Floyd Baker

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

Floyd Baker was primarily a third baseman who played a good number of games at second base, too, though he began as a shortstop. He batted from the left side, but threw right-handed. He was a Virginian, relatively small of stature: 5-foot-9 and listed at 160 pounds. He played in 13 major-league seasons, with 2,692 plate appearances, but only homered once – over a short-lived wire fence that was removed the very next day. After his playing career, he worked more than 35 years as a scout.

Floyd Wilton Baker was born to Charles and Ida Belle (Ramey) Baker, both Virginians themselves, on October10, 1916, in Luray, Virginia. He had an older brother, Ray. At the time of the 1920 census, Charles was a farm laborer and the family lived in Piedmont, Virginia. By 1940 Charles and Ida Baker were living in the private home of one Fanny Dyche, where Ida worked as a housekeeper. Charles was employed as a house painter. By then, Floyd was already playing pro ball.

Both Baker boys had starred in baseball at Luray High School. In the last game of the 1935 baseball season for Luray High, Floyd’s bases-loaded triple won the game against Shenandoah, 5-2. Floyd was invited to a tryout in front of Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators in June 1934. Ray came along. Floyd was already thinking of a career in baseball at the time; Ray had not yet decided.1 Ray’s play on the football field won him a scholarship to Shenandoah Valley Academy.

Floyd played five years of semipro ball in all. During the summers from 1935 through 1937, he played in the Valley League for Harrisonburg and was twice invited to work out with the St .Louis Browns in 1937 when the Browns visited Washington during the course of the season.

In the spring of 1938, he was invited to try out in San Antonio with the Browns affiliate there, and was signed by Pat Monahan and Charles DeWitt.2 He was assigned to the Mayfield Clothiers, of Mayfield, Kentucky, and had a very good first season in the Class-D Kitty (Kentucky-Tennessee-Illinois) League. Baker played in 125 games at shortstop and hit for a .346 batting average. (Augie Bergamo’s .355 for Hopkinsville led the league.) In his seven years of minor-league ball, he hit 12 homers. Two of them were in this first season.

He was advanced to the Class-C Middle Atlantic League for 1939 and played for the Youngstown (Ohio) Browns in both 1939 and 1940. In his first game of the year, he took part in a triple play. He struggled a bit at the plate the first year (.266 in 103 games), but came on stronger in 1940 (.303 in 124 games). In the latter year, his 15 sacrifices tied for the league lead.

On March 31, 1941 he married Anne M. Schoessel. Baker’s 1941 season was with the Springfield (Illinois) Browns in the Class-B Three-I League. He matched his games total from the year before (124 games) and hit a team-best .317. Leading off for Springfield, he hit the second pitch he saw on Opening Day over the right-field wall. It was the first of eight homers he hit for Springfield in 1941, two-thirds of his career total. He led his position in Three-I League fielding statistics, and was named shortstop of the league’s All-Star team3.

He played in exactly 100 games in the Texas League for Class-A1 San Antonio in 1942, improving his batting average to .326 but without any home runs. He would have played more, but had been suspended on May 20 for nearly two months “because of a dispute over interpretation of his contract.”4 Only Dick Wakefield of Beaumont ranked above him in the league’s batting averages. In October 1942, the St. Louis Browns formally purchased his contract.

Baker was a holdout, however, only signing at the late date of March 29, 1943. He began the season with St. Louis, and made his major-league debut as a pinch-hitter on May 4 at Sportsman’s Park against the visiting Detroit Tigers. He struck out. When next asked to pinch-hit eight days later, he doubled against the Boston Red Sox. His first RBI came in the second game of the May 16 doubleheader against the New York Yankees, and it was a big one: it won the game. The score was tied, 3-3, with one out in the bottom of the 10th. There were runners on first and second and Browns manager Luke Sewell asked Baker to hit for second baseman Don Gutteridge. Baker singled to center, driving in the winning run. A couple of weeks later, on May 31, his errant throw allowed the Red Sox to score the winning run in that day’s second game, also in the 10th inning, in Boston. It was his second error of the game, the only two errors he made in 51 chances on the season.

He appeared in 22 games, half of them pinch-hitting, 10 at shortstop (sometimes just in later innings), and once at third base. Calling on him to pinch-hit was rarely productive, however, with the May 16 base hit the last one he achieved in 1943. Once the Browns’ regular shortstop, Vern Stephens, recovered from an injury, there had been little for Baker to do. With an average of .174, and four RBIs total, he was optioned to the Toledo Mud Hens. He played in 37 games, hitting .255 for Toledo. He might have played more, and hit for a higher average, but for having “spent more than a month at his home pouting because he wanted to stay with the Browns, despite Vern Stephens.”5

Baker had been able to play ball throughout the war years because of a 4F deferment due to a stomach ailment.6

Baker was with St. Louis for the full season in 1944, again as a reserve infielder. It was a good year to be with the Browns; they won the American League pennant. Baker himself played no big role in the Browns finishing first; he drove in only five runs all year long. He appeared in 44 games, with 97 at-bats, and hit for a .175 average. He did get the opportunity to play in the World Series, against the other team in St. Louis, the Cardinals. Both teams shared Sportsman’s Park during the regular season, and thus all of the six World Series games were played there,.

With the Series even at two wins apiece, Baker pinch-hit in Game Five in the bottom of the seventh. The Cardinals held a slim 1-0 lead and there was a baserunner on first with one out. Baker faced pitcher Mort Cooper and struck out.

Arthur Daley of the New York Times may have hurt Baker’s feelings. He wrote, “Not since Chicago’s hitless wonders of 1906 had a .235 batsman as their heaviest slugger has there appeared in a world series a pinch-hitter with the average Floyd Baker carted to the plate today. Either Luke Sewell is running out of emergency batsmen or he’s running out of hunches…The young man fanned in right smart fashion.”7

The Cardinals won the game, 2-0, and held a three-games-to-two lead in the Series.

In Game Six, the Cardinals scored three times in the bottom of the fourth to take a 3-1 lead. The same score stood in the top of the seventh. With one out and relief pitcher Ted Wilks on the mound, Browns manager Sewell again asked Baker to pinch-hit. Again Baker struck out. The Cardinals won the game and the Series.

On December 30, 1944, the Chicago White Sox purchased Baker’s contract from the Browns for an unannounced sum. He was with the White Sox for just shy of seven years, almost the whole time on the major-league team.

The 1945 White Sox finished sixth under Jimmy Dykes. Baker appeared in more than half the games and hit for a .250 average, not far below the team’s .262 mark. He played mostly at third base. He only drove in 19 but at least a couple of times won games, once with a squeeze bunt and once in the top of the 14th inning against the Athletics on September 5.

In 1946, however, he only played in nine games. He opened the season with the big-league team, playing in two mid-April games. On April 27 he was optioned to the Milwaukee Brewers. He played the full season there, in Triple-A ball, getting into 120 games and batting .287. It wasn’t his size that earned him the nickname “The Mouse” in Milwaukee; it was “because he seldom is heard.”8 Brought back up to Chicago in mid-September, he played in seven more games. He drive in three runs, and finished at .250. Baker never returned to play in the minors; the rest of his career was in the big leagues.

Third base was his station in 1947; in 101 of his 105 games, he played the hot corner. He had his best season at the plate to date, batting .264 and driving in 22 runs – but getting on base at a .375 pace and scoring 61 runs. He got credit for becoming a “base hit thief” and “a mighty nifty defensive item” at third base.9 He had a .980 fielding percentage.

In 1948 his batting average dropped to .215. That was an anomaly, though, since he bounced back to .260 in 125 games in 1949, with a career-high 40 RBIs. Two of those runs came on May 4 at Comiskey Park when he hit his one and only major-league home run, a two-run homer off Washington’s Sid Hudson in the bottom of the fourth. At the time, his homer gave the White Sox a 7-0 lead, but they lost the game in the end, 8-7. His home run was hit over a “trick wire fence around the Comiskey Park outfield.”10 The fences had been brought in 20 feet, reducing the distance for home runs from 352 feet to 332 feet.11 The fence “suddenly vanished in the early hours of May 5.”12 In other words, the day after Baker hit his home run –and two Senators homered in the top of the ninth to give the visitors a win.

There are only nine players in big-league history who had more at-bats than Baker’s 2,280, but only hit one home run.13

Before spring training began in 1950, the Chicago Tribune’s Irving Vaughan wrote that Baker as a third baseman “ can accomplish things most guardians of that position wouldn’t attempt.”14 Then he went on to challenge the perception that Baker was subpar on offense. Without using the words “on-base percentage,” one element of his argument pointed to Baker’s ability to draw walks, despite a mediocre batting average that would indicate the pitchers weren’t likely to pitch around him. Indeed, he ranked third on the club in on-base percentage.

Beginning in 1950, Baker reverted to a utility infielder role. White Sox manager Red Corriden praised his defense as the best infielder in the American League. Acknowledging that he lacked in terms of “color,” Corriden said, “There is absolutely no play that Baker can’t make at third base. He has made some which I would have sworn were impossible.”15

Though in the utility role, he nonetheless appeared in 83 games, with the lion’s share of the games at third base. He also had a lot of pinch-hitting work, especially through July, and this year it paid off. He finished the season with a career-best .317 average and was on base 41.7% of the time. More or less the same pattern prevailed in 1951, though his pinch-hitting was more spread out throughout the season and his average fell back to .263.

On October 24, 1951, Baker was traded to the Washington Senators, with some cash, for young Cuban shortstop Willy Miranda, another “glove man” but a younger one.

With Washington, Baker played similarly in 1952. He hit .262 and drove in 33 runs (second best in his career), in 79 games. He’d started off the season nicely, driving in two runs – including the game-winner in the bottom of the 11th – to beat the Boston Red Sox in his first game, the second of the year for the Senators. He beat the BoSox again on July 5, with a bases-loaded double in the bottom of the seventh.

Baker’s 1953 season got off to a frustrating start. He was used eight times as a pinch-hitter, and every time he made an out. A ninth out came when he entered a game late, and grounded out to end the eighth inning. Perhaps the Red Sox remembered how Baker had beaten them a couple of times in 1952; they purchased his contract from the Senators on May 12. By season’s end, after 81 games for the Red Sox, he’d proved he was about as consistent a hitter as there was – he’d hit .263 in 1951, .262 in 1952, and .263 in 1953. There had been one unusual game, on June 17, when manager Lou Boudreau decided to put Baker in the cleanup spot, surprising everyone, as he decided to have Dick Gernert bat third. Baker drove in three runs in a 17-1 Red Sox win over Detroit. Gernert hit two homers and drove in four. Then, on August 4, as fans were clamoring for Ted Williams to bat for the first time since he’d returned from the Korean War, Boudreau sent up Baker to pinch-hit with the bases loaded in a 2-2 game in the bottom of the eighth. Baker doubled, clearing the bases.

Baker was used almost exclusively in pinch-hitting (14 times) or pinch-running (3) roles in 21 games for the 1954 Red Sox. And with a .200 average, he wasn’t impressing at the bat. He had three RBIs, two of them in a 20-10 shellacking of the Athletics. He only scored one time. He really was just an extra guy on a team that already had Billy Consolo, Billy Goodman, George Kell, and a couple of others as reserve infielders. The Phillies developed a need, though, and when Baker was placed on waivers, they claimed him on July 16. He played in 23 games for the Phillies before the end of the season, batting .227 while neither scoring nor driving in a run.

He returned with the Phillies again in 1955, under new manager Mayo Smith, but not for long. He pinch-hit four times in April, each time unsuccessfully. On May 4 he played third base against the visiting Cincinnati Reds and grounded out, flew out, grounded out, and struck out. He was 0-for-8 on the season and had to look back to the previous year for his final base hit in the big leagues. On May 9 he was unconditionally released.

In February 1957, the Washington Senators signed him as a scout, and he worked with them from 1957 through 1960. He worked for the Minnesota Twins as a scout in 1961, but when coach Clyde McCullough was stricken with ulcers and had to be hospitalized at the very beginning of April, Baker was named third-base coach for the Twins, a position he held for four seasons, until he was let go from that post in mid-October 1964.

He had done some scouting for the Twins even while coaching, for instance signing Garry Roggenburk in 1962. After being relieved of his coaching duties, Baker returned to scouting for the Twins for another 30 years, 1965-1994.

His signing credits as a scout include:

Baker retired from the Twins in 1995.

Baker was active in his community, with the Boardman United Methodist Church, the Baseball Oldtimers Association, the Curbstone Coaches, and the YMCA for more than 50 years.17 In 1977 he was named to the Curbstone Coaches Hall of Fame, a local group in Youngstown, founded in 1958, which holds luncheons almost every Monday to discuss matters relating to athletics.18

Floyd Baker died at his home in Youngstown, Ohio, on November 16, 2004. He was survived by his son, Robert F. Baker, M.D., and his daughter, Linda Beany, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Baker's player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Rod Nelson of SABR's Scouts Committee, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

1 “Luray Baseball Star to Try Out with Nats,” Richmond Times Dispatch, June 13, 1934: 12.

2 Floyd Baker questionnaire submitted to SABR’s Scouts Committee.

3 “Triorb’s Top,” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), December 11, 1941: 24.

4 INS, “Wakefield, Baker Are Showing Way for Texas Hitters,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, July 19, 1942: A8.

5 “Sports Shorts,” Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, September 9, 1943: 16.

6 Associated Press, “Browns Sell Infielder Baker to White Sox,” Hartford Courant, January 7, 1945: C1.

7 Arthur Daley, “Sports of the Times: The Redbirds Are Flying High,” New York Times, October 9, 1946: 18.

8 “Grimm Praises Jurges,” Milwaukee Journal, July 31, 1946: 23.

9 Irving Vaughan, “Baker Does Bit to Hold Down A.L. Bat Marks,” Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1947: B4.

10 Irving Vaughan, “Braves Beat Cubs; Senators Whip White Sox, 8-7,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1949: B1.

11 “Sox Provide Bargains in Home Runs,” Chicago Tribune, March 10, 1949: B3.

12 “Sox Home Run Fence Gone, But Not Forgotten,” Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1949: A4,

13 Thanks to David Vincent, here is a list of the top 10 players with the most career at-bats but with just one home run are: Davy Force 4,250; Bob Ferguson 3,467; Duane Kuiper 3,379; Emil Verban 2,911; Bobby Mathews 2,486; Andy Leonard 2,394; Tom Carey 2,394; Johnny Bassler 2,319; Joe Quest 2,295; and Floyd Baker 2,280. Many are players from the nineteenth century.

14 Irving Vaughan, “Baker Weak at Plate? Figures Don’t Show It,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1950: A5.

15 United Press, “Corriden Selects Floyd Baker As Best Infielder,” Hartford Courant, July 23, 1950: A4.

16 Thanks to Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts Committee.

17 “Floyd W. Baker, 88,” The Vindicator, Youngstown, Ohio, November 17, 2004.