Preacher Roe (1915-2008)

I have saved the closing words for Preacher Roe, who soon will be eighty-three. Roe is retired but vigorous in West Plains, Missouri, and proud that every one of his grandchildren has gone to college. “I know one of these days the good Lord is going to come calling,” Preacher says, “and when that happens I certainly hope he sees fit to send me up to heaven. But heaven will really have to be something to be better than what we all had long ago in Brooklyn.”
—Roger Kahn, Boys of Summer, “An Epilogue for the 1990s and the Millennium”

The death of Elwin Charles “Preacher” Roe marks the passing of yet another former Brooklyn Dodger from their storied heyday. A native of the Ozarks, Roe was one of the NL’s top southpaws for the better part of a decade, as well as one of the game’s more colorful raconteurs. He was 92, according to the New York Times obituary, 93 according to Baseball-Reference; either way, he led a long, rich life.

Roe wasn’t a particularly religious man; his nickname sprung from an early childhood fondness for a Methodist minister who took him on horse-and-buggy rides. He was anything but a stereotypical backwoods rube; for one thing, he was college educated (Harding University of Searcy, Arkansas). “He enjoyed playing the role of a country bumpkin, but he wasn’t one,” said former Dodgers teammate Ralph Branca. “He was real smart and real crafty on the mound.”

Roe’s journey to stardom was a roundabout one. He was signed by Branch Rickey back in 1938, a point in time when his Cardinals owned more than 30 minor-league teams and backed entire leagues. Like so many other players of that era, he got lost in the Cardinals’ chain; he had just one major league appearance prior to his 29th birthday before being liberated via a trade to the Pirates at the end of the 1943 season. The Pirates’ manager was Frankie Frisch, skipper of the Cardinals at the time Roe debuted.

Roe’s first two season with the Pirates were good ones; in 1945 he led the league in strikeouts and earned All-Star honors. A a skull fracture sustained the following year marred his next two seasons and caused him to avoid flying. His career slipping away, he was traded to the Dodgers in a pivotal deal on December 8, 1947. Sent to Pittsburgh were two pitchers plus All-Star outfielder Dixie Walker, who’d led a revolt against the signing of Jackie Robinson the previous spring, culminating with a petition for which manager Leo Durocher suggested a crudely creative use. In return the Dodgers got Billy Cox, who manned the hot corner at Ebbets Field for the next seven years, utilityman Gene Mauch, and Roe.

The wily 33-year-old lefty, who reminded the great Red Smith of an underfed, underpaid country schoolteacher, quickly became a staple of the staff, posting the lowest ERA of any Dodger starter in each of the next four years. He earned four straight All-Star berths from 1949 to 1952, pitched a shutout in the 1949 World Series, and went 22-3 with a 3.04 ERA in 1951, his best season. In his seven years with Brooklyn, he went a combined 93-37 with a 3.26 ERA and 123 ERA+, pitching on three pennant winners (1949, 1952, and 1953) and two agonizing near-misses (1950 and 1951) but retiring before Dem Bums’ sole World Championship in 1955.

Roe wasn’t an overpowering pitcher. “I got three pitches,” he told Kahn in Boys of Summer. “My change; my change off my change; and my change off my change off my change.” Slow, slower, slowest. “I’d show the hitters the hummer and tell reporters that if it hit an old lady in the spectacles, it wouldn’t bend the frame. But I could always, by going back to my old form, rear back and throw hard. Not often. Maybe ten times a game.”

The real secret to Roe’s success was his “‘Beech-Nut slider,” a spitball. In a controversial 1955 article in Sports Illustrated (one that required some sleuthing to uncover in the vault), he told Dick Young the juicy details about his money pitch while advocating for its re-legalization:

“This isn’t a confession and my conscience doesn’t bother me a bit. Maybe the book says I was cheating, but I never felt that way. I wasn’t the only one that did it. There still are some guys wetting ‘em up right now. I know one or two of them, but it’s not up to me to tell their names. When they get ready to, ‘maybe they will. I’m just going to talk about me; why I did it, and why I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.

…”The idea is to get part of your grip wet, and the other dry. When the ball leaves your hand, it slips off your wet fingers and clings, just tiny-like, to the dry part on your thumb. The ball jumps on account of it. If it’s a good ‘un, it drops like a dead duck just when it crosses the plate.”

…”One way I figured out to keep my fingers clean, was to wipe ‘em on the visor of my baseball cap. It looked like I was adjusting it on my head. I always made certain the visor was kept clean. I even went to the trouble of brushing it off with a towel on the bench between innings.

“It didn’t take long for some of the hitters to figure there was something going on between my spitter and the way I fingered the cap.

“That was just fine for me. I started using the gesture as a decoy. That was as good as the pitch itself. From then on, even when I wasn’t going to throw a wet one, I’d go to my cap just to cross them up.

“Jim Russell was one of the guys who suspicioned I was getting the spit from my cap. He was playing with the Braves then.

“This one day, I fingered the tip of my cap, and leaned forward to take the sign. Jim backed out of the batter’s box and gave me a real hard look. He stepped back in again—and I touched my cap again. He stepped out. We did this three times. Finally, ol’ Jim stood there, blind mad, and said: ‘Throw the sonuvabuck and I’ll hit it anyway.’

“I floated up a big, slow curve. Russell was so wound up looking for the wet one he couldn’t unravel himself to swing. He just spit at the ball in disgust as it went by.

“Jim and the other guys who thought I was getting the spit when I went to my cap were close. I tried that in the early days, but I gave it up because it was too dangerous. I had to figure out a way to load up without getting caught. All one winter I wore my baseball cap. I’d be sitting in my living room with it on, and even wore it out in the woods when I was hunting.”

Roe’s hand strayed to his forehead. It dropped and he leaned forward.

“For hours at a time,” he went on, “all I thought about was some foolproof way to get the spit to the ball without getting caught. I said to myself: ‘They’ll be watching me close after I come away from the resin bag. That is when they’ll expect me to do the wetting. I got to set up the spitter before I go for the resin bag. I got to have a secret “source of supply” so I can squeeze the resin bag in my fingers, rub up the ball, and still keep the spit.’

“I fooled around with that idea for a long time. You know, I ain’t very quick. Then one day it came to me. Look, you try it. Put your left hand up on your forehead.”

Roe got up to demonstrate.

“The meaty part is just in front of your mouth when your ringers touch your brow,” he said from behind his hand. “Your two first fingers can just reach the meaty part. ‘Spit on the meat,’ I told myself, ‘and when you move your hand up it looks good and natural like, like you’re goin’ to wipe the sweat off your forehead.’

Roe was a creative practitioner of the black arts, but he was also much more than that, a valiant competitor and an outspoken proponent of Robinson and of integration in general. One of Boys of Summer‘s most memorable passages is when Kahn revisits him in West Plains, Missouri, circa 1971. From page 302:

“That Mr. Rickey,” Preacher said. “First time he talked to me he told me two things. He said, ‘Son. Always be kind to your fans. You get back what you give and when you’re through, you’re just one more old ball player, getting back from life what he gave.’ I heeded that and I wisht someone would give advice to Joe Namath. I don’t know the man personally, but I get the impression he ought to walk more humble.

“Second, Mr. Rickey said, ‘Remember, it isn’t the color of a man’s skin that matters. It’s what’s inside the individual.’ And he said some of the people with the whitest skins would be the sorriest I’d meet and some of the darkest ones would be the best, That was 1938. I know now that Rickey hand in mind breaking the color barrier almost ten years before he did. I respect him for that, and I went through my career with that respect always in mind.

“I first seen colored at Searcy, ‘cepting colored passing through on trucks and once a year a colored team’d come down from Missouri for an exhibition game in Viola and draw a crowd.

“Now I’m playing with Jack. I’m gonna tell you frankly I don’t believe in mixed marriages.”

“Neither does Robinson,” I said.

“Well some do, and I won’t argue with ‘em. But as far as associatin’ with colored people and conversing with them and playing ball with them, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with it. That’s my way of looking at the thing.

“Lots of people here reckoned like me. And some did not. A few times people come up to me in the winter and said, “Say, Roe. if you’re gonna go up there and play with those colored boys, to hell with ya.’ But very few. I always said, “Well if that’s how you feel, I considered the fellers I play with, I considered your remark, and to hell with you!”

Here’s hoping Roe finds his new accommodations as rewarding as his glory days in Brooklyn. He’ll be missed.

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