Woody Rich was a country boy from Morganton, North Carolina, who threw a complete game in his Major League debut, played professional baseball in three decades and played most of three complete seasons with the Anniston Rams, who loved him so much that they bought him, traded him, bought him back and then honored him with his own night at Johnston Field. But what was the deal with his nicknames?
The Anniston Star described him as “Big Woody Rich” so regularly that the moniker should be carved on his gravestone, but isn’t. His home-state Charlotte Observer couldn’t decide which label it preferred, so it chose “bulky Woody Rich,” “portly Woody Rich,” “old Woody Rich” and “Tar Heel ‘Old Man River’ Rich.” The Knoxville News-Sentinel called him “ancient Woody Rich.” The Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune attempted politeness and instead went with “venerable Woody Rich,” which at least offers a smidgeon of respect. In Atlanta, a writer in The Constitution said Rich was a “strong-armed hillbilly,” which may have been factually correct, but still. And in the 1950s no newspaper that reported on his games failed to describe him as a “veteran,” which had nothing to do with the war — either the second World War or the Korean War, both of which Rich’s career spanned.
And then, there’s this: “One of the most tragic cases in the memory of the writer is that of Woody Rich. … But Rich’s fame was short-lived. He did stay with the (Boston Red Sox) long enough to win a few games and, at times, showed flashes of greatness. But the boy had such an uncontrollable appetite that he soon was fat and well beyond big league hurling condition.” That passage, from a 1947 Baseball Magazine article, is so outlandish that it even made Rich’s coverage in the Society for American Baseball Research biography project.
Rich’s rise and fall with the Major Leagues follow a recognizable path. Found in the Carolina hills — where he never pitched off a mound as a youth — Rich signed with the Red Sox and rose quickly through two minor-league stops. He debuted at Fenway Park on April 22, 1939, giving up only six hits in a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia A’s. He was 21 years old and solidly in the Boston rotation, a potential prewar star. But then he hurt his arm, spent a month on the bench and was sent back to the minors in August.
The Red Sox gave him chances in both 1940 and 1941, but he never regained his previous form. Boston’s National League entry — the Braves — called him up in 1944, hoping he’d excel in the game’s talent-depleted war years. But he didn’t. He pitched in seven games, started twice, and was shipped out again. His MLB days were over.
His baseball career wasn’t, though; he didn’t retire until 1958 when he was 42 years old. And the final three years of the 40s he spent mostly in Anniston, Alabama, whose Class B Southeastern League team had an eternal need for pitching, and Rich’s right arm remained strong enough to play that far removed from the big leagues.
The late-40s Rams couldn’t decide on what they were, utter failures or championship contenders, though the latter was much more commonplace. They won the SEL title in 1946 but plummeted to 56-84 the following year and finished in last place. Acquiring Rich in May was one of team president Loy Gunter’s attempts to retain some of the magic, and the former Red Sox and Brave wasted no time. He won his debut, 2-0, by throwing a two-hitter at Vicksburg. He made the SEL All-Star team and was the game’s winning pitcher. At one point he won 11 straight games for the Rams. That Rich pitched well (19-10 with a 3.32 ERA; his 197 strikeouts led the league) and the team still smelled like August roadkill proved how terrible Anniston’s summer really was.
And then the Rams were the Rams — and traded him in the offseason to Shreveport for pitcher Elton Davis, who never suited up for Anniston. It was the Rams’ Brock-for-Broglio moment. Four months later they bought Rich back from that Texas League team, a purchase that helped propel Anniston into the SEL playoffs that fall.
There the Rams faced one of the league’s perennial favorites, the Montgomery Rebels. Rams manager Charlie Baron picked Rich — who’d made the 1948 All-Star team, as well — to pitch the series opener, a decision that worked splendidly. Rich scattered seven hits and beat the Rebels, 2-1, then returned to beat Montgomery 7-3 in Game 4. When the Rebels extended the series to a seventh game, Baron knew who would take the mound: Big Woody Rich.
Rich’s domination of the SEL’s powerhouse didn’t stretch across three games. He proved human, giving up six hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings in Game 7, which Montgomery won, 7-4. Anniston would never play another postseason game.
The 1949 Rams fell to sixth place, 64-74, though Rich did what he could. He won the season-opener (7-2 against Gadsden), won nine more games and posted a sub-3.00 ERA (a team-best 2.81). But he left the team — abruptly — in late July, not long after Rams management held a “Woody Rich Night” at Johnston Field to honor the fan favorite’s three years with the club.
“According to Mr. Gunter, Rich left no notice of where he was going … however, reports indicate that Rich has accepted an attractive offer in semi-pro ball in Iowa,” The Anniston Star wrote. Those reports proved accurate. By the end of the month Rich was pitching for a team in Remsen, Iowa, an odd stint that proved as unremarkable as it was brief. In January he was back in the minors, signing with Greensboro of the Carolina League.
He pitched another eight seasons, never again coming close to the Majors — though a writer in the Tampa Bay Times wrote a peculiar story in March 1952 claiming that Rich squandered an opportunity to attend spring training with the Chicago White Sox because of an odd disagreement with the St. Petersburg Saints and the Memphis Chicks over $1,000.
Rich, the Times wrote, had an agreement with the Saints that he would get one-sixth of the $6,000 they pocketed when they sold him to Memphis the year before. What followed was downright laughable: the White Sox invited Rich to camp, but he didn’t show up; the Chicks wouldn’t pay the Saints the $6,000 until Rich arrived for spring training; and the Saints couldn’t pay Rich the promised $1,000 until they received the cash from Memphis. It was a contractural impasse that mimicked a dog chasing its tail.
Rich finally gave in and reported to Memphis’ camp in Florida. Did he get his $1,000? The Times didn’t say. But the newspaper, as did so many others, didn’t waste the opportunity to mock Rich’s weight, calling the 34-year-old pitcher “the big, round right-hander” and saying he showed up at spring training “several pounds heavy.”
The Memphis manager, Luke Appling, predicted the White Sox would run Rich into shape once he got into their camp. The Times didn’t buy it, though: “Rich, it is said, regards running much the same as a confirmed alcoholic regards water — it just ain’t good for you.”
Relegated to the minors well into his mid- to late-30s, Rich nonetheless loved pitching. That he no longer was a dominant starting pitcher was irrelevant. “That old wheeze about ‘pitching with your head’ may apply somewhat to me now,” he told The Charlotte Observer in 1957, “but the old flipper still feels pretty good.
“I need more rest than I used to, but I like relief pitching. It’s become one of the most important factors on any ball club. If you haven’t got the firemen, you can’t win. Suits me just as long as I can stay in the game.”
The reporter asked Rich if, given his age and experience, he’d consider managing. “Manage? Yeah, I guess I’ll take a whirl at that one of these days. But as long as I can throw, I like to work. I guess I’ve played under enough good managers and seen enough baseball to know how to manage. But why ask for headaches when playing is still fun?”
Rich’s right arm held out for another season, and by the time he retired in 1958 he’d pitched in 660 games over 22 seasons, not including his few weeks toiling in Iowa’s semi-pro ranks. He and his wife settled in Indianapolis, where he’d pitched in parts of five seasons in the mid-1940s before migrating to Anniston.
Woody Rich, who became a mechanic after he stopped throwing baseballs for a living, died in 1983 at the age of 72. He’s buried in Morganton.