Grave Story: Jerry McQuaig (1912-2001)

Georgia native Jerry McQuaig rose to prominence as a star football player for Mercer University. The sport where he made his professional debut was baseball, however. McQuaig debuted with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1934 before a brief career in the minor leagues and a much longer career in the world of amateur Georgia ball.

Gerald Joseph McQuaig was born in Douglas, Ga., on January 31, 1912. He played semipro ball during his summers as a teenager and was one of the heaviest hitters for the Fitzgerald (Ga.) All-Stars in the early 1930s. Starting in 1931 he went to Mercer University in Macon. He was a “triple threat” back even in his first year, with an ability to catch, run and throw the football with great success. Mercer’s opponents couldn’t stop him, but an appendectomy managed to knock him out for the 1932 season. He at least recovered enough to play for the school’s basketball team that winter. Mercer did not have a baseball team, so McQuaig saved his ballplaying for summer amateur leagues.

McQuaig was back to full health in 1933 and led Mercer to a 6-6 tie against Furman on October 20, throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to halfback Harry Allen. On November 11, he accounted for the only score of a 7-0 win over Chattanooga with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Mercer actually had a better season in 1932 without McQuaig than it did with him in 1933, as the school won the Dixie Championship in ’33. Still, head coach Lake Russell had big plans for his talented back going into 1934. Then in August of that year, it was reported that McQuaig was traveling to Philadelphia to meet with Athletics boss Connie Mack. Mack, of course, denied reports completely.

“I’ve never heard from the young man, never have seen him, haven’t any idea of his accomplishments or his ambitions,” Mack said, adding, “However, if he is on his way to see me, I most certainly will talk with him and find out what he wants.”

Mack must have really liked this complete stranger who came to meet him out of the blue, because it was announced that McQuaig had signed with Philadelphia about four days later. Not only that, but McQuaig, who would be used as a catcher and outfielder, would spend the rest of the season with the Athletics, sitting on the bench.

Source: Ancestry

Back at Mercer University, Coach Russell was upset enough about losing his star player that he contacted Commissioner Kenesaw Landis to have the contract voided. Landis refused, because honestly, there was nothing illegal about the deal. As much as Russell tried to claim it was a matter of ensuring the boy’s college education, he just really, really wanted McQuaig on his football team. “I talked with Mack, hoping that it was not yet too late to save McQuaig for our football team this fall,” the coach said. “But Mr. Mack informed me that McQuaig was already under contract.

“He justified his signing McQuaig by the statements (1) that McQuaig did not want to play any more football. (2) that ‘the streets are full of college graduates looking for jobs,’ and (3) that he, Mr. Mack, was disappointed by his own son, who had quit school right in the middle of his college career,” Russell added, quoting his talk with the A’s boss. Mack, for his part, criticized college football coaches who don’t think “of the boy losing an education, but what it means to them personally.”

The Philadelphia Athletics team that McQuaig joined was a pretty mediocre ballclub, with Jimmie Foxx and Bob Johnson as the main offensive threats and a really poor pitching staff that contributed to a 68-82-3 record. Mack, true to his word, kept McQuaig on the bench for the rest of the season, giving a few chances to pinch-hit and play the corner outfield positions occasionally.

For all his athletic abilities, the 22-year-old college boy appeared pretty outclassed and realistically had no business in the majors with so little experience. He made his major-league debut playing left field in both ends of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on August 25, which was the day the battle between Mercer University and Major League Baseball became public knowledge. McQuaig was a combined 0-for-7 at the plate, with 2 runs scored and an RBI. He grounded out in all of his at-bats in the first game, driving in a run in the ninth inning on a fielder’s choice and scoring on a Foxx triple. In the second game, he struck out twice but walked against Browns starter Bobo Newsom and scored on another Foxx triple.

After that debut, McQuaig mostly sat around and watch the A’s stumble to the end of the season. He entered the final day of the season hitless in 9 at-bats across 5 games. McQuaig was the starting left fielder in the season-ending doubleheader against the Red Sox on September 30. He was held hitless in the first game but walked and singled in his first two at-bats of the second game against Boston starter Spike Merena. That base hit left him with a .063/.167/.063 slash line in 7 games, with 2 runs scored, 1 RBI and 2 walks. He also made 1 error in his only chance in right field but caught all 8 balls hit to him in left field.

Jerry McQuaig (18) races to first base in an exhibition game between his Atlanta Crackers and his former team, the Philadelphia Athletics. McQuaig beat out a grounder to third baseman Pinky Higgins and raced to third base when the ball got away from first baseman Jimmie Foxx (3).

McQuaig is one of the group of ballplayers who went straight to the major leagues before he ever saw the minors. What the point of it was, nearly 90 years later, is difficult to say. Since Mercer had no baseball team, all McQuaig’s baseball experience came in Georgia amateur ball. While there were undoubtedly some good pitchers there, McQuaig had never seen a talent level anywhere close to the majors. He would have been much better served playing even in the lowest levels of the minors rather than spending a couple of months wasting away on a major-league bench. There’s no telling if the decision to go straight to the A’s was Mack’s idea or a stipulation from McQuaig, but it did the player no favors.

McQuaig spent 1935 on four different minor-league teams, from Galveston, Texas, to Americus, Ga. Judging on the stats that are available, he struggled offensively and defensively. Part of his struggles – he seemed particularly bad at judging fly balls – could have been related to his vision. When the A’s realized he had poor eyesight, they released him. The minor-league Atlanta Crackers signed him, sent him to an eye doctor and assigned him to the Americus Cardinals of the Class-D Georgia-Florida League. He batted .286 there with a couple of home runs, ending his season on an encouraging note at least.

Source: Atlanta Constitution-Journal, May 8, 1988.

Now sporting glasses, McQuaig played for a couple of minor-league teams affiliated with the Crackers in 1936: the Columbia Senators of the Sally League and the Moultrie Packers of the Georgia-Florida League. He was able to see the ball much better and hit .269 with 6 homers for the two teams. His defense improved so much  that he was moved to center field, to take better advantage of his great speed. While with Moultrie, he racked up 4 singles, 3 stolen bases, an RBI and four putouts in center field for a 7-2 win over Thomasville on July 14. On another occasion, he used his great speed to score from first base on an infield out. McQuaig played in Puerto Rico in the offseason, with a good chance of getting an outfield role with the Crackers in 1937. However, he didn’t make the team and chose to leave professional ball entirely rather then spend another season in the low minors.

McQuaig went back home to Buford, Ga., where he became a semipro ballplayer of great renown. He played for the Buford Shoemakers, a local team sponsored by Bona Allen Inc. The leather company provided raw materials to Spalding Co. for baseballs and gloves, and the company decided to launch a baseball team to promote its wares. John Quincey Allen, the company’s owner, took baseball seriously enough that he built a ballfield that was better maintained than Ponce de Leon Field, the home of the Crackers. He paid his players well, and in some cases players could get a better paycheck with Bona Allen than they could in organized baseball. They were also offered a job in the company’s factory, which was another enticement during the Depression. McQuaig, for example, cut patterns for Bona Allen shoes when he wasn’t playing ball. If a ballplayer hit a home run, he got a free pair of shoes. McQuaig reportedly had a closet full of 28 pairs of boots and shoes one season and later joked that he kept his entire family stocked with footwear.

In a 1988 article in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, McQuaig recalled that the team stayed in first-class hotels when they were on the road. “Mr. John, he wanted his players to go first class, and we did,” he said.

The team was good enough to play national competitions, including the Denver Post invitational tournament. The Shoemakers reached the championship game in 1937 but lost to the Eason Oilers from Enid, Okla. The 1938 team featured McQuaig as its best hitter and another MLB veteran, Cy Moore, as its best pitcher. After routing local competition, the Shoemakers went to Wichita to play in the National Baseball Congress World Series, for semipro teams. They won the series, beating the Oilers 5-4 in a rematch, and won the $5,000 prize. The National Baseball Congress inducted McQuaig into its Hall of Fame in 1944.

McQuaig, who by then had married Sara Pirkle, the daughter of Buford’s mayor, continued to play amateur ball around Georgia into the 1940s. He served in the Army during World War II, playing his last ballgames in the Philippines with teammates like Early Wynn and Joe Garagiola. When he came home, he got a bachelor’s degree in Business from Georgia State University in 1952. He then coached baseball at Buford City High School before a long tenure as a principal at Buford High and later Sugar Hill Elementary School.

The McQuaig family plot in Hillcrest Cemetery in Buford, Ga.

“If it wasn’t for his athletic ability he never would have gone to college, so he always expressed the importance of getting an education,” said his son, Donnie.

The Buford Baseball Park was renamed Gerald J. McQuaig Field in 1995. By then, McQuaig noted that his eyesight was failing, but his memory was still sharp. He played alongside some of the game’s legendary players, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and then Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige when he was in Puerto Rico. “I got some hits off [Paige], but never a home run,” he said. He also recalled a game when Connie Mack ordered his pitcher to walk Ruth intentionally, and Ruth glared at Mack as he trotted to first base and said, “You gray-haired [expletive]!”

Gerald McQuaig died of heart failure on February 5, 2001, in Buford. He had celebrated his 89th birthday just five days prior. He is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery in Buford.

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