Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Brooklyn Dodger That Didn't Make It - Hampton Coleman Explains His Journey With the Dodgers of the 1950's

The future Brooklyn Dodgers of 1952? Look hard in the bottom left hand corner and you'll see Solomon "Hampton" Coleman. The righty "curveball artist" is the only player pictured that didn't make the Major Leagues.

The story of this "Dodger That Never Made It" is an interesting one that involves a meteoric rise from the low minors to AAA early in his career while crossing paths with some of the finest players in baseball's history.

Coleman, speaking via telephone from his Florida residence in July of 2008 discussed how he came so close to becoming a Brooklyn Dodgers.

He was first signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1947 and was sent to Roanoke of the Class B Piedmont League. After posting a record of 13-5 with a 3.17 ERA, he was given an invite to major leagur spring training. What a jump for the young rookie from Red Springs, N.C., to go from the bushes to the big leagues in two years!

The 1948 spring training season allowed Coleman rub elbows with baseball's elite.

"I was in spring training with the Red Sox when I was 20 with Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. I threw batting practice to Williams," Coleman said.

One of his highlights was facing Joe DiMaggio.

"I pitched against Joe DiMaggio," he said. "There were a few men on base and he hit a home run off of me to win it. The Red Sox had a pitcher Boo Ferriss, and he said, 'Don't worry about it, he's hit home runs off of better pitchers than you!' That picked me up a little bit."

DiMaggio's home run off of Coleman was chronicled in March 15, 1948 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier.

In only his second season, Coleman wasn't flustered by his encounter with DiMaggio. He was sent to Triple-A to play with Louisville of the American Association. After playing the 1948-1950 seasons with Louisville (with a short loan to Seattle of the PCL in 1949), Coleman's next break would come courtesy of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Coleman explained how he moved from the Red Sox organization to that of the Dodgers.

"I was playing in Louisville, and St. Paul was the Dodger team in the American Association," he said. "When Boston was on the verge of winning the pennant that year (1950), they were looking for a pitcher by the name of Harry Taylor to buy. They purchased him from the Dodgers, and the Red Sox gave them any choice of a Triple-A pitcher in their system, so they selected me. That's how I got to the Dodgers. I played with Montreal for a couple of years. Walter Alston was the manager, and when he went to Brooklyn, he took four of us to the Dodgers."

Alston was hired as the Dodgers manager in 1954 and it was the break that Coleman needed. Prior to the start of the season, Coleman chose to go to Cuba to sharpen his skills in preparation for his big break.
He pitched the 1951-52 winter season with Almendares and 1952-53 winter season with Marianao in Cuba. He received help from many veterans including tips from a future Hall of Famer.

"Do you remember Hoyt Wilhelm?" he asked. "He was down there. I was trying to get another pitch, and he was helping me with a knuckleball to use as an out pitch. He helped me a lot."

Discussing Cuba evoked the memories of some of his legendary teammates. One Hall of Fame teammate he recalled was Ray Dandridge,

"I played with him in the Cuban winter leagues. The first time I saw him was with Louisville against Minneapolis in the American Association. He was a great third baseman; he was like a vacuum cleaner, anything that came his way, he scooped up. He was a terrific fielder and good hitter. I absolutely thought he should have been a Major League player. He was a tough man to get out."

Another Hall of Famer there was a familiar lefty from the Dodgers organization, Tom Lasorda.

"The years I was in Cuba, I played with him, as well as two-and-a-half years in Montreal. Lasorda was managing the whole time he was playing. He was a motivator from day one. He didn't like to see anybody loafing. He'd get on your case if you were losing. Nobody loses more than a player that is loafing. I spent a lot of time with Tommy."

Despite the legendary connections he made, a car accident towards the end of the 1953-54 winter season in Cuba derailed his chances of making the Dodgers club.

"I had my wreck at the end of the season on my way to Cuba for the third year down there," he said. "I had a car accident and almost got killed. I fell out of the car on my shoulder. I was a right hand pitcher and I could never gain any momentum again. The doctors said I would never pitch again. Later on when technology improved, they said they could have fixed my shoulder in two hours!"
The doctors were wrong about Coleman pitching again. He returned in time for spring training, and Alston held to his word, giving Coleman a shot in February, 1954. Unfortunately, Coleman knew he was at the end of the line.

"It was pretty much the end of my career. I had nothing left on the ball."

He was there long enough to be included in the Dodgers 1954 Spring Training team photo, but lasted only 10 games at Montreal after he was cut from the major league squad. He spent his last season in baseball in 1955 with Double-A Fort Worth and Mobile, posting a combined record of 4-11 in 20 appearances.

Coleman, 81 is currently retired in Lady Lake, FL.


Autographed 1953 Canadian Exhibit Hampton Coleman

0 comments:

Post a Comment