Throughout the 1946 season, fans of the Kingsport Cherokees -- one of eight teams in the Class D Appalachian League -- voted for a team MVP. The leading vote-getter at season’s end was awarded an Elgin watch. The runner-up received a Schick electric razor.
Leo “Muscle” Shoals was the team’s best hitter. He batted .333 and set a league record with 21 home runs. He led the MVP vote all season long -- until the final tally, when Cherokees pitcher Melvin Nee slid in and took the final vote. Nee got the fancy watch; Shoals was stuck with the razor.
Shoals’ defeat, however trivial it might have been, irked some fans so much that a group of them started a fund to buy their favorite player the Elgin watch they thought he deserved. Even when Shoals lost, the support he got in the Appy League made him a winner.
“It was great being back and playing again,” Shoals wrote about the first postwar season in “‘Muscle:’ A Minor League Legend,” a book published with sportswriter George Stone in 2003, four years after Shoals' death.
Shoals played 15 seasons in the Minors. His book, old newspaper clips and various corners of the internet are filled with stories that back up why he became known as “The Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues.” The man could mash. He launched 55 home runs during the 1949 season. He hit balls so hard that first basemen usually set up in shallow right field; it was the pitcher’s job to cover the bag if they were lucky enough to get Shoals to ground out.
Even with epic power, Shoals never made The Show. Part of that was bad luck. Part of it was his own fault. A lot of it, though, was that he liked where he was. He spent a third of his career in the Appy League, which began in 1911, existed at the Class D level for decades, evolved into a short-season Rookie league for even longer and next season will begin yet another era as a collegiate wooden bat circuit run by MLB and USA Baseball. The Appy League -- its competition, its constituents, its communities -- did as much for Shoals as he did for it. And that kept him coming back.
"Almost legendary in these parts, [Muscle] has become a part of the professional baseball scenery in the Appalachian area," wrote Johnson City Press-Chronicle sports editor Jimmy Smyth in 1955, Shoals' final season.
Born in 1916 in Camden on Gauley, West Virginia, Lloyd Cleveland Sholes Jr. wanted to be like Babe Ruth. His path to fulfilling that dream started with a high school job at a tool manufacturer. Sholes -- which had yet to be misspelled by the newspaper columnist who coined his nickname “Muscle” Shoals -- played for the company baseball team. An umpire in the league got Muscle a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals. He signed for $100 a month at age 20.
Shoals arrived at Johnson City of the Appy League for the start of his third professional season in 1939. He didn’t want to be there, because he’d already been at the Class D level for two years. He injured his ankle during spring workouts and got fined when he didn’t show up to watch. But the Cardinals still won the first-half title and rumors started to swirl that Shoals was due for a promotion. The fans loved him and they called the front office demanding Shoals stay. Johnson City business manager Walter Pattee, Shoals wrote in his book, then called the local paper and requested a story that silenced the rumors. Shoals stayed.
“Leo, if we got rid of you now, we’d have a riot in this city,” Shoals recalled Pattee telling him.
The team was terrible during the second half. Manager Ollie Vanek tried enacting a curfew and when that didn’t work, he encouraged his players to live like Shoals: relax, have a drink, find fun company.
That lifestyle worked for Shoals until it caught up with him late one night toward the end of the season. Newspaper accounts say he drunkenly wielded a knife in a bar. Shoals’ own telling recalled chasing someone who stole his drink. Both stories end with a bullet in Shoals’ stomach.
Johnson City president Carl Jones Jr. wrote Shoals a letter while he recovered in the hospital, the gist of which tried to set Shoals straight. Don’t harbor any ill will, say you’re sorry and be better. Shoals heeded the advice. Though his first season in the Appy League almost got him killed, it probably also saved his life.
“If it weren’t for the support of people like Carl Jones and my teammates,” Shoals wrote, “it would have been a tough road back.”
Shoals’ teammates held a benefit game and raised $150. They didn’t quit on him; the Cardinals did. Shoals spent the next two years playing for the independent Tyler Trojans of the East Texas League and two clubs in the Class C Cotton States League. His next assignment was out of baseball. Shoals arrived in Honolulu nine days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He spent 40 months and 16 days overseas in the U.S. Army. He returned with jungle rot, hearing loss and malaria. He was 28 and lucky to be alive.
“I wondered if I had any baseball left in me and I wondered if I would get another chance,” Shoals wrote. “I hadn’t lost the feel for baseball. It was still burning inside of me.”
The Appy League was the perfect place for Shoals to revive his career. He penned a letter to Kingsport Cherokees owner H. Joseph Higgins, offering his services at first base. Higgins consulted with manager Hobe Brumette, who knew Shoals well from the slugger’s first stint in the league. Kingsport signed him for the 1946 season.
Shoals’ war ailments troubled him at the start, but his bat came around. One day, while sitting in the dugout after hitting a home run, an army helmet filled with money dropped into his lap. Someone in the stands had passed the helmet around the crowd. The act of kindness became tradition, and Shoals started turning his dingers into dollars. These were the same fans who would later buy Shoals, their beloved MVP, his Elgin watch.
Kingsport began as a place for Shoals to revive his career. It became home. Shoals met a woman, Helen Perry, early that season. He'd always been a ladies' man, but this was different. They got married in the offseason. They had five kids.
In 1947, Shoals moonlighted as the team’s manager whenever the usual skipper, Dick Bass, was away scouting. Higgins, the owner, questioned one of Shoals’ lineup decisions. Shoals took offense and retired. It didn’t last. How could it? The Appy League always reeled him back in.
“After about a week, I began thinking that maybe I let my pride get in the way of good sense,” Shoals wrote. “And, too, I was letting down Dick, my teammates and the fans who wrote letters in my support.”
Staying put wasn’t always his choice, though. Kingsport became a Senators affiliate a year earlier. Washington sent him to Chattanooga, then Charlotte. They sold him to the Class B Reidsville Luckies of the Carolina League, for whom he had his best season in 1949. The next year was a wash, and the Shoals family moved back to Kingsport. The new owner of the Cherokees, W.A. Allen, worked out a deal to make sure Shoals would play -- once again -- for his new hometown. Shoals won the league’s Triple Crown, and Kingsport took the circuit title.
“There’s nothing like winning a championship,” Shoals wrote. “I’d give up any batting titles or home run titles any time to be able to say we are the best team in the league. I must say that winning that championship is one of my fondest memories.”
Shoals drew crowds and, with finances often an issue for unaffiliated teams, his contract was bought and sold a couple of times over the next few years. Kingsport bolted for the Mountain States League in 1953, but that circuit folded before completing the 1954 campaign. Shoals had offers elsewhere. He was tired of moving. Luckily, everything aligned for one final season in 1955, when the Cherokees returned for the last go-round of the Appy League as a full-season Class D league. Shoals managed and played first base.
A 38-year-old Shoals led the league with 33 homers -- bringing his career total to 336 -- and 134 RBIs. Money was tight, and the Cherokees nearly moved to another city with more fan support, but eventually ended up staying. Shoals wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I’m always asked if I would have stayed in the lower Minors as long as I did if I had to do it all over again,” Shoals wrote, "and my answer is a definite yes. The experience was worth a million dollars to me. The solid friendships I made with people in baseball have lasted a lifetime. You develop a closeness in the Minor Leagues that never goes away.”
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.