Thursday, December 17, 2009

From the Big Apple to the Big Leagues: Bob Giallombardo recalls his time with the Dodgers

Lafayette High School's most famous alum might be Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, but look on the roster of the 1958 Los Angeles Dodgers and you will find another lefty pitcher from Brooklyn, Bob Giallombardo. He attended the famed Lafayette High School in Brooklyn alongside Koufax, but never played with him. In a 2009 interview, he explained why these future Dodger teammates didn't play together in high school.

"I tried out for them [Lafayette], in fact, I didn't make it," Giallombardo said. "I thought I did well. I pitched an exhibition game against Brooklyn Academy, where I struck out 14 or 15 guys. I thought I had the job. The coach said, 'You're not quite ready.' I was laughing at him. They classified Koufax as too wild and that he'd never make it as a pitcher. Meanwhile, he set all kinds of records."

Bob Giallombardo / Topps

Giallombardo enjoyed a strong connection with the Dodgers from young age. At the age of 72, he points to an appearance on Happy Felton's Knothole Gang that put him on the same field with his future teammates.

"I was 13 years old and I was on Happy Felton's Knothole Gang," he said. "I went on as an outfielder and I won. I was basically a pitcher and first baseman. They asked me who I wanted to talk to. I asked to speak to Gil Hodges. After I was interviewed, he said, 'Maybe we'll see you in the Dodger clubhouse.' You know, the usual statements. I was there five years later."

The Dodgers scouts kept an eye on Giallombardo throughout his teenage years in Brooklyn. Despite a move to Long Island to finish his high school career, that didn't stop the Dodgers from signing him after he graduated.

"I was being weaned on this since I was like 14, 15 years old," he said. "They followed me since I was a young kid. I lived in Brooklyn and then Long Island. When my class graduated in 1955, I signed with them for the 1956 season. When I signed, they asked me to come down to throw batting practice in spring training with the major league team. That's how it started, it was a good experience."

After posting a 21-7 record with Class C Reno in 1957, he was moved one step away from the majors to AAA Montreal in 1958. He recalled how quickly he took off after his promotion.

"In the first month at Montreal, I had seven wins with five shutouts," he said. "The chief Dodger scout Andy High was there, and he had me replace a left-handed pitcher by the name of Danny McDevitt. They sent him down and brought me up. It was exciting for me."

While the rush of playing in the major league was an exhilarating experience for the 21-year-old, an even great high was his first major league victory. In his fourth start, Giallombardo ran through the Cincinnati Reds lineup, limiting them to two runs in eight-and-a-third innings. Looking back fifty years later, the close to his first major league victory was a bittersweet event.

"I went eight-and-a-third innings and then Clem Labine came in," he recalled. "They hit into a double play and that ended it. As far as I was concerned, they should have never sent me down."

Giallombardo was just starting to come into his own, reducing his ERA from 7.15 to 3.76 over his last 15 innings for the Dodgers. Being that he was 21 in only his third year in professional baseball, one would assume that he would have multiple opportunities to return to the Dodgers. The events that transpired that winter derailed a promising big-league career.

"They sent me back to Montreal in 1958 and then to Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic," he said. "That is where I hurt my arm. They operated on me right away at the end of the season in 1958. It wasn't the same after that. I had a fastball that used to jump. Once they cut me [open], it wasn't the same. It didn't hurt anymore, but I didn't have it. I was still young, and I didn't have enough experience to learn how to pitch with what I had. I used to get by overpowering guys, but when you are in your senior years in baseball, you learn how to pitch differently, but I didn't have that experience."

After his surgery he played three seasons with Spokane of the Pacific Coast League; however, he could never regain the form that propelled his meteoric rise to the major leagues. When the Mets started their franchise in 1962, they wanted to sign the lefty local, but he passed when the offer was well below what he made out West.

"In 1962, they tried to send me to Tidewater and give me a big cut in salary," he said. "I had a wife and two children, so that's when I packed it in. I went back home to Brooklyn and knowing Hodges, he opened up a bowling alley, and I became his night manager there for four to five years. Then I went into insurance and construction. I joined the New York City Housing Authority. I retired as a supervisor of roofing."

Upon his retirement, he moved to Waxhaw, North Carolina to escape the rigors of city life. While it is an unusual place for a Brooklynite, the change of pace has eased the transition for the New York native.

"My daughter, her husband, and my grandchildren were down there," he said. "New York wasn't 'New York' anymore so I made a decision to come down here. I've been down here since 1999. It's a big difference from Brooklyn. I was just telling my wife how serene it is here and how easy things are. The hustle and bustle got to be too much anymore. You couldn't go anywhere without having big lines; it was terrible."

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