Induction Year: 1982
“I wouldn’t live there if you gave me 10 blocks of it,” Atley Donald said of New York City. “But I’ll never knock the team, because Yankee Stadium was the place to be in baseball.”
In 1939, a crude box for measuring velocity of flying objects was developed. Major league baseball officials wasted no time using it for a “top gun” competition. The favorite was young Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, but the winner of the competition was 26-year old Atley Donald of the New York Yankees. Donald, who became the first rookie pitcher in American League history to win his first 12 decisions that year, was timed at 94.7 miles per hour.
Old-timers claim the radar guns used today would add three miles per hour to that figure, but Donald’s mark stood as the “world record’ until Feller broke it three years later.
Although he broke Donald’s record, Feller didn’t enjoy much success in head-to-head duels with the former Downsville High School and Louisiana Tech fastballer.
In nine match-ups with Donald, Feller had only one victory. Their rivalry started accidentally. Red Ruffin, the ace of the Yankees staff, was scheduled to pitch against Cleveland. But he told manager Joe McCarthy his arm was sore, and he needed one more day of rest. (Quite a few pitchers had similar problems when they were scheduled to against Feller.) So Donald, who pitched two games for the Yankees throwing nothing but fast balls, got the call.
It was smoke against smoke, and when the smoke cleared Feller—who went into the game with 19 victories—was still looking for No. 20. Donald and the Yankees won, 4-3.
In 1938, Donald was receiving a major league salary on a minor league team because the powerful Yankees simply didn’t have room for him on their roster.
“I had a choice,” he recalled. “They said they would sell me to the Boston Braves, or I could go back down and be guaranteed a spot the next year. They just had too many pitchers.”
Donald decided it would be worth the wait to wear the pinstripes, and went back to Newark—to play on what many considered the best minor league team ever assembled. He had a 13-game winning streak with the Newark Bears, who probably would’ve finished in the first division of either the American League or the National League.
On April 12, 1929, he pitched little Downsville to a 2-1 victory over Byrd High’s Yellow Jackets in the North Louisiana Rally at Louisiana Tech. Jim Hodgins had just pitched two consecutive no-hitters for Byrd—which had only tow losses to state opponents in the previous four years. But the Yellow Jackets were no match for the country boy from Downsville.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1933, he hitchhiked to St. Petersburg, Fla., to await the arrival of the Yankees. He waited for more than three months, making $12 a week delivering groceries, before the big league club arrived for the start of spring training. Then Johnny Nee, a scout, introduced him to McCarthy.
Five years later, Donald was in the big leagues. I was 1939—the year Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended. With young Joe DiMaggio hitting .381, McCarthy’s Yankees won the American League pennant by 17 games and scored their second consecutive four-game sweep in the World Series. But Ruffing was the only Yankee pitcher who won more games than Donald, who wasn’t in the regular rotation. He got his only starts in doubleheaders, or when somebody had to miss a turn because of an injury. But he pitched 11 complete games and compiled a 13-3 record.
On Oct. 5, 1941, Donald was a starting pitcher in one of the most famous games in World Series history.
He outlasted Dodgers starter Kirby Higbe, but Donald was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning when Dixie Walker doubled and Pete Reiser, who won the National League batting title as a rookie, hit the first World Series home run by a Dodger since 1916. That gave the Dodgers a 4-3 lead until the ninth inning.
Donald was one strike away from being the losing pitcher in that game. But when Hugh Casey threw the strike past Tommy Henrich, Dodgers catcher Mickey Own wasn’t able to hang on to the ball. It became the most famous passed ball in baseball history, opening the gate for a ninth inning rally that gave the Yankees a 7-4 victory and 3-1 series lead.
Teammate Charlie Keller, who obviously didn’t know the difference between bayou country and the red clay hills of North Louisiana, gave Donald the nickname “Swampy.”
“Nobody was more competitive than Atley Donald,” recalled Yankees catcher Bill Dickey.
In 1945, Donald won his first four games and seemed to be on the verge of finally working into the Yankee’s starting rotation. Then his arm suddenly went bad, and he lost four in a row. Doctors at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital found calcium burrs all along his shoulder. Weeks after the operation, Donald wasn’t able to lift his arm above his shoulder. He went to spring training in 1946, but the shoulder didn’t come around and he packed his bags.
“I said when it got to where it wasn’t any fun, I’d quit,” he recalled. “And I did.”
He stayed with the Yankees for 30 more years as a scout, enjoying the retirement with his wife, Betty, on a 450 acre farm near Ruston that included a 25-acre pond stocked with Florida bass. When Donald needed open heart surgery in 1975, he chose a former Yankee, Dr. Bobby Brown, to perform the operation.
In the spring of 1992, at the age of 82, Donald was facing lung cancer.
“The doctors say there’s nothing they can do about it,” he said. “And there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll take the treatments, maybe buy a little time and hope for the best. But I ain’t going to worry about it. I’ve done just about everything I wanted to do, and I’ve made a good living doing it. I’ve never had a job I didn’t love, that I wouldn’t have done for free if I could have afforded to. I’ve truly enjoyed myself all my life. My time has come. I’m ready.”
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