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Jolley gave smiles to generations of Minors fans

Slugger set records in PCL, hit for average and power over 20 years
Smead Jolley won back-to-back Pacific Coast League batting titles, taking the Triple Crown in 1928. (PCL Hall of Fame)
@JoshJacksonMiLB
September 9, 2020

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors, presented by Uncle Ray's, provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

A host of players have piled up astonishing accomplishments over long professional careers on the diamond without making a lasting impression on the game's most celebrated stage. Monsters of the Minors, presented by Uncle Ray's, provides introductions to Minor League legends sometimes overlooked by fans of baseball history.

In 1928, Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees repeated as World Series champions, keeping the collective gaze of baseball fans locked on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, a 26-year-old giant named Smead Jolley had Major League executives eyeballing reports from the other edge of the continent. It was Jolley's third full season with the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals, and with it he earned his second straight batting title with a record .404 average while winning the Triple Crown and pacing the Seals to a championship. Playing in all 191 regular-season games, the outfielder belted 45 homers and plated 188 runs.

Jolley's 309 hits that year made him the first player to touch the 300-knocks plateau after the PCL -- believe it or not -- shortened its season from 28 weeks to 26. In previous seasons of the 1920s, the Coast League's schedule generally amounted to some 200 games. Jolley had between nine and 12 fewer games crammed into two fewer weeks.

"Playing on the normal twenty-eight-game schedule, he undoubtedly would have established a new league record for safe drives," the Salt Lake Tribune opined that October, betting Jolley could have eclipsed the 323 hits Paul Strand totaled for the Bees in 1923.

Both statistics and firsthand accounts suggest he was among the most gifted hitters of his day.

“He was always kind of a special guy -- big fellow that could really hit," Bobby Doerr, a teammate of Jolley's with the Hollywood Stars in 1934-35, said while providing an oral history to the Hall of Fame in 1990. "Gosh, he could hit!"

The Arkansas-born left-handed slugger, once described in newspapers as "two sizes bigger than City Hall," was 6-foot-3 with a weight ranging from 210 to a reported 240 pounds over a 20-year career. He batted .372 over parts of nine PCL seasons with the Seals, Stars and Oakland Oaks and won a third batting title in 1938, hitting .350 with the Stars and Oaks. He also claimed the 1936 International League batting crown with a .373 mark for the Albany Senators and picked up back-to-back titles in the Western International League with the Spokane Indians and Vancouver Capilanos in 1940-41, ending his career on a high note.

By the time he reached the PCL, he'd proven himself in the Cotton States League, Eastern Texas League, Western Association and, before joining the Seals for the final 34 games of 1925, led the Class D Texas Association in homers (26) and hits (174) for Corsicana. Jolley began his career as a pitcher, but the brass in San Francisco recognized he was too good a hitter to not use every day.

And his skills at the plate translated to the bigs very well. Jolley batted .305 with 178 extra-base hits in 473 Major League games across four seasons with the White Sox and Red Sox, getting his last crack in 1933.

Smead Jolley (r), with Johnny Watwood, spent parts of four seasons between the White Sox and Red Sox.

Two things did in that big league career. The first was his defense. The second was his defensive reputation, which grew so enormous -- doubtless out of proportion to his very real shortcomings -- that it's the one thing for which some fans know him to this day. Jolley's size probably didn't help with the reputation. He was bigger than Ruth, whom Jolley once described as the only large man who looked natural in the outfield. The White Sox tried unsuccessfully to convert him into a catcher. In mid-1938, a reporter from the Oakland Tribune mentioned rumors that he'd been encouraged to wear a football helmet on defense.

“Shucks," the paper quoted Jolley. "That’s just a gag which has made the rounds. Maybe I’m no gazelle in my position, but I miss very few of 'em coming my way.”

The most famous Smead Jolley anecdote -- which is likely fictitious -- involves three errors on one play. Jolley, the story goes, watched a ball bounce between his legs, turned around as it caromed off the outfield wall to bounce through his legs again, picked it up and uncorked a groan-inducing throw. True or not, the story was spreading as early as 1932. And libeled or not, Jolley had a rich sense of humor. Doerr remembered him keeping a newspaper cartoon depiction of the incident in his suitcase.

The Sporting News realized that stories of Jolley's outfield misadventures were overblown 23 years after he retired, running a 1964 story praising his hitting and reevaluating his notoriety as a disaster on the grass.

"Smead Jolley could have developed into a good outfielder had he applied himself," former White Sox teammate Willie Kamm told the publication. " ... But Smead said he had been catalogued in the American League as a poor fly chaser and nothing he could do would alter things. Taking him as he was, Smead wasn't the world's worst."

Inducted to the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003, Jolley gained that recognition 12 years after his death. In a just world, he'd be remembered primary not as a befuddled outfielder but as one of the greatest Minor League hitters of all-time. Mercifully, Jolley seemed to have known who he was the whole time.

In his last season, 1941, the 39-year-old was sold from Spokane to Vancouver with a .261 batting average on May 17.

"I always start slow," Jolley told The Sporting News that month. "But I'll lead this league in batting. ... You wait and see."

He wound up with a .345 mark and his second straight Western International League batting title, the sixth crown of his career.

Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.