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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Niles Chaplin "Sonny" Jordan and
his wonderful life in Sedro-Woolley

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore ©2008
(Sonny Jordan)
      I rode my bike out to see Sonny for the last time, in his room at the Life Care Center, about three weeks before his death on March 15, 2008. He beamed a smile as I walked in, and we had a long talk, reviewing his whole professional baseball career and discussing the research I recently conducted about his pitching from 1948 to 1958 in both the major and minor leagues. He was a major leaguer all the way to me and I am so glad we had that last conversation together, like two young tykes in love with the game of baseball.
      We talked about his last game in the majors on Sept. 16, 1952, when he was a Cincinnati Red, coached by Hall-of-Famer second baseman Rogers Hornsby. Why was it again, Sonny, that he yanked you?
      "Well, I guess it could have been that grand-slammer that got parked in deep right center," he grinned over his lunch plate. He wouldn't be pivoting anymore to throw to first to keep the runner close to the base, he joked, as he tapped his right leg, which was recently amputated at the knee after a bout of diabetes. He only pitched in three games that year as a Red, and that was the only home run he allowed, but he couldn't take it back and he admitted one day years ago that he knew that a second chance after that might be "slim pickin's."
      The Reds started out above .500 in 1952, finishing the month of April with a record of 8-5, under the first manager, Luke Sewell. They stayed close to first until mid May when they began to sink into a losing rut. By June 1, they were 20-20, nine games out of first place and July brought more of the same. Enter Rogers Hornsby on August 5 as Reds manager Gabe Paul brought him over from the dying St. Louis Browns franchise (soon to become the Baltimore Orioles).
      Hornsby is generally considered the best right-handed hitter in the history of the game. He played for five different major league teams, breaking in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1915 and finishing up with the St. Louis Browns in 1937. His lifetime batting average of .358 was second only to Ty Cobb's; he won seven batting titles, two triple crowns and he was the only player to hit 40 home runs while batting .400 for the year — in fact he was the only player in history to bat for .400 over a five-year span, 1921-25 for the Cards. He taught younger players the value of being a speed demon: for instance, between 1916 and 1927 he hit 30 inside-the-park home runs and often led the league with triples in double digits.
      Obviously proud of having been coached by the Hall-of-Famer, Sonny discussed Hornsby's amazing stats and whistled through his teeth when I reminded him of what is possibly the most amazing Hornsby anecdote. In the book, The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence S. Ritter interviewed Bob O'Farrell, the catcher for the Cardinals in the 1926 World Series against the mighty Yankees. In the final inning of the seventh game, Babe Ruth tried to steal second and O'Farrell launched a throw to second-baseman, and player-manager, Hornsby who tagged Ruth out to win the series. At about that point, Hornsby was nicknamed "The Rajah," a play on his own first name and Ruth's nickname as "The Sultan of Swat." We laughed together at Hornsby's reward: the Cards traded him away to the New York Giants in 1927 and made O'Farrell the new manager.
      Hornsby's managing career was also pretty impressive. After that stirring World Series of 1926, he was manager-player again as he led the Chicago Cubs to the National League pennant in 1932. He managed and often played position for the St Louis Browns through 1937, when he retired to manage in the minor leagues, but Browns owner Bill Veeck brought the Rajah back in 1952 to try and help the dying franchise. After managing in 51 games with St Louis, he was fired, but the Reds immediately hired him as their third manager of 1952. The Reds ended the 1952 season with a final record of 69-85, 27 1/2 games behind the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. And that was Sonny's last year in the majors.

The end of his time in the baseball majors was near
      On Aug. 26, 1953, the Sporting News reported that Sonny was on the comeback trail with the Rochester Red Wings, a powerful Triple-A team in the International League. He beat Montreal on four hits, 5-0, in the 9-inning opener of a double-header. His contract still owned by Cincinnati, Sonny posted a minor-league record that year of 5-1. In October, he came home with Esther and their toddler daughter, Shauna, to visit Esther's widowed mother, Mrs. Evelyn Wardell. He told Frank Evans at the Courier-Times that he was excited because he had been "signed for winter ball in Puerto Rico at $1,000 month & expenses." His final record for Rochester that year was 8-1 record, the best for the team, and he was tagged with the nickname, "Two Rivers," for Niles and Jordan.
      After the disaster in his last game for Cincinnati the year before, Sonny started 1953 in a "tune-up" for the Tulsa Oilers, the Reds minor-league team in the AA Texas League. Sometimes the home of major-league pitchers with arm troubles, the Oilers were managed that year by Joe Schulz, whose main claim to fame in the majors would come 16 years later when he managed the Seattle Pilots in their one-year existence. Sonny motored down south a lot that year to watch the Pilots and his heart was broken along with all of us when the Pilots finished dead last, with 98 losses in the new division, the American League West. The team was soon sold and moved to Milwaukee, where it was transformed into the Milwaukee Brewers. Back in 1953, Sonny was the star left-hander for the contending Oilers and by early summer, he was promoted to Rochester and AAA.
      So he went off to Puerto Rico that fall, not realizing he was descending into baseball hell. "After all, wasn't that where Sandy Koufax got his start on his way to the Dodgers?" I asked. "Well, I wasn't Koufax even if I was a southpaw," Sonny answered, "and you know those mosquitoes that inspired your Mortimer Cook to name this town, Bug? The mosquitoes there were as big as bats." Like at Tulsa, the Winter League was known for pitchers trying to comeback from arm trouble, but it could also be a graveyard. Did Sonny blow out his arm that winter, trying to impress the Reds scouts to bring him back? Back then, if you damaged the tendons in your arm, your pitching strength would be limited; the Tommy John surgery would not save such pitchers until three decades later. Although he was only 28 that December, he recalled recently that "my arm never came back after that. Hornsby ignored me in the 1953 season." Even after the Rajah was fired just before the final game, the new management wouldn't take a serious look. In October he wrote a letter to Sedro-Woolley's famed trainer, Ray Hoyt, complaining that they've got me "deep in the jungle."

Back to a bright future
(Sonny as a Phillie)
      If you ever talked with Sonny very long, you were bound to hear his stories of being a 19-year-old seaman, fresh out of Sedro-Woolley High School, being put on a Navy Destroyer as carnage broke out when the desperate Japanese Air Force used their own planes as bombs against the U.S. ships around Okinawa from March to June 1945. He had already served through the Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima battles after enlisting in 1943, but this was a different kettle of fish altogether. A dozen U.S. destroyers sank all around him and Sonny could still close his eyes and see it all, his nerves wracked as he watched planes falling from the sky and wondering when his own ship would be hit. He came back "all growed up."
      After returning from the war he enjoyed college life at Skagit Valley Junior College, playing football and baseball, and also playing the latter for manager Paul Rhodius, the grand old Sedro-Woolley pioneer who then was a florist. Sonny pitched around other local semi-pro stars like Spud Walley and Earl Silverthorne, who went on to have a long career for minor-league baseball teams. Then in 1948 he married Esther Wardell and a scout for the Phillies drafted him that summer.
      "A lot of guys got drafted back then, for peanuts," he laughed, "but it took three years for me to me to get a chance at "The Show." Drafted late in the system, he was assigned to the Klamath Fall Gems in the Far West League. Formed that year in the brief era of enthusiasm for minor league clubs following the War, that was Class C level and Sonny had to learn quickly. Minor League teams were classified from D or Rookie Leagues to C, B, A, AA and AAA. His old friend Joe Murray of Mount Vernon recalls that Sonny pitched during the winter of 1949-50 in the Cuban Baseball League.
      His manager was Joe Gantenbein who played second base for the Philadelphia Athletics for one year back in the 1930s. After a couple of short appearances he got a start against Redding in the last game of the year and won convincingly, 7-2. He came back for the whole season with the Gems in 1949 and was sensational as he went 20-7 for the year, earning a promotion to the next level in the minor leagues. That year he learned a lot from the Gems manager, Hub Kittle, who coached the team to within a whisker of the league pennant. Kittle lost his chance at the majors when he was drafted for service in World War II, but he set a record in 1980 by becoming the oldest active player in baseball history, pitching an inning for the Springfield Redbirds, before retiring to Yakima and scouting for the Mariners. He and Sonny remained friends.
      In 1950, Sonny starred for the Terre Haute Phillies in the Three-I Class B League (Illinois-Indiana-Iowa), as they won the pennant with a 78-48 record. Sonny's stats were strong, with a 2.35 Earned Run Average (ERA) and 206 strikeouts. And In 1951, he hit the ground running for the Wilmington, Delaware, Blue Rocks in the Class B Interstate League, racking up a 21-3 record by August 13 when the Phillies called him up to The Show — just as they had called up pitcher Robin Roberts two years before from Wilmington, catapulting over A, AA and AAA. Dave Manier of Sedro-Woolley recalls pitching against Sonny that year when Manier played for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Cardinals.

He got called up for "The Show" in 1951
      It's hard to imagine the thrill for a Sedro-Woolley boy to be called up to the majors to play for a contending team like the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1950 the "Whiz Kids" won the National League pennant, playing at the old Shibe Park. They fell to the juggernaut Yankees in a World Series sweep but there was great hope in Philadelphia for a repeat year and another crack at the series.
      Besides, one of Sonny's heroes led the charge. Robin Roberts was a 20-game winner in 1950 against 11 losses, at age 23. Two other pitchers finished well, young Curt Simmons at 17-8 and the 33-year-old vet, Jim Konstanty, saving 22 games and posting a 16-7 record. Richie Ashburn, Andy Seminick, Eddie Waitkus and Dick Sisler were batting hits and Del Ennis hit 32 home runs. There was room for a fourth starter and Sonny would compete with Ken Johnson, who was called up late in 1950.
      On Aug. 26, 1951, Sonny debuted with a shutout against the Cincinnati Reds, 2-0, at Shibe Park, giving up just three hits as he won the second set of a double header and batted in the second run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning. Certainly a thrill for any young pitcher, the win was even sweeter because the Reds had beaten Roberts in the first game. That same day, at the Polo Grounds in New York, young 6'7" Chuck "The Rifleman" Connors hit a home run to tie the game for the Chicago Cubs against the Giants, the highlight of his short ball career. And in that same year, other rookies were thrilling fans — Frank Thomas, Gil McDougald, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
      At a solid 5'11, 180 pounds, muscular Sonny went on to complete a good 2-3 record as a starter in the late season, with a solid 3.19 ERA. The only trouble on his stats being the four home runs he gave up; he just had to work on his control. But then the dreaded moment came. After their disappointing fifth-place finish, the Phillies called him to the office and told him he was being traded. The two 1950 stars, Andy Seminick and Dick Sisler, and Eddie Pellagrini and Sonny were traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Connie Ryan, Smokey Burgess and Howie Fox.
      The Reds were not the powerhouse they would become a decade later, with Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, et al. But they did have real lumber, with Ted Kluszewski at first base, who would hit a .320 batting average and .509 slugging percentage, and Joe Adcock in the outfield. Pitching was a problem. The solid starters were Ken Raffensberger and Ewell Blackwell with 16-17 and 16-15 records, respectively. And Andy Seminick would be behind the plate, which made the young pitcher feel a bit more secure on new ground.
      The Reds were willing to give anyone with promise a chance. For instance, in the bullpen Joe Nuxhall was competing. At age 15, he debuted during the war years, in 1944, the youngest player ever, but he had knocked around the low minors for seven years since. So Sonny had a great chance. And the February 1952 Collier's Magazine shone its light on the Sedro-Woolley as the new "phenom" southpaw pitcher, a candidate for rookie of the year.
      He would earn $6,000, the standard first-year contract for the majors at the time. You know the rest. Pitching for Tulsa and Rochester, he earned his nickname and his place on the Phillies roster. Then he got his big chance on the Reds under Hornsby but committed the rookie big-time sin: dishing up the grand salami. Sonny remembered that it was Hank Sauer of the Cubs who hit the dinger that ended his pitching career, but we researched it thoroughly and there is no record of Sauer hitting a grand slam that year against the Reds. Sonny lost the game, 4-2, at Shibe Park, versus his alumnus, the Phillies and Robin Roberts, who posted an astounding 28-7 record that year and a 2.59 ERA. So Sonny started and ended his major league career 13 months apart on the same grass infield.
      I read to him some of the criticism of manager Hornsby in various biographies.

      The other side of the man was a barbed-wire personality, cold, contentious, and brutally frank . . . He had a big problem dealing with authority . . . Owners and front-office men invariably saw him at his most belligerent . . . His hazel eyes locking into theirs, he told them to get out of his clubhouse, stop harassing his players, mind their own business, and leave him alone or get someone else to do the job . . . He didn't smoke or drink; his only vice was gambling.
      "How do you come down on that matter," I asked.
      "The only thing the man was interested in was results," Sonny replied. "Old timers told me that he didn't even go to picture shows in his playing days because he didn't want to be distracted from his focus. I knew that I blew it and after a while I stopped waiting for the call back up to the big leagues." Sonny came home after that winter. Over the next four years, he tried out with several teams in hopes of getting another shot at the majors. He compiled a good record for the Richmond Virginians in the Class AAA International League and then got a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals but did not pitch for them in the majors. Esther recalls that his last season was in 1958 as a pitcher with the Class AAA Portland Beavers.
      He and Esther had two daughters and then shock set in on March 18, 1956, when his father, Cecil F. Jordan, died in a boating accident while acting as a steelhead fishing guide with clients on the Skagit River. Sonny grew up in Lyman in the first house in town, built in 1883 by Henry Cooper, the grandfather of Sonny's neighbor, Bud Meyers. Both Cecil and Bud supplemented their income by guiding. Sonny told us that his father's favorite actor was Charlie Chaplin, thus Sonny's middle name. Esther recalls that during Sonny's baseball years the young family lived in Arlington, where she had graduated from high school after moving there from Sedro-Woolley in her sophomore year. They moved to Sedro-Woolley in 1963 and in 1980 they moved to Nelson Street where they have resided continually since then.
      In a separate story, we will profile his maternal grandfather, Harvey Brainerd Niles. Sonny's mother was born as Alice Niles in Clear Lake on Aug. 1, 1897, when her father owned a general store there. Harvey B. Niles also owned a substantial Whatcom hotel and a meat market in 1885, was the Indian agent at Tulalip for five years before moving to Clear Lake and later owned a general store at Deming from 1899 until his death in 1941. We will profile him and his family extensively in the upcoming Issue 43 of the Subscribers Online Journal magazine. Cecil F. Jordan was born in Virginia on July 18, 1898, the son of William A. and Marietta (Romine) Jordan. Mary Alice died on May 14, 1970.
      At the end of our visit, I asked Sonny about the teams he tried out with from 1952-58 but he was tiring rapidly. We decided to talk about them the next time. Instead we argued about which birds were landing on a feeder outside, one of his favorite subjects. "The Big Guy upstairs might have some different plans for me," was the last thing he said before I bid him goodbye. His abiding faith was a subject of any conversation we ever had. I will miss him a lot.

(Terminus Hotel)
      The Terminus Hotel on C Street in old Whatcom, the nucleus of Bellingham, photographed in 1938, three years before it was demolished. Sonny Jordan's maternal grandfather, Harvey B. Niles, bought the hotel in 1885.


1. Reds
      In 1869 the Cincinnati Redlegs became the first all-professional baseball team. By the time Sonny played for them, the team was known as the Reds. As Congressional committees whipped up anti-communist sentiment in the country, the owners soon changed the team name to the Redlegs until 1961. [Return]

2. Gabe Paul
      Paul is best known for leading the program to rebuild the New York Yankees under the new George Steinbrenner regime in the 1970s. He began managing in the minor leagues in the early 1930s and joined the Reds management in 1937. The Reds of that postwar era finished perennially in the second division, mainly due to a very weak farm system. Ted Kluszewski, the left-handed first baseman who cut the sleeves off his uniform to accommodate his biceps, was the only bright spot of those years as he was the National League RBI and home-run leader in 1954. Paul's recruitment of Latin American players led to a contending team from 1956 to the mid-1960s and then Sparky Anderson's Big Red Machine roared into the 1970s. [Return]

3. Robin Roberts
Robin Roberts on the right

      Sonny and Roberts remained friends for decades and Jordan treasured the Roberts signed autobiography. A year younger than Sonny, Roberts's debut was with the Phillies on June 18, 1948, three months before Sonny was drafted. Other rookies that year who went on to greatness included: Roy Campanella, Richie Ashburn (Rookie of the Year for the Phillies), Carl Erskine, Hank Bauer, Ray Boone and Satchel Paige, the oldest rookie ever at 42, who also pitched in the World Series for the Cleveland Indians.
      Roberts became a star in the amazing year of 1950 for the "Whiz Kids," so named because they were the combined youngest major league team ever fielded. Roberts earned the accolade, workhouse, when he started three games in the last five days of the season, defeating the heavily favored Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, in a 10-inning game that clinched the pennant. That was his 20th victory, the first Phillies pitcher to do so since Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917. The Phillies went on be swept in the World Series by the Yankees, perennial winners in that period under Casey Stengel.
      A steady control-pitcher, Roberts never walked more than 77 batters in any one season. As we noted above, his 1952 season was phenomenal but his 1953 season was possibly even more notable because the Phillies were a bad-luck team that finished third. Roberts posted a 23-16 record and narrowly missed the triple crown of pitching — won most games, led in strikeouts, but his 2.75 ERA was second in the National League.
      After he was released by the Phillies in 1961, he went on to pitch for the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros and finally the Chicago Cubs in 1966. His final record was 286-245, with an ERA of 3.41 and 2,357 strikeouts and he ranks 26th in all-time wins. He was an All Star seven times for the Phillies and won 20 games or more for them in six different years. Hall of Fame voters selected him in 1976 on his third try, with 86.9 percent of the votes, 75 being necessary. One of his most unusual records is that he is the only pitcher in history to beat all three of the Braves incarnations, in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. In 2007, Sonny was listed as the 37th oldest of former Phillies while Roberts was number 46. [Return]

4. Dick Sisler and Fred Hutchinson
      Five years older than Sonny, he would also be a longtime Jordan friend and have a Seattle connection. The Sisler family, from St. Louis, spawned four players. Dick was the son of Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler, who batted .400 twice. His younger brother, Dave Sisler, was a relief pitcher in the 1950s '60s and his older brother, George Jr., was an executive in minor league baseball.
      As a hometown phenom, Sisler broke in with the Cardinals in 1946 and was traded back to them in late 1952. His trade after the 1951 season mystified Philadelphia because of his heroics that assured the Phillies 1950 pennant. On closing day that year, while playing the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, he hit a tenth-inning, opposite-field, three-run home run that won the game for the "Whiz Kids" and their first National League pennant in 35 years. If the team had lost they would have been forced into a playoff with the Dodgers. His home run made him so famous world-wide that Ernest Hemingway honored him in his novel, The Old Man and the Sea.
      After he retired in 1956, Sisler managed in the minor leagues with the AA Nashville Vols and then the Seattle Rainiers, which was a perennially strong AAA farm team for the Reds. The Reds called him up to be a coach in 1961, under beloved manager Fred Hutchinson. A Seattle native, Hutchinson had a good Major League pitching career with the Detroit Tigers but lost four key seasons when he served as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy during the War. He managed the then-unaffiliated Seattle Rainiers to the pennant in the Pacific Coast League in 1955. Hired by the Cardinals, he managed them on a roller coaster from 1956-58 and then, after they fired him, he returned to manage the Rainiers in 1959. By then, Seattle was the top AAA-farm club for Cincinnati and he was called up to manage the Reds in the amazing year of 1961 when the team chained together come-from-behind victories to win the pennant in the year when Red Frank Robinson was the National League MVP. Unfortunately, Hutchinson had to manage the team in the World Series against the invincible New York Yankees, led by Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
      In January 1964, the baseball world was shocked when Hutchinson revealed that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. His illness and subsequent cancer research led to the Hutchinson Cancer Center in the Fremont district of Seattle. Hutch battled through early August 1964, but finally had to step aside and first-base coach Sisler was promoted first to acting manager and then full-time manager. [Return]

5. Jordan marks debut in Majors as he halts Reds on 3 hits
By Frank Yeutter, unknown source, probably Baseball Magazine, Aug. 27, 1951
(Sonny 1951)
Sonny as the rookie winner in his first game as a southpaw pitcher for the Phillies

      Striking a mock dramatic pose, Eddie Waitkus grabbed 24-year-old Niles Chapman Jordan by the hand and loudly proclaimed, "a new star is born."
      Certainly the Phil's young left hander broken in like a star as he pitched a 2-0 shutout over the Cincinnati Reds in the second game of yesterday's double header after Robin Roberts was defeated 4-2 in the first game. Jordan was more flustered by interviewers than by the Reds' heavy hitters, Johnny Wyrostek, Ted Kluszewski, Connie Ryan and Hank Edwards.
      "I didn't know one from the other when the game started," he said. "Never saw a big league game until the Phillies brought me up from Wilmington on the 13th of August. Andy Seminick ran the game for me. When he called for a fast ball, he'd indicate whether he wanted it high or low, inside or outside. The fortunate thing for me was that I was able to put the ball where he wanted it."
      Umpire Frank Dascoli, who was behind the plate, and members of the Cincinnati team were amazed at the youngster's control and poise. He pitched as if he had been a major league winner for years. [Return]

6. Eddie Waitkus
      Those who follow baseball scandals will be amazed that Eddie was still playing in Sonny's rookie year. He was batting .306 in the early summer of a promising year in 1949 when he nearly died. Courtesy of Wikipedia:
      Just a few years into the start of what seemed a very promising career, Waitkus was shot in the chest by Ruth Ann Steinhagen, an obsessed fan, on June 14, 1949, at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Steinhagen had become infatuated with him when he was a Cub, but seeing him every day in-season apparently kept her obsession in check. Once he was traded to the Phillies and would only be in Chicago 11 games in the season, her obsession grew to dangerous proportions. She checked into the hotel using the alias of a former high school classmate of his, and left a note at the desk asking him to come to her hotel room on an urgent matter. She then shot him with a rifle, the bullet barely missing his heart. He nearly died several times on the operating table before the bullet was successfully removed. Steinhagen never stood trial, but instead was confined to a mental institution. A lengthy writeup about Steinhagen's obsession and stalking was covered at length in one of the Fireside Book of Baseball entries.
      During his rookie year, 1946, baseball writers often called Waitkus a natural. Thus, author Bernard Malamud, an avid baseball fan, combined the Waitkus hotel story with the legend of Shoeless Joe Jackson and in 1952 wrote a novel, The Natural, which in turn became a movie in 1984, starring Robert Redford. [Return]

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