Thursday, June 28, 2012

Al Brancato, 93, one of the last links to the major leagues in the 1930s

Al Brancato, shortstop for Philadelphia Athletics in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, passed away Thursday June 14, 2012, at the age of 93 at an assisted-living facility in Granite Run, Pennsylvania. In 2008, I visited Brancato at his home in Upper Darby, where he graciously shared the details of his career over lunch at his dining room table.

Al Brancato
Growing up in South Philadelphia, it was on the sandlots where he cut his teeth playing against other professionals.

“I would play semi-pro with all of the local players who would come back from playing pro ball who couldn’t make any money there,” Brancato said. “I played for [a team] at 58th and Elmwood. That’s how I honed my skills, playing with the older guys and playing against the black teams in Chester. You learned from being around those guys. The talk, how they played, you watched all of this. The leagues around Philadelphia were very good.”

Bolstered by his experience against these veteran players, Brancato caught the attention of the legendary Connie Mack and fulfilled every child’s dream of playing for their hometown team, when he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics for a $1,000 bonus while still a senior at Southern High School.

“I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack" he said. "He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” 

Eager to make an impression during spring training, Brancato’s career was quickly derailed after a battle with the foul line.

“I didn’t even have much of a spring training," he said. "In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball so I was out for a few weeks.”

After recovering from his injury, he was sent to Class A in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but the competition for the rookie proved too stiff. He only batted .160 in 25 at-bats and they sent him down to Class B Greenville, where he finished the 1938 season with a respectable .281 average.

Ready to tackle a full year of competition in A ball, Brancato entered 1939 hoping to make good on last season’s failure. He stayed with the team all season, and responded by hitting .279 as their full-time third baseman. In an unexpected move, Brancato was called in September by Mack to join the team in Philadelphia.

“He brought me up at the end of the season in 1939," he said. "I was just about 20. That was a big deal to be a hometown boy up that quick."

Brancato played third base for the month of September while Mack tried out a variety of youngsters in the infield. He put up a .206 average which included his first major league home run during the last game of the season against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Haynes.

He stuck with the club the next two years and emerged as their starting shortstop in 1941. Given the chance to play regularly, Brancato had his best season at the plate, batting .234 in 530 at-bats. His fielding, however, needed work, as he committed 61 errors at shortstop. It is a single-season record that still stands today. Despite his troubles in the field, Brancato felt that he could match up with any other fielder in the majors.

“I thought as an infielder, I threw as well as anyone in the league. I had that kind of an arm.”

Nineteen-forty-one was also memorable for two other reasons, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ batting record of .406. Williams entered the last day of the season with a .3995 average, which would have rounded up to .400 if he chose sit out the forthcoming doubleheader against Brancato’s Athletics. Williams wanted the mark with no questions asked and played in both games of the doubleheader. He responded by going six-for-eight in both games. Brancato was the starting third baseman in the second contest.

“In 1941, I played the second game where he hit the .400 mark,” he said. "It was the last day of the season. He swung the bat and hit the scoreboard in Philadelphia. You didn’t need a third baseman when he was hitting, he never bunted. They played half the field for him. Nobody had the shift we did with Williams. Not that I remember. … Ted Williams knew what ball was coming and how it was coming. If I was playing third base against him, I was [really] playing short stop with him. He hit that scoreboard like [it was] nothing.”

Just as the 22-year-old Brancato was getting a toe-hold in the major leagues, his career was interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Rumors swirled that Brancato had a special deal that he would be assigned to a Navy supply store in Philadelphia so that he could continue to play for the Athletics. The Naval office in Philadelphia quickly refuted this idea, stating, "Brancato is going into the Navy to fight."

Brancato saw active duty in the Pacific and was later part of a Navy baseball team that included Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese. and Phil Rizzuto. He spent almost four years in the military and returned in time to join the Athletics at the end of the 1945 season.

“I was broke coming out from the Navy for four years," he said. "I didn’t have any money; I had no place to go, so I went back without even thinking. They had a rule that they had to keep you a whole year, which he [Mack] didn’t keep. I should have squawked, but I went back just to make a paycheck for the last [few] weeks that the season was ending. I was up the creek with that deal. During the winter he sold me to Toronto.” 

Brancato walked right into another historical occurrence during the 1946 season. Just as he was at the intersection of Ted Williams' record setting efforts a few years prior, his 1946 campaign put him up close with the tribulations Jackie Robinson faced in the minor leagues.

“They shipped me to Toronto, and then to Louisville where we were in the Little World Series against Jackie Robinson,” he said. “When I was with Louisville and Montreal came into town for the Little World Series, they wouldn’t let him stay at the hotel. That was a big problem. They were going to go back to Canada because he didn’t have a place to stay. That was a big ‘to do.’ The two hotels we stayed at wouldn’t allow them in there. … He didn’t do much during the series. He was a bit upset over the hotel situation, and he was a big deal in Montreal.”

Ironically, Brancato was traded in 1947 to the Dodgers AAA team in St. Paul. Robinson and his former teammate Reese would block whatever shot he had at returning to the major leagues. Despite putting up solid numbers, the call never came.

“I never got a good chance to get back up even though I had a few good years at St. Paul,” Brancato lamented. “It was a case of too many young guys coming too fast from all over the place. I was a good guy to have around. That’s what it seemed like. If they needed someone to play, I was there and could do a good job of playing. I don’t know why I got that reputation, because I played well in St. Paul.”

He played eight more seasons in the minor leagues. His career came to an abrupt end in 1953 while serving as a player-manager in Elmira.
“That was a mistake," Brancato said. "I got hurt when one of the guys from the Philadelphia teams banged into me while sliding. I had to try to manage from the bench, hurt on crutches. I just faded out the next year. That was my big mistake, trying to play and manage. It didn’t go to well. You had to think too much. I was more of a player. I liked to play and make the plays.” Looking back in 2008, Brancato wondered if he had missed an opportunity. “That was a good chance for me. That’s how the Dodgers got all of their managers, through the system that way. I didn’t acclimate myself that well. I had 14 years of playing; I didn’t fall apart, I just gave it up. They wanted me to go down and manage in the D league, which maybe I should have done. I was married with three kids. I had a tough time deciding what to do.”
Returning to Philadelphia, Brancato couldn’t shake his love for baseball. He worked at St. Josephs University as an assistant baseball coach under Jack Ramsay, who later was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame for his basketball coaching exploits. After two seasons as an assistant, he took over the program for six years as the head coach.

“I coached at St. Joe’s for six years, and then I gave it up," he said. "College guys now are getting a lot of money coaching a team. When I was coaching at St. Joe’s that was the last year they had their field on City Line Avenue. They gave that up. We had to practice in the park; we never had a field to play with. We had to go all over the place to play games. And I was working too. I had to make a living. If my company knew I was doing both and taking time out, I would have been up the creek. It was a tough job trying to juggle both. You can’t work, hold a family and run a ball club. I would have had to be a full-time coach, but the money wasn’t there; you were making $2,000 for the season. If we had to travel, I had to take a full day off from work. It was tough after awhile.”

Brancato eventually settled into a quiet life in Delaware County and was a favorite at card shows, especially with the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. He remained a fan of the game, but acknowledged there are clear differences in game he played 70 years after his debut.

“I still watch here and there," he said. "It’s a different kind of a game. Look at the size of them; they’re all 200-250. When I played, you had a few 6’2”- 6’3” guys, now everyone is. I was 180 when I played. I never saw so many big guys. Little guys like me wouldn’t have a chance today."

While he acknowledged that some might dismiss his opinion as another disgruntled old timer, what he couldn't deny was the decline in fundamentals he saw on the field.
“When I played, you had all of the guys who knew how to play," he said. "From the late 1930s and up, they came up the long way. If we complain, they say, ‘You’re old-time, you don’t know what you are talking about.’ Defensively, I’ve never saw so many one-handed catches. How often do you see a two-handed outfield catch? They say baseball is baseball, but it’s different; it’s changed. … They say, 'You’re an old-timer.' Well, it’s the truth. We are old-timers. They can’t say it’s the same. There are more teams. How many of these guys would be there if there were still 16 teams?”
Brancato’s passing represents a rapidly closing window of an era, as now only four major leaguers remain that played in the 1930s. The time spent with Brancato provided a peek into the major leagues prior to World War II. With the absence of an abundance of video footage from this era, only the stories remain to illustrate what baseball was like at the time.

“You would really have to be back in my time to see the difference," he said.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Potter continues to deliver with his next round of baseball signings

Chris Potter with Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr
Crisscrossing the country connecting baseball fans and their cardboard heroes, Chris Potter has continued to make his mark by delivering excellent service to those looking to enhance their autograph collections. With a week left before his next round of coast-to-coast travel, which includes signings with 80 former major league baseball players including Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Bobby Doerr, as well as NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, Potter is busy keeping up with the demand of his faithful.

“Right now, to be honest, we’re up to our eyeballs in mail,” said Potter in a phone interview.

His last round of signings included the notoriously difficult Dr. Mike Marshall, who has evaded collectors for a long time, even proving to be a reluctant signer while he was playing. Potter, after taking the time to break the ice with Dr. Marshall, was able to help collectors land one who has kept his signature in great demand. “It’s definitely a scavenger hunt. A lot were able to cross Dr. Mike Marshall off of their lists,” he said.

So how exactly did Potter break down a guy like Marshall?

“It’s just getting to know somebody. It took me a few years just to build a relationship with him. He took a liking to me and it kind of went from there,” he said. For a player who doesn’t like to sign autographs, Potter was impressed with the amount of care Marshall put in to his signature. “He took pride in his signature. He definitely wanted to make things look good. There were situations where he didn’t think things were up to par and he didn’t let me have it. He was very particular about what he let out in to the market. He had a lot of pride in it, which I don’t see a lot of the players have now today.”

It is through these relationships that Potter has been given a window into the lives of these great men who have helped to build America’s pastime. One of those legends he will be visiting is the aforementioned 94-year-old Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr. “Bobby is of the classiest men I’ve ever met. It’s always a pleasure to see and work with him. I had a great time hearing his stories and talking baseball with him. [He is] one of the best ambassadors of baseball.”

With his June 22nd deadline approaching, Potter is excited to get back on the road to visit the players. One of the things he most looks forward to are the reactions of the players to the wide variety of items he reigns in from his customers. Despite the fact that many of these players have been signing their names for over a half-century, they still get a big kick of what Potter brings their way.

“They really enjoy seeing the stuff I bring them. They say, ‘I haven’t seen this.’ ‘Where can I find this?’ They haven’t seen these things in 40 years in some cases,” said Potter. “Sometimes they want to keep it, but I have to tell them they aren’t mine.”

- Click here to view the 80 players that Potter has available for his June 22nd signings, which includes three Hall of Famers, three MVP's, four Rookies of the Year and a host of other World Series champions and other award winners.

Monday, June 11, 2012

James 'Bus' Clarkson: Unheralded Negro League superstar

James "Bus" Clarkson, unlike many of his Negro League counterparts, had enough left in the tank after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 to carry himself into the major leagues. A rookie at age 37 with the Boston Braves in 1952, Clarkson is one of many unheralded starts of the Negro Leagues given a chance when his best years were behind him.

Thanks to the good people at Baseball Past and Present, Clarkson is featured in a piece that I have authored entitled, "A long ride to the majors: The story of James 'Bus' Clarkson."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The thrill of seeing Gil Hodges still lingers for a lifelong Brooklyn Dodger fan

In December of 2011, I wrote a piece entitled, "Gil Hodges' Brooklyn Dodger teammates make last minute pitch for Hall of Fame," citing recent interviews with Hodges' teammates coming out in support of their late first baseman for the Hall of Fame. That weekend, the newly formed Golden Era Committee voted Ron Santo into the Baseball Hall of Fame, once again leaving Hodges, his family, and his supporters on the outside looking in.

Earlier this week, I received a letter from 72-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers fan Bill Hidde, who shared passionate memories of watching Hodges play in Brooklyn, explaining why he is deserving of the Hall of Fame.

"I grew up in upstate New York, not far from Cooperstown and was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan who idolized Gil Hodges. When he retired, he held the record for most home runs by a right-hander in the National League and he had a cover picture and several page layout in Look Magazine entitled, "Ballet at First Base," with sequenced shots capturing his grace and athleticism fielding his position.

I had an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn and for two or three years we made the trip there in the summer. My aunt would get tickets for Ebbets Field. The thrill for a young man to go to our seats and see that lighted diamond, and realize I was watching my heroes instead of hearing the announcer on the radio at home still lingers.

The ballplayers of that era recognized their impact on youngsters and one of the finest tributes to Gil Hodges is one that was never given. I knew everything a young boy could know about Gil, where he was born, his wife's maiden name, his service in the Marines, and minor league time before making the majors.

Several years ago, I just happened to catch an interview with teammate and star Duke Snider. The interviewer mentioned Gil dying so young. Duke replied that Gil was very high strung and got extremely nervous before big games and said he was also a chain smoker. I either had, or tried to see, every photo of Gil Hodges I could find. There was not one that ever showed him smoking and I am sure it was because he knew the bad influence that could have on his young fans.

Everyone who knew him spoke of him with respect and admiration. His early death took him from the spotlight and many never got to know the man and his accomplishments, but it will be a real injustice if he is not placed in the Hall of Fame, a place he earned and deserves to be enshrined in!"

Bill Hidde

Friday, June 1, 2012

Andres Torres reveals his battles with ADHD at Gigante premier

Andres Torres (center) at the premier of Gigante / N. Diunte
After a few extended cups of coffee with the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers, Andres Torres still had a nervous energy far greater than what any shot of caffeine could provide. He had all of the tools and raw talent to become a major league star: world class speed, a strong arm and the ability to hit from both sides of the plate. Yet Torres didn’t secure a starting role in the majors until the age of 32 after toiling in the minor leagues for the greater part of his baseball career.

Thursday evening, Torres, the New York Mets outfielder was the center of attention at the premier screening of Gigante, a documentary chronicling his battle with ADHD on his long journey to the major leagues. 

Click here to read about Torres' special evening, as well as watch video of Torres speaking about his condition.