Solly Hemus: “Little Pepper Pot” of the ’47 Buffs.

Happy Days at Buff Stadium Ignited from the Energy of Solly Hemus.

Back in 1947, Houston Buff fans, writers, and broadcasters referred to second baseman Solly Hemus as “The Little Pepper Pot” because of his fiery field leadership of the club. It was a fire  that went on to ignite the Buffs’ capture of first place in  the Texas League on the last day of the season by narrow half game margin. The Buffs went on from there to capture the playoff pennant and then to defeat the Mobile Bears in the Dixie Series. As a nine-year old kid, the 1947 Buffs were my first conscious club of heroes – and Solly Hemus was my first baseball hero.

How lucky can a kid be?

Born April 17, 1923 in Phoenix, Arizona, might have missed a stop in Houston altogether, except for the intervention of untempered hunger and fate. Then I’d likely be writing about someone else today, but that’s apparently not how these things work. I only learned these facts in a hotel lobby conversation with good friend and late major league catcher Red Hayworth in the late 1990’s. Red Hayworth was a scout for the Houston Astros for a period of time in the murky past.

Here’s the story s Red Hayworth told it to me. Red’s brother, Ray Hayworth, was set to manage Solly Hemus for the Brooklyn Dodgers at their 1946 Fort Worth Cats club. Young Hemus originally signed with the Dodgers after the conclusion of World War II.

On the bus trip back to Fort Worth, the team vehicle stopped for gas somewhere on the highway near the team’s destination of LaGrave Field, the Fort Worth home venue. Manager Hayworth supposedly told all players to stay on board during the “short stop” for fuel, but 23-year old Solly Hemus got off the bus in spite of his manager’s warning and started heading into the little attached gas station cafe.

“Where are you going, kid?” Ray Hayworth called out to his rookie. “I told you to stay in the bus.”

“I don’t give a s*** what you say,” Solly supposedly yelled back to his manager. “I’m hungry and I’m going to get  me a sandwich.”

What Solly got for his sandwich decision was a one-way ticket to Pocatello, Idaho and the sale of his playing contract to the St. Louis Cardinals. Solly proceeded to hit .363 in 120 games as a middle infielder for Pocatello in preparation for his promotion to the 1947 Houston Buffs and a faster track to the big leagues as a future shortstop for the Cardinals. With Pee Reese and Jackie Robinson entrenched in the middle infield with the help of Junior Gilliam during this same era, Solly’s punitive sale to the Cardinals was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Hemus hit .277 with 0 homers in 1947, following that up in with two more seasons as a Buff and averages of .288 and .328. One more season at .297 with the Little World Series champion Columbus Redbirds in 1950 and Solly Hemus was ready for his eleven season major league career (1949-59) with the Cardinals and Phillies and a batting average of .273 with 51 homers. As a five-year minor leaguer (1946-50), Hemus batted .308 with 16 home runs.

Billy Costa & Solly Hemus are 4th & 5th from the left on the front row.

Solly took over as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, but wasn’t too successful in the standings, or with getting along with star pitcher Bob Gibson. After two and one half seasons, Hemus was replaced by Johnny Keane, his former manager in Houston in 1947.

Hemus and Gibson both had fiery dispositions, but I do not believe their core problems with each other were racial, as some writers would have you believe. I’ve never heard Solly Hemus make an off-the-cuff statement that smelled of racism in any of my conversations with him. In my experience, he seems as color-blind as you could hope a man to be. On the other hand, I have no problem seeing how he and Gibson probably clashed from the start. They are both strong-willed men.

One of my favorite stories about Solly happened in St. Louis during his managerial period. An overweight field umpire on the other side of the diamond seemed to be calling everything the other team’s way. By the fifth inning, Solly had suffered enough. He marched out of the dugout to make this request of the Oliver Hardy-sized arbiter:

“Sir, would you mind calling the rest of the game from our side of the field? Your weight seems to be tilting the ground the other team’s way?”

Solly got to watch the rest of the game from the level confines of the Cardinal clubhouse.

Solly Hemus turns 87 next month. He still operates his successful oil business from offices in Bellaire, but a serious fall on a trip to Alaska a couple of years ago left him with some ongoing damage to his mobility. Even that kind of thing doesn’t hold this good man down. Look for Solly Hemus to be back at Minute Maid Park again this season as a fan of the Astros. The ties that bind Solly Hemus to Houston as a result of his long ago sandwich decision apparently are forever.

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7 Responses to “Solly Hemus: “Little Pepper Pot” of the ’47 Buffs.”

  1. Terry Puhl Says:

    Solly Hemus is one of the most gracious men I have ever met in Houston. I had the pleasure of asking and receiving an autograph (Bowman card that I had in a personal collection). What a wonderful ambassador for baseball living right here in Houston! Thanks for what you’ve done for baseball Solly. tp

  2. Natalie Niekro Says:

    Terry, I couldn’t agree more. Not only does Solly have one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen, but the amazing ability to light up a room! We are all better because of him.
    Natalie Niekro

  3. Mickey Herskowitz Says:

    Of all the baseball players who have passed through Houston over the years, none settled in and contributed more to the city than Solly Hemus. No player ever hustled harder or squeezed more out of his ability.

    Gracious, generous and a gentleman, Solly was a role model before most of us had ever heard that phrase. He was fun to watch and fun to write about, and he remains one of this city’s finest resources. Mickey Herskowitz.

  4. gary cooper Says:

    I once worked for Solly. We got along well, probably because I knew nothing about baseball back then. Its been years since I talked with Solly. I miss the times we laughed together, maybe even the times we argued together. Reading just now about his fall and injury made me cry. If I ever had a second father, it was him.

    I love the guy. don’t care if everybody knows it.

  5. Damon Leonetti Says:

    As a very young baseball fan, I was fortunate to get my very first baseball treasure from Mr. Hemus. My sister went to school for a brief time with his daughter and I was the lucky beneficiary of meeting Mr. Hemus and getting a signed ball by him and all the Cardinal greats of the late 50’s. I’ve played and loved the game for many years and will always remember that early encounter with one of baseball’s and Houston’s finest players and gentelmen.
    Damon Leonetti/UH ’71

  6. Damon Leonetti Says:

    By the way Mickey (Herskowitz), I sure do miss your wonderful writing and story-telling. You are a Houston treasure yourself. Not knowing how highly my college speech teacher thought of you, I got some “big-time” brownie points in Mr. Luke’s speech class at UH, when I chose your article about the UH/UCLA game to read in class.

    Thanks for many years of enjoyment. Hope all is well with you.
    Damon Leonetti

  7. RIP: Solly Hemus Died Today | The Pecan Park Eagle Says:

    […] […]

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