Rams’ only 20-game winner

Frank Papish with the Cleveland Indians.

On the final afternoon of his team’s disastrous 1940 season, Frank Papish toed the Johnston Field rubber and attempted to do something no Anniston pitcher had done — or would do before the Rams folded a decade later: win 20 games in a season. Not even Woody Rich, the franchise’s all-time winningest pitcher, accomplished that feat. But what made Papish’s deed so momentous is that the Rams won only 61 games that season, and the injury-prone lefthander and future Major Leaguer from Pueblo, Colorado, essentially won a third of them.

Frank Papish with the Anniston Rams. (Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County)

His 20th victory, a 9-6 win over equally inept Gadsden, contained only snippets of beauty. Papish scattered nine hits and allowed double-digit runs in three consecutive innings. He fanned only two batters in nine innings. His saving grace came via the Rams’ offense — 15 hits, including two home runs — and his reluctance to give the Pilots free bases; he walked only one and threw four shutout innings to close out the win.

The American-born son of Slovenian-speaking Austrian immigrants who settled south of Denver, Papish spent nearly three years pitching for the Rams. He was 21 when he first arrived in Anniston; he’d turned 27 by the time he reached the Major Leagues. He pitched on the Rams’ first winning team — the 1939 squad that went 71-70 — and two of their worst. His 41-36 career record with the Rams, buoyed by his 20-14 mark in 1940, ranks just behind Rich’s Anniston-best record of 46-31 from 1947 to 1949. When the Rams hosted the St. Louis Cardinals for a spring training game in 1939, only two Anniston pitchers saw action. Papish was one of them.

A clipping from The Anniston Star.

The difference between the two is that Rich, a southerner from North Carolina, pitched for one of the Rams’ few playoff teams (1948), and Papish did not. “Big” Woody Rich, as Rams fans and the local newspaper called him, was a Johnston Field favorite and two-time Southeastern League all-star. Rams management held a “Woody Rich Night” at Johnston Field near the end of his time in Anniston; they did the same in 1941 for Papish, who not only posted a 20-win season but won the ’41 SEL All-Star game (he struck out seven in 3 ⅔ innings of relief against Mobile), once won both games of a doubleheader, and threw a five-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter against Gadsden. But for some reason, Papish’s notable performance in Anniston rarely received the fond remembrances among aging Rams fans and the sports writers who covered the team. 

A headline from The Anniston Star

In the summer of 1962, The Anniston Star’s sports editor, George Smith, wrote of his childhood memories of the Rams and the players whose exploits he read about in each afternoon’s edition. He lived in Alexandria, a largely rural farming community northwest of the city which, unlike Anniston, predated the Civil War. The Rams had dissolved 12 years earlier. Local memories were beginning to fade, but not Smith’s. “The Rams were not big time,” he wrote. “… But to a farm kid with ragged overalls, dirty feet, and a cotton-topped head scorched brown by the sun, they were something really special. The high spots in life were ‘going to Anniston to see the Rams play.” He then recalled the remarkable players of his youth: Ben Wade and Cotton Hill and Joe Cleary and Bobby Kline and Freddie Daniels and Socko Johnson and a host of others.

Smith didn’t mention Frank Papish.

A headline from The Anniston Star.

In a sense, that omission doesn’t draw blood because Papish’s career, as well as his life, contains more than the few memorable years before World War II he spent pitching for a Class B team in Anniston. First with the Chicago White Sox, then with the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, Papish pitched nearly five full seasons in the Major Leagues, winning 26 games, throwing 18 complete games and three shutouts, and posting only one losing season — 1948, when he was injured. Walks and ailments were his constant foes.

A clipping from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

In 1938, Papish, then with Class C Longview, Texas, spent three weeks in Dallas getting treatment on his sore pitching arm. “I’m sure glad to get back,” he told the Longview newspaper. “I was about to go nuts in Dallas.” A decade later, he sought advice for what he described as “cold fingers” — numbness of his left hand that would worsen after he pitched. He had suffered through the discomfort in 1947 — winning 12 games — but now he was 31, his career in jeopardy. That winter, a doctor diagnosed his ailment as an allergy to tobacco and told him to quit smoking. He did, and the numbness subsided. But surgery became the only option when the malady returned during spring training. A specialist in San Francisco determined the numbness was caused by a compromised nerve in his shoulder. In April, Papish showed a reporter from The Sporting News a hand-drawn diagram of his shoulder procedure. “You see, the only muscles cut were those binding a nerve in my shoulder to my pitching fingers,” he said. “The muscles that control my throwing weren’t disturbed at all.” In 1950 and near the end of his Major League career, Papish missed time with an ailing back, an injury that essentially derailed his Pirates tenure before it gained traction. In his last appearance with the Pirates, on a June evening at Forbes Field, he faced two Cincinnati batters; both reached base, on a walk and a single to center field, and one scored. He never again pitched in the big leagues after Pittsburgh optioned him to Indianapolis in May. 

All of that, his competence in Anniston, his ascension to the Major Leagues, his constant struggles with injuries, his off-season jobs as a property appraiser and mine worker, paled in comparison to his wife, Virginia Frances Papish.

A clipping from The Baltimore Sun.

She, too, was born in Pueblo as the child of Slovakian-speaking immigrants who immigrated to the United States just before the turn of the century. She became a baseball wife when she married Papish not long after he left Anniston, following him through minor-league stops and summers in Chicago and Cleveland. And in the summer of 1949, at the onset of one of the worst polio outbreaks in the United States, she was diagnosed with the virus. Polio vaccines were still years away.

The Papishes had been married for seven years. They had two children under the age of 4. Virginia spent six months in a Cleveland hospital, her left leg paralyzed, her arms weak, and had to use a wheelchair or braces and crutches when she was discharged. To stay close to his wife and earn an offseason paycheck, Papish worked in the Indians’ ticket office that winter — only to have the Indians trade him in January to Pittsburgh. The business of professional baseball never stops.

“My wife is an amazing woman. She always tells me she’s thankful she isn’t completely paralyzed. She says it could have been worse. She’s always looking on the bright side.”

— Frank Papish

Virginia’s mother moved from Pueblo to Cleveland to help with her care when Papish reported to spring training in 1950. A week after arriving in camp, Papish received more terrible news — their rental house in Cleveland had been sold. To make matters worse, the owner had given Virginia 30 days to vacate. Papish was in California with the Pirates; his wife was in Cleveland with the children and her mother. Nonetheless, he “had faith in prayer,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported in March. Plus, “Mrs. Papish had shown some improvement.” She also found new accommodations for her family, renting rooms in the home of a 61-year-old widow.

Frank Papish with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“My wife’s spirit is wonderful,” Papish told the Pittsburgh Press, “but the children are too young to understand just yet. One of the worst moments my wife has is when the 20-months-old baby asks her to hold her in her arms. She wants to so much, but she can’t. She simply doesn’t have the strength to lift her or hold her.

“My wife is an amazing woman. She always tells me she’s thankful she isn’t completely paralyzed. She says it could have been worse. She’s always looking on the bright side.”

With his wife’s health stabilized, Papish pitched three more seasons in the minors, spending his final year in professional baseball, in 1953, with Chattanooga and Memphis. He and his wife then returned to Pueblo, where they had their third child, and he played semi-pro baseball for fun and worked for a trucking company. In 1964, he became a deputy sheriff.

The following summer, Papish complained occasionally to his friends about having chest pains. They didn’t subside. On Aug. 30, 1965, he suffered a heart attack while his wife was helping him into their car in downtown Pueblo and died. He was 47. He’s buried in Roselawn Cemetery in Pueblo. Virginia Papish lived until 2004. Papish was inducted posthumously in 1978 into the Greater Pueblo Sports Association.

Frank Papish’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)

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