Boots Poffenberger: No Taming That Tiger!
Boots Poffenberger is probably the all-time major league leader in the category of wild stories to innings pitched. This explains why it seems to many old-timers that Boots’ major league career must have lasted more than 2+ seasons and 267.1 innings. Boots loved to drink and loved to fish and when he had a mind to do either, no team rules or major league manager was going to get in his way. Cletus Elwood Poffenberger, who was also known as “The Baron,” was a native of my hometown of Williamsport, MD hard by the Potomac River in the hills of Western Maryland. Boots’ grandson, Jeremy Knode, recently invited me to take a look at the family scrapbooks which are a treasure trove of all things Boots.
Called up to Detroit in June of 1937 to take the spot of Schoolboy Rowe in the Detroit Tigers rotation, Boots went 10-5 in his rookie season fueling the hopes of Tiger management and fans that a bona fide sensation had come to Detroit. Along the way that year, Boots defeated Bob Feller and Lefty Grove, who was also from Western Maryland.
Nevertheless, as the scrapbooks show, Boots was never far from the party. A tell-tale headline in the Detroit News from the beginning of the 1938 season reads, Boots Poffenberger Decides to Be Good to Be Better: “If I can Win Ten Staying Up at Nights, What Can I Do in Shape?” No doubt Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane loved reading that quote over his morning coffee.
Of course, coffee wasn’t necessarily on Boots’ breakfast menu. One of the more famous stories as related by Baltimore sportswriter, John Steadman in the October, 1992 issue of Baseball Digest details how Boots is alleged to have told room service that he wanted the “Breakfast of Champions” sent to his room, which was “six cold beers and a steak sandwich.” Poffenberger denied that story to Steadman however, saying, “Never happened because anyone who knows me realizes I’d either have a case of beer icing in the bathtub or go out to a bar.”
Poffenberger was a pedestrian 6-7 in 1938 in 25 games including 15 starts. The Tigers had had enough of Boots’ carefree lifestyle and placed the 5′ 10″, 178 pound right-hander on waivers in April of 1939. He was claimed by the Dodgers, but Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher tired of Poffenberger in a hurry and Boots worked only 5 innings before being sent to Montreal, the top Dodger farm club at the time. In typical fashion, Poffenberger declined to go.
In 1940, Poffenberger signed with the Nashville Vols and led all of baseball with 26 regular season wins, plus 3 more in the playoffs, but no major league team wanted to sign the eccentric hurler. Returning to Nashville in 1941, Poffenberger was off to a good start, but got into an argument with the home plate umpire during a game in June and promptly fired the baseball at the ump.
As grandson Jeremy heard the story, Boots wasn’t expecting to pitch that day and after downing several of his favorite beverages, either the night before or that morning, Boots was not in the mood to be squeezed by the man in blue.
Suspended for 90 days, he ended up on the Bona Allen Shoemakers, a semi-pro team from Buford, GA where he pitched them to the Denver Post Semi-Pro tournament. In a game that the Post described as the greatest in the history of the tournament and one of the greatest in the history of the game, Poffenberger defeated Roosevelt Davis of the Ethiopian Clowns, a Negro League team that ultimately won the tournament.
The suspension complete, Boots signed with the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres, but his signing date, December 7, 1941 meant that change was coming for everyone. He did play for the Padres in 1942, but ended up in the Marines. He was assigned to the Marines’ baseball team and he entertained the troops for the duration of the war. Boots appeared in 16 games with the Padres in 1946 and in 9 games for the 1947 Hagerstown Owls of the Interstate League. At the age of 31, Boots’ professional career was finished and he happily returned to Williamsport and the good fishing in the Potomac.
Boots lived happily in his hometown until he died in 1999 at the age of 84 a free-spirit to the end.
“He was a character,” said Jeremy, who spent many a day with his grandfather hunting and fishing. “He was never a disciplinarian; he wasn’t even ‘Grandpa’ to me. He was just ‘Boots.’”
That is a fitting description for one of baseball’s most colorful characters.