He has seen much. More, perhaps, than most men who have the luxury of two good eyes. But he doesn’t have time to share all that he has seen. Not now, anyway.
Does he have something to share? Absolutely. He once made Willie Mays quake in a batter’s box. Once hightailed it from Cuba when Fidel Castro seized power. Dated an actress. Chauffeured a rickety busload of minor-league baseball players across North Carolina.
With a glass eye, no less.
Whammy Douglas isn’t reticent. He’s busy. His peripatetic life, nearing its 80th year in February, has settled, at last, within 136 miles of his hometown, Carrboro. In Richlands, N.C., he lives. But in nearby Jacksonville, N.C., he works. The Bear Trail Golf Club beckons for a bustling fall weekend.
Hence why he couldn’t speak, not yet, about pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957, about becoming one of fewer than 10 players in MLB history to play with one eye, about Mays and Roberto Clemente, about bus rides governed by a bottomless hourglass. About all that he has seen — which he covered Tuesday afternoon in an expansive Q&A.
“It’s not a hard job by any means,” Douglas says Friday by phone as he prepares for his weekend of work. He’s more than conversant with golf, having been a scratch golfer — good enough to play professionally — and a salesman for Dunlop after his baseball career ended.
“It’s easy for an old man.”
And so the coda to the life of Charles William Douglas will take place on a golf course. He says he wants it that way, some tranquility after 79 years of here, there and everywhere.
Eye for an eye, Charles for “Whammy”
There was Saxapahaw, N.C., where the 11-year-old son of James and Minnie, employees at the Sellers Manufacturing plant, distinguished himself as a gifted baseball pitcher. Then he scuffled with a handful of his sixth-grade friends. Someone brandished a stick, and soon Douglas saw blood trickling down his face. The sight in his right eye eroded beyond repair.
But his throwing arm didn’t. Artificial eye and all, Douglas disposed of opposing hitters with such ease that he vaulted from his local American Legion team to a semipro club. Charles, or Charlie, soon became “Whammy,” a sobriquet coined by Burlington Times-News sports editor Bill Hunter.
“I was striking everyone out, so they just started calling me ‘Whammy,’” Douglas said in a 2008 interview with MLB.com’s Kevin T. Czerwinski. “They couldn’t hit the ball, and it just stuck with me. I don’t know how, but it did.”
His high school career earned Douglas a courtship with the Pirates and Red Sox, and he signed an amateur contract with Pittsburgh in 1953. General manager Branch Rickey, a venerable baseball executive and prognosticator of talent, expressed skepticism, telling the 18-year-old Douglas that his eyesight would compromise his ability to field. A year later, armed with a humming fastball, a sharp curveball and a passable changeup, the right-handed Douglas set a Georgia-Florida League record with 27 wins for the Brunswick (Ga.) Pirates. Rickey apologized to Douglas for his unfounded pause.
Brunswick catcher Joe Canuso caught most of Douglas’s outings during his historic season. “He was probably one of the better ones I ever caught,” Canuso said in 2008. “His control was terrific, and his pitches had a little zip. And he was one of the finest guys I knew.”
A call-up, Hall-of-Fame encounters and a “Say-Hey Kid” tall tale
And then there was everywhere. Douglas somersaulted through the minor leagues while combating a cantankerous elbow. Pennsylvania. New Orleans — where, he later told teammates, he dated actress Polly Bergen. Mexico City and Columbus and Nashville. Seven teams in five seasons.
He got the call, the golden ticket, in July 1957. Douglas, 22, made his major-league debut in St. Louis against Cardinals lefty “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, who finished two outs shy of a perfect game. Douglas took the field alongside Hall-of-Famers Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, allowing one earned run in five innings as the Pirates lost, 4-0. Though he issued seven walks, Douglas held Cardinals icon Stan Musial to one hit in three at-bats.
His first win came two starts later. Before 18,350 fans at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, Douglas allowed two runs in seven innings, besting future Hall-of-Famers Pee Wee Reese, the third baseman who famously befriended Jackie Robinson, and outfielder Duke Snider.
But Douglas’s greatest brush with MLB royalty came with Mays, the sweet-swinging, Hall-of-Fame center fielder for the New York Giants. Mays, several former teammates of Douglas said, found the prospect of batting against a one-eyed pitcher nothing short of unnerving. Douglas’s good eye often wandered, as did his pitches, which traced an erratic constellation around the batter’s box. Douglas walked more hitters (30) than he struck out (28) in his 11-game MLB career.
“I’m sure it unsettled the batter to discover one of the pitcher’s eyes was looking behind him,” wrote Dave Baldwin, Douglas’s former minor-league teammate, in “Snake Jazz,” a rollicking memoir of the Burlington (N.C.) Senators’ 1965 season.
Mays refused to hit against him, Baldwin and Burlington teammate Eddie “Moot” Mouton said. But statistics, suggest otherwise that Mays, however reluctant, gamely stood in the batter’s box against Douglas: He had just two hits in 11 at-bats and struck out twice, according to DiamondsintheDusk.com, a baseball history website. The pitcher debunked this legend Tuesday, calling Mays “one of the best guys I have ever met in my life.” Mays, Douglas said, often wandered over to Pittsburgh’s dugout before Pirates-Giants games to chat with Douglas and his teammates. Douglas found less fortune with other legendary encounters, allowing home runs to Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Eddie Matthews.
He made his last MLB appearance on Sept. 21, 1957, allowing two runs in one inning against the Giants. So ended Douglas’s modest professional career, codified by a 3-3 record in 11 games. Shoulder complications consigned him to the minor leagues for six more seasons.
In career’s twilight, a “stabilizer”
Thus arrived the confluence of here, there and everywhere. Douglas wended his way back to North Carolina in 1965, by way of Columbus, Nashville, a Castro-shortened sojourn in Havana, Georgia and a four-year sabbatical. He returned as Burlington’s celebrated factotum.
“You could label him as a stabilizer, much like the character in ‘Bull Durham,’” said Mouton, referring to Kevin Costner’s role in the 1988 baseball film. “His career was over, but he could help the pitching prospects improve their game and attitude. He was surely an asset to an average team.”
An eclectic asset, surely: from pitcher (he posted a 1-2 record and a 3.46 ERA in only 14 appearances) to clubhouse manager, trainer to road secretary, pitching coach to mentor and raconteur.
And, most important, the team’s bus driver.
Riding the “Poor Old Thing”
Bussing represents the lifeblood of minor-league baseball, the lone connector between sleepy towns sprawled across a lonely landscape of flickering dreams and scant glory. The Senators fastened their luck to the same bus that Douglas rode during his first minor-league season in Lexington, N.C. — in 1953. The bus fell into such disrepair, culminating with a third-hand, rebuilt engine to replace the combusted original, that the Senators dubbed their ride the “Poor Old Thing,” or “POT.”
“It was a ‘POS,’” Mouton said.
Why the Senators entrusted their glorified rickshaw to a driver with a glass eye remains mystifying, Baldwin and Mouton say. Teammates wondered how his good eye could withstand up to 12 hours of nighttime travel, often under the haze of a few postgame beers.
“To salve our careworn brows,” Baldwin wrote in “Snake Jazz,” “we always maintained a sentry on duty, taking turns at the front of the POT, keeping one eye on each of Whammy’s eyes, another eye on the road, and another eye on the road map.
“I, for one, found it stressful.”
But the man assumed to have seen little saw enough to steer his club without incident through 144 games. He saw enough in his baseball life, Mouton said, to regale teammates with stories. Saw enough to reach out and help the young ballplayers who had yet to see what he had seen.
“He was a good teammate,” Mouton said. “An interesting fellow.”
“Everything was interesting,” Douglas said Tuesday of his career. “I loved playing baseball, anyway.”
Ho-hum. Whammy Douglas has seen it all.