My knowledge of baseball largely comes from six years of watching my brother’s Little League team. I’m not an authority by any means, but I’ve been surprised at how much lingo I managed to soak up. But when I set out to learn more about Denney Wilie, Baylor’s first baseball player to make it to the majors, I was stumped by repeated references to the “twirlers” and their role in winning games.
To me, a Baylor twirler is a Golden Girl, but it turns out that pitchers are “twirlers” too! The term makes sense, especially since when Denney was “twirling,” baseball was in its Deadball Era. Baseballs were used till they were soft, and spitballs were legal—so connecting with the ball, let alone hitting a home run, was difficult. A powerful pitcher who had some tricks up his sleeve would be a great asset to his team as he “twirled” the ball across the plate.
And Denney certainly was a strong member of the Baylor team—in 1911, before he left Baylor to join the St. Louis Cardinals, Denney captained his team to the state championship! Of course, he had some help—the athletics program was growing and there were many strong players at Baylor. (Baylor baseball started in 1902.) Denney also came from an athletically inclined family—his brother, Charles Lee “Cap” Wilie attended Baylor from 1904-08 and was a baseball star in his own right. Both brothers played and excelled in football at Baylor too. But it was Ernest Dennis “Denney” Wilie who would turn his baseball talent into a career.
And the Round-Up yearbook is nothing short of adulating of that talent. In the 1909 Round-Up: “Possessing a cool head, a strong left arm, perfect control, and a world of speed, he has easily succeeded in baffling his strongest opponents. Not only can he deliver the goods on the firing-line, but his ability to hit with men on bases has brought more than one victory to the Green and Gold.” (This was before Baylor became the Bears!)
The 1910 Round-Up: “His fast ones were so seldom connected with, his curves so puzzling, his control so perfect, his head-work so superb, his hitting so timely, that he last season gained a State-wide reputation as one of the best college pitchers in the State.” (This Round-Up does make note of his quick temper too, but also calls his work worthy of a “Big-Leaguer.”)
And by the 1911 Round-Up: “‘Dennis’ Wilie, now known as ‘Captain Dennis,’ has sustained his rep as being one of the best little ball-players that has ever faced a college pitcher. He formerly pitched, but on account of his hard, regular hitting Coach placed him in left field, and there too he has starred. On long flies he is at his best, frequently robbing the opponents of well-deserved hits. His hitting has won most of our games, and in a pinch he can always be depended upon to do his duty.”
After Baylor’s 1911 state championship, Denney left the university to join the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was an outfielder in 1911 and 1912. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in 1915 he played for the Cleveland Indians, then went on to play for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League from 1915-23.
Oddly, the Lariat didn’t cover the momentous event of Baylor’s first student to play major league baseball—maybe they were disappointed that he didn’t return to complete his time at Baylor. Nevertheless, Denney Wilie holds the distinction of being the first of 39 (to date) Baylor athletes to compete in Major League Baseball. This year’s draft picks and current athletes in the majors uphold a proud history of excellence in baseball at Baylor!
Read more about Denney Wilie: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Denney_Wilie
See his baseball card: http://www.rainfall.com/posters/baseballcards/18061.htm
Learn about Baylor in the majors: http://www.baylorathleticsexperience.com/baseball_mlb.php
And enjoy a slideshow of photos (and a few baseballs) from the early years of Baylor baseball: