'Spittin' Bill' Doak: Bradenton sweet shop owner made big impact on national pastime

vmannix@bradenton.comMarch 30, 2014 

BRADENTON

Bill Doak's Sweet Shop was just a nook on 13th Street West, yet it was still a popular downtown destination for working folks, boys and ballplayers in the 1940s and 1950s.

The city was smaller, times were simpler and little pleasures meant a lot.

"He made popcorn every day and you could smell it down the street," said Bill Howard, 74, who grew up in an apartment over his dad's barber shop across the way. "We liked putting our hands in the Coca-Cola tub filled with ice, too. You froze trying to get the Coke, but on a hot summer day it felt good."

It was a serene backdrop for Doak, a modest and devout family man who settled here in 1925. He was a member of Christ Episcopal Church, was once the golf pro at Bradenton Country Club and invested in real estate downtown.

"I made a lot of money, but I lost it in the 1930 crash," he told the Milwaukee Journal's Sam Levy in February 1954. "Then I started a comeback and opened this little sweet shop."

The Pittsburgh native always wore

a smile, had a sense of humor and treated patrons respectfully. That included youngsters he served in his store and coached afternoons on the dusty baseball diamonds at the Boys Club on Ninth Street West.

Doak also coached Bradenton High School's baseball team to a state championship, according to Herald archives.

"He loved kids and had a nice way with them," Howard said. "Mr. Doak's was the place to go for us."

Doak sold candy, cigarettes and cigars, soft drinks, comic books and magazines. He also sold novelties like cap gun caps, puzzles and toys. Baseball cards, too.

It was the only place in town to get The Sporting News.

Doak sold Rawlings baseball gloves, too, unusual for a candy store.

Braxton Smith, whose father ran the downtown Woolworth's for 30-plus years, remembers seeing them in the Sweet Shop in 1949 to 1952.

"They were so nice and shiny, and he was far from a full line sporting goods store," said Smith from Dawsonville, Ga.

None of the youngsters realized they were probably Bill Doak model gloves. But it wouldn't have been a big deal in those days.

Neither was the fact that Doak was a former major-league pitcher himself.

"We were used to seeing ballplayers around town," said John Vander Schouw, 73, a retired Manatee High School guidance department chairman.

Over the years, ballclubs including the Cardinals, Phillies, Red Sox and Braves lodged at the old Dixie Grande Hotel during spring training.

"I was in Doak's Sweet Shop one time and three Braves came in -- Eddie Mathews, Del Crandall and Joe Adcock," Howard said. "They just got a mug of root beer and were shooting the breeze."

Just like regular folks who worked downtown at First National Bank, Cox Chevrolet, or Tallant & Groff clothiers and dropped in at Doak's Sweet Shop.

Kids were more interested in buying candy after the movies, particularly on Saturdays, after watching Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart at the Palace Theater a few doors down, or the western double feature at the State Theater around the corner.

"Movies only cost 9 cents then, so you'd have a penny left over, go to Bill Doak's Sweet Shop and get bubble gum or licorice," said Tommy Mims, 74, who made a career with Florida Power & Light.

If you didn't have any money, that was OK, too.

"We'd just go to Doak's and thumb through comic books until mom and dad picked us up," Vander Schouw said.

Doak kept a watchful eye over them.

"Our parents felt a sense of safety when we were down at his place," said Harry Kinnan, 71, retired Manatee County School Board member and former Manatee Community College basketball coach. "Most of us lived only a few blocks away. Bradenton only went out to 32nd Street then."

Yet the grandfatherly proprietor's presence held an allure of horizons far beyond.

William Leopold Doak outdueled Christy Mathewson twice and Grover Cleveland Alexander once, two of baseball's titans.

He was a teammate of Cardinal legend Rogers Hornsby.

He pitched in 453 games with a 2.98 career ERA.

The boys who frequented Doak's Sweet Shop never knew that until they were grownups. Same for those he mentored at the Boys Club of Manatee County.

"I was flabbergasted," said 74-year-old West Point graduate Hank Rennagel, a combat-decorated Army colonel now retired in Demarest, Ga.

"He wasn't a braggart, never volunteered that kind of stuff," said Ron "Trigger" Smith, 74, a retired pharmacist whose father had the Texaco station down the street.

"He was a celebrity even though we didn't realize it," Tommy Mims said.

Bill Doak had a 16-year major league career, pitching 13 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and three with the old Brooklyn Robins.

His 169-157 record obscured his accomplishments in the game, which did not include any pennants, yet are nevertheless enduring.

One was the distinctive nickname: "Spittin' Bill."

He was one of the game's last spitball pitchers.

How Doak did that is the stuff of baseball lore.

According to baseball historian Steve Steinberg, Doak's father wanted him to become a mining engineer.

Born in 1888, the son dreamed of making it to the big leagues instead, and the road was roundabout:

• 1910 -- Wheeling Stogies, Iron & Oil League.

• 1911 -- Wheeling Stogies, Iron & Oil League.

• 1912 -- Akron Rubbermen, Central League.

• 1912 -- Columbus Senators, American Association.

• 1913 -- Akron Giants, Interstate League.

Doak had a tryout with Cincinnati in 1912, but Reds manager Hank O'Day was unimpressed and shipped him back to Akron.

That's where Cardinal scout Eddie Herr saw him.

Though Doak's four-year minor league record was only 48-51, that 2.77 ERA in 918 innings must've convinced Herr the slender righthander was worth a $500 flyer.

"The Akron people were afraid I wouldn't buy him," Herr said, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame archives.

Doubts about Doak, a slight 6-foot, 165 pounder, persisted at the big league level.

"He can't last," St. Louis manager Miller Huggins was told. "Too frail. Pitches himself out with every pitch he throws."

Yet Huggins saw something in Doak's first three appearances -- two no-hit relief efforts and a tight 1-0 loss, all against John McGraw's New York Giants.

So the manager made a suggestion to Doak:

Add the spitter to your repertoire.

It would ease the strain of Doak's pitching delivery and save his strength.

It was also a legal pitch at the time.

So Doak tried it -- "A powerful weapon for us fellows," he said -- and the improvement was dramatic:

• In 1914, Doak went 19-6. Two of those victories came against Mathewson and Alexander.

• His 1.72 ERA in 1914 remains the best in baseball history for a pitcher in his first full season pitching.

• It was the first of seven seasons Doak pitched or exceeded 200 innings.

• On Sept. 18, 1917, Doak pitched and won both games in a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Robins.

• He won 15 games or more five times, and 20 games once.

• Doak remains in the Cardinals' Top 10 in eight pitching categories. His 34 shutouts are second to Hall of Famer Bob Gibson (56) in team history.

Bill Doak was in rarified company, all right.

"We knew we were in the presence of somebody who was important, but we didn't know his history," Mims said.

Tim Wiles thinks Bill Doak was born a century too soon.

Wiles is the director of research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"You take a career like Bill Doak's, and he's making a good bit of money today," he said from Cooperstown, N.Y. "He was a pretty dependable front line player during his era, a guy who would be a consistent winner on good teams."

Not to mention in two different eras -- the dead ball and live ball -- when rule changes in 1920 gave the batter more advantages.

Doak's 2.58 ERA also led the National League in 1921.

"Those rule changes came along in the middle of his career, and he was still able to have success," Wiles said. "He was still a competitor."

After being traded to Brooklyn in 1924, Doak won 10 straight, including three games in one week -- two by shutout -- as the Robins narrowly lost the pennant by 1- 1/2 games to McGraw's Giants.

That Doak was one of 17 spitball pitchers who were "grandfathered" when baseball outlawed the pitch in 1920 is also significant.

"The spitball was a standard part of many pitchers' repertoire, and they could get guys out with it," Wiles said. "He was a pretty good pitcher, and that's what most people remember him for. But I recognize him as a guy who helped the game's advancement with the evolution of the glove."

Kurt Hunzeker with Rawlings Sporting Goods puts it succinctly:

"Bill Doak to fielder's gloves is the equivalent of Chuck Taylor to sneakers."

Baseball gloves early on were designed mainly for the hand's protection, not fielding. Made of buckskin, the glove had a couple of flimsy rawhide cords connecting the forefinger and thumb.

"Undersized waffles with stubby fingers," wrote the late Vincent X. Flaherty, an influential sports writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. "Bill's model completely outmoded the flimsy thing of the late teens and mid-'20s. It eliminated the wear and tear on a player's catching hand."

Doak's concept was to enlarge the glove's thumb, make it even with the forefinger and build a larger webbing between them.

Initially he experimented with leather straps, and fellow players asked him to fix their gloves the same way.

Then while playing with the Cardinals, Doak took the idea to Rawlings in 1919 and, working with production chief William Whitely, created the prototype of baseball gloves to this day.

"It revolutionized the industry," said Hunzeker, senior director of brand marketing for Rawlings in St. Louis. "All models are derivatives of the Bill Doak model. Though the technology has improved greatly, Bill's idea has never changed -- five fingers and a pocket for the ball to fall into after catching it."

The new glove took a while to catch on, if you will, with other major leaguers at the time.

"There were many old diehards who scornfully looked upon the Doak glove as a sissified departure," Flaherty wrote. "But even they broke down, and it came to be as much a part of the standard equipment as ... a pouch of Beechnut chawin' tobacco."

Doak's glove design was patented Aug. 22, 1922.

What's more, Rawlings produced the Bill Doak Glove for more than three decades, earning him annual royalties of as much as $25,000, a handsome sum in those times.

The first glove sold for $10.

Jim Smith owns two Bill Doak gloves and they have deep sentimental value.

Doak was his grandfather.

"The first glove I bought was a right-handed model for about $14, and I'm left-handed," said the 74-year-old Merritt Island retiree, who pitched for Cocoa High School. "But I wanted Granddaddy's glove so I made it work."

Smith found the second one -- also a right-handed model -- a few weeks ago at a flea market in Picayune, Miss.

"The last place I'd expect to find something like this," he said. "I said to the guy, I got to tell you a story about this glove. It was an emotional moment. He sold it to me for $3."

Rawlings' top-of-the-line Gold Glove today sells for $499.

"Bill Doak and Rawlings will always be connected," Kurt Hunzeker said.

Youngsters couldn't pedal their bikes fast enough to baseball practice at the Boys Club, flying from Ballard Elementary School, gloves hooked on their handlebars, baseball cards wedged in the wheel spokes making a loud BRRRRRP! noise that sounded cool to 10- to 12-year-olds.

Bill Doak was waiting.

So was Henry Johnson.

Johnson was a constable and a Bradenton native who pitched in the majors 12 seasons. That included seven years (1925-26, 1928-32) with the powerhouse New York Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, helping them win the World Series in 1928 and 1932.

The Boys Club had started a Midget League for 10- to 12-year-olds in 1951. There were four teams sponsored by the Elks, Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary, and they played from May through July -- in wool uniforms!

"It was the first time we had organized youth baseball," said Bill Howard, who went on to play at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. "Mr. Johnson and Mr. Doak would work with the pitchers, help the kids with their delivery and were primarily interested in stretching out their arms. No curves, no screwballs, no fancy pitches.

"Of course, kids would ask Mr. Doak about spitters."

Hank Rennagel was one of those kids.

That he played first base didn't matter to him.

"I asked him what the spitball was going to do and he said, 'I can't tell what it's going to do. It just moves. You just don't know exactly how,'" Rennagel recalled.

Ron Smith was a pitcher, though not a good one, he admits.

Just being one of Doak's pupils was a big deal to a 12-year-old.

"He didn't advocate throwing curves at that point," Smith said. "Just throw it hard as you can and get it over the plate. We worked on control and balance. He knew what he was talking about. Coming from a major leaguer, it was pretty cool. I took everything he said very seriously."

Doak knew his players would do just that, too.

He'd watch their games and jot down things to work on in practice.

"Boys this age are great mimickers," he said. "Show them how to do something and they will go to great lengths to copy it."

The league grew in numbers over the next few years, but the 1954 season would be Doak's last.

He died of a heart attack on Nov. 16, 1954. He was 63.

"My mother and I found him," Jim Smith said. "He'd open up the store and Granny would relieve him so he could come home and rest. When he didn't come back we went to the house. It was pretty traumatic for a kid so young like me, but things like that happen. It was sad."

Doak was cremated, but his final resting place is unknown.

His wife Jessie, daughter Betty Smith, two sons, Bobby and Bill, are all deceased now, too, according to B.J. Solomon, whose paternal grandfather was Doak's first cousin.

At the time of Doak's passing, he had 11 grandchildren.

A Pittsburgh native and Pirate fan, Solomon only recently became aware of her ancestor's myriad baseball achievements.

"My grandfather gave me Bill Doak's name, but never mentioned he played baseball, but I am fascinated by him," the 69-year-old Merritt Island resident said. "I have a copy of his World War I draft card and on it the occupation reads: professional baseball player. It makes me proud. Both of my sons are aware of Bill Doak, what he did, and that's something they can pass onto their kids."

Doak's passing resonated with the community.

"The death of Bill Doak ... will be sorely felt in Manatee County," wrote Bradenton Herald sports editor Jimmy Selman. "Not only was he a friend to countless baseball fans and adults. He was a teacher of boys."

Those boys have never forgotten him.

"Living across the street, seeing him every day of my young life, it was almost like seeing my dad," Bill Howard said.

Said Tommy Mims, "He was someone we looked up to in more ways than one."

Ron Smith agreed.

"I'd never met anybody who'd played major league baseball and to me, baseball was the world," he said. "Bill Doak passed so unexpectedly, I wish I'd talked to him more. I probably didn't realize all that until after he passed."

On March 12, 1955, the Boys Club dedicated Bill Doak Field, erecting a small monument with a plaque bearing his name.

National League president Warren Giles was the keynote speaker at the ceremony.

After citing Doak's major league achievements, Giles said, "But most of all, Bill Doak is a name recognized for his work with the kids right here in Bradenton. It is very appropriate this field be named in his honor. The fruits of his efforts will be shown elsewhere."

Sixty years later, Bill Doak Field is long gone, swept away even before the expansion of McKechnie Field.

Doak's Sweet Shop is long gone, too. It's a parking lot now.

Yet the memories remain.

Standing on the site of the old store on 13th Avenue West, Bill Howard turned over the baseball in his hand, looking at faded signatures of old teammates and friends.

Bill Doak's autograph is among them.

"The thing that's stuck in my mind all these years is he was a genuine friend," Howard said. "He never seemed to think he was important. He was a regular Joe and that showed with everybody. He was a gentleman."

Vin Mannix, local Herald columnist for 16 loyal years, has retired. Twitter @vinmannix.

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