Showing posts with label Hoyt Wilhelm. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hoyt Wilhelm. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Brooklyn Dodger who didn't make it - Hampton Coleman's journey with the Dodgers of the 1950s

The future Brooklyn Dodgers of 1952? Look hard in the bottom left-hand corner and you'll see Solomon "Hampton" Coleman. The righty "curveball artist" is the only player pictured that didn't make the major leagues.

His close cut with the Brooklyn Dodgers involved a meteoric rise from the low minors to Triple-A early in his career that crossed paths with some of the finest players in baseball's history.

The 81-year-old Coleman, explained via telephone from his Florida residence in July 2008, how he came so close to becoming a Brooklyn Dodger.

He was first signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1947 and was sent to Roanoke of the Class B Piedmont League. After posting a record of 13-5 with a 3.17 ERA, he was given an invite to major league spring training. What a jump for the young rookie from Red Springs, N.C., to go from the bushes to the big leagues in two years!

The 1948 spring training season allowed Coleman rub elbows with baseball's elite.

"I was in spring training with the Red Sox when I was 20 with Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. I threw batting practice to Williams," Coleman said.

One of his highlights was facing Joe DiMaggio. The Hall of Famer proved to be a tall task for the rookie.

"I pitched against Joe DiMaggio," he said. "There were a few men on base and he hit a home run off of me to win it. The Red Sox had a pitcher Boo Ferriss, and he said, 'Don't worry about it, he's hit home runs off of better pitchers than you!' That picked me up a little bit."

DiMaggio's home run off of Coleman was chronicled in the March 15, 1948 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier.

In only his second professional season, Coleman wasn't flustered by his encounter with DiMaggio. He was sent to Triple-A to play with Louisville of the American Association. After playing the 1948-1950 seasons with Louisville (with a short loan to Seattle of the PCL in 1949), Coleman's next break came courtesy of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I was playing in Louisville, and St. Paul was the Dodger team in the American Association," he said. "When Boston was on the verge of winning the pennant that year (1950), they were looking for a pitcher by the name of Harry Taylor to buy. They purchased him from the Dodgers, and the Red Sox gave them any choice of a Triple-A pitcher in their system, so they selected me. That's how I got to the Dodgers. I played with Montreal for a couple of years. Walter Alston was the manager, and when he went to Brooklyn, he took four of us to the Dodgers."

Hampton Coleman 1953 Canadian Exhibit / Author's Collection

Alston was hired as the Dodgers manager in 1954 and it was the break that Coleman needed. During the winter, Coleman chose to go to Cuba to sharpen his skills in preparation for his big break.

He pitched the 1951-52 winter season with Almendares and 1952-53 winter season with Marianao in Cuba. Many veterans reached out to help, including pitching tips from a future Hall of Famer.

"Do you remember Hoyt Wilhelm?" he asked. "He was down there. I was trying to get another pitch, and he was helping me with a knuckleball to use as an out pitch. He helped me a lot."

Discussing Cuba evoked the memories of some of his legendary teammates. Another Hall of Fame teammate he prominently recalled was Ray Dandridge,

"I played with him in the Cuban winter leagues," Coleman recalled. "The first time I saw him was with Louisville against Minneapolis in the American Association. He was a great third baseman; he was like a vacuum cleaner, anything that came his way, he scooped up. He was a terrific fielder and good hitter. I absolutely thought he should have been a major league player. He was a tough man to get out."

The Dodgers sent many of their prospects including a left-hander who later became the club's greatest ambassador. Coleman explained how Tommy Lasorda displayed the makings of a future manager while he was an active player.

"The years I was in Cuba, I played with him, as well as two-and-a-half years in Montreal," he said. "Lasorda was managing the whole time he was playing. He was a motivator from day one. He didn't like to see anybody loafing. He'd get on your case if you were losing. Nobody loses more than a player that is loafing. I spent a lot of time with Tommy."

Despite the legendary connections he made, a car accident towards the end of the 1953-54 winter season in Cuba derailed his chances of making the Dodgers club.

"I had my wreck at the end of the season on my way to Cuba for the third year down there," he said. "I had a car accident and almost got killed. I fell out of the car on my shoulder. I was a right-handed pitcher and I could never gain any momentum again. The doctors said I would never pitch again. Later on, when technology improved, they said they could have fixed my shoulder in two hours!"

The doctors were wrong about Coleman pitching again. He returned in time for spring training, and Alston held to his word, giving Coleman a shot in February 1954. Unfortunately, Coleman knew he was at the end of the line.

"It was pretty much the end of my career. I had nothing left on the ball."

He was there long enough to be included in the Dodgers 1954 spring training team photo but lasted only 10 games at Montreal. His final season came in 1955 with Double-A Fort Worth and Mobile, where he posted a combined record of 4-11 in 20 appearances.

Monday, November 23, 2009

How Johnny Kropf gave up center field for Willie Mays

“When I first got to Minneapolis in 1951 after spring training with the Giants, everyone was telling me what a great player Willie Mays was. We had a centerfielder by the name of Johnny Kropf in 1950 when we won the pennant in Minneapolis, and I thought to myself, ‘He must be pretty good if he beat out a guy who did a fine job for us last year.’”

These were the late New York Giants all-star second baseman Davey Williams memories from a 2008 interview about the new outfield of Willie Mays and Ridgewood native Johnny Kropf on the New York 1951 Giants Minneapolis AAA team. Kropf was pretty good, as he blasted 21 home runs during the 1950 season after making the jump from Class C St. Cloud to Minneapolis.

Johnny Kropf - 1951 New York Giants Media Guide
A heavy-hitting New York Giants outfield and a young teammate who was destined for superstardom blocked Kropf’s path to the majors. He played in the days of the dreaded reserve clause and couldn’t play for another club unless the Giants released or traded him.

“You were trapped" Kropf said. "You didn’t challenge the salary. You were stuck in the middle, play or go home. You didn’t give up because you might get a shot somewhere. ... Where was I going with the Giants? When I started, you had Bobby Thomson, Don Mueller and Whitey Lockman out there. Those guys could hit!”
Johnny Kropf in 1951 and 2009 / Courtesy of Kropf family (l.) and N. Diunte (r.)

It didn’t help Kropf was displaced from centerfield by a budding superstar: Willie Mays.

In an August 2009 interview at his home in Miami Beach, Fla., Kropf described how he was moved from centerfield upon Mays’ arrival.

“He came up with us in 1951. I was the centerfielder at the time. As soon as he came up, Tommy Heath, the manager, said, ‘John, go to left, Willie’s in center and Pete Milne is in right.’ We knew he [Mays] was going to be great; somehow you could see the difference right away.”

Mays hit .477 in 35 games with Minneapolis and was up to the majors by the end of May.

Kropf was with Mays the fateful day he was called up to the big leagues.

“We went to the movies in Sioux City [in Iowa]. All of a sudden there was a message in the theater, ‘Willie Mays wanted in the lobby.’ I said, ‘Oh, boy!’ I found out they sent him out that night, right to the Polo Grounds. He got off to a bad start, 0-12 or something, then he finally got a few hits off of Warren Spahn and he was on his way.”

The switch-hitting Kropf, now 82 and living in Miami Beach with his wife Audrey, recalled how he went from the sandlots in Queens to being one step away from the Major Leagues in the span of three seasons.

“I came up playing in the Queens-Nassau League; Jerry Monte was working for one of the auto dealers, he was a scout,” he said. “I was playing after returning from serving two years in the military in 1945-46. In the middle of June of 1947, he signed me. I ended up in Class D Peekskill when I first started. From there I went to Oshkosh, the year after that I was sent to Class B Trenton and St. Cloud, Minn. I hit 15 homers, batted over .300 and we ended up in second place.”

While with St. Cloud, Kropf received his big break playing against the Minneapolis team during an exhibition game.

“There was an exhibition game in Minneapolis at Nicolett Park. I had a couple of hits during that game,” he said. “Charlie Fox was the manager and after the season ended, he said, ‘You’re going to Minneapolis.’ I said, ‘Stop the baloney.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you right now, you’re going.’ And so I went, from Class C ball to AAA. I read in the paper if I would make it [to the majors in four years] it would be a record. It still would, because I didn’t do it.”

While in Minneapolis, Kropf had the good fortune of also playing alongside another future Hall of Famer, Negro League legend Ray Dandridge.

Kropf illustrated what the Major Leagues missed when the Giants decided not to bring up Dandridge to play.

“They missed a guy that stands out like a sore thumb," he said. "Bowlegged as could be, short and stocky, he hit like Yogi, over the head. He hit shots everywhere. He had three different throws. When he had the time, he would just flip it and you would look at the ball wondering if it would get there, which it always did! If he had to come in, he’d throw it from the side and when he had to really throw it, he had a rifle arm. He had to be in his 40s. He got screwed out of a chance. He was a real nice, colorful guy, very terrific.”

During his career in baseball, Kropf played with and against some of the best players in baseball’s history. He was a roommate of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm (“fantastic!”), teammates with Luke Easter (“the bat looked like a corn of cob in his hand”), Roger Maris and Sam Hairston (grandfather of current Yankee Jerry Hairston Jr.). He squared off against such immortals as Satchel Paige, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford and Roberto Clemente in AAA and winter ball.

While Kropf never made it to the Major Leagues, he spent 11 seasons in Minor League Baseball — 1947-57 — five at the Triple-A level and two seasons in winter ball in Panama, where he made it to the highly regarded Caribbean Series.

Kropf thought he was closest to the Major Leagues while playing in AAA Charleston in 1953.

“I got knocked out of the box," he said. "I had a good year. I thought I was going to spring training next year. They used to call that a cup of coffee; I never got a shot at it.”

Kropf ultimately returned to Ridgewood and worked as a beer delivery truck driver. He moved to Florida in 2005. But even though his cup of coffee never came, Kropf said he would press the replay button if given a chance.

“When I think back down the line at it, I said, ‘I never made it to an all-star game, I’m not a base stealer, what am I? I could catch the ball and I could hit here and there,’” he said. “That’s what kept me around. I went a lot of places I never would have gone. When you were in your early 20s, it was a pleasure to travel. If I was married, I wouldn’t have lasted that long. I would do it over again — the guys you meet, you laugh yourself sick.”

This article originally ran in the Times-Ledger newspapers November 17, 2009.