Sunday, November 20, 2022

Dave Hillman | Oldest Living Mets and Reds Player Dies At 95


Darius Dutton “Dave” Hillman, a former major league pitcher and the oldest living member of the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets, died Sunday, November 20, 2022 in Kingsport, Tennessee. He was 95.

In eight big-league seasons spanning from 1955-1962, Hillman pitched for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Reds and Mets, compiling a won-loss record of 21-37 with a 3.87 earned run average.

Hillman’s best season with the Cubs was in 1959 when he posted an 8-11 mark and 3.58 ERA, completing four games and pitching seven or more innings in nine others. He tossed a two-hit shutout against the Pirates; struck out 11 in seven innings of relief to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers; and in the next-to-last game of the season stopped the Dodgers in their bid to wrap up the National League pennant. The Dodgers were one game ahead of the Milwaukee Braves with two to play. A win over the Cubs and Hillman clinched a tie.

“I went out there, honey, and I’ll never forget the control that I had,” Hillman recalled. “I could thread a damn needle with that ball. I was just sitting back and sh-o-o-o-m-m-m…throwing that thing in there.”

Hillman scattered nine hits and struck out seven in the Cubs’ 12-2 win. The Dodgers ended up beating the Braves in a playoff and winning the World Series. It took Hillman six years to work his way up through the minors to the majors.

Dave Hillman (r.) with Ernie Banks (l.) / Author's Collection

He started his professional baseball career in 1950, winning 14 games at Rock Hill, South Carolina, in the Class B Tri-State League. He won 20 for Rock Hill in 1951, one of them a no-hitter. He also led the league in strikeouts with 203.

Hillman won only eight games the next two seasons, but he notched another no-hitter in 1953, playing for the Springfield, Massachusetts, Cubs in the Class AAA International League. A 16-11 record in 1954 for a seventh-place team, Beaumont, Texas, in the Texas League, earned him a shot with the Cubs.

A sore throwing arm nagged Hillman in 1955 so the next year the Cubs sent him to their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. Despite missing the first month of the season, his 21-7 record, 3.38 earned run average, three shutouts and 15 complete games paced the Angels pitching staff. 

“Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, a ’56 Angels teammate who went on to become a highly respected pitching coach for the Dodgers. 

After the 1959 season, the Cubs traded Hillman to the Red Sox in Major League Baseball’s first inter-league trade. He pitched primarily in relief for the Red Sox in 1960-61 before ending up with the Reds and Mets in 1962.

Hillman appeared in 13 games for the Mets, with no decisions, one save and a 6.42 ERA. When the Mets optioned him to the minors in late June, he headed home to Kingsport to work in a men’s clothing store owned by an uncle. He figured selling shirts and shoes was better than being with the hapless Mets and getting kicked in the pants every time he pitched. 

Hillman was born in Dungannon, Virginia, on September 14, 1927, the fifth of seven children. He married his high school sweetheart, Imogene Turner, in 1947 and relocated to Kingsport in 1952.

Hillman is survived by a daughter, Sharon Lake of Portland, Tennessee, three grandchildren and six great grandchildren. His wife, Imogene, died in 2011 and their son, Ron, in 2017. 

*This obituary was written by author Gaylon H. White, who featured Hillman in his book, The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Ted Schreiber, 84, Mets Infielder Made The Final Out At The Polo Grounds



Ted Schreiber
experienced every Brooklyn boy’s dream, making it to the major leagues with the New York Mets in 1963 after playing at James Madison High School and St. John’s University. While Schreiber’s MLB career lasted only one season, he represented a rich lineage of ballplayers who cut their teeth at the Parade Grounds on the way to the pros. Sadly, Schreiber died September 8, 2022, at his Boynton Beach, Florida home. He was 84. 

Born July 11, 1938, Schreiber grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, admiring legends like Duke Snider who would ironically become his teammate on the Mets. Schreiber first cut his teeth playing softball, only picking up baseball at age 15 when he attended high school. 

At Madison, Schreiber was a multi-sport star, garnering St. John’s attention in both baseball and basketball, the latter in which he earned All-City honors. At St. John's, Schreiber continued playing both basketball and baseball. With the help of Jack Kaiser’s connections, he signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1959 for a $50,000 bonus spread out over four years. While in the Red Sox’s minor league system, he played with fellow New Yorkers Carl Yastrzemski and his Manhattan College rival Chuck Schilling. Schreiber quickly realized Schilling was blocking his path to the show and rejoiced when the Mets selected him in the Rule V draft at the end of the 1962 season. 

As a second baseman, Schreiber faced intense competition on an otherwise hapless Mets team. He told author Rory Costello how Charlie Neal made sure the Brooklyn kid was on the field enough to gain manager Casey Stengel’s favor. 

“I never had a rabbi with the Mets,” Schreiber said. “Larry Burright had Lavagetto. Ron Hunt had Solly Hemus, though I’ve got to say, he was a really good ballplayer. Another thing against me was that the Daily News and Journal-American were on strike that spring. They might have backed the local boy. If it wasn’t for Charlie Neal giving me some time in spring training, I wouldn’t have had a chance.” 

Schreiber made the team out of spring training, but sparingly saw the field. After appearing in only six games, the Mets sent him down to the minor leagues where he could get more playing time. The Mets recalled him in July and remained with the club in a reserve role for the remainder of the season. 

On September 18, 1963, Schreiber made history when he played in the final MLB game at the Polo Grounds. The Mets squared off against the Pirates in front of a sparce 1,752 spectators. Pinch hitting in the 9th inning, Schreiber hit a ball he was sure would evade Cookie Rojas’ glove. Rojas turned it into a double play that was the final two outs at the famed stadium. 

“Sure, I remember the game because I made the last two outs,” Schreiber told me in 2011. “I thought I had a hit because I hit it up the middle, but Cookie Rojas made a great play on it. … That’s why I’m in the Hall of Fame; they put the ball there because the stadium was closed after that.” 

Schreiber tried to hang on in the Mets farm system, but he chose to follow a teaching career which limited his availability to the summers. After doing double duty at Triple-A in 1964 and 1965, Schreiber decided to trade his cleats for chalk as a New York City teacher. 

Perhaps Schreiber’s most significant legacy didn't come in a Mets uniform, but was the 27 years he spent as a math and physical education teacher at Charles Dewey Middle School in Sunset Park. He lived in Staten Island until his retirement, moving to Centerville, Georgia, and then settling in Boynton Beach until his passing. 

 

*ed note - Rory Costello has been attributed to the Charlie Neal story. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Ed Bauta, Cuban Pitcher With The New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, Dies At 87


Ed Bauta, a former Cuban pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets died July 6, 2022, at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin, New Jersey. He was 87. With Bauta’s passing and the recent deaths of Leo Posada and Cholly Naranjo, only a few players remain who played in the Cuban Winter League prior to Castro’s takeover. 

The 6’3” right-handed pitcher grew up in the town of Florida in Cuba’s Camagüey province. He caught Pittsburgh Pirates scout Howie Haak’s attention at a 1955 tryout in Camagüey and was later signed to the Pittsburgh Pirates with a $500 bonus. 

Toiling in the low minors, Bauta returned home to Cuba, but couldn’t latch on with one of the four major teams. “I tried out, but they sent me home,” Bauta said in 2011. 

He trained with Marianao as a reserve, but never saw any regular season action. Finally, after a strong showing in A-ball in 1958, he earned a spot on the team. He pitched the final three seasons of the Cuban Winter League, finishing the 1960-61 season with Havana. 

“I finally played with Marianao for two years and then ended up with Havana,” he said. “Everybody’s salary was cut in two to help the revolution [the final season].” 

Sadly, Bauta had to make the decision, like many of his Cuban brethren to leave his family behind in Cuba after the 1960-61 Winter League season. 

“My family house was gone,” he said. “I had a few dollars in the bank and that was gone too.” 

Stateside, Bauta continued to make strides towards the major leagues. When the Pirates traded Bauta in 1960 to the Cardinals with Julian Javier, it opened the door for Bauta to make his major league debut. He stayed with the Cardinals for the rest of the 1960 season. 

He shuttled between the majors and the minors the next two seasons with the Cardinals, before being traded to the New York Mets for Ken MacKenzie in August 1963. The late-season acquisition allowed Bauta to be a part of Mets history, pitching in the final game at the Polo Grounds on September 18th. The game was played to little fanfare and Bauta didn’t recall much about the game during our 2011 conversation.

Bauta was also connected to another bit in Mets history, as he was the losing pitcher in the first game at Shea Stadium. He came in relief of Jack Fisher in the 7th inning, but couldn’t hold the 3-2 lead, giving up both the tying and go-ahead runs. Less than a month later, Casey Stengel sent Bauta to the minor leagues. It didn’t sit well with the Cuban reliever. 

“In 1964, I only pitched eight games,” he said. “They sent me down to Buffalo. I went 8-4. They didn’t send me back up. I got pissed off and quit.” 

Bauta never reached the majors despite pitching in the minors and the Mexican League until 1974. He worked in the moving business until 1988 before retiring due to knee problems. In retirement, Bauta kept close contact with fellow Mets and Cardinals pitcher Craig Anderson. 

“He knows everything about baseball,” he said. “He’s a hell of a guy.” 

At the time of our talk in 2011, Bauta also shared the news of his MLB annuity payments. The union agreed to make annual payments to non-vested players who were on MLB rosters at least 43 days before 1979. While Bauta played in parts of four seasons, he did not play long enough to vest for a pension. He welcomed the extra money. 

“We’re really happy about it,” he said.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Cholly Naranjo | A Tribute To My Best Friend 1933-2022



It was a call I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to take. A week ago, one of Cholly Naranjo’s family members called to tell me he was hospitalized with COVID and was on a ventilator. I somehow hoped he could summon his mighty curveball to foil the toughest hitter he ever faced; however, at 9PM on January 13, 2022, they came and took Cholly from the mound for the final time.

I often write these memorials for other players I’ve met in my baseball travels, but this one is different. Cholly Naranjo was my best friend. How does someone who is almost 50 years your senior become that close?

It was an innocent meeting at a 2009 Cuban baseball reunion in Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Cuban Winter League, but I was very familiar with Minnie Miñoso. I decided to make the two hour drive from New York to interview the Cuban Comet and meet the others as well.

Sitting quietly at a table with not much fanfare was Cholly Naranjo. I did some scant research about his lone 1956 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn’t know the depths of his career. While the line was quite long for Miñoso, I decided to talk with Cholly. He was so vibrant and excited to share. He told me he lived in South Florida and to visit him the next time I go to see my mother, who also lived there.

First trip to Paul Casanova's home in 2009 / N. Diunte

A few months later, I took him up on his offer, and that’s how our friendship began. At the time, I was still playing competitive baseball. Knowing that, he took me right away to Paul Casanova’s home. Waiting there was Casanova, Jackie Hernandez and Mike Cuellar. Cholly introduced me as his friend and they immediately welcomed me. We spent an hour talking baseball (actually I just mostly listened) and Casanova invited me back for hitting lessons.
 
Soon the wheels started turning. I found there was this corner of baseball I didn’t know; the Cuban Winter League's rich history. Cholly was the key. He knew everybody and had a story for seemingly everyone that played in the 1950s, as well as the decade before. He learned by watching his uncle Ramón Couto, who was a star catcher in Cuban winter league, Negro Leagues and minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
Ramón Couto and Luis Tiant Sr. / Couto Family

I leaned into Cholly for his encyclopedic knowledge. On almost a dime he could recall exact instances of players, games, and hilarious stories surrounding them. At the same time, he knew I was good with technology, so he would ask me to retrieve artifacts from his career. I later discovered just how much revisiting these stories kept him energized.

Cholly (l.) in high school with Chico Fernandez (r.)

We would talk weekly, sometimes about baseball, sometimes about life, relationships and everything else in between. As our trust increased, Cholly reached out to me to handle many of his other personal dealings, as he said I had the, “American style of communication.”

Some reading this might think as a former major league baseball player, Cholly was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Due to Cholly being in the majors when baseball players needed four full seasons to earn a pension (now it is 43 days), he didn’t receive one. He figured out how to live his best life on a small social security check with help from some baseball organizations. I was often tasked with organizing the necessary correspondence to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010, I had him at my home in New York for a few days. He was invited his cousin‘s wedding, who was Daniel Boggs' son, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. It was the first time Cholly visited New York since he returned from Cuba. We took the subway to the MLB offices to visit and personally thank the B.A.T. staff for their help. The trip to the MLB offices gave him so much validation behind his big league career.

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

The day before the wedding, he told me he wanted to go to the park to have a catch. I thought it was going to be a short session, but he just kept telling me to move back the longer we threw. Eventually, we were throwing from at least 120 feet apart. Mind you, Cholly was 77 at the time and he made the throws with ease! He finally said his arm was loose and as he shortened the distance, he showed me how to throw his famous curveball, the one Branch Rickey courted him for.

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

After that trip to New York, I made it a point to visit 2-3 times per year. It was easy to visit my mother and then also spend a day or two with Cholly. I would meet him in Hialeah, and he would drive. It was on these winding card rides through Miami’s back streets where we bonded. He had story after story and told them with such clarity. He would take me to different Cuban restaurants, one’s that he thought I would enjoy. Every meal was “outstanding” in his words, and he was often right.

He had this little black book filled with telephone numbers. He would ask me who I wanted to see, and we would go. Every player he called said yes. They knew Cholly was genuine and took me in as the same. Everyone was relaxed, because as they all said, “it was family.” As I started to look around, I was slowly not only being accepted as part of that family, but his family as well.

Cholly with Almendares 

Cholly’s major league stats don’t tell the whole story. It was deeper than that single season in Pittsburgh. He was a star pitcher in the Cuban Winter League from 1952 until 1961, primarily with Almendares. It’s hard to sit here and write down all the legends he encountered either as teammates or opponents. He loved discussing the 1954-55 Carribbean Series where his team had to face the Puerto Rican Santurce team that had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield (and the fight between Roger Bowman and Earl Rapp after Rapp misplayed a ball)! 

He lit up talking about Jim Bunning who he faced in Cuba and then later welcomed Cholly into his office in Washington D.C., or a young Brooks Robinson who played second base his one year in Cuba. Then there were Tommy Lasorda's hijinks after they won the championship in 1959. He told stories about Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, and his good friend Minnie Miñoso, who was also another tremendous gentleman.

He almost made the majors in 1954 with the Washington Senators. He made it through all of spring training and they took him up north for Opening Day; Cholly even made the official team photo. A few hours before the first pitch, manager Bucky Harris informed Cholly they would be sending him to the minors on a 24-hour recall. He was disappointed, but he still stayed with the team for that day.

1954 Washington Senators

President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch, and launched his throw into the crowd of ballplayers. Cholly ended up with the ball and had a historic catch with the President for a photo-op chronicled in Time magazine. The catch also earned him a spot on the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret” the next morning.

He played with the Hollywood Stars in 1955 and 1956, when his team was the city’s main sports attraction (this was before the Dodgers and Giants moved). Famous entertainers would come to watch them play. Cholly regaled me with stories of his dinners and even dates with these luminaries. I wish I could remember them all, but the names have evaded my memory too.

He finally made the majors in 1956, coming up from Hollywood with his roommate and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Cholly saved his best performance for his final game, pitching 8 2/3 innings in relief for his first and only MLB victory. He told me how that win also kept Robin Roberts (whom he faced that day) from winning his 20th game of the season.

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

Paul Casanova called me one afternoon in 2017, as MLB wanted to honor the Cuban players at the All-Star Game in Miami. He asked me to work as a liason for a group of players to help with the paperwork, negotiations and logistics. Cholly was one of the players in the group selected to be a part of the festivities, and without hesitation, he took me along for the ride.

Cholly (r.) with Dr. Adrian Burgos (l.), Jose Tartabull (center) 2017 All-Star FanFest / N. Diunte

For three days, Cholly was in heaven. MLB rolled out first class treatment, as did his peers. On the day he appeared at the FanFest to sign autographs and speak on a panel, MLB gave us a private SUV ride back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. They provided us both (yes me!) private security detail that followed us through the FanFest. He was so excited to interact with the fans, as well as tell his stories on stage with José Tartabull and Dr. Adrian Burgos.

We spent the extended weekend with Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t matter that Cholly wasn’t an All-Star or a Hall of Famer; not only was he readily accepted into the group, I found out they all looked up to him, as he was the senior member. Cepeda remarked how tough his curveball was on the rookie in winter ball. Tiant said he was a veteran influence on him as a rookie in the Cuban Winter League, and Oliva went out of his way to talk to B.A.T. to make sure Cholly was taken care of.

Tony Oliva, Cholly Naranjo, Juan Marichal / N. Diunte

We stayed up each night until 2AM talking about the game. The brotherhood was evident. Not only were they all there in the majors, they all faced the same challenges playing through the segregation in the United States. Every night, Cholly insisted at 84, to drive us back to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I was amazed how easily he navigated driving that late at night.

Things slowly started to change for Cholly after that wonderful weekend, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Paul Casanova died shortly after the Fan Fest (it was his last public appearance). Cholly worked with Casanova at the batting facility at Casanova’s home. He no longer had a place to go and interact. The young baseball players kept Cholly alive and the money Casanova paid him kept a little something extra in his pocket to enjoy life.

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

Around 2019, Cholly stopped driving. He got into three accidents in a year and as he said, it was God’s way of letting him know he needed to get away from the wheel. I started noticing Cholly's once sharp mind started to show some cracks. He would lose his phone, or start to miss details in our conversations. Despite those missteps, when we sat down for a formal interview in 2019, he was amazed at how good he felt. 

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out. 

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

I saw Cholly early in 2020, right before the pandemic. We met for dinner, and he told me he walked for over 18 hours in a day just to prove to himself he could do it. I was amazed, but also feared for his safety, as the area in Miami where he lived wasn’t a walking city.

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

Last year, he moved in with his nephew to be closer to the little family he had. I visited him in July 2021, as the pandemic put a huge wedge in my ability to travel. I could see the early stages of dementia from the time we spent together. A few months ago, Cholly had to be put into a nursing home, as he just couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Physically, he was in good shape, but he needed the care that comes with a nursing facility.

We would still talk on the phone a few times a week. When I called, it was always, “Coño! Nick! I am better than expected!” even as he struggled with recall. We kept the conversations short, but he always asked when I was coming down. I was aiming for the Christmas holiday to visit for a few days, but I came down with COVID on Christmas Eve. By the time I found a possible window to travel, his family let me know he also contracted COVID and wasn’t doing well in the hospital. I thought Cholly would miraculously find a way to pull through, but when the big man comes to get you off the mound, as Cholly would say, “You have to give up the ball.”

I am going to miss my friend. Cholly said he looked at me as a son, as he never had any children. I feel honored I was able to be a part of his life for so long and learn so much about his history, his culture and life story. I hope I can continue to elevate Cholly’s memory, as it was much greater than those 17 games he pitched with Pittsburgh in 1956.

QDEP Lazaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto - November 25, 1933 - January 13, 2022.

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

What Are The Top Questions For The Sports Card Market Heading Into 2022?


There is an ominous feeling within the sports card industry for 2022. Collectors are likely looking at the last full year of Topps branded major league baseball cards, as its MLBPA license expires at year's end. With the window potentially closing on Topps' MLB legacy (unless there is a Fanatics merger), we looked at three pressing questions for my Forbes Sports Money column that fans and collectors are looking for answers to in 2022.