By Scott A. Rowan
Standing just 5’8″, center fielder Henry Lee “Peanuts” Lowrey was always getting players (and coaches) to gamble in whatever form possible, usually cards games and shooting dice. The diminutive player learned his hustling skills growing up in California, where his grandfather’s ranch was used as one of the settings for the Our Gang films, featuring beloved characters Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Spanky.
His family used that fact to get Lowrey into several of the films.
The acting bug never left Lowrey. After earning a discharge from military service during World War II, he returned to his two loves: baseball and the movies. Lowrey’s baseball fame (he played from 1942 to 1955, while his tenure with the Cubs lasted between 1942 and 1949) and acting background would give him the chance to continue his movie career. He had minor roles in three baseball movies: The Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Stratton Story (1948), and The Winning Team (1952).
The Winning Team was a biopic about Grover Cleveland Alexander starring actor Ronald Reagan as the Cubs pitcher. One scene in the film depicts Alexander trying to run to second base on an infield hit. In the course of trying to turn the double play, the opposing second baseman drills Alexander in the head so hard that the pitcher is bedridden for days. Lowrey was the actor given the role of throwing a white beanbag shaped like a ball at Reagan’s head during the scene.
In his autobiography An American Life, Reagan, a lifelong Cubs fan, wrote that he as particularly proud of his six of his movies. Of those films, Reagan screened only one for several private audiences at the White House: The Winning Team.
Lowery may also have been the first player to introduce incentive-clause contracts in baseball. Realizing that he was far from the best player on the Cubs roster (Stan Hack, Bill Nicholson, and Claude Passeau claimed that honor at that time), Lowrey never signed the contract that Cubs general manager Jim Gallagher offered him in the offseason before spring training. Instead, Lowrey waited until he had a chance to see the competition and guess how the team would use him that season, then requested new clauses in his contract before signing.
Lowrey’s size allowed him to play nearly any position on the field, from third to short to the entire outfield. Using this to his advantage, Lowrey had management insert a clause in his contract dictating that the team would pay him extra for games in which he played more than one position. This and other clauses allowed Lowrey to make as much, if not more than, star players combining their own contractual incentives and base salaries. Instead of resenting these unusual negotiating skills, Gallagher had respect for Lowrey’s confidence. “Let me tell you about that little son of a bitch,” Gallagher said in Peter Golenbock’s book Wrigleyville. “[Lowrey] made more money on that ball club than Stan Hack, Bill Nicholson and Claude Passeau.”
Of course, Lowrey had other ways of earning money as well. Whether it was poker, dice, or pool, Lowrey always seemed to come out on top. Recalled teammate Lennie Merullo:
He could con you, he was sharp. If he had to cheat to beat you, he would do it. That was Peanuts Lowrey. . . . When Gallagher told me Peanuts was making more than [Hack, Nicholson, or Passeau], I believed him, knowing Peanuts. My own son was around the ballpark. He didn’t idolize me. He idolized Peanuts.
In 1949, the Cubs traded Lowrey to Cincinnati. He would also play in St. Louis and Philadelphia before his playing days ended in 1955. He then began a career as a coach, eventually coaching for the Cubs, the Phillies, the San Francisco Giants, the Montreal Expos, and the California Angels. But no matter where he played or coached, Lowrey said his heart was always with the Cubs.
“Even when I played and coached against them. I always wanted to see them win,” Lowrey said.
Charles Billington, Wrigley Field’s Last World Series (Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2005), 173.
Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), 296.
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 296.
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 297.
Gary Reinmuth, “Ex-Cub Player, Coach Harry ‘Peanuts’ Lowery Dies,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1986, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-07-04/sports/8602180119_1_cubs-third-base- coaches-leo-durocher.
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