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

Friday, November 23, 2018

How Nick Testa made a lifetime baseball career from only one major league game

Nick Testa made the most out of his one major league appearance with the 1958 San Francisco Giants, spending seven decades in the game as a player and a coach. A professional career that started in 1946 took him across the globe to far-reaching baseball venues such as Colombia, Italy, and Japan. The well-traveled baseball lifer passed away November 16, 2018, in Hastings-On-Hudson, New York. He was 90.

Nick Testa / Author's Collection
Testa’s lone major league game came on April 23, 1958, when he pinch-ran for Ray Jablonski in the 8th inning. He remained in the game as the catcher, where he was charged with an error in the 9th inning when the San Francisco winds blew a pop-up out of his reach. That error made his only mark in the record books, as he was two batters away when Daryl Spencer launched a two-run home run to cap the Giants’ comeback victory.

Shortly after his cameo, Giants manager Bill Rigney made Testa an interesting offer. With Bob Schmidt and Valmy Thomas holding down the catching duties, it was clear that Rigney did not need a third-string receiver.

“About a month into the season the other two catchers were doing so well, there was no way I was going to play,” Testa said to Steve Bitker in The Original San Francisco Giants. “So he says, ‘Would you consider being a bullpen coach the rest of the year?’ And I says, ‘Oh, sure, I’d love to.’ I was probably the youngest bullpen coach in the majors at 29.”

Testa finished the season as their bullpen coach and in 1959, he returned to the minors, where he played through 1964. During this period Testa became part of the early group of Americans to play in Japan when he spent the entire 1962 season with the Daimai Orions. 

Nick Testa 1962 Japanese Baseball Card

While Testa was no longer playing affiliated ball, it was far from the end of his time on the field. He returned home to the Bronx to work as a health and physical education instructor at Lehman College, where he piloted their baseball program to the 1974 CUNY Baseball Championship. During his summers off from teaching, Testa played in the Canadian Provincial League well into his 60s, often facing high-level competition half his age.

Testa catching at 45 in Canada / Attheplate.com

The professor was a fixture for both of New York’s professional teams, serving as a batting practice pitcher for the Mets and the Yankees. Testa continued with the Yankees through their championship run in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2001, the Yankees tasked the 73-year-old Testa with the responsibility of preparing then-President George W. Bush for his historic first pitch at the 2001 World Series. Before Game Three, Testa patiently caught the President's warm-ups in the Yankee Stadium tunnels before he made his way to the mound.

Testa remained a pillar of physical fitness well into his 80s, serving as an exemplar for the multitudes of students he prepared for work in the field. Lehman College inducted him into their Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Negray's anonymous September 14, 1952 debut

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Robinson's special gesture

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

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

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

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

Breaking ground in California

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Why teammates hold Roy Halladay in elite company a year after his tragic death

The tragic news of Roy Halladay's death has sent shockwaves throughout the baseball community. The two-time Cy Young award winner died at the age of 40 when his plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday. Frank Catalanotto, Halladay's teammate for four seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays from 2003-2006, was suddenly frozen when a co-worker relayed the news while he was giving a hitting lesson.

“I was shocked and I couldn't believe it,” Catalanotto said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Obviously, I was very saddened.”

Roy Halladay / Keith Allison - Flickr
Catalanotto arrived in Toronto in 2003 after the Blue Jays signed him as a free agent in the offseason. He was relieved that he no longer had to face the 6'6" right-hander.

“I hated having to face him,” he said. “He had a nasty sinker, he cut the ball, and he had a great breaking ball as well. He could basically put the ball wherever he wanted; one of the few pitchers in the league that was able to do that. I remember facing him when I was with the Tigers and the Rangers and it was never fun. If you went into Toronto, you were hoping that you missed Roy Halladay. [He was] one of the best during my time in the big leagues, probably one of the top two or three best pitchers that I had faced.”

Coming together for the 2003 season, Catalanotto watched as Halladay's blazed through the American League en route to his first Cy Young award. The late pitcher posted a 22-7 won-loss record with nine complete games, while only walking 32 batters in 266 innings. His mound dominance gave his Blue Jays teammates the confidence that they were never in danger of going on an extended losing streak.

“We knew whenever he was pitching he was going to bring his 'A' game,” he said. “During those times, whenever you lost a game or maybe two-to-three games in a row, you knew that Roy was going to be pitching and that streak was going to stop. You always had that in the back of your head. We never went on big losing streaks because we had this ace that we knew that we could fall back on. It was great.”

While Halladay worked his magic on the mound, his teammates were often able to just sit back and admire his wizardry as he sent most challengers back to the bench with their hopes of getting on base dashed into oblivion. He was so stingy on the mound that Catalanotto likened it to having a vacation defensively whenever he pitched.

“It was almost like a day off defensively,” he said. “Playing behind him, you didn't get a lot of work in the field because he was striking guys out, and when you did get work in the field, it was never pressure situations because he very rarely had guys on base.”

Even though Catalanotto acknowledged that Halladay made their jobs a little bit easier every fifth day, there was no chill when it came to what Halladay did to create his electric nature on the mound. Early in Catalanotto's tenure with Toronto it was evident that Halladay's focus on preparation was unparalleled.

“I quickly realized that he was an intense individual and extremely focused in what he did every single day,” he said. “There wasn't a time when I ever saw just him sitting down doing nothing. He was always trying to get better whether it be through watching video of the hitters that he's going to face or video of himself and his mechanics. Whether [he was] going through scouting reports or working out and working on his mechanics and things like that, he always seemed like he was dedicated to his craft and left no stone unturned. For me, he was the biggest competitor that I have ever played with and it rubbed off on other guys on the team.”

When Catalanotto was able to get Halladay away from his intense moments on the mound, he found a different side of the pitcher that was hidden to baseball fans. Halladay had a jovial nature that included pulling pranks on his teammates, especially the rookies.

“The more you got to know Roy, you realized that he had a lighter side,” he said. “He wasn't always just ultra-focused on pitching. He did have a lighter side. And he was a jokester. He loved pulling pranks on the younger guys.”

Reflecting on Halladay's tremendous accomplishments that included multiple Cy Young Awards, a lifetime .659 winning percentage, and a postseason no-hitter, Catalanotto cited how Halladay's 2001 demotion to the low minor leagues fueled his transformation into an elite pitcher. Catalanotto feels his eventual selection to the Hall of Fame will vindicate Halladay's tremendous life and career.

“He accomplished a lot,” he said. “I know that early in his career he got sent down to Single-A to work some things out. He took that personally and he wasn't happy about it. I know that he wanted to prove a lot of people wrong, and that's what he did. He became one of the best pitchers of his generation and I do think that he deserves to be a Hall of Famer.”

More of Catalanotto's interview is featured in the video below.



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Dean Stone, controversial winner of the 1954 All-Star Game, dies at 88

Dean Stone, a former major league pitcher who gained notoriety for his 1954 All-Star Game victory without throwing an official pitch, died August 21, 2018. He was 88.

Stone had his best MLB season in 1954, going 12-10 with a 3.22 ERA for the Washington Senators, his efforts earning a selection to the 1954 American League All-Star team. Few, if any experts predicted that he would figure heavily in the game’s outcome.

Dean Stone / 1955 Topps
With Casey Stengel's team down a run in the eighth inning, he called upon the left-handed Stone to face Duke Snider with two men on base and two outs.

As Stone toed the rubber after taking his warm-up pitches, the National League manager Leo Durocher was cueing Red Schoendienst to be ready to break for home. On the third pitch, Schoendienst took off, and Stone calmly delivered a strike to Yogi Berra who tagged Schoendienst for the third out. In the video below, you will see National League manager Leo Durocher vigorously arguing that Stone had balked; however, his antics were fruitless. The umpire stood by his call and the American League scored three runs in the bottom of the inning to emerge with an 11-9 victory.



“I saw him go, just threw home and Yogi Berra jumped outside and slapped the tag on him,” Stone said to the Washington Times in 2011. “But you know how Durocher was; I guess he had to say something.”

To this day, Stone remains the only pitcher to win an All-Star Game without delivering an official pitch. He lasted eight seasons in the big leagues and one more in Japan, unable to recapture his 1954 touch. He retired in 1964 with a 29-39 record.

* Updated - August 22, 2018.
- Ed. Note - Due to the fact that Schoendienst was caught stealing during Snider's at-bat, Stone's official amount of pitches are registered as zero.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Harvey Gentry, member of 1954 World Series champion New York Giants dies at 92

Harvey Gentry, a member of the New York Giants 1954 World Series championship team, died July 1st, 2018. He was 92.

Gentry made the ball club coming out of spring training and was used exclusively as a pinch hitter, playing with the Giants until the rosters were reduced at the end of April. In his short time with the New York, he batted .250 (1-4) with a walk and an RBI.

Harvey Gentry / Contributed Photo
His time in the major leagues, while short, fulfilled the continuation of a family legacy. His older brother Rufe preceded his big league sojourn, pitching for the Detroit Tigers from 1943-1948. As the elder Gentry foiled American League hitters, Harvey served in World War II.

Gentry was a member of the United States Navy from 1944-1946, earning recognition from President Roosevelt for his meritorious service. Upon his discharge from the military, Gentry signed with the Giants in 1947.

He spent 10 seasons in professional baseball, primarily with the Giants farm clubs. His best minor league season came in 1953, when he batted .294 with 15 home runs and 73 RBIs for the Class AA Nashville Volunteers. 

After retiring from baseball, Gentry worked as a supervisor for Raytheon in Bristol, Tennessee from 1958-1989. In 2004, he was recognized by the New York Giants in a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Giants World Series victory.

Gentry (left) congratulates Willie Mays at 2004 ceremony 
Gentry's passing leaves only six living members from the Giants 1954 championship team, including the legendary Willie Mays.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

1956 Ed Roebuck Dodgers Photo / Author's Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Chuck Stevens, the oldest major league baseball player, dies at 99

Chuck Stevens, a former first baseman with the St. Louis Browns who had the distinction of being the oldest living major league baseball player, passed away Monday in Long Beach, California. He was 99.

Stevens played three seasons with the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s; however, his biggest impact on the sport came from the decades he spent helping former players in need as the director of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America. Serving as the organization’s director from 1960-1988, Stevens helped thousands of players (both major and minor league) as scouts and team personnel get back on their feet in the face of hard times.

Chuck Stevens / Author's Collection
“The situations often were someone having a rough time who just needed a hand up to take care of the necessities of life,” Stevens said in February 2018 to the Long Beach Press Telegram. “One player called us and all he wanted was enough money for a bus ticket home. I never dwelled on how bad some of the situations were, but I was proud we were able to help, and do it quietly.”

Well before Stevens was on a quest to provide for so many that were involved in the game, he etched his place in baseball lore during of the most infamous debuts in major league history. On July 9, 1948, he stepped into the batter’s box as the Cleveland Indians brought Satchel Paige in from the bullpen. A familiar face from their winter ball duels in California, Stevens greeted Paige to the majors with a single to left field.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” Stevens told me in 2012 via telephone from his California home. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch. I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Shortly after the interview, I was able to travel to California to meet Stevens and his wife Maria at his home. He told me about his military service in the Army Air Force during World War II, as well as playing baseball in the service with Joe DiMaggio. While certainly proud of his major league career, he still made it a point during my visit to note the work of the APBPA and invited me to return to their annual dinner.

Mr. & Mrs. Stevens with the author (r.) in 2012 / N. Diunte
While I was not able to make the return trip, Stevens’ generosity was evident from the time I spent with him on both the phone and in-person. Some may look at his 184 career major league hits and assume that he had only a small impact on the game, but those who truly knew Stevens’ behind the scenes work with the APBPA will certainly recognize that his career stats grossly underestimate his footprint within the baseball community.





Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Len Okrie, catcher for Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, dies at 94

Len Okrie, former major league catcher and World War II veteran, passed away April 12, 2018 in Hope Mills, North Carolina. He was 94.

Okrie, like many baseball players of his era, put his major league dreams on hold during World War II. Drafted after one year in the minor leagues, Okrie set his sights on helping the United States Navy crack Japanese communications.

“I was drafted here in Fayetteville,” Okrie said during a 2008 interview from his home. “I served 1942-1945 in the Navy. I went to radio school to learn the Japanese code. We broke the Japanese code where we were stationed. We had to go to college to learn it all. To learn that stuff, it sure was complicated. I enjoyed it. I would have stayed in [college] if I [weren’t] bought by the Senators to go into the big leagues. I was playing softball in the war because that's all they had.”

Len Okrie / Boston Red Sox
He was able to shake off the playing rust quickly, emerging as the Senators top catching prospect after batting .314 at Fayetteville in 1947. His play on both sides of the ball impressed Washington Senators scout Mike Martin, accelerating his move from the Cubs organization to the nation’s capitol.

“I did pretty good coming back,” he said. “I was scouted by the Washington scout [Martin] and he said that I was the best catcher they had seen and I would be a good asset to the ball club. I only had a year and a half in the minor leagues and then went to the big leagues.”

Okrie debuted in 1948, pressed into action after both of Washington’s catchers went down with injuries. He hit .238 in limited duty and spent the 1949 season in AAA for more seasoning. When he returned in 1950, he found a new challenge in addition to deciphering big league pitching, a Cuban pitching staff.

“I caught [Conrado] Marrero, [Sandy] Consuegra, all of those Cubans,” he said. “With Marrero, he had a good slider. He could not understand the signs, so I used to tell [them], 'Go ahead and throw, I'll catch anything you throw.' They had a lot of Cubans; Joe Cambria brought all of those guys. Pretty good bunch of kids, they could throw well and were pretty smart.”

Now that Okrie was establishing himself as a fully-fledged major leaguer, he was also fulfilling a family legacy, as his father Frank pitched for the Detroit Tigers in 1920. His parents laid the foundation for his baseball aspirations.

“My father played big league ball,” he said. “He taught me a lot when I was a kid. [We played] every day in the backyard or on the ball field. Now there is not enough communication with the parents. My mom, dad, and sister used to chase the balls during practice. They were very proud when I made it to the big leagues; they used to sit in the stands. He told me to play hard and keep my nose clean. We never ran around; it was all baseball, period. [You] ate it, slept it, and everything else.”

Okrie last parts of four seasons in the majors, primarily with Washington, save for one game with the Boston Red Sox in 1952. While adequate defensively, his bat could no longer keep with his glove, posting batting averages well below .200 in his final few minor league seasons.

He quickly transitioned into the role of a minor league coach, eager to share his father’s teachings with the next generation of baseball players. He started in 1954 in the Red Sox chain and spent close to twenty seasons developing players in their farm system, as well as that of the Detroit Tigers. One of his prized pupils was Jim Leyland.

“I coached and managed in their chains,” he said. “I had Jim Leyland, he was my buddy. I kept him in baseball when he was in Lakeland. I needed a helper and I needed a coach, so I kept him in baseball. I knew he was a clean cut kid and I liked him very much. He is doing a good job. I told the Tigers that I would like to keep him. Wherever I went, he went. He was my little backup catcher.”

After stepping away from baseball, Okrie went into law enforcement working as a desk sergeant for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department. While in retirement, he kept his full attention on the game. Despite the tremendous difference in salaries, over 50 years later, baseball still captivated his soul.

“I watch baseball everyday if I can get it,” he said. “It's a great game, but I don't see the money they make. Maybe they deserve it, I don't know. We never made that money back then. It's awful, [but] I don't blame the kids. If management wants to give the kids that much money, more power to them. We never got it, my highest salary was $5,000 per year and I finally got $18,000 when the Red Sox bought me.”

Turning his focus to modern major leaguers, he shared his father’s advice about professional conduct. Even though his father played in the majors almost a century ago, his advice still rings true to this day.

“If you are going to get paid, like my dad said, you give them 100 percent,” he said. “When you put that uniform on, it's all baseball; you run hard and you play hard. When you are off, you relax. Don't dissipate. Don't run around. I never did. That's how I stayed in it so long.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Carl Scheib, 91, was a two-way phenom long before Shohei Ohtani

Carl Scheib, the youngest player ever in the history of the American League, passed away March 24, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. He was 91.

Scheib first tried out with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1942 at age 15 and the legendary Connie Mack told him to come back the next spring for another look. With the encouragement of his father, Scheib left high school after spring break in 1943 to sign with the A’s as a batting practice pitcher.

Carl Scheib batting / Sunbury Press

As the World War II draft started to deplete the Athletics roster, Scheib’s prospects for being a major leaguer looked brighter. He started to travel with the team in the summer to away contests and after pitching well in an August exhibition game, Mack was ready to make history.

“Don't you think it's about time?” Mack asked Scheib.

On Monday September 6th, 1943, Mack signed Scheib to a contract right before they were to play a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. In the final inning of the second game, Scheib relieved with one out in the ninth, pitching two-thirds of an inning to close the contest. At the age of 16 years, 8 months, and 5 days, Scheib made history as the youngest player in the major leagues, a record he held until Joe Nuxhall took the mound for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944.

Scheib proved he was not a publicity stunt, pitching respectably in five more games with a 4.34 ERA to finish off 1943. Mack decided to make good on his investment and brought Scheib along slowly in 1944, pitching him exclusively in relief for all 15 of his appearances. As 1945 approached, he hoped for an expanded role, but now that he was 18, Uncle Sam had different plans for the young hurler.

“I was drafted,” Scheib told me during a 2009 interview from his home in San Antonio. “We had started the season in 1945 in Washington. A couple of guys came up from the Air Base there in Pennsylvania and picked me up in an airplane. They wanted me to [be] stationed with the Air Force. Evidently, I didn't have enough education to stick with them so I went in the Army. I did my basic training in Macon, Georgia.”

Once his base commander discovered he pitched in the majors, Scheib was put on the base team. He continued to pitch with the 60th Reigment when he went overseas.

“We played quite a bit after we got overseas,” he said. “The war was over and we were kind of occupation troops. There were was one guy who tried to get a baseball team together. I was in a good position there; I didn't want to get transferred. We won the European Theater championships over there. … Baseball was big there overseas. We had 50,000 people at one game. The Germans didn't play much baseball, but when we were done they were playing in the streets.”

When he returned to Philadelphia in 1947, he started an eight-year run as one of the most reliable pitchers on the A’s staff, appearing in 239 games as both a starter and reliever. As much as Mack valued Schieb on the mound, he also sparkled at the plate, batting a robust .298 in 1948 and a team leading .396 in 1951.

As Mack tinkered with his pitching rotation and the A’s struggled at the hit, he looked to Scheib to boost the team’s offensive production. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter when he wasn’t pitching, Scheib had two game-winning pinch hits in 1948, giving Mack the idea to try him in the outfield. During the last two games in 1948, Scheib started in the outfield, plating one runner in six at-bats.

While the A’s continued to use Scheib as a pinch hitter, he never made another outfield appearance in the major leagues. He relished the opportunity to get another chance, but with pitching at a premium, the A’s could not afford to sacrifice his arm for his bat.

“I wanted to play the outfield so bad,” he said. “I done very good pinch hitting and I did play a couple of games in the outfield, but they always needed pitchers. [It was] back to the pitching mound. It was tough to get a good [rotation] of pitchers.”

In his 11 big league seasons, Scheib put up a 45-65 record in 267 games primarily for the A’s from 1943-1954, save for three games with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Carl Scheib (7th from left) at Bobby Shantz's field dedication in 2007 / N. Diunte

After his baseball career, he ran a car wash for 12 years and then worked in sales and installations for the same car wash owner according to his SABR bio until his retirement at age sixty-two.

In retirement, he was a fixture at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society reunions, and in 2016 he published his memoirs, “Wonder Boy - The Story of Carl Scheib” with author Lawrence Knorr.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Rusty Staub championed many with his tireless charity work

Rusty Staub, one of the most beloved players in New York Mets history, passed away on Opening Day, March 29, 2018 in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 73.

While Staub gained accolades for amassing 500 hits for four different Major League clubs, his greatest legacy was his tireless charity work, both on behalf of the Mets, and for the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund. He helped to raise millions of dollars to support families of fallen police officers and firefighters during their times of greatest need.

Rusty Staub (r.) with 1973 Mets teammate Felix Millan (l) / N. Diunte
In this video below from 2012, Staub discussed how proud he was to be a representative for the Mets long after his playing days were over.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Wally Moon, 1954 National League Rookie of the Year, dies at 87

Wally Moon's soaring drives over the Los Angeles Coliseum's left field fence were affectionately nicknamed "Moon Shots" for the way he lofted balls into flight over the screen. Sadly, his final "Moon Shot" touched down Friday February 9th, 2018 when he passed away in Bryan, Texas. He was 87.

Wally Moon 1961 Sport Magazine / Author's Collection
Revered not only for his famous moniker, but his trademark unibrow, Moon immediately made a splash during his Major League debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954 when he homered during his first at-bat. He continued to sizzle during his rookie campaign, batting .304 with 12 home runs and 76 RBIs, besting Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

During Moon’s 12-year MLB career, he spent the first five with the St. Louis Cardinals and after an injury played down year in 1958, the Cardinals traded Moon to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Presented with a fresh start and a new environment, a healthy Moon changed his hitting approach to aim for the short Los Angeles Coliseum wall, earning him blasts their aforementioned nickname.



The change of scenery paid off immediately for both Moon and the Dodgers, as he was selected for the 1959 All-Star team and finished fourth in the MVP, both honors coming while helping to lead the Dodgers to World Series victory. He spent the next six seasons with the Dodgers, long enough to claim another World Series ring during the 1965 season, his final major league campaign.

The three-time All-Star finished his career with a lifetime .289 batting average with 142 home runs and 661 RBIs. Once away from the major league spotlight, Moon couldn’t stay away from baseball. He spent ten years as the head coach at John Brown University in Arkansas, save for a one year break as the hitting coach with the San Diego Padres in 1969.

Moon finally returned to the professional ranks in 1987 when he was given a minor league managing job in the New York Yankees organization. One of the upstarts on his 1988 Prince William club was a fresh-faced 19-year-old Puerto Rican center fielder, Bernie Williams. After the Yankees let Moon go, he settled in with the Baltimore Orioles as a minor league manager and hitting instructor from 1990-1995.

In retirement, Moon wrote his autobiography, “Moon Shots: Reflections on a Baseball Life,” in 2010 with Tim Gregg.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Oscar Gamble, Yankees legend known for his powerful bat and Afro, dies at 68

Oscar Gamble, the former New York Yankees outfielder who was best known for his legendary Afro, passed away Wednesday January 31, 2018 in Birmingham, Alabama according to his agent Andrew Levy. He was 68.



Gamble's spectacular hair, which could barely fit underneath his baseball cap, was immortalized on his 1976 Topps Update baseball card. His 'fro is on glorious display in an otherwise horribly airbrushed Yankees uniform.
Oscar Gamble 1976 Topps / Topps

Getting past his hair and digging into the stats on the back of his baseball card, one will find that Gamble amassed 200 home runs over 17 seasons, while appearing in two World Series for the Yankees (1976, 1981).

In retirement, Gamble was a fixture at Old-Timers' Games and other alumni baseball reunions, including the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game in Fort Lauderdale, where Gamble was a fixture for many years. I covered the DiMaggio Legends Game in 2012, where I was able to get these photos of Gamble prior to the game.



Oscar Gamble (r.) with charity game participant / N. Diunte

Oscar Gamble taking batting practice at the 2012 Joe DiMaggio Legends Game / N. Diunte

Oscar Gamble (r.) waiting for Paul Blair (l.) and Ed Kranepool to exchange lineup cards / N. Diunte

Friday, January 26, 2018

Julio Navarro, pitched 22 seasons in Puerto Rico, dies at 82

Julio Navarro, one of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated pitchers, passed away Wednesday January 24th, 2018 in Miami, Florida due to Alzheimer’s complications. He was 82.

Julio Navarro 1960 Topps / Topps
Navarro was born in Vieques, but he spent the majority of his childhood in St. Croix. After developing his talents in high school, another standout from the Virgin Islands helped to position Navarro for a tryout in front of Santurce’s team owner Pedrin Zorilla.

“Al Gerard took me to Santurce,” Navarro told me via telephone in 2011. “My father moved to the Island and I was five years old. It helped me a lot. They had the Catholic school nuns and I learned how to speak English. When they played those exhibitions on the Island, those Puerto Rican teams would play. That’s when the Islands were developing well. When I pitched against Puerto Rico, Gerard told the owner that I was from Puerto Rico. He told them that I was from Vieques, but that my father moved there for work.”

Fortunately for Navarro, Zorilla doubled as a scout for the New York Giants and helped him along with Orlando Cepeda and Jose Pagan, to sign professional contracts in 1955. Almost immediately he became the de-facto spokesperson for his fellow Spanish speaking teammates because of his upbringing in the Virgin Islands.

“I was lucky, because of the few Puerto Ricans, unless they were from New York, I spoke English,” he said. “I knew what I was going on and I learned so quickly because I knew the language. In spring training, we had a lot of good prospects and they only knew Spanish, I had to keep them from trouble and intervene. They lived in a segregated area.”

While Navarro was buoyed by his ability to speak English, it didn’t help him on the mound. He flopped around multiple Class D teams in 1955 due to arm troubles, going 1-10 in the process. Despite his poor record, the Giants recognized his potential and brought him back for the 1956 season. He rewarded the parent club by winning an astounding 24 games on the mound. While he was only 20 years old, Navarro thought his successful season warranted a major league look.

“I won 24 games that year in Cocoa, and you know where I went after that, Class A!” he said. “If you win 24 games anywhere, you [should] go to the big leagues. … They had good players from A-ball that had experience playing. It was different then, those guys could play A or AA ball at any time, so many, that people don’t know about or didn’t know them.”

As the Giants moved to San Francisco, Navarro continued to inch closer to the major leagues. By 1959 he was at AAA, but his career stalled there. When it became clear that he was trapped in the Giants deep farm system with no clear path to their rotation, the Los Angeles Angels swooped in during the 1962 season to open a new door. He was relieved when the Angels called.

“After six years, I was in AAA ball and I was only 26,” he said. “They had a rule after six years they had to let me go or sell me to somebody. That’s when the Angels bought me.”

Navarro specialized as a reliever for the Angels, pitching 71 games out of the bullpen in three seasons until he was traded to the Detroit Tigers in April 1964. He found a supporter in Tigers manager Chuck Dressen.

“Charlie Dressen was a good man and got along with the colored guys,” he said. “He said to the Latins and Cubans, 'When you play with me, don’t worry!' When Dressen died, they got rid of us!”

While Navarro fell out of favor with the new regime in Detroit, that didn’t deter him from carrying on. The amazingly durable hurler pitched 22 seasons in the Puerto Rican Winter League, using the lessons that came from the old Negro League veterans he started with back in 1956.

“Those guys were great, I learned a lot from them, I’ll tell you,” Navarro said via telephone in 2011. “Each club had about nine imports. Most of them were colored guys from the states. Bill Greason, Sam Jones, and George Crowe were there. It was fantastic. … In those days, in Puerto Rico, you could have a team that could play in the big leagues that could beat the Yankees and anybody.”

One harsh reality the Negro League players taught him how to manage was the Jim Crow Laws in the United States. Some of his fellow Puerto Rican counterparts weren’t so fortunate and their careers were cut short by how they responded to their teammates’ taunts.

“I met a lot of white guys at that time that were good,” he said. “You don’t bother them and they don’t bother you. That’s what happened to [Carlos] Bernier. He had a white girlfriend, they tell him this and that because he had a white girl and they told him that shit and he beat the shit out of them. They were thinking he was going to be in the big leagues for ten years.”

Navarro threw his final major league pitch with the Atlanta Braves in 1970; however, he continued to play in the minor leagues, Mexico, and Puerto Rico until 1977. He then turned his attention to his son Jamie.

Jamie followed his lead on the mound, playing for 20 professional seasons, 12 in the major leagues. The elder Navarro credited his son’s longevity due to his father reinforcing flawless mechanics.

“Jamie very seldom had a sore arm in the big leagues,” he said. “I worked a lot with him on the mechanics.”

Navarro’s teaching extended beyond his own family, offering help to all comes from children up to the major leaguers in Puerto Rico. One of his last pupils was Javier Vasquez. After a disappointing 2010 season with the Yankees, Navarro met with him during the off-season to help him turn things around. The result? Vasquez lowered his ERA by almost two runs and ended his final major league season with a winning record.

“Javier last year had problems with the Yankees," he said. "Everybody knew what Javier was throwing. He didn’t have a good fastball anymore, but he still had that curveball. I went to a meeting in Ponce and he was receiving an award. I told him, ‘You don’t throw 95-98, you're now about 91-92. Throw at that speed, but throw it with movement. You are throwing at that speed and it doesn’t move. You ever see [Roy] Halladay with the Phillies? He doesn’t throw that hard, but everything is moving and is low. He throws strikes until he gets you. When the 9th inning comes around, you are strong. Mix it a little. Throw it like a sinker / slider.’ He asked me how to do it. You work a little and use your coconut head. You have to think!”

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Rudy Arias, member of the 1959 Go-Go White Sox, dies at 86

Rodolfo “Rudy” Arias, a member of the famed 1959 Go-Go Chicago White Sox, passed away on Friday January 12, 2018 in Miami, Florida according to a family member. The Cuban native was 86.

The lithe left-handed pitcher played only one season in the major leagues, but what a fine one it was. Signed by the White Sox in 1952, Arias fought injuries while working his way up to the American League pennant winners in 1959.

Rudy Arias Personal Photo

“I signed in 1952 and they sent me to Madisonville, Kentucky,” Arias told me in 2012. “My first year I came to the United States, I won 16 games. The owner of the Havana club came to my town in Santa Clara. They wanted me to go to Havana because Mike Gonzalez wanted to see me [pitch].”

While Arias was eager to make an impression for his spot on Cuba’s legendary Havana professional winter league team, his fortune changed quickly before he could even get on the field in front of Gonzalez. A freak accident while arriving at the ballpark derailed his chance for a spot on the Havana club.

“I broke my arm after I slipped on the concrete [at the ballpark] and they sent me home,” he said.

Despite his injury, Arias returned to the White Sox in 1954 and they promoted him to their minor league team in Waterloo, Iowa. He survived by only using his fastball for the next few years until his arm sufficiently healed to feature his signature curveball.

By 1958, he was knocking on the big league door at Triple-A in Havana. He impressed the White Sox brass when he threw a no-hitter against Rochester.

“The last out was a fly ball to the catcher,” he said. “They gave me $1,000 for that.”



In 1959, Arias got his big break with the White Sox, making their team out of spring training. His left-handed arm gave manager Al Lopez versatility in the late innings out of their bullpen. One of his first introductions to the unwritten rules of major league baseball was when Lopez directed the rookie to drill opposing New York Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren.

“Lopez called me on the phone and said, ‘Rudy, warm up real hard and when Duren comes to hit, hit him in the head,’” Arias recalled. ‘¡O dios mio! He had 20 pitchers and he used me, the small guy! When Duren comes to hit, I threw at his head and he moved. The next pitch, I knew he was going to move back, so I hit him right in the back. He came at me with the bat. I told Duren I didn’t mean to hit him. Kluszewski [ed. note - It was Earl Torgeson] stood right in front of me and told me not to run. He was a big guy!”

Rudy Arias with the author in 2012 / N. Diunte
He fondly recalled the rest of the battles that the White Sox had with the Yankees that season, citing them as their toughest competition en route to the American League pennant. He proudly told how he foiled Mickey Mantle on a bet from teammate Jim Rivera.

“Jim Rivera told me, ‘Rudy, when Mickey Mantle comes up, if you throw him a knuckleball, I will give you a six pack of beer.’ I throw it, Mantle waited and waited, and man he got a pop up to second base.”

Arias was on the roster for the 1959 World Series; however, he did not see any action against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He received a full share for his efforts. Over 50 years later, he marveled at both the spectacle of seeing over 90,000 people at the Coliseum, and the amount of his share if he played in the World Series now.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “All around, wow – 93,000 people! There was a lot of noise. It was different pitching there.

“Where’s the money now? Now they get a lot of money for that. They gave me $4,800. I didn’t believe it! That money is different now!”

In the off-season after the World Series, the White Sox traded Arias to the Cincinnati Reds. They sent him to Triple-A in San Diego in 1960. He spent three years in their minor league system and crossed paths with many of the Reds’ future stars including sharing a dugout with Pete Rose in Macon, Georgia.

“They sent me to Macon Georgia and I played with Pete Rose,” Arias said. “He was crazy!”

Arias had one last hurrah in 1961 while pitching for the Mariano team during the final season of the Cuban professional league. He had enough life in his arm to throw an 18-inning gem and lose! On the other side of the hill was a young Luis Tiant.

“Luis Tiant came in the 11th inning,” he said. “I pitched the whole game and lost it in the 18th inning. I do not believe it happened! Nap Reyes the manager, he never came to me and asked, ‘Rudy, how do you feel?’ I was throwing, throwing and throwing and he never told me nothing.”

Struggling with injuries, Arias never returned to his major league form; however, he played in the minor leagues and Mexico until 1967. He settled in Miami working in construction and later as a security guard before retiring.

He passed the family legacy to his son Rudy, who was a minor league catcher and a long-time major league bullpen catcher. One of his highlights included earning a World Series ring in 1996 with the New York Yankees.

In retirement, Arias received fan mail from fans all over the country, which he kept neatly in binders in his home. He marveled how they came from such far off places like Alaska.

“I get a lot of letters now from all over, more than when I played,” he said.



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mamie Peanut Johnson, female Negro League pitcher, dies at 82

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pioneering female baseball player in the Negro Leagues has answered the ultimate call to the bullpen. Johnson, who was only one of three females to play in the Negro Leagues, passed away Tuesday December 19, 2017 according to Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. She was 82.


Born September 27, 1935 in Ridgeway, South Carolina, Johnson moved to New Jersey to live with relatives after her grandmother died. She honed her chops on the diamond playing on the boys’ baseball team at Long Branch High School.

Mamie Peanut Johnson in 2010 / N. Diunte

The five-foot-six right-handed pitcher earned the nickname “Peanut” when one batter called out to her, “How do you expect to get me out? You’re no bigger than a peanut!” After sending the hitter back to the dugout in defeat, the nickname stuck and a legend was born.

She played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1953-55 during a time when the league was trying to survive after major league teams signed many of their top young talents. Determined to prove that her signed was more than a publicity stunt, Johnson dazzled batters from the mound en route to a lifetime 33-8 record. She also held her own at the plate, posting a career batting average in the .260s.

Moving on from the rigors of barnstorming, Johnson went to school at North Carolina A&T and became a nurse for thirty years. She spent the latter part of her retirement traveling the country promoting the game due to the resurgence of interest in the Negro Leagues in the early 1990s.

As she outlasted her peers, Johnson was honored with praise and awards. She was the subject of a 2002 inspirational book for young adults, “A Strong Right Arm,” which highlighted how she earned her place in history among the giants of the game. In 2008, the Washington Nationals selected her in Major League Baseball's Negro Leagues draft.

Mamie Peanut Johnson with Hall of Famer Dave Winfield (r.) in 2008 MLB Negro Leagues draft

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Tracy Stallard, surrendered record setting home run to Roger Maris, dies at 80

Tracy Stallard, a seven-year major league pitcher who was best remembered for surrendering Roger Maris' record-setting 61st home run in 1961, has passed away at the age of 80 according to an announcement by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

During the 50th anniversary of his fateful meeting with Maris in 2011, I sat down with Stallard at a charity event in Pennsylvania for MetroBASEBALL magazine to discuss his place in New York baseball lore, both for his role in the famous home run, as well as his tenure with the New York Mets. Below is a modified version of the article that originally appeared in the magazine.

Tracy Stallard (l.) with Mets teammate Jack Fisher (r.) / N. Diunte
Fifty years after he faced off with Roger Maris, Tracy Stallard was just glad to be remembered. On the last day of the 1961 season, the strapping 24-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox stared down Maris behind in the count 2-0. Stallard reared back for his fastball and with one swing of the bat, Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s mark for home runs in a season. Forever linked due to the events of October 1st, 1961, Stallard doesn’t shy away from his connection with the Yankee slugger.

“Well it seems to be now that it’s bigger now than when it happened,” Stallard said in 2011. “I’m glad it happened. I did my best and he was doing his best and he came out on top. That’s about all you can make out of it.”

Stallard had little time to get caught up with Maris’ chase as he was informed close to the start of the game that he would be taking the mound. The short notice gave him little chance to ponder the complexities of the Yankees powerful lineup.

“I went to the ballpark and we didn’t know who was pitching," he said. "We got there about 45 minutes before the game and [while] we were getting dressed Sal Maglie threw me the ball. That’s when I knew I was pitching. I didn’t think that much about it. They had a great team. He got a lot of good pitches to hit simply because of the guys hitting behind him. Mickey Mantle didn’t play that day; however, they had some good players [in the lineup], Skowron, Howard, Blanchard, and Berra.”

Lost in the celebration of Maris’ record-breaking home run was a strong pitching performance by Stallard. He gave up only one run in seven innings while striking out five batters, including Maris the next time he came to the plate. In fact, Stallard would face Maris seven times in his career and yield only that home run.

Ironically, Stallard found himself wearing a New York uniform shortly thereafter; however, it was on the other side of town. The New York Mets acquired Stallard in a trade prior to the 1963 season. For the next two years, Stallard was a mainstay in the Mets starting rotation, leading the team in complete games and strikeouts in 1964. Despite shouldering many of the losses, Stallard had fun playing in Queens.

“I was received very well,” he said. “The fans in New York are like no other. I pitched some pretty good baseball then. I enjoyed every minute of New York. The people were great and they treated us good. It’s hard to put up with a losing ballclub, but they did pretty well.”

Over his seven-year career, Stallard pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals in addition to the Mets and Red Sox. He pitched in the minor leagues until retiring from professional baseball after the 1969 season. He returned to Virginia and ran a successful coal stripping business for many years.

In retirement, Stallard shunned the spotlight, but in recent years he became more accepting of his place in baseball history.

“I don’t know that much about whether it’s changed my life or not," he said. “I played in a lot of golf tournaments because of it. I’m sure if I hadn’t been the pitcher at the time, I wouldn’t be invited. I’m certainly not that naive.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bobby Doerr remembered as a calming influence on the Blue Jays franchise

Bobby Doerr built a Hall of Fame career as the “Silent Captain” of the Boston Red Sox from 1937-1951. The humble nine-time All-Star second baseman, died November 13, 2017 in Junction City, Oregon. He was 99.

Bobby Doerr / Blue Jays

An icon with the Red Sox organization as both a player and a coach, Doerr also helped to build the foundation of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Starting with the Toronto franchise during their inaugural 1977 campaign, Doerr served as their batting coach for five seasons. His profound impact went well beyond their hitters, as former Blue Jays All-Star pitcher Dave Lemanczyk recalled just how vital Doerr was to their operation.

“He just gave us the opportunity to compete,” Lemanczyk said Thursday night at the Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner in Long Island. “That was the big thing. He never got excited, [he was] very low key. … Sometimes as a baseball player, you let your emotions get a hold of you, and you try to compete at a level you shouldn’t be at and you end up screwing the pooch a little bit. He probably had a calming, almost like a grandfatherly influence on most of the guys he came in contact with.”

In addition to his easy demeanor as Lemanczyk observed, he said that Doerr’s reserved nature kept him from boasting about his legendary career. Even though Doerr wouldn’t be elected to the Hall of Fame until 1986, few of the players knew of his standing among the greats of the game.

“He was just a class, soft spoken guy,” he said. “I don’t think any of us realized that he was a Hall of Famer. He was just a kind gentleman who absolutely knew the ins and out, especially hitting, of baseball. Somebody who could put up with Ted Williams his whole career had to be pretty in tune with everything.”

Upon reading the news of Doerr’s passing, Lemanczyk’s memory was triggered by visions of a photo shoot they shared for a local department store. He dug up the photo and was immediately filled with emotion confronting the permanence of his former coach’s death.

“As soon as I read it in the paper, [I remembered] Alan Ashby, Jesse Jefferson, Bobby Doerr, and myself did a photo layout for Eaton’s department stores for a father’s day catalogue,” he recalled. “I happen to have that catalogue in the house and just looking at that brought an eerie chill.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Rance Pless | Kansas City Athletics infielder dies at 91

Rance Pless had 2,037 hits and a MVP award to his credit during in his 14-year professional baseball career. Yet, with only 23 of those hits coming in the major leagues, Pless’ talents were largely hidden in small towns across the United States in the 1950s by a system that was controlled by the reserve clause.

Pless, who did finally make major league debut with the Kansas City Athletics in 1956 as a 30-year-old rookie, passed away Saturday, November 11, 2017, at the Laughlin Healthcare Center in Greeneville, Tennessee. He was 91.

Rance Pless / Author's Collection

Before his baseball career started, Pless enlisted in the Navy in March 1944 and after basic training, was part of a Landing Craft Infantry that was sent to Okinawa in 1945. While battling in Okinawa, Pless received the news that the United States had bombed Hiroshima. The former WWII veteran who in a sad twist of fate, passed away on Veterans Day, recalled the euphoria amongst his infantry.

"We started celebrating, shooting off guns, flares, etc," Pless said to the Greenville Sun in 2015.

His crew was tasked with capturing the surviving Japanese soldiers. Where they went after they were captured were of little consequence to Pless, he just wanted to get back home.

"The Japanese, we put them on the big ship and don't know where the hell they took them to and we didn't care," he said.

Pless worked his way into the New York Giants system in 1947, starting among many who were also returning from military service. At the plate, Pless shined, batting over .300 six of his first seven minor league seasons with the Giants. Unfortunately, Pless’ main position was third base, where he had competition from Bobby Thomson and Hank Thompson at the major league level, and future Hall of Famer Ray Dandridge with their AAA Minneapolis club.

In 1952, Pless was having a breakout season, leading the Southern Association with a .364 batting average. Just when Pless was on the verge of possibly being called to the major leagues, a fastball aimed squarely at his head drastically altered his path to big league stardom.

“I lead the league that year in 1952,” Pless told me during a phone interview from his home in January 2015. “I got beaned that year. We were playing down in Atlanta and I got hit on my cheekbone. I was afraid that it would destroy my eye.”

He ignored medical advice and returned to the team after a few weeks against the urging of team personnel. With his team in a pennant race, Pless wanted a taste of postseason riches.

“I got back and played in about a week or two,” he said. “They didn’t want me to play, but we got in the playoffs and that was extra money! I was not gun shy. I guess I was more mad [than anything else]. I got up there and I just felt like that they were going to be throwing at me. A few of them did and I hit them over the wall and they quit throwing at me!”

The Giants rewarded Pless with a promotion to AAA Minneapolis where he replaced Dandridge who left for the Pacific Coast League. He responded with another tremendous season, batting .322 with 25 home runs; however, the Giants left him beating the bushes once again. Determined to impress the Giants brass, he signed on with Caguas to play baseball in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

“That meant a lot to me,” he said. “Number one, we made pretty good money playing over there. You go over there and pick up that extra money. … They treated us good. It was just a good place to go in the winter time. I looked forward to going every year.”

One of his teammates during that 1953-54 winter league season was a skinny infielder from the Braves organization named Henry Aaron. More than 60 years later, recalling his memories of playing with Aaron at such a developing stage of his career brought him tremendous excitement.

“I don’t know if you’ve got enough paper to write on now,” he said. “He was one of the better prospects with a bat in his hands than anybody I’ve ever seen come down the pike. The harder they threw, the harder he hit it. He could hit the curve ball too (laughs) – he was almost unreal.”

At the time, baseball’s future home run king was trying to break in as a second baseman. Pless explained why he felt Caguas manager Mickey Owen made the right move to convert Aaron to an outfielder.

“I hate to say this, but he was a better outfielder than he was an infielder,” Pless recalled. “He [Mickey Owen] made a good move, and it was good for Henry too. In the outfield, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him misplay a ball. He was just uncanny, that’s all I can say.”

Behind the firepower of Aaron, Jim Rivera, Vic Power, Tetelo Vargas, and other Puerto Rican Winter League mainstays, Caguas won the 1953-54 Caribbean Series. Pless helped to lead them to victory with a home run during the third game against Almendares of Cuba.

1953-54 Caugas Team Photo

Despite all of his offseason accolades, the Giants never pulled the trigger on bringing Pless to the major leagues, missing out their 1954 World Series championship team. Now approaching his late 20s, Pless continued his maturation as a ballplayer in Minneapolis, batting .290 in 1954, and then earned American Association MVP honors in 1955 after he posted Triple Crown worthy numbers with 26 home runs, 107 RBIs, and a .337 batting average.

The Kansas City Athletics took notice of Pless’ stellar season, purchasing him from the Giants for $35,000 during the offseason. The Athletics had high hopes that Pless would bring some power to their sputtering lineup; however, he didn’t hit a single home run in 46 games with the club, used sparingly as a backup to Hector Lopez and his former Caguas teammate Vic Power.

Pless returned to the minor leagues in 1957 for four more seasons. While he never returned to the big leagues, he faced the likes of Satchel Paige and Luke Easter, played alongside Tommy Lasorda, and played in Cuba under heavy security while Fidel Castro was coming into power.

After he retired from professional baseball, he worked for the Magnavox Company until 1987. He remained in the game as a scout for 25 years with the Atlanta Braves.