Wesley “Lefty” Howard – Pitcher
Note: his is player biography is part of our feature, The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the men behind one of the Army’s best World War II baseball teams by Drew Sullins, Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army
One of the team’s more talented pitchers, Lefty Howard, like his teammate Joe Blalock, was from South Carolina. Standing 5’11” Howard did not appear to be physically overpowering, but he thoroughly understood the artform of pitching. In more than one game during the summer and fall of 1945, Howard capably dueled supposedly more talented major league pitchers helping his team to advance to the Army championship series for occupied Germany.
On August 23, 1945, in the opening contest of the three-game championship series, Howard faced the 71st Division’s Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell, who was a young major league pitcher with a blazing fastball and side-armed delivery. The 6’6” Blackwell was the property of the Cincinnati Reds, and he handcuffed the 29th Division squad throwing a complete game 2-1 victory, but the crafty Howard was nearly his equal on that day. Howard, who also tossed a complete game, held the “Red Circlers” to only five hits and two runs while facing a roster than included major league stars such as Maurice Van Robays (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Johnny Wyrostek (Philadelphia Phillies).
There was no doubting that Lefty Howard could pitch against top baseball talent. He demonstrated it several times in 1945, but in doing what today is somewhat easy research thanks to the Internet, it’s disappointing to learn that he appears on no major league or affiliated minor league rosters from his time as a ball player. This makes Howard a bit of an enigma, as one wonders why someone with such talent would not want to live the dream of seemingly every American boy of that era – to play in the big leagues. It begs the question, why didn’t a pitcher with that much ability play major league ball?
It turns out that Lefty Howard’s professional baseball story begins and ends in the old textile mill leagues of South Carolina. Since nearly the advent of the game, baseball was a centerpiece of the South Carolina towns that played host to the state’s legendary textile industry of the 19th and 20th Centuries. To provide entertainment for their workers in these small towns, the companies that owned the textile mills built stadiums and organized semi-professional teams that played in what became known as the Piedmont and Carolina Textile Leagues, which existed from roughly 1880 to 1955.
In South Carolina’s textile mill towns that had them, local ball clubs were a focal point of immense civic pride. In the beginning, crowds of 1,000 spectators were common, but by the dawn of baseball’s golden age from 1920 to 1960, crowds of more than 5,000 were the standard. The quality of play in the textile leagues was high and its where several future major league players got their starts including Joseph Jefferson Jackson, better known as “Shoeless Joe,” and Hall of Famer Walter “Rabbit” Maranville.
Textile league teams were in towns like Brandon, Ware Shoals, Greenville and Woodside and the competition for baseball talent among mill owners was intense with players often shifting from town-to-town each season owing their loyalty to the highest bidder. For some players, the pay for that time given it was only semi-pro ball could be very good. And one of the very best pitchers in textile league history, a hurler of multiple no-hitters according to newspaper accounts, was able to take advantage of that: Wesley “Lefty” Howard.
Over a 20 plus year career in the textile leagues, Howard, it seemed, played for every team in South Carolina. He did play for all the teams in the previous paragraph. In reviewing newspaper accounts of his games, two articles from the Greenville News provide the most likely clues as to why Lefty Howard was never a major leaguer. A September 9, 1947 article reported that when pitching for Ware Shoals, Howard received $100 per-game win or lose. A good sum of money in 1947. The next year, on June 5, 1948, while pitching for Brandon, the Greenville News mentioned that Howard had turned down multiple offers to join teams affiliated with major league clubs. Another quoted Howard as saying he was happy playing where he was. When he was not playing baseball, Howard was a locomotive fireman for a railroad and likely made solid money in that profession as well. It seems that Lefty Howard did not want to leave what was a comfortable life in South Carolina, which is likely the reason he never played in the majors.
One other interesting baseball note about Howard, is that at different times, he was an erstwhile teammate of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson with Brandon Mill and the Greenville Spinners when the legend, who was banned from professional baseball for his alleged role in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, made his many post-scandal cameo appearances.
Tech 4 (later Sergeant) Howard entered the Army to be a locomotive fireman, however, he was transferred into the 29th Division on December 22, 1944, and was assigned to E Company, 116th Infantry Regiment where he served for the remainder of the war. Beyond this, and his Carolina and Piedmont League baseball career, little is known about Howard’s life. His wife’s name was Gladys and they were married in 1936 and settled in Ware Shoals. Gladys Howard passed away from breast cancer in 1966. At the time of this writing, we do not know whether the Howards had any children, or when Lefty Howard may have passed away. It seems after playing his last semi-pro baseball game in the mid-1950s, Lefty Howard withdrew from public view. But there is no doubt he was a pitcher who had immense talent and one that the 29th Division’s baseball team leaned on.
Continue to Kenneth Hess – Infielder/Outfielder