Flame Delhi: Arizona’s first big leaguer
Flame Delhi was nicknamed by a Los Angeles sportswriter not for a blazing fastball, but instead for his shock of red hair. In spite of his colorful nickname, Delhi was but one line in the Baseball Encyclopedia before his story was told by the Arizona Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Lee William “Flame” Delhi made his only big league appearance on April 16, 1912 when he pitched three innings for the White Sox against the Tigers in Chicago. When he first toed the rubber in the seventh inning, the nineteen-year-old right-hander became the first Arizona-born player to appear in the major leagues.
His journey started in the mining town of Harqua Hala, Arizona where he was born in 1892. His father, also named Lee, met his wife, the widow Melissa Barton, after she traveled by covered wagon to Arizona from Milam County, Texas with her three children. By 1897 the family moved to California where Delhi would become a high school star and eventually play for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. In 1911 he was the league’s best pitcher prompting the White Sox to sign him.
Flame burned out of the big leagues quickly because of a “lame arm” and soon found himself bouncing around several different minor leagues. Fate would take Lee back to Arizona to play for the Ray Copper Mines team in Ray, AZ. He came into the Copper Belt League as something of a ringer. He struck a deal with the Ray Consolidated Mining Company that he would pitch for the team in exchange for them teaching him engineering. The deal turned out to be genius.
After two years in Ray, Delhi returned to the coast where he would go on to become vice president of Western Pipe and Steel. While earning as much as $80,000 a year, Delhi pioneered the use of underwater welding in shipbuilding which replaced riveted hulls. His company built more than 40 ships for the war effort in the 1940s. Delhi earned many professional accolades and the San Francisco Chronicle called him the “Titan of Western Steel.” His brief experience with the White Sox also left behind a forgotten legacy; Delhi, along with Chisxox pitcher Reb Russell, formed the basis for the Keefe character in the famous Ring Lardner You Know Me Al Stories. Delhi died in Greenbrae, California on May 9, 1966.
The Arizona SABR Chapter brought our native son back to life in 1995 when the chapter was renamed in his honor. The story of Flame Delhi is also the story of SABR which is dedicated to remembering and learning about players, teams and ballparks in baseball’s past. Flame Delhi Chapter meetings are always free and open to the public. If you like baseball, you’ll love SABR.