Category Archives: Far West League

The man behind the accordion: Far West League outfielder Don Napoli

When Dave Eskenazi sent me the photo below, all he could tell me was that the players were from the Klamath Falls Gems of the Far West League and the man in the middle was pitcher/manager Hub Kittle.

Thanks to a stroke of luck, I can now tell you the man with the accordion is Don Napoli, and the man with the birthday cake is Chet Ashman, and the photo is from 1950.

Here’s how I found out.  The Chico Outlaws of the independent professional Golden Baseball League are now California’s only professional baseball team north of Interstate 80.  When Jason Matlock came on as the Outlaws’ sales director earlier this year, he decided to reach out to the Redding market, 75 miles away, by staging a tribute to Redding’s former professional team, the Browns, who were in the Far West League all four seasons of its existence.  Jason learned a former Browns player lives in Chico–Don Napoli–and invited him to attend the game and throw out the first pitch.  Jason called me to get some more information about Don to share with the fans.

One of the things I did was look through Brad Peek’s history of the Browns that he wrote for his master’s thesis at Chico State to see if he had interviewed Napoli for that.  Sure enough he had, and one of the things Don was quoted as saying was: “I played the accordion and would take it on the bus trips and entertain the boys.  Had a lot of fun!”

Whoa…had I found the man in the photo?  It turned out Don had started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls, so how could it not be him?

As soon as I meet Don before the Browns tribute game August 27 at Chico’s Nettleton Stadium, I showed him the photo, which he said he’d never seen before…and he said yes, that was him holding the accordion.  Don told me he started out at Salinas Junior College (now Hartnell College) after World War II as a music major and played accordion in a symphonic band.  Later in life he had his own accordion studio and taught lessons and also played different jobs at dances and parties with various bands.

Before we get more of Don’s story…the other player he recognized in the photo was Chet Ashman, his teammate holding the birthday cake.  Unfortunately I don’t know what Chet’s birthday is so I can’t pin down the date, although it had to be before July 16 when Napoli went to Redding.  (Chet must still be alive, as I don’t find him listed on the Social Security Death Index, which would have told me his birthdate.)

(ADDED 1/30/12: Alas I now know the date must have been June 11, as I found Chet’s birthday in his obituary…he passed away at age 84 on January 24, 2012.)

Here’s what little I’ve learned about Ashman…he was a member of the undefeated and untied 1947 football team at Everett Junior College (now Everett Community College) outside Seattle.  That team was declared Washington state junior college champions and has been enshrined in both the college’s athletic hall of fame (inducted the same year as current Minnesota Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson) and the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges hall of fame.

Ashman made his pro baseball debut in 1948 in the Class D Ohio-Indiana League, playing for both Zanesville and Lima; he hit .229 with just two homers in 56 games.  It doesn’t appear he played in Organized Baseball in 1949 but I have seen an account of him playing for the traveling House of David baseball team that year.

In 1950 he came to Klamath Falls and ripped up the Far West League, finishing third in the league in batting average (.365) and tied for second in runs batted in (142) despite playing in only 102 of the Gems’ 140 games.  Had he played the full season at the same per-game pace he would have led the league in home runs, doubles and RBI.  And he hit 20 home runs while striking out only 24 times.  According to a 1953 story I’ve found, he missed games after he “accidentally cut his arm in midseason.”  So that’s an excuse to do some research in Klamath Falls to find out what that’s all about.

Chet missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons because he was in the service–something that seems to have been the case for a lot of FWL alums–and returned to pro ball in 1953.  He wasn’t able to recapture his success at Klamath Falls and did not play in Organized Baseball after the 1954 season.

But back to Don Napoli…he graduated from Balboa High School in San Francisco in 1945, when a war was on, so he volunteered for the Navy.  After basic training at the San Diego training center he was assigned to the naval repair base in Chula Vista, then honorably discharged after the war with Japan ended.  From there he enrolled at Salinas Junior College, where he eventually switched majors to business.  In 1948 he was playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula near Salinas, when he was signed by the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks.

A 1948 newspaper clipping, provided by Don Napoli

The 1948 Oaks were managed by Casey Stengel and went on to win the PCL pennant; known as the “Nine Old Men,” their roster included former major leaguers on the other side of 30 such as Ernie Lombardi, Nick Etten and Cookie Lavagetto, as well as 20-year-old second baseman Billy Martin.  Stengel was enthusiastic about Napoli, quoted in the Oakland Post-Inquirer as saying, “He’s a very great prospect and is ready to play a lot of baseball with us RIGHT NOW!”

But Napoli’s stay with the Oaks would be brief.  On July 1, two days after Napoli signed, Oakland bought 37-year-old pitcher Lou Tost from Sacramento.  Tost had a fine 3.35 ERA with the Solons, but his record was just 4-10; 27% of the runs scored against him were unearned, pitching for a team that would finish deep in the PCL cellar.  Perhaps the thinking was Tost would be a useful pitcher with better teammates, and while his ERA was higher as an Oak (4.03), his runs allowed were nine innings was actually lower because of a reduction in unearned runs allowed, and his record in Oakland was 8-5.

At any rate, according to the July 2 Oakland Tribune, “The purchase of Tost will automatically send Don Napoli, 20-year-old flychaser, to Stockton,” where the Oaks had a relationship with a team in the Class C California League.  And sure enough, the July 3 Tribune reported, “To keep within the 25-man player limit, the Oaks today sent Don Napoli, classy looking rookie outfielder, to Stockton.”

At the time the Oaks were involved in a torrid pennant race; they were tied with Los Angeles for second place, just one game behind San Francisco.  The Angels would eventually fall back, but the race stayed tight and the Oaks’ final margin of victory over the Seals was just two games.  Thus Stengel must have come to the conclusion it wasn’t a great time to be breaking a young man, no matter how promising, into professional baseball.

(Tost wasn’t the only aging pitcher Stengel acquired at this time.  The Oaks also signed 41-year-old lefty Thornton Lee, just been let go by the New York Giants.  Lee had won 117 major league games and pitched in an All-Star Game, but he would pitch in just seven games for Oakland with an 0-3 record.)

Don Napoli, in 2010, holding a photo of himself in an Oakland Oaks uniform in 1948

Vince DiMaggio was at Stockton, in his first year as manager (and still playing).  (Napoli and DiMaggio would later play against each other in the Far West League.)  Napoli told me DiMaggio worked with him on his fielding and was a very good instructor.

In August Napoli was optioned again, this time to Las Vegas of the Class C Sunset League, and he finished the season strong, batting .327 in 35 games, with 13 extra-base hits in 110 at-bats.

In 1949 the Oaks optioned Napoli to Stockton again, and he struggled, batting .220 in 25 games before being released at the end of May.  A week later he signed with Salt Lake City of the Class C Pioneer League and finished the season with the Bees, batting .276 in 95 games, then in December he was released again.

Napoli started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls and played well; according to the Redding Record-Searchlight, he hit better than .290 with the Gems and had 82 hits and 71 RBI in 70 games.  But the Gems released him on July 16–between games of a doubleheader against Redding in Klamath Falls.  The Browns signed him and put him in their lineup in center field, batting third, in the second game!

And what a Redding debut that would be for Napoli.  After he hit two singles earlier in the game, he came to the plate in the top of the ninth with the Browns trailing 7-6–and hit a home run to tie the game!  Napoli had hit only two home runs with the Gems and had just six home runs in his pro career to this point.

To make the story even better, the pitcher who gave up the home run was the Gems’ manager, Hub Kittle!  But the Gems scored in the bottom of the ninth to make Hubble the winning pitcher.  (Pitching exclusively in relief that year, Kittle had a 10-0 record.)

The Record-Searchlight did not have a reporter covering the games in Klamath Falls, and looking through the papers through the following week I saw not a word about why the Gems would have released a productive player such as Napoli.  All I know is he had not played in the first game of the doubleheader and had not been in the Klamath Falls lineup the night before either.

Napoli’s first appearance before his new home fans was also memorable, as he stroked three hits and scored five runs in a rout of Medford on July 21.  He finished the season with a .270 batting average and 92 runs.  He also ranked second among FWL outfielders in putouts and second among those who played at least 50 games in the outfield in fielding percentage.

And at the end of the season, Napoli had the last laugh against his old team.  Klamath Falls won the regular season pennant, finishing a game and a half ahead of Redding, but the Browns beat the Gems in the championship series of a four-team playoff, three games to one.

It turned out 1950 would be the end of Don Napoli’s career in professional baseball, but just the beginning of his life in Redding.  He spent more than four years at a Redding lumber company, working the chain at a sawmill; that job left him with permanent disfigurement of a finger.  He says he spent some time selling Studebakers and Packards as well as selling advertising for a radio station, then caught on selling business machines for National Cash Register (now NCR).  In the early 1960s NCR transferred him to Chico, and soon after that he went to work selling office equipment for Pitney Bowes and remained with them for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1991.

Don and his wife Barbara have been married for 61 years and have known each other since childhood; they met when he was 8 and she was 3!  Today Don is a fit and vigorous-looking 83 years old.  I’m glad I got to meet the man behind the accordion.

Don Napoli with his wife Barbara...the photo at left was taken in Salt Lake City in 1949, when they were newlyweds...the photo at right was taken August 27, 2010, at Chico's Nettleton Stadium

Programs of the Far West League

I own just one FWL program, a Redding program from 1951.  But SABR member and collector of northwest baseball memorabilia Dave Eskenazi owns a few from Oregon teams that he allowed me to look at, scan, and share here.  The cover of a Klamath Falls program from 1950 was mostly a photo of Bob Rittenberg that I included in my most recent post.  But here are the covers of the other FWL programs I’ve seen:

A Medford Nuggets program from 1949

A Eugene Larks program from 1950

A Larks program from 1951...note there are stamps and a postmark on the cover, the areas where the cover shows damage must be where the mailing label was attached

The 1951 Redding Browns program from my collection

None of these publications show what ticket prices were…with the exception of the 1949 Medford program, which says that on designated Ladies Days women would be admitted for 25 cents general admission or 30 cents with a reserved seat.  But at least Eugene lets us know what concession prices were at the ballpark…first from 1950:

I’m curious as to what was considered “Eastern Beer” and what was “Western Beer” and why the Eastern stuff cost a nickel more.  At any rate “Eastern beer” was gone in 1951:

Cracker Jack has been added to the menu, and prices for most other items have gone up.

I’m sure nobody was making much money in Class D baseball in those days, certainly not the team owners…that’s why both the 1950 programs include incentives for fans to return foul balls.

From the 1950 Eugene program

From the 1950 Klamath Falls program...much the same language, but the Gems were twice as generous as the Larks

Players had a chance to add to their income with prizes that made it worth their while to play nice with fans…Medford’s most popular player in 1949 won a gold watch:

In Klamath Falls in 1950, the most popular guy got a $50 suit:

In Eugene in 1951, the prize was a watch:

In Medford in 1949 you could earn money by hitting a home run…at least if you hit it to the right place:

Home runs could also be a boon to fans in Medford in ’49:

Eugene offered an even more substantial prize for fans in 1951, when a local refrigerator dealer held a drawing for a free refrigerator!  You could enter as many times as you wished…but you had to go to the dealer to drop off your entries (and be lured by those marvelous machines):

The 1949 Medford program advised fans to go easy on the umpires:

I’ve seen a number of references in The Sporting News to fines and rowdiness related to umpires’ decisions in the FWL…a little more research into those will result in a future blog post.  But it would appear razzing and belittling was considered acceptable behavior.

“Lucky numbers” are still part of sport programs, in minor league baseball and many other low-budget forms of sports entertainment…the FWL had them too:

From the Medford program, 1949

From the Redding program, 1951

(An aside:  I’ve been very fond of lucky numbers since I won a thermos and an insulated cooler bag at a baseball game in Syracuse in 1980 thanksto my lucky number.  How great is that?)

Of course, the vast majority of the content of these programs is advertising, in an attempt to generate the revenue to keep the teams in business.  The Eugene team made that point rather gently in 1950:

In Klamath Falls in 1950, they were willing to provide an unidentified “souvenir” to encourage close reading of the ads:

Now let’s skim through just a few of the ads to get a flavor of the time…

From Eugene, 1950...old car prices are always fun to see

From Klamath Falls, 1950

From Medford, 1949...cleaning clothes was clearly women's work

From Eugene, 1951

From Eugene, 1950...4 Corners Garage breaks through the clutter with a "made-you-look" ad

And I’ll wrap this up with Eugene’s home schedule from 1951, which I’m including primarily for the clip art:

If you have any Far West League programs or other FWL items you’d be willing to sell, lend or share scans of, please drop me a line.

Faces of the Far West League

Time to share some FWL-related images I’ve gathered.  Unless otherwise noted, these are courtesy of the collection of Dave Eskenazi of Seattle, who has an amazing collection of baseball memorabilia from the Pacific Northwest and was generous enough to share some of it with me.

Lou Vezilich played the last two of his 15 minor league seasons in the Far West League and managed three FWL teams during that time.  In 1949 he managed two teams that both folded during the season.  He started as the skipper of Vallejo, only to see that team go under on July 31; he then took over at Santa Rosa, as the Cats’ fourth manager of the season, only to have that franchise pull the plug four days later.  Vezilich finished the season as a player-only in the Class C California League, but in his 89 FWL games he batted .406 to edge Redding’s Ray Perry for the batting title by two points.  In 1950 he returned to the league as player-manager at Eugene (the photo at right is taken from a Eugene program that year) and batted .348.

Vezilich never reached the majors but racked up 2173 hits in his minor league career.  His best season was in 1937, when he helped Sacramento win the Pacific Coast League pennant with a .317 batting average and team-leading totals in hits (223), runs (120), triples (14) and steals (31).  In 1945 he led the Pacific Coast League with 110 RBI for San Diego.

After World War II he dropped to the low minors and put up some big numbers.  In 1947 he knocked in 141 runs in 133 games at Fresno in the Class C California League with a .364 batting average; teammate Richard Cole was honored as the batting champion with a .383 average, but in only 83 games.  Nobody who played more games than Cole had a higher average than Vezilich.  In 1948 Vezilich led the Class C Florida International League with a .356 average for the Tampa Smokers.

A native of Oakland, Vezilich lived out his life in the Bay Area and had a successful career as an insurance agent, dying in 2007 at age 95 (he had shaved two years off his age during his playing days, The Minor League Register shows his birthyear as 1914 but he was actually born in 1912).  You will also find his name spelled as Vezelich in some newspaper stories, and you’ll notice from the cutline in the photo above that’s how it was spelled in the Eugene program.  Vezilich was one of the Pacific Coast League veterans interviewed for the late Dick Robbins’ classic oral history of the PCL, The Grand Minor League.

Ray Perry was the premier player of the FWL in all four of its seasons.  He led the league in home runs, runs batted in and walks all four years and also holds the league’s single-season records for runs (162 in 1950), total bases (339 in 1950) and batting average (.411 in 1948).  Perry also managed the Browns all four seasons while serving an active role in the front office.  Early on, he was team president; in 1951 he was a member of the board of directors.  The photo at right is from a 1951 Redding program that is part of my personal collection.

Like Vezilich, Perry never played in the major leagues, but finished his minor league career with a .323 batting average and 348 home runs.  Just 31 years old at the end of the FWL’s final season (he fudged his age by one year during his playing days), he continued as a player-manager through the 1958 season, managed two more years in the minors after that, then worked as a scout until his death in a car crash in Fremont, California, in 1973 at age 53.  Perry was immortalized for baseball historians when Bill James wrote about his career at length in his Historical Baseball Abstract.

Hub Kittle (about whom more can be found here) took over as pitcher-manager of the Klamath Falls Gems in 1949, posting a 7-2 mound record, then led the Gems to the FWL regular season pennant in 1950, helped by his own 10-0 mark, all in relief.  The photo at left is from a 1950 Gems program.  Kittle managed 20 seasons in the minors and spent four more as a minor league general manager.

Hub never reached the big leagues as a player, although he did spend a little time in the Pacific Coast League before and during World War II.  But he did serve as a coach in the majors and is best remembered today as Whitey Herzog’s pitching coach with the 1982 National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.  Replaced as pitching coach in 1984, when he was 67, Kittle remained with the Cardinals as a minor league pitching instructor until he was 80, then did some occasional instruction with Seattle Mariners pitchers on a volunteer basis until shortly before his death in 2004 at age 86.

Below are two photos Dave Eskenazi has in his collection that are undated.  Kittle is in the center of the top photo, but we don’t know who anyone else is; I’d love to find out who’s holding the birthday cake and especially who has the accordion (!)*.  In the lower photo, presumably from the same day, that’s Kittle crouching to light the candles.

* UPDATE:  I found out who’s holding the birthday cake and who has the accordion–check it out.

Danny Reagan (left) was a catcher who broke into baseball in 1937 and played only three seasons in the minors…until after World War II, when he spent three years as a player-manager.  In 1948 he led Santa Rosa to the league playoff championship. The franchise folded after the season, the parent Pittsburgh Pirates withdrew from the Far West League, and Reagan hooked up with the unaffiliated Medford Nuggets for 1949.  That team finished last in the FWL, but Reagan did his part on the field, batting a career-high .348.  The photo here is taken from a 1949 Nuggets program.

That marked Reagan’s last season as either a player or manager, and right now all I now about his life afterward was that he spent some time working as a scout for the Phillies.  In that role he signed future major league pitchers Dave Baldwin and Gary Kroll.  (Baldwin told me in an e-mail most of his dealings with the Phillies were with Walter Laskowski and said he had met Reagan just once before signing.)

If you read the text about Reagan in the photo above, you’ll see reference to him going “on up to the Washington Senators,” and he’s wearing what may be a Senators uniform in the photo.  I have no idea what that’s about, his playing record shows him never playing above Class C and never playing with a team affiliated with the Senators.

Bob Rittenberg played third base for Klamath Falls as an 18-year-old first-year pro in 1950 and is pictured at right on the cover of a team program.  According to a brief story in that program, Rittenberg was signed by Phillies scout Danny Reagan, the same fellow pictured above!  So Reagan must have made the transition from player-manager to scout during the 1949-50 offseason.  The story says Reagan spotted Rittenberg in a sandlot game and “attached a fancy bonus to his contract.”  A graduate of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Rittenberg played 138 of the Gems’ 140 games as they won the regular-season pennant.  He batted .293 (the team average was .299) with 99 walks and was second to Redding’s Ray Perry among the league’s regular third basemen in fielding percentage.

Rittenberg spent just two more seasons in the minors, his performance declining each year, then in 1953 played for the Winnipeg Royals in the semi-pro Mandak League (the photo at left is from Jay-Dell Mah’s superb site about Western Canada baseball, AtThePlate.com).  I have absolutely no idea what came of Bob after that.  Perhaps I’ll find out as a result of this post.  Which reminds me, if you ever have anything to add about information I post or anything to do with the FWL, be sure to contact me, I’d love to hear from you.

We’ll wrap up this post with a couple of team photos from Dave Eskenazi’s collection.  Medford had a team in the Far West League in each of its four seasons, but they had three different nicknames.  They started as a wholly-owned affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers and played as the Medford Dodgers in 1948.  Then they were sold to local interests, played the 1949 season as the Nuggets and switched to the Rogues for 1950 and ’51.  (The Rogue River flows through southwestern Oregon and passes just a few miles from Medford.)

Here are the 1949 Nuggets:

And now the 1950 Rogues:

My next post will feature covers and advertisements from the Far West League programs I’ve seen.

When Julian Wera committed suicide, much to the surprise of Julian Wera

A full biography I’ve written about Julian Wera for the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project can be found here.

The business manager for the Oroville Red Sox during the Far West League‘s first season, 1948, was Julian Wera, a former professional infielder and a member of the famed 1927 New York Yankees.  At least that’s what he had led everyone to believe, until he took his own life at the end of the season and news of the suicide reached the real Julian Wera at his home in Rochester, Minnesota.

On Sunday night, September 12, 1948, Oroville lost at Klamath Falls, 11-7, to end the Red Sox’ season.  Oroville had won the regular season pennant with a 67-51 record but were eliminated by the third-place Gems, three games to one, in a best-of-five playoff series.  Klamath Falls would go on to lose the President’s Cup series to Santa Rosa, four games to three; thus the Pirates were the first playoff champions of the FWL after finishing in fourth place during the regular season.

From the front page of the Oroville (Cal.) Mercury-Register, September 13, 1948

Early the next morning, September 13, an Oroville telephone operator told police the phone was off the hook in the Myers Street apartment where the Red Sox’ business manager, Julian Wera, lived.  Wera’s wife, Ruth, and her 9-year-old daughter, Jerry, had left the apartment ten days earlier to return to San Francisco, as the Weras’ brief marriage was apparently coming to an end.

Oroville police patrolman Clifton Knox arrived at the apartment at 5:50 a.m. to find Julian Wera “slumped over the telephone,” according to that afternoon’s Oroville Mercury-Register.  In the bedroom investigators found one-third of a bottle of sleeping pills that had been purchased the day before, and Butte County sheriff Herb Forward said, “Indications point to an overdose of sleeping pills” as the cause of Wera’s death.

Investigators also found a note, typed on Oroville Red Sox letterhead and addressed to Ruth Wera, the contents of which were published in the Mercury-Register:

I am sorry the way you feel about me.  I wanted you to come back to me, you would not believe that I would do this.

I hope God forgives me.

I love you more than anything in the world.  I wanted to live, Honey, if I had you, but that’s water under the bridge.  Honey, my year and a half with you, I enjoyed and I was very proud of you.

The newspaper reported Julian Wera “had been in low spirits since he and his wife, Ruth, were reported to have separated Sept. 3.”

(A United Press story about the suicide that went out that same day quoted the note as saying, “I hope you can forgive me,” rather than “I hope God forgives me.”  Perhaps an editor somewhere along the line was uncomfortable with using God’s name in print.  I have seen Associated Press stories that refer to “farewell notes,” plural, so perhaps the “hope you can forgive me” construction was in a different note.)

News of “Julian Wera”‘s death published in The New York Times, September 14, 1948

It’s not clear how the real Julian Wera learned he was reported to be dead.  While the story about the suicide was printed in quite a number of newspapers, including the New York Times on September 14, as seen on the right, I have found no evidence it appeared in the newspaper in Rochester, where he had lived since his baseball career ended in 1938, or in his hometown of Winona, Minnesota, about 50 miles east.  (The Winona newspaper had often written about Wera during his playing career, with considerable pride, so I find it odd that no editor noticed his name on wire copy and either went with the story or contacted relatives.)

I don’t know if Wera heard the news in a phone call from a reporter or from someone else in baseball, but my guess it was the latter.  In a front page story in the Mercury-Register on September 14, the day after the suicide, Far West League president Jerry Donovan (who, as we will see, was instrumental in the impostor getting the Oroville job) was quoted as saying, “The man who died in Oroville was William Wera.”  The uncredited author of the story wrote, “Donovan said information of the correct identity reached his San Francisco office from Joe Cronin, high ranking official of the Boston Red Sox.”

A United Press story in that same newspaper included this information:

At Winona, Minn., Bernard Wera, a brother of Julian, said he had been informed that the Oroville victim probably was a William J. Wera, cousin of Julian and Bernard.

He said Louis Wera, Winona, a brother of William J. Wera, had been informed by Oroville police of William’s death.

Julian’s first recorded response is in an Associated Press story on September 14:

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The man known here as Julian V. Wera, 45, former big league baseball player, was mystified Tuesday over the similar identity given a man whom police said committed suicide in Oroville, Calif.

The Rochester man said someone might have assumed his name “in order to gain my reputation as a ball player.”

In another AP story on September 15, said he had no cousins named William and no relatives on the west coast.  And I actually haven’t seen any news story, even after that date, in which Julian acknowledged the dead man was his cousin.

The first mention of “Julian Wera”‘s death in the Rochester newspaper, the Post-Bulletin, came on September 15:

Wera was pictured in his work clothes, as manager of the meat market at the local Piggly Wiggly store.  Even though his brother has already been quoted by this time as saying they had a cousin named William Wera, Julie is quoted in is story as saying, “I have no cousin named William.”  The uncredited author wrote, “There was another Wera family in Winona where he grew up but he doesn’t recall any son named William in that family.”

Another denial of a blood relationship with the dead man came in a September 15 story in the San Francisco Chronicle:  “Julian Wera, at Rochester, said the Oroville person might have been a former player with a Hollywood club with whom he had a scrap a few years ago.”  Wera played most of the 1928 season with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League and returned to the PCL from 1931-33 with San Francisco and Oakland.

A photo that appeared alongside an Associated Press story in the Winona Republican-Herald, Sept. 15, 1948

The Oroville newspaper on September 15 had the front page headine, “Wera Kept Wife In Dark About Identity, She Says.”  Ruth Wera, who had married the man about a year earlier, was quoted as saying, “I knew him as the former Yankee third baseman…I was as much surprised as anyone else.”

According to a United Press story on September 15, Mrs. Wera said her husband “had kept her in the dark about details of his past life,” but added “she was confident after talking to Eastern relatives of Julian Wera that the dead man actually was a cousin, William J. Wera.”

I’ve not found any reference to what Mrs. Wera was doing either before or after her marriage to Julian/William, but apparently while they were married she was involved with the ballclub.  “Those close to the scene know that a great deal of the work relegated to the club business manager was done by Mrs. Wera,” according to the unbylined September 15 article in the Mercury-Register.

According to that same story, on September 13, after learning of her husband’s death, Mrs. Wera returned to Oroville accompanied by Bob Freitas, business manager of the San Jose Red Sox of the Class C California League (it appears both the San Jose and Oroville teams were owned outright by the Boston Red Sox).  That night they prepared the Oroville team’s final reports and made final payments to the players.  The Mercury-Register reporter indicated the impostor’s suicide was not related to any financial shenanigans with the team:  “club records are clear, and no funds are missing.”  (A September 30 story in the newspaper said the team still owed the city $45 for grounds fees in the city-owned ballpark for the last nine home games of the season, at $5 per game.)

The matter of the dead man’s identity was put to rest a week later.  A September 24 article on the front page of the Mercury-Register said the dead man’s fingerprints “corresponded with those of William J. Wera, who on July 23, 1947, applied for a job as a shill in the Bank Club, a Reno gambling establishment.”  At that time he said he was born in Winona and was 37 years old; that would correspond to the report that he was 38 when he died.  But according to his death certificate, William Wera was actually 41 the day he took his life, and he was born in Wisconsin (Winona is across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin).

Right now I don’t subscribe to anything that would allow me to see his birth or death certificates; if that changes I will update this.

* * * * *

The story of “Julian” Wera’s death in the September 13 Mercury-Register has information that makes you wonder how William was able to pass himself off as his cousin.  In fact, William would have been better off not shaving the four years off his age, at least as far as his baseball story was concerned…Julian Wera was born five years before William Wera and eight years before William Wera claimed to be born, which makes the following passage, published in the Mercury-Register, look ridiculous:

Wera first donned a Yankee uniform at the age of 16, after he had entered professional baseball at the age of 13 in the Three I League.

His first time at bat for New York, he clouted one of Walter Johnson’s pitches for a home run.  This firmly implanted him in the shoes formerly occupied by Joe Dugan at third base….

It was only at the recent death of the Bambino [Babe Ruth] that Wera recalled how the Sultan of Swat had been his self-appointed guardian, bringing him a glass of milk every night after he had been sent to bed early by Manager Miller Huggins.

The ages given in this account make the real Julian Wera’s career line up with the age the fake Julian Wera claimed to be, but they make the story line look unbelievable.  A professional baseball player at age 13?  Playing for the mighty Yankees at 16?  And it’s a good thing the impostor waited until Babe Ruth was dead to tell that bedtime-glass-of-milk whopper.  (Although Ruth apparently did give Wera the nickname “Flop Ears.”)

Oh, then there’s the started-his-career-with-a-home-run-off-Walter-Johnson tall tale.  While I have not done an exhaustive search of the Yankees’ spring training games, I’ve found no evidence that Wera homered in his unofficial Yankee debut.  He certainly didn’t start his regular season that way and in fact never faced Johnson in a regular season game.  His one home run came in the second game of a July 4 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, in front of what was at that time an all-time record crowd of more than 74,000 (72,261 paid, according to the New York Times).  The Times’ game story mentions the home run without offering details, but we know it came in the seventh inning off relief pitcher Bobby Burke.  The “fact” that Wera started his Yankee career at 16 with a home run off Walter Johnson was included in many of the abbreviated wire service news stories that were published, including the one in the New York Times.

(The record crowd had a lot to be excited about in that July 4 doubleheader.  The Yankees won the first game, 12-1, then took the nightcap in which Wera homered, 21-1.  Walter Johnson pitched four innings of relief in the opener.  Lou Gehrig homered in each game and to that point in the season had 28 homers in 75 games, with a .396 batting average.)

As far as supplanting Joe Dugan at third base…Wera was with the Yankees for the entire 1927 season but started just seven games.  Most of his appearances, 15, came as a pinch-runner; he scored five runs in that capacity.

It turns out baseball wasn’t the only topic about which the pretend Julian Wera told whoppers…the story about his death in the Oroville paper included this detailed account of his purported military service.

Wera distinguished himself brilliantly in World War II, receiving four Purple Hearts for wounds and the Silver Star.  During the siege of Monte Cassino in the Italian campaign, it was Wera who volunteered to swim the river Po, carrying a bundle of sticks of dynamite.  He made a one-man invasion of the German encampment, where he placed the charge so that it blew up the German ammunition dump and communications system simultaneously.

He received a critical wound in the explosion that blew off the left side of his face and his nose.  [This “fact” would become critical in establishing his assumed identity, as we will see.]  Wera was captured by the Germans and, despite his condition, was tied to a post and beaten with clubs when his captors attempted to gain information concerning U.S. and British troop positions.

Unable to obtain information his captors threw his body into a ditch and left him to die.  The British Sixth army, advancing after the explosion, found Wera and gave him medical treatment.  He was returned to the United States, where doctors performed operations that restored his face and made it impossible to tell whether he had ever been wounded.

All you need to know about this tale comes in one sentence from a September 15 United Press story:  “The widow said that Sheriff-Coroner W.H. Forward told her today that Wera’s claims of a brilliant war record were proved false through a check of military records.”  A story in the March 13, 1976, issue of The Sporting News, published after the death of the real Julian Wera, said Julian was 4-F and did not perform military service; at any rate he was 39 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Unlike William Wera, Dick Whitman actually served in combat before taking on an assumed identity…although unlike “Julian Wera,” “Don Draper” doesn’t seem to want to talk about his military service

What makes a man feel the need to make up such stories about himself?  Alas everything I know about William Wera appears in this post, and it doesn’t come close to answering that question.

While it’s likely Wera’s war record wasn’t easily checkable by those to whom he told the tale, his “baseball career” should have been a warning sign to any knowledgeable baseball person.  Yet William Wera talked not one but two previous teammates of Julian Wera into believing he was the man they had played ball with.

Jerry Donovan, a longtime minor league player who was later business manager for the San Francisco Giants, was president of the Far West League in all four years of its existence and was instrumental in getting the fake Julian Wera the job with Oroville.  Donovan and Wera had been teammates with the San Francisco Seals in 1931, 1932 and part of 1933.  The man who signed off on hiring Wera was George Toporcer, a former major league player who was in 1948 the farm director of the Boston Red Sox.  Toporcer and Wera had been teammates in 1935 with Syracuse of the International League.

So how were these men bamboozled?  Here’s how Donovan told the tale in a September 15 San Francisco Chronicle story:

I played outfield when Julian Wera played third base for the Seals in 1931.  This fellow came out here about a year ago and said a mine had been blown up in his face during the war and he had a lot of plastic surgery done on it.

I wouldn’t have recognized him…His face sure looked different, but he talked as if he were the real Julian Wera.  It’s hard to believe.

According to the unnamed author of this story, Donovan said the impostor “talked baseball pretty well and talked like he had played it.”

Here’s the way the story was told in the September 16 Rochester Post-Bulletin:

The impostor was considerably disfigured but he explained that with a story of a war record in Italy.  Upon arriving back in the states he called up Charley Graham, owner of the San Francisco Seals, and asked for a job.

Graham owned the club when the real Wera was in the lineup and although he didn’t have an opening at the time he suggested Julie get in touch with Donovan, a former teammate of Wera’s and now president of the Far West League.

The impostor played his role well, Donovan says, “when we met.”

“Hi Jerry,” he said.  “Have you still got that baby buggy we gave you in 1931 on Jerry Donovan day at Frisco right after the birth of your first child?”

Here in Rochester Julie says, “I remember that incident well.  He pushed the buggy around the bases.”

If that account is accurate, one wonders if William Wera spent time at a San Francisco library going through old newspapers to look for details he could use in helping to pass himself off as his cousin.

The Sporting News had a brief account of the Wera affair in its issue of March 13, 1976, three months after Julie’s death.  Here’s the way that item explains how William Wera got away with his charade:

A man who said he was [Julie] Wera showed up in the office of Charley Graham, president of the Seals, looking for a job in baseball.  There was one little hitch, however.  This Wera didn’t look anything like the Wera who had once been toast of the coast.

But he had a ready explanation.  He said that he had stepped on a landmine during the invasion of Italy in World War II and was horribly disfigured.  Plastic surgery caused the remarkable change in his appearance.

Jerry Donovan, now the assistant to the president of the Giants and a former Wera teammate with the Seals, recalls the crazy caper.

“I was called to the Seals’ office by Graham,” said Donovan, who was president of the Far West League.  “When I walked into the room, this fake Wera came over and said, ‘Hello, Jerry,’ and asked me about my family, calling them by name.  He seemed to know all about me.

“To be honest, I didn’t recognize him at all, but I didn’t want to say anything after he explained his war wounds.”

Donovan said “Wera” knew all about the Coast League, particularly the Seals, and could easily discuss old players.

“When he talked about some presents the team had given me after the birth of my son in 1931, I started to become convinced this was Wera,” Donovan related.

As for Toporcer, who hired Wera, he explains how it happened in a September 14 AP story:

All arrangements were carried on by a west coast representative of the Sox and Toporcer didn’t see the candidate.

“I knew Julian. We played together with Syracuse. But when I said I didn’t recognize the picture it was explained to me that Wera had a terrific war record and his face was all cracked up in the war,” Toporcer explained.

But at the time of his death, William Wera may well have been aware that he faced possible exposure.  This is from a September 14 United Press story:

Jerry Donovan…said many men who knew Wera during his playing days–including himself–had been fooled by the impostor for more than a year.  But “some doubt” was raised by old friends several months ago whether the Oroville manager was the Wera who played with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

“Finally, we just decided to let it go,” Donovan revealed.  “He was doing a good job, and that’s all that really mattered.  But this suicide changed things–embarrassingly.”

The story about the suicide that appeared in the September 13 Mercury-Register indicated the impostor had said shortly before that he didn’t think he would be returning to his Oroville job in 1949 but would “return to his scouting job for the Red Sox.”  However, I haven’t found any evidence “Julian Wera” had a scouting job with the Red Sox before his Oroville appointment.

The real Julian Wera spent the rest of his life in Rochester, where he served as the Piggly Wiggly meat manager for 25 years, then worked part-time as a meat cutter at Barlow Foods.  He was 70 when he became a member of the city planning and zoning commission, a post he held until his death from a heart attack on December 12, 1975.

From the Rochester Post-Bulletin, December 12, 1975

Wera had a brief obituary in The Sporting News.  Half of it was taken up with a recounting of the suicide of the man calling himself Julian Wera.  The suicide incident wasn’t mentioned in the Rochester obituary.

I can’t leave the topic of Julian Wera without this photo from the Post-Bulletin on June 15, 1939…Julie had a visitor at the meat market, his former teammate Lou Gehrig, who was in town to visit the Mayo Clinic to try to find out what was wrong with him…

I’m working on a full bio of Julie Wera for the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project…I’ll post a notice here when it’s up. (UPDATE 7/9/13: And at long last that biography is now available here.)

* * * * *

Julian Wera wasn’t the only former major leaguer to be impersonated.  In the case of lefthanded pitcher Bill Henry, like Wera, the deception wasn’t discovered until the death of the impostor, although in that case the fraud had gone on for at least 20 years.  The real Bill Henry’s reaction?  “I hope they don’t stop my Social Security.”  Henry said he bore no grudges toward the counterfeit Bill and said he felt sorry for the family.

In 1983 a man was arrested in Honolulu and accused of running up nearly $30,000 in debts posing as then-Phillies shortstop Ivan deJesus.  The impostor, whose last name was also deJesus (but was not related), bore a physical resemblance to the player.  This comes from an Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times on October 5, 1983:

Oscar A. DeJesus “had a lot of stories” to explain why he remained in Hawaii for two years while the Phillies went through their regular season on the mainland, [Honolulu Police detective Michael] Orian said.

“One of them was that it was part of his contract that another player would fill in for him under his name and use his uniform,” the detective said.

“He even took a girl and her father to a game in San Francisco between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants and made them sit high in the bleachers while he supposedly went to play,” Orian said.  “The real DeJesus was hurt in the chest during the game and afterwards, he told them his chest was sore.”

If anyone wants to dig into this story, by all means let me know what you find out.

(Many thanks to Greg Sauve of the Rochester Public Library for finding the Post-Bulletin stories on microfilm and sending me scans; to Matt Christensen, city editor of the Winona Daily News, for directing me to the online digital archive of Winona newspapers; and to Bill Francis of the Baseball Hall of Fame library, who sent me copies of items in Julian Wera’s file and also sent me the story about the Ivan deJesus impostor when I asked him if he was aware of anyone else passing himself off as a major league player other than Wera and Henry.  If you have any further information about Julian Wera you’d be willing to share, please let me know.)

Letterhead of The Far West League

I recently sent a query to Seattle Rainiers scholar, collector and SABR member Dave Eskenazi to see if he had any information or materials about Spencer Harris, the longtime Seattle resident and former Rainier about whom I’ve written in an earlier post.  In his response, Dave asked, “Are you the Far West League guy?  I LOVE that league.”  After I assured him I was that guy, Dave generously offered to let me scan some of his collection of Far West League ephemera…so, courtesy of the David Eskenazi Collection, I’m delighted to present some images from correspondance Dave has acquired pertaining to the FWL.

We’ll start with the full letterhead from a 1950 letter from FWL president Jerry Donovan:

Note that Redding Browns president, manager and star player Ray Perry was also a vice-president of the league!

Now let’s take a look at home some of the league’s franchises presented themselves in correspondance:

Eugene was a member of the league in its last two seasons, 1950 and 1951.

Klamath Falls was a member of the league in all four seasons, although you’ll notice this particular letter was written in 1952.  It was written by a member of the team’s front office, who was losing his job and asking the general manager of the Portland team in the Pacific Coast League about a position in Victoria, British Columbia.  Klamath Falls appears to have had the strongest franchise in the league; the Gems had a winning record all four seasons, taking the regular season pennant in 1950 and winning the playoffs in 1951.  They also led the league in attendance the first three seasons, and by a wide margin in 1949 and 1950 (Eugene was the final season’s attendance champ).  But Klamath Falls has never had another minor league team, due to a combination of size and location.

Marysville was a charter member of the FWL in 1948 and stayed in through the 1950 season.  They weren’t wasting any stationery; this letter was written in November 1948, but Eddie Wheeler had been fired as field manager in August.

Medford was a member of the league all four seasons but was known as the Rogues only in the last two.  They started life as the Dodgers, then became the Nuggets.

Pittsburg was a charter member of the league, but the team moved to Roseville in August 1948.  Pittsburg rejoined the league, using the same Diamonds nickname, in 1949, then dropped out again while in first place in the standings midway through the 1951 season.

Redding was a charter member of the league.  The above letterhead is from 1949 (note Ray Perry as president.)

In 1950 the Browns switched to a letterhead that was pretty much brown.

Reno moved its franchise from the Sunset League to the FWL after the 1949 season because of travel considerations.

The Santa Rosa Pirates were a charter member of the FWL, but that ownership dissolved after the 1948 season.  The Santa Rosa Cats entered the league in 1949 and were apparently a very badly run franchise that left a trail of debts behind when they dropped out of the league in August.

Vallejo entered the league in 1949, but that franchise also seems to have been badly run and dropped out at the end of July.

There are only two Far West League cities that aren’t represented in the letterhead above:  Oroville (Cal.), which was a member in 1948, and Willows (Cal.), which was on board for the first three seasons.

The good folks at Ebbets Field Flannels have a series of t-shirts based on team letterhead designs.  Wouldn’t you love to get a t-shirt with that vicious Klamath Falls potato on it?

Finally, a couple of signatures from the Far West League files…

Jerry Donovan served as president of the FWL all four seasons (while also serving as president of the California League  starting in 1949) and is one of the great figures in California baseball history.  He spent a decade as a player in the Pacific Coast League, hitting the first PCL home run in Seals Stadium in 1931, and became president of the Seals in 1956.  When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, he was hired as the team’s business manager and stayed in their front office until his death in 1981.  Before starting his baseball career, Donovan was a basketball star, earning AAU All-American honors and leading the Olympic Club to the national championship.  You’ll find some of Donovan’s story in this writeup of the 1928 San Francisco Seals, for whom he played.

Ray Perry is the great figure of the Far West League, the man who sparked my interest in this in the first place.

Dave Eskenazi tells me has some additional FWL items he’s willing to share with me, and I look forward to seeing them.  Thanks, Dave!

Random notes from the Far West League, August 1948

As I scrolled through microfilm of the Marysville Appeal-Democrat from the summer of 1948, looking for information about Spencer Harris (see previous post), I came across some other tidbits worth sharing.  I haven’t prepared these in depth, because my time at the California State Library was limited that day, so more details are forthcoming as this project continues.

July 1, 1948: There was a story on page 7 about the prospect of television coming to the Sacramento Valley.  At that time Northern California did not have a single TV station…the first, KPIX, wouldn’t go on their air until Christmas Eve 1948.  Much has been written about the role television played in the reduction of minor league attendance (and eventually, the reduction in teams and leagues) in the early ’50s.  The Far West League’s history came during this transition period.

August 5: Santa Rosa rookie lefthander Bill LaThorpe pitched the first no-hit, no-run game in FWL history, striking out 17 as the Pirates defeated the Roseville Diamonds in Roseville, where the team had just relocated from Pittsburg.  Future major leaguer (in both the U.S. and Japan) Al Grunwald hit a grand slam to support LaThorpe, who improved his season record to 10-2 on the way to a final mark of 15-4.  It was one of his four shutouts on the season; that would hold up as the all-time FWL single season record.

August 13: The Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League played an exhibition game in Yuba City, across the Feather River from Marysville, against that city’s team in the semi-pro Sacramento Valley League.

August 14: Vince DiMaggio (not the one who was Joe and Dom’s older brother), normally an outfielder for the Roseville Diamonds, made his first start as a pitcher and went the distance, throwing a four-hitter in a 3-2 Roseville win (but did I write down the opponent?  no).  DiMaggio did not pitch the 45 innings necessary to get his stats published in the 1949 Sporting News Baseball Guide, but after 1948 he spent the rest of his limited pro career (all in the FWL) as a pitcher.  He set the FWL single-season record for innings pitched with 269 for Eugene in 1950, when he went 14-11.  This DiMaggio (Vincent S.) must have had some kind of arm; he had 11 outfield assists in just 44 outfield games in 1948.

Not Jules Verne Hudson

August 18: Eighteen-year-old lefty Jules Hudson (full name, Jules Verne Hudson) of Oroville struck out 22 Willows Cardinals in an 11-inning 4-3 victory.  Hudson fanned 20 in the first nine innings.  He led the league with 237 strikeouts in 167 innings; he also walked 159!  Hudson doesn’t seem to have played pro ball in 1949; he returned in 1950, missed the next three seasons (perhaps for military service?), then returned to play from 1954-56 but never got above the Class AA level.

Well, those are some of the things that came up while racing through a reel of microfilm.  It’s the kind of thing that makes me look forward to the other treasures I may unearth in researching the history of the Far West League.

The minor leagues’ hit champion in the Far West League

In the first part of my Who’s Who of The Far West League, I mentioned that minor league baseball’s all-time hits leader, Spencer Harris (also referred to as Spence Harris), ended his 28-year playing career as player/manager at Marysville during the FWL’s first season in 1948.  I went through the Marysville Appeal-Democrat for August 1948 to see if the locals were wowed to have this minor league legend in their midst, and near as I can tell, they had no idea.

The 1949 Sporting News Baseball Guide lists Harris as taking over as Marysville manager on August 14, but the Appeal-Democrat reported he signed on August 18 and managed his first game that night.  The Braves were 48-54 when Harris arrived, then went 11-9 under his guidance; Harris helped his own cause by hitting .361 and scored nine runs in 11 games.

Spencer Harris, in an undated photo as a member of the Minneapolis Millers

All the Appeal-Democrat had to say about Harris’ career when he arrived was what he had done with Yakima of the Western International League so far that season and the year before.  There was no hint that he was the minor leagues’ all-time leader in hits, runs, doubles and total bases, or that he had been one of the American Association’s top outfielders from the late 1920s through the mid-’30s.

The Appeal-Democrat story announcing Harris’ arrival said he was 45, but he had actually turned 48 years old the previous week.  I have no other documents from any point in his career that list his age, so I don’t know if he presented himself as younger than he was, but I have found evidence of his birth certificate that says he was born in Duluth, Minn., on August 12, 1900.  By the time Harris arrived in Marysville he had already played more than 3,200 minor league games dating back to 1921, plus another 164 in the majors (two full seasons as a backup with the White Sox in 1925-26, plus brief stints with the Senators in 1929 and the A’s in 1930).

Harris played at the highest minor league level from 1928 through 1945, first in the American Association, where he hit over .300 in all ten of his seasons with Minneapolis:

Year G AB H 2B 3B HR BA
1928 169 669 219 41 4 32 .327
1929 154 594 202 42 7 14 .340
1930 93 369 134 24 7 10 .363
1931 163 642 223 40 12 15 .347
1932 129 469 165 33 7 17 .352
1933 152 631 224 47 10 22 .355
1934 150 614 198 29 8 16 .322
1935 127 486 164 25 4 16 .337
1936 150 595 179 30 10 15 .301
1937 88 258 84 12 4 9 .326
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/19/2010.

Image taken from StewThornley.net

Harris led the AA in runs three times during that stretch and scored more than 100 runs eight times (he scored 99 in 1930 when he played part of the season with the A’s).  He also drove in at least 100 runs six times and led the league in doubles and homers in 1928.  Minneapolis’ cozy Nicollet Park was good for Harris’ power stroke.  He hit 64% of his career minor league home runs (166 of 258) as a Miller, even though he played just 42% of his career games (1375 of 3258) for the team.

After the 1937 season Harris was traded for Ted Williams, although that’s all but forgotten.  Williams’ pages on Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet both say he was signed by the Red Sox in 1936; he actually signed with his hometown San Diego Padres after his high school year finished in 1936 (he would not graduate until that winter), then the Padres dealt him to the Red Sox in December 1937.  James D. Smith, writing in “The Kid: Ted Williams in San Diego,” edited by Bill Nowlin, said the Red Sox acquired Williams “for a reported $35,000 (plus Dom Dallesandro and Al Niemiec, later Spencer Harris.  Some accounts place the figure at $25,000.)”

I don’t know when “later” came; Williams doesn’t mention Harris as part of the deal in his autobiography, “My Turn at Bat.”  But in any event Harris played for San Diego in 1938 to start an eight-year stretch in the Pacific Coast League.  He was 41 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and thus was able to play through the war.  The photo below is from Bill O’Neal’s book “The Pacific Coast League 1903-1988.”

(The scan of the photo above was provided by Bo Kinney of the Seattle Public Library, who has been extraordinarily helpful.)

Harris finished his career with 3,617 hits, but never once led his league in a season.  He also never won a batting title.  (The most career hits by a major leaguer who never led his league in hits in a season was 3,315 by Eddie Collins.  In an odd coincidence, Collins was the Red Sox executive who traded Harris for Ted Williams!)

“He was never thought of as the top player on his many minor league clubs,” Bob Hoie wrote of Harris in his article on minor league baseball in the fifth edition of “Total Baseball,” “just as a good solid player of the type that formed the backbone of the minors for so many years.”

Photo published in the Seattle Times in 1941, scan provided by Bo Kinney of the Seattle Public Library

Longevity clearly played a role in Harris’ record totals.  He had at least 730 hits after his 40th birthday, not counting any hits that came during the 1940 season after his birthday.  (Pete Rose, the 20th century major league leader in this category, had 691 hits after his 40th birthday in 1981.)

So far this account of Spencer Harris has been numerically oriented, largely for lack of other available material.  For a man who had such a long playing career and who holds such significant career records, remarkably little has been written about Harris; my inquiries to noted experts in minor league history have turned up very little about the man.  His entry in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports provides a few details…but only a few.  (UPDATE 3/7/10: Bill Francis of the Baseball Hall of Fame library passed along some items from Harris’ file there that has allowed me to flesh this out just a little bit.)  Here’s a summary of what little I know:

As mentioned, Harris was born in Duluth, but it’s unknown how long he stayed there.  On a questionnaire, filled out (apparently) in 1969 and on file at the Hall of Fame, he said he attended elementary school in Milwaukee, Duluth and Seattle, where he also attended Broadway High School (the former Seattle High School, later part of Seattle Community College).  He lists his graduation year as 1921, which would have made him 20 years old when he finished high school (date of birth August 12, 1900, which appears on both his birth and death certificates).

Bo Kinney at the Seattle Public Library tells me Harris is listed in the 1919 Broadway High School yearbook as a member of the sophomore class, but Harris is not listed in any of the classes (sophomore, junior and senior) in the 1920 yearbook.  Kinney says Harris is manager (with Bill Graham) of the baseball team in 1920, and says he is on the Broadway baseball team in 1921.  He is not mentioned in the 1922 yearbook.

The prescient prognostication below is from the 1919 Broadway High yearbook (scanned by Bo Kinney):

Here is a photo of Harris and the Broadway High baseball team from that 1919 yearbook…Harris is in the back row at the far left.

Harris began his professional career in 1921 with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast International League and would appear not to have joined the team until after the school year ended.  An undated clipping by Ernest J. Lanigan, perhaps from his 1922 Baseball Cyclopedia, says he homered in his first professional time at bat, off Jim Marquis of Vancouver, but hit just one more home run in his 71 games that season.

There’s another clipping about Harris in the Hall of Fame file, this one apparently from The Sporting News in March 1930, right after the Philadelphia A’s claimed Harris on waivers from Detroit, which had drafted him from Minneapolis the previous winter.  Stoney McLinn mentions A’s owner Connie Mack “had him when he was 21 years old, but did not even take him to a training camp then,” going on to mention the A’s bought him from Tacoma in 1921. Perhaps this explains why Harris would have been in the Baseball Cyclopedia (if indeed that’s where he was) under “New Major Leaguers” in 1922, when he would have been 21 years old.

At any rate Harris wound up in Class B ball at Bay City (Mich.) from 1922 through 1924…he was there on option from the A’s the first two seasons, then was sold to the team.  He then was purchased by the White Sox and spent two undistinguished seasons with them as a reserve in 1925 and ’26.  He was sold again, to Shreveport of the Texas League, hit .354 with 60 doubles in 1927, then went on to start his ten-year run in Minneapolis, with exceptions for brief stints with the Senators at the start of 1929 and the A’s at the start of 1930.

Bo Kinney found a number of references to Spencer Harris as a basketball player in the archives of the Seattle Times and passed some of them on to me.  In December 1923, Harris was reported receiving a salary to play for a team in Leavenworth, Washington, just on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, and another story from January 1925 shows Harris as a starting forward (at 5’9″) for the Leavenworth five.  Harris may have also been working as a basketball referee, based on a story from March 1927 that said Harris would be unavailable to play for a team of Seattle officials in a postseason game against a high school all-star team (Harris had already left for spring training).  A story from December 1927 reported Harris as a prominent member of a team that “represents some of the highest calibered basketball men in the city,” along with two former University of Washington stars, that had just played a preseason game against the UW varsity.

Further investigation found Harris played basketball all four years he was at Broadway High…this team photo is from the 1920 yearbook, Harris is fifth from the left.

Kinney also says Harris was listed in the Seattle city directories, as either a “ball player” or “baseball player,” through 1933, so it would seem he continued to make his home in the city where he went to high school until he was well into his baseball career.  Apparently he did not marry until 1935.

Spencer Harris played six games for the Washington Senators in 1929

Harris played 114 games in the Pacific Coast League in 1945.  But in 1946, with the war over, there was no room for a 45-year-old in the PCL, and Harris went to Yakima of the Class B Western International League, the first time he had played at that low a level since 1924.  He was player-manager of the Stars, and his third baseman was former St. Louis Browns standout Harlond Clift.  In 1947 Harris stayed with Yakima as a player only, with Clift taking over as manager, his only year as a skipper.  Harris was a player only at Yakima again in 1948 before he went to Marysville.

After that we have record of Harris spending only one other season in uniform:  1956, when he managed the North Platte Indians of the revived Class D Nebraska State League.  There he was Jim Perry‘s first professional manager.  I have no idea what he was doing between Marysville and North Platte.  The only other record we have of his involvement with baseball is that he seems to have been a scout for the Mets in 1962.

Minneapolis baseball history expert Stew Thornley checked Harris’ obituary in the Minneapolis Tribune; according to that, Harris and his wife settled in Minneapolis in 1956 and he apparently spent the rest of his life there.  His wife died in November 1957.  Harris worked as a salesman at Justers, a men’s clothing store in downtown Minneapolis.  The obituary mentioned that he played in a slow-pitch league at the age of 63 and spent a lot of time in his later years playing golf at the Hiawatha Golf Course.

He died in Minneapolis on July 3, 1982, and was buried in Lakewood Cemetery.  His death certificate says he died at University Hospitals as a result of hypertension…officially, congestive heart failure due to hypertensive heart disease due to a Goldblatt kidney.  He also had a perforated duodenal ulcer.

Image taken from findagrave.com

Here’s something I love…from that 1969 questionnaire Harris filled out for the Hall of Fame Library:

Access to the digital archives of The Sporting News is unavailable at this time due to a technical problem, so I have not been able to access Harris’ TSN obituary or do any other searching in the TSN archives for information about his career.  That will come eventually.

By the way, Anthony Spencer Harris, the baseball player, is not to be confused with Spencer F. Harris, who was general manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Spokane team until he died at age 60 in 1964.