Tag Archives: Rance Pless

The Fortitude, Honesty, and Respect of Controversial Umpire Bill Brockwell


Baseball umpires have a seemingly thankless job, and Bill Brockwell often faced the un-forgiveness of Nashville managers and players for three seasons beginning in 1950. The Tulsa native had umpired in the inaugural Sooner State League (Class D) in 1947[1] and West Texas-New Mexico League (Class C) in 1948[2]. He umpired in Texas’ Big State League (Class B) in 1949, including a 16-inning game pre-season game won by San Antonio of the Texas League (Class AA) over Austin[3].

Elevated to the Southern Association (Class AA), there were no notable conflicts during his rookie season of 1950. “Nemesis” may be too strong a word to describe him when he called games in which the Vols were participating, but at least the disdain for him did not begin until his second season in the league.

In the seventh inning against Birmingham at Sulphur Dell on May 31, 1951, Vols shortstop Daryl Spencer offered a few choice words to Brockwell as a commentary on the plate umpire’s ability to call balls and strikes. The ump quickly sent Spencer to the showers, but that was not the last time.

One week later, on June 5 in Birmingham, Spencer got the “heave-ho” again from Brockwell, this time for arguing on a missed force play that Daryl thought should have been an out. Spencer had now been thrown out of three games, and his adversary had tossed him twice.

In Chattanooga on July 29, Vols catcher Bob Brady was chased for complaining too long on a called ball thrown by Nashville ace Pete Mallory. That seems to have set another confrontation off against the game’s decision-maker. It appeared Barons left fielder Don Grate was hit by a batted ball while running from first to second which should have been an out, but none of the three umps called it, and the entire Vols dugout erupted towards Brockwell.[4]

No further clashes seem to have occurred, and when Charlie Hurth named his pre-season selection of umpires for the 1952 season, William “Bill” Brockwell was listed as a returning arbiter.[5] Once the season began, Brockwell did not get off to a great start in the eyes of the Nashville players and manager.

There were no issues in the first game, as Little Rock invaded Sulphur Dell for a two-day, three-game set beginning with the home opener on April 12. Nashville lost, 9-6.

The next day was a double header, scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. But the ire of Nashville sports writer Raymond Johnson rained down on the umpire crew when Brockwell called both games at 2:12 p.m. due to rain and the condition of the field. According to Johnson, the umpires’ decision was flawed.

“The field was already in bad shape,” Brockwell told me (Johnson) in the dressing room after his decision, “and the groundskeeper said it would take more than an hour to get the field playable. It gets dark awfully early in this park. We didn’t want to keep the spectators waiting and then not play…”[6]

Johnson chimed in on that reasoning.

“Brockwell and (Paul) Roy who insisted that he do most of the talking although he was not the umpire-in-chief, apparently didn’t know that the field had been covered with large tarpaulins until about an hour before the game time…”

The rain stopped about the time of the decision to not play, and thirty minutes later, the field was dry.

Johnson continued. “Action like this causes a sour taste in the spectators’ mouths.”[7]

On June 3, one of the strangest calls in Sulphur Dell history transpired, and it involved Brockwell’s indecisiveness. In the fifth inning, Nashville’s third baseman Rance Pless (with a .364 batting average at the end of the year, the 1952 league batting title would belong to Pless) lofts a fly ball over the outfield screen and Blackwell signals the ball is a home run.

After a protest by Birmingham manager Al Vincent that lasted 10 minutes, the umpire reversed his decision and calls Pless’ stroke a foul ball. The Vols eventually lose to the Barons, 6-5; had the homer stood, Nashville would have won.

If Nashville fans in attendance at the game were expecting Raymond Johnson’s wrath in the next day’s newspaper, they didn’t receive it. Johnson quoted Brockwell’s explanation.

“The more I weighed the facts, the more I was convinced that I should reverse myself. I went over to (Nashville manager Hugh) Poland and said: ‘Hugh, I know you are going to blow your top but I’m going to have to change my decision. That was a foul ball. I cannot give you two runs and be honest with myself. Deep down I know I was wrong on that call. I know it’s a jolt to you and to your ball players.’ He accepted my decision in a much more gentlemanly way than I had expected.”

Johnson backed up the honesty.

“As a result of Brockwell’s intestinal fortitude on this occasion, Poland has much more respect for Brockwell…I do, too…It takes real guts to change a decision that takes away two runs from the home club before 3600 home fans…”[8]

At that point, the umpire may have gained the confidence of Poland and Johnson, but that did not mean he would not make arguable calls.

In the June 22 game between Nashville and Mobile in the Vols’ home park, Bama Ray swung at a pitch and missed, but the ball hit him in the back of his head. Brockwell called it a foul ball. The next game, working the bases at Sulphur Dell, he did not see the Bears’ George Freese drop the ball thrown to him as Rance Pless advanced, and Brockwell called Pless out at third.

On July 12, when he ruled Vols catcher Rube Novotney had interfered with Memphis’ Ed McGhee’s bat, awarding first base to the Chicks right fielder, it was business as usual when Poland took up for his catcher. Surprisingly, no one was tossed out of the game.

The next day in the second game of a double header, Johnson was on Brockwell’s bad side once again, as Nashville’s favorite son, Buster Boguskie, was tossed for arguing against a safe call at second base.

“Umpire Brockwell booted another in his usual fashion[9],” Johnson wrote.

Then, in the fifth inning of the game of July 18, Brockwell ejected four Nashville Vols in their 10-3 loss in Chattanooga. Boguskie was sent packing again for arguing a strike decision, manager Hugh Poland was sent to the showers after continuing the debate, Johnny Liptak was chased for a comment as he passed Brockwell on his way to coach first base, and Ziggy Jasinski, who had taken Boguskie’s place at bat, was banished after making another remark that Brockwell did not like.  Out of infielders, Rube Novotney had to play second base.

Then, Novotney was tossed four days later for protesting a called third strike in a 7-2 loss to Atlanta in Nashville.

It appears there were no further conflicts the rest of the year, and when Brockwell was named to the umpiring crew for the Mobile-Atlanta first-round playoffs, his umpiring career was soon to be over. Perhaps he had enough of umpiring, or the salary was not enough to support a new family. He returned to his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to take a sales position.[10]

At the time of his death, he and his wife Mary, whom he married on October 31, 1951, had seven children and had been married 63 years before his passing. They had nine grandchildren, and twin great-grandchildren. Mary passed away on October 12, 2014.[11]

Note: An obituary for Bill Brockwell  could not be located; Mary’s obituary mentions the years of marriage.

[1] “Umpires Retained,” Miami (Oklahoma) Daily News-Record, September 15, 1947, p. 8.

[2] “WT-NM Umpires Named; Brockwell, Odom Open Here,” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, April 18, 1948, p. 13.

[3] “Baseball Marathon (Box Score)”, Austin American, April 3, 1949, p. 19.

[4] “Bama Ray Slams Out 2 Homers,” Nashville Tennessean, July 30, 1951, p. 11.

[5] “Charlie Hurth Names Umps,” Nashville Tennessean, March 16, 1952, p. 16

[6] Raymond Johnson, “One Man’s Opinion,” Nashville Tennessean, April 14, 1952, p. 15.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Johnson. June 5, 1952, p. 22.

[9] Johnson, July 14, 1952, p. 12.

[10] “Umpire Changes of Southern Association Made,” Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), February 25, 1953, p. 13.

[11] Obituary, Mary Harpole Brockwell, Santa Fe-New Mexican, November 2, 2014. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/santafenewmexican/obituary.aspx?pid=173002024, accessed July 18, 2017.

Sources

Baseball-reference.com

Nashville Tennessean

Newspapers.com

Wright, Marshall D. (2002). The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

© 2017 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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It Happened On This Day: December 6 – December 21

Marquee_On_This-DayDecember 6, 1925 – Today is the birthday of former Nashville player Rance Pless. A third baseman, Pless won the Southern Association batting championship in 1952 with the Vols with a .364 average

December 7, 1914 – Nashville Baseball Club president Clyde Shropshire announces he has scheduled exhibition games with various major league teams in the spring of 1915.  Among the games to be played are a three-game set with the Chicago Cubs April 4, 5 and 6, and the New York Giants April 7 and 8.  The Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox will also play games against the Vols but the dates have not been set

December 7, 1928 – Outfielder Blackie Carter and left-handed pitcher George Milstead are purchased by Nashville from Toledo. Nashville also sells catcher Leo Mackey to Mobile and trades left-handed pitcher Oscar Fuhr to New Orleans for outfielder-first baseman Beans Minor

December 8, 1948 – Rollie Hemsley is named manager of the Nashville Vols, succeeding Larry Gilbert who moves to the front office

December 9, 1930 – Today is the birthday of Nashville outfielder Bob Hazle who batted for .314 during 1955 for the Vols. Hazle played briefly for the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Braves, and Detroit Tigers but spent most of his career in the minors

December 10, 1957 – Pitcher Hal Kleine, who earned a 4-4 record during the 1949 season with Nashville, passes away in St. Louis. Kleine appeared in fourteen major league games with Cleveland in 1944-45 but had a 10-year minor league career until retiring after the 1950 season

December 11, 1888 – Fred Toney is born in Nashville. As one of the outstanding pitchers in the National League from 1915 to 1921, Toney led the league in saves in 1918 and won 20 games in 1917 and 1920

December 12, 1947 – Larry Gilbert announces that the Vols will spend spring training in Pensacola, Florida in 1948

December 13, 1923 – Vols catcher Paul Eiffert is traded to London, Ontario of the Michigan-Ontario League for catcher Leo Mackey

December 14, 2004 – Rod Kanehl, former Nashville Vol player, passes away in Palm Springs, California. Kanehl was the first New York Mets player to hit a grand slam home run when he accomplished the feat on July 6, 1962. Kanehl was the only former Mets player to attend the funeral of Casey Stengel

December 15, 1860 – Today is the birthday of Abner Powell, who along with Nashville’s Newt Fisher and Memphis’ Charlie Frank organized the Southern Association that began play in 1901. Powell had played and managed New Orleans in 1888 and played for Nashville’s Southern League team for eighteen games in 1894. Managing New Orleans in 1901 and 1902 and Atlanta’s entry in the new league in 1903 and 1904, he sold his interest in his team and purchased a share of the Nashville club in 1905. Powell is credited for introducing rain checks, knothole gangs, and ladies days to baseball, and innovated the covering of the playing field with a tarpaulin to keep the surface dry

December 15, 1920 – Former Nashville pitcher and future Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt is traded by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. During the next 10 years Hoyt will win 157 games for the Yankees

December 16, 1934 – Today is the birthday of Jim Bailey, southpaw pitcher for Nashville in 1958 (10-11), 1959 (10-6), and 1960 (7-10). He pitched in three games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1959. Born in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, he is the brother of major league catcher Ed Bailey

December 17, 1975 – Kerby Farrell passes away in Nashville. In 1943 he played in 85 games for the Boston Braves and returned to the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1945. He managed one season in the majors for Cleveland during 1957

December 18, 1897 – Nashville Vols manager and player Lance Richbourg is born in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Richbourg spent six seasons with Nashville, managing from 1934-1937

December 19, 2003 – Former Nashville outfielder Carmen Mauro passes away in Carmichael, California. In his only season at Sulphur Dell in 1948 he accumulated a .284 batting average in 85 games

December 20, 1915 – Nashville acquires 3 players from the Quincy club of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (III) League: outfielder Roy Sherer, catcher George Boelzle, and pitcher Louis Tretter. All are secured under optional agreement

December 21, 1925 – Bob Rush, who had a 13-season career in the majors and spent part of one season with Nashville, is born in Battle Creek, Michigan. Called up mid-season after posting a 6-1 record for Des Moines in the Western League, Rush was 9-7 with the Vols in 1947 and ended the season with a 3.40 ERA

© 2014 by Skip Nipper. All Rights Reserved.

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1952 Southern Association Batting Champ Rance Pless

Today is the birthday of former Nashville player Rance Pless, born on December 6, 1925. A third baseman, Pless won the Southern Association batting championship in 1952 with the Vols, hitting for a .364 average.

Pless began the season with a 27-game hitting streak and at one time was on pace to break the single season franchise record for hits held by Joe Dwyer in 1936 with 230. After 93 games, Pless had 137 safeties.

Not only did he remain one of the top ten hitters the entire season, in a game against Mobile at Sulphur Dell on May 23rd Pless hit an unusual home run that went through the wire fence just a few feet above the wooden outfield fence.

Pless was selected as the third baseman in the Southern Association All Star game.

The property of the New York Giants, his Nashville manager, Bill Poland, was complimentary of the progress that Pless had made: “A player of Pless’ ability can never tell when his break may come. Things happen mighty fast sometimes.”Pless

On August 22 Pless was beaned by a fastball from Jerry Lane of Atlanta. The blow broke Pless’ jaw, fracturing it in three places.

Fearing the loss of his sight and end of his career, he rejoined the club with no ill effects a few weeks later and aided the club getting into the playoffs and captured the season batting title.

He won another league batting title in 1955 with Minneapolis in the American Association, hitting .337.

Pless’ only major league experience was in 1956 with the Kansas City Athletics, when he played in 48 games and split the rest of the season with Richmond in the International League.

He retired after the 1960 season with a minor league career batting average of .303 in 1,755 games. Pless became a scout for the Atlanta Braves in the 1960s and still resides in his hometown of Greeneville, Tennessee.

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Double Play Quartet

The Philadelphia Athletics hold the all-time record for turning double plays in a season with 217 in 1949.  Equally impressive, the 1952 Nashville Vols infield set a Southern Association record of 202 double plays for a season.

Although the team finished in sixth place with a 73-79 record, 13 games behind the pennant-winning Chattanooga Lookouts, the stalwart infield consisted of four players who made their mark on the defensive side:

RANCE PLESS.  In 1952 third baseman Pless led the Southern Association with 196 hits and a .364 batting average.  He returned to the league in 1960, playing a total of 85 games with Birmingham and Little Rock after a brief appearance in the majors with the Kansas City Athletics in 1956.Ziggy

FRANK “ZIGGY” JASINSKI.  In his only season with the Nashville Vols Jasinski played shortstop in 120 games and batted .259 for the season.

JIM MARSHALL.  This future major league manager was the first baseman during the 1952 Vols season.  Batting .296 and slamming 24 home runs, he knocked in 98 runs and had 38 triples.  He also led the team in total bases with 287. Marshall went on to manage the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics and later became a scout.

HAROLD “BUSTER” BOGUSKIE.  In 1952 Boguskie anchored second base. His best year at the plate came in 1951 when he batted .322 for the season, and in 1952 hit for a .255 average.

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