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."

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