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Friday, April 27, 2012

Rollie Hemsley: How a Hard Drinking Catcher Made AA an International Phenomenon

Particularly in the earlier days of the game, baseball had a well-earned reputation for hard drinking and living players. Because the players often socially mingled with the press, and because the writers depended on access to teams to sell their papers, the vast majority of the more salacious happenings failed to make it to the public. Even so, catcher Rollie Hemsley, whose drunken exploits while a major leaguer in the 1930’s were so ridiculous and legendary, that everyone knew about his reputation. His story has a happy ending however, as Hemsley was able to persevere and beating his drinking problem, and along the way became a major reason for the international explosion of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ralston Burdett Hemsley was a talented catcher who made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1928. His skillful play kept him on a major league roster, but his propensity for drink kept him out of many games. In a 19 year major league career he played in over 100 games in a season just seven times. Known as the “Rollicker” and “Rollicking Rollie,” Hemsley was kicked off four major league clubs before he gained his sobriety and finished his career with dignity and success.

Hemsley played several seasons with the Pirates before being traded to the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds, and then the St. Louis Browns in quick succession. It was with the Browns that Hemsley started to truly spiral out of control with his erratic and irresponsible behavior. He drank constantly, and when he was intoxicated nobody was immune from his impact. He once squirted seltzer water on a row of women who spurned his offer to go out for drinks, drawing the ire of the club which had trouble drawing fans as it was.

The stint Hemsley spent with the Browns proved to be the first time he started truly paying for his indiscretions. His manager in St. Louis was Rogers Hornsby, famously sober and intolerant of those who didn’t live life and play baseball to his rigid expectations. Hornsby was so strict that he clamped down on reading papers in the clubhouse, drinking on trains, and other measures mainly geared towards Hemsley. Unfortunately, not even a taskmaster like the Rajah could change the incorrigible catcher.

It all came to a head in August, 1934, when Hornsby suspended Hemsley after he drunkenly tried to punch a Philadelphia police officer who was questioning him at a bar. The punch missed, and in the process of being taken to jail, Hemsley was roughed up and charged with public drunkenness. When he left the jail the following day, he told his arresting officer, “I’m more afraid of Hornsby than I am of the magistrate.”

Hemsley was able to get out of the legal scrape unscathed, but only increased the wrath of Hornsby. The manager told reporters, “I wouldn’t have minded but for his getting into print and bringing a lot of unpleasant publicity to the game and himself. He has been offending in this way several times… I’m tired of overlooking these things.” The Browns put up with Hemsley through the 1937 season before finally trading him to the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians may have well known what they were getting into with Hemsley, and not shockingly, nothing changed during his first few years there.  Bob Feller was the reason why the Indians traded for Hemsley. He had caught Rapid Robert during a 1937 barnstorming All-Star game and the young pitcher had liked how the catcher handled his heat. As Feller remembered his old backstop, “He was a better catcher drunk than many catchers were sober.”

Bob Gil, a member of the Indians organization at the time remembered how Hemsley once got hit in the head with a ball while attempting to steal second base. The trainer tried to convince him come out of the game, but Hemsley refused, joking, “No! I’ve started games dizzier than this.”

Feller had many memories of Hemsley and the trouble he caused, which could also put a smile on his teammates’ faces. Feller recalled, “In those days whenever anything was wrong with a player it was blamed on his teeth, so Slapnicka (Indians GM Cy Slapnicka) decided everybody had to go to a dentist during spring training and get his teeth in perfect shape. Everybody went but Rollie, so the dentists came to the clubhouse to set up an appointment. Rollie put his hand in his mouth, took out his uppers and lowers and gave them to the doctor. ‘I’m too busy,’ he said. ‘Take these to your office and examine them.’"

For every quirky story he was a part of in Cleveland, Hemsley had just as many more troubling incidents. His 1939 contract included a $5,000 good conduct clause and his wife was paid by the team to travel with Rollie during road games in an attempt to keep him in check, but nothing worked. One night he smashed a dresser drawer over the head of a journalist who had come up to his hotel room and tried to snap a picture of him after hearing that he had just returned from participating in a drunken brawl with some former teammates at a brewery. The journalist had hoped to surprise him, but Hemsley knew who was at his door and what he probably wanted, so he ambushed him with a wallop and avoided the camera.

Later in 1939 Hemsley got roaring drunk on road trip train ride and in the middle of the night dumped water on a sleeping porter, tossed lit matches into sleeping berths, and finally climbed blubbering incoherently into manager Ossie Vitt’s bed, where he was sleeping. When reporters questioned Vitt on how he learned of Hemsley’s behavior on train, the skipper snapped, “How did I learn? Why the guy was right in my berth from midnight to 4 o’clock this morning. Half the time he was abusive and half the time he was crying.” Hemsley was immediately suspended for his actions, but like so many other times he won his way back with his talent and likeable personality.

What seemed to finally turn Hemsley around was his young daughter, who was certainly exposed to some bad experiences because of her father. Feller explained that “Rollie had a daughter he was crazy about. She later became Miss Missouri, a beautiful girl, and she died of cancer while she was just a child and Rollie always talked about her.” His desire to be a good father finally made him think about how he was impacting her.

GM Slapnicka once gave Hemsley a $1,500 diamond ring and told him it was for his daughter, overwhelming the tough catcher and reducing him to tears. He vowed to stop drinking on the spot and the GM arranged for him to meet with some members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a small mutual aid movement that had started in 1935 in Akron, Ohio by a couple of hard drinking men, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. They found their own sobriety and decided to pass their methodology on to others who were looking to do the same.

Hemsley experienced a great transformation in his life in the offseason before the 1940 campaign. On opening day, 1940, in Chicago, he caught a no-hitter by Feller, winning the game 1-0 on his own RBI triple. After the game he called a press conference and it was there that he revealed his association with AA, explaining, “I’ve quit drinking. I’ll admit I must have been quite a problem for a while. But that’s over now. I simply decided I’d have to quit to stay in the majors. No more of those old days for me.” He concluded his story to the reporters by extolling the virtues of AA. “I waited this long before saying anything because I wanted to be sure of myself. I haven’t had a drink in a year and I want others to know the reason why, so they can be helped.” Even Ossie Vitt confirmed Hemsley’s reformation, pointing out that his wife no longer had to travel with the team.

When Hemsley gave his press conference and announced his association with AA, he not only broke the group’s anonymity protocol, but was also the first member to do so on a national level. However, it gave the grassroots organization a huge publicity opportunity and dragged them out of obscurity. Bill Wilson allegedly was not happy that someone else was getting more publicity than him when it came to his AA, and embarked on publicity tour of his own. Because of the recognition caused by Hemsley, AA expanded rapidly and grew into the vast international group that it is today.

As far as anyone knows, Hemsley never had another drink again. He played in the majors through 1947 and in the minors through 1952 (with a 3 game stint in 1956). In 19 big league seasons he hit .262 with 1,321 hits and 31 home runs. He also threw out 40% of all base stealers during his career and is still remembered as one of the finest defensive players to ever strap on a face mask. He also managed in the minors, and after baseball worked as a real estate salesman. He died in 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 65 in Silver Springs, Maryland.

There is little doubt that Hemsley’s alcoholism and wild ways negatively impacted the overall results of his career, making it easy to wonder what might have been if he had found his way earlier in life. As it turned out he was about more than just accomplishments on the baseball diamond. His accidental breach of confidentiality made it possible for subsequent uncountable numbers generations of people struggling with alcohol to get help and change their lives forever. Much of that can be attributed to a troubled catcher who broke the rules of his benefactors so he could share the news of his personal rebirth with press, teammates, and the public who had all previously written him off as a lost cause.


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