World-Class Athlete

Georgia native, sam byrd, played in a World Series game and golfed in several Masters tournaments

By Don Rhodes

The boldface type headline of The Augusta Chronicle on March 11, 1937, pretty much said it all about the life of Samuel Dewey Byrd: “Sam Byrd Quits Baseball Ranks for Golf Career.”

And what a legendary career Byrd had in both types of sports with his name printed in newspapers around the world for several decades.

To this very day, the native Georgian holds the unique distinction of being the only person to play in both a World Series game (left field for the New York Yankees in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1932 World Series) and in a Masters Tournament (finishing third in 1941 and fourth in 1942).

Watching Byrd from the sidelines at the 1941 tournament was none other than former Augusta resident Ty Cobb, who had moved to California after retiring from baseball in 1928.

Byrd frequently golfed with Yankees legend Babe Ruth and was praised by golf legend Bobby Jones as “the best man off the tee I ever saw.”

Born in 1906 in Bremen, Ga., Byrd was reared in Birmingham where his baseball career began in 1926 with the minor league team Birmingham Barons.

He would play for several other minor league baseball teams including the Knoxville Smokies at Augusta’s Warren Park where Tyrus Raymond Cobb stole his first base and hit his first home run.

Byrd made his major league debut in 1929 with the Yankees and played his last major league game in 1936 with the Cincinnati Reds.

He began his professional golf career in 1937 working with future Professional Golfers Association Hall of Fame inductee, Ed Dudley; became the first head golf professional of the Willowbrook Country Club in Huntsville, Ala., in 1963; was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1974 and died at 74 in 1981.

Byrd came to golf naturally with his father, Arthur Curdy Byrd, being the golf professional at Maxwell Air Force Base (now Cypress Tree Golf Course) in Montgomery, Ala., for 37 years.

His nephew, Arthur “Butch” Byrd, was the director of golf at the NorthRiver Yacht Club in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for 18 years before moving and becoming general manager of the Ballantrae Golf Course.

Photo Left: Sammy Byrd on left with Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Photo Right: Sammy Byrd during his baseball career.

 

Byrd, who was with the Yankees from 1929 through 1934 and the Cincinnati Reds for two years after that, already was established as the best golfer among professional baseball players when he quit the diamonds to professionally play the links.

His skills became clear in 1937 when he won the Powel Crosley Trophy in the national Baseball Players Golf Tournament in Sarasota, Fla. 

Placing second in that tournament was Garland Braxton of the Milwaukee Brewers with third being Lloyd Brown of the Cleveland Indians. Legendary Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals also played in the competition.

Three months later, Byrd announced he was heading for Augusta to join up at the Masters with Ed Dudley, chairman of the PGA Tournament in Philadelphia. Byrd conceded that having been sold by Cincinnati to a minor league team in Rochester, N.Y., influenced his decision to switch from baseball to his other love of golf.

Being taken under the tutorial wing of Dudley was one of the smartest career moves that Byrd could have made since Dudley had been appointed by Bobby Jones as the first head golf professional at the Augusta National Golf Club in 1932.

The same year Byrd joined Dudley in Augusta, 1937, Dudley placed third in the Masters Tournament. 

Dudley, in his years at the Augusta National, would become a golf instructor to Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and serve as president of the PGA of America from 1942 to 1948. He was also inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame.

But as a player in both baseball and golf, Samuel Dewey Byrd won something even more valuable:  the love of his fans, his team members and his competitors.

Atlanta Journal golf writer O.B. Keeler noted in 1941 that Byrd’s playing at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta had attracted the attention of one of its most famous residents.

“Sammy Byrd’s driving swing had aroused the admiration of Bobby Jones,” Keeler wrote, “who told me at the time that the ball player had just about as good a swing on his big wood shots as he had ever seen.”

Craig Wood of Mamaroneck, N.Y., would win the 1941 Masters with Byron Nelson of Toledo, Ohio, placing second and former major leaguer Sam Byrd placing third.

Trailing behind them were Ben Hogan in fourth place; Ed Dudley, Byrd’s mentor, in fifth; and Sam Snead in sixth place.

Among the other final money winners was Jimmy Demaret of Noroton, Conn.

No one could deny that Byrd’s talent at golf was as good as his talent at baseball.

By the way, Byrd’s take home check for that final round in 1941 was $600 with Masters Champion Wood receiving $1,500. That  prize money was considerably less than the $2 million received by recent winners Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.

The next year when the 1942 Masters ended, Byrd placed fourth behind Paul Runyan, with Champion Byron Nelson beating Ben Hogan in a playoff. Behind Byrd was Horton Smith in fifth place — winner of the very first Masters in 1934.

That would be the last Masters for the next four years as America entered World War II. In March 1945, Byrd returned to the Augusta area to play with Craig Wood, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead at the Palmetto Golf Course in Aiken, S.C., for the benefit of the American Red Cross. He resumed play in the 1946 Masters but ended up near the bottom of the field on the last day.

One photo published in The Augusta Chronicle showed Byrd in his classic swinging style in Aiken with the caption noting, “He forsook baseball at the height of his career to turn to golf for life’s work. He is known as one of golf’s best liked figures on and off the course.”

Byrd was part of that 1932 Yankees team that won the World Series over the Chicago Cubs, but he never did take home the Masters trophy.

Still, as a player in both baseball and golf, Samuel Dewey Byrd won something even more valuable: the love of his fans, his team members and his competitors.

 


Photos courtesy of OnlineAthens.com, baseballhistorycomesalive.com and Don Rhodes

Appears in the April 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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