Hitchhiking to Fame: As Tech’s baseball season closes, a look at one of the greatest Bulldogs

By Wesley Harris

“Nobody was more competitive than Atley Donald.”

That was the assessment of Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey of his New York Yankee teammate from north Louisiana.

Donald’s drive to reach what some considered unrealistic goals propelled one of Louisiana’s best baseball players to astonishing success with the powerhouse Yankees, helping the team reach four World Series, and winning it all in 1939, 1941, and 1943. 

Nicknamed “Swampy” by a Yankee teammate unaware of the difference between Cajun bayou country and the north Louisiana hills, Donald was a credit to his state and his alma mater as he posted an impressive streak of seven consecutive winning seasons as a hard-throwing pitcher for the Yankees.

The 1930 Louisiana Tech Lagniappe said of the young farm boy’s addition to the freshman team: “The most promising of the new men on the squad is Atley Donald, who throws the ball across the plate in a manner that makes him look good for the varsity now. He was a star at Downsville and is the best Tech has coming up.” 

Donald quickly moved up to the varsity team, both pitching and playing the outfield. He played for the Bulldogs from 1930 to 1933, missing the 1932 season with eye trouble. After his junior year, he asked Coach L. J. Fox, a legend in his own right and mentor to many Tech and local ball players, to write a letter to the Yankees for him requesting a tryout. The most celebrated team in baseball did not respond.

Undeterred, Donald elected to go to the Yankees and plead for a chance to show his stuff. On Thanksgiving Day 1933, Donald left his home in Downsville with $24 in his pocket and a dream in his heart and hitchhiked to Florida to await the team’s arrival for spring training. 

For three months he delivered groceries, surviving on a meager $12 a week salary until the club arrived. When he showed up at the Yankee training camp and announced he wanted to try out, the youngster likely elicited snickers from bystanders. The Yankees did not hold tryouts.

Donald’s gloomy face as he left the clubhouse caught the attention of one of the team’s scouts. Some years before, Johnny Nee was scouting future major league pitcher Claude Passeau at Millsaps College when Donald hit a home run for the Tech Bulldogs. 

Nee found his notes on Donald and even the letter from Fox and arranged a rare audition. 

Against incredible odds, Donald earned a place in the organization and played in the minors for several seasons, including a stint with the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ highly successful farm team.

While playing for the Bears, the Yankees called up Donald for a brief stint during the 1938 season. After pitching in only two games, he had to make his first major career decision.

“I had a choice,” Donald explained later. “They said they would sell me to the Boston Braves, or I could go back down [to the minors] and be guaranteed a spot [with the Yankees] the next year. They just had too many pitchers.” Donald wisely chose to remain in the Yankees system.

Donald received a major league salary while finishing the 1938 season with the Bears, arguably the best minor league team ever assembled. Both Donald and the Yankees would later rejoice that he decided to remain with the organization.

In 1939, Donald found himself a rookie among the legends of the fabled ball club. That year, Joe DiMaggio hit .381 and Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games ended. Donald got his only starts in doubleheaders or in place of an injured pitcher. But the right-hander became the first rookie pitcher in American League history to win his first twelve decisions. His blazing speed made him nearly unbeatable, posting a 13-3 record during his rookie season. A crude radar developed in 1939 measured Donald’s pitches as the fastest in the major leagues. The Yankees won the World Series that year, a dizzying accomplishment for the country boy from Downsville.

Donald continued his winning ways in the 1940 and 1941 seasons, chalking up 8-3 and 9-5 records. The wealth of Yankee pitchers usually kept him out of the starting rotation, but his speed and durability were qualities any team would envy. During those two seasons, he pitched complete games in half of the 31 contests he started, an unlikely feat in today’s game of relievers, set-up men, and closers.

On October 5, 1941, Donald started in one of history’s most famous World Series games. He was taken out in the fifth inning, having run into trouble. With the Dodgers leading 4-3 in the ninth and the Yankees with two outs, Donald seemed destined to be the losing pitcher. The Dodgers’ Hugh Casey had two strikes on the batter when catcher Mickey Owen let the third one get by him. The most famous passed ball in baseball opened the gate for a ninth inning rally that gave the Yankees a 7-4 win. They won the Series the next afternoon.

Since Donald played before the advent of television, his fans back in Louisiana followed his exploits in print. One young admirer, Virgil Orr, who later went to Tech himself and eventually became Vice-President of the university, fondly remembers Donald as one of his boyhood heroes. Orr scoured sports magazines for articles about Donald.

“I read a story in a magazine about Atley Donald appearing at a circus,” Orr recalled. “A tiger escaped and Atley threw a baseball and hit the tiger in the head to keep him away from the crowd.”

Donald’s best year came in 1942, when he posted an 11-3 record, a 3.11 ERA, and allowed only six homeruns in 147 innings.

In 1945 Donald won his first four games and seemed on the verge of finally working into the Yankees’ starting rotation. Then his arm went bad, and Donald lost four in a row. Surgery at Johns Hopkins revealed calcium burrs in his shoulder and weeks after the operation, Donald still could not lift his arm above his shoulder. A miserable outing in spring training in 1946 marked the end of his pitching but the launch of a stellar career as a scout. 

Donald became one of the most respected scouts in baseball, noted for his honesty and willingness to mentor young players. He helped guide a Louisiana kid named Wayne Causey into the majors where he played for eleven years.  

“I was always in awe of him,” said Causey, who played for the Athletics, Braves, White Sox, and others. 

Donald worked as a Yankee scout for thirty years before returning to his 450-acre farm in Downsville with wife Betty. He fished in his 25-acre bass lake and talked baseball with visitors. His Yankee uniform hangs in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame which inducted him in 1982. Tech’s Athletic Hall of Fame added Donald in 1984. 

In early 1992, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Before his death later that year at age 82, Donald took the disease in stride. “The doctors say there’s nothing they can do about it,” he said. “And there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll take the treatments, maybe buy  a little time, and hope for the best. But I ain’t going to worry about it. I’ve done just about everything I wanted to do, and I’ve made a good living doing it.

“I’ve never had a job I didn’t love that I would have done for free if I could have afforded to. I’ve truly enjoyed myself, all my life. My time has come. I’m ready.”

Maybe when I’m 82, I can say the same.