“Irish Jack” LeRoy: Jake becomes Jake who becomes Jake again

 

IN THE LAST WEEK of July 1927, sports pages across the country were filled with stories about Babe Ruth and his drive to beat his own single season home run record. Once one got past the Babe, you could read in-depth analysis of the recent Dempsey-Sharkey title bout and Bobby Jones’ triumph in the British Open. And you’d also find the story of John McGraw of the New York Giants paying the astronomical sum of $10,000 for minor league pitcher “Irish Jack” LeRoy.

That the Giants shelled out ten grand for a bush league pitcher was not too surprising; LeRoy was on his way to winning 22 games for the Charlotte Hornets. Moreover, the Giants were trying to regain the title of the most respected baseball team in New York, a title recently swiped by Babe Ruth and the Yankees.
So, it wasn’t a surprise that McGraw would have been scouring the bushes and paying good money for fresh talent in late July 1927. What was surprising was that the 22-game winner was not Irish, nor was his name Jack LeRoy…

I know, it’s a little confusing. Let me explain.

See, the pitcher the Giants signed was not Irish nor was his name LeRoy. He was, in fact, Jake Levy, a Jew from Birmingham, and McGraw wanted him to attract the thousands of Jews living in New York to his ballpark.

Jacob Levy was born in Birmingham, Alabama on February 6, 1900 or, as about half of his official records state, one year later in 1901. Jake’s father Ben, a shoemaker, and mother Jennie had emigrated from Poland before the turn of the century, bringing their three oldest boys—Joe, Louis, and Henry—with them. Sisters Annie and Fanny were born in 1897 and 1899 followed by Jake and finally Irving in 1903.

To raise her son in a cultured manner, Jake’s mother insisted on violin lessons throughout his childhood. Though he eventually mastered the instrument, Jennie always insisted Jake could have become a true concert virtuoso had he practiced more. However, like most American boys, Jake’s heart lie with sports.

At Birmingham’s Central High, Jake excelled in both football and baseball. In the latter, he became a force with both his bat and arm. His specialty was a spitball, at this point still a legal pitch. Years later a former Central High teammate, J.B. Watson, reminisced about Jake to a reporter for the Knoxville Journal, “He chewed something he called ‘slippery elm’ to get nice thick juice. I could stand at shortstop or in the outfield (I was versatile as all hell) and see stuff flying from the ball in all directions all the way from Jake’s hand to the plate.”
It was natural that his prowess on the mound led to a fast progression from the semipro Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company team to turning pro with the Tri-Cities Triplets of the Alabama-Tennessee League in 1921. The odd thing was, he did so under the name “Jack LeRoy.”

Over the decades, there has been some speculation why Jake changed his name. The most widely touted reason was that Jake, the son of Jewish immigrants, was trying to “Americanize” himself. Countless athletes who had ethnic surnames changed them to more “American” versions. Poles, Russians, and Italians commonly exchanged their long, unpronounceable names to ones that read better in the sports pages and avoided any nasty ethnic heckling.

Jews were no different. To nip any anti-Semitism in the bud, Hyman Solomon became Babe Ruth’s Yankee roommate Jimmie Reese; Dov-Ber Rosofsky turned into lightweight boxing champion Barney Ross; and Melvin Israel became the longtime voice of the Yankees, Mel Allen.

However, in the July 22, 1931, Richmond News Leader Jake Levy himself spilled the beans on why he became Jack LeRoy: “I was at Charlotte (actually Tri-Cities) and wanted to get money to go to college,” he says. “I had to work a year, so I decided to play under an assumed name. That would still give me a chance in college athletics. A lot of folks have the wrong idea about that. I never changed because I was ashamed at being Jewish or anything like that; it started because I wanted to be able to play college ball.”

Final statistics were not published for the Alabama-Tennessee League in 1921, but existing box scores show that “Jack LeRoy” both pitched and played right field. On the mound he was credited with winning at least four games against Tri-Cities’ archrival, the Albany-Decatur Twins.

The next season found Jack LeRoy with the Greeneville Burley Cubs of the Class D Appalachian League. Though the spitball was now outlawed, Jake honed his sidearm fastball to the point the Greeneville Democrat-Sun called it “the most wicked in the league.”

The Cubs were at the bottom of the Appalachian League standings, but still Jake managed to keep his pitching record at or slightly above the .500 level and play in the outfield on his off days. In July, he turned the rare trick of winning his own game by hitting a three run homer. Scouts from Cleveland and Detroit followed his progress, and the local press speculated that he was destined for better things. They were right.

Jake signed with the Charlotte Hornets of the South Atlantic (or SALLY) League. By July, Jake was known as the league’s best utility man, filling in anywhere besides catcher while taking his turn on the mound. At one point, he won seven games in a row and finished the season with a sparkling 12-3 record. In the SALLY League playoffs, Jake was stationed in center field where he batted around .350 for the five-game series against the Macon Peaches. In Game 4, Jake was drilled in the back by Macon pitcher Al Zweifel. Visibly angry about the errant throw, Jake belted the next pitch over the outfield wall for his seventh homer of the year. In the deciding fifth game, Jake was 3 for 5 with a double and 2 runs scored as Charlotte won the SALLY League Championship.

The next spring Jake refused to sign with Charlotte. Jake felt he deserved a raise, but team president Felix Hayman offered only a pay cut. The reason was that the league imposed a salary cap and Charlotte had a few high salaried veterans they intended to keep. Both sides refused to compromise, and Jake was put on the retired list.

Back home in Birmingham, Jake put his charismatic personality to work selling ladies’ hats. He also used his gap year to start a family, marrying Birmingham native Beatrice Reed.

Under his real name, Jake kept in game shape by pitching for several semipro teams, but in December he made it known that he intended to return to Charlotte for 1925.

For their part, Charlotte was happy to have Jack LeRoy back. The loss of a good pitcher and outfielder likely cost the Hornets the 1924 championship as the team finished one game behind the pennant winning Augusta Tygers. Jake began the season at shortstop but then transitioned to outfield as well as a spot starter and relief pitcher. Unfortunately, Charlotte finished the same as the previous year, this time one game behind the pennant winner Spartanburg Spartans. Jake batted .318 and split 10 decisions on the mound.

For 1926, the Charlotte ownership decided to dump most of their expensive veterans. While the restructuring saved money, the Hornets’ record slipped to below .500. “Irish Jack,” as Jake was now known, became even more popular with the fans. He managed to win 13 games for a mediocre club while batting just below .300.
In the off season, Jake supplemented his millenary earnings by playing violin in a jazz dance band. When the 1927 season began in Charlotte, “Irish Jack” and his fiddle was a featured act on WBT radio’s “Diamond Jamboree” program.

Once the 1927 season started, “Irish Jack” could not be stopped. He reeled off win after win on the mound and pounded the ball at the plate. The Charlotte papers were full of Irish Jack’s clutch heroics, which earned him the additional nickname of “Everready.” For example, on July 9 Jake was sent in as a relief pitcher in the 8th inning of a 7-7 tie game against Greenville. He pitched scoreless ball into the bottom of the 11th when he knocked in the game winning run for his 13th victory of the season.

What made his season even more spectacular is that he did it on a second division ballclub. While the Hornets buzzed around last place, big league scouts circled “Irish Jack” – and no club was more interested than the New York Giants.

For the two decades John McGraw had been running the Giants, he couldn’t help but notice the large Jewish fan base who supported his Giants. But still, McGraw felt that this potential fan base was not yet tapped to its fullest extent; in fact, his fan base in general was jumping ship at an alarming rate. According to Jews and Baseball: Volume 1 by Burton and Benita Boxerman, the Giants lost 100,000 fans from 1922 to 1923 alone. And this was in years the Giants won two pennants and a World Series. Babe Ruth and the home run had replaced the “inside baseball” method of hit and run that made John McGraw and his Giants champions. Fans now flocked to Yankee Stadium instead of the Giants’ Polo Grounds, and the Yanks had replaced the Giants as New York’s favorite team. McGraw became desperate to rebuild his ball club and pack his ballpark again. To do that, McGraw knew he needed one thing: a Jewish star in a Giants uniform.

So, when John McGraw’s scouts reported to him about a .300 hitting starting pitcher named Irish Jack LeRoy down in Charlotte, he didn’t bat an eye. But when he was told Irish Jack was really Jake Levy, McGraw hopped on a train south to take a look for himself.

McGraw’s scouting trip couldn’t have gone better. The Giants skipper watched Irish Jack beat Columbia 8-2, striking out four and going 3 for 4 with a double to win his 18th game of the season. McGraw bought Irish Jack’s contract for $10,000 and earmarked him for a fall delivery to the Polo Grounds.

Being a 1920s bonus baby wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. A July 1927 news story relates how Jake was on the field before a game in Nashville when a bunch of fans started razzing the $10,000 phenom. Jake had his “mic drop” moment by telling the fans, “Next year instead of this across here” he said pointing to the ‘CHARLOTTE’ across his blouse, “I’ll be wearing a big ‘G-I-A-N-T-S’ across here.”

Jake wrapped up Irish Jack LeRoy’s career by finishing 1927 with 22 wins and batting .305. When the SALLY League season ended, Irish Jack boarded a north-bound train. By the time it reached Grand Central Station, he once again became Jake Levy.

In New York, Jake sat on the Giants bench as the team wrapped up their season. Though he didn’t get a chance to pitch in a regular season game, Jake did get the start in an exhibition game against the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. In the bottom of the first, he gave up two runs on a single and a pair of doubles, but then held Buffalo scoreless through the fifth inning, when he was taken out. The Giants eventually came back and won it in the 10th inning on a home run by George Harper. Jake had handled himself well in the game; he kept his cool after giving up two runs and had struck out two. He had good control and did not walk a single batter. The Giants were impressed and invited him to spring training.

Jake joined the Giants at their preliminary training camp at Hot Springs, Arkansas. In between rigorous workouts, the prospective rookie received news Beatrice had given birth to a son the couple named Foster. With a nod to his father’s baseball alias, they gave him the middle name LeRoy. Legendary sportswriter Fred Lieb, who was staying in the hotel room adjacent to Jake’s, remembered the pitcher getting the news of his son’s birth in the morning and hearing him fiddle on his violin all day to show his joy.

Jake stuck with the Giants through spring training, and though he went with the club to New York, his stint with the team was short lived. McGraw felt he needed a little more seasoning, so he was farmed out to the Hartford Senators in the Eastern League. Jake took the demotion well. He won his first six starts and batted a scorching .375. Just as in Charlotte, Jake was by far the most popular player with the Hartford fans.

Unfortunately, any hope of rejoining the Giants ended when he came up with a sore arm halfway through the season. Diagnosed with bone chips, he stuck around for a while as a pinch hitter but eventually returned to Birmingham to have an operation. The Giants lost interest and sold his contract outright to Hartford.

When Jake played hardball come contract-signing time, Hartford traded him to Bridgeport, another team in the Eastern League. Over the next three years, Jake bounced around the Eastern League, winning 12 games for Bridgeport in 1929 and 15 games and the 1930 pennant with Allentown. His last stop was with Richmond, where he couldn’t seem to catch a break. In one particularly tough loss, Jake was called in from the bullpen with bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th inning of a 3-3 game against Norfolk. The first and only pitch Jake threw was hit into centerfield for the game winning run. He finished the season 5-9, the only time he finished below .500 in his career.

Richmond offered a new contract for 1932, but the money wasn’t there. The rub was that Jake was on the other side of thirty – ancient in baseball years. He had also begun gaining weight. This combo stacked the odds against him going any further in pro baseball, but Jake wasn’t ready to call it a career. He had a tryout with Knoxville of the Southern Association but was let go in May. The next two years Jake plied the semipro circuit, first with the Cairo Syrup Makers of the unaffiliated Georgia-Florida League and then with Union Springs of the Dixie Amateur League.

Jake stayed out of baseball in 1934 only to return in 1935 with the St. Augustine Saints of the Northeast Florida League, another unaffiliated loop. Since the league was not regulated by organized baseball, Jake resumed throwing his spitball. The opposing players didn’t like it and, during one game, coated the baseballs in mustard oil. As one newspaper put it, “Split lips and a swollen nose resulted…”

Jake was now in his mid-30s, quite overweight, and hurling for an unaffiliated team in the faraway hinterlands of baseball. The Great Depression meant there were more hungry young ballplayers trying to find a job in minor league baseball than ever before. Most middle-aged ballplayers would have taken this time to hang up the spikes – but not Jake. On the contrary, this would mark the start of the second act of his baseball career.

In April 1936, Jake turned up at the Savannah Indians spring training camp. Beating out pitchers half his age and weight, Jake made the team. Though his once wicked sidearm fastball lost some of its velocity, the wisdom he accrued over the past decade and a half of pro ball enabled him to outsmart the inexperienced batters he faced. In three seasons with Savannah, Jake won a total of 47 games, with his best season being 1937 when he went 20-8. Injuries at the end of the 1938 season led to his release the next spring.

Jake resurfaced in August of 1939 with the Trois Rivieres Foxes of the Provincial League in Quebec, Canada. For some reason, he resurrected his old baseball name of “Jack LeRoy” for his single season in Canada, perhaps because it sounded French. His time up there is notable in that it is the only time in his career that a baseball card was issued of him. The photo on the card depicts Jake following through a pitch, his belt noticeably straining against his bulging waistline.

1940 found Jake pitching for a traveling team sponsored by Bona Allen Shoe Company. The “Bona Allen’s” boasted many former big leaguers on the roster and won several National Semipro Championships during the 1930s and 40s.

Often called “rolly-polly” and “fat and past forty” in the sports pages, opposing players occasionally tried to take advantage of Jake’s age and condition. In one game against the Dixisteel company team, Jake had a runner on second base. The Dixisteel boys had been unable to hit Jake through five innings and decided it was time to shake up the old man. One of the Dixisteel players called to look at the ball. Figuring they suspected him of throwing a forbidden spitball, Jake tossed the ball towards the Dixisteel dugout, but no one caught it. By the time the ball was retrieved, the runner had scored all the way from second. Instead of rattling Jake, the veteran bore down and won his game by a score of 2-1.

Behind the pitching of Jake Levy, the Bona Allen’s won the Denver Post Tournament and were declared National Semipro Champions. The press generated by the National Championship propelled Jake back to the minor leagues in 1941.

Jake Levy would pitch for six more years and win over 50 more games before retiring for good in 1946. This would put Jake’s age at 45 or 46, depending on which of his birth dates you subscribe to. During his final seasons, Jake was often featured in news stories as the oldest active player in pro baseball. He drew comparisons to the other celebrated old-timer still pitching, Negro League great Satchel Paige, who, it’s important to note, was half a decade younger than Jake.

After baseball, Jake opened a liquor store in Atlanta before relocating to Florida, where he became a liquor salesman. Though Jake and Beatrice separated sometime in the 1940s, his son Foster LeRoy Levy would give him three grandchildren before he passed away in 1995.

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Jake Levy, alias Jack LeRoy, wasn’t a Hall of Famer. He didn’t set any records. Heck, he didn’t even get into a single big league game – but he came so darn close. In a career that lasted a quarter century, Jake won more than 200 minor league games, making him one of the few pitchers to reach that milestone. He left a trail of fans in a dozen towns who fondly remembered him years after the teams he pitched for disappeared. Jake is one of the thousands of players who make up the heart and soul of the game. He was a multi-talented guy who could have been a successful salesman or musician, yet he chose to follow his dream and pitch ball well into his forties. I don’t know about you, but I for one can’t help but root for a guy like that.

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As a special thanks to my subscribers to The Booklet Series, I produced a companion piece to this story called “My Process.” This illustrated booklet shows how I came up with the idea for this story, the research involved, the writing of the story and the development of the illustration from sketch to finished art.

You can follow along online as well by going to the 10-part series MY PROCESS

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This week’s story is Number 52 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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