Southpaw Preacher Roe; One of 'Boys of Summer'
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Preacher Roe, 92, a pitcher with the "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s who helped lead his team to three World Series appearances, died of colon cancer Nov. 9 at his home in West Plains, Mo.
Mr. Roe, a slender left-hander from Arkansas, became a fan favorite in Brooklyn as much for his endless supply of homespun stories as for his pitching. He had a sterling record of 93-27 in his six seasons with the Dodgers and was named to five All-Star teams.
In 1945, when he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Mr. Roe led the National League in strikeouts. During the off-season, when he was coaching a girls' high school basketball team in Missouri, a fight broke out, and he struck his head on the floor and suffered a broken skull.
He pitched poorly for the next two years, and his injury caused excruciating headaches in airplanes, forcing Mr. Roe to travel by train.
Before the 1948 season, he was traded to Brooklyn, where he joined such stars as Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese. The Dodgers of that era were major-league baseball's first integrated team and were immortalized by writer Roger Kahn as the "Boys of Summer."
Mr. Roe was 15-6 for the Dodgers in 1949 and won 19 games in 1950. He had his best season in 1951, when he went 22-3 with an earned run average of 3.04, and he led the National League in winning percentage.
He pitched in the World Series in 1949, 1952 and 1953, compiling a 2-1 record as the Dodgers lost each year to the New York Yankees. He retired in 1954, one year before Brooklyn won its first and only World Series title.
Mr. Roe threw hard in his younger years but was better known for his excellent control and for an assortment of off-speed pitches, including a "Beech-Nut slider." During games, he chewed Beech-Nut gum and would occasionally spit on his left wrist to moisten the ball. His illegal spitballs -- which he admitted throwing after he retired -- left opposing batters baffled.
"Guys would be looking for it, but I didn't throw it more than two times a game," Mr. Roe said in a 2002 interview with Scripps-Howard newspapers. His best pitch, he said, was a perfectly legal change-up.
"Preacher was the epitome of a pitcher," former Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine once said. "Early in my career, I was having trouble throwing strikes. Then you looked at Preacher, and he could throw a ball on purpose. We learned by watching him."
Elwin Charles Roe was born in Ash Flat, Ark., on Feb. 26, 1916, and was the son of a doctor. He attended Harding University in Arkansas and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1938. He pitched in one game for the Cardinals that year, then spent five years in the minor leagues before being traded to Pittsburgh after the 1943 season.
He said he got his nickname from a local pastor when he was growing up. Former Brooklyn teammate Ralph Branca recalled it differently in an interview this week with the Associated Press.
"We all called him 'Preacher' because he could talk your ear off," Branca said. "If there was no one around, he would talk to the wall."
"He enjoyed playing the role of a country bumpkin, but he wasn't one," Branca added. "He was real smart, and real crafty on the mound."
During his 12-year career, Mr. Roe compiled a record of 127 victories and 84 losses, with an ERA of 3.43.
After he retired from baseball, he turned down an offer to coach for the Dodgers and settled in West Plains, where he ran a family grocery store and coached youth baseball teams.
His wife, Mozee Roe, died in 2002.
Survivors include two sons; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.