Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bobby Doerr remembered as a calming influence on the Blue Jays franchise

Bobby Doerr built a Hall of Fame career as the “Silent Captain” of the Boston Red Sox from 1937-1951. The humble nine-time All-Star second baseman, died November 13, 2017 in Junction City, Oregon. He was 99.

Bobby Doerr / Blue Jays

An icon with the Red Sox organization as both a player and a coach, Doerr also helped to build the foundation of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Starting with the Toronto franchise during their inaugural 1977 campaign, Doerr served as their batting coach for five seasons. His profound impact went well beyond their hitters, as former Blue Jays All-Star pitcher Dave Lemanczyk recalled just how vital Doerr was to their operation.

“He just gave us the opportunity to compete,” Lemanczyk said Thursday night at the Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner in Long Island. “That was the big thing. He never got excited, [he was] very low key. … Sometimes as a baseball player, you let your emotions get a hold of you, and you try to compete at a level you shouldn’t be at and you end up screwing the pooch a little bit. He probably had a calming, almost like a grandfatherly influence on most of the guys he came in contact with.”

In addition to his easy demeanor as Lemanczyk observed, he said that Doerr’s reserved nature kept him from boasting about his legendary career. Even though Doerr wouldn’t be elected to the Hall of Fame until 1986, few of the players knew of his standing among the greats of the game.

“He was just a class, soft spoken guy,” he said. “I don’t think any of us realized that he was a Hall of Famer. He was just a kind gentleman who absolutely knew the ins and out, especially hitting, of baseball. Somebody who could put up with Ted Williams his whole career had to be pretty in tune with everything.”

Upon reading the news of Doerr’s passing, Lemanczyk’s memory was triggered by visions of a photo shoot they shared for a local department store. He dug up the photo and was immediately filled with emotion confronting the permanence of his former coach’s death.

“As soon as I read it in the paper, [I remembered] Alan Ashby, Jesse Jefferson, Bobby Doerr, and myself did a photo layout for Eaton’s department stores for a father’s day catalogue,” he recalled. “I happen to have that catalogue in the house and just looking at that brought an eerie chill.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Rance Pless, Kansas City Athletics infielder, dies at 91

Rance Pless had 2,037 hits and a MVP award to his credit during in his 14-year professional baseball career. Yet, with only 23 of those hits coming in the major leagues, Pless’ talents were largely hidden in small towns across the United States in the 1950s by a system that was controlled by the reserve clause.

Pless, who did finally make major league debut with the Kansas City Athletics in 1956 as a 30-year-old rookie, passed away Saturday, November 11, 2017, at the Laughlin Healthcare Center in Greeneville, Tennessee. He was 91.

Rance Pless / Author's Collection

Before his baseball career started, Pless enlisted in the Navy in March 1944 and after basic training, was part of a Landing Craft Infantry that was sent to Okinawa in 1945. While battling in Okinawa, Pless received the news that the United States had bombed Hiroshima. The former WWII veteran who in a sad twist of fate, passed away on Veterans Day, recalled the euphoria amongst his infantry.

"We started celebrating, shooting off guns, flares, etc," Pless said to the Greenville Sun in 2015.

His crew was tasked with capturing the surviving Japanese soldiers. Where they went after they were captured were of little consequence to Pless, he just wanted to get back home.

"The Japanese, we put them on the big ship and don't know where the hell they took them to and we didn't care," he said.

Pless worked his way into the New York Giants system in 1947, starting among many who were also returning from military service. At the plate, Pless shined, batting over .300 six of his first seven minor league seasons with the Giants. Unfortunately, Pless’ main position was third base, where he had competition from Bobby Thomson and Hank Thompson at the major league level, and future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge with their AAA Minneapolis club.

In 1952, Pless was having a breakout season, leading the Southern Association with a .364 batting average. Just when Pless was on the verge of possibly being called to the major leagues, a fastball aimed squarely at his head drastically altered his path to big league stardom.

“I lead the league that year in 1952,” Pless told me during a phone interview from his home in January 2015. “I got beaned that year. We were playing down in Atlanta and I got hit on my cheekbone. I was afraid that it would destroy my eye.”

He ignored medical advice and returned to the team after a few weeks against the urging of team personnel. With his team in a pennant race, Pless wanted a taste of postseason riches.

“I got back and played in about a week or two,” he said. “They didn’t want me to play, but we got in the playoffs and that was extra money! I was not gun shy. I guess I was more mad [than anything else]. I got up there and I just felt like that they were going to be throwing at me. A few of them did and I hit them over the wall and they quit throwing at me!”

The Giants rewarded Pless with a promotion to AAA Minneapolis where he replaced Dandridge who left for the Pacific Coast League. He responded with another tremendous season, batting .322 with 25 home runs; however, the Giants left him beating the bushes once again. Determined to impress the Giants brass, he signed on with Caguas to play baseball in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

“That meant a lot to me,” he said. “Number one, we made pretty good money playing over there. You go over there and pick up that extra money. … They treated us good. It was just a good place to go in the winter time. I looked forward to going every year.”

One of his teammates during that 1953-54 winter league season was a skinny infielder from the Braves organization named Henry Aaron. More than 60 years later, recalling his memories of playing with Aaron at such a developing stage of his career brought him tremendous excitement.

“I don’t know if you’ve got enough paper to write on now,” he said. “He was one of the better prospects with a bat in his hands than anybody I’ve ever seen come down the pike. The harder they threw, the harder he hit it. He could hit the curve ball too (laughs) – he was almost unreal.”

At the time, baseball’s future home run king was trying to break in as a second baseman. Pless explained why he felt Caguas manager Mickey Owen made the right move to convert Aaron to an outfielder.

“I hate to say this, but he was a better outfielder than he was an infielder,” Pless recalled. “He [Mickey Owen] made a good move, and it was good for Henry too. In the outfield, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him misplay a ball. He was just uncanny, that’s all I can say.”

Behind the firepower of Aaron, Jim Rivera, Vic Power, Tetelo Vargas, and other Puerto Rican Winter League mainstays, Caguas won the 1953-54 Caribbean Series. Pless helped to lead them to victory with a home run during the third game against Almendares of Cuba.

1953-54 Caugas Team Photo

Despite all of his offseason accolades, the Giants never pulled the trigger on bringing Pless to the major leagues, missing out their 1954 World Series championship team. Now approaching his late 20s, Pless continued his maturation as a ballplayer in Minneapolis, batting .290 in 1954, and then earned American Association MVP honors in 1955 after he posted Triple Crown worthy numbers with 26 home runs, 107 RBIs, and a .337 batting average.

The Kansas City Athletics took notice of Pless’ stellar season, purchasing him from the Giants for $35,000 during the offseason. The Athletics had high hopes that Pless would bring some power to their sputtering lineup; however, he didn’t hit a single home run in 46 games with the club, used sparingly as a backup to Hector Lopez and his former Caguas teammate Vic Power.

Pless returned to the minor leagues in 1957 for four more seasons. While he never returned to the big leagues, he faced the likes of Satchel Paige and Luke Easter, played alongside Tommy Lasorda, and played in Cuba under heavy security while Fidel Castro was coming into power.

After he retired from professional baseball, he worked for the Magnavox Company until 1987. He remained in the game as a scout for 25 years with the Atlanta Braves.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

2017 Topps Heritage Minor League Baseball showcases the top prospects waiting on deck

With the 2017 Major League Baseball season under wraps, baseball fans still looking for their fix can look towards the Arizona Fall League and Caribbean Series to keep an eye on the game’s top prospects. Topps attempts to further the discussion of the next prospects to take off with the release of the 2017 Topps Heritage Minor League Baseball set.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors / Topps

Designed in the mold of the classic 1968 Topps set, 2017 Topps Heritage Minors aims to catch the nostalgic senses of veteran collectors while attracting fans who fill minor league ballparks in every corner of the country. Leading off the base set is New York Mets phenom Amed Rosario, who gave the team a much needed shot in the arm after tearing up the Pacific Coast League. Building upon Rosario’s newly minted fame, Topps has followed up with the likes of Mickey Moniak, Nick Senzel, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Victor Robles to add to the ranks of the top prospects in this set.


2017 Topps Heritage Minors Inserts and Short Prints / Topps

The 200-card base set is also supplemented by an additional 20 short prints as well as four different colored base card parallels. Topps cleverly kept more of the sought after prospects in the short prints including Tim Tebow, forcing collectors to dig deeper to round out their sets.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors Green Parallel / Topps

Diving into the inserts, minor league All-Stars are neatly highlighted in the Baseball America subset. Topps shows its lighter side with the 1968 Topps mini discs. The discs are a throwback to a time when cards were exchanged and played with and not cut to exact size to fit neatly into 9-card binder pages.

2017 Topps Heritage Minors 1968 Mini Discs / Topps
Each box guarantees one autographed card and one relic card. The box provided for this review yielded an autograph of Cincinnati Reds outfield prospect T.J. Friedl and a relic card of Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez. While both of those hits were of the more common variety, collectors have a chance to scoop up autographed cards of Derek Jeter and David Ortiz as part of the Looming Legacy series, and autographed 1968 Mint relic cards of top organizational prospects.


While the hardcore collectors would like to see this set come out during the minor league season so they can track down their favorite local player before they move up their organizational ranks, the timing of 2017 Topps Heritage Minors provides fans and collectors the opportunity to track a wide range of next year’s future stars unencumbered by the heat of the postseason baseball.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series brings fans closer to current superstars

For autograph collectors, scoring a signature of an active player has becoming increasingly difficult with limited access at Major League Baseball stadiums due to seating restrictions, shortened batting practice, and protective netting. Long gone are the days of buying a cheap bleacher seat, arriving to the park early, and going anywhere in the field level seating with the prospect of being able to walk away with a variety of autographs from the superstars to the players on the end of the bench.

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series / Topps

Topps has attempted to stymie this frustration for hobby enthusiasts with the release of 2017 Topps Archives Signature Series. Each single card box carries an encapsulated autograph of one active major league player at the price of what it would cost to attend a game. With a checklist that includes Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, Ichiro, Kris Bryant, and Mike Trout, many fans would be elated to walk away with their signatures after a purchase of this product.

The box provided for this review yielded an autograph of former Cleveland Indians first round pick, Tyler Naquin, which is numbered to a limited edition of 99 cards.

2017 Topps Archives Signature Series Tyler Naquin / Topps

Certainly not every player included in this set is of the caliber of the aforementioned group; however, the guarantee that one will walk away a guaranteed signature of an active MLB player is an attractive feature for this product. While some might wait until the masses put their hits on the secondary market, most fans would enjoy receiving a box of 2017 Topps Archives Signature Series gift wrapped for the holiday season.


2017 Topps Archives Signature Series Autograph List


Aaron JudgeDan VogelbachJoe PanikNomar Mazara
Adam JonesDavid PriceJose AltuveOdubel Herrera
Adrian GonzalezDellin BetancesJulio UriasOrlando Arcia
Albert PujolsDerek NorrisJustin TurnerRobinson Cano
Alex BregmanDexter FowlerKelvin HerreraRyan Braun
Alex ReyesDidi GregoriusKenta MaedaRyon Healy
Andrew BenintendiDustin PedroiaKevin KiermaierSonny Gray
Ben ZobristFrancisco LindorKris BryantStarling Marte
Brandon PhillipsFreddie FreemanKyle SchwarberStephen Piscotty
Bryce HarperGeorge SpringerLucas GiolitoSteven Matz
Buster PoseyHenry OwensLuis SeverinoSteven Wright
Carlos CorreaIan HappManny MachadoTrea Turner
Charlie BlackmonIchiro SuzukiManny MargotTrevor Story
Chris SaleJ.D. MartinezMashiro TanakaTyler Austin
Corey KluberJacob deGromMatt CarpenterTyler Naquin
Corey SeagerJameson TallionMax KeplerWade Davis
Danny DuffyJason HeywardMichael FulmerWillson Contreras
Danny ValenciaJavier BaezMiguel SanoYoan Moncada
Dansby SwansonJeurys FamiliaMike Trout
Noah Syndergaard




Saturday, November 4, 2017

Al Richter, former Boston Red Sox shortstop passes away at 90

The plight of baseball players like Allen Richter was an all too common theme in the 1950s. Labeled as one of the best shortstops of his era in the minor leagues, Richter treaded water in the Boston Red Sox farm system while Johnny Pesky cemented his position as a franchise cornerstone. Bound to the Red Sox by the reserve clause and his path effectively blocked by Pesky, Richter played his best baseball away from the Major League spotlight, appearing in only six games during two separate stints in Boston.

While Richter’s major league career never fully materialized, he outlived most of his Boston counterparts, remaining active by playing tennis a few times per week into his late 80s. Sadly, Richter passed away October 29th, 2017 at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was 90.

Al Richter / Author's Collection

The Red Sox signed Richter in 1945 from Maury High School, where they placed him with their team in Roanoke. His time with the club was short lived, as he only played three games before he fulfilled his military duties in the Army Air Corps.

“I went in 1945 right after high school,” Richter told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. “I got out in 18 months. They allowed me to be discharged a month early. I was in Germany. I did my basic training in Kessler Field in Mississippi and shortly thereafter I went to Denver for photography school. From there I went overseas in the Army occupation after the war was won. I was coaching a baseball team that we organized over in Germany.”

Richter returned to the Red Sox in 1947 and he moved briskly through their farm system, reaching AAA by 1949. He impressed with his eye at the plate, walking 100 times in 1950, while only striking out 36 times in 589 plate appearances. He took pride in the fact that he consistently put the ball in play.

“When I hit the ball, I hardly ever struck out,” he said. “If I were up 400 times, I struck out maybe 18 times and some were called out.”

Richter had his breakout season in 1951 batting .321 with Louisville while carving a niche as one of the top shortstops in the American Association. His teammates took notice of his tremendous play, including Charlie Maxwell who was another young talent that later joined Richter in Boston.

“I felt sorry for him because he hit over .300 a few years in a row in Louisville,” Maxwell said to me during a 2009 phone interview. “They would never give him the opportunity to go to Boston. Finally, he went up there and that's when they had the Coast League. … There was nobody else, outside of Don Zimmer at St. Paul, Richter was probably the best shortstop in the minors and nobody would give him a shot at the majors. … It was rare a shortstop would hit .300 in the minors but nobody gave him a shot. There weren't that many shortstops hitting .300 anywhere! “

Tearing up the American Association in 1951, Richter forced the Red Sox hand, as they called him up when rosters expanded in September. They were in the heat of a pennant race with the New York Yankees, so he had to wait until their fate was determined until he was able to make a start at shortstop.

“That was the best year for me,” he said. “I was a .260 hitter, which was okay for a shortstop, but I had a great year for Louisville, I hit .321. I was really on that year. I hit the best by far I ever had. I went up with the Red Sox at the end of the year at the end of ‘51. That’s when the Red Sox was battling with the Yankees until the last two games at Yankee Stadium to see who was going to be the champions of the American League. They kept Pesky at shortstop who was an All-Star.”

Manager Pinky Higgins placed Richter in the starting lineup during the last game of the season with many of the other Red Sox rookies. He responded by getting his first major league hit off of Eddie Lopat, a memory that was crystal clear more than 50 years later.

I was in the last game of the season that Harley Hisner pitched," he said. "That was the last [Major League] game other than the World Series for Joe DiMaggio. I got my only hit off of Eddie Lopat, a left-handed pitcher for the Yankees. … I always made contact and I hit that one up the middle of the diamond on the ground. The thing was, Phil Rizzuto was at shortstop and I thought he was coming close to it. I ran real hard down first base and I ran straight through just trying to beat out the hit. When I looked up running past first base, I discovered the ball went all the way through and it went out to center field. I should have made the turn and gone to second in case the center fielder missed it. That was the first time ever in my life I did that. That stood out in my mind and still does. I thought I had to beat it out because Rizzuto had gotten to it. I just had my head down and was racing hard to get first base.”

Richter’s lone hit capped a promising season, giving him a glimmer of hope for a return to Boston; however, those dreams were quickly dashed when they sent him to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League for the 1952 season. The Red Sox brought him back for one more appearance as a defensive replacement in 1953 and two years after that Richter was out of baseball at 28. During our 2009 interview, he explained how frustrating it was for players in his situation due to baseball's reserve clause.

“At that time when you were signed with a ballclub, they owned you for life,” he said. “It’s not like it is today. They had the reserve clause. For example, I was with the Red Sox. There was no three-year or five-year contract. When I signed with them out of high school, I belonged to them for life. I was like a slave for them. Even if they didn’t want to get rid of me, even if I did well or I didn’t do so well, if they didn’t want to get rid of me they wouldn’t let me go to any other club that wanted me.”

After his baseball career, Richter transitioned to becoming a television sports reporter in Virginia. He later moved on to careers in the real estate and food service businesses.

Richter was honored in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox when they invited him back to Fenway Park to take part in the franchise’s 100th anniversary celebration of the legendary stadium. Even though his time with the franchise was brief, he held the experience in the highest regard.

"It was just a privilege to have been around so many great players," Richter said to the Virginian Pilot in 2012, "and it will be a privilege to share a little in the history of a special place."