Jake Batterton: A major tragedy in the minor leagues

 

“I’m sorry – oh God, I’m sorry!

Swede Carlsen’s words cut through the 3am silence and echoed down the darkened halls of St. Joseph’s Hospital. The Swede looked plaintively at the pair of white-clad surgeons who loomed over the still and bandaged body that lay in the bed between them. The taller of the two moved his mouth as if to speak, but stopped short of words. The Swede’s wife took his arm and, before he realized it, she had steered him into the hallway and out of the hospital. A flashbulb crashed, but the knot of waiting reporters didn’t ask any questions. From the Swede’s white face they instantly knew the answer they were all seeking: Jake Batterton had died.

At the time, it was a major tragedy, the story of Jake Batterton’s death taking its place alongside the newspaper headlines of unemployment, gangsters and the rise of fascism in Europe – and like the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde and Nazi Germany, Jake Batterton’s death at the age of 19 in the summer of 1933 had far-reaching repercussions, the results of which can still be seen today.

JESSE BATTERTON was born two days before Christmas, 1913. His parents were transplants from Missouri, his father Julius a carpenter working the booming Southern California housing market and mother Claudia raising the four Batterton children, the youngest being Jesse. The family resided in the town of Puente, a rural township about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Today this area is called “La Puente” and is crowded with tired strip malls and 50’s ranch homes. But when Jesse, his bother Robert and sisters Ina and Dorothy were growing up, Puente boasted endless walnut and fruit fields that stretched all the way to the imposing San Gabriel Mountains. Unfortunately, this idyllic life was brought to an end when his father died in an automobile accident in the mid-1920s. Now widowed with four kids, Batterton’s mother moved the family to Los Angeles where she took a job downtown.

Jesse, now known as “Jake,” was the baseball star of John C. Fremont High School. Located in South Central Los Angeles, Fremont High would produce dozens of major leaguers including Bobby Doerr, Gene Mauch and Eric Davis, but back in 1930 it looked like Jake Batterton would the first. Besides playing for Fremont, Batterton was the third baseman on the William Lane American Legion team that made it to the 1928 State Finals as well as several other semi-pro outfits that worked in the SoCal diamond circuit. By the time he graduated in the spring of ’32, Jake Batterton was a sandlot legend, known throughout Los Angeles.

A frequent teammate of Batterton’s at this time was his neighbor across the street, Larry Barton. A first baseman, Barton was frequently paired with Batterton as a double-play combo on various semi-pro teams around LA. Though he never made it to the majors, Barton would go on to pro career lasting a quarter century and attain legendary status in the old Pacific Coast League.

IN 1932, the St. Louis Cardinals had a farm system so vast that there was a popular saying at the time, “it ain’t a town unless it has a Cardinals farm team.” To replenish all their minor league rosters, their chief scout, Charley Barrett, was constantly prowling the country looking for talent. The early spring of 1932 saw him on a month-long road trip to California. When he hit LA, Barrett, who referred to himself as “Uncle Charley,” was utterly impressed with the 18 year-old Jake Batterton. Uncle Charley told a sportswriter “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a Cardinals uniform in two more years,” and “Wait until you see Jake Batterton at the hot corner someday at Sportsman’s Park soon!”

Unfortunately, there was one problem: Mrs. Batterton. Jake’s mother was adamantly against her son becoming a pro ballplayer and encouraged her son to pursue a more mainstream career path. The problem was that this was 1932, and the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. So, with jobs scarce and the family in need of additional income, Claudia reluctantly watched as her youngest boy signed his name to Charley Barrett’s Cardinals contract.

UNCLE CHARLEY packed Batterton and three other LA boys off to the sprawling Cardinals prospect camp in Springfield, Missouri. Among the 180 hopefuls who hitchhiked, walked or hopped freights to get a chance at a minor league contract, Batterton stood out like a man in a tux at a hobo camp. Despite no previous professional experience, Batterton out-hit and out-fielded everyone there. By the end of the workouts, several of the Cardinals minor league managers were begging to take the kid home with them. We’re not talking bush league level teams either. The skippers of Rochester and Columbus, the Cards two top farm clubs, laid claim to the flashy third baseman.

Branch Rickey, the Cardinals General Manager, also became enamored by the red head teen after watching him workout in Springfield. As he would throughout his career with other exceptionally talented young players, Branch Rickey took a personal interest in Batterton. After careful deliberation, Rickey decided to have his new find spend spring training with the Mobile Red Warriors of the Southeast League. Mobile was a Class B league, what today would be single-A level. Batterton joined the team in Kentucky in time for an exhibition series against the Louisville Colonels. Louisville was in the American Association, one level shy of the majors. After three games, the Colonels manager offered Rickey $2,500 for the kid, to which the Cardinals GM said he “wouldn’t take $10,000 for him now.” Remember, this was only the third professional baseball game Jake Batterton had played in.

The next afternoon Rickey and Uncle Charley Barrett were in the stands as Batterton, playing out of position at shortstop, recorded seven assists and made a spectacular play on a ball that rifled back through the box, catching the Mobile pitcher off guard. On what should have been a sure hit, Batterton vacuumed up the ball, expertly pivoted and nipped the surprised runner at first. Rickey immediately got up from his seat, had the Mobile manager take Batterton out of the game and told the awe-struck kid to pack his bag and meet him in the parking lot.

BATTERTON AND UNCLE CHARLEY piled in Rickey’s car that night as the Cardinals GM personally drove his cherished prospect west to Dallas, where the Columbus Red Birds were training. After just four games of pro ball, Jake Batterton had made it all the way to that last step below the majors.

Somewhere enroute to Texas, Rickey stopped to send a telegram to Columbus team president Milt Stock, which went something like this:

Am on my way with a hot potato. Batterton looks great and is great. Think he needs just a year with your club.

From what we know about Branch Rickey’s character, he wasn’t one for wild praise or quirky phrases, but apparently he did indeed call his protégé a “hot potato” because from then on the teenage phenom was known as “Hot Potato Batterton.”

Once he was delivered to Columbus, Rickey closely monitored his protégé’s progress. Batterton got into an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds, going hitless in a pinch-hitting appearance. On April 4 Columbus was in Little Rock, where they beat the Travelers 3-2. Batterton went 2 for 4 and drove in two of the Red Birds runs. Despite his fine showing at such a high level, the American Association was no place for a kid to spend his first season in pro ball. Teams like Columbus were not in it to educate young players; they were playing for championships. Even taking Batterton’s obvious talent, he was still raw and would likely spend most of his time on the bench while a more seasoned player started. With this in mind, Rickey decided to send Batterton back to Mobile where he could play every day.

The arrival of Batterton in Mobile was met with much celebration in the local sports pages. One writer penned “the Red Warriors need Batterton like a baby needs his mother.” Unfortunately Batterton’s time in Mobile was limited to just 24 games, for the entire Southeastern League folded in May, an early victim of the Great Depression.

Branch Rickey studied his minor league rosters and placed Batterton with the Greensboro Patriots of the Piedmont League. Although given the same Class B status as the Southeastern League, the Piedmont circuit was considered much more competitive, with a third of Batterton’s teammates eventually making their way to the majors. Rickey’s Hot Potato hit a respectable .269 with 21 doubles, 5 triples and pair of homers in 104 games – but it was in the field where Batterton truly sparkled – named as the league’s best third baseman and a big factor in the Patriots’ winning the 1932 Piedmont League pennant.

FOR 1933, BRANCH RICKEY decided to place Batterton with the Springfield Cardinals of the Western League. This was a step up for Batterton, but it would not be an easy transition. Branch Rickey, ever the strategic thinker, had been studying his St. Louis Cardinals lineup all winter. When he looked over his infield, there was Ripper Collins at first, Frankie Frisch at second, Leo Durocher at short and Jake Flowers on third. Collins was the team’s home run generator so his spot was secure. Durocher was a Rickey reclamation project as well as crack fielder, so Leo was locked in at short. That left Jake Flowers and Frankie Frisch as the only moveable pieces in the Cardinals infield.

With second being manned by Frisch, a future Hall of Famer, third base was the obvious place for Batterton. But Branch Rickey was anything but obvious. With a surplus of slugging outfielders sitting useless in the dugout, he would move centerfielder Pepper Martin to third, freeing up a spot for one of the big bats on the bench. And though Frankie Frisch was a star and usually hit in the .300 range every year, he was a well-used 36 years old. On top of that, Frisch was made Cardinals manager in 1933 and would have his hands more than full dealing with Dizzy Dean and the rest of the raucous Gas House Gang. With an eye to the future, Rickey instructed Springfield to play Batterton at second base; he would be Frisch’s understudy and the Cardinals second baseman of the future.

Easing the transition a bit was the presence of Batterton’s old pal from the neighborhood, Larry Barton. Like Jake, Barton had been signed off the LA sandlots by Uncle Charley and dumped into the vast Cardinals farm system.

THE SEASON BEGAN with Batterton mired in a slump, and learning second base on the job certainly wasn’t helping. Springfield’s manager Joe Schultz dropped Batterton down to the back half of the lineup and let him take a turn at his natural spot at third every so often. At the end of May he was hitting .179 and as late as Sunday, June 25 he was still below .250. Then all of a sudden, Batterton went on a hitting tear.

In the series against Topeka he went 4 for 8, then hit Des Moines pitching 5 for 13 in three games. The Cardinals now pulled into Omaha for the big Independence Day weekend series against the Packers. In the first two games Batterton went 3 for 7, successfully dragging his average over the .300 mark for the first time. For the previous two weeks Batterton was hitting the ball at a .429 clip and showed no signs of slowing down.

On Sunday, July 2nd, the Cardinals and Packers faced off for the doubleheader that would conclude their holiday series. In the first game, Batterton recorded two hits, one described in the papers as “a screaming three-bagger.” He was flawless in the field, handling 10 plays without an error, and his average stood at .302.

In game two, Batterton faced Omaha right-hander Floyd “Swede” Carlsen. The Swede was a hometown boy who had turned down offers from three big league teams in order to keep his high-paying bricklaying job. Finally put out of work by the Depression, The Swede joined the Packers in 1930, becoming one of the team’s regular starters.

* * *

THE MOMENT THE BALL left his fingertips The Swede knew it was a bum pitch, yelling “WATCH OUT!” as he completed his follow through. The right-hander could only watch in horror as the ball sailed high, then broke inside. Batterton, momentarily confused by the ball’s rogue trajectory and The Swede’s shout, froze, then ducked, directly into the ball’s path.

With a sickening “crack” that was heard throughout the ballpark, the ball plowed into Batterton’s left temple. The 19 year-old crumpled to the ground, but quickly got up and into a sitting position. Doctor J.F. Schleier, Omaha’s team physician, raced from the dugout and gave Batterton a look-over. Surrounded by the umpire and teammates, Batterton said quietly, “I’m alright. Just let me sit hear a minute.”

Doc Schleier and Cards manager Joe Schultz wisely decided to take him out of the game, and Batterton was led back to Springfield’s bench. After a short time in the dugout, Batterton retreated to the clubhouse. Though the young player repeatedly proclaimed that he was fine, Doc Schleier insisted he go to the hospital for observation. Batterton adamantly refused, maintaining that he was well enough to accompany his team on the overnight bus ride home to Springfield after the game. Fearing what could happen if complications arose on the bus in between towns, Schultz agreed with the doctor, and Batterton was driven to Omaha’s St. Joseph’s Hospital by a helpful fan.

Meanwhile, Swede Carlsen finished the game, giving up nine hits in the 7-2 loss to Springfield. Afterwards The Swede, accompanied by his wife and Omaha’s manager Pug Griffin, went directly to the hospital.

AT FIRST, it looked like Batterton was in the clear. He was awake and lucid, spending the early evening resting comfortably. However, as night fell, the young ballplayer slipped into unconsciousness. Doc Schleier recognized the signs of a blood clot on the brain and had him brought into the operating room for emergency surgery. Once inside, Schleier discovered a five-inch fracture to the scull, running from the left temple all the way to the base. Besides the fracture, Batterton’s brain had also suffered a severe laceration, and a cerebral hemorrhage was flooding his skull with blood. Doc Schleier removed the blood clot and stopped the bleeding to alleviate the pressure on the brain. Batterton was wheeled into the post-op ward where Swede Carlsen, his wife and Pug Griffin anxiously awaited him to regain consciousness.

By morning it was clear to Doc Schleier and the other surgeons in the ward that Batterton would never awake.

AFTER INFORMING an inconsolable Swede Carlsen of Batterton’s fate, Doc Schleier tended to the mundane tasks that resulted from a death. Being considered an “unnatural death,” Omaha’s coroner needed to be notified, and a decision made as to whether The Swede would be charged with murder.

Meanwhile, Pug Griffin was tasked with notifying his counterpart Joe Schultz about the fate of his second baseman. The news reached Springfield as the team pulled into town after their all-night bus ride. In the clubhouse, many of the players wept openly, especially Batterton’s longtime friend Larry Barton.

Springfield Cardinals team president Al Eckert had the job of telephoning Batterton’s brother Robert in Los Angeles to inform him that his little brother had died. But it was Robert Batterton who had the most painful job of all: telling his widowed mother that her youngest boy was dead – a victim of the very job she had not wanted him to take.

JAKE’S BODY was shipped home to Los Angeles where a funeral was held. The Springfield fans dug deep into their Depression-depleted wallets and sent a one hundred dollar floral arrangement while an ad-hoc sandlot all-star game was held in LA, the proceeds going to the Batterton family. The Western League also held a benefit game for Jake, and for the remainder of the summer the Springfield players wore a somber black armband on their sleeves in honor of the fallen infielder.

Though he was acquitted of any criminal wrong doing, Swede Carlsen was deeply affected by the mental burden of having killed a man. He lost his effectiveness on the mound and was released by Omaha a month after Batterton’s death. The Swede pitched three games for Des Moines before giving up the game for good.

It’s not recorded what Branch Rickey’s reaction was to the death of Jake Batterton. On a purely baseball level, it must have pained him to look over at second base the next season and watch as the Cardinals won the World Series, knowing that the cornerstone of his future dream team was missing.

Batterton’s death was the first of several tragedies that would lead to Rickey introducing batting helmets to baseball. In the years after the demise of his young protégé, Rickey watched as two more of his discoveries had their careers shortened or destroyed by blows to the head. The first was Joe Medwick. A perennial All-Star and winner of the 1937 Triple Crown, Medwick was knocked out cold and nearly killed by a fastball to the head in 1940. Although he would go on to play eight more seasons in the majors and be elected to the Hall of Fame, Medwick’s reign as one of the National League’s most feared hitters effectively ended with this beaning. Then there was Pete Reiser. Discovered by Rickey just a few years after Batterton’s death, “Pistol Pete’s” early career was carefully curated by the Cardinals GM. A contract snafu led to him being acquired by the Dodgers, and his rookie season of 1941 was everything and more than Rickey had envisioned for his discovery. Unfortunately, Reiser’s can’t-miss career was derailed by a combination of beanballs to the head and outfield wall collisions.

In 1953, Rickey, now president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, ordered that all his players wear a protective hard-shell helmet not only at bat but in the field as well. By 1958 both major leagues had rules making batting helmets mandatory, with the rest of professional baseball following suit. Although these rules came too late to save Jake Batterton, his death was indirectly responsible for preserving the lives of countless ballplayers.

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This week’s story is Number 14 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. I will also start a Subscription to the series as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 006 and will be active through July of 2019. Booklets 1-5 can be purchased as a group, too.

3 thoughts on “Jake Batterton: A major tragedy in the minor leagues

  1. Gary,

    Thanks so much for your work. The story of Jake Batterton was both fascinating and, of course, terribly sad. I don’t have any particular quibble with the story as you present it but would just add a note that while very likely (but it does appear odd that Rickey left no known comment on Batterton’s death) his death played some role in Rickey’s decision to introduce helmets/liners, I would not want to sanctify Rickey more than he already has been. To that end, it should be noted that Batterton died in 1932 and it was approximately two decades (and the intervening incidents with Medwick and Reiser) l before Rickey was moved to require helmets. So, if all this weighed on Rickey, he was pretty slow in acting on it.

    Finally, the introduction of protective gear for a batter’s head should be properly credited to Negro League star and HOF player, Willie Wells, who pioneered the use of a helmet in the mid-30’s.

    1. Thanks for your comment Gary, I agree that Rickey has gotten his fill of sanctifying over the decades, however, when you look at the big picture, and compare him to evryone else of his stature, he is the one who seemed to get stuff done – eventually. Yeah, Batterton died in 1933, and it took 20 more years and the destruction of Medwick’s and Reiser’s careers for him to make helmets mandatory for his ballclub. It also took him 40 years for him to bring an African-American into the big leagues after he had his catcher on his college team banned from the team hotel. Rickey moved slow – real slow – but in the end he was the guy who did something, which is more than could be said about most GM’s, owners or managers. But you are right, Rickey gets too much credit for things – heck, many of the famous quotes that were attributed to Rickey when Jackie Robinson was signed actually were said by Happy Chandler.

      I know about the Willie Wells story you’re talking about – he was drilled by Bill Byrd of the Elite Giants and showed up a few days later with a construction hard hat. He wasn’t the only one to do that in the years leading up to mandatory helmets. Many minor league tems played around with the idea of a helmet and a semi-pro team in New York used polo helmets for a spell back in the 1930’s when their star player was beaned. But like Willie Wells, none kept up the practice and it was a novelty until the Dodgers put protective plates in their wool caps in the early 40s

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