Showing posts with label Interview. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interview. Show all posts

Friday, January 19, 2018

Baseball Happenings Podcast - The Other Boys of Summer Negro Leagues Documentary

Lauren Meyer, the executive producer and director of the upcoming Negro Leagues documentary, "The Other Boys of Summer," sat down with the Baseball Happenings podcast to explain a journey that has been over ten years in the making.

Meyer, an Emmy nominated director, began meeting with players in 2007, traveling all over the United States to interview the last surviving members of the Negro Leagues. She met with stars of the segregated league including Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, John "Mule" Miles, and Mamie "Peanut" Johnson (all of whom are now deceased), to find out how they persisted in the face of social injustice to play the game they love.

Minnie Minoso / The Other Boys of Summer
With the film 98% completed, Meyer launched a Kickstarter campaign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to raise the necessary funds to license rare footage and music that are critical to the completion of the project. In the first four days, Meyer has raised over $13,000 towards her goal, putting her in a position to finally be able to tell the stories of these players that she grew to love and cherish.

Baseball Happenings Podcast Interview with Lauren Meyer - 1/18/2018



To keep up with "The Other Boys of Summer," you can follow on social media via the following links:

Twitter - @NegroLeagueFilm
Instagram - @TheOtherBoysofSummer
Facebook - @TheOtherBoysofSummer

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.



Saturday, January 6, 2018

What did Wally Backman enjoy the most during his New York Mets career?

Wally Backman, the New York Mets second baseman during their 1986 World Series championship, explains in this video what he enjoyed the most about playing in New York City, including his memories of the spirit of his late teammate, Gary Carter.

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.”

Saturday, November 4, 2017

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

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

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

Al Richter / Author's Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pat Kelly recalls the Yankees 1995 post-season heroics

Former Yankees infielder Pat Kelly was in New York recently to help give an assist to the fundraising efforts for the Jason Krause Kick Cancer Scholarship, signing autographs along with his Yankee teammate David Cone at their annual community event. As soon Cone explained to Kelly his endearment for the people who are involved with the organization, he came right on board.

“Andrew Levy our agent discussed it with me,” Kelly said during an interview at the fundraiser. “I discussed it with David Cone who has been here several years and it was something that we all wanted to get involved with and come back to as well.”

Pat Kelly / Yankees
Kelly, who played seven of his nine big league seasons with the Yankees from 1991-1997, helped the Yankees transition from a team mired in mediocrity, to one that would rise to dominate the latter part of the 1990s. He credited the late Gene Michael for being the wise architect of the new Yankees dynasty.

“Stick was the ultimate Yankee utility guy,” he said. “Stick did everything from manage, to coach, to [serve as] general manager. He really put together the Core Four, all of those guys in the early 90s who eventually turned into those great teams that we all know today. … He was fair and honest – a true Yankee.”

While serving as the Yankees primary second baseman from 1992-1995, Kelly had the opportunity to mentor a nubile Derek Jeter. He recalled a spring training encounter with Jeter during his early career that caused him question if the Yankees did the right thing in giving Jeter such a large signing bonus.

“Derek was quite the young lanky skinny sorta guy,” he said “I remember they brought him in 1994 and I was my prime then. I remember myself, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and Mike Gallego sitting at second base and saying, ‘This kid’s never going to make it. They wasted $700,000 because he was just this lean kid.’”

After playing three seasons with Jeter, Kelly quickly changed his tune about their future captain. Taking a moment to reflect on Jeter’s Hall of Fame career, he surmised that he was just proud to be there to help instill the rich Yankee traditions in the young shortstop.

“The projection of the scouts to be able to predict that he was going to be the greatest Yankee that ever played was phenomenal,” he said. “His progression from the young Derek Jeter that we saw in Fort Lauderdale to what he is now is truly amazing. You give credit to Gene Michael; you give credit to us, because we taught him everything, all the stuff about how to be a Yankee. I take a lot of pride that I played with Derek and that a bit of whatever he turned into was because of the Yankee tradition.”

While the Yankees were giving Jeter his first taste of the big leagues in 1995, Kelly helped lead the Yankees to their first playoff appearance since 1981. While Kelly scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of Game Five of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, he is probably best remembered for being on base when Jim Leyritz hit his infamous walk-off home run in the 15th inning of Game Two to put the Yankees ahead 2-0 in the series.

“I just talked to Jim Leyritz about it yesterday,” he said. “It was all because of me I told him, because I walked and they thought I was going to steal. [Tim] Belcher is worried about me stealing, so he wasn’t worried about Jimmy, so it was all my doing. He hit that ball and it was raining. I remember just the feeling of getting goose bumps running around those bases knowing what we were doing. It was a long time since the Yankees had any success in the playoffs. The people just went nuts. What happened after that, you wouldn’t guess, right? The success we had all the way to those World Series after that, it was the start of something good. I was very proud to be a part of it and to get at least one World Series in 1996.”

Kelly battled injuries during the 1996 season, limiting him to only 13 games while the Yankees finally broke through to win the World Series. As exciting as it was for Kelly to be a part of that championship club, little did he imagine just two years later that he would be alongside Mark McGwire as he challenged Babe Ruth’s all-time single season home run record.

Signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, Kelly rekindled a long standing friendship with the famed slugger that started when he played alongside another of McGwire’s close friends, Mike Gallego. Kelly detailed how they spent a lot of time together away from the field that most baseball fans aren’t privy to.

“We were great friends before that,” he said. “It came through Mike Gallego. Mark used to come out to eat with us when Gallego played with the Yankees. After Gallego was traded, when Mark was in New York, I hung out with him; that was how the friendship evolved. We would go away with my wife and his girlfriend on holidays. We went to Africa the year before he broke the record. The year he broke the record, we went to Australia because I was living there.”

Being one of McGwire’s confidants on the 1998 Cardinals, Kelly was an eyewitness to the rock star treatment that McGwire received throughout the season. He said it was an unimaginable spectacle for a baseball player.

“Playing with him in 1998, it was like hanging out with Elvis or the Beatles; it was a flash mob all the time,” he said. “When we were in Milwaukee, there was nobody at the bar, just out for a quiet drink. Before you knew it there were 2,000 people there, just like that. It was crazy making history like that.

“As a spectacle, like playing in New York and winning the World Series, it was right up there because it was something you never saw before. He hit two on the last day and we were celebrating the night before and I knew how many [drinks] we had; I couldn’t even see straight, let alone do anything and he hit two home runs that day! It was just a magical season.”

Peeling back the curtain of his wild ride with McGwire in 1998, he recalled that McGwire was able to put on his game face every day, but not without enduring the pressure that came with the increasing media attention.

“Every day he worried about it; he worried about losing the home run race,” Kelly said. “He didn’t want to lose to Sammy Sosa. The stress that he was going through physically he didn’t show it like Roger Maris with his hair falling out, but the stress was there. Every day we were together and he did intimate to me that it was stressful for him. Tony LaRussa was the one who made him that comfortable. We had a pretty good team. We were all there for Mark; we were doing everything for him.”

Kelly capped his major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999 and quickly moved to Australia in 2000. He has since worked as an international scout for the Dodgers, helping their operations in the Pacific Rim. It was a career move that he made sure that he took care of before leaving the United States.

“I married an Australian girl, moved there in 2000, and stepped into scouting,” he said. “I set myself up before I left, as I knew the writing was on the wall. I talked to the Dodgers and I’ve been there 16-17 years now. They have a league down there that is good and they bring former players in and I see the kids that progressed, the American minor leaguers that get to the majors and the handful of Australians too. The biggest thing that I’ve seen is the Asian market booming, the Japanese players that get posted and signed. I helped to sign Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu for over $60 million.”

So who does Kelly think is the next big star that will come from Japan? He quickly singled out two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who is blessed with a 100-MPH fastball and a bat that carried him to over a .300 average for the Nippon Ham Fighters during the past two seasons in the Japan Pacific League. His success comes as little surprise to Kelly, who has watched Ohtani since he was in high school. The larger quandary Ohtani presents for MLB executives is how they can take advantage of both his powerful bat and pitching arm.

“I saw him as a 15-year old,” he said. “He can hit and pitch. He was 15, hitting and pitching! I told the guy I was working for that I didn’t know if he was a hitter or a pitcher because he’s that good at both. How do you deal with that as a general manager? He’s 0-4, but he pitched okay; how do you manage that when taking him out? It’s going to be a logistical nightmare dealing with it as a manger to deal with the Monday morning quarterbacking. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

Saturday, September 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Horace Mann grad Bader turns heads in his major league debut

First Harrison Bader's dream was just to get drafted. Once the St. Louis Cardinals made that a reality, he turned his laser-like focus on making the major leagues. In just two short years, Bader rode the elevator all the way from A-ball to the major leagues.

Harrison Bader / via Allison Rhoades / Peoria Chiefs

When Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler went down with a forearm injury, the club reached into their minor league system and gave Bader his long awaited call. Marking on Bader wasted little time putting his signature on his major league debut, helping St. Louis to a July 25, 2017 victory against the Colorado Rockies.

Leading off the 9th inning, Bader smoked a double off of Colorado's Jake McGee for his first major league hit. After moving to third on a sacrifice bunt, Bader sprinted home when Jedd Gyorko lofted a sacrifice fly to right field that was just deep enough to plate him for the winning run.

While Bader's mad dash to home plate may not hold the same place in Cardinals lore as Enos Slaughter's, his hustling style of play surely has the Hall of Famer smiling in the heavens. For those who knew him here in the New York City area, Bader's on-field spirit and skill came as no surprise.

Back in 2015, I spoke with Bader shortly after he was drafted for metroBASEBALL magazine in the article pictured below. It was obvious after a few minutes into our conversation, that he had a professional mindset that was rarely demonstrated by a player fresh out of college. Now that he had made the major leagues, rest assured that Bader will continue to work and grind because it is the only way he knows.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

How George Shuba inspired beyond his famous handshake with Jackie Robinson

George Shuba gave many congratulatory handshakes in his days as a major league ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his most famous one was captured during Jackie Robinson’s first game in the minor leagues on April 18, 1946. The hard-hitting outfielder who earned the nickname “Shotgun,” passed away at his home in Youngstown, Ohio on Monday. He was 89.

George Shuba / Topps

Shuba played seven seasons with Brooklyn, appearing in three World Series including their 1955 victory over the New York Yankees, but his most famous moment was immortalized in a national photograph of Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand after his first home run in the minor leagues. The moment was later dubbed, “A Handshake for the Century.”

Manager Clay Hopper, who had Shuba the year prior in Mobile, installed him into the third slot of the batting order right behind Robinson. Shuba’s ability to hit the ball to the right side of the infield influenced his manager’s decision for Robinson’s debut in Jersey City.

“He put me in the third slot which is a very important slot because I was a pull hitter,” Shuba told me during a 2008 interview in New Jersey. “If someone was on first base, I had the big hole. He knew I made contact, so that's why I was lucky to be in that slot.”

His place in the order set the stage for history when Robinson deposited the ball over the left-field wall in the third inning. As Robinson rounded the bases, Shuba waited to greet him with an outstretched hand.

“When Jackie hit his home run,” he said, “I came to home plate and shook his hand.”

Over sixty years later, Shuba put the event in its proper context. A friendly gesture that any teammate wouldn’t think twice about extending turned out to be a significant part of Robinson’s assimilation into the previously all-white professional leagues.

“I realize now it was actually a historical event,” he said. “Being fortunate to have Jackie, it didn't make any difference to me if he was black or Technicolor. As professional ballplayers, we are focused to beat the other team and if Jackie helps us to be the other team, he's with us 100%. Truth be said, he was the best ballplayer on the club.”

Shuba joined his good friend on the Dodgers in 1948, one season after Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. He served mostly as a reserve outfielder, playing behind Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, and Andy Pafko. He carved his niche as a pinch hitter, a role that paid dividends during the 1953 World Series against the New York Yankees when Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen sent him to pinch-hit against Allie Reynolds.

“We got behind a few runs,” he said. “So now Charlie Dressen decided to use me early with a couple of me on base. I was ready to pinch-hit; [I was] never nervous. When I went up to pinch hit, I felt the pitcher was in trouble, not me.

"When I stepped in the batter’s box, the shadows were in between me and the pitcher. It was all day ball; the ball would come out of the sun into the shade. I turned around to get some dirt on my hand and Yogi Berra said, 'Hey Shuba, it's kinda tough seeing up here, isn't it?’ I said, 'Don't bother me, Yogi, I've gotta get a base hit.’ Reynolds threw me a fastball on the outside corner with two strikes on me and I hit a line drive over the right-field fence 355 feet away.”

Roger Kahn featured Shuba in the epic “The Boys of Summer” which followed up with the post-playing careers of many seminal Brooklyn Dodgers. He was honored to be a part of Kahn’s historical work.

“He covered each one of us at our homes,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be on that book because I had my best year in 1952 when Roger came up. We were in our early 40s when he visited us and he saw some people that might have been having tragedies in their families. I was fortunate I had just recently married. It was more than about baseball.”

The man who Bill Bingham of the Mobile Press nicknamed “Shotgun” in 1945 for the sound of his wicked line drives, used his powerful hands for a different cause when he penned his 2007 autobiography, “My Memories as a Brooklyn Dodger” with Ohio author Greg Gulas. It was an effort that he initially intended to be an oral history of his career for his family keepsakes that blossomed into a fully fledged book.

“I started out writing for my family only,” he said. “A friend of mine Greg Gulas, I asked him to be the author. He was the Sports Information Director for Youngstown State and also wrote for the Vindicator. … It covers a vast spectrum of my career as a minor and major leaguer.”

Reflecting on a career that started after being signed by the Dodgers from a tryout camp in Youngstown in 1943, Shuba shared the following words of advice in 2008 hoping to inspire the younger generation to strive towards success both on and off the field.

“Competition is good for people,” he said. “If they succeed, it gives them confidence. After they’re playing days are over, it can help them make the transfer to the regular life. … I would tell the kids to dream. The saying is, 'Dreams plus dreams equals dreams. Dreams plus action equals success.’ I was fortunate that my dreams came true. I lived my dreams and I am forever grateful for that.”


* - This was originally published September 30, 2014 for Examiner.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, June 5, 2017

Teammates tout Jimmy Piersall's transcendental outfield abilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don't give a s—t,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Baseball Happenings Podcast: Rob Brown of Teambrown Apparel

Rob Brown, owner of Teambrown Apparel, maker of officially licensed clothing by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, sat down for the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss how they collaborated with the museum and the direction of their clothing line.




Sunday, May 28, 2017

Cy Buker, 93, a one season wonder for the Brooklyn Dodgers

Cyril “Cy” Buker, one of the long standing Brooklyn Dodger alums, passed away Tuesday October 11, 2011, at the Marshfield Care Center in Wisconsin. He was 93.
Cy Buker / Baseball-Almanac.com
Buker played professionally from 1940-1952, making it to the major leagues with Brooklyn in 1945. Buker was called to Brooklyn after having a standout 11-3 season in St. Paul in 1944. Eager to play in Brooklyn, his chances at the major leagues were temporarily dashed when he was drafted into World War II service.
“I wasn't there two days before I was in the Army,” Buker said in an interview with Jim Sargent. “The Army finally released me about May 15. I was in what they call the observation unit. I had asthma, and I was wheezing up a storm.”
While in Brooklyn, he compiled a 7-2 record with a 3.30 ERA in 42 appearances during the 1945 campaign. With that type of record, one would think Buker was a shoo-in for a spot on the club the following season. What followed was an intense set of contract negotiations with Branch Rickey that delayed Buker’s arrival to spring training in 1946.
After months of back and forth letters, Rickey offered Buker a $1,500 raise contingent on his ability to make the team. Resigning from his teaching job, Buker finally reported to spring training, albeit three weeks late. His prospects didn't look good.
"I could see that everyone was mad at me," Buker recalled. "Nobody would even talk to me. I was assigned to the 'B' squad immediately, without throwing a ball. It went that way throughout spring training and into the season. I sat on the bench. I never pitched one ball in 1946. They didn't want anyone to see me. I sat on the bench until the final hour of the last day before cut-down, and, you guessed it. I was optioned to Montreal.”
Going to Montreal, Buker found himself in the middle of history as Jackie Robinson was beginning baseball's integration. Robinson had just entered the minor leagues and was beginning to build his legend north of the border. Buker noted in a 2008 interview that some teammates were weary of his presence.
“There were many, especially those from the southern United States who were very skeptical," he said. "They didn’t think it would work. They were mistaken and after several months, [they] accepted him.
Buker developed a relationship with Robinson, so much that he was offered to travel with him after the end of the season.

“We got along well. In fact, he wanted me to join his barnstorming team after the season,” he said. Unfortunately for him, a home plate collision prevented him from joining Robinson. “I didn’t go because I wasn’t recovered from my injury.”
This injury would plague him for the rest of his career and Buker would continue to moonlight between his love for teaching and playing baseball, joining most clubs after the school year was finished and leaving once football started. He continued in this fashion until 1952, leaving pitching behind to fully focus on teaching and coaching. His prowess in the school system as a coach would see him inducted in to the Wisconsin Baseball and Football Coaches Associations' Halls of Fame.
After retiring from teaching in 1970, he started his own body repair and painting business in Greenwood, which he operated until he was 88 years old. With Buker's passing, that leaves 44 living former Brooklyn Dodgers.

* This article was originally published for Examiner.com October 15, 2011.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bob 'Sarge' Kuzava, 93, saved consecutive World Series deciding games for the Yankees

Bob Kuzava, a three-time World Series champion with the New York Yankees in the 1950s, passed away May 15, 2017 in Wyandotte, Michigan at the age of 93. He pitched for 10 seasons in the major leagues with a 49-44 record in 213 appearances.

Kuzava signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1941 out of St. Patrick High School in Wyandotte and only eighteen months later, he was shipped out of the country to serve in the Army during World War II. He put his baseball career on hold for three years to fulfill his military duties.

“[I spent] three years in the Army,” Kuzava said during a 2008 telephone interview from his home in Wyandotte. “I was a sergeant; I spent two years overseas in Burma, India, and China. I came out as a buck sergeant. It was so hot in Burma and India. I played a little recreation softball, but no baseball.

“I was fortunate; I saw a little bit, but no heavy action in Burma. I felt sorry for the guys. There wasn't much going on, except in Burma when they had Merill's Marauders fighting the Japanese. Those guys had to do everything with mules in the jungle because it was the only way you could carry stuff and travel. I didn't get into any action, I was just glad to survive.”

Bob Kuzava signed photo / N. Diunte

Returning unscathed from the Army, “Sarge” had a banner year for Wilkes Barre in 1946, going 14-6 with a 2.36 ERA. His spectacular performance earned him a September call-up at the end of the season. Determined to return to the majors after getting a taste of the big league life, 1947 played out in similar fashion that finished with a cup of coffee for Cleveland. Only this time, one of his rookie teammates was helping to integrate Major League Baseball.

“Larry Doby was a terrific ballplayer and well educated gentleman,” he said. “When he first came up, I was a rookie too. He played center field for us and was a very good major league player.”

The Indians traded Kuzava to the Chicago White Sox to start the 1949 season. Given the opportunity to pitch regularly, he posted a 10-6 record and finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Just as quickly as he was acquired by the White Sox due to the wheeling and dealing of Frank “Trader” Lane, Kuzava was sent to the Washington Senators in 1950 in a six-player trade for slugging first baseman Eddie Robinson.

While his time in Washington wasn't one of pennant contention, his first season in the nation's capital provided one of the most memorable moments of his career. Sporting a lifetime .086 batting average, Kuzava’s lack of prowess at the plate was a prima facie case for the establishment of the designated hitter. While no baseball fan would ever get him confused at the plate for his legendary teammates Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle; however, almost sixty years later, he was proud to tell the story of his only major league home run.

“There was a guy named Bob Hooper who [pitched] for the Philadelphia A's,” he recalled. “We were in Washington and I hit a ball to left field, Paul Lanier came in to make a shoestring catch and the ball rolled all the way to the fence which was about 400 feet away. It was an inside the park home run; I didn't have the power to hit the ball over the fence in Washington.”

While playing for the cellar dwelling Senators was one of the less glamorous major league jobs, a mid-season 1951 trade with the New York Yankees put him on the elevator straight to the top of the American League. Immediately, the difference in the clubhouse atmosphere was obvious.

“We had a guy one day who didn't run too hard to first,” he recalled. “We had an ex-Marine, Hank Bauer on our club. He waited for him. He asked, ‘Are you tired?’ The guy looked at him and said, ‘Well, no.’ Hank asked, ‘Well why don't you run hard to first? We're trying to make a couple bucks, get in the World Series.’ Hank said to the guy, ‘If you are tired, tell the old man, and we'll get somebody in there who wants to hustle.’ That's how it was; we took care of our own.”

The prevailing intense attitude that Bauer reinforced helped to send Kuzava and the Yankees to the 1951 World Series, the first of their three consecutive World Series championships. Serving as a reliever in all three Fall Classics, he made history of his own when he earned a save in the deciding games of both the 1951 and 1952 World Series.

“I am the only guy to have a save in the World Series back to back [in the deciding games on consecutive World Series],” he said. “It's quite an honor. To have a save in back to back World Series, I don't know if it will ever be done again.”

After defeating the New York Giants in 1951, the Subway Series continued in 1952 and 1953, when the Yankees squared off against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kuzava recalls that there was very little separating the two clubs at the time.

“We played against the Brooklyn Dodgers in ’52 and ’53. Both teams had Hall of Famers in the future; they had 5-6 guys that became Hall of Famers and so did we. There wasn't much difference between the clubs; the teams that got a break during the series won. We just maybe got a few more breaks than they did.” With all of the talent that Brooklyn had, Kuzava was most impressed by Jackie Robinson, not only for what he did on the field, but also for a humble gesture he made in defeat. After losing the 1952 World Series, Robinson was the first to go to the Yankees clubhouse and give them their due.

“We beat them in Brooklyn and I had the save that day,” he said. “Robinson came over to our clubhouse and congratulated us. That's what kind of man he was. He was a tough guy. He held it back, but he showed it on the playing field.”

Winning three World Series rings with the Yankees cemented his role as a key bullpen member during their dominant run in the early 1950s. As the Yankees cultivated young talent from their rich farm system, Kuzava was let go by the team in 1954 and he latched on with the Baltimore Orioles for the remainder of the season.

He pitched in the major leagues through 1957 with stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. As he approached his mid 30s, changing teams so frequently made it difficult to build enough of a rapport with the managers to get on the mound consistently.

“I was getting up there in age,” he said. “I had a few cups of coffee. In Philly I enjoyed the guys, but I didn't pitch much. A lot of times when you go to different ball clubs, the managers don't know you too well and you sit around too long.”

He toiled in the minor leagues until 1960 when he finished up his career as a player-manager for the Charleston White Sox in the South Atlantic League. He went face-to-face with the ugly head of Jim Crow as the progress that Robinson and Doby worked to make was far from finished. He recruited Negro League veteran Sam Hairston to help him mentor the young players and help them deal with the racism they faced in the South.

“I managed one year for Bill Veeck in Charleston, and I had two guys who were colored,” he said. “This was 1960; one was Oillie Brantley, the other was Jim Lynn. [Sam] Hairston came down to help me in the summer; he was an old catcher with the White Sox, a great guy. Even then, I'd get phone calls from people threatening that if those guys played, they were going to do this or that. It was terrible. I'm talking 1960! We had Cubans whose skin was darker than the blacks and they could live with us in the hotels. The blacks couldn't and those were the guys who went to war for us along with me and the other guys.”

After his playing and coaching days were over, he scouted for a decade. While he enjoyed being around the game, the grind of scouting combined with the low pay proved to be too much of a strain on his family. He returned home to Wyandotte to get a job in the beer industry.

“I scouted for 10 years,” he said. “I worked for John McHale and Charlie Finley. It got to be too much traveling and there was no money in scouting. My wife had to do most of the work. I got a job back in my hometown and retired from the beer business.”

When we spoke in 2008, the then 85-year-old Kuzava felt it was easy for old-timers like him to get lost by baseball fans with the abundance of players that followed in his footsteps. Nonetheless, he was happy to be recognized and wasn’t shy about addressing the vastly improved conditions that major leaguers currently enjoyed.

“A lot of people don't remember you anymore because of expansion,” he said. “There are 30 ball clubs now; it’s easy to forget people. We only had eight teams in each league. Our meal money was eight dollars per day and we traveled by train.

“They get $100 per day now and buffets in the clubhouse. They get bereavement days for babies being born. [They play] no doubleheaders! We played doubleheaders almost every weekend and holidays! We did it and we enjoyed it. That's the union and the way it is now. My wife had five babies and I couldn't get home to see any of them. I applaud the union for giving them these things. It was different when I played.”

Kuzava was among the early members of the MLBPA and quickly acknowledged the value of the pension he had from playing baseball. He wished that modern players would honor Curt Flood for the sacrifices he made that led to the tremendous salaries they’re earning.

“We get a nice pension,” he said. “It came into effect in 1947. You could have played 20 years before 1947, retired and got nothing. I went to the big leagues to stay in 1947. I was lucky; I just got in there when the plan started. When I started getting my pension, it was a few hundred dollars a month, now it is a lot more than that.

“They're making so much today because of the rules. When I broke in, you belonged to a club for life; you had no say in the thing. Curt Flood started the ball rolling when guys could make more money and become free agents. They blackballed him because he stepped up and started complaining. In St. Louis, they wanted to trade him and he didn't want to go. These guys today ought to thank the lord for him because now a lot of them are millionaires.”

Go to the two hour and 15 minute mark to see Kuzava pitch in the deciding game of the 1952 World Series.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Martin Dihigo is remembered as a 'God' by one Cuban ballplayer

Martin Dihigo is widely regarded as one of the most talented and versatile players in the Hall of Fame. Whether he was on the mound, in the field, or at the plate, Dihigo stood out among the mere mortals that played alongside him.


Cholly Naranjo, a star pitcher for Cuba's Alemendares ball club in the 1950s who later made the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956, had a special connection with Dihigo. Naranjo is the nephew of Ramon Couto, DiHigo's catcher both in Cuba and with the Cuban Stars of the Negro Leagues.

The now 82-year-old Naranjo is one of a handful of players alive that saw Dihigo up close and personal. Speaking with Naranjo in May 2017, he explained what it was like to have contact with "El Inmortal," at an early age.

"Man you should have seen that guy, he looked like a God!" Naranjo said.

In the rest of the interview, which is linked below, Naranjo discusses watching Dihigo play as a youngster and how he was a top line player as both a pitcher and a batter. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mark Melancon meets Giants fans at the site of the Polo Grounds

Mark Melancon, closer for the San Francisco Giants, recently visited the site of the former Polo Grounds in New York. He met with members of the New York Giants Preservation Society to learn more about the history of the franchise.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Luis Olmo recounts facing Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico

Luis Olmo, a pioneering Puerto Rican in the major leagues, passed away April 28, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 97.

The fabulous outfielder became only the second Puerto Rican in the major leagues when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. His entry followed the lead of Hiram Bithorn, who made history with the Chicago Cubs a year prior in 1942.

Luis Olmo signed photo / N. Diunte
Adrian Burgos of La Vida Baseball expertly documented Olmo's career in the wake of his passing, citing Olmo's influence on generations of Puerto Rican baseball players. His professional career started in the 1930s, leaving him as one of a small handful of peloteros at the time of his death that could document the pre-WWII era of the sport.

Acknowledging Olmo's place alongside those who opened the door for integration, I wrote to him in 2008 asking about the Negro League legends he encountered playing in Puerto Rico. While his answers were brief, they spoke volumes.

The then 89-year-old Olmo gave his insights on three Hall of Famers: Ray Dandridge, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson. A copy of the letter is included below, as is a transcript of the questions and his answers.

Q - "Where does Ray Dandridge rank when you think of 3rd baseman?
Luis Olmo - "One of the best I ever seen."

Q - What do you think kept the Giants from calling him to the Major League team?
Olmo - "Racism."

Q - What are your memories of facing Satchel Paige in his prime while in Puerto Rico during the late 1930s and early 1940s?
Olmo - "A great pitcher."

Q- What are your favorite memories of playing with and against Josh Gibson in Puerto Rico? 
Olmo - "Gibson was able to hit 100 home runs in a season."  

Luis Olmo letter to the author in 2008 / N. Diunte


Saturday, April 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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