Tag Archives: Jacksonville Tars

Submarine Gheen

10 May

Born August 13, 1899, Thomas Whistler Gheen made a name for himself pitching for the amateur team in his hometown of Lincolnton, North Carolina in 1919 and 1920. The Charlotte Observer said Gheen was:

“(B)elieved by many to be the best pitching prospect in the Carolinas.”

He was called “Submarine” Gheen, for what The Charlotte News called his “Far-famed underhand delivery.”

 

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Tom Gheen, 1919

 

Late in the 1920 season, Gheen was signed by the Charleston Palmettos of the South Atlantic League.  Gheen appeared in six games and posted a 2-4 record with a 2.06 ERA for the last-place (54-71) Palmettos.

He began the 1921 season in Lincolnton but was signed by the Charlotte Hornets after he pitched a perfect game against the Loray Mills team in Gastonia, North Carolina.  He struck out 21 batters.  The Charlotte Observer said:

“Not a Loray man reached first.  Persons who saw the game say it was the most remarkable bit of hurling ever seen in Gaston County.”

In June, The Observer said he was:

“(F)ast developing into one of the best twirlers on the staff.”

Despite his promise, Gheen seemed to be troubled.  When he was playing amateur ball for Lincolnton, The Observer noted after he had been used as a pinch hitter:

“Most of Gheen’s hitting is done in the clubhouse.”

The High Point Enterprise said of Gheen:

“The blond-haired boxman never had a serious thought in his life and is dizzy as a southpaw off the field.”

With a 5-9 record and 3.22 ERA in late July, Gheen jumped the team.  According to The Durham Morning Herald:

“His excuse was that the fans razzed him to excess.  He declared that the razzing so affected his pitching it was impossible to win.”

The Charlotte Observer suggested he jumped for another reason:

“(He) quit the club following rumors circulated by gamblers that he had ‘thrown’ a ball game.”

The Morning Herald called him a “Wonderful pitcher,” and said he was “almost unbeatable when his underhanded ball in breaking properly.”

Charlotte catcher Pat Carroll came to Gheen’s defense, telling The Observer that the other catchers on the club did not encourage the pitcher to use his submarine delivery often enough:

“They can’t hit that ball to save their lives.  I ordered it every time Gheen got in the hole and it was pitiful to see the batter try to connect.  It didn’t help them a bit to know what was coming.  They couldn’t hit the ball; that’s all there was to it.”

The Hornets, according to The Charlotte News granted the “recalcitrant hurler” his wish and sold the “erratic heaver” to the Winston-Salem Twins of the Piedmont League.

 

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Gheen (5 top right) with the Winston-Salem Twins, 1921

 

Gheen was 11-3 in 15 games for the 62-58 Twins, and big things were expected of him in 1922.

He rose to the occasion on Opening Day, April 26.

The Observer buried the lede:

“Submarine Gheen made himself famous in the opening game of the Piedmont League season…his opponents being the Greensboro Patriots, who were defeated 5 to 0.

“Only 27 men faced the Twin moundsman who did not yield a hit nor issue a free pass.”

It was his only victory for Winston-Salem.  Less than a month after his perfect game Gheen was suspended indefinitely by manager Charles Clancy for “insubordination.”

Gheen was reinstated 10 days later but was sold to the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League less than a week later. He was 1-5 for the Twins.

Gheen was plagued by wildness in Texas, posting a 6-11 record with a 4.06 ERA.

He was traded to Galveston Sandcrabs at the end of the Texas League season but was sold the following spring to the Rocky Mount Tar Heels in the Virginia League.  The 1923 season appears to have been controversy free for Gheen; he was 13-11 with a 3.43 ERA.

Back in the Piedmont League in 1924, Gheen was on his way to a 14-10 season for the High Point Pointers, when, on September 12, he made headlines off the field after he killed a man.

Gheen was riding in a car with friends near New Bern, North Carolina when they came upon a man lying in the road.  The High Point Enterprise said, the car, driven by Gheen’s friend:

“(S)werved to avoid hitting a negro lying prone across the road.  The driver of the car…backed up to see what was the trouble.

“As the car was being backed up one of the party yelled, ‘look out, he’s got a gun.’  Gheen, riding in the front seat, reached in the side pocket of the car and secured a revolver.  As the Negro came running alongside the car, revolver in hand, Gheen yelled, ‘Throw up your hands.’ This the Negro refused to do and Gheen fired three shots penetrating the upper part of the Negro’s body.  He died almost instantly.”

Gheen and his friends were cleared of any wrongdoing the following day.

The paper did not identify the dead man and said:

“He was said to have been a desperate character and to have had a police record.”

Gheen played two more seasons of professional baseball; he was 9-8 for the Columbia Comers in the South Atlantic League in 1925.

He joined the Jacksonville Tars of the Southeastern League in 1926—he won eight of his first 10 decisions with the club but was also arrested for the alleged assault of a woman when playing the Albany (GA) Nuts.  He appears to have avoided prosecution gheen1919but went 3-6 the rest of the season and his career as a professional ballplayer was over at age 28.

The following year, while back in his hometown of Lincolnton, “Submarine” Gheen, was killed when the Ford Touring car he was driving turned over on July 3.  The man who was considered the “best pitching prospect in the Carolinas” six years earlier died at the age of 29 on July 4, 1927.

Roy Spruell

14 Aug

Throughout the first half of the 20th Century there were thousands of independent and industrial league baseball teams that operated across the country; the only distinction, in many cases, between the quality of these teams and their players and those in “professional” leagues was the “professional” teams were recognized by The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

Given the economics of the game, which usually required players to be employed during the off season, it was often as profitable, or even more so, to play with an independent or semi-professional team that either paid the same or more as the “professional” leagues or provided the player with a job.

As a result, there are thousands of players, who while well-known names in the towns, cities and regions where they played, have been largely forgotten.

Roy Layton Spruell is one of them.

From 1920 until 1939 Spruell was a fixture in Southern baseball, specifically on the Gulf Coast, although his “official” statistics only indicate limited “professional” appearances between 1924 and 1936.

Spruell appears to have been born January 25, 1900 in Birmingham, Alabama according to state records and census data, (his grave lists his birth year as 1902, but like many players of his era, he likely subtracted a couple of years at some point during his career and the new date stuck).

Raised in Mobile, Alabama, he first made a name for himself in 1920 pitching with industrial teams at the Southern Kraft Paper Mill and White Swann Laundry Company in Mobile.

Two years later he was a member of an independent team in Mississippi, the Ocean Springs Regulars.  In addition to Ocean Springs, the loosely affiliated semi-pro league included independent teams from nearby Mississippi towns Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula  and Wiggins, and industrial teams out of New Orleans, including the Choro Colas (later renamed RC Cola), the Tokay Teas.

The following season Spruell played for another Southern Kraft Mills team; contemporary newspaper accounts alternately called the team either the Moss Point or the Kreole Papermakers—the mill was located in Moss Point, Mississippi, but the team appears to have played home games in nearby Kreole.  Spruell’s older brother Harvey was his teammate with the Papermakers.

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right.  His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row.   The other players are identified as: Standing at left - Manager McGee 2nd from left  - Pat McGee 3rd from left  - Matt Delmas 4th from left-unidentified. 6th from left - Sam Leslie   Seated at left - Johnnie Cunningham 2nd from left - Brother Nelson 4th from left - John Bell

The 1923 Papermakers, Roy Spruell is standing second from right. His brother Harvey is in the middle of the front row. The other players:: Standing Manager McGee, Pat McGee, Matt Delmas, unidentified, Roy Spruell, and Sam Leslie
Seated Johnnie Cunningham, Brother Nelson, Harvey Spruell, and John Bell.

 

In 1924 he signed his first professional contract, posting an 11-12 record for the fifth place Laurel Lumberjacks, in the six-team Cotton States League.  The following season, pitching for the last place (51-70) Alexandria Reds, Spruell was 14-10.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks.  Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left.  The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be future big league pitcher Ray Moss who pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

1924 Laurel Lumberjacks. Roy Spruell is in the top row, third from left. The player seated on the far left in the front row appears to be Ray Moss, the only member of the Laurel club to play in the big leagues,; he pitched for the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves.

Spruell had his best professional season in 1926 as a member of the Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  He led the team to the Cotton States championship with a 22-8 record, and got his name in newspapers across the country in August.  The Associated Press said:

“Friday the 13th was far from unlucky for Roy Spruell, pitching star of the Hattiesburg club of the Cotton States League, Spruell hurled the first no hit, no run game of his career.”

Spruell allowed just two walks (shortstop/manager Herschel Bobo also made an error) to the Monroe Drillers, but still only faced the minimum 27 batters.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers.  Roy Spruell is standing third from left.  Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

The 1926 Cotton States League champion Hattiesburg Pinetoppers. Roy Spruell is standing third from left. Manager/shortstop Herschel Bobo is kneeling far left.

At the end of the 1926 season Spruell was purchased by the Houston Buffaloes of the Texas League, but never played in Texas.  He started the season with the Memphis Chickasaws in the Southern Association and was released to the Knoxville Smokies in the South Atlantic League in May of 1927.  He was 10-10 in Knoxville and also appeared in 20 games in outfield.  The Spartanburg Herald called Spruell “the elongated righthander,” (he was listed variously from 6’ to 6’ 2”).

Spruell returned to the Smokies for the 1928 season, but a hand injury led to a slow start and with a 1-3 record at the end of May he was released and returned to the Cotton States League. He pitched professionally through the 1930 season, but struggled with injuries his last three seasons and pitched for several teams:  Laurel and Hattiesburg again (he also pitched for the Baton Rouge Essos when the Hattiesburg franchise relocated there during the 1929 season) as well as the Jackson Senators in the Cotton States League, and the Jacksonville Tars in the Southeastern League.

Spruell spent the next decade playing with and managing independent and industrial league teams in the South.  He played from 1931 to 1935 in the Mississippi Coast League, a strong semi-pro league with teams sponsored by union and industrial interests.

He left the Gulf Coast the following year, relocating in Savannah, Georgia where he played for and managed the Union Baggers—the company team of the Union Bag and Paper Company, operator of the world’s largest paper mill.  The team was considered one of Georgia’s best semi-pro and industrial teams, playing in the Coastal League, which included teams in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937.  Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

The Union Baggers, circa 1937. Roy Spruell, standing second from right.

Spruell’s baseball career appears to have ended around 1940.

He eventually relocated to Pensacola, Florida and worked for the Florida Pulp and Paper Company; he suffered a heart attack at work and died in 1950

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Roy Spruell shortly before his death in 1950.

Like thousands of others who played baseball in small and large towns, and small and large leagues, throughout the country, Roy Spruell’s career brings to mind a passage from W. P. Kinsella’s great novel “Shoeless Joe:”

“For some reason, I recall the question at the bottom of the form sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame to everyone who has ever played professional baseball: ‘If you had it to do over again, would you play professional baseball?’  The historian at Cooperstown, Clifford S. Kachline, said he couldn’t recall even one ex-player answering ‘no’ to the question.  I wonder if any other profession can say the same?”

Thank you to Roy Spruell’s grandchildren, Paula Grady and Bob Gattis for sharing the photographs used in this post as well as a copy of Mr. Spruell’s obituary.