The Earl of Snohomish

This article was written by Doug Simpson

This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal


The names of so many Hall of Famers convey a magical, almost mystical quality — Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Hornsby, Gehrig, Foxx, and, more recently, DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Mays, Mantle. Earl Averill, who turned 80 last May, is not always remembered as one of the great players, yet for a period of ten years, from 1929 to 1938, he had few peers. Were it not for a late start (he was a rookie at 27) and a bad back, his name might be remembered in the same breath with the major stars listed above.

“I could have been as good as Rose,” said Averill, who believes he could have been a top hitter for several more seasons. “I was having a hell of a year in 1937 until my back went haywire in Philadelphia.” Averill, after batting .378 in 1936, was hitting .394 on June 26 when his back gave out. At the end of the season he had fallen to .299. In 1938 he had one more good year with a .330 average, but his power had declined to 14 homers and 93 runs batted in. “My back affected my swing,” the former slugger recalls. It was later discovered that his tailbone and spine had never been fully joined; surgery in 1960 required six pins to join the two properly.

Averill split the 1939 season between Cleveland and Detroit, then served as a utility outfielder on his only pennant-winning team, the 1940 Tigers. After a few games with the Braves and a half season with Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in 1941, he retired from baseball and went home to Snohomish, Washington, where he has lived all his life.

Howard Earl Averill now lives with his wife Loette — they celebrated their 60th anniversary May 15 — in a nice apartment in the pleasant country town about 35 miles north of Seattle. Walking into the Averill home, one immediately notices the mementoes of an athlete who had a great career — the pictures, the plaques, the signed baseballs. It’s a little like being in a room at Cooperstown.

Although he has been fully retired for 13 years, Averill looks much younger his 80 years. He has wavy white hair and looks to be in pretty good condition, not much over his playing weight of 172 pounds. At 5’9½” it is easy to see that his power came from the shoulders, the arms and the wrists. Nicknamed “Rock,” he was a line-drive hitter who lacked the size of some of his slugging contemporaries.

After going through the local public schools, the young slugger played several seasons for the semi-pro Snohomish Pilchuckers before being purchased by San Francisco. Averill spent three full seasons with the Seals in the Pacific Coast League, who were reluctant to sell his contract to a major league team. Playing in San Francisco from 1926 through 1928, Averill hit .348, .324 and .354. In the long PCL season, his `28 campaign was awesome — 270 hits, 53 doubles, 36 home runs, 178 runs and 173 runs batted in. Despite his .354 average, “I was low on the team. Roy Johnson hit .375 and Smead Jolley hit .404.” Averill recalls his third game in 1926 when he got a pinch hit to win the game. When he hit three homers in a doubleheader in Portland, “centerfield was my job,” beating out future Hall of Famer Lloyd Waner. For the Seals, Averill once won both games of a doubleheader with home runs, both 1-0.

Purchased by Cleveland for the 1929 season, the left-handed slugger was handed the centerfield position. “All I had to do was hit,” Averill recalls. And hit he did. In his first major league time at bat he hit a home run off Earl Whitehill. “1 am the only Hall of Famer to hit a homer in his first time at bat,” he states with pride. In 1929 the Earl of Snohomish played every game, hit .331, clubbed 18 home runs (then a club record) and drove in 97 runs. He also led the circuit’s outfielders with 388 putouts. Despite the presence of batting champion Lew Fonseca (.369), future Hall of Famer Joe Sewll and pitchers like Wes Ferrell and Willis Hudlin, the Indians finished third.

But that’s the way it was throughout Averill’s career. Despite outstanding seasons from Averill and a few teammates, some other club always had more overall talent and superior performances.

From 1929 through 1931 the Athletics’ great dynasty swept three pennants behind stars like Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove. “All their batters hit,” Averill recalls, “and they had great pitching.” In `30 and `3 1 the Indians finished fourth with very good ball clubs. In 1930 Averill hit .339 with 19 homers and 119 RBIs. Teammates Eddie Morgan and Dick Porter hit .349 and .350 respectively. In 193 1 while Averill had one of his best years with a .337 average, 32 homers and 143 RBIs, Simmons hit .390 with 128 RBIs and Grove went 3 1-4. Even the Yankees — with Ruth and Gehrig hitting 46 homers each and the Iron Horse knocking in a league-record 184 runs — couldn’t catch the awesome A’s. After the 1931 season, Earl toured with the Babe Ruth All-American team.

The Yankees did win the pennant in 1932, with the Athletics, led by Foxx’s awesome 58 home runs and 169 runs batted in, on their heels. The Indians? Fourth again, despite Averill’s 32 home runs, 124 RBIs and .314 mark. The Tribe remained fourth in 1933 when the Washington club battled to the pennant.

The next two seasons saw the rise to prominence of Detroit, led by Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and pitchers Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges. The Indians finished third both years, despite the addition of Hal Trosky, a vastly underrated slugger. In 1934 Averill and Trosky between them belted 66 homeruns and drove in 257 runs. Both had off years in 1935.

The next four seasons belonged to the Yankees, who added Joe DiMaggio to give them the nudge they needed to remain atop the highly competitive American League. In 1936 Averill had perhaps his greatest season, hitting .378 with 28 home runs and 126 RBIs; Trosky hit .343, clubbed 42 homers and led the league with 162 RBIs. Amazingly, the Indians dropped to fifth place, 22½ games off the pace. Averill seemed well on his way to the batting title, leading Luke Appling by 10-12 points late in the season, when the White Sox came into Cleveland. “We decided to slow up on him,” Averill remembers, “but he hit one into the left field stands.” Appling went on to rip 13 hits in 16 times at bat and coast into the championship with a .388 average. “That 13 for 16 did it,” Averill rues. The Indian star did lead the league with 232 hits and 15 triples.

It was during the next season that the back problems began. Despite good statistics for the `37 and `38 seasons, the Averill swing had lost its potency, and he was traded to Detroit during the 1939 season, no longer the dangerous slugger of the previous ten seasons. A lifetime .3 18 hitter, during those ten years Averill averaged 189 hits, 37 doubles, 12 triples, 23 home runs, 115 runs, 108 runs batted in, and a .534 slugging average. Only once in the ten seasons did he score fewer than 100 runs (140 was his high), and five times he drove in better than 100 runs (with a high of 143). He played in 673 straight games from April 14, 1931 to June 28, 1935, when he was injured in a fireworks accident.

Averill was selected for the first six All-Star games, 1933-1938, the only outfielder in either league so honored. He was the hitting star of the 1934 classic, with a double, a triple and three RBI in his league’s 9-7 win. He is better known, of course, as the man who hit Dizzy Dean’s toe with a line drive in the `37 contest. Averill recalls having breakfast with Dean that morning on the train to Washington. Later in the game, Averill remembers Dean yelling to him, “You didn’t have to hit me.” Averill lays the blame for Dean’s ultimate career-shortening injury on the Cardinal manager, Frank Frisch, who pitched Dean too soon after the injury. “His manager thought he’d been joking,” Averill remarked. “If he’d waited a couple more days he’d probably been ready.”

The highlight of his playing career, Averill says, was a doubleheader in Washington on September 17, 1930, when he hit four home runs and drove in 11 runs, then an American League record. “When I played,” he commented, “they went by where you could last see the ball. I hit two or three more that went out over the screen. A couple could have been called fair.” The umpire ruled that a ball that cleared the screen fair, then hooked foul was a foul ball, thus costing Averill not only four homers in the first game, but six in the doubleheader, which no one has ever done. Another career highlight was hitting for the cycle on August 17, 1933. He was on the Sporting News All-Star team for both leagues four times – 1931, 1932, 1934 and 1936.

The Hall of Famer says Lefty Grove was the best pitcher of his era, but he suggests that Grove might not be so successful today. “He was a high ball thrower. Today they’d holler like hell if they called a strike up around the shoulders, but that’s what we had to put up with.” Averill also praises Lefty Gomez as a great pitcher, but “he didn’t bother me a bit.”

Other than the smaller strike zone, Averill doesn’t see many differences in the game today. “Anybody should be able to hit today with the strike zone.” He noted the smaller gloves of players in his era. “A glove couldn’t measure more than ten inches when I played.” Though he played very few night games in his career, he also never had an air-conditioned hotel room and had to travel by train. “The rest of the game itself, I don’t see any difference.”

Averill played for six managers in his career: Roger Peckinpaugh (1929-1933), Walter Johnson (1933-1935), Steve O’Neill (1935-1937), Oscar Vitt (1938-1939), Del Baker (1939-1940) at Detroit, and, briefly, Casey Stengel in 1941. Although Averill liked O’Neill the most, he considers Peckinpaugh his best manager. “He knew more baseball than the rest of them put together.” The Indians had good, solid clubs throughout Averill’s tenure. But playing against the powerful Athletics (“the best team I ever saw”), the Tigers and the Yankees, something always seemed to go wrong. “We always had one bad road trip. I remember one year we only won two of 21 games on a crucial, late season trip,” the Indian great recalls.

Averill’s career — the 1930’s in general — spanned what was probably baseball’s greatest era. He played against Sisler and Ruth in the latter part of their careers. He played against Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, Grove, Cochrane, Dickey, Greenberg, Gehringer, Appling and so many others at the peak of their great careers. And in the latter part of his career, Averill played with or against DiMaggio, Feller, Williams, Boudreau and other stars launching great careers through the forties and into the fifties~ He says the greatest player he ever saw was Charlie Gehringer, the Tigers’ “Mechanical Man.” “He was a great fielder and he could sure hit,” Averill recalls.

Back in Snohomish in 1941, Averill first operated a greenhouse with his brother Pud. In 1949 he opened the Earl Averill Motel, long a landmark on the town’s north end approach from Everett. He witnessed with pride the career of his son Earl, a catcher-outfielder with a seven-year career in the majors (1956-1963). The highlight of the younger Earl’s career was in 1961 when he hit 21 home runs for the Angels. An outdoorsman, Averill loves hunting, fishing and trapshooting. “I was a pretty good trapshooter at one time,” he boasts. He sold the motel in 1969. In 1975 he was finally named to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. He is one of three Cleveland players to have his uniform retired; the others are Bob Feller and Lou Boudreau. He was thrilled in March of 1981 to be invited to the White House to a luncheon and reception hosted by President Ronald Reagan for Hall of Famers.

Outside of Snohomish, where baseball is played at Earl Averill Field, his name may not be a household word. However, he still receives a great deal of mail, mostly from autograph-seekers. Unquestionably, he was a great player in his day, one of the best when there were so many great ones. Roger “Doc” Cramer, another rookie centerfielder in 1929 who had a longer career, says of his long-time opponent: “Earl Averill was a great hitter and a fine outfielder all around . . . whatever you write about Earl won’t be enough.”

Great Indian pitcher Mel Harder says Averill can be described in three words, “Great, great, great!” Besides praising his great hitting, Harder also comments on his fielding. “He was a fine defensive centerfielder and saved many games for me. He is a true Hall of Famer.”

The Earl of Snohomish has earned his place among the royalty of baseball’s rich history. His name also looks good among those who had the highest season batting average in the last half century.

1941  Ted Williams, Red Sox                .406

1980  George Brett, Royals                    .390

1957  Ted Williams, Red Sox                .388

1977  Rod Carew,Twins                         .388

1936  Luke Appling, White Sox             .388

1935  Arky Vaughan, Pirates                 .385

1939  Joe DiMaggio,Yankees                .381

1936  Earl Averill, Indians                     .378

1948  Stan Musial, Cardinals                 .376

1937  Joe Medwick, Cardinals               .374

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