Grave Story: Harley Boss (1908-1964)

Here lies Harley Boss, a first baseman in the 1920s and ‘30s, a college baseball coach, and a central character from a largely forgotten scandal. He played for the Washington Senators (1928-30) and Cleveland Indians (1933).

Elmer Harley Boss was born on November 19, 1908 in Hodge, La. He was a three-sport athlete at Louisiana Tech and was an All-American at football. He chose professional baseball and got a fast start in the majors. After graduation, “Lefty” (since he batted and threw left) joined the Little Rock Travelers in 1928 and hit .304 in 65 games. Washington promoted the 19-year-old on July 12. He went 0-for-3 against the Tigers on July 19. After that, he was primarily used as a pinch hitter or runner and ended the season with 3 hits in 12 at-bats.

Washington may have been quick to promote Boss to the majors, but they didn’t seem to know what to do with him once he got there. Joe Judge was firmly in place at first base, and any hope Boss had to supplanting him in 1929 suffered a setback when he came down with the flu over the offseason and didn’t recover by Spring Training. To make matters worse, Boss injured his hands in a car accident and was sent from camp in early March to recuperate at home in Shreveport. Boss didn’t return to the Senators until a July 4 doubleheader. In 28 games, Boss hit .273.

Boss, who married Melba Cox over the offseason, barely appeared with the Senators in 1930, with 3 hitless at-bats in 3 games in late May and early June. He suffered a knee injury that put him on the shelf for a while, and Art Shires and Joe Kuhel took over as backups to Judge. In his three seasons with the Senators, Boss appeared in a grand total of 43 games, with a .259 average and 8 RBIs.

Boss spent the next two seasons in Chattanooga, playing for owner Joe Engel. The 1931 Lookouts were a hard-hitting team (Elliot Bigelow hit .371, Bill Andrus hit .323 and Wally Dashiell hit .332), so Boss fit right in with his .306 batting average, 30 doubles and 6 homers. He was even better the following season, with a .338 average and 8 long balls. Boss was considered one of the best defensive first basemen in the league. His play helped Chattanooga capture its first Southern Association pennant in 1932, and he went 4-for-4 in the final game of the Dixie Series against the Beaumont Exporters to help the Lookouts win the championship.

Source: The News Messenger, April 17, 1933

During that time, he drew plenty of notice from the major-league teams – the Cubs or Reds were rumored to want him. Even a 1932 arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct, after he and teammate Fred Jilek got into a brawl with some locals, didn’t scare teams off. In the end, he was reacquired by Washington (which was said to have paid Engel $30,000), but the Senators decided to keep Kuhel and get rid of Boss. He was traded to Cleveland that December for first baseman Bruce Connatser and pitcher Jack Russell.

Boss elbowed starter Ed Morgan out of the way for the starting first baseman’s job in 1933 and played in 112 games. He batted .269 and fielded his position excellently, but the power didn’t show up. He hit his one and only MLB home run on May 26 in Fenway Park off Boston’s Hank Johnson. He was benched occasionally because of his below-replacement level offense. He was again slowed by injuries, but it was an off-field scandal that brought him the most notoriety.

Boss lived at the Boulevard Manor Hotel in Cleveland during the season. On April 19, 1933, he invited Lillian Eloise Mitchell, 22, who was introduced to Boss by a mutual friend, to stop by. A couple of his teammates, Sammy Hale and Frank Pytlak, joined them for a bit. Boss and Mitchell danced as Pytlak played a mandolin. Eventually, the other two Indians left to go to a show, leaving Boss and Mitchell in the apartment alone. After that, the accounts of the night diverge wildly.

Boss claimed that they talked for a while about being from the South (she was from Winston-Salem, N.C.), embraced and kissed, and then he suggested Mitchell go home when it got too late. She replied that her time spent with Boss ought to be worth some money. Boss, offended at the allegations, pushed her out the door and gave her 75 cents for cab fare.

Mitchell, on the other hand, accused Boss of drinking beer and told her she could stay the night when she tried to leave. She testified that he forced her onto a day bed, and when she tried to resist, he punched her in the face. She was dazed but came to her senses when Boss got up to answer the telephone. She tried to escape and got turned around in the hotel, and Boss found her, gave her back her hat and money for cab fare before letting her go.

On April 22, Mitchell filed a $50,000 lawsuit against Boss, accusing the player of blackening her eyes, breaking a tooth and tearing her skirt and stockings. The trial took place that July, over the course of a few days so as to accommodate the Indians’ travel schedule.

Boss’ testimony included references to his lack of offense on the field, and they were played up for laughs. He mentioned that he had been benched briefly by the Indians for hitting poorly. “By that you mean hitting a baseball?” asked Mitchell’s own attorney, earning a chuckle from the crowd. A character witness from the Indians said that Boss’ behavior was exemplary. Two men from Chattanooga testified about his good behavior while playing with the team – even though Boss had been arrested for drunken behavior once. Boss’ marital status – he was evidently no longer married to Melba Cox – never came up. And as we’ll get to, he definitely had a problem with alcohol, regardless of the testimony of his character witnesses.

Regardless of what really happened that night, Mitchell was treated badly in the press. One headline read, “Indian First Sacker Has Punch, Girl Says.” Mitchell’s age, financial status and a previous divorce were all brought up to not-so-subtly to imply ulterior motives for the lawsuit. One AP report described him as a “young Southern gentleman,” while she was a “Dixie saleslady.”

It took an hour and a half and two votes for the jury to return a not guilty verdict in Boss’ favor. That December, he married Ruby Stidman of Nashville. They would remain married until his death.

Boss was offered a contract from Cleveland for the 1934 season, but he held out for several weeks. He eventually reported to the team, out of shape from lingering injuries, and management chose rookie first baseman Hal Trosky over Boss. Cleveland sold Boss’ contract to New Orleans, ending his time in the majors. In his four MLB seasons, Boss played in 155 games and had a slash line of .268/.309/.341. He had 139 hits, had 60 RBIs and scored 64 runs.

Harley Boss of the San Francisco Seals “slides” into Oakland Oaks third baseman Bob Rigney, jarring the ball loose. Source: San Francisco Examiner, September 12, 1938.

Boss spent a couple productive seasons in New Orleans and was traded to the San Francisco Seals for 1936. He stayed with the team for four seasons and batted around .300 each year, but his temper created headlines as well. He gained a reputation for arguing and harassing umpires. He once completed a circuit around the bases in a rout over the Oakland Oaks by slamming into Oaks third baseman Bob Rigney, causing him to drop a throw. He then scored moments later by bumping catcher Bill Conroy out of his way, nearly starting a fight. His teammates seemed to value having a firebrand on the team, even if his hard play caused more injuries to himself than it did opponents. The Seals pitchers may have had another reason to like Boss, as the first baseman was accused of cutting baseballs with a sharp metal fastener on his mitt.

Boss was a career .303 hitter in the minors, with 1,743 hits in 1,504 games and 46 home runs. He regularly held out during Spring Training throughout his career and retired and unretired a couple times late in his career when he was sent to a team where he didn’t want to play. For instance, he spent all of 1943 out of baseball after feuding with his 1942 team, the Knoxville Smokies. He came back with the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1944, feuded with management and was shipped to the Minneapolis Millers. He was re-acquired by the Lookouts in 1945 but just refused to play, preferring to stay in Nashville in the insurance business. That seems to have effectively ended his playing career. Come 1946, the only news about Boss stemmed from his play on a couple of local Nashville teams and an August arrest for drunk driving.

Boss was hired as manager of the Kitty League’s (Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League) Clarksville Colts at the start of the 1947 season, but his temper got the best of him again. He deliberately delayed games to argue with fans and umpires. At one point, his antics forced an ump to clear out the entire Clarksville bench, forcing batters to walk from the dressing room to the plate when it was their turn to bat. He was eventually suspended by the league when one of his delays caused an umpire to forfeit a game in favor of Owensboro. Clarksville’s management decided to make the suspension permanent, firing Boss. This was all done after about a month into the season.

But he wasn’t done yet! Boss allegedly talked a couple of his regular players, Nick Gassaway and Bill Bomar, into going on strike in support of their former manager. Pitcher Charles Schutt was also involved. That was the final straw for what supporters Boss had left. These weren’t seasoned veterans who had clout with their team. These were kids at the start of their career in a Class-D league who were entirely expendable if management didn’t want to put up with them.

“Reports from down Tennessee way indicate that Harley Boss, fired manager of the Clarksville Colts, not only made an ass out of himself while in uniform as the Colt skipper but went further in the direction of skunk hollow by nearly ruining the careers of two Clarksville ballplayers,” stated Elmer Kelley, columnist for The Messenger of Owensboro, Kent. (I’m just as shocked as you are that a newspaper in Kentucky in 1947 printed “ass,” but the occasion called for it.)

Jack Frost, sports editor of Clarksville’s The Leaf-Chronicle, was a staunch Boss supporter until his antics were fully revealed. Then he tore into the deposed manager for risking the careers of his players for his own interests. “I accuse Boss of acting like the child who, if he can’t pitch, won’t play,” he wrote.

Inexplicably, Vanderbilt University decided that Boss would be the perfect candidate to mold young men and made him the head coach of the baseball team in 1960. By then, Boss had been through the Alcoholics Anonymous program and had settled down as a successful insurance agent. He regretted his transgressions – at least the on-field ones. “Baseball was much better to me than I was to it,” he acknowledged in a 1957 interview. 

Harley Boss as a Vanderbilt coach. Source: The Tennessean, May 16, 1964.

He may have been sober, but Boss hadn’t mellowed. He was ejected from six games in 1960. Now that he was in his 50s, he was starting to physically suffer a toll from all the stress. He suffered a mild heart attack on March 1961 and was forced to give up his coaching duties. He recovered sufficiently that he was able to resume coaching duties in 1963. “Baseball has been my life, and it is a real pleasure to be back in that life teaching the boys who compose the Commodore team,” he said.

Boss had to leave the Vandy dugout on April 3, 1964 after becoming ill mid-game. He said it was a stomach problem, and the team trainer and Boss’ doctor believed it had nothing to do with his prior heart problems. A little over a month later, on May 15, Harley Boss died in his sleep from another heart attack. It may have been one of the few things he ever did peacefully in his life. He was 55 years old. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville, Tenn.

His old boss, Joe Engel, said that Boss was a “son-of-a-gun to handle off the field… If he had taken care of himself, he would have been a great major-leaguer. He had all of the tools. And I’ll say this for him, once he conquered his problem, he devoted all his time to helping other people.”

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