If you've ever driven from St. Louis to Chicago by way of Interstate 55, you probably didn't take notice of towns south of Springfield like Raymond, Hillsboro, and Litchfield, Illinois. These peaceful communities of Montgomery County probably don't draw much attention to the average passers-by. Baseball aficionados, though, should note that as they traverse Montgomery County they are near the birthplaces of three members of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – former Cardinal "Sunny" Jim Bottomley, Red Ruffing, and fiery Ray Schalk.
As a resident of a small town in southern Illinois, I can attest to the local excitement of having a hometown boy playing in the bigs. The last for my community of Du Quoin was Don Stanhouse. A 1969 graduate of dear old Du Quoin High School, the fireballing Stanhouse went on to a major league as a closer. He was known as a human heart attack. It wasn't a bit unlike Stanhouse to walk the bases full in the bottom of the ninth, then strike out the side. During his one year stint with the Dodgers, Stanhouse aged Tommy Lasorda 20 years. He was the pride of my hometown and I knew him when.
It is hard to fathom that such a rural area as Montgomery County produced three Hall of Famers. This fact came to mind because Bottomley, originally from Oglesby, Illinois, used to have distant relation in my hometown and was known to visit our community from time to time. My original thought was to write about the pleasantly disposed Sunny Jim when I stumbled upon his shared origins with Ruffing and Schalk.
The three hometown heroes are honored at the BRS (Bottomley-Ruffing-Schalk) Baseball Museum in Nokomis, Illinois. Located, of course, on Main Street, the small museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9AM to noon.
Cardinal fans with a bent for team history know Bottomley well from his play on the teams of the 1920's. Known as "Sunny Jim" because of his positive outlook and unwavering smile, the southpaw was a feared hitter who was described by Frankie Frisch as "the best clutch hitter I ever saw." The first baseman spent 11 years with the Cardinals, three with the Reds, then 2 with the St. Louis Browns. He was a lifetime .310 hitter, but averaged .325 during his Cardinal career. Bottomley was voted the NL MVP in 1928. A slashing, hustling line drive hitter with some power, over a third of his hits were for extra bases. Sunny Jim was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1974.
Ruffing was a right-handed pitcher of remarkable longevity who labored off the mound for 22 seasons. Coming up in 1924, he spent seven years with the Boston Red Sox and was traded to the Yankees in 1930. He went on to win 15 games for the Bronx Bombers that year and enjoyed a long tenure in the Big Apple. In 1935, the talented Ruffing won 16 games in a starting role for the Yankees while batting .330. Incredibly, he achieved all this after losing four toes on his left foot while working in a coal mine at an early age. Ruffing was born in 1905 in Granville, Illinois and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1967. Despite missing two years to World War II, Ruffing finished his long career with a 273-225 record over 624 games with a .380 ERA and a .269 batting average. He had 335 complete games.
Anyone who read the book "Eight Men Out" remembers Ray Schalk as the temperamental catcher who was horrified and infuriated at the prospect of his "Black Sox" teammates conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series. Schalk represented the best of the game during some of the worst of its times. Diminutive in size, Schalk made up for his lack of physical stature with smart, hard-nosed play and became known as the leader of the White Sox defense and one who would be crossed by no one.
Born in Harvel, Illinois in 1892, Schalk spent his playing career with the Chicago White Sox (17 years) and the New York Giants (1 year). His lifetime batting average was only .253, but he was known for his durability and toughness. He was also that rare combination of a catcher with speed.
Schalk communicated his displeasure with an under-achieving pitcher by strong-arming the ball back to the mound, stinging the pitcher's hand and reminding him who was the boss on the field. He was known to scream at them, berate them, and do anything possible to get the extra effort from his pitchers.
His ire was never more obvious than during the scandalous 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. His monumental fury at teammates Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin, and Shoeless Joe Jackson when they conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series echoes today. Schalk's agony during the series was visible and he was among the first to relate to manager Kid Gleason his suspicions that his teammates were in cahoots with gamblers. Ray Schalk, who heroically personified the purity of baseball during its darkest hours, was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1955.
The next time you pass through a farm field-covered community throughout America, it doesn't hurt to remember that great people come from these sleepy environs and that to this day little leaguers are laboring away with the thought that just maybe there is a chance they will be noticed, make it to the show, and bring fame to themselves and glory to their hometowns. Jim Bottomley, Red Ruffing, and Ray Schalk did and are justifiably remembered to this day by the grateful citizens of Montgomery County, Illinois.
Rex Duncan can be contacted at email@example.com