Baseball in Evansville

Stories From the Cutting Room Floor

Another in the winter series of basketball stars who played baseball in Evansville. This one is a little longer because there’s a lot to tell.

As the 1956 season was nearing an end, a sports story started with a single Evansville player at bat.  Evansville’s professional baseball teams had a history of spawning stories from players who failed in one at bat – slugger Clarence Kraft and manager Chuck Tanner, for instance.  Evansville also had its share of basketball stars who made brief appearances before fame or infamy, like Hank Raymonds and Ralph Beard. Another one-at-bat wonder was also a basketball phenom. The hubbub started shortly before the failed plate appearance. 

Ray “Corky” Withrow was the prize catch of Adolph Rupp’s University of Kentucky Wildcat recruits after a storied high school basketball career for the Central City (KY) Golden Tide. Withrow signed a grant-in-aid to U.K. in late January before his senior season ended. The six-foot-four-inch center finished his high school career by scoring 34 points in a losing effort in the Kentucky State Finals. It was his team’s third straight trip to the Sweet 16. He scored over 3,000 points in a storied high school hoops career.

The other thing Corky was good at was baseball, and that talent caught the attention of the Milwaukee Braves organization. On July 25, 1956, the organization announced the signing of Withrow for a bonus of $4,000.  Corky immediately reported to Evansville as a baseball professional. Problem was that Southeastern Conference rules didn’t allow professionals in one sport to play as an amateur in another.  No problem said Withrow.  He would attend Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro instead. His new coach and the school’s athletic director, Robert “Bullet” Wilson, said the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, of which KWU was a member, allowed it. 

Corky as a Milwaukee Braves prospect.

Withrow told the Associated Press that at the end of his four years in college he would know if he was good enough to be a major league player, and if not, he’d try pro basketball. A Milwaukee Braves scout gave Corky a 50-50 chance of making the big leagues. The new pro mostly sat and watched. In his one plate appearance (Aug. 31), he flew out as a pinch hitter. Around that time a war of words questioning Withrow’s college eligibility started between Lexington Herald sports columnist Billy Thompson and Owensboro-Messenger-Inquirer sports editor Russ Melvin.  Thompson claimed in his regular column “Pressbox Pickups” that Withrow was ineligible to play at KWC. Melvin claimed he was eligible. The argument went on for several days, however Thompson had the facts on his side.

Thompson used his column to quote Article 3, Section 1 of the NCAA Constitution, which said that anyone “who takes or has taken pay or has accepted promise of pay, in any form, for participation (in any form) of athletics does not meet the definition of amateur.” He later paraphrased Article 3, Section 3 which said that “a student athlete who signs a contract to play pro athletics, plays on any pro team in any sport” is no longer an amateur. Thompson went so far as to say that Kentucky Wesleyan Athletic Director Robert Wilson had written the NCAA and received a “no” when inquiring about Withrow’s eligibility.

The Messenger-Inquirer‘s Melvin relented after the Herald‘s Thompson published his rule-stating diatribe. Melvin admitted that Corky was ineligible. Melvin wrote to Thompson, “but I think this is a dirty deal.”  Melvin reasoned it was dirty by fingering another NCAA school, Ohio Valley Conference member Murray State, that used pros for years. He cited Murray State football player Al Giordano as an example.  Giordano played professional baseball in the Kitty League. Yes, it had happened before but apparently never with an athlete the stature of Corky Withrow.

Withrow stayed at Kentucky Wesleyan but never played. On December 3 Thompson wrote that Withrow would not be in the KWC lineup due to a broken foot.  Around Christmastime Withrow withdrew from the school and announced he would enter Georgetown College, a non-NCAA affiliated school, in Georgetown, Kentucky, where it was allowed. He was not eligible until the next season.  

The Braves organization sent Withrow to their Class-D Wellsville (NY) affiliate for the 1957 baseball season, where he got his chance to play every day. He showed promise with 19 home runs. At season’s end he was back in the classroom at Georgetown.

On November 19, 1957, Thompson’s column was titled “Long Wait Ends for Corky Withrow.”  Georgetown’s first game with Corky in the lineup turned out to be a barnburner against Lincoln Memorial University (TN). Playing on Georgetown’s home floor a Withrow shot at the buzzer went in but was waved off by officials. Despite scoring 19 points, Corky’s debut was a loser, 73-72.  It did show, however, that he still had it. The next drama came before Georgetown’s annual game with Louisville at Freedom Hall in early December.  Louisville coach Peck Hickman declared that Withrow was ineligible to play against his NCAA team, so Corky sat out the game. Georgetown lost, 74-54.

As the Georgetown College star basketball player

Back at Wellsville in 1958, Withrow had a blockbuster year, knocking in 142 runs in only 117 games to go along with 32 homers. His professional status as a baseball player was rising, but Georgetown was still his winter home……and the center of more controversy. 

The Herald‘s Billy Thompson was on the scene and as time came for Louisville to renew its annual game with Georgetown, Withrow’s coach Bob Davis drew the line. “Corky Withrow will play or else I won’t,” he exhorted. Davis told Peck Hickman that he wouldn’t sign a contract for the game unless Withrow was permitted to play. They signed. In December of 1958 Withrow took the Freedom Hall court against the big school. When the game ended Corky had 26 points, and with his Georgetown teammates laid an 84-78 loss on the Cardinals.

Withrow played out the season at Georgetown. During his two-year career at the small Kentucky school Corky tallied 1,378 points. He was inducted into the Georgetown College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010. Four years later he joined the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame as an inductee.

Corky continued to play basketball locally during the winter months and was drafted in 1961 by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors in the 11th round after being recommended by none other than Chuck Taylor of Converse basketball shoe fame. He attended their mid-September training camp with the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Guy Rodgers, Tom Gola and Al Attles. After one week of camp Withrow called it quits, saying “I’ve lost my shooting touch and can’t get it back.” Later that year he became a leading scorer in Evansville’s Agoga Tri-State Basketball League for Adam’s Texaco out of Owensboro. Jerry Sloan, a freshman at Evansville College, was a member of Cooke Chevrolet in the league while he was sitting out a year of eligibility after transferring from Southern Illinois University.

Withrow’s professional baseball career spanned through the 1966 season, when he made it back to Evansville as a late season addition to the Class-AA White Sox. The colorful Central City athlete, whose professional baseball career started with one fateful at-bat for the Evansville Braves in 1956, had come full circle.

Signing a contract to play for the Evansville Braves in the 50s forever changed his life, but not necessarily in the way he envisioned. After riding the bench most of the 1966 season for Syracuse in the International League, he requested his release and asked to be sent to Evansville, which was just 70 miles from the town where he became a basketball legend. 

Corky debuted in an Esox uniform with three hits in a 16-inning loss in front of 4,972 fans at Bosse Field on August 12. Most everyone in the stands stayed until the end. It was pony night. Over 3,200 of the Esox record crowd were children who were admitted free for a chance to win a pony in a drawing AFTER the game.  Corky was happy to be back in Evansville, but within the next couple of weeks, he announced the season would be his last.

In his Evansville White Sox home whites (Evansville Courier & Press)

“I’ve spent too many years playing behind guys I should have been playing ahead of, so I’ve had it,” he told Courier and Press writer Pete Swanson. On his last day in uniform, a Labor Day doubleheader in Bosse Field, Withrow swatted a grand slam home run. It was one of six long balls he hit with Evansville. The six put his minor league total at 211 dingers.

Stan Musial and Corky

Except for six games and nine hitless at bats with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1963, he spent 11 seasons laboring in the minors and played in over 1,100 games.  Withrow is the only player to appear in both Evansville Braves and White Sox uniforms. The full story of Corky is contained in a book written by Sherrill Williams and Charles Thurman, titled UnCORKED!


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