In his home in Calera, the oldest-living Detroit Tiger sits at his office desk, surrounded by mementos of his past. At nearly ninety five years old today, he is also the oldest living pitcher to have thrown a Major League no-hitter. His office walls are adorned with photographs signed by his friends, some of the best and brightest of their time, and a fan-made plaque commemorating his own achievements. Even a bobble head made in his likeness sits perched on a shelf above his head. These keepsakes help the memories stay alive and well in the mind of Virgil Trucks.
He sets to work opening each package that has already arrived for Virgil “Fire” Trucks this week. Few of the letters come from fans who ever got a chance to watch him play; yet they adore his legacy nonetheless. He fulfills each request for an autographed card from his own stash in the drawer. “When I answer the mail, I’ve got a little fire truck that I stamp,” he says smiling, holding up the rubber stamp. “The kids really like that.” When someone sends a ball, Virgil readies his ballpoint pens. He carefully signs Virgil Trucks in blue, leaving enough space between to write “Fire” in red. He is happy to oblige. His daughter Carolyn Beckwith believes it’s his feeling of responsibility to the fans that keeps him going. “He has always adored his fans,” she says. “When I was little, I would help him sort through his fan mail,” her eyes lighting up with admiration for her father as she recalls those days of her youth. “He always made it a point to reply to every single one.”
In Virgil’s day, baseball meant much more than it means today, to fans and players alike. He notes one of his main reasons for his waning interest in watching Major League Baseball: today’s superstars don’t take enough time out for the fans. He also feels that a deep camaraderie between teammates that existed when he played, has been lost in the modern era. “The ballplayers of our time stayed in touch with one another much more than they do today,” he claims. Virgil looks longingly back to those golden days of baseball, when it truly was the great American pastime. When almost every town had a ball club and every boy had a hero, Virgil Trucks remembers it all.
Virgil Oliver Trucks was born in Birmingham in 1917, when talents like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb thrilled spectators on MLB diamonds. During the Great Depression, baseball became more widely broadcast into homes, reaching more people than ever before through radio, and the period produced more Hall of Famers than any other in history. Young boys grew up idolizing history’s greatest ballplayers while their fathers played sandlot ball for company teams. For many, the game was more than just sport. It worked its way into people’s daily routines and became an indistinguishable part of the American way of life.
The Legacy Begins
Virgil summons tales from his past quickly, his mind still sharp as ever, and he tells his stories with ease. He has surely told them a thousand times, yet each retelling brings the recollections rushing back, and he seems to enjoy the trip down memory lane. Virgil’s deeply rooted love of the game took hold when he was just a boy. Raised in a family with nine boys, he practically grew up on a baseball team. He remembers playing ball with his father and siblings out in the yard. “My dad played sandlot ball here in Birmingham when I was a kid.” Virgil remembers the time from his childhood fondly. Young Virgil, only seven or eight years old at the time, would walk to the nearby ball field just to catch a glimpse of his dad, the pitcher. “He’d see me and chase me home,” he says. But Virgil kept coming back, hiding behind the hedges just close enough to see but not be seen. “He didn’t know I was out there,” he says. Virgil recounts how he loved to stuff paper in the toes of his father’s much-too-large cleats and walk around the house feeling like a big-time ballplayer. “Of course I took the paper out, but he still knew that I was putting those shoes on.”
Virgil’s father’s love of baseball was only overshadowed by his love for his family. At one point, Virgil recalls his dad having to make the choice between a higher-paying career at TCI and professional baseball. With 13 children, he gave up on the ball dream to support his family instead. It seems Virgil never forgot his father’s sacrifice and when it came time, he took the opportunity for the both of them; although, he says he never felt any pressure to do so. “If anything, he would have discouraged me from playing baseball if I didn’t love the game,” he states.
But he did love the game and Virgil began to play baseball every chance he got—with his brothers, at the sandlot, and later for different teams in the Birmingham City League. He was quick on his feet, so he often played infield or outfield positions. He says he was a pretty good hitter too, but not much of a pitcher back then. Today, however, pitching is what he’s known for.
Moving on Up
It was 1937 when Virgil signed his first contract to play for Detroit, but it was 1941 before he stood on the mound as a Tiger. During those four years in between, he took every chance he could to begin making a name for himself as a pitcher, playing semi-pro ball around the state. “My first year in the minor leagues was my greatest. I won twenty six and lost six (games),” he recalls. Virgil struck out 418 batters in that 1938 season, which is still the American Baseball record for most strikeouts in a season. During his five years in the minor leagues, Virgil added four no-hitters to his tremendous stats. Virgil quickly earned a reputation as a formidable opponent on the mound. Each batter that marched into the box was a new battle in Virgil’s war against the opposing team. He’d glare with piercing eyes as he firmed his grip on the ball. Everything about his demeanor told the batter “you don’t mess with Virgil Trucks.” If a batter crowded home plate, he’d sling a blazing inside fastball as a warning to back off. That plate was his territory and he was never afraid to let a batter know it.
One evening, a sports writer for the Birmingham News went to Andalusia to check out the talented Trucks. “I was clocked at 105 miles an hour,” he says, and “I struck out about 18 guys that night. He gave me the nickname of ‘Fire’ because I could fire the ball and my last name being Trucks, it fit right in.” From that day on, Virgil was known to his fans as “Fire Trucks”. And his career was on fire, excited by his love of the game. A rash decision out of inexperience nearly got Virgil in trouble when he signed with the Andalusia minor league team, while still under contract with Detroit. After weeks of anxiety, Virgil confessed his mistake. He learned that Detroit had pigeon-holed his contract because they didn’t have an open spot on the roster and he belonged solely to Andalusia after all. He remembers the time well: “On opening day, Detroit sent the scout that had signed me before. They told him if he didn’t get me back from Andalusia he wouldn’t have a job.” In the days before players had any rights to speak of, teams bought and sold their talent at will. “They sold me back to Detroit for $10,000,” he notes, adding, “I didn’t get any of that money.” The following season, Virgil was off to fulfill his commitment to play ball in Detroit. “My first contract salary was for $400 a month,” he remembers, “and that was just for baseball season. The bat boy makes that much now.”
Birmingham’s Major League Star
As a starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers from 1941 until 1952, Virgil “Fire” Trucks saw a whole lot of action, both on the field and off. He pitched two shutouts in his rookie season and faced arguably the best hitter in baseball history in one Ted Williams. His career seemed to be off to a roaring start; but 1941 was not the best year for the game, as baseball began to lose players to the draft with World War II heating up. After Pearl Harbor, many more enlisted and willfully traded their dugouts for trenches. Baseball suffered the loss of superstar talents like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, among many others and it began to affect the level of play. After finishing out the 1943 season with 16 wins, Virgil realized it was time to step up and join the fight himself. He knew it was simply a matter of time before his number was called, so he joined the U.S. Navy in early 1944. As luck would have it, Virgil was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station, which had a pretty good ball club of its own. It wasn’t the Major Leagues, but he got to play some ball. “Even though people say those could have been my best years, I don’t regret joining the Navy,” Virgil states. He received his honorable discharge in the fall of 1945 and returned to Detroit just in time to pitch a World Series Game 2 victory, helping the Tigers clinch the title that year.
In 1949, Virgil made the cut for the American League All-Star team, leading the league in both strikeouts (153) and shutouts (6) that season. He was on top of the world…until he was forced to face the frightening reality that athletes dread most: injury. His injured arm kept him out of the game for the 1950 season and it didn’t look good for future seasons either. Yet in 1951, the tenacious pitcher defied the doctors and made his comeback. It was the very next season that Virgil “Fire” Trucks cemented his place in baseball history. Although Virgil only recorded a disappointing five wins in 1952, two of those were no-hitters. To date, only four other pitchers have matched the feat of throwing two no-hitters in a single season: Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Roy Halladay, and Nolan Ryan.
After joining the record books, Virgil was traded away from the Tigers, although his career in the MLB continued. He led the American League in shutouts (5) for the second time in 1954. Virgil “Fire” Trucks made his final appearance on the mound for the New York Yankees in 1958, but was left off the World Series roster that year. Although his playing career had ended by the time he was 40 years old, Virgil didn’t leave the game entirely until retiring as a pitching coach in 1974.
In the 1980s, “Fire Trucks” was inducted into both the Michigan and Alabama Sports Halls of Fame. While he has still not been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, his character and integrity make him a hall of famer in the hearts of many nonetheless. He showed the world of baseball that a man could be a ruthless, even mean, competitor on the field without ever losing his humility and humanity off of it. “Dad’s a gentleman,” says Carolyn. “He always has been.”