The Rams pitcher who tamed DiMaggio and Gehrig

Bill Trotter

If the Anniston Rams had chosen a narrative for Bill Trotter, they surely would have selected one from 1946 — the year of their only Southeastern League championship — as the pinnacle of the side-armer’s career. Grizzled and bearing years of Major League experience, Trotter gave the Rams’ starting rotation a midsummer boost in a year when Anniston never stopped tinkering with its roster. At the time, he was 37, hardly the pitcher he once was, the end of his playing days drawing near.

The Rams, though, didn’t have a say in the matter.

Trotter’s claim to fame happened nearly a decade earlier when he pitched, often poorly, for the woebegone St. Louis Browns. Baseball, though, is a peculiar game, one that can defy rather than conform. And so on Sept. 23, 1937, at Yankee Stadium, the Browns beat the star-filled New York Yankees, 9-5, with Trotter earning the victory. So remarkable — and memorable — was that fall afternoon that when Trotter died in 1984, his hometown obituary noted that one of his favorite activities was re-telling the day he felled the mighty World Series champions.

A 1937 clipping from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Yet, a gem it was not. Trotter gave up five runs (four earned), nine hits and three walks in the nine-inning complete game. The Yankees led 5-1 after four innings; a rout seemed sure. The next morning, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that New York “hit Trotter freely” — a journalistic euphemism for the obvious: the Yankees were pummeling him. How it didn’t turn demonstrably worse remains unknown.

It’s important to recall that the ’37 Yankees of Manager Joe McCarthy featured six future Hall of Famers and went on to win their second straight World Series the following month. Trotter faced five of those Hall of Famers that afternoon in the Bronx: Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri and Red Ruffing. Lefty Gomez, New York’s other future Cooperstown inductee, did not pitch that day.

The game, as it’s prone to do, bore the unexpected. Easily hittable in the early innings, Trotter held the Yankees scoreless in the last five frames, allowing no runner to reach second base. The Yankees’ five Hall of Famers managed just three hits in 16 at-bats against the right-hander. And the Browns, who recorded only three hits through the first five innings, scored eight runs in the final four frames.

A 1937 clipping from the St. Louis Star-Times.

Poor Bill Trotter, though. A few months earlier, on a windy spring day in Laredo, Texas, Browns manager Rogers Hornsby had thrown Trotter in a meaningless practice game against the St. Louis farm team in San Antonio. Hornsby didn’t want to risk the health of his veteran pitchers in the cold. So Trotter got the call.

He also made an impression with a reporter from the St. Louis Star-Times.

“It was a chill wind that blew pitcher Bill Trotter some good yesterday, and today the young man was asking questions about the big cities up north, as though he anticipates visiting them this summer with the Browns,” the reporter wrote. “A mere rookie, untried and unwanted, so it appeared, Trotter was trotted out from under his blanket … Well, Trotter didn’t mind the wind; in fact, he stomped about like a young polar bear and when he had finished his five innings on the hill, Apprentice Willyum had yielded but three hits and one run.”

A 1937 clipping from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Trotter didn’t make the team out of spring training. (The Browns called him up in mid-April.) Months later, his career highlight happened when the Yankees clinched the American League pennant — not because they lost to Trotter and the Browns, but because the Boston Red Sox had topped the second-place Detroit Tigers. So disposable was Trotter’s performance that the New York Daily News reporter who covered the Yankees did not mention the Browns’ pitcher in the next morning’s edition. The pennant overshadowed everything. That it meant everything to Trotter was conveniently ignored.

Truth is, Trotter’s path to the Anniston Rams included appearances in seven major league seasons — most with the Browns — and a pedestrian 22-34 career record. His time with St. Louis’ American League team coincided uncomfortably with some of the Browns’ most egregious seasons of the late 1930s and early 1940s. When the Browns improved in 1942, they traded him to the Washington Senators, who were terrible themselves that year.

A 1944 clipping from the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle.

The quirk of Trotter’s career came in his last MLB season, when he made two late-year appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944. In his final game in a big-league uniform, Trotter gave up seven hits and six runs in a two-inning relief debacle against the Boston Braves. That Cardinals team, with Stan Musial in the outfield, went on to win the World Series. (Trotter didn’t play in the postseason.) The team they defeated — the St. Louis Browns, Trotter’s longtime employer.

That resume, loaded with farm-team and Major League experience, and the decay of age is what Trotter brought to Anniston in July 1946. The end of his brief Cardinals stint restarted Trotter’s familiar journey through the minors. In 1945, he pitched for Rochester in the International League, going 9-13. Released by the Red Wings the following February, he trained with Milwaukee of the American Association during the spring and played the season’s first half in the Southern Association with Little Rock, where he went 2-5 in 17 appearances with a troubling 4.89 ERA.

But Anniston needed pitchers. The Rams, shut down during the war years, found themselves in the Southeastern League cellar in mid-June. With the Rams below .500, team president Loy Gunter told The Anniston Star of his plans to rejuvenate the club. It didn’t matter where they came from. Gunter simply wanted better players.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Gunter, The Star reported, was “disappointed over the showing made by the club during the last two series,” but nonetheless “believed he had secured several players who will be of tremendous help to the club.” By early July, the improved Rams had entered the SEL’s upper half. That’s when Trotter came to town. The Rams’ front office told newsmen the former Little Rock pitcher had been “a last-minute find.”

Nevertheless, Trotter won his first game with Anniston — a 7-4 victory over a good Vicksburg team at Johnston Field that broke the Rams’ three-game losing streak. Then in second place behind Pensacola, the surging Rams and their ever-changing roster kept pace during summer’s dog days. Trotter won four games in his first five starts by the first of August. When the SEL regular season ended, the second-place Rams hadn’t caught Pensacola but had earned a spot in in the league’s four-team tournament.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star. Bill Trotter is fifth from the right on the back row.

Trotter didn’t pitch in the Rams’ first-round series against Montgomery, which Anniston won, 4-1. He took the mound only once in the seven-game championship series against Vicksburg, pitching three innings in relief in the Billies’ 7-4 win in Game 3. When the Rams won the SEL title with a dramatic 10th-inning victory in Game 7, Trotter’s season ended without a serious postseason contribution. But it was hard to dispute the former Major Leaguer’s impact during the Rams’ midseason turnaround.

A 1949 clipping from the Mt. Vernon Register-News.

Anniston didn’t bring Trotter back the following spring. Instead, he made 15 appearances for Beaumont of the Texas League, going 0-4. It was his last season as a full-time professional player. After suiting up for a semi-pro team in 1948, he managed Class D Mount Vernon (Illinois) of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League for most of the ’49 campaign. The team finished 53-67. Trotter, then 40 years old, retired from professional baseball. His career pitching record across all levels: 147-146 in 17 seasons.

After baseball, Trotter found work with Caterpillar Tractor Co. He died in 1984 in Evansville, Indiana. He’s buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Fairfield, Illinois. He was 76.

Bill Trotter’s World War II draft card. (Ancestry.com)
Bill Trotter’s 1945 baseball questionnaire. (Ancestry.com)

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