By Glen Sparks
Elwin Roe was an ornery boy.
He probably talked back, threw temper tantrums and got into plenty of mischief. The usual stuff.
His grandmother thought of a nickname that might inspire the child toward goodness. She began calling Elwin “Preacher.” (This is one version of the “Preacher” Roe story. Another version is that gave himself the nickname. He liked the local minister.)
Either way, Roe kept that nickname his entire life. Baseball fans only know Elwin Charles Roe as “Preacher” Roe, simple enough. He grew up to pitch 12 seasons in the majors, most famously for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The 6-foot-2-inch left-hander compiled a 127-84 career won-loss mark with a 3.43 ERA. National League strikeout king in 1945, Roe earned a spot on five All-Star teams.
Born Feb. 25, 1916, in Ash Flat, Ark., smack in the Ozarks, Roe grew up in Viola, near the Arkansas-Missouri border. Later on, New York sportswriters liked to poke fun of Roe’s country background. The hillbilly stereotype was good for only so much, though. Roe’s dad worked as a doctor. Preacher himself attended Harding College in Arkansas.
Roe could bring it, as they say. He tossed lively fastballs. Good ol’ country hardball. Once for Harding, he fanned 26 batters in 13 innings against Arkansas Tech. The St. Louis Cardinals signed Roe in 1938.
On Aug. 22, 1938, Roe made his big league debut. It didn’t go well. He gave up four earned runs in 2.2 innings. That got him an ERA of 13.50 and a ticket back to the minors.
The Cardinals were in no hurry to bring back the kid. Finally, on Sept. 30, 1943, they traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Johnny Podgajny, Johnny Wyrostek and some cash.
Roe’s fortunes turned. He went 13-11 with a 3.11 ERA in 1944. The following season, he not only fanned the most batters in the National League, he lowered his ERA to 2.87 and went 14-13 with 15 complete games. (An old back injury kept Roe out of World War II.)
Then, Preacher put together back-to-back stinker campaigns. First, though, he got into a fight with a referee while coaching high school basketball in Arkansas. That resulted in a fractured skill and a combined record of 7-23 with ERAs north of 5.00 in 1946 and ’47.
Pittsburgh, figuring Preacher was damaged goods, shipped the pitcher to Brooklyn. Roe revived his career in Flatbush, playing with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of the fabled Boys of Summer.
Over his seven seasons with the Dodgers, Roe ended up 93-37. He went 27-14 in his first two seasons on the Brooklyn staff, won 19 games in 1950, led the N.L. in winning percentage (.880) in 1951 with a 22-3 mark, compiled a 22-5 combined record in ’52 and ’53, and started off 3-4 in 1954 before retiring at the age of 38.
Over five post-season games and three starts (all with Brooklyn), Roe sported a 2-1 record and a 2.54 ERA. He threw a six-hit 1-0 shutout against the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the ’49 Series.
So, what was the secret of Roe’s success in Brooklyn? He cheated. And, in time, he admitted it. In 1955, lured by the offer of a $2,000 check, Roe told his story to Sports Illustrated in an article titled “The Outlawed Spitter Was My Money Pitch.”
Clean living, he said, and a spitball. That’s what he advised. He explained the art. Make sure one half of the ball is wet, the other half dry. Let that ball slip out of your hands, just like a watermelon seed. Roe added that “If it’s a good ‘un, it drops like a dead duck just when it crossed the plate.”
Well, he wasn’t the only one who threw a wet one.
Roe retired to West Plains, Mo., just a short drive from his Arkansas roots. He ran Preacher Roe’s Super Market for a few decades and served as a guest instructor for many years at the Dodgers fantasy camps in Vero Beach, Fla.
The old pitcher died Nov. 9, 2008, at the age of 92. Youngsters today in Salem, Ark., less than 20 miles from Ash Flat, can play ball at Preacher Roe Park.