Thursday, November 13, 2008

Preacher Roe: Obituary . . . and a story

(Image supplied by Herschel Ducker)

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.

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.
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:
"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.

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.
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.

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."

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At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff,

There's another part of the story about the last time I visited with Preacher, but I'd be in deep doo doo if I told that part. Seeing as how I'm gonna ride with her to the funeral tomorrow.

I can only hope that that "other sign" you'd posted about in West Plains is down by the time I get there. But if not: oh well... some folks are proud of the way they are, others are proud they ain't.

I'm proud of my cousin for being in the latter field.

I suppose I should add - for anybody from around home wondering how in the hell ol' Herschy claims kin.

Preacher's Mom and my Dad's Father were brother and sister. Their brother, my Uncle Ed was the un-named uncle who'd returned from the War To End All Wars.

Apparently, to some West Plains' standards... well.

Regardless, I'm proud of babysteps too. And now I don't have to worry 'bout workin' up spit.

I can hauk a loogie at will.

Herschel Ducker

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, if you can hawk a good loogie, then I can surely peddle myself as the spitting image of a respectable scholar.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if Scholar ye be, you'll need to learn the difference in spelling "hauk" and "hawk" I'm told the etymology is from "hauwser." Somehow a Navy term for big ropes. Yes I know Cran, "lines."

Anyway, has something to do with pulling up something from someways down.

But before you go off on me. Yes. I misspelled "strike." But I admit it, the closest I ever came to being an athlete was Little League.

And then again, I never claimed to be a "scholar" neither.

Herschel D.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, Herschel, I looked up "hauk" and didn't find it (which doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, of course), but I did find "hawk" with your meaning and mine.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well then. I guess a hawk does dive down and pulls something up. And I've watched various nature sorts of films where the hawk "loogies" up assorted bits of bloody animal bits into its' various young's giblets.

I suppose that's reason enough that I should defer.

Yes Jeff. You are qualified a scholar.

But would you then agree that Preacher Roe's younger cousin eclipsed to the nth degree his elder?

...Nah, damned presumptuious.

But. Stats are difficult to argue. I'd like JK's opinion, where is he?

Herschel D.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK comes and goes, much like the windy person that he is.

Yes, Herschel, stats don't lie, and you have definitely eclipsed your 'cousin-uncle'.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good story. I met Preacher a few times when I was playing baseball in West Plains. He was an interesting man and a pleasure to be around.


At 1:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tim, you're here, too? You know, I never met Preacher personally . . . but being that I was even worse than Herschel on the ballfield, the Preach wouldn't have sought me out.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Tim,

Very much.

Uh. Professor Jeffery?

Worse on the baseball field than me?

Woo now. Flitter Horton (my first Coach) only accepted me 'cause I was his Mom's only paying piano student. Ruford only accepted me 'cause I was already on the team (and I was a "very-squeezed-strike-zone") batter.

The Colts always had an "injured Herschel" winding up at first needing a pinch runner (following his pre-determined walk) - however I do recall Jay-Bo Young hitting me in the kidneys several times whereupon I decided it was the best to stand at the periphery of the batter's box and swing wildly.

I think I was the only guy to swing nine times at three pitches. That too may be why Ruford only liked me when I was on a bass boat on Norfork - well I did know all the fishing holes back then.

Jeff, don't sell yourself short. For sure you never slept on a lake.

There was always that kid on the Colts who could make anybody look like Reggie Jackson. Well except they stood out in Salem's lights better.

Herschel D.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, you struck the batter out in three strikes.

I wouldn't have gotten that damned ball through the strike zone even if the plate had been laid out like a rectangular platter with the generous side favoring me.

Just ask Tim.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one likes to think about how he - heck I don't want to set up a Black Sox thing here, I've often wondered though.

Riding down from behind the hospital, Southfork, I didn't see nothing obvious in the pickup. We parked on the rodeo grounds, walked across the drainage ditch. Preacher told me to keep his presence quiet.

The Colts always occupied the dugout nearest where the nursing home now stands and anyway Preacher walked to the northernmost end. My team-mates were accustomed to seeing me cheered on by either Cotton Langston or Hubert Jackson but this guy they didn't recognize.

I told our regular pitcher, Douglas Brinkley that my "Uncle" Preacher Roe brought me but he wanted to keep his presence unknown.

But if you heard "he" was there well, my best guess is that NSA ain't likely to set up a new field office and create jobs in Salem anytime soon.

Like I say, Dad and Preacher had sometime out of my sight but actually Preacher spent alot of the day with me. I realize now how much I appreciate the guy. He was kind of a kid in adult clothing. I think now he was more like the kid I was, except he was apparently over 21.

The only reason I say that is, during about the seventh inning or so, both my Coach and my cousin disappeared for a bit. When they got back it was about the eighth inning and Ruford looked like he'd won a lottery for a twelve year supply of Hostess Twinkies. He wasn't yelling or anything.

Most unusual. At least for Ruford.

After I pitched the winning strike, nobody carried me off the field on their shoulders, thank goodness THE RAVE wasn't created that night. I'm guessing here but the Colts must've lost the game.

Honestly, I don't remember. But I got to pitch - and Ruford wasn't pissed off. And it wasn't even my birthday.

As Jeff reported in the "private story" which he has subsequently posted (which of course none of us can do anything since Google has it now) I stated I thought he might be, "ever so slightly drunk."

Well. The fact is, when I got into the pickup I had to scoot a name-inscribed bottle of Maker's Mark: something less than full and sealed off the seat where I was gonna have to place my ass.

Dad's brands were Chevys, Jack Daniel's, and ethyl. He liked Colonel Sanders too but nothing smelled like fried chicken in that pickup. Too mild smelling for Jack Daniel's too.

I don't know. This ain't a eulogy exactly, at least it didn't start out as one. I guess I just wanted to tell my Ancient Mariner story.

And - in eight hours, twenty seven minutes, I will be at a funeral.

Herschel D.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, say farewell to the old man for me, too. I knew him only as a legend, and at a distance, but knowing more about him and his life now that I've grown older, I appreciate his struggle to make it and the reality that he made it indeed.

Greatly made it.

A man from our neck of the woods who became great enough in the major leagues to be remembered as one of the genuine "Boys of Summer" in a big New York Times obituary some 50 years after his heyday.

Now, that's a man.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My only claim to fame was being delivered by Doc Roe, the local physician in Viola, AR.
DR. Roe was Preacher's father, I believe. He used to come to baseball practice at Viola, and could throw batting practice on accasion. He was a pretty good pitcher himself.
He always had a good car, and took delight in picking up a local resident coming to town and scaring the poor guy with his fast driving on back country roads.
Preacher Roe came to Viola homecoming a few years ago, and told some stories of his baseball days. He said he learned how to get Ted Williams out.....just walk him and pick him off first base.
He had a lot of good stories.
Cran H

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Preacher Roe sounds like he was a really smart man. I recall a couple of interesting things that he said about out-smarting batters.

"You don't have to throw it; you just make them think you're going to throw it." (About the spitball.)

"I've got three pitches. My change-up, my change-up on my change-up, and my change-up on my change-up on my change-up." (About his slowball.)

In his book The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn must have been thinking of statements like these when he called Preacher "the most cerebral" of the Dodgers' pitchers.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Cran,

I never knew his Dad (of course) but I heard a few stories about him today. Everyone agreed he "was a character."

I am glad I never knew him, in only one sense however. Medical care thankfully has progressed some where the use of anesthetics are concerned.

My Dad apparently took one of Doc Roe's nephews to him for treatment of "a sore throat." Reportedly Dad heard a "whole lot of something disagreeable" and decided to wait outside.

Doc came out after a bit and loaded the kid into the car telling Dad, "Tell his Mom he'll be alright, I took his tonsils out." Makes me wonder just how Dad came to consider medicine as a career.

I heard Doc Roe was always making spur of the moment medical decisions, sometimes performing surgery in the office, standing in shirtsleeves and carrying on conversations with both the patient and whoever else might be present.

Apparently some of the time some people who had come in near death had pretty rapid and miraculous recoveries. So, I suppose I shouldn't be too quick to consider everything medical has "advanced."

I did have several opportunities in my youth to look at some of Doc Roe's medical books. Mom told the sons today that she would hunt them up and give the books to them.

I didn't say anything but after hearing some of the stories I hope they don't take a quick read and decide to open a practice.

Herschel D.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, I worry about my own 'notebooks' and what my children will think of me someday . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well so long as you take care to burn the notebooks that contain any of the "poetry" I have seen Justin K. critique - I wouldn't worry.

Herschel D.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll keep that in mind. Some things should die with a man.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah Herschel,

Why'd you bring my name into this?

Everything I know about you tells me you are the second biggest liar on the planet.

I'd say first but I know you're shorter and lighter than GW. I didn't know your Uncle myself but I'd have to surmise (from everything I've read) that you are full of shit.

I'd suppose by now that you're comfortable with those kinds of "reviews" by now though.


At 7:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you're being a bit rough with the language and with my old homeboy Herschel.

I like having you online, so be sure and stick to the rules.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno why I came back to this post. But after re-reading this thread, have you by any chance heard of the old Norman word "haucus"? I think it means 'to hoist up' which could explain my confusion as to the etymology of hauc versus hawk.

Herschel D.

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Herschel, that word did come up here.

Jeffery Hodges

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