The Mack pupil who led the Rams to their first playoff berth

Merritt “Sugar” Cain, pitcher on Philadelphia Athletics.

When Georgia farmer Merritt “Sugar” Cain reached the Major Leagues, the first hitter he faced was Lou Gehrig. His first big-league win came against the New York Yankees, their roster filled with nine future Hall of Famers, Babe Ruth among them. His first manager was Connie Mack. His second manager was Rogers Hornsby. He won 13 games in his sophomore season and would have won more than that in his third had the Philadelphia Athletics’ pedestrian offense not starved him of run support.

It requires an ample pinch of hyperbole to suggest that Cain’s achievement with the Southeastern League’s Anniston Rams deserves his resume’s top billing. But it’s not an indefensible position.

A 1942 headline in The Anniston Star.

In the Rams’ 10 seasons, only three managers took them to the playoffs: Tommy West in 1946, Charles Baron in 1948, and Cain in 1942. West’s team, Anniston’s best, won the SEL pennant. Though it flopped in the postseason, Baron’s outfit won 75 games. But Cain led the Rams to their first playoff appearance in a season in which they lost more than they won and sold their standout — player-manager Dee Moore — to New Orleans in late July, handing the former Major Leaguer the chore of filling in as manager during the summer’s dog days.

Cain, then 35, wasn’t a complete neophyte; he’d played for Mack and Hornsby, and he had credentials. Two years prior while pitching for the Southern League’s Knoxville Smokies, he’d been named temporary manager after a midseason dugout shakeup. Because the Smokies wasted no time in hiring a full-time skipper, Cain’s stopgap managerial stint lasted a day. His record: 0-1. 

Merritt Cain with the St. Louis Browns in 1935.

Anniston didn’t seem to mind, though the city’s baseball crowd was admittedly mournful over Moore’s sale. “With all fairness to other men on the local club,” The Anniston Star’s Ted York wrote, “Moore was ‘The Ram.’” But York seemed satisfied that the Rams’ front office had slid the veteran right-hander into Moore’s player-manager role.

“‘Ole Sug’ has won his part of games for Anniston, considering the Rams’ present standing, his record now being eight wins and ten losses,” York wrote. “A veteran of the big-time show and a Connie Mack pupil, Cain knows baseball inside and out. He has a pleasing personality and is popular with his fellows. Cain, we believe, will prove himself a worthy successor to Moore.”

Truth be told, the New Orleans club didn’t want Moore because of his managerial skills; they wanted him to catch and hit. The Rams’ lukewarm record bore that out. Anniston sat at 48-59 and in fourth place in the six-team SEL when team president Loy Gunter sold Moore south. Though still in the Rams’ rotation, Cain would have roughly a month to guide his teammates toward the franchise’s first postseason appearance. Doing that would require keeping the underperforming Rams in the SEL’s top four.

The experiment started well enough. His Rams managerial debut on July 27 produced his first managerial victory, a 13-11 win over Jackson at Johnston Field. When the regular season ended, the Rams had gone 19-17 under their interim manager and finished 67-76, securing the fourth slot in the playoffs. Their reward, though, was unpleasant — a first-round series against Montgomery, the league’s best team.

Merritt Cain with the Chicago White Sox.

Cain couldn’t prevent the inevitable. The Rams won Game 1, 7-6, when the Rebels stranded the winning run in the ninth inning. But the reality of being a sub-.500 club crashed hard on Anniston’s fleeting postseason hopes. Montgomery won three games by the same score — 5-3 — and then walloped the Rams in Game 5, 12-3, on a strange night when Cain and two of his players were ejected from Cramton Bowl. The three Rams “were banished from the playing field by a squad of ten policemen following a big ‘squabble’ in the seventh over a play at the plate,” the Montgomery Advertiser’s Max Mosely wrote the next morning. Ernie Potocar, the Rams’ catcher, grabbed umpire Cy Pfirman Jr. “in a disgusting manner,” causing the police response. (The umpire’s father, Cy Pfirman Sr., was a MLB umpire from 1922-1936 who worked three World Series and the 1934 All-Star Game.)

Merritt Cain with the Harrisburg Senators.

Disappointing as it was, that night in Montgomery marked the end of Cain’s time in Anniston. He pitched for the Rams, led the Rams, made history with the Rams, and then moved on to Birmingham in 1943. He also managed again, spending part of 1948 with the Georgia-Alabama League team in Vidalia, and umpired briefly in the minors.

Before the drastic contraction of the minor leagues after World War II, the game’s far-reaching tentacles connected players, teams and cities in profound ways. Cain was no exception. His lengthy career and ascension to the Major Leagues were due to one man — Mack — who bought his contract from Carrollton of the Georgia-Alabama League after the 1930 season, farmed him to Class B Harrisburg and brought him to Philadelphia in 1932. 

Hidden in that timeline is this nugget: the GAL featured six teams in 1930. The Anniston Nobles, a precursor to the Rams and the first professional tenant at Johnston Field, was one of those teams. (They lasted three years, 1928-1930.) Several times that summer Cain pitched against the Nobles, either in Anniston or Carrollton. In the slimmest, but not insignificant, of ways, Johnston Field connects Cain to Mack and, in turn, to the Major Leagues.

“I want to make it clear that I still think Cain is a good pitcher.”

— Connie Mack

That Cain didn’t extend his MLB career is a shame. The Athletics certainly expected him to blossom, given that Mack plucked him from what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “the pee-wee course of organized baseball for a lack of citizenry.” The populations of Anniston, Carrollton, Cedartown, Talladega, Huntsville and Lindale didn’t impress, but the newspaper admitted that the “brave little loop” had earned a reputation for developing players. Mack’s decision to grab Cain and several other GAL players was intriguing, because you never knew who would pan out. “Lurking among this quartette of wistful Southern youths may be a prospect who with his arm or bat will rise as quickly to fame as Ty Cobb or Wesley Ferrell, who came out of the stumps of the South to glimmer instantly.” The Inquirer missed an opportunity to note the similar connection another Anniston outfit, the 1904 team, had with Cobb. The tentacles seemed to touch everyone.

Merritt Cain with the Philadelphia Athletics. (Macon News clipping)

Cain made only 10 appearances with Philadelphia in 1932 before pitching well down in Baltimore, but he started 64 games over the next two seasons with the A’s, winning 22 games. That his 1934 season produced a 9-17 record dominated by one-run losses belied how well he pitched. When he struggled early the following spring, Mack traded him to the St. Louis Browns. The one-time Class D pitcher didn’t argue against the move. “I want to make it clear,” Mack told The Inquirer, “that I still think Cain is a good pitcher. He has the stuff and needed a change of scenery. I felt certain he would never go for me because he was not popular with the fans, and in return he did not like to pitch in this city.”

St. Louis used him only four times, then sent him to the Chicago White Sox, who proved a better fit. He won 14 games for the Sox in 1936, but struggled the next two seasons. His made his last MLB appearance on May 28, 1938, when he threw 2.1 innings of relief against the Detroit Tigers. Farmed out to St. Paul, Cain wouldn’t return to the Major Leagues. The Rams would welcome him to Anniston four years later.

Cain returned to his Georgia home when his baseball career ended. He died in 1975 in Atlanta. He was 67.

Merritt Cain’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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