Monday, November 23, 2009

How Johnny Kropf gave up center field for Willie Mays

“When I first got to Minneapolis in 1951 after spring training with the Giants, everyone was telling me what a great player Willie Mays was. We had a centerfielder by the name of Johnny Kropf in 1950 when we won the pennant in Minneapolis, and I thought to myself, ‘He must be pretty good if he beat out a guy who did a fine job for us last year.’”

These were the memories of the late New York Giants all-star second baseman Davey Williams in a 2008 interview about the new outfield of Willie Mays and Ridgewood native Johnny Kropf on the New York Giants AAA team in Minneapolis during the 1951 season. Kropf was pretty good, as he blasted 21 home runs during the 1950 season after making the jump from Class C St. Cloud to Minneapolis.

Johnny Kropf - 1951 New York Giants Media Guide
Kropf’s path to the majors was blocked by a heavy-hitting New York Giants outfield and a young teammate who was destined for superstardom. Kropf played in the days of the dreaded reserve clause and he couldn’t play for another club unless the Giants released or traded him.

“You were trapped. You didn’t challenge the salary. You were stuck in the middle, play or go home. You didn’t give up because you might get a shot somewhere. ... Where was I going with the Giants? When I started, you had Bobby Thomson, Don Mueller and Whitey Lockman out there. Those guys could hit!”
Johnny Kropf in 1951 and 2009 / Courtesy of Kropf family (l.) and N. Diunte (r.)

It didn’t help that Kropf was displaced from centerfield by a budding superstar: Willie Mays.

In an August 2009 interview at his home in Miami Beach, Fla., Kropf described being moved from centerfield upon Mays’ arrival: “He came up with us in 1951. I was the centerfielder at the time. As soon as he came up, Tommy Heath, the manager, said, ‘John, go to left, Willie’s in center and Pete Milne is in right.’ We knew he [Mays] was going to be great; somehow you could see the difference right away.”

Mays hit .477 in 35 games with Minneapolis and was up to the majors by the end of May.

Kropf was with Mays the fateful day he was called up to the big leagues.

“We went to the movies in Sioux City [in Iowa]. All of a sudden there was a message in the theater, ‘Willie Mays wanted in the lobby.’ I said, ‘Oh, boy!’ I found out they sent him out that night, right to the Polo Grounds. He got off to a bad start, 0-12 or something, then he finally got a few hits off of Warren Spahn and he was on his way.”

The switch-hitting Kropf, now 82 and living in Miami Beach, with his wife, Audrey, recalled how he went from the sandlots in Queens to being one step away from the Major Leagues in the span of three seasons.

“I came up playing in the Queens-Nassau League; Jerry Monte was working for one of the auto dealers, he was a scout,” he said. “I was playing after returning from serving two years” in the military in 1945-46. “In the middle of June of 1947, he signed me. I ended up in Class D Peekskill when I first started. From there I went to Oshkosh, the year after that I was sent to Class B Trenton and St. Cloud, Minn. I hit 15 homers, batted over .300 and we ended up in second place.”

While with St. Cloud, Kropf received his big break playing against the Minneapolis team during an exhibition game.

“There was an exhibition game in Minneapolis at Nicolett Park. I had a couple of hits during that game,” he said. “Charlie Fox was the manager and after the season ended, he said, ‘You’re going to Minneapolis.’ I said, ‘Stop the baloney.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you right now, you’re going.’ And so I went, from Class C ball to AAA. I read in the paper if I would make it [to the majors in four years] it would be a record. It still would, because I didn’t do it.”

While in Minneapolis, Kropf had the good fortune of also playing alongside another future Hall of Famer, Negro League legend Ray Dandridge.

Asked what the Major Leagues missed when the Giants decided not to bring up Dandridge to play, he replied: “They missed a guy that stands out like a sore thumb. Bowlegged as could be, short and stocky, he hit like Yogi, over the head. He hit shots everywhere. He had three different throws. When he had the time, he would just flip it and you would look at the ball wondering if it would get there, which it always did! If he had to come in, he’d throw it from the side and when he had to really throw it, he had a rifle arm. He had to be in his 40s. He got screwed out of a chance. He was a real nice, colorful guy, very terrific.”

During his career in baseball, Kropf played with and against some of the best players in baseball’s history. He was a roommate of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm (“fantastic!”), teammates with Luke Easter (“the bat looked like a corn of cob in his hand”), Roger Maris and Sam Hairston (grandfather of current Yankee Jerry Hairston Jr.). He squared off against such immortals as Satchel Paige, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford and Roberto Clemente in AAA and winter ball.

While Kropf never made it to the Major Leagues, he spent 11 seasons in Minor League Baseball — 1947-57 — five at the Triple-A level and two seasons in winter ball in Panama, where he made it to the highly regarded Caribbean Series.

Kropf thought he was closest to the Major Leagues while playing in AAA Charleston in 1953.

“I got knocked out of the box. I had a good year. I thought I was going to spring training next year. They used to call that a cup of coffee; I never got a shot at it.”

Kropf ultimately returned to Ridgewood and worked as a beer delivery truck driver. He moved to Florida in 2005. But even though his cup of coffee never came, Kropf said he would press the replay button if given a chance.

“When I think back down the line at it, I said, ‘I never made it to an all-star game, I’m not a base stealer, what am I? I could catch the ball and I could hit here and there,’” he said. “That’s what kept me around. I went a lot of places I never would have gone. When you were in your early 20s, it was a pleasure to travel. If I was married, I wouldn’t have lasted that long. I would do it over again — the guys you meet, you laugh yourself sick.”

This article originally ran in the Times-Ledger newspapers November 17, 2009.

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