The 1930s and ’40s certainly had their share of eccentric characters that played major-league baseball. Babe Herman. Van Lingle Mungo. And Cletus Elwood “Boots” Poffenberger.
While Poffenberger only lasted parts of three seasons in the majors, he definitely made an impression and was a joy for sportswriters looking for a story. He was a pitcher with an excellent fastball, but he had a personality that was a volatile mixture of Dizzy Dean and Rube Waddell.
“Just call me ‘Boots’ and on time for meals,” Austin Gisriel quotes the right-hander in “Boots Poffenberger: Hurler, Hero and Hell-Raiser” (Summer Game Books; 220 pages). Gisriel is a baseball author, blogger (he has written for seamheads.com), broadcaster, sports talk show “baseball expert” and public relations guy who wrote three books before this biography. Some of his articles have appeared in magazines like Baseball Digest. He became interested in Poffenberger when he was given access to meticulous scrapbooks compiled by Boots’ first wife.
What emerges is a fun look at a pitcher who “thought nothing about exhibiting his eccentricities.”
Poffenberger went 16-12 for the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers from 1937 to 1939. His love for beer and good times did not go over well with his managers at the major-league level, and at one point he was banned from organized baseball before he was reinstated.
But as Gisriel writes, there was something endearing about Poffenberger, who bore more than a casual resemblance to comedian Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello fame). Whether he was angling for more money, walking off the mound mid-game to show his disgust at his performance, or hitting an umpire in the chest protector in a fit of pique, Poffenberger generated interest among fans and writers.
“Poffenberger is refreshing, like a cool breeze off the Potomac River,” longtime Baltimore sportswriter John Steadman once wrote about Boots.
Banished to the minors, Poffenberger turned in his greatest season in 1940 with the Nashville Vols of the Southern League. He went 26-9 and won three more games in the postseason as Nashville won the league title and then defeated Houston in the Dixie Series.
He was never the same again, bouncing around in the minors, serving a three-year stint in the Marines during World War II (where he pitched and even appeared on a recruiting poster), and later playing semipro baseball for the Bona Allen Shoemakers in Buford, Georgia.
The book does suffer from a few glitches. For example, New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy is referred to once as “Charlie,” and pitcher Bobo Newsom’s last name is spelled as “Newsome.” Also, former Tigers pitcher Denny McLain is referred to as “McClain.”
And while Gisriel makes extensive use of the scrapbook material, there are occasions where he leans too heavily on them, quoting overly long passages in indented, italicized print to illustrate events in Poffenberger’s life. Perhaps some of them could have been condensed or paraphrased. Sometimes it made Gisriel’s narrative seem choppy, and that certainly was not his intent. It’s not really a distraction, however, because Boots was an interesting guy.
“Why all the to-do about Boots Poffenberger?” the Brooklyn Eagle asked in its May 24, 1939 edition. He “had pitching possibilities, it is true, but he also had a reputation that was far out of proportion because of his propensity for doing the unusual.”
Gisriel notes on his website that he is a writer “always in search of a good story, baseball or otherwise.” With Boots Poffenberger, he discovered an unusual character that could not exist in today’s game. There is something charming about Poffenberger’s slant on life, and Gisriel does a nice job making it come alive.