Bill Starr, catcher
Born: 2-16-1911 Died: 8-12-1991
Padres: 1937-39 “Chick” Starr was born in Brooklyn, raised in Chicago, and began his pro baseball career in 1931. He was a reserve catcher with Washington in 1935-36 before coming to San Diego, where he became the only man ever to pinch hit for Ted Williams. From 1944-55 he was principal owner and operator of the Padres, and in 1989 (retired from real estate) wrote an “insider” book, Clearing the Bases.
[Bill Starr interview by Jim Smith and Bill Ohler, 2 January 1990, tape recording.]
When I got here in 1937 the town had one interest, and that was baseball. There was no horse racing to amount to anything, or football or basketball. San Diego had a trolley going down Broadway, and the ballpark was at the foot of Broadway. We played one night game a week, on Thursdays, and had seven game series. Many fans would just take the afternoon off. There were lots of bleacher seats–actually too many to make any money because they charged 50 cents. In case we had an overflow crowd, they’d be in the outfield, roped off–of course no food peddled out there so we’d get benefit of that. We won the championship, the Shaughnessy Playoffs. We had a fellow in right field by the name of [Rupert “Tommy”] Thompson, who had the greatest year I’ve ever seen any player have.
Owners are never popular, I don’t care who he is, with players. Almost like a line drawn. Bill Lane was the owner, and had no heirs. A very wealthy man. He was a crabby old guy, but nice enough.
Between the end of my playing career and the time I purchased the Padres in 1944, I had no connection with the team. I was working in the off-season for a clothing store, Farley’s. An official was a big fan and said, “What are you doing at the end of the season?” I said, “Going home to get married and get a job.” He said, “Get married, come to San Diego and work for me–and I’ll make a salesman out of you.” I was given a job in the credit department, did that for three years, retired from baseball and started my own credit collection business. We did that for five years, made a few dollars.
Well, Lane had died and the estate was just trying to get rid of the ballclub. And I thought, “Gee, I’d like to get back into baseball.” So I got a friend or two of mine to put up a little money–actually, Arnholt Smith agreed to finance me. A wonderful man. That’s how I got into ownership, and stayed with it eleven years.
The war was on. You never knew if you’d have a ballclub. In 1945 I got a call from Pepper Martin, our manager, in Los Angeles: “I haven’t got anybody to play the infield. They’re all gone.” I drove to Los Angeles, went to a playground, saw a kid who wouldn’t get hurt too bad and said, “Would you like to play for the Padres today?” I signed him. Baseball being a small industry, run by sixteen clubs, there were some wonderful men. They sent telegrams welcoming me to the lodge, so to speak. I said, “I need players.” One said, “I know one hell of a pitcher if you can get him out of jail: Vallie Eaves.” He was an Indian, but a drunkard. A judge got him out and he won a lot of games for us.
When I became the operator, in the fall of ’44, developing players and selling players was what kept us going. We were an independent league, as most were, and had loads of great talent. We were sort of a professional hatchery. We didn’t have any great ballclubs until we finally hooked up with Cleveland in 1948. The owner, Bill Veeck, said, “I’ve got a manager for you: Bucky Harris.” Then we got Luke Easter.
But 1947 was the year Jackie Robinson came up. And I got to thinking, “What would happen if I searched out and found some capable black player?” The Coast League was lily white and had some old timers who were very critical of Branch Rickey. I thought it was kinda stupid. That’s how we got John Ritchey.
[George Detore interview by Jim Smith, 26 August 1989, tape recording.]
In 1935, I started catching in Milwaukee and in ’36 we won the [American Association] pennant and Little World Series. We had a little tiff on the train coming back home. The treasurer of the club came in our car and started gettin’ a little nasty about the money we were going to get. Rudy York [6’1″, 210] got up and I thought he was going to tear him apart. I jumped between them and pushed the treasurer out to the other car. He told the president I attacked him. Instead I saved his neck–which was a mistake. So I was sold to the Padres.
I was an Easterner, and had never been out West. But I was willing to try it, and had to make a living. I heard about the Coast League, and nobody said anything good about it . . . But you know one thing about the guys we had in ’37? Noboby ever made a mental mistake, a bonehead play. And Shellenback was a “beaut”–an excellent baseball man and hell of a guy personally.
In 1938, we were in Seattle and Shelly wanted to pitch. He had 296 PCL wins and wanted four more to make three hundred. We had ’em beat in the last of the ninth, 2-1, and all he’d thrown was spitters. Two men out. One man on base . . . then he threw a sidearm curve and it disappeared over a schoolhouse in left field, that was about 200 feet high. Shelly stood there, then came in and said, “How dumb can a guy be?” I said, “I wouldn’t know.” He never forgot that and he wouldn’t pitch again.
When I managed, Major Lott and I got along real well — but there wasn’t a lot of talent.