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Wattie Holm's Final Out
Written by Duane Winn   

The Rev. L.H. Preul, pastor of Grace Methodist Church in Spencer, Iowa, selected the 99th Psalm to address the mourners who gathered at the Cobb-Warner Funeral Home in Spencer at 1:30 p.m., Monday, May 22, 1950.[i]  There are Bible verses that contain themes of hope, trust in God, the expectation of a better life for the deceased who lived his or her life following Christ, and forgiveness, redemption and virtue.  The 99th Psalm firmly asserts the providence and power of God in the face of all things, no matter how tragic or inexplicable, and instructs others in His faith and obedience.

How else could one give meaning to the macabre event which transpired three days earlier in Everly, Iowa?  On the morning of Friday, May 19, after shooting his wife and wounding his daughter, Roscoe “Wattie” Holm, 48, a former utility man for the St. Louis Cardinals, turned a revolver on himself and took his own life with one shot to the head.

Ella Holm, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher for the Everly school system, was shot through the back of the neck as she was packing in the family’s upstairs apartment.  The family was planning to move to Linn Grove, Iowa, a place where she and her husband had once lived in a house on a picturesque hillside surrounded by woods.  She was planning to work at a ladies ready-to-wear store in Spencer.

Margaret Holm, 14, was struck by one bullet which entered her left wrist and lodged near theelbow.  Her arm had been broken by the impact of the bullet.  She wasr ushed to a Spencer hospital for treatment.  She attended the funeral service for her parents Monday afternoon, but then was taken back to the hospital.  Billy Southworth, Roscoe Holm’s roommate in their playing days with St. Louis, and his wife would take Margaret into their home in September to raise and educate her in memory of the Holms.[ii]

The Holm’s other child, Robert, 20, was working in Humboldt at the time of the shooting.  He reached Spencer before noon.  He visited his sister in the hospitaland then talked with relatives and well-wishers.  He was doing his best, under the circumstances, to keep his emotions in check.[iii]

The only other eyewitness was Fred Sindt, the owner of the apartment in which Holm and his family lived.  He told reporters that he had talked with the Holms moments before the tragedy occurred.  As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard two shots fired, followed shortly afterwards by Margaret Holm’s screams of terror.  Then there were two additional gunshots said Sindt.

Margaret came running down the stairs toward him. Seeking protection, she rushed into the Sindt apartment evading “another bullet fired by her father (that) would have hit her in the back as the missile tore through the screen door.”[iv]

Sindt rushed out the door to summon Mayor Andy Schoenewe of Everly.  Sindt stated “When I returned, Holm was lying at the foot ofthe stairs dead.  His head, resting near the rear door of the house, was almost completely blown off.  The revolver rested next to his hand.”[v]

Sindt couldn’t offer any reason that led to the terrible incident.  He hadn’t noticed anything amiss as he talked to the couple.  The Spencer Daily Reporter related that the conversation between Sindt and the Holms focused on “rental matters.”[vi]

The Everly News reported that Holm had been very moody for the past couple of years. For a time he worked for Slagle Lumber Company in Everly and later was employed at Sportsman Store in Spencer.  In fact, he quit the latter job five days before the incident after working there for just six weeks.[vii]

Holm’s recent past followed a template that he struck after he left organized baseball.  He had held several jobs never seemingly able to find a career that suited him as well as athletics.  It was this inability to achieve success off the diamond that led many who knew him well to posit this as the triggering mechanism that sent Holm into a maddening abyss of despair.

Holm, who was born in Peterson, Iowa, but moved to Paullina and then to Alton with his family, “had been mentally ill for some time, discouraged and depressed because every business enterprise he had been in since quitting baseball apparently failed, so he told close friends here.”

J.T. Even, a close boyhood friend of Holm and president of the local baseball association, had traveled to Everly to interview the former Cardinal as a possible candidate to manage the Alton semi-professional baseball team.  What he discovered shocked and saddened him.  “His friend was a sick man at that time, according to Mr. Even, so he could not recommend him as manager of the local club.”[viii]

Other observers,such as The Rev. R.O. Grote, minister of the Methodist church in Everly which the Holms sporadically attended, and F.W. Kettleson, the Holm’s previous landlord, said they couldn’t offer any tenable reason for the rashest of acts.[ix]

Dr. L.F. Frink,the county coroner, stated the day after the shooting that Holm was suffering from mental illness prior to the incident.  He added that Holm had been going through a “depressive period for some time,” but that there was “no apparent exciting motive for the shootings, except that the family had been forced to move from their apartment.”[x]

The Alton Democrat, in the inevitable analysis of character that follows in the wake of such an extreme act, unintentionally fueled speculation that there could be other reasons.  Holm was rememberedas a “rather quiet” lad, with a penchant toward secretiveness. Could it be that a biological seed for self-destruction was just lying underneath the surface, undetectable to the public eye, ready to explode under the proper set of circumstances?  Did Wattie Holm suffer from the same brain fever, apparently caused by distress over his financial predicament, which prompted his brother, Dr. Marcel Holm of Grand junction, to commit suicide nine years earlier?

Whatever Roscoe Holm’s affliction, one inescapable reality emerged: The love of his wife who remained faithful to him no matter what and who “offered him every encouragement to recover his normal outlook, which was friendly and carefree,”was not enough to avert a family tragedy.[xi]

The baseballworld had largely forgotten him by the time he died.  Less than two years earlier, Babe Ruth’s death had spurred waves of international mourning.  His zest for life and diamond exploits had made him a cultural icon.  His death led to his apotheosis as a baseball immortal. Holm, like Herman Bell, another Alton boy who also had made the grade with the St. Louis Cardinals, died in relative obscurity without leavinga litany of baseball accomplishments or a great moment or two that would outlive him.  Yet, there were thousands of northwest Iowans who looked beyond the circumstances surrounding Holm’s death and were genuinely saddened by his passing which, in many ways,represented a loss of a portion of themselves.

To fullyunderstand Holm one must go back much farther than the one or two years that immediately preceded his death.  One must travel backward in time to the formative years that he spent in Alton, to the athletic reputation he fashioned for himself on local ball diamonds and football fields, an era in which townspeople breathlessly awaited word of his exploits for the University of Iowa and the St. Louis Cardinals in the next issue of the local newspaper.  It was a time when he was nothing less than an exemplar of small-town Iowa.

Holm apparently showed little ability in the classroom (Holm, however, did shine in his studies for at least a while since he was named to the school’s honor roll in 1917) but he displayed a marked penchant for athletics, excelling in football, basketballand baseball as a youngster. He played all three sports in high school.  His talent for baseball was developed under the watchful eyeo f his father, R.L. Holm, the manager of the local town team who, like several men in Alton, were afflicted with “baseball-phobia.”  In 1920, at the age of 19, Roscoe Holm was drawing his first professional payday as a professional athlete, collecting the princely sum of $300 per month as a catcher for an amateur baseball club in Worthington, Minnesota.[xii]  And he was probably worth every penny.  “He was a terrific athlete, good at everything,” recalled Orval Madden, who played for an Aurelia semiprofessionalbaseball team which Holm managed.[xiii]

It was Holm’s father who encouraged young Wattie to attend the University of Iowa.  Holm was advised by his father to seek a degree in dentistry like his brother (a talented baseball player in his ow nright who once hurled for the Doon, Iowa, town team) and not to bank on makinghis livelihood in athletics “since the average baseball player’s career is a short one.”  He attended Lake Forest Academy, Lake Forest, Ill., from 1919 to 1921, in order to prepare himself for college. Holm was popular enough to be voted president of the freshman class at the University of Iowa.  However, he ran afoul of Big Ten officials, ending a college career that, self-admittedly, was comprised of“baseball, football and dentistry,” in order of preference.

“At the end of my first school year, which was in June of 1922, I went home and played with a professional team during the summer.  That fall I returned to college and reported for football practice, being the quarterback on the varsity eleven.  I had put in about two days hard work when I was informed one day that if I thought I had got away with anything whenI played professional baseball I was kidding nobody but myself, and least of all was I kidding the committee on the eligibility of players in the conference. They took everything but my books on dentistry away from me and I gave them away a short time afterward.  I did spend most of the term at school, but last spring I left the old campus flatter than I found it. I had a chance to play with aC lass D league team at home, but I passed that up when I found I could get a trial with the Cardinals.”[xiv]  

Holm was a pitcher for Lake Forest but then switched to catcher.  At the University of Iowa, he played the infield and it was as an infielder that he declared himself to be when he triedout for a spot on the Cardinals roster in 1923.  Manager Branch Rickey liked what he saw, declaring Holm astrong contender for shortstop.  Rickey added that the development of a shortstop was a key link in the Cardinals’ pennant hopes that year.

One baseball observer who believed Holm was a cinch to stick with the Cardinals in 1923 was Fairbury, Nebraska, manager George W. Segrist. It was his tenure with the Fairbury Jeffersons, a team in th eNebraska State League that had cost Holm his collegiate eligibility. The experience wasn’t a total loss,however.  The Jeffersons won the league title and Holm had found an admirer.

Segrist, who recommended to the Cardinals organization that it give him a Major League tryout, wrote a letter to Holm’s father, describing Holm’s progress in spring training: “For your information will say that Roscoe will make the grade nicely and I believe the Cardinals will undoubtedly want him.  I am sending you a clip from camp sent me by Chas. Barrett, scout for the Cardinals.  I also have several others about the boy and also have the reports on the game.  He is sure headlining the St. Louis papers every day.  Wattie had 10 chances in one game, besides hitting .500.  He accepted the chances without an error and received great mention.  Everybody in camp likes Wattie, which is a wonderful asset for a youngster just breaking in.”[xv]

Ultimately,Rickey sent Holm to their farm club in Syracuse for more seasoning.  Holm started out in the infield atSyracuse but was switched to the outfield.  In July, Rickey visited the Syracuse ballclub and at hisbehest Holm was soon back at shortstop so the Cardinal brass could make a freshappraisal of his skills.  Holm wasinjured September 1 which kept him out for the balance of the season.

In 1924, Holm was recalled by the parent club and ordered to report to Bradenton, Florida, in the spring. This time around Wattie had all the bases covered, in a manner ofs peaking.  Holm was shooting for a slot in the infield, but once Rickey discovered that Holm was also a catcher,“and as he needed catchers just then he told me to consider myself a catcher and to prove to him that I was a big league catcher,” Holm recalled.  “I tried hard enough and was getting by pretty well when he switched on me one day and told me to play the outfield. I managed to make the grade as an outfielder and, as the saying goes, here I am.”[xvi]  

The PittsburghChronicle Telegraph likened him to Babe Ruth, Bill Terry, George Sisler, Rube Bressler and Clarence Mitchell, who were pitchers at heart, but showed their true mettle as all-around ballplayers. The newspaper acknowledged that the comparison between the relatively untested Holm and these superstars was stretching things a bit but “this beingthe day of specialization” a player of Holm’s versatility was viewed as a rare commodity indeed.

Yet, Holm’s career would never reach majestic proportions although he was consistently lauded by the press as an underrated member of the Cardinals whose value to the team was rooted in his desire, baseball sense, versatility and speed, qualities for which members of a later edition of the Cardinals, “The Gashouse Gang,”would be immortalized.  In 1924, in his first season with the Cardinals, Holm saw service as a catcher, third baseman and outfielder.  In 81 games, he batted .294.  All but 14 of his 86 hits were singles, marking him as a good contact hitter with a keen eye at the plate.

Once the season was completed, Holm accompanied the St. Louis Cardinals on a barnstorming trip. The Cardinal contingent stopped in Alton on Monday, October 6, to play an exhibition game at the behest of R.L. Holm who was friendly with members of the Cardinals organization, not to mention many of the players.  School classes were closed at 2 p.m. to allow the children to watch the game.  An estimated 1,700 fans turned out to watch the Cardinals edge the locals, 4-2.  Herman Bell pitched for Alton with Roscoe Holm as his battery mate.

Following the game, a dinner and banquet was held in the Cardinals’ honor.  Several members of the Cardinals gave short presentations on various aspects of baseball.  Vernon J. Clemons talked about “Barnstorming.”  James Bottomley discussed what he did best, which was “Hitting the Ball.”  Jack Smith’s presentation was “Getting the Break on Going toS econd.”  Roscoe Holm talked about his “Major League Experiences” and Herman Bell offered insights into “How Games are Won and Lost.”[xvii]  

Holm was sent down to Rochester in May 1925 due to a hitting slump although Rickey said that he had every confidence that Holm would regain his batting eye, an indication that the Cardinals still considered him a potential front-liner.  Holm never recovered his batting stroke that season as he hit just .207 in just 58 plate appearances for St. Louis.  Like the season before, Holm was hobbled by a late-season injury.

The Alton Democrat predicted that 1926 would be a watershed year for Holm.  There was even more pressure on the lad to perform since he was granted a $1,000 contract increase.  “Roscoe ‘Waddy’ Holm’s baseball fatefor the coming season is now an interesting topic of conversation among his many admirers and friends, both here and in Syracuse, N.Y., where he played last season.  All that is known a syet is that he will train with the St. Louis Cardinals next spring at SanAntonio, Texas. . . if the attitude of new manager Rogers Hornsby is favorable to him he will likely be seen in the Cardinal line-up this season.”[xviii]  

Playing exclusively in the outfield, Holm strode to the plate 144 times and batted.285.  In the World Series against the New York Yankees, Holm produced a run-scoring single in the sixth game that helped propel the Cardinals to a 10-2 victory.  The triumph, however, would be tinged with sadness for Holm.

On November 28, 1926, a month or so after he had watched his son help the Cardinals to their first World Series crown, Holm’s father, R.L. Holm, 49, died suddenly at home.  The local station agent for the Northwestern Railway Company, R.L. Holm was a member of the town council and fire department and president of the Alton Commercial Club.  He also was the longtime manager of the local town team.[xix]  The cause of death was described as apoplexy, a sudden loss of consciousness resulting when the rupture orocclusion of a blood vessel leads to oxygen lack in the brain.  In common parlance, an apoplexy is a sudden display of extreme anger or rage.

In 1927 and 1928, Holm enjoyed his finest – and fullest – seasons with the Cardinals.  He played in 97 games in 1927, batting .286 and driving in 66 runs, a career high, in 419 at-bats.  In 1928, Holm hit for a .277 average in 83 games, enjoying another productive season with 47 runs batted in.  He appeared in only three World Series game against the New York Yankees, but his play again earned the plaudits of observers.

In “Big Plays ofLast World Series,” a series of interviews with the New York Journal American, New York Giants Manager John McGraw opined that Holm made the finest play ofthe World Series.  “Little mention has been made of the play in the newspapers heretofore and the baseball journals passed it up entirely,” The Alton Democrat stated.  It rectified the oversight, printingMcGraw’s comments in their entirety as they appeared in the New York Journal American.

 “Ask most any fan to recall great fielding stunts in the lateworld series and one of the first names he’ll mention is that of Watty Holm.

All along the St. Louis fans had been hoping to see Holm get in a game, and when they finally gave him a chance in the third game the rest ofthe crowd understood why.  He is one of the gamest players living.

To appreciate the great catch Holm made in the seventh inning of that third battle it must be remembered that just a few innings before a similar attempt had met with failure in center field.

This play by Holm stopped one certain run and possibly more, ast he heavy artillery of the Yanks was coming up.  There was one out at the time and Cedric Durst was on second.

It looked like a great chance for Mark Koenig and he came near making it so.  He met the ball cleanly with his bat and shot a drive toward short right field that started like a sure hit.

To play this ball safely meant to let the runner score.  Instead of doing that, Holm started for the ball with all the speed he had in him.  He was still a little short on distance.  Seeing this, he dived headlong toward where the ball would fall and it stuck in his outstretched hands.

Being off balance and going so fast, Holm turned a completes omersault, but came up with the ball in his hands.

The play reminded me so much of those that Ross Young used to make.  It was a combination of gameness, speed and accurate timing.

Though the series furnished other brilliant plays in the outfield, there was none greater than that by Holm.”[xx]

It was to be Holm’s last major contribution as a Cardinal front-liner.

Holm injuredhimself in May 1929, colliding with the right field wall at Sportsman’s Park,  Holm’s nephew George Shermantold the Alton Democrat.  “Roscoe is right fielder for the Cardinals and was just beginning to hit his battings tride when the accident took place.  He has been out of the game since but his friends here have not learned how serious his injuries are.”[xxi]  The injury possibly explained why Holm,in 69 games, slumped to a .233 batting average.

In 1930, Holm was sent down to Houston.  Thefollowing year, he was playing for Rochester.  Holm rejoined the Cardinals for a brief time in 1932.  His last Major League game was August 8 of that year.

Holm opened up a gas station in Storm Lake in 1933.[xxii]  In 1937 he was appointed deputy sheriffof Buena Vista County.[xxiii]   Throughout this time, he continued to play baseball for semi-professional teams in Storm Lake, Alton and Aurelia.

In 1946, while living in Linn Grove, Holm and Victor Shirk announced that they were going intothe business of manufacturing baseball bats. The bats they produced were going to be termed “The Hawkeye Wonders” and already a company had placed an order for 100 dozen although the partners had not yet secured a factory.

“The boys, however, are fortunate in having an unlimited supply of the finest second growth ash timber which they control and which costs them next to nothing.  They have to take the logs to Estherville up to this time for sawing into convenient size lengths and thicknesses.  One chunk of ash tree trunk eight inches thick will supply enough wood for four bats.  The wood is the least of their problems. Obtaining suitable machinery ist heir first big one and the next is quarters large enough to afford the factory room to expand.  At present they are using a small building on the Shirk place equipped with a couple of lathesand an emery wheel for sharpening the lathe bits.”

Holm said that,as a former big leaguer, he knew what hitters were looking for in a bat.  Once the wrinkles in the fledgling business were ironed out, he expressed confidence that he could obtain as many endorsements from Major League ballplayers as Louisville Slugger.[xxiv]

The assembly line that would lead to riches never materialized. Instead, the venture became another in a long line of disappointments for Holm.  Perhaps it was the arc that led to his final desperate act. Spiraling deeper and ever downward, according to friends, Holm finally came to rest on May 19, 1950.

Clay County Sheriff Elmer F. Zinn said that two rings were found on Holm’s fingers.  One was inscribed, “St. Louis Cardinals. World Champions 1926.”  The other bore the inscription, “Rochester Red Wings. Champions 1931.” [xxv]

 



[i] The Everly News, May 25, 1950

[ii] Alton Democrat, August 31, 1950

[iii] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 19, 1950

[iv] The Everly News, May 25, 1950

[v] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 19, 1950

[vi] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 19, 1950

[vii] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 19, 1950

[viii] Alton Democrat , May 25, 1950

[ix] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 19, 1950

[x] The Spencer Daily Reporter, May 20, 1950

[xi] Alton Democrat, May 25, 1950

[xii] Hospers Tribune (July 16, 1920)

[xiii] Sioux County Capital (June 16, 1983)

[xiv] Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph (August 2, 1924)

[xv] Alton Democrat (March 17, 1923)

[xvi] Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph (August 2, 1924)

[xvii] Alton Democrat (October 4, 1924)

[xviii] Alton Democrat (January 8, 1926)

[xix] Hawarden Independent (December 2, 1926)

[xx] Alton Democrat (December 21, 1928)

[xxi] Alton Democrat (May 31, 1929)

[xxii] Alton Democrat (August 4, 1933)

[xxiii] Hawarden Independent (January 28, 1937)

[xxiv] Hawarden Independent (January 28, 1937)

[xxv] The Everly News (May 25, 1930)

 
Last Updated on Monday, 27 July 2009 13:21