Showing posts with label Gil Hodges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gil Hodges. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Fred Valentine | Washington Senators Outfielder Dies At 87


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Gil Hodges Finally Makes His Way To Cooperstown


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

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

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


Monday, November 26, 2018

Why Gil Hodges' Hall of Fame case is a no-brainer for one Washington Senators player

The annual Baseball Hall of Fame elections are popular topics for hot stove discussions across the country. Currently, the Eras Committee (formerly the Veterans Committee) is debating the merits of those whose careers peaked after the late 1980s. While Gil Hodges is not eligible for this current vote, the mere mention of any Hall of Fame committee meeting is still a hot button issue for many baseball fans.
Gil Hodges 1967 Topps / Topps

Fred Valentine should know a thing or two about Hodges’ Hall of Fame worthiness. He played under Hodges for four seasons (1964-67) with the Washington Senators and recently sat down with Baseball Happenings at the Firefighters Charitable Foundation Dinner in Long Island to express support for his fallen manager.

“He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame,” the 83-year-old Valentine said. “The biggest thing I remember from Gil was that when I came [to] spring training, the only thing he asked was for 100 percent. Regardless of how the game turned out, he just wanted a hundred percent from his players, and I always felt I didn't have any problems with that. He was going to give me an opportunity to play, and I told him that I was going to give him a 110 percent, and I think I did.”

While Valentine’s hustling spirit resonated with Hodges, he suggested that his leader’s stoicism might have contributed to his early demise. He said too often, Hodges would bottle up his emotions when players made boneheaded plays, and on those 1960s Senators teams, they were aplenty.

“He was a great manager,” he said. “The only problem I could see he had was that he wasn't another Earl Weaver. He kept so much in [when] players would make all kinds of dumb mistakes. Instead of throwing them out or cursing them out, he held it in, and I think that was his downfall from holding stuff in like that.”

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, January 18, 2015

Ed Charles honors the memory of Gil Hodges at the 2015 Queens Baseball Convention

Ed Charles received the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award at the 2015 Queens Baseball Convention.

The ceremony was led by Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing, who presented Charles with the award in honor of his former manager. Once Prince finished introducing "The Glider," Charles needed little help capturing the attention of the crowd. The 81-year-old Charles thrilled the listeners with stories of how Hodges' arrival in Flushing turned the tide for the New York Mets, running the club with a firm grasp that quickly shaped up a struggling franchise.

Ed Charles at the 2015 QBC / N. Diunte

At approximately 35 minutes into the interview, I posed a question to Charles about playing with Satchel Paige on the 1965 Kansas City Athletics. He told not one, but two different stories about playing both with Satchel in his last game in the majors, but also against him in 1961 in Portland (which he told to me during this 2013 interview).

It is always a treat not only to hear stories about the ageless Satchel Paige, but to hear Charles speak, as he holds a key to a lot of baseball's history as the elder statesman from the 1969 team.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frank Howard emphatically endorses Gil Hodges Hall of Fame candidacy

While a statue of Frank Howard towers over spectators at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., the 6’7” slugger is also a well known figure in New York, where he was a coach for both the Yankees and Mets (serving as a manager for the latter in 1983). On Saturday, the 78-year-old Howard returned to New York as a guest at the JP Sports Long Island National Card Show at Hofstra University, signing autographs for a few hundred fans that waited patiently to greet one of the most feared power hitters in baseball history.




Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The thrill of seeing Gil Hodges still lingers for a lifelong Brooklyn Dodger fan

In December of 2011, I wrote a piece entitled, "Gil Hodges' Brooklyn Dodger teammates make last minute pitch for Hall of Fame," citing recent interviews with Hodges' teammates coming out in support of their late first baseman for the Hall of Fame. That weekend, the newly formed Golden Era Committee voted Ron Santo into the Baseball Hall of Fame, once again leaving Hodges, his family, and his supporters on the outside looking in.


Earlier this week, I received a letter from 72-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers fan Bill Hidde, who shared passionate memories of watching Hodges play in Brooklyn, explaining why he is deserving of the Hall of Fame.

"I grew up in upstate New York, not far from Cooperstown and was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan who idolized Gil Hodges. When he retired, he held the record for most home runs by a right-hander in the National League and he had a cover picture and several page layout in Look Magazine entitled, "Ballet at First Base," with sequenced shots capturing his grace and athleticism fielding his position.

I had an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn and for two or three years we made the trip there in the summer. My aunt would get tickets for Ebbets Field. The thrill for a young man to go to our seats and see that lighted diamond, and realize I was watching my heroes instead of hearing the announcer on the radio at home still lingers.

The ballplayers of that era recognized their impact on youngsters and one of the finest tributes to Gil Hodges is one that was never given. I knew everything a young boy could know about Gil, where he was born, his wife's maiden name, his service in the Marines, and minor league time before making the majors.

Several years ago, I just happened to catch an interview with teammate and star Duke Snider. The interviewer mentioned Gil dying so young. Duke replied that Gil was very high strung and got extremely nervous before big games and said he was also a chain smoker. I either had, or tried to see, every photo of Gil Hodges I could find. There was not one that ever showed him smoking and I am sure it was because he knew the bad influence that could have on his young fans.

Everyone who knew him spoke of him with respect and admiration. His early death took him from the spotlight and many never got to know the man and his accomplishments, but it will be a real injustice if he is not placed in the Hall of Fame, a place he earned and deserves to be enshrined in!"

Bill Hidde

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gil Hodges' Brooklyn Dodger teammates make a pitch for his Hall of Fame honors

The Golden Era Committee meets this weekend in Dallas at the winter baseball meetings to decide the worthiness of ten veterans and executives for Hall of Fame enshrinement. One of those ten candidates is beloved Brooklyn Dodger first baseman and manager of the 1969 New York Mets World Series championship team, Gil Hodges.

During the 15 years he was eligible for the BBWAA vote, Hodges finished as high as third in the voting on three occasions, while the next nine finishing below him (1976, 1977) eventually made the Hall of Fame. Later, various incarnations of the Veterans Committee failed to elect Hodges, while comparable players such as Orlando Cepeda (VC) and Tony Perez (BBWAA) received the call in back-to-back years.

Gil Hodges / Bowman
At the time of his retirement, Hodges’ 370 home runs were the most in the National League by a right-handed hitter. He cemented the clean-up spot in Brooklyn’s lineup, guiding them to their only World Series in 1955. At first base, his glove work was outstanding, winning the Gold Glove during for three straight years after its inception in 1957.

To the small crop of Hodges’ remaining living Brooklyn teammates, his absence from the Hall of Fame remains a mystery. Ed Roebuck, who spent six seasons with Hodges in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, as well as another two playing for him in Washington, is perplexed by his absence.

“It’s unbelievable that Gil Hodges isn’t in," Roebuck said. "Even as a manager, how would you figure the 1969 Mets to beat Baltimore? That in itself should be admission to the Hall of Fame.”

Joe Pignatano, Hodges’ long-time coach with the Washington Senators and the New York Mets, also played five seasons with him in Brooklyn, Los Angeles and New York. Pignatano sees this year’s vote as a mere formality for something that should have been done a long time ago.

“It’s absurd," Pignatano said. "This is something that is long overdue. There isn’t anybody I know that doesn’t speak highly of him.”

Hodges’ tremendous character allowed him to positively impact everyone on the team, from the established veterans, to the newcomers on the block. One such newbie was pitcher Glenn Mickens. In 1953, Mickens was a rookie making the jump to Brooklyn from AA Fort Worth. It was Hodges that welcomed him to the fold.

“[He] made me feel like I belonged there … he was a complete gentleman in every respect,” Mickens said. “I never heard a negative word spoken about Gil Hodges and I don't think that he had an enemy in the world - except maybe those opposing pitchers who couldn't get him out, and theirs wasn't negativity, but actually respect for one of the best to ever play the game.”

Catcher Tim Thompson was another rookie who was a recipient of Hodges’ benevolence. Thompson made the club out of spring training in 1954 and needed a place to stay in Brooklyn. Hodges quickly came to the rescue.

“He was the most human being I ever been around in my life," Thompson said. "When I went to Brooklyn, he said, ‘I have a house for you to rent right beside me so you have somewhere to live.’ He used to pick me up and take me to the ballpark. He was a very good friend of mine.”

On the field, Hodges had a humble approach that resonated with his teammates. They saw him give the same respect to his opponents that he did to those in his own dugout.

“Gil would hit a grand slam and would have his head down all the way around the bases like he felt sorry for the pitcher," Roebuck said. "Now they point in the sky, jump up; so unprofessional! If you did that when I played, you would have been knocked down for sure.”

The newly formed Golden Era committee which is comprised of eight Hall of Famers (one being Hodges’ teammate Tommy Lasorda), five executives and three members of the media, has a tremendous task at hand to pare down the list to one or more candidates that 75% of them agree upon. Hodges’ candidacy has sparked debate for years; however, for Mickens, this vote should close the chapter on an honor Hodges should have received years ago.

“He was an outstanding clutch hitter and his record speaks for itself as far as his being in the Hall of Fame,”  Mickens said. “I believe that his induction is long overdue and it would be a terrible disservice if they pass him up.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Gil Hodges' disciples turn up the volume on his Hall of Fame chances

The topic of inductions was a hot item during Thursday night’s Winning Beyond Winning’s 14th annual Gil Hodges Legacy Dinner at the Chateau Briand in Carle Place.

Completing the ceremonial first pitch in front of a crowd of 250-plus supporters, former New York Yankees Frank Tepedino and Rusty Torres accepted their inductions into the Winning Beyond Winning “Winners Circle”.
Mrs. Joan Hodges at the 2011 Gil Hodges Legacy Dinner

Torres, who founded the organization along with attorney Tom Sabellico, helps to educate kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, while promoting participation in athletics. Tepedino was one of their first recruits.

“At a time in my life, when I gave up alcohol, Rusty and Tom came into it. Winning Beyond Winning was a blessing,” Tepedino said.

New York Yankees relief pitcher David Robertson and his wife Erin were presented with the Great Americans Award for their community work with their charity High Socks for Hope in their home state of Alabama.

The dinner, which bears the name of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman and New York Mets manager, served this year as an impromptu booster party for Hodges’ Hall of Fame candidacy. When Hodges’ wife Joan took the podium for the celebration of her 85th birthday, the buzz circulated about her late husband’s Hall of Fame credentials. Hodges is one of the ten candidates on the newly formed Golden Era ballot to be voted on December 4th in Dallas.

Long time New York Mets shortstop and Long Island Ducks owner Bud Harrelson discussed Hodges’ paternal influence as his manager.

“When I was with him, I felt like I was a son and I think he made a lot of players feel like that,” Harrelson said. “I fell in love with this guy. He was not negative, always positive. … He was just a good man, a family man [with] really solid principles.”

Washington Senators outfielder Fred Valentine, who played under Hodges from 1964-67, also praised  his fallen manager's character. Hodges' treatment brought out his best on the field every day.

“Throughout my whole playing career I think I gave him 100, 110 percent while I was on the field,” Valentine said. “I knew what type of person he was. He was a devoted person, a devoted manager, and he treated all of the players equally well. All of the ballplayers seemed to like the way that he managed.”

Seeing Mrs. Hodges only reinforced his belief that it would happen soon.

“I can’t say enough about Gil Hodges about a manager. I’m just praying as I told Mrs. Hodges [today], that he will make it to the Hall of Fame where he deserves to be.”

Another Hodges disciple, Art Shamsky, felt Hodges' honor is long overdue. He hopes Mrs. Hodges will be alive to experience his induction.

“It’s certainly something that should have been done a number of years ago," Shamsky said. “Especially if you look at his stats against guys like Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, it’s very comparable. I’m just not sure why it hasn’t happened before. Hopefully at this point while Mrs. Hodges is around to enjoy some good news, it will happen sooner than later.”

Mrs. Hodges took a rare public moment to reflect on this renewed opportunity for her late husband to gain entry to the Hall of Fame. While she feels he is certainly deserving, their bond is what she cherishes above his Hall of Fame status.

“I’m going to be truthfully, very very honest with you,” Hodges said. “I have never really discussed this … how I feel about him, how over deserving [he is]. If it happens, we’ll be eternally grateful; if not, he’ll be in my heart forever.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Winning Beyond Winning's 2009 Gil Hodges Legacy Dinner Recap

Winning Beyond Winning held their annual Gil Hodges Legacy Dinner this past week at the Chateau Briand in Long Island. Winning Beyond Winning is an charity organization headed by former New York Yankee Rusty Torres and Tom Sabellico that prepares athletes for their careers after their sports participation and provides outreach to school-aged children on the benefits of healthy living that can be achieved through participation in sports. Over 200 supporters turned out for the evening's festivities.

1969 Mets Reunion Photo / N. Diunte

This year's Gil Hodges Dinner was a tribute to the 1969 New York Mets, and featured appearances by Bud Harrelson, Ed Charles, Cleon Jones, Joe Pignatano, Ron Swoboda, Mrs. Maxcine Agee, Gil Hodges Jr. and Joan Hodges. Mrs. Hodges received a standing round of applause for her riveting speech in delivering the Gil Hodges Lifetime Achievement Award.

Roland Hemond was given the Great American's Awards for his nearly 50 years as an executive in Major League Baseball. Hemond has served as the General Manager for the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles. Current New York Mets coach Howard Johnson was honored with the 2009 Winner's Circle Award. Johnson stated,"I feel proud to carry on the traditions of the Mets that came before him, and to pass what I have learned on to the new generation of Mets players."

The 2009 Gil Hodges Legacy Dinner proved to be a successful event to further Winning Beyond Winning's outreach in the community to encourage clean youth participation in athletics and assist athletes transitioning from the field into the next phase of their careers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Danny Ozark, 85, Phillies Manager, WWII vet and Dodgers farmhand

Death is never a timely thing, especially when there are questions that are left unanswered. I was left with many when the news broke of Danny Ozark's passing on May 7, 2009. A few months earlier, I had interviewed a spry Ozark on his cell phone for almost an hour about his baseball career and his attempts to ascend through the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ozark, like many others of his era, was whisked away from professional baseball to serve in World War II, only to return to a crowded minor league system that was about to experience the effects of integration.

Danny Ozark / Topps
Ozark entered professional baseball in 1942, starting out as a second baseman for Brooklyn's Class D team in Olean. It was there where he was teammates with a future Brooklyn Dodger, Cal Abrams. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army.

"I was in the Army, and we landed in Europe on D-Day," Ozark said in 2008. "I received the Purple Heart in St. Laurent, France and got out in 1945. I spent three years in WWII, all of them in Europe. I never saw a baseball during WWII. I wasn't even sure I was going to go back [to baseball]."

Ozark described just what it was like to be there on D-Day.

"Well, it was I guess, the way alot of people ask me, and the best thing I probably said was, 'My underwear was very dirty and I didn't have a chance to change it for two weeks.' We were scared like everyone else, but we were young kids and alot of that stuff didn't bother us. Once you've seen death and people dying slowly, things like that stay in your memory. I can still visualize guys drowning after getting out of LCT's (landing craft tanks), because the water was deeper than they anticipated. Some of the guys that went down with the 60 lb. tanks drowned and we never saw them again." 

He was wounded in combat and later received a Purple Heart for his bravery.

"I received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds off of an artillery shell," he said. "The other battle we were in was the Battle of the Bulge. I spent time in Antwerp while the bulge was coming towards us because of the shipping they had in the docks where all of our equipment came in."

Returning from WWII in the winter gave Ozark very little time to prepare himself for spring training.

"When I got home in December 1945, my brother didn't go into the service and I played basketball with him until spring training," he said. "I got my legs in better shape than I had them before, but I never got to throw or anything like living in Buffalo [in the winter]."

Ozark, as well as many others returning from the war found themselves behind the curve entering Florida in February of 1946. They were also walking into history unfolding before their eyes.

"I didn't even pick up a baseball you know. Brooklyn sent me a contract to report to Spring Training in February. They brought us down to Sanford, Florida. That's where Jackie [Robinson] came in, right near Daytona Beach. It was the first time I got to meet him too. We were in spring training together in '46. Heck, the first week we started playing exhibition games. I got a sore arm like everyone else. We couldn't throw the ball, yet they kept pushing us. It took time to get our arms in shape, our bats to hit the ball, and for us catch the ball because we never played baseball [during the war]."

There was immediate competition from the players that lived on the West Coast and those that spent their military service playing baseball.

"Guys in the service, especially in the Navy, some of them played with teams in exhibition games where the war was going on, guys like [Bob] Feller, Virgil Trucks, etc. We had so many guys coming from California where they can play year round. They were so far ahead of us in spring training, fielding, hitting, throwing, as far as baseball was concerned. It took us a whole month to catch up, sometimes longer because so many players in the service came out and reported. Pitchers hurt their arms because they threw too soon. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see how hard you could throw. We didn't have the doctors like they have today where you could mend in a short time and bring it back like it used to be."

At one point during that 1946 spring training, there were over 600 players in camp. Ozark marveled at the talent that was there.

"There were so many guys that could have surely made it," he said. "It wasn't that there was a shortage of talented players, there was a shortage of roster spots for them in the majors."

The problem with having so many players in camp was due to the reserve clause; you weren't free to leave for another team that could use your services.

"We were in there like a bunch of slaves," he recalled. "That was for every major league team. We had farm system, and you couldn't leave them unless they released or traded you. [Brooklyn] wouldn't listen to you. They said, 'Hang on and you'll get your opportunity'."

For Ozark, that opportunity never came. After returning from WWII, the Dodgers converted him from a second baseman to a first baseman. Not only was he behind Robinson at first base [in 1947], when Robinson moved over to second base, he was stuck behind another Dodger mainstay, Gil Hodges. He looked back at what was a hopeless situation.

"Every year, I was stuck behind Gil Hodges. Where could I go?"

He felt like he had at least one supporter in the long time Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson.

"Fresco Thompson did the most for me," he said. "He helped me along quite a bit. He gave me a rule book. He said, 'You read this thing, and as your career goes on this thing will come in as handy as you can imagine.' He admired my family. He liked me and kept visiting me wherever I managed. I felt like I was going to get a shot to going up there [to Brooklyn]."

He did the best he could playing out the string in the Dodgers farm system, experiencing a few brushes when he thought he was going to get called up.

"The closest I thought I was going to get was in 1953. I always played against the big club in exhibitions, but they never took me though if they had an A or B game. Brooklyn needed a third baseman at that time, as they had [Don] Hoak and [Don] Zimmer [in Montreal]. I think finally they picked up Billy Cox and he was struggling too that year. I was hitting really well and Fresco came to the ballpark to watch me. I asked Tommy Holmes, 'Why did you put me at third base? I had no time there.' He said, 'Just to give you a change, we had Clint Weaver at first base, he was left-handed'. I wondered after all of these years if Fresco Thompson was looking at me to play third base." 

A few years later, Ozark thought that opportunity was once again knocking on his door.

"In '55, the same thing happened," he said. "I was sure I was going to go in '55. Hodges was having a tough year and they needed a third baseman and a first baseman. Thompson came again [to see me], but Frank Kellert took my place in '55. I'm almost 100% sure that is what happened."

Ozark batted over .300 in both AA and AAA. He was also among the league leaders in home runs every season. At times he felt like he was getting used to shore up the farm teams of the Dodgers instead of getting a shot at the big league club.

"You take the Kansas City team of the Yankees," he said. "[Lew] Burdette was there. I used to wear those guys out. They had [Moose] Skowron and [Bob] Cerv on their way up. These guys looked at me like, 'What is this guy doing down here?' You could have said, 'I guess I'll never make it,' but I never gave up. I just played to win."

He seemingly played for every farm club in the Dodgers organization, moving around so much that he almost hung it up in 1950.

"They sent me from AAA to Class B [Newport News] and then I went to Elmira [Class A]. It seemed like every time they sent me somewhere, it was a losing proposition. They sent me there to build up the team. We won the pennant in Neport News, I was the most valuable and popular player. In Elmira in 1950, I went back to St Paul, made two-to-three trips out of St. Paul [to Ft. Worth]. We really liked it there [St. Paul]. Our first child was born there in 1949. In 1950, they sent me to Elmira. That was when I was close to saying goodbye. They called me back to St. Paul though, and I kept going."

As we returned to discuss Jackie Robinson and the topic of baseball's integration, Ozark brought up two pioneers in their own rights, Hall of Famer Willard Brown and Clinton "Butch" McCord. Both were alumni of the Negro Leagues, and Brown holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hit a homerun in the American League. While Brown sputtered in his short trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Ozark saw flashes of greatness from the 40 year-old player in the Texas League that Puerto Ricans labeled "Ese Hombre".

"I was in a home run contest with Willard Brown," Ozark recalled. "They gave us 10 swings, he beat me 9-8. He was kind of a hot dog. He could run, but never energized himself. He had a good arm and good power."

He explained how McCord's inspired play in heavily segregated Macon, Georgia mesmerized the fans.

"I had Butch McCord in Macon," he said. "He was a super guy. A good contact hitter, he didn't strike out much. He hit over .300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP. He was pretty close to 30 years old when I had him, and wasn't the one the organization was watching to replace Hodges at first base."

Towards the end of our discussion Ozark reflected on his coaching and managerial days in baseball.

"I retired in 1984 from managing after getting 20 years in the pension for being a major league coach and manager. I still worked for the Giants as a scout, reporting to Tom Haller who was the GM at the time. I worked for the Dodgers all my life until '72. I went back with them from '80-'82, coaching in the World Series versus the Yankees which we won in 1981. I was in three World Series with them. As I look back, five of us from the 1955 Fort Worth team, Sparky [Anderson], Dick Williams, Norm Sherry, Maury Wills, and myself all went into managing. Talk about a lineup!"

Ozark, as many others from his generation shook his head about how modern pitchers rarely throw a complete game.

"Alot of guys that are pitchers now can't finish games because the pitching coaches are counting clickers all games. The only person that knows when it is time to come out is the man upstairs. How can you apply the same rule [100 pitches] to each pitcher? We have two different bodies, you live differently, you have different eating habits, take different vitamins, etc. How can you tell whose arm can last longer?"

He cited changes in the height of the pitching mound, as well as increases in strength training as reasons for pitchers being injured more frequently.
 
"Today, guys like Clemens lift 300 lbs. In my day, you couldn't lift a feather. You had to have loose limbs. They can throw harder, yet they are tearing muscles more, due to the extra strength training. The big factor in pitching came when they changed the dimensions of the mound, when they flattened it out. They're using more of their arm instead of their legs and back, going downhill. Who would have thought that someone like Spahn would pitch the way he did for that many years? Now these relievers can't go more than one inning and get hurt. The mound has an effect and the baseball itself. They'll never raise the mound again because people want to see action."


Living in Vero Beach in 2008 gave him the opportunity to visit Dodgertown for the last time before the Dodgers moved to Arizona. The thought of the Dodgers moving signaled an end of an era to Ozark.

"It was sad to see the Dodgers leave Dodgertown, as I spent alot of time there with the organization," he said. "I went to Dodgertown the last year to watch a few games, and to visit Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Bowa."

Ozark spent over 40 years in baseball as a player, coach, manager and scout. A baseball lifer and World War II veteran, he was a true hero and gentleman in every sense of the word. Some reporters had commented that Ozark was "too nice," when he managed the Phillies in the 1970s, but after speaking with him I couldn't imagine Ozark any other way. We could have kept on going that afternoon, but I felt that I had already occupied enough of his time. Upon ending the interview, Ozark left me with these final words.

"Anytime you need me, you give me a buzz,"  he said.

I wrote him three days before his death to see how he was doing. I can only wonder if he received my letter before he passed.

Rest in peace Danny Ozark. The man upstairs might need some good counsel on when that pitcher needs to come out.

Gold Card Auctions baseball cards

2018 Bowman Draft Baseball