Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chuck Diering, former outfielder for the Cardinals, Giants and Orioles, dies at 89

Chuck Diering, who spent nine seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles, New York Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals, passed away Friday after taking a fall at his home in Spanish Lake, Missouri. He was 89.

Chuck Diering - 1951 Bowman - Wikimedia Commons

Diering signed with the Cardinals in 1941, and missed three seasons due to his service in the United States Army in World War II. He finally broke in with the Cardinals in 1947, as an understudy for the aging Terry Moore. In his five seasons with them, he earned a reputation for his tremendous speed and defense in the outfield.

The New York Giants acquired Diering in December of 1951 with Max Lanier as part of the Eddie Stanky trade. Speaking with Diering via telephone in 2011, he was perplexed some 60 years later why the Giants wanted his services.

“I don’t know why in the world the Giants got me," he said. "I think I was more or less a throw in with Max Lanier for Eddie Stanky. I think there was something with Willie, and he was going into the service and he might not be there. Well, he didn’t go anywhere.”

Mays stayed with the Giants until June, and Diering was sent to the minor leagues a month later. He played in 41 games, which was ironically more than Mays that season, but only had 23 at-bats.

“I was just sitting there on the bench," he lamented. "In my major league career, that was the worst part of my major league career. I would go out there for those guys just to spot play. [Leo] Durocher, I don’t think he said ten words to me while I was there. I was more or less an outsider. Durocher’s boys were Mays and Monte Irvin. I felt like I was a misfit on the team. I only spot played. Hank Thompson would come up and say, ‘Leo’s going to play you today.’ That was it.”

His stint with the Giants left a blemish on his career, one that he felt affected his hitting. In a rare turn of events for a major leaguer, he was happy when they sent him back to the minors.

“As far as anything else, it really hurt my career, the way they’re going for averages," he said. "I didn’t play enough. I had very few hits. It kept me from hitting .250. I hate that .249 number. That’s what happened to me with the Giants. I’d start the game and you’d get towards the end of the game and they’d wave and pinch hit for me. I was happy when I went back to Minneapolis and finished up with them."

Diering spent all of 1953 with Minneapolis, where he batted .322 with 12 home runs. In the off-season, he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles who were looking for new talent after moving north from St. Louis. It was just the change that Diering needed.

“I had a good year and that’s when Baltimore drafted me, when the Browns sold to Baltimore," he recalled. "The article in the Sporting News said, ‘Why did they draft Chuck Diering?’ Art Ehlers [Orioles General Manager] said, ‘We need someone to cover that territory in that football field.’ He was right, I had three good years there.

“They voted me the MVP for the team the first year. Bob Turley was voted most popular. I thought I was going to get the Cadillac. I still have my trophy and he doesn’t have his Cadillac!”

Much of Diering’s prowess as an outfielder was praised in Jason Aronoff’s, “Going, Going … Caught,” an excellent collection of accounts of the greatest outfield catches prior to 1964. He described Diering’s May 27, 1955 grab on a Mickey Mantle drive at Memorial Stadium rivaling Mays’ 1954 catch in the Polo Grounds.

“For all the publicity, and deservedly so, that the Giants’ Willie Mays received for his famous ’54 World Series catch, the feat doesn’t compare to Chuck Diering’s spectacular run and grab last night of Mickey Mantle’s tremendous 440-foot wallop,” Aronoff cited from Hugh Trader of the Baltimore News Post. "Just at the moment when Diering caught the ball, he collided with Hoot Evers, who was coming in from right field. Both went flying, but somehow Diering held on to the ball."

The running catches like the one Diering made in Baltimore, where he seemingly ran the length of a football field to track the ball down, he says are no longer possible due to the construction of modern parks.

“They don’t have the fences like we had," he said. "Today they’re all backyard fences. They want to make those catches with their gloves over the fence. When left field went to center in Brooklyn, you had a little niche because they changed the fence because of the street. From right field to center field, there was an incline and then another fence and then a mesh way up in the sky. You had to learn how to play the ball off of that mesh and then how to go back because of the incline and then learn how to play it off the different materials. It wasn’t deep at all in right field. Philadelphia had one of those real high fences too. Then halfway up, it was corrugated metal so you had to figure out how to play the ball off of that. Pittsburgh had a 450-foot center field with a brick wall. The batting cages were in left center and you had to judge that."

Like many in his era, Diering remained attached not only to the game he played, but how it was played when he came up.  Fifty years later, he noticed a totally different style of play on the field.

“The era of baseball right now is boring because they don’t play baseball like we used to," he said. "People today do not know what they’re missing. … They missed the game of baseball and how you had to do things different in baseball. Everything now is the home run. Offensively, guys had to hit and run, and steal bases. Now they’re all up there swinging for home runs. They play an all together different defensive type of game.

"To me the center fielder runs the whole outfield. These guys, they don’t run in and take fly balls that the shortstop is running to in the middle of left and center field. The center fielder should be catching that ball in front of him. … I used to chase [Red] Schoendienst and [Marty] Marion off all the time. These guys don’t charge hard and try to throw somebody out. I asked Cardinal players why they don’t try to throw the guy out at home. They said, ‘We’re trying to prevent the double play.’”

Diering remained active in retirement, golfing two-to-three times per week until his death, and enjoyed appearing at the annual St. Louis Cardinals Winter Warm Up, where he would gladly sign autographs.

“I’ll sign anything," he said. I even had my son make pictures of me and I give them away. I’ll take about 100 pictures over there and I’ll autograph them, in addition to whatever stuff they want."

His generosity extended past just sitting at a table for a few hours and greeting the fans. He would talk around the public areas after his designated signing time, offering to sign for anyone that was interested.

“Now, I’m the only one [player] that does this," he said. "My son and I will walk in the crowd. We’ll see a kid and ask them if they got an autograph. If they didn’t, we’ll give them an autographed picture. They’ll ask, ‘Well who is it?’ We tell them, ‘It’s a Cardinal baseball player.’ When I tell them I am the guy in the picture, they say, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!’ That’s the biggest part of my life, is kidding people, talking with them and having fun. That’s the closure in my life.”

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