Knuckleballer wanted out of Anniston

Art Evans

By 1938, Anniston was the sixth-largest city in Alabama, its population tickling 25,000, the kind of Appalachian foothills community that should have withered during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Instead, Anniston grew. No one knew it at the time, but the city would further change in the early 1940s when nearby Fort McClellan swelled again with wartime Army trainees.

Art Evans didn’t care. He wanted out.

A left-handed Missourian who briefly rode his knuckleball to the Major Leagues, Evans arrived in Anniston in the late spring of 1938 when the Rams, a Southeastern League expansion team, bought him from the Nashville Vols. The shock was real. Since the Chicago White Sox demoted him six years earlier, Evans had hopscotched through the minors and played in several big-league spring training camps in his quest to again reach MLB. Getting banished to Anniston wasn’t part of his plan. But if destined to play Class B baseball, he wanted to do it in Macon, where his son had been born and he’d previously starred with the Peaches.

The Rams didn’t care, either. Buried within the SEL’s standings, Anniston needed pitching; unlike his knuckleball, Evans’ preference was irrelevant.

A 1938 clipping from The Macon Telegraph.

The fledgling Rams’ hope that Evans could replicate his Macon success was achievable because he wasn’t a wartime player of the early 1940s whose career blossomed in part because of weakened Major League rosters and a dearth of talent. He pitched well enough for his first professional teams that the White Sox, terrible in 1932, bought him that June for $1,000 from the Independence Producers. He was 20.

A 1932 clipping from the Windsor Star.

Evans pitched only seven times for Chicago, all in relief and without a decision. He never pitched in a White Sox victory, which isn’t surprising considering they lost 102 games. When Chicago optioned him to the minors in late July, sending him to Waterloo, he’d thrown only 18 innings, given up nine runs (six earned), allowed nine hits, walked 10 and struck out six. His ERA was 3.00. His first stay in the big leagues lasted five weeks. He wouldn’t earn a second.

Young and determined, Evans didn’t stop pitching. When he quickly won three of his first four decisions in Waterloo, a Class D team, the local paper, The Courier, reset the tone for the left-hander’s quest, distancing it from the narrative of a disappointing big-leaguer to an unseasoned rookie not quite ready. In a story headlined, “Art Evans Shows Major League Promise,” The Courier labeled the Missourian as “one of the most promising young hurlers in the minor leagues,” and wrote that White Sox manager Lew Fonseca believed “all he needs is a little more experience.” Left out of the Sox skipper’s comment was Evans’ lack of a fastball that would play in the higher levels of the minor leagues, much less MLB.

Art Evans pitching with the Decatur Commies. (Decatur Herald and Review clipping)

Evans toiled a year in Waterloo and a year in Hutchinson and Bartlesville before the Cincinnati Reds invited him to Tampa for spring training in 1934. Unconvinced, the Reds stuck to the same script as the White Sox: they farmed him out, first to Class B Wilmington, North Carolina, where he stayed a month, and again that summer, then to Class C Beckley, West Virginia. His reward was promotion to another Class B team in Decatur, Illinois.

Until then, Evans’ career was an annual telling of the same drama, a decent minor-leaguer whose Major League call-up happened too fast and whose ability to return there hinged on talent he didn’t have. It wasn’t until he joined Macon in 1936 that Evans became a commodity known throughout the minor leagues. For whatever reason, the South Atlantic League was his speed.

By late July, Evans had already won 14 games to help Macon stay in the pennant race. Bill Prout, the Peaches’ first baseman, was convinced of his teammates’ ability. “That guy has the best knuckleball in baseball probably,” he told the Macon Telegraph. “He throws you one slow, and then another one slower, and then another one still slower. Then he will cut loose with a hard, fast one.” At season’s end, Evans sported a 21-11 record, by far his best this far, and soon he and his wife welcomed the birth of their first child, Terry Dale Evans. To Bobby Norris, the Telegraph’s sports editor, Evans was as good as his record hinted, if not better. “The sluggers on the others teams will tell you it is practically impossible to touch the Evans knuckleball,” Norris wrote. “Nor is his curve to be hit often. Nor his fast one. He has superb control.” And he kept winning. When Evans won 22 games the following year, giving him 43 victories in two seasons with the Peaches, he earned the inevitable interest from higher-level clubs. The Atlanta Crackers bought him that fall, reportedly for $10,000, putting him one step closer to a return to the Major Leagues. The year 1938 would prove pivotal for that quest.

A 1938 clipping in the Miami News.

Beforehand, sports writers at The Atlanta Constitution connected the dots. Evans was 27, which was old for a developing pitcher; he was a junkballer; and he was likely a “B” pitcher — not a front-of-the-rotation starter. Nonetheless, Evans was the best pitcher in the minors’ lower divisions, a lefty with an odd repertoire, and it was worth a shot. “With better hitting and superior support, he should be a consistent winner for the Crackers,” the newspaper wrote. But that Southern Association experiment didn’t survive the spring. Evans struggled, the Crackers had faint patience, and Nashville bought his contract for $1,000 in mid-April. When the Vols likewise lost patience a month later, the Rams raised their hand, ending hope in Macon that “King Arthur,” as The Telegraph called him, would return to his former Georgia home. But Anniston needed pitching. Evans fit the bill. A deal was struck.

A 1938 headline in The Anniston Star.

The Rams, barely two months old, gave Evans neither better hitting nor superior support, and he gave them a mediocre return on their investment. He lost his May 16 debut when he gave up 10 hits, 10 runs and five walks in a 10-5 loss at Meridian. He alternated results for five more starts, decent and subpar, until early June. He’d had enough of Anniston and wanted to pitch in Macon. On June 2, he asked the Rams for his release so he could re-sign with the Peaches.

The Rams obliged. The Peaches rejoiced. The Evanses immediately drove from Anniston to Macon, where the left-hander signed with his former club and was instantly installed in its rotation. Macon’s newspapers, The News and the Telegraph, went all in on Evans’ return: The News published a photograph of Evans inking the deal; The Telegraph led its sports page with a massive photo of Evans in a Peaches uniform and a Norris column detailing how Evans wanted to return to Macon, “did not cherish the idea after he was sold to the Atlanta club last fall,” and was “decidedly modest in comparison to the average baseball player. He does not care to discuss his success; in fact, he would sooner talk about his failures and faults, though never an alibi. So because he is a little on the modest side and does not laugh and joke like some of the other players, many fans have acquired the notion that he is too aloof. But he is a ‘right guy’ in my book — all the time.”

A 1938 clipping from The Macon News.

Two years later, as he approached 30, Evans was out of organized baseball. He won 13 games for the Peaches after escaping Anniston, and then his winning stopped. His last season, 1939, was truncated and unmemorable. “You want to know why Art Evans cannot win ball games in a higher class?” Norris asked. “It is a moot question right now. Well, he hasn’t got a fastball. That seems to be his one outstanding failing.”

His professional baseball career over, Evans moved his family to Wichita, Kansas, where he worked as a general foreman in the tool planning department for Boeing Airplane Co. and pitched for semi-pro and industrial league teams during the 1940s. In 1941, one of those teams played the Negro League champions, the Kansas City Monarchs, in a rare meeting between teams divided starkly by race. Evans’ team won, 7-6. He pitched all nine innings, giving up 12 hits and fanning five.

In January 1952, Evans died in Wichita. He was only 41 years old. His obituary in The Wichita Eagle mentioned his minor league days but left out his brief stints with the White Sox, which was odd, and the Rams, which understandably was not. He’s buried in Sterling Cemetery in Sterling, Kansas.

Art Evans’ World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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