Obituary: Gale Wade (1929-2022)

RIP to Gale Wade, an outfielder with the Chicago Cubs for parts of 1955 and 1956. He died on January 16 at his home in Dysartsville, N.C., four days before his 93rd birthday. He had lived in the North Carolina mountains for more than 70 years, ever since his minor-league days with the Asheville Tourists. He frequently said that after he finished his season with the Tourists, he had no money to travel home, so he just… stayed.

Gale Lee Wade was born in Hollister, Mo., on January 20, 1929. The family moved to Bremerton, Wash., in 1942, and he went to Bremerton High School. Wade played on the football team as a fullback and, in one game in 1946, ran for 143 yards and three touchdowns against Lincoln of Tacoma. He was offered football scholarships by several colleges, except for the one that he really wanted to attend — Notre Dame. “If Notre Dame had just written me a letter, offering me half of the inducements schools like Northwestern, Purdue or all the West Coast schools did, why I’d have run to South Bend,” Wade later said.

When the Fighting Irish didn’t call, Wade signed a professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Wade was both a tough hitter and pitcher in high school, and the Dodgers attempted to keep him as a two-way player when he started with the Ponca City Dodgers of the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League. He pitched some brilliant games and ended with a 10-9 record, but he also had a 5.32 ERA, gave up 194 hits in 181 innings and walked 118 batters. He also batted .318 in 59 games, splitting time in the outfield and pitcher. Wade injured his arm during the season, and the decision was made to make him a full-time outfielder.

Source: The Charlotte Observer, March 27, 1957.

Wade was 18 years old when he joined the Dodgers, so he was kept in the low minor leagues for several years, moving between Class-D and Class-B teams. “I was a terrible hitter, my arm was still bad, and all I had was speed,” he said in a 1956 interview. Wade hit his first 4 professional home runs with the Cambridge Dodgers of the Eastern Shore League in 1948. He hit .300 for the first time in 1949 when he spent part of the season with the Asheville Tourists. In 75 games, he slashed .301/.397/.379, with 36 stolen bases. He apparently scared some Dodgers execs with his tendency to slide head-first on his steal attempts, but Fort Worth Cats manager Bobby Bragan liked the kid and his speed enough to want to promote him all the way to the Double-A Texas League. The Dodgers brass felt it was too big a jump. “But I’ll tell you why I can’t give up on the fellow,” said Bragan. “When Wade gets on first base (or third, for that matter) he gives the coach that ‘expectant look.'” Wade spent the spring of 1949 with the Cats, and while he didn’t reach Double-A until 1952, he played some exhibition games with the team and stole home in one contest.

As noted, Wade stayed in the low minors for several more seasons. He hit well when he was able to stay in one place for longer than a couple of weeks, but his minor-league record has multiple short stays with teams where he hit at or below .200. It seems like he would get off to a slow start, and teams would panic and demote him instead of letting him find his rhythm. Stolen base totals for the minor leagues of the 1940s and ’50s are spotty at best, but it’s clear that he had some good speed. He was a little larger than most speedsters — 6-foot-1, 185 pounds — but he stole home with some regularity. His head-first slides were crowd-pleasers too, rare as it was in baseball at the time. He’d concussed himself once by 1950 when he banged his head off a defender’s knee, but it didn’t convert him into doing the traditional feet-first slide.

Wade had some brief but unsuccessful stops in the higher minors in 1952 and spent all of 1953 with the Fort Worth Cats. He hit .314 with 6 home runs, 69 runs scored and 31 steals in 34 attempts — an amazing 91% success rate. He also was fined and suspended twice for bumping umpires during two separate arguments. He had been frustrated by his slow ascent in the Dodgers system, and it’s possible that the frustrations were boiling over. He finally reached Triple-A in 1954, but it was as a member of the Cleveland Indians organization. They purchased his contract after the 1954 season and sent him to Indianapolis of the American Association, where he hit .273 with 24 steals. In December, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs to complete an earlier deal that sent Ralph Kiner to Cleveland for Sam Jones.

The Cubs had planned on opening 1956 with Solly Drake as their center fielder, but he broke his leg in spring training. There was immediate competition for the job. Wade was given the spot on Opening Day, but Jim Bolger was already promised the next chance by manager Stan Hack if Wade didn’t contribute immediately. Wade led off the Opening Day game with a walk against Cincinnati starter Art Fowler and was immediately thrown out at second. He wasn’t charged with a caught stealing, so it may have been that he tried to run to second after the walk. In the third inning of his next game on April 12, he grounded to Cardinals first baseman Stan Musial, who flipped the ball to pitcher Tony Jacobs. Jacobs dropped the ball, and Wade was safe with what would have been his first major-league hit — except he never touched first base and started walking back to the dugout, not knowing Jacobs had dropped the ball. The pitcher flipped the ball to Musial, who tagged Wade for a 3-1-3 putout. Wade got his real first hit against Cardinals pitcher Herb Moford later in the game.

Gale Wade of the Miami Sun Sox does his trademark headfirst slide into third base, Source: Tampa Bay Times, May 24, 1949.

Wade had just the one hit in his first three starts, and he dropped a fly ball in his third game that led to two unearned runs. He was benched and soon sent back to the minor leagues, spending most of the season with the Los Angeles Angels. He set a career high with 20 home runs with the Angels and moonlighted for a week as a columnist for the Mirror-News, covering his own team’s games for the sports section. He came back to the Cubs in September and hit his only major-league home run on September 21, 1955, against St. Louis’ Willard Schmidt. He hit well enough over the last few games of the season to raise his batting average to .182. He went to Venezuela to play winter ball and was involved in an intense altercation. In one game, he slid into opposing shortstop Chico Carrasquel at second base and knocked him out. The shortstop was taken out of the game, but he and a companion went into Wade’s dugout in the middle of the game and started a fight. Carrasquel was fined for his actions, and Wade suffered a cut over his eye.

Wade once again was a part of the Cubs Opening Day starting lineup in 1956. Once again, manager Hack yanked him out of the role just as quickly. He was 0-for-4 in each of his first two games, and he committed a three-base error on April 19 when he slammed into outfielder Walt Moryn just as the right fielder was about to retire the Braves’ Bill Bruton on a fly ball. Bruton eventually scored the go-ahead run in a 3-1 Cubs loss. Drake, fully recovered from his broken leg, was made the starting center fielder. Wade was used as a pinch hitter and was 0-for-12 with a walk in 10 games before being returned to the minors, for good.

Wade works at his second job as a columnist for the Mirror-News. Source: Mirror-News, August 22, 1955.

Wade spent the rest of 1956 and all of 1957 with the Angels back in the PCL. He played for a couple of other PCL teams in 1958 and 1959 and closed out his career in Dallas-Fort Worth in 1960 and ’61. He never stopped playing recklessly and once crashed through a wooden fence in San Diego trying to make a catch — he came out of the wreckage better than Bump Bailey in The Natural. It took its toll. Wade had several old shoulder injuries that tended to flare up in the spring, leaving him with bad numbers in spring training. Those injuries help account for his slow starts and frequent demotions. For whatever reason, Wade’s teams never really looked at his track record to see that if you gave him time to heat up, he would score plenty of runs, steal plenty of bases and hit pretty well.

While with Dallas in the early 1960s, Wade once again got a job as a baseball correspondent for a Dallas newspaper. As he did in California, he used his columns to occasionally roast umpires and opponents while cheering his teammates on. Even if he was occasionally critical of his team, it didn’t seem to dim his popularity. The writing career came to an end when he complained that some official scorers didn’t know “a base hit from the northeast corner of a barnyard.” Official scorers were usually sports columnists themselves, and they wouldn’t stand for the criticism.

Wade was starting to show signs of slowing down in August of 1961 — he’d stolen 4 bases and was hitting in the .220s — when he was struck in the face by a pitch from Louisville Colonels pitcher Moe Drabowsky. He was hospitalized, and the blow caused lasting damage to his eyesight. He retired and moved back to North Carolina, where he had a burgeoning cattle farm.

Wade played a total of 19 games for the Cubs over two seasons. He had a slash line of .133/.220/.222, with 6 hits that included a double and a homer. He scored 5 runs and drew 5 walks. In 15 seasons in the minor leagues, Wade batted .280 with 1,442 hits. He’s credited with 188 stolen bases, but given the number of years where his steals aren’t counted, it’s likely that his true stolen base total is double that number. (Edit: A visitor to the website provided the stolen base numbers that Baseball Reference has not added as of this writing. Wade stole a total of 344 bases, with a high of 59 in 1952 for Elmira, Fort Worth and St. Paul.)

Wade worked for Rutherford Electric Co-Op for more than 25 years before retiring as district manager in 1989, according to his family-placed obituary. He also was active member of the McDowell County School Board for years. He and his wife of 59 years, Barbara, lived between their homes in Dysartsville and Sebring, Fla., and traveled extensively. Wade golfed until he was 90 years old. He is survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter.

For more information: Beam Funeral Service

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