Some folks in Carolina say that Jesse Morgan Eldridge had a million-dollar arm and a 10¢ head. And as proof they offer the fact that, after Eldridge left the red-clay diamond at the brickyard near his home in Glenola, a central North Carolina hamlet, he became a legend in baseball's minor leagues. Nevertheless, he spurned all opportunities to follow the many others who sprouted among the tobacco rows of the Tar Heel State and blossomed in the majors.
Instead, Eldridge was content to remain a country bumpkin—he was nicknamed Rube, of course—who bounced from one club to another along the fringe of big-time baseball, mixing hard drinking and horseplay with incredible performances on the mound. In fact, it was his reputation for belting moonshine and then mowing down batters that resulted in his most feared pitch being called the "barleycorn fadeaway."
While cavorting in the minors from 1906 to 1927, Eldridge, a slender lefthander, won 312 games and pitched both ends of no fewer than 100 doubleheaders. It was his fabled stamina that earned Eldridge his alternate nickname, Iron Man. One season, while playing for High Point in North Carolina's old Piedmont League, he won 22, lost three and had two ties in the first half of a split season.
When he was 17 Eldridge left sandlot ball for the pros, and in 1909 he made his first appearance for the classy Greensboro Patriots. The first batter he faced tripled and the second doubled, but then Eldridge regained the pinpoint control that he had acquired as a boy hurling acorns through knotholes in his father's barn and killing squirrels with rocks. He allowed only two other hits the rest of the way and won 2-1. Afterward Manager Pop McKevitt sprayed a mouthful of tobacco juice across Eldridge's backside, elbowed the pitcher in the ribs and gave him a big grin. It was a signal that the kid was on his way up.
During the next 11 seasons Eldridge played for eight teams in the Piedmont, Virginia, South Atlantic and Blue Ridge leagues. He was scouted on three occasions by Connie Mack, who told Eldridge that he could make it in the majors "if you'd only behave," but Eldridge put a higher price on his fun and freedom than a fat baseball salary.
He was sold six times to clubs in the majors and high minors and was drafted five times. On every occasion but one he refused to report, explaining, "I don't want to play anywhere I can't walk home."
The one time he gave in to a slight itch to travel was in 1920 when he reported to Columbus, Ohio of the American Association, then the fastest Triple-A league in the country. In his only performance, he pitched a five-hitter and beat Toledo 4-2. Then he headed to a bar to celebrate. When a black man plopped himself on a stool next to Eldridge, the startled son of the South jumped up and immediately began preparing for his return home. A teammate deciphered a message, written in lipstick, that Eldridge had scrawled on the mirror in his hotel room. "I like you people," it read, "and I like your town, but the corn likker is better in Glenola."
In 1920 Eldridge signed with the Charlotte Hornets of the South Atlantic League, where a sportswriter acclaimed him as "The Duke of Spero." The latest nickname derived from a conversation during which Eldridge inexplicably had announced that his hometown was Spero, a crossroads south of Glenola. For the rest of his life Eldridge was as well known as The Duke as he was as Rube.
By now, Eldridge had begun to lose some of his stuff, which led another Charlotte sports reporter to inquire, "Rube. I've been sitting behind the plate all season and have yet to see you put anything on the ball. How do you fool such good hitters as Teague and Gooch?"
Replied Eldridge, "Well, son, the boys are up there looking fer something on the ball, and there ain't nothing on it. That's what fools 'em. Psyrology, son."
Although Charlotte was less than 100 miles from Glenola, Eldridge wanted to play even nearer home, preferably with High Point, which was just a few cow pastures from the old brickyard. Thus, he left the Hornets after one season and hooked up with High Point, where the fans regularly plied him with booze, figuring the more he imbibed, the better his fadeaway would fade. Such matters as the magnitude of Rube's fade were of no small import in High Point, where it was not unusual for merchants to close up shop on the afternoon of a big game so that they could see Eldridge pitch.
In his first start for his new team, Eldridge, fortified with a long pint of white lightning and a huge chew of Brown Mule, beat Danville 3-1; in the second game of that afternoon's doubleheader, his pitching gave High Point a 1-0 victory. Afterward, Eldridge said, "It was them deceptive wrinkles and shimmies. I got better as I perspired more profusely."
On another afternoon, Eldridge was warming up when a fan yelled, "Hey Rube, who's going to pitch the second game?" Rube stopped his warm-up, walked to where all could see him, doffed his cap and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen. Mr. Eldridge will pitch the first game and, if he wins, Doc Sloan will pitch the second." Rube leaned heavily on Sloan's liniment, a patent medicine. He called it "my salary whip."
Eldridge was still with High Point when, at age 37, he retired from pro ball. Thereafter he did some barnstorming with semi-pro teams. He did not pitch his last game until he was 63. Years after leaving the game, Eldridge looked back on his career, saying, "I never had no frightening fireball, but sometimes on a real hot day, when I was stinking sweaty, I could throw real hard in a pinch. My two best pitches was a change-up and a knuckleball.
"That knuckler of mine was one of the great sights on earth. If you ever tried to hit a humming bird with a broom handle, you know what I mean. It just went up near the plate, danced a jig and exploded. I never knowed whether it was going to break inside or outside, but it'd stay in the strike zone.
"I was knowed to have needle-threading control. It started when I was a kid throwing rocks. Worse whupping I ever got was once when my old man handed me three smooth rocks and sent me out in the woods, and I come back with only two squirrels."
Neither corn likker nor too many doubleheaders did Eldridge in. He died in 1968, at the age of 80, in his beloved Glenola, a victim of old age.