Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Federoff's influence has a lasting impact on the Tigers organization

“He was the best manager I ever had,” said current Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the Detroit News. Al Federoff was Leyland’s manager during his 1964 rookie campaign in Lakeland, Fla. It was also Federoff who rescued Leyland a few years later when the Tigers weren’t sure what to do with him while filling out their minor league rosters.

“Leyland was my good luck charm. I took him everywhere I could,” said Federoff during a 2008 interview I conducted with him from his home in Taylor, Mich.

While Federoff has received notoriety for mentoring Leyland, many are unaware that he was a sure-handed, light-hitting second baseman for the Tigers in the early 1950s. He died in Glibert, Ariz. last week at the age of 87.

Al Federoff / Author's Collection
Federoff was one of the fastest players in major league baseball in the 1950s, clocking a 3.8 second time from home to first batting right handed, placing him sixth in major league baseball according to the September 3rd, 1952 issue of The Sporting News.

He entered professional baseball in 1946 with the Jamestown Falcons of the Class-D PONY League after serving in the Air Force in World War II. After a few years of climbing the rungs of the minor league ladder, he was a late season call-up with the Detroit Tigers in 1951.

Inspired by his taste of the big league action, Federoff hit a solid .288 at AAA Buffalo in 1952 and was recalled in July when second baseman Jerry Priddy went down with a leg injury. It was during this time that he would bear witness to two of Virgil Trucks’ greatest pitching performances ever.

The first one happened August 6, 1952 against the ageless Satchel Paige and the St. Louis Browns. Trucks and Paige battled to a scoreless tie in the ninth inning when Trucks was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The 46-year old Paige pitched the entire 12 innings for the victory. Federoff took the collar twice against Paige in his five trips to the plate. Federoff insisted age wasn’t a factor in Paige’s performance.

“You can’t take nothing away from him [Paige]; if you’re good, you’re good,” said Federoff of the Hall of Fame hurler.

Federoff had a more involved role in Trucks’ August 25th masterpiece at Yankee Stadium. Hank Bauer, the Yankees strong left-fielder, stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth. Bauer squared up one of Trucks’ fastballs right in the direction of Federoff.

“I get my name mentioned in the paper every now and then when Trucks pitched that no-hitter against the Yankees," told Federoff. "I made the last put-out on a hard smash by Hank Bauer for the final out; I saved the no-hitter!”

He finished the season with a .242 average and did what he was expected to do, play good defense at second base. His sure hands attracted the attention of another Hall of Famer, Tigers GM Charlie Gehringer.

“He came to me personally and told me, ‘You did damn good, your fielding was terrific,’” recalled Federoff.

While his fielding impressed Gehringer, his overall play did not do enough to sway manager Fred Hutchinson to give him an extension for the 1953 season.
 
“I was disappointed when they sold me to San Diego in 1953,” said Federoff, who thought he could add some youth to an aging ballclub. “Johnny Pesky was a good ballplayer, but he was already in his mid 30s, [Billy] Hitchcock was in his mid 30s and [Jerry] Priddy couldn’t run after that broken leg. Hutchinson kept him and he couldn’t even run; I hadn’t even hit my prime!”

Federoff was caught in a numbers game that was typical of his era, one that was prior to expansion and free agency.

“Another thing people don’t consider is that each league only had eight teams," he said. "Now they have an additional 320 40-man roster spots in each league. In our day, they sent you down to AAA and you would get lost down there because they had so many good players. Who was going to replace Jackie Robinson or Pee Wee Reese? If you were a SS or 2B [behind them], you were out of luck!”

Detroit wanted to send him to Buffalo, but he didn’t want to go back up north again after playing there the previous season.

“They tried to send me to Buffalo, but I wouldn’t go. I stuck around for a few days and they sold me to San Diego,” he said.

Federoff enjoyed four solid years with the Padres, helping to lead them to the 1954 PCL championship, walking 108 times against only 34 strikeouts.  During that championship season, he enjoyed the company of yet another mystical baseball figure, Luke Easter.

“He was my buddy; I liked him very much," Federoff recalled. "He protected me at second base. Any time he stepped up to the plate, the other teams were hoping he didn’t hit the long one."

Even though he was no longer in the major leagues, Federoff, like many other veterans enjoyed the comforts of playing on the West Coast. The warmer weather and improved travel were attractive propositions for ballplayers that endured the long bus rides that came with years of beating the bushes.

“In the PCL at that time, the playing conditions were better," he said. "We had a lot of good older players coming from the big leagues because the conditions were wonderful. A lot of great ballplayers finished their careers there and they were paid better than the big leagues. We played a week at home and a week at each city. We flew by airplane, and the weather was wonderful, especially in San Diego."

The same door that opened the opportunity for him to enter the big leagues is also the same one that closed his career. Bit by the injury bug, Federoff was robbed one of of the key elements of his game, speed.

“During my last year in San Diego, I was over the hill," he said. "San Diego traded me to Seattle. I played a year there. Then they sent me to Louisville, I played a half year there. I was sold to Atlanta and that was the end of my career. At the end I was overcoming a broken leg; I lost a lot of my speed. They had me there to fill in and just to work with the kids. They were interested in playing kids that had a chance to get up to the big leagues. You seem to know when you’ve had enough.”

After he hung up his cleats as a player, he entered the Tigers minor league system as a manager in 1960. He managed ten seasons, ending his career in 1970 ironically in the PCL, the place where he spent the bulk of his minor league time.

Despite never returning to the majors after the 1952 season as a player or a coach, Federoff was satisfied with his baseball career.

“I enjoyed it. I had some good days and bad ones like everybody else.”


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