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Some folks in Carolina say that Jesse Morgan Eldridge had a million-dollar arm and a 10� head. And as proof they offer the fact that, after Eldridge left the red-clay diamond at the brickyard near his home in Glenola, a central North Carolina hamlet, he became a legend in baseball's minor leagues. Nevertheless, he spurned all opportunities to follow the many others who sprouted among the tobacco rows of the Tar Heel State and blossomed in the majors.
Instead, Eldridge was content to remain a country bumpkin—he was nicknamed Rube, of course—who bounced from one club to another along the fringe of big-time baseball, mixing hard drinking and horseplay with incredible performances on the mound. In fact, it was his reputation for belting moonshine and then mowing down batters that resulted in his most feared pitch being called the "barleycorn fadeaway."
While cavorting in the minors from 1906 to 1927, Eldridge, a slender lefthander, won 312 games and pitched both ends of no fewer than 100 doubleheaders. It was his fabled stamina that earned Eldridge his alternate nickname, Iron Man. One season, while playing for High Point in North Carolina's old Piedmont League, he won 22, lost three and had two ties in the first half of a split season.
When he was 17 Eldridge left sandlot ball for the pros, and in 1909 he made his first appearance for the classy Greensboro Patriots. The first batter he faced tripled and the second doubled, but then Eldridge regained the pinpoint control that he had acquired as a boy hurling acorns through knotholes in his father's barn and killing squirrels with rocks. He allowed only two other hits the rest of the way and won 2-1. Afterward Manager Pop McKevitt sprayed a mouthful of tobacco juice across Eldridge's backside, elbowed the pitcher in the ribs and gave him a big grin. It was a signal that the kid was on his way up.
During the next 11 seasons Eldridge played for eight teams in the Piedmont, Virginia, South Atlantic and Blue Ridge leagues. He was scouted on three occasions by Connie Mack, who told Eldridge that he could make it in the majors "if you'd only behave," but Eldridge put a higher price on his fun and freedom than a fat baseball salary.
He was sold six times to clubs in the majors and high minors and was drafted five times. On every occasion but one he refused to report, explaining, "I don't want to play anywhere I can't walk home."
The one time he gave in to a slight itch to travel was in 1920 when he reported to Columbus, Ohio of the American Association, then the fastest Triple-A league in the country. In his only performance, he pitched a five-hitter and beat Toledo 4-2. Then he headed to a bar to celebrate. When a black man plopped himself on a stool next to Eldridge, the startled son of the South jumped up and immediately began preparing for his return home. A teammate deciphered a message, written in lipstick, that Eldridge had scrawled on the mirror in his hotel room. "I like you people," it read, "and I like your town, but the corn likker is better in Glenola."
In 1920 Eldridge signed with the Charlotte Hornets of the South Atlantic League, where a sportswriter acclaimed him as "The Duke of Spero." The latest nickname derived from a conversation during which Eldridge inexplicably had announced that his hometown was Spero, a crossroads south of Glenola. For the rest of his life Eldridge was as well known as The Duke as he was as Rube.
By now, Eldridge had begun to lose some of his stuff, which led another Charlotte sports reporter to inquire, "Rube. I've been sitting behind the plate all season and have yet to see you put anything on the ball. How do you fool such good hitters as Teague and Gooch?"
Replied Eldridge, "Well, son, the boys are up there looking fer something on the ball, and there ain't nothing on it. That's what fools 'em. Psyrology, son."