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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,105

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This is the grave of Billy Meyer.

Born in 1892 or 1893 (dates differ here) in Knoxville, Tennessee, Meyer had the great passion of baseball. He grew up with a German immigrant father who operated a brewery in that city. Meyer didn’t want to follow his father, as he loved baseball. He was a catcher and that gave him his shot and he wasn’t the greatest athlete in baseball history. In 1913, he made his major league debut for the Chicago White Sox, getting all of one at-bat. He then played a couple more years in the minors before resurfacing with the Philadelphia A’s in 1916, when he played in 50 games and hit .232. The next year, he played 62 games and hit .235. And that was it. Connie Mack had wanted Meyer as a backup catcher, but he just couldn’t hit well enough to stick.

But a guy like Meyer could manage a ballclub and this is why we know of him today. He managed forever in the minor leagues, usually also playing. That included eight years with the Louisville Colonels before moving on to Springfield, Binghamton, Oakland, Kansas City and Newark. He was pretty successful, winning several titles, back when winning minor league titles actually mattered since they weren’t strictly farm teams. Time and time again, Meyer was considered for major league jobs and didn’t get them. That included the Indians in 1938, but he was beat out by Ossie Vitt. Also, the owners were incredibly cheap bastards and were even more so during the Great Depression, so many of them hired player-managers so they could save money. He almost got the 1940 Cubs job but lost that one too. Same with the Braves in 1945. The Yankees actually did offer him a job in the middle of the 1947 season, but Meyer wanted nothing to do with working for Larry McPhail and it’s hard to blame him.

Finally, in 1948, Meyer got the call. The Pittsburgh Pirates hired him as their manager. Now, it’s not as if the Pirates were a good team. They had only won 62 games that year. His first season was something of a miracle. He made the Pirates a winning team, a rare thing in Pittsburgh then and now, getting them to an 83-71 record. But he couldn’t sustain it. Probably no one could. The next year they won 71 games and things mostly went downhill from there. 57 wins followed in 1950, 64 in 1951, and then a putrid 42-112 season in 1952 got Meyer fired. That was the third worst record in National League history, though this year’s Reds may have something to say about that. This was Branch Rickey’s doing. Ownership brought in Rickey and he stripped the team of any player worth anything at all to rebuild from the bottom up. But it didn’t work as it had when he had done it with the Dodgers. The team was just completely miserable and by this time, Meyer’s strong discipline had alienated a lot of players as well.

Worth a side note here that for as much as people compare the baseball of the mid-century period favorably to today, there were at least as many owners then who were indifferent to success as there are in the contemporary tanking era . This nostalgia for the 40s and 50s is really nostalgia for the three New York teams and the stars who played on them. No one is nostalgic for the 52 Pirates. Or for that matter almost any of the teams outside of New York (and then where the Dodgers and Giants moved) except for maybe the Cardinals and a couple of other teams here or there. How many people do you know who wish they could relive the glory days of the As or the Senators or the White Sox of this period? Meyer’s experience is probably more typical of the manager of the period than that of more famous Hall of Fame managers. I recently finished Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and it is rightfully considered a great book, but it is also a very, very New York book and, again, that is what serves for our hazy nostalgic memories of baseball in these years.

Now, no one really believed that any of these problems were Meyer’s fault. He simply had terrible teams and if he was a bit too aggressive in disciplining his players, well, that wouldn’t have been a problem had he had better players who could win games. So Meyer still had a future in the game even after he was relieved of managing the Pirates. The Pirates actually retired his number 1 in 1954; unquestionably this has to be the manager with the worst record in major league history to have his number retired. Pirates fans have been perplexed by this ridiculousness ever since and have noted that since then, the team became a lot more exacting about just whose number was retired.

Norman Rockwell painted Meyer in his Bottom of the Sixth work, the legendary 1948 painting of umpires deciding whether to call a game for rain, which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1949. There’s a manager behind the umps and that’s Meyer. Meyer was also considered a baseball legend in his home town and Knoxville’s minor league park was named for him. The Pirates kept Meyer employed as well. He worked as a scout as well as a troubleshooter they would bring in to solve organizational problems, of which they had many.

Evidently, Meyer was consistently in poor health through his years with the Pirates, going back to his managerial days, which may help explain why he was so cranky. He returned to Knoxville, where he died in 1957. He was 64 years old.

Billy Meyer is buried in Lynnhurst Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other managers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Connie Mack is in Philadelphia and John McGraw is in Baltimore. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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