Archie Joseph Yelle: Baseball\'s Forgotten Man from Saginaw

Posted In:   From Issue 771   By: Richard Curry

13th June, 2013     0

Archie Yelle came into this world on June 11th, 1892 and went on to live an exciting life in the world of baseball.  He came from a family of eleven, was a three sport star at Saginaw High, became Saginaw's 1st ever Major League player born in this town, and went on to catch professionally for 21 years. 
 
His career started in Boyne City at age 18 in 1910 and ended up with the Colusa “Prune Pickers” in 1930 at the age of 38.  In that span he caught for 19 different teams in 1,504 games, batted 4,563 times, scored 408 runs, 1,129 hits, 159 doubles, 27 triples, 9 home runs, .247 BA, & a .965 FA.  Archie played for the San Francisco Seals for 7 years & helped them win three Pacific Coast League titles (this league was comparable to the Majors). 
 
The 1925 Seals are rated the 10th best team in Minor League history, going 128-71. His teammate that year was 22-year-old future HOF'er Paul Waner.  Archie's team in 1922 went 127-72.   In 1925 he was voted a PCL All-Star & Sporting News PCL All-Star catcher (6 Seals were All-Stars that season) (101 games…Hit .267).  In 1921 he hit .293 in 113 games and in 1923 he batted .281 in 106 games.
 
On a PCL All-Star team covering 1918 to 1945, Yelle was named, along with teammate Sam Agnew, as the catcher.  The PCL list includes: Lefty Gomez, Frank Crosetti, Joe D., Paul Waner & Earl Averill.  Lefty O'Doul was passed over. ”Lefty” played 11 M.L. seasons, hit .349, won two batting titles and in '29 hit .398. Japanese baseball exists because of his efforts in the 30's.  He was a great pitcher in the PCL.  (The 1st pitch he threw in pro ball was to Red McKee of the Seals in 1917).   San Francisco owner and former manager Charlie Graham sold Joe D. to the Yankees. He was considered the Connie Mack of Minor League Ball and said, “Yelle was the gamest and hardest working catcher I ever had.  No matter how badly he was hurt, he never opened his mouth.  I remember once he sat down on the bench and his shoe was filling from blood escaping from a nasty spike wound.  I tried to take him out of the game, but he wouldn't leave.” (That day he caught both games in a doubleheader). 
 
LA Manager Marty Krug picked Archie as the best catcher in the Coast League.  Oakland captain Jim Scott credited him as smart as any backstop in the business.  No one in baseball blocked runners better.   “Dee” Walsh said, “None of them showed me more all-around ability than Yelle. Archie once stone walled Wally Schang at the plate.” Wally was one mean dude, played M.L. ball 19 years, and was one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history. 
 
Yelle's time in the Majors was with the Detroit Tigers from 1917 to 1919, where he followed Saginaw's Red McKee's 4 years as a Tiger backup catcher (1913 to 1916) (Red suffered from rheumatism in 1916, Red also had his tonsils yanked & played the next day).   Yelle replaced McKee as a catcher on 3/12/1917.  While playing with the Tigers, Archie lived in Saginaw on 526 Russell Street.  Even though they were competitors for the same job, Red McKee & Yelle were great friends and fishing buddies.  Red said, “Archie was such a good fisherman that the fish would jump out of the hole & into his bucket when they went ice fishing on the Saginaw River.” 
 
Red McKee had a 19-year baseball career: hitting .291 & a fielding average of .977 for 19 years.  Archie never got his bat going in Detroit, but had many memorable games.  Archie got his first Major league hit on 7/31/1917 to help beat Washington 8 to 4.  His most momentous at bat came on 5/15/1918 when he connected for a single against Boston's great Babe Ruth (Red Sox 6 Tigers 4-Babe won 13 games that year).  Archie 1st M.L. start (8-3-1917) saw the Tigers winning 10-3 over the Yankees (1 for 5 with 6 putouts). 
 
In Detroit he was HOF Harry “Slug” Heilmann's roommate for two years. Heilmann won 4 batting titles.  He and Ted Williams are the last American Leaguers to go over .400.  When Heilmann retired, he became a Tiger radio announcer. He would broadcast some road games from the Wenonah Hotel in Bay City.  Harry would read ticker tape and his radio listeners thought he was broadcasting from a game in Washington. 
 
Red McKee was a beer truck driver at the time & delivered beer on those nights, so he and Harry could drink together.    Archie caught two doubleheaders 6/18/1918 and 9/2/1918.  Game two in the White Sox's games Archie caught Ty Cobb and Bobby Veach, who both had a rare appearance on the mound.  This was the last game of a shortened 1918 season because of WWI. Airplanes flew overhead to start the games. The Tigers won the 1st game and they freely substituted in the second, which they also won.  In that game Bill Donovan, who hadn't started for 7 years, won the game. Davy Jones, a spectator, former Tiger, & town pharmacist hadn't played in 3 years.  Davy played in the outfield that day and caught the last ball of the game.  That ball today resides in the Baseball HOF.    
 
A 1916 Tiger story: Detroit Manager got a note from a small town in Michigan, a letter from a pitcher who claimed he could strike out Ty Cobb on three pitches.  The guy said it would only cost $ 1.80, his train fare to Detroit, for Jennings to find out.  Hughie figured well, you never know, and sent the dollar-eighty.  The pitcher showed up-great big, gangly kid, 6' 4” and all joints. They let him warm up and called out Cobb.  Ty hit his first pitch against the right field wall. His second pitch went over the right field wall.  The third pitch went over the center field wall.  Cobb was thinking they ought to keep this guy around to help him get in the groove.  Yelle barnstormed with Ty Cobb in 1919 throughout California (I have the program), he hunted with actor Lon Chaney Sr. and Ty Cobb, and Yelle is pictured in 9 baseball cards. 
 
Archie's brother Doss Yelle was a famous local fastball pitcher.  He gave up his pro pitching career after he eloped with an already engaged woman. In 1930 Archie caught for 4 different teams at the age of 38. “ I catch every so often for the Saginaw Old Golds, and I will tell you what this man endured for 21 years behind the plate is nothing short of heroic.  
 
Yelle ended up living in Woodland, California, where he became a prison guard and then the town's Chief of Police. Archie's wife died at age 92, he was 90 when he passed (the two are buried in Monument Hill Park, Woodland, CA.), and his son was 85 in 2006.  Archie Jr. was a 4-Sport star and coached for 35 years.  Archie was interviewed at a Senior Citizens home in Woodland. The interviewer noticed Yelle's hands. The scars on his catching hand show the collisions and broken bones. One finger as crooked as a road map reflects the demands of the job.
 
Yelle remembered, “There was no ball fields on which to play in Saginaw as a youth so the kids played on a rollway, where logs were rolled.  We played on the wood chips. Cobb was pretty far.  He was fast starting.  You always had to throw to third base.”
 
Was Cobb normally feisty?, “Oh Yes”.  Babe Ruth: “I met Ruth lots of times and have several pictures with him”.  “He was a good guy. He was a good hitter.  I wouldn't say he was the best.  Before a game, he used to come over and sit on the bench and talk about hunting.  I shot ducks ever since I could sneak out with a shotgun.”  
 
A couple of interesting stories during Archie's time period:  7/24/1913: A ONE ARMED PITCHER'S FEAT-Dan Matean, of Saginaw, Michigan, a pitcher for the Michigan Sugar Company, an amateur club, is a one - armed boy of 19 years.  His right arm is gone.  Working in a game in St. Paul, Minn., on July 23rd, 1913 he won a 10 inning pitchers battle 3 to 2, fanned 19 and allowed 5 hits.  He accepted 4 fielding chances perfectly.  
 
9/14/1915: News Story: PITCHES 34 INNINGS TO GAIN GAME - Peoria, III. - Here's a pitcher who has started a HOF all his own.  Walter Breymeir, 18 years old, pitcher for a semi-pro team, pitched 34 innings in one day.  In the morning he pitched a 0-0 game, which was called at the end of eleven innings.  In the afternoon he pitched and won his game with a timely hit in the 23rd inning by a score of 6 to 5. (Then his arm fell off.)
 
It is great that the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame voters have recognized him this year as he has been inducted into the 2013 class. 

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