|Late TN ballplayer still impacts major leagues|
|Thursday, November 10, 2011|
The small community of Gassaway, which lies about 2 miles from where Wilson, Cannon and DeKalb counties meet, had a major Major League connection to last week’s World Series.
Professional pitcher Charles Cason Gassaway, who was born Aug. 12, 1918, in the village named after his great-great grandfather, Benjamin Gassaway, was pretty much a career minor leaguer, although he enjoyed parts of three seasons in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians from late 1944 into 1946, appearing in 39 games and notching five wins.
The oldest child of Arthur and Era (Shirley) Gassaway stuck in professional baseball for more than 25 years as a player, manager and scout, but his biggest impact on the game must have come in 1962 when he signed a 17-year-old shortstop named Tony La Russa to a contract with the Kansas City Athletics. That's the same Tony La Russa who skippered the St. Louis Cardinals to this year's World Series against the Texas Rangers. La Russa is the third most winning manager in major league baseball (trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw) with 2,727 wins behind his belt.
“He really loved baseball. He devoted his life to it,” said Marie Siegel of Crystal River, Fla., the only surviving child of Gassaway. The ballplayer died in 1992 at the age of 73 in Miami, Fla.As a southpaw slinger, two of his finest seasons came with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1943 and 1944 when he won 24 games, lost 14 and had a 2.75 earned run average. The AA club owner Bill Veeck purchased his contract for $1,000 from Nashville in middle of the 1943 season. Milwaukee manager Charlie Grimm told the Milwaukee Journal that July, "If we'd had a southpaw like Charlie Gassaway last year, we would have won the pennant."
Used mainly as relief pitcher, Gassaway told a Milwaukee sports writer, after Brewer starters threw four straight shutouts: "I don't know why the Brews need me. . . . I'll never break into the league if that is the kind of pitching they expect. . . . That's too hot a pear for Mrs. Gassaway's boy, Charles."
In April 1945, owner-manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics purchased the hurler from the Milwaukee Brewers for $15,000. He won 14 games for the Brewers that season under manager Casey Stengel. Gassaway played three more seasons for Stengel from 1946-1948 in Oakland, Calif., before the New York Yankees called up Stengel. (Hall of Famer Stengel went on to guide the Yankees to 10 pennants and seven World Series titles during the next 12 years.)
Gassaway was ace of the Oakland Oaks team in 1948 when they won 114 games and the Pacific Coast League title. Stengel nicknamed that team the “Nine Old Men” as most of his key players were older than the other players in the league. Among Gassaway’s teammates were veterans Ernie Lombardi and Cookie Lavagetto and a youngster named Billy Martin, who later became a Yankee player and skipper.
His last season as a player was in 1952 when he also managed the Tri-City team in Washington state in the Western International League. He managed various minor league teams until the 1960s when he wound down his career as a scout for the Kansas City Athletics.
Marie Gassaway Siegel said her father moved with his family to Nashville when he was very young. He had two sisters, Nell and Mary, and three brothers, Carl, Nick and Paul. (Paul, a catcher, played minor league baseball, signing with Chattanooga in the fall of 1942 and later played in a Nashville industrial league for DuPont from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s.)
"Charlie Gassaway was a pretty good pitcher. He was long tall and lanky," said Mt. Juliet's Virgil Nipper, who played on the Nashville North High School baseball team in the mid-1940s. “I saw him play a lot in Sulpher Dell for the Nashville Vols.
"His brother, Paul, worked for the L&N Railroad and was a good catcher. At that time there was a good city league in Nashville, and he was a catcher for DuPont, and I played against him (from 1952-1956) for the old Nashville Bridge Company team."
Gassaway’s obituary in the Miami Herald stated that he gave up high school (Nashville’s Hume-Fogg) to pursue his boyhood passion—baseball. He made his professional debut in the minor leagues in 1936, and he won 18 games as a 19-year-old for his Pensacola, Fla., club in 1938.
“He had a ninth-grade education,” his daughter said. “He left to go play baseball when he was 16. One of the stories passed down is that he had on this suit his parents bought for him and had his little suitcase and was walking to the train station and it started to rain, and his new suit shrank on him while he was wearing it. The arms and legs shortened as he was going off in that suit to play baseball.”
There was nothing short about Gassaway’s baseball career.
From 1936 until 1952 he played for teams in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin, California, North Carolina and even Montreal, Canada. For eight more years he managed teams in Washington, Utah, North Carolina and Florida. Who knows how many thousands of hours he spent traveling on team buses down two-lane blacktops from burg to burg in days when there were no air-conditioned rides. There could be little doubt that he loved the game.
Nevertheless, a few times he decided to quit, only to change his mind and return to the great American pastime.
A headline from the Milwaukee Journal, dated March 5, 1944, proclaims: Brewers Sign Up Gassaway, Left Handed Pitcher ‘Quit’ Baseball to Become Policeman.
The article reads: Charley (Lefty) Gassaway of the Brewer pitching staff is just as unpredictable as a highway patrolman in Tennessee as he is in a baseball uniform. A few days ago, while on duty outside of Nashville, Gassaway wrote this note: “Please excuse my hand writing because I’m signing my contract while sitting in my squad car on the side of the highway. I’ll see you in Waukesha Mar. 20 to start spring training”
Gassaway “retired” from baseball last summer. Patrolling the Tennessee highways was a better job, he told teammates at the time. Charley had just returned from Nashville, where he had passed a written examination for the patrol job. At the time, Gassaway was the busiest member of Charley Grimm’s pitching staff and his arm was tired. The highway patrol job, he believed, would be more comfortable. A month ago he received his contract and his thoughts turned to baseball.”
His on-and-off-again job between fall and spring with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, reportedly working in and around Murfreesboro, earned him the “Sheriff” nickname, which stuck.
Standing 6-feet-2 and weighing 190 pounds during his prime playing days, hurler Gassaway was a switch-hitter. One of his baseball cards from the 1940s notes such facts as “He has a pet dog called Lollypop. His baseball ambition is to play 20 seasons. His greatest thrill was signing his first professional contract. Of English-Irish descent, he has blue eyes, brown hair. Learned baseball on the sandlots. Boyhood idol: Lefty Grove; Present-day favorite: Ted Williams.”
Another greatest thrill must have been the birth of his daughter. Marie was born in 1952 in Nashville and moved with her parents in 1956 to Miami.
“My mother was his second wife,” she said. “He married as a very young man and his first wife died. They had a son, but my half-brother, Kenneth Wayne Gassaway, passed away many years ago.
“My mother was a flight attendant and worked for Western Airlines. He was traveling with the ball team, and he got on the plane, and immediately he handed her his garment that he had on a hanger and said to her, ‘and I’d like a cup of coffee, please.’ She was so annoyed by him. He rubbed her the wrong way, but he must have redeemed himself,” she recollected of that fateful encounter. The ballplayer and flight attendant married in 1950.
“He was a great father and really liked by a lot of people. He was a very, very laidback person. He loved music, particularly country music, and he loved a good joke. He was a happy-go-lucky guy. He enjoyed life,” Siegel said of her dad, whose offspring include five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“He was an avid hunter and fisherman. One of my happiest childhood memories is going fishing with my mom and dad. He was so proud on my 16th birthday when he gave me a Shakespeare rod with a Mitchell 300 reel. He also was very much into photography during the years that he was playing. As a young child I remember him being into photography, and he had a little dark room set up and developed his own pictures.
“My best recollections of him and baseball come from when I was a young child, and he was managing the Tampa Tarpons and Lakeland Indians. In the summers when school was out, my mother and I would go to wherever he was playing and that was our life. Every night we went to the baseball stadium.”
During the off season in Florida, the manager worked at a Miami supermarket.
“When he retired from playing baseball, he went to work for a company called Southern Gun Distributors in Miami, a major gun wholesaler-retailer, and he was the manager of their warehouse and supervisor of their records,” Siegel said. “That was where he retired from.”
As for memorabilia from his days on the diamond, Siegel said she has a couple of uniforms, a glove, a pair of cleats and some baseball cards.
Marie Gassaway Siegel has never ventured to the birthplace of her father and burial ground to a number of her ancestors, but said, “I look forward to going to Gassaway soon.”
Charlie Gassaway, Cannon County’s only native to have made it to the major leagues, died Jan. 15, 1992, of cardiac arrest at 73 and was buried at Woodland Park South in Miami.
Upon receiving news of the Tennessean’s death, Chuck Stevens, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Professional Baseball Players in California, told the press, “He was a graceful pitcher. I played against him many times in the minors. He may not have had a long career in the majors, but anybody that made it for even 20 minutes did a helluva job, in my humble opinion.”
By KEN BECK