dizzy

The only Class E player to make it to the majors; or, An excuse to obsess

(I’ve been able to add images and information to my original post thanks to items unearthed by Ernie Rudolph’s son Steve.  I am extremely grateful to him for sharing.)

Minnesota radio personality Don Anger (pronounced with a soft “g,” please) posted the following Facebook status update yesterday:

Ernie Rudolph From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Jump to: navigation, search Ernie Rudolph Pitcher Born: February 13, 1909(1909-02-13) Black River Falls, Wisconsin Died: January 13, 2003 (aged 93) Black River Falls, Wisconsin Batted: Left Threw: Right MLB debut June 16, 1945 for the Brooklyn Dodgers Last MLB appearance July 6, 1945 for the Brooklyn Dodgers Career statistics Record 1-0

Don went on to say Ernie was his second cousin on his mother’s side.

I love baseball history and especially the stories of the men who played, so this caught my eye.  And I probably would have let it pass with just a smile until it sunk in that Ernie Rudolph made his major league debut when he was 36 years old.  This would be unheard of today; even Jim Morris, whose story was told in the movie “The Rookie,” was only 35 when he made the majors.  (Concordia College alum Chris Coste was a mere babe of 33 when he was called up for the first time.  Concordia is an NCAA Division III (no athletic scholarships) school in Moorhead, Minnesota, across the river from Fargo.  By the way, on the Concordia home page I saw this:  “More than half of students study abroad at least once in their four years here.”  Good God, have you ever spent a winter in Moorhead?  Why wouldn’t you try to get away?)  Of course, Ernie got the call in 1945, and some unusual things happened in baseball during World War II…but this begged for me to find out more.

(ADDED 6/4/13: Thanks to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, here’s a list of players since 1916 who were 36 or older, at least as far as we know (because “baseball ages” aren’t always accurate), when they made their major league debut. Note most of them fall under one of the following categories: played during World War II, like Ernie; black players who reached the majors in the years after the color barrier came down; and in more recent years, players from Japan.)

Ernie Rudolph pitching for the St. Joseph (Mich.) Autos in 1942. This photo, along with the Crookston team photo and Dodger photo below, were provided by Ernie's son Steve.

Ernie Rudolph pitching for the St. Joseph (Mich.) Autos in 1942. This photo, along with the Crookston team photo and Dodger photo below, were provided by Ernie’s son Steve.

My go-to website, Baseball-Reference.com, has all kinds of minor league stats in addition to comprehensive major league stats.  The site has a disclaimer that their older minor league stats aren’t necessarily complete, but even so, the stats they have for Rudolph raised even more questions.  Taken at face value, this would be a guy who didn’t play professional baseball until he was 28–extremely unusual–and then in his first season posted a 2.24 ERA to rank second in the Northern League.  (I got his ranking from the 1938 Spalding Baseball Guide on my bookshelf.)  Then after that success, he spent the next three years out of pro ball.  What the…?  Just to double check, I got out the 1939 Spalding guide and looked through the individual pitching statistics of every minor league in 1938.  Nobody named Rudolph anywhere.  Ernie had a superb season in 1937 (admittedly, in a low-level league) and wasn’t pitching anywhere in 1938?  Maybe he was hurt?Crookston

(This is the Crookston (Minn.) Pirates team Ernie pitched for in the Northern League in 1937.  Note Ernie is the third from the left in the middle row.)

Back home in Wisconsin after the Northern League season, Ernie took part in an exhibition game that brought a number of major league players to Menomonie on October 7.  This account is from the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune and Leader-Press:Picture 1

But where was Rudolph before 1937?  And what happened to him after?

Ernie’s son Steve sent me a copy of a newspaper article from April 1943 by Ralph Zeuthen, the name of the paper is not on the clipping but it apparently was one of the Minneapolis papers.  According to this account, Ernie entered pro baseball with the Eau Clare (Wis.) Bears of the Northern League in 1935.  (Eau Claire is not far from Ernie’s hometown of Black River Falls.)  He pitched and won two games and then, according to this account, “the boss fired him because he thought him too small.”  (This would explain why no minor league stats show up for him that season; the cutoff to be listed in the Northern League stats in the 1936 Spalding guide was 35 innings pitched.)

Zeuthen’s report continues:

He was signed by Columbus [Ohio] in ’37 [so apparently he wasn’t in organized ball in 1936] and shipped to Springfield, Mo., and then to Crookston.  A stomach ailment, which has made him 4-F with the Army, kept him out of pro baseball for the next four years, but he pitched in semi-pro leagues around his home town of Black River Falls and in Michigan.

Through a site called Pro Baseball Newspaper Archive, I found a story in the LaCrosse (Wis.) Tribune and Leader-Press from July 2, 1939, detailing Ernie’s success in the local league.

Picture 4

(I would love to find an account of the game Ernie pitched against “Catchel” Paige…which I assume is a typo and should be Satchel Paige.)

dizzyI also found a story from August 10, 1941, previewing a pitching matchup scheduled for that afternoon between Rudolph and former St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean.  (The image on the left is from Ernie’s scrapbook.)  Diz was being brought in as a promotion to pitch three innings for the minor league La Crosse Blackhawks and put some fans in the stands at Copeland Park (the story says 5,000 had recently paid to see him in Council Bluffs, Iowa).  Meanwhile, Rudolph, who was pitching for Galesville (Wis.) in the semi-pro Wisconsin-Minnesota League, would be the starting pitcher for a league all-star team.  Here’s part of the article:

Picture 3

You’ll notice the clip says Ernie won 20 games at Crookston in 1937; the record book says he won 11.  So that makes you wonder about the credibility of some of the other claims in the story.  On the other hand, he had been a successful professional pitcher and was playing in a Sunday townball league.  So these feats are entirely possible:  a no-hitter with 19 strikeouts…games with 20 and 23 strikeouts.  The tale of striking out 12 Minneapolis Millers in a 1937 exhibition is a little tougher to swallow, but he did rack up 150 strikeouts in 177 innings in Class D that year.

You’ll also notice the reference to La Crosse trying to “tempt Rudolph back into the organized fold.”  The Blackhawks were part of Organized Baseball as members of the Class D Wisconsin State League.  Their manager in 1941 was former major league player (and La Crosse native) Ed Konetchy.

By the way, Dean pitched four innings in the all-star game, coming out with the score tied 4-4.  The All-Stars went on to win, 7-6.  Steve Rudolph says he has a clipping of an account of the game but it’s difficult to scan; he told me, “Dad beat Dizzy…and homered off him too.”

Late in the 1941 season, Rosy Ryan brought Ernie back to pro ball with Eau Claire.  Ryan was a former big league pitcher (he won 33 games over the 1922 and 1923 seasons for the National League champion Giants) and at that time was in his first year as Eau Claire’s manager.  (As an aside, in the 1980s I was a radio news colleague of Rosy’s son Bob Ryan, a wonderful guy who had been one of Minnesota’s first television news anchors.)  Zeuthen’s story says Rudolph played a key role in Eau Claire’s winning the Northern League playoffs; after finishing fourth in the regular season they went on to defeat Duluth, four games to three, in the finals.  There’s a team photo of the 1941 Bears in a book called “Baseball in Eau Claire,” but Ernie is not in the picture.  His teammates included future big league catcher and manager Wes Westrum and future big league manager Dave Garcia.

Picture 5In 1942, he pitched for the semi-pro St. Joseph (Mich.) Autos.  The story at left is from the Benton Harbor (Mich.) News-Palladium on May 11, 1942.  (I found a story in the News-Palladium from the following month saying Rudolph “was just put in 4-F by army physicials due to his stomach ulcer.”)  The claim in this story that Ernie “was up for a time in the American Association” doesn’t appear to be true, at this point.  But this story doesn’t make clear why, at age 33, Ernie decided to leave his home area in Wisconsin…after all, he had left home to pitch professionally for just one season before this.

(Halsey Hall noted Rudolph’s signing with the Millers in the March 4, 1943, issue of The Sporting News, saying that, along with other signings, raised the Millers’ roster to an “imposing” total of 24.  “We say imposing for two reasons (1) That is a good total anywhere in these times, and (2) ten days ago, the Millers weren’t sure of even 14 men.”)

I have not been able to find an account of the game Rudolph pitched against the House of David that is alluded to in this article, but the House was headquartered in Benton Harbor, just across the St. Joseph River from St. Joseph, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The Autos had been part of the professional Michigan State League during that loop’s existence in 1940 and ’41, but the league folded before the 1942 season.  The Zeuthen story says Ernie had an 11-2 record for the Autos.  Then apparently he started the 1943 season with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, making the jump to the highest level of the minor leagues.  He wasn’t there for long….but it was long enough to get his photo in the now-defunct Minneapolis Daily Times.  (The reference to “Kels” in the cutline uses a longtime alternate nickname for the Millers; it comes from the name of team owner Mike Kelly, who owned the Millers from 1924 to 1946.)

dad millers

This clipping is not dated, but looking at the American Association schedule in the 1943 Baseball Guide, it would appear to be from early June.  Columbus first visited Minneapolis for a series June 2-5…before that the Millers had been scheduled for a 16-game road trip at Columbus, Toledo, Louisville and Indianapolis May 15-28 (which could be “the recent trip through the east,” those being the easternmost cities in the Association).

Looking at Ernie’s record at Baseball-Reference.com, this jumped out at me:  he pitched in Class E in 1943.  That is not a typo.  Since 1963, baseball’s full-season minor leagues have been sorted into Classes AAA, AA and A.  But before that there were also Classes B, C and D.  And then there was Class E, which was created in 1937.  This is from L.H. Addington’s piece on the minor leagues in the 1938 Spalding guide:

Perhaps one of the more important pieces of legislation enacted [during the National Association of Professional Base Ball Leagues meeting held in December 1937], from point of public interest, was the one which established Class E leagues.  This new classification is a veritable kindergarten for young players not ready for Class D.  Its salary roll is limited to $750 per month per club, to be apportioned to twelve players, the player limit being thirteen, including the manager.  The manager’s salary, however, is not included in the maximum limit.  [Class D’s limit at the time was $1,200 a month for 15 men.]

The leagues are restricted to players without previous professional experience in leagues higher than Class E.  They will be developed under an experienced manager.  Class E is required to adopt a schedule calling for at least four games per week.

No sooner had the announcement been made than [minor league] President Bramham’s office was swamped with mail from youngsters all over the country, wanting to make connections in a Class E league.  The establishment of the classification struck a chord with the youth of the country, for which it is designed.

Apparently the enthusiasm of America’s youth did not carry over to potential club operators, because no Class E leagues were established…until 1943.  Minnesota baseball historian Stew Thornley wrote, in his book “Baseball in Minnesota,” that the Twin Ports League “was formed in the Duluth area with the idea of taking advantage of men in defense-related jobs in the area.”  The league had three teams based in Duluth and one, the team for which Rudolph pitched, across the state line in Superior.

(The ad above appeared in  The Sporting News issue of April 29, 1943.)

Play began May 30.  The combination of rainouts, poor attendance, players’ difficulties in getting away from their full-time jobs, and players being called to active duty led the league to fold on July 13 after just 34 games had been played, with no team having played more than 19.

The Twin Ports League was formed by Frank Wade.  He had been president of Duluth’s team in the Northern League, which had been forced to suspend operations after the 1942 season.  The three Duluth teams in the Twin Ports League all played in the stadium that is now named for Wade.

Now if you were paying attention, you noticed that when Class E was authorized, it was expressly limited to players who had never played higher than Class E.  So how was it that Ernie Rudolph was able to play?  Minor league historian Bill Weiss writes “the rule requiring all players to be rookies was waived.”  More from Weiss:

The rosters were typical for wartime.  In age, they ran the gamut from Superior’s 16 year old pitcher Bob Connolly (the local team’s former batboy), through ten year veteran outfielder Jersey Joe Goldfine, to 45 year old Marine Iron centerfielder Ad Stemig, a local farmer whose pro career began in the middle 1920s.  Marine Iron’s opening day winning pitcher, Rudy Gamblin, was deaf.

Ernie Rudolph, at age 34, fit right in.  He split two decisions on the mound and went 4-for-7 at the plate.  Since the league started play May 30 and we seem to have evidence that Ernie was still with Minneapolis in early June, I’m guessing he came to the Twin Ports League after being let go by the Millers.  I found this note in the Twin Ports League column in the July 15, 1943, issue of The Sporting News:

Superior signed Ernie Rudolph, an experienced righthander, to strengthen its mound staff.  Rudolph started the season with Minneapolis of the American Association.  Simultaneously, the Bays announced a reduction in grandstand proces for men from 55 to 44 cents.

That same column gave some insight into the league’s struggles.  Several players were noted to be leaving for military service; Duluth Heralds pitcher/outfielder was Clint Wager was excused for a week to go to southern Minnesota on a scouting trip “as the entire circuit began a hunt for additional player talent.”

Then at some point (whether it was before the Twin Ports League folded or not I don’t know) Ernie returned to the American Association with the St. Paul Saints.  He finished the season with the second-worst ERA of any pitcher in the league who pitched at least 45 innings.  But in 1944, with manpower available for baseball at a minimum because of the war, Ernie got another chance with the Saints.  And this time he made it pay off with 14 wins and a 2.88 ERA, the league’s eighth-lowest.

That earned Ernie a shot at the big leagues.  The Saints’ parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, bought his contract at the end of August 1944.  But apparently Ernie needed some convincing to go east…according to a New York Times story on April 1, 1945, Ernie was adamant about getting a piece of the money the Dodgers had sent to St. Paul.  “He’s a winning ball player,” Dodger president Branch Rickey told The Times.  “I like him.  He wrote me the strongest letter I’ve ever received from a player and I wrote right back and thanked him for it.  I hope he will come in.”

A story in The Sporting News of April 5 quoted Rudolph on his demands:  “I want $1,500 of my purchase price from St. Paul.  The Saints have offered me a little over $200, giving as their excuse the ceiling price on wages.”

Branch Rickey, Jr., then the Dodger farm director, made a trip to Black River Falls and apparently convinced Rudolph to give up on getting a piece of his purchase price, and a Times headline on May 9 reads, “Rudolph Accepts Terms Of Dodgers.”  “Rudolph is said to possess quite a pitching repertoire,” according to the article, which added he “would come on from his Black River Falls, Wis., home immediately.”1945 Dodgers 2

(From left to right:  Dodger pitchers Leroy Pfund, Vic Lombardi, Tom Seats, Cy Buker, Clyde King and Ernie Rudolph.)

It turned out to be a brief big-league career for Ernie, who pitched in seven games between June 16 and July 6.  His longest appearance was actually after that and didn’t count in the official stats, when he went 6-2/3 innings in a charity exhibition game at Washington against the American League’s Senators on July 10.  (The game raised $22,760 for the American Red Cross and the War Fund.  There was no official major league All-Star Game in 1945 because of war travel restrictions, but the major league teams all staged fund-raising exhibitions instead.) Rudolph got the loss after coming on in relief when starting pitcher Leroy Pfund suffered a knee injury in the second inning.  Washington’s starting pitcher was Bert Shepard, who had lost a leg in the war.  He would pitch in a regular season game for the Senators on August 4, making him the only player ever to appear in a major league game with an artificial leg.

Picture 1(Ernie is mentioned in this 1986 Baseball Digest story about Shepard, written by John Holway.  Other Baseball Digest stories about Shepard right after the war were in 1945 and 1946.)

I believe Ernie Rudolph is the only player to advance from Class E ball to the big leagues.  Two men who played in the Twin Ports League had been in the majors previously:  34-year-old pitcher Les Munns and 42-year-old Wally Gilbert, the Marine Iron manager/third baseman who led the league with a .456 batting average.

On July 15, The Times reported that Rudolph, the “stocky right-hander who reported late in the season after staging a persistent holdout,” was being returned to St. Paul, with the Dodgers calling up Ralph Branca, who would later be part of one of the great moments in baseball history (although not in a good way for him).

And after he posted a 3-7 record in 15 games for the Saints, that would be the end of Ernie Rudolph’s career in Organized Baseball.  But his last victory was a memorable won, a shutout in the playoffs against Indianapolis to put the Saints in the American Association championship series.  The box score of that game from The Sporting News is below:

Ernie’s obituary in the Madison (Wis.) Capital Times said he “quit the team [Dodgers] in a dispute with the late Leo Durocher [then the Dodger manager],” but I have found no other reference to this.

Rudolph returned to St. Joseph and pitched for the Autos again in 1946, when they won the National Baseball Congress championship of nonprofessional baseball teams.  (Another former big leaguer, Roy Henshaw, was a teammate; 19-year-old Gran Hamner, who had already played in the majors and would go on to be an All-Star in the ’50s, was a member of the fourth-place team, along with another future big leaguer, Bob Chakales.)  There’s a picture of Ernie and the rest of the Autos team in the 1947 Official Baseball Guide from The Sporting News.  This is not that photo.St. Joe Champs

(This clipping is from Ernie’s scrapbook; Ernie is second from the right in the front row.  Several of his teammates on the 1946 St. Joe team had played minor league baseball before the war.  Three of his teammates had also played in the majors:  Roy Henshaw, whose career included a 13-5 record for the 1935 National League champion Chicago Cubs; Benny McCoy, who was the Philadelphia A’s regular second baseman in 1940 and ’41; and Al Piechiota, who pitched for the Boston Braves in 1940-41.)

Ernie spent some time as a scout, first for the St. Louis Browns and later for his homestate Milwaukee Braves.  While with the Browns in 1949 he was credited with signing future bullpen star Ryne Duren from the tiny southwestern Wisconsin town of Cazenovia.  While with the Braves he also put on clinics for kids.  The Braves dropped him as a scout after the 1961 season.Ernie clinic

(This photo appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel on July 30, 1958.  The caption read:  “An intent class of Silver Sluggers listens as Ernie Rudolph, Brave scout, explains some of the finer points of baseball.  More than 100 students attended the first session of the Sentinel-Brave school Tuesday at McCarty Park.”)

Ernie is mentioned in this 1958 Baseball Digest story about the Braves’ tryout camps.

As Ernie’s son continues to find items in his dad’s memorabilia, I’ll share them here.

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10 thoughts on “The only Class E player to make it to the majors; or, An excuse to obsess

  1. Jim Flint

    Black River Falls WI. is a blast from the past for me JG. I stopped there while driving across the States one late evening many years ago. Of course my sister and I left town, hit the Interstate and continued to travel at an excessive rate of speed, until a state trooper decided to stop us and let us know that the folks of Wisconsin don’t appreciate that sort of thing. I wrote a cheque made out to Judge Roy Bean or someone on a bank account that I knew was empty. By the time we got past Minn/St.Paul and were gearing up to blow past St.Cloud we had decided that the folks of Minnesota and hopefully North Dakota were likely to be more forgiving when it came to excessive speed and we again achieved warp speed. They were, as nobody bothered us..come to think of it I still owe the friendly folks of Wisconsin for that little indiscretion. Although as far as I know they never came looking for the money, so maybe they were just kidding about excessive speed being a problem in Wisconsin.
    Good baseball story too by the way. Cheers

    Reply
    1. prestonjg Post author

      Hey Jim–Wisconsin troopers are notorious for their treatment of out-of-state speeders. I’m shocked they didn’t try to squeeze the payment out of you but maybe Wisconsin doesn’t have extradition with Ontario. :)

      Reply
  2. Pingback: More about the only player to make it from Class E to the majors « The J.G. Preston Experience

  3. Len Levin

    Great piece on Ernie Rudolph. I was attracted to your blog by your post to Retrosheet on pitchers starting both games of a doubleheader. If you don’t mind, I’d like to copy both that and Rudolph and add them to the SABR Research Library, which I oversee.

    Reply
  4. Ed Whelan

    I was looking up Ernie on Google, and came across your site. Some years back I had bought a baseball collector’s magazine, and they had inserted autographed cards in the magazines to entice collectors to buy the issue, and the 3 x 5 card I received has Ernie’s signature on it.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: The oldest players to make their debut in the major leagues: Satchel Paige and the rest | The J.G. Preston Experience

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