Howie Moss: Minor League Slugger

This article was written by David Chrisman

This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal


“Today’s my birthday! I’m 63 years old today!”

Thus spoke Howard Glenn Moss, Senior, a salesman at the Pat Hays’s Buick dealership on Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore. As I sat there across the desk from him in his office, memories flashed before me of his great power-hitting seasons for Baltimore’s old minor league team in the AA International League of the 1940s. Here he was   one of the great righthanded sluggers in minor league history — leaning towards me amid the flashy chrome-plated car models arrayed on the showroom floor. It seemed somehow incongruent — my memory of his former greatness as a ballplayer — and this nattily dressed businessman who looked all the more like a Wall Street lawyer. Howie told me that “he had been selling cars in Baltimore for the past 30 years — and, loving every minute of it.”

It was Saturday, October 17, 1981, and Howie Moss had graciously granted me a few minutes of his time for this interview. It was a big thrill for me. He was one of my first baseball heroes — beginning with the 1944 Oriole campaign. I took it as a good omen that I had inadvertently chosen his own birthday as the date for this meeting.

Howie looked in excellent shape. Never a big man — only 5’11” and  190 pounds when playing baseball, Howie derived most of his vaunted power from the whippet-like motion of his wrists and his unbelievable coordination. He told me that he was “within a pound or two of his old-time playing weight,” and he looked very good for a 63-year-old. His eyes sparkled as he recounted his background growing up in Gastonia, N.C. It was a fairly small manufacturing town of 25,000 which surprisingly produced a championship baseball team for its American Legion entrant in the tournament of 1935. Howie played for that ball club and so did four other players who would eventually make the major leagues: Buddy Lewis, Crash Davis, Doyt Morris, and Floyd Beal. This is a remarkable achievement for a town the size of Gastonia. The Gastonia ball club defeated Sacramento, Calif., in the final championship game; thus, winning the national title.

Howie was the youngest son of three but the only one with athletic aspirations. He played varsity football and baseball in high school and was offered numerous scholarships from colleges all across the Southeast. But, as Howie phrased it, “I turned them all down because I wanted to play professional baseball.” He signed a contract with the New York Giants in 1935 and was optioned out to Greenwood, S.C., in the Cotton States League the following spring. His 1936 season produced only a .233 batting average, with a single homer and a mere 40 RBIs. Dissatisfied with his proposed 1937 salary, Howie played baseball in Cuba from 1937 to 1940. “I made more money in those three years playing in Havana than I ever did in Organized Ball. The Cubans didn’t tax your income and they often gave you a bonus for winning a championship or copping a batting title.” While in Cuba, Howie played against the great Satchel Paige. “Those were the days when old Satchel was practically living out of his car.”

After his return to the States in 1940, Howie renegotiated his contract and was assigned by the Giants to their Fort Smith farm club in the Class C Western Association for the upcoming 1941 campaign. But, at the beginning of the `41 season, Moss was optioned out once again; this time to Salisbury in the North Carolina State League. He appeared in a mere 21 games before being recalled to Fort Smith. In only 103 games at Fort Smith, Howie slammed 24 homers and finished second in the league in RBIs with 124. His .346 average was the league’s sixth best.

Moss went up to the New York Giants in early 1942 and got into seven games. He became good friends with manager Mel Ott, but he refused to report to their AA Jersey City farm club in the International League. Moss’s obduracy was predicated upon his intense dislike for Jersey City manager Frank (Pancho) Snyder, a tyrannical disciplinarian. Howie freely admitted that he “liked to relax after a game by hoisting a few beers with his teammates.” Moss quit the Giants in mid-1942 but his voluntary idleness did not last long. The St. Louis Cardinals picked him up and assigned him to their Columbus farm club in the American Association.

The 1942 Columbus Red Birds were a very good baseball team and one that would stay in the pennant race until the last day of the season. Although Kansas City eventually won the pennant, the Red Birds took the Shaughnessy Playoffs and vanquished the Syracuse Chiefs in the Junior World Series. Harry Breechen won 19 games for Columbus and Ted Wilks was 12-9. Howie recollected the 1942 campaign in this way:

That was the first year that they used synthetic rubber in the baseball’s inner core. Instead of getting softer as the season wore on, those synthetic interiors grew harder — creating a really dead ball in both 1942 and 1943. 1 remember talking with Eddie Kobesky of Buffalo about the difficulty of getting leverage with that dead ball. For example, if you hit the ball squarely and hard, it would travel about 200 feet and then die like a wounded quail. Thus, it became little more than a pop fly. But, if your timing was off and you would undercut the ball — “pop” — out of the ballpark it would go.

Moss’ measly three home runs and 34 RBIs attested to the fact that the ball was indeed toned down.

Subsquent to the 1942 season, Mel Ott fired Pancho Snyder as the Jersey City manager and replaced him with Gabby Hartnett — a more amenable personality. With a substantial raise in pay as a sweetner, Moss returned to the Giant fold in 1943, agreeing to terms just prior to spring training. But, the upcoming 1943 season was destined to be a major disappointment for Howie. Halfway through the year, he began to have trouble with a tumor on his instep which was constantly aggravated by the pressure of the baseball spike just under the aggrieved area. Howie said: “By the end of the season, the pressure got so bad that I could hardly walk.”

With this handicap, Howie hit only .233 for the Little Giants, and collected five homers and 49 RBIs. He found himself increasingly crippled and seriously considered retiring from the game. As Howie tells it:

I was working in a factory in Hoboken, New Jersey, during the off-season, and was hobbling along the street one day when a huge limousine pulled up alongside me. A window was rolled down and there in front of me appeared the face of Boss Hague, the mayor of Jersey City and the political boss of the Democractic Party. When he found out about my problem he gave me a card and sent me to an exclusive hospital in Jersey City for prompt treatment. As soon as they saw his personal card, they gave me instant and exceptionally good attention.

“They took me inside and strapped my foot into a radium boot for one hour. Then, they sent me home for one week. When I returned, they examined my instep; they found that the tumor had disappeared.” But, by this time, the parent club in New York had cut Moss loose from their organization. So, Howie says, “I returned  to my factory job in Hoboken.” A short time later, “Alphonse (Tommy) Thomas, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, came up to New Jersey and offered me a lucrative contract to become a member of his 1944 club. So, I decided to give baseball another crack.”

In 1944, with his foot problems resolved, Howie led the Orioles to their first pennant since 1925. They then proceeded to win the Shaughnessy Playoffs and the Junior World Series. Moss was the league’s Most Valuable Player and hit a power-laden .306. He led the league in hits (178), doubles (44), home runs (27), and runs batted in (144). Howie fondly recalled his great 1944 campaign:

We had a good outfield: Stan Benjamin in left field; Felix Mackiewicz in center; and myself in right. Bob Latshaw was our first baseman, with Frank Skaff at third and Blas Monaco at second. Sherm Lollar did the  catching and “Red” Embree was our pitching star. Although I wasn’t a big fellow physically, I always had good wrist action; and, once I got my timing down, I had no trouble hitting home runs. We played in Oriole Park on 29th Street until it was destroyed by fire on July 4. Then we moved to the old Metropolitan Stadium on 33rd Street. In 1950 that old wooden stadium was replaced by a concrete structure. I believed I’m one of only three ballplayers to have played in all three Oriole ball parks.

After his impressive 1944 campaign, Howie went into the Armed Forces. Even at that, he played on another championship team, the Bainbridge Naval Training Station ball club.

After completing the 1945 season at Bainbridge, I got lazy and ballooned up to 230 pounds. When I got out of the service, the Cincinnati Reds picked me up for the forthcoming 1946 season. Bill McKechnie, the manager, put me in a rubber suit and inserted me in the opening day lineup. After a week, I got pneumonia and later I injured my leg. When the Reds released me, Tommy Thomas picked me up again to play third base for the Orioles in an infield that included Eddie Robinson.

Once again, Moss led the International League in home runs (38) and added 112 RBIs. At the conclusion of the 1946 campaign, Moss and Robinson were called up to Cleveland by Bill Veeck. Of course, Robinson would go on from there to a fruitful major league career, but bad luck continued to dog Moss. In the International League’s post-season playoffs, he re-injured his bad leg sliding into third base. Thus, Moss really couldn’t perform at his best in his late season trial. Nevertheless, Veeck was interested enough in Howie to want to retain him for the upcoming 1947 season as a utility infielder and outfielder. However, Howie (always a free liver) candidly told Veeck: “I’m going out after every game to drink a few. If I’m playing everyday, I’ll simply sweat it out of my system on the field the next day. By sitting on the bench, I’ll get way out of shape and I won’t really be much help to you.” So, Veeck sent Moss back to Baltimore where Tommy Thomas was only too happy to give him an immediate (and generous) raise in pay.

Moss started slowly in 1947 but finished in a rush. He broke the hearts of the fans in Central New York by putting a damper on Hank Sauer’s great season in Syracuse. Moss caught Sauer in the league’s home run derby by the last week of the season and, on Sauer’s home ground.

All year long, we kept hearing how great Sauer was. Finally, Tommy called me into the office and offered me a bonus to overtake him in home runs. It was a tall order; I was ten homers behind him with only three weeks left to play. But, I got my home run stroke going and pulled even with him in a little over two weeks. We both entered the last four games tied with 50 homers apiece. We played the Chiefs in Syracuse and I belted my 51st there in MacArthur Stadium. Then, I went down to Jersey City and belted two more while Sauer was stymied. I won the crown with 53 and Sauer finished at 50. True to his word, Tommy came through with my bonus.

However, Moss got an unpleasant surprise when he reported to Cleveland for the upcoming 1948 campaign. In spite of his home run spree of the previous season, Bill Veeck tried to cut his salary. So, once again, Howie quit baseball. And, once again, Tommy Thomas talked him into returning to the Orioles at an increase in salary. For an unprecedented fourth time, Howie led the International League in home runs (33), adding 94 RBIs and a .301 batting mark — the Orioles’ only .300 average. As a result of his brilliant four-year Oriole career, Howie was later voted into the International League’s Hall of Fame.

As Moss’s annual power display in Baltimore was finishing up, Bill Veeck tried to get him back at Cleveland. But Moss refused to report and was cut loose by that organization. Also, Cleveland pulled its working agreement out of Baltimore and fired Tommy Thomas. Thus, with his good friend no longer at the helm, Moss moved on to Milwaukee for the forthcoming American Association campaign of 1949. Moss had this to say about his association with Thomas: “I’ll have to hand it to Tommy. We always traveled first class. We used to stay at the best hotels on a road trip. For example, in Buffalo, we’d stay at the Buffalo Athletic Club whenever we had a series at Offermann Stadium. The accommodations were always classy and comfortable there.”

Howie’s 1948 season at Milwaukee was a good one: 169 hits, 29 homers, 117 RBIs and a .294 batting average. Outside of two lefthanded sluggers (Jack Harshman and Chuck Workman) at bandbox Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, Moss’s output was the league’s most powerful. Moss’s 1950 performance   again for Milwaukee — was almost an instant replay: 124 hits, 26 homers, 87 RBIs and a .285 BA. Again, another lefthanded swinger — this time Lou Limmer of St. Paul   edged him out for the circuit’s home run title.

Moss split the 1951 season between Milwaukee and Baltimore and wound up his organized baseball career in 1952 by returning to his hometown of Gastonia, N.C. His old friend Buddy Lewis asked him to come down and play for him in the Tri-State League. “I asked him for a certain salary, and he agreed to it; so, I played for my old hometown once again. I was just beginning to get back in the groove when I broke a toe. That ended it for me.”

Howie had begun working at Kelly Pontiac in Baltimore in the off-season subsequent to the 1951 campaign and was making good money. As he phrased it:   “I probably could have played another year or two, if I had wanted to, but, I had already earned more selling cars in four months than in all of the 1952 season. So, I decided to hang up my spikes. I’ve been selling cars in Baltimore ever since — some 30 years — and I truly enjoy it. I’ve married a second time — to a great girl from Milwaukee — and all of our children live in Baltimore: her three youngsters and my three. I’ve always enjoyed Baltimore as a place to live and I love a job where I have the opportunity to meet people.”

As I left the building after the interview, I was struck by Howie Moss’s great physical vitality and his obvious zest for life. Not only was he one of the great minor league sluggers of the 1940s, but he was a genuinely interesting and likeable personality.

 

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