Monday, January 27, 2014

An unlikely reunion for Wil Cordero and his first major league home run

My ticket from 9/18/1992
On the night of September 18, 1992, the New York Mets played the Montreal Expos, and I was excited to get to the park because my favorite Met Gary Carter was now playing for the Expos. I hoped that I would have one more chance to see him play up close. When my mom told me that we had tickets to the picnic area, my eyes grew wide with passion.

Attending a Mets game in the picnic area was an annual tradition for our family, as my mom was able to secure tickets through an event her job held there annually. For a young kid, it made going to a baseball game an even more enjoyable affair, as there was free food and an opportunity to be up close and personal with the opposing team’s bullpen. This usually meant that some of the members of the bullpen would make themselves available to sign a few autographs, something I looked forward to as much as the game.

We usually made sure that we arrived early when the gates opened, but this year we were delayed in getting to the park. By the time we arrived at the picnic area, the members of the Expos bullpen were fully focused in getting prepared for the game. There would be no chance to get some signatures, so I sat closer to the bullpen, hoping in my naiveté that by sitting near the pitchers, that I could somehow reverse my fortunes. Little did I know that later in the game, my sulking behavior a few rows away from my family would pay greater dividends than I expected.

Dwight Gooden was pitching for the Mets, and I remember him hitting the skids late in the game, necessitating Mets manager Jeff Torborg to quickly go to the bullpen. After making a pitching change, Wil Cordero, a young prospect at shortstop was preparing to take the plate. I was familiar with him largely due to his rookie baseball card that I owned, so I paid closer attention to the at-bat. A pitch or two later, a fly ball comes skyrocketing in my direction. I stand up in anticipation, noting that the ball is coming increasingly closer towards me. Steadying my hands for the catch I reach out for the ball and at the last minute someone in front of me attempts to snatch at it. It ricochets off of their hands right under my feet. Immediately, I dove on it and secured it in my possession. I was now the proud owner of a Cordero home run ball.

I stand up with the ball and get some pats on the back from fans nearby. Almost as soon as I turn around to look for my family, a Shea Stadium security guard calls for my attention. Being a good young citizen, I followed the man. He informed me that the ball in my hands was Cordero’s first major league home run, and that the Expos would like to offer me a baseball autographed by their bullpen. My earlier dejection was now turning to joy, as I would be going home with some signatures after all. I quickly made the exchange, returning Cordero’s first round-tripper to his possession.

Immediately fans came up to me, wanting to know what I traded the ball for. Some said I should have asked for a bat, his jersey, cash, or even autographs of the whole team. Everything happened so fast that I had little time to process the transaction. I was just thrilled that I was being offered something for returning the ball; never did the thought pass my mind of how I could capitalize on the situation.

A few weeks later I wrote Cordero at the Montreal Expos ballpark, explaining to him the events and how I would appreciate it if he was willing to offer his signature, as the ball I was given contained only a few members of the bullpen and not his own penmanship. I didn’t include a baseball card, or a SASE, both no-no’s in the world of writing to baseball players. Heck, I wasn’t sure if he was going to even read the letter, but I thought it was worth sending.

The card sent by Cordero himself
About a month later, an envelope comes from Canada, with the return address written in script, “Wilfredo Cordero, Montreal Expos.” I quickly open the letter, to find a beautiful baseball card, with Cordero’s signature neatly across the front. Both the envelope and card are something I’ve kept until this day.

Imagine my surprise when I read last week that Cordero would be appearing at the 2014 BBWAA Awards Dinner in New York, as part of a tribute to the 1994 Montreal Expos. Right away, I was transported to that game some 22 years ago in Flushing. I thought that if I had the chance to meet him at the event that I would relay the story to see if he remembered. There was one problem though, I didn’t have a ticket.

My friend Nick D’Arienzo of metroBASEBALL magazine must have been reading my mind, because the next day, he sent me an e-mail offering a ticket to attend. I gladly accepted and excitedly awaited my trip to the New York Hilton.

When I arrived, D’Arienzo gave me my ticket and program. Immediately, I looked for Cordero’s name in the program and found that he was not on the dais, but on the main floor with the rest of the patrons. Once we found our table, I put down my belongings and went for Cordero’s table. Sporting a mustache and a goatee, I passed his table once, not sure if it was him. I doubled back, and after a gentleman at his table confirmed that the man I was looking for was indeed Cordero, I introduced myself.

I told him the story and Cordero, as well as the rest of the members at his table, all perked up to hear the tale of his first home run. He thanked me for returning the ball, and when one of the people at the table asked what he remembered about the at-bat, he quickly replied, “You can’t sneak a fastball by me!”

Wil Cordero and the author after the dinner
He gladly signed a few baseball cards that I brought, and agreed to talk more after the dinner was over. We met in the hotel lobby and spoke for a few minutes about being a part of that 1994 Expos team that was halted by the strike, and how being honored at the dinner brought it full circle.

For a young kid that evening who caught his first and only home run ball at a big league game back in 1992, this meeting completed my small connection with Cordero’s memorable first time around the bases.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Charlie Osgood, 17-year-old hurler for the Brooklyn Dodgers, passes away at 87

Charlie Osgood, pitcher of one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944, passed away on January 23, 2014 in Tewksbury, Mass. He was 87.

In the summer of 1944, with the Brooklyn Dodgers roster depleted by players leaving for their World War II service, Branch Rickey reached into the depths of his available talent pool to pluck seven different players aged 18 or younger to fill the void left by his departed veterans.

Charlie Osgood / Author's Collection
For one of his recruits, Rickey didn't have to look any farther than the Dodgers' family. Clyde Sukeforth, the Dodgers scout who later gained notoriety for his instrumental role in scouting and signing Jackie Robinson, had a nephew in Osgood who was a prized high school pitching star in Massachusetts. Desperate to stem their pitching woes, Rickey signed Osgood directly to the major league club.

Fresh from facing high school competition, Osgood comprised a Dodgers bullpen that included fellow teenagers Cal McLish and Ralph Branca, a trio so young that Harold C. Burr of The Sporting News dubbing Rickey’s nubile talent, “Brooklyn’s Nursery School.”

Osgood made his major league debut on June 18, 1944 against the Philadelphia Blue Jays (nee Phillies) at the tender age of 17. Pitching in relief of his elder statesmen of McLish and Branca, he had difficulty with his control, walking three batters and hitting another. Despite his wildness, he managed to escape with allowing only one run in three innings of work. It would be his only appearance in the major leagues.

A few weeks after his debut, Burr reported in the July 6, 1944 edition of The Sporting News, that the Dodgers had sent Osgood to Class B Newport News for more seasoning. He finished the season shuttling between their farm clubs in Trenton and Montreal, playing a few games at each stop. At the end of the year, he was left unprotected by the Dodgers in the minor league draft and signed by the Chicago Cubs.

Osgood’s career was interrupted in 1945 to serve in the United States Coast Guard during World War II. He returned to the Cubs organization in 1946, and after two pedestrian seasons in the low minors, Osgood was out of professional baseball.

In his post-playing days, he graduated from Suffolk University, and went on to work as a credit manager at the Boston Globe before retiring in 1988. For most of his retirement, Osgood remained elusive to fans and collectors, ignoring requests for interviews and signatures. Only in the last few years of his life, did he entertain some of the mail that was sent his way, including the homemade baseball card below.
 
Charlie Osgood
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his five children.

Note - Thanks to the great work of Rod Nelson and Jacob Pomrenke at SABR, the 2001 interview of Osgood conducted by Bill Nowlin has been brought to life.

 
 

Friday, January 24, 2014

LaTroy Hawkins remains outspoken on the declining number blacks in baseball

LaTroy Hawkins 2004 Fleer Tradition - Paul Hadsall
LaTroy Hawkins, the long-traveled relief pitcher who will enter his 20th major league season this spring with the Colorado Rockies, recently appeared on the MLB Network Radio to discuss his views on the decreasing number of African-Americans in the majors.

Audio of the entire interview is below.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Don Newcombe helped to open the door for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While celebrating the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, I would like to highlight the contributions of one Brooklyn Dodger who had a major part in turning the wheels of the civil rights movement.

Don Newcombe / Wikimedia Commons

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe was one of the earlier black players signed by a major league team, quickly following Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright into the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946.

Paired with future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella at Class B Nashua, they became the first black players in the New England League. Newcombe's breaking of the color line in the New England League was one of many "firsts" in his career. In addition to being one of a handful of blacks in the majors when he made his 1949 debut, he was baseball's first Cy Young Award Winner, and was the first player in baseball to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP awards during their career.

Newcombe is the last living link to the early African-American Brooklyn Dodger players that endured vicious racial taunts, Jim Crow segregation, and the weight of the entire black community during their quest to play baseball on the sport's brightest stage. Twenty-years prior to Dr. King's assassination, Newcombe and company were laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement. The camaraderie displayed on the field throughout the entire Brooklyn Dodger ball club, crossing racial boundaries to achieve greatness in America's national pastime, planted the necessary images for our country to begin to advance race relations.

Some 28 days before Dr. King was assassinated, he visited Newcombe in Los Angeles. King was in the midst of an exhausting tour of speech-making and sought the company of the Dodger great. In a 2009 interview with the New York Post, Newcombe relayed the following epic words from Dr. King:

"Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field."

Let these words marinate as an example of the character of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he is honored on this monumental day.

Video - Don Newcome at the 2012 BBWAA Dinner

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jerry Coleman, 89, remained proudest of his military service

Jerry Coleman / Baseball-Almanac.com
Hall of Fame broadcaster Jerry Coleman, who was an infielder for the New York Yankees for nine seasons and a decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War, passed away Sunday in San Diego. He was 89.

Coleman spent over 40 years as a broadcaster for the San Diego Padres.

Below is an hour-long interview of Coleman with the San Diego Air and Space Museum.