Sunday, May 31, 2009

K Chorlton

One of the great mysteries of the Western International League has been solved.

For many years, I’ve been hearing about K Chorlton. “K was his first name, just the letter K,” stated the Dean of Official Scorers, Pat Karl, who saw him play for several seasons at Capilano Stadium.

Due to other activities that keep me occupied through the end of June, the blog has been sitting idle. But I should pass on word of the passing, albeit two months ago, of Mr. Chorlton.

You’ve seen reported on this blog K was a star in high school ball in Seattle, and ended up spending much of his professional career trodding the 99 from the outfield at Cap Stadium to the one in the identical Sick Stadium in the Emerald City. In fact, he refused to report to the Rainiers in 1954 because he was getting paid more money to play Class A ball.

That fine writer and researcher, and B.C. ball fan, Tom Hawthorn, managed to convince Toronto’s National Newspaper, the Globe and Mail, to publish his obit of a long-forgotten Vancouver outfielder. As the Globe story is no longer on the newspaper’s web site, allow me to pass it on. It features Tom’s usual thorough research and answers the question of how K became K.

Run-in nixed chance at the big leagues
Fast-running player for the Seattle Rainiers argued with manager Rogers Hornsby
Special to The Globe and Mail

April 1, 2009

VICTORIA -- The ballplayer showed a steady bat and good, if occasionally suspect, fielding, as well as terrific speed in the field and on the basepaths. But what many fans first noticed was his first 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 a strikeout, which makes it an excellent nickname for a pitcher.

K Chorlton was an outfielder.

Outfielders do not care to strike out. As it turns out, the moniker carried with it no baseball meaning.

In 1949, Mr. 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, Mr. Brown had volunteered as a cavalryman for the Spanish-American War, listing cowpuncher as his occupation on the enlistment form.

At the time, the Capilanos played out of Athletic Park at Sixth and Hemlock, a wooden bandbox Mr. Brown built by his own hand in 1913. As he cleared a lot the size of a city block, he carried in his back pocket sticks of dynamite, which he used to remove stumps.

Mr. Chorlton’s career in Vancouver spanned the move to spanking-new Capilano 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 speed, Mr. 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 basepaths out at the ballpark,” 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 basepaths more often.”

Mr. Chorlton patrolled centre field for parts of four seasons with Vancouver. 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 father, a chiropractor, refused to allow him to take part in contact, so he handled punting duties. The kicking assignment didn't prevent him from scoring touchdowns on consecutive weeks, one following a bad snap, the other on a fake punt. When the Teddies track team challenged the baseball nine, he won both the 100- and 200-yard dashes.

In 2004, the Seattle Times named him the top Rider athlete of all time. He was inducted into the school's sports hall of fame the following year.

As a senior, Mr. 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.

Mr. Chorlton recounted the meeting in a newspaper interview five years ago.

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

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

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

Mr. 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 him up 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 fly ball. This so incensed the manager, Rogers Hornsby, a Baseball Hall of Famer not known for kindness, that he added to Mr. Chorlton’s embarrassment by yanking him from the field immediately after the play.

Mr. Chorlton did not take the insult well. He swore and argued with the manager in the dugout. Mr. Hornsby did not brook insubordination and he knew how to carry a grudge. Whatever long shot Mr. 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. Afterward, he was asked if his story angered the misanthropic Mr. Hornsby. “I don’t really know,” Mr. Watson said. “He treats me so bad when he’s in a good mood, I couldn’t tell the difference.”)

Mr. 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. Both were career highs.

Mr. 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, a former college classmate.

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 Strip in 1947.

As it turns out, K’s parents named him after a cousin, who was christened Kermit, a name he despised. A Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, Kermit 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 ballplayer.

K Chorlton
Byron Chorlton was born on Oct. 26, 1928, in Seattle. He died of pneumonia on March 17, 2009, in 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.

Oh, how did he get the name ‘Byron’, you ask?

Hmm. We’re still working on that one.

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