A Life Lesson in Baseball and Unfulfilled Dreams
He was the only player in the history of baseball to make it to the Major Leagues from Class E minor league ball. Not bad, considering the lowest official designation in the game has always been Class D.
He was a thirty-six-year-old rookie when he broke into the Majors, a right-handed pitcher from small-town America whose spotlight moment came in front of 30,000 fans on June 27, 1945 at Ebbets field in the heart of Brooklyn, New York. That was the night Ernie Rudolph was credited with the only win of his career, a 6–5 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Ten days later his playing career was over.
Part longshot legend, part haunting tale of fleeting fame, the story of Ernie Rudolph reads like another obscure player immortalized in the film Field of Dreams.
In case you forgot or didn’t know, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham was a young outfielder called up by the New York Giants in 1905, finally getting his chance to play in a Major League game on June 29 when he was sent in as a replacement for the team’s right fielder in the bottom of the eighth inning. No fly balls came his way and he never even touched the ball.
Then in the top of the ninth, he was on deck waiting to get his first big league at-bat when the last out was made and the game was over. And that was it. Soon thereafter he was sent back down to the minors, never to have another chance at Major League glory. But all ended well for Archie Graham as he went on instead to become a small-town doctor who lived and prospered for the rest of his days in Chisholm, Minnesota.
It was that short-lived big league career that would later come to stand as the perfect male metaphor for life’s unfulfilled promise.
“It was like coming this close to your dreams, and then watch them brush by you like a stranger in a crowd.”
– Burt Lancaster as “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams
Then there was Ernie Rudolph. Born in 1909 in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, he first drew attention as the young hurler for the Black River Falls Merchants, the city-sponsored amateur team. One local sportswriter in the 1930s colorfully called him “one of the slickest applechuckers outside of organized ball.”
As for that one-of-a-kind Class E designation, Rudolph started his career in the unheralded Twin Ports League, comprised of four minor league teams from Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. According to Baseball America’s Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, many of the players in the Twin Ports League worked in the local war production factories, dockyards and shipyards. Things didn’t work out on the business side, however, and the lone E-class league in baseball history folded after six weeks in 1943.
Ernie was the only one who made it out of there to the Majors.
After the Twin Ports League he bounced around in the minors and semi-pro circuits for a few years —through the Depression and better part of World War Two — with teams like the Crookston Pirates and the Eau Claire Bears. Until 14 wins and a 2.88 ERA in 1944 with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association brought him to the attention of Branch Rickey, Jr., the farm director for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey’s father was, of course, Branch Rickey, the legendary Dodgers’ general manager who signed Jackie Robinson to his first professional contract in October of 1945 and forever changed the game. Five months earlier Branch Rickey, Jr. was travelling to Black River Falls to sign Ernie Rudolph to a professional contract of his own.
Fame and immortality followed, some say hounded, Jackie Robinson for his entire career and the rest of his life. Not so Ernie Rudolph.
He joined the Dodgers that June and wound up pitching in seven games, all in relief. In 8.2 innings he struck out 3 and walked 7, carrying a 5.19 ERA. Not exactly eye-popping numbers. In those seven games he never had an official at-bat, though he did twice draw a base on balls. But still, there was that win on a warm June night in Ebbets Field and nobody could ever take that away from him.
After his playing days were done, he stayed in baseball for a while, scouting for the Milwaukee Braves and St. Louis Browns before hanging up his spikes for good. He went home to Black River Falls where he raised a family and quietly lived out the rest of his days in peace. He died in 2003 at the age of 93 and was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery.
(Another Major League baseball player from Black River Falls by the name of Phil Haugstad is also laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery. In a crazy set of coincidences, he too was a relief pitcher who made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947, two years after Ernie. During that first year Haugstad appeared in only six games and his record was an identical 1–0.)
According to his obituary printed in the Madison Capital Times, Rudolph “quit the team in a dispute with the late Leo Durocher.” Whatever the reason, the fact remains the Dodgers let him go ten days after his greatest triumph and he never got another chance to pitch in the majors.
Life and baseball. Anyone who knows anything about either knows it isn’t always fair and it sure as hell isn’t easy.
And while it’s true some, if not most, of life’s dreams aren’t meant to come true, the story of Ernie Rudolph, much like that of “Moonlight” Graham, offers precious comfort by showing us that in the end, well, that’s okay.
There’s worse things that could happen.