Arguably the most famous baseball team in the history of Nashville sports, the 1940 Nashville Volunteers were voted the 47th best minor league team of all time in the 100th celebration of Minor League baseball in 2001. Its heroic bad-boy pitcher, who finished the season in spectacular fashion with a 26-9 record, is celebrated by author Austin Gisriel in Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser (2014, Summer Game Books), .
With the huge advantage of sorting through scrapbooks kept by Boots’ first wife Jo and made available by Poffenberger’s grandson Jeremy Knode, Gisriel thoroughly examines the life of one of baseball’s unruly children.
And this journey of Poffenberger’s life in baseball, even with his garish attitude, is a pleasurable one.
Gisriel describes the portly pitcher in easy fashion, allowing the reader a view into those well-kept scrapbooks. He thoroughly details Poffenberger’s life from his home town of Williamsport, Maryland through sandlot ball, military service, and ultimately professional baseball and retirement.
Having been declared ineligible after his antics perturb both the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers management, Boots’ three-season foray into his major league career ends. Nashville manager Larry Gilbert takes a chance on the affable Poffenberger, purchasing him from the Dodgers in March of 1940, when no one else would have him:
“The Vols were skippered by Larry Gilbert, who had become part owner of the club after managing New Orleans for 15 seasons.There, Gilbert developed a reputation as an effective handler of eccentrics, flakes, and trouble-makers…”
Poffenberger’s success culminates in Nashville. It was then and there that he found his best success with one of the best minor league teams of all time.
“Boot(s) Poffenberger, of course, lead the league in wins with 26 becoming the first Volunteer hurler to notch at least 25 in a season. Boots appeared in 37 games and remarkably, received a decision in all but two of them. His .743 win percentage was first in the league.”
At an end-of-season banquet held at a local supper club for the 1940 team, Nashville Banner sportswriter Fred Russell sings Boots’ praises for what he had meant to the team:
“I mean it with the utmost sincerity when I say that Poffenberger’s reputation is unfair to him, and, as this season has proved, he has been the victim of major league operators’ and managers’ own deficiencies in what should be a prime requisite of their job – handling men.
Model boy? No. Bad actor? I have known ten dozen ball players who were bigger problems than Poffenberger.”
But seven months removed from the glowing tribute given by Russell, the wrapping comes off of the package. Already facing questions about his drinking habits and game preparation, on June 25, 1941 Poffenberger is suspended for 90 days by League president Trammel Scott after throwing at umpire Ed “Dutch” Hoffman in the fifth inning of the previous night’s game. And Larry Gilbert, the well-respected molder of disorderly baseball men, gives up on him:
“I’m through with him”, Gilbert was quoted as saying in the Nashville papers the next day. “He won’t pitch for Nashville anymore.”
His time in Nashville parallels every aspect of Poffenberger’s baseball career. Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero, Hell-Raiser is a quality description of this up-and-down life. This account finds tempo in Boots’ visit to the major leagues and ends in some humility in his failings. Boots had become lost in baseball lore until Gisriel brings him out of his slide to obscurity.
I recommend adding it to one’s Nashville’s baseball and southern history library.
Disclaimer: Austin Gisriel provided a copy of his book in exchange for a Nashville/Sulphur Dell cap. That exchange had no influence on this review.
© 2015 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.