to run it while he played ball.

In 1945, Turpin’s last full season, he won 18 games, lost only 8, and had an ERA of 2.40 in 229 innings pitched. He was 42 by the end of the 1945 season, one of four 40-or nearly-40-year-old pitchers for the Rainiers. Lefty Carl Fischer (39) joined Turpin as part of the regular rotation, and the staff included right-handers Sylvester Johnson (43) and Byron Speece (48) as well.

With a league-leading attendance of 434,133, Seattle fans encouraged these middle-aged men to a second-place finish that season. It was Hal’s last hurrah.

Turpin finally retired from baseball after the first month of the 1946 season. During the previous winter he had been traded to Sacramento. To his chagrin, the Senators sometimes traveled by plane rather than bus or train. He had never flown and decided it was too late in life to start, so he said good-bye and took a bus home. “Up at 6, in bed at 9,” Turpin worked his farm year round until 1961, when he sold it and moved to Yoncalla. He spent his retirement years hunting and fishing, doing repair work at a local church, enjoying his family (the Turpins had two children, son Wallace and daughter Kay), and playing in the occasional old-timer’s game. While he was not a particularly social man, he did enjoy talking about baseball and his time in it with anybody who engaged him.

Although Hal Turpin’s name is not in the Baseball Encyclopedia, some of his teammates over a 20-year career include major-league stars Lefty O’Doul, Earl Averill, Dolph Camilli, Bill Dickey, Frank Crosetti, Lefty Gomez, Dutch Ruether, George H. Burns, Spud Chandler, and Fred Hutchinson. He competed admirably against the likes of Harry Hooper, Ernie Lombardi, Carl Mays, Joe DiMaggio, George Kelly, Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Babe Herman, Tony Lazzeri, and Pepper Martin. He won 203 games in the pre-1958 Pacific Coast League and 271 minor-league games overall (see accompanying table). In 1954, Seattle fans recognized Turpin’s importance to some of the greatest seasons in Seattle baseball history when they picked him as one of the original members of the Rainiers’ Roll of Honor. Baseball historian John Spalding and the Pacific Coast League Historical Society later determined that Turpin was the ninth-best pitcher in PCL history. Finally, in 2003, Turpin was posthumously honored with election to the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame, a well-deserved recognition for “Farmer Hal from Yoncalla.”

Hal Turpin died in Roseburg, Oregon, on February 28, 1997, at age 93. He is buried in the Yoncalla Masonic Cemetery.

ERIC SALLEE is a CPA in Bellevue, Washington, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

DAVE ESKENAZI is an investment advisor and NWSABR member based in his native Seattle. He lives several miles north of Sicks’ Stadium with his wife and two sons.

DAVE BALDWIN is author of the baseball memoir Snake Jazz (Xlibris, 2008). He and his wife are retired and live in Yachats, Oregon.

 

Sources

Allison, W. “A Visit with Hal Turpin.” Northwest Ruralite (Douglas Electric Edition) 11, no. 10 (October 1964): 12–13.

Bauer, C. The Coast League Cyclopedia: An Encyclopedia of the Old Pacific Coast League, 1903–57. San Diego: Baseball Press Books, 2003.

Brougham, R. “The Morning After: Oregon Farmer Wants 100 Wins—Turpin Tells of Pitching Craft.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 20 March 1941.

Dobbins, D. The Grand Minor League: An Oral History of the Old Pacific Coast League. San Francisco: Woodford Press, 1999.

Johnson, L., and M. Wolff. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. 2nd ed. Durham, N.C.: Baseball America, 1997.

Keller, E. “Base Hits.” Unidentified San Diego newspaper, 1942.

Reach Official American League Baseball Guide, 1928, 1930, and 1933.

Smith, B. K. “Harold Turpin, Baseball’s Famous Country Boy.” In Yoncalla Yesterday, 397–401. Portland, Ore.: Yoncalla Historical Society, 2001.

Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide, 1929, 1931–32, 1934–41.

Sporting News Baseball Guide, 1942–47.

Turpin, G. M. W. “The Pitcher’s Wife.” In Yoncalla Yesterday. Portland, Ore.: Yoncalla Historical Society, 2001, pp. 405–8.

Turpin, H. Personal scrapbook containing various newspaper clippings (1927 through 1994) and miscellaneous documents. In the David Eskenazi Collection.

 

NOTES

  1. Players writing letters to Hal Turpin included Paul “Pop” Gregory (Hal’s teammate at Seattle, 1937 through 1941), Pete Jonas (at Seattle, 1938 and 1943), Ed Selway (at Seattle, 1939), Mike Budnick (at Seattle, 1939 and 1942), and Al Libke (Seattle, 1942 and 1944). Frank Dasso also wrote a letter, but he was never Turpin’s He played against Turpin in 1940 through 1944 and again briefly in 1946.
  2. Several reference works, including the SABR Minor League Database, incorrectly list Turpin’s year of birth as 1902.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved