Hard ball in the country

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Looking back, playing "country ball" in the early 1950s was a memorable time.

It was a piece of Americana that no longer exists.

And there were plenty of places in south Missouri and north Arkansas that were alive with action on the baseball diamonds.

I remember playing day games at places like Lanton, Thomasville, Alton, Hardy, Mammoth Spring, Salem, Ravenden, Imboden, Mauldin, Willow Springs, Van Buren and Viola, among others.

Some people referred to baseball as hardball.

The catcher was a "hind catcher." We often heard the argument that a tie goes to the runner. A looping ball that hit in front of the outfielder was referred to as a "Texas Leaguer" and a short fly ball that suddenly falls to the ground, was a "dying quail."

A drop ball back then is now called a sinker. A plug of Red Man or a player carrying a Prince Albert tobacco can in his hip pocket was common. Another thing that has changed is the practice of leaving your glove on playing field between innings.

Our small town of Thayer had good "town teams" from the beginning.

Lights were installed at Thayer in June of 1948, but many small surrounding communities with teams normally played on Sunday afternoons, lacking lights and amenities.

Their backstops were homemade and make-do seating was the rule. While the facilities may have been lacking, the quality of play was usually good with men in their 40s and 50s, often with near-professional ability, along with a mix of talented youngsters, playing for the love of the game.

One of my most vivid experiences was playing ball at Viola, a town synonymous with the Roe family, when it came to baseball.

Doc Roe, an old-time country physician, had played professionally in the minor leagues before becoming a doctor and moving to Viola, around 1922, from nearby Ash Flat.

He had five sons and with a couple of others, they made up a team. By the time I played at Viola, the Roe sons had grown up and left.

Elwin Roe, the youngest son of Doc Roe, born in Ash Flat in 1916 comes into the picture. Known simply as "Preacher," he grew up playing ball in north Arkansas and pitched for Harding College, a small school in Searcy, before he was drafted and signed to a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938.

A left handed pitcher, his record that year was one loss in relief at St. Louis. The next year he was farmed to the Rochester, NY., Redwings of the International League. He made $200 per month and stayed at Rochester for two years before going to Columbus for two years with a raise to $400.

It was soon after he'd been drafted by the Cardinals that Preacher married his childhood sweetheart, Mozee Clay, of near Viola. They built a small house on land behind his parent's place and lived there during the off-season for several years.

He went back to the major leagues, on a trade to Pittsburgh in 1944 and played through the 1947 season when he was traded to Brooklyn.

Branch Rickey, the legendary baseball general manager, signed and traded for Roe in each of his moves. Mr. Rickey took a chance by bringing Preacher to the Dodgers in 1948, because Roe had gotten a head injury from a row at a basketball game he was coaching at Hardy between the 1945-1946 season.

The blow to the head was so severe that he had blackouts and had to re-learn his pitching skills. Preacher taught and coached at Hardy during the off seasons for seven or eight years, until he started pitching for Brooklyn.

He and his wife had two sons during this time, Elwin, Jr. in 1940 and Tommy in 1946.

After making the Dodger team in 1948 with Leo Durocher as the manager, Roe became one of the mainstays of their staff and in 1949 held up the pitching staff, taking Brooklyn into the World Series.

His only World Series' win was a 1-0 shutout against the Yankees in game two, the only Dodgers victory in the Series, that year.

Invited to play in his first All-Star game in 1945 with the Pirates, he was selected four more times when he was with the Dodgers from 1949-1952. He played in three World Series in 1952 and 1953 on top of 1949.

His finest individual performance was in 1951 with a 22-3 record and a winning percentage of .880.

His fame was cemented with Roger Kahn's book The Boys of Summer written about the Brooklyn Dodgers. His career totals were 127 wins and 84 losses.

After the 1953 season, Preacher was ready to retire, but he stayed on in 1954 at the request of Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers' owner at a salary of $28,500 to help train a young pitcher coming up to the Dodgers. His name was Sandy Koufax.

Roe quit in 1954 and moved back to West Plains, close to where he grew up and had relatives. That winter, Preacher bought a grocery store and ran it for over 20 years, also helping with youth baseball and being an ambassador of the game.

Salem named its baseball field Preacher Roe Field, when the bank offered to lend them money if Preacher would come back each fall and pitch an exhibition game until the ball park was paid off.

He was generous with his time and talent, and once pitched for Thayer when they played the barnstorming Harry Walker All-Stars in the early 1950s. He also worked at Dodgers' fantasy camps and was an enthusiastic supporter of American Legion and Little League teams, as well as other civic organizations.

Preacher liked to say that he played "When Baseball Was Still A Game."

He passed away Nov. 9, 2008 in West Plains at the age of 92. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years.

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