Grave Story: Charley “Greek” George (1912-1999)

Here lies Charley “Greek” George, a short-tempered, umpire-baiting catcher whose career ended with one punch. George played for the Cleveland Indians (1935-36), Brooklyn Dodgers (1938), Chicago Cubs (1941) and Philadelphia Athletics (1945).

Charles Peter George was born on Christmas Day, December 25, in 1912 in Waycross, Ga. His parents, Peter and Alice, were both born in Greece, though U.S. Census reports don’t make it clear exactly when they came or if they married in Greece or the U.S. Peter dropped his last name, “Handrinos,” when he came to America and used his middle name of “George” as his new surname.

The final resting place for Charley “Greek” George, his wife Helen and others in St. Patrick Cemetery #1 in New Orleans. The symbols on the grave markers are for the Woodmen of the World, an insurance company that has placed grave markers in cemeteries across the country.

Their son, the ballplayer, would be referred to in the newspapers as “Greek George” or “Charley George.” A 1932 profile in the Atlanta Constitution called him a great three-sport athlete (basketball, football and baseball) at Oglethorpe University and noted that he “has a build like a Greek god of mythology and is counted on to aid Oglethorpe in football next fall like he has in baseball this season (which is plenty).” George batted .510 in the Dixie League 1932 season. The sophomore had a few personality quirks as well. He dyed his hair bright red to stand out as one of the few red-headed Greeks in existence. He was a serious student but prone to recklessness. “He was lost to Oglethorpe for a spell this baseball season because he engaged in a friendly tussle with a pal in a hotel room after a game and wrenched a knee. That’s his idea of play,” wrote Jack Troy of the Constitution.

George had his heart set on a professional baseball career, and he signed with the Cleveland Indians in June 1932. He started his pro career with the Williamsport Grays of the New York-Pennsylvania League, and he hit .262 in 28 games. He then spent two seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. George’s coach at Oglethorpe, Frank Anderson, suggested to New Orleans manager Larry Gilbert that the 6-foot-tall, 200-pound George might make a good catcher. He took to the change so well that he stayed there for most of his career. George hit well in limited play with the Pels. In 1934, he batted .310 and hit 5 home runs. Still, there was some question of whether baseball would remain George’s sport. Many Greek athletes ended up as wrestlers in the 1930s, and Gilbert looked out of his office window one day in 1933 and saw George applying a toehold on one of his groundskeepers.

George during his days at Oglethorpe University. Source: The Atlanta Constitution, May 16, 1932.

“I yelled out to inform George that he was a ball player and not a bone crusher, and that probably saved the other fellow a broken toe,” Gilbert told the Constitution. George occasionally practiced his wrestling moves on his teammates, but never enough to do lasting injury, apparently. But catching did allow George to take some of his more aggressive behavior out on opponents instead of his teammates. He almost started a fight in New Orleans when he blocked Pete Susko of the Atlanta Crackers at home plate. The mild-mannered Susko lost his temper, but a flurry of soda bottles thrown by the Pelicans fans was all that came of it.

George joined the Cleveland training camp in 1935 but ended up bouncing around on several clubs. It was reported in April that Indians manager Walter Johnson farmed him out to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association because he couldn’t get along with any of the umpires. Cleveland then sent him to Minneapolis in mid-May. Just a couple of weeks into his time there, he was hit by a pitch from Louisville’s Truett “Rip” Sewell – who had warned the catcher that a purpose pitch was coming. George charged the mound, bat in hand, sparking a brawl. When the teams were separated, Sewell and George were still slugging it out, and George tried to end it by using a wrestling move called the mandible claw – he basically tried to jam his fingers down Sewell’s throat. The pitcher countered with the crude but effective method of biting George’s fingers until he let go, and George came away with three gnawed digits.

It ended up being the Cleveland Indians who promoted George instead of whatever antecedent of the WWE was around in 1935. He didn’t start any brawls during his first stay in the majors; he didn’t do much of anything, in fact. He was substituted into a game against Chicago on June 30 and spent an inning behind the plate. He caught a couple of strikeouts from pitcher Ralph Winegarner but didn’t bat. Then on July 24 he pinch-ran for Joe Vosmik after the outfielder hit an RBI triple in the top of the ninth inning against Washington. He was only there for one batter, as Milt Galatzer fanned to end the inning. George was sent to Albany of the International League shortly after that game, where he finished the season.

In October of 1935, George married Helen Catherine Prendergast of New Orleans, and they moved to George’s home in Brunswick, Ga. They remained married until her death in 1991, and they had five children.

George began 1936 back with the Minneapolis Millers, and he hit .299 with 11 home runs. Cleveland brought him back to the majors in August when catcher Joe Becker broke a finger. He wasn’t the only rookie the team had. Cleveland signed teenage pitching phenom Bob Feller in July and started him in the bullpen at first. He made his first professional start on August 23, and George was his catcher. Feller struck out 15 batters on the way to a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Browns, and George added a single in 4 at-bats. The two would set records in September – twice. On September 7, Feller struck out 10 Browns. George also caught 5 pop flies and tagged out 2 baserunners trying to score, giving him a total of 17 putouts in one game. That broke the American League record of 16 putouts, which had been held by three catchers. George tied his own record in Feller’s next start, as the rookie pitcher struck out 17 in a 5-2 win over Philadelphia. Feller set his own AL record with the 17 strikeouts and tied the NL mark, though he didn’t know it at the time. “I just kept throwing the apple in there the way Charley told me to,” Feller said.

George, shown here in the chef’s toque, met up with Greek Restaurateur George Cazana of Louis’ Barbecue while in a trip to Knoxville. Source: The Knoxville Journal, July 20, 1938.

George’s hitting didn’t set any records. He got his first major-league at-bat against the White Sox on August 18 and grounded out at a pinch hitter. His first hit came against St. Louis on August 22, when he singled off reliever Glenn Liebhardt. George started semi-regularly for the rest of the season along with Billy Sullivan, but he failed to hit his weight. He had 5 hits and 2 RBIs over his last 4 games to raise his batting average to .195. He had 15 hits, including 3 doubles, and drove in 5 runs. He fielded well behind the plate, with a .994 percentage. He had 164 putouts in 183 innings, thanks to being Bob Feller’s personal catcher.

Larry Gilbert, still the manager of the New Orleans Pelicans, re-acquired George during the minor-league meetings that December. George entered 1937 as the Pels’ starting catcher. He played in 143 games and slashed a solid .261/.331/.372, with 25 doubles and 4 home runs. He also played very well behind the plate and threw out more than 40% of baserunners. He mostly behaved himself with New Orleans. Granted, he “violently protested” a play at the plate in a game against the Atlanta Crackers on June 26, 1937, and he was ejected by an umpire with the wonderful name of Steamboat Johnson. George enjoyed an even better year in 1938, when he hit .292 and slugged .457, thanks to a career-high 18 triples and 8 home runs. That August, Pels manager Gilbert sold George’s contract to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for two players to be named later and about $15,000 in cash. He started 7 games in late September and early October for the Dodgers. He picked up RBIs in each of his first two games and smacked a triple against Philadelphia’s Tom Lanning on September 24. George finished the season with 4 hits and a .200 batting average for Brooklyn.

The Dodgers farmed George out to a ballclub in Newark for 1939. The Newark Bears was a New York Yankees farm team, so Yankees catching prospects Billy Holm and Hal Wagner got most of the playing time. George played infrequently and poorly. In early July, The Nashville Vols, now managed by Larry Gilbert, worked a deal to acquire George on option from Brooklyn. Reunited with his old New Orleans manager, George was soon up to his old tricks again. He hit .372 for the Vols over the rest of the season. He also was a lively presence in the clubhouse, getting into loud arguments with pitcher Mike Martynik over who was the faster runner. The two ended having a 100-yard dash in the outfield before a game, and the Greek won 10 dollars by finishing 5 yards ahead of the 39-year-old pitcher.

Source: News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), August 25, 1936.

George continued to have problems with umpires, and it cost the Vols once. He was ejected in the first inning of a game in Memphis on September 1. The fiery catcher questioned calls by the umpire and then kicked dirt on him, earning his early exit from the game. Then Nashville outfielder Gus Dugas left the game in the third inning with a knee injury, leaving Gilbert with no defensive replacements. Pitcher Al Baker spent two innings in left field while the team could locate and sign an amateur player named Stanley Ray Jr., whose father was friends with Gilbert and had driven to Memphis to visit. They were enjoying the game in the stands when a team official came with a contract and brought the teenager into the game.

George probably should have been ejected more times than he actually was. The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper, complained bitterly that George and the rest of the Vols players were protected by manager Gilbert, a Southern Association official who carried a lot of weight in the league. Umpires, writer Walter Stewart said, were too intimidated by Gilbert to call things impartially. George once protested a called ball with an oath so loud that “the deafest Frenchman in the deepest dugout of the Maginet Line must have heard him plainly.” And it was on a Ladies Night in Memphis’ Russwood Park, too. But George stayed in the game.

George had a fantastic season in 1940, with a .335 batting average and 9 home runs. He made just 1 error behind the plate for a .998 fielding percentage. He helped lead Nashville to the Vols’ first pennant in 24 years, in fact. But he left a trail of carnage in his wake, which the newspapers from the other teams dutifully reported. George almost started a fight in Atlanta when he blocked Marshall Mauldin from scoring the tying run in a game. Then he spiked Leo Ogorek of Birmingham. Then he broke up a double play in Memphis by slamming into infielder Louis Bush and knocking him back 6 feet. George was at least ruled out for interference on that play, avoiding a brawl. “The rowdy play of the Greek has injected a lot of spirit into the Vols. He has worked up harsh feelings among rival players,” reported The Birmingham News.

Gilbert apparently took offense to the insinuations about his influence, and Memphis’ Stewart wrote an apology… of sorts. Admitting that he misjudged George, he wrote about how the catcher once spent a day listening to classical music and scattering flowers in the halls of a hospital he visited before stopping by an art museum. “We studied Greek George at close range and discovered that Nashville sports writers are absolutely correct. The gentle spirit of a Peter Pan really dwells behind the iron mask and jungle-crested chest,” he wrote.

Gilbert, like most minor-league officials, had to sell players to major-league teams to make money, and he sold George to the Chicago Cubs after the 1940 season. George spent all of 1941 with Chicago, backing up catchers Clyde McCullough and Bob Scheffing. He appeared in only 35 games and hit .156, with 10 hits and 6 RBIs in 67 plate appearances. He did help the Cubs beat the Reds and pitcher Paul Derringer with a walk-off single in the ninth inning on May 25. George’s base hit scored Bill Nicholson and made the final score 3-2. It was his biggest hit for the Cubs.

Larry Gilbert tried to re-acquire George in the offseason (no doubt so he could sell him to a fourth team), but the Cubs sent him to Milwaukee in 1942. Though bothered by a sore arm, he hit .279 there. Gilbert eventually got his man in 1943 after working out a trade with the Cubs for catcher Hank Heif. However, George had successful businesses in Brunswick. He was a hunting guide in the offseason and also ran a busy restaurant business with his brother Pete. He was so short-staffed that he stayed out of baseball for the 1943 season. Gilbert gave the starting job to native Nashvillian (and future Nashville nightlife empresario) Mickey Kreitner, who hit .248 with little power.

Source: The Brattleboro Reformer, August 31, 1935.

Gilbert and George had a complicated relationship. George seemed to play his best for Gilbert, and Gilbert may have been the one person who could chew George out without fear of reprisal. After the game where George’s ejection forced Gilbert to sign the teenager from the stands, Gilbert tore into him in the clubhouse. “Many players would have packed up and left,” reported Nashville journalist Fred Russell. “But The Greek, he was out there the next afternoon battling his heart out. He’s funny that way.”

Nashville struggled at the start of 1944, and George was itching to get back into baseball. Pete George made a “trade” with Gilbert, giving his blessing for his brother to return to baseball in exchange for a $200 set of golf clubs. Back with the Vols, the Greek pounded the ball at a .345 clip over the rest of the season, driving in 79 runs. He clinched Nashville’s second-half pennant in September with a home run against Memphis. He went 4-for-4 in the game after a 13 at-bat hitless streak. “Wasn’t that a heluva way to shake a batting slump,” he said after the game. He also ended a running feud he’d had with Memphis outfielder Pete Gray – yes, the one-armed outfielder. The two had been sniping at each other ever since George returned to the league. After George’s home run, the two passed by each other in the outfield – George was in right field that day – and Gray stopped to shake hands. “Greek, you win. Nice hit. The season’s almost over, so let’s call off this arguing now,” Gray said, according to the Nashville Banner.

The Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League drafted George for the 1945 season at a cost of $4,750. George didn’t like the cold weather and tried to get sent back to Nashville, but he played well there, with a .315 batting average over his first 25 games. He did so well that the Philadelphia A’s and boss Connie Mack brought him to the major leagues once more in late May. Mack totally retooled his catching depth in a week’s time, trading starter Frankie Hayes to Cleveland for Buddy Rosar and bringing George to the majors. Neither hit particularly well. Rosar caught the most and hit .210 in 92 games. George had the busiest season of his major-league career, appearing in 51 games. Unfortunately, he slashed just .174/.265/.217 for a .482 OPS and 42 OPS+. He reached career highs in hits (24), runs (8), doubles (4), RBIs (11) and walks (17).

George’s time with the A’s wasn’t without consequence. He had to be separated from his own pitcher, Bobo Newsome, in a June game after Newsome started disregarding the catcher’s signals and threw whatever he felt like throwing. After one argument, both players balled up their hands into fists and almost started throwing punches before umpire Bill Grieve stepped in between them. George was also ejected from a game in July, along with coach Al Simmons, for bench jockeying the umpire. Then came the game on September 3, 1945, against the New York Yankees. The A’s lost both ends of a doubleheader, but the fireworks happened in the tenth inning of the second game. Yankees pitcher Ken Holcombe struck out for the last out of the inning. George, the catcher, pulled off his mask and walked toward the dugout. He made it about eight feet from home plate when he turned around, said a few words to home plate umpire Joe Rue, and punched him in the face. The umpire sustained an inch-long gash above his right eye, and the two were quickly pulled apart before any further punches could be thrown. George was immediately ejected from what proved to be the final major-league game of his career.

“We had been arguing all day about balls and strikes,” George said afterwards in the locker room. “As I left the plate Rue called me a name that no man will stand for. I asked him if I had heard correctly. He said yes. No man where I come from will take that so I hit him with the flat of my hand.”

Mack suspended George immediately pending an investigation by the commissioner. Rue did not offer a statement. It’s not clear exactly what name he allegedly called George, but the catcher was suspended from baseball until June 20, 1946. When the suspension was lifted, he was released by the Athletics, officially ending his major-league career.

Greek George, center, and Tennessee Vols manager Larry Gilbert, to his right, meet the fans shortly after George’s return to pro ball. Source: Nashville Banner, June 29, 1944.

Over parts of 5 seasons, George played in 118 games. He slashed .177/.248/.221, with 53 hits that included 9 doubles and 2 triples. He drove in 24 runs and scored 15 times. He had a .983 fielding percentage, which was about league average, and he threw out 31% of baserunners, well below the league average of 42%.

The majors may have been done with Greek George, but he still was in high demand in the minor leagues. He signed with the Chattanooga Lookouts right after his release from the A’s and hit .243 for the rest of the season. George had a few stints as a player-manager, starting with the Richmond Colts of the Piedmont League in 1948. The managerial jobs ended predictably. He was suspended twice while managing Richmond and was fired at the end of the season. He was thrown out of six games as skipper of the Abbeville Athletics in 1950, was placed on the indefinitely suspended list and fired at the end of May. His last job, as manager of a team in Tifton, Ga., lasted about as long. However, George kept himself in excellent physical shape (preaching a vegetarian diet) and played until 1953, when he was 40 years old. He played his last few games with the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. Not all his minor-league stats are available, but he had at least 1,353 hits in 19 seasons for an estimated .278 batting average. He retired after failing to find a job in 1954.

And umpires all over the minor leagues breathed a sigh of relief.

In 1980, Joe Rue finally gave his side of the story in an Associated Press article. Rue denied ever cussing at George to prompt the punch. He added that after he got hit, he told the catcher, “If that’s as hard as you can punch, look out!” Rue said that the Yankees’ King Kong Keller and Joe DiMaggio intercepted Rue as George retreated to the A’s bench. Rue’s version got a couple of facts wrong, as he said that George hit him after the catcher was called out on a third strike; all the contemporary reports stated that George was playing defense when the fight started. So make of it what you will; the AP writer didn’t get George’s recollections of that day.

The combative catcher had a relatively quiet life in retirement. He stayed in Brunswick and got into the automotive business. Helen Prendergast George died in Brunswick on July 16, 1991, at the age of 73. At some point after that, Charley George moved to Metairie, La. He died in his home there on August 15, 1999. He was 86 years old. They are both buried in St. Patrick Cemetery #1 in New Orleans.

One last story about Greek George – this is an undated story from when he was playing a game in Atlanta. After a rough game, the catcher headed toward the umpire locker room to have it out with them. The umps knew he was coming and locked the door to keep him out. George simply crashed through the locked door and gave them the tongue-lashing he felt they deserved.

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