The Man Who Stopped Time, or, The Eternal At-Bat of Theodore “Tarpaper” Turkleson

At a garage sale in Topinabee, Michigan, on a hot, mayfly-infested summer day in 2005, I came across a copy of Professor C. B. See’s The Crime Against Tarpaper. This was a tattered, moldy, self-published little book and the proprietor of said garage sale had no idea as to where he had acquired it, what it was about, or if it was worth more than a buck.  Upon purchasing and reading it that lazy afternoon by the Indian River, I found that, according to the author, a miracle of sorts played itself out in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis during the war-plagued (and pennant-winning) summer of 1944. Specifically, that a baseball player by the name of Theodore “Tarpaper” Turkleson had an at-bat that lasted well over four hundred pitches, exhausted six pitchers with the Detroit Tigers and which, in a sense, stopped time.

This thin volume was published in 1970 and the irascible Professor See died some dozen years later.  According to Dr. See’s colleagues at Northern Michigan University, as well as fellow members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), he apparently believed very strongly in conspiracy, in history, and in Mr. Turkleson.

The Professor related quite strongly to the personality of his subject.  He (See) was one of the founding members of SABR, and to this day remains the only member to have been drummed out for his perniciousness, the details of which include an unending harassment against the Society’s members with phone calls, letters, and mailed copies of The Crime Against Tarpaper, its cover scarred with invectives against the receiver (most, if not all, of these were destroyed.)  All told, there were four different restraining orders against Dr. See, including perhaps the first class-action restraining order in Michigan history.

To make matters more complicated, Theodore Turkleson, also known as “Tod”, isn’t recognized as having played a single game in Major League Baseball history, and hasn’t an entry in any official record, including The Baseball Encyclopedia or any online source.  His story, then, must live on here.

The Rise of Theodore Turkleson

Grainy photos in Crime show Turkleson to be a whip-thin, tall, stooped over specimen, with dead eyes and mottled skin.  According to See, the young man began drinking early in life, thus wiping out any baby fat that could have softened his rough features. Instead, he looked, and acted, as if he were one of a variety of rural, Depression-era gangsters, happy only with a gat and a bag of someone else’s money.

Fortunately (or not) for society, Turkleson was weaned on baseball, as his mother (a footnote on p. 4 of Crime indicates a deserted father who will play no part in the story) started for a women’s burlesque baseball team in East Saint Louis, The Dixie Club Pirouettes.

The beauty of the game could not have been lost on the young boy, who at an early age saw an unprecedented fusion of the siren song of the nation’s pastime with the primal urge of sex.  During the afternoon games, in which prodigious quantities of beer were served to men hungry to watch brassiere-less female baseball, Turkleson began to appreciate the art of turning double-plays, of getting a good jump on the ball, not to mention red-haired women. The crack of a bat and the smell of fresh-cut grass mingling with cheap perfume charged Turkleson in ways that we might only imagine, but probably never approach.  The boy watched this amateur baseball and sat amongst men who didn’t care for the sport but instead for the promise of commercial toplessness and perhaps sexual adventure.

Turkleson hated these men. In fact, he came to hate most men, including future teammates. Invited to practice alongside the girls, he would work quietly while the women would congregate with customers on the side (including, of course, his own mother.)

Because the Pirouettes did not place much emphasis on offense, Theodore never saw adequate batsmanship (batswomanship?) and subsequently never hit over .217 in any league, professional or otherwise.

Turkleson distinguished himself on the diamond in high school, using his abilities to make up for very poor grades.  Taking a cue from his entertainment-minded mother, he gave himself a nickname in order to stand out.  Thus, “Tarpaper” was born, reflecting his ability to field grounders with ease.  He was known throughout eastern Missouri high school leagues as a firecracker, a young man who, if he could make it to first, would do anything to advance around the bases, to knock out the opposition, and to bruise and batter, physically and emotionally, anyone who stood in his way.  Vin Savage, a coach at Turkleson’s Bat Masterson High School (and quoted in See’s book), called Tarpaper, “a strange fellow, someone who seemed to be having a bitter argument with everyone, mostly with himself.”

As the end of school approached, naturally the call to professional baseball beckoned a man of such limited talents outside this world. His loathing of humanity might have led him to a life of crime. Some, according to See, claimed that Tarpaper’s miniscule career in baseball was itself a crime.

In 1942, the boy jumped out of school at age sixteen and began a search through the Midwest to find the team with the weakest shortstop, his chosen position.  Fortunately for him, the war had already bled the leagues dry.  Turkleson himself briefly tried to lie his way into the military—in fact, most people believed he was older than his sixteen years, and a few recruiters questioned whether he was too old.  Even in 1944, when he was eighteen and the military desperately needed men, Turkleson was unable to join any branch of service, thanks to hay fever, chronic halitosis, and even more pungently, a personality that even drove him away from the Red Cross blood drives.  As if to make up for his lack of a military career, he managed to fight anyone and everyone who wore a uniform, including nurses and WACs.

Some Facts

Tarpaper’s bat was a 30 oz. Spalding Mushroom model, deep red like the Mississippi after a storm, riddled with tiny cracks and wrapped in cloth tape.  A blurry photograph on page 29 seems to show that it bore only a burnt signature of its manufacturer.  However, according to See (p. 64), “Triple T” was inscribed on the bottom of the knob, possibly by his mother.

Turkleson batted right and threw from the same.  He believed that left-handers were trouble and brought with them the ability to provoke a chicken hex and other strange maladies.

Theodore wore a light tan Draper & Maynard glove, worn into smoothness by doubling as a pillow.  Like his bat, it, too, was without endorsement.

Young Turkleson found himself in Rockford, Illinois, and for two years scraped and struggled in what See calls one of the “worst ballclubs ever to take the field in the history of the sport, on any level.”  Amazing, too, is that they could remain in business with such a product on their nearly grassless field, with grandstands that look as if they’d collapse under the weight of a young boy.  In spite of the vile conditions, and the fact that the Rockford Lincolns were a deadly awful club, Tarpaper was so poor at the plate that he had to find work after those two seasons.  However, his temper and foul mouth kept him from decent work, certainly nothing essential to the war effort. Itinerant, he bumped around the circuit with a half-dozen or so clubs in the low minors, from Killkenny, Idaho to Oatmeal, Nebraska.

Inexplicably, he ended up with the East St. Louis Accordions, though not an affiliate of the Browns, often supplied the war-weary club with players, coaches, and even vendors. In thirty-five games played for the Accordions (according to See), Tarpaper batted .208. His on-base percentage was also .208, as was his slugging percentage.  He had no RBIs.  These all reflect his amazing mediocrity.

At this time, he lived in a boarding house, installing his mother on the first floor and many of her friends from the East St. Louis hospitality industry.

Despite pictures throughout the book, there are no photographs of Mr. Turkleson himself from this time. The Society For American Baseball Research has no record of a Free State League.

Like a Summer Cold, Impossible to Shake

According to the index, Professor See gathered fifteen scorecards from the Free State League that summer: we see the name Turkleson, Tarpaper, Mr. Turkleson, AFNH Turk (which See assumes to mean a derisive “All Field No Hit”), and, in one instance “Cry Baby.” Turkleson was number nine in the batting order, indicating that even the pitcher was regarded as a more potent offensive threat. It appears, from the most detailed scorecards, that Tarpaper was a guy who ran short pitch counts and couldn’t walk to save his life. All of which makes his improbable at-bat all the more bewildering.

According to Professor See, a temporary and bizarre injury to the Browns regular shortstop, Vern Stephens, and a scout’s preference for Mrs. Turkleson’s pleasures, brought the young man into the major leagues.  Stephens’ left hand was paralyzed, in part due to some deficiency of the thyroid gland, alcoholism (See’s theory, never explained), a broken bone, or a hog bite.  According to See, Stephens’ was “quarantined” for three games. Inexplicably, without anyone else to field the position, Turkleson was called to the Browns.

After being signed to what should have been a culmination of a lifelong dream, Tarpaper did little to endear himself to his teammates, his coaches, and management. As a result, after Tarpaper’s one game, he was so loathed that the manager penciled his third base or first base coaches in Tarpaper’s spot, though age kept them from any long-term playing.  The war alone kept Tarpaper on the roster for those 72 hours, which earned him a new nickname from his teammates: The War Profiteer.

The Man Who Stopped Time

On June 27, 1944, in a game against the Detroit Tigers, Theodore “Tarpaper” Turkleson made his one and only appearance in the major leagues, and had what is most probably the longest at-bat in the history of this sport.

Professor See relies on three sources:  an inspection of a scorecard by long-suffering fan Gabriel Hatt, who recorded every pitch; eyewitness testimony from a hot dog vendor scribbled onto old S & H Green Stamp stationary; and five reel-to-reel tapes containing an interview with the St. Louis Browns official scorer, John Dough, who claims that “Turkleson’s damn at-bat lasted so long I think I wet myself.”

Knowing that Tarpaper was a lousy hitter, the Tigers’ Hawaiian-born pitcher Prince Oana tried to blow the kid away with some stinging fastballs.  Initially, it appeared to be a good strategy:  Turkleson swung wildly on the first throw, but fouled off the second, dropping into his usual 0-2 hole.  Then Tarpaper—as if discovering for the first time in his life an unholy ability to connect bat with ball—fouled off the next nine pitches, shooting screamers down either line.  The crowds waited, unwilling to boo just yet, some marveling at his persistence.

And they would keep waiting, as he made contact on every curve and fastball Oana fed him, many of which were far outside the strike zone.   Undoubtedly, Tod had little faith in his own ability to judge a ball versus a strike.  It would be forty-two, forty-three, fifty-one, or fifty-five pitches before a ball would go by.  Accounts vary.

Oana bore down and Turkleson—perhaps slightly inebriated—swung at every pitch, and failed in every instance to send the ball in play or strike out.  He squirted fouls down the left-field line, sent them rocketing into the stands in right, knocked hats off the heads of gentlemen and the hats off the few ladies who sat behind the dugout.  Four of his fouls would have been fair had they been scooped up in the infield; two were long blasts that looked as if they’d sail into fair territory but for an almost divine wind that shot in suddenly from center field; six hit the plate off the tip of his bat and cracked against his shins.

After fouling off a pitch a good foot over his head, Turkleson stood out of the box, spit into his hands, wiped his brow, and admired the bat, staring at it as if for the first time, and unsure as to its provenance or perhaps its use.  Then he dug in with his cleats, rolled his shoulders and pointed the bat into foul territory, left, and then right.  Oana responded with a pitch high and inside, which Turkleson defended with his lumber.  The ball popped harmlessly into the stands behind home plate.

The clock chimed four times when Turkleson began this ordeal. Now it struck the halfway point between the hours.  Shadows were creeping from the stands and into the field, chilling the man in the on-deck circle.  When Tod swung and missed, there was a chorus of sighs from the crowds.  But the umpire, a “too honest man by half,” according to the scorekeeper, brushed the back of his hand to indicate a foul tip, which had dropped from the glove of the catcher.  A footnote at the bottom of See’s book (and handwritten by the Professor) claims that Billy McKinley Hughes, the batboy, observed that women were weeping from fatigue, men were openly praying, and that Oana paused, bent over, and vomited.

By now, the pitcher’s arm was growing more and more fatigued, the muscles aching, and it felt as if railroad spikes were being driven slowly into his shoulder. It should be noted here, as it is in the book, that Professor See recreated this incredible at-bat one afternoon in 1958, swinging at balls tossed to him by the Detroit P.S. 129 junior varsity team, for a quarter a throw.  Sixty-two dollars later, See collapsed.  Two of the boys’ careers as pitchers were over, and one gave up the sport entirely for a life in a Kentucky monastery.

Turkleson’s at-bat continued.  At one point, a ball skated across third, seemingly fair. The umpire, Bob Ulks, waved his arms frantically, indicating foul.  Both dugouts emptied, and the other umpires ganged up on their own man to get him to change the ruling.  However, an infuriated fan tossed a bottle of lukewarm Moxie at Mr. Ulks, knocking him unconscious.  According to league rules, without Mr. Ulks’ ability to reverse his decision, the ruling stood.

According to Dough, Oana was replaced at pitch 264. According to Mr. Hatt, it was on pitch 305.  Perhaps groundskeeper Hal Dobbs said it best when he suggested that there wasn’t a “chance in hell” that anyone could really know—who’d been counting at the start?

Three hours ground on, and the entire crowd fell silent as the clock tower pealed its quotidian tune. It chimed seven times, as if indicating a world still in motion outside the stadium.  Three more pitchers took the mound against Tarpaper, and yet he kept on fouling even the worst junk.  No one intentionally walked him, and five attempts at hitting Turkleson were met with swings of such incredible contortion people wondered if he weren’t some circus freak.  Both sides broke for twenty minutes for refreshments and ointment—it must be noted, however, that no one came to Turkleson’s aid, but he was warned about public indecency when he began motions to urinate in plain view of the dwindling crowd.

The club ran out of baseballs. So now, as the fourth hour crept on, we must remember that for each ball that took to the stands, time was taken for it to be retrieved and returned to the field of play.  Spectators took to praying over the pill, rubbing rabbits feet and chicken bones on the thing. One fellow refused to give the ball back, and was soundly beaten by both his wife and a retired policeman.

Some wondered what Turkleson was thinking.  Why he didn’t just let a pitch go by or swing wildly and miss?  He was stubborn, true, but not in any profound way that would reflect upon this particular situation.  Fans threatened him, made him lucrative offers, promised liquor and sex, a mule, a fishing boat, and even two hundred dollars. Tarpaper just dug in all the more, in part, See claims, because “he didn’t believe in any of these promises. Would you?”

The early evening wore on into night. Fans deserted the field. One soldier, a Marine named Kelly Flynn, just returned from Guadalcanal and with an arm missing, watched the whole thing, enraptured.  See quoted the young man as saying, “After all I’d gone through, it rested my restless mind.” But the umpires grew surly, the Tigers and Browns grew vicious, eager for Turkleson to strike out, walk, bunt or hit a homer in this losing contest (it was 3-0 Tigers at this time), anything, so they could finish the game and vent their frustrations on his hide.  But he kept lunging at every pitch, fouling off balls into the backstop, down the left and right field lines, into dugouts, off his cleats and rolling to the mound, or into the stands where the coaches and managers chased the ball and then hurled it at him with utter impunity. Once, and only once, was there a pop foul that could have been played, but this must have been around the four hundredth pitch. The third baseman, eyelids heavy and thinking no doubt of the post-game meal he would enjoy, watched the ball plop onto the grass behind him, and he missed the opportunity to end this torture.

The Crime Against Tarpaper

In the end, the game was called on account of darkness, three innings played, the contest awarded to the Tigers in spite of the length.  The scorekeeper, infuriated that Tarpaper would subject anyone to such torments—especially someone as talentless and undeserving as Turkleson was—removed him from the official score. His at-bat vanished.  His time spent in Sportsman’s Park was gone, lost between the numbers and the echoing chimes of the clock tower.

Tarpaper was not invited back to play.  Afterwards, however, he seemed a different man. “Odd, touched,” See wrote. “I remember visiting him when I was a child. He still had that bat, told me never to touch it, that it would ruin my life if I did. Well, I touched it, and it hasn’t ruined anything. In fact, I swear to God that once I did I knew I had to tell Tod’s story. In fact, my whole life has been dedicated to this pursuit.”

Oddly enough, Theodore joined the merchant marine at the tail end of the war, finding a ship’s captain equally mean and foul-mouthed. He seemed, to his crewmates, to be someone who courted death.  However, according to the same friends, it seemed as if he would live forever—he was the model of health, despite his habit of drinking straight gin at every meal and smoking cigarettes without filters.

Finally, in December 1968, Turkleson met Professor See for dinner in a small saloon East St. Louis, where he’d settled down again.  “He had been quiet all day,” See wrote. “I was disappointed—we were supposed to have some sort of in-depth interview about the at-bat.  After dinner, though, I kept pressing him to tell me more about that day.  Finally, Tod blew up at me, wondering why I wouldn’t let it alone.  He apologized, and told me, unbelievably, that I could have the bat.  Then he excused himself, and said he was feeling odd.”  Tarpaper pulled on a jacket against the chilly evening and left to take a walk.

Professor See never saw him again. Theodore “Tarpaper” Turkleson was found washed up on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River a week later.  His possessions were left to Dr. See.  Turkleson vanished from memory, and, until now, from history. He was 42 years old.

This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the collection Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, edited by Jeffery Hess (2009, Press 53.)

This entry was posted in The Noble Sport: Baseball. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.