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Today in Oakland A’s history (4/30): Ace Parker, two-sport athlete

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A football Hall of Famer who played for the A’s in the 1930s

Football Action with Ace Parker
Parker is No. 7, holding the ball

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

Here’s the latest “this date in history” from A’s info manager Mike Selleck:

It was nice of Selleck to mention Bo and Deion as his examples of two-sport athletes. Of course, the name most recently on the minds of Oakland A’s fans is Kyler Murray, the 1st-round draft pick who chose pro football over baseball.

Ace Parker isn’t anywhere near as famous as any of them, but he still qualifies as someone who played in both the NFL and MLB. And while his baseball career lasted only 94 games in the majors, his work on the grid-iron earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so he’s certainly not a nobody.

A distinguished old-timey two-sport athlete who played for the A’s back in Philadelphia? Let’s take a closer look! Here’s what the Pro Football HOF has to say about him:

Ace Parker never really intended to play pro football when he completed his career as an All-American tailback at Duke University in 1936. His ambition was to be a major league baseball player and he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. But after the 1937 baseball season, he obtained permission from the Athletics to give pro football a try.

He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National Football League, still really expecting to play out just one pro football season and then call it a career. History now records that the 1937 season wasn’t “the end of it” for the 5-10, 178-pound fireball. Ace stayed with the Dodgers until World War II military service interrupted his career in 1942.

He returned to the pros in 1945 with the Boston Yanks then added a brilliant final campaign with the New York Yankees of the All-America Football Conference in 1946.

Interestingly, it was baseball and not the huge NFL linemen that Ace faced every weekend that proved to be the biggest stumbling block in his career. Broken ankles twice endangered his pro football career and, in 1940, he won Most Valuable Player honors in the NFL even though he had suffered a broken left ankle in a summer baseball game that year. For the first three weeks of the season, he had to wear a 10-pound brace that extended from his ankle to his knee.

Ace wasn’t exceptionally fast anyway, but he continued doing just what he had always done – running, passing, catching passes, punting, placekicking, returning punts and kickoffs and playing defense. The Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1940s were a constant threat to the New York Giants and Washington Redskins for supremacy in their division and Parker was the guiding force of the Dodgers attack.

As for how he came to be with the A’s specifically, SABR has the explanation in their long profile of Parker:

Former Philadelphia Athletics hurler Jack Coombs was the baseball coach at Duke when Parker arrived. ...

Coombs had played for Connie Mack, who was still managing the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack was also familiar with Duke second baseman Wayne Ambler and reportedly helped to pay his tuition. These relationships created a Blue Devils/Athletics pipeline of sorts. When Parker’s Duke teammate Chubby Dean joined the Athletics in 1936, he insisted that Parker come to Philadelphia in the summer of 1936 and work out with the team.

Pleased with what he saw in the visit, Mack made a tentative agreement that Parker would sign with the Athletics when college concluded. That timetable was moved forward by a few months when Parker signed with Mack in early February 1937. Mack added him to the roster heading to Mexico City on February 15 for spring training.

Unfortunately, Parker’s baseball career didn’t amount to much, though it did have an exciting start. He made his MLB debut on April 24 as a pinch-runner, entering in the 9th inning and scoring the tying run en route to a comeback victory. His next appearance came on this day, April 30 — on the wrong end of a 15-3 blowout, he entered as a pinch-hitter in the 9th and knocked a two-run homer off Wes Ferrell of the Red Sox, who made the All-Star team that year.

That dinger made Parker the first player in AL history (second in MLB) to hit a pinch-hit homer in his first career at-bat. To date, that specific feat has only been done 19 times. (One of the other times was Joe Keough, of the 1968 Oakland A’s.)

He played parts of two seasons for the A’s as a middle infielder, in 1937-38 through age 26, but never appeared in the majors after that. His numbers, in 228 plate appearances:

Parker, MLB career: .179/.231/.242, 19 wRC+, 2 HR, -1.9 WAR

He did spend quite a bit of time in the minors, though, sticking around through age 40 in 1952. He had more success there, batting .294 in 694 games (2,520 PAs). He later managed the Durham Bulls for a few years, and then at the college level he was the coach of Duke baseball, his alma mater, for over a decade.

Parker lived to 101 years old. According to Wikipedia, “He is the first and so far only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to have lived past their hundredth birthday.” Here’s a nice story that a local news station did about him upon his passing in 2013.

And now you know all about Ace Parker, the football Hall of Famer who played for the A’s back in the ‘30s.