Thursday, July 9, 2015

Buddy Hicks, 87, played with the Detroit Tigers in 1956

Clarence “Buddy” Hicks, a former switch-hitting infielder with the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, passed away December 8, 2014 in St. George, Utah due to complications from a fall. He was 87.
 
Buddy Hicks with the Dodgers in 1949
Hicks started his professional baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1944 after being plucked from the sandlots in California. He was signed before he was even old enough to vote.
“I was just 17,” Hicks said during a 2008 phone interview from his home in Utah. “I was scouted by the Dodgers playing sandlot ball in Montebello, California. I went to Montreal and sat on the bench waiting for my assignment. I started with Trenton and went to Newport News.”

The talent rich Dodgers organization was filled with bonafide prospects. Branch Rickey’s keen eye for scouting placed Hicks on the same 1944 team in Newport News with future Dodger mainstays Duke Snider, Clem Labine, Tommy Brown, and Bobby Morgan. The group of budding stars first met at training camp in upstate New York during World War II.

“It was at Bear Mountain that the embryonic ballplayers appeared in the war time training camp,” Bo Gill recalled in a 1968 edition of the Evening News. “Duke Snider, Bobby Morgan, Buddy Hicks, Clem Labine and Steve Lemo [sic], 17, and Tommy Brown and Preston Ward, 16, were to be the stars of the future as the Dodgers, under Leo Durocher, made the change from age to youth.”

Hicks (front center) with Dodgers teammates in spring training
As soon as the 1944 season ended, Hicks and Snider traveled cross country to return home to California. With the war escalating, Snider knew that their days as civilians were numbered.

“I made the trip back to the West Coast with my Newport News roomie, Buddy Hicks,” Snider said in his autobiography, "The Duke of Flatbush.

“We didn’t need to be reminded there was a war on; the evidence was all around us. The train was filled with uniformed servicemen and women traveling home on leave or returning to camp or—worst of all—being shipped overseas. I was looking forward to a few more months of good times, but the Selective Service System didn’t fool around in those days. With more than ten million people in uniform and the manpower needs growing all the time, your friendly neighborhood draft board had a way of letting you know you were always in its thoughts.”

Hicks joined the Navy and didn’t return to baseball until 1947. Upon his arrival, he encountered a flood of ballplayers that finished their service and were looking to regain their places in the organization.

“When I got out of the service, I went back and played some sandlot ball to get me back in shape,” he said. “There were 800 of us in spring training with the Dodgers coming back from the war.”

Used almost exclusively a shortstop in the minor leagues, Hicks was stuck behind Pee Wee Reese on the Dodgers. When the Dodgers tried him out at second and third base, he was looking up to Jackie Robinson and Billy Cox respectively. While he couldn’t crack their major league lineup, the Dodgers thought enough of his abilities to keep a high asking price on his services.

In 1949, when Reese got hurt in spring training, Hicks attracted the eyes of Chicago Cubs scout Red Smith. Dodgers manager Burt Shotton held firm to the Dodger creed that if other teams wanted their players, they would have to dig deep in their coffers.

“Sure we’ve got the men they want. … But they can’t get them for a dime. … We haven’t got that kind. They’re going to have to come up with their prices if they want our boys,” Burt Shotton was quoted as saying in Bob Mack’s “Bird Hunting in Brooklyn.

The fact that the Dodgers were playing hardball with moving Hicks to another organization frustrated him. He always felt that the constant movement in their farm clubs, combined with their outrageous asking prices, hindered his rise to the major leagues.

“There were a lot of guys coming down from the majors and then working their way [back] up,” he said.
“The Dodgers had 27 farm clubs that year, all the way from Class D to AAA. They had three AAA farm clubs. The Dodgers tried to draft talent, and if they couldn't use them, they would sell them. I learned later that the Washington Senators were interested and the Dodgers wanted $100,000; that ended things for me.”

A knee injury in 1950 hampered his performance with Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. Hicks batted only .239 and in October, the National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies purchased Hicks’ contract from Hollywood. Finally, there was a team willing to meet the Dodgers asking price.

Quickly, Hicks’ fortunes were about to turn. No longer buried deep in the Dodgers farm system, there was immediately opportunity for him at the big league level with the Phillies. On July 3, 1951, the Phillies recalled Hicks from Atlanta of the Southern Association. Now there was more for him to celebrate other than Independence Day; however, his glee was short lived.

For two weeks, Hicks sat on the bench and never once did manager Eddie Sawyer call for his entry. On July 17th, the Phillies returned Hicks to Atlanta without him ever playing in a major league game. Despite this tease of major league immortality, Hicks pressed on.

His contract was sold to the Boston Braves organization the next year and then to the Detroit Tigers to start the 1953 season. For two more seasons, Hicks battled at the Triple-A level, waiting for his break. Finally in 1956, his efforts were vindicated when the Tigers kept him on the roster after they broke from spring training.

“Joe Gordon was instrumental in getting me up there,” Hicks said. “He said if he was managing, I would have been playing short and Harvey Kuenn would be in the outfield. What got me up was when Frank Bolling came out of the service. I spent most of my career at shortstop and I had trouble making the transition from short to second. I think the throw from second more than anything was the hardest thing for me. You have your back to the runner trying to make a double play. It just didn't work out for me.”

Hicks recalled how he could hardly keep calm during his first major league at-bat. It was in the 9th inning with the Tigers down 2-1 to the Kansas City Athletics.

“My first at-bat was a disaster,” he stated. “I was a really good bunter. My knees were shaking so bad, I could hardly stand up. They sent me in to bunt the person over from second to third and I popped the damn thing up to the catcher. That was very disastrous for me.”

Hicks played in 26 games for the Tigers in 1956 at every infield position except first base, handling 52 chances without an error. He hit only .213 and was sent down to the minor leagues in July. It was his final call to the majors.

“I went from Detroit to Charleston,” he said. “I played the first year-and-a-half, and then I was a player coach under Bill Norman.”

He continued as a player-manager through 1962, spanning 17 seasons in which he amassed over 1,700 hits in the minor leagues. Overlapping with the end of his playing career, he spent 10 seasons as a minor league manager in the Braves and Senators systems from 1960-1969 before calling it quits. He then spent the next 20 years working first in sales, and then managing an automobile parts business in California before retiring in 1990.

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