For a pitcher who played in the minors, reached the Major Leagues and faced Stan Musial, Joe Medwick, Harry Walker and Vince DiMaggio, Jack Niemes‘ memorable baseball headline was an anticlimactic disappointment. It’s not what he did, or how much he played, but how much he didn’t play.
A Cincinnatian fortunate to wear the uniform of his hometown Reds, Niemes found his way to Anniston in the summer of 1941. He pitched one game for the Southeastern League’s Rams. And then he skedaddled. It’s easier to measure his time with the team in hours, not days.
In 1943 and a year removed from organized baseball, Niemes was playing industrial-league ball in his hometown when the Reds sought help for their depleted pitching staff. They craved a left-hander. The left-handed Niemes was nearby. After a tryout, the Reds signed him and put him on the big-league roster.
Niemes spent three-plus months with Cincinnati.
He pitched three times.
When Niemes died in 1966, his obituary’s headline in The Cincinnati Enquirer didn’t describe him as a former Red or as a World War II veteran incorrectly identified as a combat death. He instead was listed as a “plumbing contractor,” a profession that has more to do with this former Anniston Ram’s story than baseball itself.
Niemes “was born to plumb,” authors Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron wrote in their book, “The Lost Boys,” about hometown Reds players. Some families farm. Others create family businesses or political dynasties. The Niemeses were plumbers. Niemes’ grandfather, father and uncle plumbed, the Heffrons wrote, and young Jack Niemes followed the trend. The only difference was the undisputable value of his left arm — he pitched his high school team to a state championship — that delayed eventual immersion into the family business.
When he was 18, the Reds signed the hometown boy and introduced him to the roving life of a minor-leaguer, sending him to Columbia and Muskogee before a brief stint with Durham, a Brooklyn outpost. It was there, in 1940, that sports writer Edward Mitchell anointed Niemes as one of the Reds’ best farmhands with a legitimate chance to crack the big-league roster. “Scattered throughout the ranks of the Cincinnati farm system are some ambitious southpaws, but Durham is believed to have one of the best prospects in Jack Niemes, well-built pitcher who has seen more service here this season than the records reveal,” Mitchell wrote. “… Niemes may or may not be the southpaw the Reds are looking for, but he intends to stick in there and try for the berth with the big team.”
By the spring of 1941 he was up the Southern League’s Birmingham Barons, hoping to inch closer to the Major Leagues.
Instead, the Barons shipped him in early May to Class B Anniston in the SEL.
The day of his Rams debut, The Anniston Star posited that the renovated team “was pretty well set on pitching” but still needed to add a sure-handed shortstop. Then the game began.
“Jake Niemes, new Anniston southpaw, had trouble finding the plate in the early stages of the game, and with the help of walks and timely Shipper hits he was put squarely behind the eight ball in the second inning with four Mobile runs scoring,” The Star wrote.
Mobile whipped Anniston that night, 14-10. Niemes lasted 5 1/3 innings, gave up 11 hits and 10 runs, and fanned five. He took the loss.
The next day, Niemes went home. Plumbing was to blame. He asked the Barons, who owned his rights, for his release so he could return to Ohio and help his brother with the family business after his father’s health-related retirement to California. Niemes was only 21, an Anniston Ram for the briefest of tenures. Though he was “making good progress moving toward the top of the Reds organization,” the Cincinnati Post later wrote, he was done with professional baseball. It was time to plumb.
Until the Reds called.
The 1943 Reds finished second in the National League, but with the military depleting rosters and limiting the pool of available MLB-caliber talent, finding a Band-Aid for their struggling pitching staff became a chore. Niemes’ proximity made his tryout a sensible risk. That proximity also allowed him to continue assisting his brother with the family business when the Reds were in town. Plumbing estimator by day, pitcher by night.
“Now awaiting his chance to prove that his blaze of glory in the minor leagues was not just a flash in the pan is Jack Niemes, latest addition to the Cincinnati mound staff,” the Dayton Herald Journal wrote that summer. Niemes told the newspaper he hoped to earn a starting role after spending a few weeks in the Reds’ bullpen.
That hope, though, never became reality. Only three times in 14 weeks did Niemes pitch, which was great for his plumbing job but detrimental for his baseball career. He threw an inning against Brooklyn on May 30, an inning against St. Louis June 24 and an inning against Pittsburgh on Sept. 11. He also threw a few times during in-season exhibition games against military teams. But he never pitched in a professional game again, his career spanning parts of five seasons and less than 100 games played.
The following year Niemes joined the Navy and served in the South Pacific. When wounded in combat, Niemes earned a Purple Heart. But a mixup, either by a careless newspaper editor or military paperwork, caused at least one newspaper to report that he’d been killed in action.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported April 21, 1945, that Niemes was missing in action. The Birmingham News reported the same news on April 22, but that day the Decatur Daily in Alabama reported that he’d died in the South Pacific. Back home in Ohio, the Enquirer — which didn’t report the initial error — nonetheless published a rebuttal that explained the hometown kid was wounded but very much alive.
After the war, Niemes’ life regained its balance. He worked in the family business before branching out on his own. He pitched a bit in industrial leagues around Cincinnati. In a conversation with authors Joe Heffron and Jack Heffron, Niemes’ son, Roy Niemes, said his father rarely talked about his one season playing with the Reds. It’s altogether likely he rarely, if ever, spoke about his lone appearance with the Rams, too.
Niemes, who died at age 46 in a car crash, is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio.