One of the more colorful and popular characters in Roger Kahn’s great book The Boys of Summer is Brooklyn Dodgers left-hander Elwin Charles “Preacher” Roe; popular not only to readers of this timeless classic, but also to those who actually played with him and to Kahn himself.
Born on February 26, 1916 in Ash Flat, Arkansas and raised in nearby Viola in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, Roe was as hillbilly as a hillbilly could be. He is perhaps best remembered for having one of the best spitballs in the history of the game – a claim that he only admitted to after his retirement.
A very humble man, Roe got his nickname at the tender age of three years old when an uncle asked the toddler his name. Roe answered “preacher” because of his fondness for a local a minister who would take him on horse-and-buggy rides and his own desire to someday become a minister himself.
Although Roe made a career out of sounding like an uneducated hick, truth be known, he was extremely intelligent and well educated. He was the son of a small town medical doctor known for accepting food and livestock in exchange for medical services rendered, especially during the Great Depression. Preacher attended Harding College (now Harding University) in Searcy, Arkansas where, in 1937, he gained national attention by striking out twenty-six batters in a thirteen-inning game.
Roe was initially signed by the St Louis Cardinals in 1938 by Branch Rickey, who was then the Cardinals general manager. Roe appeared in only one game with the Cardinal that season in which he gave up six hits, two walks and four runs in 2 2/3 innings. Needless to say, he was quickly sent down to the minor leagues, where he remained until traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1943. In four seasons with the weak-hitting Pirates, Roe had a rather dismal record of 34-47, in spite of a respectable ERA of 3.73.
On December 8, 1947, Branch Rickey, who was now general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, remembered Roe from his days with the Cardinals and traded for Roe and infielders Billy Cox and Gene Mauch in exchange for pitchers Hal Gregg and Vic Lombardi and outfielder Dixie Walker. (Walker had been extremely outspoken against the Dodgers bringing up Jackie Robinson which, of course, was among Rickey’s proudest accomplishments).
Having mastered the spitball while with the Pirates, “Preach” (as his teammates called him) had tremendous success with the Dodgers, including winning records in his first six seasons with the team. Roe finished the 1948 season with a record of 12-8 and an excellent ERA of 2.63. “I try to keep the hitters off balance, never giving them a decent pitch,” Roe once said. “I’m always aiming for the corners, never throwing the same pitch twice or what the hitter is expecting.”
Roe was selected to the 1949 All-Star Game in which he pitched the ninth inning and retired all three batters he faced. He excelled during the 1949 season, finishing with a 15-6 record and a 2.79 ERA, helping the Dodgers into the 1949 World Series. Preacher pitched game-2 of the series earning the win with a six-hit, complete game, 1-0 shutout over Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi. Unfortunately it was the only game that the Dodgers won in the five game series. The Roe-Raschi game is still ranked as being one of the top-50 best World Series pitching duels of all time.
Roe’s best season with the Dodgers was in 1951 when he went 22-3 for a National League-leading .880 winning percentage; but even still, he always considered his 1949 World Series win as his greatest accomplishment. Preacher Roe also beat Ed Lopat and the Yankees 5-3 with a complete game in game-3 of the 1952 World Series, but lost to Lopat 4-2 in game-2 of the 1953 Series.
Roe was once asked what it was like pitching for the Dodgers compared to the Pirates, to which he said “…a pitcher should pay to pitch for the Dodgers, whereas the Pirates’ second baseman and shortstop were like goalposts with the ball bouncing between them.” He was once interviewed after a rough outing saying “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.”
But without question the greatest Preacher Roe story (as shared by Roger Kahn from The Boys of Summer) occurred after his great 1949 season:
“Well, that winter, I got back home and told myself, ‘Preach, you sure are a pretty good pitcher. Now it’s time you made some pretty good money.’ So I set there, awaitin’ for Mr. Rickey to send me my contract. And each day I waited, I thought I ought to have a little more. When that ol’ contract finally came, I was gonna look for a comfortable sum.
“Contract never did arrive in the mail. ’Sted, down the road one sunny winter day come Mr. Rickey himself driving a station wagon and makin’ a lot of dust. He pulled up and climbed out and joined me on the porch. The two of us set there a while, just rockin’.
“Then Mr. Rickey says, “Preacher, you’re a fine pitcher. You’re a wonderful pitcher.’ I thanked him and we’re still rockin’.
“’Now Preacher,’ Mr. Rickey says, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so proud of you, it’s like you were my own son.’ I thanked him again. ‘Preacher,’ he says, ‘what should I pay you? It’s like paying my own son. But look, I brought you a present.’
“Just then, a couple of hunting dogs jump out of the back of the wagon. ‘They’re for you, Preacher,’ Mr. Rickey says. I sets to admirin’ them, and Mr. Rickey gets up, and reaches in a pocket and hands me a paper. ‘By the way,’ he says, ‘here’s your contract. The figure’s blank. Fill in what you think is right, son.’
“After he’d gone, I commenced thinkin’ what a fine thing he’d done and how much trust he put in me and I took that original figure I had and knocked a thousand dollars off it. Day or so later I go hunting. I run them dogs up and down the hills and bagged me a mess o’ quail. Got back, thought some more. Knocked off another $2,500.
Went hunting again. Had the best day ever. Brought the dogs back into the yard, locked the gate and went out on the porch and commenced more thinkin’. All the great huntin’ an’ the great dogs and Mr. Rickey’s trust made me ashamed to be greedy. I took that contract and filled in a number $10,000 under my original figure. I got up offa the porch and walked down to the corner and put that signed contract in the mail.
“When I got home, those two huntin’ dogs had jumped the fence and taken off. They didn’t stop running till they got back to Mr. Rickey’s house in Brooklyn.”
How can you not love a guy like Preacher Roe?
Preacher Roe died on November 9, 2008 at his home in West Plains, Missouri after a lengthy battle with colon cancer. He was 92 years old.