James Atkins was born on March 10, 1921 in Birmingham, Alabama. He batted .400 for his major-league career, never committed an error, but was 0-1 as a pitcher and appeared in four games: one in 1950 and three in 1952. He pitched for 13 years in the minor leagues.
He had attended Phillips High School in Birmingham, and Paul Hayne Vocations School, envisioning taking up work in the electrical field. He played YMCA ball as a youngster, but by the age of 16 began playing with North Birmingham’s Ball Paley Grocery team in a men’s baseball league.
In 1941, he was spotted by a Detroit scout while filling in at shortstop for a semipro team at Stockham Pipe and Fittings of Birmingham. He signed and played ball in Birmingham, but then enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.
He wasn’t one of those servicemen who primarily played baseball during the war. He played very little until after he’d made sergeant and was in Guam in 1944, working as an engineering chief on a C-47 aircraft. A few of the men stationed there got up a scrub team and started playing against the Seabees and some of the other sailors. Word got around that Atkins was pretty good and they recruited him to play.
After the war, in 1946, he took up work at Stockham again. He’d been hoping to get into an apprenticeship program, but the company just kept him doing unskilled work, so he left. The head of the company called him and offered to put him in the program, but he said it was too late. But Jim did ask to pitch for the company team until they played the Acipco team. That request was granted, he beat Acipco, and was spotted by a former Stockham employee who had a contact with the Class-D Alabama State League team at Geneva.
He threw four innings of hitless relief in his debut for the 1946 Geneva Red Birds, an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and thus the New Orleans Pelicans. Over the three months remaining in the season, Atkins was 20-5 with a 2.75 earned run average.
He was advanced to Double A for 1947, and pitched in the Southern Association for the New Orleans Pelicans and missed a considerable period of time due to a split finger. He stayed with the team until 1949, when he was traded to the Birmingham Barons. The Barons were both his hometown team and a Red Sox farm club.
In September 1950, his contract was officially purchased by the Red Sox and he joined the Boston club. Jim only got into one game that year at Fenway Park in September, against the Washington Senators. He trained with the Red Sox in the spring of 1951, but was optioned to the Louisville Colonels in March. He had an excellent year in Louisville. His 18 wins led the American Association (he was 18-9, with 17 complete games) and he was named to the league’s All-Star team.
In 1952, he started a Ladies Day game at Fenway Park against Washington, and gave up single runs in the second and third. He pitched a scoreless inning to end a May game against the White Sox. And he came in to relieve in the seventh inning against the Yankees two days later. He finished the game but it was the last game in which he appeared. That same day he was optioned to Baltimore after the game.
In early May 1953, he was dealt to the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks and in 1954 he was primarily used in relief. In January 1955, the Oaks sold his contract to the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League. He was dealt on to Nashville in August. and started 1956 with Nashville but was sold to San Antonio during the season. He was about ready to quit after the 1956 season, but then Birmingham got his contract. The manager in 1957 was Johnny Pesky, who he’d known since their brief times together as teammates with the Red Sox. Pesky used him primarily in relief. He had a 3.14 ERA, and thought it would be a nice way to leave the game, going out with a good record.
He didn’t return to skilled labor, but instead worked the next 20 years for Metropolitan Life Insurance as a salesman and eventually assistant manager.
James Atkins died of cancer on February 28, 2009, at age 87, in Hanceville, Alabama.