Muscle, a must have for minor league fans

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Former Bristol Herald-Courier sports editor George Stone has captured the feel of what minor league baseball used to be like in his book, "Muscle, A Minor League Legend."
   The read is a biography of former minor league star Leo "Muscle" Shoals and tackles a variety of topics. Shoals tells the stories of his life in the minors with Stone using reports from the day and interviews from former teammates and rivals to give them more depth.
   There is a sad irony to the story as the book wasn't finished before Shoals passed away, thus denying the subject the chance to read what is a wonderful biography.
   It tells of how his last name, Sholes, was first misspelled while playing in Pennsylvania and later changed to accommodate the Muscle nickname, just like the Alabama city. A sportswriter in Albany, Ga. is credited with the nickname while reporting on a home-run hitting contest. Before that, he was often called "Ducky" a reference to the way he stood and ran.
   The book also tells of a childhood primarily in West Virginia and his start in the minors in Southwest Pennsylvania. Chapter eight of the book was interesting to me as it touched on Shoals' service in the military and his participation in World War II.
   He doesn't go into the details of the war as much as one might expect, but you have to respect him for not wanting to fully disclose all of the gory details. However, he doesn't shy away from other painful subjects like an indulgence of alcohol and carousing.
   According to Shoals, the carousing subsided after meeting Helen Perry of Kingsport, whom he later married, but he still enjoyed drinking with the boys.
   The nightlife was almost his undoing in 1939, when Shoals, then playing for the Johnson City Cardinals, was shot outside a roadhouse on the Johnson City-Bristol Highway. Luckily he did survive the episode.
   Stone, in a brilliant move, not only did a good job of having Shoals retell the story, but complemented it with a letter from then-Cardinals president Carl A. Jones, Jr. Jones, formerly the publisher of the Johnson City Press, who shows compassion for Shoals in the letter, while also reprimanding him for his actions.
   In all, the book does portray Shoals as a good person with one of his most admirable traits, the way he treated children. I enjoyed how you could lift from the pages the way Shoals admired baseball players as a child and could tell how happy it made him years later to be a hero to youngsters himself.
   The book chronicles other acts of kindness Shoals did for war veterans and elderly fans, he met through playing ball.
   Being someone that likes travel and learning about different points of interest, I enjoyed the details of the different towns he played in and the stadiums where he displayed his talents. From a historical perspective, the references to teams like the St. Louis Browns and others that no longer exist raise my interest level.
   For the baseball enthusiast, they will enjoy all the players' names from the past he recalls and the terminology used to describe different aspects of the game. One of his favorite terms is "Getting a cup of coffee" when referring to a player being called up to the majors.
   Shoals has been called by some the Babe Ruth of the minor leagues for their shared traits. Both were pitchers before becoming feared home run hitters, who brought a certain swagger to the plate. Both men fully subscribed to the notion of living life to its fullest.
   Just as Ruth had a record-setting 60 home run season in 1927, Shoals set a mark of his own playing for Reidsville in the Carolina League in 1949.
   That season he hit 55 roundtrippers for a league record that still stands to this day. Interestingly, despite all of his accomplishments, he never made the move to major league baseball.
   Although he touches on the subject of being blackballed from the majors in his early years after acquiring a reputation as a troublesome player, Shoals does not fully accuse those in power of denying him a big league opportunity.
   He does mention after his record-setting year in the Carolina League in 1949 how he actually turned down two opportunities to be called up to the big show.
   It is hard to comprehend with the inflated salaries of today's major league ballplayers to see how a minor league player in that era could make almost as much money as their big league counterparts.
   You can sense some regret of not taking the opportunity, but that didn't stop his playing baseball. His minor league career lasted another six seasons, ending with the Kingsport Cherokees in 1955. During his later years, he served as both a player and manager and led the Mountain States League in hitting in 1953 with a career best .427 batting average. Stats for his last season were remarkable as well, going .362 while leading the Appalachian League with 33 home runs and 134 RBIs.
   There are tons of local references in the book including several of minor league ball in Elizabethton. Above all, a constant theme is Shoals' love of baseball. That theme and the details of life in the minors during that time make this a must-have book for anyone who calls him or herself a baseball fan.
   Even if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool baseball enthusiast, the history involved and the descriptions of things he remembered in the small towns where he played, provide interesting subjects.
   For those who wish to obtain a copy of the book, you may contact the author George Stone, 4792 Island Road, Bristol, Tenn., 37620.