WILLIAMSPORT -- He's known as "the last of the great baseball characters." Full name Cletus Elwood "Boots" Poffenberger. "Now how in hell can you sign that for an autograph and make it look good?" he wondered aloud. Genuine. Refreshing. Uninhibited. Certainly a storied figure in a game that once had a naivete to it that offered all of us hope that maybe we'd never have to grow up.
Poffenberger had a reputation for staying out late, disappearing for days and drinking more than enough beer to float a convoy. While pitching for the Detroit Tigers, he vanished when the team was in Philadelphia and the next day was admonished by manager Mickey Cochrane, who bent over him as he sat in front of his locker and hollered, "I demand to know your whereabouts last night." With that, Boots looked up and answered, "I refuse to reveal my identity." The other players roared at this one-man floor show they had in their midst.
Although he had only a brief time in the majors (he won 16 games and lost 12), the legend lives on. At age 80, he's an animated billboard for beer consumption, almost turning it into a sport. But his body is rock hard. In downtown Williamsport, there's a sign that reads: "Third Base Tavern -- The Last Stop Before Home." But, for now, Boots is barred.
"I got upset because after two beers they cut me off," he said. So now he frequents Peck's Tavern, where owner Tom Potts proclaims him, "Simply amazing. If they ever could have taken Williamsport out of him, there's no doubt he would have been tremendous." Among the engaging qualities about Poffenberger are his honesty and a still down-home, country-boy presence.
He'll tell the absolute truth, even when it might be perceived as an embarrassment. His charm is his sincerity. What he reveals about himself isn't always to his credit. Although alleged to have once called room service, when he was with the Tigers, and ordering "the Breakfast of Champions -- a steak sandwich and six beers," he insists that never happened.
"Anyone who knows me realizes that wouldn't be true. I would never quit at six. I can drink a case when I get good and ready. But let me tell you, beer can hurt you. I don't care what people say. I've been sick from beer. Then you want to drink more to get over it and that doesn't do you any good. If you don't drink it, then don't start."
In baseball, his beer-consuming reputation once led to a contest with another pitcher, Russell "Red" Evans of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. The loser was to pay the bar bill, a result determined by the first one who had to run for the men's room. Poffenberger won sitting on the bar stool.
But his life in baseball was more than absorbing beer. With the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association in 1940, he won 29 games and lost six -- the best in all of baseball -- and wasn't even drafted for $7,500. "My reputation hurt me," he said. "Teams wouldn't take a chance." His manager, the revered Charley Gilbert, claimed Poffenberger could win at any level of baseball "if he behaves himself."
Poffenberger, a right-hander, was known in the trade as a "short-armer." He didn't overpower hitters, but his pitches had exceptional movement and he was able to get out left-handed batters -- as indicated by the fact he was in a park, Nashville's Sulphur Dell, where right field measured only 250 feet.
In his 1937 debut in the majors, he beat Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove, a fellow Marylander, and he treasures the memory of defeating Bob Feller. "I gave up five hits, Feller two. Few things skip my mind. I sure as hell ain't going to forget winning against Feller."
His admirers in Williamsport once honored him with a "day" at Griffith Stadium, and he responded by beating the Washington Senators, 5-1. "They gave me a beautiful suitcase, which I still have, and a 16-gauge shotgun, which I hocked when I was short of money. I went to buy it back, but it was gone.
"I would have shut out the Senators that time except Hank Greenberg dropped a short flip I made to him at first base. But I'm not complaining. He made some great plays behind me. Men like Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig were gentlemen, too. And don't forget Charlie Gehringer. I vote for him to be a saint."
One man he doesn't have a good word for is Spike Briggs, son of the then-Tigers owner. Poffenberger once said, "Briggs wouldn't know a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon from a Budweiser." Now he says, "He didn't know any more about running a team than herding hogs. It upset him when I threw balls into the stands for the kids."
The most money Poffenberger made in baseball was $500 a month. That was after he won 10 games for the Tigers in 1937 and, even then, had to hold out to get it. "The most money I ever held in my hand at any one time was the $1,198 we got for finishing second to the New York Yankees in 1937. My 10 wins helped."
Poffenberger graduated from the eighth grade during the Depression and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), where he found out what it was to like to be on one end of a two-man cross-cut saw and to swing a brush ax, clearing areas near Snow Hill and Pocomoke City. By 20, after three years in the minors, he was in the big leagues -- in one of its most competitive eras.
"I remember Joe Cronin, player-manager of the Boston Red Sox. He hit a foul ball off me and kind of smirked. I got him to pop up. Then I laughed. He shouted at me, 'Listen, Bush, you'll be back down in the Texas League pitching under those lights.'
"In the majors, back then, they thought it was below their dignity to play night ball. But Cronin was a good shortstop for a big man. He made the Hall of Fame. That tells you all you need to know."
As for the present, Poffenberger wonders whatever happened to the strike zone, now shrinking rapidly, and curveballs. He sees sliders and split-finger pitches, but says, "I can't imagine anything being tougher to hit than a Tommy Bridges curve.
"Let me tell you something else. One Oriole I really liked was Boog Powell. What power. I just wish he wouldn't have taken so many pitches. With his ability, he would have hit twice as many home runs."
For 15 years after baseball ended, Poffenberger worked in the heating department for Mack Truck in nearby Hagerstown. He hunts and fishes regularly, which partly attests to his physical condition. But he's in a special category, a fading species: "the last of the great baseball characters." The beauty of it all is he doesn't know it.
Pub Date: 6/30/96