Baron was the Rams’ hittin’ manager

Charley Baron when he played in Fort Worth. (University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections)

Charley Baron, a Czechoslovakian immigrant’s son from St. Louis known for his prodigious home runs, basted his concept of baseball in a brine of wartime toughness. The weak lost. Politeness received no benefits. Aggressiveness won out. Since breaking into the minor leagues as a teenager in 1931, Baron had discarded his family’s last name, Baronovic, and played the game with a brash determination bordering on intimidation. That’s how it was done, he thought. Only three managers led the Anniston Rams to a playoff berth during their 10 seasons. Baron, combustible till the bitter end, was one of them.

“Baseball,” he once told a California newspaper, “is a dog-eat-dog business and you have to go out there and play for everything you get.”

A clipping from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

As he reached his mid-thirties and his Major League hopes fizzled, Baron deemed becoming a player-manager the best way to stay in the game. It was sound logic. During the Rochester Red Wings’ spring training of 1947, a reporter noted that the combative first baseman “had been bitten by the managerial bug” and was “going all out in hopes that his bosses will recommend him for a pilot post in the near future.” His opportunity arrived May 20, when the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class C farm team in Fresno, California, bought the 34-year-old’s contract and installed him as its manager and first baseman.

Full of vinegar and spunk, Baron lasted a month.

A clipping from the Pensacola News-Journal.

Interestingly, Fresno’s general manager didn’t fire him; the call instead came from Joe Mathes, the Cardinals’ farm director, a pink slip sent across three time zones. Baron’s gruff adherence to his style of dog-eat-dog baseball proved so offensive so — and so unproductive — that Mathes felt he had no choice, an abrupt move that kickstarted a delicious war of words in the press. It was immaterial that Baron was leading the league with a .397 batting average. He had to go.

Baron, Mathes said in an interview with the Fresno Bee, “has been riding the players too hard and making them jittery. I know it is the policy of (Cardinals owner) Mr. (Sam) Breadon to have managers who handle players in a more pleasing manner than Baron. He hammered at them too much.”

Incredulous despite his unemployment, Baron scoffed at the notion that he’d been too rough on players’ psyches. He’d spent a month in Fresno hitting line drives and complaining about pitchers’ wildness and a milquetoast roster. “Some of these ball players they have sent here just don’t have it and they ought to be shipped home,” he said. “I wonder what the scouts were thinking when they signed some of these bonus players they sent to Fresno.” Out of work a month, Baron joined Miami of the Florida-International League in mid-July but never seemed settled. At one point, he told reporters that the leg he broke years before was giving him problems and he might retire and become a baseball scout. Later, he told Miami’s management he wouldn’t return the following season because he was too good of a hitter to remain in Class C. His statements meandered one way, then another. In one year, Baron had trained with Rochester, played with and managed Fresno, been fired by Fresno, moved to Miami for another opportunity, and then decided he needed to move up instead of rehabilitating his reputation where he was.

A clipping from the Miami News.

This is the Charley Baron who Anniston team president Loy Gunter hired as the Rams’ player-manager for 1948.

Everything about the unholy marriage stank, a nearly guaranteed failure. The postwar Rams had followed their 1946 Southeastern League championship with the worst full season, an eighth-place finish in 1947 in which they won only 56 games, and needed to replace manager Tommy West, architect of the team’s only SEL title. Baron, brusk as the day is long, had flamed out in his inaugural managerial gig and found a few months of success as Miami’s skipper but wasn’t in line for a posting in one of the minor leagues’ higher classifications. He was anything but a stable presence. The union seemed a guaranteed flop.

Headlines from The Anniston Star.

Somehow, though, it worked. The Anniston Star claimed that Baron “comes recommended as one of the best in the business” when spring training began at Johnston Field and Fort McClellan’s baseball field north of the city. As he did each offseason, Gunter remade the Rams’ roster, which prompted the newspaper in late March to posit that “there is already more hustle than was shown last year.” A timid start mired the Rams near the bottom of the SEL standings in the first two months, but by the dog days of summer Baron had Anniston solidly in the mix for a top-four finish and a playoff berth. And Baron — the player as well as the manager — deserved much of the credit.

A clipping from The Anniston Star.

Three Rams made the SEL’s midseason All-Star team; Baron, among the league leaders in batting average, was named its manager, with two Anniston pitchers, Woody Rich and Fred Baczewski, also making the roster. (Baron and the SEL All-Stars won, 5-0, over Montgomery.) At season’s end, the Rams’ 35-year-old manager-first baseman had proven correct his decision to leave low-level Miami and play elsewhere. In 131 games, Baron finished second in the SEL in runs scored (115), seventh in hits (171), third in doubles (39), eighth in triples (10), and seventh in total bases (248), and his .318 batting average was among the Rams’ best. Age hadn’t undermined the left-hander’s ability to pummel inferior pitching. In the dugout, Baron’s well-known reputation as a maddeningly demanding manager didn’t derail the Rams’ playoff push. Saddled with the chore of facing top-seeded Montgomery in the first round, the Rams pushed the Rebels to the brink in the seven-game series, only to lose, 7-4, in the final game. The euphoria of success made Baron’s return to the Rams’ dugout in 1949 a secure bet.

A clipping from The Anniston Star.

In January, Baron attended minor-league meetings in Columbus, Ohio, and “was reported impressed with the way things are shaping for the 1949 season.” Hours before the campaign began, The Star embraced hyperbole when suggesting that “this is rated one of the best opening day ensembles in the history of local baseball.” The newspaper published a front-page photograph of the Rams’ starting lineup, with Baron, the manager and first baseman, smiling broadly. Publicly, at least, hopes swooned that Anniston would post its first back-to-back winning seasons.

Unlike Baron’s batting average, that civic optimism quickly waned. The Rams drew 2,884 fans on opening day, earning them the SEL’s small-city attendance trophy, and they split the season’s first series with their rivals from Gadsden, each side winning twice. On May 1, the Rams were just below .500 and stuck in the unimpressive midsection of the league standings. 

Then Baron quit.

Fifteen games into the season, on May 2, the feisty St. Louisan resigned as manager, a brash decision that also robbed the Rams of their first baseman and one of their best hitters. (He was hitting .390 when he stepped down.) The Rams, then 7-8, would finish 64-74 — their sixth losing season in nine tries — and limp in in sixth place. Baron resigned, The Star wrote, because he couldn’t manage the Rams and run the Jefferson Davis Snack Bar in the Jefferson Davis Hotel in downtown Anniston, a side gig he picked up that spring. “He indicated that the strain of both jobs was too much for satisfactory effort at either and that he chose to remain with his business here in order to gain a rest from almost continuous baseball action since the beginning of spring training.”

A headline from The Anniston Star.

Though the newspaper didn’t question it, that explanation was almost assuredly a cover for either financial woes, family concerns or a disillusion about the Rams’ outlook, because Baron didn’t separate from his baseball marriage. The following year, the Gulf Coast League team in Jacksonville, Texas, hired him as player-manager, which produced a league championship and an appearance in the Little Dixie Series. The 37-year-old Baron hit .337, better than all but one of Jax’s players. The GCL’s team in Port Arthur lured him away in the offseason, though that stint didn’t share Jacksonville’s gleam. When he resigned June 16, the Seahawks were a middling outfit at 31-38; Baron hit .390 in 23 games. This time, he didn’t return to professional baseball, instead going home to St. Louis, where he worked in maintenance for St. Louis Public Schools until he retired.

Charley Baron died in St. Louis in 1997. He was 83. He’s buried at Calvary Cemetery and Museum in St. Louis. Baronovic, not Baron, is etched on his gravestone. His obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned his tenure as the Rams’ manager.

Charley Baron’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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