Bill Shirley grew up playing sandlot baseball in Little Rock, AR and attending Little Rock Travelers games. As a child, his father took him to Hot Springs, AR to observe major league players who congregated there to train.3 As a teenager in the late 1930s, Shirley played second base for the Little Rock Doughboys, a well-regarded American Legion team.
In addition to his skills as a ballplayer, Shirley was also an excellent writer. By the time Shirley was 20, he was working for the Arkansas Democrat as an assistant sports editor. During the spring of 1942, Shirley was assigned to cover the Travelers, who were training at home in Little Rock. When the Travelers were lacking a second baseman during a practice game, Shirley filled in at second base.4 He proved himself a worthy fill-in, going 2 for 2 while fielding several chances successfully. Some naturally made light of the incident, but Shirley must have made an impression on the Travelers nonetheless. When the Travelers lost regular shortstop Tommy Irwin to injuries during the season, some reported Shirley would be his replacement.5 The Travelers ultimately decided to let Fred Hancock take over shortstop, but Shirley's name hadn't been forgotten.
In late June, Shirley accompanied the Travelers to Birmingham, AL. He might have simply been with the club to cover the games against the local Barons, but instead wound up making his professional debut. On June 26th, Shirley played second base for Little Rock during a Sunday double-header.6 Little Rock may have simply wanted to give regular second baseman Roy Schalk a day off, or perhaps the club, already strapped for players due to the war, wanted to make good on giving Shirley a chance. In either case, Shirley made the best of his opportunity, going 1 for 2 in the first game and 1 for 4 in the second. A week later, Shirley appeared again for Little Rock, coming in as a defensive replacement for Shalk. However, the game marked the end of Shirley's professional baseball career, leaving him with a .333 lifetime batting average.
After a stint in the Coast Guard, Shirley returned to sports writing full-time. He continued to write for the Democrat for several years before working for various other papers, including the Nashville Tennessean,7 and the San Diego Union.8 In 1964, he joined the Los Angeles Times where he became a nationally respected writer9 and was head of the sports department until 1981. He continued to write articles until he retired in 1986.10
On September 30th, 1992 while aboard a cruise ship off the coast of South America, Shirley suffered a heart attack and died.5 He was 71.
"Bill Shirley, 20-year old assistant sports editor of the Little Rock Arkansas Democrat, showed the Southern Association Travelers of his city that could play the game as well as write about it, March, 20th. Filling in at second base during an intra-camp game, Shirley got two hits in two official appearances at the place, handled five changes without flaw and was in the middle of a fast double play. He is a former American Legion Junior star."11
"The contest marks the first appearance in professional baseball of Bill Shirley, 20-year old assistant sports editor of the Little Rock Democray. Playing second base, Shirley batted .500 and made no errors in handling two assists and making one out in the first match. He came through with a bobble in the nightcap and got only one hit out of four times at bat, however."12
"Many ballplayers in the league will see something to rejoice in over the signing by the Little Rock Travelers of the assistant sports editor of the Democrat to take Tommy Irwin's place at shortstop. A-hemming at the boots and bobbles made by ballplayers has been a favorite pastimes of ye baseball scribe, but now young Bill Shirley will be out there trying to evade the poison pen, instead of trying to jab it in to some hapless ballplayer. What with the draft, injuries, colds and other maladies many teams are losing ballplayers right and left and the entry into the game of Shirley suggest that other such substitutions might fill the ranks teams."13
"And when Jerry Nason of the Boston Globe heard that Sports Scribe Bill Shirley had been signed as a player by the Little Rock Travelers he concluded "here's one ball player who will have the last word vs. the umps." 14
"Bill Shirley, of Little Rock, Arkansas, who is probably the only sports editor who ever covered spring training so thoroughly that he was offered a job as a ball player, now is a Coast Guard seaman stationed at Index, Wash."15
Statistics at Baseball-Reference.com.
2 Social Security Death Index
3 Los Angeles Times, 4/3/1985
4 The Sporting News, 3/26/1942
6 Times-Picayune, 6/27/1942
7 The Sporting News, 4/9/1947
8 The Sportings News, 3/31/1948
9 San Francisco Chronicle, 10/2/1992
10 Los Angeles Times, 10/1/1992
11 The Sporting News, 3/26/1942
12 Times-Picayune, 6/27/1942
13 Times-Picayune, 6/16/1942
14 Gettysburg Times, 6/24/1942
15 The Times Record (Troy, NY), 1/4/1943