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Baseball is a sport that loves its nicknames, and the history of America’s Pastime is filled with colorfully renamed characters. Among them, a legendary home run hitter called “Babe,” and a hard-throwing pitcher named Jay Dean, who preferred being called “Dizzy.” There have actually been several “Babes” in baseball’s past and a surprising number of “Dizzys.” Smaller guys were often known as “Pee Wee,” and, in a time when young men with rural backgrounds dominated the game, “Rube” was a popular baseball nickname. Perhaps the most repeatedly bestowed moniker was simply “Lefty.” Baseball historians cannot agree on how many major league baseball players have carried the substitute name “Lefty,” but the number is unquestionably in the hundreds. One of the lesser-known major leaguers with the common nickname was Lefty Guise of Logan County, Arkansas.
No baseball player in Guise’s day was more in need of a nickname than a pitcher from Driggs, Arkansas, with the substantial name, Witt Orison Guise. Lefty Guise was a doctor’s son and a former college pitcher for the University of Florida, an incongruous resume for a baseball player from rural Arkansas.
Driggs is a community located in the shadow of Mount Magazine at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 309 and Turkey Ridge Road. While thousands of travelers pass through Driggs each year exploring the scenic areas around Mount Magazine State Park, most never know they are visiting the birthplace of a major league baseball player. No roadside sign proclaims Driggs as the “Home of World Series Champion Lefty Guise.”
Guise got his first shot at pro baseball after getting a baseball scout’s attention pitching in college. He signed with the Yankees’ organization after leaving Florida but did little in the minors to indicate he had a future in pro baseball. In about 60 total games in 1930 and 1931, Guise’s combined record for two seasons was 6-13. In addition to his mediocre minor league work, a serious arm injury in a summer fishing accident left the 22-year-old with no offers from pro baseball.
Although Lefty Guise disappeared from minor league baseball after his unimpressive two-year minor league stint and potentially career-ending injury, he inexplicably never gave up. He had no logical reason to think he could be a successful pitcher before he hurt his arm. Now, with no fastball and no team interested in giving him a shot, Guise undoubtedly gave serious thought to returning to Magazine Mountain and forgetting baseball. Instead, he tinkered with a knuckleball and a screwball and slowly but surely found a style that got batters out again. First in semi-pro games, and later in the independent Carolina League, Guise perfected the “slow stuff” that placed less stress on his damaged arm.
In 1939, after a seven-season absence, the 30-year-old hurler received a second minor league trial. He posted a 15-7 record in the Tar Heel League and was equally successful in 1940 after a promotion to Class B Columbia, South Carolina. In September 1940, Lefty Guise was summoned to Cincinnati to help the National League Reds drive toward a pennant. In an amazing story of perseverance and guile, the reinvented Lefty was an overnight success, both on and off the field.
Dizzy Dean, Schoolboy Rowe, and Daffy Dean
During the time Guise was slowly making his comeback in relative obscurity in the Carolinas, rural Arkansas major leaguers like the Dean brothers, Schoolboy Rowe, and Lon Warneke were getting as much favorable press for their curious rural Arkansas ways as their accomplishments as players. Lefty decided he could be an Arkansas hillbilly too if it helped his career. Guise was not only a crafty pitcher, but he was also cunning enough to know that a colorful off-the-field personality would get attention for his on-the-field comeback.
Guise reemerged with a repertoire of new pitches and the expected new hillbilly persona. He already had the look. Tall and angular with prominent ears, Guise certainly fit the expected Arkansas image. As an accessory, he added to his cheek a chaw of tobacco one writer described as “like an orange in a Christmas stocking.
Enos “Country” Slaughter 1940
Johnny Mize 1940
Guise got his first major league opportunity on September 3, 1940, relieving fellow rookie Johnny Hutchings in the third inning. The first two hitters Guise faced were Future Hall of Famers in their prime. Enos “Country” Slaughter, who could out-hillbilly almost anyone in the majors, led off and took a called third strike. Johnny Mize, who would finish second in the MVP voting, grounded to short. A walk and a flyout later, Guise escaped his first major league inning without giving up a run.
The Reds tied the game in the bottom of the fourth inning, and Guise worked out of a jam in the fifth after Mize tripled. He sent the Cardinals down in order in the sixth, but the visitors went ahead 3-2 in the seventh inning after three consecutive singles. The Reds lifted Guise at that point. He had pitched effectively, giving up six hits and one run in four-plus innings. The Reds took Lefty off the hook by scoring two unanswered runs to win the game 4-3.
Ten days later, Guise worked another steady three innings, holding the Giants to two hits and one run in another Reds’ victory. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the game for Lefty was his single off future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. Past his prime, but still effective, Hubbell’s mystique was very much alive, and Guise gushed about the hit after the game.
“A man like me, getting a hit off Hubbell, it’s a miracle. I got the ball. Gonna save it to show people the one I hit off Hubbell. Lord, what a good feeling! I just feel like doing something good for somebody. Believe I will.” Later, discussing the hit in full hillbilly character, Guise proudly reported that he had sent a dollar to the Salvation Army.
Cincinnati went on to win the 1940 World Series. Although Guise did not get in a World Series game, he is pictured in the official photo of the World Champions. According to Guise, when he returned home to Logan County after the 1940 World Series, he had to take his shoes off before he entered the town. “I didn’t want the home folks to think I was getting high hat.”
Still officially a rookie in 1941, Lefty reported to spring training with no assurance of a place on the team. Although he was loved by the press, who needed someone colorful to write about, Lefty Guise was “baseball old” at age 31. A “long, loose Arkansan vaguely resembling Lon Warneke,” made a good Arkansas country boy story, but the Reds optioned him to the minors before the season began.
Beginning in 1942, active duty in World War II would take four years from his career. After the war, a 37-year-old pitcher was not in high demand, but Lefty Guise was not finished as a pitcher.
Guise pitched effectively in the minor leagues until he was 42 years old. After five good years at Class B Vicksburg from 1946 to 1950, Guise spent his last pro season as player-manager at Douglas, Georgia, in 1951. Lefty led the Douglas Trojans in wins with 14 and produced a sparking 2.13 ERA.
After his retirement, Lefty Guise returned to Arkansas, settled in Little Rock, and spent more than 25 years as a mechanic for the National Guard. Guise died in 1968.
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