‘Gentleman’ skipper couldn’t save Rams’ 1940 season

Bill Rodda. (Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County)

A few hours after the Anniston Rams played their final game of the utterly forgettable 1940 season, Bill Rodda went home. He was a baseball lifer, an offseason sheet-metal worker who loved quail hunting and bird dogs, and a Californian, born and raised in sight of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He couldn’t return there quick enough.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, Rodda, the Rams’ player-manager, packed his family’s car outside their rented Keith Avenue bungalow near the clubhouse of Anniston Country Club. Joining him on the journey were his wife, Jessie, his 9-year-old daughter, Norma, and Rams pitcher Frank Papish, a future Major Leaguer who was hitching a ride to Pueblo, Colorado.

The symbolism was extreme.

Rodda was 37. He’d played professional baseball for 16 summers, donning uniforms of high-level farm clubs in the Pacific Coast League and the Southern Association but never reaching the Major Leagues. He signed his first professional contract with the Oakland Oaks in 1925 when he was only 22 years old, a “lad with plenty of determination,” in the Associated Press’ view. Fortune kept him from combat — born in 1903, he was too young for The Great War and too old for World War II — and preserved his baseball dream for nearly two decades. But piloting the moribund Rams during one of their dreariest seasons, a plight not of his making, surely proved exhausting. When he pointed his car west for his family’s home in Berkeley, California, he not only left Anniston, he left baseball.

Bill Rodda with the Mission Bells in the 1920s.

Rodda’s arrival in Anniston was the result of events that started in San Francisco, matured in Nashville and metastasized at Johnston Field. The son of British immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1870s, Rodda played nearly a decade for the Vols and gained a reputation of being managerial material. Part of it was his age. Part of it was because he was a third baseman/shortstop in San Francisco who made rosters in Nashville because of his utilitarian talents. And part of it was because Larry Gilbert, the Vols’ manager, took him under his wing. 

Rodda had other opportunities. When a lower-division club in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, offered him his first managerial gig in January 1939, he called Vols owner Fay Murray to ask: what do you plan to do with me if I re-sign? “You come on back here,” Murray said, according to the Nashville Banner. “You’ll either be a regular player with us, or we’ll put you in as manager at one of our ‘B’ clubs. Let that other thing go.” Rodda was persuaded. “All right, I’ll be there then. You can depend on me,” he told Murray. Before the season started, another club, Class C Monroe, Louisiana, offered Rodda its managing job. He turned it down, too.

A 1939 clipping from The Nashville Banner.

Gilbert, though, didn’t want Rodda as a starter or a manager elsewhere. He wanted his long-time infielder as a utility player and a managerial understudy, leading to musings in the press that Gilbert was grooming Rodda to replace him as the Vols’ skipper. The Tennessean said as much in mid-March. Gilbert filled in the blanks. “Bill’s going to be my right-hand man,” he said. “I don’t want him to play 140 or 150 games. I think he will be more valuable to the club as a utility man … Then he will be on the coaching line with me. Bill’s been around a lot. He knows most of the players in the league, and he should be a highly valuable man. I’d rather have him in this capacity than as a regular.” Rodda didn’t disagree with his manager.

A 1940 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Down in Anniston, the second-year Rams posted their first winning season — 71-70 — but finished out of the Southeastern League playoffs and planned to revamp their roster for 1940. They also welcomed the addition of Larry Gilbert Jr., the 27-year-old son of the Vols’ manager, who had bought a financial interest in the Anniston club and became its business manager. Linking with the Gilberts gave the Rams a player pipeline from Nashville and a sense that the team’s always shaky finances would stabilize.

The link also gave the Rams their new manager.

On Dec. 3, The Tennessean declared that Rodda was “through as a player” and would manage somewhere in 1940. Forty-eight hours later, The Nashville Banner claimed the Rams’ job was Rodda’s if he wanted it — which he did. A deal was struck in January. Gilbert Jr., ecstatic and hyperbolic, touted Rodda despite the infielder’s lack of managerial experience. “Chances are, Gilbert said, that Rodda is slated for the managerial berth at Nashville when Gilbert Sr. leaves, so that he will be trying particularly hard here to demonstrate what he has as a pilot,” The Anniston Star wrote.

A 1940 clipping from The Anniston Star.

Indeed, Rodda tried hard. The reconstituted Rams began their third season with a dramatic 11-inning, 1-0 win at Johnston Field over rival Gadsden. Rodda, starting at third base, doubled in his first game in an Anniston uniform. The Rams won three more to start 4-0 and grab an early lead in the SEL. But the awfulness that swamped Anniston’s 1940 season proved unavoidable.

The Rams in mid-May were in second place; two weeks later they’d fallen to the basement of the eight-leam SEL with a 15-23 record. Gilbert’s frantic roster moves didn’t slow the barrage of losses. Anniston never escaped the league cellar, posting losing records every month except April and undermining the front office’s efforts to sell tickets and keep the city’s baseball faithful engaged. It was a complete, utter disaster. 

Gilbert and team president Ralph Hamilton admitted that the Rams’ abysmal record had stunted public interest, but they also placed part of the blame on the state of Alabama’s first-ever implementation of Daylight Savings Time that summer. Limitations of Johnston Field’s lights prevented starting games before 8 p.m., and the time change meant games started at 9 p.m., forcing patrons to choose between watching a terrible baseball team or going to bed at a decent hour. So stagnant were the Rams’ finances that they began defaulting on payments to visiting teams and other expenses, which forced SEL President Stuart X. Stephenson on July 23 to heed complaints from other team owners, remove the franchise from Anniston and force it to play out the season as an orphan team on the road. Only a desperate fund-raising effort by a cohort of civic leaders saved the Rams from extinction.

“Bill Rodda, the manager, is an experienced player, a gentleman, and is liked both by the fans and the players.”

— Anniston Rams team president Ralph Hamilton

None of this was Rodda’s fault. He didn’t sign players. He didn’t create the tension between the Vols’ ownership and the Rams’ front office, which clearly felt Nashville hadn’t upheld its promise of stocking Anniston’s roster. When he played, he performed well, hitting .291 in 101 games and making only two errors. In The Star, Hamilton praised the Rams’ boss, calling him an “experienced player, a gentleman, and is liked both by the fans and the players.” But the Rams kept losing, day after day. Their record on Aug. 1 was 37-63 — meaning they’d lost 52 of 78 games since occupying second place in mid-May. Locals who participated in a fan appreciation night poll in early August largely agreed about Rodda: despite the despair, they wanted him to return in 1941 as manager. When the season ingloriously ended six weeks later with a 9-6 win over Gadsden, the Rams had finished 21 games under .500 — 61-82 — the third-worst record of their 10 seasons. Only 1947 (when they won 56 games the year after winning the SEL championship) and 1950 (when they folded after winning just 21) were more rotten.

Rodda didn’t return to Anniston; he didn’t take other managerial jobs; he was through with the professional game. He and his family went back to California, where he again worked in the sheet-metal business and he and his wife awaited the birth of their second child the following summer. He died in 1986 at age 83.

Bill Rodda’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s