Throughout the lengthy history of Baseball there have been players well recognized for closing down saloons, chasing women and carrying on until the wee hours of the morning.
Mike “King” Kelly led the parade in the late 19th century, confounding managers and team owners with his love for the nightlife. Even private detectives following him night after night failed to slow the “King” down. Pitcher George “Rube” Waddell had a bad habit of disappearing before scheduled starts; frantic searches often found him in the local taverns, downing large pitchers of beer. Rube never took his job seriously, driving Athletics manager Connie Mack to the edge of distraction. And, of course there are many tales of Babe Ruth and his night outs around town.
Catcher Rollie Hemsley is not as fully remembered as most of these wild men, but in his day he made countless headlines throughout the United States. “Rollicking” Rollie or “Jolly” Rollie drank his way off four different clubs in the National and American Leagues before turning his life around in Cleveland. He was an alcoholic that desperately needed help.
In 1928 the twenty-one-year old Hemsley got his start with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was primarily a back-up, but impressed the front office with his all-around play. He had decent speed for a catcher, able to bunt for a base-hit and enough power to drive the ball up the alleys. He excelled behind the plate, calling a good game and instinctively noted any batter’s weakness. The Pirates were thrilled with his ability, believing they had a potential star in the making.
Though he generally stayed out of trouble, Hemsley’s drinking began to have an effect on his play. He would later note that it took all of his strength to remain on the field for nine innings. The constant battle with alcohol was already wearing him down, even at the earliest stages of his major league career.
After Hemsley won the starting job he asked Pirates Manager Jewel Ens for a day off to stop at his home in Sycamore, Ohio. He would join the team in time to begin their first eastern swing of the season. The train left for the east coast and Hemsley was not among the passengers. He did not send a telegram or phone the ball club until one week later. He claimed an illness had sidelined him, but Ens did not buy it. Soon Hemsley would be unloaded to the Chicago Cubs.
His new team was managed by the great Rogers Hornsby. For a time Hemsley behaved himself, not willing to test the resolve of his strong-willed boss. He backed up future HOFer Gabby Hartnett quite ably, batting .309 in sixty games.
Despite his success on the field, and as much as he wanted to, Hemsley could not overcome his alcoholism. The big blow occurred in Philadelphia where Hemsley rented a car to drive around town. In spite of Prohibition he knew where a thirsty man could find a drink. He had a number of shots, becoming more boisterous as the evening wore on. Hemsley got in several fights, staggered outside and got nabbed by a police officer. Apparently, Hemsley belted the police officer, then made a dash for his rental car. Other police arrived, subduing the drunken brawler and carting him off to jail. Charges of drunk and disorderly conduct were filed along with driving without a license. Hornsby wasted no time in suspending Hemsley indefinitely, though he was reinstated after a week.
The drinking soon got completely out of control. “Rollicking” Rollie lived up to his name, arriving for games looking disheveled and often sporting a black eye. Manager Hornsby punished his catcher, forcing him to catch both ends of a September 30th doubleheader, even though Hemsley could barely see out of one swollen eye.[i]
Charlie Grimm succeeded Hornsby as manager of the Cubs in 1932, but the change in leadership had no effect on Hemsley's drinking. Like Hornsby, Grimm found that fines and suspensions were useless (Hemsley would lose thousands of dollars over the course of his career due to his indiscretions). By 1933 the Cubs sent Hemsley to Cincinnati.
Hemsley lasted one season with the Reds before he was put on waivers. No National League club put in a claim, but the American League’s St. Louis Browns were willing to take a chance. Hemsley was reunited with former manager Rogers Hornsby, who no doubt signed off on the deal.
Vitt had several man-to-man talks with his new acquisition, even allowing him to go off on a drinking spree every now and then. Vitt bent curfew rules for Hemsley, believing the moderate approach could help. “I’m willing to go halfway with Hemsley if he breaks training a teeny bit. I think I could forgive him.”
Despite Vitt’s strategy, Hemsley completely let go of any restraint in spring training. He had several drinks too many, then retreated to his room in the team hotel. A photographer followed him, attempting to get a picture for the next day’s newspaper. The “Jolly” one warned him, then pulled out the top drawer of his dresser and smashed the photographer with it. Days later, Hemsley sat at the hotel bar well after curfew, throwing back drink after drink. Soon Manager Vitt found him, reluctantly fining and suspending his catcher (to no effect). What Vitt, Hornsby, teammates and coaches did not understand was that Hemsley needed a different kind of help, something they could not offer.
The breaking point for the Indians came early in the 1938 season. The Indians were on a road trip when at roughly 3:00 a.m., a drunken Hemsley dashed through the sleeping car, throwing lighted matches in the berths. He raced to the next car, returning with a large supply of water. Anybody that peered at out of his berth got doused. When the train stopped, Hemsley was once again suspended and sent home to Cleveland.
Arriving at the League Park offices, Hemsley met with Cy Slapnicka, the Indians general manager. The suspension would be thrown out, though in no uncertain terms Hemsley had been given his last chance. The local newspapers ran with the story, and soon Hemsley's troubles were known throughout Ohio. Shortly after the stories ran, two men visited Hemsley, quietly explaining they belonged to an organization located in Akron, Ohio. The group consisted of alcoholics who met regularly to talk and help each other to remain sober (today known as "Alcoholics Anonymous").
Hemsley was initially reluctant, but the idea of sitting down and talking about his problems with men who understood them won him over. He went to Akron, and checked into City Hospital to detox for five days, until he felt completely sober. He attended meetings and began to find the strength to help himself. With tremendous effort, Hemsley became sober for the first time in his baseball career. Only his family knew about the change until one year later.
In April of 1940 he asked reporters to meet with him. They were rendered speechless when Rollie Hemsley announced to the writers he had been sober for an entire year. He explained the impressive details about his sobriety, and his willingness to help other like him (even if by doing so, he was inadvertently breaking the confidential aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous; Hemsley’s story conferred national recognition on the program). He now enjoyed going out with friends and teammates, having several glasses of soda pop. He even had the willpower to visit night clubs and say "no" to alcohol. “All you have to have is the determination to lick your disease because that’s what alcoholism is,” said Hemsley. “…I had that determination for years. I just never realized that I needed help from others.”
The change was startling to all that knew him. “It is the story of a desperate hope that glowed into a fervent faith. It is a story of a comeback as exciting and as complete as any in the history of sports,” wrote Ed McAuly, of the Cleveland News.
Hemsley continued to play in the Major Leagues through 1947. Later he managed a number of minor league clubs, staying in baseball for nearly 40 years. Over this time he received thousands of letters from people asking for his help and guidance with their own battles with alcohol addiction. Hemsley met as many people as he could, even when his clubs were on the road. He remained sober for the rest of days.
[i] Despite his swollen eye, Hemsley had a decent day at the plate against Detroit on Sept. 30, going 2-4 in the first game, 1-3 in the second (he did, however, commit an error in in the first game of the double bill).