By Bill Staples, Jr.
In December 1949, Cleveland Browns defensive back Warren Lahr contacted Cleveland Indians general manager Hank Greenberg and requested a tryout with the team. The 25-year-old future NFL star wanted to explore a switch to professional baseball. Lahr’s inquiry was detailed in the December 22, 1949 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer: Indians Invite Browns' Lahr to Spring Tryout By Harry Jones Warren Lahr, the genial Western Reserve graduate who starred for the Cleveland Browns as a defensive halfback this season, now has a hankering to play big-league baseball, especially with the Indians. Lahr, a former shortstop on the sandlots of West Wyoming. Pa. his hometown, is not the only member of the Browns with baseball ambitions. Two years ago, Edgar Jones, a pitcher of some merit, had a spring trial with the Indians. He was offered a minor league contract and turned it down. "I know I'm not good enough to play in the major leagues right away,” Warren said. “I've never had professional experience. What I want to know is how long would it take for me to get to the majors? "If they think I have the ability to make the grade in a couple of years, then I might be interested. I'm too old to spend three or four years in the minors May Get Contract Greenberg told Lahr that he may attend the minor league camp for several weeks and, if the Indians' scouts believe he has outstanding ability, then he will be given a contract, probably for Class A or higher. Under ordinary circumstances prospects at the age of 25 are not signed. "My ambition has always been to play big league baseball,” Warren said. "I never had an offer before I went to college. West Wyoming is stuck way back in the coal fields and baseball scouts never get around there.” Lahr entered Western Reserve in 1941 and starred as a running back with the Red Cats in ‘42, ‘46 and '47. He joined the Browns in 1948 but was injured at training camp and saw no action. He was given little chance of making the squad this year and eventually won the defensive halfback role vacated by Tommy Colella. Coach Paul Brown cited him as "the biggest surprise of the season.” "Brown doesn't know that I would like to play baseball,” Warren said. "He may be surprised again." Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 22, 1949, Page 18.
"My ambition has always been to play big league baseball.” – Warren Lahr, 1949
Photo: Warren Lahr, age 14, circa 1937. (Courtesy of the Lahr Family.)
Lahr was a multi-sport athlete who excelled in everything he did: football, baseball, basketball, track and field. In fact, he and a few of his Browns teammates played on a competitive basketball team in the off season. So, of all sports, why did he pick professional baseball? And why now?
Why Now (Dec. 1949)?
Here’s a few factors that might have influenced the timing of his decision:
Warren sat out the entire 1948 season due to an injury. He stayed healthy his second year but had yet to establish himself as a starter. He got playing time in every game during the 1949 season, but most likely he was hungry to be a starter and for the salary that went with the promotion.
The 1949-1950 off-season was also time for him to renew his contract, so perhaps he wanted to explore career options — and use his possible departure as leverage in negotiations. Who knows?
At home, he and his wife Rowena welcomed their first child in October, and the financial responsibilities of fatherhood might have weighed heavily on him. And like many pro athletes back then, work during the offseason to supplement their football income was required.
Warren was born September 5, 1923. His sister, Vilma, was born two years later. As the youngest children in a family of eight, the two were “thick as thieves.” She called him “Warnie” and in turn he gave her the nickname “Boopsie” (after Betty Boop). Years later Warren’s children would know her mostly as “Aunt Boopsie.” Vilma is alive and well today, and at age 96, she has a sharp mind and can recall the days of their youth with great clarity.
Photo: Vilma and Warren Lahr (left) relax on the front porch with mother Lillie and unidentified male (possibly William Cole, Lillie’s brother) circa 1939. Courtesy of the Lahr Family.
“Warren was a great athlete, he could do it all,” she said in a recent phone interview. “All of us Lahr kids were athletic. I was a pretty good golfer myself, many years ago,” she added.
All of the Lahr children excelled in sports: Charles Jr. in tennis, Esther in basketball, Lillian in golf & tennis, and Edmund in swimming (which led to hearing loss in one ear).
“Our older brother John was the baseball player of the family. There was talk of him going pro, but that never materialized. I had heard that our father, Charles, played semi-pro baseball when he was younger, but I honestly don’t know anything about his career,” she confessed.
“When dad died (in 1942), our oldest brother Charles stepped in to fill his shoes. He helped my mother a lot and was a father figure for us younger kids,” recalled Vilma.
Lahr Family Baseball History
Warren’s father, Charles Augustus Lahr, was born January 21, 1883, in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He came from a large family, with five brothers and two sisters. He was a devoted husband and father, and an active leader in the Wyoming Presbyteran Church who abstained from drinking alcohol.
Vilma recalls her father being a tall man — a description not supported by his WWII registration records that lists him at 5’4” and 145 lbs in 1941.
(Note: Warren is listed as 5’ 10 1/2” and 175 lbs. in his WWII draft card in 1942; so perhaps he got his size from his mother Lillian’s side of the family, the Coles).
Charles had a strong, athletic build, chiseled from his years working in the coal mines. His hands and forearms were strong like Honus Wagner’s — the hands of a laborer. When he wasn’t working, he was on the diamond playing baseball with one of the local amateur and semi pro teams.
In 1934, the local paper, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, recalled the athletic ability of Warren’s father:
“It has been years since we crossed the path of Charley Lahr, whom most of you old timers remember as some pumpkin as a ball gamer in the days of the old Flat-Irons. But Charley hasn't changed with the progress of years and let us remark that this champion of the old days is beyond the half century mark. But Charley doesn't tell his age; he is apparently just as physically fit; is just as mentally alert. And how Charley delights in talking of the days when ball cramers played for the sport of it — and could play baseball.”
Source: Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Apr 11, 1934, Page 14.
The earliest record of Charles Lahr playing baseball occurs in 1902, when 19-year-old “Charley” played catcher for the amateur Pittston Grays.
In 1903, Charles still lived at home with his parents on 16 Ralph Street in Wilkes-Barre. He was recruited by other local clubs like the Weitzenkorns (sponsored by a fine apparel store), appearing in the box scores batting lead off and playing left field and second base. His last name was spelled a variety of ways in the local papers — Lahr, Lehr, Lahar and Laird.
On August 21, 1904, with a club simply called the Wilkes-Barre Amateurs, Lahr contributed in right field with 3 putouts and an assist, and hit safely twice and scored two runs in a 10-9 victory over the Plymouth Reds. Nearly 1,200 fans attended the game at the Washington diamond.
During the 1905 season, Lahr played with several teams, including The Parsons, North Wilkes-Barre, and Wetzenkorns, where he held down centerfield or left field and batted between the 3rd and 5th spots in the lineup.
Photo: Charles Lahr, front row left in street clothes, with the 1905 Wilkes-Barre ball club. Source: Kevin Hapeman.
That same year Charles and his new wife, Lillian Cole, welcomed twin girls to the family — Marjorie and Margaret. Both were described as “remarkably pretty and bright” when, tragically, Margaret died of croup two years later.
During the 1906 season, Lahr found himself in the middle of controversy when he slid into second base and kicked the base loose, sending it four feet away from the designated spot. The umpire called him out after the defender tagged him off the bag.
Weitzenkorns manager Neil Brislin argued that the home team, the Plymouth ball club, was responsible for securing the bases. Lahr’s team left the field in protest after the first inning, and Brislin challenged the Plymouth club to a rematch on their home field in Wilkes-Barre, with a winner-take-all wager of $25 to $100 (adjusted for inflation, equal to $800 to $3,200 in 2022).
Family responsibilities took priority over baseball in 1907, as the only ballplayers named Lahr in box scores that season were his brothers Albert and Herbert. After the birth of daughter Eva in the Spring, Charles mourned the loss of both his mother and daughter Margaret later in the Fall.
Charles Lahr returned to the field again in 1908, playing with the Parsons, the Sterlings, and McNelis. His stint with McNelis is noteworthy, as it marked the first time he is documented in a lineup with his brother George. On June 28, 1908, the McNelis lineup included Charles in left field and George at second base and centerfield. Charles recorded 3 runs on 2 hits and a walk, while George recorded 2 hits to help McNelis defeat the Georgetown Giants, 11 to 7.
Source: The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA, June 29, 1908, Page 13.
On October 11, 1908, Charles Lahr and his McNelis club welcomed the barnstorming Negro Leagues Cuban Giants to East End Park, for a contest that promised a purse of $100 for the winners. No results were reported in the press.
In 1909, the 27-year-old Charles joined the new ball club sponsored by the Flatiron Hotel. Leading off for the Flat Irons and playing left field, Lahr belted a home run in a 12-3 loss to the Wilkes-Barre Barons, a professional team in the Class B New York State League. Lahr hit his homerun off either Fred Applegate or Levi Knapp, the pitchers appearing in that game.
The Flat Irons went on to win the pennant in the Wyoming League in 1909, and then compete for the Luzerne County Championship against the Vulcans of the City League and Sugar Notch of the Anthracite League. The November 9 issue of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader printed the outcome and related celebration.
FLATIRONS PLAY BALL MET AT FESTIVE BOARD AS GUESTS OF HUGH LAWSON
Long Drives Were Made, Bases Stolen and Records Smashed In All Directions When the Amateur Champions Started to Warm Things Upon Roof Garden.
Games were won and lost, pennants captured and long drives made over "tea cups' on the roof garden of the Flatiron Hotel last night when the Flatirons, winners of the Wyoming League pennant, and amateur champions of the county, were tendered a banquet by Hugh Lawson.
The menu was a choice one. Lawson had his best on the cards and when his diamond warrior band started in to do things averages faded and new figures were posted.
City Treasurer Dan Hart was toastmaster and throughout the evening Daniel hit with a perfect score. Hugh Lawson was introduced and he landed for a terrific drive. Mr. Lawson disputed the fact that baseball is an American game and declared he played the game years back when a boy in Sweden. He failed to produce-proof and assured his hearers that when authorities had passed on his records the Flatirons would be the first to look at the books.
… Charles Lahr was at bat with an original poem, “The Docking Boss,” and Jack Salzinger uncorked some twisters by reciting the experience of "a Wyoming valley slate picker at Slatington." Playing manager Neil Brislin stole a base, in response to the toast 'Smiles." Dutch Brannon and "Yon" Haley of Plains, moved up the runners with a duet, "High Balls."
…Those present were: Charles Lahr, Frank P. Brannbn, Joseph L Gorham, John Salzinger, Patrick Haley, F. F. Thompson, Eugene Lavery, T. E. McCaffrey, Martin A. McEnrue, Michael Halpin, William Murrav, James Conway, Con Burke, Nell Brislin, Thomas Brett, Daniel L Hart, John J. McDevitt, W. L. McCollum, Hugh Lawson.
The Flatirons during the past season won every game they played in the Wyoming League, and also defeated the St. Peter's champions of Lackawanna County, as well as other strong amateur organizations. The team's only defeat was at the hands of the Wilkes-Barre New York State League team.
Source: Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Sep 22, 1909, Page 8.
Charles’ delivery of an original poem is insightful. First, it reveals that he was a creative person and one of eloquence. Second, it explains his new leadership role in the coal mines.
A dock boss is a “foreman who checks carloads of newly mined coal to estimate the amount of slate and other foreign matter that has been included in order to establish a rate of dockage.” His celebratory poem with the Flatirons foreshadowed his next move.
In 1910 Charles Lahr joined his company baseball team, the Dorrance Colliery club, playing centerfield and hitting cleanup. His decision to play on the company ballclub paid off professionally. By 1912 he rose through the ranks with the Dorrance Colliery and was elected as a delegate at the tri-district miners convention.
Between 1910 and 1912, there are several references to ball players named Lahr playing for local teams, but it’s unclear if it’s Charles or his brothers. Most likely it’s his brothers, as the next ten years were busy for Charles and Lillian Lahr, who expanded their family to eight children.
Charles’ children and baseball career are both mentioned in the following article about a fire that destroyed their home and almost took their lives in April 1922.
CAMP GROUND DESTROYED
Difficult Time In Saving Their Eight Children
No Insurance On Home DAMAGE $1,500
Awakened this morning to find his home in flames, Charles A. Lahr, who conducts a farm at the Wyoming Valley Camp Ground, and who for years was a former local resident, scarcely succeeded in saving the lives of his eight children before the house was reduced to ashes. The fire broke out about four o'clock. No cause can be assigned unless an overheated stove caused the blaze. The loss is $1,600 and Lahr carried no insurance. The house was a two story frame building and the fire was discovered in the rear, near the kitchen. Mrs. Lahr was the first to be awakened by the smoke and at once gave the alarm. The house was located on the road leading to the Mt. Lookout colliery. Mr. Lahr formerly resided on Johns street, North Wilkes-Barre, but for the past four years has been farming at the camp ground. He was well known as a baseball player a few years ago.
Source: Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, the Evening News, Apr 29, 1922, Page 10
Warren and his sister Vilma were born after the house fire, and it appears the family moved around a bit before establishing a permanent residence on Eighth Street in West Wyoming. Warren was born on September 5, 1923, in Mt. Zion, PA, the same town where uncle Herbert Lahr lived (walking distance to West Wyoming). Vilma was born in Exeter in January 1926.
Lahr Family photo, circa 1928. Back row: Lillie, John, Charles Jr., Eva Maye Payne, Edmund; Middle: Esther, father Charles Sr., mother Lillian, Amanda, Warren (held by Amanda). Front: William and Phyllis Payne (held by Charles), Vilma (held by Lillian). Source: The Lahr Family.
In July 1928, the Presbyterian Church announced it was organizing a new baseball club, directed by Charles Lahr, manager. It’s not clear if the manager is Warren’s father or 20-year-old brother, Charles Wesley Lahr. It’s likely that it’s the father, and that the team included brother-ballplayers Charles and John, 16-years-old.
Warren was 4-years-old when his father and brothers participated in the church league in the late 1920s. While little Warnie stayed home with his mother and sisters, his older brothers Charles and John were known to hit the road for motor trips to locations like Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit.
In May 1930, Wyoming Baptist featured Warren’s brother John Lahr in center field, batting sixth, and hitting a double and a triple in a 13-0 victory of St. Peter’s. Charles Lahr Sr. served as umpire for the contest. Warren is now 6-years-old, and most likely in attendance and starting to appreciate the action on the diamond.
A year later, Warren appeared in the local newspaper for the first time for his athletic prowess — he won first place in the race for boys ages 6-8 at the Presbyterian Church picnic. Little Warnie’s prize for first place was a free haircut at Irv’s Barber Shop.
The final reference of the Lahr Family and baseball appears in the Nov 27, 1931, issue of The Pittston Gazette, announcing that Charles Lahr is the president of the Sunday School Baseball League. His brother, Stanley, is listed as the manager of the Wyoming ballclub.
In 1942 all of the Lahr men completed their WWII Registration Cards — Charles Sr. completed his in April, and Warren his in June. The documents reveal that Charles was working as a foreman in the W.P.A. program at the time. And Warren appears to have landed summer employment at IBM in Endicott, NY – most likely through the assistance of his sister Lillie Long, whose husband Joe was an IBM factory worker at the time. It’s also worth noting that IBM had a company baseball and softball teams that competed in the Major Industrial League.
Making of a Ballplayer
It is now clear that the Lahr’s passion for baseball was a family affair – passed down from their father. But having passion is one thing, developing the skill to compete is another.
As mentioned in the 1949 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Warren said he honed his baseball skills while playing the sandlots of West Wyoming, PA. Those games must have been unofficial, as records of him playing in an organized baseball league and/or team are nonexistent.
According to Vilma, the neighborhood kids would meet in empty fields by the school and church, and convert them into baseball fields. Their uncle Herbert and his children – three boys and a girl – would join them. “Uncle Herb was a very nice man and a good athlete,” Vilma recalled. “The schools didn’t offer sports for girls back then like they do today, so we would join the boys on the field in the pick up games. We loved playing baseball too,” she added.
There are, however, many examples of Warren playing other organized sports in the local newspapers, including:
Track & Field (1941)
And of course, football (1942)
Photo: Warren and his brother John, circa 1942 (approx. ages 19 and 30). Source: The Lahr Family.
The Final Inning
Warren’s father, Charles Lahr, died of a heart attack on November 17, 1942. Charles was a trim and fit 59-years-old. He had been sick for a few days, but his death was unexpected. The family was devastated.
Note: Warren is incorrectly listed as “Herman” and Edmund as “Edwin” in the above obituary.
Source: The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 17 Nov 1942, Page 10.
Warren missed the Western Reserve game against Ohio Wesleyan in late November to attend his father’s funeral back home.
Source: The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, PA, Nov 21, 1942, Page 7.
His absence on the football field was a factor as Ohio Wesleyan upset of Western Reserve, 13-12. He would miss more games due to military service — between Oct. 1943 to Oct. 1945 — his prime years to develop as an athlete (ages 20-22).
Warren’s Military Service RecordSource: Pennsylvania, U.S., Veteran Compensation Application Files, WWII, 1950-1966 Michael Jordan, quit basketball to pursue a career in professional baseball, in part to honor his late father, James Jordan Sr., who was a lifelong baseball fan. While there is no hard evidence to support this theory, the scattered pieces of the Lahr family puzzle strongly suggest that Warren’s decision to play baseball was influenced by his father, Charles Augustus Lahr, the man who loved his family, his community, and the great game of baseball. A Change of Heart Ultimately, Warren chose not to pursue a career in professional baseball. According to his sister Vilma, Warren said that his confidence level in his baseball skills were not as strong as his football skills. “The ball just comes in too fast … I don’t trust my vision. I feel more confident on the football field,” he said. So instead he signed a new contract with the Browns in May 1950, and from there his NFL career skyrocketed. He played 10 seasons, contributing to multiple championships, was named an All-Pro several times, and finished with the Browns record for most interceptions (44).
References: Complete list of all articles referenced (with links to original sources).
Published October 15, 2022