From poverty to the Baseball Hall of Fame: The life and career of Bill Terry

Bill Terry Helmar art card

Bill Terry’s life is a story of desperation, perseverance, and redemption. He grew up extremely poor in a broken family. He was only 15 when he left home to take a job in the rail yards near Atlanta. He was a good athlete and eventually got a chance with the Atlanta Crackers. Initially he was a pitcher, but he struggled to throw strikes, and the gig didn’t pay much, so when his wife was pregnant with their first child, he gave up baseball and moved to Tennessee to take a better paying job. 

He couldn’t stay away from baseball, and eventually Terry started playing first base where he showed off a great stick in leagues around Memphis. A Giants’ scout traveling through the area caught a glimpse of the 23-year old. He had been out of professional ball for five years when the Giants offered him a contract, which Terry only accepted after he secured a guarantee that it would pay him more than he made in the factory. Things happened fast, and a year later he was playing in New York for legendary manager John McGraw. Two years later he replaced future Hall of Famer George Kelly as McGraw’s first baseman. 

Teams learned to bunch their defense up the middle against Terry, who hit almost everything to center or left-center field. “The Old Man,” as Terry and others called McGraw, constantly needled Bill to pull the ball. By his early 30s, Terry hit .400 and set a league record for hits in a season. The final day of the season became known as “Bill Terry Day” because on several occasions he entered the last game of the year with a chance to win a batting title or set a record. In 1930 he had 254 hits and needed three to match George Sisler’s all-time mark, but went hitless. The following year, Terry lost the batting crown on the last day of the season by one hit. Terry finished second in the batting race three times.

Terry was always mature and serious-minded (he even briefly served as a player-manager in the minor leagues), he had to be, considering his rough childhood. He was never romantic about the sport. “I played baseball only because I could make more money doing that than I could anything else,” he said. Completing the Cinderella story, when McGraw retired, the ballplayer they called “Memphis Bill” was named his replacement as manager of the mighty Giants. 

Terry had a fierce competitive streak and approached the pennant race as if it was life or death. He led the Giants to a championship in his first full season, hit .354 as a player-manager, and led the team to two additional pennants. He could have continued to play, but retired at the age of 37 to concentrate on managing. Terry took losses very hard. After his team lost a game, he would sit in his office alone, in full uniform. An hour would go by and his players would be allowed to leave, but Terry would sit alone and ponder the loss, often remaining at the ballpark for hours.

He was the first player whose relationship with the media negatively impacted his Hall of Fame chances. Terry frequently banned reporters from his office or refused to give interviews. The baseball writers pondered his name on 14 ballots before they elected Terry, 18 years after his last game as a player. When the phone call came to inform him of his election, Terry coldly told a reporter, “I have nothing to say.” 

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