Patton played, went to war

A clipping from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

By almost any measure, young Bill Patton’s baseball future was essentially predetermined in high school: he couldn’t miss, an unstoppable fait accompli of talent and skill that had enveloped a heralded teenage athlete. “This boy,” a reader told the editor of the Lebanon, Pennsylvania, newspaper, “is a born baseball player … What more can anyone do in amateur baseball?” After graduation, Patton played collegiately at Temple University and earned a tryout with the Philadelphia Athletics as a junior. He hit .444 as a senior and then graduated. James Isaminger, a sports writer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, described him as if he were cast in bronze, not bone and flesh: “He is a fine specimen of youth.”

Connie Mack, his Athletics in the American League’s lower half in 1935, thought so highly of Patton that he signed the young catcher/third baseman and brought him to the big leagues without a game of farm-team experience. That Patton struck out in his MLB debut (Lefty Grove was pitching) didn’t spoil the inevitable. Though only 22, Patton hit .300 with the A’s — 10 official at-bats in nine games, three hits, two walks and a double. He scored only one run, but it was an 11th-inning game-winner against the Washington Senators.

Then, he was done.

A clipping from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Patton’s professional baseball journey that included an uneventful stint with the Anniston Rams is odd for a single reason: its succinctness. It began quickly, faded similarly and didn’t resume after World War II. When Mack transferred him to the A’s farm system in the summer of ’35, it wasn’t considered a permanent banishment; in fact, he trained the next spring in Philadelphia’s preseason camp. But he played minor-league and semi-pro ball for four more summers, performing marginally in Elmira, Mobile, Anniston and Greenwood, and then he was done. The collegiate star who hit .300 in a brief big-league stay never again played big-league ball and returned to Pennsylvania, where he briefly worked as a steel rigger before starting a lengthy career as a high school teacher, coach and athletics director.

A clipping from the Elmira Star-Gazette.

Hailing from the city of Cornwall deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s iron region, Patton would have been an awkward fit with the Rams’ better teams of 1946 or 1948, but the one-time Philadelphia Athletic was a natural addition for Anniston’s inaugural squad of 1938, a team high on civic pride and roster turnover but wholly lacking on cohesion and victories. The last-place Rams bought Patton’s contract from Southeastern League rival Mobile in early May amid a roster shakeup that would epitomize their 10 seasons in Anniston, hoping he could resurrect his career in a platoon role with player-manager Lena Styles.

He went 1 for 4 in his Rams debut in, of all places, Mobile. He went 2 for 3 in his second game. But performance overshadowed hope, and on June 5 Anniston optioned him to Greenwood, barely a month — 25 games — spent in a Rams uniform. He hit .254 in the Cotton States League, and then headed north, a talented athlete whose abilities only took him so far.

A clipping from the Lebanon Daily News.

Absent his notable Philadelphia fling, Patton’s story is less about professional baseball than it is military service and teaching. Patton and three of his three brothers served during World War II. Roderick Patton, the youngest of the Patton boys and a letter-winner in soccer at Temple, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1941 and transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps as a first lieutenant and bomber pilot after the United States entered the war. Promoted to captain, he spent nearly a year in a German prisoner of war camp. Penrose Patton enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and served in North Africa, as did Leroy Patton, a sergeant in the U.S. Army.

Married and a father, Bill Patton was the last of his brothers to enlist. The 30-year-old former Ram joined the Army in September 1943, spent 15 months overseas and, just as he had when his baseball career ended, returned home to resume his life. While moonlighting for amateur teams, he became a public-school history teacher and coach and eventually moved into school administration. Inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame’s Central Chapter in 1976, he retired two years later after a lengthy career as head administrator at a middle school in Souderton, Pennsylvania.

Patton died in 1986 at age 73. He’s interred at George Washington Memorial Park Cemetery in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Bill Patton’s World War II draft registry card. (Ancestry.com)
Bill Patton’s military pension application. (Ancestry.com)

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