Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dave Cole and Roy Smalley Jr.'s deaths link a history started 57 years prior

Dave Cole and Roy Smalley Jr., remained linked long after the 1954 trade that saw them switch places on the Milwaukee Braves and the Chicago Cubs. After the late season emergence of Ernie Banks in 1953, the Cubs found Smalley Jr. expendable and sent him to the Braves for Cole during spring training. Both of their careers fizzled after the trade, neither showing the promise that either team expected after the swap.


Last week, they died four days apart. Smalley Jr. passed away at the age of 85 last Saturday in Arizona. Cole died in his hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland at 81 on Wednesday.

Their deaths, while coincidental, reminds us of the depth of baseball's connections. The news drums up nostalgia of the hope that each player brought to their new teams some 57 years ago.

Smalley began his career in 1944 with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Serving in the US Navy during World War II, Smalley returned to baseball in 1946. After some seasoning at the lower levels of minor league baseball, he became the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs in 1948, a position he would hold until the arrival of Ernie Banks in September 1953. Once spring training rolled around in 1954, Smalley saw the handwriting on the wall.

“Ernie had shown his talent for hitting at the end of the ’53 season. There was no hint from the club, but once into spring training in ’54, the trade didn’t come as a surprise,” Smalley in a letter he wrote to the author in 2009.


Smalley was traded to the Braves for Dave Cole in 1954 and was used sparingly as a reserve infielder. He was purchased by the Phillies the following spring, and spent parts of the next four seasons as their backup shortstop. He played in the minors through the 1960 season and then finished his career in baseball managing the Class C Reno Silver Sox from 1961-62.

His best season was 1950 when he had career highs in home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage. Unfortunately, he also led the league in errors, committing 51 at the shortstop position. The year 1950 had added significance for Smalley, as he married his wife Jolene.

Smalley's new bride was the sister of major league shortstop and future manger Gene Mauch, whom he would ironically later play for in 1958 as a member of the Minneapolis Millers. Keeping the family baseball tradition alive, his son, Roy Smalley III, followed in his footsteps at shortstop, playing 13 major league seasons with the Twins, Yankees, Rangers, and White Sox.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

New York Mets celebrate the 25th anniversary of World Series victory at Strawberry's Sports Grill

Strawberry’s Sports Grill in Douglaston was the site of a glorious reunion of the 1986 New York Mets World Series Championship team Friday evening. Over 25 members showed up on the silver anniversary of their title run, as part of a weekend series of events and appearances for the crew.

Fans paid upwards of $500 to mingle with the entire team at this private event and enjoy a wonderful open bar and seemingly endless buffet of food served by Strawberry’s staff. Darryl Strawberry himself was the consummate host, posing for photos and signing autographs at every turn of the corner, while catching up with teammates who came from far and wide for the reunion.

Rafael Santana (r.) toasts the Mets 1986 victory / N. Diunte
One such player was shortstop Kevin Elster, who was a baby-faced 22-year-old rookie shortstop in 1986. Coming from Huntington Beach, California, Elster relished the opportunity to see his teammates once again.

“I was just a baby,” said Elster. “I love coming back here. It’s great to be around all of the guys. You couldn’t pick a better group.”


The list of those in attendance ranged from the stars such as Strawberry and Keith Hernandez, to lesser known members like John Gibbons and Bruce Berenyi, both who played in 1986, but didn’t make the World Series roster. On this evening, these designations didn’t matter; the Mets alumni were just ecstatic to be in each other’s company.

“I always look forward to any chance I can get to see all the guys again," Berenyi said. "I don’t get to see hardly anybody anymore. I’m not involved in baseball so it’s kind of tough. Not being part of the actual series is kind of a mixed emotion thing for me, but everyone always makes me feel like I was a big part of it.”

Game Six of the 1986 World Series played on the big screen televisions at the restaurant and many, including the players, watched and cheered like it was unfolding before their eyes. One could hear a player's name beckoned any time they were at the plate or made a play in the field. Most whose names were called stopped their mingling to fixate themselves on the TV screens when they had the spotlight.

“I never watched myself playing in this actual game until right now,” said Elster as he watched his at-bat against Roger Clemens in the seventh inning. “I don’t remember the details, but I remember that I flew out.” 

Right on cue, Elster lofted a fly ball to Dave Henderson that ended the inning, to which Elster remarked, “I battled pretty good, didn’t I?”

As both the game and the party went to the later innings, everyone in attendance cheered whenever a Met got a hit or scored a run. Kevin Mitchell was seen with a wide grin when he scored on Bob Stanley’s wild pitch. The cheering grew louder with each pitch that Mookie Wilson fouled off until he bounced one to first base that slipped under the glove of Bill Buckner. As Ray Knight came around to score, Jesse Orosco high fived Rick Aguilera to congratulate him on his win.

For a small fraction of time, one had the feeling that they were in the clubhouse with the Mets as they tasted the spoils of victory. A celebratory toast was in order and everyone raised their glasses to the Mets. Once again, the Mets triumph reigned supreme in Queens.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Former Brooklyn Dodger Johnny Schmitz passes away at 90

Johnny Schmitz, nicknamed Bear Tracks for his big feet, pitched 13 seasons in the majors, spending parts of the 1951 and 1952 seasons in Brooklyn. He passed away on October 5, 2011 in Wisconsin. He was 90.

Johnny Schmitz / Topps
Born November 27, 1920, Schmitz entered pro ball in 1938 at the age of 17 with Class D Hopkinsville of the Cleveland Indians organization. Earning a reputation for his sharp curveball, which fellow Dodgers hurler Rex Barney noted, “He could drop it in a coffee cup,” Schmitz earned a call to the big leagues only three years later with the Chicago Cubs.

Schmitz’s career was interrupted by his Naval service in World War II from 1943-45. Returning for the 1946 season, Schmitz didn’t lose a step, making the All-Star team and leading the National League in strikeouts. This would be the first of Schmitz’s two All-Star appearances, the other coming in 1948.


Schmitz came to Brooklyn from Chicago in 1951 as part of a mid-season eight-player trade that also brought heavy-hitting outfielder Andy Pafko to the Dodgers. As much as the focus was on the acquisition of Pafko, Schmitz was the key to the deal. He had great success against the Dodgers, winning 18 games against the Dodgers in his seven years with the Cubs. Now wearing the Dodger blue, they rested safely knowing they didn’t have to face Schmitz during their playoff run.

Schmitz watched helplessly from the bullpen as Ralph Branca surrendered “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to Bobby Thomson at the Polo Grounds during the final game of the season. With one swing of the bat, Schmitz’s World Series hopes were quickly extinguished.

“I thought, ‘There goes my World Series.’ To come so close, after being on teams on the bottom for so many years, and one pitch, there it went,” Schmitz said in a 1996 interview with Baseball Digest.

Schmitz had another chance for World Series glory the next season as he moved across town with the New York Yankees, but was traded to Cincinnati for Ewell Blackwell before the season ended. He pitched in the majors until 1956, also playing with the Senators, Red Sox, and Orioles.

After baseball, Schmitz became a greenskeeper on a local golf course until his retirement in 1990. He remained an avid fan of the game and was responsive to fan autograph requests up until the day of his passing, with members of the Sportscollectors.net website receiving signed fan mail from Schmitz only a few days before he died.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch found a friend in Tosheff

As the Detroit Tigers enter Game 5 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium tonight, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was once again reminded of his baseball roots. Ilitch was a minor league second baseman in the early 1950's with the Yankees, Senators and Tigers organizations. One of his teammates while playing for the Tampa Smokers of the Florida International League was the 1951-52 NBA Rookie of the Year, Bill Tosheff. Tosheff, like his contemporaries Bill Sharman and Gene Conley, was doing double duty holding down a NBA roster spot while trying to make the major leagues. Last week Tosheff succumed to cancer at the age of 85.

Mike Ilitch / DBusiness Magazine

Receiving the news of his fallen teammate, Ilitch via e-mail basked in the thought of how his fellow Macdeonian's benevolence put him on the right track with his future wife Marian.

“Bill was a good teammate,” he wrote. “I remember when he left one time to play baseball out of the country, he left his beautiful green Oldsmobile convertible. He let me borrow it to drive home to Michigan and that was the car I drove when I picked up Marian for our very first date! She thought I was really something pulling up in that car -- that car got me off to a good start with her, so I’ll always be appreciative of his generosity and friendship."

Although located on opposite sides of the country, they maintained contact, keeping a bond that was formed almost 60 years prior.

“I have wonderful memories of Bill. We kept in touch over the years, sharing stories of what we both were doing. I will miss him.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bill Tosheff, first NBA rookie of the year, moonlighted as a strong armed pitcher

Bill Tosheff, the 1951-52 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year, passed away this weekend due to complications from rectal cancer at the age 85 according to a statement by his daughter on his Facebook page.

Tosheff showing off his bling
“Tosh,” as he was affectionately known to seemingly everyone, actually left his burgeoning basketball career for another sport, baseball. For someone that didn't make the major leagues, during his seven-year minor league career, he was party to more than anyone could imagine.

A three-sport start at the University of Indiana, Tosheff helped lead the Hoosiers to a Big Nine title in 1949. Blessed with a strong arm and a powerful bat, Tosheff drew considerable attention playing semi-pro baseball during the offseason.

Playing for the Lafayette Blue Sox in 1952, Tosheff threw a no-hitter during the first game of a doubleheader and smacked two home runs during the second game. That was enough for Hall of Famer and Cleveland Indians scout “Red” Ruffing. After the game, Ruffing told Tosheff to write his own ticket to the show.

“He said, ‘What is it going to take?’ I said, ‘Well, give me a number.’ We kind of played around a bit and we came to $20,000 which was pretty good in those days,” Tosheff recalled in a 2009 interview I conducted with him via telephone.

A signing bonus of $20,000 would have gained considerable press at the time; however, there was one person standing in between the money and him, Indians General Manager Hank Greenberg.

“There was a battle going on in Cleveland between Hank Greenberg and a guy named Egan," he said.  "Greenberg refused my salary and Indianapolis wanted to sign me. I think I signed for $2,500 per month which wasn’t bad.”

Three days after his signing, he was the starting pitcher for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. One step away from the major leagues, Tosheff found himself surrounded by legends in the twilight of their careers, as well as stars on the rise. His catcher that evening was the legendary Negro Leaguer, Quincy Trouppe. A 20-year veteran, Trouppe had a cup of coffee earlier in the season with the Indians, forming the first black battery in the American League with Sam Jones. Ironically, both players would play with Tosheff in Indianapolis. Tosheff shared his memories of his debut with Trouppe as his battery mate.

“He was my catcher the first time I pitched," he said. "Let me tell you about the experience. I was the starting pitcher against Louisville on July 4th. They brought my parents in from Gary. When I got on the mound to throw the first pitch, it looked like the home plate was three miles away from me. It was one of those excitable things.”

At the age of 25 and a veteran of World War II, Tosheff was in the unique position as a rookie to serve as a mentor to the younger players on the club. One of the fellow pitchers he took under his wing was Herb Score. Tosheff would later use his experience with Score to serve as an advisor to current Colorado Rockies third baseman and fellow Macedonian Kevin Kouzmanoff.

“When I was there, Cleveland signed another kid for $75,000 [sic], his name was Herb Score," he recalled. "This guy was throwing aspirin tablets as a left-hander. We lived in the same apartment and I kind of mentored him because I was older. He had no father image. He was raised with his mother. We had a check on the table for $12,500 and he didn’t know what to do with it. I sent it to his mom in Florida.”

Incredibly in the same league, Tosheff wasn’t alone as an NBA player trying to crack a major league baseball roster. In 1952, The American Association was loaded with NBA stars. St. Paul had Boston Celtic and future Hall of Famer Bill Sharman. Milwaukee had Sharman’s Celtic teammate Gene Conley and another future Hall of Famer Andy Phillip played with Tosheff briefly in Indianapolis. Also, Milwaukee first baseman George Crowe was a professional basketball player for the New York Harlem Rens.

Released after the 1952 season as per the terms of his contract, Tosheff played the next three seasons at the Class B level, where he posted consecutive 20-win seasons. While with the Class B Tampa Smokers, another stop in Tosheff's baseball odyssey would occur in Cuba. It was there he rubbed elbows with author Ernest Hemmingway. After a chance meeting at Bar Cristal, he offered Hemmingway tickets to the ballgame. Sparking a conversation, the author invited him to imbibe, urging him to, “Sit down and have a taste.”

Running around Cuba with Tosheff was a second baseman from Detroit who would be better known for his pizza than his exploits with his glove. Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesar’s Pizza chain and owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, was Tosheff’s teammate in Tampa. At the end of the season, Tosheff was offered an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Ilitch’s operation; however, he was occupied with leaving the country.

“I had a brand new Olds 98 convertible," he said. "After the season was over, I said, ‘Well, look I’m going to go to South America, I quit the NBA, take my car to Detroit."

Before they parted company, Ilitch posed him an offer.

"Before he left, he said to me, ‘Tosh, there is a guy who has a little bar in Detroit and my mom gets this great sauce and the secret is in the sauce. You and I will be partners.'”

Tosheff, focused on the prospect of playing ball out of the country, just wanted to leave as soon as possible.

“I said, ‘Mike take the car and go to Detroit. I want to go to South America.’ I went to Cartagena, Columbia and played baseball. A year later I came back and got my car; he got married.”

Chance would reunite them thirty years later. After watching Ilitch being interview by Howard Cosell on television about his purchase of the Detroit Red Wings, Tosheff picked up the phone.

“I get to his secretary and I say, ‘Don’t tell him who I am.’ So he gets on the phone and goes, ‘Yeah?’ and I said, ‘The secret’s in the sauce!’ He starts laughing.”

After his playing days were over, he became an advocate for the forgotten old-timers of his era.

In the wake of the current NBA labor struggles, Tosheff was a driving force in helping the players who played in the NBA prior to the formation of the players’ union in 1965 to receive pension benefits. The group of players, dubbed the “Pre-65ers” became Tosheff’s fighting cause for over 30 years. Due to his efforts, in 2007, the NBA finally raised the pension amounts for those that had at least five years of service and expanded the benefits to include those with three of four years of service. Similarly, MLB followed suit this fall, making payments to those who fell into a similar pension gap. One can only think that Tosheff’s work had some level of influence on their union.

As he stated in the interview, he ended every talk and public appearance he made with the following bit of advice.

"The clock is always running on us," he said. "In the end result, all you have left are your memories. If they are not good one’s you’ll have a hard time sustaining the rest of your life. So pull out the good ones, show ‘em the bad ones if you have any, and get after it and talk about them because someone might be interested."

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Eddie Bockman, MLB veteran and scout that signed Larry Bowa, dies at 91


On the eve of the opening game of the ALDS playoffs, Yankee fans had a moment to pause. Another one to wear the pinstripes left their ranks. Joseph “Eddie” Bockman, a rookie third baseman with 1946 Yankees, passed away Thursday at his home in Millbrae, Calif. He was 91.

Bockman’s career was almost over as soon as it started. He first signed with the Class D Bisbee Bees of the Chicago Cubs organization in 1939. After playing in 62 games with a .285 average, Bockman was nose-to-nose with one of baseball’s harshest realities, being released.

Eddie Bockman / Bowman
I wasn't doing that bad. … I sat around a whole day trying to figure out why,” said Bockman in a 2009 interview I conducted with him via telephone. “It was quite a while after I got released, two to three weeks before they went out and hired someone else. I couldn't understand it. You're just a kid at that time and you can't really put it together.”


Bockman dusted himself off and drew the attention of the New York Yankees, signing to their Class A team in Joplin the following season. As he started to move up the ranks, another team requested his services, the United States Navy.

Bockman joined the Navy in 1943 and was stationed in San Diego. It was here that Bockman would begin to mature as both a man and a ballplayer.

“As I got older, I did well in the Navy," he said. "Of course, you weren't playing against the competition as good as you did in professional baseball, but it was a ballgame. Over the course of two to three years, I played well, even if I say so myself!”

During his service time, Bockman would team up with many budding major league stars as a member of the Long Beach Service Stars.

“We had a good ballclub. Ray Boone, George Vico, Charlie Gilbert, Cliff Mapes and Bob Lemon were all with us.”

Returning to the Yankees organization in 1946, Bockman’s skills gained by playing in the Navy allowed him to make the jump to the Kansas City Blues of the Class AAA American Association. Bockman feasted on the league’s hurlers to the tune of a .303 average with 29 stolen bases. This led to a late September call-up by the Yankees that also included future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

Despite playing alongside such legends as Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, and Bill Dickey, it was Bockman’s trade to the Indians with Joe Gordon for Allie Reynolds during the offseason that would place him in a front row seat to an even bigger piece of baseball’s history.

On July 5th, 1947, Indians owner Bill Veeck ushered Larry Doby in to the clubhouse, seeking to integrate the American League. Bockman vividly recalled a timid Doby making his way into the fold.

“In the clubhouse, the day he walked in, in Chicago, he was scared to death," he said. "He didn't know what to expect.

“He was different than Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a cocky guy. If he disagreed with you, he'd be ready to fight you. Doby was the other way. [He was] kind of a laid back guy, a good kid. I got along with him well.”

Bockman was used sparingly for the remainder of the 1947 season and was then purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He spent two seasons as part of their third base platoon and then continued in the minors as a player-manager through the 1958 season.

He used his extensive career as a player and manager to transition into a scouting role with the Philadelphia Phillies. He left his mark on the 1980 World Series Championship team by signing seven of the members of that club, including his most prized recruit, Larry Bowa.

“He was very easy to sign," he said. "He wanted to play and nothing was going to stop him. When I went over to sign him, he jumped in the back seat of the car. That's the term we use when we didn't have any problems signing the player.”

Bowa carved out an All-Star career with the Phillies. He marveled at Bowa’s durability despite the shortstop's small stature.

“He played 16 years in the big leagues and I said he was pretty damn lucky to play that long in the big leagues and never was hurt," Bockman said. "He was always there, never a broken bone, a sore arm, or bad legs. There wasn't a hell of a lot on him to hurt! He got 100% out of his ability. He wasn't scared to work. You had a hell of a time getting him off the field. I had to pull him off the field a few times, he didn't want to leave.”

During our 2009 conversation, Bockman, using his scouting eye, took a humble assessment of his abilities.  As a scout, Bockman questioned whether he would sign himself.

“I wasn't that good of a player. I look back on myself now; I was good enough to get there,” said Bockman. “I scouted for 45 years and I would stop and think sometimes if I would scout myself [with] my abilities. I'd say to myself, ‘Shoot, I wouldn't sign myself.’”

Despite his post-playing reservations about his abilities, Bockman found a redeeming quality in his desire to be on the field.

“I liked to play and it bothered me when I wasn't in the lineup; I wanted to play," he said. "That was a factor of why I got signed in the first place. I had the ambition and I wanted to play. I didn't care where or who I was.”