The Preacher

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).

When asked his secret for success and longevity, Roe answered "Clean livin' and the spitball."(AP Photo)

When asked what his secret was for longevity and success, Roe answered “Clean livin’ and the spitball.” (AP Photo)

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 is congratulated by Dodger GM Branch Rickey after winning game-2 of the 1949 World Series.(AP Photo)

Roe is congratulated by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey after winning game-2 of the 1949 World Series. (AP Photo)

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.

Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson with Preacher Roe after winning game-3 of the 1952 World Series. Roe absolutely dominated the National League between 1951 and 1953, winning 44 games while losing only 8. (AP photo)

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.”

“A pitcher should have to pay to pitch for the Dodgers.” – Preacher Roe (AP Photo)

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.

(Re-posted from January 23, 2013)

 

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8 Responses to “The Preacher”

  1. CRANBROOK MIKE says:

    That’s a great article! Sounds like quite a character for sure.

  2. ebbetsfld says:

    Preach brought his son, Tommy, to Dodger Camp one year, and I was fortunate enough to play on their team. Tommy was a very good player and, like Preach, was very humble. Preach was “down-home” friendly and always had a story. His humor was always gentle, and he NEVER made fun of anyone.
    Thanks for the post, Ron, it brought back many fond memories, both of Brooklyn and of Vero.

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      It’s funny that you mention that specific camp, ebbetsfld. While doing my research, I came across this article about that particular camp: Roe knows Dodgers baseball. Preacher had been a regular at LADABC (21 camps, in fact) but took a seven-year hiatus to remain with his ailing wife of 63 years. After she passed, Preach did not want to return to camp but at the coaxing of the camp staff, his former teammates and most of all his son Tommy, he agreed to return which, of course, is the camp that you are speaking of. You are indeed very fortunate, as I believe that was his final camp.

      There was so much stuff about Preacher Roe that I didn’t include in the article because it would have been endless. (Did you know that when the Dodgers traded him to the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, he immediately retired instead?). He truly was one of the greatest and most loyal Dodgers of all time.

      I don’t know if you saw my post over on the forum, but I lucked into an autographed Preacher Roe ball on eBay (it was the only one out there). It is on a Selig ball, so I suspect that it may have come from that same fantasy camp. When it arrives (which should be in the next day or two), it will sit proudly with my other Boys of Summer balls including Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine and fellow Brooklyn Dodgers Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and, of course, Vin Scully.


      Photobucket

  3. OldBrooklynFan says:

    I’m really enjoying reading this blog, especially recently with all these articles on the old Brooklyn Dodgers. They really bring back memories of my childhood when the team was still here.
    Thank you Ron.

  4. Bluenose Dodger says:

    My Dad was the most honest man that I ever knew. If he pumped his own gas and went a penny over, the service station attendant would put the penny in the till. Dad would go home, get a penny, and bring it to the station.

    He didn’t follow much baseball in my formative baseball years, although he took us to H&D League games, but he knew one player for sure. That player – Preacher Roe. Dad also knew that the pitch was illegal, yet he thought it was humorous Preacher couldn’t get caught. Preacher was his favorite player, at least the one he would talk about.

    I can remember listening to games Preacher pitched.

    • Ron Cervenka says:

      As you undoubtedly know, Bluenose, Preacher Roe actually threw very few spitballs during his games, but he had a routine of fidgeting around with cap visor, his belt and his uniform pants that made hitters think that he threw it a lot, thus keeping them thinking about that rather than hitting.

      Here is an excerpt from Kahn’s The Boys of Summer about Boston Braves hitter Jim Russell that is absolutely priceless:

      “He’s waiting for that good hard drop. I touch the visor and throw a big slow curve. He was so wound up he couldn’t swing. But he spit at the ball as it went by.”

      Here is another tidbit I found during my research:

      It was in the summer of 1955, a year after he retired, that Roe admitted to throwing spitters, describing his technique in an article in Sports Illustrated, “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch.” Roe told of wiping his left hand across his brow and spitting on his thumb with juice from his bubble gum, using the base of his hand as a shield. While ostensibly hitching his belt, he then transferred moisture to his index and middle fingers, gripped the baseball on a smooth spot and threw with a fastball motion, getting a sharp downward break.

      Roe received $2,000 for the article, but said he did not do it for the money. He maintained that he hoped to see the spitter legalized and wanted to relate how it was not necessarily a dangerous, hard-to-control delivery.

      “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.”

      As I said – how can you not love a guy like Preacher Roe?

  5. lindav says:

    Great blog, Ron.

  6. OldBrooklynFan says:

    I feel very fortunate that I was a Dodger fan during the time the “Preacher” pitched for the Dodgers, although it really makes me feel kind of old. (LOL)

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