Win Ballou: Living up to his name
In the years following the First World War, if a ballclub in Appalachia needed a guaranteed victory, the call went out for a pitcher who lived up to his name: Win Ballou.
His full name was Noble Winfred Ballou, and he had blazed a trail through coal country with a side arm curve and knuckle fadeaway that confounded Bluegrass batters. Win hailed from a coal mining camp perched on Mount Morgan, reachable only by mules and men on foot. The mine closed not long after Win’s birth in 1897; family feuds and invading revenue agents looking for local bootleggers eventually brought about the end of the town. The Ballou family packed up and moved 40 miles due east to another coal town named Harlan. There, Win learned to play ball and eventually became the star pitcher for the Harlan Tigers of the semipro Appalachian League, freelancing when the money was right. In 1921, he was recruited by the Eastern Kentucky State Normal School to attend college and play ball for $90 a month. He didn’t open many books, but he did play alongside future Hall of Famer Earle Combs on an all-star college nine that crushed all local competition. When school let out, Win resumed the life of a ballplayer for hire.
In the fall of 1921, the semipro Boosters of Middlesboro, Kentucky needed a secret weapon for their upcoming game against the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association. The Lookouts were barnstorming through the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, trouncing every small town team they came across. Middlesboro was determined not to go down in that fashion, thus the call for Win Ballou.
The box score no longer exists, but it was reported later that Ballou and his knuckle fadeaway “massacred” the Lookouts that afternoon. Chattanooga’s club secretary Al Gifford was so impressed with the pitcher that he offered Ballou a contract then and there. But Ballou, surrounded by his many friends and admirers after the game, was persuaded to remain in the hills of Kentucky. The Chattanooga boys left emptyhanded, but Gifford had an idea. In a few days the Lookouts were scheduled to play the town of Jellico, just across the Kentucky border in Tennessee. Gifford secretly gave the Jellico team the money necessary to hire Win Ballou for the game. Once again, Win lived up to his name, beating Chattanooga 4-1; but, this time, when Gifford proffered him a contract there were no meddling friends or admirers to counsel him against signing on the dotted line.
Win Ballou’s first season of pro ball began with spring training with Chattanooga. Ballou wowed his teammates and opposition with the knuckle fadeaway and curveball that first gained the Lookouts’ attention. He showed flashes of brilliance in exhibition games, but his control remained a problem. He rung up a 2-5 record with Chattanooga before he was farmed out to Vicksburg in mid-June. Against the lower level Cotton States League competition Ballou excelled, going 9-2 for the remainder of the 1922 season.
After the Cotton States League season ended, Ballou played a few games with the Paris Bourbons of the Blue Grass League. Though his stuff was described in glowing stories as “brilliant,” Ballou’s record was 1-2 in six games. However, his lone win was a 13-inning pitcher’s duel against former Cincinnati Reds star Hod Eller. Not only did Ballou pitch shutout ball for 13 innings but he also scored the winning run to beat Mt. Sterling.
Ballou made the Lookouts out of spring training. He started off slow, but after sitting on the bench for a few weeks he reeled off six straight wins. The Lookouts were mired in seventh place for most of the season and, despite pitching admirably, Ballou’s record was 8-11 through mid-August. At this point, Ballou suddenly disappeared while the team was in Birmingham. It was eventually figured out that an ex-Lookout named Rube Marshall had recruited Ballou to play for an outlaw semi-pro team in Racine, Wisconsin.
The team Ballou joined was the Horlick Midwesterners, sponsored by the Horlick Food Company of Racine, originator of malted milk. The Horlicks competed against other factory teams in the independent Midwest League. Most of the players were former professionals trying to squeeze out a few more seasons before they retired or college athletes looking to make a few bucks under the radar while keeping their eligibility. The Midwest League was not affiliated with Organized Baseball, and this was a problem for Ballou. Since he skipped out on his contract with Chattanooga, he was automatically suspended from playing in any minor league in the country. While the money might have been better than what he was getting from Chattanooga, the consequences of his actions would derail his career for more than a year.
During the winter, Ballou made amends with Chattanooga, and the club tried to get their wayward pitcher reinstated in Organized Baseball. In March, it came down that Ballou’s petition was denied, and he was suspended for five years. Ballou was already 26 years old, and a five year suspension would mean missing his prime baseball years. Luckily for Ballou there were still some viable places for a blacklisted ballplayer to make a living in 1924. The coal mining belt had several unaffiliated semipro leagues that paid a good wage, and Ballou joined the Shenandoah Braves of the Anthracite League. Like the Midwest League, there were many former professionals in the league and competition was quite stiff. For the summer, Ballou posted a record of 9 wins and 10 losses. On the surface that might not seem earth shattering, but Ballou also pitched in five games that ended in a tie due to darkness.
The spring of 1925 brought the good news that Win Ballou had been cleared to play by the powers that be in Organized Baseball. He re-joined the Chattanooga Lookouts and won 8 games against 11 losses. He kept his walks to innings pitched ratio low, and that’s likely what interested the Washington Senators.
The Senators were the defending World Champions, and the late summer of 1925 found them locked in a tight pennant race with the Philadelphia Athletics. One of the keys to Washington’s success had been the team’s innovative use of Fred “Firpo” Marberry as a dedicated relief pitcher. Few teams had made use of a relief specialist, but in 1924 Marberry proved his worth by saving a then-record 15 games; his late inning heroics saved Games 2, 4, and 7 of the World Series as the Senators won their first championship. Marberry was just as good in 1925 until he was injured down the stretch. Now Washington was looking for a pitcher with a low walk count who was unflappable in pressure situations. As the teams all through Appalachia already knew, the answer was Win Ballou.
After joining Washington the last week in August, Ballou got into ten games. He wasn’t lights-out, but he did hold his own against the big leaguers. His biggest moment came against the second place Athletics on September 7. With the pennant race as tight as it was, the Senators needed a win any way they could – and Ballou sure did provide it.
The rookie entered the game in the bottom of the 8th with Washington up 7-5. Red Holt laid down a perfect bunt along the first baseline and beat it out for a single. Next, Sammy Hale hit a scorcher to right field, and Holt cruised into third. With runners at the corners, Bing Miller came to the plate. Miller was one of the Athletics best hitters and had already gone 2 for 3 with a double that afternoon. Miller hit a savage liner right back at Ballou, slamming into his shin and ricocheting right back to the second baseman who put the tag on a surprised Sammy Hale. Holt scored from third to make it 7-6, but at least the only runner on base was at first. It’s not clear whether he was injured or not, but Ballou was replaced by Tom Zachary, who retired the next five batters to secure the much-needed win.
The Senators won the AL pennant and faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. By this time, Marberry had recovered from his injury and resumed his place as the team’s relief ace. But the Senators decided to keep Ballou on the post season roster for extra insurance. The move seemingly paid off in Game 5.
Washington was up 3 games to 1 in the Series. After six frames, the score was tied 2-2, and if Washington could take and hold the lead they would win the World Series. Future Hall of Famer Stan Coveleskie had held the Pirates to five hits but broke down in the top of the seventh after getting one out. A walk was followed by three singles and suddenly the score was 4-2 with runners on first and third. Win Ballou was waved in from the bullpen to face Pie Traynor, one of the best hitters in the National League and a future Hall of Famer. Ballou bore down and got Traynor on three pitches, the third one swinging. Over on third base, Kiki Cuyler assessed the rookie pitcher and figured he was ripe picking for a surprise steal of home. Glenn Wright stepped into the box, and Cuyler broke for home as Ballou threw the ball. The throw was perfect, and Cuyler was stuck in a rundown between catcher Muddy Ruel and third baseman Ossie Bluege. After a few back and forths, Cuyler was tagged out and the inning was over. Ballou had not only survived one of the most dramatic spots to be put in, but he did it by striking out Traynor on three pitches.
While this moment supplied Win Ballou with a lifetime of big league cred and a story he retold countless times in a multitude of taverns, the game didn’t end well for Washington. Ballou was taken out for a pinch hitter the next inning, and Washington scored a run to make it 4-3. However, Pittsburgh rallied and made it 6-3 for the win.
The next day in Game 6, Washington’s Alex Ferguson and Pittsburgh’s Ray Kremer faced off in a classic pitcher’s duel. Pittsburgh was clinging to a 3-2 lead when Ferguson was pulled for a pinch hitter in the top of the 8th but failed to score. Win Ballou came in to pitch the bottom of the inning. After walking the first batter, Ballou got Stuffy McInnis to hit into a double play followed by a ground out by Earl Smith that ended the inning. Ballou had done his job in holding Pittsburgh scoreless, but Washington failed to score the 9th and Pittsburgh won, 3-2. The Pirates would go on to beat Walter Johnson in the decisive 7th game.
Although Win Ballou had pitched only 1.2 innings, he more than held his own by keeping the Pirates scoreless. The 1925 World Series was one of the first that was widely broadcast over radio, and thousands of Kentuckians as well as the rest of the nation had listened along live to the broadcast of Ballou’s heroics in Game 5. That winter, many newspapers speculated on Ballou’s bright future with Washington – but that was not to be. With Firpo Marberry healthy and the starting pitching rotation already set, the Senators could not justify having two dedicated relievers in the bullpen. In February, Win Ballou was bundled with Tom Zachary in a trade to the St. Louis Browns.
In 1926, the Browns did not yet have the reputation of being a perennial last place ballclub that they would be in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In fact, the Browns had missed the pennant in 1922 by a single game and had finish in third place in 1925. So, a trade to the Browns did not have the career-killing meaning it would have in later years.
Used as a reliever and spot starter, Ballou pitched decent ball for the Browns, going 11-10 in 43 games. His walk count remained good, but he gave up 12 home runs over the season. He was used less in 1927 and came in with a 5-6 record. The Browns franchise had also taken a turn, finishing in seventh place in both 1926 and 1927.
Off the field, Ballou had more success. During the season he had met Grace Walsh, a St. Louis girl, and the two married after the season ended. The pair had barely settled in when Win was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.
Ballou was now thirty, almost ancient by big league standards. Not many Major League clubs wanted to take a chance on a middle aged pitcher who specialized in relief work. It was easier to find a 20 year-old who could pitch a full nine innings. Still, the American Association was, along with the International and Pacific Coast Leagues, just a rung below the majors. In Milwaukee, Ballou went 14-14 for a third place team. More importantly, his manager was Jack Lelivelt, a connection that would be beneficial in the coming years.
The Brooklyn Robins (they wouldn’t be called the Dodgers until 1932) took notice of Ballou’s bullpen work and bought his contract. Although early season predictions picked him as a keeper, Ballou’s ERA swelled to a career high 6.71. Truth be told, it wasn’t all Ballou’s fault; Brooklyn had a lousy team, finishing 28 ½ games out of first place. But, as a 31 year old reliever, Ballou was disposable, and he was sold to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
For most players, this would be the point where their career begins to nosedive. But Win Ballou wasn’t like most players. Out on the west coast, Ballou reinvented himself and became a Pacific Coast League legend from Seattle to San Diego.
In Los Angeles, Ballou was reunited with Jack Lelivelt, now skipper of the Angels. Working primarily as a starter, he won 16 games against 7 losses in 1930. The next year Ballou won 24 games, third best in the league. The Chicago Cubs bought the Angels in 1932 and began using the team as their top farm club. The influx of young Cubs talent led to the team winning the PCL Championship in 1933, and the team is widely regarded as one of the best in minor league history. The Cubs connection meant that Lelivelt’s priority was to develop the franchise’s young pitchers, and Ballou was moved back to the bullpen. Most pitchers would have looked upon this as a demotion, but this was exactly the environment where Win Ballou thrived. The skills he honed over the previous decade made him an incredibly effective relief pitcher.
One of the keys to Ballou’s success was his wide arsenal of pitches. His bread and butter was a sweeping curve delivered from a sidearm motion that he paired with an overhand fastball for a powerful one-two punch. Then there was his knuckleball fadeaway and the creatively named egg crate ball and bottle cap ball.
But Ballou’s money pitch was what he called his “downer,” which batters inevitably hit into the ground, thereby setting up a double play or easy infield out. “I could heave it around the barn and hit a cow on the other side,” he would say of his proprietary pitch. What exactly his “downer” was is not known, but Ballou’s teammates believed that it was likely an illegal spitball. While most pitchers would deny throwing the slippery pitch, Lefty O’Doul said, “Old Pard was honest. If you asked him, he would tell you, ‘my favorite pitch was the spitball.’”
Besides a wet one, Ballou also wasn’t averse to doctoring a ball now and then. San Francisco Seals teammate Dom DiMaggio told the San Francisco Examiner that, “Oh, he’d cheat a little – he had a file in his belt. He knew all the angles.”
Ballou’s record slipped to 12-19 in 1933. Since the Angels were concentrating on developing young talent for the Cubs, the 35 year-old was traded to San Francisco Seals. While most ballplayers would have retired, Ballou instead went to see a dentist.
The old pitcher had been suffering from rotten teeth and had lost over twenty pounds during the 1933 season. The infected choppers had affected his overall health to such an extent that he had been unable to pitch his overhand “downer” for most of the summer. The dentist’s cure was to scrape the infection from the roof of his mouth and extract all his upper teeth. “Of course, pulling all my teeth detracted from my natural beauty,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “but with all that poison out of my system I feel like a new man.”
San Francisco proved to be where Ballou would have his best years. He contributed 13 wins his first year, but almost as important was his mentorship of the younger players. One of the young pitchers on the Seals was Dick Ward. Ward believed he had everything to make it to the majors except a good curve. Ballou’s big curve was one of the best in the Coast League, so Ward approached the old veteran with a proposition: If Ballou taught him his curve and Ward made it to the majors, he would buy him anything he wanted. Ballou agreed and told Ward he wanted ten high quality, specially bred fighting cocks. See, Ballou had become interested in cock fighting and had been trying to breed a stable of killer cocks. Under Ballou’s tutorship Ward won 25 games in 1933 and was 13-4 the next year when the Cubs brought him to the majors. Ballou earned his birds.
As the story with Dick Ward shows, Ballou was a good, solid veteran presence on the Seals. For ten years, Ballou was the mainstay of the Seals bullpen, providing solid backup whenever a tough spot arose. In 1935, he was 18-8, and three years later he turned in a 10-2 record with a then-unheard of 37 saves.
His advanced age and propensity to calling everyone “Old Pard” led to him being known by that nickname. Ballou struck up a friendship with San Francisco sports columnists Abe Kemp and Curley Grieve. “Old Pard” never failed to provide interesting copy for the two, from home spun tales about his coal country upbringing and family feuds to his refusal to cut his hair when on a winning streak. Old Pard also became a close friend of the Seals manager from 1935 on, Lefty O’Doul. O’Doul was a legendary storyteller, and Ballou supplied the fodder for many a tale Lefty would spin during his long career as a manager and later as owner of his popular sports bar in San Francisco. Between O’Doul’s yarns and Grieve and Kemp’s stories, Old Pard Ballou became a baseball folk hero up and down the Pacific coast.
On the Seals, Ballou was often called upon to relieve the team’s other aging pitcher, Sad Sam Gibson. Just two years younger than Ballou, Gibson was a former big leaguer who, like Ballou, found a late career home with San Francisco, racking up 182 wins from 1934 to 1944. The two got their act down to a science where all it took was for Gibson to look down at the bullpen when he was feeling done in and Ballou would begin making his way towards the mound to the rescue. “Pard, I owe you a pint.” Gibson would say as he exited the game, and sure enough a pint of Kentucky bourbon would appear after Ballou brought home the win.
Ballou’s reputation as a bourbon enthusiast was widely known, and a whole generation of Coast League players seemed to all have their own “Old Pard” booze story. Lefty O’Doul tells the story about one night in Portland after the bars had closed, Ballou and fellow pitcher Rudy Parsons let their manager know they had a need for a strong stimulant – did O’Doul know where something like that could be obtained? O’Doul replied that he did have a bottle of whiskey he had purchased from a bootlegger. The problem was that it was the vilest whiskey he had ever tasted, claiming he almost suffocated when he tried it. However, he told the pair they were welcome to it. O’Doul watched as his two pitchers downed the bottle without so much as a grimace. “You know,” said Ballou, “down in my country in Kentucky, Frank, there ain’t no such thing as rotten whiskey.” O’Doul had his bootlegger send up half a case of the stuff to Ballou’s hotel room.
From 1934 to 1942, Wally Hebert played against Ballou in the Coast League. He told author Tony Salin, “They tell me – I never did see him do this – but they say Old Ballou had a little bottle of liquor there, and whenever O’Doul would flag him and tell him to come on in, he’d take one good swallow and then walk to the mound. He wouldn’t even warm up. He’d go in there and make his eight pitches and start pitching.”
There’s another story, perhaps apocryphal, that is related in Kevin Nelson’s book on California baseball, The Golden Game. Ballou’s favorite drinking establishment when he was with the Seals was the Double Play Tavern, a stone’s throw from Seals Stadium. Old Pard could be found there most nights after home games and sometimes having had a little too much of his Kentucky bourbon. The next day Ballou would sleep it off in the bullpen, but sometimes, as the legend goes, O’Doul would call down to the pen only to find Ballou AWOL. When this occurred, the clubhouse boy’s job was to rush over to the Double Play Tavern where Old Pard could be found at the bar, chasing the tail of the dog.
It might seem that overindulging the night before and sleeping in the bullpen would have been frowned on by managers – and, to an extent, it was. The thing was, you could always rely on Old Pard to snap to and do his job. There’s a story about a time when he was with the Angels where manager Jack Lelivelt rudely shook his sleeping reliever awake. Ballou shook off the sleepies and innocently asked, “Men on, boss?”
It was that brand of work ethic that endeared Win Ballou to his managers and teammates. Jack Lelivelt told the Los Angeles Record in 1932 that he only found out Ballou was suffering a sore elbow by accident. “Win wouldn’t say so himself.” Lelivelt said, “He just isn’t that type.” During the ’36 season, Old Pard got into a bust up in one of the taverns he frequented. A right cross to someone’s chin broke a finger on his pitching hand. True to form, Ballou didn’t tell anyone but the team trainer. “Gim’me some of your best iodine and tape and I’ll be all right,” he told the trainer. And he was.
Dom DiMaggio, longtime teammate of Ted Williams and whose brother was Hall of Famer Joe, had this to say when asked who his baseball hero was: “I was never a hero worshiper, but I can think of someone I admired, Win Ballou.” DiMaggio continued, “there was something about him – the will, the intestinal fortitude that earned my respect. When he couldn’t stand up, when he was sick, he’d perform his duty anyway and never complain. He’d just work day in and day out and do it beautifully. I remember we went up to Ft. Bragg for an exhibition once, and he was advertised to pitch that day. He had athlete’s foot so bad he couldn’t go into his motion, yet he insisted on pitching.”
Lefty O’Doul managed Ballou for 9 years in San Francisco and said his veteran reliever “had as big a heart as anybody who ever went to the mound – he feared no batter.”
The San Francisco fans appreciated Old Pard as well. In 1938, the Seals held a “Win Ballou Day” during the Independence Day doubleheader against Oakland. Even though it was the depth of the Great Depression, Seals fans donated $766.61 to the old reliever. To show his appreciation, Ballou did what he did best by coming out of the bullpen in the top of the ninth with 2 men on and two outs and whiffed Hugh Luby on four pitches to win the game for Frisco. San Francisco Examiner columnist Abe Kemp summed up the city’s respect and appreciation for Old Pard thus, “Give a guy like that only a day? Why, they ought to give him a month.”
Time finally caught up with Old Pard. He spent the 1942 season working in a war industry plant but came back for two more seasons with the Seals before hanging ‘em up for good in 1944, aged 46. Ballou and Grace had divorced sometime in the 1940s. Their two sons, Tom and Art, had been named after Ballou’s best baseball palls, pitchers Tom Zachary and Art Delaney. While his wife chose to live in Los Angeles, Ballou remained in San Francisco, holding court nightly at Shanty Malone’s, a tavern popular with the Frisco sporting crowd. In the late 1950s, Old Pard decided he wanted to return to his roots in the hills of Kentucky. The crowd at Shanty Malone’s gave him a sendoff that columnist Curley Grieve called “one of the elite events of the fall season.” His Appalachian sojourn didn’t last long, though. Within six months he was back on his stool at Shanty Malone’s. Things back home were “dull” and his old cronies had departed, he said.
On January 26, 1963, Old Pard began complaining of chest pains. A woman described as “his wife” took him to San Francisco General. Whether Ballou and Grace had reconciled or his “wife” was simply a woman friend is not known. Regardless, five days later Old Pard had passed. Acute liver damage was the diagnosis.
True to form, Ballou’s funeral was a baseball spectacle. His pallbearers were all baseball lifers, including Lefty O’Doul and columnist Curley Grieve.
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Old Pard Ballou didn’t set any records, nor did he leave any mark on the history of the game. Most of the people who watched him play or heard his stories at the bar are gone. Today’s fans find it impossible to understand or appreciate a ballplayer of the Win Ballou variety. Besides some forgotten box scores and brief mentions in books on the Pacific Coast League, Win Ballou has all but disappeared.
Yet, it’s guys like him who make the history of the game fun. Imagine what he must have felt like – a fella who was reluctant to leave the hills of Kentucky later finds himself pitching in a World Series! Sure, Ballou’s time in the spotlight was brief, and his is a small story, but it’s those small stories that combine to create the fabric that makes up the greatest game ever invented.
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This week’s story is Number 51 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. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 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 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.