Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Preacher Roe

GW was remiss in not mentioning the passing of Elwin Charles Roe, better known as Preacher, a couple of weeks ago. You probably remember him as one of Roger Kahn's "Boys of Summer," but Preacher spent his first four full big league seasons as a Pirate.

He was a country boy, born on February 26, 1916, in Ash Flat, Arkansas, and moved to Viola, on the edge of Ozark country, when he was 6. Roe’s father played for a semi-pro team in Pine Bluff, but gave up baseball to become a country doctor.

Preacher was a hard throwing pitcher in high school, but also a wild child: "I had smoke," he recalled. "I'd strike out twelve and walk seventeen." He attended Harding College in Searcy, and got a degree in education while averaging 18 Ks per game.

Roe was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938, pitching one game that season. He spent five years in the minors before being traded to the Pirates for Johnny Podgajny, Johnny Wyrostek, and cash. That deal was as sweet as the one that sent him to Brooklyn was sour. More on that later.

Preacher was a power pitcher then, all 6'2", 165 pounds of him, and won 13 games for Pittsburgh in 1944 and 14 more in 1945 with a league-leading 148 strikeouts.

But in 1945, Roe fractured his skull in a brawl with a referee while coaching a girl's high school basketball game during the off-season (he was a substitute math teacher at Hardy HS in the winter).

Preacher recovered slowly, going 7-23 over the next two seasons, and appeared washed-up after his tussle with the zebra. But Branch Rickey, whose brother Rick scouted him a decade earlier for the Cards, was Brooklyn's GM and pulled the trigger on a deal for him. The trade was the kind that Dave Littlefield was fond of making.

The Pirates sent him, sweet fielding Billy Cox and Gene Mauch to the Boro for Dixie Walker, Hal Gregg, and Vic Lombardi. The trio of Bums were gone from Pittsburgh by 1950. Roe and Cox would play in three Fall Classics for the Dodgers.

Roe, healthy once more, rang up six straight winning seasons with the Dodgers, highlighted by a 19-11 mark in 1950 and a 22-3 record in 1951, earning him TSN's "Pitcher of the Year" honors to go with four All-Star selections. He helped pitch them to three World Series in that span, and went 2-1 in five October outings with a 2.54 ERA.

Two other things factored into his success with Brooklyn - he was now on a top flight team for one, and secondly, he changed from a flamethrower into a thinking man's pitcher.

The Dodgers, unlike the Bucs, could actually field behind him. Comparing the glovework of the two teams, he said that a pitcher should pay to pitch for the Dodgers, while the Pirates' infielders were like stationary goalposts with the ball bouncing between them.

He wasn't much more complimentary of Ralph Kiner's range. He claimed Kiner stood in his hole (the patch of dead grass left by his spikes) in the outfield, and would only catch the balls hit to his hole and nowhere else.

Of course, it had to help to play alongside the likes of Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, and the other fabled Boys of Summer at Ebbets Field instead of the sad sacks that suited up at Forbes Field.

The lanky lefty changed styles, from power to finesse, in Brooklyn. As Roe said "I've got three pitches, my change, my change off my change, and my change off my change off my change."

And in truth, he had come up with a new pitch - the spitter. Actually, two new pitches - his fake spitter kept batters off balance pretty well, too. "You don't have to throw it," he explained, "just make 'em think you're going to throw it."

In "Boys of Summer," Kahn told this tale: While pitching against the Boston Braves’ Jim Russell, Roe went to his cap repeatedly. Each time he did that, Russell stepped out of the batter’s box. After this went on three or four times, Roe finally pitched the ball.

Roe told Kahn: “He’s waiting for that good hard drop. I touch the visor and throw a big slow curve. He was so wound up he couldn’t swing. But he spit at the ball as it went by.”

Needless to say, he was one of the slowest working pitchers in the majors, often authoring three hour games. It was all part of his plan to play with hitters' minds.

He was also famous for his folksy tales and humor. Roe once opened the door to the Cardinals’ clubhouse after a game, and told the Redbirds “I know how to get Stan Musial out.”

Cardinals’ players: “How?”

Roe: ”Throw him four wide ones, and pick ‘em off first!”

After going 3-4 for the Dodgers in 1954 at the age of 39, Roe was sent to the Baltimore Orioles along with Cox. But The Pride of the Ozarks opted to retire, finishing with a career record of 127-84, a 3.43 ERA and 101 complete games in twelve seasons.

After he hung them up, he sent the baseball world into a tizzy by owning up to his out pitch in a 1955 Sports Illustrated article by Dick Young, "The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch."

Hey, all the players knew; why not the fans, too? Roe later said he did the story in hopes that it would get the spitter legalized. Fat chance of that. Instead, he became a pariah, unwelcome at old timers games and other official MLB events.

He operated a grocery store in his long-time home of West Plains, Missouri, with his wife Mozee and son Tommy, where he would gladly sign autographs and shoot the breeze with any fan that walked into his market.

Preacher kept pretty busy. Roe coached youth baseball, was President of the West Plains Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club Board of Directors, and on the Methodist Church Board of Directors. He was an instructor for several of the Dodgers' Adult Baseball Camps in Florida. Roe even took up golfing - at the age of 77!

He died at the age of 93 on November 9th after waging a battle with colon cancer.

He was quite a local celeb. US 160 is still called Preacher Roe Boulevard south of US 63. And a ballyard in Fulton County, Arkansas, 18 miles from his birthplace of Ash Flat, is known as Preacher Roe Park. His legacy includes being elected to the Harding College, Missouri, Arkansas and Dodger Halls of Fame.

How did he become Preacher? He said that the moniker was given to him at age 3 when an uncle, just back from WW1, asked his name and Roe responded "Preacher," in recognition of his favorite Methodist minister who would take him on horse-and-buggy rides. That's the official version.

Ralph Branca, an old Dodger teammate, recalled the nickname's origin a bit differently. "We all called him 'Preacher' because he could talk your ear off," he said. "If there was no one around, he would talk to the wall."

Another tale is that Roe got his nickname when he said he wanted to become a minister at Harding College before deciding on teaching.

Preacher always liked to keep them guessing.

(GW thanks his bud, Mike Broz, for mentioning that Preacher was an old Bucco and suggesting his tale be told.)

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