James E. `Jimmy' Kerr, 97, firefighter, minor league baseball player in 1930s

May 08, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

James E. Kerr, a retired Baltimore Fire Department lieutenant who played catcher on Pacific Coast League baseball teams in the 1930s, died Thursday of complications of Parkinson's disease at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Parkville resident was 87.

Mr. Kerr, known as Jimmy, had a baseball career that spanned the sandlots of Catonsville in the 1920s to coaching the Kawasaki [Japan]-Baltimore Youth Team Exchange in the 1980s. He was a roommate of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams when both played in the highly competitive Pacific Coast League at the highest level of the minor leagues.

While playing in the Pacific Coast League, Mr. Kerr appeared as a catcher in the Warner Bros. film, "Alibi Ike," starring comedian Joe E. Brown.

"He was a sound baseball man, an astute player who dwelled on the fundamentals of baseball during his life," said Frank Sliwka, a close friend who coached with him.

Born on West Baltimore Street, Mr. Kerr attended Fourteen Holy Martyrs and St. Martin's parochial schools before attending Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington, where he was a varsity catcher and played football.

When his schoolwork faltered, Mr. Kerr quit school and joined the Marines, playing baseball, basketball and football with service teams at Parris Island, S.C., Quantico, Va., and San Diego, Calif. He was on the Naval District's 1933 championship baseball and basketball teams.

Mr. Kerr began his professional baseball career in 1934 when he signed with the Hollywood team of the Pacific Coast League as a catcher, playing through the 1935 season. In 1936, he played with the San Diego Padres. It was then that he roomed with Ted Williams and formed a lasting friendship with the future Hall of Fame outfielder.

Mr. Kerr's sister, Catherine Helfrich of Pikesville, said, "Ted Williams had never tasted crab cakes. He visited our house on Smithwood Avenue many times just to eat them."

In 1937, Mr. Kerr moved to the Texas League, playing for Tulsa, followed by stints on the Shreveport, Dallas and Midland teams of the late 1930s. During the 1939 season, he was manager of the Midland team and topped the voting for the West Texas-New Mexico All Star Team.

Returning to Baltimore in the 1940s, Mr. Kerr played semi-pro ball and went to work for the Fire Department, where he served from 1942 until retiring in 1970. In the 1960s, he was assigned to the department's water tower, a boom used to aim high-pressure sprays at fires.

He last served at Truck 2 Company on Fayette Street near Paca Street. He earned eight official commendations.

In his later years, Mr. Kerr coached a number of local teams, including the Hearst All Stars and the Kawasaki-Baltimore Youth Exchange Team.

He was a member of the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association and was a past president of the Old-timers' Baseball Association, where he is in the Hall of Fame.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. today at St. Ursula's Church, 8900 Harford Road.

Besides his sister, Mr. Kerr is survived by his wife, the former Doris Dyson, whom he married in 1952; two daughters, Cecilia E. Pindell and Patricia A. Kerr, both of Bel Air; a sister, Mary Orndorff of Catonsville; and one grandson.

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