It’s not correct, but the unknowledgeable opinion about professional baseball in Anniston, Alabama, is that it is forever overshadowed by the legacy of Tyrus Raymond Cobb. The few games Cobb played in this northeast Alabama factory town in the summer of 1904 are a baseball version of a fish story: originally meager but retold as an ever-enlarging whopper.
Truth be told, Cobb isn’t even a chapter of Anniston’s pro baseball book. A sidebar, perhaps. But a chapter, no.
There is, though, this oddity: The Anniston Rams’ first manager, William Graves (Lena) Styles, broke into the Major Leagues in 1919 with the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics. A catcher and occasional first baseman, Styles started his first game on Sept. 10, a 6-5 A’s victory over the Detroit Tigers. And hitting second that day and playing center field for the Tigers was … wait for it … Ty Cobb. The link exists, nonetheless.
For what it’s worth, Styles wasn’t a character on par with the rascally Cobb, but Lord was he close.
He played with Leo Durocher in his final MLB game.
At the time he was considered the best catcher the University of Alabama ever produced.
He was arrested twice for drunkenness on the same night in March 1922 while playing with Baltimore of the International League. “‘Corn Likker’ makes ‘Wild Man’ of Oriole backstop,” the Baltimore Sun’s headline read.
He was arrested and fined in 1923 (on a 1922 warrant) for trying to hit a waiter at a hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
He and another player were booted off Baltimore’s roster in October 1923 after they got drunk at a banquet thrown for the team by civic groups in that city. “Styles, in particular, was so boisterous that he was escorted from the room,” wrote the Buffalo Morning Express.
And yet, in the early months of 1938, the Rams hired the 38-year-old Styles to pilot their newborn team in the Southeastern League. Styles’ aforementioned rap sheet aside, it wasn’t a foolish decision.
Styles, from Gurley, Alabama, up near Huntsville, had graduated from the University of Alabama and played for two MLB teams, the A’s and the Cincinnati Reds. He’d been a player-manager for four years in the minors, two in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and two in Greenville, Mississippi. His 1935 Pine Bluff team won the pennant. In 1937 he took the Greenville team deep into the Cotton States League playoffs. That age hadn’t irreparably eroded his playing skills made him an easy choice.
Or so said The Anniston Star newspaper: “Local boosters were elated over the agreement with Styles. He is rated as a hard worker, a good player and the proper sort of person to manage the local club.”
That was in January. A month later The Star ramped up the hyperbole on the Rams’ new hire.
“The fact he served five years as first-string catcher with Cincinnati indicates that he is of great ability behind the batter. His success in management of minor league clubs of the South assures that he knows his trade. The lowest one of his clubs has been fourth.
“Leaders of the local organization drive are jubilant over their success in getting him. Take the words of (Rams organizer) Bill Deyo: ‘We may not win the Southeastern pennant but I feel certain we’ll have a club here that will give the people a run for their money.'”
Except, they didn’t.
The Rams’ inaugural season was a bust. Anniston finished seventh in the eight-team SEL with a 62-86 record, setting the tone for what would be its largely forgettable 10 years in that league. For Styles, it was even worse.
In mid-June in Selma he got into a heated argument with an umpire and SEL president Stuart X. Stephenson — the former sports editor of the Montgomery Advertiser — suspended him two games for using “abusive language.” A month later, on the afternoon of July 13, he resigned as the Rams’ manager, saying he was retiring from professional baseball and would take advantage of other business opportunities. Styles had also been in ill health all season, The Star reported, and had hit just .205 as one of the team’s catchers.
The Rams’ management asked Styles if he would manage that night’s game in Mobile before leaving the club. Styles agreed. Fittingly the Rams lost, 3-0, to the Shippers, which ended Styles’ time in an Anniston uniform with a 36-56 record.
“I feel it is in the best interest of the team that I resign,” Styles said in the newspaper. Rams treasurer Ralph Hamilton thanked Styles for his efforts. “He has worked faithfully for us, giving of his energy to keep the club going until he felt he could not continue. No man was ever more loyal than he was.”
Picked to replace Styles was veteran minor league manager Ray Brubaker. The Rams won his debut, 9-2, over Mobile. The newspaper described the Rams the next day as an “inspired Anniston team,” which was rare in the summer of 1938.
With stints in five different Major League seasons — 1919-21 with the A’s, 1930-31 with the Reds — Styles’ legacy in the top level of professional baseball carries a whiff of substance. But in those seasons he played in only 77 games, hit just .250 and never played more than 34 games in a single year. In fact, he was one of eight minor leaguers the terrible 1919 A’s brought up from their Atlanta farm team that September. That version of the A’s finished 36-104; making their roster didn’t require Cooperstown talent.
Between those stints in the Majors Leagues Styles suited up for 12 different farm clubs — Atlanta, Baltimore, Newark, Toronto, Providence, Reading, Dallas, Waco, Pine Bluff, Little Rock, Greenville and, finally, Anniston. He spent four seasons each in Baltimore and Toronto. After he took his final MLB at-bat with Cincinnati, he played 6 1/2 more seasons (and managing in four of them) in the minors.
And then he sold tires.
By January 1939 the former Anniston manager had partnered with Charlie Stanley and opened Styles-Stanley Service, a gas station and tire store in the heart of Anniston. (He also moonlighted as a a consultant to the ’39 Rams.) In the 1940s he opened his own shop, Lena Styles Tire Co., but by the summer of 1951 he was ready to go home to north Alabama and sold his business to Jack Barlow, who kept the former Major Leaguer’s name on the marquee.
Home was Gurley, where Styles farmed and raised cattle. His health, though, began to falter, and as Christmas neared in 1955, Paul Cox, The Star’s sports editor, broke the terrible news to his readers.
Styles, Cox wrote, “is suffering from an incurable malady called cancer.”
In his column Cox detailed Styles’ place in Anniston’s mid-century history — the first captain of the Anniston Quarterback Club; his civic endeavors with the Elks Club and the Masons; his tire business; his legacy as a Major Leaguer and as a star in Tuscaloosa. But Cox didn’t mention the Rams. Not one word.
“It would be nice if all of Lena’s old friends would drop him a card,” Cox wrote. “It would please Lena immensely, and it certainly would mean a lot to his wife.”
William Graves (Lena) Styles died March 14, 1956, in Huntsville. He was 56 years old. At least his obituary in The Star mentioned the Rams.