Vallie Eaves

This article was written by Terry Bohn

Right-handed pitcher Vallie Eaves had an undistinguished major-league career, appearing in just 24 games spread over five seasons with three different teams. Alcoholism and erratic behavior plagued him throughout his career. In 1945 The Sporting News wrote “... More than once firewater got him into trouble, but Eaves loved baseball and he could pitch ... his professional career which proved nerve-racking for every manager he played under. Though he tried the patience of every boss under whom he served, none denied his great natural pitching ability.”1

Over more than two decades in the minor leagues, five times he won 20 games and he amassed more than 200 career victories, but his talent was often overshadowed by his off-field activities. One of the managers who tried to reform Eaves was former St. Louis Cardinal Pepper Martin. Like Eaves, Martin was from Oklahoma and had Indian blood, but unlike Eaves, Martin was a teetotaler.  Martin’s efforts were unsuccessful and he described Eaves as “part Indian by birth and part Scotch by midnight.”2

Vallie Ennis Eaves was born on September 6, 1911, in the small town of Allen in south central Oklahoma, near Ada. His parents were George W. and Hallie (Langston) Eaves. George was a farmer and Vallie had two older siblings, a brother, Homer, and a sister, Fleta. Throughout his career Eaves was described as a Cherokee Indian, but he, his parents, and his siblings all listed their race as white or Caucasian on 1920, 1930, and 1940 US Census rolls. No members of his immediate family were listed on US Indian Census rolls. The best information available indicated that Eaves was one-quarter Cherokee.3

When he was around 12 years old he was playing a game of “shinney” with friends and was struck on his right shinbone. Osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone, set in and he eventually underwent 11 operations. Eaves spent much of the next four years in a cast and on crutches. He walked with a limp and wore a brace on the leg the rest of his career. If an opposing batter tried to bunt on him due to his lack of mobility, Vallie ended the practice by throwing at them the next at-bat.4 Early in his pitching career, his inability to throw a sharp curveball was blamed on “stiff wrists” caused by his having spent so much time gripping crutches. One of his coaches, ex-catcher Muddy Ruel, taught Eaves a “stiff wrist curve” that revitalized his career.5

Due to his leg condition, Eaves didn’t begin to play baseball until his late teens, but he became an accomplished all-around athlete at Rosedale (Oklahoma) High School. He also played on the sandlots near his home and had an unsuccessful tryout with the Oklahoma City team in the Texas League in 1934. The next summer he pitched for the Shawnee (Oklahoma) Redmen, who reached the NBC national semipro tournament in Wichita, Kansas (the inaugural tournament won by Bismarck, North Dakota, featuring Satchel Paige). After a strong performance in a win over Yuma, Arizona, Eaves caught the eye of Philadelphia Athletics scout Ira Thomas. He was quickly signed and immediately sent on the first train east to join the A’s.

In August of 1935 the Philadelphia Athletics were mired in seventh place in the American League, having fallen on hard times after owner Connie Mack sold many of his stars from the championship teams of a few years earlier. He had dispatched Thomas, a former catcher of his, to scout the Western states to uncover new talent, and Thomas thought Eaves had the potential to help the A’s. Just two weeks removed from semipro ball, Eaves was in the major leagues.

On September 12, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox, Connie Mack named Eaves the starter. He pitched a complete-game seven-hitter, winning his first big-league game, 4-3, over Chicago’s ace Monte Stratton. Eaves’ second start, against Cleveland on the 17th, was a disaster. He walked the first three batters he faced, all later scored, and another walk and a wild pitch in the second inning led to two more Indians runs. Eaves lasted just the two innings and was charged with a 5-3 loss. He had one more unsuccessful start that season.

That fall Eaves returned to Oklahoma and pitched for a semipro team in Ada, and on November 26, 1935, married Lorraine May Martin. Mrs. Eaves apparently followed her husband around on his many minor-league stops, being listed, along with Vallie, in Long Beach, California; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Hobbs, New Mexico, city directories. A son, Jerry Valdeen Eaves, was born on October 20, 1936. He was the only child Vallie and Lorraine had. Jerry would also play professional baseball, pitching briefly over two seasons (1957 and 1958) in the minors. Lorraine died in 2004, and Jerry in 2011.

Eaves started the 1936 season with the Galveston Buccaneers in the Texas League. After appearing in just three games he moved on to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in the Western Association. His stay there was also brief and unsuccessful. He walked 27 men in just 19 innings and posted an ERA of 10.42 in seven games. By August of that year Eaves was back in the semipro ranks; it was reported he pitched in the Denver Post tournament. He spent all of 1937 with a semipro team in Ada before joining the Enid Seminoles for another trip to the Denver tournament.

Eaves was back in Organized Baseball in 1938, signing with Texarkana in the East Texas league. He was 15-4 in 23 games before being sold to Shreveport, the White Sox’ affiliate in the Texas League, on July 7. He won six more games to total 21 victories for the season. Eaves returned to Shreveport in 1939 and had won 21 games and was leading the league in strikeouts when the White Sox purchased his contract in early August. The deal was for $10,000, with $2,000 cash and the remainder if Eaves was retained after June 1 of the following year. He pitched in two games for Chicago that season, being charged with one loss in 11? innings.

Eaves made the White Sox pitching staff out of spring training in 1940, but he “failed to fulfill promise displayed during spring training,”6 and after two losses and a 6.75 ERA in five games, was sent back to Shreveport in early May. His worst outing was a 6-5 loss to Detroit on April 22 in which he walked 12 (still as of 2014 a White Sox single-game record) and made two wild pitches. Before he could report to Shreveport he was sold, along with shortstop Howard Ermsmisch and cash, back to the Philadelphia A’s organization and joined Toronto, their affiliate in the Double-A International League.

Eaves had a record of 5 wins and 14 losses in 29 games the rest of the 1940 season with Toronto. He started out 2 and 12 with the Maple Leafs the next season and in July was dealt to his third organization when the Milwaukee Brewers in the American association (a member of the Chicago Cubs chain) purchased his contract from Toronto. Bill Veeck claimed the purchase of Eaves was his first act after buying the Milwaukee club.7

One of the conditions of the deal was that Eaves had to leave immediately for Toledo (where the Brewers were playing) so he could pitch that night. The Toronto general manager personally put Vallie on the train but he never arrived at the Brewers hotel or the ballpark. After the game Veeck inquired with the police and hospitals, and then decided to check the local bars for his new pitcher. Eaves was finally located, passed out drunk, so Veeck and a cab driver got him to the train station as the team was about to leave for a series in Columbus.

With Eaves safely aboard the train, Veeck and manager Charlie Grimm discussed what to do with him. Knowing his history, and realizing fines and suspensions had no effect on him, Veeck decided that once he sobered up he would thank him for arriving safely in Toledo and have him sign a new contract calling for an increase in salary of $200 a month. The next day Eaves arrived at the ballpark in Columbus still hung over, and Grimm had him pitch both ends of a doubleheader in broiling heat.

In his autobiography, Veeck said of Eaves, “Vallie had a good heart. Once you understood that he really couldn’t help himself, he was no great problem. I had sent word around to all the Milwaukee bartenders, for instance, that I would buy back all the knives they took away from him. Vallie had a friendly little habit of pulling a knife whenever they shut him off. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly, though. All the bartender needed to do was talk to him sympathetically, and Vallie would turn the knife over.”8

On August 11, 1941, the Chicago Cubs optioned pitcher Vance Page to Milwaukee and purchased Eaves. Eaves was back in the majors for the fourth time with his third team. Much of the credit for Eaves’ return to the majors was given to Charlie Grimm. Eaves was considered incorrigible by several teams but under Grimm’s guidance, he responded. In fact, Eaves thought so much of Grimm that because the Cubs played day games, and Milwaukee played at night, he volunteered to commute and continue to pitch for the Brewers. Grimm had to explain to Vallie that he could not pitch for two teams at the same time.

Even Grimm eventually got fed up with Eaves’ antics. He told of the time Eaves the pitcher had taken a particularly bad shelling in Milwaukee, was taken out, and left the clubhouse immediately. Later that night, Grimm received a phone call from the night watchman at Milwaukee’s Borchert Field, who said there was a player there with a can of gasoline, a pile of newspaper kindling and a box of matches, threatening to light himself up. Rushing to the ballpark, Grimm found that the suicidal player was a drunken Eaves. He talked Eaves out of striking the match, telling him that if he’d wait until after the season, Grimm would assist him in self-immolation.9

From the time of his call-up by Chicago in August 1941 through the end of the season, Eaves had his best stint at the major-league level. He had a record of 3-3 in 12 games, seven of them starts, and worked 58? innings. Eaves was apparently on his best behavior in Chicago. He came with a reputation of having “broke training and a few noses” but now “is no problem at all to (manager) Jimmie Wilson’s house detectives.”

Eaves picked up his first National League victory when he pitched one scoreless inning on August 13 against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. He made his first start for the Cubs and pitched a complete game, losing a 3-1 decision to the Reds and Johnny Vander Meer on August 15. Behind a home run by Stan Hack, Eaves won his next start, a 9-4 complete-game win over the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on the 20th. On August 28 Eaves held the Boston Braves to four hits, but lost 2-1. His third victory was a complete-game five-hitter against the Pirates on September 7.

In the spring of 1942 Eaves was invited to the Cubs spring-training camp at Catalina Island, California.  His train arrived in Los Angeles late and he missed the water taxis to the island. He finally contacted Cubs traveling secretary Bob Lewis, who instructed him to take a cab or streetcar to a hotel where he would be picked up.  When Eaves informed Lewis he had money for neither, he was told to stay at the train station. He was finally located by a Cubs employee and delivered to the island via a small plane.  Once there, he pitched well, and opened the season with the Cubs.

However, after two early-season relief appearances, Eaves was suspended by the club in May when he showed up drunk at Ebbets Field before a game with the Dodgers. That was the last time Eaves would wear a major-league uniform. The Cubs sent him to Nashville, their affiliate in the Southern Association, where he went 6-6 in 19 games. In July, after “being bounced by Nashville manager Larry Gilbert,” he was obtained on option by Milwaukee, where he finished the season with a 4-5 record in 12 games.

On March 20, 1943, the Cubs parted ways with Eaves, “whose misconduct penalties worried the club to no end” by trading him and outfielder Ival Goodman to Minneapolis of the American Association for second baseman Stu Martin. A few days later, claiming he was unaware of the trade, Eaves reported to the Cubs’ spring-training base in French Lick, Indiana. The Cubs shipped him back to Oklahoma and he later found his way to the Millers camp. He appeared in just four games with Minneapolis before being suspended in early June for breaking training. He then hooked on with the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association, and pitched in three games; his one victory was a three-hit shutout of Birmingham.

Late in 1943, Eaves got a job as a rigger at the Calship naval shipyard in Long Beach, California (his leg condition likely kept him from active duty during World War II). There, a ladder fell on his leg in the same spot as his previous injury. He had another operation and spent another five months on crutches, not pitching at all in 1944. When Pepper Martin took over as manager of the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1945, he ran into Eaves and decided to try reforming the talented pitcher. He even invited Vallie to move into his home.

Martin, an Oklahoman like Eaves, said “We both have Indian blood in our veins and perhaps have a bond of understanding. He still has blinding sped and a great curveball, which he combines with an effective change of pace. What’s more, he has masterful control.” Eaves, now 32 years old, was clearly appreciative of Martin’s confidence and said, “I’ll show ’em. Pepper says it isn’t too late.”10

Eaves got off to a great start and by midseason was considered by many the best pitcher in the PCL. However, Martin’s efforts at reform off the field were not working. On one occasion Eaves pulled a knife on Martin, who threatened to kill his pitcher if he ever did that again. When he signed with San Diego, Eaves was promised a $4,000 bonus if he won 20 games, but by midseason $500 of that amount had already been collected in fines and he had been suspended at least five time for various infractions.

In July Martin and Eaves had a confrontation in an Oakland hotel lobby that Martin said was a slap, but witnesses described as a punch that landed on Eaves’ jaw. “He had it coming to him,” Martin said, ‘He let me down during the game yesterday, besides upsetting the discipline of the club and setting a bad example for the rest of the players.” Martin added that this is “positively his last chance.” A day or two later they shook hands and made up and Martin even quipped that because Eaves didn’t fall to the ground after punching him, no one could accuse him of being an “Eaves-dropper.”

Eaves won his 20th game, and collected $2,500 (what was left of his original $4,000 bonus) on his 33rd birthday, September 6, beating the San Francisco Seals 4-2. He led the Pacific Coast League with 187 strikeouts, but also in walks (127).

Despite his frequent run-ins with Martin, Eaves was invited back to San Diego the next season and was the Padres’ Opening Day starter, shutting out Oakland 6-0. However, after a few weeks, he had worn out his welcome once again. In late April he was left home from a road trip for “vitiating training rules” and was later suspended. A few days later it was revealed that Eaves had been fined for setting fire to a bed in his hotel room while smoking. He was subsequently released. He hooked on with Oklahoma City in the Texas League, pitching in 12 games, but was let go for being out of condition. He finished the season in Class C with Texarkana in the East Texas League.

Eaves was invited back to Texarkana the next season (1947) and showed what he could accomplish when he kept on the straight and narrow. By mid-August he had an incredible record of 21 wins against just one defeat, and finished at 25-5, leading the league in wins. After the season Vallie was on the move again, Texarkana having sold him to Gladewater in the Lone Star League. In mid-June he was kicked off that club and finished the year back in Texarkana. In March 1949 Texarkana sold Eaves to the Borger Gassers in the West Texas-New Mexico League. In August he was suspended and subsequently released, for some unspecified rules violation, and landed with Abilene in the same league later that season.

In 1950 Eaves was signed by Lufkin, Texas, in the Gulf Coast League and put together another remarkable season, winning 26 games and compiling a 3.15 ERA in 43 games. In mid-July the team moved to Leesville, Louisiana, but it folded after the season and Eaves was again looking for a new team. He signed with Lake Charles, Louisiana, also in the Gulf Coast League, the next year. After one appearance, in which he surrendered four runs in one inning, he quit the team. Texarkana agreed to take Eaves back on a five-day trial. He pitched in two games there and five more with Greenville, Mississippi, in the Cotton States League. In the summer of 1951, Eaves also headed north to pitch, appearing briefly for a town team in Slayton, Minnesota, and a semipro outfit in Minot, North Dakota.

The 1952 season found Eaves back in the Gulf Coast League with Port Arthur, Texas. He pitched very well the first three months of the season, compiling a 13-6 record and making the league all-star team. But as was Vallie’s pattern of behavior, in July he was suspended by the team for another training infraction and finished the year with Meridian, Mississippi (Cotton States League), where he won six more games, including his first career no-hitter. On August 21 he allowed just one baserunner, on a walk, and beat Natchez to give his Meridian team the Cotton State League pennant.

When Eaves managed to avoid trouble long enough to stay with one minor-league team the entire season, he had great success. In 1939, with Shreveport all year, he won 21 games. He won 21 again when he lasted all of 1945 with Pepper Martin in San Diego. Two years later, he won 25 with Texarkana and when he was able to stick it out with Lufkin/Leesville in 1950, he won 26 games. Now 42 years old, Vallie would have one more such season. In 1953 he went 19-11 with an excellent 2.61 ERA for Brownsville, Texas (his 20th minor-league team).

Eaves took the mound for four teams in 1954. In March he signed with Galveston, but in June was released outright for breaking training rules again. He was given a look by Roswell, New Mexico. (This was the season Roswell first baseman Joe Bauman was having his historic season, hitting 72 home runs and knocking in 224 runs.) Eaves lasted there only a couple of weeks, appearing in three games before moving on to Sweetwater, and then Bryan, Texas. He actually played in five towns, as the Bryan team moved to Del Rio late in the season.

Over the next two years Eaves pitched semipro ball in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, a small town south of Ada. He was still a dominant pitcher as evidenced by a 1-0 victory, the only run scoring on his single, and 17 strikeouts. Eaves’ last appearance in professional baseball was in 1957 with Hobbs, New Mexico, in the Southwestern League. He pitched in 15 games and for a short time was a teammate with his son, Jerry. When not pitching, Vallie worked as a roughneck in the local oil fields.

Eaves’ successful pitching career was remarkable in light of the fact that he was never able to control his addiction to alcohol. In March 1957 he was charged with drunk driving. He pleaded not guilty and posted a $500 bond. Vallie failed to appear when his case came up for trial in January 1958 and the bond was forfeited. He was later arrested and after waiving a jury trial was found guilty and fined $150 plus court costs and sentenced to 10 days in the county jail.

Late in 1959 Eaves was diagnosed with lung cancer. Surgery and other treatments were not successful. He died on April 19, 1960, at the age of 48 at Central State Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. He was buried at the Connerville (Oklahoma) Cemetery.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

ancestry.com

Peterson, Armand. Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 282.

Veeck, Bill, and Ed Linn. Veeck as in Wreck: An Autobiography of Bill Veeck (ChicagO: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 65-67.

Barthell, Thomas. Pepper Martin: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 179-180.

Powers-Beck, Jeffrey P. The American Indian Integration of Baseball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 21.

 

Notes

1 The Sporting News, May 16, 1945.

2 Miami News, April 10, 1959.

3 Several newspaper stories referred to Eaves as one-fourth Cherokee.

4 Peterson, 282.

5 Miami News, March 8, 1940.

6 Milwaukee Journal, May 14, 1940.

7 Veeck and Linn, 65.

8 Veeck and Linn, 67.

9 “Fireside Chat,” Baseball Digest, June 1992.

10 Sacramento Bee, May 16, 1945.