Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pitcher Rollie Stiles, 1906-2007

Rollie Stiles, RHP
1932 and 1934 Milwaukee Brewers
1934-36 Kansas City Blues
b. November 17, 1906 at Ratcliff, Arkansas
d. July 22, 2007 at St. Louis, Missouri
Resurrection Cemetery, St. Louis

For some time, Rolland Mays “Lena” Stiles, or “Leapin’ Lena,” held a unique distinction among former major league ballplayers. With the passing of former Pittsburgh Pirate infielder Howdy (Howard) Groskloss on July 15, 2006, Stiles became the reigning dean of the major leagues, the oldest living former big leaguer. With his passing, Billy Werber (TOL-31), who turned 100 on June 20, 2008, took over as the oldest living major league player. At the time of Stiles’ death, the oldest former professional player alive was, and still is, former Negro Leaguer Emilio Navarro at 102 year of age.
But how did he get that nickname? According to Joan M. Thomas, who interviewed Stiles in 2004, it originated with catcher Paul Richards (MIN-32):

"When Rollie leapt to catch a batted ball, Richards, an opposing team's player, exclaimed, “Leapin' Lena!" And the name stuck.

Stiles took good care of himself as a devoted husband and family man, and his mind was completely in tact until the end. He worked for many years for the Procter & Gamble Company in St. Louis. During a lengthy interview with the American Association Almanac in 2005, Stiles was a cordial and frank while sharing some of the intimate details of his life in baseball, occasionally pausing to share weighty personal information, such as the suicide of an adopted son. For this reason the loss of this fine old ballplayer from the golden years of the minor league was more deeply felt.
The 6-1, 180-lb hurler was farm-raised, athletically talented and good with the books, attending Southeastern Oklahoma State Teachers College in Durant concurrently with his first few season in organized ball. In his debut season, he appeared first with the Western Association’s Muskogee Chiefs (C) under Otto Williams (IND 06-12; KC-13) in 1928. There he performed with such future Association stars as Red Badgro, Tedd Gullic, Paul Richards, Lin Storti and Bill Swift. His 16-13 record for a last-place team helped push him up to the Western League (A) where he took the hill for Marty Berghammer (STP 16-25; mgr. MIL 29-31) and his Tulsa Oilers, going 2-0 to wrap up the ’28 season. His outstanding SO/BB of 117-91 was a landmark for the youngster, an early pinnacle he was unable to replicate as his career progressed.
Then came Stiles’ Grade A season with Class-A Tulsa in ‘29 when his team-leading 22-11 paved the way to a league championship for the Oilers (95-66) and their managers Berghammer and Nick Allen (MIN-12; STP 21-24/26; mgr. STP 24-28)...and to a promotion to the big time. Stiles earned a distinctive feather for his cap by tossing a nine-inning no-hitter against the Des Moines Demons on June 30, 6-0.
In 1930 Stiles was in the American League and handed a set of St. Louis flannels, with skipper Bill Killefer at the helm. Stiles was the second-youngest mate on the good ship Brownie whose senior staffer that season was a big Texan named Harry “Rip” Collins. The Browns finished sixth, slipping two spots in the standings, sandwiched between Detroit and Chicago. Stiles was 3-6 in 20 games (102 innings) during his break-in as a Brown.
The same year Stiles headed for the alter with Margaret Edna Herget, he was also headed for the American Association. By the 1932, he had some serious seasoning under his belt, but his introduction with the Brewers was inauspicious, posting a 1-5 record in 16 appearances. Part of his season was spent with the Longview Cannibals (Browns) of the Texas League (A) that year; he put up a 2.70 ERA in 12 games, assembling a 3-7 record.
Returning to the Browns fold in 1933, Stiles appeared in 31 games, posting a 3-7 record with a 5.01 ERA for a team in transition. The Browns finished last in defense and pitching, and runner-up to the basement in batting.
Stiles was back in the American Association in 1934 as a Milwaukee Brewer but his season under Al Sothoron (LOU-23; mgr. LOU 29-31 and MIL 34-38) was short-lived, as an early-season trade took him to Roger Peckinpaugh’s (mgr. KC-34) Kansas City Blues in exchange for Bryan Harriss (STP 29-33; KC-34; MIL-34), an aging left-hander who had authored a no-hitter against KC on May 18, 1932 as a member of the St. Paul Saints.
During our interview in 2005 Stiles was still perplexed over the reasoning behind the trade. To say that he continued to harbor bitterness about it is an understatement. While he seemed to understand the complex nature of baseball as a business, his general take on the decision was that, not only was it unnecessary, it was unwarranted. To some extent, he perceived it as personal, as an insult, as rejection. Perhaps feelings of such intensity are common when a player of his potential, so completely devoted to his game, winds up taking a hit. He and his wife were suddenly thrown into transition, and it isn’t surprising that residual resentment was the result. Stiles made his feelings clear, over 70 years later, that he was disillusioned by the move that sent him to the Blues, a team that finished in the Association basement that year; Milwaukee finished in third.
Despite the angst, Stiles salvaged the season with 10 wins against 12 losses, but he had developed a new nemesis in the process...the Milwaukee Brewers.
The following season the Blues had a new manager, Dutch Zwilling (IND 16-20; KC 21-23; mgr. KC 27-32 and 35-37), and the club reversed course. Stiles had a hand in the club’s improved fortunes, winning 13 games and lowering his ERA to an impressive 3.39. That showing is even more noteworthy in light of the increase in team batting in the Association that year, from .291 in ‘34 to .293, in a league that had its share of swatsmiths during the 1930’s.
Stiles’ did not star as a hurler in the American Association, but his years in the league were vital to his development. In his 240 minor league career decisions, 53, or 22%, were in the Association where he finished with a 24-29 (.453) record, slightly lower than his overall winning percentage of .471 (113-127). In the Association his hits allowed/game of 5.97 compared well with his overall 6.47. His runs allowed/game in the Association was 1.86 while his overall r/g was 3.26.
Primarily with the Dallas Steers (White Sox, A-1) of the Texas League during the 1936 season, Stiles produced a 7-9 record in 18 games under Alex Gaston (MIL-20; TOL 24-25; STP 27-28; KC 33-34) as part of pennant winning squad, but his ERA was on the rise again, settling in at 4.58.
Stiles became property of the New York Giants for the final few laps of his career, spending three straight years with the double-A Jersey City Giants (International League) from 1937-39. He struggled considerably during his first season on the east coast, going 8-19 in 36 game for Travis Jackson’s cellar dwellers, despite a solid 3.60 ERA. During his final stint with Jersey City in 1939, Stiles showed, perhaps, the type of pitching skill he knew he was capable of. With an 11-8 record, the steady Arkansas farm boy was as true as a country road, honing down his ERA to a glinting 2.86 in 31 games (167 innings), including 22 starts, under Bert Niehoff (IND-11; LOU-13), helping send the Giants to the IL pennant along with their ace Roy Joiners, long time PCL stud, who went 21-8 with a league-leading five shutouts and 2.53 ERA.
A final round with the Chattanooga Lookouts under Kiki Cuyler in the Southern Association (Senators, A-1) in 1940 capped a yeoman-like career for Rollie Stiles.
With his 113 wins and 127 losses, his time in baseball may have been disappointing, but that’s not what Stiles would have said. He knew the pain real losing, about taking your hits in life, that baseball was just a game, that if you could go .500 in the game of life, you’d deserve a tip of the cap.
After living for many years at the Oakdale Retirement Home at Oakdale, Missouri, just south of St. Louis, he passed away in his sleep at the Bethesda Southgate Nursing Home in St. Louis.
Historically, Stiles had a weight that made put him in a higher class. He was the only player still living to pitch to Babe Ruth. Still adored by many, Stiles “got the nod” and joined the Great Majority at the age of 100. For this writer, it was a sublime honor to have spent some quality time with such a class act.