Showing posts with label Brooklyn Dodgers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brooklyn Dodgers. Show all posts

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Roger Craig, 93, Helmed The Mound For Both The Dodgers and Mets In New York

Roger Craig, the split-fingered fastball master, who was part of Brooklyn's only World Series championship in 1955, died June 4, 2023 at the age of 93. The 12-year major league veteran later became the long-time San Francisco Giants manager from 1985-1992.

Roger Craig Throws Out First Pitch In 2012 At Citi Field / Mets
I wrote the following piece below for Metsmerized Online after interviewing Craig when he returned to New York in 2012 to throw out the first pitch at Citi Field. He celebrated his 50th year as an "Original Met" and relished discussing his playing career in both Brooklyn and Queens.

Roger Craig holds a special place in New York baseball history lore, carrying the distinction of the first pitcher to take the mound for the New York Mets, as well as being a member of Brooklyn’s lone World Series championship team. At 89, Craig has outlasted nearly all of his peers that made the Brooklyn-heavy component of the 1962 Mets inaugural season.

Growing up in North Carolina, the lanky 6’4” pitcher faced a strong pull from another sport, basketball. He spent one year as a guard on North Carolina State’s freshman basketball team playing for the legendary Everett Case. While the opportunity to learn from a pioneer such as Case was tempting, it was not enough to compete with Brooklyn’s $6,000 bonus offer.

“I went to North Carolina State on a basketball scholarship,” Craig said. “When baseball season came around I talked to my dad [and told him] I wanted to drop out of school and play baseball and that is what happened. I dropped out and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

The Dodgers assigned Craig to their Class B team in Newport News to start the 1950 season. Still a teenager, Craig quickly discovered he was in well over his head.

“I was surprised they started me there,” he said. “That was a high way to start a young guy. I was 18 or 19. I started out in Newport News, and Al Campanis was the manager; I was really wild, and he sent me down to Valdosta, Georgia.”

With Craig in the modern day equivalent of rookie ball at Class D Valdosta, he was in the proper atmosphere for his skills to grow. Judging by how he explained it, his performance was far from perfect.

“I led the league in wins, strikeouts, base on balls, hit batsmen — everything,” he said.

While he was in Valdosta, Craig made the first of his Dodgers-Mets connections when he teamed up with a 20-year-old catcher named Joe Pignatano. He immediately noted the spark of his Brooklyn-born batterymate.

“Joe was a fiery competitor,” he said. “He went to the major leagues and became a great coach for a long time with the Mets.”

Before Craig could really mend his control as well as fortify his relationship with Pignatano, Uncle Sam arrived with a new uniform. The Army assigned him to a post in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he stayed for two years (1952-53) while many of his peers went overseas to Korea.

“The military really helped me because I was a basketball and baseball player,” he said. “All of my buddies went to Korea, and I stayed there and played sports. I had three catchers [who helped me], Haywood Sullivan, Frank “Big” House, and Ed Bailey. They said, ‘Kid, you have good stuff and a chance to play in the big leagues.’ They helped me, worked with me, and gave me a lot of confidence. I think I was 17-2 and 16-1 in two years down there.”

Just as Craig was to return to the Dodgers in 1954 after completing his military service, he suffered a cruel twist of fate that delayed his big league dreams.

“The day before I went to spring training, I was playing basketball to keep in shape,” he said. “I intercepted a pass, and a guy bumped me; I fell and broke my left elbow. I happened to have a family doctor; I talked to him and told him I had to go to spring training tomorrow. I told him to put an ace bandage on it and let me go to spring training. Finally, I talked him into it. I went to spring training and did not tell anybody for a week or two.

“Finally, Al Campanis came over, grabbed my left arm, and squeezed it. He said, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ I told him the fracture was small but had gotten bigger since spring training. When I played catch with my catcher down there, I told him not to throw the ball back too hard because I had a sore hand. If they threw it too hard, I’d let it go.”

His injury set off a true season beating the bushes, as Craig bounced around three teams in the Dodgers organization. He finally settled in with their Class B team in Newport News for the majority of the 1954 season.

With his impressive performance for Newport News in 1954, the Dodgers promoted Craig to their Triple-A team in Montreal for the 1955 campaign. After breezing through the league with a 10-2 record, Craig received a call to meet with his manager while the team played a series in Havana, Cuba. What happened next not only was a shock for Craig, but also for another of his future Hall of Fame teammates.

“When I got called to the big leagues, Tom Lasorda and I both pitched a doubleheader and [we] both pitched shutouts,” he said. “The next morning, the manager Greg Mulleavy called me in his office in Havana, Cuba. I said, ‘What the heck is going on? I went out and had a couple of beers.’ He said, ‘You’re pitching Sunday.’ I said, ‘I know, you already told me that.’ He said, ‘You’re pitching Sunday in Brooklyn!’ What a shock. Tommy was upset because he didn’t get called up.”

Pitching in Ebbets Field on a Sunday, Craig led the Boys of Summer to a 6-2 complete game victory. The man who went to North Carolina State with visions of hoop dreams was now standing tall on the mound as Brooklyn’s newest favorite son.

“When I first walked in that clubhouse with Jackie, Pee Wee, Duke, Furillo, and all those great Hall of Famers, I said, ‘I don’t belong here, what am I doing here?’” Craig said. “They made me feel welcome. I was lucky enough I pitched the first game of a doubleheader we played and beat Cincinnati with a complete game three-hitter victory.”

The Dodgers kept Craig on their roster throughout the rest of the regular season and the postseason. With the 1955 World Series knotted at two games apiece between the Dodgers and the New York Yankees, Dodgers manager Walter Alston called upon the rookie to give them the edge in the series.

“About the World Series, I pitched pretty well all year,” he said. “We lost the first two and won the next two. I told Joe Becker the bullpen coach, ‘I’ve gotta throw some.’ After I had thrown about ten minutes, he told me, ‘Sit down, you’ve had enough.’”

Craig did not immediately understand why his coach told him to stop throwing. That evening, after the Dodgers Game 4 win, Walter Alston made it evident why they wanted him to rest.

“He didn’t tell me then, but Walter Alston called and told him to sit me down,” he said. “We win the game. I go to the clubhouse, sit in front of my locker, and Alston walked up and said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘I feel great, I haven’t pitched.’ He said, ‘Well you’re starting tomorrow!’ I think Newcombe and Erskine were ready to pitch. I pitched six innings and we ended up getting a win. That was a great thrill.”

Fifty-seven years later when the Mets invited Craig to throw out the first pitch in 2012, all of his memories of World Series victory came screaming back as he toured New York City.

“My wife and I were here in New York and I threw out the first pitch for the Mets because I pitched the first game 50 years ago,” he said. “We stayed in Times Square and I remember the night I won my World Series game — my mother was there, my brother and my wife were with me, and I was on a TV show with Floyd Patterson.”

“After the show was over, we went to Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. He found out I was there and he sat down and talked with me. We came out and they had that big display in Times Square with the names going across it. My brother said, ‘Look up there, ‘Roger Craig beat the Yankees.’ It had my name up there. They got a big kick out of that.”

As the Dodgers emerged victorious over the Yankees to bring home Brooklyn’s first and only World Series championship, the young rookie was unaware of the moment’s significance. While he and the other upstarts were celebrating with hollered emotions, Craig noticed something different with the veterans.

“One thing about after the game was over, we were in the clubhouse and everyone was celebrating and drinking Schaefer and Rheingold beer,” he said. “All of the young guys, Roebuck, Bessent, Spooner, and myself were having a good time. You looked around, and all these guys, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider had tears in their eyes. I just realized that they had not won in so long and it was the first time they ever won it.”

“To get to this point and all, they all got very emotional. It was really something to witness. We just quieted down and let them be themselves.”

Craig stayed with the Dodgers as they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. As one of the newer players on the Brooklyn team, he did not have the same attachment as his teammates who had planted their roots over a decade earlier.

“I was a young rookie and all that,” he said. “I was such a young guy and didn’t really see the total impact of guys like Gil, Erskine, Newcombe, Duke, and Campanella. A lot of the other guys did not want to leave. I am surprised that some of them even went.”

As he reflected further on the move, Craig realized how both National League teams’ westward migration opened the door for fresh New York Mets allegiances.

“I read the book O’Malley wrote about all the things he went through to build a stadium,” he said. “It was a bold move to do something like that. He talked Stoneham into going with the Giants. To move two clubs —that is why the Mets had such great fans. The Giants and Dodgers fans did not want to be Yankee fans. They were great Mets fans and it helped.”

As the Mets tried to capitalize on those nostalgic hopes that Craig noted, he and Gil Hodges were amongst the many former Dodgers that the Mets selected in the 1961 expansion draft. As sentiment has grown for Hodges’ Hall of Fame induction, Craig shared what made his late teammate special.

“He was the nicest individual I ever met in my life, on the field or off the field,” Craig noted. “He was a real professional and a gentleman. I could see why he was a great manager. He was a great hitter, but also probably, the best defensive first baseman I have seen. He was a catcher too; he could catch if he wanted to. He would have pine tar over his hands all the time. I would take a brand new ball and throw it over to him, he would rub it one time and it would have pine tar all over it. Sometimes the cover would be loose because he had those big strong hands. He was a great guy to play with.”

Craig was a mainstay in the Mets rotation during their first two seasons, pitching in 88 games, 27 of them complete games. He played an additional three years afterward, wrapping up his 12-year major league career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1966. While he took the brunt of 46 losses with Mets, often with little to no run support, he still found happiness being in the company of familiar faces.

“It was like you had gone to a new team and all that, but with all those guys that played with Brooklyn and Los Angeles, it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “We just kinda had the good camaraderie right away, Don Zimmer, Gus Bell, Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, Hobie [Landrith], Felix Mantilla, etc. You think with those names that we would have won more games than we did, but it just didn’t happen.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Gil Hodges Finally Makes His Way To Cooperstown


No more debates about whether Gil Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame. The 2021 Golden Days Committee voted Hodges in the Hall of Fame during its December vote, giving Hodges the 12 votes necessary for election. 

Leading up to the vote, I debated in my Forbes Sports column whether the Hall of Fame had a financial interest in electing Hodges, as past committees haven't been favorable to deceased candidates from his era. Apparently, the committee went all in on four candidates—Jim Kaat, Minnie MiƱoso, Tony Oliva and Hodges (with Dick Allen narrowly missing), focusing on widening the Hall's reach, instead of focusing on the living candidates who could promote the museum. 

The three-time World Series champion (two as a player, one as a manager) died of a heart attack on April 2, 1972 during spring training with the New York Mets. Prior to his election, Hodges was the only Hall of Fame candidate eligible for the Veterans and Eras Committees that received at least 50% of the BBWAA vote and didn't get enshrined.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Glenn Mickens | Former Brooklyn Dodgers Pitcher Shared A World Of Baseball Experiences

While Glenn Mickens’ major league career consisted of four games with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953, his impact on the sport was global, as he was one of the early Americans to play baseball in Japan. The long-time UCLA baseball coach who spent 13 seasons in professional baseball, died July 9, 2019, in Hawaii due to complications from pneumonia. He was 88.

Glenn Mickens / Author's Collection

A False Start At UCLA

Mickens’ career hit a rocky start during his time at UCLA. Right before his 1948 freshman year, he went to a Brooklyn Dodgers tryout in Anaheim. While the Dodgers did not sign him, they told him they would keep an eye on him while he was at UCLA. Unfortunately, for Mickens, the scout running the camp gave him $20 for his food and travel. When Mickens went to UCLA, he reported on a questionnaire that he received the $20 from the Dodgers, and the NCAA ruled that he forfeited his amateur status.

For two years, he pitched for a semi-pro team while traveling with the Bruins before he signed a contract with the Dodgers in 1950. His early minor league career started a series of brushes with greatness throughout the vast Dodgers system. His first came with not a baseball legend, but a future NBA Hall of Famer, in teammate Bill Sharman.

“In 1951, we played [together] in Fort Worth,” Mickens said during a phone interview from his Hawaii home in 2011. “We would stop at every other ice cream parlor in the street when the streets were boiling and see who could eat the most ice cream. … He would be on the basketball court, and he would never miss. He always told me he liked baseball more than basketball. He slowed down from all that pounding on the basketball court. Obviously, he picked the right court.”

Korean War Draft

Just as Mickens started to get comfortable with Sharman at Fort Worth, Uncle Sam called. Mickens received his draft notice for the Korean War, which caused him to miss the rest of 1951, as well as the entire 1952 season. Luckily, his baseball skills saved him from a potential fateful trip to Korea.

“I was in the medical corps down in Fort Sam Houston,” he said. “Bob Turley, Owen Friend, Gus Triandos, and Ken Staples [were there with me]. I think I was 16-1 the first year, and 18-4 the second. I got to stay in the United States. I am grateful for baseball. Our colonel had the power to put you on a boat to Korea.”

Upon his return, the Dodgers assigned Mickens to Fort Worth in the Texas League. Still relatively new to the ways of professional baseball, Mickens almost ruined his chances at the majors due to a seemingly innocuous comment he made to his manager.

“I made a stupid comment. … There was a guy on second base, and we were down by about seven runs. A guy gets a hit to right-center, and the outfielder throws the ball into one of the infielders. He didn't score.

“I said something to Max Macon like, ‘Darn skip, couldn't he have scored easy?’ He said, ‘Yeah that run doesn't mean anything.’ We lost 9-8 and like an idiot, I said, ‘Darn skip, that was a big run now, wasn't it?’ A rookie doesn't make those kinds of statements. I heard from the players that Max was going to leave me on the mound until my jockstrap was knocked off. ... He started pitching me with about two days rest [until] I got to the Dodgers.”

A Call To The Brooklyn Dodgers

Luckily for Mickens, his jockstrap was intact, and his arm stayed attached long enough for the Dodgers to bring him to the majors in July 1953. Upon arriving, Roy Campanella immediately let him know that he was undoubtedly in the big leagues.

“I walk into that clubhouse from Fort Worth, and it was a doubleheader,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Which one of these is the seven-inning game, and which is the nine-inning game?’ [Roy] Campanella said, ‘Man this ain't no bush leagues! There ain't no seven-inning games here!’ I wanted to crawl under a stool.”

Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen wasted little time throwing Mickens into the fire. With Brooklyn down 2-1, Dressen sent Mickens to the mound in the top of the 9th inning against one of the National League’s top sluggers, Ted Kluszewski.

“I'll still never figure out that one,” he said. “Why Charlie brought me in to be the first guy I faced? I see this big guy [Kluszewski] with a couple of arms bigger than my legs. I said ‘Oh heck, I just don't want this guy to hit the ball back up the middle.’ I got one or two strikes on him, and I think I will keep the ball away and make him hit it. He hit the ball in the upper deck in Ebbets Field; I think he ripped up about five seats. I get back to the dugout and [Johnny] Podres was sitting there laughing. He said, ‘Don't feel bad, he hit 3 or 4 off of me—and I throw from the left side.’”

Mickens only lasted a few weeks in Brooklyn, as the Dodgers hit a hot streak and no longer had room for the rookie in their rotation. He cited Carl Erskine, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snider as a few who looked out for him during his time there. While his brush with The Boys of Summer was brief, it was in the Dodgers minor league system where Mickens built his relationships with baseball’s elite.

Playing In The Minors With Baseball Legends

Playing with the Montreal Royals in 1954, his teammate was a young rookie outfielder named Roberto Clemente. He noted that while Clemente showed tremendous upside, the manager would remove him at odd times during the game. He later discovered why.

“He [Max Macon] had orders from the Dodgers, I found this out later, to try and hide him,” he said. “They would play him 4-5 innings, and they would take him out after he'd make a great catch or hit one over the right-center field fence. There wasn't anything he couldn't do.”

Another Dodgers legend that Mickens paired with was a fiery left-handed pitcher that went on to become a Hall of Fame manager, Tom Lasorda. The future Dodgers skipper had a mound tenacity that resonated with Mickens over 50 years later.

“If you had one big game on the line and you wanted to win it, you would give him the ball,” he said. “He had that 12-6 curve, and catchers would hate him because he would bounce it so often that he would beat the catcher to death. When he had to get it over though, he got it over. He would knock his own mom down if it meant winning a ballgame. Talk about a competitor; he was amazing.”

A Regrettable Argument

While Mickens was busy making connections with baseball’s future icons, he was also working hard at getting back to the major leagues. After pitching well with Montreal in 1955, a frustrated Mickens had another run-in with management that sealed his fate within the Dodgers organization.

“I had some words with Fresco Thompson,” he said. “I was with Wally Fiala. The rooms we were staying in were junior officers’ quarters in Vero Beach, just like the Army. Some [players] had been playing mumbly peg against the wall. … Thompson put a note on our door one day, and my roommate says, ‘Look at this; they’re going to take $20 out of our salary for wrecking these walls.’ I looked for him [Thompson] all over the camp, and I finally encountered him in the mess hall. I asked him if he signed it and he said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What right do you have to accuse me of something you don't know anything about?’ He said, ‘I've got my information.’ I said, ‘Tell me who your information is, and I'll call them a liar to their face.’ I was fuming. If he would have come up to me and asked, I would have told him, but he flat out accused me. He starts pointing his finger into my chest, and he said, ‘I'll send you so far down, it will take a $10 postcard to find you.’ I didn't realize it, but [after] that day, I could have won 20 games with Montreal, or anywhere in their organization, and I wouldn't have had another chance with the Dodgers.”

The Dodgers bounced Mickens all around their farm system, sending him to their affiliates in Los Angeles, St. Paul and Victoria, Texas. It was in Victoria where he sensed he needed a change. He reached out to an old friend, Ralph Kiner, who was the general manager of the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League.

“I got to the airport [in Victoria], and I thought this was a place you go through, you don't get off there,” he said. “I said, trade me, sell me, or give me away. I called Kiner and said, ‘See if you can get me traded to the San Diego organization.’ He called me back and said, ‘Mick, they won't release you.’”

Heading To Japan

Mickens faced a situation that caused many of his peers to put aside their baseball dreams. With teams in full control of player contracts, their only other choice was to retire or leave the country. Mickens took the road less traveled, certainly by American players at the time.

“My only chance at that stage of the game to get out of the organization was to go to Japan, which at that stage was outlaw ball,” he said. “Bill Nishida, who was in Montreal [with me], got me to go over there. I was over there for five years. I got in three All-Star Games and was the first and maybe only American to win an All-Star game for the three innings I pitched. I got to pitch against Sadaharu Oh over there. My only regret is that I didn't get another shot here.”
Glenn Mickens 1960 Marusan Baseball Card / Japanese Baseball Cards

Baseball in Japan in the late 1950s was still in its formative stages. The level of play was nowhere near what it is today, and tactical methods were years behind as well. Mickens noted the stark contrast of how managers handled their players.

“Their regimen was so different,” he said. “These guys would last 4-5 years and would come up with sore arms. They would pitch nine innings and then be back in the game the next day if they were winning. … I was on the worst offensive and defensive club in Japan. The manager would ask me to throw 1-2 innings, and then [all of a sudden] you are out there 4-5 innings.

“There are so many things you have to get used to over there. I think they changed their methodology. They would not slide to break up the double play; they would run out of the way. Lefty O'Doul was doing some announcing over there. I told him I was trying to get them to play like back in the United States. He said, ‘Kid, forget it. I've been coming here for 30 years. They haven't changed, and they're not going to.’”

While Mickens could not always rationalize his team's tactical decisions, he recalled a hilarious method his manager once used to motivate him to close out the opposition.

“I'm on the bench one night and it's about the 8th inning,” he said. “The manager of our club, Chiba, he's trying to think of something to stimulate me to go out and finish the game to beat these guys. He said, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor!’” I almost fell off the bench.”

A Return Home

Mickens finished up in Japan in 1963 and returned to UCLA to become their assistant baseball coach. He stayed for 25 years, fostering multiple generations of professional talent. He coached Eric Karros, Don Slaught, Tim Leary, as well as Ralph Kiner’s son, Mike, a connection to his brief major league stay.

“There's a really cute story,” he said. “I faced Ralph Kiner. On the loudspeaker, after he hit his home run off me in Wrigley Field, the announcer said, ‘He hit this for his newborn baby boy, Mike.’ Twenty years later, I'm coaching at UCLA, and who am I coaching? Mike Kiner for crying out loud! I tell him, ‘Thank your dad for me.’ The other time I faced [Kiner] was in Ebbets Field. They said Kiner didn't strike out, but I struck him out in Ebbets. I remember the guy saying, ‘You can't strike Kiner out.’ He was a super nice guy.”

In retirement, Mickens moved to Hawaii where he was active in civic affairs and traveled the world with the UCLA alumni baseball team to compete in friendly exhibitions. While his time with the Dodgers only lasted four games, he realized the monumental achievement of just making the club.

“Who's place were you going to take up there?” he asked. “Duke Snider, Carl Furillo? They had these guys in front of you. What chance did you have?”

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.




Click here to listen on Spotify.
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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, 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 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.



Sunday, December 30, 2018

How a young Sandy Koufax once enraged Jackie Robinson

Celebrating Sandy Koufax’s 83rd birthday, many tributes will reference his dominance that led to three Cy Young awards in the 1960s. While Koufax made an incredible transformation into a nearly unhittable pitcher at the turn of the decade, as a teenager only a few years earlier, he was the recipient of one prominent teammate’s harsh criticism with the Brooklyn Dodgers.


Glenn Mickens played with the Dodgers in 1953 and vied for a roster spot in 1955 when Koufax joined the club during spring training. He was quick to note that Koufax had yet to tame his lethal fastball.

“He couldn't hit the broad side of a barn when he got there,” Mickens said during a 2011 phone interview from his Hawaii home.

Mickens’ recollection of Koufax’s early struggles was rather mild in comparison to his legendary teammate Jackie Robinson's observations. During 1955 spring training, Robinson sat next to Mickens on the bench after wreaking havoc on the Washington Senators during a “B” game to watch Koufax pitch. As Koufax quickly grew wild on the mound, his nonchalant reaction enraged Robinson.

“We're playing Washington in spring training,” Mickens recalled. “Jackie steals second and steals third, and then [when] it looks like he's going to steal home, he gets Camilo Pascual to balk. It is the only way he knew to play the game. [Charlie] Dressen then takes him out of the "B" game.

"Jackie is sitting next to me on the bench and Koufax was walking the world. His [Koufax’s] attitude was like, ‘So what?’ I can still see Jackie screaming, ‘Throw the ball, you big baby! Throw the ball!’ He couldn't believe that anybody would go out and not compete the way he competed while he was playing the game.”

As one of the club’s elder statesmen, Robinson hoped that his hyper-competitive spirit in a meaningless exhibition game would rub off on the rookies, especially the nouveau riche Koufax. Mickens felt that the southpaw’s ability to let a harsh comment from Robinson roll off his back is what ultimately led to his success.

“Sandy wasn't bothered at all," he said, "That might have been one of the biggest plus factors for him because if he had been frustrated, they might have sent him to the minor leagues or lost him until he got his control,” he said. “Once he did, it was just unbelievable.”

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Ron Negray, pitcher in the first ever Los Angeles Dodgers game, dies at 88

Ron Negray, a former pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, passed away November 8, 2018, in Akron, Ohio after a brief illness. He was 88.

Negray signed with the Dodgers in 1949 after briefly attending Kent State University. Although only 19 in his debut season, he looked like an experienced veteran with a 21-6 record for Class D Valdosta. Over the next three years, Negray battled his way up the crowded ranks of Brooklyn’s farm system en route to the major leagues.

Ron Negray / Author's Collection
The Dodgers finally reached for Negray once their roster expanded in September 1952. Fresh off an 11-7 performance with their Triple-A club in St. Paul, Negray entered a Brooklyn clubhouse anonymous to a Hall of Fame roster.

“The first day I came to Brooklyn, I came in during the morning,” Negray recalled during a 2008 phone interview his Ohio home. “We were playing Cincinnati and Charlie Dressen told me to go to the bullpen. Nobody even knew me; I wasn't even introduced to anybody.”

Negray's anonymous September 14, 1952 debut

After the Reds chased starter Johnny Rutherford, Dressen summoned Negray to start the fourth inning. Hidden among the throng of September call-ups, his Brooklyn teammates met Negray with surprise as he approached the mound. (Ed. Note – Some names were corrected from Negray’s recall of the following events.)

“I went in relief in about the 4th inning," he said. "Campanella [Rube Walker] came up and said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'Well, I'm Ron Negray.' Gil Hodges came up and asked if I was in the right ballpark. Campanella [Walker] then asked me if I knew the scoreboard signs. I said, ‘What scoreboard?’ They worked signs off the scoreboard, but I didn't know what he was talking about, because we didn't have that in St. Paul. That broke everybody up.”

After pitching a scoreless frame, he returned for the fifth to stare down the power-hitting Ted Kluszewski. With his bulging biceps exposed by his cut-off sleeves, Big Klu cut an intimidating figure just by standing in the batter’s box.

“He looked like Man Mountain Dean,” he said. “I guess Campanella [Walker] must have told him I threw really hard. The first pitch I threw him a change of pace, a low slow ball, and he popped it up. He cursed Campanella [Walker] because he must have told him I threw really hard.”

Negray left the game unscathed, hurling three clean innings in relief. He made another three appearances for the Dodgers down the stretch, pitching 13 innings without a decision.

Jackie Robinson's special gesture

As the Dodgers rejoiced for yet another opportunity to play in the World Series, the team skipped over Negray when they distributed watches to celebrate their National League victory. One teammate however, went out of his way to ensure that Negray felt like one of the regulars.

“When we won the pennant, they gave out watches,” he said. “Since I came up and I was a low-life rookie, I was the last man and didn't get a watch. Jackie [Robinson] came over and gave me his watch. He said, ‘You could have my watch.’ I gave it to my dad and I don't know what happened to it. … We talked a lot of baseball. He told me what I should and shouldn't do.”

After his sip of big league coffee, Negray stayed in the Dodgers minor league system until he was traded midseason in 1955 to the Philadelphia Phillies. He spent the remainder of 1955 and the entire 1956 campaign with Philadelphia on their big league roster.

The Dodgers reacquired Negray in 1957 as part of the Chico Fernandez trade. While he did not return to the majors for the Dodgers' farewell in Brooklyn, he made history when the team moved to California.

Breaking ground in California

When the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants squared off at Seals Stadium on April 14, 1958, it marked a frontier for baseball’s westward expansion. Both teams left New York to build a new legacy, and Negray made his mark on the inaugural contest. Appearing in relief, he pitched the final two innings in the Dodgers’ 8-0 loss. At the time of his death, he was the last player alive from the Dodgers lineup that groundbreaking day.

The Dodgers sent Negray back to the minors a month later, never again to return to the big leagues. He finished his career in 1963 after 15 seasons in professional baseball.

Negray stayed close to the game by selling uniforms and athletic equipment to local high schools for 34 years until his retirement. His death leaves only 18 living Brooklyn Dodgers alumni.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ed Roebuck, one of the last 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champs, dies at 86

Ed Roebuck, one of the last links to the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series championship team, passed away June 14, 2018 in Lakewood, California. He was 86.

The right-handed relief specialist made his major league debut in 1955 after breaking camp with the Dodgers out of spring training. Manager Walt Alston gave him the heavy task of being the team’s closer and for the first few euphoric months in the big leagues, Roebuck answered the call.

“The first half of the season I was in almost every save possibility there was,” Roebuck told me during a 2010 interview in New York. “I think I led the club in saves that year. You could come in the fifth inning or the ninth inning. There wasn’t [a] right or left hander specialist; you’re in the bullpen and you could go in the first or the ninth.”

1956 Ed Roebuck Dodgers Photo / Author's Collection

By the middle of July, Roebuck was firing on all cylinders. He led the team in saves and held an ERA that hovered around two; however, his good fortunes would change quickly. At the end of the month, he had two consecutive rough outings against the Milwaukee Braves and suddenly he went from Alston’s stopper to mop-up duty.

“[Clem] Labine took over and I didn’t get to pitch after that, and when I did, I got racked up,” he said.

Fortunately, for Roebuck, his rocky start did not exclude him from the postseason roster. He made one appearance in the 1955 World Series, pitching two scoreless innings in Game 6.

“I wasn’t expecting to pitch in the series,” he said. “I was just happy to be there.”

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, the thought of Roebuck playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers was a remote one. After starring at Brownsville High School, Boston Red Sox local scout Socko McCary followed Roebuck so closely that most felt he would certainly sign with Boston once he turned 18.

“He moved in with us almost,” Roebuck said. “He would come out there every day and it was sort of a known fact that when I became eligible, that I was going to sign with the Red Sox.”

At the urging of his brother, Roebuck reluctantly attended an open tryout while awaiting his 18th birthday. Little did he know that day would alter the course of his professional baseball career.

“There was a tryout camp, and my brother who was sort of my guiding interest said, ‘Let’s go to the tryout camp,’” Roebuck recalled. “I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know, they want you to throw as hard as you can, run as hard as you can, and nothing ever comes out of it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go anyhow.’ So we go up there and apparently, I did pretty well and then I forgot all about it.”

The venerable Branch Rickey had his spies working to uncover baseball talent from every corner of the country. Unbeknownst to Roebuck, while McCary was cozying up to his family, Rickey’s charges had their eyes on the young righty the entire time.

“In 1948 while pitching for the coal mining team at that workout, the Bowen brothers had scouted me,” Roebuck recalled. “I didn’t even know anything about them. They did the hard scouting on me. I didn’t even know they existed because they were secretive about everything. I [never] talked to them before.”

Once he was on Brooklyn’s radar, nothing was going to get in the way of the Dodgers pursuit. They navigated muddy dirt roads deep into the rural community where Roebuck lived to convince him to go to Brooklyn.

“Jim Murray came over to where we lived,” he said. “We really lived in the boondocks. Most times, you couldn’t get a car back there; it was all lanes and muddy and so forth. One day this big Buick drives up there and the man says, ‘I want to take you to Brooklyn.’ I said, ‘It’s all right with me if you get the okay from my brothers and my mother.’ So he drove me there and I worked out at Ebbets Field. I had a good workout, they took me up to the office, and actually Branch Rickey signed me.”

At the tender age of 17, Roebuck had the intimidating task of sitting across the desk from Branch Rickey during his contract negotiation. He called his trusted brother for backup.

“He [Rickey] was a little scary really,” he said. “Actually, they didn’t want to make me a bonus player. The contract they offered me, I told them I’d have to check with my brother, who was going to have to check with the Red Sox to see if they were offering what [the Dodgers] were offering. My brother called back and said that the Red Sox couldn’t do that and to go ahead and sign with them, so that’s how I started.”

Immediately, the Dodgers placed Roebuck with their Class B team in Newport News, Virginia for the 1949 season. Rickey was so confident in Roebuck’s abilities that he debuted in a league where most of the players had a few years of minor league seasoning under their belts. It proved to be a rocky rookie experience for Roebuck, as he posted an 8-14 record with a 4.64 ERA.

“I think because of being signed in Brooklyn by Rickey, they put me in too high of a league to start,” Roebuck said. “There were 30-year-olds in that league and I was only 17. I had a hard time at Newport News.”

Not to be discouraged, Roebuck rebounded from another losing season in 1950 with 14 wins for Class A Elmira in 1951. His steady performance set him to go to their top farm club in Montreal, only one step away, although it was a big one, from the major leagues. For three seasons, Roebuck toiled with the rest of Brooklyn’s prospects eagerly awaiting his call to the show.

The Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system had a wealth of talent, primarily due to Rickey’s keen baseball eyes. With close to 30 minor league teams, their system was often a breeding ground for the rest of the league’s talent.

“There were just so many players in front of you in that organization,” he said. “When I first went with the Dodgers in spring training, there were 636 players. Many shortstops never made it because of Pee Wee [Reese] — Billy Hunter, Don Zimmer, Bobby Morgan, Chico Fernandez, etc.”

One of Roebuck’s Montreal teammates who was in this cluster of players awaiting one of Brooklyn’s All-Stars to vacate their position was Roberto Clemente. Playing together in 1954 after Clemente signed as a “bonus baby” prospect from Puerto Rico, he recalled the antics the Dodgers went through to try to hide his talents so another club would not draft him.

“He was one helluva good looking prospect,” Roebuck said. “They really messed him around because they didn’t want him to get drafted. The Pirates had their top scout follow us around in Montreal all year, Clyde Sukeforth. You knew it was going to happen.”

It happened for Roebuck too, as the Dodgers gave him his start in the major leagues the next season. From his seat in the dugout, the rookie hurler was thrilled just to be able to watch his future Hall of Fame teammate operate from field level.

“I remember in Ebbets Field sitting in the dugout and you would watch guys like [Gil] Hodges hitting, and you would have to look up,” he recalled. “Usually when you are that close to the action in baseball, it’s not all that glamorous, but it was glamorous for me. All those big guys were doing the ballet. There is so much balance and power at the same time. [Roy Campanella] was something to watch from the dugout. It was something to be associated with that outfit at the time.”

Roebuck solidified the Dodgers bullpen for the next three seasons, helping the team to return to the World Series in 1956 against the New York Yankees. An arm injury during the 1958 season put his career in jeopardy and subsequently caused him to miss the Dodgers 1959 World Series victory. The Dodgers sent him to their Triple-A team in 1959 to pitch and play first base while he recovered.

“The major league rule came in and I couldn’t play winter ball,” he said. “I never had a sore arm in my life. … Johnny Podres and I worked over at the Dodgers place and didn’t do any throwing. It was terrible. My arm was so fine-tuned and I hurt my arm by not pitching. I made a comeback and tore all those adhesions loose. The Dodgers told me I would never pitch again because I had too much scar tissue in there.

“A scout, Kenny Myers (who signed Willie Davis) told me that he thought we could do something, but it was going to be painful. By the time the summer was over, I went back to the big leagues. I would just get against the chain link fence and throw as much as it would let me. Then he would twist my arm and stretch it. He was paralyzed in the service and he had some experience with that. It was he who got me back to the big leagues. In St. Paul in 1959, I hit five home runs and gave up [only] four in 200-something innings.”

Roebuck followed the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, eventually making his home in Lakewood. He welcomed the change while other Brooklyn mainstays resisted.

“We as a family wanted to go, my wife and me, because it was new territory and new fertile ground,” he said. “I know Duke wanted to go. I don’t think guys like Hodges and some of the guys who had homes in Brooklyn wanted to go. I didn’t think O’Malley would do it. … My family was happy to go out there.”

While he found the Los Angeles Coliseum favorable as a pitcher, he lamented the challenge his teammates faced trying to hit there, especially Duke Snider.

“It was much tougher to pitch in Ebbets Field,” he recalled. “You saw some fluke home runs in the Coliseum, but you also saw some line drives hit to the screen that would be home runs somewhere else. You would have to bomb the ball to get it out in right field. It was a shame what Duke Snider had to go through when we went out there.”

Roebuck played with the Dodgers halfway through the 1963 season until he requested that they trade him to the Washington Senators. He wanted to join his old friend Hodges in the nation’s capital.

“In 1963, I didn’t pitch that much,” he recalled. “I went to Fred Patterson to tell Bavasi that I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to go with Hodges. Buzzie calls me in the office, tells me that I will always be part of the Dodgers, and the next day I was traded.”

While Roebuck got what he wanted by moving to the Senators to reunite with Hodges and pitch more often, he faced a clubhouse culture unseen with the Dodgers.

“It was a big disappointment going from the Dodgers to the Senators,” he said. “Almost all of the Dodger teams were winners. It dawned on you when you are there, that those guys are going for me. I’m going to have a good year and I don’t have to worry about winning or losing. We get a couple of hits, grab a couple of beers, and get ‘em tomorrow.

“Some of these young teams have a lot of talent but something always happens. They’ve not matured to where they know how to win. The first thing that you noticed was that the Dodgers or Yankees, they knew how to play the game. It was just a feeling. You know how to win or have been winning and take it for granted. The same thing goes the other way when you’re used to losing; you are going to play your best, but the Yankees are going to win.”

Roebuck's major league career continued through 1966 with the Senators and Philadelphia Phillies, which included being a part of the Phillies ill-fated collapse during the 1964 pennant race. He spent one more season in the Pacific Coast League with the San Diego Padres in 1967 before finally calling it quits.

He stayed in the game as a scout for the next 30 years, citing his most prized pupil as Bert Blyleven. He helped the Hall of Famer develop his legendary curve ball coaching him in a winter scout league.

“We had a winter team for kids in high school,” he said. “I was managing this team. We would invite all these people graduating the next year to play with us in the wintertime. I helped him. He didn’t have a real good spinning curve ball when he played there. It was more of a slider / slurve.”

Ed Roebuck (r.) with the author in 2008 / N. Diunte
Wrapping up our talk at a Westchester, New York hotel on the evening before a 2010 autograph show appearance, Roebuck admitted that this would be the last show he was going to attend. He was growing weary of the cross-country travel and didn’t enjoy it as much now that most of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates were gone. As he further reflected on his place in baseball history, he humbly admitted that even though he spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, he felt he just blended in his entire career.

“I was just holding on most of the time,” he said. “You know, I never really had time to smell the roses because if you don’t do the job, you’re history. After I finished playing baseball, I realized I was one of the 25 people there.”

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Don Lund | Legendary University of Michigan baseball coach dies at 90

Don Lund, a three-sport star at the University of Michigan, and a major league outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, and St. Louis Browns for seven seasons, passed away Tuesday due to natural causes. He was 90.

Much of Lund’s acclaim comes from his status at Michigan where he was revered not only for his athletic prowess, lettering nine times in baseball, basketball, and football, but also for succeeding the legendary Ray Fisher as the head baseball coach at his alma mater. He coached there from 1959-62, winning the Big Ten Championship in 1961, and the National Championship in his final season.

Don Lund / Author's Collection

Mike Joyce, who went on to pitch two seasons with the Chicago White Sox in the major leagues, was one of the aces for Lund’s Big Ten Championship team in 1961. Speaking with Joyce shortly after the news of Lund’s death, he displayed tremendous pride to have played under his tutelage.

“While he was not a pitcher, he was a pretty good student of the game,” Joyce said via telephone. “He used to say, ‘The secret of pitching is to relax and concentrate.’ Fifty-four years ago he suggested that and I still haven’t forgotten that. He made the execution a lot simpler without trying to be the master of everything.”

Despite only coaching at Michigan for four seasons, Lund had a profound impact on the program, developing future major leaguers such as Bill Freehan, Fritz Fisher, and Joyce. Never during his playing days did he imagine that he would be the part of the link from Branch Rickey to Fisher.

“I never thought it [coaching at Michigan] would happen when I signed with the Dodgers,” Lund said in a 2009 interview. “Branch Rickey was the coach of the University of Michigan when he was in Law School, then it was Ray, and then I. It is such a small world; you would never think that it would happen.”

Lund almost went professional in another sports, as he was a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears, but turned down that offer to sign with the Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. He signed for a $7,500 bonus right out of Michigan and three weeks later he was in Leo Durocher’s clubhouse. That three week delay included a few trips to New York, as well as his college graduation, which left him little time to be ready for his major league debut.

“Our college season ended and then there was graduation,” Lund said. “It was another two-to-three weeks before I played another game. I had gone to New York, signed a contract, came back home, and then went back to Brooklyn.”

He made his debut July 3, 1945, without stepping foot in the minor leagues. His first ride in with Brooklyn wouldn’t last very long.

“It was just a token thing,” he said. “I pinch hit, but they could see I wasn't ready to play and they sent me to St. Paul.”

He worked diligently in the minors, and was rewarded with another stay in Brooklyn at the start of the 1947 season, just in time to be on the bench for Jackie Robinson’s debut. About a week before Robinson made history by breaking baseball’s color barrier, Lund homered in a spring training game and was greeted by Robinson at home plate. The photo is immortalized on the cover of Lund’s 2009 biography, “Playing Ball with Legends”.

Lund played in the major leagues through 1954, with his best season coming in 1953, when he batted .257 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 421 at-bats for Detroit. After working with the Tigers as their farm system director from 1963-70, Lund returned to Michigan for a 22-year stay as an assistant athletic director until his 1992 retirement.

Spending nearly 50 years in a wide encompassing athletic career, Lund’s greatest accomplishment may not have been anything that he did on the field, but the impact that he left on the young men under his watchful eye.

“He was first and foremost a gentleman; somebody who made you proud to be associated with, whether or not you were a baseball player or a normal person,” Joyce said. “What I most appreciated was that he respected people that worked hard, he did not play favorites, and on top of everything else, he made it fun to play baseball.”

* - This article was originally published for Examiner.com on December 10, 2013.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jackie Robinson's lone day as shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers

When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, he was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. His signing worried league veterans, as they questioned his ability to adequately field the position at the major league level.

“All us old fellas didn't think he could make it at short,” Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell told Sports Illustrated in 1973. “He couldn't go to his right too good. He'd give it a backhand and then plant his right leg and throw. He always had to take two extra steps. We was worried. He miss this chance, and who knows when we'd git another chance?”

Jackie Robinson / National Archives
If anyone was qualified to evaluate Robinson’s readiness to play shortstop at an elite level, it was Bell. Regarded as the fastest the Negro Leagues had to offer, Olympian Jesse Owens reportedly refused to race against the fleet-footed outfielder. Even though Bell was in his mid-40s when he faced Robinson in Negro League competition, he could still draw on his legendary speed when necessary. He devised a plan to send a not-so-subtle message that Robinson needed to look for another place on the field if he was going to be their representative to break the color barrier.

“So I made up my mind to try and show him he should try for another spot in the infield,” Bell said. “One night I must've knocked couple hundred ground balls to his right and I beat the throw to first every time. Jackie smiled. He got the message. He played a lot of games in the majors, only one of 'em at short.”

Intrigued by Bell’s mention of Robinson’s lone game in the majors at shortstop, I looked for the story behind his brief return to a position he had not played professionally in eight years. On September 22nd, 1953, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen gave the Brooklyn fans a treat during the final home game of the season, as he penciled in Robinson at shortstop next to his cleanup spot in the batting order.

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers captain and shortstop, stepped aside so Robinson could have a taste of the position he last held with the Monarchs. Ironically, Reese was the catalyst for this move, as it was his dare that provoked Robinson to change positions. In true form, the ever-competitive Robinson didn't hesitate to accept the challenge.

“Jackie Robinson played shortstop yesterday on a dare by Pee Wee Reese,” Dave Anderson wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “The man-in-motion now has played every infield position this season as well as left field.”


Robinson’s charge at shortstop was witnessed by only the most diehard Brooklyn faithful, as a scant 2,365 fans showed up to Ebbets Field for the game. His appearance passed with little fanfare except for a lone wire photo of Robinson snaring a line drive from the bat of Pittsburgh’s Danny O’Connell.

So was Bell accurate in his assessment of Robinson playing shortstop in the major leagues? Robinson handled five chances without an error, but his clean sheet left out one curious detail. In the first inning, the Pirates lefty-hitting Hal Rice reached safely at first base on a groundball to shortstop. While the news reports made no mention as to where Rice hit the ball, one can wonder if he tried to slap one in between short and third and test Robinson like Bell did in the Negro Leagues almost a decade earlier.

* Note - A tip of the cap to Luke Epplin (@LukeEpplin) for his assistance with the newspaper research.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

How George Shuba inspired beyond his famous handshake with Jackie Robinson

George Shuba gave many congratulatory handshakes in his days as a major league ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his most famous one was captured during Jackie Robinson’s first game in the minor leagues on April 18, 1946. The hard-hitting outfielder who earned the nickname “Shotgun,” passed away at his home in Youngstown, Ohio on Monday. He was 89.

George Shuba / Topps

Shuba played seven seasons with Brooklyn, appearing in three World Series including their 1955 victory over the New York Yankees, but his most famous moment was immortalized in a national photograph of Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand after his first home run in the minor leagues. The moment was later dubbed, “A Handshake for the Century.”

Manager Clay Hopper, who had Shuba the year prior in Mobile, installed him into the third slot of the batting order right behind Robinson. Shuba’s ability to hit the ball to the right side of the infield influenced his manager’s decision for Robinson’s debut in Jersey City.

“He put me in the third slot which is a very important slot because I was a pull hitter,” Shuba told me during a 2008 interview in New Jersey. “If someone was on first base, I had the big hole. He knew I made contact, so that's why I was lucky to be in that slot.”

His place in the order set the stage for history when Robinson deposited the ball over the left-field wall in the third inning. As Robinson rounded the bases, Shuba waited to greet him with an outstretched hand.

“When Jackie hit his home run,” he said, “I came to home plate and shook his hand.”

Over sixty years later, Shuba put the event in its proper context. A friendly gesture that any teammate wouldn’t think twice about extending turned out to be a significant part of Robinson’s assimilation into the previously all-white professional leagues.

“I realize now it was actually a historical event,” he said. “Being fortunate to have Jackie, it didn't make any difference to me if he was black or Technicolor. As professional ballplayers, we are focused to beat the other team and if Jackie helps us to beat the other team, he's with us 100%. Truth be said, he was the best ballplayer on the club.”

Shuba joined his good friend on the Dodgers in 1948, one season after Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. He served mostly as a reserve outfielder, playing behind Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, and Andy Pafko. He carved his niche as a pinch hitter, a role that paid dividends during the 1953 World Series against the New York Yankees when Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen sent him to pinch-hit against Allie Reynolds.

“We got behind a few runs,” he said. “So now Charlie Dressen decided to use me early with a couple of me on base. I was ready to pinch-hit; [I was] never nervous. When I went up to pinch hit, I felt the pitcher was in trouble, not me.

"When I stepped in the batter’s box, the shadows were in between me and the pitcher. It was all day ball; the ball would come out of the sun into the shade. I turned around to get some dirt on my hand and Yogi Berra said, 'Hey Shuba, it's kinda tough seeing up here, isn't it?’ I said, 'Don't bother me, Yogi, I've gotta get a base hit.’ Reynolds threw me a fastball on the outside corner with two strikes on me and I hit a line drive over the right-field fence 355 feet away.”

Roger Kahn featured Shuba in the epic “The Boys of Summer” which followed up with the post-playing careers of many seminal Brooklyn Dodgers. He was honored to be a part of Kahn’s historical work.

“He covered each one of us at our homes,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be on that book because I had my best year in 1952 when Roger came up. We were in our early 40s when he visited us and he saw some people that might have been having tragedies in their families. I was fortunate I had just recently married. It was more than about baseball.”

The man who Bill Bingham of the Mobile Press nicknamed “Shotgun” in 1945 for the sound of his wicked line drives, used his powerful hands for a different cause when he penned his 2007 autobiography, “My Memories as a Brooklyn Dodger” with Ohio author Greg Gulas. It was an effort that he initially intended to be an oral history of his career for his family keepsakes that blossomed into a fully fledged book.

“I started out writing for my family only,” he said. “A friend of mine Greg Gulas, I asked him to be the author. He was the Sports Information Director for Youngstown State and also wrote for the Vindicator. … It covers a vast spectrum of my career as a minor and major leaguer.”

Reflecting on a career that started after being signed by the Dodgers from a tryout camp in Youngstown in 1943, Shuba shared the following words of advice in 2008 hoping to inspire the younger generation to strive towards success both on and off the field.

“Competition is good for people,” he said. “If they succeed, it gives them confidence. After they’re playing days are over, it can help them make the transfer to the regular life. … I would tell the kids to dream. The saying is, 'Dreams plus dreams equals dreams. Dreams plus action equals success.’ I was fortunate that my dreams came true. I lived my dreams and I am forever grateful for that.”


* - This was originally published September 30, 2014 for Examiner.com

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Clem Labine: 'Always A Dodger' by Richard Elliott


Clem Labine was a fixture on the Dodgers pitching staff during the entire 1950s decade. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Labine stabilized a legendary bullpen as one of the game’s earliest relief specialists. Yet 65 years after his debut, his career achievements remained overshadowed by virtue of being on the same team with Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. His fellow bullpen-mate Tommy Lasorda, who made the Hall of Fame as a manager, acknowledge how underrated Labine was amongst his teammates.

“He was a great pitcher, but he was surrounded by too many stars,” Lasorda said. “He played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”

Richard Elliott, a close friend of Labine’s from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, has finally given the Dodger hurler the spotlight he deserves by authoring a very personal biography, “Clem Labine: Always A Dodger.” They first met well before he was a baseball star, while Labine was a part-time employee during high school at Elliott’s father’s apparel company, Jacob Finkelstein & Sons. A relationship that was forged in the late 1940s between a young kid, his father, and one of Brooklyn’s most beloved pitchers, remained bonded for sixty years until Labine’s 2007 death.

Always A Dodger / Richard Elliott

Elliott takes us on an unparalleled look inside Labine’s life that could only come from one with such close access to the Dodger great. From the opening of the book, it is evident that this work is much more about relationships than baseball.

“Long before he was a major league pitcher, Clem Labine was my dad’s best friend,” Elliot wrote in “Always A Dodger.”

Labine worked for Elliott’s family throughout the off-seasons of his major league career and well after he threw his final pitcher for the Mets in 1962. With the major league minimum salary currently exceeding $500,000 per year, the type of kinship that Labine and Elliott experienced from the jobs necessitated to supplement the low ballplayer wages of that era may never again be duplicated.

Filled with Labine and Elliott’s personal family photos, the images contained give “Always A Dodger,” a feel of looking inside someone’s scrapbook with a rich narrative of the life events surrounding each scene. Along the way, Elliott not only details Labine’s greatest triumphs, but also his toughest tragedies.

On the field, Labine was celebrated for his role on two World Series Championship teams, taking home Brooklyn’s only pennant in 1955, and pitching in 1960 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet away from the field, Labine experienced two tremendous losses in a short period of time that haunted him for the rest of his life. His son Jay lost a leg in Vietnam and his wife Barbara passed away from cancer in 1976, only seven years after his son’s terrible injury.

Elliot explores the inner struggle that Labine dealt with from being away from his family as a ballplayer. While living the life of a major leaguer on the road seems exciting, these players leave their families behind for a half-year, relying on the strength of a strong wife to carry the household. It was a choice that pulled at Labine well after he retired from baseball.

“It troubles me remembering how tortured Clem seemed when he would speak of the compromises to family life which had resulted from his seventeen-year career in professional sports,” Elliott said.

While Labine was lauded for his role as the closer in the Dodgers bullpen, two of the greatest games he ever pitched came as a starter for “Dem Bums.” October 3, 1951 is widely recognized in baseball circles for Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” off of Ralph Branca, but the primary reason that game even had a chance to be played was due to Labine’s masterful performance the day prior. With the Dodgers’ season on the line, he went nine shutout innings to lead the Dodgers to a 10-0 victory. This clutch feat has been historically overlooked due to Thomson’s aforementioned home run the next day.

When the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers squared off in the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen gave the Yankees a 3-2 series edge when he threw the only perfect game in World Series history. With the Dodgers season on the line, Walter Alston gave the ball to Labine, who was nothing short of spectacular, besting Bob Turley for 10 innings to secure the Dodgers 1-0 victory and a chance to play in Game 7. Overshadowed by Larsen's performance, Labine’s extra inning effort is rarely discussed regarding the 1956 World Series.

By penning “Always A Dodger,” Elliot ensures that Labine’s career is not only celebrated, but remembered. In the eight years since Labine’s death, Elliott acknowledges that not a day goes by that Labine is not missed. Many baseball fans hope to share just a few moments with a major leaguer at the ballpark or an autograph show, but Elliott had the fortune of spending a lifetime with Labine by his side. The illustration of their relationship in the book captured the essence of the life that he touched.

“His childhood hero had become his business associate, close friend, and confident,” he said.
 Clem had become, in many ways, a second father.”

* - This article was originally published on Examiner.com October 4, 2015. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Cy Buker, 93, a one season wonder for the Brooklyn Dodgers

Cyril “Cy” Buker, one of the long standing Brooklyn Dodger alums, passed away Tuesday October 11, 2011, at the Marshfield Care Center in Wisconsin. He was 93.
Cy Buker / Baseball-Almanac.com
Buker played professionally from 1940-1952, making it to the major leagues with Brooklyn in 1945. Buker was called to Brooklyn after having a standout 11-3 season in St. Paul in 1944. Eager to play in Brooklyn, his chances at the major leagues were temporarily dashed when he was drafted into World War II service.
“I wasn't there two days before I was in the Army,” Buker said in an interview with Jim Sargent. “The Army finally released me about May 15. I was in what they call the observation unit. I had asthma, and I was wheezing up a storm.”
While in Brooklyn, he compiled a 7-2 record with a 3.30 ERA in 42 appearances during the 1945 campaign. With that type of record, one would think Buker was a shoo-in for a spot on the club the following season. What followed was an intense set of contract negotiations with Branch Rickey that delayed Buker’s arrival to spring training in 1946.
After months of back and forth letters, Rickey offered Buker a $1,500 raise contingent on his ability to make the team. Resigning from his teaching job, Buker finally reported to spring training, albeit three weeks late. His prospects didn't look good.
"I could see that everyone was mad at me," Buker recalled. "Nobody would even talk to me. I was assigned to the 'B' squad immediately, without throwing a ball. It went that way throughout spring training and into the season. I sat on the bench. I never pitched one ball in 1946. They didn't want anyone to see me. I sat on the bench until the final hour of the last day before cut-down, and, you guessed it. I was optioned to Montreal.”
Going to Montreal, Buker found himself in the middle of history as Jackie Robinson was beginning baseball's integration. Robinson had just entered the minor leagues and was beginning to build his legend north of the border. Buker noted in a 2008 interview that some teammates were weary of his presence.
“There were many, especially those from the southern United States who were very skeptical," he said. "They didn’t think it would work. They were mistaken and after several months, [they] accepted him.
Buker developed a relationship with Robinson, so much that he was offered to travel with him after the end of the season.

“We got along well. In fact, he wanted me to join his barnstorming team after the season,” he said. Unfortunately for him, a home plate collision prevented him from joining Robinson. “I didn’t go because I wasn’t recovered from my injury.”
This injury would plague him for the rest of his career and Buker would continue to moonlight between his love for teaching and playing baseball, joining most clubs after the school year was finished and leaving once football started. He continued in this fashion until 1952, leaving pitching behind to fully focus on teaching and coaching. His prowess in the school system as a coach would see him inducted in to the Wisconsin Baseball and Football Coaches Associations' Halls of Fame.
After retiring from teaching in 1970, he started his own body repair and painting business in Greenwood, which he operated until he was 88 years old. With Buker's passing, that leaves 44 living former Brooklyn Dodgers.

* This article was originally published for Examiner.com October 15, 2011.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Luis Olmo tells stories of facing Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico

Luis Olmo, a pioneering Puerto Rican in the major leagues, passed away April 28, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 97.

The fabulous outfielder became only the second Puerto Rican in the major leagues when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. His entry followed the lead of Hiram Bithorn, who made history with the Chicago Cubs a year prior in 1942.

Luis Olmo signed photo / N. Diunte
Adrian Burgos of La Vida Baseball expertly documented Olmo's career in the wake of his passing, citing Olmo's influence on generations of Puerto Rican baseball players. His professional career started in the 1930s, leaving him as one of a small handful of peloteros at the time of his death that could document the pre-WWII era of the sport.


Acknowledging Olmo's place alongside those who opened the door for integration, I wrote to him in 2008 asking about the Negro League legends he encountered playing in Puerto Rico. While his answers were brief, they spoke volumes.

The then 89-year-old Olmo gave his insights on three Hall of Famers: Ray Dandridge, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. A copy of the letter is included below, as is a transcript of the questions and his answers.

Q - "Where does Ray Dandridge rank when you think of 3rd baseman?
Luis Olmo - "One of the best I ever seen."

Q - What do you think kept the Giants from calling him to the Major League team?
Olmo - "Racism."

Q - What are your memories of facing Satchel Paige in his prime while in Puerto Rico during the late 1930s and early 1940s?
Olmo - "A great pitcher."

Q- What are your favorite memories of playing with and against Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico? 
Olmo - "Gibson was able to hit 100 home runs in a season."  

Luis Olmo letter to the author in 2008 / N. Diunte