Hank Snow and Johnny Cash are two singers who popularized the song “I’ve Been Everywhere” in the 1960s and 1970s, one that highlighted the travails of the song’s protagonist. But it was Morrisonville native Al Unser who could have been the inspiration, with his baseball travels in the first half of the 20th century.
Unser’s baseball career, while lasting only parts of four seasons in the major leagues, spanned 26 seasons in total, including minor league time. Not only that, the 6-foot-1 Unser played for no fewer than 22 teams and seven minor league levels during those years, starting in 1933 with the Dayton Ducks of the Class C Middle Atlantic League and winding throughout North America before he appeared in one final game (as a pitcher) while managing the Keokuk Cards of the Class D Midwest League in 1961 at age 48.
Born in Morrisonville on Oct. 12, 1912, Al was the third-oldest of eight children born to Adolph & Catherine Unser. Growing up on the family farm, Al was able to play baseball on the weekends in Morrisonville and Harvel. Certainly Harvel-born Ray Schalk would have been an inspiration to Unser, as Schalk made his big league debut the same year that Unser was born.
Although he made the major leagues at the same catcher position that Schalk parlayed into a Hall of Fame career, Unser began his professional career as a pitcher. He sported a 2-3 record in 1933, between Dayton and Class A Scranton. He was also on the roster of the Buffalo Bisons, of the Class AA International League; Class AA was the highest minor league at the time. (Dayton and Buffalo are just two of the locations in the Snow and Cash hit.) In 1934, with the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he turned in a 12-17 record with the Class C Paris/Lufkin (Tex.) team.
After that, Unser largely played catcher, with some third base, second base and outfield sprinkled in with an occasional pitching appearance. He added managerial duties to his resume, beginning in 1939 at age 26, with the Class D Gastonia Cardinals.
Unser had migrated to the Detroit Tigers franchise in the early 1940s, and it was with the Tigers that Unser made his major league debut. With many of the regular big leaguers off fighting in World War II, Unser was not summoned by the military, as by that time he was married with three children. Thus, Unser was called in September 1942 to finish the season with Detroit. His first appearance came as a defensive replacement on Sept. 14 against Washington. He played in four games that season, finishing strong with a 3-for-4 effort against the White Sox on the season’s final day.
He played parts of 1943 and 1944 with the Tigers as well, with his first homer coming May 31, 1944 against the New York Yankees — a game-ending grand slam.
By 1945, Unser moved on to working at a war plant in Decatur, but the Cincinnati Reds persuaded him to suit up for them. He appeared in 67 games, hitting .265 across 204 at-bats. Although he moved on from Detroit, the Tigers did keep their backup catcher position close to Unser. Farmersville native Milt Welch, whom Unser had scouted in 1942, made his only big league appearance as a catcher with Detroit in 1945, going hitless in two at-bats.
Unser’s final big league appearance came Sept. 5, 1945. But he was far from done with baseball. He spent four seasons, starting at age 33, with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. He went on to numerous other stops throughout the minor leagues, including “I’ve Been Everywhere” locations such as Tulsa (1948), Baltimore (1950) and Sioux City (1954).
He returned to managing for 10 seasons, starting in 1953; occasionally playing a few games. Three of those seasons were spent with the Decatur Commodores in the Midwest League.
Unser eventually returned to scouting, although according to SABR’s Bio Project of Unser he was unable to convince the Atlanta Braves to draft his son Del in the 1966 draft. Del Unser went on to a successful 15-year major league career with five teams, highlighted by a 1980 World Series win with the Philadelphia Phillies. Al Unser did have some success later in that 1966 draft, when the Braves used a late-round pick on Decatur’s Roe Skidmore. Skidmore (also a BRS Honoree) eventually made it to the majors for one game in 1970 with the Chicago Cubs, singling in his only at-bat against St. Louis.
After his baseball career, Al Unser returned to the Decatur area, living there with his wife, Ruth. The parents of eight children of their own, the Unsers were mainstays in the Decatur community. Unser passed away at age 82 in 1995. Ruth Unser passed away in 2004.