A St. Louisan who played baseball under two names — one assumed, one authentic — provided the only tangible link between the Anniston Rams and Hollywood. That such a link exists is one of the quirkiest tidbits about a team that featured only B-list players and won a mere single championship.
How Jess Dobernic, a pitcher on the first Anniston Rams team in 1938, claimed an uncredited bit part in “The Stratton Story,” starring Jimmy Stewart, is almost assuredly the result of his career roadmap after World War II. Dobernic was a pitcher who’d played in Los Angeles and Sacramento; the film’s casting director needed players as extras. Acting talent was irrelevant.
What makes the former Ram’s brief appearance in the film — which won an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story — worth noting is that Dobernic didn’t just portray an unnamed player. He portrayed a player named Dobernic. He portrayed himself.
With Stewart in the role of former Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, the movie details the hurler’s rise and unlikely comeback after he was severely injured in a hunting accident and his amputated leg was replaced by a prosthetic. In the final scene, Stratton takes the mound for the first time after his setback, trying to prove he can still pitch despite suffering from a severe limp. (Spoiler alert: he does.)
As the game progresses, hitters start pinging Stratton’s pitches off the outfield wall. Tension mounts. The manager paces in the dugout. “Have Fred warm up,” he shouts. “Fred warm up.” In the press box, the radio announcer notes Stratton’s struggles and glances to his right.
“There goes Dobernic out of the bullpen to warm up,” the announcer says. Two players, a pitcher and a catcher, climb the dugout steps and jog away.
Jess Dobernic, the erstwhile Anniston Ram, received neither a spoken line nor inclusion in the credits. He never relieved Stratton. But he did get three seconds of Hollywood screen time and, more interestingly, his surname lives eternally in the script, which surely was enough to overshadow being renamed “Fred.” Fame has its costs.
How Dobernic came to the Rams isn’t nearly as memorable, if for no other reason than the inaugural Rams played like a Southeastern League expansion team — they finished 62-86 and in seventh place in the eight-team SEL — and his career included stints with both of Chicago’s Major League teams and the Cincinnati Reds. A few seconds in a Jimmy Stewart movie trumps most everything on his resume.
Born into an ethnic Yugoslavian family in Illinois, Jess Dobernic broke into professional baseball in 1937 with Class D Rayne, Louisiana, of the Evangeline League. But even that, along with his quick rise to the Major Leagues, serves as a sidebar to his unlikely connection to a pitcher named Lee Kaiser, who had knocked around the industrial leagues in the Calumet region of Illinois.
Lee Kaiser is Jess Dobernic. Or, vice versa.
There’s no historical record to why the teenaged Dobernic pitched under an assumed name for an industrial team sponsored by Shell Petroleum. But there are ample printed recordings of Dobernic’s temporary alias once he joined organized baseball. In 1940, The Times of Munster, Indiana, noted that the White Sox’ spring roster included several young pitchers known to its readers, Dobernic among them. But the writer snappily included this parenthetical: “Remember when he was Lee Kaiser?” As assumed names go, Dobernic’s choice seemed to hide his true identity from no one.
The first-year Rams picked Dobernic up in the summer of 1938, which gave Anniston’s upstarts a bit of a public-relations jolt given that the right-hander spent the spring in the White Sox’ camp. After stops in St. Paul and Dallas proved too daunting, the 20-year-old debuted for the Rams in an 8-3 loss to Gadsden in early July. His season aligned seamlessly with the Rams’; neither were memorable. In 19 appearances, Dobernic finished 2-7 with a 4.36 ERA but was nonetheless recalled to the White Sox’ roster during the offseason.
Given another spring tryout the following year, Dobernic pitched well enough to lead reporters to wonder if he’d break camp with Chicago. He struck out six in an exhibition appearance against the crosstown Cubs. He didn’t allow a hit in a three-inning stint against the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles team. Promise aside, Dobernic still threw as many balls as strikes and started the season in the minors.
Faced with losses and a string of upcoming doubleheaders, the White Sox summoned Dobernic from St. Paul in late June. His July 2 MLB debut against Detroit was tragically eventful. Entering in the fourth inning, he pitched a scoreless frame but fell apart in the fifth. After getting the first out, he walked a batter, saw the next hitter reach on an error, walked another batter to load the bases, hit Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg to give up a run, then allowed a two-run double. His line: 1.1 innings pitched, one hit and three runs allowed (two earned), and two walks. He made only three more appearances before the Sox shipped him back to the minors. In May 1941, they shipped him again — to the Cubs — essentially giving up on a pitcher whose right arm was both a weapon and curse.
The one-time Anniston hurler wouldn’t pitch again in the Major Leagues until 1948, when he spent the entire season with the Cubs. But that was only after he pitched two years with the PCL’s Angels, joined the U.S. Army during World War II, trained as an airplane electrician, pitched and managed for military teams, deployed to Italy, and pitched two more seasons in Los Angeles. By that time, he was 30 and had pitched either professionally or for Army teams for 11 years.
The ’48 Cubs resembled the ’38 Rams — terrible — finishing eighth in the National League at 64-90. But they were nonetheless impressed that spring by Dobernic’s ability to eat up bullpen innings and stabilize late-inning jams. Dobernic had been a standout reliever in Los Angeles the year before.
“If the Chicago Cubs are to regain a spot near the top in the baseball world in 1948,” a Venice, California, newspaper wrote that February, “the man who may be instrumental in their comeback is one Jess Dobernic, better known in Los Angeles, at least, as the ‘fireman’ … Certainly all local diamond fans recognize Jess Dobernic as the man who was more than a little responsible for the Los Angeles Angels’ pennant-winning season in 1947 …
“Considering the regularity with which the Cubs’ starting pitchers parade to the showers, there certainly should be room on the club for another man of Dobernic’s ability … My bet is that the Chicago Cubs will find Jess Dobernic a handy guy to have around.” In 54 appearances, the “handy guy” went 7-2 with a 3.15 ERA.
Long-term success didn’t take root, though. He broke camp with the Cubs in 1949. The Cubs traded him to Cincinnati in May. The Reds sent sent him down to the PCL’s Sacramento Salons in the summer. And never again would the pitcher once known as Lee Kaiser reach the Major Leagues.
Dobernic pitched five more seasons in the minors in Los Angeles, Springfield, Denver, Toronto and Kennewick, Washington. When he retired after the 1954 season, he was a 36-year-old war veteran who’d thrown baseballs for a living since he was a teenager, including a few unremarkable months in Anniston.
Back in St. Louis, he owned a meat-packing company and took part in several gatherings of former Major League players who lived there. He died in 1998 at the age of 80.