Terry, William Harold ("Bill")

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TERRY, William Harold ("Bill")

(b. 30 October 1898 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 9 January 1989 in Jacksonville, Florida), Major League Baseball player and manager of the New York Giants who was the last National League player to hit over .400 in a single season.

The formative years of Terry, popularly known as "Memphis Bill," were somewhat marred by the unhappy marriage of his parents, William Thomas Terry and Bertha Blackman Terry. While his mother tended to the household, his father's efforts with the family grain business met with failure and finally led to divorce in 1915. By the age of twelve Terry had moved with his parents to seven different Atlanta homes, and he never attended high school. By 1912 he was working in an Atlanta railroad yard.

Terry's first baseball game was on 6 June 1912, playing for Grace Methodist in the Baraca Sunday School League in Atlanta. Three years later the left-handed thrower and hitter performed in his first professional game as a pitcher and first baseman for Dothan in the Georgia State League. In 1916 Terry moved to Memphis, Tennessee. On 21 November that same year, Terry married Elvena Sneed from Memphis. They had four children.

Terry pitched in the All-Star game in the New Orleans winter league in 1917, but quit baseball the next year. He began working for Storage Battery Service and Sales Company in Memphis, but soon moved to Standard Oil of Louisiana as a salesman. On 15 June 1919 he established the company's semiprofessional team, the Polarines. Referring to his early professional career as a pitcher, Terry remarked: "I still think I would have made a first-class pitcher, but even for a left-hander, … I simply couldn't keep that ball away from the other fellows' bats, and right there I decided that if I ever hoped to get anywhere, it would have to be at the other end of the pitch."

Terry's reputation caught the attention of John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, the best team of the period. While on tour during spring training, McGraw used local talent to improve the strength of his team for exhibition games. On 1 April 1922 McGraw offered Terry an opportunity to play in the majors, but Terry balked at McGraw's pay deal. McGraw finally gave in on 10 May, agreeing to pay Terry $800 per month, and the next day Terry was sent by the Giants to play for the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. Terry played for the Mud Hens through 1922 and 1923, until he played his first game for the Giants at first base in the Polo Grounds in New York City on 24 September 1923. At six feet, one inch, and 200 pounds, Terry's size, rather than his speed, was his greatest asset. Although he batted only .239 in his first full season, Terry did manage to hit a home run in his first World Series game in 1924. But in game seven of the series, McGraw decided to replace Terry with Irish Meusel, a right-hander better able to deal with the Washington Senators left-handed pitcher George Mogridge. However, as soon as Terry was removed, the Senators manager Bucky Harris brought in the right-handed Firpo Marberry, and the Senators came back to defeat the Giants and win the World Series. For the rest of his life Terry insisted that Harris won the series by conning McGraw into pulling him.

In the 1925 season Terry batted .319. During his distinguished career with the Giants, Terry hit over .350 in four different seasons: 1929, 1930, 1932, and 1934. In 1930 he batted .401, the last National League hitter to accomplish such a feat. He was one of only eight players to top the .400 mark in the twentieth century. The 1930 season was his most productive in terms of batting average, but it included a two-month period from 8 July to 3 September when he batted a sizzling .446. He also shared the National League record for hits in one season with 254.

In his fourteen-season career, Terry made an impressive .341 batting average. Starting in 1927 he drove in 100 or more runs for six consecutive seasons. In 1932 he hit six home runs in four games to tie a record held by Babe Ruth and Chuck Klein. On 6 July 1933 Terry became one of four players to get two hits in the first Major League All-Star game. From 1923 to 1936 Terry played in 1,721 games, collecting 2,193 hits, 373 doubles, 112 triples, 154 home runs, and 1,078 runs batted in (RBI). Terry led the league in doubles in 1931, a year after he was named first baseman on the Sporting News All-Star Major League team. In the three World Series he played in (1924, 1933, and 1936), Terry batted .295. In the 1924 Series he hit .429. When asked for his formula for successful hitting, Terry said: "If you want to accomplish something, you must have confidence in your method of doing it."

In spite of his successes, Terry's relationship with his manager and front office was acrimonious. He constantly challenged the club to "pay me or trade me." Although he had little formal education, Terry's intelligence and knowledge of the game led to his selection as player-manager of the Giants. Taking over from McGraw on 3 June 1932, Terry managed to pull the struggling team into a sixth place finish, and in 1933 they won the pennant. In the World Series that year, the Giants defeated the Washington Senators four games to one. In 1936 the Giants won the pennant but lost the World Series to the Yankees four games to two. The Giants repeated as National League champions in 1937 with a record of 95–57, but again lost the Series to the Yankees in five games. So began a slow decline. The next season the team finished third; in 1939 the Giants came in fifth; and in 1940 they landed in sixth place. In 1941 the team set a losing record and had a fifth-place finish. When the 1941 season ended, Terry was dismissed as manager. He finished his managerial career with 823 wins and 661 losses, a winning percentage of .555.

Terry officially quit the Giants organization on 30 November 1942, having served briefly as general manager. He accepted a position as a cotton trader in Memphis in 1944, and five years later moved permanently to Jacksonville, Florida, where he purchased a Buick car dealership. Terry was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on 20 January 1954; his selection had been delayed because of his arrogance with the press. In the late 1950s Terry purchased the Jacksonville Braves in the Sally League and held on to them until 1964, when the team and league folded. His association with professional baseball came to an end that year. On 6 April 1983 the Giants, now in San Francisco, retired his uniform number (three).

Terry's car dealership thrived in the last years of his life. At the time of his death from natural causes, Terry's net worth was close to $30 million. Terry is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville. His career and life was best summed up by New York Times writer John Drebinger, "Among ball players Terry is regarded as a shrewd and calculating fellow who knows what he is worth and possesses the assurance and intelligence to get it."

Primary source material is in the William H. Terry File at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Peter Williams, When the Giants Were Giants: Bill Terry and the Golden Age of New York Baseball (1994), is the most comprehensive study of Terry's life. Works discussing the Giants and Terry's career include two books by Frank Graham, McGraw of the Giants: An Informal Biography (1944), and The New York Giants: An Informal History (1952). Reference works that include entries on Terry are Joseph L. Reichler, The Baseball Encyclopedia (1969); Thomas Aylesworth and Benton Minks, The Encyclopedia of Baseball Managers: 1901 to the Present (1990); and Nicholas Acocella and Donald Dewey, The Greatest Team of All Time: As Selected by Baseball's Immortals from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays (1994). Articles on Terry include F. C. Lane, "The Terrible Terry," Saturday Evening Post (Apr. 1930); Frank Graham, "Baseball's Greatest First Baseman," Baseball Magazine (Nov. 1930); F. C. Lane, "John McGraw's Capable Successor," Baseball Magazine (Oct. 1933); Red Barber, "Bill Terry Recalls Days with John McGraw," Baseball Digest (Nov. 1971); and William B. Mead, "The Year of the Hitter," in John Thorn, The National Pastime (1981). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Florida Times-Union, and Memphis Commercial-Appeal (all 10 Jan. 1989).

Charles F. Howlettm