Tommy Fine

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

When the Red Sox cold-shouldered him for bringing his wife to spring training, right-handed pitcher Tommy Fine may have been delayed for seven years on his way to the big leagues. That, and World War II.

Thomas M. Fine, Jr. was born into a farm family in Cleburne, Texas, on October 10, 1914. His mother, Bessie Lee (Smith) Fine, had six children. Tommy was the fourth. He attended Liberty Chapel elementary school in Cleburne and then Cleburne High. He went on to Baylor and graduated there as well.

Fine was seen as something special at Baylor. A Dallas Morning News headline in February 1937 proclaimed "Tommy Fine, Baylor's Finest Hurling Prospect Since Ted Lyons, To Report Wednesday."1 The article simply reported that the sophomore was due to join the Baylor Bears squad for the first day of practice.

A farmer's son, he was fortunate to have been able to attend Baylor. Apparently, he was a standout at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Texas baseball legend Billy Disch denied a report in 1938 that he had signed Fine at the National Semipro Congress in Wichita, but did say the commandant of a CCC camp had "turned Fine over to me with the understanding that [I] get him a job and act as his sponsor. This I did and I have been his sponsor ever since."2 Fine had wanted to turn pro, but Disch said he talked him into going to college.

Fine worked part-time at a gas station in Waco. He told Disch that when the time came to sign, he would sign with whatever team Disch recommended. In May 1938, he turned down a reported bonus of $375 offered by the Red Sox and elected to play semipro ball over the summer for the Mount Pleasant Cubs and return to Baylor.3 He was a unanimous choice for the All-Southwest Conference team. Ultimately, Bibb Falk was credited with his signing with the Red Sox.4

A 1947 headline in The Sporting News caught the eye: "Bosox Camp Ban on Wives Delayed Fine Seven Years5." The story was written by Roger Birtwell, of the Boston Globe. Birtwell said it all came from a "costly honeymoon." After signing with the Red Sox, Fine had put in a partial season of work with the Class-B Piedmont League Rocky Mount Red Sox in 1939. He was 6-4 in 18 games. At the end of November, he married Elizabeth Sheppard.

Prior to spring training, in January 1940 Fine "received a letter from the Red Sox office, asking if he was bringing his wife to camp and to let them know so they could arrange for accommodations." This sounded great. The newlyweds packed a trunk and had it shipped off to Sarasota. But 48 hours before they were due to board the train, they got another letter from the Red Sox, saying that they did not want players to bring their wives to spring training. "Our trunk had gone," Fine told Birtwell, "and besides – I just didn't have the heart to tell my wife. She had set so much store on the trip."

They showed up and, while no one ever said anything, the "cool reception" was clear enough. Fine was in the doghouse. "I figured the only thing I could do was to pitch so darned well they'd forget about my bringing my wife. So I began to bear down for all I was worth. I tried too hard and in the few games I pitched, I got wild as a hawk – wilder than I had ever been before." He was shipped out to Little Rock and was even wilder. He was sent to Class-C ball at Oneonta, New York. He struggled but was 8-5 with a 3.92 earned run average, again in 18 games. In 1941, he showed better. His ERA was more or less the same (3.83) but he worked 214 innings and put up a record of 22-9. His 22 wins led the league, and so did his 185 strikeouts.

He was due for a promotion for the 1942 season, but just before heading off to spring training, he suffered a ruptured appendix. He skirted death, recovered, and returned to Oneonta in time to work in 25 games (he was 13-8, 2.78). He pitched against Amsterdam in the Canadian-American League playoffs, which Oneonta won in seven games. On one day's rest, Fine threw a four-hitter, striking out 15, to win Game Six. And then the army called. He enlisted on October 17, 1942, in Abilene, became a radio technician and a sergeant in the Signal Corps, and didn't get out until after the season was over in 1945. He did have the opportunity to keep sharp while in the service. A postwar report said he had won 32 games for the Orlando Army Air Force Base team, runner-up at the annual tournament in Wichita.6

Once mustered out of the army, Fine showed he hadn't lost a thing during his three years out of pro ball. While the 1946 Boston team was winning the pennant, Fine was working in the Eastern League, pitching for the Scranton Red Sox. He was 23-3 with a 2.08 ERA; one of the games he lost was a 2-1 two-hitter. Another game was lost in the 10th inning. At one point, he won 17 in a row. He was 3-0 in the playoffs, leading Scranton to eight wins in nine games. Fine and Sam Mele were the only two unanimous choices for the Eastern League All-Star team. Fine was unanimously voted league MVP.

When Fine returned to Sarasota in 1947, he came without his wife, and without Tommy Jr., their four-year-old son. He became reacquainted with Tex Hughson, who asked him about his hitting. Hughson recalled a time he was pitching for the University of Texas and Fine was pitching for Baylor. Hughson had a no-hitter going into the ninth inning, when Fine turned around to bat left-handed and collected a base hit to win the game.7 Fine was indeed a switch-hitter. He was six feet tall, listed at 180 pounds.

Fine made his major-league debut on April 26, 1947. He started the game against the visiting Philadelphia Athletics, facing the minimum nine batters in the first three innings. But manager Joe Cronin left him in too long. Fine himself had scored the first run of the game, after singling in his first big-league at-bat, and then being moved around the bases. After eight innings, the score was Boston 2, Philadelphia 1. Fine retired the first two batters in the top of the ninth, both on outfield flies. Then he walked Ferris Fain. A single followed. Then another walk, to load the bases. And then he walked Mike Guerra for his third walk of the inning, forcing in the tying run. Cronin pulled Fine and asked reliever Johnny Murphy to secure the final out. He threw a wild pitch. The Athletics took the lead. A single gave the A's two insurance runs, and the game ended in a 5-2 loss.

On May 4 in St. Louis, Fine pitched a complete game, a five-hitter, beating the Browns, 8-1. A week later, he only lasted an inning-plus against the Yankees. He got through the first inning, despite hitting one batter and walking another one, but then started doling out bases on balls again, walking the first three batters who came up in the top of the second. Joe Cronin had seen enough. Even though Boston had taken a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the first, he didn't want to jeopardize the lead any further and removed Fine from the game.

Fine got another chance four days later. He pitched a good game, working seven innings with just one earned run. But there had been an unearned run and the Browns won, 2-1. He had some nice words for his fellow pitchers. He'd had his own rough experience in 1940, and while in the army he'd heard Joe Tinker tell him stories about how rookies were treated in the old days. "They made things as tough as they could, and as for giving advice, they just didn't do it. But it was certainly different at Sarasota, Fellows like Boo Ferriss, Tex Hughson, Joe Dobson, and Earl Johnson went out of their way to help both me and Mel Parnell. As a result my control got better, and I developed a little more confidence in myself."8

On June 20, not having worked for 18 days, Fine was optioned to Toronto to make room for Denny Galehouse, who the Red Sox reacquired for cash from the Browns. Fine had appeared in seven games, worked 30 2/3 innings with a 4.11 earned run average, and held a 1-2 record. He'd been 3-for-8 (.375) at the plate, and had a 1.000 fielding percentage during his time in Boston.

He fared poorly in Triple A with Toronto, suffering a groin injury five days after arriving and going 2-9 with a 4.91 ERA the rest of the season. He was traded to San Francisco on October 22, as part of the deal by which the Sox acquired Neill Sheridan.

He next made the majors in 1950, with the St. Louis Browns. In 1948, he pitched for the San Francisco Seals while hampered by a sore arm (5-6, 5.59), and in 1949 for the Double-A San Antonio Missions in the Texas League, a club with which the St. Louis Browns had a working agreement. He was 15-13, with a 3.56 ERA for San Antonio. He collected at least a few votes for pitcher of the year.

Over the wintertime he pitched for Cienfuegos in the Cuban League, led the league in wins with 16, and at one point set "an all-time record of 9 consecutive wins in relief."9 Fine pitched winters in Cuba for several more years.

Fine made the Browns in 1950 and worked in 14 games, strictly in relief, but his ERA pretty much just got worse and worse as the first couple of months of the season unfolded. He appeared twice in April, six times in May, and six more in June. His last major-league appearance came in the June 28 game against visiting Cleveland. The game was already a 12-2 Indians rout when he was brought in. He faced seven batters and gave up five consecutive singles, a base on balls, and then another single. He never retired a batter and was charged with five runs, bumping his ERA up to 8.10. Manager Zack Taylor had seen enough. Fine was sold to the Baltimore Orioles on June 30. (He'd batted .333 in the majors, 4-for-12 with two doubles. Again, he committed no fielding errors.)

He was 7-5, 2.79 for Baltimore the rest of 1950, joining them in the Little World Series, which the Orioles lost to Columbus. Fine was back with San Antonio in 1951 where he recorded a good 2.94 ERA and was 17-10. On June 24, he threw a seven-inning 2-0 no-hitter against Tulsa in the first game of a doubleheader.

On February 21, 1952, Fine pitched the only no-hit, no-run game in the history of the Caribbean Series.10 He also singled and scored the only run in the game as Cuba beat Venezuela, 1-0, in Panama during the second round of competition. In his next start, against Panama, he threw hitless ball for the first seven innings, winning the game, 11-3. In 1998, Fine was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame by members of the exile community in Miami.

Fine pitched five more seasons in minor-league ball, mostly as a starter. In 1952 he trained with the Browns but was released to San Antonio (2-6), moving on to Memphis (8-4) during the season. He spent all of 1953 with Memphis (12-11, 3.50), and was named to the Southern Association All-Star team. Memphis won the pennant. Memphis manager Luke Appling moved to the Triple-A Richmond Virginians in 1954, and he worked to secure Fine as well, Richmond buying his contract in February 1954. Fine spent 1954 and 1955 with Richmond, with identical 4.12 earned run averages both years (he was 11-9 and 3-3). The Virginians placed him on the inactive list in mid-June, to open up a roster spot, and sold him to Birmingham.

His final year was 1956, when he was 3-5 with Shreveport, with a 5.16 ERA. That was the year he turned 42 in October.

Fine had worked as a barber during the off-seasons. When he had been with the Seals in 1948, team owner Paul I. Fagan came into the clubhouse one day and saw Fine cutting the hair of one of the other players' children. When the team came home after a road trip, Fagan had purchased a brand-new barber's chair and had it installed in the clubhouse. For the rest of the year, Fine cut the hair of other children and most of the players, too.11

He worked for his brother-in-law. James Sheppard, in implement and grain storage in Brownwood, Texas. Fine later moved to Burbank, California, where he operated a garage.12

Thomas Fine died in Little Elm, Texas, on January 10, 2005. He is buried in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Cleburne.

 

Sources

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

 

Notes

1 "Tommy Fine, Baylor's Finest Hurling Prospect Since Ted Lyons, To Report Wednesday," Dallas Morning News, February 14, 1937: 17.

2 Charles Burton, "Covering Sports," Dallas Morning News, May 20, 1938: I5.

3 "Baylor Mound Ace Rejects Offer of Boston Red Sox," Dallas Morning News, May 28, 1938: 13.

4 Frank Eck.

5 Roger Birtwell, "Bosox Camp Ban on Wives Delayed Fine Seven Years," The Sporting News, May 14, 1947.

6 Frank Eck, Associated Press, "Potent Red Sox Reap Standout Crop of First-Year Moundsmen," Richmond Times Dispatch, March 9, 1947: 36.

7 John Drohan, "Fine Feels Fine; Maturity Gives Him Steadiness," Boston Traveler, February 25, 1947: 39.

8 Gordon Campbell, "Fine Glad Late Success Came with 1947 Red Sox," Boston Traveler, May 6, 1947: 51.

9 Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 321. In the 1951-52 season, he pitched for Marianao and his 5-11 record led the league in losses.

10 Jorge S. Figueredo, Who's Who in Cuban Baseball: 1878-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003), 322.

11 L. H. Gregory, "Greg's Gossip," The Oregonian, April 12, 1959: 64.

12 The Brownwood information comes from his 1960 player questionnaire completed for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Burbank information is from Jim Morse, "Yelling 'Fore' at 94," Boston Record American, August 6, 1971: 33.