Ballplayer Profiles: Ulmont Baker
Ulmont Baker: In His Own Words
Ulmont W. Baker was born November 11, 1908, in Portsmouth, Kentucky, and grew up across the Ohio River in Portsmouth, Ohio. As a youth, he discovered a talent for the game of baseball and in 1928 he signed his first professional contract with Greensboro, NC, of the Piedmont League. After two seasons with that club, he moved on to Alexandrea, LA, in the Cotton States League. At mid-season in 1930, that club folded, so Baker joined Shreveport of the Texas League. In 1931 he played for Fort Worth in the same league, and the 1932 season was split between Fort Worth and San Antonio. Next it was on to the Mid-Atlantic League where Baker wore the uniform of four different teams over two seasons: Huntington, Beckley, Dayton, and Charleston. In 1935 he played only 27 games for Fort Wayne in the Three I League and was hitting .319, but decided to join a semi-pro industrial team in or around St. Augustine, FL before playing 20 games for the St. Augustine pro team in the Florida State League. In 1937 he spent the entire season playing semi-pro ball in St. Augustine.
Lured by the offer of a high salary, Baker signed on with Concord, NC, of the Carolina League for the 1938 season. Not a member of the National Association, the governing body of minor league baseball, the league was considered professional in every sense of the word. Players came from around the country for the chance to make good money (more than they could for most minor league teams) and the opportunity to have a hard-to-come-by job during the off season in the textile mills. The league folded after that season and Concord entered a new team in the Class D North Carolina State League. Baker signed on with that team and remained with them for three seasons, serving as manager in 1941. Baker´s final games in professional baseball came in 1942 when he appeared in 22 games with Knoxville, TN, before being drafted and joining the Navy Seabees.
Ulmont Baker´s career reflected the ups and downs of players in baseball´s minor leagues during the depression era. Players were forced to go where the money was, which is how Baker ended up in Concord, North Carolina, and became part of the story of the outlaw Carolina League.
The following interview was conducted by Hank Utley in 1991.
"I played baseball year after year with players all around me that went to the big leagues, and I didn´t go. Another thing, I was feeling you´re going backwards; you gotta get out of this. I should have played five years and got on out, but I loved it. I loved the game. I always thought, next year I´ll go to the top.
"That fellow, Judge Branham, president of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues - let me tell you about him--that damn Judge Branham. You take 1928 to 1933, his ass weighed a ton. He would sit on you. Whatever he said, that was it. That ol´ bastard ruled with a heavy hand. He wouldn´t dicker with you. I finished the season of 1932 with San Antonio in the Texas League. It was during the Great Depression, and I didn´t get paid at the end of the season. They owed me $500-600, and I wrote that damn Judge Branham after I couldn´t get the money. He wrote back and told me what to do, and I had already done everything he told me to do. I wrote and told him that. He wrote back and said, ´If you know any other way to get it - get it.´ The ol´ bastard, I didn´t try to be ugly with him. I needed the money. But he ran the minor leagues. Whatever he said, that was it.
"And you know, I finally got the money. The St. Louis Browns took over the San Antonio team in 1933 and paid me just like that. I put it in the bank and four days later the bank busted - the Depression, you know. That was a lot of money then. Oh my, I hated to lose that. I finally got about a dime on the dollar. I´ve wondered about that money many times - how aggravated and worried I was, and then how pleased I was to get it, and then it was gone again. In a week´s time, I had the money, and then I didn´t have it.
"I wish I had never pulled such a stunt as jumping that contract. I was in Indiana. I was mad at the owners, but I liked my teammates, and that wasn´t treating ´em right pulling a stunt like that. Everybody was going broke during the Great Depression. There was 20 ball players trying for every position on the team. Things were tough. And those semi-pros were paying good money with a possible job. I begin to feel like I was going backwards. In my mind, I was saying, ´You gotta get ot of this,´ but I loved the game. Lord, how I loved the game. That´s how I ended up jumping the contract. After I left, maybe the owners were glad to see me leave and just tuned in my outright release to that damn Judge Branham (Note: All of the players and family members I interviewed, every one of them, prefaced Judge Branham´s name with word "damn." I began to think that was part of his title.)
"I first met Bill Steineke at Fort Worth in 1932 when I was playing ball in the Texas League. Then I would see him all over the country. I´ll tell you one big thing, he never wanted a job. He was a hustler. He would play organized ball one year and then disappear and play in some semi-pro league, using a different name. Those semi-pros paid more money than some of the minor league teams, the Great Depression, you know. But now I wish I had never met him. (When Baker said that, his wife, Wilma, a high school teacher in Concord, NC, in 1941 shouted from the kitchen, "If you had never met Bill Steineke, you would have never met me." Baker quickly added, "Well, I guess some good did come out of that.")
"Anyway, I came to Concord in that outlaw league in 1938. Bill Steineke was the manager. He had come to Concord in 1937 as Bill Selph after he had gotten suspended from the Sally League. He was still being called Selph when the season started in 1938, and then a few weeks in the season he went back to his real name - Steineke. He brought some good ball players to Concord. In fact, that whole league was loaded with good ball players in 1938. I didn´t see any difference in organized ball and that league, except for the fighting. There was no joking around. There was no dogging it. A player put out everything he had or he was sent on his way.
"I played so many games I don´t remember many specific incidents. I do remember when Virgil Trucks jumped a contract and showed up in Concord with Luke Gunnells. They came up from Andulusia in the Alabama-Florida League. Oh Lord, how that kid could throw a baseball. But he was pretty wild. He wasn´t in Concord but one night and played under some fake name and then he left. I think his dad came and got him. Nobody knew what happened to him. He could have ruined his career.
"And then I remember Ken Chitwood. He had jumped a contract with Knoxville before I came to Concord. Ken was a tough pitcher. He would throw at some of those big hitters. I remember "Pick" Biggerstaff, manager of Valdese, cussed Ken when he was going down to first base. Now when you cussed Ken, he would "choose you" (colloquialism meaning he would pick you to fight). Gosh, what a guy that Chit was. Chit was quick as a cat and he popped Pick upside the head and brought blood. Well, Pick grabbed Chit around the neck, and they were rolling on the ground. It took a bunch of us to separate them. He nearly twisted Chit's head off. He couldn´t pitch for a week. He walked around with his head practically over on his shoulder. The other guy he hit was Vince Barton of Kannapolis. He and Pick both were big enough to eat hay. Vince had to leave the game to get some stitches in his jaw. He came back into the game later. Neither one of the players were put out of the game. I really believe the umpires were afraid to take too much action against the players.
"And the fans were mean as the players. When "Alabama" Pitts came to Concord to play, the fans ate him up about being an ex-convict. They were brutal. Pitts looked like a pretty good ball player to me. I heard he got killed in a fight in Valdese after he quit playing.
"The fans would get on the umpires pretty good. Not just hollering at them but fighting them after the game. One night against Kannapolis - oh how the Concord fans hated Kannapolis - but the players didn´t pay much attention except to look out for themselves. Any way the ump made what the fans thought was a bad decision and a couple hundred came running out on the field after him (Hank Utley: note: I was there. The fans chased him from the first base foul line all the way to left field and then up the 50 foot bank. The players were in the chase also. The players surrounded the umpire to protect him. By that time, my father took me out of the ball park.) We actually had to sit on top of that umpire with our bats to keep the fans off him. I was scared to death I was going to have to hit one of our fans with a bat. The police finally took the ump out of the ball park. He was so scared he could hardly walk.
"And then there was that last game up at Hickory - the one they took away from us and gave Hickory the playoff. Their fans came out on the field. I didn´t wait around to see if they were celebrating beating us in the playoff or coming after us. The umps had forfeited the game to Hickory because we would not take the field after an argument. When it came to baseball, the fans all over the league believed in it, and they would back their team with fists if need be. And when they would play those big rivalry games like Concord-Kannapolis and Hickory-Valdese, it was like a war. To the ball players it was just another game until we had to protect ourselves. "One of the more likeable fellows in the league was a teammate - Lefty Witt Guise. He was just a big ol country boy. All he would do was just get you out. He was very deceiving to me even when I was playing the infield behind him. I couldn´t understand where the ball was coming from when he threw it.
"You asked me what I thought made all those mill men and such put all that time and money into that outlaw league. For one thing those people knew baseball, and they loved it. And they saw a chance to have better baseball in that league than they had ever dreamed of. They lost some of their personal money. And they were doing for the community. Things were tough, and they gave the people something to do. I think the fans took out a lot of their economic frustrations on the umpires and other teams.
"Mr. L.C. Harmon at Gibson Mill in Concord was real nice to me. During the off season, he tried to make a weaver out of me - that is, a real weaver, you now, making cloth, not a Concord Weavers ball player. They let me learn on something that was new. Woven glass. And they tried to make cloth out of it. Craziest thing I ever heard of. Anyway, those ends would keep breaking out,and I would keep tying ´em back in. I found out that I wasn´t a textile man even though Art Hord (a former Concord infielder), who by then had a boss man´s job, kept telling me I couldn´t play ball forever and that Mr. Harmon would help me start another career.
"After the outlaw league folded at the end of the 1938 season, Concord joined organized ball in the NC State Class D League. I didn´t have any trouble getting back into organized ball in ´39. I had jumped a contract, but maybe the owner just gave me an outright release later on. Some of the other players in that outlaw league were not so lucky. Anyway I was back in organized ball in ´39, ´40, and ´41. I managed the Concord Weavers in 1941. I played a few games with Knoxville in 1942, then got drafted and joined the Navy Seabees."