Sunday, September 30, 2012

Frank Saucier's promising career derailed by more than Veeck's midget intervention

Frank Saucier once batted an astonishing .446 in 1949 while playing with the Wichita Falls team of the Big State League; a total that to this day stands as one of the highest ever for a single professional season. Yet over 60 years later, Saucier’s claim to fame is not his towering feats at the plate, rather it is the distinction of being the only player in Major League Baseball’s history to be replaced by a midget.

On August 19, 1951, Saucier returned from right field to the bench of the St. Louis Browns at the bottom of the first inning after helping to hold the Detroit Tigers to a scoreless first frame. The events that transpired after Saucier went to grab a bat from the rack to face Tigers’ hurler Bob Cain permanently engrained Saucier’s name in the depths of baseball’s annals.
Frank Saucier Portrait / N. Diunte
Before revealing the details of Saucier’s historical moment, let’s go back a few months to the beginning of the 1951 season. He began the season on the suspended list when he held out for a bonus and refused to sign his contract. Saucier turned his attention to managing oil fields in Okmulgee, Okla., content with the money he was making away from baseball. With the season marching along and no attempt from management to make amends on his contract demands, Saucier donning a major league uniform in 1951 seemed almost as absurd as a midget taking the field. The thought of either happening at the time might have been a foregone conclusion, unless your name was Bill Veeck.

Veeck led a group of investors that bought the Browns midway through the 1951 season, and one of the first moves he made was to personally visit Saucier to persuade him to join the club. After an hour of discussions, Saucier penned his name on a major league contract worth $10,000. Veeck hoped that the popular Saucier would energize the fan base and get the turnstiles moving. Slightly over two weeks after he was signed, Saucier made his major league debut on July 22, 1951. Rusty after taking a three month break from playing, Saucier developed bloody blisters on his hands that made it hard for him to swing a bat, and acute bursitis that made it hard for him to throw. The World War II veteran soldiered on for the rest of the season, with most of his appearances coming as a pinch runner. So why was Saucier in the lineup on July 19th?

A week prior to the game, Veeck alerted the newspapers in Saucier's hometown of Washington, Mo., that he would be playing. The news of his appearance brought a few extra thousand people to the game, something the Browns desperately needed. Saucier hoped Cain didn’t have his best stuff that day because he was in no shape to take a hack.

"I go over to the bat rack and pick up my Louisville Slugger, model K44, and I step up to the plate. And I hope (Tigers pitcher) Bob Cain walks me because I sure can't swing the bat," Saucier said to ESPN.com.

He didn’t even get the opportunity to dig his cleats in the batter’s box when his at-bat was interrupted by a stark announcement that boomed across the stadium.

"When the announcer called Eddie, I was thinking this is both the greatest act of show business I've ever seen, plus it's the easiest money I've ever made," Saucier said.

Three-foot-seven-inch midget Eddie Gaedel waddled up to the plate, and true to Saucier’s hopes, Cain couldn’t find the plate. Thoroughly distracted by Gaedel’s miniscule strike zone, he walked him on four pitches. After a few waves to the crowd, Gaedel eventually made it to first base and was replaced by Jim Delsing. Gaedel walked off the field, never to be heard from again by his baseball teammates. He died at 36 in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

As for Saucier, he finished the season with a .073 average (1-14); limited by the nagging injuries that plagued him all season. He was recalled to active duty by the United States Navy in April, 1952 to serve in the Korean War. Four years after starting his baseball career, it was over. He spent two years in the service, receiving his release from active duty in April, 1954. He returned to the oil business, and then became a financial consultant in Amarillo, Texas before his retirement. The baseball fields at his alma mater, Westminster College are named in his honor. At the age of 86, Saucier is living in Amarillo, the last living player from the St. Louis Browns that participated in the July 19th affair. Saucier has embraced his role in baseball history, generously sending out numerous articles about his career after recent correspondence with him via mail (pictured below).

A tip of the cap goes to Bob Lemke's article, Frank Saucier's brief but memorable career now commemorated, which provided valuable background information for this piece.


Frank Saucier Autographed Photo and Card / N. Diunte




Monday, September 24, 2012

Tom Umphlett, former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators passes away at 81

Tom Umphlett, former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators died Friday, September 21st, in Norfolk, Va. He was 81.

Umphlett played three seasons in the major leagues from 1953-55, finishing second in the 1953 American League Rookie of the Year voting to Harvey Kuenn. He was part of a youth movement by the Red Sox in the early 1950’s to fill the voids left by Ted Williams’ military service and Dom DiMaggio’s retirement. “[Lou] Boudreau, the manager, was going for the young talent even in spring training. You had Ted Lepcio at third base, Milt Bolling at short, Goodman at second, and Dick Gernert at first base. I played center field and Jimmy Piersall played right,” he said during a 2008 interview from his home in Ahoskie, N.C.

Click here to read more about Umphlett's career including his memories of playing with the greatest hitter that ever lived.

 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dwight Gooden to appear at Greenwich Citibank on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dwight Gooden / N. Diunte
Dwight “Doc” Gooden, a 2010 inductee into the New York Mets Hall of Fame and member of the of the New York Mets Alumni Association Presented by Citi, will be greeting fans and signing autographs from 12:00-1:30 pm on Tuesday, September 25th at the Citibank branch at 16-18 Railroad Avenue in Greenwich, Ct., in support of Citi Tuesdays.

Gooden was the 1984 National League Rookie of the Year, the 1985 National League Cy Young Award winner, and part of the Mets 1986 World Series championship team. He is ranks in the top 3 on the Mets all-time list in various pitching categories, including games won, strikeouts, inning pitched, won-loss percentage, and complete games.

Citi Tuesdays is a program designed to provide added value to Citi customers and Mets fans. For more information and details on all Citi Tuesday offers, please log on to www.Mets.com/CitiTuesdays or visit the Citi Tuesday information booth located by the Shea Bridge at Citi Field on every Citi Tuesday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mookie Wilson strongly endeared to Shea Stadium

Mookie Wilson at Citi Tuesdays - N. Diunte
For Mookie Wilson, he will always find comfort in the confines of Shea Stadium. For 10 years, Wilson was a fixture in center field, tracking down balls far and wide to the delight of the New York Mets faithful. It is no surprise that despite spending time as a coach for the Mets in their new digs at Citi Field, he remains loyal to its predecessor. “It’s interesting that you use the word home because that’s what Shea was. To me, Shea was home. Don’t get me wrong, Citi Field is a beautiful ballpark; I think that it is fan friendly. I would have loved played at Citi Field, but you can’t replace Shea. That was home for us,” said Wilson while making an appearance Tuesday afternoon as part of the Mets Citi Tuesdays promotion at Citibank in Lower Manhattan. “It was old, [and] yes it needed repairs, but it was home and we loved and enjoyed playing there. I don’t think you can compare the two. Shea has its history and Citi Field is in the process of making its own history and it’s going to take time.”

Click here to read more about and watch video of Wilson's thoughts about playing for the Mets, his trade to Toronto, and his desire to return to coaching. 

 

Tom Saffell, former MLB outfielder and WWII veteran dies at 91

Tom Saffell, an outfielder who played parts of four big league seasons from 1949-1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Athletics, passed away last week. He was 91.

Saffell was the president of the Gulf Coast Rookie League for 30 years from 1979-2009, working until he was 89 years old. That capped a career in baseball that started almost 70 years prior in 1941 in the Class D Newport Canners of the Appalachian League.

Click here to read more about Saffell's career which features excerpts from a 2008 interview and his SABR bio. 

 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Johnny Antonelli opens up the doors to his baseball life with 'A Baseball Memoir'

Johnny Antonelli has been out of baseball for 50 years, yet with the release of his new autobiography, "Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir", he finds himself back on the mound one more time.

“It feels pretty good. I’m not one that ever flaunted myself to be recognized. This has given me something that I probably missed since 1962 when I left. It’s something that kind of brings back memories,” Antonelli said during an August telephone interview. 

Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir / RIT Press

The southpaw collaborated with award winning journalist Scott Pitoniak to chronicle his story, one that he was initially reluctant to engage.

“He was asking me for a few years about doing a book and it wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I kind of put him off for a while. Finally I agreed to do it,” he said.


The deeper the once-hesitant pitcher went in the process, the more he enjoyed it. Their conversations elicited memories that Antonelli had once locked away.

“He kept asking me questions and dug up a lot of things that would bring back memories of all the things I went into when I was playing baseball," he said. "We got together quite often and I would say for about six or eight months that we talked and he came up with ideas. He dug into the history and I thought he did a pretty good job with it.”

Antonelli was a star at Rochester’s Jefferson High School and in 1948 was on the top of every scout’s list. His father arranged for the young lefty to pitch in a semi-pro game in front of a sellout crowd at the stadium of the Rochester Red Wings. Antonelli did not disappoint, striking out 17 on his way to a complete game no-hitter. The next day, the scouts lined up outside of his front door, waiting for their turn to woo him into their organizations. After the smoke cleared and $52,000 later, Antonelli was officially a member of the Boston Braves. In less than 48 hours, Antonelli went from a high school star straight to the major leagues at Braves Field.

Major League Baseball had a established a bonus rule at the time, where players who were signed for more than $4,000 had to be placed on the major league roster for at least two years. Antonelli’s arrival meant that someone had to be displaced from the big league club. The loss of one of their own, coupled with a hefty salary of the unproven high school player, irked many of the veterans.

“They were fighting for the pennant at the time of course and they had to get rid of a ballplayer, Jim Pendergrast, who was also a left-handed pitcher," Antonelli recalled. "He was sent down and of course there were some feelings about that with the team because he was friendly with them, and here I am a young 18-year-old coming in with a bonus. I think that upset a couple of the players, mainly Warren Spahn. For some reason, it bothered him more than any of the others.”

Spahn, who was the ace of the staff, resented the fact that Antonelli’s bonus more than tripled his salary.

“It was a unique situation, having received this bonus coming in, and then having resentment from some of the ballplayers," he said. "People have to understand and I did then that everyone wasn’t making much money. Our catcher Phil Masi would catch double headers and he was making $8,700. Spahn was making $15,000. How could you give a kid $52,000 and here we’re winning a pennant, want a raise and can’t get it? Then they went up [to owner Lou Perini] and got it. They should be happy in that respect.”

It took Antonelli a few seasons and a tour of duty in the military during the Korean War to shake the label of a bonus baby and quell all of his doubters. He missed two seasons due to his service (1951-52) and returned in 1953 to become a vital cog in the Braves rotation, going 12-12 in 31 appearances. He credits his increased role and performance due to the experience he gained pitching for his Army team.

“There was always a feeling I didn’t have the minor league experience," he said. "I always felt that I was as good as at least three-to-four of the pitchers that they were using. Not being used, you kind of lose your confidence. When I went into the service, I was pitching for Fort Myers, Va., and we had a pretty good ballclub. We won the Service Championship for the district of Washington. I got to pitch quite often and went 42-2 during that time."

His showing in Milwaukee was enough to attract the attention of the New York Giants, who traded star outfielder Bobby Thomson for his services. While Antonelli saw potential with the young club he was leaving, he was about to embark on a journey that would quickly change the course of his career.

“I enjoyed playing with Milwaukee and playing with that club, because I knew with the youth we had on that club, we were going to be good for many, many years" he said. "When I was told I was traded, I felt kind of bad about that because I thought we had a lot of future. I went to New York and we had pretty good success there, so I guess I can’t complain.”

Johnny Antonelli’s 1954 season with the Giants was one that baseball dreams are made of: 21 wins, an All-Star appearance, a third place finish in the MVP voting, and a World Series Championship that included him earning a win in Game 2 and a save in Game 4 that secured the final out of the Giants’ sweep of the Cleveland Indians.

He played with the Giants through the 1960 season, weathering their move to San Francisco to earn five All-Star selections. A New Yorker at heart, Antonelli didn’t enjoy the change of scenery.

“Going from New York to San Francisco was not my happiest time because I had a lot of success pitching in the Polo Grounds and I was concerned how I was going to pitch in San Francisco,” he said. “I felt very comfortable pitching in the Polo Grounds even though they had the short porches. As long as I kept them from pulling or hitting down the line, I had Willie Mays there catching all the mistakes I made.”

Antonelli split the 1961 season between the Cleveland Indians and the Milwaukee Braves, retiring at the end of the season, thwarting an offer of over $30,000 to join the New York Mets in 1962. He had a successful tire business in Rochester and no longer desired the time away from his family that a major league career required.

“I had just turned 32," he said. “I was still young enough to play, but my problem was I was not a traveler; I didn’t like being away from the family. I kind of chose that time to get out. I didn’t want to be a pioneer.

"I knew they were going to have problems. It’s tough enough to live with a decent ballclub, but they were a very poor ballclub at the early stages. Even though they had some great names on the team, they were getting older. I remember someone told me that Casey Stengel said because I was in the tire business I had turned them down. They had sent me a contract for $38,000, which was a pretty good number at the time. He said, ‘He must be selling a lot of black donuts in Rochester to turn a contract like this down.’ On second thought, maybe I would have liked to play there a year or two, as I was comfortable, but again I had already made the decision.”

Turning his attention to Mark Appel’s recent rejection of a $3.8 million signing bonus with the Pittsburgh Pirates to return to Stanford, Antonelli had difficulty accepting that a player would turn down such an amount that could set themselves up financially for the rest of their lives.

“It’s hard to believe, hard to understand that somebody would turn down such a contract," he said. “I do believe that players are people. If they can get the college education, that’s great. Not too many every year make it to the major leagues. I think an education is always the best way to go, but when someone says, 'Here’s $4 million to sign a contract,' it’s kind of hard to turn away from that.

"I know in our day, when my father accepted $52,000 from Lou Perini, that was like all the money in the world. Now it’s $4 million, and that even opens my eyes a bit more."

The longer he pondered Appel's decision, the more he saw the disparity between Appel’s bonus and his own.

“I think it’s become accepted [to turn these offers down],” he said. "The minimum pay is well over $400,000. They don’t frown on that the way the $52,000 I received. … How many ballplayers every year that come out of high school or college make it? How many are successful? The average years [for a player] when I was playing ball, was 3.5 years. You couldn’t make enough in 3.5 years to retire for life; my contract was for $5,500 a season. If you are getting $4 million up front, you should be able to save a percentage of that, leave it alone and let it grow. It’s very hard for me not to take that contract.”

Now at 82, Antonelli is happily retired from the tire business with his second wife Gail, splitting time between New Mexico and Rochester during the year. He continues to follow the game, making appearances at Frontier Field in Rochester where he was honored with a spot in their Walk of Fame. The book release has provided Antonelli the opportunity to relish in the memories of his teammates and all of the wonderful people he met along the way.

“I never met a real bad person in baseball,” he said. "Most of the things I’d say about any of the players I played with were that they were all nice people.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

Negro Leaguer Bill Greason returns to Oklahoma City 60 years after barrier breaking debut

Bill Greason throwing out the first pitch in Oklahoma - Facebook
Rev. Bill Greason, former pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, (where he mentored a 16-year old Willie Mays) and later the St. Louis Cardinals, spoke during a tribute in his honor in Oklahoma City with NewsOK.com about becoming the first black player for the Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League in 1952.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Greason in 2008 about his historical 1952 season in Oklahoma City. He was sold directly from the Black Barons to Oklahoma City shortly after returning from his service in the Korean War. He spoke frankly about the hardships he faced and how he handled them.

"They gave you a hard time, even from the stands. A couple of places especially. When you know who you are and you have talent, you don’t worry about what people say. Sometimes it encourages you to do better and work harder. ... When people call you names, and you know who you are, you don’t worry about what they say. It gives you more determination to succeed."

The 87-year-old Greason was honored on August 30th by the Oklahoma City Redhawks, commemorating the 60th anniversary of his debut. Berry Tramel of NewsOK.com provides an excellent video interview with Greason about his barrier breaking entry into baseball, his military service, and career in the ministry.

His appearance was heavily covered by local media outlets, spearheaded by Tramel's coverage.
Celebrating a Deserving Pioneer in OKC - Jenni Carlson
The Reverend Returns - Brendan Hoover
Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson returns - Berry Tramel 
Bill Greason: Owner Jimmie Humphries paved the way - Berry Tramel
Reverend Bill Greason: A memorable night at the ballpark - Berry Tramel

 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bob DiPietro, former Boston Red Sox outfielder, dies at 85

Bob DiPietro, a former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who earned the nickname The Rigatoni Rifle because of his tremendous throwing arm, died two days after his 85th birthday in Yakima, Wash., on September 3, 2012.

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview DiPietro for his SABR biography. Even though DiPietro only made it to the plate 12 times (all in 1951) during his major league career, it was one that included brushes with Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In addition to being linked to some of the biggest stars that baseball has ever known, he proudly served the country in World War II, and went on to run a successful advertising business in Yakima.

He is survived by his wife Bertie, sons Bob and Mark and their wives Sheryl and Marcy, grandchildren Kiley, Joe, Lexi and Paul.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Potter tracking down the legend of Drungo Hazewood

A rare signed Drungo Hazewood 1991 Crown Orioles Card
Drungo Hazewood’s major league baseball career lasted five plate appearances, and if you weren't scouring box scores in 1980, chances are slim that you've ever heard of him. Yet when it comes to serious fans and collectors of Baltimore Orioles memorabilia, Hazewood has remained famous for more than his unique moniker. Just like the curve balls that baffled the highly touted outfielder, he has thrown some of his own to those seeking his signature, placing his name atop the want lists of collectors across the country.

In his travels connecting retired major leaguers with aficionados looking to further their autograph collections, Chris Potter met with the elusive Hazewood to discuss the prospects of facilitating a signing to add his penmanship to their prized paraphernalia. “I brought it up to him, I said, ‘You’ve been a pretty tough autograph for people that want it,’” said Potter. “He goes, ‘I just don’t understand why they want it.’ – He just doesn’t understand why people want his autograph from the career that he had. He didn’t have a long career. He’s kind of taken back by the fact that people want his autograph. He’s more than happy to do the signing with me; he was excited about it when I mentioned it to him. He wants to see what people are going to send in to be signed.”

Hazewood is one of 50 former major leaguers that Potter will visit during his next run of signings beginning September 30th that include a wide range of talents from Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, perennial All-Stars Del Crandall, Reggie Smith, and Don Kessinger, to such curiosities as Frank Baker, Rich Coggins, Johnny Jeter, and Ron Woods. The one-time Orioles prospect is not the first player to wonder why people still want their autograph long after their cup of coffee has been emptied. “I’ve run across that a few times where players are like, ‘Who remembers me and why do people want my autograph?’” said Potter. “The people who are really seeking their autograph know who they are, but it’s really hard to find someone who knows about the players I go and see unless you are a baseball enthusiast, historian or collector. We focus more on those guys.”

For many of the players Potter visits, they enjoy the convenience of being able to do the signing in a comfortable setting while obliging the fans. “Everybody I’ve worked with really enjoys this. If you look at it, they don’t have to go anywhere and guys their age, they don’t like to travel. Not only are we providing a service to the collectors, we are providing a service to the players as well. That’s what is appealing to a lot of these guys. They want to accommodate the fans and they want to go to these shows, but some are physically unable to do so. With the service we provide, they’re able to accommodate the fans and they’re happy to do so with what we provide,” said Potter.

As he continues with traversing the routes and highways of the United States, he finds the players revel in the uniqueness of the items they’re presented with. “We get it all the time. They’re taken a back from some of these items and by people who track this stuff down, are passionate enough to get it signed, and want their autograph on it. Some of the guys are really emotional about the things we bring them to be signed.” For more information on Potter’s next round of signings, check out his website – www.chrispottersports.com