Gene Rye's nickname was "Half Pint," and for good reason. He was diminutive in stature, cutting a less than imposing figure when he stepped into the batter's box. Yet, he accomplished something that none of the great sluggers in the history of the Texas League has ever matched.
For that matter, what Rye did on the night of Aug. 6, 1930, hasn't been matched by any other player in baseball history, regardless of the level. Rye connected for three home runs in one inning that night in Waco, Texas, a stunning accomplishment for a player whose nickname certainly didn't do him justice.
With that performance the 5-foot-6 Rye, whose real name was Eugene Mercantelli, also set single-inning records for total bases (12), extra-base hits (nine) and RBIs (eight) -- marks that have gone unmatched in the Texas League to this day. It proved to be the high point of an eight-year Minor League career -- a stretch he sandwiched around a month with the Boston Red Sox -- in which he hit 79 home runs total.
Rye's outburst was part of an 18-run explosion in Waco's 20-7 victory against the Beaumont Exporters. Though the 18 runs weren't a league record -- the Forth Worth Panthers scored 19 in an inning against the Galveston Sand Crabs on June 29, 1896 -- Rye still holds the distinction of being the last player in Texas League history to score three times in an inning.
"It was a one-of-a-kind day," said Rye's nephew Bill Merci, whose father, William, also played Minor League ball in the 1930s. "He had good wind, a short field and a pitching staff that was throwing him nothing but fat ones that he hit to each field. The fact a team could score 18 runs in one inning and allow him to get to bat three times was just as extraordinary. It took a lot of people to get him up there that many times."
Merci said the bat Rye used that night is part of family lore, though its whereabouts are currently unknown. While some family member may have it stashed away in an attic somewhere, there's no doubt that hunk of lumber was something special. Rye hit a career-high 26 homers that season, though he was never known for his long-ball prowess.
Rye certainly hadn't demonstrated much that night against the Exporters, who carried a 6-2 lead into the eighth inning of what had been an otherwise nondescript game. Rye led off the inning by sending Gerald Mallett's second pitch the other way and clearing the left-field wall at Katy Park, which wasn't exactly a pitcher's haven, to cut the deficit in half and start him down the path to history.
By the time Rye came to bat for the second time in the inning, Mallett had been chased, replaced by Walter Newman. The results, however, were the same. Rye blasted a three-run homer to extend the Cubs' lead to 12-6. The onslaught continued, and by the time Rye reached the plate for the third time, the buzz in the park was considerable.
Newman was still on the mound and was clearly determined not to let Rye best him again. But after getting ahead in the count, he went to an off-speed pitch and Rye promptly deposited it over the right-field wall, cementing his place in baseball history.
Tom Kayser, the Texas League's president and resident historian, wrote a book about the greatest exploits in league history and included an entire chapter about Rye. Kayser isn't sure the accomplishment gets as much due as it deserves.
"The other thing about it, he hit for three-quarters of a [home run] cycle," Kayser said. "He didn't hit a duplicate in that inning. We made a huge deal when [Arkansas'] Tyrone Horne hit for the homer cycle in one game [July 27, 1998, at San Antonio]. Rye nearly did it in an inning. It's right up there with Nig Clarke's eight homers in a game. I don't think it's something you're ever going to see duplicated."
The Waco-Times Herald, as quoted in Kayser's book Baseball in the Lone Star State, describes Rye as being "little, but at the bat he has the power of a giant. His big bat is TNT to opposing pitchers. When he starts exploding homers, there's only one remedy and that's a base on balls. It was not offered last night."
Rye's exploits garnered headlines around Texas and across the country the following day. It made him a celebrity and at least one big-league team -- the Boston Red Sox -- took notice. They signed Rye the following season and he appeared in 17 games for the Sox, going 7-for-39 with an RBI before a broken wrist sidelined him, effectively ending his Major League career.
He returned to the Texas League in 1932 and hit 10 home runs for Galveston and Houston before moving on to the New York-Penn League in 1933. Rye hit 10 homers for Elmira that season, then went to the Western League in 1934, where he would spend three seasons and hit 22 home runs before retiring.
Kevin Czerwinski is a contributor to MiLB.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.