Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney
Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney
Excerpt 4: The Tri-State Tornado, deadliest land storm in American history, continues its path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925
Would this storm ever die? It was 80-minutes old on a run exceeding 70 miles from its start in the Ozarks to Perry County, Mo., and now approaching the Mississippi River. The amorphous cloud mass crossed what would become roadbed of Interstate 55, carrying its obscene baggage. Chunks of houses and outbuildings rolled along like milk cartons. Roofing sheets swirled about like tissue paper, draping over tree lots to resemble surreal laundry lines for decades to come. Horses, cattle and hogs were spun aloft then blown through woods, severing them to pieces.
Eight lives had been lost in Missouri, with another to succumb of wounds, and hundreds more had injuries ranging from minor to serious. People in the tornado’s path ahead were imperiled, regardless of their shelters. No one was safe unless completely underground, like the miners of Annapolis-Leadanna in the previous hour.
Apple Creek was a hillside community facing west. At 2:20 p.m., a priest at St. Joseph’s School gazed out a second-story window that creaked against the winds. The day had grown menacingly dark under the approach of puffed-up, jittery clouds resembling blackberries. The priest turned back to his religion class comprised of grade-schoolers, concern etching his face. “We better say a prayer,” he said. “It looks like a real bad storm is coming.”
The children obeyed, and the clouds continued northeast, missing Apple Creek and striking the other side of the ridge to cross Route 25 [present-day U.S. Highway 61]. At the farm of Theodore Unterreiner, the top story of a log house was blown off, leaving a single timber balancing unsecured over a lower wall. A little girl was rolled up in floor linoleum but unhurt. The barn was demolished and 200 chickens were killed, with some stripped clean of feathers.
The twister tore through more hardwoods and farms and along ridges and creeks, including five consecutive properties “battered down as if a giant roller had passed over them,” a newspaper reported. People were injured but none killed. A well-known physician in the area, Dr. Theodore Estel, was enroute to a house call when he was caught exposed on a road. Leaping from his car an instant before winds smashed it, Estel was knocked to the ground under a barrage of debris. He was struck in the head, impaled in the back, and absorbed a blow that fractured a hip. But he held onto the ground and was not blown away. He would survive.
Racing in excess of 60 mph with upwards of 300-mph winds, the tornado was six miles from the Mississippi. More would die in Missouri. On a farm near Brazeau village, 63-year-old Crittenden Bull and his sister, Annie Bull, sought cover in their house. But it crashed down and trapped them, and fire spread quickly from the broken stove. Neighbors saved them from burning to death, but Mr. Bull never regained consciousness and died four days later. At an estate north of Frohna, the tornado surprised Judge Claus Stueve and others. The big house literally exploded before anyone could react. The judge’s widowed sister-in-law, Martha Kaempfe, was in her upstairs room when the walls disintegrated; snatched and launched almost 100 yards, she was found dead.
The hilltops were tighter together as the storm closed upon the final village before the river, Ridge. Sitting atop the tallest point was Ridge School, a two-story brick building that once had been a church. Twenty-two students and a teacher were inside on the bottom floor when flying objects began rat-tatting against the walls and breaking windows. The back door flew open and a pupil rushed to close it. Then the building slid forward 10 feet and the brick walls crumbled. The wooden interior went high up, flew across the road and over trees, and crashed roof-first down a ravine, strewing human bodies the entire way. Bricks and boards rained down on the victims, but the intact floor fluttered down on air currents, dropping gently enough that those it covered were not crushed.
No one from Ridge School died, and only a few debilitating injuries would last among the students from that terrifying afternoon. This extraordinary case of schoolhouse survivors would long be cited in studies on tornadoes.
Leaving Missouri, the strange cloud appeared to break up in the Mississippi River bottoms. The black fog began dissipating, but that only unveiled twin funnels moving side-by-side. Plowing across the water, the storm shrouded itself in fog again, and 500 people in Gorham, Ill., had no idea what was coming.
Gorham was two miles off river in the eastern floodplain. A resident, Judith Cox, would later describe seeing a mammoth front approach “that seemed to be black smoke,” driving a white wall of water before it. Cox was standing in front of Cox’s Restaurant: “My God!” she cried. “It’s a cyclone! And it’s here!”
“The air was full of everything…,” Cox recalled for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “boards, branches of trees, garments, pans, stoves, all churning around together. I saw whole sides of houses rolling along near the ground.”
The wind struck like a giant fist, punching Cox backward through the front door of the restaurant, followed by an airborne brown-and-white cow. As the building collapsed, the cow’s body saved Cox from being crushed by beams that fell.
Clocks stopped at 2:35 across Gorham. A house lost its roof as a young mother, Wanda Mattingly, clung desperately to her small children while grasping a staircase banister. But the walls blew away. Mattingly’s infant daughter was sucked from her arms, and her 3-year-old boy was stabbed in the head by a darting piece of wood.
In the darkened 8th grade classroom at Gorham School, an upward rush of air through the floor’s heating vent sent straw, feathers and leaf bits swirling, amusing the students. But giggles turned to shrieks of panic when they looked outside and saw tall trees bend over, come back up, then go flat to the ground, uprooted. Fourteen-year-old Clara Mattingly—Wanda’s sister-in-law—rushed for the door. Reaching the hallway, Clara heard screams ringing through the school then the whole building collapsed into rubble, burying her and 200 other students.
On the east side of town, railroad tracks were ripped out of the ground and wadded like chicken wire. Grass was removed from ground by the roots. A frame house was lifted 30 feet high and tossed into a great elm tree, its branches crashing through windows to hold the full structure in brief suspension. The house began cracking and splintering, a wall blew out, and the elderly couple inside, Paul and Alice Tomure, were drawn into the air. They landed in a cornfield behind the tree, side-by-side. Alice looked over to see a railroad spike driven through her husband’s lip.
“I’m dying, Alice dear,” he said, and the couple prayed together a final time.
Excerpt 4: Barnstorming major-league players on tour, led by Robin Roberts, future Hall of Famer, struggle to score against local pitcher Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher in an exhibition game at Sikeston, Mo., October 1949
When Lloyd Fisher returned to St. Louis after his release from the Dodgers organization, 1947, he was a little downcast but realistic. He still believed he could play pro baseball, but until a team called he had a family to care for. He took jobs pitching batting practice for the Cardinals and driving a cab.
Then the rural life beckoned, especially the farm owned by his wife Louise’s family in southeast Missouri, on Crowley’s Ridge near Puxico. The couple moved there and never left, raising their children and retiring in same spot. Lloyd and Louise were married 47 years when he died of lung cancer in 1989.
Two months after Lloyd’s passing, this author went to the farm to meet Louise, who was joined by her son, Larry, for an afternoon interview. The Fishers were cheerful, warm hosts, and although still grieving, they discussed Lloyd’s life with smiles and laughter, as though remembering a grand friend as much as a husband and father.
Louise recalled how she and Lloyd left the city for the farm in the fall of ’47. The country setting was peaceful, idyllic, but hardly free of pressures. “We started in down here trying to make a livin’, you know,” Louise said, smiling. “We bought land and everything. And we made it—barely.” She laughed heartily.
Aside from farming, Lloyd took jobs as a rural mail carrier and a truck driver. Soft-spoken about himself, hardly anyone knew his baseball past, and he initially stayed away from the game. Finally one Sunday afternoon—as the local legend goes—Lefty Fisher showed up at a semipro doubleheader in Asherville, a tiny community near his farm.
Eyeing the pitcher’s mound and watching the home team get beat in the opener, Fisher used the help of Louise’s brother, Bud Madden, to convince the manager to let him pitch the second game. Stepping to the mound in work boots and winding up to throw in overalls, Lefty was untouchable.
Opposing batters were shut down. Asherville won big and the word began spreading, although apparently not too far too soon. There was gambling on baseball in southeast Missouri, and a talent like Lefty could help tip the scales awhile. Asherville gamblers keyed on the fact he was virtually unknown in the region, and they made a plan. “They’d tell him to show up for games wearing overalls and walking barefooted,” said Larry, chuckling. “And those boys [betting the other team] would really lay the money down.”
Asherville sought to keep Lefty as long as possible, but the Puxico Vets soon lured him away with better pay. In due time, the Holcomb team visited the Vets in Puxico. Holcomb expected to win with a roster boasting many of the region’s best hitters, but Lefty shut them out over nine innings. Holcomb did push home a run in the 11th to win, 1-0, but the team’s wealthy organizers found they did not have the region’s best pitcher on the payroll.
They did the next season, 1949, when Lefty Fisher joined Holcomb. With heavy bets riding on games, Lefty’s pitching pay was as high as $100 and more for victories. Odds are, however, that no one bet on Holcomb when Lefty faced Robin Roberts that October in Sikeston.
The game moved past the middle innings, still scoreless despite vicious hitting displays by the big-league players. Muscular Hank Sauer ripped a line drive rising toward left field, and Holcomb shortstop Clyde Martin leaped high to stop it. The shot tore away Martin’s glove, and the ball popped out, but Sauer was held to a single. Fisher got out of the inning.
Backed by tight defense, Lefty pitched around repeated scoring threats by Harry Walker’s All-Stars. Fisher showed no emotion, whether retiring a batter or giving up a hit. Occasionally he would step off the rubber to squeeze a resin bag, or remove his cap to rub fingers through sandy blond hair. The pros began to wonder how close Fisher was to a record for the number of “scattered” hits, those he allowed without a run.
Fisher had success in the batter’s box, too, rapping a single off Roberts, but he was stranded on base when no one else reached safely for Holcomb. At this point Roberts had pitched nine innings of shutout ball that day, including three in Arkansas. But he kept mowing through batters, and the fans cheered for any ball that Holcomb managed to put into play.
Walker still did not mention a pitching change, which Roberts would have nixed; this was his game to win or lose now, and he focused on Holcomb as though facing the Dodgers. The pitching duel moved into late innings, but neither pitcher would relent, and the score remained 0-0 after nine. Fisher had matched Roberts in the shutout!
The game went into extra innings. Fans, bouncing in their seats, were rowdy with the game’s excitement on a chilly autumn night. Men got up to crowd around the infield screen, cheering for Holcomb and shaking the wire.
The big leaguers led off the 10th and Walker strode to the plate. A classy left-handed hitter, Walker already owned two hits off Fisher, a double and a single, among the nine safeties for his team. Fisher wound and pitched; Walker swung, pulling a long high fly into the darkness over right field. Holcomb outfielder Charley Hart followed the flight to the fence, until he was out of room, but he had the ball in sight as it fell almost straight downward. Hart reached over the fence, stretching out, but the ball landed just beyond his glove.
Hart turned around dejectedly and the crowd was quiet. The only sounds were the whoops from the Stars as Walker circled the bases for a home run. The big leaguers were finally ahead, 1-0.
Fisher retired the side, and Roberts took the mound, determined to finish Holcomb. Clyde Martin led off, batting right-handed, and slapped an outside fastball down the right-field line. The ball landed fair and rolled to the corner before Terry Moore chased it down and fired it back in. Martin stood atop second base with his second double, and the grandstand roared back to life.
But Roberts was oblivious to the racket. He could tune out the crowd at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and he easily ignored the fans at VFW Memorial ballpark in Sikeston. He was pitching in his 13th inning of the day, and he would not be denied victory now. Rearing back on the mound and stepping hard to the plate, Roberts whipped his arm around and grunted on pitches, sending screaming fastballs and curves to catcher Clyde McCullough. Holcomb batters were missing and the catcher’s mitt was popping; McCullough was basically playing catch now with his pitcher.
Roberts claimed one strikeout, then a second, and a final third in a row, stranding Martin on base. The game was over, the big leaguers were grateful to win. They lined up to shake the hands of Fisher, Martin, and the other Holcomb players.
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: email@example.com.