Early Wynn and His Number One Fan

By Elsie H. Gilmore

            When my grandmother, May Elizabeth Sanders, was a fifty-three-year-old salesclerk in the handkerchiefs and laces department of Belk Brothers department store in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, Early Wynn walked into her life.  The year was 1937.  She was a seasoned widow who had weathered the majority of the depression by her own wits; Early was a green, wet-behind-the-ears, poor kid from Alabama.  Later Early was to tell the reporter, Roger Kahn, “They write that when I showed up at a pro tryout I was barefoot.  I wasn’t, but I was wearing overalls.  It’s a long way from Hartford, Alabama to Cooperstown.”  My grandmother says Early didn’t walk into Belk’s barefoot either, but he was a country boy.  You could tell by his unnatural swagger and his naïve grin.  For several years, he stocked merchandise at Belks most of the fall, winter, and spring while he played baseball for Clark Griffith’s Charlotte Hornets in the summer.

            Even small-time, field-team baseball in the late thirties had its superheroes, and Early Wynn quickly rose to that prized position.  He was good-looking and personable; moreover, the first game he batted (and in those days, Early was a formidable slugger), the girls went crazy.  They chased him, telephoned him, and, in my grandmother’s words, generally “made fools of themselves.”  He was a “hunk” (in today’s slang), and my grandmother, May, his mentor at Belk’s, became his self-assigned protector-extraordinaire at home.  He was her boy, and she was his Charlotte Mama from day one. 

            May Sanders and Early Wynn’s personal relationship progressed by way of food.  In May’s mind, no boy living alone in a strange city ate right.  While watching him pitch and bat, she agonized over how poorly she imagined him eating.  Something had to be done, and she was the one to do it.  She invited him “home” for Sunday dinner:  fried chicken, rice and gravy, green beans, corn, cornbread, ice-cold iced tea, and blackberry cobbler.  Who could resist?  Who would even try?  Soon Early showed up every Sunday, sometimes bringing a friend--sometimes  two.  Then he began to “drop in” (an admirable Southern custom) at other times as well.

In addition to working for Belk’s, May Sanders had an unofficial, semi-boarding house.  Since her husband had died in 1926 and she had an eight-year-old daughter to raise, she had divided her one major possession, her house, into a duplex, and she took in renters.  The Depression multiplied her clients, both paying and non-paying. Her little house, even her two-bedroom side of it, always brimmed with people sleeping and eating.  Early Wynn became just the latest one.  He could hide out there.  There in the tiny breakfast room at the back of May’s duplex, he and his cronies could share a beer and swap stories.  They could also get away from work, baseball, the girls, and any other uneasiness consuming their lives.  May’s haven was downtown Charlotte (Woodlawn, now Irwin Avenue), easy to get to, always welcoming, and safe.

So it was that May and Early’s relationship grew.  It was an easy and lasting alliance, based on mutual respect, genuine love, and gentle, home-grown humor.  “Have a beer, May,”  Early would tease.  May was a life-long teetotaler, so she would grunt her disapproval.  “Aw, May, just one ain’t gonna hurt nothin’,” Early would retort.  “You’d better watch yourself or you’ll end up playing for Fort Mill,” May would mock sternly, but with a twinkle in her eye.  She adored him.  “He only drank a few beers,” she’d say in his defense if anyone dared to criticize his drinking in her presence. 

It was only a short time until one of his fans, a less-than-hysterical young woman, caught Early Wynn’s eye.  In 1939 they married.  Early was only nineteen years old.  May, no judge of Early’s drinking, was no critic of this young match either.  When a Charlotte fan called such an youthful marriage Early’s undoing, May argued, “It’s good for him.  Marriage will settle him down and keep those hussies away.”  And immediately she gathered Mabel Allman, the young bride from Morganton, North Carolina, under her wing just as she had adopted Early a year or two before.  When Mabel’s relatives came to visit, she befriended them, too, and when Mabel and Early had a baby (Joe Early) in March of 1941, May babysat.  “Young folks don’t need to be so tied down” was her theory.

During those beginning years, Early bounced around the minor leagues at Charlotte and Springfield, Massachusetts, with a few promising and not-so-promising games with the Washington Senators.  Already in 1939, at nineteen, Early made three major league appearances with Washington (0-2); then again in 1941, he pitched five more major league games (3-1).  When he pitched these games for the Senators before WW II, writers called him “erratic—a burly batch of talent with no clear idea of what to do.”  Still, after the three wins of ’41, Early was in the majors to stay.  In the off-season, he worked at the Charlotte Belk’s and often hung out at May’s. 

Tragedy, however, struck swiftly.  On a night when May could not baby-sit, Early and Mabel returned home late from a party, and Mabel took the sitter home.  Meanwhile Early collapsed into a deep sleep at his apartment with their young toddler.  Mabel did not return.  In the wee hours of the morning, December 6, 1942, her car collided with a Charlotte city bus, and she died almost immediately from head injuries.  Early slept so soundly that even the police at his door did not wake him.  He was unaware of her death until 7:00 the next morning. 

“They keep questioning me, May,” he agonized, “as if Mabel was up to some hanky-panky.  I’m the only devil in this family.  She was simply taking the sitter home.”  May tried to restrain his anger with the police, plus she responded to his pain with sympathy and much more.  Mostly, she made arrangements: Early would come to live at her own house, not the YMCA; Flossie, Mabel’s sister, would keep the baby; and Early’s mother could stay in the back of the house next door until more permanent decisions could be made.  Enthusiastically, she comforted and fed them all.

So it was that Early Wynn became my roommate.  Of course, I was only two years old, and Early was 22.  (My mother and I had just returned to Charlotte after my mother’s divorce in ’41.)  During the baseball off-season until he remarried just before entering the military in 1945, Early and I shared a tiny bedroom with twin beds, one small dresser, and a corrugated cardboard, portable wardrobe.  For a while he continued to work at Belk’s and then at the Charlotte munitions' plant, “the shell plant.”  The time was the height of World War II.  In the meantime, Early’s mother and Mabel’s sister raised young Joe Early, with Early himself trying to be an effective though part-time father. 

Some time later, women slowly entered Early’s life again.  To my grandmother’s chagrin, he posted their pictures all over the walls of our small bedroom.  Then came the day of his draft notice.  Uncle Sam pointed his finger, and Early telephoned my grandmother from the shell plant.  “May, take all the pictures down and hide them.  I’ve asked Lorraine to marry me.” 

“Whew!” was my grandmother’s relieved response.  She liked Lorraine, the Maryland girl Early met on his stints with the Senators, and she definitely did not like the others.  The pictures went under the old mattress in the hall closet and never appeared again.  Sadly, though, Early departed our little home.  He and Lorraine Follin married in September of ’44, and soon after Early found himself in the Philippines with the US Army Tank Corps. He missed the ’45 baseball season and a great deal of ’46.  The Army, however, was not baseball-deprived.  Early, as appointed manager of the Army team, switched himself to shortstop.  “I was a helluva shortstop, too,” he winked as he told one reporter.  As shortstop he played every game (a privilege pitchers never enjoy).  Possibly a few old-timers might recall that he clouted a super long homerun in Manila, at Rizal Stadium.  Only four other players hit homers over that long outfield: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Earl Averill, a young man from Japan, and Early Wynn.

Early Wynn was not the type to forget old friends.  After he was well established with the Washington Senators, he invited my grandmother, my mother, and me to Washington.  “See,” my grandmother would admonish skeptics, “Early doesn’t let fame go to his head.”  The fact that he invited us, not just one summer, but two, confirmed this hypothesis in May’s mind.  Our first trip included an excursion on the Potomac in his new cabin cruiser.  No matter that it broke down in the middle of the river, and we never did get to Mt. Vernon!  The second trip simply included Washington game tickets.  Of course, Early pitched—and won.  My grandmother could not have been happier.  Her boy was a champion.

In my grandmother’s eyes, Early was always a champion.  Times like the fall of ’46, not long after he returned from the military,  made her swell with pride.  In a game versus Detroit, Early pinch-hit a grand slam off Detroit’s Johnny Gorsica, then pitched the rest of the way through the game.  On the other hand, when Early performed poorly in ’48, May defended him mightily.  She argued that he had little help from his teammates.  When Early denied that pretext saying, "I have no squawk about my support.  Remember, they had a lot to do with the 17 I did win, so why talk about those I didn’t?" May praised him for his loyalty.  In her eyes, he could do no wrong.

Later in ’48, when Clark Griffith traded Early to the Cleveland Indians, it was Griffith who, according to May,  was “blind and stingy.”  “Early will be better off; you’ll see,”  she told her baseball friends.  “Early will blossom now; and the bloom will be glorious.”  Of course, she was right.  The years1949-54 were exceptional years for Early Wynn.  He won 11, 18, 20, 23, 17, and 23 games each year respectively.  Begrudging she did give some credit to Mel Harder, the Cleveland pitching coach who gave Early’s fast ball some class and his pitching repertoire new variety.  “Even roses need to be cultivated,” she declared.  She also credited his “good wife” and their new daughter, Sherry.

Those Cleveland years made lively times in our home, full of arguments, speculations, and lots of laughter.  The radio was always playing one game or another during baseball season, and the sports announcers kept us well advised during the off-season.  Even Bud Abbot and Lou Costello played a role in the good-humor of our duplex.  They had produced the immortal “Who’s On First?” the same year Washington traded Early to Cleveland.  They were also two of the Cleveland Indians’ most avid fans.  What with Abbot and Costello antics, druggists sitting on flagpoles,  and all sorts of other sensational promotional stunts, who could resist baseball mania? 

Early was constantly in the newspapers as well.  May never thought he got a fair shake.  She especially despised descriptions sportswriters used.  “Surly” and “burly” she dismissed as cheap rhymes, but portrayals such as gruff, crusty, fierce, grim, scowling, and intimidating, she considered unfair and poor judgment of character.  When reporters called him mean, she drew the line and was ready to do battle.  “He’s just doing his job,” she argued.  Sometimes she would concede a bit, saying, “Poor people have poor ways,” meaning that Early had to fight, or thought he had to fight, for every inch he progressed. 

She made few other concessions.  For instance, she never reconciled herself to “Gus,” Early’s nickname both on and off field.  Such a boorish nickname was beyond her comprehension.  She refused to acknowledge or use the title.  With a fine and natural name like Early Wynn, who would want to ruin it with a single non-affirming syllable?

All the hullabaloo and wrangling climaxed when the Cleveland Indians crowned the ’54 season by clinching the American League pennant—over the Yankees no less.  May grinned when Early sent her airfare and World Series tickets for the New York games with the Giants.  By this time, she was a buyer for the handkerchief and lace department at Belk’s and she did not have to use her one-week-per-year vacation to attend. She was in heaven on earth.  Even Early’s loss (thanks to pinch hitter, Dusty Rhodes) and Cleveland’s four straight losses failed to dampen her enthusiasm.  The Cleveland Indians was her team and Early Wynn was her man.  “What’s wrong with second place?” she would ask when fellow employees gave her a wide berth and avoided conversation in the days following her return.  “We’re talking about the WORLD series.”

Besides, in her mind and in reality, Early was playing with and against some of baseball’s all-time greats.  Cleveland’s pitchers alone were worthy company:  Bob Feller was still effective, and, in that series year, Wynn, Mike Garcia, and Bob Lemon combined to win 65 of the Cleveland’s 111 victories.  Baseball historians know it as one of the most outstanding pitching staffs in baseball records. 

In spite of all the good times, those Cleveland years between ’48 and ’54 were not without stress and worry for my grandmother.  She agonized over Early’s every loss.  Then when he undertook to write a column for   the Cleveland News, she declared, “That column will be his, but he’ll get himself in trouble.  He’s too honest.”  She was right.  It was his—no ghost writer for Early Wynn.  And he did get himself in trouble.  He complained against the “front office big guys,” and my grandmother always believed, rightly or wrongly, that those accusations held him back at Hall of Fame choosing time.

To my grandmother, the most gratifying victory for Early in those days came, not from on the field, but from Cleveland’s local labor union chapter.  For several years, that chapter voted Early, “Baseball Player of the Year.”   A resounding “Yes” was May’s response.  As life-long treasurer of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, she felt she understood the importance of unions.  Though her railroad husband had died in the 20’s, she was active in the auxiliary until her hospitalization in the 70’s.  She knew that Early had earned the union honor not only for his working class personality and baseball skill but also for his active participation in player’s labor disputes from his early days.  He often appeared in the Old-timers Classic Game where ticket proceeds went for players with “pressing medical expenses or [who were] otherwise down on their luck”  He also fought for pension and health care plans.  He genuinely cared about those players who spent many years in the minors, not accumulating enough years in the majors to be covered.  His concern also spread to players who retired before medical benefits came into the picture at all.  The working class of Cleveland recognized a partner and an ally in Early Wynn.

After the 1954 fiasco (“What do you write about a thing like that?” Early Wynn had asked when he returned to his Cleveland news column), Early began a downhill slide.  In reality, the Indians finished second in ’55, trailing the Yankees by just three games, and in ’56 they had three 20-game winners, Herb Score, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn.  Still Early seemed to be slowing. “Don’t they know he’s sick?” May would ask to anyone who dared to discuss baseball with her.  “Gout’s an ugly, painful disease, and in his case it’s not a rich man’s worry.  Early’s ailments come from just plain hard work.  He runs too much, he pitches too hard, and he always gives over 100 per cent.”  In May’s mind, only outside factors could diminish Early’s performance.  And gout was the only outside factor she could see.  Ironically, those lowly vegetables closer to his Alabama roots had to replace the shrimp cocktails and steak he had become accustomed to.  Still, every pitch seemed to encourage gout’s sharp protein crystals to lodge in his elbow.

Accordingly, when Cleveland judged Early too old and traded him to the Chicago White Sox in 1957, May was on line to back him up.  “It’s just the beginning,” she declared.  “He’s not going to leave this business without that final victory.”  She returned to her blooming imagery:  “There are early bloomers and late bloomers, but the flower’s just as beautiful.”  Of course, she always added, “People like Early Wynn bloom both early and late.”  Few others would ever compare “burly Early” to a flower and even fewer had May’s confidence.  Nevertheless, his old manager from the Indians, Al Lopez, trusted enough to hire him. 

Wynn was unfailing.  After 14-17 and 14-16 win/loss records in 1957 and 1958, Early, at the age of 39, pitched the White Sox to the pennant in 1959.  He also led the entire American League with 22 wins and only 10 losses.  Along with capturing the first win of the World Series, his success was enough to embarrass those who thought he was over-the-hill and enough to snare the coveted Cy Young award.  May, his constant and confident fan, was elated.  Even though she was not well enough to attend this Chicago/LA Dodgers series, she basked in his success.

Early Wynn’s ability indisputably began to decline after 1959.  Even May had to admit that grim fact.  Then in 1962, when Chicago released him with 299 wins under his belt, May suffered with him.  She would listen intently to the radio when his name came up, and she winced when she heard that he attended spring training without a contract.  “They owe him,” she said.  “They owe him just one more game.”   She may have been more confident than Early himself when, at length, he signed a contract with his old team, the Cleveland Indians.  It took five tries, but finally on July 13, 1963, the 43-year old Early Wynn ultimately attained the 300 mark.  “Some people called [my win] tainted, but I didn’t care,” Wynn said of his 7-4 victory over the Kansas City Athletics.  May agreed.  “Sure, that victory was protected by reliever, Jerry Walker,” she argued, “but Early had saved the skin of lots of previous pitchers, too.”  There was no denying it.  In her eyes, Early “hung the moon.”

            With a 300 game career record, a 3.54 lifetime ERA, and the Cy Young Award to boot, one would think that Early Wynn was an indisputable entrant into the Hall of Fame.  But life was not to be so easy.  It took three nominations to finally secure him that coveted honor.   After his initial bitter remarks, “Hall of Fame?  Hell, it’s a Hall of Shame,” Early had softer comments.  “Look, I’m honored to be in there. . .but any man who wins 300 major league games ought to get voted in as soon as he’s eligible.”  My grandmother echoed Early’s own sentiments, “Hell, don’t they know how much work that is?”  That remark was mutinous coming from my grandmother; she never said “hell.” 

In 1976, just three years after Early made it to the Cooperstown hall, my grandmother died, but not before Early paid her one last tribute.  Over the years he had given her ball tickets, taken her on a boat ride, even flown her to Florida twice to be with his family, but in her last weeks he visited her himself.  She was in the Hawthorne Lane Nursing Home and had not even recognized my mother, her own daughter, for over two weeks.  Still she heard my mother whisper, “Early’s coming, Mama, you better gussy up your hair.”  Mother could not take off work at the time, but the nurses had prepared May appropriately for the big visit.  She had on a new nightgown.  Excitedly, the staff, in full awareness of the importance of the occasion, had washed and set her hair.  Like a monarch, she sat propped with pillows waiting for her honored guest.  I wish I had been a fly on the wall to hear the conversation, but the nurses say that she opened her eyes and talked intelligently with “her boy” for almost an hour.  They bantered and joked about life in the “big leagues.”  Early even taunted, “You should have a beer, May.  It would cheer you up.” 

Just last year, I initiated a survey, asking my high school students if they knew the name Early Wynn.  Only a few die-hard baseball fanatics answered positively.  I would point out the recent Newsweek poll that listed him 100 in the top 100 all-time greats.  They did not seem too impressed. 

When I asked older people the same question, the response was more enthusiastic.  More often than not, old fans would respond, “Yeah, I had a bat with his name on it.  That bat was as tough as he was.”  Or they would say, “Now there was a mean cuss; his scowl alone could knock down a batter.”  Unlike my grandmother, no one saw Early Wynn as a loyal softie with a big heart.  “Yeah, now there was one tough, hard intimidator” was the usual remark. 

Nevertheless, one chemistry professor at a conference I was attending added, “You know, Wynn had this saying, ‘That mound out there. . .That’s my office.  It’s where I conduct my business and make my living.’  I feel the same way:  My chemistry room is my office.  It’s where I’m in charge, to succeed or fail.”  My grandmother would have concurred.  Belk’s was her office; baseball was Early’s.  Both fan and player were intensely loyal to their places of business, their vocations.  They were intensely loyal to their friends as well.