Sunday, December 21, 2014

Russ Kemmerer, 84, former Major League pitcher was a master storyteller

Russ Kemmerer was one of the first retired major league players that I interviewed in my quest to put together a book about playing through baseball’s integration of the 1950s. What started out as a discussion of his early years in the Red Sox minor league system, turned into a two-day, hour-and-a-half phone conversation that ended with him sending me a copy of his book, “Ted Williams: Hey Kid, Just Get It Over the Plate,” just because he knew I would enjoy it from our talk. I was saddened to receive the news that Kemmerer passed away on December 8, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was 84. (Ed. Note - His funeral announcement lists his birthday as November 1, 1930, not November 1, 1931 as previously listed.)

Kemmerer was a standout high school athlete in the Pittsburgh area at Peabody High School, earning All-City honors in baseball, basketball, and football. His talents earned him a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he played freshman baseball and basketball.

Russ Kemmerer / Baseball-Almanac.com
After one year at Pittsburgh, he signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1950 after an offer of $3,000 by scout Socko McCarey. He spent the summer playing semi-pro ball in his hometown before officially entering the Red Sox organization in 1951. It was there he encountered a minor league system overflowing with talent.

“They had so many of us that they didn’t know which ones to keep,” he said to me during a 2008 phone interview. “Ironically, most of us, like myself, they traded to someone [else], and they stayed in the majors longer than the guys they kept. It was a hit and miss thing. You didn’t know which guys were going to be [productive].”

He made his debut with the Red Sox in 1954 and narrowly missed a no-hitter in his first start. In the seventh inning on July 18, 1954, Sam Mele hit a shot to left-field that barely evaded the outstretched arm of Ted Williams.

“My first game as a starter with Boston was against Baltimore and I just missed pitching a no-hitter,” he said. “I threw a one-hitter. Williams played left-field that game. That was one of the first games he played after breaking his collarbone. That was one of the highlights of my career. They got one hit that game. If he would have jumped a little higher, he would have probably caught the damn thing off of Sam Mele.”

Kemmerer played until 1957 with the Red Sox until he suffered an arm injury while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico right before the start of the 1957 season. The Red Sox instead of waiting for his arm to heal, traded him to the Washington Senators. 

“One morning, I got up and couldn’t raise my arm,” he said. “You didn’t want to tell anybody you were hurt because they had so many guys waiting. They didn’t fool with you, send you to the doctor or do anything; they would just call somebody else. They thought I had lost my fastball. So I was available to be traded to the Senators at that time. They called me in and told me I was traded.”

Kemmerer ended up playing nine seasons in the majors, also spending time with the Chicago White Sox and the expansion Houston Colt 45’s. He recalled the follies of playing for the formative years of what is now the Astros franchise.

“It was a funny experience,” he said. “They did so many things. One of the things we learned to hate, they bought traveling outfits for us. They were royal blue suits and Texan boots that were blue with an orange design in them. You wore a white shirt that had blue stripes with an orange tie and a ten gallon hat. You wore it on the road. When we went to New York, they said, ‘Hey, the rodeo is in town! The first thing we’d do, to the man, we’d throw them things down and put on regular clothes when were in public. We only had to wear them when we traveled.”

He took his experiences from the big leagues and used them to help shape the lives of the next generation, working for over 20 years as a high school English teacher, baseball and football coach at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis. In retirement, Kemmerer married both of his careers with his 2002 memoir with the title containing a tribute to his most famous teammate.

“The title came from an incident when I was senior in high school in Pittsburgh and the Red Sox came to Forbes Field to play in the Green Pennant Game to raise funds for something,” he said. “The Red Sox had been scouting me since I was a sophomore in high school, so they wanted me to come in and throw batting practice. … I learned later that major league players didn’t like to hit wild high school kids. I pitched through the reserve batting order. I turned around and [Ted] Williams looked up in the batter’s box and oh damn, he pointed the bat out to me and said, ‘Hey kid, just get it over the plate, you’re doing a good job.’ … I remembered that when I was looking for the title of the book.”

Kemmerer forged a relationship with Williams that lasted until his 2002 death, appearing at annual gatherings at Williams’ museum in Tampa. He appreciated the humility of Williams and the other stars of his era.

“One thing I realized about all of these guys that I played with and against,” he said, “they respected you for the fact that you stayed up there ten years or so. There was none of this, ‘I’m a Hall of Famer and you’re not’. I was always pleased that guys admired you because you were one of them.”

Speaking with him in 2008, I was most impressed with how willing he was to talk about the game and the many travels of his career. He relished the opportunity to interact with his fans whether it was by talking on the phone or responding to autograph requests in the mail.

“I never refuse anybody,” he said. “I think it’s a great honor that they even remember you. … I’ll talk all day about baseball if someone wants to talk.”

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