Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney
Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney
“I could just see a big black cloud and it was rollin’. It was really rollin’. And it seemed to be right on the ground.”
Sam Flowers could not have known the peril that lay ahead when he left Ellington, Missouri, during the noon hour on March 18, 1925, and began the familiar walk to his farm five miles northeast of town.
Flowers did know he was probably walking into a storm. Heavy, dark clouds swept across the Reynolds County sky from the southwest, fast as any train could travel. At Ellington, a remote town in the Ozark Highlands, the clouds appeared to fly low enough to touch trees on the ridge tops.
But Flowers was a hearty middle-aged man who worked a hard-scrabble homestead. He had made this trip hundreds of times before, in wagons, automobiles, and on foot. And he had made it day and night, year-round, through every kind of weather the volatile skies of southern Missouri could bring.
Or so he must have thought. But the gathering storm was no ordinary weather event. It would become catastrophic.
Flowers walked the gravel highway, Route 21, through woods toward the tiny county seat of Centerville. Black clouds rushed overhead, massive and just above the treetops, it seemed. Winds snapped tree limbs back and forth, and rain began to pelt the road. He moved over to the rim of the west ditch, where the woods broke the big drops somewhat, but footing was tricky with the red clay turning wet and slippery around the stones.
A Model T rattled by, headed south, with top down and the driver soaking wet. Flowers might have considered turning back but he pressed on, still not overly concerned about a rainstorm. He stayed alert for old, heavy timbers that might crash down, and he watched for rocky banks to shield him if the storm worsened. He figured he would be all right in getting home to his wife and children.
In these minutes, a massive storm boiling 50,000 feet in the sky topped a 1,500-foot peak near the Current River and, on the downslope, hit ground along Logan Creek west of Ellington, heading northeast.
Three miles north of Ellington, Flowers came down a hill into Dry Valley. The rain was a torrent, blue lightning bolts exploded all around, and winds came in powerful gusts that almost swept him from his feet. The road crooked northeast, and hundreds of yards ahead lay the path up and over a short ridge into Spring Valley, leading to Flowers’ place near the village of Redford. But Spring Valley seemed a million miles away. Flowers could hardly see. The rain was blinding, and the valley had been enshrouded in a huge shadow, dark as night. Flowers had to look down with lightning flashes to see he was still on the road.
Suddenly, hailstones the size of small potatoes beat from above, and Flowers panicked. Too late, no shelter could save him. An ungodly rumble, like some flying earthquake, rushed up from behind as incredible winds sheared through the valley, tossing large trees. Flowers felt uttermost terror—then he was struck in back of the head.
What would become the deadliest land storm in American history, The Tri-State Tornado, had claimed its first human life: Sam Flowers.
“Lefty wasn’t your regular cornfield pitcher.”
The research on a local legend began with a death of note in southeast Missouri—Lloyd B. Fisher of the Stoddard County community of Puxico. Folks were remembering Mr. Fisher in the multiple roles he lived: as a loving family patriarch, a war veteran, teacher, farmer, mail-carrier and athlete. Many people had known Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher, the baseball pitcher of exceptional talent, and the effect his service as an infantryman had on that.
It was the summer of 1989, baseball season, proper time to imagine Lefty Fisher on the pitching mound. And, invariably, a storyteller would recall a special exhibition game from decades ago: the night Lefty matched the great Robin Roberts, his mound opponent, in hurling a shutout.
On a clear October evening in 1949, a silver bus cruised north through the sprawling flatlands of the Missouri Bootheel. The charter’s roomy interior was quiet. Most of the riders, major league baseball players on a barnstorming tour, were napping, their heavy uniforms soiled from an afternoon exhibition in Arkansas.
One strapping young athlete, Robin Roberts, sat gazing out a window. The 23-year-old enjoyed the scenes of harvest in the great delta. Mechanical cotton-pickers were just starting to chew through the wide fields of white bolls clinging to brown stalks. But the cornfields really commanded his attention, the rows of stiff yellow stalks falling to the cumbersome combines. That reminded Roberts of home in central Illinois, Springfield, where the capital city limits ended as the cornfields and hog farms began.
Roberts only recently had completed his first full major league season in Philadelphia. Then he and a dozen other players met in Illinois to board the bus for the barnstorming tour, which would conclude that night in southeast Missouri. The young man was ready to go home.
Sikeston was the final stop in 20 games for “Harry Walker’s All-Stars.” Their travel accommodations were much improved over the early days of exhibition tours, when players often slept in barns, or “barn-stormed,” but the grind of play was just as grueling. Now in their 10th day across three states, Walker’s Stars had played two games daily in different communities. The big leaguers dominated their rural opponents, of course, but 18 innings a day for the entire trip had worn them down, and injured some.
They did it for money: $1,000 apiece motivated these pros to barnstorm. Each man received $50 a game on the tour, an excellent supplement for a major league salary in 1949. Roberts, for example, had been paid $9,000 while winning 15 games that year for the Phillies. The barnstorming tour made it an even $10,000 for Roberts from baseball that year, and he had a winter job lined up selling menswear.
Walker’s Stars had no idea what team they would face in Sikeston. They did not know the pitcher they would face, and they did not care.
Roberts would be on the mound, and the team’s player-manager and organizer was Harry “The Hat” Walker, who led the National League in hitting two years before with a .363 average. Walker was gaining experience for his future as a major league manager and coach.
The Stars lineup would intimidate some pro pitchers, much less one from the backwoods. The names included Cincinnati power hitter Ted Kluszewski, large, agile athlete at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. The former football player for Indiana University played first base for the Reds, and “Big Klu” was already known for biceps bulging from his trademark sleeveless jersey. Kluszewski was bound for stardom in the big leagues, like his buddy on the barnstorming trip, Hank Sauer, who had hit 31 home runs for the Cubs. Sauer was a big outfielder who in a few years would be named the National League MVP.
Besides Roberts, there were two other pitchers on the trip, veteran Kirby Higbe of the Giants and young Herm Wehmeier of the Reds. The pitchers normally split the games equally, or three innings, apiece, and Walker helped out by taking the mound to finish easy victories. But as the bus approached Sikeston, Walker sat down next to Roberts.
“Higbe and Wehmeier both say their arms are shot,” Walker told Roberts. “You pitch the first three innings or so tonight, then after we get way ahead, I’ll relieve you. We’ll win and then we’ll go home.”
“Sure thing, Skip,” Roberts replied.
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.