Sports

Schoolboy Rowe, the Tigers' Southern gentleman

Pitcher Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe embraces his sweetheart, Edna May Skinner, in this 1934 photo.

“Pitchers, like poets, are born, not made.” — Cy Young

When Lynwood Rowe was 15 years old, he pitched against a team of former major league players and beat them. They were both embarrassed and disgusted. “Beaten by a schoolboy”, they said in dismay.

Rowe’s nickname stuck with him for life.

Schoolboy Rowe had all the attributes of a great pitcher — size and strength, head and heart.

At his peak with the Detroit Tigers, he had an overpowering fastball, a quick breaking curve and a change of pace that a teammate described as “magic.”

Rowe also had that indefinable quality. Winning or losing, he had a dramatic flair rooted in his commanding presence. He stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 210 pounds at a time when the average player was under 6 feet tall, and the Detroit fans worshiped him.

Rowe was as uncomplicated as he was big. Friendly and unaffected, the huge Texan called “Schoolie” by his teammates would later help the Tigers in three pennant winning years — 1934, ’35 and ’40.


Rowe, left, and manager/catcher Mickey Cochrane talk in the dugout just before the first game of a series with the Yankees in July, 1935.

The tall gangling youth born in Waco, Texas, made his home in El Dorado, Ark. He played football and golf in high school, where classmates remembered him as a “natural born athlete.”

In 1934 he had his most spectacular season, pitching 16 consecutive victories while running up a 24 and 8 record. According to longtime fans, Rowe also excelled at whipping the Yankees.

The Tigers came whirling into Yankee Stadium that year with a 2 ý-game lead in the September home stretch. They needed a split at least in a four-game set with the Bronx Bombers. Schoolie won the first game. The Yankes bounced back to win behind Lefty Gomez and make the Sunday double header all important. Detroit lost the opener and Mickey Cochrane, Detroit’s firebrand manager and fiercely competitive catcher, ranted and raged at the clubhouse.

“Can’t anyone beat these baboons?” he taunted.

At the far end of the clubhouse, Rowe shouted back at his hot-tempered boss. “If nobody else wants it, I’ll take it. Gimme the ball.”

Cochrane wound up and fired the ball across the room as hard as he could. Rowe ducked just in time. After Rowe picked up the ball he walked over to Mickey and and said, “A word of advice to you Mike, better put some extra sponges in your glove cause I’m gonna burn off your hands.”

Then he went out on the field and shut out the Yankees 3 to nothing. After the win, a delighted Cochrane confessed to Rowe that he would like to shake his hand for winning the game but couldn’t because “Your fastball puffed these hands up like balloons.”

There was no stopping Detroit after that. They went on to win the World Series despite death threats warning Rowe, “You may pitch one ball, but it will be your last.”

Baseball during the Depression years provided a rough and tumble sport. Players spit tobacco juice into gaping spike wounds, and harping fans kept on the players. Pitchers scuffed dirt on the ball to make it do stronge things on the way to the plate. The league embraced tough and scrappy characters.

But Rowe, always a gentleman, attracted the fans, especially the women fans who loved his Southern mannerisms.

 


Popular with female fans, Rowe takes time to greet socialites (from left) Mrs. Walter O. Briggs Sr., Dorothy Cox, Mrs. James Cox and Janet Briggs in October, 1940.


During his days in Detroit, fans followed his romance with his high school sweetheart and May Queen, Edna Mary Skinner. The romance hit high key when Rowe appeared on the Eddie Cantor radio show in 1934. He confessed to Cantor how he dreamed of becoming a radio announcer while growing up in Arkansas. Cantor offered to let him try out his microphone. Later during the program Rowe whispered into the microphone, “How’m I doin’, Edna, honey?” The line became famous. Every telecast after that show, Eddie Cantor would quip, ” How’m I doin’, Edna?”

During games the opposing players would taunt Rowe, ” How’m I doin, honey?” However, one sportswriter said that every time the schoolboy got in a hot spot and appeared to be murmuring a prayer or curse over the ball, he was really saying, “Edna, honey, they ain’t even gonna see this one.” Detroit and much of the nation got caught up in the courtship of these two long-distance lovebirds.


Babe Ruth chats with Edna Skinner on the dugout steps in September, 1934.

For the 1934 World Series, the Detroit News brought the drop-dead gorgeous Edna to Detroit to write on baseball, cooking or whatever she wanted just as long as she stayed near her honey and brought him good luck. The move sent the romance to a fever pitch and after the series the couple married. Years later, Edna recalled the exciting days when airplanes flew over the playing field and how the planes would shower the stands where she was sitting with beautiful orchids. Mae West sent a huge bouquet with her famous request, “Come up and see me sometime.”

After helping Detroit win successive pennants in 1934-35, Rowe began suffering physical ailments.

In 1938, his pitching arm weary, Rowe was optioned to the minor leagues.

Before he left, News photographer Rolland Ransom went to the stadium to get a parting photograph. The photo made sports history, winning Ransom 31 awards. In it the fallen hero in street clothes walked off the mound toward the stands he had helped fill so many times. No photo of the back of a man ever said so much.

The skeptics thought the Schoolboy would never again pitch in the majors, but he fooled them. He returned to the Tigers in 1939 and stayed four more seasons. When they won the pennant in 1940, Rowe turned in 16 victories against only three losses.

Two years later the Tigers sold Rowe to Brooklyn, but he did not stay long with the Dodgers. They shipped him to Montreal and again the skeptics shouted that the majors has seen the last of him.

But Rowe bounced back with the Philadelphia Phillies and compiled a 14-8 record in 1943. The Navy interrupted his career by two years during World War II.

After the war, Rowe returned to the Phillies and remained until 1949, when he asked for his release to accept a job in the Detroit farm system.”That’s where I made a big mistake,” Rowe confessed. “The Phillies won the pennant the next year. So it turned out that I talked myself out of a World Series cut.”

The next 10 years Rowe held various jobs with the Tigers. He managed the Williamsport, Pa. affilliate in the Eastern League, and served as a roving coach of the farm system before coming to Briggs Stadium as pitching coach in 1954-55.

Rowe loved to entertain rookies with his recollections of his teammates on Detroit’s championship teams of 1934-35.

“Mike Cochrane was as tough on the golf course as he was on the field, and all the old guys know how tough that was.”

He remembered Charlie Gehringer as “the most graceful player I ever saw and a great team man.”

And like most ball players, Rowe had vivid recollections of his first major league game. It took place in April 1933, when Bucky Harris was managing the Tigers.

“I was just a punk kid, and I don’t mind saying I was a little shaky when Bucky told me I was starting against the White Sox. After the game got under way, I settled down and felt natural out there. I remember striking out Al Simmons the first time he came up. We went on to win 3-0. Then I got up early the next day to read what the papers said about me and sent them to the folks back home in Arkansas.”

Later in his front office career with Detroit, Rowe became a Detroit scout assigned to cover Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and East Texas.

Rowe was not quite 51 when he died of a heart attack January 8, 1961 in El Dorado, Ark., seven months before being voted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from the clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)
By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News