By Bartee Haile
Debs Garms went two for four on Aug. 25, 1940 in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ win over the Boston Bees and raised his league-leading batting average to a lofty .378.
Garms was born in 1907 in the West Texas hamlet of Bangs a few miles west of Brownwood and named for his parents’ socialist hero Eugene Debs. Like most boys his age, he grew up playing baseball on the dusty sandlots in town but did not take a serious interest in the sport until an older sister married a major-league pitcher.
Garms was a high-school senior, when he drove her to Philadelphia to be with her husband. He saw his first major-league game before heading back to Texas, where the long unapproved absence postponed his graduation for a full year.
Out of high school at last, Garms enrolled at Howard Payne, the college within commuting distance of home. His sprinter’s speed made him a star on the track team, but his heart was in baseball. A scout for the St. Louis Browns watched him burn up the base-paths on two triples and signed him right then and there to a minor-league contract.
Garms got off to a promising start with the Abilene Aces of the West Texas League. He finished the 1928 season with an impressive batting average of .313 but struggled at shortstop committing more than his fair share of errors.
Garms steadily progressed through the Browns’ farm system advancing in 1931 to their Texas League affiliate, the Wichita Falls Spudders. It took him a season to make the adjustment, which included a move from third base to center field, and in the second year he came into his own as a high-average hitter.
Garms was batting .344 in August 1932, when the long-awaited call came from St. Louis. No sooner did he try on the uniform than the Browns put him in center field.
It did not matter to the boy from Bangs that he was playing for the weakest franchise in baseball, a club many considered a joke. He was in the big leagues and pulling down an annual salary of $5,000 during the Great Depression.
Garms finished the abbreviated season with a respectable .284 average and sky-high hopes for 1933. But the Browns sank like a rock the next year, and in July the owner brought in Rogers Hornsby to whip the basement dwellers into shape.
Of all the managers he played for, Garms liked the fellow Texan the least. “He was egotistical, and he thought everyone should be a great hitter because he was.”
It turned out that Hornsby and Garms saw very little of each other that season. Two weeks after “The Rajah” took over, Garms landed wrong sliding into second base and tore up his knee. The cartilage and tendon damage benched him for the rest of the schedule.
Garms recovered from the injury to hit .293 in 1934. Hornsby, however, was critical of his many singles and under-par performance in the outfield. When Opening Day rolled around the following April, he made up his mind to exile Garms to San Antonio.
The only good thing about the demotion was that Garms was back in the Lone Star State. He was a key contributor for the Missions in 1935 with a .294 average and the most triples in the Texas League and was doing even better in 1936, when the Boston Bees bought his contract.
Nineteen thirty-seven should have been the year Garms showed what he was made of, instead he suffered through a season-long slump. A .259 average put his job in jeopardy, and he knew it.
When Casey Stengel was hired in the off-season as the Bees’ new skipper, Garms packed his bags. Not only did he survive the ensuing housecleaning, he benefitted immensely from Stengel’s priceless batting tips.
The proof was in the 1938 pudding. Garms’ .315 was seventh best in the National League and impressed enough sportswriters for him to receive a number of votes for Most Valuable Player.
A September slump, likely due to fatigue, dropped Garms two points below .300 in 1939. Just about the time he began believing he had a permanent home in Boston, the cash-strapped Bees sold him, over Stengel’s objections, to the Pirates.
Nineteen forty did not start out as Garms’ dream season. He hurt his bum knee in early May and did not return on a full-time basis until Jul. 20. On his first day back in the lineup, he drove in five runs with four hits to beat the team that dumped him, the Bees.
Garms stayed on his hot streak ending July at .345 and August at .369. With the virtual unknown 42 points ahead of his nearest competitor in the race for the National League batting crown, the baseball world finally sat up and took notice.
Many know-it-alls did not like what they saw and invoked the 400 at-bats “rule.” In other words, to qualify for the hitting title, Garms had to go to the plate 400 times.
Not so, the president of the National League pointed out. All Garms had to do was appear in 100 games, and he did that four days before the end of the season.
That’s why there is no asterisk next to Debs Garms’ name on the list of National League batting champions. He won it fair and square in 1940 with an average of .355.
“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.