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2019 Randolph Society Honors: Knuckleballer Roger Wolff

  • Roger Wolff began and ended his life in Randolph County, but in between he had a memorable major league baseball career.

    Roger Wolff began and ended his life in Randolph County, but in between he had a memorable major league baseball career.
    Courtesy of the Randolph Society Foundation

 
Submitted by the Randolph Society Foundation Board
updated: 2/6/2019 2:25 PM

Second of five parts.

Continuing its mission of honoring outstanding Randolph County people and their achievements, the Randolph Society Foundation Board has chosen five honorees for 2019. These honorees are being profiled over five weeks; and all of them were nominated by citizens of Randolph County.

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Roger Wolff, the major league baseball pitcher whose knuckleball carried him to a 20-win season with the Washington Senators, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Roger, the second son of Leo and Eleanor Wolff, was born in Evansville in 1911. The Wolff family moved in 1922 to Chester, where Leo established Wolff's Market, selling meat and groceries to the community. Roger and his elder brother, Omer, worked for their father at the store, and on their breaks they played catch outside the market.

As a teenager, Roger's love for baseball grew into a passion. He discovered a talent for pitching, and after he added a knuckleball to his arsenal, he decided to pursue baseball as a career. He began playing in Red Bud with the St. Moran League, but he was quickly noticed by Cardinals business manager Branch Rickey and given a minor league contract.

From 1930 until 1941, he played for numerous minor league teams all over the country, including the Davenport Blue Sox, the Denver Grizzlies, the Dayton Ducks, the Oklahoma City Indians and the Cedar Rapids Raiders.

Roger returned to Chester each winter to work at the family store. In November 1939, he married Mary Rose Montroy in their hometown. That December, he signed a contract with the Williamsport Grays, a minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics.

Mentorship by the Grays manager, Spencer Abbott, helped Roger develop his skills and in September 1941, he finally got the call from the big leagues. He made his major league debut on Sept. 20, 1941, starting for the Athletics in a game against the Washington Senators.

A week later, he had a brush with history, when he nearly derailed Red Sox slugger Ted Williams in his quest to finish the season with a .400 batting average. (Williams went 1-4 against Roger and finished the day with a .3995535 average.)

For the next two seasons, Roger was a reliable part of the Athletics rotation. In 1943, as many major leaguers went to war, Roger -- who was classified 4-F by his local draft board -- finished with a 10-15 record. He was traded in the off-season to the Washington Senators, who were building an entire rotation of knuckleballers in their quest to capture the American League pennant.

Injuries and illness took a toll on Roger during the 1944 season, but in 1945, he had the season of a lifetime. He finished with a 20-10 record and an incredible 2.12 ERA. He tossed a total of 250 innings during the season, including 21 complete games, and faced 1,000 batters.

His stellar season was recognized with a seventh place finish in the voting for the league's Most Valuable Player. His performance was so good that he nearly helped the Senators secure a trip to the World Series, though they fell just behind Detroit in the final league standings.

In 1946, Roger didn't get the chance to repeat the success of the previous season. He was sidelined with a major injury to his back, suffered during a game against the Yankees on the Fourth of July. Doctors advised him not to pitch again, though he made a few more appearances with Washington.

The following year he played for the Indians and the Pirates before leaving baseball to return to a quieter life in Chester, where he worked at Menard Penitentiary and served as manager to the prison's baseball team, the Menard Cubs. He also served as vice president of Chester's very first Little League Program.

Roger died in Chester in 1994. Late in his life, Roger reflected on his time in baseball: "I really believe, everything considered, that I had a real successful career and life."

His perseverance through injury and disappointment, and the magnificent triumph he reached as a result, is an inspiration to baseball fans in Randolph County and across the nation.

• To read more about Roger Wolff, visit randolphsociety.org. Another article, on the Society for American Baseball Research site, is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5717ee5b.