Mike London column: Local legend played in World Series
Publication Salisbury Post
Date April 17, 2006
Section(s) Sports
Page 0
Byline
Brief Photo:47062,left,;The baseball team for Salisbury's Boyden High got off to a rocky start in 1929, but the season turned around after a husky, dark-haired catcher named Bill Baker launched a grand slam to ignite an 11-run first inning against

The baseball team for Salisbury's Boyden High got off to a rocky start in 1929, but the season turned around after a husky, dark-haired catcher named Bill Baker launched a grand slam to ignite an 11-run first inning against Lexington.

Fourteen years later -- on July 30, 1943 -- Baker was wearing the uniform of the Pittsburgh Pirates and playing against the New York Giants at Forbes Field.

Giants left-hander Clifford "Mountain Music" Melton, who was born in Brevard, was staked to a quick 12-0 lead, so he made a pitch a little too fat to Baker. Baker hit another grand slam, one of only two homers he would produce in a big-league career that spanned nine years.

The obituary for William Presley Baker ran Friday. He lived 95 years and left his imprint on the game of baseball. He played in the 1940 World Series, called balls and strikes on Henry Aaron and Willie Mays as a National League umpire and contributed to Rowan County's American Legion program after knee surgery curtailed his umpiring career.

Baker was inducted into the North Carolina American Legion Hall of Fame in 1975, but his story starts when he was born in 1911 in Paw Creek, a baseball hotbed outside of Charlotte.

The Bakers moved to Salisbury in 1925, and Bill developed into a baseball and football star at Boyden. A 6-footer, Baker weighed over 200 pounds, but he could move. He loved baseball more than football, believed he could make a living at it and tried out for semi-pro and minor-league teams.

A team called the Charlotte Hornets cut Baker loose in April of 1931, but he landed on his feet. He found employment with teams from Fieldale, Va., to Monroe, La., and always hit .300.

Baker was a catcher at Boyden, but a string of minor-league managers were convinced he was an outfielder. Baker's break came late in the 1932 season. When injuries depleted the catching corps of the Nashville Volunteers, management looked around desperately for anyone with catching experience.

Baker's hand went up. He was sent back behind the plate, and the door was cracked open for a long, slow trip to the big leagues.

Baker starred as Nashville's catcher in 1933. Then he had a great year at Williamsport in 1934 and was named MVP of the New York-Penn League.

That's when the New York Yankees noticed Baker. They bought him from Williamsport for $6,000 -- serious money at the time -- and even threw in a second baseman.

Baker went to spring training with the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1936, but the Yanks had Bill Dickey catching.

Baker played well at Newark and Oakland but was stuck in the Yanks' farm system. The positive for Baker during his time as a New York farmhand was marrying Valdois Foster, a Woodleaf girl.

The path wasn't any more open for Baker when he was picked up -- then dropped -- by the Chicago Cubs in 1939. The Cubs had future Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett blocking Baker's road.

Baker spent most of the 1939 season at Indianapolis, then made the roster of the defending National League champion Cincinnati Reds in 1940. The 29-year-old rookie made his major-league debut on May 4, 1940, when the Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 in 11 innings at Crosley Field.

The Reds had two outstanding catchers -- slow-moving, hard-hitting Ernie Lombardi and Willard "Jitterbug" Hershberger.

Lombardi, the first catcher ever to win a batting title and the man who had caught Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, was the starter. Hershberger spelled Lombardi for the second games of doubleheaders.

Baker, Hershberger's roommate, was left mostly with unsung bullpen work, but his role increased in August when Hersherger -- the only major-leaguer ever to commit suicide during the season -- slashed his throat in a hotel bathroom after going into a slump.

That couldn't have been an easy situation for Baker, but he appeared in 27 games that year and didn't make an error in 24 games behind the plate.

Riding the arms of Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer, the Reds overcame the Hershberger tragedy and ran away with the N.L. pennant. They outdistanced Brooklyn by 12 games.

When Lombardi was injured prior to the World Series against Detroit, the Reds decided to activate 40-year-old coach Jimmie Wilson, a backstop in three World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals as their primary catcher. Baker still got into three games in that World Series.

Baker entered Game 1 after Wilson was pinch hit for, and he singled against Louis "Bobo" Newsom, Detroit's ace pitcher.

Baker entered Game 3 as a pinch-runner after the limping Lombardi doubled and scored a run. In Game 5, Baker replaced Wilson at catcher after the Tigers jumped to a quick 7-0 lead.

Baker became a World Champion when Derringer outdueled Newsom in Game 7. Newsom was pitching with a heavy heart. His father had traveled from South Carolina to see his son win Game 1, then died in a Cincinnati hotel room the next morning.

In May of 1941, seven months before the United States entered World War II, Baker was sold to the Pirates as a backup for future Hall of Famer Al Lopez.

When Clyde Kluttz reached the majors with the Boston Braves in the spring of 1942, there were two local catchers in the big leagues.

Baker's best years were with the Pirates. He broke his hand in an exhibition game in 1942, but he bounced back to bat .273 with 26 RBIs in 63 games in 1943. He walked 22 times that season while striking out six times.

Baker missed the 1944-45 seasons because he was serving in the Navy, but when World War II ended, he returned to the Pirates. He hit his second big-league homer in 1946.

Baker was back in the minors in 1947 and stayed there until the Cardinals noticed he was batting .325 at Columbus, Ohio. Baker played in 65 games for the Redbirds in 1948-49. He played his last major-league game on Aug. 1, 1949 and was released 18 days later.

Baker appeared in 263 games in the majors and caught in 212. He batted .247 and had 68 walks while striking out only 30 times.

When Baker's playing career was over, he wasn't done with baseball. He became an umpire, toiling in the Class D North State League in 1951 and working his way up to the Class B Carolina League by 1953.

By 1956, Baker was calling games in Triple A, and he umpired National League games in 1957. But his knees still felt the affects of his long catching career. He retired after one season of umpiring in the big leagues.

Baker returned to Rowan County in 1960. Baseball was never far from his heart, and he poured energy into the local Legion program. He became active in Granite Quarry politics, served as commander of Legion Post 448 and made his living until retirement as a car salesman.

Baker had good stories -- such as the time he hit a homer off Rip Sewell in the minors and Sewell hit him in the ribs with fastballs his next three at-bats.

And he was successful. Who didn't want to buy a car from a man who had played in the World Series?

*

Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.