Little Rock’s Forgotten Legend Part I
December 24-30, 2018
By Kris Rutherford
Home-grown major leaguer quarterbacks LRJC Trojans inaugural football squad
When today’s old timers discuss Little Rock’s sporting past, several athletes are apt to come up in conversation. Brooks Robinson, Bill Dickey, Derek Fisher, Joe Johnson, and others all have ties to the city. Even though Jim McLeod came along before any of these athletes, chances are his memory doesn’t exist in the minds of even the most knowledgeable local sports authorities. But in the mid-1920s, McLeod’s athletic exploits had all of Little Rock crowing. In short order, Jim McLeod’s name was known far beyond the city where he grew up.
If not for the three miles of highway between Jones, Louisiana, and the Arkansas border, Soule James McLeod, Jr. would have been a native Arkansan. Born September 12, 1908, “Jim,” as he was known, spent his childhood on a cotton farm. But his family didn’t work the fields long. By 1920, the McLeods moved to Little Rock where Jim’s father worked for the Dixie Cottonseed Oil Company. Six years later, Little Rock High School (later renamed Central High) was under construction, and the McLeods moved into a modest home on 14th Street, across the street from what became Quigley Stadium. Jim McLeod honed his athletic skills here and became a local celebrity before he reached high school.
Jim attended West Side Junior High School. Whether or not he was a scholar isn’t known, but his athletic achievements are well-documented in the Arkansas Gazette archives. In ninth grade, McLeod was a rare six-sport letterman. He excelled in football, basketball, track, tennis, and swimming. But Jim’s chosen sport was baseball. When school closed for the summer, he immersed himself in the game.
In 1920s Little Rock, youth played baseball in the Boys’ Club League. McLeod showed the traits of a “natural” shortstop. A poor hitter, he made up for it in the field with his quick feet and lanky six-foot frame placing any infield ground ball in his range. Jim soon became the star of Little Rock summer baseball, winning the most valuable player award at the Boys’ Club’s highest level. By his junior year of high school, professional scouts started paying attention.
McLeod planned to graduate high school in 1929, but baseball called first. The Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association offered Jim a contract, and he left the halls of Little Rock High School for Kavanaugh Field, just a stone’s throw from the school’s back door. The Travelers proved signing the local boy was no publicity stunt as he started at shortstop most of the 1929 season. Playing alongside eleven major leaguers, McLeod batted a mediocre .253 and played poorly in the field, committing 43 errors.
Statistically, the 1929 season proved little other than that Jim McLeod was far from ready to rise rapidly through the ranks of professional baseball. Washington Senators scouts thought otherwise. The Senators signed McLeod away from the Travelers, and he earned a spot on the big league roster in 1930. Playing under Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-manager Walter Johnson, McLeod’s competition changed from Southern League plowboys to the likes of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. But Johnson used McLeod sparingly, and the rookie barely made a lineup card.
McLeod sat out most of the 1931 baseball season, playing just a few games with Dallas of the Texas League. Likely, he wrestled with a decision that summer. Back home in Little Rock, the three-year-old Little Rock Junior College (LRJC) would field a football team for the first time in the fall of 1931. McLeod’s choice: enroll in LRJC and play college football or continue his baseball career. In the end, he chose both. Jim McLeod quarterbacked at the lowest level of collegiate football in 1931 and less than six months later reclaimed his spot on the roster of a major league baseball team. But in 1932, the Senators again used McLeod sparingly. He had to have questioned his baseball future when he returned to Little Rock for another football season.
As his second season as a LRJC Trojan wrapped up, in November 1932 the Senators traded McLeod to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies offered Jim a legitimate shot at becoming an everyday player, and he took advantage of the opportunity.
Philadelphia manager Burt Shotten placed McLeod at third base, and he played the position like a player who had never seen third base before. Aside from batting just .194, over the course of 67 games, McLeod committed 17 errors, just ten less than the worst fielding third baseman in the league – All-Star “Pie” Traynor – charted in 154 games. McLeod’s dreadful half-season with an equally dreadful team left him in Albany of the International League by mid-season. In Albany he proceeded to commit errors at an even faster pace than in Philadelphia.
His time as an LRJC Trojan behind him, Jim McLeod stood at a crossroads in early 1934. He could continue to pursue a career in baseball, undoubtedly toiling in the minors for the immediate future. On the other hand, he could enter the workforce, likely taking a job as a cotton grader or buyer, respected positions during the Great Depression when any job was hard to find.
McLeod’s decision ultimately impacted his own future as well as the fortunes of a Texas billionaire whose family wealth was built on the same cotton industry Jim McLeod debated joining.
To be continued in next week's part II.
Maumelle’s Kris Rutherford is the author of dozens of articles on Texas League baseball history as well as three books including, “The Galveston Buccaneers: Shearn Moody and the 1934 Texas League Championship”. He has been noted a leading expert on pre-WWII Texas League baseball.
Galveston Buccaneers: 1934 Galveston Buccaneers. Jim McLeod is seated in the second row, second from right (beside non-uniformed team trainer).