This article was written by Thomas K. Perry
This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
To see anybody in Shelby, NC, on a Saturday afternoon in the 1940s was easy enough: head toward one of the cotton mills that sponsored a baseball club. Folks packed the stands to talk about wars and depressions, family matters, and local politics. But it was baseball that commanded center stage.
Sometimes the game even had a hand in carrying on the family name.
“My father was a big baseball fan, and that’s how I got my name.” Roger McKee, actually Rogers Hornsby McKee, was born September 16, 1926, about the time the St. Louis Cardinals, managed by Rogers Hornsby, clinched the National League pennant and then beat the Yankees in the World Series. “Dad and a bunch of guys from the mill were listening to a game on the radio, and he told them he was gonna name his boy after Hornsby.”
Young McKee did the name proud, and at 16 was pitching the local Ame1ican Legion team into the 1943 state tournament semifinals. His battery mate was another future major leaguer, Smoky Burgess, and they batted third (Burgess) and fourth (McKee) in the lineup. “Smoky was a great catcher, but he was an even better hitter.” It was a five-game thriller against the Albemarle, NC, nine. McKee notched complete-game wins in the first and third contests, allowing one run in each game, and played the outfield in games two and four. ]n the fifth and deciding game at Shelby, he went the distance in 11 innings, but lost 7-4.
An older man made his way across the infield dirt and sought out the young man who had just given his arm and heart in a losing cause. He was a pitcher, too, from the rough-and-tumble days of the early 1900s. He came not to offer condolences. A big league scout has other things on his mind, and he wanted to talk with the kid about his future in baseball. They arranged to meet later that evening. McKee and his father walked downtown to the Hotel Charles and listened intently as Phillies scout Cy Morgan talked about the kid’s future in the majors. A contract signed, a token bonus offered (“Small enough that I don’t remember what it was”), and a handshake ended the evening.
“Oh, yeah,” Morgan called after them, “we want you in Philadelphia within the week.” It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
The Phillies would gradually fit him in, they said, throwing batting practice, warming up on the sidelines, pitching an occasional exhibition game. That lasted until August 18 and a split doubleheader at Shibe Park with the Cardinals. In the first game, McKee was in the bullpen with the rest of the relievers, eating candy and having a good time. Merv Shea, bullpen coach and former catcher, looked toward the dugout and saw the manager waving his arms.
“They want you, Lefty.”
“Me?” McKee wasn’t sure he heard right, but with help from Shea he warmed up quickly and headed to the mound in the sixth inning. Things happened fast enough that he didn’t have time to get scared, but still could give himself a pep talk.
“I thought back to my success in Legion and high school ball, and figured maybe I could get these guys out, too.” He completed his relief stint, gave up three hits (one a bunt single) and two walks (one to Cards star Stan Musial). Reminded of that, he grins.
“Yeah. I hate that. Would have been nice to strike him out.” It was a good outing, though the Phillies lost, 6-0, and a big thrill for the kid nearly a month shy of his 17th birthday.
By season’s end, the Phillies were destined for a seventh-place finish, a distant 41 games out of first. The final two games were at Forbes Field against the Pirates, still in a fight for fourth place and the money that went along with it. Manager Freddie Fitzsimmons laid out the plan to his rookie left-hander: if the Phillies took out Pittsburgh in the opener, McKee would start the second game; if the Bucs won the first and still had a chance at securing fourth place, Fitzsimmons would go with a regular starter. Philadelphia managed a 3-1 win behind Dick Barrett’s fine effort. The kid got the ball for game 2, October 3, 1943.
The first inning went okay, but in the second a streak of wildness produced three walks. A couple of hits resulted in three runs, but that was all the scoring the home team could muster. Even a line drive off the bat of Tony Ordenana slamming into his knee couldn’t derail the kid’s magic that day-a five-hit, 11-3 complete game win.
After a dismal strikeout in his first at-bat, McKee had an RBI single later in the game.
My teammates scolded me because I never took the bat off my shoulder. “Can’t hit it if you don’t swing, rookie!” Of course, their words were a little stronger than that. Then they came through with 11 runs for me, and it was unheard of for the Phillies to score that many in a game. Guess they thought the poor little skinny boy was gonna need ’em.
Rogers Hornsby McKee, some two weeks past his 17th birthday, became the youngest pitcher since 1900 to start and win a major league baseball game. He remains so to this day.’ Afterward, Pirates manager Frankie Frisch paid the young man a fine compliment, saying that he was one of the best looking young pitchers he’d seen come along in quite a while.
“Guess maybe I let him down, not sticking any longer than I did.” It was the only major league game McKee would ever win, a promising career cut short by a mysterious arm ailment.
The Phillies stayed close to home for 1944 spring training, opting for Wilmington, DE, due to war-time travel restrictions. Ice and snow covered the ground the first few weeks of February, and workouts took place in a local gym.
The first day we got outside, I threw quite a bit, and that might have been the finishing blow as far as the elasticity in my arm. From then on, any day I could go out and throw pretty good for a couple of innings; and then nothing.
The arm never hurt and he threw the same way, but the fastball just wasn’t there. McKee believes the trouble began in that 1943 American Legion series, with three complete games in a five-day span. “That’s a lot of stress on a young arm.”
After spring training, the Phillies left him in Wilmington to finish the season with their Class B affiliate of the InterState League. McKee played first base after the regular sacker suffered a career-ending beaning, and still pitched on occasion. Connie Mack brought his Athletics down for an exhibition game early in the season, and Lefty was slated to battle Carl Scheib, another 17-year-old hurler. Wilmington topped the A’s that day behind his complete-game effort, though he had not pitched for almost a month.
He did well enough to be called up at the end of the season, joining the last-place Phillies for two games. Pitching in one of those, he joined a line of relievers drubbed in a 15-0 loss to the Cubs at Shibe Park. And that was it-his last game in the Show.
Thinking back to when I was hit by that line drive in the only game I won, I understand why I fought so hard to stay in there. I started that game and didn’t want to come out, because I might not get back into another one. And really, I never did.
Tony Ordenana was part of the mystique of that game, too; In one game for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had two hits in four at-bats, and never played another game in the majors.
The Navy made sure Lefty had little time to worry about his future in baseball, sending him a draft notice in December 1944. Boot camp was at Bainbridge, MD, and his assignment was in the Physical Instructor school. The base had a solid intramural program staffed by some good athletes-two barracks away from McKee was Stan Musial.
We played basketball against one another, and of course we tried out for the team when baseball season started. You pitched against some pretty good major league material when you played service ball.
Both he and Musial shipped out to Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1945. The war was over in Europe that April, and the final Allied push would be in the South Pacific. Lefty pitched some during those months, but always with the same results: a good three or four innings, then nothing in the arm. His mound appearances, though, produced two great memories if no victories. Shortly after arriving at Pearl, the ball team was working out when one of the base commanders stopped by, dom1ed the “tools of ignorance,” and crouched behind the plate. Bill Dickey, Yankee great and future Hall of Famer, took the young man’s offerings for about 15 minutes.
He’d stand up and throw a bullet back to me, and he was burning me up. I thought, “He’s throwing harder than I am!” Come to find out, our shortstop was covering second, waiting for Dickey’s throw down. That was part of his routine, but I didn’t know that. l ‘d snag those smoking fast balls and throw it back to him, still not realizing what he was trying to do. Everybody got a good laugh at my expense.
Then there was Ted Williams. A Marine pilot, he flew into the naval station, and of course was asked to play ball. A member of the opposition that day, McKee went to warm up in the fifth inning; the makeshift bullpen was along the left-field foul line, a few yards from where Teddy Ballgame was playing.
“He watched every move I made, the way I threw, what I had. Lucky nobody hit anything his way. I went in to pitch the sixth inning, and he happens to come up.” In the batter’s box, Williams eyed the short porch in right field (only 220 feet away) topped by a high screen. Pacing on the mound, McKee had some disturbing thoughts.
“The greatest hitter in baseball already knew every thing about my delivery and pitch selection, and I sure as heck couldn’t fool him with anything. Figured I’d throw it as hard as I could, and see how far he could hit it.” Williams jerked the ball down the right-field line, nearly taking the first baseman’s glove and hand off. He recovered and tossed to Lefty for the out. Military personnel in the packed stands let out a collective, though good-natured, boo.
“Guess they wanted to see him hit, just like I did.” With victory in the Pacific secure in August 1945, men and women of the armed forces finished up tours of duty and came home. McKee went back to Philadelphia in early 1946, stayed a couple of weeks, and was in formed by Phillies manager Ben Chapman to report to Terre Haute, IN, of the Class B Three-I League. Lefty never made his way back to the majors.
“They tried to pitch me one more time at Terre Haute, but I couldn’t keep the ball in the park. I was fortunate to hit pretty well, and was given a chance to play first base and outfield for the rest of the year.”
The switch began a solid minor league career that would take him from Terre Haute to Baton Rouge, LA, from Charlotte, NC, to Topeka, KS, with a lot of stops in between.
“Seems like I played ball in every city east of the Mississippi River. I had a good time, and enjoyed myself, but I don’t think I realized fully that those days were the happiest of my life.”
Some of those good times occurred during his stay with Baton Rouge of the Evangeline League. He did well enough in 1953, hitting .357 in 94 games (he had too few plate appearances to qualify for the batting title), but the next year he fashioned a true all-star season. In 140 games he hit .321 (with a .462 on-base average), had 12 triples, and stroked 33 home runs. Returning in 1956, he hit .307 in 75 games, and in 1957 posted .295 in 54 games before the team folded.
“Always liked the Evangeline League,” he smiled.
After three games with Topeka of the Western League late in the 1957 season, he said good-bye to the nomadic life of a ballplayer.
“I remember it rained a lot right after I got there. Sitting in a hotel room while the rain beat against the window, I told myself I could be home with my family instead of sitting here alone in Topeka.”
McKee put up solid numbers during his 12-year, 1,118 game minor league career: 1,115 hits, a .290 batting average, 115 home runs, and 702 RBis.2 He was one pitcher-turned-everyday player who knew how to hit.
From sandlot days on the cotton mill village to high school and American Legion ball, from triumph and heartbreak of a short major league career to hard-earned success in the minors, his life was a baseball journey.
“I lived the dream of about a million kids, being a major leaguer and all.”
After his playing days ended, he settled down to a career with the U.S. Postal Service. And he found time to coach high school and American Legion teams with his good friend and former teammate Gene Kirkpatrick. It was a chance to give back, to pass on his deep love for the game, to help shape the lives of the young men who played for him.
“Some of the kids have told me years later that I helped them in some way, and I get a bigger kick out of that than I do anything.”
He and his beloved wife of 60 years, Denice, never thought of leaving the familiar territory around Shelby, and joke that they never had enough money to get out of town, anyway. But after all the travels, all the places they have seen, and all the people they have come to know, there was just never anyplace better than home.
“It’s all been so wonderful. I’ve been so fortunate in my life, and I’ve always felt lucky to have baseball.” For Rogers Hornsby McKee, once around the horn has been a gracious plenty.
THOMAS K. PERRY has been a SABR member since 1985. His most recently published book is a novel whose narrator, Katie Jackson, is Shoeless Joe’s wife.
1. Documentation of this accomplishment is important enough to have independent verification. Jeff Chernow, Baseball Operations Manager of STATS, Inc., confirms that their research has shown Rogers Hornsby McKee to have been (and to this day, remains) the youngest pitcher since 1900 to have started and won a major league baseball game.
2. Mr. McKee’s minor league statistics courtesy of Patric J. Doyle, Old-Time Data.