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.Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.
Thank you for pointing out that lack of fame is not the same as anonymity. Garland did what he loved for many years with no apparent unhappy regrets. Good for him.
Thanks, Gloria. I was so upset by the “Anonymous Man” headline, but once I figured out the story the Los Angeles Times was trying to tell, connecting the plight of minor leaguers to the strike by major league players … I understood.
Love the history you found…agree that anonymous man stuff…rude!
Thanks Sharon! I felt better about the “Anonymous Man” once I realized what the LA Times was trying to bring to light — that there were thousands of professional ballplayers in the minors who wouldn’t see any pensions or benefits from the strike. The thought of ballplayers going on strike was unheard of back then, so the Time was just trying to show the demands of the strikers wouldn’t help everyone.
Gosh….that small town movie theater is a thing of beauty! :)
I was bummed the renovation wasn’t complete … I’m not sure they’ve done any of the construction/renovation inside yet. I asked a local Chamber of Commerce member and she said they hoped that it would open next year. But, the exterior facade sure is nice.
Great stuff as usual, Bloggess. What an absolutely worthwhile project. And I love the town pictures. I grew up in small town America and my town looked much like the one you show. Thanks,
Thanks, v! There’s a lot of that small town American out here … and it’s nice to see someone restore an old building with a nod to the past rather than just tear it down and put up a Dollar Store.
Lovely story. I don’t get to many small towns these days. Even when I do, I generally drive through (or as designed, drive around). I saw the Joe DiMaggio quote on the Baseball Attic today and it seems to fit with Garland’s story :https://thebaseballattic.wordpress.com.
Your post has me admit right here and now that I spent a pre-Colorado Rockies summer in Denver and didn’t go to one Denver Bears game. I can’t say why, because I just don’t know the reason.
Thanks, Bruce. Randy grew up in Denver, so he’s my go-to on the Denver Bears! :)
Thank you so much! Every stop in this Virginia-Born Baseball Project has taught me something new …
I just found and read the Shifflett story today … love to read about the forgotten ones the most … thank you for the wonderful story.
Your comment makes me so happy! I’m always delighted to find a kindred spirit who appreciates the forgotten players and the cup-of-coffee guys who didn’t quite make it, or didn’t get the break, or was born too early or too late, or who got hurt, or who just wasn’t in the right place at the right time. I just want to do right by these players and give them a little extra shout out in the ether.
God Bless You for the story About Garland Shifflett !!!!! I just discovered it . He truly is a wonderful example of much talent that comes from poor small towns , so often overlooked . He is a great man and would give (and has ) the shirt off his back . By the way he does have shirts now !!! He is 83 years young as I write this. Spends his time in his beautiful yard and garden , but mostly , during baseball season , you will find him glued to the TV watching EVERY game he can find . As I look at him watching all those games , I know his heart is longing to be on that mound again , if only for a day!!! I love and respect this wonderful man !! I guess you can take the man out of the game , but NEVER the game out of the man….. I Know , because I am his daughter , Sincerely , Lisa Shifflett P. S I Gave up looking a long time ago , but please if anyone has any ideas on how to find , even a copy of a topps bubblegum card he was on I would greatly appreciate it . It would touch an old baseball players heart to have it . God Bless We are still in Colorado . My phone number is 720-220-0499
Was glad to hear of your career and your family with your roots in Elkton Virginia I was a class mate and also friend and neighbor. Seems like life has been good to you. Miss all the old days in Elkton .Virginia but live there now. Wishing for you all the best. Evelyn Hensley Brill..
Thank you for stopping by to read about Garland Shifflett. His daughter found my story a couple years ago, and I’m hopeful that Mr. Shifflett stops by from time to time to see the kind words that are left here for him.
Anyone who ever faced Garland and his fastball will tell you he is neither anonymous or forgotten.
It was a pleasure to compete against him i n th valley league.
I’m so glad you stopped by to read about Garland Shifflett. And, thank you so much for adding your first-hand memory. That “Anonymous Man” moniker came from a Los Angeles Times story that talked about how benefits that the Players Union had fought for only benefited major leaguers, not minor leaguers. Here we are 50 years later … and minor leaguers are still fighting for a living wage. Some things never change, I guess.
WELL , this is so very hard for me. After reading all the comments concerning Garland Shifflett in 2018, I responded …… And now I feel the need to respond again . My kind , beautiful , dad passed away May 11th 2020 , not only my dad , my best friend , my hero , is gone . It is to soon as I post this . My nom and I still find it not true he has left us , the pain is mostly unbearable now…….. Don’t know who will read this , but simply prayers would be appreciated ….. I sure pray God has baseball in heaven!!! LOVE YOU DAD SO MUCH !!!!!!!!!!!!!! God bless , and thank you , his daughter forever , Lisa Shifflett P.S my phone number is still the same as the previous posting above . I only say that just in case any one wants to know where to send a comment about dad , Mom is really hurting , I’m sorry I go on and on , as I said it’s just to soon . Thanks again , Lisa
Prayers to you and your mother in the loss of your father. So sorry to hear of his passing.
So sorry for your family’s lose and your dad will always be in yours heart.prayers for you and your family.