Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hank Presswood, 93, veteran of five Negro League seasons

Another ballplayer has taken his stories of the playing in the segregated Negro Leagues to the grave. On Monday, I was informed by Bob Kendrick, Director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum that Hank Presswood, a former shortstop in the Negro Leagues with the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Kansas City Monarchs, passed away on December 27, 2014 in Chicago at the age of 93.

Born October 7, 1921 in Electric Mills, Mississippi, Presswood cut his teeth playing for sandlot clubs in his hometown. Content with playing locally, it wasn’t until after he returned from serving in the Army during World War II that the professional leagues snatched him up … literally.

Presswood as a member of the 1948 Cleveland Buckeyes
“Willie Grace went to the Buckeyes and he was the one who told them about me,” Presswood said to me during a 2010 phone interview. “He was from Laurel, Mississippi. One day I was working and who was at my job, Grace and the foreman! He asked me about going, and I wanted to go you know. … I said, ‘What in the world are you doing here, I thought you were with the Buckeyes?’ He said, ‘I am with the Buckeyes, but I told them about you. I came after you.’ I was really surprised. I accepted and went on up there.”

Presswood left for Cleveland in 1948 and immediately he was installed as their shortstop, playing alongside such greats as Sam Jethroe and Sam “Toothpick” Jones. It was a big step for a first-year player to crack the lineup of the defending champs of the Negro American League.

“Cleveland had won the championship the year before I came in there, but I was their shortstop!” he said. “I ain't braggin', I could play any position, but my regular position was shortstop.”

At 27, Presswood was at the peak of his career physically. He said that his gifts on the field helped carry him through the game as he learned his way around the league.

“At that time I was fast,” he said. “I could do what I wanted to do because I was fast. I had a good throwing arm too. I used to play deep shortstop. As I learned the hitters, I might move over towards second or third, or come in; it depended on the hitter. As you learn the fundamentals of how to play your position, it helps out. Sometimes you see different hitters which way they hit the ball.”

Presswood played with Buckeyes until they folded in 1950. He was picked up by the Kansas City Monarchs, who were coached by the legendary Buck O’Neil. The skipper gave him the nickname of “Baby,” which stuck with him well after his career was over.

"I played two years with the Monarchs,” he said. “That's when I got my nickname. Buck O'Neil called me 'Baby'. Everyone calls me now Hank 'Baby' Presswood, and I'm two years younger than Santa Claus!"
Preswood held the late ambassador of the Negro Leagues with the highest esteem. O’Neil was his mentor both on and off the field.

"He was the greatest,” he said. “He was a good ballplayer himself. He was something else. When he passed, that really hurt because he was like a father to me."

He remained active by playing fast-pitch softball after stepping away from the Monarchs in 1952. His experience as a professional ballplayer in the Negro Leagues made him a standout on the softball diamond.

“I went to the Steel Mills and played fast pitch softball,” he said. “I have trophies on top of trophies. They couldn't fool me being an old ballplayer.”

The old ballplayer received his due recognition as an octogenarian, when in 2008, he was “drafted” by the Chicago White Sox in an honorary Negro Leagues draft. Two years later in 2010, Topps honored him with a baseball card in their Allen and Ginter set. At the age of 88, he remarked about finally having a “rookie” card.
Presswood's 2010 Topps Card

"I was really grateful for it,” he said. “It was really nice man. They even have when I played softball on that card. They had everything about my ball playing."

The set, which is popular with collectors, kept Presswood busy answering his mail. He enjoyed obliging the fans.

"I get a pile of letters every day,” he said. “Sometimes I can get them right in the mail, other days, it takes a day or so. I'm enjoying it. I'm proud that people are interested."

The increased popularity of the Negro Leagues allowed Presswood to experience the adulation of the younger generation. He just returned from an appearance at a local high school when we caught up on the phone.

"Seeing the kids is the best thing that ever happened,” he said. “I feel really proud when we talk to the kids. It's really exciting. They get a big bang out of us being there. We're gone all the time, at different places and ball games."

Well removed from his playing days, Presswood remained passionate about the game that consumed him. Once baseball season came around, he was back to doing what he loved, watching baseball.

"I'll tell you what,” he said, “I just love the game. When the Cubs and the White Sox are playing, I don't care what I have to do, I finish what I have to do, get my seat and watch the game."

Funeral services will be held Saturday January 3, 2015 at True Believers Baptist Church, 7801 S. Walcott, Chicago, Illinois, 60620.

Friday, December 26, 2014

How Billy Martin's fiery attitude helped him win as a player with the Yankees

Paying tribute Billy Martin on the 25th anniversary of his tragic death on Christmas Day in 1989, much has been written about Martin’s fiery nature as a manager, especially his many run-ins with the late George Steinbrenner. The persona that Martin exhibited as a manager, very closely reflected the energized spirit that willed him to success as a young ballplayer.

Back in 2008, I had the opportunity to speak with Gene Valla, a teammate of Martin’s in the Yankees minor league system. Valla was three years older than Martin, but they both grew up in the San Francisco area, with Valla attending San Francisco Polytechnic and Martin attending Berkeley.

In 1950, the Bay Area natives reunited while playing for the Yankees Triple-A affiliate in Kansas City. Martin was sent down from the big league club for more experience a month into the season. During their time together on the club, Valla described Martin as having a penchant for victory despite his ordinary appearance on the field.

“Martin was a character,” the late Valla said during our 2008 phone interview from his home in San Francisco. “He was a good double play partner, very loose. He was a very aggressive ballplayer. He wasn’t the type that you would say that he would look like a winner, but he [became] a winner. He went back up with the Yankees [in 1950] and they won the World Series.”

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.”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mudcat Grant champions the case for his teammates on the Golden Era Ballot

With a career that started under the watchful eye of Larry Doby during his 1958 rookie season with the Cleveland Indians, Jim “Mudcat” Grant was always surrounded by Hall of Fame talent. During his 14 major league seasons, Grant was teammates with 19 different Hall of Famers. On Monday, December 8th, he hopes to see that number increase in size.

Four of Grant’s former teammates — Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, and Maury Wills are up for consideration on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Golden Era ballot. A 16-member panel of former players, executives and media members will decide on their collective fates for enshrinement at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.

When Grant broke in to the majors in 1958, always hustling for him in the outfield was Minnie Minoso. Even though Grant was already familiar with Minoso’s aggressive style of play, as they had faced each other previously in the Cuban Winter League, he couldn’t help but notice the variety of ways in which he contributed on the field.

Jim "Mudcat" Grant / N.Diunte
“I noticed one thing about Minnie,” Grant said in an interview at last month’s Firefighter’s Charitable Foundation Dinner in New York, “he was an all-around ballplayer. He knocked in a lot of runs as an outfielder and he stole a lot of bases. He could do anything. He wasn’t a big guy, but he went all out all the time. He was like Pete Rose; even on a short pop-up he would run like he was beating out a base hit. …. I think Minnie [Minoso] should be in, but he’s not going to make it. … He’s in my Hall of Fame if that counts.”

As he started to think about the Hall of Fame chances of his aforementioned teammates, he found fault with the entire process. He related the process to one of a popularity contest.

“When I talk about the Hall of Fame,” he said, “I don’t have a lot of respect for those people who vote for the Hall of Fame because they miss so many people that should be in the Hall of Fame. It seems like they called up one another and said, ‘Let’s put this guy in.’”

Grant stuck out over 1,200 batters in his major league career, but the amount of swings-and-misses on what should have been home runs that he’s seen from the Hall of Fame electorate has baffled him. He turned his attention to two other pitchers Lee Smith and Jim Kaat, the latter who is the leading returning vote getter from the 2012 Golden Era ballot.

“I know some guys that [have a Hall of Fame] vote and when they miss Lee Smith, when they miss Jim Kaat — who should be in the Hall of Fame … They’re so many pitchers in the Hall of Fame that have less victories than Jim Kaat. … How does this work now? You have to wonder why you are holding out on this guy and that guy who should be in the Hall of Fame.”

The further he thought about who the various committees have missed, he immediately turned to another teammate, Tony Oliva. Grant played alongside Oliva on the Minnesota Twins when they challenged the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 World Series. The Cuban-born Oliva was another slam dunk choice for Mudcat.

“He should be in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “There’s no answer to this even when you ask some of the guys that got votes; there’s no answer to it. You have to think about Vada Pinson, Al Oliver; there are so many people.”

With the newly formed committees from the Hall of Fame to assess players against those of their own eras, opportunities are being created to potentially right some of the wrongs made by the BBWAA and past Veterans Committees. Grant still feels like these groups have lost the chance to honor those deserving of the Hall.

“When you get to the Veterans Committee,” he said, “they miss out too because it seems like they compare who they’re voting for to themselves. If you’re in the Hall of Fame and you’ve got a chance to put the veterans in, you’re missing out on an opportunity. A Hall of Fame vote should be thought about for players who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. You have to do a little research on these guys to see what they did.”