SYRACUSE — While some of those in the area may be familiar with the story of Ralston “Rollie” Hemsley, for others the name may be a familiar one, but little is known about the man.
Hemsley grew up in Syracuse, playing baseball on what is now King Field where youth still play baseball and softball today.
What makes his story of particular interest now, during the 2016 World Series, is that Hemsley spent a portion of his 19-year Major League Baseball career with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs, who are now battling for their first World Series titles in decades.
Hemlsey broke in to the major leagues at age 20 with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1928. He played for the Pirates, Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Browns, Indians, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.
He was a five-time All Star and received MVP votes in three seasons, although never finishing in the top five.
Hemsley played in three World Series games for the Cubs in 1932 as the team lost to the Yankees.
It was Opening Day 1940 that may have been one of Hemsley’s biggest days on the field.
Playing for the Indians, Hemsley was the catcher that day for Bob Feller, as he was on many other occasions, serving as Feller’s personal catcher during his time with the team. That day still stands in major league history as the only opening day no-hitter.
Not only was Hemsley the catcher for the no-hitter, but drove in the lone run of the day in the 1-0 victory by the Indians.
Feller was a big reason for Hemsley coming to the Indians, with Hemsley having caught Feller in the All Star game in 1937, before joining the Indians for the 1938 season. According to Hemsley family members, Hemsley was a good defensive catcher, something that worked well with Feller’s pitching.
Hemsley’s career came to an end in the 1947 season, having played since 1928 with the exception of 1945 when he was in the Navy. Hemsley hit .262 in his career, having played over 100 games in seven seasons, including 144 games in 1935 for the Browns.
While Hemsley may be known for his one the field achievements, he may be even more well known for his off the field antics and his road to recovery. You see, Hemsley was one of the first major athletes to announce that he was in Alcoholics Anonymous, which led to his recovery from alcoholism.
An article in the Baseball Historian in 2012 detailed the drinking problem of Hemsley and the turnaround after joining AA.
It was with the Browns where manager Rogers Hornsby worked to keep Hemsley in line, with little success.
Later with the Indians, it would be a gesture by upper management that made a difference.
According to reports, Indians general manger Cy Slapnicka gave Hemsley a diamond ring, telling him it was for his daughter. (Hemsley had a daughter who died of cancer at a young age). Hemsley vowed to stop drinking on the spot, and arrangements were made for him to join AA.
AA was in its early years at the time, having been launched in 1935 in Akron.
It was following the no-hitter to begin the 1940 season that Hemsley publicly announced he had quit drinking and was part of AA. Hemsley’s admission marked the first time anyone had announced being part of the group on a national level, leading to the growth and expansion of the organization.
After his playing days ended, Hemsley managed in the minor leagues and spent a year as pitching coach for the Washington Senators.
Following his major league career and managerial stint, Hemsley settled in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he was real estate agent before dying of a heart attack in 1972 at age 65.
Several years after Hemsley’s passing, while attending an Indians game, a family member had the opportunity to speak with Feller.
Feller shared stories not only of his time with Hemsley on the field, but visits to Syracuse with Hemsley.
Hemsley’s story is one of a small town boy making it to the big leagues, but also a man overcoming his struggles, coming out on top with a successful end to his career.
And to think it all began on the ball field in Syracuse where many kids still spend their summer nights.
Editor’s note: Information and stories for this article were provided by members of the Hemsley family, many of whom still live in the area. The family is looking for photos from the old King Field, showing the grandstand which would have been in place in the 1920s.