Mel Hoderlein played four seasons in the Major Leagues for two teams, was the property of five MLB teams for which he never played, hit cleanup for the Boston Red Sox in his first big-league game — right behind Ted Williams — and yet enjoyed what may have been his career highlight when he led the Anniston Rams to their only championship.
So much of the Rams’ 10 seasons were marked by either profound awfulness or consistent mediocrity, yet Anniston’s 1946 team gave the city what others could not: playoff victories, sold-out games and eternal heroes.
Without Hoderlein, the Rams may have folded without winning a Southeastern League title.
He wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect, though, described by scouts and newspaper reporters as a standout defensive infielder who hit his weight and a little more, but not much. When the Birmingham Barons optioned him from Macon to Anniston in late July 1946, the reaction was muted silence. But there he was, leading off the bottom of the 10th inning of a 2-2 tie against the Vicksburg Billies in the seventh game of the Southeastern League championship series.
Hoderlein nearly took Billies right-hander Steve Sakas deep but settled for a triple off the center-field wall. Sakas intentionally walked former Brooklyn Dodger Sid Gautreaux, setting up Hoderlein’s winning play when Jack Massey hit a grounder to second baseman Ira Glass. Hoderlein, running on contact, slid under Timer Pride‘s tag and gave the Rams the SEL title.
In 1994, Brent Kelley, in Sports Collectors Digest, wrote that Anniston was where “Hoderlein enjoyed the highlight of his career,” which may have been the case. Curiously, however, Hoderlein told Kelley that he remembered his championship-winning run was scored on a home run, not a triple and a close play at the plate.
“We were in the championship game and I was lucky enough to hit a home run to win the final game of the series. The reason I remember it so well – they had a wooden outfield fence and it must’ve been double-walled because the ball that I hit stayed on top of the fence and rolled about 20 feet and then fell out of the ballpark altogether,” Hoderlein said. “The outfielder couldn’t get to it, it was up too high, and he was standin’ there walkin’ along with it and it finally went over the other [side].”
Newspaper reports the following morning disagree with Hoderlein’s memory. An Associated Press report led this way: “A 10th-inning triple by Hoderlein, Anniston star, enabled the Rams to take the seventh and final game from Vicksburg, 3-2, Saturday night to wind up the Southeastern League’s Shaughnessy playoffs.” Reports in other Alabama newspapers, including Anniston’s, corroborated the AP’s coverage.
That night ended Hoderlein’s Anniston experience, short though successful. His first game as a Ram came in a 7-1 victory at Meridian on July 27; he hit second, played shortstop, went 0 for 4 but was hit by a pitch and stole second. He hit .325 in 34 games, playing third and second base and shortstop.
Originally from Ohio, Hoderlein played for six minor-league teams, including Anniston, before debuting in MLB in 1951. Signed first by Cincinnati, Hoderlein played for two Reds farm teams, Columbia, South Carolina, and Cordele, Georgia. After serving three years in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he bounced around as property of the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates and Detroit Tigers. He suited up in Anniston, Macon, Georgia, Birmingham and Louisville, then the Red Sox’s Class AAA club.
A rash of Boston infield injuries earned Hoderlein his call-up on Aug. 15, 1951. The following day he started at Shibe Park against the Philadelphia A’s, going 1 for 4 and hitting cleanup. The three names before his on the Red Sox’s lineup card: Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Williams.
Hy Hurwitz, writing in The Boston Globe, said Hoderlein “was probably the most surprised person in the world when he was told he would be hitting cleanup in the Red Sox batting order.” The headline on a Harold Kaese column in The Globe read, “Sox Brain-Trusters Show Originality, Let Rookie Bat 4th.” The Red Sox, Kaese wrote, “are so powerful they can bring up an infielder, Mel Hoderlein, who has hit all of four home runs for Louisville, and bat him clean-up ahead of Clyde Vollmer and Walter Dropo in his first league game.”
His Red Sox tenure was shorter than his time in Anniston: in nine games he hit .357 (5 for 14) with one RBI. That offseason began a dizzying period in which he was traded from Boston to the Chicago White Sox (in November), traded from the White Sox (who he never played for because of an injury) to the Washington Senators (in May) and played his first game for the D.C. team on May 4 at Griffin Stadium. In one plate appearance as a pinch hitter, he flew out to center in a 15-7 win over the St. Louis Browns.
He played parts of three seasons in Washington: 72 games in 1952, 23 games in 1953 and 14 games early in 1954, then he was shipped to Detroit, which optioned him to Buffalo. His reputation as a good glove-light hitter haunted him. “He was a fair hitter, but he was a good hitter,” his son, Bruce Hoderlein, told The Cincinnati Inquirer in 2001.
Hoderlein spent the next season and a half with the Class AAA Bisons and never appeared in a Tigers uniform. He retired after the 1955 season and found work as an electrician in Ohio.
Mel Hoderlein, one of the woebegone Rams’ few heroes, died in 2001 at the age of 77.