Today, not many people remember the story of Sigmund "Slats" Stuffenberger, a major league baseball player of the 1950's. Other things command our attention, such as earning a living, watching "Celebrity Karaoke" or fighting corruption charges in federal court.
But Slats's story is worth remembering. Born in Pigslop, Kansas in 1935, Slats was named Sigmund by his father, a poor but hard-working tenant farmer who admired 19th and early 20th century Austrian academics. Slats's father, Bifford "Pea" Stuffenberger, had high hopes for his only son to become a concert pianist, but young Sigmund wanted only to play big league ball.
Sadly saying their goodbyes on a train station platform in Phlebitis City, in the rain, wearing torn coats, and not having bathed in weeks, the elder and younger Stuffenbergers parted and Sigmund rode the train to Corn Corners, which at the time had its own Class D team, the Corn Corners Shuckers.
Shuckers skipper Ernest "Mad Dog" Mumford didn't think much of the green kid fresh off the farm, and refused to play him at all until the day when the team's star, Ragland Dollie--who had once batted twice for the New York Giants in September, 1905--broke his femur when he fell from the center field clock tower at the close of a cocaine-inspired spree. "You're in there, kid!" cried Mumford, and with that, Sigmund got his chance.
He tore through the minor leagues like there was no tomorrow, hitting a combined .439 for five teams, each one in a higher league than the one before it. He pitched, too, compiling a log of 31-3 on the mound. It wasn't long before scouts and telegrams from as far away as Cincinnati and Boston, wanting Sigmund--now known as Slats, for having once hit a grand slam home run with a bed slat to win a game for the old Oakland Oats--to come play big league ball began to arrive.
Bright lights, big city! Slats arrived in Boston to play for the Braves on a June afternoon in 1952, when he was just 17 years of age. The veterans on the club gave him a warm welcome, setting his suitcase on fire and pouring itching powder into his jock strap. Undeterred, Slats got into the game as a pinch hitter and belted a line drive double down the line. Spurred, perhaps, by the itching powder, Slats showed speed nobody could remember seeing before, at least not in Beantown.
The next year, 1953, saw Slats traded to the Phillies, where he hit 62 home runs, won 14 games as a pitcher, and spent the winter playing pro basketball "for fun." He met a young woman named Betsy Helgenshooker, and married her. "I'll always remember what she said to me at the church altar on our wedding day," recalled Slats some years later during an interview for the Philadelphia Phrenology News. "She looked so beautiful. She smiled shyly at me from behind her lace veil and whispered to me that she was 'pretty sure' the baby was mine."
Perhaps tired from changing nappies, Slats slumped to only 47 homers in '55, and then 31 in '56 as the Phillies dealt him to the Pirates for Spook Jacobs. In Pittsburgh, Slats became a Buddhist and renounced all material possessions. Converting to vegetarianism as well, Slats hit a meager .213 in fewer than fifty at bats before being shipped out to the Elmira Elephants of the Barnum & Bailey League. Playing center field and shortstop, as well as filling in on the flying trapeze, Slats whiled away the time until he could return to the bigs.
But he never did. Georgia Alabama, the circus Fat Lady, entered Slats's hotel room one evening and shot him in the abdomen with a revolver. "I loved him," she explained to police, as Slats clung to life at Hobgoblin Hospital in Elmira. Though the brave young man tried a comeback, first with the Elephants and later with a succession of 'bush league" clubs, it never worked out; Slats became an alcoholic bum, sleeping on cardboard boxes over steam grates in downtown Philadelphia.
Despite his sad end, the memory of Slats Stuffenberger's exploits as a lad in 1953 is cemented in Phillies lore forever. As his widow Betsy said--with Slats's son Jamaal at her side--"Slats always saw the best in people, and in life. He was a good man." A good man who once swatted 62 baseballs into the seats in the summer of 1953.