Rams’ Roetz: An early star often overlooked

Ed Roetz played 16 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1929.

Had things turned out differently — perhaps a starring role in an Anniston championship or a return to the Major Leagues — Ed Roetz’s two seasons with the Rams might have become their benchmark, an unreachable individual threshold. He was that good. The erstwhile St. Louis Brown hit for power, drove in runs, toyed with a .300 average, played multiple infield spots, never rested and nearly took the Rams to their first playoff berth.

If only, indeed.

A Philadelphian who hailed from a family of German immigrants, the 32-year-old Roetz was the oldest everyday player on the inaugural Rams’ roster, though his age proved irrelevant. He led the Rams in hits (160), doubles (39), RBIs (100) and total bases (236), hit a third-best .296 and tied for the team-lead in home runs (9), then returned in 1939 and played nearly as well despite being a decade older than the core of Anniston’s lineup. 

Roetz’s prowess couldn’t prevent the expansion Rams from losing 86 games and finishing in seventh place in the Southeastern League. (Anniston’s pitching was particularly putrid, allowing a league-worst 783 runs. It also hit .249, better than only one other team.) But on the final day of the ’39 season, with the Rams’ postseason chances resting in part on a doubleheader sweep against rival Gadsden, Roetz enjoyed a day that few Rams would ever surpass.

The 1939 Anniston Rams. Ed Roetz is seated on the first row, third from the left. (Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County).

In two games on a Labor Day Monday — the first in the afternoon in Gadsden, the second at night in Anniston — Roetz went a combined 6 for 7 with three home runs, four RBIs and three runs scored. “Eddie Roetz,” The Anniston Star’s Marshall Johnson wrote, “held his own individual Labor Day celebration.” But it went for naught. The Rams swept Gadsden, 6-4 and 4-0, and finished 71-70, but remained a half-game shy of the final playoff berth when Selma beat Montgomery that afternoon. Selma was in, Anniston was out, the teams separated by .003 percentage points in the standings. The Rams’ three more wins than the Cloverleafs proved a statistical quirk, not a determining factor.

A headline in the Anniston Star in 1939.

Anniston’s postseason berth didn’t materialize, Roetz’s performance didn’t resonate, and his career, at age 33, was over. His bittersweet final day as a professional athlete ended unceremoniously and with a twinge of awkwardness. Between games of the doubleheader, pitcher Gordon Bradshaw, a 22-year-old left-hander, was named the most-popular Ram in a fan vote held by an Anniston radio company. Fans didn’t include the veteran Roetz in the top three.

A clipping from The Anniston Star in 1940.

What’s worse, the Rams didn’t want him for a third season. Age trumped output. In February, they shipped him to Meridian for Richard McAllister, a young catcher who’d never wear an Anniston uniform. Likewise, Roetz would never play for the Mississippi team.

Ten seasons of Rams baseball produced a lineup of characters and misfits and solid performers, some Major Leaguers, others not, that blankets Johnston Field’s history. World War II combat veterans. Disciples of Connie Mack and Casey Stengel. Teammates of a who’s-who list of American League All-Stars from the 1930s and 1940s. Roetz, though, is an enigma, the son of a Pennsylvania candymaker with big-league skills who left a minimal trail of exploits and a dearth of headlines. Teammates called him “Big Ben,” though he stood only 5-foot-10 and barely weighed 160 pounds. After failing to make the Meridian roster in the spring of 1940, he retired from baseball, enlisted in the Army and disappeared into normalcy in Philadelphia, a 12-year pro whose career was rarely spoken of, much less remembered with the fondness it deserved.

A 1938 advertisement in The Anniston Star that introduced Rams players to readers.
The 1929 St. Louis Browns. (Ancestry.com)

The 1929 Browns, a mid-level AL club, noticed the 17 Texas League home runs Roetz hit with Wichita Falls and invited him to spring training in West Palm Beach, where W.W. Smith, a writer for the St. Louis Star and Times, described the 22-year-old Roetz as an inconsistent but impressive rookie who might make the Browns’ roster. “At times Ed Roetz looks like a great ballplayer,” Smith wrote, who believed the Philadelphian had a “lethal” arm for an infielder. “At other times he looks like just another second baseman. What he will prove to be by the time the season opens is known only to the angel who records base hits and errors.”

Ed Roetz hit .244 for the Browns.

The Browns didn’t bring Roetz to St. Louis until late May, but he quickly displayed the talent Smith had detailed. In his first week in the big leagues, Roetz hit .333 — 6 for 18 — with three extra-base hits and two runs scored. His average rose to .348 on June 14 after he went 2 for 4 in a 7-6 win over Boston at Fenway Park. Then he vanished from the St. Louis lineup. Manager Dan Howley, who specialized in losing 90-plus games a season, gave him only a handful of starts in July and August and ignored him in September as the Browns failed to contend for the AL pennant. Roetz’s final appearances came on Aug. 11 and Oct. 6 — two months apart — and his average dipped to .244. Except for a brief and injury-riddled stint in his hometown Philadelphia Phillies’ spring camp in 1931, he never again sniffed the Major Leagues as a player.

Opinions regarding his arrival in Anniston in 1938 depended on perspective. What was Ed Roetz? A veteran infielder with a potent bat who would provide the SEL expansion team an everyday presence? Or an aging infielder who’d fizzled in his brief Major League tryout and spent two seasons as a retiree because of arm troubles? The Rams hoped he was the former. 

As if preordained, Roetz started the Rams’ first game, hit fifth in the lineup and played third base. He recorded Anniston’s first extra-base hit, a double that scored two runs in the first inning of a 5-3 win over Gadsden. He never stopped hitting. In mid-June, with the Rams struggling to stay respectable, Roetz’s dominance was unmistakable. The Anniston Star deadpanned the obvious: Roetz had played five defensive positions, led the Rams in RBIs (40), total bases (105), hits (69), doubles (19) and home runs (five). That he didn’t make the SEL All-Star team was likely because the Rams used him as a utility player, which pitted him against teammate Art Rebel, who twice earned an All-Star bid. Having to play every day, every inning, at multiple positions, for an expansion team with a constantly revolving roster didn’t help, either, The Star’s Marshall Johnson wrote. The heavy workload caused Roetz to drop 16 pounds in the season’s first three months, a veteran worn down by overuse. His teammates nevertheless held him in high regard, Johnson wrote.

A headline from The Anniston Star.

“Fans may malign him, as fans are sometimes wont to do, because he is a steady, dependable, rather than a flashy player. His is the heady, not the sensational, brand of ball. But when hits are needed, Eddie manages to come through with them. Right now he ranks as the most valuable batsman for the Rams.”

Everything changed after his second season in Anniston. The trade to Meridian. The end of his playing career. America’s entry into World War II. Two of his brothers had served in the Army during the first World War: Stephen Henry Roetz, who was killed in 1918 and buried in France, and William Bernard Roetz, who fought with an artillery unit in the 79th Division. Ed Roetz, then in his mid-30s, enlisted in the summer of 1943 and was assigned to the 509th Military Police Battalion, spending nearly two years overseas.

Discharged in November 1945, Roetz returned to Philadelphia and worked as a carpenter. A lifelong bachelor who had no children, he shared a house with his oldest brother John, who also never married, for several years. He was 59 years old when he died in 1965. His family buried him in a military grave in Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, New Jersey.

Ed Roetz’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)
Ed Roetz’s military pension application. (Ancestry.com)

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