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November 14, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Spit and Polish

by Steven Goldman

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I received some requests to talk about a couple of southpaw pitchers, Preacher Roe and Herb Score, who were called up to a higher league in recent days, and it's my pleasure to oblige, as both make for fascinating stories. I'll start with Roe now and get to Score in the next installment, and I solemnly promise to turn it around faster than I typically do with these things.

Although Branch Rickey remains the model general manager, he was not a big trader; with his farm systems, he didn't have to be. As such, his acquisition of Roe stands out as perhaps the steal deal of his career. In December of 1947, the Dodgers' president was forced into the position of trading his star right fielder Dixie Walker, because Walker was not pleased to have Jackie Robinson as a teammate. Though Walker was coming off of a nice .306/.415/.427 season, he was 37 years old, and so couldn't have been expected to net a big payoff. Rickey managed to get one anyway. Sweetening the deal by adding a pair of 25-year-old pitchers (righty Hal Gregg, who had been torched through wartime overuse, and lefty Vic Lombardi, 35-32 to that point with a strong 3.07 ERA, but with subpar walk and strikeout rates), Rickey induced the Pirates to part with Roe, 28-year-old shortstop Billy Cox, and 22-year-old infielder Gene Mauch.

Roe had a wonderful run of years with the Dodgers from 1948 to 1952, pitching 1,059 innings and putting up a 2.99 ERA, which was almost a full run better than league average. This is even more impressive when you consider that his home park was a bandbox. Roe allowed more than his share of home runs, but he had excellent control for the time, averaging just 2.1 walks per nine innings during this peak period, so the homers didn't do too much damage. "The year I gave up 36 home-run balls, I think 27 of 'em were with the bases empty. Somebody other than the fan in the stands might catch a fat pitch behind a guy now and then, but I never saw anybody catch a base on balls." With the team's strong, Jackie Robinson-led offense supporting him, these low ERAs meant a 79-30 record in those years, for a .725 winning percentage. Overall, Roe was 93-37 with a 3.26 ERA as a Dodger.

What makes this more impressive from the standpoint of appreciating Rickey was that the exec par excellence was able to perceive value that wasn't necessarily apparent from the players' major league results. That, or maybe he was just lucky that Roe came on the way he did. The Pirates had used Cox as a shortstop, where his bat (.280/.322/.418 to that point) was strong for the position but his glove was not. He was also a hard fellow to figure out personally. Naturally reserved, Cox was still dealing with a difficult war experience that saw him contract malaria while fighting the Germans in Sicily. Rickey saw him as a third baseman, a vision borne out after Cox became a major defensive asset at the hot corner (though his bat died in transit). As for Mauch, he couldn't hit, but Rickey thought enough of him to have him included in the trade just months after he had dealt Mauch to the Pirates in another trade.

Reports at the time suggested that the Pirates may also have given the Dodgers as much as $100,000 to complete the deal, though cash is not part of the official trade record. However, the Dodgers and Pirates made a series of trades during the 1947-48 offseason, some of which did involve money changing hands, so it is possible that the parties viewed what were reported as individual deals as one long transaction, and the dough involved, which totaled $280,000, may have been meant to apply to more than one of the deals. Pirates GM Roy Hamey had also previously sent the Dodgers $30,000 for infielder Eddie Basinski.

Roe had been good before the Dodgers got hold of him, although he had not been for a while. Roe had been groomed as a pitcher from an early age by his father, a country doctor who was himself a failed minor league pitcher. As the Roe family hailed from an obscure corner of Arkansas, his father made sure that young Preacher got into a college program where he could be seen by scouts. Roe pitched well, and was scouted and signed by Branch Rickey's Cardinals for $5,000 (he claimed that the Yankees were on him too, but as a Southerner he wasn't going to sign with a team that went by that name). He went right to the majors, making his debut on August 22, 1938 at 20 or 22 or 23 years of age, depending on your source. He pitched one game, got torched, and disappeared to the minors. His first few years were not particularly impressive (though not bad), and the Cardinals, who had been going through a rare rough patch in 1938, were building an immensely strong staff that just didn't have room for a questionable pitcher like Roe-from 1939 through 1944, the Cards had adjusted staff ERAs of 115, 104, 118, 135, 131, and 132. This was a historic collection of pitchers, and even with a war on, St. Louis didn't need the extra help.

Roe finally broke through with Columbus of the American Association in 1943, going 15-7 with a league-leading 136 strikeouts in 167 innings, and a 2.37 ERA which came on the back of six shutouts, but even then, the Cards still had no room for him. That September, Roe was traded to the Pirates for outfield prospect Johnny Wyrostek, a not particularly interesting pitcher named Johnny Podgajny, and cash. Both players were immediately disappeared into the military and never played a game for the Cardinals. One presumes the Cards held onto the cash, which they clearly thought more of than any of the players in the deal, including Roe: during World War II, a player's draft status was an important consideration in any deal, so teams looked to acquire players with bad teeth and 42 dependents so that they could be assured of their presence on the roster. In this case, the Cardinals didn't care enough to bother.

Roe turned out to be an excellent pickup for the Pirates. Working with the soft wartime ball, he put in two strong seasons in 1944 and 1945 for Pirates teams that were shockingly good, stocked with real major league veterans such as Al Lopez, Babe Dahlgren, Pete Coscarart, Bob Elliott (a future NL MVP), Vince DiMaggio, Max Butcher, and Rip Sewell. In 1945, Roe had his sole 10.0 WARP season, posting a 2.87 ERA in 235 innings and leading the National League with 148 strikeouts.

And then Roe broke, though not in the conventional way. During the 1945-1946 offseason, Roe was coaching a basketball team and got into a scuffle with a referee. The ref beat the snot out of him, punching him either into the hardwood floor or an iron railing, and thereby fracturing his skull. The next two seasons were disastrous; Roe went a combined 7-22 with an ERA of 5.27 as recurrent dizzy spells and blurred vision made it hard for him to even see the plate. There seems to have been a concurrent loss of velocity as well, and some sources say that Roe's arm was also injured in the fight, but in interviews he talked about the damage to his skull and brain exclusively. Whatever the cause, Lopez, Sewell, and Butcher worked with him, trying to get him to adjust to diminished stuff, but there was no evidence that Roe could overcome his injuries-although Branch Rickey apparently saw that something could be salvaged.

With the Dodgers, the lessons suddenly took. Roe suddenly became, in Casey Stengel's words, "just about the smartest pitcher around today." Roe famously joked that, "I've got three pitches: my change, my change off my change, and my change off my change off my change," but he also had something else. In a July 4, 1955 article in Sports Illustrated, Roe let everyone in on his secret weapon. "A Lot of people have asked me what I used to throw… I like to tell 'em it was my sinker. Well, you know, the ball did drop real pretty, but it was more than a little ol' sinker. I guess it won't hurt anybody to tell the truth now. I threw spitballs the whole time I was with the Dodgers. Seven years in all."

I don't want you to get the wrong idea… Some boys really laid on my spitter and if they ever read your story I want them to know that I know I didn't fool 'em. Some of the guys used to hit it pretty good. A lot of my best have gone out of the park. Musial hit one back at me one day, and almost tore my head off. Del Ennis always hit the spitter good; probably better than anyone. It got so bad I had to throw fastballs and sliders to him because he hit the darned things so often. I used to give him nothing but the decoys, but I wouldn't give him the real spitter.

The reaction to this article turned Roe in popular perception into a pitcher who overwhelmingly threw the spitter, but that wasn't the case. He threw an assortment of curves and sliders, could reach back for a fastball when he needed it (about ten times a game, he said), and when he was in real trouble, he would load one up. Perhaps even better, once it had gotten around the game that he threw a spitball, he would sometimes go through the motions of throwing one, only to release a dry pitch. It was just another way of keeping the batter thinking.

In short, Roe was a younger version of Jamie Moyer, and one who never lost. Roe's winning percentages are so good that you can parse his record all kinds of ways to come up with interesting variations on "high winning percentage." For example, from 1951 to 1953 he went 44-8. That breaks down to a Cliff Lee-like 22-3 in 1951, followed by two seasons of declining health in which he went 11-2 and 11-3.

Roe pitched in three World Series with the Dodgers, all against the Yankees. They didn't win it all until the year after he retired. He still had his moments, most dramatically in Game Two of the series in 1949, when Roe hooked up in a duel with Vic Raschi at Yankee Stadium. With the Dodgers leading 1-0 with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, the last batter of the inning, the Yankees' Johnny Lindell, ripped a line drive up the middle. The ball caught Roe on the fourth finger of his glove hand before dropping to the ground. In intense pain, Roe picked up the ball with his bare hand and fired to first for the out. In the dugout, the trainer looked at the swelling finger and punched two holes in the nail to relieve the pressure. Later, after the Series, it would be found that the finger was broken in three places, but there were no X-ray machines in the clubhouse at that time. Roe went back into the game and completed his six-hit, no-walk shutout. Ironically, Rickey was angry with him, as the injury caused Roe to ask out of his second start that Series, and Rickey didn't know the finger had been broken.

Roe's second life as a starter finally came to an end in 1954, long after Rickey was gone. Preacher could only start ten games that year, and after the season the Dodgers traded Roe and Cox to the Orioles for two minor leaguers and cash. Rather than go, Roe retired instead. He went home and opened a supermarket.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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