Wattie Holm's Final Out

Duane WinnCorrespondent IJune 4, 2009

The Rev. L.H.  Preul, pastor of Grace Methodist Church in Spencer, IA, selected the 99th Psalm to address the mourners who gathered at the Cobb-Warner Funeral Home in Spencer at 1:30 p.m., Monday, May 22, 1950.

There are bible verses that contain themes of hope, trust in God, the expectation of a better life for the deceased who lived his or her life following Christ, and forgiveness, redemption and virtue. The 99th Psalm firmly asserts the providence and power of God in the face of all things, no matter how tragic or inexplicable and instructs others in His faith and obedience.

How else could one give meaning to the macabre event which transpired three days earlier in Everly, IA?

On the morning of Friday, May 19, after shooting his wife and wounding his daughter, Roscoe “Wattie” Holm, 48, a former utility man for the St. Louis Cardinals, turned a revolver on himself and took his own life with one shot to the head.

Ella Holm, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher for the Everly school system, was shot through the back of the neck as she was packing in the family’s upstairs apartment.

The family was planning to move to Linn Grove, a place where she and her husband had once lived in a house on a picturesque hillside surrounded by woods. She was planning to work at a ladies ready-to-wear store in Spencer.

Margaret Holm, 14, was struck by one bullet which entered her left wrist and lodged near the elbow. Her arm had been broken by the impact of the bullet.  She was rushed to a Spencer hospital for treatment. She attended the funeral service for her parents Monday afternoon, but then was taken back to the hospital.

The Holm’s other child, Robert, 20, was working in Humboldt at the time of the shooting. He reached Spencer before noon. He visited his sister in the hospital and then talked with relatives and well-wishers. He was doing  his best, under the circumstances, to keep his emotions in check.

The only other eyewitness to the event, other than Margaret Holm, was Fred Sindt, the owner of the apartment in which Holm and his family lived. He told reporters that he had talked with the Holms moments before the tragedy occurred.

As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he heard two shots fired, followed shortly afterwards by Margaret Holm’s screams of terror. Then there were two additional gunshots, Sindt said.

Margaret came running down the stairs toward him. Seeking protection, she rushed into the Sindt apartment, evading “another bullet fired by her father (that) would have hit her in the back as the missile tore through the screen door.”

Sindt rushed out the door to summon Mayor Andy Schoenewe of Everly.

“When I returned,” said Sindt. “Holm was lying at the foot of the stairs dead. His head, resting near the rear door of the house, was almost completely blown off. The revolver rested next to his hand.”

Sindt couldn’t offer any reason that led to the terrible incident. He hadn’t noticed anything amiss as he talked to the couple. The Spencer Daily Reporter related that the conversation between Sindt and the Holms focused on “rental matters.”

The Everly News reported that Holm had been very moody for the past couple of years. For a time he worked for Slagle Lumber Company in Everly and later was employed at Sportsman Store at Spencer. In fact, he quit the latter job five days before the incident after working there for just six weeks.

Holm’s recent past followed a template that he struck after he left organized baseball. He had held several jobs, never seemingly able  to find a career that suited him as well as athletics.

It was this inability to achieve success off the diamond that led many who knew him well to posit this as the triggering mechanism that sent Holm into a maddening abyss of despair.

J.T. Even, a close boyhood friend of Holm and president of the local baseball association, had traveled to Everly to interview the former Cardinal  as a possible candidate to manage the Alton semiprofessional baseball team. What he discovered shocked and  saddened him.

“His friend was a sick man at that time, according to Mr. Even, so he could not recommend him as manager of the local club," the Alton Democrat related.

Dr. L.F. Frink, the county coroner, stated the day after the shooting that Holm was suffering from mental illness prior to the incident. He added that Holm had been going through a “depressive period for some time,” but that there was “no apparent exciting motive for the shootings, except that the family had been forced to move from their apartment.”

Whatever Roscoe Holm’s affliction, one inescapable reality emerged: The love of his wife, who remained faithful to him no matter what and who “offered him every encouragement to recover his normal outlook, which was friendly and carefree,” was not enough to avert a family tragedy.

The baseball world had largely forgotten him by the time he died. Less than two years earlier, Babe Ruth’s death had spurred waves of international mourning.  His zest for life and diamond exploits  had made him a cultural icon. His death led to his apotheosis as a baseball immortal.

Holm died in total obscurity without leaving a litany of baseball accomplishments or as much as a single great moment that would outlive him. Yet, there were thousands of northwest Iowans who looked beyond the circumstances surrounding Holm’s death and were genuinely saddened by his passing.

For there was time when residents of Holm's home town breathlessly awaited word of his exploits in the next issue of the local newspaper.

“He was a terrific athlete, good at everything,” recalled Orval Madden, who played for an Aurelia semiprofessional baseball team which Holm managed.

It was Holm’s father who encouraged young Wattie to attend the University of Iowa. Holm was advised by his father to seek a degree in dentistry like his brother (a talented baseball player in his own right who once hurled for the Doon, IA, town team) and not to bank on making his livelihood  in athletics “since the average baseball player’s career is a short one.”

With the help of a minor league manager, Holm secured a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1923. Manager Branch Rickey liked what he saw, declaring Holm  a strong contender for shortstop. Rickey added that the development of a shortstop was a key link in the Cardinals’ pennant hopes that year.

Ultimately, Rickey sent Holm to their farm club in Syracuse for more seasoning. Holm started out in the infield at Syracuse, but was switched to the outfield.

In July, Rickey visited the Syracuse ballclub and at his behest, Holm was soon back at shortstop so the Cardinal brass could make a fresh appraisal of his skills. Holm was injured September 1 which kept him out for the balance of the season.

In 1924, Holm was recalled by the parent club and ordered to report to Bradentown, Fla., in the spring. Wattie, this time around, had all the bases covered, in a manner of speaking.

Holm was shooting for a slot in the infield, but once Rickey discovered that Holm was also a catcher, “and as he needed catchers just then he told me to consider myself a catcher and to prove to him that I was a big league catcher,” Holm recalled.

“I tried hard enough and was getting by pretty well when he switched on me one day and told me to play the outfield. I managed to make the grade as an outfielder and, as the saying goes, here I am," Holm told the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph.

The Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph likened him to Babe Ruth, Bill Terry, George Sisler, Rube Bressler and Clarence Mitchell, who were pitchers at heart, but showed their true mettle as all-around ballplayers.

The newspaper acknowledged that the comparison between the relatively untested Holm and these superstars was stretching things a bit but “this being the day of specialization,” a player of Holm’s versatility was viewed as a rare commodity indeed.

Yet, Holm’s career would never reach majestic proportions, although he was consistently lauded by the press as an underrated member of the Cardinals whose value to the team was rooted in his desire, baseball sense, versatility and speed, qualities for which members of a later edition of the Cardinals, “The Gashouse Gang,” would be immortalized.

In 1924, in his first season with the Cardinals, Holm played as a catcher, third baseman and outfielder. In 81 games, he batted .294. All but 14 of his 86 hits were singles, marking him as a good contact hitter with a keen eye at the plate.

Holm was sent down to Rochester in May 1925 due to a hitting slump. Rickey, though, said that he had every confidence that Holm would regain his batting eye, an indication that the Cardinals still considered him a potential front-liner.

Holm, though, never recovered his batting stroke that season as he hit  just .207 in just 58 plate appearances for St. Louis. Like the season before, Holm was hobbled by a late-season injury.

Playing exclusively in the outfield in 1926, Holm strode to the plate 144 times and batted .285 for the Cardinals. In the World Series, against the New York Yankees, Holm produced a run-scoring single in the sixth game that helped propel  the Cardinals to a 10-2 victory.

In 1927 and 1928, Holm enjoyed his finest—and fullest—seasons with the Cardinals, He played in 97 games in 1927, batting .286 and driving in 66 runs, a career high, in 419 at-bats. In 1928, Holm hit for a .277 average in 83 games, enjoying another productive season with 47 runs batted in. He appeared in only three World Series game against the New York Yankees.

Holm injured himself in May 1929, colliding with the right field wall at Sportsman’s Park. The injury possibly explained why Holm, in 69 games, slumped to a .233 batting average.

In 1930, Holm was sent down to Houston. The following year, he was playing for Rochester. Holm rejoined the Cardinals for a brief time in 1932. His last Major League game was Aug. 8 of that year.

Holm opened up a gas station in Storm Lake in 1933.  In 1937, he was appointed deputy sheriff of Buena Vista County. Throughout this time, he continued to play baseball for semiprofessional teams in Storm Lake, Alton and Aurelia.

In 1946, while living in Linn Grove, Holm and Victor Shirk announced they were going into the business of manufacturing baseball bats. The bats they produced were going to be termed The Hawkeye Wonders and already a company had placed an order for 100 dozen, although the partners had not yet secured a factory.

Holm said that, as a former big leaguer, he knew what hitters were looking for in a bat. Once the wrinkles in the fledgling business were ironed out, he expressed confidence that he could obtain as many endorsements from Major League ballplayers as Louisville Slugger.

The assembly line that would lead to riches never materialized. Instead, the venture became  another in a long line of disappointments for Holm. Perhaps it was the circumstance that led to his final desperate act a few years later.

Relating the tragedy to area newspapers shortly after the tragedy, Buena Vista County Elmer F. Zinn said that two rings were found on Holm’s fingers. One was inscribed, “St. Louis Cardinals. World Champions 1926.” The other bore the inscription, “Rochester Red Wings. Champions 1931.”


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