Preacher Roe: Obituary . . . and a story
One of my old Ozark hometown boyhood friends, Herschel Ducker, has informed me about the death of his cousin, Preacher Roe, who grew up in our part of the Ozarks but went on to pitch in major league baseball and was considered very good at a variety of pitches . . . but especially good with a spitball.
I'd always wondered how Preacher Roe got the nickname "Preacher," and Herschel included a link to explain:
Roe got his nickname at about three years of age when his family lived in [the Ozark town of] Wild Cherry. Although Roe has given various versions of how the nickname came about, his response in an interview in the West Plains Gazette is likely the closest to the truth: "I had an uncle that came back from the first World War who hadn't ever seen me. He said, 'What's your name, young man?' And for some reason I said, 'Preacher.' . . . My mother said maybe it was because I liked the preacher we had at our church so well."For those who've never heard of Preacher Roe and wonder if I'm exaggerating when I say that he was a great pitcher, go read the obituary in the New York Times, which says this:
In the late 1940s and early 50s, when the Dodgers teams that became known as the Boys of Summer largely dominated the National League, Roe emerged as one of baseball's leading pitchers.And he wasn't even a young man at that time, for he was born in 1916 and had reached his thirties by the time that he had the chance to become great. Of course . . . some of those wins were probably due to his fine spitball (using bubble-gum spit!). For some, that might put an asterisk on his statistics, but the Preacher had a response:
Roe led the league in winning percentage in 1949, when he was 15-6 for a mark of .714, and in 1951, when he was 22-3 for .880. He won 44 games and lost only 8 between 1951 and 1953. He pitched for three Dodger pennant winners and was an All-Star every season from 1949 to 1952.
"It never bothered me none throwing a spitter," he said. "If no one is going to help the pitcher in this game, he's got to help himself."But Preacher Roe was a philanthropist and believed in helping others, especially other 'pitchers' . . . as Herschel tells in this tale about his cousin (whom he called "Uncle" due to the great difference in their ages):
When I was playing Little League, Preacher was down, he and Dad were having "a good ol' time." Preacher and Dad were going to come watch me play. Unfortunately Dad had too good a time. So Preacher took me to the field.Great story. I remember that game because I distinctly recall watching Herschel, of all kids, called by Ruford to the mound to pitch. I was playing for the Tigers, and the year was sometime in the latter 1960s (but Herschel can perhaps provide the exact date). I think that I even heard that Preacher Roe was attending the game, but that wasn't too unusual. Our baseball field was named after him: "Preacher Roe Ballpark." Not much of a 'ballpark', actually, but the naming was meant in his honor.
My coach was Ruford Howard and Preacher kept nagging him to "let the kid pitch." Of course [me] being the runt of the entire Salem Little League, Ruford didn't want [me] to. I wasn't aware of all the machinations but Preacher had, earlier in the day given me some "pointers." I normally played second base 'cause Ruford had seen my "arm" -- should someone manage to hook one to left field, I couldn't get the ball to the infield without a relay of some sort. Actually the only advantage to a coach for having me on the team was because, at bat, when I hunkered down, the stike zone was about "plate wide and baseball thick."
Anyway, ninth inning --Ruford calls me to the mound. I hadn't had any action to speak of so I wasn't sweating. I did get my bubble gum out and was chewing the hell out of it but I couldn't manage to work up any spit to speak of. I was so scared I was gonna let my "Uncle" cousin down. I probably had about an eleven mile per hour fastball.
But I'll be damned. The one and only time I ever pitched in a Little League game, I got a strikeout. My "kind of" practiced spitball wasn't necessary. Actually it's a good thing because I never did manage to get the necessary amount of spit worked up. I just hope I didn't cause any undeserved psychological harm to an otherwise aspiring and deserving major league prospect.
Preacher and me got into Dad's pickup. He was exultant. Ever so slightly drunk too, I think. He told me, asked me to "Name your favorite ballplayer and I'll get you an autographed baseball."
I wasn't really much of a professional fan so I said, "Mickey Mantle."
"God . . . damn kid!" I wondered why he had a sudden but thankfully short mood swing. Thank whatever's holy it was a short trip from the ball park to the house.
But I got the ball. His and Mantle's signature. Still have it.
A few years ago Preacher came to visit Mom. He and I were talking about baseball in general and I got up the courage to ask him why he'd gotten so pissed off that I'd asked for Mickey's signature. Seems a young Mantle homered off him to "rob" him of his only real chance to win a World's Series.
But Preacher said he wished he had the ball from my Little League game.
I wish that I knew more about the man because there must be a lot of great stories . . . but go read the NYT obituary, for it has some of those stories and also a great photo of Preacher Roe with Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson back when all three were playing for the Dodgers and feeling supremely happy as the "Boys of Summer."
UPDATE: Fast as you can say "Jackie Robinson," I got a link from Herschel to a statement that Preacher Roe made in 2003 when he was asked what he thought about playing on that Dodgers team with the first African-American in major league baseball, Jackie Robinson:
Well, I'm kind of proud of my career at that time. I feel like it was a change in the way of life. It was a step in our civilization, and I'm part of it. I'm really proud of it. I just felt if Jackie hit a home run while I was pitching, it counted just as much for me as if Pee Wee Reese hit it or some of the other guys that were white. It didn't matter to me. People asked me if Jackie could play baseball, and I'd say, "You never have seen a good ballplayer until you've seen him". He was that good. He was just outstanding. I can say I have no regrets about it, and I'm proud of my space in history right there.I wonder what the Preacher thought this past election day. I reckon that he might have said, "We've come a long, long way."