Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Don Grate, 91, holder of longest throw record, pitched for Phillies during World War II

Don Grate, a major league pitcher who once held the record for the longest baseball throw, passed away on Saturday November, 22, 2014, according to a representative at the Fred Hunter's Funeral Home in Hollywood, Florida. He was 91.

Born August 27, 1923 in Greenfield, Ohio, Grate was a standout athlete at McClain High School before making his way to Ohio State University. He was a two-sports star, lettering in both baseball and basketball, leading the way to a professional career in both sports.

Don Grate
Grate was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, and was quickly brought to the majors to fill a roster that was depleted by the exodus of players serving in World War II. He debuted against the Chicago Cubs, who were headed for the National League pennant. It was a tall order for the young hurler.

“I had the misfortune of playing the Chicago Cubs at that time,” Grate said to me in a 2009 phone interview from his home in Miami. “The Phillies were the last in fielding at that time. I had to throw five singles, five walks, and the Cubs got five runs. That was my only loss that I had in the majors.”

Grate was roughed up in his subsequent three outings in 1945, finishing with a 17.28 ERA. Despite his struggles during his first major league season, Grate returned to the Phillies in 1946 after posting a 14-8 record at Class A Utica. He fared better in his second campaign, winning his only decision on September 22, 1946, but what a pyrrhic victory it was.
“In the Polo Grounds [Ben] Chapman told me to sidearm the third baseman for the Giants at that time," he said. "Of course, I was not a sidearm pitcher. When I got to throw a sidearm pitch, something snapped in [my] shoulder. I had been improperly warmed up. He told me to go down to the bullpen in the Polo Grounds. It was a long way down there. I go down there and he said, ‘Tell [Dick] Mauney that he's coming in, if he gets in trouble, you're next to start warming up.’ He changed his mind when I got down there. The umpire said, 'Who do you want?’ He said, ‘The big, tall man down there.’ I came in without any warm up. The umpire only allowed me eight pitches to warm up without delaying the game. Sid Gordon I think it was [the batter]. Chapman said to me, ‘Sidearm the S.O.B.’ I did and of course got a sore arm. I told him he better get somebody to warm up. We were behind two runs, but we scored about three-to-four runs and I won the game.”
Unfortunately, Grate never returned to the major leagues. He spent the next few years trying to work out his sore arm with various farm clubs across the Phillies, Braves and Red Sox organizations. In the subsequent off-seasons, he played professional basketball to stay in shape and pick up some extra money until the baseball season started again. In 1949, he played two games for the Sheboygan Red Skins of the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA).

“You have to go to work in the winter months and get a lunch bucket,” he said. “I played in the industrial league in Columbus, Ohio just to stay in shape.”

His luck changed when he signed with the Washington Senators franchise in 1951. Grate was working as a physical education teacher when the Chattanooga Lookouts, a farm club of the Washington Senators called in 1951. He decided that he had enough of pitching and wanted a new lease on his baseball life, this time as an outfielder.

“I won two or three trophies at Ohio State for my ability to hit,” he said. “When I wasn't pitching, I played center field. I was a regular ballplayer, I played every day. Since I had a sore arm, I had moved around pitching enough, so I said I was going to be an outfielder.”

While he wanted to make the transition to a full-time outfielder, he discovered his pitching was still in demand. Seeking another opportunity to revive his career, Grate agreed to play.
“I got a call from Joe Engel in Chattanooga,” he said. “I told him I was teaching school until June. He told me I'd have an opportunity to be a utility man and pinch hitter. I said, ‘I can't come down there unless I had batting practice.’ He told me he needed pitching really bad and said pitchers didn't take batting practice. When he [finally] told me I could take batting practice, I came down and I had a 3-1 record before I switched to the outfield. I got into the lineup in center field because the guy had a stiff neck and couldn't play that night. It was like 500 feet to dead center. I hit a few balls in the crack and I could run. I hit two inside the park home runs, so I stayed in the outfield.”
Grate consistently hit near or above the .300 mark for the remaining six years of his career, finishing up with the New York Giants AAA team of Minneapolis in 1957. It was there in Minnesota where he launched his record toss during a contest in 1956.
“The last one I threw was 445 feet,” he said. “I had to go outside the ballpark in Minneapolis. It was 401 feet to dead center and 45 feet from home to the back stop. There was a crosswind going from right to left so I didn't have any help with the wind. Another guy from Omaha's throw went about halfway between the 405 mark and home plate. His ball reached home plate. Mine hit 3/4 the way up the backstop. He quit and I threw about three-to-four more pitches and they only measured to the screen; there was no way they could measure because it went half way up to the press box. One [judge] said it probably went 470. Half way up to the press box would have been another 30 feet at least. It was 455 feet and one inch to the backstop!”
Even though his awesome feat was surpassed by Glenn Gorbous in 1957, over 50 years later, it remained a popular topic with fans and collectors. He was honored by the Florida Marlins in 2006, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game. In 2009, he was still receiving correspondence about his throwing feats.

“I still get two-to-three requests per week that have something to do with the longest throw,” he said.

He used his professional experience in athletics to better serve his 27-year teaching and coaching career at Miami-Norland Senior High School. One of his prized pupils was his son Jeff, who was a three-sport athlete at Miami-Norland. He went on to Harvard University, following in his father’s footsteps by playing baseball and basketball on the collegiate level. After a successful career at Harvard, Jeff spent three years as a short stop in the Boston Red Sox organization.

“I was a major in health and physical education,” he said. “I had a master’s degree in administration and supervision. I taught 27 years. In basketball I had a very successful year (1964), when we made it to the finals to the state tournament. I got some satisfaction that we got to go to the state tournament.”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mudcat Grant delivers a rousing version of What a Wonderful World at Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner

Jim "Mudcat" Grant, the first African-American 20-game winner in the American League, serenaded the crowd with his rendition of "What a Wonderful World," at the Firefighter's Charitable Foundation Dinner at the Chateau Briand in Carle Place, NY on November 20, 2014.

Tom Sabellico (l.) with "Mudcat" Grant
The 79-year-old Grant is picture above with Tom Sabellico, who co-authored "The Black Aces," an outstanding chronicle of the select group of African-American pitchers that won 20 games in the major leagues. The video below features Grant's soulful touch on Louis Armstrong's classic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Remembering Alvin Dark 1922-2014

Alvin Dark, the 1948 Rookie of the Year who helped the New York Giants win the 1954 World Series, passed away on November 13, 2014 at his home in Easley, South Carolina. He was 92.

In addition to his aforementioned triumph with the Giants as a player, he also guided the Oakland Athletics to World Series victory in 1974, making him one of a select group to win a World Series as both a player and manager.

He compiled a lifetime batting average of .289 with 126 home runs and 757 RBIs, while playing with six different clubs from 1946-1960.

Below is a fitting tribute to Dark from the MLB Network.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

For ex-major leaguer Bob Tufts, the 2014 World Series was one of dual devotions

Former major league pitcher Bob Tufts watched the 2014 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants with great anticipation as his two former clubs squared off in what was an epic series. While it has been over 30 years since he threw a pitch professionally, Tufts still follows the game closely and is not shy about sharing his opinions on the current state of the sport.

I recently caught up with the Princeton graduate to talk about his feeling on this year's World Series and where he made his allegiances as the playoffs progressed.

"World Series tugs at both sides for Forest Hills resident."- TimesLedger.com

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Jean-Pierre Roy, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and master storyteller dies at 94

Often a major league baseball player’s statistics do not even come close to telling the story of their baseball career. Looking at the numbers for Jean-Pierre Roy, one might be mislead by his three major league appearances and 9.95 ERA and assume that it was a career that was short on depth and substance. Those who passed over the totality of his career missed out on a truly fabulous journey. The Montreal native passed away Friday at a hospital in Pompano Beach, Florida, taking his fabulous stories of playing all throughout North America, Central America and the Caribbean with him. He was 94.
Jean-Pierre Roy w/ Nicholas Diunte in 2011 - M. Lemieux

In February 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Roy at his home in Florida and spend a glorious afternoon talking about a baseball career that started in 1940 and lasted over 40 years. Knowing that he played in a wide array of countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Panama, in addition to the United States and Canada, I expected that he had a few hidden gems to unravel. What I did not expect from the 91-year-old Roy, was a raconteur in the essence of Buck O’Neil, one who could deliver his memories not only with clarity and precision, but with an elegance that drew you in from the first words and by the end left you feeling that you had been long lost friends.

What started a short meeting arranged by a Canadian reporter Michel Lemieux, turned into a three-hour long history lesson, with Roy pulling out meticulous scrapbooks and evoking the name of baseball legends from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. He seemingly had a story for, or an encounter with every significant baseball figure from that era.

I could regale you with details of his minor league stats, or lists of all of the places he played and people that he saw, but telling those details wouldn’t do justice to the essence of Jean-Pierre Roy. To meet him was to know him, and I can’t say that about every ballplayer I’ve spoken to. He immediately expressed an excitement about his career from the start of our talk that was evident when he recalled what hooked him into the prospects of a professional career.

Jean-Pierre Roy shares a laugh - M. Lemieux
“The reason why I enjoyed playing ball and going away from the city of Montreal to travel—I got to learn part of the language,” Roy said during our 2011 interview. “You meet all kinds of people, you do all kinds of things that you shouldn’t be doing. I tried them all! I met people that I wouldn’t dare today if I were a ballplayer today associate with.

“I was so happy to play the game, I loved the game. I put things aside for baseball. Of course today, I regret some of them. I missed the opportunity in certain other fields. That’s what I had in mind, play the game, travel and meet people and everything, so that satisfied me.”

Playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, one of the most eccentric charters Roy met was Branch Rickey. Throughout his many dealings with Mr. Rickey, he was most impressed with the executive's ability to read people.

“He was a very intelligent man,” he said. “He was a university product. He had been a teacher, manager and player. He had a good knowledge of humanity. A human for Mr. Rickey could have been a ballplayer, hockey player, a raconteur; he knew each one and why they would make an excellent selection.”

Roy, who had the reputation of being a ladies’ man, fondly recalled an exchange between the two of them where Rickey offered him a bonus if he would get married. It wasn’t until much later that he understood why he made the request.

“One time he wanted me to get married,” he said. “It was 1944. I wasn’t the marrying type. I wanted to meet girls, yes I did. That wasn’t on my mind. He said, ‘Jean (with his eyebrows going down this way and his cigar in the corner), I’m going to give you $2,000 if you get married before or on the first of November.’ Before or on the first of November, why not the second or the fourth? That boggled my mind. Of course, I didn’t get married. I didn’t tell him why.

“Why did he say this, on the first or before? He wanted me to get married before. It wasn’t the $2,000. He knew if I did, I’d get paid after, not before. Mr. Rickey was very selective in his own way. This is very vivid in my mind. Later on, I had the audacity to ask him, ‘Why did you say the first?’ He said, ‘What do you mean Jean? What did I say?’ So I told him, ‘You wanted me to get married on the first of November. Why the first?’ He said, ‘If I said, about the first, that wouldn’t change anything, because I wanted you to get married. That was the first thing. Not to play ball, but to play better ball, to understand the game better and yourself. You cannot play well when you have several things on your mind at once, and you have that. You were not the ballplayer that I wanted. You had the ability that I wanted, but you had to do so much more to make yourself available not only to me but to other people.’ That was Mr. Rickey.”

If he adhered to Rickey's request to get married, he might have went to the big leagues sooner than his 1946 debut. He started the season on Brooklyn’s roster, but it was almost a month before he saw action in a major league game. Even though he only appeared in three contests, Roy was honored just to be there.

“It was thrilling,” he said. “My big fault … if I had established myself as a human being, if I listened to things I heard and Mr. Rickey, I could have done much better than I did. Not only one particular game, but for several games.”

Soured by his performance with Brooklyn and Leo Durocher’s seemingly quick hook, Roy contemplated going south for greater riches. Jorge Pasquel, who knew Roy from his days in Cuba attempted to lure the Canadian to Mexico for his fledgling baseball league.

“I did not go,” he said. “[Pasquel] was a friend of mine because he used to come to Cuba. If it pleased him, he’d take us out to eat together and give me a watch. I was close to him. He comes to New York and tells me, ‘I’m going to bring you to Mexico City. You are going to play for our club, our league. I’m going to send you the money.’ He offered $3,500 for the trip. I went down and the money was $15,000, big money at the time. I was not worth $15,000 as a pitcher in Mexico. Today I say I wasn’t, but at the time it touched me.

“He was a friend. Of course, I needed the money. My mother was not well and I had my mother on my mind. I jumped and as soon as I got to Mexico, I went to Jorge and said, ‘Jorge, I do not see anybody.’ He’s sitting on a bench facing the window. He says, ‘I send you to San Luis Potosi.’ That was a little city he was sending me to. At the time, the commissioner of baseball in Cuba was a guy named Pittman. He told me I was going there. That’s not what I wanted; I thought it was Mexico City. I came back and went to Montreal.”

He returned to find himself right in the middle of Jackie Robinson’s historical debut season. On April 18, 1946, Robinson broke the color line in the minor leagues when he played in Montreal’s season opener against the Jersey City Giants. Roy spent the rest of the season with Robinson and built up a kinship with him during the remainder of his time in the Dodgers organization that allowed him to gain insight into Robinson’s character both on and off the field.

“He’s everything that has been recommended,” he said, “a complete ballplayer. [He was] a fellow who can create according to his ability and put it together at the right time to help somehow. That’s something that I remember about him … Jackie used to do it on his own. He was so strong, mentally, that I still believe, he died from this—he got hurt so badly by not being recognized as a future manager. He wanted to be a manager; that he told me.”

Throughout his global baseball travels, Roy had many opportunities to play against the stars of the Negro Leagues in their prime, and had vivid stories about all of the greats who were held back and excluded due to segregation. What he admired most was their ability to play the game despite the harsh conditions they faced.

“They didn’t care,” he said, “they played the game and that was it. I spoke with them very often. They would say, ‘We’re playing the game. We get paid for it because we’ve got to eat. Take this apart, it doesn’t matter. We want to play.’”

Roy never returned to the major leagues, bouncing around among minor league teams far and wide from Ottawa to Hollywood to Mexico City until he hung his spikes up for good in 1955 while playing for Sherbrooke in the Provincial League. At 35, he knew it was time to move on.

“I was too old for that organization,” he said. “I didn’t care too much for it because when you are through, you are through.”

Jean-Pierre Roy comfortable behind the microphone - M. Lemieux
He didn’t stay removed for too long, as Montreal Expos executive John McHale selected Roy, who was still very popular in Montreal, to do radio and television analysis when the franchise started in 1969. He remained involved as part of their broadcast team until 1983.

“I was there from day one,” he said. “This is it in Montreal. This is a childish dream. I played in Montreal; I knew they would accept it. In that ballpark, that Double-A ballpark. Mr. John McHale, I owe him a great deal of recognizance. He was the type like Branch Rickey, but there is only one Branch Rickey as far as I am concerned.”

Broadcasting in an era far away from the reach of the hyper-sensitive media outlets of today, Roy said that on-air personnel face far greater challenges with what they can say and how their words are interpreted.

“They’ve gotta be very careful because you have many writers who are knowledgeable and they have friends,” he said. “Today’s sports are so influential on people. It is a big business to start with. Big business means big dollars, and when you have big dollars, you have everything else that is big or will become big. You’ve gotta be careful how you say your ideas whenever it comes up.

“That doesn’t mean being transparent doesn’t mean having to say the truth, you have to be careful. You have to say the truth in a certain way. It’s said in a business way. At the same time, you have to communicate to who is listening to you. You have to communicate honestly and show you have the knowledge. Having all this is a plus and a minus. You know, they used to say ‘off the cover,’ but that doesn’t exist anymore. … Everything is seen by the listener as a truthful communication. It might not be complete as the communication is concerned. You cannot say everything that is on your mind to millions of people at once. This is something very fascinating to me.”

During that sunny Florida winter afternoon in 2011 as our interview progressed, Roy assumed the role of a broadcaster during a rain delay, detailing with pride his vast baseball experiences. I listened with wide ears as he professed his love affair with the game.

“My pleasure and the best memory I have of the game is what I know about it,” he said. “The little I know about it, the people I have known, and the people I see on television. Today it’s baseball to me.

“It’s the answer I would have given you yesterday and the day before yesterday. What I like about baseball is not the players; it’s the life, the life of a human being. This is how you should accept it. Do the best you can in the things our boss has asked us to do. By boss, you can call it God, the manager, the Lord, but that’s it. This is what I want, what I like to see.”

At the conclusion of our conversation, while thumbing through old scrapbooks of photos from yesteryear depicting the travels of a young handsome pitcher from a half-century ago, Roy showed contrition for his transgressions in his earlier days.

“Why should I go back 50 years and regret things that happened at that time?” he asked. “I made mistakes in baseball, made more mistakes than I was allowed to. That was my choice, let it be, it’s my fault. That’s the part that I have to read to the public. If they want to know the rest, they can. If they like me now for what I can express as far as the game myself, I hope they accept it.

“Baseball is a great game. If we can take advantage of all of the ingredients of the game and the minds that commanded the game for years like Mr. Rickey. … He is the God of baseball as far as I’m concerned. There are so many names took birth with that gentlemen. [By] birth, I say the first day they played the game was account of Mr. Rickey. That’s a gift from him.”