Grave Story: Jim Kirby (1923-2009)

Here lies Jim Kirby, who appeared in 3 games for the 1949 Chicago Cubs. A long-time outfielder and occasional infielder in the minor leagues, Kirby had two games as a pinch hitter and one as a pinch runner. He never appeared on defense in his short MLB career.

Kirby, a South Nashville native, was born on May 5, 1923. His older brother Howard was a one-time ace in Nashville’s amateur baseball circuit. Kirby was originally signed by the Cincinnati Reds after a scout saw him shagging fly balls at a local ballfield. Kirby played for three teams in the minors in 1942. From the stats that are available, he didn’t hit particularly well, but his development was interrupted by World War II. He was drafted and spent the next three years in the Army. When he was able to return to baseball, he tore up the East Texas League, batting .323 for the Tyler Trojans and being named an All-Star. After two more strong seasons in Shreveport, Kirby became a Rule V draft pick for the Cubs in winter of 1948.

Kirby’s short Cubs career started on May 1, 1949, with an 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter against the Cardinals. He was sent in as a pinch runner for Smoky Burgess in the 8th inning on May 5 against the Braves. He advanced to third on a single by Harry Walker and scored on a Peanuts Lowrey sacrifice fly. His last at-bat came as a pinch hitter against the Reds in Crosley Field on May 13. He lined a single off Buddy Lively for his one and only major-league base hit. He was sent back to the minors about a week later.

(In an interview given in 2001, Kirby, then 78, recalled his brief time in the big leagues. While he remembered the details well, he got the order of his appearances wrong. His version was that he started his career with a hit against Lively and then, days later, hit a grounder up the middle against the Cardinals, but shortstop Marty Marion made a fine play and threw him out by a step. The pinch-running appearance came last. He can be given some slack, as those games took place 50 years prior.)

Source: The Post-Standard, January 13, 1957.

Kirby went to the Nashville Volunteers of the Southern Association, and in June of 1949 he was acquired by the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League. That transaction inadvertently ended of one of baseball’s unique careers. Pete Gray was a one-armed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns in 1945. He had hit just .214 for the Eagles in ’49 when he was released in order to make room for Kirby. He refused an assignment to tiny Gladewater of the East Texas League, and club owner R.W. Burnett had him arrested “if he had been drinking.” Gray was freed by police after he was found to be pissed off rather than intoxicated. He said he was going back home to Nanticoke, Pa., where he owned a business operated by his brother. Gray never played professional ball again.

Kirby spent most the rest of his career in Texas. He hit 12 home runs while splitting time between Tulsa and Paris, Texas in 1952. He hit a scorching .373 for the Port Arthur Sea Hawks in 1955 with a career-high 17 home runs and followed that up by winning the Big State League batting title with a .358 average in 1956. That offseason, he signed with the Syracuse Chiefs of the Eastern League after being declared a free agent because of a contract snafu. The Chiefs, who won in a bidding war against a couple other minor-league teams, were excited by the deal. He manager, Frank Calo, was a former teammate and roommate. “Kirby’s 27 but he had the speed and vitality of a fellow several years younger. He is just reaching his baseball maturity now, just developing into a sound hitter,” Calo said.

The only problem? Kirby was actually 33 and was close to winding down his career. He batted just .248 for the Chiefs in 1957 and retired professionally the following season after playing in 17 games for the Allentown Red Sox. For his minor-league career, he had 1,812 hits with 81 home runs and a .295 batting average (some statistics are unavailable).

Jim Kirby, right, participates in an Old-Timer’s Day with the Nashville Sounds in 1981. Also pictured are Jim Turner, Clydell Castleman, George Archer and Stan Palys. Source: The Tennessean, August 14, 1981.

In his interview, Kirby stated that he injured his foot in Syracuse and decided to retire. He moved his family back to Nashville, where he continued to play ball locally. Kirby played for a semipro team in Gallatin in 1958 but was suspended for a year in July for attacking umpire Paul Bush. He was reinstated for the 1959 season after Bush asked the league board to lift the suspension. He later managed the Gallatin Blues in the city baseball league.

One of the benefits of his brief moment in the majors was that Wheaties, still thinking he was a prospect, continued to send him boxes of cereal throughout the ‘50s. Fortunately his kids liked Wheaties. Jim Kirby died on July 17, 2009 at the age of 86. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville.

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