Nine players who had come from UNC had played in Major League Baseball before Mule Shirley came along in 1924. Pitcher Bob Lawson was the first, playing in his first game all the way back in 1901. The most successful up to that point was probably Larry Woodall, who was in the midst of a 10-year career when Shirley made the majors. Moonlight Graham is the most famous Heel of that era, albeit for reasons deeper than just his play on the field.
However, Mule Shirley can claim something none of those three can. He is the first former Tar Heel to have ever won a World Series.
Ernest “Mule” Shirley was part of a UNC baseball team that won three consecutive “state championships” from 1920-22. After his career in Chapel Hill, he played for minor league teams in Richmond, VA and Martinsburg, WV.
In 1924, the Washington Senators picked up Shirley. He made his major league debut on May 6th of that year. He came in as a pinch hitter with his Senators teams down ten in the top of the ninth and made the penultimate out of the game.
Pinch hitter and backup first baseman was generally how Shirley would be used in his major league career. He stayed in the Senators organization for 2+ years, but only played in 44 career games. Despite that, he got the chance to play on the sport’s biggest stage, and even came up with a big hit.
Shirley was on the roster as the Senators won the American League in 1924 and went to the World Series. He made his first appearance of the series in game one. Down two runs in extra innings, Washington sent him up as a pinch hitter for the legendary Walter Johnson. Shirley reached base on an error and scored a run. However, the Senators’ rally fell short.
His next appearance came in game three. The Senators were down three in the eight inning when he was sent up with two on and two out. Shirley justified his place on the roster, delivering an RBI single. He represented the tying run, but was not driven home and Washington lost that game as well.
Despite trailing 2-1 and 3-2 in the series, the Senators came back to force a game seven. He was used as a pinch runner in the eighth, as the Senators rallied from down two runs to tie the game. That would be his only action in that game as Johnson was brought in to pitch and took Shirley’s spot in the lineup.
Washington went on to win the game and the series in extra innings. Even thought he wasn’t exactly a crucial player in the series, Shirley became the first former Tar Heel to win a World Series championship.
He only spent two years in the majors, but Shirley played all the way through 1939 in the minor leagues.
In the NBA, the first Tar Heel to win a championship was Billy Cunningham. He was a multi-time All-Star that has his number retired by the Philadelphia 76ers. Mule Shirley was very much not that, but no one can take away his place in history.
Holaday, J. Chris. Baseball in the Carolinas: 25 Essays on the States Hardball Heritage. McFarland, 2002.