Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jim Waugh, 76, Former Pirates Pitcher, 1933-2010

The youngest pitcher to win a game in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim Waugh, passed away in Rock Hill, South Carolina at the age of 76 on February 16, 2010. In a professional baseball career that spanned six seasons, Waugh spent parts of two of those seasons in the majors with the Pirates from 1952-53. Immortalized by Topps in their 1953 baseball card set, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Waugh in July of 2009 after he called me in reply to a letter that I had written to him asking him a few questions about his baseball career and for his autograph on the aforementioned card.

Waugh phoned me on July 6, 2009 to tell me that my questions about playing with Puerto Rican center fielder Carlos Bernier had piqued his interest, as he was thinking about Bernier around the time he received my letter. Waugh asked, "What happened to Carlos Bernier? I've been thinking about Carlos Bernier, particularly with this story about 100 years of Forbes Field." I had informed him that Bernier had met an early death, hanging himself 20 years prior. After lamenting the fact of Bernier's tragic death, he explained further his experience with Bernier. "He was just there a short time. He played for Hollywood in 52 and had a real good year. He came to the Pirates in '53 and played quite a bit in the first [part] of the year. I was sent to the minor leagues for the month of June, when I came back, he was gone. Frank Thomas came up at that time, Hoot Rice and Ralph Kiner were there for awhile in '53. He played quite a few years in the Coast League. He could play the outfield; he could really run." While there is no evidence that Bernier was away from the team during the 1953 season, he might have seen a reduced role as the season progressed.

After discussing Bernier, our conversation drifted to the Pirates youth movement at the time and how he became the youngest pitcher in Pittsburgh history to win a game. "I just tried to get the ball over the plate. I was only 18, 19 years old. In my first major league start, it got to a point in the game, Joe Garagiola was catching and I was having trouble with my control. He came out and said, 'just throw the ball right down the middle of the plate, don't worry, it won't go there!' I ended up winning the game against the Cubs 4-3 (August 9, 1952), and became the youngest Pittsburgh pitcher to ever win a major league game at 18. Towards the middle of the season in 1953, I did learn to move the ball around and really became a pretty good pitcher after awhile, and then I started having arm trouble, and everything went away." Waugh cited the help of two veteran pitchers, Murry Dickson and Howie Pollett, in being instrumental in his development. "Murry Dickson, who was our best pitcher, thrived on fly balls to center field. He had pinpoint control. They called him “Heinz” because he had 57 varieties of pitches, which he did! He was something to watch. It really was something. He helped me a lot, always gave me a lot of encouragement. Howie Pollett helped me with my curve ball to throw my curve ball harder with a sharper break. I had that old high school roundhouse curve ball, and he showed me how to throw a good curve ball It used to be all in the breaking of your wrist, the wrist snap. Now it is more the fingers, the slider, the cut fastball. You get that spin with your fingers. You get a sharper spin and less break."

Waugh was part of an overhaul at the time when Branch Rickey started to replace higher priced veterans with fresh faces from the farm system. He explained Rickey's reasoning behind the widespread change in personnel. "I was only 18, Bobby Del Greco, Tony Bartirome, Ronnie Kline, Lee Walls [were all under 21]. I roomed with Walls in a hotel in Pittsburgh for awhile. Bill Bell and I signed the same day for the Pirates. I was 17 and he was just out of high school. He was 18. This was all Mr. Rickey's idea. The Pirates didn't have much. They had veterans but they were finishing in last place. I think he saw what the Phillies did in 1951, with young pitchers Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons and the "Whiz Kids" as they called them. He thought he could do that with Pittsburgh, but I don't know, the pitching just never developed. He relied on me a lot and I had arm trouble. Ronnie Neccai who struck out 27 batters in the minor leagues, he could throw really hard. He had ulcers, he didn't last very long. Bill Bell never came through, he had arm problems. Neccai has a good story on Wikipedia about his career, I believe he wrote a book about it."

As he continued to reminisce about his career in Pittsburgh, I asked him about his recollections of facing the legendary Dodgers second baseman, Jackie Robinson. This question sparked Waugh's memory about one of the better games he pitched and how it was reported by a young Roger Kahn. Waugh takes us back to his mound experiences against Robinson. "I pitched one of my best games against the Dodgers in 1952. I started and was leading in the game 2-1, only giving up three hits through the 7th inning. In the 6th, Jackie Robinson came up with a couple guys on, I struck him out. In the 8th, he came up again with a couple of guys on, and I had just struck him out with a really good curve ball, so I thought, 'well, I'll just start him off with a curve ball, just throw a curve ball for a strike.' Well, he was looking for that curve ball (laughs) and he ripped it past my head, a line drive! It really cost me the game, I ended up losing 3-2. That was my most memorable time against him. They [Brooklyn] were mostly right handed hitters, so it was a little easier for a right hander to pitch to them. In 1953, we only won one game against them, they won 23, we won one! (While still relatively futile, records for that season show it was two wins and 20 losses). I don't know if you ever read Roger Kahn's book Boys of Summer, he talked about Casey Stengel that year in the World Series, talking about the “Brooklyn Pirates”. 'We're playing the Brooklyn Pirates, don't worry about it, they're no better than the Pittsburgh Pirates.' He used that for a motivating speech. Roger Kahn wrote a good story about that. I'll send you a story that Roger Kahn wrote about the game I pitched against the Dodgers. He was only 24, [his] first year following the National League." A copy of the Roger Kahn article is pictured below this article.

Towards the end of the interview, we discussed his Topps rookie card and how he handled his autograph requests. "I went about five years when I didn't and wasn't able to answer / reply to a lot of the fan mail. My wife got lung cancer and we were going through a lot. I just kind of gave up on it. I always enjoy getting the mail. I've caught all of those up. I have a lady who helps me with it so, I enjoy the letters. I enjoyed yours, it was interesting." Waugh appreciated the support of his fans, who continued to recognize him even after 50 years past him hanging up his cleats. He spoke proudly of a recent speaking engagement that he had at a SABR meeting. "I spoke recently to the SABR in Pittsburgh, and a reporter wrote a story about my talk. It's pretty interesting too. I really enjoyed that. Those guys are really knowledgeable." He also managed to stay active with the Pirates alumni association, which is one of the strongest in MLB. "Sally O'Leary really keeps the alumni association going. I've written a lot of stuff. Paul Smith, Dick Cole writes too. It's nice to hear from everyone."

While Waugh's time in the majors was relatively brief, he seemed to have the same zest for the game that he played almost 60 years prior. His memory was sharp, he was in good spirits and gave no indication that he was facing an illness. His memory memory will continue to survive in his family and those that saw him play. Click here to read his obituary from the Lancaster Eagle Gazzette.

Roger Kahn's Herald Tribune Article On Waugh's Game Against Brooklyn

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Lew Paper's "Perfect" - Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game

Author Lew Paper has done an excellent job of adding to the lore of Don Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game, by chronicling the careers of each of the players involved in the epic contest. This book is a great addition to any baseball fans home library, especially with spring training upon us.

Click here to read a complete review of Lew Paper's, "Perfect."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bob DiPietro - The Rigatoni Rifle

Bob DiPietro’s major-league career was a true cup of coffee – 12 plate appearances in four games at the tail end of the 1951 season, one hit, one walk and a .091 batting average. In three games as an outfielder, he had four putouts, one error, and one assist – but what an assist it was! He threw out Mickey Mantle at home plate at Yankee Stadium.
I was able to interview DiPietro in late 2008 and write his biography for the SABR Baseball Biography Project. It is my first biography for the project, and hopefully it is the start of things to come. To read the complete biography of the "Rigatoni Rifle", click here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Autographed baseball card arrives from player 15 years later

For all of the fans and collectors out there that have written off their outstanding requests to their favorite ballplayers in the mail, this story of one man's 15 year wait for a return from Kevin Appier gives a glimmer of hope to the envelopes that you thought were discarded or lost in space.

Hurler signs late - "Kid" gets auto after 15 years - New York Post

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sammy Drake member of the original 1962 Mets dies at age 75

Former member of the 1962 "original" Mets, infielder Sammy Drake, passed away on January 27, 2010 in California. Drake played three seasons in the majors from 1960-62 with the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. Drake along with his brother Solly were the first African-American brothers to play in the major leagues. To read a more complete write-up on Drake's career including an interesting story about how he integrated the Macon team of the Sally league, click here.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium empty in spring training for the first time in 50 years

Fort Lauderdale Stadium 2008

Fort Lauderdale Stadium 2008Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Vistadome 
With the departure of the Orioles from Fort Lauderdale, 2010 will mark the first time in 50 years that Fort Lauderdale Stadium will be empty during spring training. To read more information behind the vacancy in Fort Lauderdale, click here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paul LaPalme, 86, 1923-2010; Former MLB Pitcher with the Pirates, Cardinals, Reds and White Sox

Paul LaPalme, died in Leominster, MA on Sunday February 7, 2010 at the age of 86 after battling a long illness. LaPalme was a left-handed knuckleball pitcher, who pitched seven seasons with four major league teams including the Pirates, Cardinals, Reds and White Sox. He made his debut at the age of 17 in 1941 with Bristol of the Appalachian League, posting an impressive 20 wins. After moving up to Erie the next season, he lost three years of his career due to his World War II service from 1943-1945.

Upon his return from military service, he clawed his way from Class D ball in 1946 to the big show with the Pirates in 1951. He made an immediate impact, pitching a shutout in his first MLB game, but could not duplicate his hot start, finishing with a record of 24-45 in seven seasons. He retired after the 1959 season with Montreal. After baseball, he entered the engraving business, where he owned and operated LaPalme Engravers in Leominster.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Willie's Boys: The Making of a Baseball Legend

Willie Mays holds a revered place in the hearts and minds of New York area baseball fans, with memories of him patrolling the depths of the Polo Grounds that evoke visions of a man walking on water. How Mays made his way to the Polo Grounds is one of the most interesting journies in all of baseball's history. Author John Klima meticulously traced the path that a teenage Willie Mays took from Birmingham to the big leagues. "Willie's Boys: The 1948 Birmingham Black Barons, The Last Negro League World Series, and the Making of a Baseball Legend," puts you on a seat on the bus right next to Mays for the entire ride. For the rest of the review, click here to read it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Solly Hemus recalls his days with the 1962 New York Mets

The 21st annual BAT dinner in New York City provided me the opportunity to catch up with one of the coaches of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets. Solly Hemus, now 86 and living in Houston, was in New York to attend the dinner which supports former baseball players who are experiencing financial and medical hardships.

“I have been involved with the BAT for 20 years," Hemus said. "Joe Garagiola got me involved. They're trying to help other ballplayers who have problems. I like to see the other ballplayers that you played with. We needle each other pretty well. It's a great gathering. We get together and tell a bunch of lies. Garagiola, he's getting ready to hit .400!”
Solly Hemus as a coach with the 1962 New York Mets / Author's Collection
After playing 11 seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies, Hemus served for three seasons as the manager of the Cardinals from 1959-61. One of those seasons was in the rare role of player-manager. After being fired halfway through the 1961 season, the opportunity arose to join the start-up franchise in Queens.

“George Weiss, the General Manager, brought me on board to the Mets in 1962," he recalled. "Casey Stengel was one of the smartest managers in baseball and Weiss was an excellent GM, so I knew I couldn't lose.”

Joining the “Old Professor” might not have been a losing situation for Hemus, but he sensed the ride for the 1962 season was going to be a rough one. The Mets brought in a lot of older players that resonated with the New York faithful, but were a bit long in the tooth to recapture the form of their glory days.

“I knew we were going to have a problem [as] a lot of ballplayers we picked up were for name recognition," he said. "New York always wanted the big names: Hodges, Ashburn, Craig ... people like that. You knew they were coming to the end. Craig's fastball lost a little bit, Hodges was always a great first baseman, Ashburn had a little fire left in him, and Frank Thomas had a great year, but overall they didn't have the type of ballplayers you would like to stock a team with.”

The Mets 1962 season was filled with miscues that were typical of a new franchise. He recounted a bad luck story from his view in the third base coach's box with “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry that exemplified the team's struggles.

“It was about the eighth inning in the Polo Grounds, there were two outs, we were behind by one run and there were two men on base," Hemus recalled. "He hits the ball into one of the gaps, right center I guess. He comes all the way around to third base, makes a perfect slide and they call him safe. They then threw the ball to second base, and said Marv missed second base. Casey goes running out there, and Augie Donatelli the umpire stopped him and said, 'Casey, you better get out of here, because he missed first and second!'”

Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was also on the coaching staff alongside Hemus during that season. As a fellow infielder, Hemus was able to work well with the gruff superstar.

“You knew he was a great ballplayer; however, his personality, you would like to see a lot added to it," he said. "I got along with him pretty well. Certain ballplayers I'd mention to him, and we'd talk about them and then try to make them better.”

After the 1963 season, Hemus was let go as a coach from Stengel's staff. He later resurfaced with the Mets organization in 1966 with AAA Jacksonville in what would be his last year in baseball. He explained how he had the choice of mentoring two future Hall of Famers on their way to the big leagues.

“I had a choice of either taking Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver," he said. "They wouldn't let me take both of them, even though I wanted both of them. I took Seaver; I thought he was a little further advanced. I think I helped him a bit. He was intelligent, he knew how to pitch. The only time I ever got after him was when he got the ball up and someone hit it out of the park off him. I tried to get him to slow down a bit. I saw a lot of great value in him. In fact, one of my reports I sent to the Mets on him read, 'For anything, just don't trade him, don't get rid of him.' They didn't and he went on to have a great career.”

Visiting New York for the BAT dinner brought back many fond memories from both his playing and coaching days in the Big Apple. He only wished his time with the Mets could have lasted to be a part of their World Championship team.

“It's a big city; you are kind of in awe with it as a ballplayer," he said. "I really liked Brooklyn; it had a short right field fence, and as a lefty, that helped me. When coaching the Mets, I used to live at a hotel near the ballpark. Now, I like coming up here with my wife; it's the place to be. ... I would have liked to be a part of the ball club that won the World Series in 1969 because that's what I had in mind when they hired me. I thought that they would eventually win it and they did just that. It was a fine organization.”