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Former major league pitcher Poffenberger dies

September 02, 1999|By DAN KULIN and MARLO BARNHARTs

WILLIAMSPORT - Former major league pitcher and Williamsport native Cletus Elwood "Boots" Poffenberger died Wednesday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 84.

Poffenberger left behind a rich legacy of sports memories and a lot of loyal friends and fans in Washington County.

He went against future Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Bob Feller while playing for the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1930s.

He was also known for his love of hunting and fishing, and was an active member of several area clubs and organizations before his illness slowed him down last November, Katherine Hanna Poffenberger, his wife of 48 years, said Thursday.

On Aug. 1 Poffenberger was taken by ambulance from his home at 13 N. Conococheague St. in Williamsport to Washington County Hospital. He stayed at the hospital until Monday when he was moved to the Williamsport Nursing Home, where he died Wednesday.

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"He loved Williamsport. He loved the river and he loved hunting," Katherine Poffenberger said. "He got around and had a good life. He enjoyed himself and had an awful lot of friends."

Poffenberger was born July 1, 1915 in Williamsport.

His sister, Janice Maxine Long, 83, said their grandfather was known as "Old Man Boots," and her brother inherited the nickname.

"No one knew him as Cletus. Even our mother called him Boots," Long said.

A teenager during the Great Depression, Poffenberger skipped high school, "hunted and fished a lot," and took a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps, Long said.

"He played a lot of ball around Hagerstown, but he didn't get paid much. Just a couple beers and a couple dollars," she said.

Poffenberger first won fame locally as a pitcher for the Williamsport Wildcats in the Washington County League. He made his professional debut with Cleveland in the Penn State League on Aug. 8, 1934.

Poffenberger, a right-handed thrower, began the 1937 season with Beaumont in the Texas League, but was called up to the Detroit Tigers to bolster an injury-plagued pitching staff.

He compiled a 10-5 record for Detroit, which finished second in the American League behind the New York Yankees that season.

Highlights of that season included a 3-2 victory on July 11 over Feller, the Cleveland Indians star who is considered one of baseball's greatest right-handers.

"I wouldn't trade (Poffenberger) for Feller, and mind you, I am not underrating Feller," Harry Heilman, a former Hall of Fame outfielder for the Tigers, told The Washington Star after watching that performance.

Five days later, in Detroit, Poffenberger pitched a complete game that ended with a 14-7 victory over the Yankees, whose lineup included future Gehrig, DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.

On Aug. 8, about 750 Washington County residents traveled to Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., for "Boots Poffenberger Day." A delegation led by Williamsport Mayor Richard Hawken presented him with gifts. Poffenberger didn't disappoint the local fans, defeating the Senators, 5-1.

Poffenberger had a 6-7 record for the Tigers in 1938 and moved to the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939, his final year in the majors.

His major league totals were 16 wins, 12 losses and 4 saves. He compiled an earned run average of 4.75.

Poffenberger pitched in 57 games and was the starting pitcher in 32. He pitched 13 complete games.

While in the majors, Poffenberger picked up another nickname "The Baron," which Long said he got when, as a joke, he posed for a picture wearing a monocle.

Poffenberger left major league baseball in 1942 to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater in World War II. During that time, he was a member of the Marine Special Services baseball team.

After the war, Poffenberger returned home to Williamsport. He ended his baseball career in 1949 with the Hagerstown Owls.

At that time, the Owls was a Class B farm team of the Washington Senators, according to Herb Rudisill, who was ball boy for the team that year. Rudisill is now a racing official at Charles Town Races.

In the 1980s, Poffenberger became one of the first inductees in the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame.

He stayed close to the game for many years, making special appearances and helping with old-timers' games, said Bob Miller, who was general manager of the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball team from 1981 to 1994.

"Whenever I called upon Boots, he was there," Miller said.

After World War II, Poffenberger worked at a silk mill in Hagerstown, and then got a job at Fairchild Aircraft, his sister said.

He worked at Fairchild for just under 10 years and then went to work at Mack Trucks Inc.

"He was a terrific guy and one of my best friends," said Dave Cole, a retired Mack Trucks executive and former major league pitcher who knew Poffenberger for many years, both in sports and at Mack.

"I just appreciated being around him. ... There was never a dull moment when you were with Boots," Cole said.

After 15 years in the heat treatment plant at Mack, Poffenberger retired in 1978. For the next 20 years he did a lot of fishing and hunting. He and Katherine summered in a cabin along the C&O Canal where he tended a large garden. Their cabin was destroyed in a 1997 flood.

"He retired and he enjoyed himself," his wife said. "He lived his own way."

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