Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Billy Pierce squared off against Satchel Paige in an epic 11 inning showdown

Billy Pierce, the Chicago White Sox pitching legend, passed away Friday July 31, 2015 in Palos Heights, Illinois due to complications from gallbladder cancer. He was 88.

Acquired during a trade in the 1948 off-season from the Detroit Tigers for catcher Aaron Robinson, Pierce started a 13-year run in Chicago where he emerged as one of the most successful pitchers in franchise history. Early in his tenure with the White Sox, Pierce quickly wrote himself into the record books in an epic 11-inning contest against Satchel Paige’s Cleveland Indians.

Billy Pierce / White Sox
On May 29, 1949, the 23-year-old lefty squared off the legendary Paige, who was almost twice Pierce’s age. They met during the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium in front of a sizable crowd of 47,769 fans. They eagerly awaited this matchup of the budding star facing one of the game’s most storied pitchers.

In 2010, I spoke with Pierce about this game at the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner in New York City. He excitedly recalled how his wife came with his parents from their home in Detroit to see the game.

“My wife [Gloria] came over with my mother and dad from Detroit to Cleveland to watch the game,” he said in 2010. “We go on, one inning, two innings, three innings — it gets to be about the sixth inning and we’re tied 1-1.”

Gloria, who was shaken by the suspense of the game, was approached by a Cleveland fan. He assured her that the elder Paige would not be able to keep up with her husband.

“A Cleveland fan came up to her and said, ‘Honey, don’t worry, Satchel will collapse and he will quit.’ It ends up in the 11th inning, he beat me 2-1. He didn’t collapse,” he said.

Pierce started the bottom of the 11th against the Indians, but after he loaded the bases to three straight batters, White Sox manager Jack Onslow replaced him with Ed Klieman. After retiring the next batter, Paige was due to bat, but Indians manager Lou Boudreau had one more trick up his sleeve. The player-manager inserted himself as a pinch-hitter for Paige and promptly singled home the winning run. After eleven innings, Paige emerged with a complete game victory.

While Pierce admitted that he was fortunate to even have the opportunity to go up against Paige, he wished he could have been with the White Sox the year prior when the crowds rushed to see the American League’s first African-American pitcher.

“When he first pitched in Chicago, I wasn’t there, that was the year before. They tore the gates down; it was just jammed to see Satchel Paige.”

* - This was originally published for Examiner.com on August 1, 2015. 

Charlton Jimerson's 'Against All Odds' is a major league triumph

Charlton Jimerson’s baseball career was never supposed to happen. Growing up in a volatile home hindered by a broken marriage and his mother’s rampant drug use, Jimerson was behind in the count before he ever took the field.

Charlton Jimerson
His 6’3”, 210 lb., frame was tailor made for baseball stardom, but well beneath the surface were scars built from a tumultuous childhood. In his autobiography, “Against All Odds,” Jimerson describes how he was ultimately fortified by his rough upbringing.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Jimerson’s parents split up early on, starting a carousel of residences (including foster care) that were fueled by his mother’s crack cocaine usage. He didn’t have the opportunity to play Little League baseball until moving in with a friend’s family at the age of 12.
“My mother would not envision sacrificing $40 for me to play Little League baseball when she could use that money to buy crack,” Jimerson said.
Getting a late start in the sport put Jimerson farther behind baseball’s learning curve. While most of his peers were getting ready to age out of Little League, he was just beginning to learn the finer points of the game.

“I wasn’t like the other kids who had played tee ball at five years old and continued to play each year thereafter,” he said. “They had an early jump on learning both the mechanics of baseball and how to deal with their emotions. As for me, I was just getting my feet wet at age 12.”

As Jimerson approached high school he could not escape the volatility of his family life. When he started high school he moved in with his older brother, but that relationship soured by his sophomore year. He changed high schools and moved in with his older sister who provided some much needed stability for him to navigate his high school career.

He excelled at Mount Eden High School, starring for their basketball and baseball teams, yet by the start of his senior year, no local colleges showed interest in Jimerson as a baseball prospect. He left the team his junior year due to differences with his coach, and his senior year was tarnished by a suspension stemming from an altercation at a rival school. Despite these obstacles, the Houston Astros saw enough talent to take him as a “draft and follow,” pick in the 24th round of the 1997 MLB Draft.

Despite his draft status, Jimerson signed on to the University of Miami as a walk-on in 1997. Entering a nationally ranked powerhouse, Jimerson was surrounded by a team of pedigreed baseball players. It was like he was back again as the 12-year-old starting Little League, only this time; he had the necessary tools to make an impression on Hurricanes coach Jim Morris.

While he boasted tremendous speed and power, he struggled to cut down on his strikeouts enough to crack the Miami lineup. For three years, he was used primarily as a late-inning replacement and pinch hitter. As he entered his senior year, Jimerson remained determined to breakthrough. His patience was rewarded when one of the team’s outfielders suffered an injury, clearing a spot for Jimerson to start. He busted through the opening, batting .302 with 10 home runs his senior year, en route to leading the Hurricanes to a National Championship. For his efforts, he was named the 2001 Most Outstanding Player Award for the College World Series.

The Astros renewed their interest in their former draft pick, selecting him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft. After enduring a harsh childhood and a slow start to his collegiate career, Jimerson finally could call himself a professional ballplayer.

Like all new players in the minor leagues, Jimerson had to make a series of adjustments both on and off the field to stay in the game. No longer could he get by waiting for a pitcher to miss with a fastball, or using his speed to make up for a poor route in the outfield. He had to put in the extra work necessary to cover his weaknesses and stay ahead of the competition. Additionally, he had to control his distractions away from the ballpark; something that he admits hindered his growth as a ballplayer.

“I would never understand the consequences of my partying habits until after I retired,” he said. “My infatuation with women, alcohol, and nightclubs continued to hinder my performance on the field throughout my entire baseball career.”

While Jimerson struck out at an alarming rate (once in less than every three at-bats), the Houston brass continued to move him up the ladder, as he sent balls screaming out of the park, stole bases, and made highlight catches in the outfield.

In 2005, he was finally vindicated when the Astros called him up to fortify their bench during their World Series run. Even though he only played one inning as a defensive replacement during his time on the club, Charlton Jimerson had arrived as a major league baseball player. Now that he had a taste of the experience, he was hungry for more.

He dutifully finished another season at Triple-A in 2006, and once again the Astros rewarded him with a September call-up. This time he wanted to prove that he could not only be an asset on defense, but have value for his skills at the plate. On Labor Day, the Astros squared off against the Philadelphia Phillies in a heated pitcher’s duel between Roger Clemens and Cole Hamels at Citizen’s Bank Park. After five innings, Hamels was halfway to pitching a perfect game. Clemens did his best to match Hamels’ efforts, yielding only one run in the process. As Clemens walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, he tweaked a muscle in his groin, causing Astros manager Phil Garner to summon Jimerson from the bench to pinch-hit. With two outs in the sixth inning, he approached home plate for his first big league at-bat.
“I felt like Mike Tyson on his way into the ring before a heavyweight title bout,” he said. “My walk was slow and calculated, with a hint of confidence in each stride. I don’t know if I was prepared for the moment, but I had definitely been through enough in my life to handle the moment. My childhood had taught me how to maneuver in the midst of pressure situations.”
What happened next during Jimerson’s showdown with Hamels was of the highest cinematic drama. With the count 2-1, Hamels unleashed a change-up that ran right into Jimerson’s wheelhouse. A loud crack and a few hundred feet later, Jimerson made his way into baseball’s record books, hitting a home run in his first major league at-bat, spoiling Hamels’ perfect game.

As he returned to the dugout amidst congratulations from his teammates, he realized that his moment in the sun went beyond his impact on the box score. It was the reward for navigating a life full of obstacles that would have swallowed most in its path.

* - This was originally published April 10, 2015 for Examiner.com

Tommy John with luminous visions of facing Mickey Mantle

During Sunday’s Old Timer’s Day, tales of the Yankees legends resurface, many paying homage to the great players of their franchise. Tommy John, who pitched eight of his 26 major league seasons with the Yankees, shared how he was given the royal treatment by Mickey Mantle during their first big league encounter.

“The first time I faced him he hit a home run off of me,” John said on Saturday at the DAC Field Day in Bayside, New York. “It was in Cleveland. It was a fly ball to right field that went out; boom, a home run.”


John only lasted one-third of an inning on May 8, 1964, with manager George Strickland pulling the 20-year-old after one more batter. It was certainly a learning experience for the young lefty, but it was not the last time they would meet.

“He hit one by my head in Chicago,” he said. “I have no idea how close it came, but I saw the ball and I could not react to it. That’s how hard it was hit. I could hear the ball zing by my ear and I could feel the air of the ball. I look at first base at Mickey. He looks at me with that little grin he had and he goes like this, (makes a two-inch gap between his thumb and forefinger), two inches; the ball went right off my ear. If that would have been two [inches] over, it hits me and I’m Herb Score or dead. That’s how hard he could hit the ball.”

Fans and players alike speak of Mantle’s prodigious power with the bat, but often overlooked was Mantle’s blazing speed. Plagued by leg injuries throughout his career, Mantle wrapped his legs from his ankles to mid-thigh just to get on the field. Despite his ailments and the advanced stage of his career, John noticed that when the game absolutely necessitated it, Mantle could summon the speed of his youth.

“He hit a ball to our shortstop Ron Hansen, and his buddy Whitey Ford was pitching,” he said. “The game was close and Hansen charged the ball. He threw to first base and it was bang-bang. That’s how fast Mickey ran. He could only do it once, but his buddy needed a base runner and he almost beat it out on a regular ground ball to shortstop.”

* - This article was originally published June 22, 2014 for Examiner.com

Don Lenhardt, 91, former outfielder for the St. Louis Browns

Don Lenhardt, who spent five seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder with the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles, passed away June 9, 2014 in Chesterfield, Missouri. He was 91.

Don Lenhardt / Paul Rogers Collection
A native of Alton, Illinois, Lenhardt was a standout multi-sport athlete, earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois to play both baseball and basketball. His collegiate career was cut short in 1942 when he joined the Navy. He served in World War II until his 1945 discharge, never playing during his military service.

“I missed about five summers of playing after I went into the service,” Lenhardt said in Lou Hernandez's book, “Memories of Winter Ball.” “I cannot say it was bad, because you never know. It probably did not hurt me at all, because I probably matured some. I did not play ball in the service. I tried out when I was leaving, and they wanted me to stay and play, but I said no, I am going home.”

With the help of Yankees scout Lou Magualo, Lenhardt signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1946. As he progressed in the Browns minor league organization, Lenhardt grew into a feared power hitter, smashing 22 and 26 home runs respectively for Springfield in 1948 and San Antonio in 1949. His outburst in Double A with San Antonio attracted the attention of Mike Gonzalez, who managed the Habana team in the Cuban Winter League.

“Mike Gonzalez saw me play in San Antonio and he invited me to play in Havana,” he said to Hernandez. “I wanted to go, because I knew it would help me get to the big leagues. I had a great year down there and I had a great first year in the big leagues.”

Lenhardt had a breakout rookie season in 1950 with the Browns, cracking 22 home runs, driving in 81 runs while posting a .273 batting average; however, his powerful start was not enough to cement his position in St. Louis. The cash strapped Browns traded Lenhardt to the Chicago White Sox less than halfway through the 1951 season for two players and cash. It was a welcome acquisition for the White Sox.

“I’m glad to have him with us,” White Sox manager Paul Richards said to the United Press in 1951, “and I’ll probably use him most against left-handed pitching.”

The White Sox used him as Richards directed and in 199 at-bats, he hit 10 home runs. Still, despite his power hitting, the winds of change continued to blow Lenhardt throughout the American League.

He played for three different teams in 1952, starting with the Boston Red Sox after an off-season trade. He was then traded twice in the span of two months, going from Boston to Detroit in a blockbuster deal that sent Walt Dropo and Johnny Pesky to Detroit in exchange for future Hall of Famer George Kell and Dizzy Trout. In August, Detroit sent Lenhardt back to St. Louis for 20-game winner Ned Garver.

Lenhardt stayed with St. Louis through the 1953 season, their last in St. Louis. He followed the organization in their move to Baltimore in 1954 and finished out his major league career that year with the Boston Red Sox after being sold to the team in May.

He played two more seasons in the minor leagues with the Boston organization and hung up his spikes for good at the end of the 1956 campaign. He finished his major league career with a .271 average and 61 home runs in 481 games.

After his playing days, he worked over four decades in the Red Sox organization as a scout and coach, serving as the Red Sox' first base coach under manager Eddie Kasko from 1970-73. He retired from scouting in 2002 and lived in Chesterfield attending St. Louis Browns reunions and meetings of the 1-2-3 club, an exclusive group of St. Louis retired athletes and sports writers.

* - This article was originally published on July 10, 2014 for Examiner.com

Monte Irvin bids farewell to his fans

Monte Irvin has devoted his life to baseball. Starting in 1938 with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, Irvin has maintained 75-year love affair with the game. At 94 years of age, he remains an encyclopedia of the sport, contributing to countless articles, books, and documentaries.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to interview Irvin, and he still felt compelled to share what he knew about the game’s great talents of yesteryear.

“I give important interviews,” he said. “If I think I can help, I give a hand.”

Monte Irvin signed photo / Author's Collection
Irvin’s generosity was not only limited to writers and historians, but also to his fans. He fielded countless numbers of autograph requests throughout the years, heightened by his 1973 Hall of Fame induction. He obliged inquiries from all over the world, and used his celebrity to raise money for his alma mater Lincoln University. If there was another Hall of Fame for the way athletes treated their fans, Irvin would be at the top of the list.

Sadly, Irvin is now replying to those that are writing to him with the following note explaining why he can no longer sign autographs. Even though he cannot fulfill the requests of those reaching out to him, his gentlemanly nature is evident in this succinct, yet sincere message.

Dear Fans,

Thank for your interest in baseball and for your support during my career as a player and Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, the years have taken their toll and my declining eyesight prevents further autograph signing. I will always be a part of this great game and I trust it will continue to bring you enjoyment as a cherished sport and pastime.

Best wishes,

Monte Irvin

Yes Monte, you will forever be a part of the game. The years you have spent sharing it with so many will allow your legend and those of whose stories you have told that are no longer here to speak on their behalf to persist for future generations to discover.

* - This was originally published May 12, 2013 for Examiner.com

Dave Campbell greatly impacted by Michigan baseball coach Lund

Modern baseball fans grew up with Dave Campbell as a mainstay on ESPN’s baseball broadcasts, but a deeper look into the history of this eight-year major league veteran reveals his roots firmly entrenched in the University of Michigan’s baseball program.

1962 Michigan Baseball Team
 Campbell was the first baseman on Michigan’s 1962 National Championship team, earning All-Tournament honors in the process. Their club was guided by Don Lund, who earned nine varsity letters in baseball, basketball and football at Michigan before embarking on a seven-year stay in the big leagues. Lund passed away last week at the age of 90 in Ann Arbor, leaving Campbell with nothing but positive memories of his mentor.

“I think the one word that people are going to use about him is respect,” the 71-year-old Campbell said from his home in Idaho. “He didn’t play, 'Big Man on Campus,’ or anything like that. He was a teacher first and foremost. He had great leadership abilities and great integrity. He was one of those people you wanted to play well for because you respected or liked him as a human being.”

Campbell was familiar with Lund before he arrived at Michigan due to his father Robert, who was a letterman there in the late 1930's in two sports, baseball and football. He knew early on that if given the opportunity, he would follow in his father’s legacy in Ann Arbor.

Dave Campbell
“I was aware of Don’s reputation before I ever got to Michigan,” he said. “I grew up in Lansing and my dad played football and baseball in Michigan. All I heard about was, 'Go Blue,’ even though I was living in Spartan-land. I don’t think there was ever any doubt that if I could go to Michigan that I was going to go there.”

He entered Michigan’s baseball program as a walk-on at a time when freshmen weren’t allowed in varsity competition, and available scholarships were scarce.

“Don was aware of me, as he had seen me play in a couple of Hearst All-Star games,” he said. “I basically walked-on and freshmen weren’t eligible then. He didn’t have much to do with me going there, but certainly had a great influence on me while I was there.”

Campbell spent one season under Lund’s watchful eye, and took away an important baseball lesson in playing the game the right way.

“I just think that he taught us the fundamentals,” Campbell said. “He would say to us, 'Go out and do the fundamentals, do your own job. If it’s your day and you’re good enough, the results will be good—don’t be afraid to succeed.’”

This inner confidence that Lund help to foster within the Michigan team was most evident during their final game, a 5-4 victory in 15 innings against heavily favored Santa Clara for the National Championship.

“The most telling thing about that National Championship game was that we played 15 innings against Santa Clara and we were the visitors,” he said. “From the bottom of the 9th on, we were facing the guillotine; if we gave up one run, we lost. I don’t even think we thought about failure.”


Lund left Michigan after the 1962 season to work as the director of the Detroit Tigers minor league system. Campbell graduated from Michigan in 1964, and quickly reunited with his former coach when was signed by Detroit scout Ed Katalinas.

“He was my farm director all the way up until I was traded to the Padres in 1970,” he said. “There were some frustrating times there too. There were a couple times I was struggling to get to the major leagues, and then there were a couple of times I got demoted. I told Don I didn’t think it was fair. He said to me, 'I must have missed that chapter in the book where it says life was always fair.’”

Campbell saw his former coach about a half-dozen times in the last ten years at various reunions for the 1962 team. During that time, Lund, who once wore the physique of a strapping football player, was limited to the use of a walker, and later on, a wheelchair. Despite Lund not being able to get around with the grace that he once used to dodge tacklers and chase down fly balls, he displayed the same character that he tried to instill players at Michigan.

“His mind was so sharp, but his body betrayed him,” Campbell said. “He loved to compete. The last 15 years of his life, he would have loved to be out on the golf course playing with his buddies, telling stories, but you never heard him complain.”

* - This was originally published on Examiner.com on December 14, 2013. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Oglivie honored to be part of the 2012 Latino Baseball Hall of Fame class

Ben Oglivie was caught off guard when a call came yesterday from the Dominican Republic informing him of his selection to the recently formed Latino Baseball Hall of Fame. The Colon, Panama native was one of six post-1959 era players selected as part of the 2012 class. Each Latin American country (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela) had one player chosen for enshrinement, which will take place in February, 2012.

Given that this is only their third class, Oglivie while green to its existence, was eager to learn more.

"I didn’t know exactly how it worked, but tonight I will find out a lot about it," Oglivie said via telephone "I am honored to be mentioned and to find out that I was accepted into it." 

Wrapped up in his duties as the hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers Class-A West Michigan Whitecaps, the 16-year major league veteran, had little time to process his selection.

"I haven’t been able to take it in as I just got the call yesterday," he said "but now that it is right in front of me I probably will now just exercise it. Now it’s kind of starting to sink in and it is a real honor." 

As his first season with West Michigan comes to an end, Oglivie continues to enjoy having the opportunity to guide the next wave of major leaguers.

"This is a good level," he said. "What we have here, we have a number of guys that potentially can be major leaguers. We have three or four [major league] prospects on this team and it’s good to work with them. Being that I played in the major leagues, you have an idea [of what it takes], and I want to be able to help them get there." 

For now. he hopes that the young players he is helping to mold heed the parables of the newly minted Hall of Famer.

"I’ve just been trying to make sure that they get good advice, whether it is how to be a major league player, or how to be a professional on and off the field."

* This was originally published September 2, 2011 for Examiner.com