The pugnacious Anniston Ram who played for the Phillies and Cards

Art Rebel with the
Philadelphia Phillies in 1938.

Art Rebel — flattered in the press as a “roly poly” outfielder and “a stocky fellow” and “the colorful, cigar-chewing ex-major leaguer” — didn’t want to spend a second humid summer in the northeastern hills of Alabama, playing for the fledgling Anniston Rams of the Southeastern League. So he held out.

Which in itself is an odd twist to the quirks sprinkled among the Rams’ 10 seasons of existence. Boredom at Johnston Field was rare. But Rebel was indeed a rebel — not only because of his surname but also due to his personality. Pugnaciousness was his constant. That his father’s side of the family had anglicized their last name from Rebl after immigrating from Hungary was but a side note in the outfielder’s past.

Rebel, Cincinnati born and raised, eventually signed his 1939 contract, becoming the young team’s first two-time SEL all-star and its first bonafide hitter, a left-handed outfielder with pop. But his combative nature so dominated his second Anniston summer that the team eventually sent him packing — not higher up the minor-league food chain, where he surely wanted to go, but to Augusta, Georgia, a Class B team like the Rams.

The Nashville Vols of the Southern Association, who’d farmed him to Anniston, owned his rights. But even they didn’t want him on their roster that summer. So Augusta it was.

A 1939 clipping in The Anniston Star.

“Most of this season he had been wanting his release, never getting it,” The Anniston Star newspaper reported on Aug. 1. “… After several recent clashes with the front office, a tense situation seemed to develop in the entire team.”

To make sense of Rebel’s belligerence is to understand how the Ohioan ended up in Anniston in the first place. He’d been one of the rare pre-war players to crack a Major League roster before spending season after season toiling in the minors. After playing independent-league baseball in 1934, Rebel was signed by the Detroit Tigers that winter and played his first professional season with York (Pennsylvania-New York League) and Bartlesville (Western Association), where he hit .380 and secured a roster spot for 1937 — and he didn’t stop hitting.

His .328 average and 40 doubles at Bartlesville, Oklahoma, caught the attention of the New York Yankees, who drafted him in September 1937 and primed him for the outfield of their Kansas City farm team. Rebel, though, was adamant that his Bartlesville contract stipulated that he’d be released at season’s end and made a free agent. The Yankees scoffed at the notion.

A 1938 clipping in the Springfield News-Leader.

Rebel, pugnacious and only 22 years old, appealed to MLB Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis — who two decades earlier had issued lifetime bans to eight Chicago White Sox for throwing the 1919 World Series. In a surprise decision Landis ruled in Rebel’s favor, declaring him a free agent nearly 40 years before free agency would transform MLB’s business model and give players unprecedented control over where and for whom they played.

Unleashed and seeking playing time elsewhere, Rebel signed with the woeful Philadelphia Phillies, who finished seventh in the National League in 1937 and put him in their outfield rotation during spring training.

“Of the six (outfield prospects), Arthur Rebel is rated the best prospect to date,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. “He is a stocky fellow, 197 pounds on a frame five feet, eight inches, and lives in Cincinnati. Rebel can smack that apple to right field, something that (Manager Jimmie) Wilson must not overlook with the short barrier at Broad and Huntingdon streets. What else Rebel can do Jimmie frankly admits he does not know for he has had little chance to see him in action.”

Rebel did enough to make the Phillies’ roster, and despite playing only two seasons in the minors he made his Major League debut on April 19, 1938, in a 12-5 loss to Brooklyn at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. Pinch-hitting in the bottom of the 8th, Rebel grounded out to the pitcher in his only at-bat.

A 1938 clipping from the Greenville (Pa.) Record-Argus.

A month later, the Phillies released him. His line: two hits, a .222 batting average and one RBI.

Rebel, who’d spurned a chance to join the Yankees’ farm system, who’d argued successfully with Commissioner Landis, was again a player without a team.

A 1938 clipping from the Anniston Star.

Nashville signed Rebel and optioned him to Anniston — from the National League to the Southeastern League, almost overnight. Put another way, from one of the NL’s worst teams to an expansion Class B team in Alabama.

“He reportedly has lots of power,” The Anniston Star told its readers, an evaluation that proved largely correct.

Rebel instantly became a regular in the heart of the Rams’ lineup, gave Anniston its only SEL all-star and hit .333 with 31 doubles. If his dramatic fall, from the NL to the SEL, irked him he didn’t let it show. When the Rams’ season ended the Vols even brought him north to Nashville for their final few games.

Nashville, Rebel likely thought, would be his spring destination in 1939. He’d led the Rams in hitting and flashed the talent that earned him a spot on the Phillies’ roster the year before. But in February Nashville sold his contract to Anniston, setting the stage for a minor-league holdout by a one-time Major Leaguer with two MLB hits.

In mid-March Rebel wrote the Rams’ front office to say he “definitely is a holdout,” The Star reported. Compensation wasn’t the hangup. Anniston was. Rebel wanted out.

Faced with two options — re-sign with Anniston or sit out the season — Rebel agreed to terms just before the season began, which stunted his start but didn’t keep him from again making the SEL All-Star team. But the season was a slog. The Rams were improved — 71-70 — and finished fifth, but Rebel’s discontent remained in the lineup as much as he did.

Rams management had had enough by late July when they suspended him “for breaking training.” Told on a Sunday night that he was being suspended, without pay, effective the next day, Rebel was immediately sold to Augusta.

“Rebel came to Anniston this spring as a recalcitrant …” The Anniston Star wrote. “Without Rebel, the local club may become a more potent force as a result in the rise in club morale.”

A 1939 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Except for a few weeks in the fall of 1945, Rebel then assumed the role of a minor-league nomad, hopping from outpost to outpost, from league to league, until he retired from professional baseball in 1952 as age 38. His resume resembled a minor-league map, with stops in Montgomery, St. Paul, Fort Worth, Louisville, Columbus, Knoxville, Mobile, Birmingham, St. Petersburg, Rochester, Tampa and Lafayette. But he never stopped hitting, playing in 1,920 games in the minors and recording 2,016 hits.

And those few weeks in the fall of ’45?

It’s another Art Rebel story, more of the same.

Art Rebel with the St. Louis Cardinals.

He spent most of that season with Columbus of the American Association, and he hit there, too. On July 25 the St. Louis Cardinals — the reigning NL champions — grabbed Rebel from Columbus’ roster, apparently wooed by his .331 average. The next day, in a 10-2 win over Pittsburgh, Rebel made his Cardinal debut by pinch-hitting in the seventh for future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst (whose brother Paul would later play for the Rams). He struck out and finished the game in right field.

Lorin McMullen, a sports writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, had watched Rebel play on his several stops in Texas. He was noticeably perplexed when the Cardinals gave Rebel another shot in the big leagues.

“We never quite understood Art Rebel, the powerful, squat, genial Pennsylvanian who was one of the Cats’ disappointments in 1941. Rather, we never quite figured what kept him down.”

Fort Worth, Texas, sports writer Lorin McMullen

Rebel hit .347 In 26 games in a Cardinal uniform that fall, and then his Major League career was over. He was 31 years old when he played his final MLB game, a 3-2 St. Louis victory over his hometown Cincinnati Reds. Hitting third in the lineup behind Schoendienst, Rebel went 2 for 5; in his final at-bat he hit a fly ball to right.

“We never quite understood Art Rebel, the powerful, squat, genial Pennsylvanian who was one of the Cats’ disappointments in 1941,” McMullen wrote. “Rather, we never quite figured what kept him down. The fellow was as strong as an ox; for a big man he was fast. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. His coordination was good. He could throw from right field to third base like a shot. He kept in good physical trim.

“But the poor fellow was tight as a drum; he was squeezing the life out of the bat when he left the dugout for the plate. The more he tried, the less effective he was. Rebel faded as the season went on, finished at .260. Either the fellow has learned something or wartime play in the Major Leagues isn’t so much. For Rebel, the Texas League .260 hitter, is joining the National League champions.”

A 1955 headline from the Tampa Bay Times.

He managed a few teams in the 1950s, his final stint coming in ’55 with St. Petersburg of the Class D Florida State League. It didn’t turn out well, though, and he resigned in midseason with the team 19 1/2 games behind and in last place. “This is nobody’s fault but mine,” Rebel told the Tampa Bay Times. “I made the guess and I made the player deals. We were trying to play rookies and everybody else had veterans and limited service men on the field against us.”

Rebel scouted for a few baseball teams, including the Chicago White Sox and the FSL’s Tampa team, and lived until he was 90 years old. He died in 2004 and is buried in Tampa.

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