In character-rich game, Poffenberger was jewel

September 05, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Colorful and candid. A lasting impression. Honest to almost a fault. An unpretentious character -- and the beauty was he didn't know it -- who created enjoyment and laughter, usually at his own expense. There was nothing complex about Cletus Elwood Poffenberger, otherwise known as "Boots."

"Now how in hell could I sign my autograph to a baseball with a name like that and make it look good?" he once said. "With Charley Gehringer, it looked as if his name had been stamped on the ball. And let me tell you, I'd vote for Gehringer to be the next saint in heaven. He was that good a ballplayer and that good a man."

And what did Gehringer, the Hall of Fame second baseman, say about Poffenberger? "We players loved him because you never knew what he might do next. Like the time in Philadelphia "

That was after Poffenberger vanished from the Detroit Tigers and went home to his native Williamsport, Md., without permission. "I want to know your whereabouts," screamed manager Mickey Cochrane in a next-day locker-room confrontation that Gehringer and all the other players witnessed.

"Boots looked up at Cochrane from one of those little stools we used to sit on in dressing rooms," Gehringer recalled. "We all listened for his answer. Then Boots, after a long wait, replied, `I refuse to reveal my identity.' It was so funny, even Cochrane had to laugh."

They'll be telling similar stories about Poffenberger for years to come around his old hometown and when and wherever the subject of baseball characters, a vanishing breed, is romanticized. He died at age 84 and was buried yesterday not far from the Potomac River, where he used to fish for bass and gig frogs.

Major-league baseball didn't mean that much to Poffenberger. He was a country boy, and playing in Detroit wasn't that much different to him from being with Fieldale in the Bi-State League, Charleroi in the Pennsylvania State League or Beaumont in the Texas League, places he played before he advanced to the Tigers as a replacement for the then-injured Lynwood "Schoolboy" Rowe.

In 1934, Boots had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and made $30 a month, plus a cot and meals, swinging a brush ax and pushing a cross-cut saw while clearing land near Pocomoke City and Snow Hill. "I sent home $25 of the $30 to my mother," he remembered. "Times were tough. It was the Depression. When I pitched at Fieldale, I made $65 a month and it was like all the money in the world."

In his American League debut, Poffenberger beat Boston Red Sox standout Lefty Grove, a neighbor from Lonaconing, and bested Bob Feller when Feller gave up only two hits and Poffenberger five. Boots, 5 feet 10, 178 pounds, was known as a "short-armer." He threw across his body, considered unorthodox, but the pitch was a natural sinker and resulted in ground-ball outs.

In 1940, Poffenberger led organized baseball with a 29-6 record (including playoffs) at Nashville in the Southern Association. He could have been drafted for $7,500, but no major-league club took a chance because it was felt he represented a disciplinary problem.

"I could drink a case of beer any time," he once said. "The New Orleans Pelicans had a pitcher named Red Evans. We held a beer-drinking contest. The loser was determined by the first man to head for the men's room, and the loser had to pay the bar bill. I won."

Poffenberger is the subject of all kinds of stories, some real, others fictionalized. He always admitted to the ones that were true, regardless of the embarrassment, and denied the others.

Boots once supposedly called room service and ordered "the breakfast of champions -- six beers and a steak sandwich." But he said, "Anybody who knows me knows that isn't true. I'd either be icing a case of beer in the bathtub or be out at a bar."

Once in 1966, Birdie Tebbetts, managing the Cleveland Indians, stopped us to comment on a Poffenberger story we had written. He said, "I wish I knew you were doing that. I could have told you that in 1939 Boots was late coming to training camp, and when he arrived I asked him where he'd been. He mentioned he just got out of jail for a speeding ticket in South Carolina.

"The judge sentenced him to either a $25 fine or five days in jail. He took the jail time because he didn't have any money. I told him he should have wired the club."

When the story was related to Boots, he said, "It never happened. I haven't driven a car in my life. My wife, Hanna, always drives. I never smoked a cigar or drove a car, didn't even have a license. But I guess I've done everything else."

The only two men he spoke about in baseball he didn't like were Spike Briggs, son of the owner of the Tigers, and Leo Durocher of the Dodgers. He once said Briggs "wouldn't know a Budweiser from a Pabst Blue Ribbon." Then he amended that to say, "Briggs didn't know any more about running a ballclub than herding hogs."

It was said, too, that once at Charleston, W.Va., Poffenberger was supposed to pitch but was on the other side of the left-field fence playing soccer. "Not so," he said. "That fence was 35 feet high. I sure didn't jump over it."

In the same mythical vein, Boots had a dog, Baron, who accompanied him to saloons in Williamsport, such as the Third Base Tavern, known as the "last stop before home," or Peck's Tavern. The dog, it was claimed, would start barking when his owner had too much to drink. A walking-around "drunk alarm."

Not true, again, he says. "Tell me, how would a dog know if I was drunk or not when, most of the time, I didn't know it myself."

The most reliable source on Poffenberger was always Boots himself. He never denied the truth, regardless of how the portrayal made him look. Anything else you hear about him, be inclined to believe. Unpredictable and bizarre? Yes. But a gem. Unforgettable.

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