Remembering `Rollicking Rollie’ Hemsley

October 4, 2012 By Tom Knight For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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They call him “Rollicking Rollie.” Rollick and frolic he did for half his major league career. Not many big-league ballplayers had as much fun or as black eyes to show for it as Ralston Burdett Hemsley.

The native of Syracuse, Ohio, broke in as a catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1928. During the 1931 season, Rollie went from the Smokey City to the Windy City of Chicago in a trade for catcher Earl Grace. There he joined the Cubs, where he was Hall of Famer “Gabby” Hartnett’s understudy.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Hemsley was with the pennant-winning Cubs in 1932. After the Yankees swept the “little bears” in four straight to win the World Series, Hemsley was sold to Cincinnati, who in turn dealt him to the St. Louis Browns.

Now, it was no secret that the rollicking one liked to drink alcoholic beverages. His battles with John Barleycorn became legendary during his years with the Browns. He became known as the original “catcher in the rye.”

He was a great defensive catcher who could handle pitches as well as any other backstop in the majors. The real fun with the Browns, a perennial cellar dweller, came when Hall of Famer Roger Hornsby managed the club.

Hornsby was a disciplinarian and was always fining Rollie for being drunk, curfew violations, etc. “If he wants to play baseball for nothing, that’s his business,” observed Hornsby.

Rollie once bought a farm outside of St. Louis and asked Willis Johnson, the Browns’ road secretary, for a $250 advance on his pay. “It’s only December,” replied Johnson, “and that’s too early for advances.”

“You wouldn’t believe this Willis,” countered Rollie, “but the wolves are actually starving to death on my farm and hanging around the front door. I want to feed ’em and get ’em away from there.”

Johnson replied, “No dice.” A few days later, a wolf pelt arrived at the Browns’ office!

On Feb. 10, 1938, Rollie was traded to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Ed Cole; my friend, infielder Roy Hughes; and catcher Billy Sullivan. The great Cleveland fireball pitcher, Hall of Famer Bob Feller, gave Hemsley credit for helping him become one of the game’s top hurlers. Feller once said, “Hemsley was a better catcher drunk than most were sober!”

Rollie, who caught almost all of Feller’s games those years, said, “Bob could throw hard, but he didn’t know much about pitching when he first joined the Indians. I taught him to pace himself, and the rest was easy. He was just that great.”

Hemsley had fun with the Indians, too. One time during spring training, he almost burned up a Pullman car. He ran through the train throwing matches into the upper berths. Luckily, no one was hurt.

Cleveland manager Oscar Vitt fined him in 1939 for being drunk, and that was the last time that Rollie was ever fined. The catcher was taken from a train in Cleveland by the two men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous.

After four days in the hospital, he joined A.A. He was the 77th member of that now-worldwide organization. This enabled him to extend his baseball career in the majors another eight years, including two years with the pennant-winning Yankees of 1942 and ’43, who became World Champs! He was still having fun too, except now he was helping others who had problems with alcohol.

Rollie closed out a 19 year major league career with a lifetime .262 batting average. He rates a one of the all-time defensive catchers. The old receiver remained in baseball as a minor league manager, a big league coach in Washington and Philadelphia and a scout for the Kansas City A’s.

The last time I saw Rollie was in 1964, when he had dinner here in Brooklyn. He died in Washington on July 31, 1972, of a heart attack at the age of 65. It was 33 years after his last drink in Cleveland.

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