Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts

Saturday, January 15, 2022

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

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

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

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

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

Cholly with Almendares 

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

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

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

1954 Washington Senators

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

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

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

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

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

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

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

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

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

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

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

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

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

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Flavio Alfaro | 1984 USA Olympic Baseball Team Shortstop Dies At 59

Flavio Alfaro - 1985 Topps Baseball Card

Flavio Alfaro, a shortstop on the 1984 USA Olympic Baseball team died on January 27, 2021 after a bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 59. The announcement was made on Facebook by a high school classmate.

Alfaro played at the College of the Canyons before transferring to San Diego State University in 1983. His steady defensive play attracted the attention of the United States Olympic Team and coach Rod Dedeaux. He batted .389 in five games for Team USA in 1984. Topps gave him an iconic card in their 1985 set, which also included Mark McGwire's famed Team USA card.

Flavio Alfaro - 1984 USA Olympic Team

The Atlanta Braves drafted Alfaro in the fourth round of the 1984 MLB Draft. After batting .193 in one season with their Class A team in Durham, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers with Rick Cerone for future Hall of Famer Ted Simmons. During the offseason, he had a dispute with Brewers management over the minor league level where he would be placed. Instead of accepting their assignment, Alfaro retired. He became the first player from the 1984 USA Olympic team to retire from professional baseball.

After his baseball career, he worked as a salesman and farmer in Sacramento. 


Flavio Alfaro 1984 Team USA Media Guide


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bill Oster | Former Philadelphia Athletics Pitcher Dies At 87

Bill Oster, one of the last surviving Philadelphia Athletics players, died June 6, 2020 in Centerport, New York. He was 87.

Bill Oster / Author's Collection

Oster made his major league debut in 1954 with the Philadelphia Athletics after they pulled him from the Long Island sandlots.

“Two nights later I was down in Philadelphia,” he said in my Forbes column earlier this year. “I threw to one of the coaches [Augie Galan]. He said, ‘Take your time, and throw easy.’ After 15 minutes he told me to throw harder. I threw a little harder, and he said, ‘Okay, let's see what you got!’ I threw a fastball to him and he fell on his back. He came up laughing like hell. I can still see it. He said, ‘Let's have that once more.’ He called [manager] Eddie Joost and said, ‘Eddie, you have to see this!’ They signed me right there and put me on the roster.”

The 21-year-old lefty spent the remainder of the season with the A's, his only one in the big leagues. You can click here to read the entire story, which was the last public interview he did he before he died. He discusses his brief, but excting career, including how he struck out Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

How Don Carman Remained Batterymates With Darren Daulton Through His Final Hours

Throughout a long Major League Baseball career, one might have hundreds who they call teammates, but only a select few they can call true friends. Despite bonding while traveling the country for six months trying to win a World Series championship, as soon as teammates clean out their lockers, they often go their separate ways until spring training.

With the platitudes expressed for Darren Daulton in the wake of his passing, one of his teammates shared how a union formed before their first major league game together persisted through Daulton's final hours. Don Carman, a former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who broke into the majors with Dalton in 1983, explained the nature of their transcendental friendship.

“We had something special, because in baseball I have a lot of really good friends that I spent time with, [but] the day they stop playing, they go home and you never hear from them again,” Carman said via phone shortly after Daulton's death. “It happens all the time. … That's the rule. … He and I had an amazing friendship, a wonderful friendship, [we were] very close, and I loved him like mad. There's not a time where we wouldn't hug, kiss each other, and say, 'I love you,' because you knew you had something different.”


To understand just how their relationship started, go back to the 1983 season when the two were a battery for the Philadelphia Phillies Double-A team in Reading, Pennsylvania. After both had breakout seasons in the minors, the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies called them up when rosters expanded. Arriving in the heat of a pennant race, the pair watched as future Hall of Famers Steve Carlton, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Mike Schmidt worked at clinching the pennant. Finally, with the pennant in hand, manager Paul Owens inserted Daulton into the starting lineup on the next-to-last game of the 1983 season.

In the bottom of the 8th inning, Daulton scored the go-ahead run against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving Owens the opportunity to summon Carman to seal the deal. The lefty spent most of the season as Reading's closer and he now was in the position to get a save in his major league debut. As a nervous Carman approached the mound, a familiar face greeted him with the right message to get him under control.

“I remember being scared to death,” he said. “Then he [Daulton] came out the mound and said something like, 'We made it. You and I made it. We're here, and we're playing in the big leagues.' I remember still being afraid, but at least I didn't have to worry about how to pitch and what I wanted to do because the guy knew me so well. And I did, I had a 1-2-3 inning. It was obviously my first outing, but it was as much as being comfortable with knowing that I didn't have to think; all I had to do, whatever he put down, I'm going to throw it because I couldn't think because I was so scared. I was the closer in Reading for the last three months of the season, so he knew me, what I wanted to do, and what made me effective, so I didn't have to worry about that.”

Just how Daulton helped to guide Carman in his debut, Carman noted that “Dutch” had a magnetism that drew his teammates to follow him. From the beginning of his career, Daulton had an uncanny ability to inspire that was evident across the league.

“The strange thing about him, everybody in baseball knows he was one of the most special baseball-type people—he was the consummate player and everybody looked up to him, even when he was 26-27, the 35-year-olds looked up to him," Carman said. “He was the leader of every team he was on. I've never met a better leader, just an amazing guy; he was like that in the minor leagues. He was a natural.”

Daulton made it a point to extend himself not only to his teammates, but to everyone around him who made the game run. Carman felt it was how “Dutch” treated those whose names did not show up in the box score that was a true testament to his character.

“It didn't matter if you were grounds crew or the owner of the team, everybody wanted to be around him and everybody felt special,” he said.“It was every person; it didn't matter who you were. If the owner of the team came over, he would walk over, grab him by the face with both hands and kiss him on the cheek. If it was the guys who just dragged the field and they walked by, 'Dutch' would do the same thing. It didn't matter who you were, you demanded his respect because he gave it to you, and everybody felt special.

“There's something about his personality that gave you this feeling that he really does care. This moment he cares about me, enough to pay attention to me, to listen to me, to smile at me, to make eye contact with me, and hear what I just said.”

Philadelphia's love affair with Dutch grew as his spirit and personality resonated with the Phillies faithful. The Phillies honored their leader when they inducted him into their Wall of Fame in 2010. Even amongst the of Hall of Famers, Carman's keen eye noted that in later years, Daulton stood out as the obvious fan favorite.

“When you go to the Wall of Fame in Philly, they call them all out on the field,” he said. “They always call him out last because they know he's going to get the biggest ovation every time. You're talking about Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt, who spent more time there and are in the Hall of Fame. People would cheer, but when he came out, the place would erupt. He even made fans feel special."



While Daulton stayed in the spotlight, he and Carman remained tight behind the scenes. They participated in each other's weddings while becoming confidants throughout tough times in their lives. They stuck together even when many walked away from Daulton when he released his controversial book, “If They Only Knew” in 2007.

“Throughout all three marriages, he and I talked because he knew he could trust me," Carman said. “He would come to me for advice through all of this, so we've become very close over the years. When he went through his bizarre time when he wrote the book [If They Only Knew], a lot of people didn't know how to respond; I didn't know how, but it wasn't by leaving him because I knew this person and something was wrong. It turns out he had a brain tumor. As soon as they removed the bulk of the brain tumor, the crazy behavior changed and he was back. It was amazing."

When Daulton's brain cancer recently took a turn for the worse, Carman dropped what he was doing to make the three-hour trip to Daulton's bed side. For the next two weeks, he made spending time with Dutch his main priority.

“I kind of put work on hold for the last two weeks because that's when he made a really downward turn,” he said. “I've been with him every other day for the past 15 days. He lives three hours away. I would drive up, see him, and leave [his wife] Amanda, her mother, and his parents. I would spend the day there, go to a hotel, and then come back see him, and then drive home. A couple of days later, I would do it again.”

Even in his final days, Daulton stayed true to form, mustering up whatever strength he had left to make Carman feel welcome. This time, Carman did most of the heavy lifting.

“Obviously it was difficult,” he said. “The last ten days, he couldn't talk, but he could listen, smile, and hug you with one arm as the right side was paralyzed. Since he could do that, I did the talking.”

Carman spent five hours with Daulton on the day he died. Speaking with him only two days later, Carman did his best to hold back tears while humbly expressing gratitude for being there one last time for his good friend.

“I'm just glad I could talk to him.”

* This article originally appeared in the now defunct Sports Post on August, 10, 2017.



Sunday, April 19, 2020

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Bobby Valentine Interview

Bobby Valentine joints the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss playing for Bobby Winkles with the California Angels. Winkles, who also managed the Oakland Athletics and won three College World Series championships at Arizona State University, died April 17, 2020 at age 90.

Winkles managed the Angels in 1973, when Valentine suffered his career-altering injury while playing the outfield. Valentine explains how the injury changed both of their career trajectories.





Saturday, April 4, 2020

Forever Linked With Rusty Staub, Mike Jorgensen Recalls Their Tremendous Bond As Teammates

When Rusty Staub died March 29, 2018, the New York Mets lost a franchise icon. The Mets traded a trio of young prospects to the Montreal Expos in exchange for the six-time All-Star just before starting the 1972 season. Mike Jorgensen, a 23-year-old homegrown talent from Bayside, Queens, was one of the traded players who had to replace Montreal's most beloved superstar.

“He was a hero,” Jorgensen said in a phone interview. “He was the Montreal Expo at the time, and it wasn't a very popular trade in Montreal.”


Going to Montreal with Ken Singleton and Tim Foli, Jorgensen found strength bonding with his new teammates. They turned their collective energy towards the field rather than worrying about living up to Staub's lofty expectations.

“That trade gave me a chance to be a regular player,” he said. “That was the foremost [thing] on my mind. I played up there for five years, so after a little while, [the fan reaction to the trade] wore down a little bit. At first, it was unpopular because he was an All-Star; he was, 'Le Grande Orange,' and he was a big deal.”

The baseball tradewinds reunited the duo in New York at the twilight of their careers. Jorgensen returned to the Mets in 1980 via a trade with the Texas Rangers. Staub joined him from Texas the following year through free agency. Now both seasoned veterans, they became friends by sharing a similar role on the team.

"We would go out to dinner a number of times; it was kind of unusual because we were both kind of winding [down] out careers at the time," he said. "We were both left-handed pinch hitters, [which] I guess you could do it in those days when you had seven guys on the bench; you wouldn't have room for that kind of a thing in today's game."

He recalled one candid bench conversation early in their Mets tenure that exemplified how attentive and competitive Staub was in his reserve role.

“The one thing I'll remember is that he studied the game,” he said. “He was one of the best pinch-hitters in the game, if not the best. He would study those pitchers, sit in the dugout, and look for something if they were tipping pitches or something like that. After a while, he'd say, 'I got him, I got it.' I'd always sit by him and try to pick up the tip myself. The first time he did that, I said, 'Yeah okay, what is it?' He looked at me and he said, 'You know, we're both kind of fighting for the same job.' It wasn't in a bad way, that was just the way he was.”

The 69-year-old Jorgensen, who currently works for the St. Louis Cardinals as their Senior Special Assistant to the General Manager, acknowledged how his former teammate's passing is a tremendous loss to the entire baseball community.

“He was great,” he said. “Obviously, everybody knows the stories about the restaurants and how he was a gourmet cook. … He was a wonderful man [with] everything he did there in New York, especially [with] the police department. It was enjoyable to play with him; it really was. I enjoyed my time with him. Baseball's going to miss him; we'll all miss him.”



* - Ed. Note - This story was originally published for the now-defunct Sports Post on April 11, 2018.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Bob Stephenson | Former Oklahoma University And St. Louis Cardinals Infielder Dies At 91

Bob Stephenson was a giant for many, but it had little to do with his professional baseball career. The former St. Louis Cardinals infielder turned oil magnate and philanthropist, died March 20, 2020, in Oklahoma City. He was 91.

Bob Stephenson / Author's Collection
A second-team All-American shortstop at the University of Oklahoma, Stephenson signed with the Cardinals in 1950. He played two seasons in their minor league system before being drafted into the Army in 1952. He served 13 months in the Korean War, putting his baseball career on hold until 1954.

After a full campaign with Triple-A Columbus, the Cardinals gave Stephenson his big break. He broke camp with the team from spring training and spent the entire 1955 season as their utility infielder, spelling Alex Grammas at shortstop and future Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst at second base.

Stephenson batted .243 in 67 games in his lone major league campaign. While he enjoyed the experience, years later, he discussed the unspoken rigors of a nomadic baseball life.

"The average person doesn't have an idea of what that life is like," Stephenson told author Richard Panchyk in Baseball History for Kids: America at Bat from 1900 to Today. "It sounds pretty glamorous, but when you're playing at that time 154 games a year, and you're making 9 or 12 road trips, it gets to the point, at least in my situation, I'd have to almost read the paper every day to see what town I was in because the restaurants all looked the same.

"[You] go through the ballgame, get through about midnight. I would get home, get back to the room about midnight, have a big dinner, go to bed at three o'clock, get up at noon, and repeat it over. At four o'clock, go back to the ballpark."

Eventually, the travel wore on Stephenson, and he retired from baseball in 1957 to put his geology degree to use. He founded the Potts-Stephenson Exploration Company and built his legacy in natural gas and oil exploration.

Late in his career, he scored a major victory when he sued one of the largest gas and oil producers, the ONEOK Resources Company, for an alleged violation of their accounting practices. PSEC sold their controlling interests to ONEOK in 1997; however, Stephenson remained his stake in the company. In 2003, Stephenson won a lengthy court battle against the energy giant.

Throughout his life, Stephenson extended his generosity to the University of Oklahoma. He made significant donations to the OU School of Geology and Geophysics, as well as their athletic programs.

In 2018, Stephenson made a donation to Oklahoma's baseball program towards the $15 million needed to renovate L. Dale Mitchell Park. The amount wasn't publicly disclosed, but it was rumored to be more than $1 million.

"Bob Stephenson is a great Sooner and has always been a tremendous leader for us, especially when it comes to supporting our student-athletes and the resources they need to be successful," Vice President and Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione said in a press release. "He has served as a fundraising catalyst on many occasions, and once again has made a significant donation that gets us moving toward our goal of securing the necessary funds to complete our baseball stadium master plan."






Saturday, January 11, 2020

Dick Bokelmann | Former 1950s St. Louis Cardinals Pitcher Dies At 93

Dick Bokelmann, a pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1950s, died December 27, 2019, in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He was 93.


Born October 26, 1926, Bokelmann was a star at Arlington High School. He went on to Northwestern University, where the Cardinals signed the pitching star from the Arlington Heights sandlots in 1947.

“After I got out of Northwestern [a scout] showed up at a semi-pro game one day and asked me if I was interested in signing,” Bokelmann said during a 2009 phone interview from his Arlington Heights home. “I had been in touch with the Cubs for a few years, but it didn't work out, so I signed with the Rochester Red Wings. I signed a Triple A contract. I then went to Toronto to meet the team and I was only there a week [before I] was sent to Fresno.”

Bokelmann’s major league journey started on the West Coast, far from his Windy City origins. He was quickly introduced to the follies of minor league life.

“I remember joining them in Bakersfield," he said. "Our manager was a catcher but wasn't on our active roster. Our catcher slid into home plate headfirst and got a concussion. We didn't have another catcher. We had a little 5'6” left-handed first baseman. Someone else went back there, I think one of our pitchers, and he couldn't see well without his glasses. Gosh about after two pitches went back to the screen, they brought the first baseman in left-handed, and he caught the rest of the game. I thought, ‘This is professional baseball?’ It was quite different.”

Weathering his rookie season, Bokelmann returned home armed with newfound riches, ready to make a move that would greatly impact his career. He married his sweetheart Dolores Hogreve, a union that lasted 71 years until her March 2019 death.

“I went home and got married,” he said. “I was making a big $250 per month, pretty extraordinary when I think back at that time. I got a big $50 raise for the next year and made $300!”

Bokelmann went 15-11 with a 2.82 ERA at Class B Allentown in 1948. For the next three years, he moved between their Double A and Triple A affiliates in Houston and Rochester.

Finally, in 1951, everything clicked under manager Al Hollingsworth’s watchful eyes in Houston.

“I had a really good year in Houston,” he said. “That year, I started as a starting pitcher and went on a trip to Panama. I pitched good ball down there until the Cardinals came through from spring training and they dropped off Vinegar Bend Mizell, Mike Clark, and Fred Martin. I found myself in the bullpen and it worked out to my advantage. I ended up with a 10-2 record and a 0.74 ERA.

"Every night, it was like 3-2, 2-1, 4-3, so I was up in the bullpen almost every night. It was entirely different; you weren't a one-inning closer back then. I even started a couple of ballgames for Houston that year. I could pitch five-to-six innings without a problem and I even threw a complete game. We would either be ahead or behind by a run and I'd get credit for a win.”

With Boklemann pitching lights out at Houston, the Cardinals took notice. On August 1st, 1951, he finally got the call to the majors. Cardinals manager Marty Marion wasted little time putting him to the test.

“When I got up to the Cardinals, they pitched me the first three days I was there,” he recalled. “The first night I saved a game for Harry Brecheen. The next two days I pitched, I didn't give up any hits; I had the bases loaded for one, gave up no hits, and nobody scored.”

After a failed attempt as a starter, Bokelmann settled into a comfortable bullpen role. He suffered a few early losses but then responded with three wins in one week.

“[Marty] Marion then decided to start me against the Cubs, and that didn't go very well,” he said. “A couple plays screwed up. Nippy Jones and I couldn't get together on a ball up the first base line, and it kind of snowballed from there.

“I went back to the bullpen. I later won three games in a week. We were in Pittsburgh; I gave up no runs in [4 2/3] innings and only one hit. On the third day, I gave up one run in [5 2/3] innings and only one hit. The next week we were home against the Giants, and I picked up another win. I went into the game and I think I pitched about five innings. We ended up winning the game, and I got credit for the win even though I went in with a 6-0 lead. That's how they work out. That's all I got; those three!”

For the next two seasons, Bokelmann shuttled between St. Louis and the minors, making 14 appearances for the Cardinals in 1952 and 1953. The Cardinals sold his contract to the Reds in 1954. Back home in the Texas League with Tulsa, he went 10-4 with a 1.80 ERA. Despite his stellar performance, he saw the unfortunate writing on the wall when the Reds kept him in the minor leagues.

“In 1954, I came home, I was about to be 28, my little girl was six, and my boy was three; I decided I had it,” he said. “I had my shot up there. I wasn't going to make it up there anymore, so I decided to quit.”

In an ironic twist shortly after deciding to hang it up, Bokelmann discovered his services were still in demand. His phone rang with an offer he waited for his entire career.

“The odd thing was, I always wanted to play winter baseball someplace,” he said. “Our manager Joe Schulz managed in Puerto Rico. No sooner than I got home and got a job with Prudential Life Insurance, he called me to come to Puerto Rico to play ball.”

He passed on the offer, turning his attention towards his family. He worked at Prudential for 30 years until his retirement.

According to his daughter, Bokelmann received autograph requests until three days before he died. In 2009, he recalled how Topps reprinting his 1953 rookie card led to a 25-year mail stream.

“About 15 years ago, I got a letter from Topps that they were going to reprint the 1953 series and they gave me a few bucks,” he said. “I now get requests every day. Sometimes I get ten of them. They must be trading them to other people. They get three of mine for one of someone else because I don't know how they get ten of them.”

Reflecting on the stark financial difference between his generation and current MLB stars, he pointed to how fellow Cardinals alum Curt Flood helped baseball players become millionaires when he challenged the reserve clause.

“The Cardinals had so many minor league teams, you kind of had to work your way up through them,” he said “There were good ballplayers especially in the Cardinals [system] that had to stay in the minors, especially in Columbus. Besides that, you had the reserve clause in the contracts, and that killed you.

"Until Curt Flood started the suit, you were done. The year I played in 1951, I had signed the minimum contract. The next year I got my letter from the owner for $5,000. By today's standards, going 3-3 in two months, I would have probably got a big raise today. I had to fight to get $500 more. If he didn't want to give it to me, I had to stay home. I couldn't go anyplace, I was locked in. That's how baseball was until 1973 when the contracts went out of sight. I wonder sometimes how much players like [Stan] Musial who was getting $75,000, which was big money back then, would have made now.”


Monday, January 6, 2020

Neal Watlington | Former Philadelphia Athletics Catcher Dies At 97

Neal Watlington, one of the few remaining former Philadelphia Athletics baseball players, died December 29, 2019, at his home in Yanceyville, North Carolina. He turned 97 just a few days earlier.

Neal Watlington / 1952 Parkhurst
In 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Watlington about his lengthy baseball career and World War II service which included a Purple Heart. Click here to read the entire interview.

During the conversation, Watlington explained how his break came in 1952 when the New York Giants sold his contract, along with three other players to Philadelphia. The Athletics brought Watlington to spring training in 1953, where he made it to the final cutdown day.

“We got back to Philadelphia,” he said, “and the manager Jimmie Dykes told me, ‘You’ve had a good spring training, but I’m sorry we’ve got to let you go back, we can’t carry three catchers. I feel real surely we’ll call you back, and if you do, you’re going to be number one.’”

Dykes stayed true to his word, and after an injury to catcher Joe Astroth during the middle of the season, Watlington was finally a major leaguer at the age of 30.

“It was great to be there; there’s nothing like the big leagues,” he said.

Watlington played the waiting game for almost a week before he had the chance to play. He made his debut on July 10, 1953, against the Boston Red Sox, getting a hit in his first time at bat off of Greensboro native, Hal ‘Skinny’ Brown. He started the next few games but was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the season when Astroth returned. With three catchers on the club, there was little room for Watlington to get an opportunity.

“Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he said. “Both of them had good years, and there wasn’t just any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”

He finished the season batting .159 (7-for-44), and never returned to the major leagues, spending the next five seasons at Triple-A until he hung up his cleats in 1958.

After his playing days were over, he was a tobacco farmer in his hometown of Yanceyville and owned Watlington's Inc., a department store, and the Watlington farm store before retiring in 1999.

Despite his short stay in the majors, Watlington remained proud of his accomplishments.

“I played in every ballpark,” he said. “I hit in Yankee Stadium against Vic Raschi, I hit against Bob Feller. It was just quite an experience for me.”


Saturday, September 7, 2019

Jose Moreno | Former New York Mets Infielder Dies At 61

Jose Moreno, former utility player for the New York Mets, San Diego Padres, and California Angels, died September 6, 2019 in Santo Domingo due to pulmonary complications. He was 61.


Moreno broke in with the Mets in 1980. His shining moment in Queens came on August 26, 1980, against the San Diego Padres. Pinch-hitting for pitcher Mark Bomback in the 5th inning, Moreno hit a two-run homer that was part of an epic 18-inning marathon. He was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the remainder of the season, and in December, he was traded ironically to the Padres for former Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones.

He is the only player in the history of the Dominican Winter League to achieve a 30-30-30 season (RBIs, runs scored, and stolen bases). He played 14 seasons in the Dominican from 1974-75 through 1989-90 that included three championships with Escogido.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Don Mossi | 1954 Cleveland Indians Relief Star Dies At 90

Don Mossi, one of the last living members of the Cleveland Indians 1954 American League Championship team, died July 19, 2019 in Nampa, Idaho as per his daughter Linda Mossi Tubbs. He was 90.

Mossi signed with the Indians in 1949 from Jefferson High School in Daly City, California. They immediately placed him with their Class C team in Bakersfield, keeping the California native within the confines of his home state to develop his talent. The move paid off, as Mossi worked his way to the big league club five years later, right in time for a pennant run.

Don Mossi / Topps
The left-hander joined the Indians in 1954, integrating himself into a dominant pitching staff that included Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Hal Newhouser. Mossi partnered with Ray Narleski to form a relief combo that sealed many of the Indians 104 victories.

“You'll never have a staff like that ever put together again,” Narleski said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home in 2008. “You had four 20-game-winners. Then you had Art Houtteman and Hal Newhouser; that's six of 'em. Then you had Mossi, myself, Hoskins, and Hooper.”

While most players would relish getting the Feller and Lemon off the mound, the site of Mossi and company coming in from the bullpen provided little relief for their opponents.

“Going into Cleveland—that was a tough weekend. You had a four-game series in Cleveland; you had Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, and Feller. Then they had Narleski and Mossi as their wrap-up guys. … It was a comfortable oh-for-twelve on that weekend,” Billy Hunter said to Gene Fehler in “When Baseball Was Still King.

Mossi pitched four scoreless in three appearances for the Indians during the 1954 World Series. While the New York Giants prevailed, Mossi made a powerful statement to the rest of the league with a 1.94 ERA during his rookie season.

The lefty earned an All-Star selection in 1957 after he converted to a starting pitcher with the Indians. He pitched a scoreless two-thirds of an inning in the Midsummer Classic. He was traded after the 1958 season with Narleski to the Detroit Tigers for Billy Martin and Al Cicotte.

Mossi immediately made an impact in Detroit, spinning a career-best 17-9 record on the mound in 1959. He played five seasons there before finishing his last two seasons with the Chicago White Sox in 1964 and the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. He posted a career record of 101-80 with a 3.43 ERA in 460 appearances.

His passing leaves only two living members from the Cleveland Indians 1954 World Series team, outfielder Wally Westlake, and catcher Hal Naragon, who appeared on the Baseball Happenings Podcast earlier this year.

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?”

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Chuck Harmon tells how a wild week in the Negro Leagues unexpectedly opened his door to the majors in 1947

Chuck Harmon’s name may not resonate with baseball fans when discussing the sport’s color barrier in the same way as trailblazers Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby; however, the talented multi-sport athlete followed his counterparts into baseball in 1947 to ultimately carve out his own niche in baseball’s record books.

The University of Toledo basketball star who became the first African-American player ever for the Cincinnati Reds died March 19, 2019, at his Cincinnati home. He was 94.

1955 Topps Chuck Harmon / Topps
Harmon initial athletic fame came from his achievements not on the baseball diamond, but on the hardwood courts across Indiana. He was a basketball star at Washington High School, leading the team to consecutive Indiana state championships in 1941 and 1942. Upon graduating, he played one year at the University of Toledo before he was whisked off to serve in the Navy during World War II.

University of Toledo Basketball Stardom

Harmon had his first taste of stardom when the All-American helped to lead Toledo to the 1943 NIT championship game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. He scored six points in their 48-27 loss. It was there where he caught the attention of Abe Saperstein, the legendary owner of both the Harlem Globetrotters.

“My freshman year in college basketball we went to the final game in the NIT,” Harmon told Baseball Happenings via telephone in 2008. “St. John’s beat us in the final game. Saperstein was trying to get us. Back then, the NIT was the big tournament.”

While Saperstein’s interest was deferred by Harmon’s military duties, local scouts kept him on their radar. After returning to Toledo in 1947 to star for their basketball and baseball teams, local scout Hank Rigney took notice and offered the collegian a spot with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“I was at the University Toledo and it was summer vacation,” Harmon said. “I was hanging around school and was supposed to get a recreation job with the city. I was waiting on that to come through. Meanwhile, Hank Rigney, an old scout for the Browns, ran the concession stand at the school. He was an all-around go-getter, baseball scout, football scout, and basketball scout. He was scouting the Clowns, so he knew about me playing basketball and baseball at Toledo.

“He asked me one day if I wanted to play with the Clowns. I was still waiting for the job around school. I was tired of waiting around, so I didn’t know if it was going to come through with the playgrounds or recreation, so I told him yeah. He said, ‘I’ll sign you up with the Clowns.’ I said, ‘Anything to get out of here, I’ve been waiting here doing nothing.’”

A Chance in the Negro Leagues

Suddenly, Harmon went from being an unemployed college student to a member of one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises. Rigney sent him right into the fire as the Clowns prepared to face the formidable Kansas City Monarchs.

“The Clowns were in Indianapolis playing,” he said. “Hank Rigney gave me a letter to give to the manager of the Clowns. I went over there, signed, and started playing with them. I wouldn’t call it playing with them; I signed with them. On a Wednesday, they had a game that night against the Kansas City Monarchs. I got over there that afternoon, dressed, and played that night. Of course, I didn’t play. I was there; you know trying out, whatever they called it. They were picking up guys as they went along. It wasn’t nothing real formal.”

While the tryout process lacked formality, Harmon assumed the name Charlie Fine to preserve his amateur status while playing with the Clowns. Once the travel rigors of Negro League Baseball set in, Harmon quickly discovered the ride was not as glorious as promised.

“It was one of them deals, we climbed in the bus to go to Michigan to play,” Harmon recalled. “We played up there, and after that game, the next day we went to Michigan City, Indiana. We played that night. You get off one bus, get on another bus, and go for 300 miles and play; you don’t sleep. When we got to Fort Wayne to play a team, it got rained out, so we stayed all night there. We stayed in private homes, that’s where we stayed all the time when we [went] to those towns.”

Due to the barnstorming nature that fed the Negro Leagues, teams did not have the luxury of rescheduling rained out contests. Harmon walked right into the middle of one of the miseries of road life that was markedly different from the first class treatment he experienced while playing college basketball.

“We got rained out in Michigan City and Fort Wayne, and when we went to Chicago — that was the first night we stayed in a hotel. I think we had a Sunday doubleheader. I dressed there. To this day, I don’t think I got into a game at all from Wednesday to Sunday. That was too much for me [coming from] playing in college, staying in hotels, and eating in the fine restaurants. Playing in Toledo, we stayed in the best hotels and played in Madison Square Garden.”

Harmon thought that he could parlay his experience with the Clowns to stay on with Saperstein’s Globetrotters. After his miserable week with the Clowns, he decided to pivot and return to Toledo for the summer.

“I don’t remember getting in a game or not because we had four or five games, we played two, the first night and the night in Chicago, and then we got rained out,” Harmon said. “I said to myself, ‘This isn’t for me.’ In my mind, what was going to happen was, the Globetrotters [would take] me and another guy. He had been trying to get us to play with them anyway. The basketball was probably worse traveling than the baseball. Traveling on the bus and sleeping in private homes if you could. I told him no thanks.”

A Door Opens with the St. Louis Browns

Back in Toledo from his brief foray into the Negro Leagues, Harmon waited on the city for his recreation job. By that time, the St. Louis Browns signed both Hank Thompson and Willard Brown to major league contracts. With the organization’s door open, Rigney jumped at the opportunity to get Harmon into the fold.

“A couple weeks later after being back there, the job with the city still hadn’t come through,” Harmon said. “Finally, he came over to school and [told me] they wanted me at the [Toledo] Mud Hens office [because] St. Louis wanted to sign me to a contract. That was like going to the World Series hearing that. Going with a major league team, as they always said, that was ‘organized ball.’”

While Brown and Thompson are often touted as Major League Baseball pioneers, Harmon was part of a select group who quietly pried opened doors at a time when only a few teams embraced integration. Standing in those offices, he saw the hope that was newly available to African-American ballplayers.

“We went to the office there in Toledo,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea of signing a Triple-A contract, but still that was a step to the major leagues. They wanted to send me to upstate New York, to the Canadian-American League, Class C. They sent me up to Gloversville [New York]. It was organized ball, and you could see the footsteps to major league ball if you were good enough.”

During our talk, Harmon chose not to focus on struggles with Jim Crow segregation, but the joy of being paid to play baseball. He thrived in his new environment.

“I did pretty good and finished the season out there,” he said. “I played 50 something games, and I was on cloud nine. You didn’t care [because] you saw them checks! The first time you saw a check, you got paid. Some guys played week to week. They played and spent it. Being in organized ball, we got paid and stayed in hotels. It was a glory road for me.”

Harmon returned to Toledo to play basketball for the 1947-48 school year. He put his minor league dreams on hold to play for the Fort Wayne General Electrics in 1948 while finishing his college basketball eligibility. With his college basketball career behind him, Harmon came back to the Browns, even after they sent him down a level in the minor leagues.

“Gloversville bought my contract and they sent me to Olean, New York in Class D,” he said. “Up there I was hitting about .370-.380 each year. When Gloversville sent me up there, I started hitting, and I got married. My wife was expecting, and I told them that when they sent me down. That’s when I really started wearing the ball out there. I talked to Gloversville and my wife was expecting, so I told them if I was hitting over so-and-so, would [they] bring me back to Gloversville. That incentive helped. Meanwhile, the Browns were having money problems, moving their clubs, and getting rid of players. During the winter, they sold the teams to independent buyers, and Olean bought my contract.”

A Cincinnati Reds Courtship

Unbelievably, it took two years of Harmon hitting .374 and .375 with Olean before the Reds bought his contract in 1952. He jumped to their Double-A team in Tulsa in 1953 and those footsteps he saw in 1947 were finally starting to lead on the right path.

“I went to Tulsa next year and I was leading the team in everything,” he said. “I was driving in all those runs. I had a bad day if I just got three hits. If I got two hits, it was bad.”

Harmon spent that winter sharpening his skills in Puerto Rico by playing for the Ponce team. He tore through the league and finished second in hitting, just below Luis “Canena” Marquez, and three points ahead of a young Hank Aaron. On the cusp of realizing his major league dreams, Harmon sensed that being in the presence of young talent and hardened Negro League and Puerto Rican veterans primed him for the next step.

“They had a lot of great players in winter ball,” he said. “You knew they were going to make it.”

Making History in the Major Leagues

He made the Reds out of spring training, and on April 17, 1954, against Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves, Harmon made history. His seventh-inning pinch-hitting appearance minted him as the first African-American to appear in a game for the Reds. Historians have argued that Nino Escalera, a Puerto Rican who batted right before Harmon, was the first black player for the franchise. Almost 65 years later, Harmon was more concerned with being on the team than being first.

“All that didn’t faze me a bit,” he said. “You knew you were good and that you were one of the best. That’s all you thought about. Not being the first black. It didn’t dawn on me at all. You know, all the players down there, you’re just trying to beat them. You’re trying to be better than them so that you get picked. You didn’t think that you would get picked before this guy or that guy, all you thought about was being on the team.”



Harmon played in the majors for four seasons from 1954-1957, batting .238 in 592 at-bats with the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies. He continued to play in the minors until 1961. He made one last Negro League connection in 1958 when the Phillies sent him to their Triple-A team in Miami with Satchel Paige.

“He could throw that ball,” Harmon said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to face him, at 52! ... You just couldn’t believe that old what he could do in there. You were in awe of him more than trying to figure him out.”

He remained in the game for a few years as a scout with the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians before settling in as a clerk for the Hamilton County Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The Reds honored him in 2015 with a statue at their Youth Baseball Academy in Roselawn, Ohio.