Happy Birthday to Elwin Charles Roe, born on this date in 1915, in Ash Flats, Arkansas. It just so happens that I’ve just acquired a Preacher Roe baseball card, Topps, 1952, one of the nicest looking cards in the set, in my opinion.
That seems like the face of the guy you want on the mound in the key game.
Plus he’s got one of the better nicknames in the game. There’s a number of stories how he got it; the one I prefer is that when he was very young he used to ride around in a buggy with a local Methodist preacher, and once, when one of his uncles asked the 3-year-old Elwin what his name was, he replied “Preacher” – perhaps people would see him ride by and say “Hello, Preacher,” and they thought they were talking to him?
Preacher could bring some heat. Playing for Harding college, he once struck out 26 in a 13 inning game. (Or perhaps it was 11 innings. Again, stories vary.) The Cardinals signed him just before he graduated, in 1938, and he used some of the bonus money to buy new uniforms for the Harding College team. He also married his childhood sweetheart, Mozee Vida Clay.
Roe worked through the Cardinals farm system for five years; Columbus manager Burt Shotton said of him, “He was fast as hell and wilder than any human I ever saw.” (Sounds like a dangerous combination.) When Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch moved on to manage the Pirates, he traded for Roe and brought him up to the majors to stay. Playing against weak war-time competition (Roe was deferred due to a back injury he sustained when a tree fell on him) Roe put together a couple of decent seasons for the Pirates, 13-11 and 3.11 in 1944, and 14-13 and 2.87 in 1945. But in the off-season before 1946, Roe, working his off-season job as a math teacher and basketball coach in Arkansas, disputed a referee’s call in a game. The ref slugged him, and Roe fractured his skull when he hit the floor.
Roe struggled to come back from this, suffered from weakness, headaches and dizzy spells. He quit playing in August of 1946, with a 3-8 record and a 5-14 ERA. His 1947 season was little better: 4-15, 5.25. However Branch Rickey saw something he liked, and traded for Roe in the off-season. While Roe was slowly regaining his health, his fastball was gone for good, and so Roe unleashed the spitball that he had learned in the minors. His 1948 record with the Dodgers was 12-8 with a 2.63 ERA. When Burt Shotton took over as manager of the Dodgers in 1949, he was surprised by the change in Roe: “He’d got to be a pitcher, because he knew where to throw the ball and he had a change of speed, though not his old speed. Didn’t seem like the same pitcher.”
In 1949 Roe went 15-6 with a 2.79 ERA, played in the All-Star game, and beat the Yankees in the World Series, the only win for the Dodgers in the ’49 Series. In 1950 Roe went 19-11, with a 3.30 ERA, and was again an All-Star, and in 1951 Roe had his best season, 22-3, with a 3.04 ERA. The Sporting News named him as National League Pitcher of the Year, but the Dodgers lost in the playoff to the Giants, on Bobby Thomson’s home run, and so the year ended in disappointment.
Preacher was 35 years old when he had his great season in 1951, and after that his career slowly wound down. He got more rest between starts and had winning records with some great Brooklyn clubs, but finally retired after the 1954 season. One of the highlights of his later years came in 1953 when Roe – a notoriously bad hitter – hit a home run, his only home run, at Forbes Field. Afterwards he commented “I reckon it means that I’ve finally come out of my slump.”
Another favorite saying from the Preacher: “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.”
For more on the Preacher there’s the SABR biography here, and the NY Times obituary here.
Happy Birthday, Preacher Roe. Good game.