Grave Story: Jim Pruett (1917-2003)

Here lies Jim Pruett, a catcher who played in a total of 9 games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1944 and 1945. He also spent almost 20 years in Milwaukee County Stadium, as an usher for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Pruett was born on December 16, 1917 in Nashville, Tenn. His travels in baseball as a minor-league journeyman would require him to move more than 40 times in his life, according to his obituary. The first stop was in Paducah, Ky., home of the Indians, in 1937. He moved from town to town each season, sometimes twice in a season, hitting fairly well. His best seasons early on were with the Gainesville G-Men of the Florida State League in 1940 and 1941. He hit 10 homers for the G-Men in ’40 with a .321 batting average, and he raised it up to a .340 average in 1941 before moving on to Charleston.

Pruett arrived in Milwaukee for the first time in 1943. In 52 games, he batted .287 with 3 home runs and 17 RBIs. The 1944 Milwaukee Brewers is noted as one of the 100 best minor league teams of all time. Managed by the legendary Charlie Grimm and, when Grimm was hired by the Chicago Cubs, Casey Stengel, the Brewers went 102-51, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. The team batted .307 collectively, and Pruett slashed .312/.401/.466. After 8 seasons in the minors, this was the year that Pruett was noticed.

Pruett was sold to the Philadelphia Athletics at the end of September, 1944, for two players and cash. He appeared in three games for the A’s at the end of the season. He made his MLB debut on September 26 in Detroit, spelling ironman catcher Frankie Hayes, who was catching in his 148th straight game. He went 0-for-1 and was hit by a Dizzy Trout pitch in his second plate appearance. His first MLB hit came off of Bill Bonness of the Indians on September 29. All total, he had the one hit in 4 at-bats in three games.

Pruett wasn’t going into a good situation, in 1945. The Athletics starting catcher, Hayes, would go on to catch 155 games that season. Mack didn’t seem completely sold on Pruett as a backup, either.

“I saw him last fall and he looked fine,” he told the AP. “This year, however, he hasn’t done so well. If I hadn’t seen him last year I might have been skeptical.”

Pruett played in a grand total of six games for the A’s in 1945, including one start, finally giving Hayes a day off. He managed 2 hits in 9 at-bats before being optioned to Toronto on June 1. Initially, Pruett refused to report to the Maple Leafs, asking Mack either for more playing to prove himself or to be sent back to Milwaukee. In the end, Pruett went to Canada and had a solid season, with a .293 batting average  and .395 on-base percentage. He never got called back to the majors, though.

In his 9 MLB games, Pruett hit .231, with 3 hits – all singles – in 13 at-bats. He walked twice, scored twice and struck out twice. He had a flawless fielding record as a catcher at least. He didn’t make an error in 28 innings and threw out 1 of 6 baserunners.

Jim Pruett pic
Source: Tampa Bay Tribune, June 6, 1950.

Pruett’s odyssey through the minor leagues continued, from Toronto to Minneapolis to Jersey City to Louisville, New Orleans and points beyond. In his 15 seasons, Pruett hit .291 in the minors with 1,316 hits, 73 home runs and a .413 slugging percentage. He started managing late in his playing career, first with Augusta in 1949 and then St. Petersburg in 1950 and Clarksdale in 1951.

Pruett took over as player-manager of the Florida International League’s St. Petersburg Saints in June, 1950. An early column welcoming him to town warned him that the Saints were an injured, under-performing team. While he wasn’t able to get the team to perform better, he did ignite a controversy by banning a sports editor of the St. Petersburg Independent from the clubhouse. Jeff Moshier wrote that the Saints needed new players in key positions to get out of the cellar, and according to reports, that was enough to get him tossed. Moshier wasn’t wrong, though. Given that the Saints were 24-69 and 41 games out of first place at the time, they needed an entirely new team.

“This could easily lead to a situation in which the only baseball news the public got would be spoonfed to them by press agents or front office officials,” warned Pete Norton, sports editor of the Tampa Tribune.

It was just a bad year for the Saints. Pruett was one of four managers the team had en route to a 47-100 finish. Outfielder Leon Cato, who was the interim manager before Pruett came on board, was heckled by spectators so much that the 29-year-old quit baseball altogether. Pruett, apart from getting into a war with the press, had to be escorted from the stadium by police after an ejection after two weeks on the job. After playing on one of the best teams in minor-league history, Pruett was stuck on one of the worst. His hitting wasn’t any better, with a .232 average in 29 games. He was booed early and often and, he quit on August 1 to take a job as a catcher-coach for Columbia in the Sally League.

When Pruett decided to retire from baseball, he and his wife moved to Waukesha, Wis. He operated Jim’s Beverage Mart and Top’s Grill and held other jobs once those businesses closed. He retired for good in 1982, but he wasn’t done with baseball just yet. He became an usher at Milwaukee County Stadium and spent his time helping fans to their seats and playing cards with his fellow ushers before the game. He left that job when Miller Park opened in 2001.

Jim Pruett died on July 29, 2003. He was 85 years old. In his obituary, Pruett’s daughter, Susan Buyatt, noted that his father wasn’t forgotten by baseball fans, even though his career was pretty short. People still sent him letters, asking for autographs or pictures. He is buried in Prairie Home Cemetery in Waukesha.

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