Jackie Hayes: Triumph Over Tragedy

This article was written by Eugene C. Murdock

This article was published in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal


“We were about to break spring training in Hollywood, California in 1940. I was with the White Sox and we were playing the Athletics. I had a real good day, going 3 for 3.” Jackie Hayes leaned forward in his easy chair, gripping the leash of ‘Angel.’ “I went into the shower and it felt like I had soap in my right eye. I washed it out and thought no more about it. Then the next day at Tuscon, I noticed that if I covered up my left eye and looked only with the right, the numbers of the players’ shirts became blurred. We moved on to Phoenix where I woke up in the morning staring at the ceiling. I saw a ring around the light.  I went to a specialist there, who ordered me back to Chicago for examination. I told my wife I had been hit in the eye by a ball or something. By August that year I was completely blind in the right eye.”

Thus commenced the Jackie Hayes tragedy. He still hoped to play ball in 1940, and did participate in 18 games. To protect himself while batting, he fashioned what was perhaps the first helmet ever used by a big leaguer. It was not fancy; just a strip of metal over the top of the head with a couple of earflaps, much like the earphones for a broadcaster. On the first time at bat while wearing the helmet he made a hit.  “You know what the trainer said? He said, `You ought to have been blind a long time ago’.” Hayes chuckled at the irony of the well-intentioned remark. But Jackie got few other hits that year. He wound up with a .195 average and quit the game. He went blind in his left eye in 1943.

“During those years that I had a good left eye,” he went on, “I had some adjustment problems. Every time I stuck my head out the window of a car, or turned around real quick to the right-Pow!-I’d bang my head. I called myself “Knotty-head” because I had knots all over my head from bumping things. After 1943 when I lost the left eye, I didn’t have that problem. I had other problems, but I didn’t have that one.”

But Jackie Hayes triumphed over this tragedy which struck in the prime of his life. It was not in the prime of his career, since he was over the top by 1940. However, he no doubt could have played a few more years, and with his grasp of the game, keen mind, and outgoing personality, he would have made an excellent coach. Now those hopes were dashed. Mrs. Hayes, whom he married in 1936, became a pillar of support in those trying years of adjustment. “This hasn’t been too hard on me, but it’s been very hard on her. She’s a good one, though, and has stuck with me through it all. After I became blind in both eyes I was elected tax collector of Chilton County here [in Central Alabama] and with her help I ran the office for 12 years.”

Jackie got his first seeing-eye dog in 1943, and now has his fifth, Angel. They have all been boxers. Angel sits alertly by the side of his master, keeping a wary eye on everyone and everything. He is quick and strong and it takes an arm as strong as Hayes’ to prevent him from breaking away.

The former second-sacker secures braille books from a nearby “Seeing-eye” school and frequently visits with the students there. The youngsters call him “Papa Jack.” Having had his sight and lost it, he is of special importance to those students who were born blind. “The owner of the school once thanked me,” Jack said, “for being an inspiration to them. I told him that they had been an inspiration to me. One time one of them asked me what was the color of an orange. I said, well, take a little red and a little yellow. . . `But, Papa Jack, we haven’t seen red or yellow.’ What could I tell them?”

“Then we adopted a little boy. It was tough on him. I couldn’t say, `See this, son,’ I had to say, `feel this, son.’ He’d bring something to me and say, `feel this, Daddy.’ That sort of gets next to you after awhile. But you know, I’ve got two good arms, two good legs, and I can get about all right with my dog. I can go anywhere I want to go.”

The handsome Hayes, still with much of his hair in the familiar pompadour, keeps himself in good shape, as good as a 72-year old man can who is on his third pacemaker. He is neatly-attired, bright, cheerful, and quick-witted. He recalls with joy and exuberance some of the memorable days of his baseball past. Like the time in Boston when he rapped out a single, two doubles, and a homer. The newspaper headlines announced that the “Red Sox Were Hayes-d.” Then, also in Boston, he handled 34 chances successfully in two successive games, something of a record at that time.

Although his best years batting were with the White Sox in 1936 (.312) and 1938 (.328), Hayes regards as perhaps his greatest season overall the one which was sandwiched in between, 1937, when he hit only .229. He drove in a lot of runs, 79, and finished well up in the defensive statistics for second-baseman. “I had more chances than Charlie Gehringer, who led the league in fielding (as well as batting), and Luke Appling, and I led the league in double-plays. My point is that it is not only the batting average that is important, or runs batted in, or fielding. It is all those things.”

“Take defense in particular. The fielding averages do not reflect how many runs the fielder either allows or does not allow to cross the plate. Our coach, Billy Webb, told me, `Jack, if you got credit for the runs you keep from scoring, you’d hit .300 every year.’ But the nicest compliment I ever got came from my old buddy Sam Jones. Sam once told some writers that if he was ever in a real tight spot and he could control the next play, he would want it to be a ground ball to Jackie Hayes.”

Born in Clanton, Alabama, where he still lives in a lovely ranch-style home, Jackie attended the University of Alabama, mother of several fine baseball players in the 1920’s. He left after two years when the lure of the diamond proved irresistible. “I loved baseball,” he recalled. “My Daddy wanted me to follow in his shoes and be a doctor, but when I was in the laboratory working on an experiment, and the soft spring breezes drifted through the window, and the crack of ball against bat could be distinctly heard in the distance, I knew I had to be a ballplayer.” And it was a good career that followed. Breaking in with Washington in 1927, then moving over to the White Sox in 1931, Hayes spent 14 years in the majors, compiling a life-time average of .265 before being stricken. He played under, with, and against some of the greatest and most colorful characters in the game.

Take old “Aches and Pains” Luke Appling, who after complaining all day about his bad back, would go 5 for 5. Then there was Zeke Bonura, the slugging first-baseman who was not known for his mobility.

“If you didn’t throw the ball within two feet of Zeke, he couldn’t get it and you’d receive the error.” And don’t forget Smead Jolley-“Old Pardner”-about whom everyone who knew him has his favorite story.  Lew Fonseca, the manager with three teams: one coming, one playing, and one going. Al Simmons, who beat Fred Marberry twice one day with two ninth-inning home runs. Lefty Grove, who even though you knew what every pitch would be-a fast ball-you still couldn’t hit him.  Ken Williams, who swung at an intentional fourth ball and popped up.  Walter Johnson, who only threw as hard as he had to. Bucky Harris, who knew men better than any other manager. Jake Powell, who literally grabbed your legs when he slid into second to prevent a throw.

Ted Lyons, one of the great gentlemen of the game, who would have been a 30-game winner had he been with the Yankees. And poor Monty Stratton, the White Sox pitcher who shot off his leg in a hunting accident.

“I really enjoyed my career in baseball,” commented Hayes, looking back over the last 50 years. “I didn’t play for the money; shucks, how could I? I didn’t get that much. But I loved all the players, and I hoped they loved me. I worked hard to improve myself, but it was still a lot of fun. My biggest thrill-along with being elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame a couple of years ago-was that day in Birmingham in 1927, when manager Johnny Dobbs told me that I had been sold to Washington. I was now in the big leagues and I enjoyed every minute.

Fate has not been kind to Jackie Hayes, but he was too big a man to be whipped by it. If people who have not had to suffer the way he has but who still bemoan life’s misfortunes, could spend an hour or so with him, they would leave Clanton, Alabama, humble, inspired, refreshed. At least, that was this interviewer’s experience.

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