Hey four-eyes! Tiger pitcher Sorrell was one of first ballplayers to wear glasses

Vic Sorrell pitched 10 seasons for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vic Sorrell pitched 10 seasons for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s and 1930s.

How rare is it for a big leaguer to wear eyeglasses on the diamond? Well, in the long history of the national pastime, only two Hall of Famers have done it — Chick Hafey and Reggie Jackson.

For many years, wearing glasses was cause for disqualification by scouts who were scouring the countryside for talent. Players with bad eyes left their “cheaters” at home while playing baseball, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that athletes felt they could openly wear them without prejudice or being taunted.

The first Tiger to regularly wear glasses while playing was Vic Sorrell, a right-handed tosser from Morrisville, North Carolina, one of the many little towns outside Raleigh that sprouted up thanks to the burgeoning railroad lines that crisscrossed the south in the early 20th century. Sorrell followed baseball closely in the North Carolina State League, which featured teams in nearby Durham and Raleigh. When he entered college at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Sorrell was an accomplished pitcher and he soon carved a spot for himself on the Wake Forest club.

At this time, Sorrell was not wearing glasses on the field, but while in school he must have strained those eyes even more with hours of studying for his degree. By 1925 he was a top-notch pitcher with a good fastball and a curveball that broke late at the knees. He was part of history while playing for Wake Forest – it was during his tenure at the university that the athletic teams earned the nickname “Demon Deacons” due to their impressive play. Previously, the team had been known as the “Fighting Baptists.”

In his senior season at Wake Forest, Sorrell was involved in controversy when he was slated to face rival North Carolina State College (later known as NC State). With 8,000 fans at Winston-Salem waiting to see the two schools battle on the diamond (the largest crowd to watch a college baseball game in the state of North Carolina up to that time), officials from State College argued that Sorrell was ineligible to participate. They claimed that the Wake Forest ace had appeared in semi-pro games in the off-season. Eventually the appeal was denied and Sorrell took the mound, a little rankled at the delay. He proceeded to pitch a 12-inning victory over State College, delighting the record crowd.

The bespectacled Sorrell was purchased by the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League prior to the ’26 season. With his degree in hand, Sorrell figured he would give himself two years to make a go of being a professional baseball player. At 25, he was much older than most players making their pro debut. In impressive fashion, Sorrell showed he belonged, going a perfect 8-0 in his first season with a 3.08 ERA. The next season with Toronto, Sorrell won his first four decisions, giving him 12 straight wins to start his pro career. No one in Canada seemed to care that Sorrell pitched with his round glasses on his face, as long as he won. he won 14 times in 1927, earning a contract buyout from the Tigers. He was going to the big leagues.

The Tigers in the 1920s were a club that had .300 hitters falling off their bench to try to get playing time. They put up runs in record numbers under player/manager Ty Cobb, but they failed to win the pennant because their pitching corps was ineffective. Sorrell arrived for the ’28 season, after Cobb had moved on and George Moriarty was managing the team.

As a rookie with the Tigers, Sorrell encountered some razzing from his “big league” teammates, but not because of his glasses. Sorrell, like Cobb years before, was hounded for being a southern “rube.” Of course, the college educated Sorrell was far from being a rube, and he soon fit in well with his teammates. He would become good friends with two of them in particular: Charlie Gehringer (with whom he played for 10 seasons), and Earl Whitehill, the ace lefty of the Detroit staff.

Pitching for Detroit from 1928 to 1937, Sorrell’s best seasons were when he was a regular member of the starting rotation, from 1928 to 1933. Sorrell was never a great pitcher for Detroit, but he took the ball every 4th or 5th day and completed many of his starts. He won 16 games in 1930 and twice won 14, though he had a losing record for his career at 92-101. On August 13, 1933, he outpitched future Hall of Famer Ted Lyons at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Not only did he win the game, he pitched 17 innings as Detroit beat the White Sox, 6-5 on an RBI-hit by Hank Greenberg in the top of the 17th. No pitcher has tossed as many innings in a complete game victory since.

Like most players who donned spectacles, Sorrell earned his share of nicknames due to his “handicap.” He was called “Specs,” as well as “Professor” and “The Philosopher.” He earned the nickname “Lawyer” because of his skills at debating management annually over his contract, and for his reputation as a leader in clubhouse grievances by players. But whatever he was called, Sorrell was with the Tigers year after year, earning a spot with the team. In 1934 and 1935, when the Tigers won the AL pennant each season, Sorrell was used as more of an insurance policy than anything else by manager Mickey Cochrane. The right-hander started just 25 games those two seasons, as Detroit had many more skilled options in front of him. He did not appear in the World Series in either year, later calling it his greatest disappointment as a ballplayer.

After making some ineffective appearances in May and June of 1937, Sorrell was released by the Tigers, wrapping up his decade with Detroit. He was purchased by Toledo and spent parts of two seasons with them before bouncing around in the minor leagues. He dominated lower level competition with his off-speed repertoire and served as a player/manager for two seasons at Bluefield, West Virginia.

Vic could have continued to make a pretty good living toeing the pitching rubber in his early 40s, but when America entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, he took a job as a foreman at a shipyard in Wilmington, North Carolina. During Sorrell’s tenure at the shipyard, more than 200 ships were built, including more than 50 “Liberty Ships” for the U.S. Navy. Once the war was over, Sorrell accepted a job as head coach of NC State’s baseball program, the same school that had argued that he was ineligible as a pitcher more than 20 years earlier. He held that position for 21 seasons, from 1946 to 1966, and he guided the Wolfpack to a second place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference twice. He retired and settled in Raleigh where he passed away on May 4, 1972, at the age of 71.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.