They should have been best friends, Ben Huffman and Floyd Baker.
And, who knows? Maybe they were.
They were farm kids who went to the same high school, played together on the same semi-pro team, played for the same St. Louis Browns – although at different times – and each became a successful scout after his playing days ended.
One was a good infielder with a so-so bat. The other could hit, if only things had worked out. One played 13 seasons in the big leagues; the other, just one. But, on average, similar stats, if you put them side by side. You can look it up if you want.
Luray, Virginia – pronounced LOO-ray, please – is a tiny town just shy of a 100 miles SW of Washington, DC.
If you’ve heard of Luray, you are either from Luray, or from somewhere near Luray, or have at some point in your life been one of the 500,000 people who come to Luray each year to visit its famous caverns.
And, I promise, we’ll get to the caverns. In a sec. But, first, baseball.
Benjamin Franklin “Bennie” Huffman was born in July 1914 and grew up on a farm in Springfield, Virginia, just a few miles north of Luray.
(That’s Page County’s Springfield, not the Washington, DC suburb. It’s close to Rileyville, which at some point Huffman listed as his birthplace, although census records always put his family’s farm in Springfield.)
Floyd Wilton Baker was born in October 1916, and grew up on a farm, not in Luray, but in Rappahannock County next door. (While Baker listed his birthplace as Luray, Floyd’s father, Charles, consistently recorded the family’s residence as a farm near Sperryville, in Rappahannock County.)
I make a deal of this otherwise throwaway fact because it gives Rappahannock County its first big leaguer. Congratulations, Rappahannock!
By the early 1930s, when both players were in their teens, the Great Depression was taking its toll on Luray.
Luray’s largest employer – a tannery – had closed. Drought had severely damaged apple and other crops. In 1933, the Red Cross reported that its food distribution in the Luray area during the previous two winters had saved many farm families from starvation. Two-thirds of Virginia farms had their annual income drop by 50 percent or more.
Boys harvesting wheat by hand near Sperryville, Virginia in the 1930s. They told photographer Dorthea Lange they had never seen a mechanical combine harvester. (Floyd Baker’s family farm was likely near this one.)
“When I was a kid, it was the Depression and nobody had any money,” Huffman later remembered. “And, the boys wanted to play baseball. We finally got enough money to buy a catcher’s mitt, but we didn’t have enough money to get a mask. So who’s going to be the catcher? Me. And, every game I got my nose broke.”
1 Luray. 2 Players.
During the Depression, two-thirds of Virginia’s public schools shortened their academic years due to lack of funds. Many farm kids were kept out of school anyway – to help with farm chores or because they had no way to get to schools in nearby towns.
Luray High School in the 1930s …
… is the Middle School today.
An abandoned baseball diamond still sits out front …
We know that Huffman and Baker both attended Luray High School. And, we know they played high school ball together because …
Look! High school box scores!
University of Maryland Freshmen defeat Luray High, 13-12, April 1933
Huffman and Baker also played together in the Valley Baseball League (VBL), at the time a Virginia semi-pro league (and, today, a college summer league). They were teammates on the Harrisonburg team in 1936 with shortstop Baker often batting leadoff and catcher Huffman batting second.
Because, look! More box scores!
(That other Baker in the box scores is Floyd’s older brother Ray. And, I’m not sure about the other Huffman.)
Harrisonburg, with Baker and Huffman, won two championships in 1936 – the VBL championship, defeating Culpeper, and the Augusta-Rockingham League championship, defeating Waynesboro.
Floyd Baker singles and scores the deciding run in the 8th.
Huffman spent a couple years at Virginia’s Bridgewater College – he left when the college eliminated athletic scholarships, including his – and in 1937 was one of some 400 players, aged 15 to 25, to attend an Arkansas baseball camp being run by the legendary Rogers Hornsby and taught by a bunch of his big league friends. The cost of the six-week program was $60.
Hornsby, the St. Louis Browns’ player-manager, was impressed with Huffman’s bat, invited him to the Browns’ spring training, and signed him for $400 a month. He was the only player from the camp to get an invite. Without a day in the minors, Huffman played on Opening Day in St. Louis, brought in mid-game and going 2-for-3.
Huffman does so-so from there on out, and things get murky when Hornsby is fired in July and veteran catcher, Rollie Hemsley, resumes his place in the line-up.
“The whole thing was a joke. Huffman couldn’t carry Hemsley’s glove. It was a crying shame to play the rookie as our catcher, but Hornsby tried to get away with it,” players complained to Shirley Povich of The Washington Post a few weeks later. They were sure, they told Povich, that Hornsby tried to make Huffman a star only to promote his baseball school.
The Browns lost 108 games that season and finished last in the American League, 56 games out of first.
By the following season, Huffman was in the minors. A shoulder injury and World War II came next. He never made it back up.
Huffman’s big league career was just 76 games long.
Floyd Baker, two years younger, got his chance with the Browns in August 1937, and a local paper noted that “Huffman was instrumental in securing” the try-out. The Browns “were very much pleased” with Baker, the paper reported, and “planned to keep him for future reference.”
“Future reference,” of course, is often just a polite brush-off, but, in September, the Browns tried him out again.
And, again, in March 1938.
Third time’s a charm, I guess, because the Browns finally assigned him to a minor league team.
He bides his time, including a couple seasons in Youngstown, Ohio, where he marries and settles down. He is deferred from World War II service due to stomach ulcers and, in 1943, finally debuts with the Browns.
Editor/Husband got this autographed card for me.
Baker’s career is steady. Thirteen seasons, including two with the Browns, seven with the White Sox, a few with the Senators and the Red Sox, and ending with the Phillies in 1955.
World Series alert!
In 1944, Baker makes two very brief appearances in the all-St. Louis Browns-Cardinals World Series. Brought in during Game 5 and again in Game 6 as a pinch hitter, Baker strikes out both times.
So, sure, he’s no great hitter. But in the prime of his career he was considered one of baseball’s best defensive third basemen.
Shirley Povich of The Post recalled that toward the end of Baker’s time in Washington he was holding out for a raise. “But you’re not a .300 hitter,” Senators’ owner Clark Griffith told him.
“That may be,” Baker said, “but nobody hits .300 through me either.”
2 Players. 2 Homers.
On August 1, 1937, toward the end of his one big league season, Bennie Huffman hit his only major league home run.
It was a game against the Yankees, and Joe DiMaggio homered, too. So did Lou Gehrig who hit for the cycle. The Brown’s lost 14-5.
Needless to say, Huffman’s homer was a minor footnote in a game that saw five.
On May 4, 1949, with the White Sox, Floyd Baker hit his only major league home run.
There were five home runs hit during Baker’s game, too. The White Sox lost to the Senators 8-7.
Just a few days earlier, the Sox had strung a wire fence across the outfield to shorten it. In two games, 14 home runs rocketed over the new fence.
I couldn’t find a photo of the White Sox’ wire fence. So, here’s the fence at the ball field in Luray instead.
Weak-heating Baker’s home run must have been one too many – either that or the fact that 10 of the 14 homers hit during the past two games belonged to the Senators – because the Sox tore the fence down the next day.
May 5, 1949
Baker is one of just a dozen major league players who have had more than 2,000 plate appearances and just one home run.
2 Players. 2 Scouts
Huffman and Baker both went on to become well-respected scouts.
Huffman scouted for the White Sox for 32 years and is credited with signing Minnie Minoso and Harold Baines. Huffman died in Luray in 2005.
Baker spent 35 years as a scout for the Senators and then the Twins. He spent three seasons as the Twins third base coach in the early ’60s. Baker died in Youngstown in 2004.
1 Luray. 1 Cavern
Huffman and Baker aren’t Luray’s greatest claim to fame, of course.
Luray Caverns – the largest caverns on the East Coast – descend some 32 stories into the earth. When the caverns first opened to the public in 1878, the tour took visitors a little over an hour. And, that’s just about what it will take you today.
It hasn’t changed much.
Can you see the limestone cat?
I suppose you could say it’s … cavernous.
The air is cool, but humid, so it feels a little heavy as you breathe. When the cavern is crowded – say on a Saturday in October – you might get a little claustrophobic.
And, by “you,” I mean “I”, because I felt weirdly uncomfortable underground and wondered if all the people down in the cavern that day were greedily breathing in more oxygen than they were entitled to.
I’m the one in the middle, trying to ensure I have enough oxygen for the rest of the tour.
Our “Team Kate” shirts are in support of a young woman, and niece of our friends, who is going through cancer treatment. Go Kate!
Science: A cave is any hole in the ground that cannot receive direct sunlight. A cavern is a hole in the ground that is made of soluble rock, like Luray’s limestone, that can form stalagmites (which grow upward) and stalactites (which grow downward). Ergo, all caverns are caves, but not all caves are caverns. You’re welcome.
If you haven’t seen the caverns, you know, you really should. (I’m assured there’s plenty of oxygen down there.)
For more on The Virginia-Born Baseball Project visit here.