Grave Story: Witt “Lefty” Guise (1908-1968)

Lefty Guise should never have reached the major leagues. He suffered what was thought to be a career-ending arm injury when he was 22 years old, but he came back to reach the majors as a 31-year-old rookie. Though his career in the majors lasted just 2 games, he still won a World Series ring. Guise pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 1940 in what ended up being the second of three distinct career arcs in pro baseball.

Witt Orison Guise was born in Driggs, Ark., on September 18, 1908. He was one of seven children born to Joseph, a physician, and Lydia Guise. One, a younger sister named Flora, died when she was 2 years old, but the rest survived to adulthood. Witt grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Revilee Township and worked as a laborer on the land as soon as he was old enough to do so, along with his brothers and sisters.

Witt Guise’s grave marker in Little Rock National Cemetery.

Guise moved to Pahokee, Fla., where some of his family lived, when he was a teenager. He was a top pitcher at Canal Point High School and also played baseball for an amateur East Beach club, made up of players from Pahokee and Canal Point. Though just a high school student, he held his own against all competition. Upon graduation in 1929, Guise attended the University of Florida. There, “Lefty” Guise stood out as the class of the freshman pitchers. A year later, when professional ballclubs signed a number of players from Southern colleges, Guise joined the New York Yankees. New York also snagged shortstop Billy Werber from Duke University. The class of the signings, though, ended up being Luke Appling, who left Oglethorpe University and began his professional career with the Atlanta Crackers.

Witt Guise as a college pitcher at the University of Florida. Source: The Daily Advertiser (Lafayette, La.), June 6, 1930.

Guise reported to the Hazleton Mountaineers of the New York-Pennsylvania League. Baseball Reference does not have the statistics from that league, but he seemed to have a pretty uneven time of it as a new pro player. Sometimes he pitched well, like the 8-6 complete game win he had over Scranton on May 25, in which he struck out 6 and singled twice. Other times, he was knocked out of the game early. By August, he was sent to Jersey City of the Double-A International League, where he was 0-1 in 11 games with a 4.66 ERA. Again, statistics are incomplete, but it seems as if he was used out of the pen primarily.

Guise spent all of 1931 with the Albany Senators of the Eastern League and turned in a 6-12 record and 4.05 ERA in 29 games with the Senators. He evidently impressed enough people that he reportedly tried out with the Yankees during the season. Nothing came of it, but the 22-year-old Guise appeared to be marked for a trip to the majors soon. Looking at game recaps, he didn’t seem like a dominating pitcher, but he was the crafty lefty who could get his way out of jams when his control got a little too wild.

Over that offseason, Guise was fishing in a rowboat, and something went wrong. One version is that he had to jerk the oars back quickly, and Guise’s explanation was that he was casting. Either way, something snapped in his arm. Baseball Reference indicates that Guise’s career came to a halt almost on the spot, but some box scores and news articles from April and May of 1932 indicate that Guise rejoined Albany and appeared in at least a few games. However, he was no longer effective, and by the summer, Guise was out of professional baseball and pitching for DeLand of the amateur All-Central Florida League.

Guise made the rounds throughout the South, pitching for several teams in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina over the next few years. He still had some ability. On June 15, 1933, he threw a 17-0 no-hitter against Ocala while pitching for DeLand. He struck out 15 in the contest and allowed just 4 balls into the outfield. However, against tougher competition, he struggled. When DeLand played an exhibition game against the professional Montreal Royals, he allowed 6 runs in a 7-3 loss. Guise pitched for the Winnsboro Royals/Royal Cords (managed briefly by Shoeless Joe Jackson) and Gainesville Hawks before he found a home with the Concord Weavers. He ended up spending most of the 1930s with them. A glance through available game recaps indicates Guise won more than he lost, pitched well more often than not and maintained his ability to get out of jams when needed. The Weavers made it to the championship of the Carolina League in 1936, and Guise was one of the team’s leading starters. The confusing thing is why Guise was doing all this pitching in small-time Southern Leagues. Even if the Yankees had given up on him, one would think that there was some club in the second division of the American or National League that would take a chance on him. Evidently, he was paid well enough to remain in the indie baseball ranks rather than sign with a pro team.

Source: The State (Columbia, S.C.), February 26, 1941.

Part of Guise’s success stemmed from his unconventional pitching mechanics. Thanks to his injured shoulder, he had to reinvent himself as a side-armed knuckleball pitcher – and a left-handed one at that. “You don’t often see lefthanders with knucklers,” Guise later said, “and I decided if righthanders could do it, I could.” His pitches baffled plenty of batters in the amateur ranks.

Guise decided to return to pro ball in 1939, when he was 30 years old. He joined the Lenoir Indians of the Tar Heel League and was one of only two players on the team who would reach the major leagues – Marv Felderman being the other. Guise went 15-7 with a 2.82 ERA in his return to pro ball. As the oldest player on the roster, he was chosen as the team’s manager after Clarence Roper was relieved of his duties. Under Guise’s leadership, Lenoir jumped from fifth place in late June to second place by the first of August. He even tossed a 5-inning no-hitter against Newton-Conover in a game that was shortened by rain.

Lenoir was part of the Cincinnati Reds farm system. It’s unlikely that the team was looking for a southpaw knuckleballer on the wrong side of 30, but Guise reported to the Reds training camp to train with several of his Lenoir teammates. The Reds assigned him to Columbia of the South Atlantic League, and he dominated. Eventually. Columbia kept Guise off the active roster for a few weeks to get the other, younger, pitchers settled, and then he was used in relief for a month. But when they gave him a chance to start, he put up long strings of shutout innings. He had a 13-6 record and a miniscule (and league-leading) 2.06 ERA. In a stretch from June 3 to July 7, Guise allowed 1 earned run over 53 innings and had a 29-inning scoreless streak. He threw two 1-hitters in that time and also picked up the win in the Sally League All-Star game, throwing 4 scoreless innings against Savannah. The Associated Press ran a brief profile on Guise and ended it with these lines: “Guise realizes his age is against him, but he wants mightily to pitch big league baseball. He feels he has seven or eight years of good pitching left.”

The Reds summoned Guise to the majors on August 26. At the time of his recall, Cincinnati was comfortably in first place and would finish with 100 wins, 12 games ahead of Brooklyn. The team also had the best pitching staff in the National League, which didn’t exactly create a wealth of pitching opportunities for a rookie southpaw pitcher who was about two weeks away from his 32nd birthday. Guise himself recalled later, “I complained to Manager [Bill] McKechnie about not pitching enough, and he pulled the roster on me. He asked me to take a pencil and scratch off the guy I could replace. Cincinnati had a great pitching staff that year and they didn’t have much room for a guy like me. So, I had to pass.”

A Cincinnati Reds trainer pretends to treat Guise’s bald head with witch hazel during training camp. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 27, 1941.

Nevertheless, Guise made a couple of appearances. The first came on September 3 against the St. Louis Cardinals. Johnny Hutchins gave up 2 runs to the Cardinals early on and was removed after 2 innings. Guise came into the game in the third inning and fanned Enos Slaughter, the first batter he faced. Then Johnny Mize grounded to short, giving Guise his first two major-league outs against future Hall of Famers. He made it through 4-1/3 innings, scattering 6 hits and 2 walks. He allowed a run in the top of the seventh inning after loading the bases and walking Ernie Koy to force in a run. McKechnie replaced him with Joe Beggs, who got out of the inning with a double play. The Reds rallied for a run in the next inning, earning the 4-3 win.

Guise’s second appearance game exactly 10 days later, on September 13 against New York. This time, Johnny Vander Meer was pulled in the third after walking in a run, and Guise escaped further damage when Frank Demaree lined into a double play. Guise threw 3 more innings, allowing just an unearned run. After he walked Mel Ott to load the bases, Guise departed as Beggs once more squashed the rally and picked up the win.

A 1941 article got some of the game details wrong, but Guise said that his performance against the Giants came not only with the bases loaded but with a 3-0 count already on Demaree. “If I’d had enough money I’d have walked right into the clubhouse, put on my clothes, gone to the station and bought a ticket to Magazine (Arkansas, where he lived). But I didn’t have the money, so I had to go in there and face the slaughter.”

Guise worked a total of 7-2/3 innings over the two games, allowing 1 earned run on 8 hits. He walked 5 and hit a batter, and he had the 1 strikeout. He ended the season with a 1.17 ERA in the majors and a 1.696 WHIP. He was also 1-for-3 at the plate, with a single off the Giants’ Carl Hubbell.

Cincinnati kept Guise on the roster for the World Series, but he didn’t make an appearance as the Reds defeated Detroit in seven games. The lefty never seemed to be bitter over his lack of use. “I got half a Series cut [worth about $2,900] and lived first class for part of a year when I never dreamed of being back in the big leagues,” he said.

Paul Derringer told reporters during the Reds’ training camp in 1941, “That Witt Guise is a card. You should talk to him. He comes from Magazine, Ark., and he said that after the World Series he stopped outside of town on his way home and took off his shoes because he didn’t want the folks to think he’d gone high hat.”

Guise for his part, was happy to provide comic relief in the clubhouse. “Every time I get a hit off a left-handed pitcher, I send a dollar to some charitable institution. I sent $2 to an orphanage at Magazine, Ark., last season when I got a single off Hubbell.” Hank Gowdy, who acted as Guise’s straight man, asked the pitcher how much money he’d donated over the years. “Either three or four dollars during the last 12 years,” Guise said with a straight face.

Source: The Birmingham News, May 9, 1942.

Guise stayed in the Reds organization for 1941, working as a swingman for the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. He turned in a 5-5 record and 3.17 ERA in 10 starts and 21 relief appearances. After that season, Guise’s career ended for a second time. It wasn’t due to injury; it was due to World War II. He was reclassified from 1-H to 1-A, making him available for military service. He was inducted into the Army and stationed at Ft. Robinson in Arkansas. He pitched for a Reception Center Team in 1942 and stayed in the service until 1945. He celebrated his upcoming discharge by throwing a no-hitter against Ft. Benning while pitching for Camp Chaffee in September of 1945.

By the time he was out of the military, the 1946 season was starting up, and Guise was 37 years old. He was given his unconditional release by Birmingham in May. Rather than retire, he joined the Vicksburg Billies of the Southeastern League and turned in five very good seasons. In his first year back from the Army, he won 14 games against 8 defeats and had an ERA of 2.66. Guise appeared in 26 games for the ’46 Billies and completed 19 starts, throwing 179 innings. He struck out 142 batters and walked 56. Guise won 15 games in 1947 and 1948, and he reached career highs in 1947 with 21 complete games and 166 strikeouts. He pitched right past his 40th birthday without slowing down. He was the oldest player on the team – and two years older than manager Buddy Blair. The Billies pulled out of the Southeastern League after the 1950 season, and the League itself folded soon after.

Guise found one last job as player/manager of the Douglas Trojans of the Georgia State League in 1951, and he ended his career with a flourish. He had a 14-6 record and 2.16 ERA, and he missed out on a perfect game in September against Jesup after giving up a sixth-inning single. Douglas finished the season with a 62-68 record, and Guise did not return to baseball. Though he pitched for more than 20 years, Guise had just 11 seasons in the minor leagues and is credited with a 117-92 record (though his statistics are incomplete).

While he was in the service in 1943, Guise, then 34, married Mayrine Hopkins, 31. They remained together for the rest of his life and had no children. They moved back to Arkansas after his playing days were over, and he worked as a mechanic for the Arkansas Military Department in North Little Rock. Though he kept no ties to baseball in his retirement, he was remembered in Cincinnati as a part of the 1940 World Series champs. He returned to Cincinnati to take part in reunions from time to time.

Witt Guise died on August 13, 1968, at Missouri Pacific Hospital in Little Rock, from colon cancer. He was 59 years old. Guise is buried in Little Rock National Cemetery.

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