Friday, March 18, 2011

Pratt was 'Bama's first MLB star

Uncommon commons. In 2006 I purchased a complete set of The Sporting News and The Sporting Life newspaper microfilms from 1886 through the early 1970s. I figured they would be a great source of entertainment when I eventually retired. In my years at Krause Publications I had used the films to research feature articles and columns that appeared in SCD and Baseball Cards magazine. In that process I discovered that each issue of those venerable sports weeklies had many tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figured that if I found those items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors, so from time to time I compiled my notes into columns that I called "Uncommon Commons." I've decided to continue that tradition in this forum because a blog is tailor-made to host these short pieces and because it is easy to share images of some great old cards that may not be worth a lot of money, but that have an appeal to veteran collectors.

It is generally considered that Derrill Pratt was the first University of Alabama graduate to become a star in major league baseball.
Pratt rolled with the Tide in 1908-09 before embarking on a 13-year major league career. Pratt transferred to Alabama after two years at Georgia Institute of Technology. While he played baseball at 'Bama, Pratt was better known in his day for gridiron play.
In 1908-09 Pratt lettered in football, playing fullback and defensive back. His most significant contributions, though, were as the team's kicker. He was Alabama's punter and place kicker, especially adept at the now defunct art of drop kicking field goals.
In the final game of Alabama's 6-1-1 season of 1908, Pratt attempted four field goals against Tennessee. He made only one, but it was enough to give the Tide a 4-0 win. That was the last year of a five-year era in which field goals were worth four points.
Named captain of the Alabama team for 1909, Pratt broke the conference (at that time, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) record on Oct. 16 when his 49-yard field goal beat Clemson 3-0. Two weeks later, when Alabama defeated Georgia 14-0, Pratt broke his own record with a 50-yard field goal.

That was the end of Pratt's college football career, however, as he was ruled ineligible for the final three games of the season due to "faculty trouble." The specific nature of that trouble is not readily discernible a century after the fact.

It's possible Pratt may have been something of a rebel or rabble rouser as a player. While playing for the St. Louis Browns in 1917, Pratt and teammate Doc Lavan each sued the club's owner for $50,000, alleging slander when the magnate accused some of his players of intentionally playing poorly to force them to be traded. The Sporting News labeled Pratt as "the Browns' Trotsky." After the suit was settled, reportedly in the players' favor, Pratt was traded to the New York Yankees, along with future Hall of Fame pitcher Eddie Plank. (Plank never reported to the Yankees, retiring instead.)

With limited opportunities and no money to be made in pro football in those pre-NFL days, Pratt began his professional baseball career in 1910 at Hattiesburg in the Cotton States League. Pratt hit for a .367 average in that Class D for a month before being sold to Montgomery in the Class A Southern Association.

After hitting .316 for Montgomery in 1911, Pratt was sold to the St. Louis Browns for 1912. He remained with the Browns through 1917, mostly as their regular second baseman. In 1916 he led the American League with 103 RBIs.

Pratt spent the 1918-20 seasons with the Yankees, then announced he was giving up pro ball to go to the University of Michigan as head baseball coach, assistant football coach and freshman basketball coach.

He was persuaded to return to big-league baseball by a trade to the Boston Red Sox for the 1921 season. In two seasons there, he batted .312, then was traded to the Detroit Tigers for 1923-24, at which time he dropped out of the major leagues.

An interesting bit of trivia about Pratt is that he made the last out in two no-hitters. On July 4, 1912, he was the last man Detroit's George Mullin faced. On April 14, 1917, he was the last out for Eddie Cicotte of the White Sox.

Pratt took the job managing the Waco Cubs in the Texas League in 1925. He became a playing manager (regular second baseman) in 1926. In 1927, when the team finished second, Pratt won the Texas League Triple Crown at age 39 with a .386 batting average, 32 home runs and 140 RBIs. He played for and managed Waco through the 1930 season, in which he batted .374 at age 42. He spent two seasons (1931-32) as player-manager of Galveston, also in the Texas League, before ending his playing days. After a year off, he returned to the Texas League, managing the 1934 Ft. Worth Cats to a seventh place finish before hanging up his spikes for good.    

 In later years, he was a scout, high school football coach, bowling alley and sporting good store manager and owned a gas station in Galveston. He died in Texas in 1977 at the age of 89.

Del Pratt's major league career began at the very end of the cigarette card era, but he does appear in the 1914 B18 set of felts. Playing in the heyday of caramel card issues, he appears in some of those sets including the 1922 American Caramel Co. (E120) and 1915 Cracker Jack.  

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