Preacher Roe

From BR Bullpen

130 pix

Elwin Charles Roe

BR page

Biographical Information[edit]

"I got three pitches. My change, my change off my change, and my change off my change off my change." - Preacher Roe

Preacher Roe grew up in the small town of Viola, AR (population less than 200), in the Ozark Mountains near the Missouri border. His father Charles Roe was a former minor league pitcher and a country doctor who wanted one of his five sons to grow up and reach the Major Leagues. Elwin was the one who would fulfill his father's dream.

He was a very hard thrower in high school, but also very wild: "I had smoke [...] I'd strike out twelve and walk seventeen." His left arm was good enough that Branch Rickey signed him for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938, for whom he pitched one game, but Rickey also asked him to change his style in order not to walk so many batters. He was forced to do so as his fastball lost some zip over the years, and he eventually became one of the craftiest pitchers around, mixing pitches and location, aiming for the corners of the strike zone, keeping the opposite batters guessing, and mixing in the occasional spitball without ever being caught by umpires. It took him a few years to find success. He also had the reputation of being one of the slowest working pitchers in the majors, repeatedly stepping off the mound and taking all of his time between pitches, all part of playing with the opposite hitter's mind. As teammate Pee Wee Reese said: "It took him three hours to pitch a low-run game".

Roe then toiled in the minors for several years, always at AA, then the highest level of the minor leagues. In 1939, Roe went 7-4 with a 4.35 ERA for the Rochester Red Wings, followed by a 5-8, 3.94 year. In 1941, he moved to the other top St. Louis farm team, the Columbus Red Birds and was 11-9 with a 3.57 ERA. The next season, he had a 6-11, 3.02 line for Columbus. In his last minor league season, Roe went 15-7 with a 2.37 ERA for the 1943 Red Birds. He was fifth in the American Association in ERA and edged Ted Wilks for the strikeout lead with 136. Overall, he had gone 44-42 in the minors.

Roe had to wait six years after his major league debut to return to the majors, with the 1944 Pittsburgh Pirates, managed by Frankie Frisch, who had been at the helm of the Cardinals when Roe had had his first taste of the Major Leagues. He did very well for the Pirates, going 13-11 with a 3.11 ERA as a rookie, then leading the National League in strikeouts in 1945 with 148, while posting a 14-13 record with a solid 2.87 ERA. He was named to the All-Star team for the first time that season.

Preacher Roe's career was temporarily delayed by an incident following the 1945 season. He had gone back to Arkansas for the winter, working as a substitute high school teacher and coaching basketball, and in this capacity got into a row with a referee which ended with Roe being decked on the gymnasium floor, suffering a skull fracture and a concussion. Recovering from the injury was a struggle, as he went 3-8, 5.14 in 1946 and 4-15, 5.25, in 1947. At that point, he would normally have been released unconditionally but caught a break when the Brooklyn Dodgers traded for him, along with third baseman Billy Cox, in return for Dixie Walker, Vic Lombardi and Hal Gregg. Using his newly-learned spitter and foregoing his old power pitcher style, he became tremendously successful for his new team.

From 1948 until 1953, Preacher Roe was in the Dodgers' starting rotation for six seasons, posting a winning percentage of .600 or above every year, including two years leading the league, thanks to an outstanding 22-3 mark in 1951 and an 11-3 record in 1953; certain sources credit him with another title in 1949 as a result of his 15-6 record (the discrepancy is a result of disagreement on the minimum number of decisions required for consideration). Yet, he almost failed to make the team: in 1948, he was in competition with fellow lefthander Dwain Sloat for the last slot in the Dodgers' rotation. Roe won the contest by pitching a shutout in his first two starts of the season as Sloat was hit hard and failed to make a mark in the majors. Roe pitched in three World Series over the period: in 1949, he pitched a six-hit shutout in Game 2 against the New York Yankees for the Dodgers' lone win in a 4-1 Series loss. In 1952, he won Game 3 with a complete game, then pitched scoreless relief in Game 6, but gave up an insurance run to the Yankees in Game 7 with the Dodgers already trailing 3-2 (they would lose that deciding game 4-2). He pitched another complete game in Game 2 of the 1953 World Series, but lost 4-2 to the Yankees' Ed Lopat. He finished his career with 15 games in 1954, at the age of 39, posting a 5.00 ERA in 63 innings. Overall, he had a 127-84 won-loss record in the major leagues, with a 3.43 ERA in 333 games.

Preacher Roe was a smart man - he taught mathematics in the off-season - but he liked to play up his image as a rube from the backwoods, telling an endless string of funny stories about his rural lifestyle. He did well for himself after retirement however, returning to the Ozarks where he operated a large grocery store in West Plains, MO, a few miles from where he grew up. In 1955, he accepted a fee of $2000 to confess to sportswriter Dick Young in Sports Illustrated about his frequent use of the spitball during his career, in an article entitled The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch. He later claimed that his objective was to help get the pitch legalized again, as his confession would have undermined the old saw that the spitball was impossible to control and therefore dangerous. Roe had exceptionally good control during his time spent with the Dodgers, so it clearly disproved that point. However, the reception to the article was one of universal condemnation from the powers-that-be, and Roe became a sort of pariah, keeping away from old timers games and other official events.

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • 5-time NL All-Star (1945 & 1949-1952)
  • 2-time NL Winning Percentage Leader (1951 & 1953)
  • NL Strikeouts Leader (1945)
  • 15 Wins Seasons: 3 (1949-1951)
  • 20 Wins Seasons: 1 (1951)
  • 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 4 (1945 & 1949-1951)

Further Reading[edit]

  • Roger Kahn: "The Road to Viola", in The Boys of Summer, Perennial Classics, Harper and Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2000, pp. 290-309 (originally published in 1972).

Related Sites[edit]