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The Hero of Cherryfield, Maine

Yesterday, as I was waiting for my daughter to start crying again, I read a few pages from a little gem of a book. Its title: The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, published in 1973. After an autobiographical introduction, the text is a proto-NotGraphs series of vignettes about various players, stars and nobodies, accompanied by full-color copies of their 1950s Topps cards. It provides a little flavor to all those names that appear in spreadsheets from time to time.

Carlton WilleyCarlton Willey is one such man. A highly-touted prospect, he emerged from Truman’s War to lead the NL in shutouts in his rookie season. That was the extent of his black ink.

Carlton Willey was born in Cherryfield, Maine, the self-described Blueberry Capital of the World. One of the authors of the book, describing his annual trips through the town on vacation to Canada, describes it as “inhabited exclusively by lobster fishermen and grizzly bears.” But the image that sticks out is of a banner strung across the only street in town, written in faded red ink on white muslin. The words: “WELCOME TO CHERRYFIELD, MAINE, HOME OF MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER CARLTON WILLEY.”

Carlton Willey never made good on the promise of his career. He failed to harness his control, got bounced from the rotation to the bullpen for a few years, and then was banished to the lowly Mets. After one good season, he was struck in the face by a line drive that effectively finished him as a player. He wound up with a total of 3.2 WAR. No evidence remains of the banner, which probably rotted away.

Even so, the book concludes: “I cannot help thinking that nothing he could do, no matter how dismal or mediocre, could ever prove disappointing, in any way, shape or form, to the people of Cherryfield, Maine.”

The author was right. Willey spent a few years living the hard life of the scout, and then returned to his little fishing village, where he spent the rest of his life. He became a probation officer, managed a blueberry-freezing plant, and started a house-painting business. He signed autographs and told stories to his pals about playing with Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn. He died on July 21, 2009.

On July 25, the state of Maine celebrated Carlton Willey Day.