Elkton, Virginia is the halfway point between where you are now and where you want to be.
It is snugged tight between the Blue Ridge Mountains on its east side and the Massanutten Mountains on its west side.
It is halfway between here … and there.
It’s an anonymous town. The town you pass through, but where you never stop unless you need gas, a snack, or a bathroom.
All my friends around here tell me they’ve been to Elkton. But, when pressed, I discover they mean they’ve been through Elkton, or driven past Elkton, or they’ve stopped out on the highway at the Dairy Queen, but they’ve never actually been to it.
Garland Shifflett, who pitched in the majors, but mostly the minors, from the 1950s into the 1970s, was born in Elkton in 1935.
The Los Angeles Times once profiled him on their front page.
His major league career was brief, just 16 games. A few games in 1957, a few more in 1964. But, his minor league career, over 16 seasons, was much longer and richer.
But, there he is on the front page of the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1972. Next to stories about the Hanoi Offensive, an indicted New Jersey Congressman, and President Nixon’s doctor’s enthusiasm for acupuncture.
Top of the fold. A story about Garland Shifflett and his long career in the minors.
A front-page profile in the Los Angeles Times about a player I didn’t know should have made this story simple. Instead, it has bothered me for a couple weeks now. Ever since I found it and ever since we made our visit to Elkton.
Because who wants to be anonymous? Who wants to be called a nobody? And, yet, it would probably be a fitting title for most of us. Wouldn’t it?
Anyway, to see yourself singled out as “Anonymous Man” had to sting, I think.
And, that bothered me.
I want to set the record straight.
Garland Shifflett was not an Anonymous Man.
And, Elkton’s not an anonymous town. Like most towns in Virginia, it’s been around for more than 200 years, and, like almost everywhere around here, it has a Civil War tie. In the spring of 1862, Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops made it their headquarters.
By Shifflett’s time, Elkton had a population of nearly 1,000. It’s double that today which still makes it pretty small.
Shifflett, a 5’10” wiry right-hander known for his fastball, pitched for his Elkton high school team. “I started every game my high school played beginning when I was a freshman,” he told a Rochester, New York reporter in 1971.
He eventually quit school and picked up with some semi-pro teams. To make ends meet, he worked the midnight shift as a press punch operator in a nearby Orange, Virginia steel mill.
Sometime in 1954 the Washington Senators gave him a tryout, liked what they saw, and signed him, giving him a $4,000 signing bonus.
“I’d pitch in a cow pasture if I had to. Pitching is all I know how to do and I appreciate the chance to play anywhere,” he told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in 1971.
He was known as “Duck” for his bowlegs and “Country Boy” for his rural roots. After a strong minor league season in Charlotte, he became one of Washington’s top prospects when Spring Training began in 1955.
It was during that Spring Training that a story emerged about how the 20-year-old Shifflett wasn’t eating meals in the fancy hotel dining room where the rest of the team ate. It turned out that the dining room’s dress code required a suit jacket, and Shifflett didn’t have one.
When the team secretary investigated, he discovered Shifflett had been eating his meals – hot dogs mostly – at local lunch counters. The $4,000 signing bonus was gone. Shifflett had given most of his bonus to his parents to help them pay their bills, and he didn’t have the money to buy a jacket.
That story was still kicking around 30 years later when team owner Calvin Griffith retold it:
“I remember this young pitcher. … What was his name? Garland Shifflett. He was one of those boys who made your eyes pop open. Led the Southern League, I think, in saves, but we had him in camp because he had good control. He looked so fantastic, we carried him North with us. He didn’t even have a coat, he didn’t have a suit. We had to buy him a sport coat, pants, neckties, just so we could take him with us.”
But, don’t let the country bumpkin act fool you. Shifflett also regularly held out at salary time, refusing to sign contracts he considered insulting.
In 1957, he demanded 40 percent more than the Senator’s minor league club offered, rejected three contracts, and at one point wrote to the team’s General Manager: “If you persist in such attitude, you’ve lost yourself a pitcher.” I wish I could tell you that Shifflett got his raise, but there’s no record of his salary that year. In any event, he eventually signed and was back playing.
He made his major league debut with the Senators in April 1957, in a game versus the New York Yankees.
He came in in the 8th with the Yankees already up 11-2.
The first batter Shifflett faces in his first major league game?
He walked him.
Editor/Husband’s analysis: “Not a bad approach.”
The next batter?
He walked him, too.
Editor/Husband: “Not such a good approach. Who’s up next?”
Skowron singles. Mantle scores.
By the time Shifflett gets out of the inning – his only inning that day – he’s given up three runs.
The Senators lose 15-6.
But, to be fair … it was Mickey Mantle. Mantle was the league’s MVP that season and those ‘57 Yankees went to the World Series.
Over the next two weeks, Shifflett appeared in five more games, gave up six runs, half of them in a single starting appearance. Not bad for a rookie.
But, that’s it. It’s back to the minors. Strangely, he plays no games in 1959 or 1961. One reporter suggests a fear of flying kept him out of baseball for those two seasons.
In 1963, he develops a knuckleball.
Then, in 1964, he gets one more big league chance, called up for 10 games in June. By then, the Senators have moved to Minnesota and become the Twins.
On June 3, in his first appearance and now a Twin, he faces the Yankees.
He walks pitcher Whitey Ford, then gives up a single to Tony Kubek. But, that’s it. He gets the next three batters out and gets out of inning with no damage.
The next day, after the Twins’ starter is shelled in the first, Shifflett eats up five innings, giving up three runs.
His last big league appearance is on June 26, 1964, in a 9-4 loss to the Chicago White Sox. He comes in with two outs in the 6th, allows two inherited runners to score, finishes the inning, and pitches a scoreless 7th.
The last batter of the inning – the last batter Shifflett will face in the majors – is right fielder Floyd Robinson, who grounds out to first.
Shifflett’s major league career is over. Although he couldn’t have known that then.
His 16-game major league career ends with no wins, two losses, one save, and an ERA of 6.31, a FIP of 4.39. He is 28.
Sent back to the minors, he pitches at AA Charlotte through 1968 and in 1969 moves up to the AAA Denver Bears, where he pitches through 1972.
He is with the Bears in 1971, the year they win the American Association championship and Shifflett, at age 36, is named the league’s most valuable pitcher.
Shifflett (far right) with the Denver Bears.
His minor league career – over 16 seasons and more than 2,000 innings – ends after 1972 with a career 3.83 ERA, and 1,122 strike outs.
What’s anonymous about that?
And, then I figured it out.
That Los Angeles Times profile of Shifflett appeared in April 1972.
Baseball was in the midst of its first strike by major league players who demanded an increase in pension benefits.
The Times wasn’t calling Shifflett an Anonymous Man after all. They were using him to illustrate the 2,400 minor leaguers who don’t get the attention, the salary, or the financial benefits of big league players.
The big leaguers got the pension increase they sought and ended their strike after 13 days. Minor leaguers like Shifflett got nothing.
In 1971, Shifflett made $11,000 – about $49,000 in today’s dollars – from baseball and three off-season jobs. Unlike the striking big leaguers, there was no pension awaiting him upon retirement.
“If I could make the money doing something else, I’d give this up and get out,” he told the Times. “I started my career with nothing and I guess I’ll end it with nothing.” He said this, the Times noted, without bitterness.
Shifflett, (far left), 1972.
He retired at the end of the 1972 season. Maybe he gave up on baseball. Or, baseball gave up on him.
He settled there in Colorado, raised his family, and still lives there today.
Elkton’s baseball tradition continues. While Shifflett is the only major leaguer to come from Elkton, the county’s Rockingham County Baseball League thrives, the oldest continuous active amateur baseball league in the country.
Elkton has several neatly manicured baseball fields. Including this Little League park.
Right field looks out to a dairy farm and the mountains.
Concession Stand. Extra Anything. 25 cents.
The downtown is emptier now than in Shifflett’s day. For every open business, three or four buildings stand empty around it.
But, the local theater is being renovated and is slated to reopen next year and other buildings are being groomed for new business.
When we were looking for a meal, we asked a local who quickly said, “I love Ciro’s.” She said love in that passionate and eager way that meant she didn’t just love Ciro’s, she love-love-loved Ciro’s.
Ciro’s has been in Elkton for more than 30 years. It used to be downtown, but recently moved out to bigger quarters by the highway, which is where most of Elkton’s businesses have gone, in order to be found by passing traffic.
It was a nice and friendly place. Our server, without prompting, told us how he had worked for awhile in Harrisonburg, a 20-minute drive, but came back to work in Elkton, so he could be closer to home.
Elkton wasn’t an anonymous town to him. It was home.
The Penne al Giardino with fresh, perfectly cooked vegetables, was really good. Who knew such a nice Italian meal was hiding in Elkton?
Who knew Garland Shifflett came from Elkton?
Garland Shifflett, a professional ballplayer.
Not anonymous at all.
Photos: Elkton, Virginia, September 2016. © The Baseball Bloggess
For more on The Virginia-Born Baseball Project visit here.