By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
In the last few years of his life, before pneumonia took him at the age of 81 in 1983, Howard Earl Averill spent the majority of his time taking leisurely strolls through the streets of his native Snohomish, swimming, playing poker games with pals with a $2 limit, and puttering around a two-bedroom apartment strewn with relics of a baseball era that served as a constant reminder of the 1930s.
At the time, Averill had a picture on his dining room table showing the 1933 American League All-Star team. Averill stood seventh from the left, bottom row, sharing photographic company with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, Bill Dickey, Lefty Grove and Eddie Collins, all now a prominent part of baseball’s rich history and lore.
On the television set, blaring programming from Channel 3 in Everett, Averill placed an award that hed received from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn upon the occasion of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Aug. 18, 1975.
Averill’s digs also featured a dozen or so plastic-enclosed baseballs, commemorative pen sets, plaques, trophies and certificates that further trumpeted a career that spanned the Presidential administrations of Herbert Hoover (1929-33) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
”Look here,” Averill said to a visitor, while pointing to a stack of mail. ”These are autograph requests. There must be 15 in this bunch alone. They are the most I have ever received at one time. Most of them come from kids back east, kids who are really interested in baseball. I dont get any from kids around here.”
Despite a sharp memory, Averill, then nearing 80, could not recall the last time anyone in his Snohomish neighborhood asked for his autograph, or the last time anyone sought his opinion on baseball.
“The kids here now don’t even know who I am, much less care, Averill said. ”It’s almost as if they don’t even know I exist. Now that doesn’t bug me, but I do think it’s sort of funny.”
Funny in the sense that kids around Snohomish — and all over the state, for that matter — sure knew about Earl Averill in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, when he starred in center field for the Cleveland Indians. He was the biggest thing ever to emerge from their town.
Near the end of his major league career, on Oct. 9, 1938, Snohomish honored Averill with “Averill Day,” the festivities including a game between the “Snohomish Town Team” and the ironically named “Old Timers,” who featured 19-year-old Seattle Rainiers rookies Edo Vanni and Fred Hutchinson, and Averill’s Cleveland teammate, Seattle native Jeff Heath, still fresh off a 58-hit month (August, 1938) for the Indians.
Earlier that year, the Indians held an “Earl Averill Day” in Cleveland, in which the club showered the left-handed batting star with gifts, including a new Cadillac. But years had passed since residents of Snohomish had tracked his every move.
“During the Depression, this town (Snohomish) didn’t have much pride. But we always had Earl Averill. No matter what was going on, you knew you could pick up your newspaper every morning and see how many hits Earl Averill got,” long-time coach Keith Gilbertson Sr. told the Everett Herald in 2005.
Equally amusing to the aging Averill: The Baseball Encyclopedia, which he kept handy on the coffee table, had somehow condensed 13 of the greatest seasons — 10 prime ones — that any major leaguer ever had into a one-inch recap. That hardly seemed adequate, given his accomplishments. On the other hand, Averill had a long history of being overlooked.
Born in Snohomish May 21, 1902, the son of a logger, Joseph Averill, and Annie Maddox Averill, the daughter of a pioneer family, Averill played baseball as a youth on a crude field cleared of tree stumps, and quit school at the age of 15 to work construction, in a lumber mill, and in a greenhouse owned by older brother, Forrest “Pud” Averill.
In 1920, Averill joined the newly formed Snohomish Pilchuckers, a town club named after the nearby Pilchuck River, and developed into a player of such promise over the next few years that in 1924 the citizens of Snohomish took up a collection to send him to the San Bernadino, CA., spring training camp of the Pacific Coast Leagues Seattle Indians, then coming off a 99-win season under manager Wade Red Killefer, who ran the club from 1923-27.
Considered (according to Baseball Almanac), an astute judge of talent who could buy, sell and trade with the best of them, Killefer had a reputation for succeeding with problem players. Chehalis native Vean Gregg, who pitched in the majors from 1911-25, was quoted in a Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) article as saying that Killefer “makes good with men that no one else wants, [he] likes the irreconcilables, the disturbers. He gets hold of them and makes them take out their spleen in everlasting hustle on the ball field. Wade has the kind of personality that no man, however ill-natured, can help respond to.”
Maybe Averill, a man never easily flustered, simply did not present Killefer enough of a challenge. More likely, Averill simply wasn’t ready yet for Pacific Coast League pitching. In any event, Killefer chased Averill out of the Indians training camp.
Having failed his PCL tryout, Averill joined the Bellingham Tulips, perennial Northwest semi-pro champions, and took part in a few exhibition games with the Everett Gulls. But it was in Bellingham that Averill’s game began to change.
Bellingham manager Tealy Raymond, a former captain, shortstop and manager of the Seattle Giants, made a few adjustments to Averill’s swing (notably, he shortened it) and, according to baseball writer Alex Schults of The Seattle Times, before long, Earl was punching hits with regularity.
Taking note of Averill’s progress, the San Francisco Seals signed him in 1925 and sent him to the Anaconda Anodes, an entry in Montana’s Copper League, for additional seasoning (Averill and his teammates were technically employed as smelter workers for the Anaconda Copper Company, but actually paid to play baseball). Averill tore up the league, earning an invite to San Francisco’s spring training camp in 1926.
Nicknamed Rock, due to his bulging forearms, Averill made the club after having traveled to spring training at his own expense. It must have pained Killefer to watch Averill hit .348, .324 and .354 over the next three years (Averills 1928 season especially makes the ears perk up: in an extended PCL season of 189 games, Averill produced 270 hits, 53 doubles, 36 home runs, 178 runs and 173 RBIs.)
Despite his gaudy numbers and clutch play (Averill once won both games of a Seals doubleheader with home runs, each a 1-0 outcome), most major league teams did not consider Averill to be San Francisco’s best outfielder in 1928 — or even second best.
Left fielder Roy Johnson, who hit .360 with a league-leading 16 triples and 29 stolen bases, most interested major league clubs, which ranked right fielder Smead Jolley right behind Johnson, even though Jolley had won the PCLs Triple Crown — .404 batting average, 45 home runs, 188 RBIs.
The Seals did not want to sell any of their outfielders, but cash talked, the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians had money to spend, and both wanted Johnson, widely considered to be a Ty Cobb in the making.
The Tigers beat the Indians to the punch, landing Johnson for $75,000. When Indians GM Billy Evans (baseball historian Bill James says that Evans was the first front-office executive to be called a general manager) learned he had lost Johnson, he took a train to San Francisco, determined to buy Jolley.
Walter Dutch Ruether, a former major league pitcher who would later play for (1930-31, 1934-35) and manage (1935-36) the Seattle Indians, made the fateful intervention before Evans could crack his billfold.
”Don’t be silly,” Ruether told Evans. “The Tigers pulled a boner when they bought Johnson. You’ll pull a bigger one if you buy Jolley. Buy Averill. You can probably get him cheaper than the other two, and he’s 10 to 1 a better ballplayer.”
So Evans paid $40,000, $45,000 or $50,000 for Averill (depending on the source to which you subscribe), and Cleveland owner Alva Bradley, after getting his first look at the 5-foot-9 Averill, thought Evans had wasted his money. “You paid all that money for a midget,” Bradley told Evans.
“I think the price was $50,000,” said Earl Averill Jr., now a Tacoma resident. “The thing that stands out to me was that he held out when he got sold to Cleveland, and he won the argument. I think he got $10,000 of that, but I can’t verify that. My dad never talked about the money he made. I don’t think my mom ever knew what he made, either.”
Averill became an immediate sensation in Cleveland, and probably would have been named Rookie of the Year if the award had existed.
(Roy Johnson played 10 years with the Tigers, Red Sox, Braves and Yankees, but failed to make anyone forget Ty Cobb. Smead Jolley, purchased by the Chicago White Sox, played only four MLB seasons.)
As a rookie in 1929, Averill hit .331 with 18 home runs (a single-season Cleveland record) and 97 RBIs, and established post-1900 (rookie) records with 321 total bases and 71 extra-base hits. Averill’s manager, Roger Peckinpaugh, told United Press International, “He’s the best-looking youngster to come up in a long time.”
Averill went on to compile a .318 career batting average for the three teams — Cleveland (10 1/5 years), Detroit Tigers and Boston Braves – on which he played. Averill finished with 238 home runs, 2,020 hits, a .533 slugging percentage, 1,165 RBIs and 1,224 runs scored.
Averill exceeded 30 home runs in a season three times and knocked in more than 100 runs five times, with a high of 143 in 1931 (he also scored a career-high 140 runs that year). In 1936, 75 years ago, Averill produced his best season, hitting .378 with 232 hits, 28 home runs, a league-leading 15 triples, 126 RBIs, a .438 on-base percentage, a .627 slugging percentage and a fabulous 1.065 OPS.
For most of Averill’s post-baseball life, it baffled him why the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to support his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Averill appeared on the BWAA ballot in 1949, 1952, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1960 and 1962, and voters always snubbed him. Averill never received more than 5.3 percent of the vote. One year, 1949, he received just 0.7 percent (75 percent necessary for election).
“I don’t know why he didn’t get in earlier,” said Earl Jr. “Maybe they penalized him because he weighed only 168 pounds. He looked bigger because he was so broad shouldered, but he had skinny legs.”
BWAA members today might agree with their predecessors that Averill did not warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame based strictly on his career numbers. Averill had slightly more than 2,000 hits and just 238 home runs.
But baseball’s Veterans Committee, charged with evaluating the careers of potential Hall of Famers overlooked by sports writers, re-examined Averill’s resume and saw fit in 1975 to make him a Cooperstown enshrinee (first native of Washington state to enter the Hall). Averill’s class included Ralph Kiner, Bucky Harris and Billy Herman.
“I could have gotten in sooner, but its sure better late than ever,” Averill said after learning of his induction.
The main reason Averill didn’t gain induction sooner clearly had everything to do with his relatively short career – 13 seasons, just 10 ½ prime years – after joining the Indians as a 27-year-old rookie in 1929 (The Washington State Sports Collectors Club, one of the oldest in the country, played a grass-roots role in getting Averill selected to the HOF).
But during thoses 10 peak years, Averill averaged 189 hits, 37 doubles, 12 triples, 23 home runs, 115 runs scored, 108 RBIs and a .533 slugging percentage, an exceptional record (Averill’s RBI total of 1,078 still ranks as eighth highest over the first 10 seasons of a career).
In addition, Averill posted a higher career OPS (.929) than Hall of Famers Tris Speaker (.928), Chuck Klein (.922), Al Simmons (.915) and Babe Herman, among his contemporaries, or near contemporaries.
Except for his average number of seasonal base hits and batting average (which is close), Averill’s numbers (especially OPS) largely overwhelm Ichiro’s, matched against the first 10 years of the Mariner star’s major league career.
Another factor which may have steered BWAA voters away from Averill: In addition to his short major league life span, Averill never played on teams that left any kind of historical impression.
During the early part of Averill’s career (1929-31), Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, featuring four future Hall of Famers in Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane, won three consecutive pennants (and two World Series).
After the Yankees won the 1932 pennant, Detroit emerged with future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Charlie Gehringer and pitchers Schoolboy Rowe and Tommy Bridges, further keeping the Indians at bay. Even with Averill, Cleveland couldn’t keep up with the As, later the Yankees, and finally the Tigers.
BWAA voters might have also downgraded Averill for not winning a major award, such as Most Valuable Player (he finished in the top five in MVP voting four times), or a batting title. While Averill always ranked high on offensive leader boards, one or two players always ranked higher.
(Averill probably would have been named the MVP of the 1934 All-Star Game had the award existed. He went 2-for-4 and drove in three runs in the American League’s 9-7 victory.)
In 1931, Averill posted one of his best years with a .337 batting average, 32 home runs and 143 RBIs. But Simmons of the As hit .390 and Grove went 31-4. In 1936, when Averill hit a career-high .378, Luke Appling (another future Hall of Famer) hit .388 (Appling never hit above .348 in any other year of his career).
It’s probably unfair (and unwise) to compare players of one era to players from another. Still, Averill played fewer career games than the late Kirby Puckett. While both Averill and Puckett finished with identical .318 batting averages, Averill hit more home runs, drove in more runs, and had higher on-base, slugging and OPS numbers than the 12-year Twin. Averill waited 34 years to walk through Cooperstown’s portals. Puckett entered the Hall of Fame on his first try (2001), with 82.1 percent of the vote.
“Kirby had a big personality,” said Earl Jr., acknowledging that his father was pretty low key. “That didn’t hurt a lot of guys who went into the Hall of Fame. There’s a lot of of politics in that.”
Averill made the American League All-Star team six times, starting in 1933, and remains the only outfielder selected to the All-Star Game for each of the first six editions of the mid-summer classic. Further illustrating the esteem with which Earl was held: In November of 1934, Averill became just one of 15 major league players (along with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Moe Berg) selected to visit Japan and demonstrate their skills.
“Interesting thing,” said Earl Jr. “When my dad was in All-Star Games (1936-38), with Joe DiMaggio, dad was in center field and DiMaggio (the center fielder for the Yankees) was in right (meaning Averill, perhaps due to seniority, deserved to start in center).
Had it not been for Averill’s late start and a bad back that compromised his swing, he might now be a standard part of any conversation involving baseball’s all-time greats. For his sake, Averill told a number of interviewers before his death that he thought he could have put up numbers similar to Pete Rose had he had a full career.
He might have. At various times, Averill led the American League in games (1934), hits (1936), at-bats (1931), triples (1936) and putouts (1929, 1934).
But after batting .378 in that 1936 season 75 years ago, Averill’s undoing occurred in late June of 1937 when his back went out while he was on another hitting tear.
“I was having a helluva year until my back went haywire in Philadelphia,” Averill told the Society for American Baseball Research. “My back affected my swing.
When his back went (doctors diagnosed a congenital spine malformation), Averill had to alter his swing. As a result, his batting average began a steady decline, to the point that he finished the 1937 season with a .299 average, far below his usual numbers.
Averill enjoyed one more respectable season, hitting .330 in 134 games in 1938, but his back condition continued to worsen and his career went into a steady eclipse. With Averill’s plate potency gone, the Indians traded him to the Detroit Tigers June 14, 1939, and the Boston Braves signed him as a free agent Feb. 26, 1941 (he played in the World Series with the 1940 Tigers). He didn’t last one month of the season before the Braves released him, ending his major league career.
Unwilling to concede he had lost it, Averill joined the Seattle Rainiers in 1941. He appeared in 78 games, but the facts couldn’t be disputed: Averill hit .247 with one home run, and his career ended.
Averill is famously remembered as the batter who shattered Dizzy Dean’s big toe with a line drive during the 1937 All-Star Game. Averill’s screamer effectively ended Deans career, or so the story goes (according to SABR, Averill had breakfast with Dean on the morning of the game).
Averill never believed that his line drive ended the pitcher’s career; rather, Averill thought that Dean would have made a full recovery if St. Louis manager Frank Frisch hadn’t pitched Dean so soon after the injury.
A couple of more days, Averill told several interviewers, and he (Dean) would have been ready.
Averill never could understand why the Dean incident remained such a permanent part of his legacy, especially since he accomplished so many interesting things. And this is where we begin to fully appreciate the The Earl of Snohomish, who consistently shows up on some of the more unusual baseball statistical lists.
For example, despite the 36 seasons that have elapsed since the Veterans Committee called Averill’s name for Hall of Fame induction, he remains the only Hall of Famer to have hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat, a solo shot off Earl Whitehill of the Detroit Tigers April 16, 1929 (Cleveland’s catcher that day, Luke Sewell, managed the Rainiers for part of the 1956 season).
On Sept. 17, 1930, Averill set a major league record by hitting four home runs (three in the opener with eight RBIs and one in the nightcap with three RBIs) and driving in 11 runs in a doubleheader against the Washington Senators (went 5-for-8 in the two games). That always remained Averill’s favorite personal highlight (he hit two other balls that day that barely missed being home runs).
On Aug. 17, 1933, Averill became the first native of Washington state to hit for the cycle in a major league game. He went 4-for-4 with three RBIs in a 15-4 Cleveland victory over the Philadelphia Athletics (John Olerud is the only other Washington state native with a hit cycle to his credit, and Olerud had two, on Sept. 11, 1997 for the Mets, and on June 16, 2001, for the Mariners.
While Ichiro has produced 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, Averill is the only Washington state native with a 200-hit major league season, a feat he accomplished twice, and nearly accomplished four times. He had 209 hits in 1931, 232 in 1936 and 198 in 1929 in 1932 (198-hit seasons occurred in 154-game seasons).
As far as can be determined (SABR and Retrosheet have delved into this), only eight players have produced 60 hits in a single month. Ty Cobb twice had 67 — July 1912 and July 1922 – and George Sisler exceeded 60 three times – September 1920 (64), June 1920 (61), and August 1921, (60).
Averill produced a 60-hit month in July, 1936 (60-for-133, .451), en route to a 232-hit season. He also had a 57-hit month in July of 1930, when he went 57-for-137, batting .416. Ichiro’s best month: 56 hits in August of 2004.
“That’s incredible, 60 hits in a month,” said Earl Jr. “Dad always used to say to me, ‘hitting was easy for me, I never had to work at it.’ But 60 hits in a month?” I think I got 60 hits one year.”
(Only one other Washington state native has had as many as 58 hits in a month – Seattle native Jeff Heath, who had 58 for Cleveland in August of 1938. When Ichiro had 56 hits in August of 2004, that represented the most in the majors since Heath’s 58).
Averill had five or more hits in a game five times (last on Aug. 8, 1936), four hits in a game 34 times, a 20-game hitting streak (July 4-25, 1936), three home runs in a game (Sept. 17, 1930), and five or more RBIs in a game 12 times. The Boston Red Sox so respected Averill that they walked him five times Aug. 29, 1932.
When his career ended, Averill returned to Snohomish and operated a greenhouse — Averill Floral — with his brother Pud (Earl returned to Snohomish after every season and worked in the greenhouse). Eight years after his retirement (1949), he opened the Earl Averill Motel, located on the town’s north end (from Everett), and ran it for two decades.
“My dad was always fun to be around,” said Earl Jr. “He was a hard worker, he loved to work in that greenhouse, and he loved to work when it was hot. In the greenhouse, we’d run the temperature up past 100, and that’s where he liked to work.”
In addition to his induction into the Hall of Fame, Averill took particular pride in becoming the just fourth player to watch his son reach the major leagues – and do so with his former team. Earl Jr. made his debut April 19, 1956, with Cleveland and hit .242 over a seven-year career with the Indians, Cubs, White Sox, Angels and Phillies.
Earl Jr., who played for the Seattle Rainiers (1964) and Seattle Angels (1965) toward the end of his career, couldn’t hit like his father, but not many players could. Earl. Jr. hit 21 home runs for the 1961 Angels, and did one thing his father never did – blast a pinch-hit grand slam– on May 12, 1959, off Milwaukees Lew Burdette. Only 121 players have done that, making a pinch slam as rare as a no-hitter and a cycle.
“That was the only time I ever faced him (Burdette),” Earl Jr. said. “I went up to pinch hit, it was a Monday in Chicago, and there were no other games on. The count was 2-2, and Burdette threw me a spitter right at my waist on the inside of the plate. He thought it was a strike and walked off (the mound), but the umpire called it a ball. I hit the next pitch on the catwalk.”
Earl Jr. told Dan Raley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005 that, “I tried to follow in the footsteps of my dad. That was a mistake because there was no following him.”
In Earl’s final years, he loved to talk about the past, but didn’t dwell on it. He kept current with the box scores through The Sporting News, avidly followed the Mariners, and had an appreciation for modern players.
“Lefty Grove was difficult to hit against,” Averill told his apartment visitor. “But I wouldn’t exactly relish facing Nolan Ryan, either. Charlie Gehringer was the best player I ever saw, but Joe Morgan could play in any era.
Averill died Aug. 16, 1983. He is buried at the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery in Snohomish.
“A great player became part of history yesterday,” The Everett Herald wrote. “Earl Averill left us with a long trail of his achievements worthy of his Hall of Fame status, a bevy of notable feats, statistics that are unmatched by even some of history’s great players, and enough memories to keep the old timers talking a long time.”
In 2005, The Everett Herald selected the greatest athlete in Snohomish County history. The newspaper could have picked, say, quarterback Chris Chandler, who starred at the University of Washington and played 17 years in the National Football League. Instead, it chose Howard Earl Averill, bringing to light a career unknown to the younger kids of Snohomish and Washington state.