The ‘Rock’ is No. 1 Snohomish County athlete

  • By Scott M. Johnson / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, July 30, 2005 9:00pm
  • Sports

By the time Earl Averill wrapped up a 13-year Major League Baseball career and moved back to his hometown of Snohomish in 1941, the Bunyanesque tales had already grown to mythical proportions.

There was the one about the baseball he hit so far that it sailed out of a 500-foot-long stadium, over a 20-foot-high wall, and into the skull of a woman who was standing on the porch of her third-floor apartment across the street from Cleveland’s League Park.

Or the one about the kids who approached Averill before a game and handed him a cheap wooden bat, pleading with him to use it during the game. Averill waited until the eighth inning, eventually dragged the shoddy lumber into the batters box of a game that had gotten out of hand, and somehow hit the ball over the fence.

There was the home run Averill hit in his first major league at-bat, and the four home runs he hit in a doubleheader one afternoon. There were the blistering line drives that ended one famous pitcher’s career (Dizzy Dean, broken toe) and caused two different injuries to another (Bobo Newsom, who suffered a broken kneecap and dislocated shoulder on two of Averill’s 11 consecutive hits off the Washington Senators hurler).

The stories were all entertaining, if not a bit too far-fetched to believe.

Except that they were all true.

Snohomish’s version of Babe Ruth was one of the greatest baseball players of his era, remains one of the most popular players in Cleveland Indians history, and was the overwhelming choice for The Herald’s No. 1 Athlete in Snohomish County History.

While the county has had plenty of outstanding athletes over the years, Averill’s resume was too difficult to ignore. A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and recently named the No. 8 athlete in state history by Sports Illustrated, Averill is still regarded as Snohomish County’s biggest sports star 22 years after his death.

“He had it all as an athlete,” said Keith Gilbertson Sr., a longtime Snohomish resident who idolized Averill as a child. “He had everything going for him.

“… During the Depression, this town didn’t have much pride. But we always had Earl Averill. No matter what was going on at the time, you knew you could pick up the paper every morning and see how many hits Earl Averill got.”

Averill’s rise to stardom – a path that led him all the way to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. – had plenty of glory after meager beginnings.

Born in 1902, Howard Earl Averill was two years old when his father, Jotham, died. A brother, Easter, passed away six years later from pneumonia at the age of 8. Earl, the youngest of three remaining siblings, eventually quit school at the age of 15 to help support his family.

Earl Averill – he went by his middle name – went to work as a cook in a logging camp, and by the age of 16 he started helping construction on the road around Lake Crescent.

His work eventually sent Averill to Anaconda, Mont., where he began playing baseball with a local mining team. An immediate star, Averill got a tryout with the Seattle Indians, who took him to spring training but soon cut him. According to a legend passed on by son Bernie Averill, someone from the Seattle organization told Averill that he didn’t have what it took to play professional baseball.

But Averill did not give up. The San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League invited him to spring training in 1926 and thought so much of him that they signed him to a contract, even though they already had too many outfielders on the roster. So enamored were the Seals that they sold the rights to veteran outfielder Lloyd Waner, a future Hall of Famer, to the Southern League.

Averill quickly made the Seals look like geniuses. The outfielder hit over .300 in each of his three seasons of minor league baseball and was eventually sold to the American League’s Cleveland Indians for $50,000 – the highest sum of money ever paid for a baseball player at the time.

He hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and had a .332 batting average with a team-record 18 home runs as a rookie. Known as the ”Rock” despite his 5-foot-9, 172-pound frame, Averill continued to tear up major league pitching, hitting over .300 in each of his first six major league seasons. In 1936, he hit .378 with 28 homers and 126 RBI. During his 10-year career with the Indians, Averill established himself as the most popular player on the team as well as one of the best players in the game. The team honored him with Earl Averill Day, giving him a Cadillac at a ceremony in 1938, before trading him less than a year later.

Averill played for the Detroit Tigers and Boston Braves before retiring in 1941. He had a career batting average of .318 and played in six All-Star games.

Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove was once quoted as saying: “I thank the good Lord he wasn’t twins. One more like him would probably have kept me out of the Hall of Fame.”

After his retirement, Averill moved back to Snohomish, where he invested in a floral company with his oldest brother, Forrest “Pud” Averill. The business partners went their separate ways in 1950, when Earl purchased a motel in Snohomish and ran it until he retired in 1970.

Well after his baseball career had ended, Averill continued to earn accolades.

In 1975, he was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the first Washington native to be enshrined (Spokane’s Ryne Sandberg will officially join him during a July 31 enshrinement). The Cleveland Indians retired his No. 3 jersey, solidifying his place as one of the best players in team history.

In 1983, at the age of 81, Averill died and was buried in Snohomish. But his legacy was not forgotten.

Earl Douglas Averill, Earl’s 73-year-old son, still gets recognized because of his famous name – especially in Cleveland.

“Once in a while, a letter will come and tell me what a fine ballplayer I was,” said the younger Earl Averill, who followed his dad to the majors but had a modest .242 batting average over eight seasons. “Then I’ll look inside and there will be a picture of my dad.”

Bernie Averill, at 80 the second-oldest of Earl’s four boys, has the most vivid memories of his father as a ballplayer. He was 5 years old in 1930, when his father hit three home runs in the first game of a twinbill and another in the nightcap to become the first person in baseball history to hit four home runs in one day.

Bernie Averill was also there when the two kids approached his father before a game and begged him to use their bat and watched as his father used it to hit one of his Cleveland franchise-record 226 major league home runs.

“He said, ‘If I’d have been using my own bat, I know that ball would have gone 600 feet,’” Bernie Averill said from his Everett home recently.

Bernie Averill has heard all the stories, seen all the statistics and read all the accolades, yet he recently found himself having to answer a pretty typical question.

If your father were playing today, against pitchers that throw 90 miles per hour and in a league where hitters are often built like linebackers, would he have been as successful?

“He wouldn’t have had any trouble,” Bernie Averill said confidently without pausing to answer.

Gilbertson, one of the few remaining Snohomish residents who remember Averill as a player, agreed.

“His style was universal,” Gilbertson said. “He had a long, sweep swing, terrific power, a great throwing arm, and he could run. He would have been great in any era.”

Many eras have passed since Earl Averill last played, but he remains the greatest athlete Snohomish County has ever produced.

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