Sports club audience hears praise choruses for Preacher Roe

DAVID MCCOLLUM
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
Published Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The late Elwin Preacher Roe was a dominating pitcher for Harding University from 1935-38.

He was so dominating that his teammates literally sat down on the job.

It occurred when he struck out 26 batters in an 11-inning, 4-4 tie against Arkansas Tech in 1937.

"I think I actually struck out 27 but the catcher missed the ball on the third strike and the batter reached first and somehow they didn't count it," said Roe during an interview with the Creative Sports Network about two years ago.

"One inning, I looked around and I saw all three outfielders sitting down in centerfield talking," he said in the interview. "I just threw one easy to the plate and the batter hit a ball that my brother (one of the relaxing Harding outfielders) caught against the fence. I turned around and told those guys if they didn't want to play, just tell us and we'd find somebody else."

During that game, Roe is believed to be probably the only pitcher in Arkansas history to strike out 26 batters and not get the win.

Roe, who went on to become an icon pitcher foe the Brooklyn Dodgers during their golden era in the late 1940s and early 1950s, died of colon cancer last November at age 92. His career was celebrated Monday during the Arkansas Sports Club's annual "Legends Luncheon," in which the life of an outstanding sports figure is celebrated posthumously.

Mike Harrison, executive director of the Arkansas Sports Club and head of the Creative Sports Network, and Harding University sports information director Scott Goode went to Roe's home in West Plains, Mo., for a three-hour interview two years ago. That interview was recorded on DVD and a small portion of it was shown to the sports club audience Monday.

Goode, in his 11th year as Harding SID, has researched Roe's career there extensively and offered highlights and stories at the luncheon.

Roe, who was initially recruited for basketball, pitched for the Bisons for 1935-38 and some of his memorabilia are on display at Harding. In addition to his performance in 1937 against Arkansas Tech, Roe once struck out 20 in a seven-inning game against Arkansas College (now Lyon College). According to Goode's research, Roe also lost an 8-6 game in which the Bisons committed 12 errors.

He was so dominating that Dr. George Benson, Harding president at the time, apparently overlooked an indirect transgression, according to a story Goode said Roe related to him.

Smoking has always been prohibited on Harding's campus. Before a Bisons' home game, Roe was warming up in an adjacent field with his catcher, who was smoking a cigarette. The catcher spotted Benson walking toward the field and he quickly laid the cigarette on what was serving as home plate. Roe uncorked a sharp-breaking curve just as Benson neared and the ball hit the cigarette and knocked it away with a puff of smoke. Benson reportedly didn't say a word and kept on walking.

During a Harding assembly a week or so later, Goode said Benson bragged on Roe, saying, "He has such good control that he can knock a small stick off home plate."

Roe signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938 and appeared in one game in which he gave up six hits, two walks and four runs in 2 2/3 innings.

According to Goode, Roe was signed out of college in 1938 and told he would break in by pitching in a few exhibition games. The Cards were not a very good team at the time, 17 1/2 games out and in seventh place among eight teams when Roe joined the team. Goode said that Lon Warneke, another Arkansan on the team, said at the time that he couldn't believe the fellow Arkansan did not know how to dip (tobacco). Goode said, "Frankie Frisch, the manager of the Cardinals at the time, had a quick hook with pitchers, especially if they started walking people. Warneke had taken Roe into the clubhouse to teach him how to dip when the Cardinal starter walked a few batters. Frisch suddenly called on Roe was a relief pitcher. He ran out and gave up six hits and four runs. His career with the Cardinals shows him with a 13.50 ERA for one game. He told us that he was always embarrassed to see that on a baseball card as his ERA for that season."

Roe pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1947-48 then became one of the original Boys of Summer (as coined by author Roger Kahn) when he signed with Brooklyn in 1948 after Branch Rickey's brother, Frank, spent most the winter with him in West Plains to make sure he was fully recovered from a head injury.

Roe had the best winning percentage in the National League in 1949 with a 15-6 record. Possibly his greatest moment occurred when he shut out the New York Yankees, 1-0, on a six-hitter in the second game of the 1949 World Series at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees had won the opener, 1-0. That's the only time a World Series has opened with back-to-back 1-0 games.

"I didn't realize I was pitching a good game," Roe said in the CSN interview. "I just pitched inning by inning and all of a sudden, I looked up and it was the ninth inning."

His best season was in 1951 when he went 22-3 and became the answer to a trivia question as the only pitcher to have two 10-game winning streaks in the same season.

From 1951-53, as an ace for three Dodger pennant winners, he was 44-8 and made five all-star teams.

He was known as a superb control pitcher and something else. He pitched his last game in 1954 at age 39 and later attributed his longevity in baseball to "clean living and the spitball." In a 1955 Sports Illustrated article entitled, "The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch," Roe, a year after his retirement, admitted to using the illegal pitch and said he confessed with the hope that the pitch would eventually be legalized.

"If it's a good 'un, it'll drop like a dead duck just when it crosses the plate," he said in the interview.

He was also known as a tactical, "thinking man's pitcher." He later noted that another of his best pitches was the "fake spitter," which didn't take a sudden drop when a batter, waiting on the spitter, expected it to drop.

"You don't have to throw it," he once said in an interview. "Just make em think you're going to throw it."

In another interview, he said, "I only have three pitches: my change, my change off my change and my change off my change off my change."

Roe said in the CSN interview that he didn't think he received enough credit for teaching Sandy Koufax the curveball, another of his signature pitches. Roe noted in the interview that Koufax was only a .500 pitcher before learning the curveball, then became one of the best and more feared pitchers in baseball history.

In his retirement and working with youth leagues and American Legion teams in West Plains, Roe reportedly also taught the curve to Steve Parker, a Conway businessman who pitched for some of Norm DeBriyn's best Arkansas Razorback teams.

"Obviously, I didn't learn well enough or I wouldn't be talking to you today," Parker told the club. "Growing up and playing baseball in West Plains, we all knew about Preacher and the stories, but I never heard him tell me one story about anything he had done,

"And when he was teaching me about pitching, there were very few mechanical issues. He talked mainly about the mental part and taught me how to mentally prepare. He always said the mental aspect was what separated the people who could do and the people who couldn't do. He taught me more about how to conduct myself professionally than anything else."

Roe grew up in Ash Flat. His father was a prototype "country doctor," who made house calls on horseback. He retired in West Plains, where he operated a grocery store for several years.

His life still has an effect on both communities. One of the main thoroughfares in West Plains is Preacher Roe Boulevard. The baseball complex at Ash Flat is named for him.

And it was left to Kay Matthews, a longtime friend of Roe's, to relate the answer to the lingering question. How did Elwin Roe become Preacher Roe?

"It came from his grandma," Matthews said. "As a child, Preacher was a nasty little cuss and she called him that hoping he would grow up to be a preacher. Well, he always gave good advice like what you would expect from a preacher. He was always a sensible, honorable, sober, Christian man."