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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: Nearly killed by a pitch, a Buffalo Bison who came back

Thomas Abernathy would not describe himself as a baseball fan. He was aware of the way the World Series ended this week, with the Boston Red Sox defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he had no particular interest in the outcome. To him, it was little more than another sign of transition between the seasons.

His distance from baseball is part of an epic – yet almost forgotten – Buffalo story. At 81, he was shaped by what The Sporting News described in 1939 "as one of the most remarkable comebacks in the game's history." While Thomas lives in Texas, he was a childhood witness to much of what happened here 80 years ago.

If your children play baseball or softball – and casually wear protective helmets when they bat – this is a tale of sheer courage you ought to know.

In 1938, T. Woodley “Woody” Abernathy was a 29-year-old outfielder with the Buffalo Bisons, a former International League home run champion with dreams of someday playing in the major leagues.

Thomas, long retired from the banking business, is his son. He was raised as an only child and has no children of his own. As we near another winter, Thomas is among the dwindling few who recall the tale.

On an August afternoon, Woody stepped to the plate for the Bisons against pitcher “Long John” Gee, during what seemed to be a routine game in Syracuse. At 6-foot-9, the hard-throwing Gee, a lefty, would eventually become one of the few athletes to play both baseball and basketball at the highest professional levels.

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Woody was a left-handed hitter. Twice, Gee fooled him with curveballs, causing Woody to lean in, over the plate.  Gee later told reporters that he felt as if he had Woody set up perfectly for an inside fastball.

Even as he released the pitch, Gee knew he had lost control of the ball.

“Look out!” he shouted, but Woody could not respond in time.

In that era, players did not wear protective helmets. The pitch hit Woody just above the right ear, shattering his skull “virtually like an egg shell,” as one doctor told the old Buffalo Courier-Express. The late Dan Carnevale, a Bisons shortstop and a Buffalo sports legend, once told me that the noise of the impact — "like a marshmallow, like a dead sound" — haunted Carnevale into his old age.

Abernathy fell to the ground, bleeding and motionless. The crowd went silent. For a few minutes, Carnevale recalled, many feared that Woody had been killed.

At St. Joseph's, a Syracuse hospital, he was placed in a darkened room and listed in critical condition. His wife Billy carried Thomas, then a 1-year-old, onto a train in Buffalo and traveled to Woody's side, arriving in time to give middle-of-the-night permission for the doctors to perform risky surgery.

To save Woody, surgeons removed a piece of his skull. Thomas said his father lived without it, the space covered by cartilage, for the rest of his life.

Gee, sick with grief, hurried to the hospital. According to clippings provided by the American Society for Baseball Research, the story received national attention. Many Upstate fans began an anxious vigil, waiting for day-to-day updates on whether Abernathy would survive.

Writing for The Courier-Express, reporter W.S. Coughlin said doctors were sure of only one thing: “There is little doubt that the International League home run king has played the last ball game of his career.”

As Woody slowly recovered, Thomas and his mother were guests of honor at a benefit game between the Bisons and Syracuse, in which Gee pitched at the old Offermann Stadium in Buffalo. Syracuse won, 8-6, raising about $4,000 for the Abernathys amid the Great Depression.

In September, when Abernathy returned to his Louisiana home after a month in the hospital, Gee told him farewell, and 300 fans accompanied the young family to the Syracuse train station. By that time, national wire reports were quoting Abernathy as saying he thought he could again play baseball.

According to an account in the old New Orleans Item-Tribune by columnist Pie Dufour, Abernathy asked for his release from the Bisons when manager Steve O'Neill told him he was welcome to return, but that he would only bat – for safety reasons – against right-handed pitchers. The parting was amiable, but one thing seemed clear.

“My dad wanted to prove he could play,” Thomas said.

Two years before the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first team in the majors to formally wear protective helmets, Abernathy went back to the game. To protect himself, he wore what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called a "fiber skull cap," a kind of early  metal batting helmet.

Derby Gisclair, an author and historian with deep knowledge of baseball's old Southern Association, came up with the box scores that serve as a crescendo. In 1939, newly-signed outfielder Woody Abernathy of the Knoxville Smokies opened the year with two hits in an 8-8 tie ended by darkness. A day later, Woody hit his first home run of the season.

What those accounts do not reveal is the essence of the tale, how a Buffalo Bison nearly killed at home plate made a triumphant return to the batter's box less than a year later, even though he was missing a small piece of his skull.

Woody’s .332 average in 1939 lifted him into the top tier of league hitting, Gisclair reports. In 1940, Woody spent the year with the old St. Paul Saints and Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, a season that left Thomas with his first faint memories of his father and baseball.

Those are basically his only recollections of the game. Before long, Woody took a job with the Flintkote Co., and the family settled in San Antonio.

“Once he was through,” Thomas said, “he never went to another baseball game.”

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Woody was a gentle, well-loved guy, Thomas said, but his parents did not talk about baseball or encourage their son to play. Even the physical reminders disappeared. All Woody's clippings and scrapbooks were in a cedar chest in Houston, and during one move they were accidentally thrown out.

“With a lot of things,” Thomas said, “it was like they closed a door.”

Woody died in his early 50s, from a heart attack. Gradually, his tale of fearlessness was lost.

Buffalo is a city with a magnificent sports tradition, involving many narratives of grit and courage. That history ought to include Woody Abernathy, whose life almost ended with a fastball at home plate.

Yet he pioneered an early version of a batting helmet, then found the will to pick up a bat, dig in his feet and stand in there without flinching.

Thomas now calls himself "the last piece of the puzzle," the last person close to Woody who is here to tell the tale.

With winter on the horizon, he is simply glad we know.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive. He thanks renowned genealogist Megan Smolenyak, Cassidy Lent and John Horne of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, author and historian Derby Gisclair and Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research for their help with this piece.

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