Every successful team boasts at least one jack-of-all-trades utility man. We’re talking about a guy who a manager can feel comfortable penciling in to play multiple positions when one of the regulars was hurt, in a slump of just need a day off. This valuable, but often unsung role has kind of disappeared in the modern game, especially since the rosters are quite a bit larger than they were in the 1920s. Back then, a good utility man was often the difference between the pennant and a second-place finish.
Wade Lefler was the 1921 Orioles’ ultimate utility player.
Wade Hampton Lefler hailed from North Carolina, and was another one of Jack Dunn’s college boys. The Orioles owner-manager favored college educated players because they were often disciplined and eager to learn. Dunn often left the Orioles during the season for scouting trips that covered the many universities and colleges in Maryland and surrounding states. It was while sitting in the stands at a Duke game in 1917 that Jack Dunn discovered the hard-hitting Wade Lefler. That afternoon, Dunn watched as the pre-law student caught a good game behind the plate and hit two towering home runs in front of it. By June he was in an Orioles uniform and traveling with the team. As this was his first season in pro-ball, Dunn used the college kid sparingly, but even at this early stage he proved his versatility, playing both the outfield and catching.
Lefler had received a draft deferment to finish his college degree, and now that he had graduated, he was inducted in the Army in early 1918. By the time he had finished his bootcamp and officer training, the war was winding down and Lefler never left the States, serving out his hitch at a troop processing center in Georgia. When most of the returning troops had been processed and demobilized in the spring of 1919, Lieutenant Lefler received his discharge.
The versatile college grad re-joined the Orioles right at the start of their seven consecutive pennants run. Jack Dunn had intended to use Lefler as Ben Egan’s understudy, and during the course of 1919 the youngster caught 78 games to Egan’s 71 and outhit Babe Ruth’s old catcher .281 to .265. The next year Egan had his best year in baseball, staying healthy all summer and hitting a career high .331. Lefler got into 38 games behind the plate, but his .336 hitting caused Jack Dunn to place him in the outfield whenever possible.
As valuable as he had been up to this point, 1921 would prove to be his most versatile yet. That season the Orioles surged to win 119 games, 20 games in front of second place Rochester. Though on paper it looks like it was a cake walk for Baltimore, the truth was the team suffered a long series of injuries to many of their regulars. It was in this uncertain environment that Wade Lefler made his value clear to all.
During spring training, it was thought that Lefler would continue to be the team’s second-string back stop. However, this plan was aborted when Lefler suffered an arm injury that made throws to second base almost impossible. This sent Dunn scurrying around in search of catchers to back up the easily-injured Ben Egan. But, instead of sending Lefler down to a lower minor league, or releasing him outright, Jack Dunn though enough of his versatility that he kept him on the roster. This proved to be a wise decision as almost as soon as the season began, one player after another went on the DL. When Merwin Jacobson went down with a head injury, Lefler filled his center field spot. In July right fielder Bill Holden went on a one-man strike to protest his salary; Lefler took his place. Who took over the first base bag when Jack Bentley took his place on the mound? Wade Lefler, of course. Then there was the July doubleheaders where he donned the tools of ignorance and took his place behind the plate. In all, Lefler made his presence known in 115 games until he, too, went down with an injury, suffering a broken thumb in early August. This injury caused a disruption in the pitching rotation, as with no qualified first baseman available, Jack Bentley could not take his turn on the mound. Fortunately, the Birds had Jack Ogden, Lefty Grove and Tommy Thomas as the other starters, along with Rupe Clarke and Lefty Matthews as spot starters.
Lefler spent most of the remained of the summer out of action, but he had more than made his mark on the team up to that point. In 115 game he had batted .316 with 19 doubles and five triples. His versatility at so many positions certainly kept Baltimore in the pennant race no matter what regular went down with injuries. It’s also interesting to note that when Lefler was behind the plate, the 1921 Orioles fielded an all-.300 or better starting lineup.
When the Orioles clinched the pennant and were to face Louisville in the Junior World Series, he was deemed ready for action. However, with his thumb most likely still tender, Jack Dunn had brought up Lena Styles to help out behind the plate, leaving Lefler free to platoon in the outfield and first base. He sat out the first two games which were split between the two clubs.
In game 3, Lefler replaced the slumping Bill Holden in right field, scoring a run and drawing two walks in the 14-8 loss. In Game 4, Lefler played right field until he switched to first mid-game when Jack Bentley was called on to pitch in relief. Lefler went 2 for 4 with a walk, an RBI and two runs scored in the 12-4 thrashing of Louisville. Lefler beat up the Louisville pitching in Game 5, having a 4 for 5 afternoon with a double, pair of RBI and a run scored, pushing Baltimore to a 10-5 win. Game 6 was a 3-0 shutout loss in which Lefler went 1 for 3, playing all nine innings in right field. The next day he had a 2-RBI home run, but Baltimore lost, 7-6.
Baltimore was now down 3 games to 4 in the best of 9 series. Lefler against started in right field, but for the first time in the series went hitless and struck out once in his three official at-bats. Louisville beat up on Jack Ogden and Harry Frank, taking the game and the series with an 11-5 score. In the six games he played, Wade Lefler posted a .444 batting average, the one bright spot in Baltimore’s Junior World Series loss.
Many expected the Bird’s jack-of-all-trades to play a key position on the 1922 team, but it was not to be. Jack Dunn had been worried about Lefler’s persistent arm problem that kept him from catching, and the broken thumb gave him more cause for worry. Though he was an able outfielder, Dunn had a several players in the pipeline tabbed for that spot in ’22. In the winter, Dunn traded Lefler to the Newark Bears for outfielder Jimmy Walsh. He played the majority o his games at first base, but a .259 average got him demoted to Augusta of the South Atlantic League. There, Lefler did even worse, ending 1922 with a .236 average. At season’s end, Augusta sent the 27 year-old to the Worcester Panthers of the Eastern League. This trade proved to be Wade Lefler’s resurrection.
Playing the majority of the summer in the outfield, Lefler hit a career-high .369, prompting the Boston Braves to buy his contract. On April 16, 1924, Wade Lefler became the first Duke alumni to play in the majors. He pinch hit in the 6th inning for future Hall of Famer Rube Marquard, striking out. The Braves didn’t give him another shot, returning him to Worcester. Lefler hit the Eastern League pitching to the tune of .370, beating his previous season’s average and earning him a second shot at the majors.
The Washington Senators were battling the Yankees for the 1924 pennant, and were in need of some extra help at the plate. With Lefler’s back-to-back seasons of .369 and .370 plus his .444 average in the 1921 Junior World Series in mind, Washington purchased the outfielder-catcher in mid-September.
Used as a pinch hitter, Lefler more than excelled at his new role. In his first four games he went 3 for 4, two of his hits going for doubles. He also batted in four runs. In his fifth and final game of 1924, he played the entire game in right field, going 2 for 4 with another double. Washington wound up edging out the Yankees by two games for the pennant. Since he was a late-season addition, Lefler was not eligible for the World Series against New York. The team did, however, vote to give their wildly effective pinch hitter a share of the World Series winnings, reported to be $50 from each of the team’s 23 regulars.
Now, most rookies would have been happy just to have been part of a pennant winning team, but not so with Wade Lefler. He felt that his clutch hitting played a significant part in the team’s two-game margin over New York. His complaints spilled over into the press and suddenly Washington banished him back to the Bush Leagues.
By this time Lefler was 29 and a practicing lawyer in the off season. He didn’t really need baseball anymore, and playing in the low minors just didn’t have the appeal it once had. He gave his Memphis assignment the old college try, hitting .309, but hung up the spikes after the season ended. Lefler focused on his practice, becoming a well-respected attorney in Newton, North Carolina.
So, while Wade Lefler wasn’t one of the 1921 Orioles starters, he was by default a regular, playing more positions than anyone else on the club, all the while batting north of the .300 mark. Without his bat and versatility, Baltimore might not have won consecutive pennants from 1919-1921.
Wednesday we swing back to the bullpen and look at Rufe Clarke, another Baltimore player who had a cup of coffee in the majors after a successful 1921 season.
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