Atley Donald – Yankee from Downsville

Written by Thomas Van Hyning
From the Society for American Baseball Research

Head and shoulders of New York Yankees Atley Donald, 1942

Soft-spoken Richard Atley Donald once threw 95-mile-per-hour fastballs for the 1939 New York Yankees, the first major league team to win four straight World Series.  He won 12 straight games for them, to set an American League mark for rookies. Atley was a star pitcher for the 1937 Newark Bears, considered by many to be the best minor league team baseball team ever. His 29-year Yankees scouting career  in Louisiana, his native Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and parts of Alabama, Tennessee and Oklahoma, was punctuated by his signing of Ron Guidry in 1971.

The Donalds came to Mississippi in a covered wagon midway through the 19th century from Sumter, South Carolina, not too far from Fort Sumter, where shots first rang out to start the Civil War.  This trek was made by two sisters, five brothers and their parents. The siblings, who included Atley’s grandfather, eventually settled in Brandon, Durant, Goodman, Morton and Philadelphia, Mississippi. Atley Donald was born in Morton, Mississippi, August 19, 1910, to Joseph Hugh Donald, a farmer, and Mattie Jefcoat Donald. Eighteen-month old Atley and four siblings—Huell, Maurice (aka “Lefty”),  Mattye, and Clyde—moved to Downsville, Louisiana,   in February 1912. Much of that trip was made on a Mississippi River barge from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Elly May, Atley’s baby sister, became the only sibling born in Louisiana.

Atley walked each day to his country school in Downsville, a small north Louisiana community. His favorite baseball player as a kid was Babe Ruth. Once asked why, Atley said, “Babe Ruth was the only ballplayer one heard about in the Parish I lived in. As a kid I played at all positions and didn’t know I would wind up as a pitcher.” (Bloodgood, 267) A star high school basketball and baseball player, he scored the only touchdown in a one-time contest against Farmerville, Downsville’s arch-rival. Basketball was Atley’s favorite high school sport. After high school graduation in 1929, he attended Louisiana Tech in Ruston and earned four letters in baseball. A 1930 review of the freshman baseball team stated, “The most promising of the Bullpups is Atley Donald, a brother of the illustrious ‘Lefty,’ who throws the ball across the plate in a manner that makes him look good for the varsity now… a right-hander and has plenty of weight and height to make a good pitcher.” (Lagniappe, Freshman Team Review, 1930) Atley mainly pitched against small colleges such as Millsaps, Mississippi College, Birmingham Southern, and Centenary, but also against the University of Mississippi. Atley’s coach, L.J. Fox, wrote a 1933 letter of recommendation to Ed Barrow, the Yankees general manager, but it was ignored (Tofel, 87).

Atley’s lifelong ambition was to be a New York Yankee, according to Betty, his widow. In January 1934, Hugh Donald gave Atley $25, plus Lefty’s raincoat, so he could hitchhike to St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Yankees trained. Yankee scout Johnny Nee—who covered the South—had seen Atley pitch for Louisiana Tech, but never signed him. Atley looked Nee up in St. Petersburg and was told to contact Yankee management when spring training camp opened. Betty Donald told me Atley made $12 a week at a St. Petersburg grocery store sacking sugar to make ends meet prior to spring training. Nee introduced Atley to Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy, who gave Atley a uniform, and put him on the mound to face Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs and Bill Dickey. McCarthy was quite impressed. “He looks like Lon Warneke out there,” remarked the Yankee manager. Warneke was one of the National League’s elite pitchers, so this was a compliment for Donald (Mayer, 108). Betty Donald took pride in noting that Babe Ruth, in his final spring training, played a “bit of pepper with Atley.” She added, “And so did Lou Gehrig!” Ruth also played poker with Atley during March and April 1934 evenings. Betty recalled that Atley told her, “Ruth did not like to pay up.”

Atley signed a minor league contract and was shipped to Wheeling, West Virginia, Class C. He emerged as the ace for the last-place 1934 Stogies with an 11-10 mark. The Yankees promoted him to the Class B Norfolk Tars by season’s end and he returned to that team the next year. Atley’s league-leading 160 strikeouts in 1935 got noticed, but the Asheville Tourists won the pennant.  In 1936 Atley became a superb pitcher for the Binghamton Triplets in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League, with a 19-9 record and a league-best 189 strikeouts. (Mayer, 108) Atley’s 12 straight wins helped Binghamton win a title and he was promoted to the AA Newark Bears.

The 1937 Newark Bears posted a 109-43 record and featured back-to-back four-game sweeps of Syracuse and Baltimore to win the International League title. Newark came back from a three games-to-none deficit versus the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association to take the Little World Series, four games to three. Atley was 19-2 for a club many classify as the best minor league team ever.

One of the Newark Bears’ and Atley’s biggest fans in 1937 and 1938 was Robert “Bobby” Brown, a junior high student whose family had moved to New Jersey. Bobby Brown later starred in four World Series for the Yankees: 1947, 1949-1951; served his country in World War II and as a doctor in Korea; earned his medical degree with off-season academic work; became Atley’s cardiologist in 1975; and was American League president, 1984-1994. Brown, in one of our phone conversations, recited the 1937 Newark Bears’ regulars, from the catching duo of Buddy Rosar and Willard Hershberger to the infield (George McQuinn, Joe Gordon, Babe Dahlgren, Nolen Richardson); outfield (Bob Seeds, Jimmy Gleeson, Charlie Keller); plus the top four starters: Joe Beggs, Atley Donald, Vito Tamulis, Steve Sundra.

Atley eclipsed the Newark record of 12 straight wins, set by Don Brennan, five years earlier, and ended with 14 in a row. Three post-season wins featured a complete-game triumph over Syracuse and Johnny Vander Meer; a victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the league finals, saved by Spud Chandler; followed by a 1-0 gem in game five of the Little World Series. Joe Gordon singled in Willard Hershberger with the game’s only run.  Atley struck out six Red Birds, including Enos “Country” Slaughter three times. Spud Chandler recalled this mound performance as the key to the series. “Atley Donald deserves much credit for us winning the series, as he pitched the fifth game, beating Max Macon, 1-0.” (Mayer, 280)

The 1938 New York Yankees kept Atley on their roster early in the season and gave him number 28, but sent him back to Newark after two subpar starts which featured 14 walks in 12 innings. Atley suffered from influenza that spring and he was not 100 percent going into the big league season. He produced a league-leading 133 strikeouts for Newark, two more than teammate Marius Russo. The 1938 Newark Bears won 104 games, but fell short in seven-game Little World Series against the Kansas City Blues, also a Yankee farm club.

Posed pitching of New York Yankees Atley Donald, 1942

Atley’s close friends with the Yankees were catcher Bill Dickey, who mostly lived in Arkansas, but was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, near West Monroe, where Betty lives; hurler Spud Chandler, born in Commerce, Georgia; and two Californians: pitcher Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, and shortstop Frankie Crosetti.  Atley corresponded with all of them long after their playing careers ended. Gomez shared his secrets of pitching success—“Clean living and a fast outfield” and “It’s better to be lucky than good” when Atley invited him to attend a baseball coaching clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Atley fished and hunted with Bill Dickey in Louisiana and Arkansas numerous times. When Atley was in New York during the regular season or World Series, he would visit with Crosetti, the Yankee third base coach for many seasons.

“Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig were also close friends of Atley’s; those Yankees were a great group,” said Betty. Gehrig once hit a long 3-run homer off Atley in a 1937 spring training game. (Mayer, 82) Atley still played pepper with Gehrig in the fateful spring of 1939, when Gehrig’s health was failing, and assisted Gehrig in walking onto the field between games with the Washington Senators on July 4, 1939 to address 61,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in his famous speech: “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Atley’s best big league season was his rookie one in 1939. He led the American League with a .813 winning percentage; set a league and team record of 12 straight wins to open a season; and was one of seven Yankee pitchers to win 10+ games, finishing 13-3. Atley’s 12-game win streak for the 1939 Yankees took place from May 23-July 25 and ended against Detroit before his 29th birthday in early August. Daniel M. Daniel, in the August 1939 issue of Baseball Magazine, penciled in his 14-player 1939 All-Rookie Team—with Ted Williams in right field; and three Yankees: Buddy Rosar, Charlie Keller, and Atley Donald. Daniel wrote: “The pitchers shout that we cannot overlook Atley Donald of the Yankees and Whitlow Wyatt of the Dodgers, who approached mid-season with grand winning streaks, yet unbeaten.” (Daniel, 388)

The six-foot-one, 186-pound Atley had this to say about win streaks: “You hit your stride and everything you do out there is right. You get the breaks. Line drives whiz into some fielder’s outstretched glove. Those long shots they hit into the stands off you are foul by a foot. Your teammates make runs. And you win.” (Bloodgood, 267-268) Talent and ability also help. On August 30, a primitive machine in Cleveland clocked Atley’s fastball at 94.7 miles per hour, significant because it put him in the “same league” with Bob Feller, albeit a tad faster than Feller at that moment. Atley was used sparingly the last two months, pitched below his normal standards, and saw his ERA climb from 2.51 to 3.71. He did not appear in the 1939 World Series, but McCarthy simply had a lot of options.

Joe DiMaggio was baseball’s best player in 1939, with a batting title and MVP award to go with the team’s fourth straight World Series win. The 1939 Yankees were stronger overall than the 1927 Bronx Bombers, according to many pundits as well as Ed Barrow, the team’s general manager, who noted: “This [1939] Yankee club is better than the much-talked-about 1927 outfit. This club has great balance, brilliant youth, speed, pitching, everything.” (Tofel, 217)

Atley liked to shag flies with DiMaggio, who in the early 1940s surprised Atley with this offer, when the pitcher remained in St. Petersburg due to an injury: “Here are the keys and gas card to my white convertible,” said DiMaggio. “You can return the car to me in New York City.”  DiMaggio, a very private person, liked Atley, who also kept to himself. Betty reminisced about the time when she and Atley, as newlyweds, shared dances in Florida with Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Betty and 44-year old Atley were married in Natchez, Mississippi, in a private ceremony on January 8, 1955, at the Presbyterian Church. True to Atley’s nature, he insisted upon a private ceremony in Mississippi because he didn’t want people “gawking at him” around Choudrant, Louisiana, where he lived.

Atley was plagued by a bad back in his early years with the New York Yankees. After much tinkering, a buckskin corset was prescribed. It temporarily worked, since the lameness went away. (Bloodgood, 267) Roscoe McGowen of the New York Times  wrote, in describing an intra-league, pre-season exhibition game at Ebbets Field, “….it may be said that the Dodgers descended into the depths of ignominy when they were shut out with two hits by a couple of fellows wearing corsets—Ernie “Tiny” Bonham and Atley Donald.” (Winerip, 254)

Atley also suffered from poor vision in his left eye, which disqualified him from military service during World War II. Manager Joe McCarthy “raised Cain” when someone stole a base off him, so Atley carefully studied base runners in order to compensate for his vision challenge. This eye problem may have been the reason Atley was always a left-handed batter. Atley’s physical maladies kept him from making more than 20 starts in a season, even during the war years when the pitching staff was depleted. But he was a team player.

The 1941 Yankees rebounded from a subpar 1940 season to win the pennant and World Series. Atley went 8-3 in 1940 and 9-5 in 1941. He started Game 4 of the 1941 Series against Brooklyn, but was relieved after giving up four runs in the first four innings. In the ninth a passed ball on a third strike by Mickey Owen, the Brooklyn catcher, propelled the Yankees to a 7-4 win. I conversed with Owen 50 years after this World Series, and he affirmed the Yankees were a strong, well-balanced team, with the best reliever of that era, Johnny Murphy; a deep pitching staff; the incomparable DiMaggio; a Hall of Fame catcher, Bill Dickey; and the best double-play combination in the majors, Joe Gordon and rookie Phil Rizzuto.

Atley’s final four seasons as a Yankee pitcher, 1942-1945, showed a combined 35-21 won-loss record.  New York won the 1942 and 1943 pennants and split the Fall Classic with St. Louis—losing in 1942, but winning in 1943. Atley took the loss in Game 4 of the 1942 series and did not pitch in the 1943 event, one which Spud Chandler won Games 1 and 5.

Chandler and Atley developed a closer bond as the 1943 season wore on. Spud bragged on his college gridiron exploits for the 1929-1931 Georgia Bulldogs, who defeated the Yale Bulldogs, three straight times and boasted that he grew up in the same Georgia County [Franklin] where Ty Cobb was raised. Atley countered with his 1928 high school touchdown run and hoop skills. The 82-year old Chandler was terminally ill by the fall of 1989, when Atley visited him one last time in Florida. As Betty put it, “Spud Chandler was dying and Atley was sad; Spud wanted us to stay…”

Yankee post-World Series victory parties in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s featured the big band music of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians and Bob Hope as emcee. Lombardo met many of the Yankees from that era, when Atley was still a bachelor. Betty recalls a Florida dinner-club experience in the early 1960s when Lombardo was playing and noticed the Donalds seated at a nearby table. Lombardo stopped the music, walked over to Atley and shook his hand.

Some writers in the mid-1940s thought that Richard was his middle name. The June 1944 issue of Baseball Magazine had Atley’s photo on the inside front cover, with this inscription—Atley Richard Donald, the Yankee right hander who was born in Mississippi. Atley had calcium spurs in his right shoulder by July 1945. He pitched his last Yankee game on July 13 and had shoulder surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He couldn’t lift his right arm above his shoulder: “When it got to where it wasn’t any fun, I’d quit. And I did.”  Bobby Brown, a 1946 International League all-star shortstop with Newark in his only minor league season before joining the Yankees late in the 1946 season, told me the injury was a torn rotator cuff.

The Yankees offered Atley a scouting position with the Yankees in 1946, shortly after Atley and Betty met at a Ford dealership near Monroe, Louisiana, where Betty worked in the office. Atley spent the next 29 years as a scout, with Louisiana as a home base for southern Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, part of Oklahoma and Texas for 17 years. He covered Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and parts of Tennessee in the 12 years they lived in Florida. Atley had opportunities to scout players in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but declined because he hated to fly.

One of Atley’s early Yankee signees was catcher Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney. Atley visited Courtney on his family’s sweet potato farm in Coushatta, Louisiana, and signed Courtney on the farm. Courtney was one of the first big league catchers to wear glasses in games. His one game for New York was on September 29, 1951, but then Rogers Hornsby, the St. Louis Browns manager, arranged a trade. Hornsby had managed Courtney with the 1950 Beaumont Roughnecks, a Yankee AA farm club, and the 1950-51 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico.

Betty accompanied Atley on many scouting road trips.  One of her favorite signees was Jack Reed of Silver City, Mississippi. After Atley scouted Reed at a semi-pro game, the boy’s mother treated Atley and Betty to a sumptuous meal. Jack Reed was an all-around athlete who won the state high school title for the Gulf Coast Military Academy in the quarter mile; played in the January 1, 1953, Sugar Bowl for Ole Miss at safety; and was a top-notch outfielder. “Atley used to come over and watch me [and my brother] play semi-pro ball,” said Reed. “Dad owned a lot of land, a cotton plantation, and I spent many hours helping him. Many years later, we visited the Donalds at that big cattle ranch in Choudrant.”

Jack Reed is one of a few athletes to play in a Sugar Bowl and World Series game. The 1961 Yankees faced Cincinnati in the Fall Classic, just as Atley’s 1939 Yankees did against the Reds. Reed backed up Mickey Mantle in 1961 and got more playing time in 1962-63 due to Mantle’s injuries. Reed’s first minor league skipper with the 1953 Kansas City Blues was Harry Craft, an ex-Mississippi College student, who had managed and developed Mantle with the 1950 Class C Joplin Miners of the Western Association. Craft knew Atley well from the 1939 World Series, when he played for Cincinnati. Craft was born in Mississippi but grew up in Texas.

Jake Gibbs was a high school senior in Grenada, Mississippi, when Atley first scouted him in 1957. Atley also scouted Gibbs at Ole Miss, where he was an All-America quarterback in 1960, the 1961 Sugar Bowl MVP, and a two-time All-America third baseman, 1960-61, with a .384 college batting average. Gibbs said, “Scouts from the Braves and Giants were looking at me, but I chose the Yankees. Atley did tremendous scouting work and was well-respected in his [scouting] territory…. [He] told me, ‘Go out there and show what you’re made of.’” All of Grenada, Mississippi, came out to cheer Jake Gibbs when he signed with the Yankees in 1961.  Gibbs later chatted with Atley at baseball coaching clinics in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and when Atley scouted Ole Miss players in Oxford, Mississippi, after Gibbs became the school’s head baseball coach in 1972 following his 10-year career with the Yankees.

Two more of Atley’s many signees were Ron Blomberg of Atlanta, the number-one overall draft pick in 1967, and Ron Guidry, the pride of Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1971. Blomberg’s name is etched in baseball lore as the first designated hitter to bat in American League history—April 6, 1973, when he faced Luis Tiant of the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, a half-inning before Orlando Cepeda, the Red Sox DH. Betty Donald recalled Atley overnighted at an Atlanta hotel when he scouted and signed Blomberg, and that he took Blomberg and his parents out to eat one evening before Blomberg was drafted. Atley saw Blomberg’s 420-foot homer in a high school All-Star Game at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium (Blomberg, 18). “Donald came through in his recommendation, and the Yankees made me the top pick in the country,” said Blomberg. “The day after I graduated from high school, Atley Donald flew down to Atlanta and signed me in a hotel near the airport.” (Blomberg, 22)  Ron Blomberg, a lifelong Yankee fan just like Atley was, roomed with Thurman Munson—his best friend before a torn rotator cuff and other injuries curtailed his big league career, which ended in 1978.

Guidry’s 1978 career year included a 25-3 mark, a franchise record 248 strikeouts and 13 straight wins, to break Atley’s team record of 12, set in 1939. Only Lefty Gomez, with 26 wins in 1934, had more wins for the Yankees since Atley first reported to spring training. Atley understood that if Guidry did not enroll in the spring 1971 semester at Southwestern Louisiana University, he would be eligible for the June 1 amateur draft. Guidry recalled, “I had been contacted by every major league organization but two—the Cincinnati Reds and the Yankees, from whom I didn’t get a letter or a postcard, nothing…. I was disappointed; knew they were looking for players like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, great stars.” (Guidry, 65)

Atley did his homework and knew exactly what he was doing. Guidry said, “What I didn’t know at the time was that Atley Donald was the only scout who was aware that I was eligible…knew I had dropped out of school when everyone else still thought I was ineligible for the draft.” (Guidry, 66) Atley saw something special in Ron Guidry despite his relatively small stature. Atley and Betty visited the Guidry home in Lafayette the day after the draft. Atley left the contract with Ron Guidry, who told him to call back in two days. It was a done deal.

Dave “Boo” Ferriss, a Boston Red Sox rookie in 1945—Atley’s last Yankee season as a player—had the highest regard for Atley, and enjoyed his friendship. Atley watched Ferriss’s Delta State baseball teams in action from 1960-1974. Ferriss found Atley to be a likeable fellow and appreciated it when I brought Atley’s Mississippi connection to his attention—ancestry, birth, and marriage.  He spent time with Atley at the Baton Rouge Baseball Clinics.

Atley became Dr. Bobby Brown’s patient in 1975 when he was having symptoms of coronary disease. Brown recommended that Dr. Manny Nazarian in Fort Worth, Texas, perform bypass graft surgery. It had sentimental value to Bobby Brown—he saw Atley pitch for Newark in 1937-38 and first met Atley in 1947, at the Yankees-Dodgers World Series, early in Atley’s scouting career. When Atley came to New Orleans, where Bobby Brown was in medical school at Tulane University, they would visit, have dinner and occasionally attend horse races at the Fair Grounds. Bobby Brown took a deep personal interest in this biography of Atley Donald.

In retirement Atley and Betty lived on a 500-plus acre cattle ranch in Choudrant. One visitor was Lee MacPhail—former Yankee executive—who hoped Atley might return to the Yankees in a coaching capacity. Red Angus cattle were one of Atley’s specialties; he became an expert breeder of this variety. One day Atley received a phone call from Terry Bradshaw, a Louisiana Tech alumnus, four-time Super Bowl Champion quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, like Atley, a member of the Louisiana Tech University Athletic Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Bradshaw had questions for Atley on breeding Red Angus so he could make more informed decisions. Atley and Betty also owned 1,100 acres of prime hunting land in Louisiana’s Tensas and Madison Parishes.

Atley passed away at age 82, in West Monroe, Louisiana, on October 19, 1992. He was interred at the Sibley Cemetery in Sibley, Louisiana. Betty, in one of our conversations, summarized Atley’s qualities: good sense of humor, never bragged, was religious, and kept in touch with old friends.

The Mississippi Legislature, via Senate Concurrent Resolution Number 652, in March 2010, recognized and saluted the Sports Historical Legacy of the late Richard Atley Donald, the only major league baseball player born in Morton, Mississippi, in the centennial year of his birth.

 

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