Grave Story: Ed Heusser (1909-1956)

Here lies Ed Heusser, a pitcher for the famed Gas House Gang who also had a once-in-a-lifetime brilliant season with the Reds. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1935-36), Philadelphia Phillies (1938, 1948), Philadelphia Athletics (1940) and Cincinnati Reds (1943-46).

Edward Burlton Heusser was born on May, 1909 in Murray, Utah. His father died when he was three years old, and his mother remarried a man named Rogers. Heusser would grow up to be 6’0” tall and 187 pounds, earning him the nickname of “Big Ed.” He was said to have been a semi-pro boxer before he reached the majors.

Using his stepfather’s last name, young Ed Rogers was a 15-game winner with Fort Wayne in 1929 and a 14-game winner with Danville in 1930. Despite the wins, he had ERAs over 4.30 and gave up more than a hit an inning. He decided to go back to his birth name in the offseason and reported back to the Danville Veterans in 1931 as Ed Heusser. He was a much improved pitcher. Though he had a 9-10 record for Danville, his ERA fell to 3.52, and his hits and walks allowed dropped substantially.

For the next couple of seasons in the minors, Heusser didn’t look at all like a prospect. He had a fine season in 1932 for the Houston Buffaloes but was hit hard for three teams the following season. He was an average pitcher in 1934 but showed his potential with a couple of late-season games for Columbus of the American Association. He won 2 games for the Red Birds after spending most of the season in Elmira, and then he turned in a gorgeous 2-hit shutout of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the Little World Series. The Red Birds, a farm team of the Cardinals, went on to win the series 5 games to 4. Heusser pitched again in Game 7 and was brilliant for 5 innings before allowing 6 runs in the sixth inning.

Heusser went to Spring Training with the Cardinals in 1935 but was unlikely to make the team. Along with a wealth of other prospects, Cardinal manager Frankie Frisch was interested in veteran Dazzy Vance. As it happened, Heusser got the last pitching spot, and it was one single pitch that did it.

Heusser had been relegated to a batting practice pitcher and threw a sinker to player-manager Frisch that made him stop and say, “Did you see that one?” to the other players around the cage.

“Do you know what caused me to keep Heusser?” he said in an interview in The St. Louis Star and Times later that year. “The ‘sinker’ he flipped at me last spring. I decided then and there that a pitcher who can control that shoot is a big league prospect.”

Heusser was primarily used as a reliever after a couple of early starts ended badly. He was excellent in his role as the Cardinals made a run at the postseason. Heusser was called on for an emergency start against the New York Giants on August 17 and shut them down, allowing 3 runs in 7 innings for a 7-3 win. From there until the end of the season, Heusser was the team’s most dependable starter not named Dizzy or Paul Dean. In fact, he picked up a start from Paul Dean after a hot dog and soda at a boxing match left Dizzy’s brother incapacitated with indigestion the following day.

Heusser fit in with the outsized personalities that made up the Gas House Gang. “He is an amateur ventriloquist and has a lot of fun with it,” reported The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, December 20, 1944

One columnist later recalled a time when Cardinals president Branch Rickey chewed out the pitcher in a hotel lobby for hanging out too much with teammate Pepper Martin and warned him about his conduct and choice of companions. That friendship could explain how Heusser earned the nickname “The Wild Elk of the Wasatch,” a play on Martin’s “Wild Horse of the Osage” nickname.

Heusser finished 1935 with a 2.92 ERA and a 5-5 record, with 2 complete games and 2 saves. It would be about a decade before Heusser duplicated his success in the majors again. He was roughed up by the opposition the following year, with a 5.43 ERA in 42 games, all but 3 out of the bullpen. He did get his first major-league home run off Giants ace Carl Hubbell that season, but he got in a fist-fight with teammate Ducky Medwick in the same game over a play in left field. Medwick failed to catch a fly ball in left field, and Heusser accused him of loafing after it.

“I ain’t loafing on any drive, and I didn’t hesitate to tell Ed,” Medwick said in the Star and Times. “When I walked off the bench carrying my bat, Heusser told me he’d pop me if I dropped the bat. I took him at his word, dropped the bat all right, but I swing my left at his chin. After that I don’t know what happened.”

Heusser admitted he lost his temper. “You know how it is when two fellows get hot. We shook hands in the clubhouse and said we’d forget it. Sure, it’s all over. I’m buying Joe’s dinner tonight.”

Heusser spent most of the next three seasons in the minors. The only big league action he saw was 1 inning for the Phillies on April 26, 1938. He gave up a 3-run homer to Mel Ott. His next taste of the majors came in 1940, when the Philadelphia Athletics signed him. He was 6-13 with a 4.99 ERA and surrendered 144 hits in 110 innings.

World War II was disrupting baseball by then, with many of the best players being drafted into the armed forces. He was accepted by the Navy, but as Heusser was married with children and in his 30s, he stayed stateside. When he returned to the majors in 1943 with the Reds, he was a veteran pitcher facing depleted competition, and his stats improved. His ERA dropped to 3.46 in 1943, and the following season, he became one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Starting with a 2-0 shutout against the Pirates in his first appearance of the year, Heusser was lights-out for the entire season. His 13-11 record in 1944 may not be eye-catching, but he led the National League with a 2.38 ERA. He was second in WHIP with 1.074, and he also placed in the top 10 with complete games (17) and shutouts (4). One of those complete games was a 13-inning, 3-2 win over the Cubs in which he doubled and scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 13th.

Ed Heusser has to rank as one of the unlikeliest ERA champs in baseball history. He was 35 and had pitched for something like 15 teams in his pro career, counting the majors and minors. He was the epitome of a journeyman pitcher who, for one season, morphed into an ace. If the Reds had been a better-hitting ballclub, he could easily have won 18 games.

Unfortunately for Heusser, 1944 proved to be lightning in a bottle. He failed to recapture the magic in 1945, as he lost 16 games while his ERA crept up to 3.71. After a 7-14 record in 1946 (albeit with a good 3.22 ERA), Heusser was traded to the Dodgers, who kept him in the minors for the 1947 season. He returned to the Phillies in 1948 and pitched in 33 games out of the bullpen, with a 3-2 record, 3 saves and a 4.99 ERA.

Heusser retired from baseball in 1949 to work for Continental Oil Co. in Aurora, Colo. He didn’t seem to have many regrets about leaving the game. “Here I am turning 40,” he said to the Associated Press. “So I say, ‘Edward, old boy, the youth movement has caught up with you… it’s time for a change for you.’”

He left the game with a 56-67 record and 3.69 ERA over parts of 9 seasons. He struck out 299 men and walked 300. In the minors, he won 162 games playing for 12 different teams, from the Fort Wayne Chiefs to the Atlanta Crackers to the Montreal Royals (He missed being Jackie Robinson’s teammate by a year but did throw to rookie catcher Roy Campanella.)

Ed Heusser died on March 1, 1956 at his home in Aurora, Colo. He was 46 years old and had been battling Hodgkin’s disease. He was survived by his wife, Wanda, and two children and was buried in Bountiful Memorial Park in Bountiful, Utah.

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