Right fielder Enos Slaughter, born on this day 95 years ago, is one of the more controversial players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We take a look at his storied career and the questions surrounding it.
Born in Roxboro, North Carolina to a family in the tobacco farming business, Slaughter first learned to play baseball on a neighbor’s farm. “We played over on Ray Moore’s farm,” Slaughter said in a 2001 interview. “When we cut the wheat, we’d lay out a field and we’d play baseball. We took beeswax and thread and sewed our own baseball. Later, we took tape and wrapped it. My dad made me a bat out of a mulberry tree.”
Despite his humble beginnings, his talent was clear at an early age. When Slaughter was 19 years old, he was spotted at a tryout camp by Cardinals scout (and later manager) Billy Southworth. Slaughter and his friend Morris Briggs were signed to the St. Louis Cardinals for $75 a month and sent to a Class D farm team in Virginia (Briggs would soon get homesick and return to North Carolina.)
Slaughter hit 18 home runs and batted .275. While playing in Columbus, Georgia, he was rebuked by manager Eddie Dyer for loafing toward the dugout at the end of an inning. After that, Slaughter vowed never to walk on the baseball field and became legendary for his hustle. He rose through the minor league ranks and in 1938 debuted with the Cardinals. A year later, he’d already become their starting right fielder.
When WWII broke out, Slaughter served 3 years in the U.S. Army Air Force. He returned to the Cardinals and would play for them until 1954. Slaughter was a key member of their 1942 World Series winning team, and his run that helped the Cardinals bring home the Series in 1946 remains one of the most memorable in Series history, going down in baseball lore as “Slaughter’s Mad Dash.”
With the 7th game against the Boston Red Sox tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 8th inning, Slaughter hit a single. The next two batters failed to get on base, and with one out left Cardinal Harry Walker stepped up to bat. He hit one into left center and Red Sox fielder Leon Culberson – who had just come into the game to replace the hamstrung Dom DiMaggio – bobbled. Slaughter rounded second and third base, then coach Mike Gonzalez gave him the stop signal. Slaughter ignored it. Red Sox short stop Johnny Pesky was so shocked to see Slaughter still running that he delayed his throw home, giving the Cardinal just enough time to beat the ball to the plate. The run would prove to be the winner.
After spending 16 years with the Cardinals and being selected to the All-Star team 10 times, Enos “Country” Slaughter was such a fan favorite that it came as a surprise to everyone – not least of all Slaughter himself – when he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1954. “This is the biggest shock of my life,” he said. “Something I never expected to happen. I’ve given my life to this organization, and they let you go when they think you’re getting old.”
Slaughter played for the Yankees for the next five years (minus one year with the Kansas City Athletics), winning two more World Series before ending his Major League career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1959. By that time, he had earned a lifetime batting average of .300, with 169 career home runs and 1,304 runs batted in.
All of which should have made him a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, except for one problem – the Jackie Robinson question.
When Major League Baseball admitted its first black player to the league in 1947, a local sportswriter alleged that Enos Slaughter and fellow Cardinal Terry Moore tried to convince teammates to go on strike to protest Robinson being allowed to play in the National League. The rumor seemed to be given further credence three months later when Slaughter, thrown out by a mile, spiked Robinson in the thigh trying to reach first base. Some saw it as a malicious, racially-motivated attack, while others cited Slaughter’s old school, take-no-prisoners approach to the game. Robinson certainly wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of Slaughter’s aggression – that year he also spiked Giant infielder Bill Rigney and the year before had twice injured Dodger Eddie Stanky. One player told The Sporting News that Slaughter was “the dirtiest player in the league.”
For his part, Slaughter maintained he never had anything against Jackie Robinson, telling an interviewer in 1994, “There’s been a hell of a lot of stuff written on that because I was a Southern boy. It’s just a lot of baloney.” In his autobiography, he wrote that the color of Jackie Robinson’s skin was the furthest thing from his mind when he was trying to beat a throw to first base.
Slaughter coached the Duke Blue Devils from 1971-77 and returned to Roxboro after retiring from baseball. He was eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1996, the Cardinals retired his number.
He died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2002 at the age of 86.