This is how good Joe “Blackie” Kohlman was in 1937: He won 25 games during the regular season for Class D Salisbury of the Eastern Shore League, fanned 227 batters and won 27 straight games including the playoffs, which included two no-hitters. His only loss came when he threw a four-hitter in the season’s first game. When he made two late-season starts for the Washington Senators, he won a five-inning complete game and might have won the other had darkness not caused a tie.
In other words, he was spectacular.
This is how good Kohlman was otherwise: He pitched only seven more times in the Major Leagues, rarely stood out in his seven years in the minors and spent portions of two seasons in Anniston, pitching for the Southeastern League’s Rams. The summer following his 30th birthday, he wound up in the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey, which gave him a uniform, trained him to fight and shipped him overseas. He survived the war and returned to the United States after 25 months of foreign service, but he never again pitched competitively.
Why Kohlman, a right-hander who’d caught the eye of Connie Mack, didn’t capitalize on his monstrous 1937 season is one of baseball’s unknowns. The likely culprit is a sore arm, which plagued him during spring training in 1938 and again with the Rams in 1942, though it never sidelined him for an extended period of time. Whatever the cause, Kohlman’s inability to stick in the Major Leagues or dominate again in the minors is intrinsically linked to his arrival in Anniston. The latter doesn’t happen without the former.
Mack, the Hall of Fame manager, loved Kohlman from the start; his American League team, the Philadelphia Athletics, signed him when he was 19. In 1933 and only a month after Kohlman’s high school graduation, a newspaper wire report posited that it “looks as if he may step directly from the New Jersey sandlots to big league greensward.” Eddie Rommel, a Philadelphia coach, told the reporter that Kohlman “looks good — very good — even though he is still a comparative youngster. He has a great future if he sticks to baseball.”
Kohlman did stick to baseball, though Mack’s organization had shipped him to Washington in the AL. And in the summer of 1937, when his Salisbury team started started 21-5 but forfeited its victories because the league ruled it had used too many “experienced” players — Eastern Shore teams could only sign four — Kohlman joined his teammates on one of minor-league baseball’s oddest stories. “The rule was more than draconian: it was stupid, and it was unjust,” Bill James wrote in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.” But Salisbury soldiered on. The team went 59-11 after its 0-26 “start,” finished in first place and took the championship by winning two playoff series. Kohlman’s twin no-hitters clinched the regular-season title and the league title. Then he went to Washington and nearly won two games.
A correspondent for the Salisbury Daily Times told readers how well he’d done in his first MLB game: “Cool, deliberate, Joe Kohlman made his Major League debut for the Washington American League club yesterday and conducted himself not only like a veteran but as creditably as any of the six hurlers who took part in the game … Kohlman worked eight innings and retired only to give way to a pinch hitter. It was the consensus of the fans in the stands that Washington perhaps would have beaten the A’s in the regulation nine frames had Kohlman continued in the box.” Clark Griffith, the Senators’ owner, “took pride in Kohlman’s performance.”
Sore arm be damned, Kohlman made Washington’s opening-day roster in 1938, but not without a dash of heroics late in spring training. With a trip to the minors all but assured, Kohlman held Boston to four hits in five innings, a March outing that caused Griffith to settle the matter, the Salisbury newspaper reported.
“We keep him,” Griffith said.
But only for a month. Kohlman’s performance — an underwhelming 6.28 ERA in seven relief appearances — couldn’t prevent Washington from farming him out. He eventually settled with Greenville of the South Atlantic League, his MLB days through.
Born in 1938, the Rams began their brief fling with Kohlman three years later after the former Senator had pitched for Jersey City, Knoxville and Memphis. It also began under a cloud of controversy. Memphis and Kohlman had agreed he’d be shipped to Williamsport of the Eastern League, and was, but the minor leagues’ commissioner nullified the deal and ruled Memphis would have to sell Kohlman outright. The Chicks balked and instead sent him to Greenville, one of their farm teams. Kohlman balked and appealed that ruling. He lost, went to Greenville, and four weeks later was sold to Anniston.
The newspaper in Greenville, the Democrat-Times, implied that the struggling Rams had been snookered. “Manager (Dick) Porter of the Anniston club expressed delight in securing of Kohlman, who has done little pitching for the Bucks and has failed to turn in a victory for the Greenville club during the month he has been with the team,” the newspaper wrote. The truth wasn’t far off. Kohlman debuted for the Rams in relief on June 9 and lost five days later to Selma, 8-3, when he gave up 11 hits and eight runs in four innings. He finished the season 6-6. The Rams did even worse, going 64-76 and plummeting to seventh place in the SEL.
The 1942 Rams were slightly better — 67-76, fourth in the SEL — and slipped into the playoffs, but Kohlman wouldn’t last that long at Johnson Field. Slowed that spring by the recurrence of his sore arm, Kohlman pitched three times, winning once, was was sold for a 30-day “tryout” with Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. Returned to the Rams, Kohlman was sold again, this time to SEL rival Meridian, on May 19.
Neither Kohlman nor the Rams could avoid the inevitable. Wearing a Meridian uniform for the first time, Kohlman started against the Rams the day after they sold him for change. The Rams won, 3-2, at Johnston Field, despite getting only eight hits in nine innings against their former teammate. When 1943 began, Kohlman found himself on yet another SEL roster — Montgomery’s — but the league shut down because of the war, and he and most of his teammates were sold to Richmond of the still-operative Piedmont League.
Baseball ultimately gave way to the Army. In July, Kohlman arrived at Fort Dix.
After the war, Kohlman returned to his home in the Philadelphia area. He died in 2004 at age 66.