“Memphis Bill” Terry

Baseball fans all seem to know about Memphis Bill Terry, but few have heard about the other side of Bill Terry. This is his story away from baseball.

Hall of Fame major league baseball player and manager, “Memphis Bill” Terry (1898-1989), was well known as a National League first baseman and manager of the New York Giants. Many stories have been written about his baseball prowess. In 1930 Bill posted a .401-batting average that he held for eight years. He was the last National League player to bat over .400. His Giants No. 3 jersey was retired in 1984.

During his years as player manager, Bill also led the New York Yankees to greatness and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.

But there is a lot more to Bill Terry than just his baseball career. There is a whole different side of him that has not been told but we will tell it here.

William Harold Terry was born in 1898 in Atlanta into a poverty-stricken family and learned what it was to be without. At age 15 he was more than 6 feet tall, weighed over 200 pounds, and easily passed for an 18-year-old. He was an avid baseball enthusiast and knew at an early age what he wanted to do with his life.

With his young wife, Audrey, he came to Memphis and started playing with several minor league teams. From 1918 to 1922, Bill left baseball because he wasn’t making enough money. He went to New York in 1922 and, after some serious dickering on his salary, he was hired by the Giants. His lifetime batting average was .341. During Bill’s time as a player with the team, he and Giants manager John McGraw often came to verbal disagreements, but Bill had a special kind of business sense, something other members didn’t have. Though he and McGraw would not see eye to eye on many issues, McGraw respected Bill’s attitude, skills and the heart he brought to the game.

When John McGraw retired in 1932, he chose Bill Terry to replace him. He said, “Bill Terry has all of the qualities needed to replace me. He will do what I would have done in the operation of this team.” Bill Terry was a top-notch baseball player, but he was also a man of great business vison. In the nine seasons of his career, Bill never batted lower than .322. In 1932 he took over as manager-player of the Giants and, in 1933, his first year as player manager, they won the pennant. He played for the Giants from 1928 to 1936.

The Commercial Appeal – Oct. 15, 1933, Page 20:

Bill Terry returned home to Memphis and was greeted by more than 10,000 screaming fans who turned out for a parade with their “Tribute to Sportsman of the Hour.” After winning the pennant, the Giants received a marvelous reception. How could anything be greater? But when he arrived in Memphis, Bill said, after seeing what happened in New York, “My reception here was marvelous.” During one of his speeches, Bill said, “No manager wins a World Series: It’s his ball players.” This drew ringing applause.

Thousands of Memphians lined the streets just to see their hometown hero. As soon as his car stopped, hundreds of kids converged on Bill, eager to see him, shake his hand or get an autograph. To local kids, he was just as much a hero as Babe Ruth. When the celebration was over Terry said that the demonstration gave him the biggest thrill he had ever received on the field or off.

During his time as the Giants manager, from 1932 to 1941, Bill made sure the Giants would always play an exhibition game against the Chicks right here in Memphis. The Red Elm Stadium, later known as Russwood Ball Park, was always packed for the game. Bill Terry was an icon to little boys and their dads in Memphis in the 1930s.  

In the off season, Bill would return to Memphis where he owned many homes (including at 257 S. Belvedere, 204 North Willett, and 1553 Eastmoreland) and businesses.

During the depression, he cut the rent in half for all of the tenants who rented homes from him. He had been poor and knew how hard it was for the common man to live and make it.

Although Bill retired as a player in 1936, he continued to manage the team for another five seasons. In the off season during his pitching years, he worked for Standard Oil in Memphis, along with managing his many business and residential properties.

He maintained a very close friendship with Thompson “Doc” Prothro, manager of the Memphis Chicks from 1928 to 1938. Terry said of his friend Doc, “He had the ability to work with young players and bring the best from them.”

Associated Press via Nashville Tennessean, Oct. 14, 1933:

Tennessee Gov. Hill McAlister’s staff have said that when Bill Terry returns next year as manager and first baseman, he will be a fully commissioned Colonel on the Tennessee governor’s staff. Bill Terry spent all afternoon autographing baseballs and other items for the kids.  He was just that popular in Memphis.

The next week at a pro football game at Hodges field, it was Bill Terry Day and all ticket prices were slashed in half.   

The Commercial Appeal, Monday Oct. 9, 1933, from Paul Gallico of the Chicago Tribune:

“Graceful, Topnotch Athlete Proves as Well Able as a Handler of Men, Creating Bond with Other Members of Giants that Carried Them to Top”

The article perfectly described first baseman-manager Terry like this: “He also said that Terry took charge of a strange and heterogenous collection of temperaments and won a baseball pennant and a World Series with them.” Gallico also said about the 200-pound Terry, “Terry’s ball handling skills were second to none. He could dig a whizzing ball out of the dirt, then brace and whip the ball to the catcher or over to the third baseman.”

In 1938, Memphis Bill Terry spent $75,000 (about $1.3 million in today’s dollars) to purchase 306 acres of property bounded by Yorkshire on the west, Nonconnah Creek on the south, Ridgeway on the east and the railroad track on the north. The property had been owned since 1928 by Clarence Saunders of Piggly-Wiggly fame, who had already lost his Pink Palace to a stack market gamble.

Saunders had turned the land into a huge amusement park with a 7,000-square-foot 10-room Adirondack log home, a spring-fed water fall that fed a 3.6-acre swimming area with a concrete bottom, a merry-go-round, 18-hole golf course, 8-acre fishing lake (now part of the Lichterman Nature Center) and a tennis court. Everything you could imagine he would want or have, he did. But Saunders lost this fortune as well. The property sat idle until Memphis Bill Terry purchased it.

Primary access was off Park Avenue, then called Poplar Pike, about where the entrance to the emergency room of St. Francis Hospital is today. The main drive was about 1,800 feet to the south. Lynnfield Rd. and Quince had not been thought of at the time. Bill called his property Lakecrest.

The Commercial Appeal – Feb. 16, 1941, Page 23:

Bill Terry expanded his commercial holdings In Memphis, building a brand-new Kroger Store at Poplar and Evergreen Street, on the northeast corner.

Memphis Press Scimitar – April 11, 1943, Page 16:    

Sportswriter David Bloom wrote about Bill Terry as a cotton and cattle farmer. Bill had left a $42,000 a year salary (equal to more than $750,000 today) to retire to Memphis.

When Bill bought the Saunders property, he removed just about everything except the lake, the baseball diamond and the 7,000-square-foot log home. He plowed under the 18-hole golf course and turned it into a fully functional working farm. He learned to farm, growing fields of cotton and raising cows, pigs and chickens. He built a milking barn on the site where Ridgeway High School is now. Bill said, “I just get on the tractor and I’m a farmer. I always wanted to be a farmer. My two sons, who are still at living home, help me. The younger of the two, Ken, runs the other tractor, and my youngest son Ray takes care of the chickens.” When asked what he did for fun, Bill said that “if I’m not playing baseball with the grand kids and their friends, on Sunday mornings I get my clubs and go to the Memphis Country Club and play 18 holes of golf.”

Memphis Press Scimitar, Oct. 18, 1947, Page 3:

Bill and his oldest son Bill Jr. formed a partnership and built an 11,000-square-foot building at 15th Street and Broadway in West Memphis. They were now in the automotive parts business, selling Texaco products and Uniroyal Tires.

Memphis Press Scimitar – April 9, 1948, Page 22:

Thanks to a local Ford dealership that sponsored Bill, he was able to visit with 200 American Legion Little League baseball players and their dads in Marked Tree, Ark. There he talked about baseball for over an hour. He had both the boys’ and the dads’ complete attention as he demonstrated how to swing for all types of thrown pitches, batting stance and how to drag the ball, knowledge that only a seasoned professional would know.

The Commercial Appeal – August 17, 1948, Page 1:

When Babe Ruth died, Bill Terry said of his friend, “Babe Ruth was as genuine on the field as off the field. He was an icon, a true saint. He was everything all little boys wanted to be. He was good for the sport.”

In 1948 Bill sold Lakecrest to William A. Loewenberg and Ira J. Lichterman. Today the property is known as the Lichterman Nature Center and a pavilion on the grounds is named for Mr. Loewenberg.

After selling Lakecrest, Bill accepted a lucrative job managing the minor league baseball teams in Jacksonville, Fla. He also owned several car dealerships in the Jacksonville area. He moved his entire family to Jacksonville in 1949.

William Harold Terry died in Jacksonville on Jan. 9, 1989, at the age of 91.

Bill Terry made a great impact on the citizens of Memphis, especially in the way he served as a hero to Memphis kids and how he took care of those who rented from him during the Depression. He wasn’t just a baseball player. Bill Terry was a true Memphis hero.

Additional information

Number: 3 (San Francisco Giants / Infielder)

Place of burial: Evergreen Cemetery, FL

Position: Infielder

MLB Statistics
Batting Avg               .341
Hits                             2193
Home Runs              154
RBIs                           1078
Managerial Record 823-661
Winning %               .555

Contributors: Trish McGully, Anne Swearingen, Jimmy Ogle

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