For some reason, Hugh Sooter didn’t make the Major Leagues. Perhaps it was because he was a right-handed pitcher — who are easier to find — rather than a southpaw. His frequent stints on the disabled list may have doomed his chances. He won 115 minor-league games but never pitched above Class AA. But he’ll always have the night of July 12, 1949.
That’s when Sooter, then 21 years old, threw the only nine-inning no-hitter in Anniston Rams history, an 8-0 victory over Montgomery at Johnston Field. No runner reached third base though his gem was imperfect: he walked five, struck out only one and pitched around a second-inning error. Neither the Rams nor the Rebels that season were in the Southeastern League’s upper tier, so it wasn’t as if he’d slain a front-running team.
But it was a no-hitter, and still is.
“Young Hugh Sooter became the idol of all Ram Town last night when he entered baseball’s hall of fame with a brilliant no hit, no run triumph against the Montgomery Rebels at Johnston Field,” wrote Harry Sherman in The Anniston Star newspaper, “thereby adding his name to the list of mound artists who have seen the dream of every baseball pitcher come true.”
(Sooter’s effort wasn’t the only no-hitter, regardless of length, in Rams history. Frank Papish no-hit Gadsden, 1-0, in a five-inning, rain-shortened game at Johnston Field on July 13, 1941. Thanks to @MiLgNoHitters on Twitter for pointing that out.)
In fairness to The Star’s Sherman and his hyperbole, Sooter’s no-hitter didn’t earn a Cooperstown plaque. But the path the right-hander took from his home in Washington state to the minor leagues leaves unanswered the original question: why didn’t he get a shot in The Show?
The three Sooter brothers in his family all played the game. Rodney, the oldest, was the best. Wilburn, the middle son, was a catcher who also pitched. Hugh, the youngest, played the longest.
In “Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster of Professional Players Who Died in Service,” author Gary Bedingfield describes how the Sooter brothers played ball together in the early 1940s; Rodney, a left-handed pitcher, would “wear them out” and then get in more practice by throwing against an old car seat resting against a chicken coup. “I remember watching him from the kitchen window,” Wilburn said in the book. “I believe had he been timed he could throw the ball nearly 100 miles per hour. I could throw a baseball at 96 and Rod was much faster than me.”
This was the ’40s, and baseball couldn’t stop World War II. Scouts were nonetheless on to Rodney, who had a handshake deal with the New York Yankees that would have sent him to their Kansas City farm team when the war was over, Bedingfield wrote.
The Army Air Force sent him to Europe but he didn’t see combat. In February 1946 he died in a plane crash in Germany and was buried in France. Had he survived and returned to baseball, “Rod would have made it big with the Yankees,” Wilbern told Bedingfield.
Hugh and Wilbern Sooter also served in the war. Hugh enlisted in August 1945 and was sent briefly overseas with the 23rd Infantry; Wilbern spent two years in the Army. And to listen to Hugh tell it, if it weren’t for his time in the military he might not have ended up in Anniston in the summer of 1949. An Army friend, Clint Courtney, told Sooter about the minor league team in Shreveport, Louisiana, the Sports. The soldiers had decided to give professional baseball a go when they got back to the United States.
“I got out about two months earlier than Clint, but he had already made me promise to meet him in Coushatta (Louisiana) for the camps,” Sooter told the Alexandria, Louisiana, Town Talk in 1967. “I must have spent about a month in Coushatta at Clint’s home, and we both went to tryouts in Shreveport and Beaumont. The Yankees were conducting the camp in Beaumont and signed Clint to a minor league contract.” Courtney would go on to play 946 Major League games for six different teams — including the Yankees, who gave Sooter’s friend a single start in 1951 before letting him go to the St. Louis Browns.
The Yankees, though, didn’t sign Sooter; he landed with the Alexandria Aces, a Class D independent team in the Evangeline League. The Yankees might have wished they had, though.
In 1947 the 20-year-old right-hander went 22-7 with a 3.72 ERA and pitched 266 innings — a trait of endurance that would become a hallmark of his career. After a brief stint in Class AA Shreveport of the Texas League in the spring of 1948 Sooter was optioned down to Anniston, where he and another pitcher joined one of the Rams’ better teams. That Anniston squad finished the season in third place in the Southeastern League and came within a game of winning the SEL title in the playoffs.
“We were extremely fortunate in getting these hurlers,” Rams president Loy Gunter told The Star. “I had been hoping to obtain them ever since I saw them in action during spring training.”
Sooter started 22 games that summer for the Rams, going 10-6 with a 4.67 ERA in the Anniston rotation. In his first start he no-hit Meridian for 5 2/3 innings before leaving with a sore arm. In the playoffs he started Game 6 of the best-of-seven series against Montgomery with a chance to win the title, but he didn’t get out of the third inning in a 7-4 loss. (The Rebels would win Game 7 and the SEL crown.)
Two things were similar about Sooter’s 1949 season. First, he started in Shreveport, pitching sparingly. Second, the Sports optioned him to Anniston in late spring. He won his first game back — a 7-4 win over Vicksburg — and finished the year with a 6-3 record and a 3.56 ERA. And in mid-July he pitched what’s likely the best game of his career.
By 1950, at age 23, Sooter finally stuck in Shreveport. In fact, the right-hander pitched the next four seasons for the Sports, winning 6, 15, 13 and 15 games but never advancing to Class AAA. Baseball, though, is a business — always has been — and in December 1953 the Sports traded Sooter to the Class AA Houston Buffaloes, also of the Texas League.
Shreveport needed outfielders. Sooter was deemed expendable.
“We hated like the mischief to give up Sooter,” Shreveport President Bonneau Peters told The Shreveport Journal. “Sooter has always been the perfect ballplayer from our standpoint.”
Sooter pitched two seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals-affilliated Buffs — starting 30 games each year — winning 14 games in ’54 (when Houston won the league championship) and 11 in ’55. And then he retired from professional baseball at age 29.
Back in Alexandria, Sooter knocked around with semi-pro teams for a few summers and began a lengthy post-baseball career in dairy farming that led to him managing an ice cream business.
In 1967, the Alexandria Town Talk asked the aging former pitcher what he thought of baseball players in the Sixties. The athletes “don’t have that old blood and guts to get out and put their ability to use,” Sooter said. “Of course there are some exceptions, but as a whole, I believe we have made it too easy for the kids and some just don’t appreciate it. They take too much for granted.”
Hugh Sooter died in 2000 at the age of 73. His obituary in the Alexandria newspaper mentioned several of his minor league exploits, but it mentioned neither Anniston nor his no-hitter.