Grave Story: Luke Appling (1907-1991)

Here lies Luke Appling, who was one of the best shortstops in the game for 20 years. He was a 7-time All-Star, a 2-time batting champion and a member of the Hall of Fame. Appling played his entire career with the Chicago White Sox, from 1930-50.

Lucius Appling was born in High Point, N.C., on April 2, 1907. He spent most of his life in Georgia, attending Fulton High School in Atlanta. Appling first generated headlines not as a shortstop but as a halfback for Oglethorpe University, a liberal arts college in Atlanta. The Oglethorpe Petrels no longer have a football team, but in 1929, they had a great fullback combo with Appling and Lyman Fox. The Petrels took on much larger universities in football and baseball and came away victorious more often than not. Appling, who was also a kicker on the team, played baseball as well. In 1962, he was part of the inaugural Oglethorpe Athletic Hall of Fame for his baseball accomplishments. He graduated in 1933, finishing his education after he made the major leagues.

Appling and his wife, Fay, married in 1932 and were together for nearly 60 years. She died in 1999.

Appling signed with the Atlanta Crackers in 1930 and almost immediately began attracting major-league interest. In 104 games, Appling hit .326 with 19 doubles, 17 triples and 5 home runs. At 23 years old, Appling was pretty much ready for the majors and represented a big financial windfall for the team. Crackers owner R.J. Spiller apparently had sizable offers from the Cubs and Reds but ultimately sold the rights to his young star to the Chicago White Sox. The Sox paid in excess of $20,000 for Appling and even threw in a guarantee that the team would return Appling to Atlanta if he didn’t pan out in the majors. That part of the agreement never came to pass, as Appling joined the Sox after the Crackers’ season was over and never spent another day in the minor leagues.

The White Sox scouts who found Appling and gauged his worth were the husband-and-wife duo of Roy and Bessie Largent. Bessie Largent was the only female scout in the game at that time. The White Sox, in the decades following the Black Sox scandal, weren’t blessed with a lot of talent, but any good players they had, Appling included, were the result of this unheralded duo.

Appling, as a White Sox youngster hoping for a last chance to show he could play in the major leagues. Source: The Atlanta Constitution, December 27, 1931.

Appling pocketed $5,000 of the purchase price and made it to Chicago in time to play in 6 games in September. He got a hit in each one of them and ended up with a .308 batting average in 26 at-bats. Appling struggled in his 1931 sophomore season, batting just .232 in 96 games. His fielding was very shaky, as he committed 42 errors in 76 games at shortstop, for a .900 fielding percentage. Appling earned a couple of excellent nicknames in his career – “Luscious Luke” and “Old Aches and Pains” – but at that point in his career, he was “Kid Boots,” so named for all his miscues.

Appling was very much worried about his baseball career and hoped for one more chance to prove himself to the team. The White Sox hired a new manager for 1932, Lew Fonseca, and there was no guarantee that he would show the same patience with the young infielder that previous manager Donie Bush had.

“I only hope they keep me at shortstop for that’s the position I would like to play,” he said. He added that his fielding woes contributed to his struggles at the plate. “I found myself crouching and tightening up at the plate, which wasn’t my hitting style at all and I was batting in streaks. In Cleveland I went 23 times at the plate and had to break my bat to get a weak single over second,” he said.

He got his one last chance and made the most of it in 1932. He raised his batting average to .274, his OPS to .703 and his fielding percentage at shortstop to .929 – not great but not abominable either. From that point forward, he became the Luke Appling that you can read about in Cooperstown. He hit over .300 in the next nine seasons and 15 of the remaining 17 seasons of his career. He topped 100 in OPS+ 14 times and received MVP votes in 11 seasons, finishing as high as second twice.

Appling was the MVP runner-up to Lou Gehrig in 1936, when he won his first batting crown with a .388 average. He was the first White Sox player and the first AL shortstop to accomplish the feat. Appling homered 6 times and drove in 128 runs, which is a pretty incredible RBI total for a player with so little power. He was also second in the AL in on-base percentage (.474), eighth in hits (204), tenth in doubles (36), second in singles (160) and fifth in fielding percentage at shortstop (.951). He was the starting shortstop on the AL All-Star squad and drove in two runs with a single off the Cubs’ Curt Davis in a 4-3 loss.

Source: The National Baseball Hall of Fame digital archives.

His second batting title came much later in his career – 1943, when he was 36 years old. When most players start to scale back their playing time, Appling led the AL in games played with 155 and hit .328. Thanks to 90 walks, he also was tops with a .419 on-base average. He picked up his 2,000th career hit on August 13 off Boston’s Tex Hughson. Once again, Appling finished second in the MVP voting to a Yankee. Pitcher Spud Chandler had a career year with a 20-4 record and 1.64 ERA.

As Appling’s offense propelled him to stardom, his defense improved to the point that he was at least a league-average shortstop. He wouldn’t have won any Gold Glove Awards, had such a thing existed in the 1930s and ‘40s, but he put in time with veteran teammate/manager Jimmy Dykes and turned himself into a pretty capable infielder.

Through 1943, Appling was a regular in the White Sox lineup. From 1932 through ’43, he appeared in at least 135 games 10 out of 12 seasons and at least 150 games six times. Injuries took their toll in a couple of seasons. Most significantly, a fractured ankle in a Spring Training exhibition game in 1938 kept him off the field until July and held him to 81 games. He also had balky knees, particularly later in his career. Appling picked up the nickname of “Old Aches and Pains” because he seemed to always have something wrong with him that threatened to keep him out of action. Then, after complaining of one ailment or another, he’d go out and knock three or four hits.

Years later, Appling told his version of how the nickname came to be to the Florida Today. “We had a trainer at that time by the name of Eddie Shack, and I used to room with him. He always wanted to go to the ball park a little early, so I’d have nothing special to do and I’d go with him, get my equipment ready for the game, then stretch out on the training table and get some sleep.

Old Aches and Pains, explained. Source: Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1942.

“Well, when the other players and the sports writers would come in, they would see me lying there on the table, and would ask me what was wrong and I would say, ‘I just ache all over. I don’t know if I can play today,’ and naturally Shack would go along with me.”

Longtime manager Dykes knew the drill. “The time to worry is when Ol’ Aches ‘n’ Pains here says he’s feeling fine,” he cracked. “As soon as he starts to complain, then you know everything’s all right.”

Appling was also renowned for his bat control and the ability to foul off pitch after pitch. Eventually the tired pitcher would either walk him or throw a bad pitch that Appling would drill for a base hit. One 1940 UPI report estimated that if Appling fouled off 15 pitches per game, he was costing the White Sox about $2,310 in extra baseballs in a season.

Appling relayed an anecdote of a time he fouled a dozen or so straight pitches off of Dizzy Trout. “Finally he screamed at me, ‘You so-and-so, let’s see you foul this off!’ He wound up and threw his glove. I swung and darned if I didn’t foul that off too. Diz was fit to be tied, but he really blew his top when Bill Summers, umpiring behind the plate, threw him out of the game for throwin’ his glove.”

(As a reminder, take all baseball anecdotes told by retired baseball players with a grain of salt.)

Appling missed the entire 1944 season due to military service. He served his tour of duty stateside, playing and managing army baseball teams. He was discharged in September 1945, and while he thought about retiring, he returned to the White Sox. Now 38-years old, Appling jumped right back into the lineup and hit .368 over the final 18 games of the season.

Though he was pushing 40, Appling kept playing regularly and kept hitting over .300 – for four more seasons. He earned his final All-Star nominations in 1946 and 1947, and they were deserved. He hit a career-high 8 home runs in 1947 while batting .306. His career lasted longer than many of the youngsters the White Sox signed to be his replacement – see Fred Hancock, for one example.

Appling finally slowed down in 1950 at the age of 43. In 50 games, he hit .234 and lost the starting shortstop job to rookie Chico Carrasquel. It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition, as a slighted Appling threatened to walk out on the team days before Opening Day. But he quickly returned and spent the season as a part-time player and a part-time coach under manager Red Corriden.

In his 20 years in the major leagues, Appling had a slash line of .310/.399/.398. He had 2,749 hits, including 440 doubles, 102 triples and 45 stolen bases. He had 1,116 RBIs, 1,319 runs and 1,302 walks, while striking out 528 times. His career WAR, 74.5, is 50th all-time among position players. Appling was selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, as part of a large class that included Red Faber, Burleigh Grimes, Miller Huggins, Tim Keefe, Heinie Manush and John Ward. The one thing he never got to do in his long career was play in a postseason game.

It doesn’t look right, but here it is anyway: Luke Appling in an Atlanta Braves uniform. Source: Tulare Advance Register, March 17, 1982.

Appling stayed in baseball for pretty much the rest of his life. He managed off and on in the minor leagues throughout the 1950s and served as a coach for the Tigers, Indians, Orioles, Athletcs and White Sox in the 1960s. He was working as a special scout for the Kansas City Athletics in 1967 when owner Charlie Finley fired manager Alvin Dark. Dark was tremendously popular among his players, and the firing was the result of tensions between Dark and Finley. Appling was named as Dark’s successor and took over a team full of resentful players. That could explain why the team managed a 10-30 record in the 40 games Appling was in charge. Finley packed up the club and moved to Oakland in the offseason, giving Appling the distinction of being the last manager in Kansas City Athletics history.

Appling spent more than 15 years working as a coach for the Atlanta Braves – an ideal team for the Cumming, Ga., resident. Someone who broke into the major leagues at the time of Ruth and Gehrig ended up giving pointers to the Braves rookies like David Justice and Ron Gant – multiple generations of ballplayers linked by one man. One man, who never wanted to retire.

“Henry [Aaron, a Braves executive] sends me a contract before the end of each year and I just keep coming,” Appling said in 1989. “I could be fishing, but I enjoy this. It’s a lot of fun.”

Luke Appling died on January 3, 1991, in Cumming. He was admitted to Lakeside Community Hospital the day before with an aneurysm of the aorta, and he died during surgery. He was 83 years old. He is interred at Sawnee View Memorial Gardens in Cumming, Ga.

Of course, no story about Luke Appling is complete without mentioning his Old-Timer’s Game heroics in 1982. Appling, a spry 75 years old at the time, took Warren Spahn deep at Washington’s RFK Stadium. It’s an odd way to be remembered – a singles hitter belting a home run more than 30 years after he retired. But Appling took it in good humor, joking that it got more attention than any hit he had in his playing days. Here’s the video.

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Leave a donation on Ko-fi: ko-fi.com/ripbaseball

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Grave Story: Luke Appling (1907-1991)

  1. WHEN YOU VISITED THIS CEMETERY DID YOU BRING ALONG THE TWO MARVELOUS BUNCHES OF COLORFUL FLOWERS OR WAS THAT JUST A HAPPY COINCIDENCE OF THE DAY ??? … KNEW LUKE WELL FROM ATLANTA SPRING TRAINING IN WPB FOR ALL THOSE YEARS … A REALLY FUN FELLOW AND FINE GENTLEMAN. – REMEMBRANCE -.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s