“Weren’t we here a couple weeks ago?” mom asked as I turned through the gates of Altoona’s Calvary Cemetery.
“Yes,” I responded. That particular visit we had stopped to visit the grave of John Hickman, a Medal of Honor recipient, and George “Germany” Smith, a baseball player. Note: More about the previous visit can be found here: John Hickman and “Germany” Smith.
“So who are we stopping to visit this trip?” she asked as I turned left at the first intersection.
“I found a couple more baseball players who rest here.” Calvary Cemetery was quickly becoming a popular stop on my travels through the region – every time I thought I had visited all of the notable graves in the cemetery, I seemed to find one or two more I had somehow missed. This time it was two local baseball players who made it into the Major Leagues.
At the first intersection I turned left, drove a couple of car lengths from the intersection and parked. From the vehicle, I could see the first of the two graves I can come to visit in the section to my left. I got out and walked over to the grave of the man who brought me back to the grounds of Calvary Cemetery – Thomas Irwin. The stone listed both his and his wife’s name, but nothing on the stone hinted at his brief career in playing in baseball’s Major League.
Thomas Andrew “Tommy” Irwin was born December 20, 1912 in Altoona. The son of Richard and Dorothy Irwin, he attended the Altoona Catholic, where he excelled in basketball, football and baseball. After graduation from high school, Irwin attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on a baseball scholarship. Irwin left the University of North Carolina in 1936, when he signed with the Cleveland Indians.
Irwin made his start in professional baseball in the 1936 season as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, where the right-hander played shortstop. The 1936 and 1937 seasons saw him starting in 302 games with 379 hits, sixty-four doubles, eight triples and three homeruns.
Impressed by the Cleveland Indian program, Irwin was invited to spring training but failed to win a starting position. Irwin was optioned to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, where he played in 151 games in the 1938 season and again had an impressive season with 141 hits, twenty-three doubles, four triples and eight homeruns.
Irwin made his start in the Major Leagues on October 1, 1938 as a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians. In two days, he played in three games and his career in the Majors was over after the second of the double-header ended on October 2. All three of those games were against the Detroit Tigers, who won two of the three games. In those games, Irwin made nine plate appearances, resulting in one hit, one strike-out, and three walks. Note: The second game of the double-header against Detroit would go down in history. In that game, Bob Feller, the pitcher for Cleveland, would set a Major League record when he struck out eighteen batters.
At the end of the 1938 season, Irwin was traded to the Boston Red Sox, who placed him with the Louisville Colonels. He only played forty-four games with them before being sent to Little Rock where he played the remainder of the season with the Travelers. After spending the 1940 season with them, Irwin took the 1941 season off. Note: According to the February 25, 1943 edition of The Altoona Tribune, the reason Irwin took the year off was for a government job with the FBI.
Irwin returned to the Little Rock Travelers in 1942 and played with them for thirty-one games before finishing the season with the Birmingham Triplets of the New York Yankee organization. At the end of the season, Irwin retired from professional baseball.
After his career ended, Irwin served as a scout for Cleveland and coached in local baseball leagues, where his love of baseball was passed to future generations. Irwin would go to work as a train conductor for the Penn Central Railroad until retiring in 1974. Irwin remained in Altoona after retirement until his passing on April 25, 1996 at the age of eighty-three.
I finished remembering his three-game appearance in the Major Leagues and walked towards the vehicle. As I paused on the roadway I scanned the stones and realized another baseball player was buried a short distance away.