Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Don Newcombe's memory celebrated by Nashua teammate Billy DeMars

Don Newcombe was instrumental in breaking down barriers when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1946. Instead of sending him to join Jackie Robinson in Montreal, they sent him along with Roy Campanella to play for the Nashua Dodgers where they integrated the Class B New England League. In the wake of Newcombe’s recent passing, I reached out to the 93-year-old Billy DeMars for the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the experience of playing with his pioneering teammate.



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“The one thing I remember about Don was he was a helluva great pitcher,” DeMars said from his Florida home. “We were playing in Manchester New Hampshire one night, and Walter Alston was our manager that year. He brought him in the ninth inning. ... He didn’t hold anything back, he struck out all three batters. Just to watch him throw, he let the air out. He was tremendous!”

Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Nashua, 1946 
DeMars also noted that in addition to being lights out on the mound, Newcombe was a force at the plate. He led the team in with a .311 batting average, even besting his future Hall of Fame teammate Campanella.

Branch Rickey sent both of Negro League talents north to New Hampshire, as he could not place them in the hostile cities of his other southern minor league affiliates. DeMars said the Nashua team readily accepted both players and treated them like family.

“We had absolutely no problems whatsoever on the team," he said. "They were just other players. We got along absolutely great with Don [Newcombe] and [Roy] Campanella. In fact, Campanella had a little boy who was five or six. We used to put him on an iron crate and let him play on the pinball machine.”

The Brooklyn native wound up on the Nashua team after returning from his World War II service, where he played with Ted Williams and Charlie Gehringer at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The trio of future major leaguers, as well as player-manager Walter Alston, helped guide the team to the championship. Some seven decades later, DeMars chuckled at the reward.

“Another funny thing about that season, we lost the pennant on the last day of the season,” he said. “We went into the playoffs, and we won that to [become] the champions and our winning share was ten bucks apiece!”

Long removed from his playing and coaching days, DeMars marveled at the amount of money, or lack thereof, that he made while in the minor leagues.

“I signed and went up to Olean New York in 1943 just before I went in the Navy,” he said. “I tell everybody I made $3.50 a day. It was $100 a month — $25 a week, which came out to $3.50 a day. It is a little bit different than today.”

He cited a broken current minor league system that continues to underpay both the players and coaches. He explained that with record-setting major league contracts, baseball needs to reach down into the minor leagues and improve salary conditions.

“That’s what’s wrong with the game,” he said. “I just saw [Manny Machado] signed for $300 million and the guys who have to take cuts in salary are the minor league managers and the players. They are not paid as much as they should be [making]. The scouts and minor league managers need to make good money too. They are developing the players, and they have to work hard as hell down there.

"I spent 11 years as a minor league manager, and I was married and I had children at the time. You had to write up the whole league twice a year, the players once a month. At that time, I used to drive the team. We used to have cars; me and two other players would drive the club around. It wasn’t easy but we made it.”

DeMars played parts of three major league seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns. After 11 years as a minor league manager, he spent the next 19 as a major league coach with the Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Cincinnati Reds. He has managed to outlive most of his peers, with Newcombe’s death serving as a mortal reminder of his place in history.

“In August, I will be 94,” he said. “Now with Newcombe gone, I moved up to 22 [he is currently the 23rd oldest living former major league baseball player]. It’s a helluva a list isn’t it?”

Still, the nonagenarian is popular with the fans due to his status as one of the few remaining St. Louis Browns alumni.

“I get a hell of a lot of mail,” he said. “I think there are 12 of us left from the St. Louis Browns. St. Louis was great, everything about St. Louis was great.”

Don Newcombe dies at 92 | A baseball and civil rights pioneer

Don Newcombe, the famed Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher died Tuesday February 19, 2019 in Los Angeles after battling a long illness. He was 92. The Dodgers released the following statement regarding his passing.


Don Newcombe 1956 Topps / Topps
Newcombe had his start with the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in 1944 where he played two seasons for Effa Manley's outfit. Branch Rickey signed him to the Dodgers in 1946, sending him along with Roy Campanella to their farm team in Nashua. Together they integrated the New England League.

He continued to break barriers throughout his career, even earning Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s praises for furthering the Civil Rights Movement. He won the Little World Series in 1948 with playing with their Triple-A team in Montreal. When the Dodgers called him up in 1949, he was the third African-American pitcher to appear in a Major League game, following teammate Dan Bankhead and the venerable Satchel Paige. He wasted little time in making an impression, as he raced through the competition with a 17-8 record en route to winning the 1949 National League Rookie of the Year award.

His rapid rise included becoming the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games (later known as one of the Black Aces), a feat he accomplished three times in 1950, 1955, and 1956. In the latter season, Newcombe went an astonishing 27-7 to earn both the Cy Young and the National League MVP awards. He was the first Rookie of the Year to win both of the aforementioned honors in the same season, a record he held for 55 years until Justin Verlander joined him in 2011. In the video below, Newcombe gives Verlander a humorous introduction at the 2012 BBWAA Dinner.




While many thought Newcombe was on the path to a Hall of Fame career, his struggles with alcoholism derailed his path to Cooperstown. After becoming sober in the late 1960s, the Dodgers employed him as a director of community relations in 1970, and he has worked for the club ever since, spending copious amounts of time helping others to learn from his mistakes.

Newcombe was a fixture at Dodgers Stadium, serving as a bridge and ambassador for the team's Brooklyn history. His looming presence was evident from the many online tributes by not only fans but also many of the Dodgers players who cherished his guidance and advice. The video below of a passionate Newcombe saluting the 7th inning stretch, who was a Korean War veteran, perfectly captures the essence of his reverence and respect for the game.



Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How Jack Crimian mystified Mickey Mantle in his major league odyssey

John “Jack” Crimian, a former major league pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Athletics, and Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, died just days short of his 92nd birthday on February 11, 2019, in Middletown, Delaware.

Jack Crimian 1956 Topps / Topps
The righty hurler signed his first professional baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 out of Olney High School where he was teammates with another future major leaguer, Del Ennis.

“I went to high school with Del Ennis,” he said in a phone interview from his Delaware home in 2009. “We used to hit from the football field. He once hit one out on Duncannon Avenue, past the football fields and the tennis courts. I got signed out on the sandlots on C Street and Roosevelt Boulevard. There is a park down the street and the Phillies scout (Jocko Collins) signed me from out there.”

He played the 1944 season Wilmington and Bradford before being drafted into the Army. He served as a paratrooper until 1946 when he had to return home after his father’s sudden death.

Jack Crimian 1951 Minor League Bio / Author's Collection
After the Cardinals drafted Crimian from the Phillies at the end of the 1946 season, he toiled patiently in their minor league system until his midseason 1951 call-up. The Cardinals wasted no time putting his services to use.

“I got into a ballgame in the major leagues the first day that I got there,” he recalled. “I got off the plane, went to the hotel, and they were leaving for the ballpark. I went right along to the ballpark with them.”

He pitched sparingly for the Cardinals but stayed long enough to earn his first major league win, which came in a relief effort ironically against the Phillies. He ended his first campaign with a 1-0 record with a 9.00 ERA in 11 games.

The Cardinals gave Crimian another look in 1952, but the fierce National League lineups served him a quick return to the minor leagues. He spent the next three seasons in Triple-A honing his craft in preparation for another shot at major league glory.

His bumpy ride included a 1953 offseason trade to the Cincinnati Reds who then sold his contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Now a veteran of almost a decade of professional experience, the team had Crimian help Elston Howard make the transition from outfielder to catcher.

“We taught him to catch in Toronto,” he said. “We got him on loan from the Yankees, and they wanted to make a catcher out of him. We had a veteran staff, and they let us have him so he could catch every day. He caught on real quick.

“I still think he was one of the best hitters ever in the American League, definitely on that Yankees club. He hit all over. You could not pitch him one way; he would hit to right and left-center. He hit behind Mantle and Maris, and you could not walk either one of them to get to Howard because he would hurt you just as much as they would. It is no wonder why they got all of those RBIs. You had to pitch to them. He was hard to strike out.”

The Kansas City Athletics looked to bolster their pitching staff when they traded for Crimian after he posted a 19-6 record and 2.10 ERA with Toronto in 1955. Finally, he had a full season ahead in the major leagues. Pitching mostly in relief, he finished second in the American League in appearances, seeing mound time in 54 contests. While he could not recapture his dominance from Toronto in the American League, he was proud that he held Mickey Mantle to a paltry .182 batting average (2 for 11 with 5 Ks).

“I had no problem with him, I really didn't,” Crimian said. “I was fortunate I guess. He might have got a bunt single, but that was about all. I never threw him a strike.

"He wanted to hit all of the time so he would chase pitches. I would throw sliders way in on him and sinkers away from him all day long. He used to bunt against us. We were the first ones to put the shift on him. A couple times, he bunted and he got a base hit. At least we knew where we were at; that's why we did it.”

Despite his reliability with Kansas City, Crimian was on the move once again, this time the Athletics traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 1957 as part of an eight-player deal. He only lasted four games with the Tigers; however, he was still able to get his name in the record books.

A Cleveland Indians rookie named Roger Maris stepped to the plate in the 11th inning looking to battle the well-traveled veteran. He ran the count full, and Crimian thought he could sneak a high fastball by the youngster. Maris swung mightily and connected for his first major league home run.

“It was a 3-2 count and I pitched him up and away,” Crimian said to Bob Yearick in 2017. The ball went up and away, and it still hasn’t come down. But it was Jim Bunning’s fault. He struck out Maris earlier in the game, so he told me how to pitch to him.”

Detroit sent Crimian to the minor leagues a few weeks later, ending his major league career. He pitched two more seasons in the minors before retiring in 1959. While Crimian was out of professional baseball, he had not completely abandoned the game. He pitched with them from 1963-65, and even though his fastball no longer had the zip it once did, he used his guile and smarts en route to a perfect 26-0 record.

He spent 34 years as an auto body specialist in Wilmington, Delaware before his retirement. He was inducted into the Delaware Professional Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Phinally! The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't | Book Review

Nineteen-eighty marked a pivot for Major League Baseball as it entered a decade that was marred by a work stoppage, a drug scandal, and a nasty collusion case. Fortunately, for baseball fans, the 1980s opened with an exciting season that preceded the looming drama of the next few years.

Author J. Daniel takes readers through a complex journey that was the 1980 baseball season in his new book, "Phinally!: The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't" (McFarland: 220pp., 2018).

Phinally! / McFarland

Once glance at the cover would lead those studying its intricacies that "Phinally!" is solely about the Philadelphia Phillies winning their first World Series title in franchise history; however, that could not be farther from the truth. Daniel went deep in the archives with his work, capturing every significant detail that the 1980 season offered.

While Daniel dives into the big stories of J.R. Richard's health woes, George Brett's season-long flirtation with .400, and Reggie Jackson getting up close and personal with a gun barrel, each event is interspersed with the less heralded happenings that serve to create a "This Week in Baseball" atmosphere.

His strength is certainly the tremendous depth in which he chronicles the season, as "Phinally!" reads more like an anthology than an oral history. He relies on a variety of newspaper and magazine accounts to narrate the season rather than rose-colored interviews with players almost 40 years later that leave out the gritty details they may have selectively forgotten.

While this nuanced approach fits Daniel's style, some will find it exhausting at times to keep up with the constant jumping around the league from page to page, as he goes through each month's dealings. Despite some of the challenges to keep up with the multitude of anecdotes that Daniel tracks, he holds the suspense of the Phillies World Series victory until the end, leaving the final page with the late Tug McGraw victorious on the mound with his hands raised in the air for the fans to once again celebrate.



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Hal Naragon Interview

Hal Naragon is a baseball treasure. At age 90, the former major league catcher spun baseball yarns of catching Bob Feller, playing in the 1954 World Series, and later coaching the Detroit Tigers to 1968 World Series victory on the Baseball Happenings Podcast.


Signing with the legendary Bill Veeck

Naragon signed with the Cleveland Indians after attending an open tryout during the summer of 1946; however, there was just one problem — he was still in high school. This led to his first meeting with the legendary Bill Veeck.

“I found that when I filled out the application it said you had to be out of high school,” Naragon said during his 2019 interview. “They wanted to sign me and I got nervous then because I knew that I shouldn't have been there, but my dad said that we would go back up and talk to Mr. Veeck.

“Mr. Veeck said to my dad, ‘We'd like to sign your son.’ My dad said, ‘I have to tell you he has not graduated from high school yet ... and he thought that this would be a good time to see if he had an ability to play professional baseball.’”

Hal Naragon 1956 Topps / Topps
Veeck’s keen eye would not allow Naragon to walk away that quickly. He extended an olive branch to the elder Naragon, and the two came to a gentleman’s agreement for the Indians to have the first crack at his son when he graduated.

“Well after you graduate will you give us a chance to talk to him?" Veeck asked. "My dad said, ‘Will a handshake do?’ They shook hands and they got me out of the ballpark.”

Naragon's major league debut

Naragon kept his word and signed with the Indians in 1947. He moved quickly through their minor league system, and by the time he was 22 he was in the major leagues. He eagerly recalled the September day in 1951 when he singled off Virgil Trucks in his first major league at-bat.

“I know it was a chilly day and they called me in from the bullpen,” he said. “Naturally I was a little nervous, but usually by the time you get to the plate you get yourself together and do what you can do.”

He played a few more games during his September call-up, and then the Marines quickly grabbed him to serve in the Korean War. While many players suffered from losing their peak years to military service, Naragon returned right in time to take part in Cleveland’s record-breaking 1954 World Series run.

Catching Bob Feller

Now that he had an entire big league season in front of him, Naragon was able to learn from the best in the game. His pitching staff included Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Hal Newhouser. With that staff, it was easy to understand why the Indians won a then-record 111 games in 1954. For a rookie, catching Feller was one of the highlights of his career.

“When I saw Feller he wasn't really in his prime, but still he had he had a good movement on his ball, a good curveball, and his fastball still was moving,” he said.

Playing in the 1954 World Series

Naragon hit .238 as Jim Hegan’s backup en route to the Indians facing the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. He did not figure he would get much action, but with the Indians behind in Game Three, manager Al Lopez summoned Naragon as a late inning defensive replacement.

“You know, I was hoping that I would get in one,” he said. “When I was called up out of the bullpen to come in, I, of course, felt a little on edge at first but then I kinda settled down. I liked to be able to play in a World Series.”


Witnessing Willie Mays' Catch

While the Giants swept the Indians courtesy of Dusty Rhodes peppering the short right field porch in the Polo Grounds, I couldn’t bring up the 1954 World Series without asking Naragon about perhaps the most famous catch of all-time. We revisited Willie Mays’ devastating over the shoulder grab of Vic Wertz smash during Game One.

“You didn't think that much about it at first of the catch,” he said. “He did turn around and throw a nice ball into the infield. I don't know whether we even talked about it, but you knew Vic Wertz hit the ball and you thought, ‘Oh my goodness this is going to go out the ballpark.’ Well, then Mays catches it and you just say, 'Well, he's a good outfielder.'"

While Naragon said that he felt Larry Doby made tougher catches than Mays' World Series spectacle, years later he was able to recognize its historical greatness.

“I guess when looking back on it eventually you decide, ‘Hey that was one heck of a good catch.’”

Throughout his time with the Indians, Naragon built deep connections with many of his teammates, bonded by their train rides traversing the American League. He shared a lesser-known World Series story that involved one of his early Indians mentors, Dale Mitchell.

A career .312 hitter, Mitchell unfortunately, is best recognized for making the last out of Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game. Well after the game, the first person Mitchell reached out to was his friend, Hal Naragon.

“He called me that evening,” he said. “I asked him about it and I told him I thought the ball looked a little outside. He said he thought so too.”

Larry Doby's lighter side 

The nonagenarian reached deep into his bag of stories to share a lighthearted tale of an unintentional slip of the tongue he had with Larry Doby. Fortunately, his pioneering teammate found humor during the awkward moment.

“I remember that we were playing one game, the sky was kind of high, and the ball was kind of tough to pick up right away,” he said. “He sat down beside of me and said to me, 'Gee it is really tough to pick up that ball.’ … I said, ‘Larry, why don't you go ahead and put on some of that black stuff underneath your eye?’ Once I realized what I said, I looked at Larry and he is busting out laughing you know, because he was a dark man, but he knew what I getting to.”

Herb Score's Injury

Playing with the Indians in the second half of the 1950s decade as they started to rebuild after their Hall of Fame stars retired, Naragon was able to witness their young stars blossom. Cleveland’s prized pitching prospect was Herb Score, a flame-throwing lefty that many expected to carry on Bob Feller’s legacy. In his first two seasons, Score led the American League in strikeouts with a 36-19 won-loss record.

As 1957 started, Score looked like he was en route to another spectacular season; however, that all changed when New York Yankees infielder Gil McDougald stepped to the plate during a May 7th game. McDougald sent a line drive back through the box that smashed Score directly in the face. He watched with his teammates in horror as a bloody Score tried to hold his face together. The gruesome injury kept Score out for the rest of the season and derailed a once promising career. Naragon insisted that it was arm troubles and not the line drive that kept him from regaining his mound dominance.

“You know what, that didn't hurt his career,” he said. “Basically, he threw just as hard after it as he did before he got hit. He would tell you that [too]. I think what happened, he hurt his arm a little bit and that hurt him. As far as when he got back, he had the same velocity and a good breaking curveball. He didn't blame anyone that he couldn't pitch later just as well afterward.”

Score was not the only talent that Naragon watched bloom during his Cleveland tenure. Both Roger Maris and Rocky Colavito were rookies that Dale Mitchell told him to keep his eyes on, both impressing with their power hitting and defense.

Ted Williams' thoughtful gesture

While he had a multitude of fond memories of the superstars he played with in Cleveland, he was also excited to share a favorite Ted Williams story. It was one that had nothing to do with his on-field exploits.

“I asked Ted Williams that I would like to have a picture of him and he said to me, ‘When you get to Boston, you ask Vince the clubhouse guy and I will remember, and he will remember to get you a picture.’

“When I got to Boston, I kind of forgot that I asked Ted Williams [for the picture]. I was there leaning against the wall watching him hit and when he got through hitting, he came over and said, ‘I sent that picture over to you.’ Sure enough, when I went into the clubhouse, that picture was there. I thought, 'My goodness a big-time star like that remembers something like that!'”

In 1959, the Indians traded Naragon to the Washington Senators where he stayed with the franchise as they moved to Minnesota in 1961. After finishing his playing career in 1962, he stayed with the Twins as a coach, helping to guide them to the 1965 World Series where they lost in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

1968 Detroit Tigers World Series Victory

After his success with the Twins, he followed his good friend and pitching coach Johnny Sain to the Detroit Tigers. After two unsuccessful trips as a player and a coach, he was finally able to get a World Series ring when the Tigers won the 1968 World Series.

“That was a good team,” he said. “They would hit in the clutch … they got hits when it really counts, they were good defensive players, and they always had a lot of fun.”

Hal Naragon Tigers card courtesy of Mr. Naragon himself
In 2018, as the oldest living alumni of the 1968 championship team, the Tigers invited Naragon and his wife to Detroit to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their World Series victory. He basked in the opportunity to rejoice once more with his former players.

“We had a great time,” he said. “They invited us over to that and they really did a nice job for us.”

Naragon left coaching after the 1969 season to take over a local sporting goods store in his hometown of Barberton, Ohio. He ran the store from 1974 until his 1990 retirement. The town paid a massive tribute to their native son when they named Barberton High School’s baseball field Naragon Field in his honor in 2006.