The Anniston pitcher who helped build the Dodgers

Ben Wade

Ben Wade’s baseball journey is so full of anecdotes, so bloated with achievements and six-degrees-of-separation moments, that boiling it down to a quintessential event is impossible, if not harder still. The man who pitched in nearly 600 professional games, played for four National League clubs and stocked Tommy Lasorda‘s roster with a cavalry of Major League stars also played for the Anniston Rams’ only championship team, a combination of baseball happenings too cumbersome to appropriately describe.

And there’s this.

In the summer of 1955, Wade was 32 and unfortunate enough to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were so rotten that they won a meager 60 games and finished eighth in the eight-team NL. Not even Roberto Clemente‘s presence mattered.

On June 12, in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader against the Milwaukee Braves, Pirates Manager Fred Haney summoned Wade from the Forbes Field bullpen.

Ben Wade with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The first batter Wade faced was a 20-year-old rookie outfielder named Henry Aaron, who flew out to center field. Wade, a right-hander, finished the eighth and threw a scoreless ninth. The Pirates still lost, 6-5.

The following week, Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey shipped Wade to the Pacific Coast League. He never again pitched in the Major Leagues.

Of the hundreds of men who wore a Rams uniform, no one could name-drop like Benjamin Styron Wade, of Morehead, North Carolina. Besides Clemente and Lasorda, he played with Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Johnny Podres, Don Zimmer, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Gene Mauch, Frank Howard, Maury Wills and Bill Mazeroski. He played for Walter Alston and Bobby Bragan. He scouted (or signed) Mike Piazza, Rick Sutcliffe, Dave Stewart, Mike Scioscia, Bob Welch, Mickey Hatcher, Steve Sax, Mike Marshall, Steve Howe, Orel Hershiser, John Franco, John Wetteland, Eric Karros and Eric Young during his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scouting department. Eight of his ’46 Rams teammates — John Burrows, Moe Burtschy, Bubba Harris, Sid Gautreaux, Mel Hoderlein, Johnny Kucab, Dave Short and Bill Trotter — played in the Major Leagues. During World War II, he played Army Air Force ball in St. Petersburg, Florida, for Tom Winsett, who later managed the Seventh Army Air Force team in Hawaii. On that team’s roster was an outfielder named Joe DiMaggio.

Somewhere in that smorgasbord of baseball elite rests the Rams, without whom Wade may never have pitched his way into the Major Leagues.

AN INVALUABLE ANNISTON RAM

Ben Wade with the Anniston Rams.

When he enlisted in the military in 1943, Wade essentially chose duty over potential baseball stardom. He wasn’t alone. Established standouts like DiMaggio and Ted Williams missed three seasons; Hank Greenberg missed nearly four. Their places in the postwar game were nonetheless secure. Farmhands like Wade — who were given no guarantees of baseball jobs when the war ended — risked not only their lives in wartime service, but their opportunities at playing the national pastime for pay.

Wade played three seasons before the war, starting as a 17-year-old with two low-level Brooklyn farm teams, then with Cincinnati’s squads in Indianapolis and Syracuse. Absent the war, the young right-hander might have debuted with the Reds in 1943. Instead, he signed with Pittsburgh’s Southern Association team, the Birmingham Barons, in the spring of 1946, hoping to rekindle the momentum shelved three years prior.

Zipp Newman, the Birmingham News sports editor, wrote that summer that Wade “was one of the finest-looking prospects in the Barons’ training camp” after dominating teams during his military stint. But in Birmingham he floundered, going 1-7 in 11 games in the season’s opening months, a victim of rust and lackadaisical run support. Sixty or so miles to the east, where Anniston team president Loy Gunter obsessed that summer over finding new talent for his underachieving team, the Rams provided Wade with a comfortable landing spot.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Few, if any, Rams newcomers had a more profound effect than Wade. He won his Anniston debut, fanning 14 in a 9-0 win over Selma — and he never stopped winning during the regular season. The Rams, mired in the SEL’s pack when Wade arrived from Birmingham, roared through the second half, keeping pace with front-runners Vicksburg and Montgomery and finishing in second place. Wade was spectacular: a 15-4 record with 18 complete games in 21 starts. The pitcher who nearly made the Reds’ roster before the war pitched like a man hell-bent on getting to the Major Leagues. “We would have won the pennant if we had had him the whole year,” Rams Manager Tommy West told The Birmingham News. Boston Braves scout Joseph Tinker — of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” fame — was unequivocal. “Wade is the best pitcher I’ve seen this year,” he told the Associated Press.

That success dissolved during the SEL playoffs. West chose Wade to pitch the opener against Montgomery, and the Rebels pounded him, 7-3. He started Game 5 and pitched well, but lost, 3-2, in 11 innings. Wade made three starts in the championship series against Vicksburg — winning Game 1, 20-4; dropping Game 4, 1-0, in 10 innings; and losing Game 6, 9-2. Wade’s postseason exemplified baseball’s fickleness; Anniston won the SEL title even though its best pitcher during the regular season was hardly regular, if that.

By the end of the month, the Barons made a decision on Wade’s future. They traded him to the Chicago Cubs’ PCL team in Los Angeles.

SCOUTING FOR THE DODGERS

Ben Wade with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s a testament to Wade’s baseball arc that his Major League career isn’t his apex. He debuted briefly with the Cubs in 1948 and played two-and-a-half seasons with the Dodgers. In his first spring with the Dodgers, in 1952, Wade told a Nashville reporter that “I always could throw hard, as you know. Now I have finally come up with a good curve instead of that dinky wrinkle I used to throw.” The Dodgers didn’t use him in the 1952 World Series against the New York Yankees, but when they did in the 1953 World Series, the Yankees lit him up for four hits and four runs in 2.1 innings over two appearances. He spent another few months in 1954 with the St. Louis Cardinals, who shipped him to Pittsburgh that winter, and he was out of the big leagues, for good, after those last two innings at Forbes Field in 1955. His career MLB line: 19-17 over parts of five seasons, 10 saves, 4.34 ERA. He wouldn’t retire until 1961 after five-plus additional seasons in the minors.

All those years in the game — the 16 minor-league seasons, the relationships with Rickey and Lasorda — paid off in November 1962 when the Dodgers hired him as a scout. (He’d scouted for the expansion New York Mets in his first summer as a retired player.) The Dodgers were NL elite, with a new park in Chavez Ravine, two World Series titles in the 1950s and two more on the horizon, and a pitching staff anchored by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Wade, who’d settled in Pasadena, couldn’t have found a better home.

A 1987 clipping from The Los Angeles Times.

In 1968, the Dodgers’ scouting department all-but cemented the team’s 1970s success by conducting arguably the best draft in team, if not baseball, history, taking 11 eventual Major League players, including six MLB all-stars who combined for 23 All-Star Game appearances. Among the names were Doyle Alexander, Bill Buckner, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Tom Paciorek, Joe Ferguson, Bobby Valentine, Geoff Zahn. Wade soon became the team’s scouting director, a post he’d hold for nearly two decades, during which a Dodger newcomer would win the NL Rookie of the Year award seven times in 16 years.

In 1989, the year after the Dodgers won another World Series, Wade recounted to a Los Angeles Times reporter the story of Hershiser‘s ascendency to MLB All-Star. It wasn’t smooth.

“Scouting is a guessing game. You have to be lucky … You don’t get your hopes high. You never know what’s inside a player until he plays for you, and you never know who you’ll get in the draft.

— Ben Wade

“Nobody dreamed he’d be the type of player he turned out to be,” Wade told the Times. Everyone passed on Hershiser for 16 rounds of the 1979 draft until the Dodgers selected him with the 440th pick. “The big thing was that Tommy Lasorda liked what he saw, but thought that Orel’s ability wouldn’t come out until he became more of a competitor.” That realization led to a now-infamous heated conversation between the pitcher and Lasorda, who “screamed” at Hershiser and told him he had to ramp up his competitive spirit.

It worked. Hershiser became a three-time All-Star, a World Series MVP and a Cy Young Award winner, and he set an MLB mark with 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched.

“Scouting is a guessing game,” Wade told The Times. “You have to be lucky … You don’t get your hopes high. You never know what’s inside a player until he plays for you, and you never know who you’ll get in the draft.”

Wade, however, didn’t survive the 1980s with the Dodgers. Criticism of stagnant draft results and poor free-agent signings lingered. Though the team won the 1988 title, the organization’s minor-league teams posted three straight losing seasons in the mid-’80s. In 1987, the Sacramento Bee noted that only five of the Dodgers’ second-round draft picks in the last 23 years had advanced to the Major Leagues, and that Wade’s department had passed on pitcher Roger Clemens and outfielder Eric Davis. Wade retired after the 1990 season, his legacy as a front-office icon bruised but not broken.

“I’m sure sorry we missed Eric Davis because we sure could use him,” Wade told The Bee. “But when we tried him out, he was a shortstop. He did not show us a reason to make him a first-round pick. He didn’t even win a foot race with two other prospects. Remember, everybody passed on Davis, too. But the fact is, it’s a tough job looking at a 17-year-old and projecting what he’ll be like when he’s 23.”

Wade, the former Anniston Ram, remained in California after leaving the Dodgers. He died in 2002 of cancer. He was 80.

Ben Wade’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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