Wednesday, April 1, 2009

K Chorlton, 1928-2009

K Chorlton from the David Eskenazi Collection.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 1, 2009


The ball player showed speed, a steady bat, and good if occasionally suspect fielding. But what many fans first noticed was his name, K, which K Chorlton insisted be spelled without a period.

The 11th letter is not a big kahuna in the alphabet, though it does serve as shorthand for kilometres, or kindergarten, or the element potassium, or a unit of 1,024 bytes. In baseball, K signifies strikeout, which makes it an excellent nickname for a pitcher.

K Chorlton was an outfielder.

Outfielders do not care to strikeout. As it turns out, the moniker carried with it no baseball meaning. The odd nickname resulted from a family story.

In 1949, Chorlton turned professional with the Vancouver Capilanos. The team was managed by Bob Brown, a penny-pincher by nature and circumstance. An American who played football for Notre Dame, Brown had volunteered as a cavalryman for the Spanish-American War, listing cowpuncher as his occupation on the enlistment form.

The Capilanos played out of Athletic Park at Sixth and Hemlock, a wooden bandbox Brown built by his own hand in 1913, carrying sticks of dynamite which he used to remove stumps. Chorlton’s career in Vancouver spanned the move to spanking new Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium midway through the 1951 season. (The old park was torn down to make way for a ramp at the south end of the Granville Street Bridge.)

With his terrific speed, Chorlton often batted leadoff for Vancouver. He became a fan favourite.

“One of the prettiest local sights on a summer’s evening is that of Chorlton scudding around the base paths out at the ball park,” Eric Whitehead wrote in the Province. “Graceful as a young gazelle and about as speedy, Chorlton would rate a quick boost up the ladder if he could only develop the elusive knack of getting on the base paths more often.”

K patrolled centre-field in Vancouver for parts of four seasons. In 1950, he played for the Victoria Athletics, recording a sterling .333 average in 249 at-bats. He found Royal Athletic Park a comfortable home, knocking 10 doubles, six triples, and four home runs.

K Chorlton first gained notice as a brilliant athlete at Roosevelt High in his Seattle birthplace. He led the basketball Roughriders to a state championship in his junior year of 1946 and the baseball team to a city title the same year. He also played for the football team, but his chiropractor father refused to allow him to be tackled, so he handled punting duties. The kicking assignment didn’t prevent him from scoring touchdowns on consecutive weeks following a bad snap and a fake punt. When the Teddies track team challenged the baseball nine, K won both the 100- and 200-yard dashes. In 2004, the Seattle Times named him the top Rider athlete of all time and he was inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame the following year.

As a senior, Chorlton was selected to play in the second annual sandlot all-star game sponsored by Hearst newspapers at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, where he met the legendary Joe DiMaggio. The New York Yankees outfielder was recovering from a knee injury.

Chorlton recounted the meeting during a newspaper interview five years ago.

“I admire you so much,” the teenager told the star.

“I wish I had your legs,” DiMaggio replied.

Chorlton’s United States all-star team defeated a New York team by 13-2. Chorlton hit a double, while teammate Bill (Moose) Skowron hit an inside-the-park homer. Skowron went on to enjoy a long career in the majors, mostly with the Yankees. One of his team’s coaches was Honus Wagner, while Babe Ruth was on hand as honourary chairman of the event.

Chorlton was scouted by baseball’s Boston Braves, Detroit Tigers, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants and Washington Senators. Instead, the 6-foot-3, 185-pounder accepted a scholarship from the University of Washington, where he played baseball and basketball for the Huskies. He was later named to the university’s All-Century Team in baseball.

He signed with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League for $10,000 in 1949. The Rainiers assigned him to Vancouver.

The Coast League was a Triple-A circuit, one notch below the majors. The clubs paid competitive salaries and more than one athlete preferred to remain on the coast before the majors expanded westward.

The Rainiers called up Chorlton several times. His speed made him valuable, but he never managed to get enough hits. His fate was sealed one game when he dropped a routine flyball. This so incensed his manager, Rogers Hornsby, a Baseball Hall of Famer not known for kindness, that he added to Chorlton’s embarrassment by yanking him from the playing field immediately after the play.

Chorlton did not take the insult well. He swore and argued with the manager in the dugout. Big mistake. Hornsby did not brook insubordination and he knew how to carry a grudge. Whatever long shot Chorlton had at winning a roster spot on a big league club was lost.

(The deliberate humiliation of a young player angered Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, who lambasted the manager in the next day’s paper. Afterwards, he was asked if his story angered the misanthropic Hornsby. “I don’t really know,” Watson said. “He treats me so bad when he’s in a good mood, I couldn’t tell the difference.”)

Chorlton spent his final two seasons in Vancouver, where he endured a sore arm and suffered a broken ankle. He retired after the 1954 campaign, which was his best ever in pro ball. He hit .349 for the Capilanos, while smacking 16 homers, a career high.

Chorlton became a salesman and later a sales executive for a company selling fuel additives. He remained active in the Washington Athletic Club, where his Rainiers jersey is on display to this day.

After the death of his wife, Diane, he discovered romance again with Gloria Ehrig, whose surname, baseball fans will note, is but one letter removed from that of Lou Gehrig, one of the most famous ballplayers of all time. (Ms. Ehrig was the widow of Jack Ehrig, an advertising man who conjured the image of cow’s with white moo-staches from drinking milk.)

K’s was not the only odd name in the Chorlton family. His father, James, who had played baseball briefly with the Tacoma Tigers, married a woman named Ffolliott. They gave her name to their daughter, who, as Fluff LeCoque,worked as a dancer for Liberace’s show on the Las Vegas trip in 1947. She was later crowned Miss Thunderbird as a symbol of the Thunderbird Hotel before becoming manager of the show “Jubilee!” during its quarter-century run at Bally’s. Two years ago, the New York Times described her as being “at 83 still intimidatingly elegant: perfect lipstick, unassailable brown curls and more grace in high heels than many women a quarter her age.”

As it turns out, his parents named him K after a cousin, who was christened Kermit, a name he despised. Kermit, an FBI agent, began using a solo initial, a tag passed on to his young relative.

Over the years, newspapers referred to K as Jim Chorlton (mistaking him for his older brother), or Frank Chorlton. They always seemed to print the K with a period.

His given name was Byron, apt perhaps for a poet, less so for a ball player.

K Chorlton was born on Oct. 26, 1928, at Seattle. He died of pneumonia on March 17 at Bellevue, Wash. He was 80. He leaves four children, 10 grandchildren, and a sister. He was predeceased by his wife, Diane, and by a brother, James.

1 comment:

Alan Cohen said...

I have been working on the Hearst Sandlot Classic for some time and I am somewhat familiar with Chorlton's story. I found your story quite informative.

Alan Cohen
West Hartford, CT