Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Fred Valentine | Washington Senators Outfielder Dies At 87


Fred Valentine
, former major league outfielder with the Washington Senators and Baltimore Orioles, died December 26, 2022 in Washington D.C. He was 87. 

Valentine grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he excelled at Booker T. Washington High School in both baseball and football. A star quarterback and shortstop, he drew interest from multiple major league organizations out of high school; however, he decided to pursue his education at Tennessee A+I (now Tennessee State University). 

At his college football coach's behest, Valentine chose to sign with the Baltimore Orioles in 1956, despite offers from NFL teams. 

Like many Black players in his era, Valentine endured Jim Crow segregation in the South while playing in places like Wilson, North Carolina. Minor leaguers frequently received gifts from local businesses for stellar play. When Valentine went to collect his rewards, he was instantly reminded of the inequities he was fighting to escape. 

"When I won something," Valentine said in Bob Luke's Integrating the Orioles, "which I did often, I couldn't go in the front door. I'd have to go around back. If it was a meal, they'd box it up for me."

Valentine persisted in the minors, receiving a call-up to Baltimore in 1959. He joined a select group of major leaguers who played through MLBs first decade of integration. His time with Baltimore was short-lived, as he spent the next four seasons at AAA trying to work his way back to the big time. 

He caught his big break in 1964 when the Senators purchased his contract from the Orioles. Valentine's hustling spirit drew manager Gil Hodges' favor, something that resonated with Valentine over 50 years later when discussing his late manager. 

“The biggest thing I remember from Gil was that when I came [to] spring training, the only thing he asked was for 100 percent," Valentine said in 2018. "Regardless of how the game turned out, he just wanted a hundred percent from his players, and I always felt I didn't have any problems with that. He was going to give me an opportunity to play, and I told him I was going to give him a 110 percent, and I think I did.” 

Valentine played with the Senators through 1968, even earning MVP votes in 1966. A midseason trade returned Valentine to the Orioles to finish his major league career. He played one more season in the minors in 1969 and then spent the 1970 season playing for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. 

In retirement, Valentine worked with a group of former major leaguers to establish the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association in 1982. He remained active in many charities, including the Firefighters Charitable Foundation, where he was an annual guest at their dinners and golf outings.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Randy Savage - 'He Was A Pretty Darn Good Little Catcher'


In 1971, Mike Vail and Randy Poffo were anonymous teenagers at the entry level of the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, eagerly trying to navigate the murky depths of professional baseball. Both would go on to garner national attention for their athletic feats. However, only one of them made their calling on the diamond. 

At the time for Vail, it wasn’t immediately clear that they would each experience success in different arenas. 

“We were both real young, 18-19 years old,” Vail said during a recent phone interview in New York. “Randy, strictly from a baseball standpoint, I thought he was a pretty darn good little catcher.” 

The Randy who Vail praises for being a quality receiver is better known to sports fans as WWE Hall of Famer “Macho Man” Randy Savage. During their summer as teammates, the younger Poffo outpaced Vail in both batting average and home runs. His later turn to a wrestling career caught Vail by surprise. 

“We were roommates when we first came in with the Cardinals,” he said. “We kinda grew up together. It was interesting that he became the wrestler he was. It was kind of funny to see him become a wrestler; I thought he would continue on in baseball, but I guess he decided to go another way.” 

As they pursued separate paths, the two lost contact, with Vail loosely following Poffo’s wrestling exploits from afar. A conversation with a teammate about the recent passing of former Tidewater Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield reminded him of a missed connection with Poffo, who died in 2011. 

“It’s like so many other things in life,” he said. “You go to places and you do things … I was just having breakfast with Buzz Capra. We just lost a person who was close to us and a lot of people in baseball, our AAA general manager for many years, [Dave] Rosenfield. That came as a real shock to me and I wanted to go meet him and I didn’t have a chance to do it. It’s kind of the same thing with Randy. It was a shame.” 

Vail made his own headlines during his 1975 debut campaign with the New York Mets, setting both a team and National League rookie record with a 23-game hitting streak. His National League record stood for a dozen years until Benito Santiago eclipsed it in 1987. The streak was all part of a whirlwind that came shortly after debuting in the heart of the Big Apple. 

“It was like a dream,” he said. “It was amazing to be in the majors to begin with coming from AAA, like a little kid’s dream, to come to New York City. I tell people this all the time, the first day that I reported, Willie Mays was in the clubhouse. As a boy in San Jose, California, we used to watch Willie Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Marichal … all of the greats back then that I grew up watching at 8-9 years old. Now I get to New York and Willie [Mays] was a coach for me. It was unbelievable. The tips he gave me were just amazing that he helped me with.” 

Vail spent ten seasons in the major leagues, compiling a .279 lifetime average for seven franchises. Despite spending only three seasons in Flushing, his return to New York for a public autograph signing brought back strong ties to the city for the 65-year-old former outfielder. 

“New York will always be my favorite town and team because I came up with the Mets,” he said. “I’ve got mixed emotions. I came here and was here for such a short time really in my estimation. I was planning to be on the team for quite a bit longer, but I had that bad injury in the off-season trying to get ready for the next season. It’s just mixed feelings; sometimes I guess I’m a little harder on myself than the fans are, wishing that [the injury] didn’t happen. I was hoping to be a bit better for New York than I was.”

* - Originally published April 14, 2017 for The Sports Post.

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.