Kidnapping, drinking and happy ending for Flint Rhem

Flint Rhem (second from left) pitched for Clemson from 1922-24 before a 12-year Major League Baseball career. He is shown here on campus in 1923. Photo provided

When the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame class of 2016 was announced this week, Flint Rhem’s name stood out like a Cole Porter tune wedged into a popular dance mix.

Why now? BJ McKie, Greg Buckner, Richard Wieters and the other honorees hadn’t been born when Rhem left Clemson and started his major league pitching career in the 1920s. No one under 92 had been born.

What took so long? Among Rhem’s fellow new Hall of Famers, only former New England Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown can match his professional accomplishments.

No state has made more colorful contributions to big league history. The South Carolina list includes Mookie (Wilson) and Gookie (Dawkins) and Pokey (Reese). Don’t forget Shoeless Joe Jackson, Hurricane Hazle, Van Lingle Mungo, Bobo Newsom, Dooley Womack, Willie Mays Aikens and James Island’s Stormin’ Gorman Thomas.

When it comes to colorful baseball tales, it’s hard to top Flint Rhem, who came from Rhems, S.C., named for a founding family member.

One of nine children, Rhem won 105 games in the majors from 1924-1936. The hard-throwing right-hander pitched in four World Series, twice against New York Yankees teams led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. This was a time when baseball was king in America. There was no NBA. The backwater NFL had teams in Duluth, Pottsville and Frankford.

But Rhem was a drinking man when alcohol was the drug of choice among ballplayers and other Americans. Unfortunately, he is perhaps best known for going AWOL from the Cardinals on a day he was scheduled to pitch against the Dodgers in Brooklyn. Rhem claimed he was forced into a taxi by armed men, driven to New Jersey and forced to drink whiskey.

“They made me drink awful stuff,” Rhem told St. Louis manager Gabby Street, as reported in 1930.

Few who knew of Rhem’s habits bought the story, and he later admitted the whole thing was a hoax.

Which probably helps explain the eight-decade induction delay for a S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame founded in 1960, nine years before Rhem died at 68.

“He had an alcohol problem,” said Rhem’s only child, Sonny Rhem, 79. “It would come and go, come and go. He struggled with alcohol his entire life. That was his weakness.”

Sonny Rhem still lives in the upstate town of Greer, not far from where Flint and his wife Lula, a charming schoolteacher from Anderson, lived and farmed during his childhood.

“My father was a very kind, gentle man,” Sonny Rhem said. “He would give you the shirt off his back; he was that kind of guy. While he had his problems, he made me a better person. I knew what I didn’t want to be. I never touched alcohol and I never smoked. I knew I didn’t want to be like that, if you know what I mean.”

Flint Rhem was born in Rhems, a tiny town 20 miles northwest of Georgetown. He enrolled in Clemson as an Engineering student and pitched for the Tigers from 1922-24. No former Clemson player has participated in more World Series than Rhem (four).

His big league career was a roller coaster, excellent stretches interrupted by crashes and trips to the minors paved with a well-established battle with the bottle.

Rhem, nicknamed “Shad” by teammates, went 20-7 in 1926, tied for the National League lead in wins.

But he was pitching for a semi-pro team in Kingstree in 1933 before the second of his three stints with the Cardinals.

Rhem gave up two home runs on curveballs to Ruth in a 1926 World Series game in which the Bambino famously homered three times after promising to hit one for a hospitalized child. The second of Ruth’s blasts off Rhem easily cleared the right-centerfield fence at Sportsman Park in St. Louis and crashed through the window of a Chevrolet dealership across Grand Avenue.

“Giving up those two home runs was the biggest thrill of my career,” Rhem said, as reported by Mike Eisenbath in “The Cardinals Encyclopedia.”

The fun never lasted long. When St. Louis sent Rhem to the minors in 1928, Cardinals Vice President Branch Rickey went public with his disgust.

“He thought more about doing what he pleased than about helping the club,” said Rickey, who would later break the Major League Baseball color barrier by promoting Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rhem also pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Braves. He resurfaced in St. Louis to play with the Cardinals’ uniquely rough and talented 1934 “Gashouse Gang” team, including Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Leo Durocher and Pepper Martin. But Rhem never won more than 15 games in a season after 1926.

“I remember when I was growing up, people would come and sit on the porch and talk with my father for hours and hours about baseball,” Sonny Rhem said. “He talked about his time at Clemson some but mostly he talked about his time in the majors. He was the Opening Day pitcher for St. Louis a number of times, and he always talked about riding on the train on all those road trips.”

Sonny Rhem went on to a successful business career and has raised two children. A tennis enthusiast, he has been an assistant coach at Erskine College in Due West. The Erskine athletic department annually presents the Sonny Rhem Award for community service.

A few years back, Sonny packed up a box full of Flint Rhem scrapbooks and memorabilia his late mother put together. He delivered it to a friend, longtime Clemson sports publicity staffer Sam Blackman, who happens to be on the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame board.

The proud son plans to be in Columbia with family and friends on May 16 for an induction to be held 80 baseball seasons after Flint Rhem pitched his last game.

“My father deserves it,” Sonny Rhem said. “It’s a really nice thing. I just wish my mother was still here. It would mean a lot to her.”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff