Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joe DeMaestri, All-Star and member of 1961 New York Yankees, passes away at 87

Joe DeMaestri, a major league All-Star and member of the 1961 World Series champion New York Yankees, passed away August 26, 2016 at his home in Novato, California according to his daughter, Donna. He was 87.

Born December 9, 1928 in San Francisco, DeMaestri was a star at Tamalpais High School. He caught the attention many teams, but ultimately signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1946 due to his connection with scout Charlie Walgreen, who was also a family friend.

Joe DeMaestri signed baseball card / Baseball-Almanac.com

His break came when he was signed by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 draft after the 1950 season. He served the 1951 season as a backup infielder, spelling Chico Carrasquel at shortstop and Hall of Famer Nellie Fox at second base. Now christened as a major leaguer, the St. Louis Browns took a chance on the upstart DeMaestri, acquiring him in an eight-player trade prior to the start of the 1952 season.

The lowly Browns were helmed by the curmudgeonly Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who took over the team just as DeMaestri arrived. Speaking with DeMaestri during a 2008 interview from his home, he felt that nothing could have prepared him for the experience of playing for Hornsby.

“He wasn't one of the favorite managers of anybody at the time,” DeMaestri said. “He was really from the old school. Bill Veeck fired him halfway through the season. He was really tough on everybody. What he expected, you just couldn't do. Everybody was supposed to hit like him; he was just a tough old boy.”

Hornsby wasn’t the only colorful character he countered in St. Louis. DeMaestri found himself placed in a surreal position playing defense behind the legendary ageless pitcher Satchel Paige.

“It's been so long that I remember playing with Satch,” he said. “We didn't know how old he was. He certainly could throw; he had tremendous control.”

DeMaestri’s reign in St. Louis was short, as he was on the move once again during the offseason, going to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first baseman Eddie Robinson. This trade finally gave him the opportunity to play full time, learning the nuances of the position from two great shortstops of his era, first with Eddie Joost in Philadelphia and then later under Lou Boudreau when the team moved to Kansas City.

“I had the fortune for playing Marty Marion, Lou Boudreau, and Eddie Joost,” he said. “What else could I ask for? Boudreau taught me the game more than anybody as far as short stop goes. I had a good arm, an accurate arm. Every field was different; some had tall grass and slowed the ball down. [He taught me to] know your hitters and how fast they are. One of the fastest was [Mickey] Mantle down the line, so was [Luis] Aparicio. Batting lefty, Mickey was the toughest. If Mickey hit one towards you and it was a two hopper, you better get it out of your glove and over there because he was gone.”

He played seven seasons for the Athletics, making the American League All-Star team in 1957. His fortunes changed at the end of the 1959 season when he rode the elevator from the cellar to the penthouse, going to the New York Yankees in the trade that brought Roger Maris to the Big Apple. He encountered a locker room full of familiar faces, not only from playing in the same league, but from the trading exchange that the Yankees built with the Athletics, using them as a pseudo farm club during the late 1950s.

“That was a story because nobody else wanted to trade with the Yankees,” he said. “We were struggling in Kansas City. If they needed somebody in a hurry, they got them from Kansas City.

“I knew all those guys; I played against them for seven years. We got to knew each other well. Roger and I were in the same trade and I was in Kansas City with Hector Lopez and Clete Boyer. We were all ex-teammates.”

While DeMaestri was now in a position to experience the thrills of post-season baseball and the riches that came with it, one thing he had to sacrifice was his playing time. While in Kansas City he was the starting shortstop, on the Yankees he was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players. He only appeared in 49 games in 1960, managing a mere 35 at-bats. He quickly learned to change his mind set to be ready when summoned.

“It's a whole different ballgame when you are playing every day instead of sitting there and trying to stay ready,” he said. “It was the toughest thing I had to do, trying to stay ready, especially when I went to New York at the end. Gil McDougald and I were the reserves. It was like spring training every day. You might not get in for two-to-three weeks, and then all of a sudden you get in. Stengel kinda had his defensive club when we got the lead. I'd go to short and Kubek would go to left. Yogi [Berra] was playing left [field] at the time. I got to play more in the second half during that 1960 season.”

DeMaestri in a front row seat to watch teammates Roger Maris and the aforementioned Mantle battle for the single season home run record and a World Series Championship in 1961. Unfortunately for DeMaestri, he spent the majority of the season on the bench, filling a similar reserve role as he did the previous year. Despite his lack of playing time, he enjoyed being a witness to a historical season.

“In 1961 we had Roger and Mickey hitting those home runs,” he said. “That was something that we all looked for everyday we went to the park. It was just a matter of waiting to see who was going to hit the most home runs that day. It was a great season. It was really a lot of fun in New York.”

DeMaestri retired from baseball after the 1961 season, going to work at his beer distributing business for the next 31 years. He sold the company in 1992 to the Eagle Distributing company.

Looking back at his career during our 2008 conversation, DeMaestri, who was known primarily for his defensive abilities, marveled at how the game changed in the field. Infielders now play much deeper than their predecessors, something he attributed to artificial turf.

“I don't think you could play that way today on these artificial fields, the ball comes too fast,” he said. “On the grass fields, nobody played back on the outfield grass. Now with the white line on the artificial fields, you look at where some of these guys are playing, these guys are making plays now in the short outfield. We never saw plays like that.”

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: Billy Sample 'A Year in Pinstripes ... And Then Some'

Many athletes shy away from the opportunity to play under the spotlight of the New York City media, but when you play baseball for the New York Yankees, it provides a social cache that is unlikely any other in professional sports. Billy Sample only played one season for the Yankees, but the experience provided a lifetime of memories that he has captured in his autobiography, “A Year in Pinstripes … And Then Some.”

Billy Sample - A Year in Pinstripes

A veteran of nine seasons in Major League Baseball with the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees, and Atlanta Braves, Sample peppers the reader with a range of colorful anecdotes that he manages to deliver in the same conversational tone that made him a successful on-air personality after his career ended. He displays his talents to make serious situations palatable when he takes an early passage about his high school teammates refusing to swim in the same pool with him in the early 1970s and find a sliver of humor by telling how he would announce before he went to swim that he was going downstairs, “to clear the pool.”

The aforementioned passage is probably the heaviest social commentary that Sample makes in the entire book. A lighter vibe is maintained of vivid tales explaining how flashbacks of Don Robinson’s curveball still wakes him up in a cold sweat at night and how he served as a radio DJ during the strike-shortened season of 1981.

Yankee fans will get their fix by hearing Sample relay stories of Billy Martin’s antics, George Steinbrenner’s reign, Don Mattingly’s MVP season, and Rickey Henderson, well, being Rickey. Sample manages to humbly sneak in a few of his own highlights, including how his not-so-graceful handling of a carom off the wall while playing left field in Kansas City warranted early morning outfield practice, even though he held the runner to a double.

Baseball enthusiasts will appreciate how Sample tells the story of his career mainly through his experiences with his teammates, ranging from the legendary Hall of Famers, to those who never reached the majors. He places the spotlight on his achievements only when necessary and often in a self-deprecating way, showing that Sample is not above putting his own career in perspective. If you have ever watched Sample as a broadcaster, or met with him in-person, his conversational tone is evident throughout the entire book and what makes his story of, “A Year in Pinstripes,” a worthy one to experience.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

2016 Topps Bunt making a bridge between traditional and digital collecting

Topps has been searching for ways to connect their digital card platform with traditional physical baseball cards. Their quest for a solution has arrived in the form of 2016 Topps Bunt.

The 200-card set is the perfect format to get multiple generations excited about baseball card collecting, no matter the platform. Imagine a young child and their parents sharing the joy of opening a pack of baseball cards and both teaching each other about the nuances of preserving baseball cards while building a collection that lives at your fingertips on your phone.

Even the players included in the set warrant a bonding experience, as the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Andrew McCutchen, are right alongside Cal Ripken Jr., Ted Williams, and Willie Mays. While the younger collectors will gush about the accomplishments of their current heroes, the inclusion of the sport’s legends allows for the conversation about the history of the game to continue.

The box provided for this review yielded 36 packs, allowing for a complete 200-card set to be collated with the purchase of one box. A variety of inserts in 2016 Topps Bunt trump the designs of those included with the Opening Day series earlier this year and rival those in the Topps flagship set.

Sampling of 2016 Topps Bunt Insert Card / Topps

The digital component comes in the form of Bunt Loot Packs, which are ten-card redemptions via the Topps Bunt App. Collectors have the opportunity to unlock a bevy of inserts that run in a similar limited fashion as to what one would find in a physical box.

Topps has been integral for the past 65 years in preserving the game through iconic cardboard images, and continues to do so with 2016 Topps Bunt. With a price point of under $30 a box, 2016 Topps Bunt is a fun and inexpensive way to share the joys of collecting and the narrative of the National Pastime no matter whether it is analog or digital.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Choo Choo Coleman: Farewell to a good 'bub'

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, one of the venerable members of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets team, passed away Monday August 15, 2016 at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina due to complications from cancer. He was 80.

Of all of the members of the 1962 New York Mets team, the details about the life and career of catcher “Choo Choo” Coleman remained mysterious, as he disappeared from the public spotlight after leaving baseball.
Choo Choo Coleman in 2012 / N. Diunte

Coleman, then 76-years-old, returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in 46 years for a series of appearances at various memorabilia shows and to attend the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis.

The usually reserved former catcher invited me to meet with him the Friday evening he arrived in New York, giving his first interview ever since his playing days. Greeting me with a, 'Hey bub, nice to meet you,' Coleman broke the ice with a term I quickly discovered he used to refer to almost everyone. Sitting in his hotel room, he explained the origins of his nickname “Choo Choo.” It was something he had long before professional baseball.

“Growing up in Orlando, I was small and fast, like a choo-choo train, and so it went,” Coleman said.

He cut his teeth in professional baseball during the 1955 season, signing with the Washington Senators Class D affiliate in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“A friend of mine played for them and told me about it" he said. "I talked to the people, tried out and made the team."

Playing professional baseball in the segregated South, Coleman encountered his share of obstacles while traveling.

“At that time it was hard," he said. "People were different [then]. I don’t know about now, it’s a whole lot different. We lived in different places [from the team]. We lived in private homes; we couldn’t live in the hotels back then."

After two stints with the Orlando team, Coleman was picked up by Syd Pollock’s Indianapolis Clowns halfway through the 1956 season. By that time Coleman asserts, the Clowns had moved on from their Negro League affiliation to that of a traveling ball club. His escapades with the Clowns took him to far reaching parts of the country such as North Dakota.

“We weren’t in the Negro Leagues, we played all over,” he said. “I played two years. We played almost every day. We went everywhere; it was a lot of fun.”

He reveled in discussing some of the antics that made the Clowns popular at that time.

“We’d have the Clowns run down on to the field, hitting people in the crowd in the head, stuff like that,” he said.

By 1958, Coleman returned to Orlando and spent two more seasons there, waiting for an opportunity to climb baseball’s proverbial ladder. This chance came in 1960 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I went to Vero Beach and made the A ball club in Macon,” he recalled. “I played there a month or two and then I went to Montreal (AAA).”
Choo Choo Coleman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Spring Training
The Phillies liked Coleman’s performance in Montreal enough to draft him from the Dodgers and place him on their opening day roster in 1961.

“I went to the Phillies first,” he said. “Then they sent me to Spokane, Washington. … I didn’t play too much.”

His hot bat in spring training was not enough to force manager Gene Mauch’s hand.

“I went to spring training and hit about .280, but they never played me,” he recalled. “They played Clay Dalrymple; he hit about .215 and played about every night. [Mauch] knew his baseball, but I don’t think he liked me.”

Coleman suspicions about Mauch were confirmed when he was put in to pinch-hit for Ruben Amaro with two strikes in what was only his second plate appearance in the majors.

“There was a man on first base,” Coleman recounted over 60 years later. “Ruben Amaro was supposed to lay the ball down, put him over. He never did. He did it two times and fouled the ball off. I’m on the bench all night and he called me to come take his place with two strikes. My first time in the major leagues [and I pinch-hit] with two strikes! I fouled four balls off and I hit in to the double play that night in Philly. I always remembered that. That’s tough man!” (Note - It was Coleman’s second career plate appearance and he grounded out to first to end the inning.)

The Phillies left Coleman unprotected in the expansion draft and he was signed by the New York Mets for the 1962 season.

“I never knew at that time that I’d be there on the first [team],” he said. “I made the team and I was happy to be there. I did my best. I hit over .250 my first year. I stayed hurt a lot. My shoulder was out of place, nose fractured, fractured my fingers (displaying multiple broken fingers on his right hand). It’s different now. They play now with one hand behind the back; I didn’t do that, I caught with two hands.”

Despite his small size, Coleman remained fearless behind the plate. He wasn’t going to let his stature be a factor in determining his playing time on the field.

“It didn’t make no difference,” he said. “I weighed 155; I was the smallest one. All of the fellas were over 200. I wasn’t afraid.”

When asked about the legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel, Coleman recalls very limited interactions between them.

“I didn’t talk to him too much,” he recalled. “Most of the time, he’d be on the bench asleep.”

Coleman played for the Mets their first two seasons and made a return appearance in 1966 for six games. Taking time to reflect on his stay in New York, Coleman enjoyed his time there and its demanding fan base.

“It was nice to play here,” he said. “In order to play here in New York, you had to be good. You can’t be bad or slow; you always had to do your best.”

He had one last hurrah with the Mets organization in 1969 after leaving baseball behind for two years; however, he could not make it back to the majors to be a part of the World Series championship team.

“I took off two years and I stayed home to go fishing at the time,” he said. “I came back two years later after I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to start back. They sent me to Tidewater. I been out two years, but I still made the team!”

While he was in New York, he looked forward to being able to see teammates such as Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, as well as Willie Mays, whom he regards as the best player he’s ever seen. He also was excited to Citi Field for the first time, a sight he would rather have experienced as a player than a spectator.

“If I was playing, I’d be more excited to see it … it would be a lot different,” he said.

After baseball, he returned to Florida and later owned a Chinese restaurant for 18 years. In retirement, the humble Coleman enjoyed the ample opportunity to go fishing whenever he wanted.

“It’s a lot of fun just to go and relax,” he said.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Chatting with Prince Fielder's high school coach

Watching Prince Fielder battling through tears while announcing his retirement from baseball, emotions ran deep for many, including his former high school baseball coach at Florida Air Academy, Wayne Tyson. Fielder played three years for Tyson from 1999-2001, drawing a close relationship with his coach during his tenure there. The news of Fielder’s struggle tremendously pained Tyson.

“He worked so hard at it and that’s something that I will always appreciate,” Tyson said. “It broke my heart to hear that his career was going to be over. … I think this has to crush him because it has mattered [so much] to him.”

Click here to read the full interview with Fielder's high school coach on his tremendous passion for the game and leadership at a young age.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: 'Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer'

At age 90, Ransom Jackson still considers his entry into the major leagues an accident; however, after reading his new book, “Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer," (2016, Rowman & Littlefield) one will discover that there was no error in Jackson carving a 10-year career that included selections to two All-Star games and a World Series appearance.

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jackson pursed golf and track as high school did not field a football team. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Texas Christian University during World War II where he was urged onto the football team by legendary coach “Dutch” Meyer due to a shortage of male students that his athleticism came to the forefront. Jackson immediately became a star running back on the gridiron despite having no formal playing experience. Seeking to double down on his investment, Meyer recruited Jackson for his baseball nine. Relying on his natural abilities, Jackson excelled on the diamond, batting .500 his freshman year. Quickly, a star was born.
Accidental Big Leaguer / Rowman & Littlefield

Partnering with journalist Gaylon H. White, Jackson recreates a landscape of major league baseball that has long escaped with witty anecdotes and never-before seen photos from Jackson’s personal collection. The stunning images provide a sense of intimacy from a time in baseball’s history that was far removed from the reaches of social media, where players could maintain a sense of privacy while still being accessible to the fans.

The humble third baseman tells his narrative from a reflective position, at times in amazement of his own experiences and accomplishments. His ability to clearly recall detailed stories of how he played in college with Bobby Layne, to playing for Ty Cobb on a semi-pro team, as well as how he handled competing with Jackie Robinson for the third base position with the Brooklyn Dodgers, give his words the proper momentum to seamlessly roll one story right into the next.

As one of the few living Brooklyn Dodgers alumni, Jackson has preserved a great deal of history by putting together his memoirs. Fifty-five years after Jackson took his final major league at-bat, he courageously put himself back in the lineup at the age of 90, showing that a big leaguer never truly loses his feel for the game no matter how long he has stepped away from the spotlight.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

2016 Allen and Ginter - A reminder of the joys of collecting

One of the most anticipated surprises of Topps’ annual baseball calendar is the release of the 2016 Allen and Ginter baseball card set; not necessarily for the baseball players included within, but the non-baseball celebrities and athletes that grace the contents of the checklist. While some fans may not be excited to discover a card of a comedian or broadcaster in between All-Stars, this mix of eclectic personalities with today’s top baseball talents is what sets Allen and Ginter as a distinct release in the baseball card space.

2016 Topps Allen and Ginter / Topps

Familiar non-baseball names include actors Anthony Anderson and George Lopez, Olympians Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps, as well as sportscasters Colin Cowherd and Mike Francesa. Topps also gives a major nod to the growing presence of female on-air sports analysts and personalities with the inclusion of Jessica Mendoza, Jill Martin, Hannah Storm, and Heidi Watney.


Moving aside from the contents of the base set, the classic painted designs give Allen and Ginter a vintage feel while accentuating the photos by leaving room on the borders for the images to stand out. This blueprint has been the hallmark of the Allen and Ginter series and what continues to attract collectors to the product. Collectors will gravitate towards the Baseball Legends insert set, which highlights 25 top Hall of Famers including its newest member, Ken Griffey Jr. Another fun chase is the United States Mayors mini set, featuring 35 different mayors including New York City’s Bill de Blasio.

2016 Topps Allen and Ginter Bill de Blasio


Each box guarantees three hits in the form of a rip card, autograph, relic, or book card. Also included in the hobby box for this review was an oversized box loader card. The box for this review yielded an autograph card as well as two relic cards, a fulfilling output for those looking from hits in the product; however, it did come well short of a complete set, leaving those wanting to build one with many holes to fill.

2016 Allen and Ginter Miguel Cabrera Relic Card

With a diverse list of baseball players and non-sports starts, 2016 Topps Allen and Ginter creates an exciting collecting atmosphere that serves as a reminder that the hobby is to be enjoyed and not just about chasing the next top prospect.