I Played that Town: the Frank Shell Baseball Story

dadbaseballAbout a third of the way through the twentieth century, baseball was the number one sport in towns large and small across the United States. Villages in the hills of north Arkansas were known for their baseball teams. As soon as the crops were in, friends gathered on quilts or the hoods of their cars in a make-do field, open and clean, sometimes only sporting a backstop, for a match-up with a community nearby. Baseball was quite competitive, even on the local level, and it was into this environment that Frank Shell was born.
Frank grew up with athletics. His father, Harry Shell, though primarily a baseball player, was invited to play high school football for Augusta, Arkansas. Harry was also recruited to play college football. He joined a pro baseball team in Northeast Arkansas, and in three weeks was batting .700. Unfortunately, an arm injury sidelined him. He continued to play baseball on several amateur teams around Zion and Melbourne in Izard County. Harry was a friend and quail hunting buddy of Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe. Frank’s uncles on both sides of the family also took to the diamond, excelling at hitting. One of Harry’s brothers, Theo, was known for the astounding “crack” the bat made in contact with the ball. Spectators called his hits “King Cracking” because he could find that central “sweet spot” of the bat so well.
In Frank’s earliest memories of the sport, his father took a ball and an old wooden bat beside the house, and pitched to Frank and his older brother, Hoyt. Harry threw hard enough to raise concern in the boys’ mother, Myrtle, who was by no means fainthearted. But Harry expected his boys to move along, learning baseball, and learn they did.
In the early 40s, Little League or Babe Ruth baseball had yet to arrive in Izard County. But by age ten or so, at recess, after school, or during the summer, Frank, Hoyt, and their friends maintained a pick-up game. They would make bases and lay out their rules, sometimes using a ball made out of an old sock wrapped tight or perhaps taped. In one version, an “out” occurred when the batter failed to hit the ball out of the infield. As long as the batter’s hit cleared the infield, he could continue batting. The boys intermingled the line-ups, scurried in at the fork of lightning or when they were called home for supper, but ultimately participated in one long game, drawn out through the seasons and years as they completed fifth and sixth grades, and on.
Sometimes the boys would play in the Shell’s yard. Their mother, Myrtle, took pride in gardening, nurturing petunias, zinnias, four o’clocks, and marigolds, many of the old-fashioned flowers. Often the players would chase a ball into the flowers and break a stem. The offender would pick up the flower and lean it against its counterparts, as if nothing had happened. Frank heard his mother once complaining to a neighbor, “I don’t know what it is about my flowers. They just all of a sudden die.” The boys never revealed the mysterious reason Myrtle’s pretty blooms didn’t survive.

An amusing incident off-field occurred when Shell was about twelve. He and his buddies formed a team, the Sage Red Sox. They even had uniforms, though he couldn’t recall who provided them. The players’ ages ranged quite a bit. One of the older boys, Skip Carpenter, transported the team in an old Ford pickup. On the way to a game in Sidney, the boys passed a watermelon patch that grew right up to the road. Although there were men working in a hay meadow beyond the patch, the kids devised a plan to nab a few watermelons on the ride home. Trusting in the safety of his getaway vehicle, Skip informed his teammates, “I’ll just pull right in there, you guys jump out and grab a melon; we can be gone in two minutes.”
On the way home, still daylight, the forbidden fruit beckoned as tempting as before. Skip coasted to the side of the road and signaled for the boys to barrel out and seize one or two apiece. As they snatched their prizes, five or six melons, they noticed that not only were the men still working in the hay meadow, they held up pitchforks and began to run and yell at the young thieves. The kids tumbled into the back of Skip’s old pickup. He twisted the key in the ignition, but the only thing that happened was a sickening “RRrrr-rrrr-RRRR-rrrr.” The boys sat stone-faced for a gut-wrenching moment then the engine chugged into activity and off the bandits flew. Shell laughed in memory that of all the melons they’d taken, none were ripe. He also came to know the men in the field, who would have given the boys a watermelon if they’d asked. But the boys wanted a little adventure to add to their baseball day.
At thirteen, Frank joined his brother Hoyt on Melbourne’s American Legion team, which Harry coached. Harry had played catcher, and Hoyt started in that position, with Frank taking third base. When Hoyt grew too old for the league, Frank moved to catcher, playing that position exclusively as they graduated to each new level (Hoyt played first base). Frank competed with the Legion team for four consecutive summers. They would work out three or so times a week, then play on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, in communities across the Ozark Mountains including Mountain View, Salem, Viola, and Mammoth Springs. They even competed in a tournament in Rector once.
Harry Shell emphasized fundamentals and kept his cool. He encouraged his
players rather than yelling at them, and exuded confidence and sportsmanship. Frank often remarked that his father would have made an exceptional college coach. But Harry had quit school as soon as the football season ended in Augusta, Arkansas, his senior year, and he was content to play locally and coach the league where his sons played.
An example of Harry’s handling of one ineffective batter demonstrates his coaching skills. Glen Hunt was a fine center fielder, but he struggled at the plate. Harry told the young man, “If you can catch the ball, you can bunt.” He taught Hunt how to bunt in order to get on base. Hunt reached first just about every game by bunting. Thus Harry helped an individual player develop an important hitting tool, and built up the team by doing so.
A highlight of the American Legion days, as well as another indicator of Harry’s skill as a coach, occurred when Melbourne, population approximately 570 at the time, reached the finals of the state tournament in Little Rock. They were matched against the Little Rock Doughboys, an elite team hand-picked from the entire town, with a population of nearly 200,000. At the bottom of the ninth inning, with the bases loaded for Melbourne and Frank’s cousin Bob Guthrie batting, Guthrie walloped a soaring drive. The ball landed exactly on top of the fence…and dropped in, only scoring two runs. Had it bounced the other way, out, and given Guthrie a homer, Melbourne would have won. They lost by only one run, 12-11.
Interestingly enough, during the summer after Shell’s second year of college, he played on another Melbourne team, the Comets. In the AAU state tournament that year, the Comets came upon a team comprised of several former Doughboys, and won the championship that time. Shell laughed about a familiar saying he and his teammates had: “We didn’t claim to be good, but we could beat people who thought they were.”
Baseball teaches many lessons about winning and losing, but also about life. After Hoyt got too old to play American Legion ball (~1947), Harry recruited a young player, Junior Herbert. He played first base and was known for his speed around the diamond. One year the team prepared for a tournament in West Memphis. When they arrived, Harry was informed by the President of the American Legion, a Mr. Eubanks from Batesville, that the first baseman would not be allowed to play.
Harry asked, “Why?”
Eubanks answered, “Because he’s black.”
Junior, a young African American, had to sit out the game, and, stunned by the loss of their swift first baseman, the team lost, 3-2. The unfair benching of his teammate made a strong impression on Frank. Even as a youth, he knew there was something wrong when a kid couldn’t play ball because of the color of his skin.
The last two years of American Legion ball, Shell also played with an Independent Melbourne team. In fact, boosters in Melbourne arranged to have a lighted field as early as 1948, beating the Major League Chicago Cubs in that department by forty years. The lighted field was one of the first in Arkansas.
Shell played baseball as well as basketball for Melbourne High School, but baseball’s emphasis was in the summer leagues, not through the schools. There was neither accreditation nor school ranking at that time, nor were there even conferences set up for competition. Shell’s first job after high school was with a small grocery in Melbourne owned by baseball fans GH and Beulah Miller. The Millers employed him with the understanding that, on days with baseball games, he would get off early to play. The team played five or six days a week, but Shell put in his hours before suiting up for the game.
Hoyt was two years older than Frank, but Frank started school at five, a year early. When Hoyt reached the second grade, he was the only student in that grade at the rural school, and for some reason no books were available for him. He had to repeat a year, placing him with Frank in the same grade. Their senior year, they were approached to play baseball at Arkansas State Teachers’ College (now UCA) in Conway. They were offered complete scholarships at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville. The brothers were also invited to play on a Batesville team in 1950, three weeks before classes started their first year of college. Involvement with this Independent League team helped them grow accustomed to playing in Batesville. The tempo quickened considerably, and most of the players from their high school days didn’t keep pace with the Shell brothers.
Other players from that area remembered the Shells as outstanding athletes. When Frank returned to live in Batesville in the late ‘80s, he ran across a previous competitor. The former pitcher for Batesville asked Frank if he recalled a certain American Legion game played in Melbourne, which Frank did not. The player began to moan, “I had you beat. It was the bottom of the ninth inning. I walked you and Hoyt hit a homer, and you beat me. But I had you beat!” On several occasions after that initial re-introduction, the fellow would begin any conversation with Shell with a mournful recap of that game, and finish with the same refrain: “I had you beat!”
The Shell family embarked upon a grand adventure that culminated with Frank rubbing shoulders with Major League royalty. Harry’s father, Charlie Shell, had purchased land halfway between the communities of Sage and Zion in Izard County around the turn of the twentieth century. By 1945, much of the original section had been sold off, and Charlie was willing to sell Harry the remaining 283 acres. In August of that year, with two strapping sons and two healthy daughters who could pick fruit, Harry and Myrtle Shell packed up and moved to Wenatchee, Washington, to make money during the apple harvest. In one year, with strong and eager children scurrying up trees and working together to make Harry’s reasonable daily quotas, they earned enough to buy the family farm. They came back to Melbourne.
After Frank’s first year of college, his parents, Hoyt, and he returned to Wenatchee to work for the summer, but Frank also played ball. Every year Washington held a Super Game, the equivalent of an All-Star game, consisting of amateur players who tried out in towns and cities all over the state. Frank’s father, Harry, sponsored him at the tryouts through the Wenatchee Chiefs minor league team. A Dodgers pitcher named Morton, who happened to be from Ash Flat, Arkansas (near Melbourne), learned Shell was from Arkansas and took him under his wing. At only seventeen years of age, Shell was selected to play catcher for the East Super team.
He traveled to Seattle, where the game would take place at Sick’s Stadium, the AAA Pacific Coast League’s home field. The amateur All-Stars would compete in a seven-inning Super Game before the Seattle Rainiers and Oakland Oaks took the field. Skippers for Seattle and Oakland would manage the Super Game teams. At that time, New York Giants great Mel Ott managed Oakland, and Cardinal hero Rogers Hornsby managed Seattle. Both men were Hall of Famers, with Ott being elected that year, 1951. At that time, Ott also held the National League record for most home runs in a season. Ott captained Shell’s East team, and Hornsby took the West.
The teams met a day before and worked out. Catchers could compete in a throwing contest for accuracy. Each participant was given four baseballs to throw into a large barrel placed beyond second base. Though more than one got a single ball in the barrel, Shell was the only catcher to toss in two, earning him the starting position.
The ball game was close. Players were facing total strangers. The East only eked out four hits, one of which was hit by Shell. However, Shell’s pitcher, Chuck Rabung, was a fastball thrower, and as Shell commented, “He had smoke. His fastball was alive.” With Shell calling the pitches, Rabung threw a no-hitter. Shell recalled catching the no-hitter as one of the true highlights of his career as a ball player. Ordinarily in an All Star game, each player stays in for three innings or so, in order to let other players get in the game. But because the pitcher had a no-hitter going, Shell caught the entire game.
Shell always called pitches, at every level of competition from American Legion through Industrial League, the NACOM military Command team, Cotton States, Sally, Southern Association, and Texas Leagues. He said mainly he tried to have pitchers mix up speeds and pitches. In five years of professional baseball, he was privileged to play on four pennant-winning teams.
Years later, after Shell signed with Detroit, he was taking batting practice during spring training at Tiger Town, the Tigers’ minor league training facility in Lakeland, Florida. He noticed Mel Ott standing nearby, talking to the President of the Detroit Tigers. When Shell concluded his turn, he approached Ott, informing him, “You may not remember me but I played for you in the Seattle Super Game, for the East.” Ott recalled immediately that Shell’s pitcher had thrown a no-hitter. They chatted for a while, making the Tigers President scratch his head, wondering how this minor leaguer was on such familiar terms with a sport celebrity like Ott.
Shell also recalled that the Super Game pitcher who hurled the no-hitter, Chuck Rabung, was offered an incredible amount in the early 50s, $40,000, by the Chicago White Sox. The two Super Game teams were allowed to stay and watch the Seattle-Oakland game in the lit stadium that evening. The fanfare made quite an impression on Shell. Not a bad day for a kid from Izard County.
The Shell brothers played baseball and basketball at Arkansas College their freshman year (Hoyt’s scholarship didn’t include basketball, but he also started on the football team). In the basketball game against State Teachers’ Shell scored 24 points. His basketball coach, Dick Winningham, earned Shell’s respect as one of the best coaches Shell had. Winningham called him “Franco” and razzed him about not hustling enough. He’d say, “You need to skin your elbows, Franco. You need to skin your shins.” In one game, determined to show he could be aggressive, Shell dove after a loose ball, bloodying his elbows. Quite proud of his effort and expecting a little sympathy, he waited for the coach to compliment him on his hustle. Winningham waved him off with a simple, “Way to go, Franco. I think you might make it.”
Frank, Hoyt, and teammate Dub Myers actually lived in the gym during their ball playing years at Arkansas College. Occasionally, Myrtle and Harry would take time away from the busy hours of the café they owned, where Myrtle did all the cooking, and come to see their sons play ball. Myrtle would bring a batch of sausage, biscuits and gravy to her sons, who would share this feast with Dub. One advantage of college scholarship play was the training table at the school cafeteria. Shell recalled there was plenty of nourishing food, especially milk.
The first year, the baseball team placed third out of eight or nine teams in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. The second fall, they learned that Arkansas College was dropping the football program. Times were lean and the school couldn’t afford to continue the program. At mid-term, AC announced they were also dropping baseball, effectively ending Hoyt’s scholarship. Coach Winningham urged Frank to finish his degree at AC playing basketball, and Shell could have continued to play. But baseball was his first love, and he didn’t want his brother left out. State Teachers, perhaps out of respect for Shell’s 24-point basketball game against them, sweetened its scholarship deal, and the Shell boys headed to Conway.
Frank often marveled at his brother Hoyt’s athletic ability. Of a much bigger, beefier build, Hoyt was strong and coordinated. Another cousin, Johnny Guthrie, as recently as 2011 commented, “Hoyt could hit the ball a mile.” Hoyt was invited by the St. Louis Cardinals to work out with them for a weekend, but his heart was not in baseball as was Frank’s. He had already planned a fishing trip to Lake Norfolk, and, unwilling to change his plans, he didn’t attend the St. Louis tryout at all. At that time, Frank was too young to be invited, but he understood the tremendous opportunity his brother passed up.
Because Arkansas College dropped the baseball program, the Shell brothers were able to play right away at State Teachers with no eligibility restrictions. Frank faced competition for the starting catcher position, including future Industrial League teammate Kent Tester and another youth from Clinton, Vince Bonds. Shell earned the spot, and kept the starting position all the way through, as did Hoyt at first base. Shell always believed in his capacity to play, and was never fazed by big names or lofty reputations. An aggressive competitor like his father, Shell never accepted defeat before the final out of the game. He claimed, “You’re down two runs, somebody gets a hit, the tying run’s at the plate.”
The State Teachers’ team won the state championship in their division. During the summer following Shell’s sophomore year, he played for the local independent team, the Melbourne Comets. This team beat the team with many of the Little Rock Doughboys in the state AAU championship game.
For an Arkansas boy, playing at Travelers Field, the home of the St. Louis affiliate AA Arkansas Travelers, was quite an honor (the field would be renamed Ray Winder Field in 1966 in honor of Winder’s dedication to minor league baseball in Arkansas). The State Teachers coach Jeff Farris knew Ray Winder, the Travelers business manager and part owner, and the men set up an exhibition game between the State Teachers Bears and the Travelers. Shell was excited about playing close to a home crowd in the most prestigious baseball field in the state, but the game was rained out.
When Shell played at Birmingham, they were in the same league as the Travelers, but that single year, Arkansas lost the AA franchise to Shreveport. Shell played in Shreveport, but never had the opportunity to play at Ray Winder Field. Ironically, the Travelers were a part of the Detroit Tigers farm system from 1948-55. In 1955, if Shell had been promoted to AA instead of AAA, and had not been drafted, he would have played as an Arkansas Traveler.
Farris also had contacts with the Industrial league in Bastrop Louisiana, a true Semi-Pro League. Shell, fellow catcher Kent Tester, and Shell’s cousin Bob Guthrie were invited to play for the Bastrop Barons. The players spent the summer after Shell’s junior year “working” for the Barons, owned by the Louisiana Paper Mill.
In semi-pro ball, the players receive their pay from the company which sponsors the team. They are effectively employees of that company, and aren’t directly paid for their ball playing, thus they maintain their amateur status. The Louisiana Paper Mill sponsored the Big Eight Conference baseball team in Bastrop. Shell would report to the paper mill daily, along with players from SMU, LSU, Tulane, and Loyola, but their job was to play ball. The pay was good, and Shell was voted MVP for the league that season.
Shell remembered Bastrop as a supportive baseball town. The business community supplied the team with interesting incentives. One of the department stores would advertise a free shirt to the batter who drove in the game’s first run. Another would provide a free pair of slacks to any player who hit the ball off their sign. A home run would guarantee the batter even more valuable merchandise. Players were given something to shoot for, which inspired them.
One evening, Shell got into a pitch that flew high and curved right. It cleared the fence on the fair side of the foul pole, but curved a good forty feet beyond the pole into foul territory. The umpire called it a foul. Shell knew that he had just hit a home run, but he didn’t challenge. A couple of innings later, the umpire remarked to Shell, “You know what? I missed that call, didn’t I?”
Shell replied, “You sure did. You probably cost me a suit of clothes.”
He could laugh about it, and appreciate the upright manner in which the umpire acknowledged a mistake, long before televised games and instant replay. As an amateur, Shell always shook hands with and respected the umpires and officials calling the game.
After that season, the summer of ’53, many changes were coming for the Shell
brothers. The Army sent Hoyt to Korea. Frank returned to State Teachers, but was conscientious that he wasn’t accomplishing much while his brother was serving the country. After six weeks, Shell dropped out of school and moved to Tulsa with a cousin, John Guthrie, to work. In December of that year, the Detroit Tigers contacted him, and he signed a professional baseball contract with them.
Shell reported with the other catchers and pitchers in February of 1954 to Tigertown in Lakeland, Florida (the major league Tigers trained nearby at Henley Field). They would begin mid morning, 9:15 or so, warming up pitchers and practicing certain pitches, focusing on fundamentals. Each pitcher had specific work, depending upon his strengths and weaknesses, and the catchers knew what they wanted to throw. Even though the catchers were young, strong, and conditioned, the three-hours-plus of constant squatting and rising required to work the pitchers, without the welcome break of the half-innings in a game when the team was at bat, caused their legs to cramp the first few nights. They adjusted.
Shell had believed that he was paid good money, though he quickly learned that others were compensated just as well if not better. He also realized another important—and motivating–fact. There were eight minor league clubs, and Shell counted thirty two catchers in camp.
Shell asked his supervisor, Charlie Metro, “Each club keeps two catchers?”
Metro nodded, “Yes.”
Shell asked, “Where do the other catchers go?”
Metro replied, “They go home.”
Shell pursued, “What about the money they’ve paid the catchers they let go?”
Metro laughed, “They don’t care about that.”
At that point, Shell determined he would be worth the money, and that he wasn’t going home. Players often witnessed the somber sight of a catcher prospect packing up to leave town, after he’d moved his wife and children to camp with him. Shell recalled that an atmosphere of scrapping for position prevailed from the very first day, very competitive.
In the afternoons, the minor leaguers would either play exhibition games or go to watch Detroit play. Sometimes the major league players wanted to work on something in particular, a bat swing or stance, and they would compete with the other minor leaguers. Most of the time, though, the veteran major leaguers, secure in their positions, elected not to drive and play those spring training games. They didn’t want to take a chance on getting hurt, and, knowing a 162-game schedule loomed ahead of them all summer, they hit the showers after morning workout and sent the minor leaguers. Shell loved getting the opportunity to play a level of ball that challenging.
Shell recounted one exhibition game played in Clearwater against Cincinnati. He packed to go, excited to be contending against some real baseball talent, the only catcher dressing out for Detroit’s Greenville. When they arrived at the ballpark and suited up, Shell realized that he had left his spikes back at Tigertown. The only shoes he’d brought were the dress wingtips he’d worn traveling to the game. Shell took to the field, squatting in his regulation catching gear, his wingtips getting dusty in the dirt. He knew his teammates were laughing up their sleeves at him. Big pro batters would approach the plate, dig in, then turn around, take a spit, and scowl at Shell’s wingtips. Even the umpire raised his eyebrows. Shell even had to run in the clubby, uncomfortable shoes. He only made that mistake once.
In the regular season (’54), Shell played with Greenville, Mississippi, in the
Cotton States ( C ) League. Detroit had recently acquired the Greenville team, and naturally labeled them the Tigers, but the team had previously been called the Buckshots, and continued to be referred to as the Bucks. Other teams in the league included Pine Bluff, Hot Springs, and El Dorado in Arkansas, Monroe, Louisiana, and Meridian, Mississippi.
Shell hit a home run that summer at a game in Hot Springs, whose team was managed by World Series winning pitcher Paul (“Daffy”) Dean. Myrtle and Harry Shell drove to that game to watch their son play. Shell’s home run wasn’t common, given the depth of the minor league ballparks then. But Hot Springs had a short fence, according to Shell. By his own admission, he wasn’t a power hitter. His season high total for home runs was twelve, and that was enough to lead the Army NACOM league when he played in Germany.
Nowadays, All Star teams are comprised of players selected from the National League on one side and the American League on the other. In the 1950s, each league was a unit unto itself, without a counterpart. Therefore, the team leading the league played as one side against the various players selected for All Stars from all the other teams (the other side). Since Greenville was leading the league, Shell played in the All-Star game with them that year. He missed an easy pop fly in that game, simply not getting under it. When asked if the sun were a factor, he acknowledged that it wasn’t, as the game was played at night. We tend to remember the best and the worst plays.
The last game of the ‘54 season, Shell’s Buckshots were tied with El Dorado for first place. Greenville was playing Meridian when they heard that El Dorado had been beaten. Greenville and Meridian were tied at the bottom of the ninth. In the top of the tenth, one of the Bucks hitters smashed a double. The pitcher intentionally walked the next batter to get to Shell. He answered by whacking a hit right up the middle, scoring the winning run. Thus Shell’s Greenville team won the pennant his first year of professional baseball. Shell hit .336 that year, good for runner-up to the batting title (second in the league). Detroit sold his contract to Buffalo of the International League (AAA), but Uncle Sam had other plans for Shell and his catcher’s mitt.
The Cotton States League had playoffs following the regular season, but Shell
was called up for military duty himself. He reported for Basic Training to Ft. Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. While Basic was not a breeze, from his baseball playing, Shell was in the finest physical condition of his life.
Shell laughed at the way he was routed into MP (Military Police) duty. The Army publishes that soldiers can have their choice of assignments. After Basic Training, soldiers are instructed to rank their selections. Thinking of his college typing class, Shell listed clerk/typist as his first choice. He was told to list another, and he wrote down another option. They requested a third alternative, which he listed somewhat arbitrarily, assuming that he’d get his first or second choice. Urged to list a fourth assignment choice, Shell reasoned that yet another selection could not matter, since it was so far down the list. Therefore, certain that this choice was merely a matter of protocol, he penciled in Military Police at random. The next thing he knew, he received orders to report for Military Police training at the 709th MP Battalion in Frankfurt, Germany. When a surprised Shell questioned the assignment, the authorities replied, “It was your choice.”
In February of 1955, Shell arrived in Frankfurt, home of the Northern Area Command (NACOM), under the leadership of General Renaldo Van Brunt. Van Brunt was quite a sports fanatic, and had his subordinates looking for athletes to play on his NACOM Black Knights baseball, basketball, track, and football teams. Any soldier could try out, but athletes with college or professional (including minor league) experience had an advantage. Shell was first recruited into the Company team then he was selected for the more elite Command team.
Competing with this team benefited Shell. To represent a soldier’s Company on the Command team was a source of pride for the player and Company men alike. Everyone knew that the General took care of his boys, and all soldiers, including superiors, respected the players. Van Brunt offered Shell and his teammates personal access any time of day or night, the use of his limousine, and invitations to parties at his club as well.
The players were fortunate in other ways. Shell and teammate Donnie Thompson, a pitcher in the Yankees organization, persuaded their lieutenant, Graham Glover, to arrange a three-game series at an Air Force base in London. During the first game, it became apparent that the AF players couldn’t compete on the level of the NACOM Black Knights. The AF cancelled the second two games, enabling the NACOM team members to enjoy a couple of days R&R in London.
Shell as well as Thompson also made the Command basketball team. Their coach was Charlie Kraak, who had played on the 1953 National Championship-winning Indiana Hoosiers team.
In Shell’s second and last year playing for General van Brunt and the NACOM team, the Black Knights made it to the final four of the European GI “World Series.” They eventually placed third, and Shell’s main recollection of their last game was that “they beat us pretty bad.”
Ironically, while he was living in Frankfurt playing ball for NACOM, Shell learned through his mother, Myrtle, back in Melbourne, that Carolyn Southerland, a young lady from the nearby town of Batesville, Arkansas, would be touring Europe and more particularly, Germany. During the dates that Shell understood Miss Southerland would be staying in Wiesbaden, a twenty minute drive from his base, he telephoned her at her hotel and asked if she would mind visiting with a lonely GI from Arkansas. A few years later, Shell and Carolyn Southerland married.
Shell was released from the military and returned to Arkansas in the fall of 1956. Though he was two weeks late, State Teachers College (now UCA) allowed him to pursue classes that semester. In the spring, Buffalo in the International League had returned him to A League ball in Augusta, Georgia. Shell played two summers with the Augusta Tigers in the South Atlantic League (because of its acronym, SAL, also called the Sally League). Both years they won the pennant.
Shell stayed in college that spring semester (’57), reporting late to Augusta. Some of his most memorable experiences in baseball occurred in his stint there. He hit his career best .340, good enough to lead the league, but because he started late in the season, he didn’t have enough official at bats to earn the batting title.
El Dorado’s Schoolboy Rowe was pitching coach at Spring Training’s Tigertown. He took a special interest in fellow Arkansans such as Shell and a pitcher from Lead Hill named Douglas. Wanting to “show his boys around,” Rowe took the young players to Clearwater. There he introduced them to the current Commissioner of Baseball, Ford Fricke. Shell noted that even on a hot day of baseball in Florida, the commissioner wore a suit at the ball park. But Fricke was friendly to the young men. As they were driving, Rowe noticed another pal. He stopped the car and introduced the Arkansas boys to seven-time 20-game winner, Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts.
Also in Augusta, Shell met arguably the greatest baseball player ever. Ty Cobb lived in nearby Ralston and was invited to attend a special event/fundraiser at a Tigers game for a needy cause. Shell was surprised at how large Cobb was, even in his seventies. Cobb was “a salty old guy,” even then.
Shell caught pitchers who went on to the majors with Detroit and other teams: the uncanny “Yankee Tamer” Frank Lary, Jim Bunning, Paul Foytack, Hal Woodeschick, and Joe Presco, to name a few.
Shell was privileged to work with several players who went on to the majors. From his NACOM stint, players included Don Thompson (Yankees), Billy Joe Hicks and Pete Delos (White Sox). From his years in the Detroit organization, Shell played with Howie Koplitz, Dick McAuliffe, Fred Gladding, Phil Riggan, and Al Kaline (all with Detroit), Ron Nischwitz (Cleveland), George Thomas (Red Sox), Bob Rogers (California Angels) and Bobby Johnson (Kansas City and others). Shell played against many more who went on to the majors, including Paul Giel and Curt Flood. In addition to his father and Mel Ott, he was managed by Bill Adair, Wayne Blackburn, Willis Hudlin, and Johnny Pesky.
Baseball players are known for antics, and Shell experienced quite a few during his playing days. One teammate, George Thomas, entertained both in word and in deed.
Shell recalled leaving a town in Alabama or Georgia when he was with Birmingham. The players were all on the bus, ready to get home, and traffic was heavy. No vehicle was moving. Teammate George Thomas jumped up, hopped off the bus, and strode through the idling cars into the intersection. He began to direct traffic just like a policeman. The vehicles all complied, George motioned to the bus to move forward, and they quickly cleared the intersection. George skipped right back onto the bus as if it were routine, as if he moonlighted as a traffic cop.
When the Barons were playing in Mobile, the opposing pitcher decided to serenade the batting Thomas, also known as Lonesome George, with some chin music. Unfortunately, the pitch pegged George in the face and shattered his jaw. Shell recalled Thomas’ falling “like a stuck hog.” The jaw was wired together to heal and Thomas was sidelined for four or five weeks, having to blender-pulse his meat, among other adjustments. One of the players’ lady friends was curious about how George could function without the use of his jaw. She inquired, “When you get sleepy and want to yawn, what do you do?”
Taking the question in an entirely different vein, George replied, “I go home and go to bed.” The team had a good laugh on Lonesome George at his response.
Another teammate asked an innocent question that begged for an amusing response. Billy Reynolds was drafted straight out of high school in Cincinnati to play at Greenville with Shell. He possessed a mean fastball and impressive breaking ball, but manager Willis Hudlin stressed the need for Reynolds to add a change-up to his pitching repertoire. Reynolds worked diligently on this new pitch.
In all sincerity, he asked his skipper, “When will I know that I’ve got it [the change-up]?”
Straight –faced, Hudlin informed his fledgling pitcher, “The hitters will let you know.” In other words, when they couldn’t hit his change-up, Reynolds could rest assured he’d attained mastery of the pitch.
During one game, Diamond Jim Brady was pitching. He could throw ninety-five miles per hour. Brady, from up north, was not accustomed to the heat. He wore a headband and glasses, and used a red bandana between innings to wipe off sweat. Brady would come off the field, sit down on the bench, then set his glasses on the bench to wipe his brow. One of their teammates was up and got out. This frustrated batter plopped down on the bench, right on top of Brady’s glasses, breaking them. Diamond Jim tried to pitch without them. His first pitch almost hit the on-deck batter. Shell explained to the batter, “he can’t see,” as if that would make the situation better. Diamond Jim could not even see Shell’s hand signals. Ever resourceful, Shell devised another ploy: he worked out a system. He told Brady, “If I look to the right, you throw a breaking ball. Straight ahead, fast ball.” This adversity turned into an opportunity to signal to the whole infield the type of pitch being thrown, making them more attuned to how the batter might hit the ball, which saved infielders six or seven steps on every pitch. The signal technique was so successful that Shell used it for the rest of his career, giving his team an advantage on the field.
In addition to the fun and games, the players encountered some bitter moments as well. In Shell’s second summer with the Augusta Tigers, he played with a shortstop from Wichita named Billy Springfield who had been in the Coast League. Their lockers were next to each others’, and the teammates hit it off. Springfield met and befriended the cook at the Bel Air Hotel, where the Master’s Classic Tournament golfers stayed when they came to town. One evening the cook and her husband invited Springfield and some of his teammates to have dinner at their home after a ball game. He in turn invited Shell, as well as Gene Oden and his wife, Sandy.
Oden had played at the University of Texas and went up with Baltimore. He and Shell had competed against each other in the Cotton States League a few years earlier. As teammates in Augusta, Oden batted ahead of Shell, and with their manager’s blessing the two players created their own signal for the hit and run, a favorite play of Shell’s. When baserunning Oden took off for second, it pulled the first and second basemen out of position, enabling Shell a wider opportunity to get a hit. He earned many hits that way, and avoided the double play trap, also.
Shell and teammates had eaten at the Bel Air Hotel’s restaurant when they returned from a series in Florida, and knew the lady was a fantastic cook. Always happy to be provided a free meal with friends, Shell as well as Oden agreed, looking forward to the evening.
They arrived at the cook’s home and made introductions all around. But scarcely had they gotten comfortable when police lights flashed outside. Someone pounded on the door. When the host opened it, several large policemen glowered at him. They said, “We hear you’re having a mixed party here tonight. We don’t have mixed parties in Georgia.” The guests were stunned and before they could even respond, the policemen arrested their teammate Springfield and the cook, who were black. The cops told Shell and the Odens, “You’d better get out of here.”
They left, hardly able to comprehend what had just happened. Shell, horrified, couldn’t get the image out of his mind of the arrest of his buddy Billy, who seemed apologetic toward Shell and the Odens for the debacle.
A couple of days later, the offense came to trial. Shell and Oden attended and sat in the back. A black attorney presented the case for Springfield and the cook. The judge sat up on his faux throne, white-haired and solemn, looking like a sham King Solomon. He boomed to the accused: “I thought you people knew that we didn’t have mixed parties in Georgia. I’m going to be real nice to you all, and I’m going to let you go. But if you ever show up in my court again, you’ll be sorry.”
The authorities acted as if the dinner party were some kind of orgy. Shell and Oden were embarrassed and disillusioned while Springfield and the cook were humiliated. Soon after that, the organization shipped Springfield to a team in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He retired not long afterward.
When questioned by teammates, Shell reiterated that he thought nothing of attending the dinner at the cook’s house. Knowing he was from Arkansas, other ball players probed, “You’re from Little Rock? After what happened there in 1957 [Central High School crisis]?” Shell would reply, “I was among friends. I was looking forward to a good meal.” He never dreamed the evening would be upended in such a hateful and irrational manner. One winter years later, when Shell passed through Wichita, he looked up Billy Springfield and visited with his family. They never knew who reported them.
Shell did recall that while he played with African Americans in the Cotton States and Sally Leagues and the Southern Association, they were always taken to a different hotel in another part of town.
In the offseason back then, weight training was discouraged. Shell would run and play pick up games, but he didn’t work out heavily.
In 1959, Shell reported to spring training in Ocala, Florida, with the Birmingham Barons, an independent team which shared a particular arrangement with the Tigers that year. The Barons made the news in 1994 as the team through which Michael Jordan made his professional baseball debut (Birmingham was affiliated with the Chicago White Sox at that time).
The first half of that summer Shell hit only .265. But Birmingham led the league; therefore, at the All Star break, the Barons played a team comprised of All Stars from the other teams in the Southern Association. After the break, Shell was sent to Knoxville in the South Atlantic League (still within the Detroit farm system). Shell’s father Harry conjectured that they sent down his son to win a pennant. Shell knew that a catcher from the majors was returning to Birmingham. Thus Shell was, in his words, “bumped.” But at Knoxville he played for Johnny Pesky, a fine manager much beloved in the Red Sox organization. Pesky was quite hot-tempered. Shell recalled that, on the bus rides back after a loss, nobody laughed or joked at all. It was a time to be quiet.
Though Shell didn’t struggle with a temper, an at-bat while playing with Knoxville aggravated him to the point of retaliation. In the first inning, Shell knocked a home run. The next at-bat, the pitcher threw straight at Shell’s head. Shell hit the dirt. When he stood, he yelled at the pitcher, “Your time’s coming up to bat.”
True to his word, at the pitcher’s next at-bat, Shell placed his mitt directly behind his head and stood there defiantly. The ump called, “Now you can’t do that. Cut that out.”
Shell uncharacteristically retorted, “He threw at us. We can throw at him.”
Shell’s pitcher, Fred Gladding, wouldn’t follow through and pitch at the man’s head. Though in hindsight Gladding’s forbearance proves the wiser move, at the time, it further infuriated Shell, who remembered chewing out his pitcher in the dugout for not having any guts.
Shell’s suggestion had its effect on the pitcher, somewhat shaking him up, and no other batters were hit. Shell laughed that he should have taken the brush off as a compliment, although he didn’t hit enough home runs to be a threat.
Shell interacted with his pitchers. He only recalled one who lacked the ability to rally in a deficit. This pitcher was a fine specimen of an athlete, with a flaming fastball and a good curve to boot. Shell recalled that when they were six or eight runs ahead, he was untouchable. But if the score were one to nothing, or three to two, the pitcher would begin to mumble about a blister on his finger or some other minor detail.
Shell said, “You could see it in his eyes. I’d meet the manager half way to the mound myself and say, ‘get him out of there.’”
When Shell arrived in Knoxville mid-season in 1959, the Smokies were six and a half games back. One day when Shell and a teammate named Jim Proctor went to the business manager’s office to pick up their checks, Proctor commented on the face of the manager’s watch, which featured a baseball diamond. Trying to motivate his players, the manager offered, “You win the pennant this season, you’ll all get a watch like this.”
Proctor turned to Shell and said, “You heard him. You’re the witness. You heard him.”
Bats got hot. Manager Pesky told Shell, “We’re trying to nail this down. You’re my catcher. I want you in there.”
Shell got hit on the finger and cracked it slightly. He confessed to his manager, “This thing is killing me.”
Pesky advised him, “Go to the doctor, but don’t let them splint it. You’ve got to play.”
Shell saw the doctor, who brought out a big conglomeration of a bandage.       Shell told the doctor, “I can’t have that. I’ve got to play.”
The doctor shrugged, “We’ll just put a little dub on it.”
They barely covered the tip of the finger, scarcely providing any protection. Shell was able to play, even with the hairline fracture, although he wasn’t hitting quite as well. Sometimes playing with an injury was impossible. In Germany, a foul tip caught Shell’s finger and split his fingernail in two (breaking the tip of the finger as well). He tried to stay in the game for an inning or so, but the throbbing was too much. However, the hairline fracture with the Knoxville team occurred near the end of the year, so Shell was able to finish the season then heal afterward.
The league championship was on the line when the Smokies played near the end of the season at a game in Charlotte. Howie Koplitz, an All-State football player from Wisconsin, was on the mound for Knoxville. The Smokies earned a couple of runs; Charlotte answered. The game was nip and tuck. In contrast to a former mentioned pitcher, Koplitz told his team, “Just get me one run; that’s all I need.” Knoxville got a couple of men on base, and one of their outfielders hit a home run, making the score 5-2. The players whooped and hollered, and Koplitz joked, “I appreciate that but I just needed one run.”
The Smokies earned the pennant, and the General Manager, Bob Bonifay, made good on the promise to provide watches with a baseball diamond across the face to each player. Shell earned five or six watches through his playing career, giving one to his Uncle Waldon Tomlinson and one to Johnny Venable, a former Little Rock Doughboy, when they roomed together at Greenville. Shell also earned All-Star and pennant rings all his winning years.
The following year, 1960, Shell followed manager Pesky to Victoria, Texas. The team owner had allowed his daughters to name the team, hence the Victoria Rosebuds. In the Texas League, they played an interlocking schedule with teams from the Mexican League. Shell played eight games each against Acapulco, Mexico City (which had two teams), even Veracruz. The Victoria Rosebuds were fortunate to fly to those games. It was said that the Veracruz team traveled by bus thirty-two hours to play Victoria. Shell noted the players were like zombies, and “we beat them like a drum.”
Shell had married by this time, and the toll of travelling, especially across the vast Texas League, was difficult. Shell recalled how on the third night of the series, for example in Tulsa, the game invariably went into extra innings. The players would shower and snatch something to eat, often not getting underway on the bus until after midnight. They’d drive through the night to Amarillo, and arrive at the hotel at 10:30 or 11 a.m., only to learn that their rooms weren’t yet ready. Players would have to sit around in the lobby for a couple of hours, knowing they were due at the ball park by 5 p.m. Traversing highways from Midland to Harlingen then home to Victoria proved quite discouraging.
At the last game of the ’60 season, Shell’s batting average was .300. He ground out his last at-bat, cementing a one-at-bat-under-.300 season batting average. He had already begun classes at Southwestern Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, and become a father. He knew it was time to officially retire from professional baseball.
By February and March of the next few years, Shell would experience that surge in heart rate as he heard about players reporting for spring training. He knew he could compete. Pesky was promoted to manager of the Boston Red Sox. Later that summer (1961), the Sox played an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs in Ft. Worth. Shell took his young son, Jay, to the game. They stopped by the dugout to visit with Pesky. Pesky gave Jay a souvenir baseball, and asked Shell,      “Do you need a job?”
Shell responded, “I’d love to, but I’m trying to go to seminary.”
Pesky countered with, “If you ever need a job, let me know.”
Shell’s heart had moved on to the next thing, and though the dream of playing in the majors was fetching, he understood it was not to be. He had no regrets. He coached baseball at Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist College) in Walnut Ridge Arkansas for several years. When he took a church group to a Cardinals game in St. Louis in the late 70s, Cincinnati’s future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan knocked a ball high and long. The ball continued to coast right toward Shell. As it dropped, Shell slowly stood and cupped his hands the way he’d done thousands of times before, catching the home run ball bare-handed. His friends and the fans nearby were astonished, and St. Louis honored him with an Honorary Cardinal certificate. But Shell was not surprised. He had played hard and well and created many memories in the game he loved. Almost twenty years after retiring, Frank Shell was ready to play ball.

11 thoughts on “I Played that Town: the Frank Shell Baseball Story

  1. Sarah, I LOVED reading all about Bro. Frank’s baseball days! Chip has shared several over the years. He may have loved baseball, but I know he loved God more! Bro. Frank was a special man. ( I’m glad to know you are a blogger, too!)

    1. Thanks for relating that, Peggy. I’m sure Chip has a bundle of stories himself; of course, the Shells have quite a few Chip stories as well! You’ll see a wide variety of blog topics-I try to make people think. Keep cruising by!

  2. Sarah: I loved the story. Frank’s remark “that he had played that town” was classic. I also quote him when he said that “he was for whatever was right and against sin.” He also said “if food was not moving at your house, bring it to potluck supper and it would move. ” We all treasure memories of Frank– and Caroyln—at Williams Baptist College.

  3. Loved reading this. Brought back many memories of the Comet ball team in Melbourne and all those boys of summer who played so well.

  4. It would have been so awesome to see PawPaw A.D Chrisco, Uncle Frank and Uncle Hoyt play baseball when they were teenagers.

  5. Hi, Sarah! That is a great article about your father. I am originally from Augusta and worked for the minor league team there through the 90s. I consider myself an Augusta baseball historian, and I have my own Facebook page devoted to the subject. I have been working on team history and player profiles for the 1958 Augusta Tigers the past couple of weeks and came across your blog yesterday. This was fascinating. I had heard the story about Billy Springfield from another former teammate, Stan Charnofsky. Thank you for writing this; it gives me great insight into a man who may have been lost to baseball history otherwise. My Facebook post about your father is scheduled for Thanksgiving day at 12:30.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Steve. What an interesting site you have. I’m going to share it with my siblings and family. One important note: your photo of the Augusta Tigers team has the rows either mislabeled or confusing. My father, Frank Shell, is the first one on the left of the BACK row. Incidentally, the third from left on that row, Jay Cooke, was a player my dad liked, and my older brother Jay is named for him.
      The Thanksgiving post I saw concerned Billy Springfield, and I enjoyed it very much. Is there a post about my dad as well? Just wondering.

      1. Thank you for the reply! Thank you for the correction on the picture! That came from another publication. Yes, there is a post on your father. It came out the day before Thanksgiving. I would be very happy for you to see it!

  6. Sarah,
    I’m so glad I found this article about Frank. I’ll try to print it and place it in Old Independence Regional Museum’s archives!
    Twyla Gill Wright

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