It’s not unusual for guys my age to have a bucket list. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was to catch batting practice at Yankee Stadium – or any major league park for that matter. Since teams no longer have batting practice catchers, and my life is in fast forward, chances of me fulfilling my fantasy are slim-to-none.
I recently read an article about former St. Louis Browns bat boy and batting practice catcher Bill Purdy in Pop Flies, the official magazine of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society. Batting practice catcher? Before you could say Clint Courtney, I did my best Sherlock Holmes imitation and tracked him down.
Purdy, a retired high school principal and educator in St. Louis, grew up a serious Browns fan despite suffering through a dismal but colorful period in team history. A Knothole Gang member who often went to Browns’ games on weekends, he was one of the 18,369 fans in attendance at Sportsman’s Park on Aug. 19, 1951, when owner Bill Veeck employed Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7-inch midget. It is perhaps baseball’s most notorious stunt that will certainly be resurrected in this 60th anniversary year.
“I was sitting on the third base side in the upper deck with a friend,” recalled Purdy. “Between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers, they wheeled a cake onto the field and out of the cake jumped Gaedel. The crowd was astounded. Frank Saucier, who was considered a rookie phenom at the time, was announced to be in the starting lineup, and I was excited about this. He was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the first and play right field. But when he came to bat, manager Zack Taylor pinch-hit Gaedel for Saucier.”
Tigers’ pitcher Bob Cain threw four “balls” while laughing through the burlesque. After Gaedel waddled down to first base wearing elf’s shoes and uniform No. 1/8, he was replaced by Jim Delsing, and Gaedel’s one at-bat big league career came to an abrupt end.
When the Browns last won a pennant (1944) Purdy was only 7 years old. The Cardinals, with marquee names like Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and Marty Marion, owned the city. So how did he develop an affinity toward the Brownies?
“We used to play step ball,” he explained “We would use a tennis ball and throw it off the concrete steps. If you caught the ball, you stayed in the game. I used to pretend that I was George McQuinn, the former Browns first baseman.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Purdy was a standout catcher from Little League through his days at Southwest High School. He hit like Johnny Bench but ran like Ernie Lombardi – maybe a little faster. He then played one year of baseball for Washington University in St. Louis before transferring to Southeast Missouri State College where the school did not have a baseball program.
Bat boy and bullpen catcher
Veeck, who purchased an 80 percent stake in the Browns in 1951, worked endlessly to promote his anemic franchise. After all, he had to compete with “Stan the Man’s” Cardinals who were tenants in the same ballpark.
In 1952, Veeck held a promotional essay contest in search of a bat boy for the St. Louis Browns. The winner was 14-year-old Bill Purdy. Not only was he selected to be the club’s bat boy, he won $500 and his parents were given a season pass. And in classic Veeckian style, any of the 2,500 students at Southwest High School could attend one game for free on May 17. Those who did attend saw the Browns rally for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Mel Parnell and the Red Sox 2-1.
Purdy now had rock star status among his peers. Like the movie title that year starring Dan Dailey, Dizzy Dean and Joanne Dru, he was “The Pride of St. Louis” among his classmates. And thanks to an understanding school principal who was a baseball fan, he was able to get out of school for the few day games that were played.
The year 1952 was an unforgettable one for the 14-year-old bat boy and batting practice catcher. It was the beginning of the Eisenhower years, Kay Starr sang “Wheel of Fortune” and Topps printed its Cadillac 407-card set.
“My first year I was a bat boy and batting practice catcher,” said Purdy. “In ’53, the final season for the Browns in St. Louis, I was exclusively a batting practice and bullpen catcher.
“I assume the regular catchers, Les Moss and Clint Courtney, didn’t want to do it. Catching was a tough job and the St. Louis heat can take a lot out of you. Coaches Bob Scheffing and Bill Norman were very good to me. I remember Eddie Olsen, who played hockey for the St. Louis Flyers minor league team, often threw batting practice. In the bullpen, I warmed-up legends like Satchel Paige, Virgil Trucks, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Don Larsen, Bob Turley, Ned Garver and Tommy Byrne. I had no problem catching them.”
Veeck had a penchant for signing former Cardinals. Brecheen, who spent most of his prominent 133-92 career with the Redbirds, beat the Red Sox three times in the 1946 World Series. He pitched the final season of his career for the Browns. “The Cat” made 16 starts and came out of the bullpen 10 times, going 5-13. And would you believe his favorite bullpen catcher was the young Purdy?
“For whatever reason, one day I warmed up Harry before a game and he won,” Purdy said. “After that he wouldn’t allow any one else to warm him up.”
Purdy was especially close to Paige, the ageless Hall of Fame right-hander who spent most of his career in the Negro leagues.
“He lived in the Adams Hotel at the corner of Pendleton and Olive Streets,” Purdy said.“It was a segregated hotel about two blocks from my father’s restaurant, The Rex Café. My father would pick us up after a road trip and Satchel would often dine there. This was a time when many restaurants and hotels were segregated. My dad’s place was opened 24/7 to everyone, and celebrities such as President Harry Truman, Jimmy Durante, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, wrestler “Gorgeous George,” Harry Caray and others ate there. Part of the movie The Glass Menagerie was filmed outside the restaurant.”
Purdy’s friendship with Paige grew from all this. Their close relationship would impact Purdy’s life.
Traveling with the team was a part of Purdy’s magic carpet ride. “I made three road trips with the Browns, one in ’52 and two in ’53,” he recalled. “In ’52, my parents, Raymond and Nola, flew to New York and joined me.
“The ’53 trip, which included Yankee Stadium, was special because I got my name in the game day Yankees-Browns scorecard. Apparently, the clubhouse man saw my equipment bag and thought I was one of the catchers and he had my name printed on the scorecard for the weekend series which began on Friday, July 31. I had enough sense to get three of the scorecards, which I still have. It’s quite a thrill to be on the same card with Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. And I met actor Joe E. Brown in the dugout before one of the games.”
Brown did a pre-game Yankee TV show in 1953.
“We played the Yankees on Friday, Saturday and Monday,” Purdy continued. “I believe the Sunday game was postponed because of rain. I always wanted to see Coney Island. I thought it was like Disney World today. So I jumped on a subway train by myself and went out there. I thought there would have been larger crowds but maybe the weather had something to do with it.”
Not a bad weekend for a 15-year-old kid.
A teenager traveling with grown men could be awkward, but the Brownies treated the kid with respect.
“We went to movies on the road,” recalled Purdy, who roomed by himself and had his own compartment on the train. “Bob Nieman, who homered in his first two major league at-bats in 1951, Vic Wertz and Tommy Byrne would take me out to dinner. I was close to pitcher Marlin Stuart who had a son my age.
“Trainer Bob Bowman was like a second father to me on road trips. Bowman would bet me that I couldn’t toss a ball in the air and hit a home run with a fungo bat by doing it twice. I would hit the ball, recover it and hit it again, and I never put it over the wall.”
Hornsby and the players
Rogers Hornsby, who is arguably baseball’s greatest right-handed hitter, was a St. Louis legend as a Cardinals player and a player/manager. But the man had two sides. “Rajah” was forthright and motivated, but he was a man described as having a barbed-wire personality – cold, contentious and brutally frank. He managed the Browns the first 51 games of the 1952 season, going 22-29 before he was replaced by former Cards’ shortstop Marty Marion. Yes, Veeck loved those old Cardinals.
Hornsby was not popular with his players, who often saw too much of his dark side. Several of them lobbied Veeck to fire him. After Veeck obliged, the players presented the Browns’ owner with a trophy which is inscribed, “To Bill Veeck-For the greatest play since the Emancipation Proclamation, June 10, 1952. From the players of the St. Louis Browns.”
Purdy said he tried to stay away from Hornsby.
“He was gruff and rough. I was on the road trip in Boston when he was fired. The Browns had just lost three of four games in New York,” he said. “Marion called a special batting practice at Fenway Park his first day as manager. I’ll never forget Billy Hunter was on the ledge on top of the Green Monster with a bat in his left hand and one in his right hand. I caught batting practice and saw Ted Williams play. It was a day I’ll never forget.”
The fuzzy-cheeked bat boy and batting practice catcher got along well with the players and the new manager. “I liked Marty Marion,” Purdy said. “He gave me tips on shortstop play. He showed me how to field the ball from the side. It was Marion who allowed me to continue as batting practice catcher while I was playing high school baseball.”
Purdy also enjoyed the players.
“My favorite was catcher Les Moss,” he said. “He was my hero. He was a stocky guy and a pretty good hitter. Al Zarilla was a practical joker; Jim Rivera was a very pleasant guy. He slid into bases head first, something you didn’t often see at the time. There were so many small things like playing catch with Roy Sievers, who was recovering from a shoulder injury.
“Satchel was a character. He would sometimes go fishing in the morning and bring his catch to the ballpark,” Purdy continued. “One day he threw a batch of fish in the shower room. It was a very hot day and the players showered between games of a doubleheader. One of the players stepped on the fish and almost jumped through the ceiling. And speaking of hot days, one day the temperature was 100 degrees, and Gene Beardon, who was a good-hitting pitcher, hit a triple and fainted when he got to third base.”
Another incidents that is etched in Purdy’s memory is the bench-clearing brawl that Browns’ catcher Clint Courtney had with Yankees’ second baseman Billy Martin at Sportsman’s Park. The two dueled three times. They were baseball’s version of Ali-Frazier. The first one was in an Arizona-Texas League game in 1947.They fought again in ’52 after Courtney spiked Martin. But the one that set an American League record $850 in fines occurred on April 28, 1953, in St. Louis.
“That was some fight,” remembered Purdy. ”Clint slid hard and uprooted shortstop Phil Rizzuto. I could still see Courtney’s shoe come flying in the air.”
Courtney, who was the first Major League catcher to wear eye glasses and was known as “Scrap Iron,” was on a mission for revenge. In the top of the 10th inning, Gil McDougald had bowled over the fiery catcher at the plate giving the Yanks a 7-6 lead, which proved to be the final score. In the bottom of the inning, Courtney tried to stretch a single into a double and was a dead out, going into Rizzuto spikes up. The Yankees viewed this as a deliberate attempt to injure their popular diminutive shortstop.
Both benches cleared and umpire John Stevens suffered a dislocated collarbone while attempting to separate the combatants. When peace was restored, many of the 13,463 fans littered the field with garbage, causing a 17-minute delay and a near forfeit. Courtney was fined $250 and teammate Billy Hunter was nailed for $150. The Yankee fines included Martin ($150), McDougald ($100), Joe Collins ($100) and Allie Reynolds ($100).
Despite the fact that Purdy carved a lifetime of memories during his days with the Browns, there is one game that haunts him.
“In the two seasons I was with the Browns, I only missed one home game because I was sick with a bad cold,” he explained.
“And would you believe the game I missed was on May 7, 1953, when pitcher Bobo Holloman, making his first big league start, no-hit the Philadelphia Athletics 6-0. Bobo had been used in relief earlier in the season, but this was his first Major League start.”
Only 2,473 fans showed up for the game on a damp, unpleasant St. Louis night. After the fifth inning, Veeck, who was years ahead of his time, announced that rain checks would be honored at a future Browns game to reward fans who had ventured out on such a foul evening. At the time it was a gesture believed to be unprecedented.
During Purdy’s journey, he managed to stockpile some neat collectibles. As mentioned above, he has the three scorecards from the 1953 Yankees-Browns series at Yankee Stadium in which he was erroneously listed as a player. He also had team-signed baseballs from every American League club.
“I got all the American League teams in the visiting clubhouse at Sportsman’s Park, with the exception of the Red Sox ball that was signed at Fenway Park,” said the 73-year-old former educator. “I recently auctioned the baseballs, which sold for about $10,000. The Yankees ball went for about $1,500.”
Purdy currently has signed baseballs from Dizzy Dean, Stan Musial and Whitey Herzog; a clock with Musial’s name on it; and a personally signed photo of Johnny Groth and Vic Wertz. One of his favorite photos shows him catching with Hornsby batting in an exhibition game between the Browns and Reds at Sportsman’s Park in 1953. At the time, Hornsby was managing the Reds.
Purdy also has a Browns program from the American League pennant-winning 1944 season, a couple of pay stubs and an unused ticket dated April 15, 1953, that his parents had.
He also has four mounted seats. The frames were from Sportsman’s Park and used in the original Busch Stadium after Sportsman’s Park changed its name to Busch Stadium. The frames were found in a store in St. Louis.
“In 1952, Bob Spackman wrote an instructional book titled, Baseball. At the time, some of the Browns players (Bobby Young, Dick Kryhoski, Billy Hunter), manager Marty Marion and me were photographed giving baseball tips. I was shown sliding into a base,” chuckled Purdy.
Purdy does have one regret in respect to Browns’ memorabilia.
“We knew the Browns were moving to Baltimore after the ’53 season,” he said. “All the Browns uniforms were piled on the floor in the clubhouse. But I didn’t have the good sense to take any uniform. I have my hat, a replica Paige jersey and a Browns’ jacket.”
Off the field
Although Purdy’s dream baseball ride is chronicled here, what he accomplished in the real world certainly trumps all that. Purdy, who has a Master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, spent 10 years at Southwest, Lincoln Opportunity and Cleveland High Schools as an administrator and history teacher. He then enjoyed 20 successful years as a high school principal of both Central and Roosevelt High Schools before retiring in 1990. He subsequently was elected to two six-year terms and one four-year term for a total of 16 years on the St. Louis Board of Education.
He and his wife, Mary Beth, live in St. Louis and follow the Cardinals. They have three children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
In retrospect, Purdy’s experience with the St. Louis Browns and the playe
“Satchel always advised me to be the best at what I chose to do in life,” he said. “That always remained with me. I always had such respect for Satchel, for I was certain that he cared for me as a person. I always tried to be the best teacher, principal and school board member, and as a result, I was somewhat successful in that regard.”
If you would like to contact Bill Purdy, you can e-mail him at email@example.com, or write to him at 6256 Kinsey Place, St. Louis, MO 63109.
Rich Marazzi is a freelance contributor from Ansonia, Conn.