Obituary: Val Heim (1920-2019)

RIP to Val Heim, who played 13 games for the 1942 White Sox. He was also, up to the time of his passing, the oldest living baseball player. He died on November 21 at the Brodstone Memorial Hospital in Superior, Neb. He was 99 years old.

Heim inherited the mantle of oldest living ballplayer with the death of Tom Jordan earlier this year. The title now passes on to Eddie Robinson, who was born on December 15, 1920. There are now six living ballplayers who made their debut prior to World War II, and 10 who played in baseball’s segregated era. (Thanks to Twitter follower Nick Carlson for pointing out those facts).

Val Heim was born in Plymouth, Wis., on November 4, 1920. His family moved around in his childhood, as his father, Ray, was a railroad worker. He grew up in several cities in Michigan and attended Iron River High School in the state. According to his obituary, Heim and an American Legion teammate were allowed to travel to Chicago to visit Wrigley Field when he was 15 years old. “In one day, we toured the city, watched players warm up on the field and ate hot dogs until the end of the game, and made an 800 mile round trip by ourselves and were home in bed that night,” he recalled.

Heim was a pretty good high school basketball player, and he was a starting forward on the team that won the district championship in 1938. He likely would have gone to work on the railroad as well, but first he went to a baseball camp in Jackson, Miss. The 19-year-old signed with the White Sox after a good performance there, and Heim started his pro baseball career in 1940.

He was assigned to the Jonesboro White Sox of the Northeast Arkansas League. Despite being a good bit younger than most of his teammates, he hit .260 with 27 doubles, 7 triples and 7 home runs in 120 games. He was the only regular player on the team to go on and reach the major leagues. (Manager Johnny Mostil had one at-bat and singled, making him the only other MLBer on the team.) He was among the league leaders in doubles and triples.

Heim split 1941 with Jonesboro and the Waterloo Hawks of the Class-B Three-I League, batting over .320 in both places. He didn’t show much power, but he mashed extra base hits on a regular basis. He kept up the offense in 1942, batting .271 with 24 doubles. His teammate on the Hawks that season? Tom Jordan, who was 22 and a couple seasons away from his own debut. How many teams can lay claim to having two different oldest living baseball players on their roster?

The 1942 Chicago White Sox were a 66-82 team and finished in sixth place in the AL. They brought up a trio of rookies from the Hawks when the Three-I season ended: Heim, outfielder Bill Mueller and pitcher Len Perme. Heim made his debut as the starting left fielder on August 31 against the Philadelphia Athletics. He went 1-for-4 in game 2 of a doubleheader; his first major-league hit was a single off of Lum Harris.

The American League was drained of talent due to the need for soldiers in World War II, and no American League team lost more players to the military than the White Sox. Manager Jimmy Dykes had to scramble to find outfielders with the loss of Taft Wright and Myril Hoag, so Heim and Mueller were given the chance to start regularly. Heim played in 13 games, with 12 starts – 9 in left field and 3 in center field. He had 9 hits in 45 at-bats for a .200 batting average. He hit 1 double and 1 triple and drove in 7 runs. White Sox exec Harry Grabiner had to petition Commissioner Landis to allow the two rookie outfielders to play in an exhibition game against the Cubs, because the Sox had exactly one other healthy outfielder in Wally Moses. By December, Heim and both of his fellow Waterloo rookies would be in the military as well.

Val Heim (right) was one of three rookies from Waterloo to make his MLB debut for the White Sox in 1942. Joining him were Len Perme (left) and Bill Mueller (center). Source: The Courier, September 20, 1942.

Heim joined the Navy Air Corps. He spent part of his service time in St. Louis, where he and Mueller played on the Navy baseball team. He was sent overseas to Saipan in 1944 and 1945, where he worked on building roads and airstrips for U.S. bombers bound for Japan.

Heim was discharged and re-entered the baseball world in 1946. The White Sox sent him to the minor leagues, and he ended up playing for three different teams in the organization. He hit well back at Waterloo, but he struggled in more advanced leagues. He was to have played for the Hollywood Stars in 1947, but an attack of rheumatic fever resulted in a long stay in a California hospital instead. He recovered enough to play with the West Palm Beach Indians in 1948 and hit nearly .300. That year, he married Elizabeth “Betty” Pfeifer, and the couple decided to return to her hometown of St. Louis, where he entered the construction business.

Unhappy in construction, Heim learned of a chance to play for a semipro team in Nebraska. He later said the team in Superior was so happy to have a former major leaguer that it found him a house and a job in the cattle industry. He played ball until 1953 and remained in Superior, raising cattle and working for Ideal Cement. He was inducted into the Nebraska Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.

Val Heim and his wife Betty, taken on a trip to Las Vegas around 2014. Sourch: The Sheboygan Press, April 6, 2014.

Heim was interviewed in The Sheboygan Press in 2014, as he had the distinction of being the only major-leaguer born in Sheboygan County. (Since then, he has been joined by former Rockie Ben Paulsen.) He recalled watching A’s manager Connie Mack get upset over Heim’s first hit, playing against the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and playing with Hall of Famers Ted Lyons and Luke Appling.

“[Appling] was a pretty good friend of mine,” he told the Press. “Most of them guys were quite a bit older than I was.”

Even into his 90s, the White Sox invited him to Spring Training or regular-season games, though he politely declined them. “When you’re 90 years old you don’t have the get-up-and-go or the desire to do those things like when you’re 80,” he cracked.

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One thought on “Obituary: Val Heim (1920-2019)

  1. Nicely reported. I looked up the oldest living ballplayers a month ago and did my own light research on Val Heim. It was amazing to me that a guy who played with Luke Appling was still alive. Tonight I Googled him again with the knowledge that at 99 years old, every day can be your last. Sad to see that he passed last week. What a life.

    Liked by 1 person

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