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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Al Richter | Former Boston Red Sox shortstop passes away at 90

The plight of baseball players like Allen Richter was an all too common theme in the 1950s. Labeled as one of the best shortstops of his era in the minor leagues, Richter treaded water in the Boston Red Sox farm system while Johnny Pesky cemented his position as a franchise cornerstone. Bound to the Red Sox by the reserve clause and his path effectively blocked by Pesky, Richter played his best baseball away from the Major League spotlight, appearing in only six games during two separate stints in Boston.

While Richter’s major league career never fully materialized, he outlived most of his Boston counterparts, remaining active by playing tennis a few times per week into his late 80s. Sadly, Richter passed away October 29th, 2017 at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was 90.

Al Richter / Author's Collection

The Red Sox signed Richter in 1945 from Maury High School, where they placed him with their team in Roanoke. His time with the club was short lived, as he only played three games before he fulfilled his military duties in the Army Air Corps.

“I went in 1945 right after high school,” Richter told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in Virginia Beach. “I got out in 18 months. They allowed me to be discharged a month early. I was in Germany. I did my basic training in Kessler Field in Mississippi and shortly thereafter I went to Denver for photography school. From there I went overseas in the Army occupation after the war was won. I was coaching a baseball team that we organized over in Germany.”

Richter returned to the Red Sox in 1947 and he moved briskly through their farm system, reaching Triple-A by 1949. He impressed with his eye at the plate, walking 100 times in 1950, while only striking out 36 times in 589 plate appearances. He took pride in the fact that he consistently put the ball in play.

“When I hit the ball, I hardly ever struck out,” he said. “If I were up 400 times, I struck out maybe 18 times and some were called out.”

Richter had his breakout season in 1951 batting .321 with Louisville while carving a niche as one of the top shortstops in the American Association. His teammates took notice of his tremendous play, including Charlie Maxwell who was another young talent that later joined Richter in Boston.

“I felt sorry for him because he hit over .300 a few years in a row in Louisville,” Maxwell told me during a 2009 phone interview. “They would never give him the opportunity to go to Boston. Finally, he went up there and that's when they had the Coast League. … There was nobody else, outside of Don Zimmer at St. Paul, Richter was probably the best shortstop in the minors and nobody would give him a shot at the majors. … It was rare a shortstop would hit .300 in the minors but nobody gave him a shot. There weren't that many shortstops hitting .300 anywhere! “

Tearing up the American Association in 1951, Richter forced the Red Sox hand, as they called him up when rosters expanded in September. They were in the heat of a pennant race with the New York Yankees, so he had to wait until their fate was determined until he was able to make a start at shortstop.

“That was the best year for me,” he said. “I was a .260 hitter, which was okay for a shortstop, but I had a great year for Louisville, I hit .321. I was really on that year. I hit the best by far I ever had. I went up with the Red Sox at the end of the year at the end of ‘51. That’s when the Red Sox was battling with the Yankees until the last two games at Yankee Stadium to see who was going to be the champions of the American League. They kept Pesky at shortstop who was an All-Star.”

Manager Pinky Higgins placed Richter in the starting lineup during the last game of the season with many of the other Red Sox rookies. He responded by getting his first major league hit off of Eddie Lopat, a memory that was crystal clear more than 50 years later.

I was in the last game of the season that Harley Hisner pitched," he said. "That was the last [Major League] game other than the World Series for Joe DiMaggio. I got my only hit off of Eddie Lopat, a left-handed pitcher for the Yankees. … I always made contact and I hit that one up the middle of the diamond on the ground. The thing was, Phil Rizzuto was at shortstop and I thought he was coming close to it. I ran real hard down first base and I ran straight through just trying to beat out the hit. When I looked up running past first base, I discovered the ball went all the way through and it went out to center field. I should have made the turn and gone to second in case the center fielder missed it. That was the first time ever in my life I did that. That stood out in my mind and still does. I thought I had to beat it out because Rizzuto had gotten to it. I just had my head down and was racing hard to get first base.”

Richter’s lone hit capped a promising season, giving him a glimmer of hope for a return to Boston; however, those dreams were quickly dashed when they sent him to San Diego in the Pacific Coast League for the 1952 season. The Red Sox brought him back for one more appearance as a defensive replacement in 1953 and two years after that Richter was out of baseball at 28. During our 2009 interview, he explained how frustrating it was for players in his situation due to baseball's reserve clause.

“At that time when you were signed with a ballclub, they owned you for life,” he said. “It’s not like it is today. They had the reserve clause. For example, I was with the Red Sox. There was no three-year or five-year contract. When I signed with them out of high school, I belonged to them for life. I was like a slave for them. Even if they didn’t want to get rid of me, even if I did well or I didn’t do so well, if they didn’t want to get rid of me they wouldn’t let me go to any other club that wanted me.”

After his baseball career, Richter transitioned to becoming a television sports reporter in Virginia. He later moved on to careers in the real estate and food service businesses.

Richter was honored in 2012 by the Boston Red Sox when they invited him back to Fenway Park to take part in the franchise’s 100th anniversary celebration of the legendary stadium. Even though his time with the franchise was brief, he held the experience in the highest regard.

"It was just a privilege to have been around so many great players," Richter said to the Virginian Pilot in 2012, "and it will be a privilege to share a little in the history of a special place."

Saturday, September 16, 2017

John 'Mule' Miles, Negro League star, dies at 90

John “Mule” Miles, an outfielder / third baseman with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues, passed away Friday, May 24, 2013, at his San Antonio home. He was 90.

Miles earned the nickname “Mule” from Giants manager “Candy” Jim Taylor after a display of power led him to remark, “You hit as hard as a mule kicks.” He upheld that reputation by blasting home runs in 11 consecutive games in 1947.
John 'Mule' Miles in 2010 - Steve Thurow

In addition to being one of a dwindling number of remaining ex-Negro League players, he was also a member of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American aviators in the United States Armed Forces.

Miles served with the Airmen in World War II starting in 1942 for a three-year period. He returned to San Antonio after his discharge to work as an aircraft mechanic.

"We had it hard at Tuskegee; buildings weren't completed when we got there, it was hard, but we made it, I wasn't complaining, because at Tuskegee, I learned a trade, I learned how to work with my hands - to do something," Miles said in a 2009 interview with the United States Army.

It was shortly after his return that fellow San Antonio native Clyde McNeal approached him about playing in the Negro Leagues. McNeal had just finished his rookie season with Chicago.

“He was the one who enticed me to go,” Miles said to the San Antonio Express in April 2013. “If I had to go by myself, I don't think I would have done it.”

He played three seasons for the Chicago American Giants from 1946-1948, facing the best the Negro Leagues had to offer. One of his favorite opponents was Satchel Paige.

“Satchel was a great pitcher. He could throw hard and he was smart. Nobody could touch Satchel when he didn’t want ‘em to,” Miles said in Brent Kelley’s “Voices from the Negro Leagues.

Miles left the Negro Leagues after the end of the 1948 season to return to his mechanic job. He continued to play in local leagues; however, the lure of professional baseball drove him to try out for the Laredo Apaches of the South Texas League in 1952. He made the team, breaking the league's color barrier while batting .281 in limited action. At the age of 30, Miles was past prospect status and returned home to his job that he kept until his 1971 retirement.

As the Negro Leagues experienced a renewed interest in the 1990s, Miles’ career returned to prominence. He made frequent appearances across the United States at reunions and speaking engagements.

In 2007, Topps honored him with a baseball card in their Allen and Ginter set. The release of the card caused him to be showered with mail requests daily for his signature, something he relished in his later years. He would often send back signed cards with inspirational phrases, “I’m not complaining, just explaining,” or, “Without those passing yesterdays, there can be no bright tomorrows.” It was no surprise that his 2009 autobiography was titled, “A Legacy to Leave Our Youth.

“I loved baseball and I was willing to play it anytime, anywhere. … When I started playing for money, it wasn’t enough to make a living on. You’ve got to understand this was during the forties and fifties. The only baseball players making any kind of money were the ones in the majors," said Miles in Dick O’Neal’s “Dreaming of the Majors."

"We just loved the game, and if someone was willing to pay to watch me, that was fine.”

* This was originally published for the now-defunct Examiner.com on May 25, 2013.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tom Wright, 93, Major League pinch hitter extraordinaire and World War II veteran

During the years following World War II, an outfielder who posted batting averages of .380 and .368 in the minor leagues should have found little trouble getting a starting role in the Major Leagues. That is of course unless you played for the Red Sox and two of those outfielders were Ted Williams and Dom DiMaggio. This was the tough reality for Tom Wright, one of North Carolina’s finest, who filled the role of pinch hitter extraordinaire for the Boston Red Sox right at the start of the 1950s.

Wright, who went on to play parts of nine big league seasons, passed away on September 5, 2017 at his home in Shelby, North Carolina. He was 93.

Tom Wright Autographed Red Sox Photo / Author's Collection
Growing up on the sandlots of Shelby, Wright caught the attention of Boston Red Sox scout Eddie Montague, who signed him to his first pro contract in 1941 while he was still in high school. Wright left behind the opportunity to get his diploma in order to start his career.

“Eddie [Montague] was in this area and signing all of the prospects in this area,” Wright told me in an interview on New Year’s Day in 2009. “I signed with him during high school. In 1941, I went down into the Palmetto State League and I took Virgil Stallcup's place playing shortstop. I stayed there half of the season. They had a split season. Lawrence, the team I was with, hired the manager of another team, and he was an infielder and I got released. I was hitting about .340, they moved me to third base and I made room for him.”

Fortunately for Wright, his release didn’t put a premature end to his career, as he signed on with Boston’s team in the Class D Bi-State League in 1942. While he wavered at the plate, his manager noted his good arm and gave him a few chances on the mound, albeit with mixed results.

“I came on back home and in 1942, I went up to Danville,” he said. “I relieved 2-3 games and pitched a whole game. When I wasn't hitting well; I was chasing the high ball. I hit good and I had a good arm, so they were trying to make something out of me. They put me in relief a few times, and they let me start against one of the top teams. I pitched a real good game. George Ferrell, one of the Ferrell boys hit a homerun over a short fence over left field. I slipped on a curve and let it get where he could reach it and he beat me to win the ballgame.”

Just as Wright was trying to figure out if his baseball career would continue in as a position player or a pitcher, he was drafted for military service after the season ended. For the near future his career would be navigated by the Army Air Corps.

“I flew well, but if I knew I was going to fly three days from now, my nerves would get up,” he said. “I'd be thinking about that more than playing the ball game.”

His time in the Air Corps was short lived. He sustained an injury during training that dissuaded him from continuing to fly.

“In the service I was supposed to an aerial gunner,” he said. “I had to bail out of one, and on an emergency jump, I tore my leg and my foot up. I stayed out in Wyoming for a year before they ever put me back on flying status. By that time, I made up my mind I wasn't going to fly anymore, just be on the ground crew.

“I told them that in 1943-44. I spent 1944 on the disabled list because I had a bad foot. When they started to put me back on, I told them, ‘I don't want to fly them things no more. They took my stripes and told me I'll be on the next boat overseas. I said, ‘I think that boat will be slower than that airplane.’”

His switch to the grounds crew proved to be a life altering decision. While Wright was lucky enough to return from service with some injuries that plagued him throughout his baseball career, many from his original Air Corps crew didn’t come back at all.

“Our crowd went to Italy and flew up over Germany,” he recalled. “The best I could find out, they lost about all of them. My radio man came back and was down in Florida after he got his mission. He wrote me a letter and told me to get out because it was hell over there. I did catch that next boat. I spent all of 1945 overseas. I went to the Philippines and I went to South Seas. We were ready to go closer to Japan when the big bombs dropped. You just sat still and waited. When they said the war was over, we quit flying missions.”

Wright returned to professional baseball in 1946 and after three years of only playing recreationally during his World War II service, he jumped right back into the game. The time away from the field took a toll on his throwing arm.

“I got out in spring of 1946 and went right to spring training,” he said. “I messed my arm up down there. It was rainy and cold in South Carolina. I flung the ball rather than throw it. It didn't have enough snap; it hurt me too bad. I carried it on through with me. I'm sure they knew I couldn't throw real good. Nobody tried to talk to me about it or tried to work on it or do anything else.”

If Boston’s brass was aware of Wright’s arm injury, it sure didn’t show at the plate. Wright’s 1946 season was nothing short of amazing. He amassed 200 hits en route to a .380 average for Class C Durham Bulls in the Carolina League. It was the start of his rapid ascent to the major leagues. After batting over .300 for the next two seasons in the minor leagues, the Red Sox called up Wright for a cup of coffee at the end of 1948, a move he thought came too late.

“They called me up in 1948 at the end of the year too, but they had an agreement with Louisville that they wouldn't take ballplayers until they were mathematically out of the playoffs,” he said. “I thought I could have helped them as they didn't have a left-handed pinch hitter.”

With veterans Williams, DiMaggio, and Al Zarilla firmly entrenched in Boston’s outfield, Wright remained at Louisville, where won the 1949 American Association batting title, edging out future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge, .368 to .362.

“Nineteen-forty-nine was an easy, easy year,” he said. Sometimes you have those. I was one of those hitters who hit all over the ball field. I hit from the left field line to the right field line. That way you get some hits you couldn't get if you were a pull hitter. I went with the ball the best I could.”

For Wright’s efforts, he was awarded another September call up, and in 1950, he finally got a full-time shot with the club, spending the entire season with the Red Sox. He proved valuable as a pinch-hitter, filling that role until Williams injured his elbow. Pressed into more regular duty, Wright hit .318 in 107 at-bats. He explained just how difficult it was to stay sharp with the platoon situation that the Red Sox employed.

“It didn't bother me because it was my job,” he said. “It was the only time I'd get to play most times. I'd go 2-3 weeks and not even get to hit. They ran a funny schedule. You would go on the road and the regulars got all the batting time. I was a left-handed hitter. If there was a right-handed pitcher starting against us, I'd get three swings in batting practice. If there was a left-hander which they pitched on the account of Williams and a few other left-handed hitters, we didn't get to swing.

“It was sort of a one sided deal with them. I always criticized them for it. They didn't keep their players up to date. You see [Casey] Stengel in New York, he put in their extra players and let them play and kept them ready. That's the way they ran it. Normally, when you are on the road, you don't get much time because the home team is taking much of the practice.”

Despite Wright’s dependability as a pinch-hitter, the Red Sox had plenty of young outfield talent in their minor league system and wanted to shuttle Wright between the minor and the major leagues. After proving himself with multiple .300 seasons at both levels, he finally put his foot down.

“I started with Boston until the last spring training day,” he said. “They sent me out and they had a boy Karl Olson they wanted to see, because I think he had to go into the service and I was the one that had to go and make room for him on the roster.

“I was sitting on the bench too much, so I wasn't going to start complaining about nothing. I was going to do the best I can. In 1951, they wanted to send me to Louisville again. I told them they were pushing me back and forth and not to bring me back up here no more. And they didn't. That's the way it went over there.”

The Red Sox traded Wright to the St. Louis Browns, giving him a fresh start with the second division club. The Browns were helmed by Rogers Hornsby in 1952 and Wright quickly found out why the legendary second baseman was disliked by the entire team.

“I opened the season hitting cleanup for Hornsby,” he recalled. “He liked me as far as hitting. If you missed a ball [in the field], you were out of the lineup. We were playing up in Chicago and I wasn't used to those double decker stands and that sun setting. They hit a fly ball behind third base that he might have been able to catch. I called him off, pulled my glasses down and ran into the shade. When I did, everything went black. He pulled me out of the lineup.

“He was not a good people person for the ballplayers. You would get to arguing with an umpire and he would tell you to get back to your position. He did that to me once in New York. There was a pop fly down the line that was interference on it. The boys were arguing like everything and he said, ‘Go on out to your position.’ He'd do that all the time and wouldn't stick up for the players. They called Bill Veeck and told him what he was doing. He came to New York and fired him. I left them about that time. They boys got him [Veeck] a plaque made up saying, ‘The greatest thing since the Emancipation Proclamation.’”

Wright went from the Browns to the Chicago White Sox where he spent part of 1952 and the entire 1953 season in a reserve role. The White Sox shipped him to the Washington Senators in 1954, which was his last full season in the majors. He played nine games in the majors between 1955 and 1956, with the last two coming as a favor from Clark Griffith that didn’t sit well with his manager Chuck Dressen.

“In 1956, I went back to get my few days I needed to get my retirement,” he said. “Calvin Griffith gave me my last 28 days. He told the manager that I was going to get it. He got mad at me and didn't even let me play in spring training or exhibition games. My first at-bat was opening day against the Yankees. I was the first pinch hitter he used. He was sorta dirty with me.”

Those final two games in 1956 proved to be a tremendous help for Wright later on in life. Those 28 days of service qualified him for a major league pension which gave him added security during his post-playing days.

“The pension is helping me in my retirement,” he said. “They sent me to Chattanooga. That was their top team. I went out there and they told me, Griffith said if you play and help this ball club, they'll bring you up at the end of the year. At the end of the year he didn't bring me up. I kept my mouth shut and about Christmas time or so I got a contract to come to spring training in 1956 and it all worked out.”

Wright played one more season with the Birmingham Barons in 1957, and that was only after some serious negotiation with his parent club. His old flying miseries from World War II caught up with him and the air travel became too much to bear.

“The minor leagues even started flying. And I asked them out there, ‘Put me somewhere they don't fly.’ They put me in Charleston, West Virginia and the only way you could make schedule up there was to fly. They had a little Purdue line, a C-47. They would cram the ballplayers on there and they'd have to shuffle them around to have to get the plane balanced. They'd fly nine hours. I wouldn't go with them, but I got to hitting and helping the ball club. They offered me everything to stay, but I needed to get away from those airplanes. If you didn't fly, you had to pay your own way, but I never did. The few times I flew, they took care of that. They sent a pitcher or someone who wasn't going to play to ride with you and keep you company. It is two days to get to Omaha from Charleston on the train. They were trying to be good to me. I was hoping to play a little longer, but those planes got me so nervous and shook up, I didn't want to do it.”

After baseball, Wright went into the clothing business, making polyester until he retired in 1982. He stepped away from the game, but still enjoyed the interaction with baseball fans through the letters he received in the mail.

“I never had a desire to coach,” he said. “They wanted me to coach kids, but I didn't want to put up with families. I still watch some games. Normally Atlanta, Boston if I can get to see them. I'm not a great big fan, I wasn't a fan when I played. You lose a little bit of your drive [after you stop playing].

“I get autographs all the time. Topps maybe gave you a watch or something like that. They have given us more since. They want us to sign the 1954 cards. They sat and watched me sign every one of them. It was about 250 of them. I got paid good for them. I was glad to sign them. I would have signed them for nothing, I was never one to ask for anything to sign an autograph.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lee May, three time All-Star dies at 74

Reports have surfaced that three-time All-Star Lee May passed away Saturday July 29, 2017 in Ohio. He was 74.

May played 18 seasons in the major leagues for four teams, hitting 354 home runs with 1,244 RBIs. He made the All-Star team twice with the Cincinnati Reds (1969, 1971) and once with the Baltimore Orioles (1972).

Lee May








Thursday, July 6, 2017

Gene Conley recalls the rocky start to his major league career

At six-foot-eight, Gene Conley towered over his competition on the mound and the hardwood. He used his tremendous athleticism to claim his stake in two professional sports in a way that no other athlete has done since.

The two-sport star earned Major League Baseball and NBA championships respectively with the Milwaukee Braves (1957) and the Boston Celtics (1959-1961), making him the only player ever to accomplish this feat. Sadly, Conley passed away July 4, 2017 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Gene Conley 1951 Hartford Chiefs
After the Boston Braves lured Conley from his studies at Washington State University at the end of the 1950 school year, Conley’s performance for Class A Hartford in 1951 showed why the Braves persistently recruited him. Conley posted an impressive 20-9 record with a 2.16 ERA, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League and the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. After one dominant performance, his catcher and former Negro Leaguer player Stanley Glenn, compared Conley to arguably the greatest pitcher ever.

"You reminded me of Satch tonight," Conley recalled during a 2008 telephone interview from his home.

Conley thought that he would work his way through the minor league ranks, but the slumping Braves had plans otherwise. Looking to capture the magic he displayed in his lone minor league season, the Braves management felt that he could continue his meteoric ascent in the major leagues. To his surprise, the Braves kept Conley on the major league roster when they broke from spring training in 1952.

“They brought me up after one year in A-ball to Boston,” he said. “They sent me down as fast as they brought me up!”

Conley was thrown right into the fire, making his debut in the third game of the season against the eventual National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a step up Conley acknowledged over a half-century later that he wasn’t ready to make.

“I opened up against the Dodgers,” he said. “I remember the first time I was with Braves after I came up from Hartford, I wasn't ready to pitch in the big leagues. The [Dodgers] were just loaded. Oh all of them, the whole works. I remember I was sitting there in the dugout. Spahn opened the season. Someone asked, ‘Who is pitching tomorrow?’ I heard someone say at the end of the bench, ‘They're going to try that phenom from Hartford I believe.’ I was going to crawl under my seat. I think some old veteran said that. I gave up about four runs and he [Tommy Holmes] took me out in the middle of the game.”

Blitzed by the prospect of facing a lineup filled with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, there was no way for Conley to pitch around the mighty Brooklyn lineup. He recounted how the litany of talent they had didn’t allow him to focus on stopping one single batter.

“Their lineup was so loaded,” he said, “You didn't pay attention, there were so many stars. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Who gave you a lot of trouble?’ I said shoot, you go down the Dodger lineup. How about [Duke] Snider? [Jim] Gilliam? Pee Wee Reese? [Roy] Campanella? They were all good ballplayers, Gil Hodges too … You didn't worry about any one of them because the other guy was just as good. [Jackie] Robinson was a little over the hill, but he could play like he did. [He would] steal a base, work you for a walk, and drive you crazy on the bases.”

After just four appearances that left him with a 7.82 ERA, Conley was mercifully sent to Triple A where he helped to lead their Milwaukee team to the American Association pennant. He followed in 1953 with 23-win season at Toledo where he once again was bestowed with the Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors.

He returned to the major leagues for good in 1954, pitching ten straight seasons with the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Red Sox until persistent arm troubles sidelined him in 1963. He finished his career with a 91-96 record, along with three All-Star selections and the aforementioned World Series championship.

While Conley stood out in baseball for more than just his height, he was humbled by the sheer talent that surrounded him during his career. He enjoyed being able to say that he was able to compete for a long period of time against baseball’s most iconic names.

“When you have eight teams,” he said, “you can imagine how tough the lineups were back in those days. I looked in a book on Hall of Famers, I played with and against more Hall of Famers than I ever saw. What luck did I have? That had to be a good period … I caught all of those guys. I'm glad I pitched through the 50s and 60s. I caught Berra, Mantle, and all of those guys. That was fun.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Don Lenhardt, 91, former outfielder for the St. Louis Browns

Don Lenhardt, who spent five seasons in the major leagues as an outfielder with the St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles, passed away June 9, 2014 in Chesterfield, Missouri. He was 91.

Don Lenhardt / Paul Rogers Collection
A native of Alton, Illinois, Lenhardt was a standout multi-sport athlete, earning a scholarship to the University of Illinois to play both baseball and basketball. His collegiate career was cut short in 1942 when he joined the Navy. He served in World War II until his 1945 discharge, never playing during his military service.

“I missed about five summers of playing after I went into the service,” Lenhardt said in Lou Hernandez's book, “Memories of Winter Ball.” “I cannot say it was bad, because you never know. It probably did not hurt me at all, because I probably matured some. I did not play ball in the service. I tried out when I was leaving, and they wanted me to stay and play, but I said no, I am going home.”

With the help of Yankees scout Lou Magualo, Lenhardt signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1946. As he progressed in the Browns minor league organization, Lenhardt grew into a feared power hitter, smashing 22 and 26 home runs respectively for Springfield in 1948 and San Antonio in 1949. His outburst in Double A with San Antonio attracted the attention of Mike Gonzalez, who managed the Habana team in the Cuban Winter League.

“Mike Gonzalez saw me play in San Antonio and he invited me to play in Havana,” he said to Hernandez. “I wanted to go, because I knew it would help me get to the big leagues. I had a great year down there and I had a great first year in the big leagues.”

Lenhardt had a breakout rookie season in 1950 with the Browns, cracking 22 home runs, driving in 81 runs while posting a .273 batting average; however, his powerful start was not enough to cement his position in St. Louis. The cash strapped Browns traded Lenhardt to the Chicago White Sox less than halfway through the 1951 season for two players and cash. It was a welcome acquisition for the White Sox.

“I’m glad to have him with us,” White Sox manager Paul Richards said to the United Press in 1951, “and I’ll probably use him most against left-handed pitching.”

The White Sox used him as Richards directed and in 199 at-bats, he hit 10 home runs. Still, despite his power hitting, the winds of change continued to blow Lenhardt throughout the American League.

He played for three different teams in 1952, starting with the Boston Red Sox after an off-season trade. He was then traded twice in the span of two months, going from Boston to Detroit in a blockbuster deal that sent Walt Dropo and Johnny Pesky to Detroit in exchange for future Hall of Famer George Kell and Dizzy Trout. In August, Detroit sent Lenhardt back to St. Louis for 20-game winner Ned Garver.

Lenhardt stayed with St. Louis through the 1953 season, their last in St. Louis. He followed the organization in their move to Baltimore in 1954 and finished out his major league career that year with the Boston Red Sox after being sold to the team in May.

He played two more seasons in the minor leagues with the Boston organization and hung up his spikes for good at the end of the 1956 campaign. He finished his major league career with a .271 average and 61 home runs in 481 games.

After his playing days, he worked over four decades in the Red Sox organization as a scout and coach, serving as the Red Sox' first base coach under manager Eddie Kasko from 1970-73. He retired from scouting in 2002 and lived in Chesterfield attending St. Louis Browns reunions and meetings of the 1-2-3 club, an exclusive group of St. Louis retired athletes and sports writers.

* - This article was originally published on July 10, 2014 for Examiner.com

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 be 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

Les Layton, 92, homered in his first major league at-bat

Getting to the major leagues is a dream for most young men; hitting a home run in their first time at bat is an even greater fantasy. Les Layton, a former outfielder for the New York Giants who made both of those scenarios a reality in his 1948 debut, passed away March 1, 2014 in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 92.

Les Layton, Jess Dobernic and Gene Baker at home plate during Hollywood Stars vs Los Angeles Angels game, 1950
Collection: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives
Layton was eager to contribute to the Giants in his 1948 rookie campaign, but manager Mel Ott only used Layton once within the first month of the season, filling in as a pinch runner during an early season game in Boston.

“I had a hard time,” Layton said in a 2008 interview with the author. “The Giants had so many outfielders. Bobby Thomson was coming on; Sid Gordon was there as was Willard Marshall.”

Twenty-five games into the season, on May 21, 1948, Ott finally summoned Layton to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the 9th inning against Chicago Cubs left-hander Johnny Schmitz.

“I can remember it now,” he said. “They told me to grab a bat, get up there, and hit one, and I did! It went on top of the roof in the Polo Grounds in left field.”

As Layton quickly circled the bases, he expected a hero’s welcome from his teammates. When he returned to the bench, the silence was deafening.

“I came back in the dugout and nobody said a word,” he said. “They didn't say, 'Nice going,' or anything, and then suddenly they all broke out in rapture.”

At the time he was only the 15th player in the National League to ever hit a home run in his first major league at-bat.

His role as a pinch-hitter produced another statistical oddity. His first four major league hits went for the cycle, all happening in four different parks. Layton’s first four career hits in order were a home run (New York), a triple (Cincinnati), a double (Pittsburgh) and a single (Chicago).

By the end of June, Layton was batting .350 strictly as a pinch-hitter, and Mel Ott finally inserted him into the starting lineup after Thomson and Whitey Lockman suffered minor injuries. He started eight games in a row at the beginning of July, going 10-33, which also included his second (and last) major league home run. Once the starters returned to full strength, Layton was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the year.

“Mel Ott called me aside later on when he was managing in the Coast League and apologized for not being able to play me so much,” he said. “The old timers that were making the money were the ones that had to play.”

Layton finished 1948 with a .231 batting average in 91 at-bats. With the emergence of Don Mueller and the arrival of Monte Irvin in 1949, there was no place for Layton on the Giants roster.

The Giants sold him to the Cubs, who sent him to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. It was the best experience of Layton’s career.

“I spent three years in the Coast League with Los Angeles,” he said. “I enjoyed that more than anything else. I got to play every day."

Layton stayed in the minor leagues through 1954, serving as a player-manager for the Wichita Indians his last season.

After leaving professional baseball, he went to work for Boeing for 18 years as a production engineer, a trade he studied while at the University of Oklahoma. While at Boeing, he played for their semi-pro baseball team, the Boeing Bombers. He helped to lead them to a championship at the prestigious National Baseball Congress tournament in 1955.

The World War II veteran retired to Scottsdale with his wife Barbara. When I caught up with Layton in February 2008, he was trying to move forward from her death a few months earlier.

“I lost my wife in December and it’s pretty lonely out here,” he said. “We were married 62 years. I'm not a pretty good cook. I'm learning. You miss having her around, somebody to talk to. It's a whole different ballgame.”


Monday, June 5, 2017

Teammates tout Jimmy Piersall's transcendental outfield abilities

“The catches Piersall makes simply defy description. They have to be seen to be believed and he keeps making them,” Lou Boudreau.
Those who watched Jimmy Piersall patrol the outfield for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, placed his name above lauded fly chasers such Tris Speaker, Terry Moore, Joe DiMaggio, and yes, Willie Mays. The daring depths at which he played allowed for Piersall to make miraculous catches that were deemed impossible by everyone in the ballpark, except himself.

While his legendary defensive efforts were overshadowed by his struggles with his mental health and unpredictable on field behavior, there was no denying that Piersall’s glove was where many sure hits in the expansive ballparks of his era went to rest. Sadly, on Sunday June 3rd, 2017, Piersall too met his final resting place in Wheaton, Illinois. He was 87.

Piersall was signed by the Red Sox in 1948, and immediately made an impact for their Class A team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Usually most rookies fresh out of high school were sent to lower classifications, but one Scranton teammate saw why Boston put him on the fast track to the major leagues.

“Jim joined us about 30 days late in 1948,” teammate Harley Hisner recalled in 2008. “He was in high school and his team was in the high school finals. They signed him and sent him to Scranton. He was only 18 years old, but he was the best curve ball hitter I’d ever seen that young.”

The oddly shaped outfields of minor league parks gave Piersall the room he needed to show off his spectacular defensive abilities. After spending three seasons with Piersall in Scranton and Louisville, Hisner held him in higher esteem than his famous New York contemporaries.

“As far as I am concerned there was nobody that can go get a ball better than him, including Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays," Hisner said. "He had a sense of where that ball was going; as soon as it was hit, he was off and running. I’d take him any day.”

When the Red Sox finally brought Piersall up for good in 1952 after a quick look in 1950, manager Lou Boudreau envisioned Piersall’s athleticism serving him best at short stop. The toll that the demands of learning a new position wore heavily on Piersall, which led in part to his well publicized nervous breakdown.

Ted Lepcio was one of Boston’s fresh faced infielders in 1952 and was quickly paired with Piersall as their double play combination of the future. He found Piersall conflicted by playing a position that he had little familiarity with in order to meet management’s demands.

“He was supposed to help me out,” the 87-year-old Lepcio said via telephone from his home in Needham, Massachusetts shortly after Piersall’s passing. “Imagine that, a center fielder going to help me out! That was a joke. He told me personally that he didn’t want to do it, but what are you going to do when you are a young kid and the guy says you’re going to play a position. He knew he wasn’t in the right position.”

Piersall, Lepcio, Boudreau and Dick Brodowski / Boston Public Library
Piersall's recovery was well documented in his autobiography, "Fear Strikes Out," which later became a Hollywood movie with Anthony Perkins. Lepcio was Piersall’s roommate and the two developed a close relationship throughout Piersall’s struggles. When Piersall finally returned to the team from being hospitalized, Lepcio’s locker was the first reporters ran to.

“He didn’t go in there for a joke, he was wound tight and finally had to have some help at the time he went in,” Lepcio said. “When he came out, the first thing was the reporters came to me. I said, ‘He was the same Jimmy to me.’ It was kind of meant as a joke, but he improved. We roomed together for almost two years until we had enough of each other.”

Ike DeLock also broke in with Piersall and Lepcio in 1952, serving as a reliever on a veteran pitching staff. He said that Piersall had a fascination with besting Tris Speaker’s record for unassisted double plays by a center fielder. As a young pitcher, he was always worried that Piersall was going to get beat behind him by a fly ball.

“He always wanted to have a double play unassisted,” the 88-year-old Delock said Sunday from his home in Naples, Florida. “I told him, ‘Jimmy, when I’m pitching, you play deep in center field because I don’t want anybody to hit the ball over your head.’”

I had the opportunity to speak with Piersall in 2008 over the phone from his home in Wheaton. He explained how he learned to play such a shallow center field, one that is rarely seen anymore in the major leagues.

“It was 500 feet to centerfield in Louisville, the biggest centerfield in the world,” he said. “Most of the time, I cut it in half. Most balls are hit in front of you, not over your head. Watch how many broken bats go out into left field.”

Piersall’s made his presence known in baseball after he was moved permanently to the outfield in 1953. His knack for the spectacular led author Jason Aronoff in his book, “Going, Going … Caught,” to rate Piersall as the best defensive major league outfielder that year.

“In 1953 Jimmy Piersall had a fielding year which was brilliant from start to finish,” Aronoff said. “He had a number of catches which veteran observers called the greatest they had ever seen.”

While Piersall continued to make plays throughout his career on balls that were foregone as home runs or extra base hits, none came close to his series of thefts in 1953. Fast forward a decade later, Piersall found his way to the New York Mets via the Washington Senators in a trade for Gil Hodges.

While the lowly Mets thought that Piersall could recapture some of his Boston magic, he made noise not for his outstanding play on the field, but his outlandish response after he hit his 100th career home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the Polo Grounds.

Tim Harkness had just arrived from the Los Angeles Dodgers and had reveled in the presence of his veteran teammates, including the newly arrived Piersall. He noted a conversation in the clubhouse between Piersall and Duke Snider that occurred shortly after Snider hit his 400th career home run.

“Duke hit his 400th home run that summer and Piersall said to him, ‘You know, I’ve got 99, when I hit my 100th, the whole world is gonna hear about it,’” the 79-year-old Harkness recalled from his Ontario home on Sunday.
Piersall goes backwards for 100th home run / Author's Collection
As luck would have it, Harkness was hitting behind Piersall when he hit his infamous home run where he rounded the bases backwards. Harkness was immortalized in the photo, waiting on deck in his number three jersey as Piersall approached the plate. He recounted the event as it unfolded in front of him in the on-deck circle.

“He hit one of those Chinese home runs in the old Polo Grounds,” he said. “He hit it about 285 feet. When he got to first base, he turned around and started running backwards. When he rounded third, I said to myself, ‘Should I kick him in the ass?’ When he came to the plate, I just stood there with the bat just like a statue and just watched him do it. As soon as he touched home plate, the umpire said, “Home run and you’re gone!” He threw him out of the ballgame for making a travesty of the game so to speak.”

Piersall was shortly thereafter released by the New York Mets. He didn’t hold back about his feelings for the organization when asked about the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008.

“I don't give a s—t,” he replied.

He finished his 17-year major league career with the Los Angeles and California Angels in 1967. He later was in the spotlight for his controversial comments as a White Sox broadcaster that led to his firing and spawned his book, “The Truth Hurts.”

During our conversation in 2008, Piersall displayed his candor when discussing the prevalent ticket prices at major league stadiums. As both New York teams were moving towards new stadium, he felt that the outrageous prices were driven by the owners.

“Two-hundred-fifty dollar a seat in Yankee Stadium ... the only problem we have are politicians,” he said. “The message never seems to get to those guys. It was $2.50 for the bleachers and $6 for a good seat. Everyone is saying that the players are making too much money, but the owners aren't going bankrupt. ... They could get rid of those 40 guys in the offices that send out postcards. They could cut down on their expense accounts, but it won't happen.”

As we came to the close of our interview, Piersall left me with this gem that was reminiscent of the old school mentality that is long gone from today’s game, as the league has become more conscious of the protecting their on-field product.

“I got drilled one day and I said to the pitcher, ‘If you don't get that guy, I'll drop the ball with the bases loaded.’ I asked the umpires why they're so tough and the owners said they don't want their players getting hurt. Bob Watson said the owners are afraid the good players are going to get hurt. There aren't that many good players; they're decent players.”

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Luis Olmo recounts 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


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bob Cerv turned a late start into an All-Star baseball career

Bob Cerv was an unusual late-comer to professional baseball, signing his first minor league contract at the age of 25. His career was delayed due to his World War II service, which started in 1943 right after his high school graduation. After a three-year tour of duty, he became one of the University of Nebraska’s most decorated stars, winning back-to-back basketball championships, as well as garnering the Huskers’ first baseball All-American honors in 1950. Despite his accolades on the diamond, Cerv wasn’t sure the sport was going to be his calling.

“All at once I didn't think I was going into pro ball,” Cerv said during a phone interview with the author from his home in 2008. “I could have gone into pro basketball also. I played basketball and baseball at Nebraska. … Then they [the Yankees] offered me a deal, ‘Well we'll send you to Kansas City, and if you make it, we want to see how you do.’ I was 25 years old when I signed.”

When he arrived in Kansas City, the Yankees farm system was brimming with so much talent, that many including Cerv, eventually found stardom with other franchises. Cerv said that his 1951 AAA team in Kansas City was a prime example of just how rich the Yankees were with prospects.

“[Mickey] Mantle, Jackie Jensen, and I played the outfield [together] in Kansas City at the same time,” he said. “About seven years later, we were the All-Star [starting] outfield.”

Bob Cerv (r.) with Casey Stengel (c.) and Bob Wielser (l.)

His delayed start turned into a dozen major league seasons that spanned from 1951-1962 with four different major league teams. Sadly, Cerv passed away April 6, 2017 in Blair, Nebraska. He was 91.

Cerv spent his first few seasons with the Yankees shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and the Bronx until 1954. The Yankees had used up his options and manager Casey Stengel decided to make him a permanent part of his outfield platoon.

“In those days when you were in AAA they could option you three times,” he recalled. “They had to keep or sell you. In 1951, ‘52, and ‘53, I got sent back down, and in ‘54 they had to keep me. That's the only year Stengel won 100+ games, and we lost by eight to Cleveland that year!”

The Yankees rebounded in 1955 to capture the American League pennant and face off with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series. A late season leg injury forced Mantle out of the lineup for the majority of the series, clearing the way for Cerv to start during the Fall Classic.

“I played center field and I was 2-16 and [Irv] Noren was 1-16,” he said. “I hit against the left-handers and Noren hit the right-handers. We were lousy! I remember I hit a pinch hit home run off of Roger Craig; not many have done that. Then everything went their [Brooklyn’s] way.”

Over fifty years later, Cerv recalled Sandy Amoros’ catch during Game Seven of the 1955 World Series coming as the result of a genius decision by Dodgers manager Walter Alston. At the time, however, Cerv was perplexed by the change.

"[Sandy] Amoros made that catch right after they just changed,” he said. "I don't know why they switched all those people for. That was the greatest move. Junior Gilliam would have never caught that ball; even Amoros barely caught it. Yogi rarely ever hit a ball that way, but Amoros could run.”

Cerv tasted World Series victory the following season when the Yankees got their revenge against the Dodgers. He had one hit in his only at-bat during the series. During that off-season, the Yankees sold Cerv to Kansas City. The opportunity to play full-time made a world of difference for Cerv. By 1958, he beat out Ted Williams for the starting spot in the All-Star Game while setting a Kansas City record for home runs. Even more impressive was that he accomplished all of this despite spending an entire month of the season playing with his jaw wired shut.

“I hit 38 homers that year, everything went well,” he said. “I finally got to play every day. That was self satisfaction. I always played against the left-handers and there were no bad left-handers in the major leagues. They didn't stay long if they weren’t pretty good. Parnell, Pierce, Score, Hoeft ... they could throw the hell out of the ball.”



Cerv had one last hurrah with the Yankees, returning in a 1960 mid-season trade to become a part of their World Series team. He hit .357 in their World Series loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career ended in 1962 an ill-fated run with the Houston Colt 45s, when leg injuries had robbed him of his bat speed and power.

Upon retiring from the majors, Cerv spent many years as giving back to the game as both a professor and coach at Southwest Missouri State College and John F. Kennedy College in Nebraska. He stressed fundamentals, something that he felt the modern ballplayer lacked.

“The minor leagues went from D-AAA, but one thing they knew, was how to play baseball,” he said. “Nowadays, they learn in the majors and they make too many mistakes; they don't have enough players. If you have a halfway year in the minors now, you are in the majors. Pitchers don't even have to have good years. If they look like they have a good arm, that's all they need.”

While Cerv’s salary never reached more than $30,000 in one year, he had no qualms about coming along too soon. His multiple post-season appearances with the Yankees more than made up for it.

“I can't complain,” he said. “I had a lot of World Series checks. When I first came up, they said ‘Don't mess with our money, we'll make more money in a week than in a year.’”



Thursday, January 5, 2017

Art Pennington, last Negro League All-Star, passes away at 93

Art Pennington, one of the last true All-Stars from the Negro Leagues, passed away Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 93.

With Pennington’s passing, so goes the last living great who made his career primarily in the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitting outfielder made his first All-Star appearance in the Negro Leagues East-West Game in 1942 at 19, surrounded by ten future Hall of Famers including Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige. Speaking with Pennington in 2009, he was in awe of being in the company of such tremendous talent at a young age.

“They had some great players in that game,” he said. “I was very young. … We played at Comiskey Park; it was the first time I ever played in a big park like that.”

Art Pennington Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars Card / Author's Collection

Nicknamed "Superman," he made his entry into the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old in 1940 with the Chicago American Giants. His place on the club didn’t sit well with some of the veterans, especially those who were benched after he arrived.

“When I first went to that league with the American Giants, Jim Taylor was my manager,” he recalled. “Taylor [first] told me I was going to play shortstop, and then he told me I was going to play first base. One of the guys [Don] Reese didn’t like it because he had to sit. … I took another guy's job. I had a strong arm and I could run.”
Pennington in 1942 with Chicago American Giants teammates / Balt. Afro-American

Pennington exuded confidence every time he stepped into the batter’s box, posting eye popping batting averages of .359 in 1945 and .370 in 1950 for the Chicago American Giants. His cockiness at the plate was even more evident when he’d taunt the opposing pitcher with what became his trademark catchphrase.

“I had a saying, ‘Throw it and duck!’” he laughed. “We barnstormed against Dizzy Dean and I didn’t know who he was. I told him to, ‘Throw it and duck!’ He threw it and ducked, and I hit a homerun off of Dizzy Dean! I was young and goofy at that time and that was my saying.”

Pennington jumped the Negro Leagues in 1946 to join Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in search of fairer racial treatment and a higher paying salary.

“I faced some tough guys in the Mexican League,” he said. “They had a tough outfit in Caracas. Chico Carrasquel, said, ‘You’ll be going to the majors. I said, ‘You don’t know how it is up there. You see my wife?’ That’s why I jumped to Mexico. The conditions were better down there.”

In Mexico, Pennington met his future wife Anita. He explained how he courted her despite them both speaking completely different languages.

“She was a fine looking woman, a beautiful red-headed woman,” he recalled. “We were in the same restaurant. They had a lot of fans in the restaurants in those foreign countries. Her and her girlfriend came in the restaurant, and they knew we were ballplayers. So I talked to her, and I gave her and her girlfriend a pass to the game. From then on, they knew where I was eating. They were there all the time. Finally, we got together. In Mexico, you couldn’t take a woman out by themselves. They called them SeƱoritas. You got to have some kind of brother, sister, a chaperone; that’s how I ran into her.”

Thinking about his wife brought back painful memories of not only her passing, but the struggles they had when they returned from Mexico. The harsh realities of segregation over fifty years later resonated with Pennington.

“I look at my wife’s picture since she’s dead and I think about what she went through — all that we went through,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. We came out of Mexico and we took a train to catch a bus out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They wouldn’t let her go to the colored waiting room to stay with me in the colored waiting room; they wanted her to go to the white waiting room. I said, ‘No way, because she couldn’t speak any English. How is she going to go with me?’ I had to call my mother and father to come pick us up from Hot Springs. He came to pick us up and we’re standing out on the curb; he’s putting my luggage in the car and he said, ‘Where is your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ She couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m so glad she didn’t because when we got off the plane coming from Cuba, and we got on a sightseeing bus, I had to write her a note for her to get me a sandwich. I said, ‘Ain’t this a shame? I’m American born and she’s got to go and get me a sandwich.’”

Pennington was a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American players in the Pacific Coast League. He played there in 1949 with the Portland Beavers. He experienced rough treatment that affected his play due to his wife’s fair skinned color.

“In Portland, I couldn’t play out there the way they mistreated me,” he said. “Frankie Austin and Luis Marquez were out there with me. They stayed out there longer. I just left there; a fellow from Caracas, Venezuela paid me double the amount of money. Marquez was doing well in Portland; he didn’t have a white wife.”
Art Pennington Signed Ron Lewis Postcard / Author's Collection
When Pennington returned to organized baseball in 1952, he went on a tear, leading the Three-I league with a .349 batting average for Keokuk. He continued to annihilate pitching in that league hitting .345 in 1954. Despite his feats at the plate, no major league team called.

“They didn’t do me good, but I left my records in all of those minor leagues,” he said.

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

He left organized ball in 1955 to play with the highly competitive Bismarck, North Dakota semi-pro team, winning a league championship with fellow Negro Leaguers Ray Dandridge and Bill Cash. He had one last hurrah in pro ball in 1958 with St. Petersburg in the New York Yankees organization, batting .339. Sal Maglie, who pitched with the Yankees in 1958, lobbied for the Yankees to give Pennington a look.

“He was with the Yankees in spring training, and he told them, ‘There’s another Mickey Mantle down there! He can hit!’ he recalled. “They didn’t do nothing.”

Pennington retired in 1985 after working for more than 20 years for Rockwell Collins. He was a fixture at Negro League reunions and traveled the country spreading the word about the league’s history.

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

When we spoke in 2009, Pennington was at the crossroads of history. Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As someone who faced tremendous discrimination and segregation, Pennington was optimistic about a black man holding the highest office in the country.

“I never thought we’d have a black anything,” he said. “I’m really glad they picked an educated black man, well educated; I’m proud. I’m hoping he does well.”

As excited as he was of the new President, Pennington was trying to put his life back together after his home was destroyed in a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids. We spoke only a few days after he was allowed back in his home. He was grateful for all of the help he received despite many significant baseball artifacts being destroyed by the raging waters.

“I just moved back into my house two days ago,” he said. “I lost one of my cars, I lost my dogs. FEMA put me over in Marion in one of those mobile homes until a couple days ago. They treated me great and gave me a little money. I’ve had help from different ballplayers. My biggest help was from Charley Pride. He sent me $1,000. One fellow in Kansas City, he gave me $750. I get [money] in most of the letters. I just appreciate all of the people that helped me a little bit. I lost everything; I’ll never get it back. I’m in a book, Unforgotten Heroes. Someone sent me a new one. I really appreciate all of the people that helped me.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Daryl Spencer, hit first major league home run on the West Coast, dies at 88

Daryl Spencer, a major league veteran of ten seasons and a baseball pioneer in Japan, passed away in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas on Monday January 2, 2017. He was 88.

Spencer broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1952 after swatting over 20 home runs in three of his first four minor league seasons. The 24-year-old Spencer continued his power hitting as he manned all three infield positions for the Giants in 1953 while slamming 20 home runs. Just as Spencer’s talents were progressing, he was drafted for military service before the start of the 1954 season.

Daryl Spencer / 2013 BBM
His military tour cost him an opportunity to be a part of the Giants 1954 World Series Championship. His efforts the previous season didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, as they voted him a share of the World Series earnings.

"Even thought I didn’t play, they voted me a $2,000 World Series share,” he said to SABR member Bob Rives. “That doesn’t seem like much now, but each player only got about $5,000.”

Spencer returned in 1956 and remained a fixture in the Giants lineup as they moved to San Francisco. He gained notoriety when he hit the first home run in West Coast major league history, blasting a shot off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale in the fourth inning of the first game of the 1958 season.

He played with the Giants through the end of the 1959 season when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals that offseason. He spent another four years in the majors, seeing action with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds until he was released by Cincinnati on his 35th birthday in 1963.

“Some birthday present, huh?” he asked Rives.

His release opened the door for another opportunity that came from an unlikely place, Japan. The Hankyu Braves offered Spencer a contract for the 1964 season. What he encountered in Japan was a league far behind the caliber he was used to in the major leagues.

“I went over in 1964, it's changed a lot now,” he told me during a 2008 phone interview. “The managers didn't know what they were doing. I've seen better little league coaches than the managers over there. The pitchers would pitch nine innings and the next day they would be in the bullpen pitching relief, and they would be worn out. Five years, most of the good pitchers would be worn out because they pitched them so much.”

Spencer felt that if he was able to apply the strategies that he learned until the tutelage of the likes of teammates Alvin Dark and Bill Rigney, that he would have made a run at the championship annually in Japan.

“If I would have managed the first couple years, we would have breezed in every year,” he said. “Percentage baseball in Japan when I first went was so ridiculous and it took me about almost two-thirds of the season to get to the pitcher.

“I was getting all their signs; I knew their signs and I couldn't get them to pitch out. I knew when they were stealing, they would pitch inside and the guy would hit the ball to right field. One time I got them to pitch out, the catcher spoke a little English. One time I was playing second base and gave him a sign and we threw the guy out by ten feet. He said, 'Oh that's a good play!' They knew nothing.”

Spencer hit 74 home runs in his first two seasons in Japan in the supposed twilight of his career. He was at a point where his knowledge matched his physical abilities and the combination of the two in Japan allowed him to excel.

“I did real well over there,” he said. “I read most of the pitchers and I hit a lot of home runs. I got so frustrated. It got to the point there would be a runner on first with two outs and I might hit a home run, and the first thing I know, the guys steals and he gets thrown out and now I'm leading off the next inning. It took me about two weeks with an interpreter to tell them, 'When I am batting, I don't want anyone to steal.' They weren't smart. Playing major league baseball and going there was like playing little league, stealing their signs and everything.”

He brought an aggressive style to Japan that went against cultural customs. While major league baseball players were famous for their take out slides, those actions weren’t part of the game in Japan, that is until Spencer broke tradition.

“They never broke up a double play before I went to Japan,” he said. “I'm famous for breaking up the first double play; we won 1-0 because of it. The next night one of our guys slid in and knocked out a second baseman and that changed the whole style of play.”

Spencer took a hiatus from playing after the 1968 season after he hit 142 home runs in five years, well outpacing his production during the decade he spent in the major leagues. He returned as a coach in 1971, fifty pounds over his playing weight. As Spencer began to work out the players, his weight started to melt off and he mulled a return to the diamond.

“I was hitting a lot ground balls to players and the first thing you know I was down to playing weight,” he said. “One day I took batting practice and I hit six of seven out of the park and they signed me to a player contract. I was 43, 44 at the time, but I was so much better than they were, I didn't feel like I was 43. I was in pretty good shape and I was reading the pitchers; it was no challenge at all. I could have stayed a few more years.”

He spent two seasons as a player-coach, mostly as a first baseman. He finally called it quits in 1972, some 23 years after he broke into professional baseball. He returned home to work with the Coors Brewing Company.

“I came back to Wichita and got involved with Coors,” he said. “They have the NBC tournament here and I ran the Coors team here for a few years and we won a few state championships. It was mostly college kids and a few guys that played pro ball. I did that for five years and kind of semi-retired.”

Looking back on his career in 2008, Spencer was proud that the records he set over 50 years ago still persisted.

“I hit the first home run on the West Coast,” he said. “[Willie] Mays and I are the only two players that hit two home runs each in back to back games. For not being such a great player, I have a couple of records.”