In November of 2004, I spent three hours in line waiting to vote in the
presidential election. The line wound all the way around a local rural
church and its adjacent buildings. What made that wait tolerable, however,
was a conversation with the next man in line. He had worked for over twenty
years at Century Furniture with Tracey Hitchner. We shared Hitchner stories.
This man knew the outlaw ball player as an older gentleman, a friendly
office worker who had built a business career on years of loyalty to the
company president. Here was yet another example of how indelible a mark
this New Jersey farm boy had left in Catawba County. Almost sixty years
after his playing days ended, Hitchner is still the stuff of local legend.
Nearly anyone who followed baseball in Hickory, NC, from 1936-46 will produce
memories of the fire balling pitcher.
Hitchner had signed to play ball for Albany in the International League
in 1935. After a mediocre first year, he was not impressed with the amount
offered by the club in 1936. Instead of signing he returned to his family
farm in New Jersey. It was there that he received a phone call and an offer
to play ball and work in Hickory, North Carolina, in the new independent
Carolina League. Hitchner arrived at night and thought he had reached the
end of the world. He was not impressed with the facilities but was impressed
with the caliber of baseball being played. In what was certainly a hitters'
league, Hitchner became the top hurler. Final records are not available
for that season, but the local newspaper credits Hitchner with 21 wins.
Hitchner played two more successful seasons for the Rebels, one under
a fake name. In 1937 the National Association of Professional Baseball
Leagues declared the league to be an outlaw organization and produced a
list of banned players. Hitchner suffered more than any other player as
a result of this action. While most of the participants had their eligibility
restored, he remained a banned player for ten years. It was only through
the efforts of the ever-affable Sammy Bell in 1947 that Hitchner was allowed
to return briefly to the organized game. Since he was not allowed to play
during his peak years, we will never know how fine a pitcher he might have
Tracey Hitchner married and remained at the end of the world for the
rest of his days.
Interview conducted June 1991 by Hank Utley
"I was with Albany in the International League in 1935. I didn't
sign a contract in 1936. They wanted to cut my salary, and I wouldn't accept
it. It was the depression, you know. So they suspended me, but after the
season started, they sent a scout down home-it was a Washington scout.
I can't remember his name. Anyway, he said they would pay me the same as
in 1935 if I would report back. I told him I would accept it. So they sent
me to Harrisburg, PA, for two weeks to get in shape, and then they took
me back up to Albany, and when I got to Albany, they had one of the worst
looking ball clubs I ever saw in my life. So I just told 'em I had a sore
arm, just give me my release, I'm going home. They said, no, we're not
going to do that, so they wanted to send me to Danville, VA, in a Class
D League. I told 'em I wasn't a Class D ball player, and I wasn't going
down there, so I tore the transfer up and threw it in the waste basket
and told 'em I'd be on the family farm in New Jersey. So I went home to
"One day I was planting potatoes, and this fellow called from Hickory,
NC. His name was Ab Lutz. I asked him how in the world did you get my name?
He said his manager, Stumpy Culbreth got it from a man named Brown that
was my roommate in Albany, NY.
"I said, 'Well, what do you pay down there?' He was going to pay
me more money than I was making in Albany in the International League.
I told him if he would send me transportation from Philadelphia to Hickory
and from Hickory back to Philadelphia I'll come down there and see if I
Note: Hitchner, when questioned about how much he was offered, said
he wouldn't say, but it was more than Albany's offer.
"They sent me the money. I came down and got off the train at the
depot. This taxi driver came down there hollering, 'I'm looking for a ball
player. I'm looking for a ball player.'
"I said, 'If you're looking for a ball player, it might be me.'
So he got me and took me to a boarding house, and he said he was supposed
to take me out to the ball park later.
"When I did get to the ball park and looked around, I was ready
to catch the next train out of there. They had lights that didn't even
light the outfield very good. And they had a dirt infield and cement bleachers
that would hold 2 or 3,000 people. I wasn't used to playing ball parks
like that. When the game started, there was a packed house, about 4,000
spectators. About the fourth inning, our pitcher got hit in the elbow and
Stumpy Culbreth, our manager, was hollering, 'who can pitch on a short
"I said, 'Gimme the ball, and we ended up winning 5 to 4 or 5 to
3. That was the first night I was here. I also found out that there were
some pretty good ball players in the league, even if the ball park didn't
look so hot.
"It was some time in June when I came down here, but I won 18 ball
games the rest of the summer and lost about 5. That year we played about
a hundred game schedule, and we won 48 and we lost 49, I won 18 of those
after missing over a month of the season. I was named to the league all-star
team. I pitched about every second or third day and never had a sore arm.
I was in good shape. For a little man, I could throw that ball through
a brick wall. I had a good curve ball too. I threw it off the end of my
"The next season I changed my name. I knew a lot of the ball players
down here that had changed their name, and I knew 'em by their right name.
I remember one was Palmisano, Joe Palmisano, that caught for the Philadelphia
Athletics a few years earlier. He played under the name Palm. And then
there was Bill Steinecke that played under Bill Seph and then Steinecke
"I played under the name of John Davis in '37. They caught me at
the end of the '36 season, and I got a letter from that damn Judge Branham
saying I was suspended.
Note: On January 4, 1937, the National Association of Professional Baseball
Leagues announced that they had black listed 27 players from the Carolina
League because they had played in the outlaw league in 1936 while under
contract to organized professional teams. The Hickory Rebels players included
Hitchner, Russ Yeargren, and E.J. Porter.
"The first ball game we played in Concord in '37 I was pitching
against Chitwood, and that fellow Cassell that was running the Concord
team sat down beside Ram Menzies, who was trying to run this ball club
and said, 'Ram, you know that fellow out there pitching looks a lot like
that fellow Hitchner that pitched for you last year.'