Roger Wolff

Roger Wolff

A talented athlete who dazzled sports fans all over the country, Roger Wolff thrilled and inspired a generation of baseball players with his knuckleball before returning to share his gifts with the people of his hometown.

Roger Francis Wolff was born in Evansville, Illinois, in April 1911. He was the second child of Leo Wolff and Eleanor Schifferdecker Wolff, who were born and raised in Evansville and Red Bud. Leo was working for a livery stable when Roger was born, but as automobiles took over the streets, Leo focused instead to a new kind of horsepower, opening his own garage in Evansville. The Wolffs were active parishioners at St. Boniface in town, and by the time Roger was ten, the family had grown to include six children – Omer, Roger, Dorothy, Paul, Leora, and Marion – who were all living with their parents and their maternal grandmother, Lidwina, in a house on Public Street.

In 1922, Leo and Eleanor moved their family from Evansville to a home on Swanwick Street in Chester. There, Leo opened a market, selling meat and groceries. The family – which grew to include two more children, Gene and Dolores – all pitched in to make the market a success. Roger left school after the eighth grade, and he and his older brother, Omer, began working as salesmen for their father’s store. Wolff’s Market became a mainstay of the community. Eventually, Roger’s sister, Dorothy, began working as the market’s bookkeeper, and Roger also pitched in as a butcher and a clerk.

But while he was dedicated to the family business, Roger was also discovering that he possessed special talent in another field: baseball. In an interview given to writer Michael Fedo in his late seventies, Roger recalled playing ball with Omer on breaks from work at the store. Soon playing ball had become an all-encompassing passion for the teenager. “I just loved baseball,” he reminisced. “I used to get on my bicycle and go to the field, and I’d stay out there until you couldn’t see the ball anymore.” A quick pitching lesson from Chester’s mayor, Edward H. Wegener, turned out to be a life-changing moment. Roger explained, “He showed me how to throw the knuckleball. I threw it like he did, with three fingers, not two. And I never gripped the seams or the ball would spin on me. I picked it up right away.”

The knuckleball is one of the most fascinating pitches in baseball. Designed to deceive and confuse the batter, the pitch is thrown with a grip that minimizes the spin of the ball in flight. A good knuckler moves slower than many pitches, but its fluttering path is unpredictable, making it very difficult to hit – and catch. In the 1950s, sports columnist Whitney Martin described the knuckleball thrown by Roger Wolff and others of his era, explaining, “It comes toward the plate, a lazy pitch apparently without guile, but just as it gets up there it becomes a vicious instrument of torture. It darts this way and that, backs up, sidesteps, crouches. The catcher just hopes for the best, and is doubly thankful for the invention of the mask, chest protector, and shin guards.” The pitch is hard on the catcher, but its slow speed means that it takes relatively little toll on the pitcher’s arm, giving knuckleballers the ability to throw inning after inning without the strain caused by pitches like the fastball.

Armed with his impressive knuckleball, Roger soon turned baseball into a career. As a teenager, he began playing semi-pro ball for the Red Bud team in the St. Moran League, which also included teams from Edwardsville, Waterloo, Columbia, Valmeyer, and Dupo. In the midst of the Great Depression, Roger was thrilled to earn the princely sum of $25 a game – far more than he could make in a week working at his father’s market. And even bigger stages were soon calling. Matthew “Red” Burgdorf, manager of the Red Bud team, mentioned Roger’s talent to St. Louis Cardinals manager Branch Rickey. The scouting report led to a minor league contract for the young pitcher. In 1930, he pitched for a minor league team in Danville, Illinois. By 1931, twenty-year-old Roger had headed north to Iowa, where he pitched for the Keokuk Indians in the Mississippi Valley League. Roger and his knuckleball bounced around the minor leagues, including stints playing for the Denver Grizzlies, the Springfield Senators, and the Terre Haute Tots.

 

Roger Wolff (top row, left) and the 1932 Dayton Ducks

At the end of the summer of 1932, Roger found himself in Ohio, pitching in the Middle Atlantic League for the Dayton Ducks. Named for their manager, former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Howard “Ducky” Holmes, the Ducks became Roger’s summer home for the next several seasons. The local press embraced the young pitcher, calling him the “bellwether of the 1933 hill brigade” for the Ducks. In the spring of 1934, the Dayton Herald praised Roger for both his talent and his dedication to the team, noting, “Few flingers in the Middle Atlantic last season were more able or willing than the tall right-hander from Chester, Illinois. He stepped to the center of the ring often to save a game and pitched out of turn with regularity in the desperate Duckling efforts to collect the flag. The Ducks failed to garner the bunting, but it was not to be charged to Wolff.” This particular compliment – that he was reliable and willing and able to do whatever he could to support his team – was a theme throughout Roger’s long career; he was often noted as the first player to arrive for spring training, for example, and frequently named as a popular teammate.

Life in the minor leagues during the Depression wasn’t easy. Teams and entire leagues folded every year. Professional players sometimes became criminal targets; in June 1934, a thief broke into the Ducks locker room and stole money from the clothes of several players, including Roger. And employment was never secure – a player could be released suddenly without notice, sometimes just because he’d rubbed a manager or owner the wrong way, and even small injuries could be devastating. In the spring of 1935, Roger had a scare. The Dayton Daily News reported, “The first injury of the season is claimed by Roger Wolff, veteran right hander.” At first, the team feared that Roger had appendicitis, but a visit to the doctor revealed that he was only suffering from “a couple of strained muscles.” That autumn, however, an accident caused by broken glass turned out to be a much bigger setback for Roger. A cut on the knuckle of his right index finger spelled doom for his pitching during the race for the pennant at the end of the 1935 season. The Daily News feared that the cut was “certain to keep him from being effective for several weeks.” Indeed, Roger was “shunted to the sidelines” for the rest of the season.

 

A dejected Roger following his finger injury in 1935

When baseball season ended in the autumn, Roger packed his bags and headed back home to Chester, where he continued to work in his father’s store. He’d been hoping that Ducky Holmes might sell him to a bigger franchise, but in December 1935, Roger was managing the market when he learned that he had been traded to the Davenport Blue Sox. The move wasn’t a promotion. But by April, he was back in Iowa, earning admiration from the local newspaper because he was “working harder than any rookie on the squad.” Even so, Roger wasn’t a pushover on the mound. That summer, the Quad-City Times reported that Roger “was chased from the park and fined $10 by an umpire” for challenging a call at third base and “push[ing] the umpire around the infield.”

Only a few days after his altercation with the ump, Roger was packing his bags again. In July 1936, with a record of 6-2 on the season, he was traded to the Oklahoma City Indians. His Davenport teammates threw him a farewell soiree at a local hotel before he headed south. Only a few days after joining his new team, Roger had a brush with greatness. During a game in Galveston, Texas, he threw nine innings of no-hit, no-run baseball – only to lose the no-hitter when the opposing team scored a run in the tenth inning. In some ways, the game was emblematic of Roger’s career for the next several years: he would come close to success, only to suffer a setback. From 1937 until 1939, he played with a series of teams – the Sioux City Cowboys, the Sioux Falls Canaries, and the Cedar Rapids Raiders – often throwing several solid innings in a game before falling apart late. The prospect of a career in the major leagues seemed more and more remote.

But Roger’s life reached a turning point, both personally and professionally, at the end of 1939. In November, he married Mary Rose Montroy, a secretary at Chester’s knitting mill. He was 28 years old, and she was 27. The marriage would last for the rest of their lives, and after her death, Roger credited her with much of his success: she “really kept me going,” he said. “Kept me from running around and raising all kinds of hell. Yeah, she was something.” That support would be crucial in the next phase of Roger’s career. Less than three weeks after their wedding, Roger learned that he’d been sold by Cedar Rapids to the Williamsport Grays, the single-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics.

Roger’s tenure with Williamsport was, in many ways, much the same as his previous minor league assignments. He threw his knuckleball, and he often appeared as a relief pitcher. His experience, though, made him valuable to the club, and he sometimes subbed in as a coach as well as a player – a role that could sometimes be surprisingly dangerous. He was coaching first base during a tense game in May 1940 when unruly fans erupted in the stands. The Wilkes-Barre Record reported that, after the Williamsport manager and catcher were ejected, fans began throwing objects on to the field: “Roger Wolff, Williamsport pitcher coaching first base at the time of the uprising, was hit behind the ear with a bottle and carried from the field.” Thankfully, his injuries were not serious.

 

Roger in uniform with the Philadelphia Athletics

In Williamsport, Roger found a mentor in manager Spencer Abbott, whose keen eye provided him with a small pitching adjustment that would launch his career into the stratosphere. In a 1951 column, Hartford Courant sportswriter Frank Keyes explained, “Wolff, lacking a good fastball, had developed an excellent knuckler that gave batters fits. Then Abbott, puzzled by Roger’s inability to get out of jams although he possessed the baffling knuckler, discovered Wolff never threw the flutter ball when he was behind the batter. The next time such a situation came up Abbott called time with the count 3-2 and a couple of runners on base. He ordered Wolff to throw the knuckler. He did and got out of the jam. Then Spencer gave him a lecture to the effect that the knuckler was his best pitch and you always throw your best pitch in the clutch when you know the batter will be swinging. Wolff’s excuse was that he was afraid he couldn’t get the knuckler over the plate. Abbott muttered something about either getting it over or getting killed by a line drive. Wolff is still alive and healthy.” Roger followed Abbott’s advice, made adjustments, and won sixteen games for the Grays in the 1941 season. By September 1941, he was ready for the big show. The Grays sold him to the Philadelphia Athletics.

The Athletics, managed by Connie Mack, hadn’t been contenders for years, and the 1941 season was no different. The team was well on its way to a last-place finish in the league long before Roger arrived in Philadelphia in September. The rookie made his major league debut on September 20, 1941. He was the day’s starting pitcher for the Athletics, who faced Emil “Dutch” Leonard, another knuckleballer, and the Washington Senators. The A’s fell to the Senators 1-0. Leonard pitched a stellar game for Washington, and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Roger, “one of the young pitchers of the Athletics, hurled almost as good a game as Leonard, but was shunned by luck. He allowed three hits, two in the second inning and one in the third. Wolff gave a couple of bases on balls, but there could be no challenge of the excellence of his game.”

A week later, Roger faced one of the most famous batters in baseball history – and nearly ruined his quest for the history books. For the final three-game series of the 1941 regular season, the Boston Red Sox came to Philadelphia. Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was having the best offensive season of his career, and he was on the brink of becoming the first player in a decade to finish with a .400 batting average. Williams arrived for the first game of the series with a .401 average. Roger was assigned as the A’s starter for the first game, and he faced Williams in four at-bats. Williams went 1-4 against Roger on the day, with a double, a strikeout, and a walk. The A’s lost the game, but Williams’s batting average dropped perilously to .3996 after facing Roger. He rallied during the next day’s double-header, however, and finished the season with a .406 average. No player since has managed to reach the .400 mark for a season. Wolff and Williams faced each other several more times during their major league careers, and Roger’s pitching clearly left an impression on the Hall of Famer. In the 1980s, Roger told Michael Fado, “…one time Ted Williams said I was the toughest pitcher for him to hit up there. I beat them one day in Boston seven to two, and they were going into New York and we were heading back to Philadelphia on the same train. I was sitting by myself in the dining car and Ted comes in, and he plops down. ‘Goddam,’ he said, ‘I can’t hit you. I can hit [Dutch] Leonard and [John] Niggeling, but I can’t hit you.'”

Only a few months after Roger was called up to the majors, the attack on Pearl Harbor marked the start of World War II in the United States. In January 1942, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking whether baseball should continue to be played while the nation was at war. Roosevelt replied to Judge Landis with the famous “Green Light Letter,” writing, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going” as a way to bolster national morale. Hundreds of major leaguers swapped baseball uniforms for military uniforms, and as the war went on, many more continued to play while worrying about whether they would be drafted. In the spring of 1943, the Camden Courier-Post wrote, “For some of the Athletics, practice at not playing ball is the sort of rehearsal they need most, for a number are believed certain to be lost in the military draft before the season is many weeks. Roger Wolff, one of the club’s three experienced pitchers, is married but childless. He expects a call to military service whenever his draft board [gets] around to it.” For Roger, who was classified 4-F thanks to both dental problems and issues with his feet, that call never came. However, two of Roger’s brothers, Omer and Gene, both enlisted in the army.

Roger slimmed down ahead of the 1942 season by skipping rope, an exercise strategy suggested by coach Lena Blackburne, and became a regular part of the Athletics’ rotation. He pitched more than 200 innings and faced more than 900 batters that year, finishing the season with 12 wins, 15 losses, and a 3.32 ERA; he also made several relief appearances and recorded a pair of saves. Once again, the Athletics finished in last place in the American League – a dismal 48 games out of first place. In the off-season, Roger worked to expand his pitching repertoire, adding a screwball to his arsenal. Midway through the 1943 season, the A’s were only two and a half games out of first place in the league, and an Associated Press report gave Wolff a major amount of the credit: “Wolff’s record shows five wins and two losses. But that isn’t the whole story. He has saved four games for Jess Flores, and thus is responsible for nine of the Athletics’ 19 triumphs, or nearly 50 percent. Without Wolff, in other words, the A’s would likely be in the cellar.” The A’s pitching coach, Earle Brucker, agreed. “Roger is pitching great ball, all right. He’s a willing worker. He can either start or go in as relief, which is a much tougher job with nothing to gain and everything to lose. A year’s experience has helped him a lot. He still has that knuckleball he threw last year, but he has added a screwball. His good control makes him pretty difficult.” Roger, on the other hand, preferred to hand much of the credit to shortstop Irv Hall and third baseman Eddie Mayo, noting that they were “snaring balls that went for hits last year.” Despite their positive start, the Athletics once again finished in the basement in the American League standings. But Roger’s efforts were being recognized throughout baseball. He finished the season with a 10-15 record, including two complete-game shut-outs, as well as six saves – and came 25th in voting for the Most Valuable Player in the American League, earning the highest number of votes of any A’s player.

 

Dutch Leonard, Clark Griffith, and Roger Wolff

Roger’s knuckleball had served him well through more than a decade of professional baseball, and in December 1943, it was his ticket to a new team. Inspired by the success of knuckleballer Dutch Leonard, Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith decided to acquire nearly an entire roster of knuckleball pitchers. He consulted with his good friend Connie Mack and struck a deal to trade Roger Wolff for another veteran pitcher, Bobo Newsom. The 1944 Senators roster ultimately included four knuckleball pitchers: Roger, Dutch Leonard, John Niggeling, and Mickey Haefner. Interestingly, all were Midwesterners, and three of the four hailed from Illinois. Leonard called Auburn in southern Sangamon County home, while Haefner was born in Lenzburg, only a few miles away from the border with Randolph County.

Initially, Roger’s contribution to this roster of butterfly pitchers was minimal. Although Mary Rose was able to join him in Washington, the 1944 season was a low point for him. He won only four games for the Senators and lost 15, racking up a 4.99 ERA, his highest in the majors so far, by the end of the season. His production was also down: he pitched 66 fewer innings than the season before and faced 200 fewer batters. The reasons were physical. Suffering from constant pain in his left shoulder, Roger had trouble sleeping. “I had to sleep sitting in a chair,” he told Michael Fedo. “I thought I had a broken vertebrae, and I went to the hospital and they told me to see my dentist. I told ’em I always went to the dentist twice a year. But the doc, he said, ‘Go see your dentist.'” The doctor was right. “I went to the dentist, and I had ten abscessed teeth. I got those out and went and took these baths and I felt the pain just go out of my arm.”

Roger’s recovery regimen included shedding 15 pounds and developing yet another pitch, the slider. From the start of the season, the improvement in Roger’s performance was clear. Roger started the season with a frustrating loss to his former team, the Athletics; he came in as a reliever after John Niggeling had pitched 10 innings, and allowed an unearned run in the twelfth. Roger quickly rebounded, however, with back-to-back wins against the New York Yankees. His third victory of the season came in early May, when the Senators bested the Athletics, followed by a win against the Tigers and a loss to Cleveland. And then, just as the season was kicking into high gear, tragic news arrived from home. Roger’s father, Leo, had died in Chester. He was only 57 years old.

Today, the death of a major league player’s father in the middle of a season would be front-page news. In 2003, the league established a compassionate list, which allows players to be dropped from a roster for a few games so that they can travel to be with family members in times of illness or bereavement. The media regularly reports on players who have had to leave teams to return home. But in 1945, Leo Wolff’s death didn’t register in the press. Roger’s father died on May 28 in Red Bud and was buried in the cemetery at St. Boniface in Evansville two days later. On the day of Leo’s funeral, the Senators were in Washington, playing a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. Roger did not pitch in either game, and he didn’t pitch the following day either. He returned to the lineup on Sunday, June 3, pitching a complete game win against the Chicago White Sox.

On June 9, Roger faced the Athletics again, and this time, the opposing pitcher was Bobo Newsom, the man he had been traded for in 1943. He bested Philadelphia 3-2 in the contest. He stepped in to save a game against the Yankees three days later, and then lost against the Red Sox a few days after that. Two more wins, against the A’s and the Red Sox, and another loss, to the Tigers, rounded out the month of June. By this point in the season, Roger was 8-4 for the season, and the press was calling him “Washington’s ace.” He went 3-2 in July and 4-4 in August.

As September 1945 dawned, the nation was riding high following the end of the war.  The Senators were only a game and a half out of first place in the American League, and Roger had a record of 15-10. The papers had already begun talking about the possibility that Roger’s “stout-hearted pitching” could win him 20 games. They were right. Roger was unstoppable. His sixteenth victory came against the Yankees on September 2. He pitched nine innings of winning baseball against the Browns on September 7, and he notched another complete game win against Cleveland on September 12, even driving in three runs himself. The Senators and the Tigers were neck and neck in the pennant race, and on September 16, Roger defeated Detroit, pitching another complete game and striking out five.  In the same series, Roger also recorded another save. For his final game of the season, Roger returned to a familiar location: Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Athletics. He tied a bow on his incredible season by pitching a complete-game shutout. The New York Daily News marveled at his performance, calling him the “magnificent knuckleballer.”

 

Walt Masterson, Dutch Leonard, Mickey Haefner, and Roger Wolff listen to the Detroit-St. Louis game in their hotel room, 1945

There was a slim chance at the end of the season that Washington and Detroit might end up tied for first place in the American League, forcing a single-game playoff. In anticipation of the possible tie, the Senators sent Roger, Dutch Leonard, Mickey Haefner, and Walter Masterson to Detroit, where they listened on the radio in their hotel room to find out whether the Tigers would lose to the Browns in their final game of the season and force the playoff. Later, Roger reminisced, “If there’d been a playoff game, I’d have pitched it. I’d have got Newhouser, who was a hell of a pitcher. I got him in one of those ball games earlier in the season, which we won three to two.” But the prospect of a 21st win for Roger wasn’t to be. Tigers star Hank Greenberg launched a grand slam into the stands in St. Louis in the ninth inning, dashing the Senators’ playoff hopes for good. The New York Daily News reported that, with “their last faint glimmer of hope for a berth in the World Series gone, two of the Nats’ hurlers — Walter Masterson and Roger Wolff — were on a Washington-bound train within an hour after the Tigers had sewed up the flag. The other two, Emil (Dutch) Leonard and Mickey Haefner, caught a train for their homes in Illinois.”

Roger’s stellar season earned him seventh place in the Most Valuable Player voting for the American League in 1945. He finished with a 20-10 record and an incredible 2.12 ERA. He tossed a total of 250 innings during the season, including 21 complete games, and faced 1000 batters. The Associated Press gave Roger the credit for the Senators’ surprising 1945 surge: “Biggest upsets, however, came in the amazing showings of Washington and Brooklyn, not one expert participating in the poll thought the Nats would finish better than fifth and the majority stuck a last place label on their backs. The consistently fine pitching of Roger Wolff was the most important reason for their form reversal,” the columnist noted. Only two other American League pitchers – Boston’s Dave Ferriss and Detroit’s Hal Newhouser – won more regular-season games than Roger did in 1945, with Newhouser notching a total of 25 wins as he pitched the Tigers to a World Series victory.

At the end of 1945, Roger was a 34-year-old veteran with almost two decades’ worth of professional baseball experience under his belt. He was riding high on the success of the previous season, and the world had taken notice. The new president of the Mexican League, Jorge Pasqual, came knocking with a lucrative offer for Roger to play south of the border. The Mexican League had been scouting American talent for several years, signing talent from the Negro Leagues and offering tantalizing salaries to Major League Baseball stars. Pasqual’s brother, Bernardo, extended an offer of $115,000 to Roger — $100,000 for three years, plus a $15,000 signing bonus – an enormous sum compared with the $8,000 he’d earned in 1945 with the Senators. In the end, Roger decided to stay in America, signing a new single-season contract with Washington for $14,000.

 

Opening Day Starters 1946: Roger Wolff and Tex Hughson

In recognition of Roger’s incredible success the year before, Roger was named the Opening Day starter for the Senators in 1946. After watching President Truman throw out the first pitch, Roger took to the field at Griffith Stadium – and faltered, giving up 10 hits and 6 runs in 7 innings. The Senators lost to the Red Sox, 6-3. It was a preview of things to come. Both Roger and the Senators struggled through the first half of the season. By the beginning of July, Roger was 4-7, and the team was hovering at the .500 mark. For Roger, though, catastrophe was looming. He started the second game of a doubleheader against the Yankees on the Fourth of July. While covering first base on a play in the top of the fourth, Roger twisted as he leaned backward to try to field a ball, tripping over the bag and tearing a muscle in his back. He was charged with an error on the play and taken out of the game. “We didn’t have disabled lists back then,” he explained. “They sent me to [Clark] Griffith’s personal doctor and he told me not to throw.” But the team owner disagreed, overruling the doctor’s orders. Roger pitched two innings in relief against the Tigers on July 19, still in significant pain. Griffith, though, decided that Roger should continue traveling with the team, first for a series in Cleveland and then another in St. Louis against the Browns.

Roger was convinced that his injury was serious, and he consulted with manager Ossie Bluege, who had him pitch batting practice. “I’m telling you, and I’m not exaggerating, I couldn’t hardly get myself out of bed the next morning,” he remembered. But, beyond his physical pain, he was also worried about how the injury could affect his career — and his savings. “I wanted to be eligible for a pension, and you had to get five years in to be eligible. I was never one to dodge pitching. I mean, gimme that ball, and I’ll pitch.” The Senators arrived in St. Louis in late July, and Roger took the opportunity to see Robert Hyland, the team physician for the Browns and the Cardinals, while he was in town. Hyland agreed with Griffith’s doctor. “He told me, ‘Roger, don’t even dress. You may unconsciously pick up a ball, and you can’t do it. No throwing whatsoever for the rest of the season.'”

Against the orders of both doctors, Roger made a few more appearances for the Senators in 1946. His swan song with the team came on September 25, when he pitched a complete game at Shibe Park against his old team, the Athletics, striking out 5 as he led the Senators to a 6-3 victory. By the next spring, he was no longer with the team. The United Press reported, “The Washington Senators have traded knuckleball pitcher Roger Wolff to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder George Case. It was a straight player deal, with no cash involved.” Wolff had finished at 5-8 for the 1946 season, with his back injury preventing him from a chance at repeating the success of the year before.

Roger’s time with the Indians was brief. He appeared in only 7 games for the team, starting two, and pitching only 16 innings total. By June 1947, he was on the move again – this time, to a brand-new league. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Roger “was obtained by the Pirates from the Cleveland Indians [on June 15] for slightly more than the waiver price of $10,000.” He started six games for the Pirates, earning his first win at Wrigley Field against the Cubs in August, battling through hundred-degree temperatures and “broiling sun” to lead Pittsburgh to victory. He made his final major league baseball appearance with the Pirates on August 25, 1947, pitching two scoreless innings of relief work during the Pirates’ 11-10 loss to the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The final batter he faced as a major league pitcher was Rookie of the Year Jackie Robinson.

After the season had ended, Roger packed up and headed back to Chester. As the 1948 season dawned, he received news that perhaps his time in baseball wasn’t quite done yet. In December, he was sent down by Pittsburgh to Sacramento, a Pacific Coast League team, in exchange for a young catcher. Then, in January, the Indianapolis News reported, “The purchase of Roger Wolff, veteran major league knuckleball pitcher, was announced today by the Indianapolis Indians. Wolff was bought from Sacramento, where he had been sent by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Acquisition of the knuckleballer was at the insistence of Manager Al Lopez, who had occasion to observe the veteran during his brief fling with Cleveland last season.” But although he had hoped to keep pitching into his forties, Roger was not prepared to go back to the itinerant life of a minor league player. By March, the Indianapolis Star reported that Roger was holding out on his contract, with no intent to report to Indianapolis. When a Memphis newspaper prematurely announced that Roger would be starting for the Indians in a game in Tennessee, the Star sniffed, “Wolff, of course, is a holdout; never has reported, and Manager Lopez says he doesn’t want him.” After consulting again with Dr. Hyland, Roger decided to hang up his glove for good.

With his professional baseball career behind him, Roger decided to remain in Chester, where he managed a nightclub and worked as a biscuit salesman before settling into more permanent post-baseball work. In November 1961, Roger began a new job at Menard Penitentiary in Chester, following the completion of a training course at Statesville. He started out working on the prison’s athletic staff, eventually becoming athletic director at the penitentiary. Part of his job included managing the prison’s baseball team, the Menard Cubs. In 1966, the Southern Illinoisan reported, “Leo Durocher is not the only Cub manager having misfortune. Roger Wolff, the former American League knuckleballer from Chester, manages the Menard Cubs. The prison team recently lost its sixth straight game to an American Legion team.”

Roger became a respected part of the law enforcement world in the area; in 1965, he was named a sergeant-at-arms for the Shawnee Division of the Illinois Police Association. Working in a prison, however, came with risk involved. In 1973, a group of prisoners took a guard hostage in Menard’s commissary. Although the guard was eventually released unharmed, 63-year-old Roger was injured as state police entered the building. While the prisoners were being returned to their cells, one of them knocked Roger to the ground. He struck his head on the floor and was taken to Memorial Hospital in Chester for treatment.

 

Roger speaks at the opening of the Cohen Recreational Complex

After retiring in the late 1970s, Roger and Mary Rose settled into a quiet life on Knott Street in Chester. Roger was still occasionally involved with baseball; he had served as vice-president of Chester’s Little League Program in the 1950s, and in May 1988, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the dedication of the new Cohen Recreational Complex in Chester. Mary Rose’s death in 1981 left him a widower for the last thirteen years of his life. He was described as quiet and humble, happy to reminisce about his playing days when asked, but surprised at any continued interest in his success in the 1940s. He died in Chester in 1994 at the age of 82 and was buried beside Mary Rose in St. Mary’s Cemetery. In his seventies, as he reflected on his life and his baseball career, he expressed gratitude for the chance to play baseball so skillfully on a national stage: “I really believe, everything considered, that I had a real successful career and life,” adding, “I had me some knuckleball.”

 

Roger Wolff was inducted into the Randolph Society in 2019.