Navy vet who guided Rams to SEL title

Tommy West

When war enveloped the globe in the 1940s, Tommy West had already celebrated his 30th birthday and played 12 seasons of professional baseball in recognizable places (Houston and Rochester) and forgettable pinpricks (Monroe and Kinston), a journey taking him through nine states. In a sense, his youth had already expired. The U.S. Navy then stole him for two years, 10 months and nine days, 18 months of which were spent in the south Pacific. But the man who would soon become the winningest manager in Anniston Rams history and lead the team to its only championship knew his heart.

The Navy discharged West in September 1945, not long after the Japanese surrender. In November, the native Mississippian and longtime south Alabamian filled out a questionnaire for the American Baseball Bureau in Chicago. It asked about his ambition in baseball, if he still had one.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

“Return to managing or scouting,” West wrote.

Hello, Anniston.

Two months later, West got his wish when Rams President Loy Gunter hired him to reanimate the city’s dormant team following the Southeastern League’s three-year wartime silence. Given the Rams’ aversion to winning, the choice seemed prescient.

Fresh from the service, West, a catcher, brought managerial clout along with left-handed power at the plate. He came from Southern stock, the paternal grandson of a Baptist preacher run out of Jones County, Mississippi, by Confederate deserters during the Civil War. After bouncing around the minors in his early twenties, West was playing in Asheville in 1936 when that team’s owner replaced the Tourists’ manager with an interim — West, who was only 25. From then on he rarely played for teams he also didn’t manage.

Tommy West as player-manager in Kinston in 1938.

He made the playoffs as a rookie manager with Union Springs, Alabama, in 1937 and led Kinston to a postseason bid the following year. He finished second at Daytona Beach and Asheville, where he missed the playoffs on the season’s final day. He won the 1941 SEL pennant with Mobile, which summarily fired him the following summer because all managers get canned sometime, even in prewar Class B leagues.

The woebegone Rams, meanwhile, had endured four losing summers in their first five seasons, finishing seventh, fifth, eighth, seventh and fourth. What they lacked in skill they made up for in mediocrity. Only World War II prevented them from extending that streak.

Though their new manager proved a godsend, the Rams’ 1946 season epitomized a tale of two halves — the first demoralizing, the second exhilarating — though optimism ruled before the arrival of summer heat. That spring, West and Billy Bancroft, the team’s business manager, attended a joint Anniston Rams-Birmingham Barons tryout camp in Tallassee that drew 76 players from 13 states. When the Rams and Barons opened their joint spring training site in Biloxi, West phoned Gunter with news that a gaggle of former Rams had trickled into camp — players who, because of the SEL’s three-year absence, hadn’t worn an Anniston uniform since 1941 or 1942. When camp broke, Anniston’s manager sounded reluctant to embrace unbridled hope, telling the press that “we could use a game before I would be willing to make any predictions about our future, but the club is shaping up well … Pitching and fielding will take care of itself as we work together.”

A 1934 clipping from the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Opening Day — the first in four years — bathed Anniston in love for the reconstituted Rams and their new manager. The war was over; baseball had returned. On April 19, a sunny Friday, 20 uniformed Rams climbed aboard a large truck for a parade that started at the intersection of Eighth and Noble streets and rolled through the city’s downtown. At noon, three Anniston police officers on motorcycles led the procession north. Anniston firemen drove the city’s largest truck along the route. Members of the city’s Junior Safety Patrol and the Anniston High School marching band followed behind. In the procession was the city’s mayor, J.F. King, and police chief, J.L. Peek. Behind the Rams’ truck was a cavalry of floats highlighting the city’s businesses and fans in their cars, all headed for Johnston Field and the opener against Gadsden.

West faced two immediate crises: his players were homeless, and his players were awful. As opening day approached, his players were still bunking in hotels and were “hot,” The Anniston Star reported, because they hadn’t been able to find suitable housing, leaving West no choice but to join their “sidewalk beat” in search of rooms and apartments for rent. As for the second crisis, it was far worse.

The opening day Anniston Rams from 1946. (The Anniston Star)

The Rams lost their first game. They lost their second game. When they fell to 0-3, The Star described West as “the most worried manager in the league at this moment” and lamented the fact that the Rams’ working agreement with the Southern Association’s Barons had slowed their roster development and prevented exhibition games before facing Gadsden. The Rams, The Star wrote, “were still trying to learn each other’s names when they arrived here.” One weekend into the season, Gunter was already making an “all-out effort to bolster (the) wavering club.” Anniston’s roster churn was underway.

When the Rams sat in last place in midsummer, Gunter remade the roster with violence before the dog days of August, jettisoning underperforming players and searching for magic elsewhere. Players came and went with regularity. Fifty players that season donned Anniston uniforms, half of whom weren’t around when the Rams made their unlikely playoff run.

West, by then a 35-year-old war veteran with an impressive resume and a reputation for tussling with umpires, somehow made the churn work.

“I believe Tommy is going to give us a better ballclub in 1947 than the one which brought Anniston our first championship last year.”

— Rams President Loy Gunter

The Rams were 21-28 on June 13. They finished 81-59 — second behind Pensacola — by going 60-31 after Gunter’s midseason importation of players like pitcher Ben Wade, who won 15 games, and outfielder Mel Hoderlein, who hit .325. West, who had hit above .300 in his final three prewar seasons, played in only 74 games and hit just .238 with the Rams. Age and wartime service were to blame. But he excelled at managing an ever-changing roster and piloted the Rams to playoff series victories over Montgomery and Vicksburg.

That winter, West and his wife remained in Anniston. He worked on West 13th Street at a small lumber plant that manufactured moulding and flooring. Before Christmas, Gunter made the sensible decision and rehired West. The title-winning manager was coming back.

A 1946 clipping from The Anniston Star.

“I believe Tommy is going to give us a better ballclub in 1947 than the one which brought Anniston our first championship last year,” Gunter said.

That prediction from the man responsible for stocking the Rams’ roster proved horribly wrong, as the magic of the previous summer, the unlikeliest of worst-to-first stories, dissipated with astonishing speed. On May 9, with the Rams in last place at 8-15, Gunter fired West, replacing him temporarily with Bancroft, the team’s business manager.

A 1947 clipping from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

“I am making the change in an attempt to pull the Rams out of the cellar,” Gunter said. “With additional help I have been promised by the Boston Red Sox organization, I think the Rams will be bolstered into a more favorable position in the Southeastern League pennant race.”

Gunter was wrong. Firing West proved fruitless. The Rams, terrible again, finished 56-84 and in last place, a far cry from their 1946 championship won in the 10th inning of a stirring Game 7. Still wanting to play, West signed with one of his former teams, Daytona Beach of the Class D Florida State League, where he hit .289 in 90 games, and then he retired from baseball. The Wests moved back home to Prichard, Alabama, where in 1953 he was hired as that city’s recreations director.

When the 60-year-old West died in May 1970 in Prichard, Orlando Sentinel writer Charlie Wadsworth wrote that the longtime baseball player and manager “did not forget his days in Florida and returned frequently over the years to visit east coast friends.”

There was no mention of his death in the newspaper in Anniston.

Tommy West’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)
Tommy West’s 1945 baseball questionnaire. (Ancestry.com)

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