"Jittery Joe" Berry

by Ben Berry

Jonas Arthur "Jittery Joe" Berry was born in 1904 in Huntsville, Arkansas, and this is a brief story about his life and times. A picture of him in his old Philadelphia Athletics baseball uniform hangs in the Grill At Rver Oaks Golf Course. The A's were in Philadelphia prior to moving to Oakland, California.

Uncle Joe was the eighth of nine children; my Dad was the ninth. Uncle Joe's dad, my granddad, was the sheriff of Madison County at Huntsville for 20 years. Granddad's deputy was Sam Faubus, father of Orvil who later became governor of Arkansas.

Uncle Joe was small, as were most of his brothers. He was 5'10" and 145 pounds was the most he ever weighed. He got the nickname of "Jittery Joe" from his twitchy, itchy motion on the pitcher's mound. That nickname is on his tombstone at Huntsville.

Despite his small size, very few people ever got the best of Uncle Joe. My dad said while Joe was small he was the most feared kid in school. He was kind, but if he ever saw a bully taking advantage of someone, the bully better look out. My dad was even smaller than Uncle Joe and was picked on daily by the school bully. Dad told the bully that he was Joe Berry's little brother. The bully told Dad to go get Joe and he would "whup both of um." Uncle Joe came to Dad's rescue. It was springtime and most of the kids were already going barefoot. When the older and bigger bully "put up his dukes" to fight, Uncle Joe had a huge rock behind his back and came down with it on the bully's bare foot. Blood flew everywhere, Dad said. The Berry brothers never had any more problems with that bully.

Uncle Joe began his baseball career in 1927 with Gulfport in the Cotton States League. Then came a stretch with Vicksburg, interrupted by a trial with New Orleans. He was shifted to Pine Bluff late in the 1932 season then went to Little Rock. His next stops were at Muskogee, Joplin, Birmingham, Wilkes-Barre, Ponca City and Los Angeles, staying with the Angels from 1937 thru 1941. Then came a hitch with Tulsa, a whirl with the Chicago Cubs and later with Milwaukee from which club the Philadelphia A's obtained him. In his first starting assignment with the A's, he pitched a no hit, no run game at the age of 38 years. This caused one Philadelphia sports writer later to write about him, "Joe Berry is 145 pounds of whale bone and whipcord with an arm of the purest prewar India rubber. He's a bandy-legged little guy cut along the same pattern as a picket fence. In an era when young 200 pounders insist on 4 days rest and prefer 5 or 6 between assignments, 38 year old Joe Berry is willing to pitch several innings a day every day. He is effective, not because he has a great deal of natural stuff, which he hasn't, but because every pitch he throws is different. He has a curve with 3 different speeds. He will waste one fast ball, and then throw another one with a little taken off the top, easing it up where the batter can hit it, but not well. He has a slider with varying speeds. He changes up with an evil little screw ball. Batters, who get used to the fast ball pitchers, get their feet crossed up trying to tune Berry's poisonous mixture."

Uncle Joe is in the major league record book because of two "off the wall" events that took place during his career. The first was in 1942 when he pitched against the Yankees in an exhibition game. Joe walked onto windswept Bader Field, wound up, and a vest-pocket squall swept him right off the pitcher's mound. The umpires called it an "act of God balk" that would happen only to the smallest pitcher in the major leagues. The next event was on July 1, 1946. Joe was in Toronto warming up to pitch for the Maple Leafs, when word came that Joe's contract had been purchased by the Cleveland Indians. Joe went straight to the locker room, changed clothes, and caught a cab to the airport for a 4:38 p.m. arrival in Cleveland. He went to the Indians ballpark, put on their uniform and went to the dugout. They were playing the old St. Louis Browns. Manager Lou Boudreau immediately put Joe in with one out in the 6th. Boudreau already knew what Joe could do from his days with the A's. Joe retired the side, allowed only three more hits in the rest of the game, and then singled in the winning run to win the game. The record book shows that "little 145 pound Joe Berry is the only major league pitcher to ever warm up for a team in one ballpark, pitch for a different team in another ballpark, in two different countries and in two different leagues all in the same day."

Some of Joe's final numbers were that he was a major league rookie when he was 38, pitched his final game when he was 42, the 4th oldest player in the league. At age 40 he won 10 games in relief for the A's and led the league in games pitched with 57 and games finished with 40 and a very respectable career ERA record of 2.45. Uncle Joe died in an automobile accident at the age of 54.

Only a few Berry's have made much of a mark in the world of athletics. Cousin Charles Berry, who is still coaching the Huntsville girl's basketball team at age 73, has won several state championships and over 1,200 games in over 40 years at Huntsville. Earlier this year, he was named not only girls high school basketball coach of the year in Arkansas, but also for the entire United States. Cousin Clyde Berry was a 4 sport letterman at Henderson State in 1952 and also runner-up male college athlete of the year in Arkansas that year. He later coached baseball and football at Henderson. Both Charles and Clyde have athletic facilities named after them at their schools. My twin brother Charlie and I managed to play a little football for the Razorbacks back in the fifties, but the 145 pound Major League relief pitcher called "Jittery Joe" may have had more color, craftiness, and animal cunning than the rest of the Berry family combined.

Be sure and pick up a copy of this issue filled with lots more stories and photos!

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