This article was written by Tom Hufford
This article was published in the 1974 Baseball Research Journal
Perhaps the most drastic change baseball has seen during the last quarter century has taken place on the minor league level. From a high of nearly 60 leagues operating just after World War II, the minor league system has dwindled to the 18 leagues and 140 teams which operated during the 1973 season.
Much of this decline came about with the advent and growth in popularity of television in the 1950’s. For these and other reasons, it was during this period that baseball saw the last of a special kind of player–the career minor leaguer, who often spent ten or 20 years in the game without ever seeing the interior of a major league park. This was a type of local folk-hero, the player who hung on in the lower levels of pro sports, almost without exception for a low salary, simply because of a love for the game.
One of the last, and most colorful of these career minor leaguers was Leo “Muscle” Shoals, slugging first-baseman who spent more than 15 years in baseball, without ever drawing a major league paycheck.
Born in a small West Virginia saw mill town, Shoals can hardly remember when he wasn’t involved in baseball. “Starting back when I was eight, I caught with a catcher’s mitt my dad bought me for the right hand. Being left-handed meant nothing to me, I just wanted to catch, even without a mask,” Shoals relates. “Seeing the Babe in a double header in Washington in 1925, having the pictures cut out of the Baseball Magazine pinned up all around my room — baseball was my dream. I was determined to wear a baseball uniform and spikes.”
After being a Junior Legion star at Parkersburg, W. Va., and playing semipro ball in the area, Shoals was signed by the St. Louis Cardinal organization. He broke into pro ball as first baseman with Monessen of the Penn State League in 1937. His dream was becoming reality because he led the league in doubles and total bases and batted .366. Better than that, he had some contact in exhibition games and spring training with members of the parent St. Louis team — players like Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Pepper Martin, Johnny Mize, Joe Medwick, and Manager Frank Frisch. It was in one of these sessions in the spring of 1938 when the powerfully built Shoals, a member of the “Baby Gas House Gang,” got his nickname “Muscle”. He was displaying some of his home run power and some Cardinal players tagged him with that name. Of course, it was no coincidence that Muscle Shoals also was the name of a well known hydro-electric project on the Tennessee River.
Shoals expected to be promoted to Portsmouth in the Middle Atlantic League after his great initial season, but Branch Rickey, business manager of the Cardinals, ordered him sent to New Iberia, Louisiana, of the Evangeline League. Shoals didn’t like the mosquitoes and a few other things about Louisiana and refused to report. Rickey came down to the training site and confronted Shoals directly. Shoals described the meeting as follows:
“Right away he started the soft soap, the lines I learned later that all general managers and owners in baseball used, telling me I was only a jump from Houston of the Texas League and that I would probably finish the season in Houston and possibly come up and finish with the Cards. Still I was mum. Then he asked me what I was making. After telling him $100, he asked me if he could negotiate a $50 per month raise, and I agreed. He then called the owner of the club, as the Cards had only a working agreement with New Iberia. They made the arrangements and the deal was closed. I gathered up my gear and was given a bus ticket a yard long. I was headed for New Iberia.”
It was during his short stay at New Iberia that Shoals established his reputation as a battler, both on and off the field. “I had a fight the first week with Manager Harrison Wickel. He called me a bad name he wouldn’t take back, so we had a real good one in the clubhouse. I worked him over pretty well. When Mr. Rickey heard about the fight, he ordered me to Albuquerque and sent Wickel, the manager, to Daytona Beach. I was ready to quit, I was really disgusted.”
Shoals finally agreed to go to Albuquerque, but he took his time getting there. The Albuquerque club was a rough-and-tumble outfit led by Bill Delancey, the former Cardinal catcher who had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to New Mexico for the dry climate. The .327 average Shoals compiled there drew favorable light from the parent Cardinals, but the off-the-field activities of not only Shoals, but the entire team, put more than a few gray hairs in the heads of management.
In spring training of 1939, Branch Rickey called a meeting of farm club managers in which he reportedly stated, “I know a lot of you are interested in Shoals, but I want it understood that I want him to play a full season somewhere, and whoever takes him will have your job in jeopardy if he isn’t controlled.”
Shoals was thus taken for Johnson City, Tennessee, by manager Ollie Vanek, who had been pleased with “Muscle’s” work under him at Monessen. At Johnson City in 1939, Shoals won the first of his seven home run crowns, along with his first batting championship. In addition, this began what was to be a long Appalachian League career, in which he would set career and single season records in home runs, runs batted in, and total bases. However, the big first baseman had problems off the diamond. Near the end of the 1939 season, he was seriously wounded in a road house altercation. He had an argument with the proprietor and was shot. Although he recovered over the winter months, Shoals states, “That was about it as far as going on with the Cardinals was concerned. It was generally understood that I was blacklisted from then on.”
Shoals was sold to Tyler, Texas for the next season, and when that club ran into financial trouble he was peddled to El Dorado of the Cotton States League, where he spent the next season.
Several higher clubs showed keen interest in the slugger during the 1941 season, but backed off from making a deal when learning of his 1-A draft status. However, one manager, Guy Sturdy of Marshall, took a chance and traded five players for him during the final weeks of the campaign. “I told Sturdy he must have been crazy to make the deal, and sure enough, at the end of the season I was called to report for induction into the Army.”
Sent into action in the Pacific during World War II, Shoals continued to play ball as time permitted. He was voted the most valuable player in his military unit, which included several major league veterans.
Coming out of the war, and after having missed four seasons, Shoals was uncertain whether or not he would be able to resume his career. He contacted Hobe Brummitt, whom he had known from his days at Johnson City, and signed with Kingsport as a free agent, still not knowing if he could make the grade.
His doubts were soon dispelled, however, as he pounded out a league leading 21 home runs, and knocked in 106 runs. He returned the next season and won his second consecutive home run crown, while leading the league with a .387 average. Off of his performance these two seasons, he earned a trip to spring training with the Washington Senators in 1948.
“That was the best chance I ever had to hit against major league pitching.” Shoals remembers. “I hit several home runs and hit about .400, and was sent to Chattanooga, where I just couldn’t get started, so they returned me to Charlotte, where I was supposed to have started the season anyway.”
Sold by the Senators to the Browns organization for 1949, “Muscle” was assigned to Reidsville in the Carolina League, where he really lived up to his nickname. The 55 roundtrippers he knocked out still stand as a Carolina League record, and drew attention from several major league clubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates tried to work out a deal for him, and the parent St. Louis Browns invited him up to finish the season, but as he recalls, “I really didn’t want to go. I was married and my wife was expecting our first child. And I was tired of traveling by then, so I turned down the offers in order to stay at home.”
Drafted that winter by Cincinnati, he was sent to Columbia, South Carolina to serve as a player-coach. He worked with the Reds’ younger prospects, most notably Johnny Temple. “By that time, though, I was really tired of traveling, so they let me go back to Reidsville. Then I hooked up with Kingsport again, a town I really liked.”
Shoals recalls that the Tennessee town was the best place he ever played. After all, he did hit .427 for Kingsport in 1953. “They were really great fans there, and loved those home runs. They had three army helmets that they passed through the stands after each homer, and it was nothing to get $60 or $70 after hitting one out. I didn’t like to hit them in the ninth inning, though, because then the game was usually over before the helmets got around. I bought my contract from other clubs twice so that I could go back there and play — that was really a great place.”
Shoals didn’t have to have the uniform torn off him when it came time to quit. Although nearly 39 years old, he was still near the top of his form when he called it a career after the 1955 season. He hit .362 for Kingsport, leading the league with 33 homers and 134 runs batted in.
He played exactly 1800 games in his 15-year career, with almost all of them being at first base. Shoals’ lifetime batting average was .337 and he hit 362 homers, one of the highest career marks in the minors. He led in batting four seasons and in home runs seven times.
Now 57, Shoals still lives in the Kingsport area, although it is across the State line in southwest Virginia.
He works in a factory in Abingdon. The former slugger still has the marvelously robust build that scared rival pitchers before he took the bat off his shoulder. He weighs about 230, just a few pounds above his playing weight. Emotionally, he has mellowed with the years and with family responsibilities.
How does Muscle Shoals feel about his playing days now, nearly 20 years after he retired?
“As I look back, I would sure have changed my tactics. No matter how much natural ability you might have, you can’t live up to your potential by ‘playing around.’ While playing baseball, do nothing else. There is plenty of time to do other things after the season is over. I would like to have made the major leagues, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have any more today than I do. I played around the minors so long simply because I loved the game, and I would do it all again.”