Showing posts with label Jackie Robinson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jackie Robinson. Show all posts

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Clyde King recalls a mound visit from Fidel Castro

On April 20, 1960, Rochester Red Wings manager and former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Clyde King stood inches away from Fidel Castro as he threw out the first pitch of the International League season. Some fifty-six years after their encounter, the Cuban leader passed away November 25, 2016 at the age of 90. Little did King know at the time that the man he once squared off in an exhibition game would become one of the vilest dictators in modern history.

Fidel Castro (l.) throws out the opening day pitch in 1960 as Clyde King (r.) watches
“I think it was 1960 when I got to meet Castro,” King said from his North Carolina home in 2008. “We opened the season there and Castro threw out the first ball. We didn't know he was a bad guy at the time. We went out the mound and he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ I said, “Yes, I remember you.’ He said, ‘I'm Fidel Castro, do you remember going to the University of Havana one Sunday afternoon?’”

King quickly harked back to an exhibition the Dodgers played in Havana during 1947 while Branch Rickey was preparing Jackie Robinson to join the big league club. Castro proudly reminded the Red Wings manager that he suited up against the Dodgers squad that day.

“When the Dodgers were training, one club stayed in Havana and the other went to the University so we could get more players in action,” King recalled. “Castro said, ‘Do you remember who you pitched against?’ I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Me!’ I asked him if he remembered the score, he said he didn’t. You know what the score was? 15-1!”

King acknowledged Castro’s support of baseball as Cuba’s flagship sport and his failed attempts to play professionally; however, whatever affection Castro had for the sport was overshadowed by the terror of his reign.

“We found out later he wasn't such a good guy,” King said. “He was terrific baseball guy. He tried to work out for a pro team but he couldn't do it. We sort of wore him out that day.”

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wayne Terwilliger details the hazards of The Battle of Saipan

Wayne Terwilliger spent over 60 years in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager. He was teammates with Jackie Robinson, a close friend of Ted Williams, and won two World Series championships as a coach with the Minnesota Twins; however, the crowning moment of the 91-year-old’s career on this Veterans Day remains his time as a Marine in World War II.

“I’m more proud of my Marine service than of anything else I’ve done before or since,” Terwilliger said in his 2006 autobiography, Terwilliger Bunts One.

Wayne Terwilliger (circled) of Company D of the 2nd Armored Amphibian Battalion at the Battle of Saipan in World War II. / US Coast Guard

One of a rapidly declining number of living World War II veterans, Terwilliger has fortunately left behind vivid details of the harsh realities of war in his memoirs. One of the first to enter the Battle of Saipan, he recounted his feelings some 70 years ago from the morning of June 15, 1944, as he anxiously sat in his amphibious tank awaiting entry into the water.

“The nose of our tank dipped down into the ocean, and for just as second my heart skipped a beat,” he said, “but the pontooned sides of the tank did the trick and we bobbed up like a huge cork.”

The tone quickly changed as soon as they approached the reef; this was no game of friendly fire, the Japanese wanted their death. Their landing would signify the beginning of one of the most hazardous days of Terwilliger’s young life.

“As soon as we got over the reef,” he said, “we were in range of the Japanese, and they started shooting. I started seeing these puffs of water all around us, and it took a second to realize what was causing them. Then we heard small arms fire hitting our tank, and the reality sank in: There were people on that island who wanted us dead.”

His crew was one of the few fortunate ones not to have their tank destroyed by enemy fire. They endured attacks all the way until they reached land. It didn’t get any better once their tank bogged down in the sand and they had to disembark.

“Japanese mortars kept whistling over our heads,” he said. “Most of them were headed toward the beach area, but we never knew when one would come our way. We also had no idea how long we’d be stuck there. We were there at least a couple of hours, though it seemed like forever.”

Stuck in a foxhole, they heard the sound of an unfamiliar tank, one they quickly realized was of the Japanese forces. Spending only a short time in action, he wondered if he was going to meet his demise.

“The tank kept moving closer to us until we could see the 37-mm turret gun and the big red “Rising Sun” on the side of the tank. … The tank stopped just short of our hole and I wondered, ‘What do we do now?’”

From their position in the fox hole, his infantry each took out their grenades and aimed them at the tank. A cloud of smoke ensued and they ran out onto the beach looking for cover.

“I ran until I came to an old Japanese artillery piece, and I thought, ‘S—t, this is the wrong way,’ so I turned and found a little path, and somehow this time I was going the right way, toward the beach. Then I looked back and there was the Jap tank coming after me. … I started zigzagging back and forth in case the tank tried to shoot at me, still running as fast I could. Guys on the beach were waving me in, yelling, ‘Come on, come on!’ I made it to the beach and dove over a small sand dune for cover, and I looked back just in time to see one of our tanks made a direct hit, which knocked the Japanese tank on its side. … That was my first six or seven hours of combat.”

Terwilliger’s story about his first day of combat is a riveting tale of World War II military action that has often been kept a secret by those who have experienced it, a memory too painful to relive. His book remains as an example of our baseball heroes having their careers preempted or interrupted to face death directly in the eyes, and then return home to compete for their jobs once again – a reality our current major leaguers will never again have to experience.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: 'Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer'

At age 90, Ransom Jackson still considers his entry into the major leagues an accident; however, after reading his new book, “Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer," (2016, Rowman & Littlefield) one will discover that there was no error in Jackson carving a 10-year career that included selections to two All-Star games and a World Series appearance.

Accidental Big Leaguer / Ransom Jackson and Gaylon H. White
Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jackson pursed golf and track as high school did not field a football team. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Texas Christian University during World War II where he was urged onto the football team by legendary coach “Dutch” Meyer due to a shortage of male students that his athleticism came to the forefront. Jackson immediately became a star running back on the gridiron despite having no formal playing experience. Seeking to double down on his investment, Meyer recruited Jackson for his baseball nine. Relying on his natural abilities, Jackson excelled on the diamond, batting .500 his freshman year. Quickly, a star was born.

Partnering with journalist Gaylon H. White, Jackson recreates a landscape of major league baseball that has long escaped with witty anecdotes and never-before seen photos from Jackson’s personal collection. The stunning images provide a sense of intimacy from a time in baseball’s history that was far removed from the reaches of social media, where players could maintain a sense of privacy while still being accessible to the fans.

The humble third baseman tells his narrative from a reflective position, at times in amazement of his own experiences and accomplishments. His ability to clearly recall detailed stories of how he played in college with Bobby Layne, to playing for Ty Cobb on a semi-pro team, as well as how he handled competing with Jackie Robinson for the third base position with the Brooklyn Dodgers, give his words the proper momentum to seamlessly roll one story right into the next.

As one of the few living Brooklyn Dodgers alumni, Jackson has preserved a great deal of history by putting together his memoirs. Fifty-five years after Jackson took his final major league at-bat, he courageously put himself back in the lineup at the age of 90, showing that a big leaguer never truly loses his feel for the game no matter how long he has stepped away from the spotlight.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Havana Hardball podcast with author Cesar Brioso

A wonderful podcast discussion with author Cesar Brioso at the legendary Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan regarding his new book, "Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League," which is about the Brooklyn Dodgers 1947 spring training in Havana, Cuba and all of the variables surrounding the weeks leading up to Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Dan Bankhead's MLB debut nearly incited a riot

The pitching mound in Ebbets Field shouldn’t have been a source of angst for Dan Bankhead when Brooklyn Dodgers manager Burt Shotton summoned him from the bullpen on August 26, 1947. The righty hurler had been playing professionally in the Negro Leagues since 1940, had four other brothers who played in the league, and served as a Montford Point Marine during World War II. Yet despite all of the formidable opponents he faced, it was the possibility of a race riot that he feared most if something went wrong on the hill that day.
Bankhead signs autographs before his 8/26/47 debut

“See, here’s what I always heard. Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch,” Buck O’Neil said in Joe Posnanski’s, ‘The Soul of Baseball.’ “He thought there might be some sort of riot if he did it. Dan was from Alabama just like your father. But Satchel became a man of the world. Dan was always from Alabama, you know what I mean? He heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”

Bankhead's famous windup
Bankhead made history as the first African-American pitcher in major league history on that day in 1947, following his teammate Jackie Robinson in the record books who had broken baseball’s color barrier earlier that season. Pitching in relief of Hal Gregg who gave up six runs and only lasted one inning, Bankhead didn’t fare much better against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He was charged with eight runs in three-and-a-third innings, ending the day with a 21.60 ERA. To his credit Bankhead homered in his only at-bat, but what was almost prophetic was an incident that occurred in the top of the fourth inning.

Bankhead's first MLB home run

With the Pirates leading 8-2 with two outs, outfielder Wally Westlake approached the plate. Like Bankhead, Westlake was a 26-year-old rookie and World War II veteran trying to find his place in the game. Westlake hit a home run earlier in the game and looked to add another to his totals. Bankhead wound up and fired off one of his patented fastballs for the first pitch of the at-bat, but as it left his hand, his worst nightmare unraveled before his eyes.

He hit Westlake squarely in the upper arm.

“It was like the fans held their breath waiting for the reaction,” the now 94-year-old Westlake wrote in a 2008 letter. “He was just another dude trying to get me out and I was trying to whack his butt.”

The first game an African-American man pitched in the majors and he hit a white batter. The crowd waited for Westlake’s next move. Was the pitch retaliation for his home run earlier in the game? A split second decision by Westlake to charge the mound or take his walk down to first base would have a significant impact the fate of African-American pitchers in the majors. Fortunately, Westlake chose the latter, with little regard to what the fans expected him to do.

“I think I disappointed the rednecks,” he said.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Jean-Pierre Roy, former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and master storyteller dies at 94

Often a major league baseball player’s statistics do not even come close to telling their baseball career in its entirety. Looking at Jean-Pierre Roy's three major league appearances and 9.95 ERA, one might assume it was a career short on depth and substance. Those who passed over his career as a mere cup of coffee missed a truly fabulous journey. The Montreal native died Friday at a hospital in Pompano Beach, Florida, taking his fabulous stories of playing all throughout North America, Central America, and the Caribbean with him. He was 94.

Jean-Pierre Roy w/ Nicholas Diunte in 2011 - M. Lemieux
In February 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Mr. Roy at his home in Florida and spend a glorious afternoon discussing a baseball career that started in 1940 and lasted over 40 years. Knowing that he played in a variety of countries like Cuba, Mexico, and Panama, in addition to the United States and Canada, I expected that he had a few hidden gems to unravel. What I did not expect from the 91-year-old Roy, was a raconteur in the essence of Buck O’Neil; a man who could deliver his memories not only with clarity and precision but with an elegance that drew you in from the first words and left you feeling that you had been long lost friends.

A short meeting arranged by a Canadian reporter Michel Lemieux turned into a three-hour long history lesson, with Roy pulling out meticulous scrapbooks along the way. He evoked the names of baseball legends from the 1930s through the 1950s, coming up with a story or an encounter for virtually every significant baseball figure from that era.

I could regale you with details of his minor league triumphs, a map of all of the places he played, or a list of all of the superstars he befriended; however, telling those details wouldn’t do justice to the essence of Jean-Pierre Roy. To meet him was to know him, and I can’t say that about every ballplayer I’ve interviewed. He immediately expressed an excitement about his career from the start of our talk, most evident from his recall of what hooked him into the prospects of a professional career.

Jean-Pierre Roy shares a laugh - M. Lemieux
“The reason why I enjoyed playing ball and going away from the city of Montreal to travel—I got to learn part of the language,” Roy said during our 2011 interview. “You meet all kinds of people, you do all kinds of things that you shouldn’t be doing. I tried them all! I met people that I wouldn’t dare associate with if I were a ballplayer today. I was so happy to play the game; I loved the game. I put things aside for baseball. Of course, today, I regret some of them. I missed the opportunity in certain other fields. That’s what I had in mind, play the game, travel and meet people and everything, so that satisfied me.”

Playing in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, one of the most eccentric characters Roy met was Branch Rickey. Throughout his many dealings with Mr. Rickey, he was most impressed with the executive's ability to read people.

“He was a very intelligent man,” he said. “He was a university product. He had been a teacher, manager, and player. He had a good knowledge of humanity. A human for Mr. Rickey could have been a ballplayer, hockey player, a raconteur; he knew each one and why they would make an excellent selection.”

Roy had the reputation of being a ladies' man, which didn't sit well with Mr. Rickey. He fondly recalled an exchange between the two of them where Rickey offered him a bonus if he would get married. It wasn’t until much later that he understood why Rickey made the request.

“One time he wanted me to get married,” he said. “It was 1944. I wasn’t the marrying type. I wanted to meet girls, yes I did. That wasn’t on my mind. He said, ‘Jean (with his eyebrows going down this way and his cigar in the corner), I’m going to give you $2,000 if you get married before or on the first of November.’ Before or on the first of November, why not the second or the fourth? That boggled my mind. Of course, I didn’t get married. I didn’t tell him why.”

Branch Rickey's insistence to marry before the first of the month weighed heavily on his conscience. Roy chose to remain single but felt compelled to inquire as to why Rickey gave him a deadline.

“Why did he say this, on the first or before,” Roy asked. “He wanted me to get married before. It wasn’t the $2,000. He knew if I did, I’d get paid after, not before. Mr. Rickey was very selective in his own way. This is very vivid in my mind. Later on, I had the audacity to ask him, ‘Why did you say the first?’ He said, ‘What do you mean Jean? What did I say?’ So I told him, ‘You wanted me to get married on the first of November. Why the first?’ He said, ‘If I said, about the first, that wouldn’t change anything, because I wanted you to get married. That was the first thing, not to play ball, but to play better ball, to understand the game better and yourself. You cannot play well when you have several things on your mind at once, and you have that. You were not the ballplayer that I wanted. You had the ability that I wanted, but you had to do so much more to make yourself available not only to me but to other people.’ That was Mr. Rickey.”
If he adhered to Rickey's request to get married, he might have gone to the big leagues sooner than his 1946 debut. He started the season on Brooklyn’s roster, but it was almost a month before he saw action in a major league game. Even though he only appeared in three contests, he viewed it as an honor just to be there.

“It was thrilling,” he said. “My big fault … if I had established myself as a human being, if I listened to things I heard and Mr. Rickey, I could have done much better than I did. Not only for one particular game but for several games.”

Soured by his performance with Brooklyn and Leo Durocher’s seemingly quick hook, Roy contemplated going south for greater riches. Jorge Pasquel, who knew Roy from his days in Cuba, attempted to lure the Canadian to Mexico for his fledgling baseball league.

“I did not go,” he said. “[Pasquel] was a friend of mine because he used to come to Cuba. If it pleased him, he’d take us out to eat together and give me a watch. I was close to him. He comes to New York and tells me, ‘I’m going to bring you to Mexico City. You are going to play for our club and our league. I’m going to send you the money.’ He offered $3,500 for the trip. I went down and the money was $15,000, big money at the time. I was not worth $15,000 as a pitcher in Mexico. Today I say I wasn’t, but at the time it touched me.”

Roy followed the money, hoping to earn his riches in front of the Mexico City crowds. Once he set foot on Mexican soil, he discovered that Pasquel had a different destination in mind.
“He was a friend,” he said. “Of course, I needed the money. My mother was not well and I had my mother on my mind. I jumped and as soon as I got to Mexico, I went to Jorge and said, ‘Jorge, I do not see anybody.’ He’s sitting on a bench facing the window. He says, ‘I send you to San Luis Potosi.’ That was a little city he was sending me to. At the time, the commissioner of baseball in Cuba was a guy named Pittman. He told me I was going there. That’s not what I wanted; I thought it was Mexico City. I came back and went to Montreal.”

He returned to the Montreal right in the middle of Jackie Robinson’s historic debut season. On April 18, 1946, Robinson broke the color line in the minor leagues when he played in Montreal’s season opener against the Jersey City Giants. Roy spent the rest of the season with him and built together a kinship that lasted the remainder of his time in the Dodgers organization. This relationship allowed him to gain insight into Robinson’s character both on and off the field.

“He’s everything that has been recommended,” he said, “a complete ballplayer. [He was] a fellow who can create according to his ability and put it together at the right time to help somehow. That’s something that I remember about him … Jackie used to do it on his own. He was so strong, mentally, that I still believe, he died from this—he got hurt so badly by not being recognized as a future manager. He wanted to be a manager; that he told me.”

Throughout his global baseball travels, Roy had many opportunities to play against the stars of the Negro Leagues in their prime. He shared vivid stories about all of the greats who were held back and excluded due to segregation. What he admired most was their ability to play the game despite the harsh conditions they faced.

“They didn’t care,” he said. “They played the game and that was it. I spoke with them very often. They would say, ‘We’re playing the game. We get paid for it because we’ve got to eat. Take this apart, it doesn’t matter. We want to play.’”

Roy never returned to the major leagues, bouncing around minor league teams everywhere in places like Ottawa, Hollywood, and Mexico City. He hung his spikes up for good in 1955 while playing for Sherbrooke in the Provincial League. At 35, he knew it was time to move on.

“I was too old for that organization,” he said. “I didn’t care too much for it because when you are through, you are through.”

Jean-Pierre Roy comfortable behind the microphone - M. Lemieux
However, he didn’t stay removed for too long, as Montreal Expos executive John McHale selected Roy to do radio and television analysis when the franchise started in 1969. He remained involved as part of their broadcast team until 1983.

“I was there from day one,” he said. “This is it in Montreal. This is a childish dream. I played in Montreal; I knew they would accept it. In that ballpark, that Double-A ballpark. Mr. John McHale, I owe him a great deal of recognizance. He was the type like Branch Rickey, but there is only one Branch Rickey as far as I am concerned.”

Broadcasting in an era far away from the reach of the hypersensitive media outlets of today, Roy said that the on-air personnel face far greater challenges with what they can say and how the fans interpret their words.

“They’ve gotta be very careful because you have many writers who are knowledgeable and they have friends,” he said. “Today’s sports are so influential on people. It is a big business to start with. Big business means big dollars, and when you have big dollars, you have everything else that is big or will become big. You’ve gotta be careful how you say your ideas whenever it comes up.

“That doesn’t mean being transparent doesn’t mean having to say the truth; you have to be careful. You have to say the truth in a certain way. It’s said in a business way. At the same time, you have to communicate to who is listening to you. You have to communicate honestly and show you have the knowledge. Having all this is a plus and a minus. You know, they used to say ‘off the cover,’ but that doesn’t exist anymore. … Everything is seen by the listener as a truthful communication. It might not be complete as the communication is concerned. You cannot say everything that is on your mind to millions of people at once. This is something very fascinating to me.”

As our interview progressed during that sunny Florida winter afternoon in 2011, Roy assumed the role of a broadcaster during a rain delay, detailing his vast baseball experiences with tremendous pride. I listened with wide ears as he professed his love affair with the game.

“My pleasure and the best memory I have of the game is what I know about it,” he said. “The little I know about it, the people I have known, and the people I see on television. Today it’s baseball to me.

“It’s the answer I would have given you yesterday and the day before yesterday. What I like about baseball is not the players; it’s the life, the life of a human being. This is how you should accept it. Do the best you can in the things our boss has asked us to do. By boss, you can call it God, the manager, the Lord, but that’s it. This is what I want, what I like to see.”

At the end of our conversation, we thumbed through scrapbooks of sixty-year-old photos that depicted the travels of a young handsome pitcher. As we reviewed the images, Roy expressed contrition for the transgressions of his earlier days.

“Why should I go back 50 years and regret things that happened at that time?” he asked. “I made mistakes in baseball, made more mistakes than I was allowed to. That was my choice; let it be, it’s my fault. That’s the part I have to read to the public. If they want to know the rest, they can. If they like me now for what I can express as far as the game myself, I hope they accept it.

“Baseball is a great game. If we can take advantage of all of the ingredients of the game and the minds that commanded the game for years like Mr. Rickey. … He is the God of baseball as far as I’m concerned. There are so many names took birth with that gentlemen. [By] birth, I say the first day they played the game was an account of Mr. Rickey. That’s a gift from him.”

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Don Newcombe helped to open the door for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While celebrating the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, I would like to highlight the contributions of one Brooklyn Dodger who had a major part in turning the wheels of the civil rights movement.

1956 Topps Don Newcombe / Topps

Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe was one of the earlier black players signed by a major league team, quickly following Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright into the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946.

Paired with future Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella at Class B Nashua, they became the first black players in the New England League. Newcombe's breaking of the color line in the New England League was one of many "firsts" in his career. In addition to being one of a handful of blacks in the majors when he made his 1949 debut, he was baseball's first Cy Young Award Winner, winning both the MVP and Cy Young Award in 1956. He was the first player in baseball to be a Rookie of the Year winner that captured the aforementioned dual honors in the same season.

Newcombe is the last living link to the early African-American Brooklyn Dodger players that endured vicious racial taunts, Jim Crow segregation, and the weight of the entire black community during their quest to play baseball on the sport's brightest stage.

Twenty-years prior to Dr. King's assassination, Newcombe and company were laying the groundwork for the civil rights movement. The camaraderie displayed on the field throughout the entire Brooklyn Dodger ball club, crossed  racial boundaries to achieve greatness in America's national pastime. These pioneers planted the necessary images for our country to begin to advance race relations.

Some 28 days before Dr. King was assassinated, he visited Newcombe in Los Angeles. King was in the midst of an exhausting tour of speech-making and sought the company of the Dodger great. In a 2009 interview with the New York Post, Newcombe relayed Dr. King's epic words.

"Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field."

Let these words marinate as an example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s character as he is honored on this monumental day.

Video - Don Newcome at the 2012 BBWAA Dinner

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Honoring the tremendous character of Don Lund

I made my first contact with Don Lund via telephone late in 2007 when I started my research to find out what the experience was for the major league players who debuted as the color line was slowly eroding.

He shared his stories of being signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers only a few weeks before Jackie Robinson, and how both of them were offered positions on the major league club on the same day in 1947. We talked about his travels through a variety of major league organization, and his long standing career at the University of Michigan as a three-sport athlete, coach, and later assistant athletic director.

Don Lund with the author in 2008
His bird's eye view at Michigan of the budding talents of Bill Freehan, Barry Larkin, and Jim Abbott all rolled off his tongue as he beamed with pride describing his favorite stories of each player. He glowingly spoke about his 1962 National Championship team and the influence that Ray Fisher had on his career. He had energy to continue telling stories, not about himself, but the many people he met along the way. Our conversations routinely lasted an hour or more.

Earlier this week, I sadly received the news that Lund passed away last week at the age of 90 at an assisted living facility in Ann Arbor. The mention of his death immediately brought back memories of our 2008 meeting in New Jersey.

Knowing that he would be coming to the local area for what was most likely to be the final Brooklyn Dodgers reunion, we made plans to meet at the show and spend some time together. My only picture of Lund was what was on his baseball cards, so it was difficult for me to imagine what I was going to encounter. Time works differently on our baseball heroes, and Lund was 55 years removed from the portrait on his 1953 Topps card.

I walked up to the room, and there was Lund, holding onto a walker, partially stooped forward, smiling as we finally made our acquaintance in person. It was hard for me to envision him as the square shouldered running back that garnered a first-round draft choice from the Chicago Bears, but his grip was still incredibly firm as he reached out to shake my hand.

Within minutes of our meeting, Don made me feel like we were old pals from yesteryear. He introduced me to all of his old teammates as his friend. I watched as he signed away at all of the items the promoters put in front of him, and then as he happily met with the many fans that traveled from far and near to spend some precious moments with the living members of New York's bygone team.

As the signing finished, I went with Don to pick up his check from the promoters, as he had a few hours left before his ride to the airport. He never once scoffed at the amount, even though the quantity of items he signed brought the total to maybe $1-$2 per signature. The money wasn't his motivation for being there; it was to see teammates that he hadn't seen in some fifty years—guys like Howie Schultz, Lee Pfund, Mike Sandlock, Ralph Branca, and Clyde King, all teammates when he made his debut in 1945.

We sat around with Schultz and a few others in the hotel lobby, talking baseball while we shared some refreshments. As I went to pay, he steadfastly refused to let me do so, insisting that I was his guest for the day. As I wished him a safe trip home, he extended a handshake and a hug, wishing me well in my endeavors.

The way Don treated me that was was the embodiment of his spirit; a classy gentleman who went out of his way to treat others well.

I kept in touch with him on the phone and in the mail, exchanging correspondence once or twice a year. He always was willing to talk baseball, and in between the lines, sprinkle a few guiding thoughts for life's travels. We last spoke shortly after he moved to an assisted living facility in Glacier Hills, and even as recently as a month prior to his passing, he still had hope that he would be up and walking again, able to hit fungoes to the Michigan baseball team.

His had a profound effect on Michigan athletics, not only for their program, but for the many players he reached. Dave Campbell, who was the first baseman on Michigan's 1962 National Championship team, (who later played eight seasons in the majors, and spent two decades as a baseball analyst on ESPN) called Lund in the wake of his passing, a man of, "great leadership ... and great integrity," and was one who, "had a great influence on me while I was there."

I wish I had the opportunity to have met Lund earlier than I did, or even to have been one of his players, because in the short time we interacted, I could see how his tremendous character helped to shape the lives of so many young men.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Bronx native Larry Miggins recalls Jackie Robinson's first day in the minor leagues

Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball was felt immediately the moment he stepped on the field for the Montreal Royals in their season opener against the Jersey City Giants on April 18, 1946. In addition to all of the social implications behind Robinson’s debut, his 4-for-5 performance that included a home run, two bunt singles, and two runs scored by causing Jersey City’s pitchers to balk, left an indelible mark on his opposition.

Larry Miggins’ view of Robinson’s eye opening performance remains vivid some sixty-seven years later. The 20-year-old Bronx, New York native manned third base for Jersey City that day and had no trouble recalling how the day’s events unfolded.

“I remember it well,” the 87-year-old Miggins said from his home in Houston, Texas. “It was a full house, 45,000 fans. The place was packed.”

Larry Miggins
As the team went over its pre-game scouting report, information on Robinson’s tendencies were limited to what the manager had seen during batting practice. The Giants and Royals were due to meet in spring training, but the game was cancelled when officials in Jacksonville, Fla., upheld a city ordinance that did not permit mixed racial competition.

“Most of the guys were known by somebody, but when it came to Robinson nobody ever had seen him play,” Miggins said. “Our manager Bruno Betzel said he saw during batting practice that Robinson was a strong pull hitter. He said to me, ‘Miggins, you play him deep at third base.’”

Following his coach’s orders, Miggins positioned himself as instructed. During Robinson’s first two at-bats, the ball didn’t come Miggins’ way, as he grounded out to shortstop his first time up, and then hit a 335-foot home run down the left field line.

Expecting another powerful shot by Robinson, Miggins held his ground behind the third base bag as Robinson approached for his third at-bat.

“Next time up, I’m playing back, deep behind third base,” said Miggins. “He bunted and dropped one down. I could throw a ball through a brick wall in those days, so I pick it up and fire to first base and it was a real close play, safe. He could run too you know. He beat it out.”

Robinson proceeded to hit a single to right-center field during his fourth at-bat, which set the stage for Miggins to have another close encounter with the Royals second baseman. He did not think that Robinson would test him a second time with a bunt.

“Like an idiot, I’m playing him back at third base again the fifth time up. He dropped another bunt down and beat it out,” said Miggins. It was a lesson learned for the young infielder. “I gave him two hits that day and he never bunted again on me because I played him even with the bag from then on.”

Miggins went on to play parts of two seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948 and 1952, but his involvement with Robinson’s debut is one that he wears with a sense of pride and humor.

“They got him into the Hall of Fame and there he was, Rookie of the Year, MVP, and a World Series Champ, all because of the great start I gave him in baseball!” said a laughing Miggins. “I gave him two hits opening day and he never stopped from there, he just kept going. I always look back and that 4-for-5 opening day gave him a thrust for his whole career.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ed Stevens, 87, Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman told the other side of the Jackie Robinson story

Ed Stevens was the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, finishing second on the team in home runs and was looking forward to cementing his feet in the first base position for years to come. Leaving spring training in Havana in 1947, Leo Durocher had penciled him in as their opening day starter, beating out five other first baseman in the process.

Ed Stevens
Left with little time to glow in the fruits of his hard work, Stevens’ jubilee would quickly turn sour as the day before the season opener, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey announced that Jackie Robinson, not Stevens would be their opening day first baseman. Not only was Stevens about to witness Robinson break baseball’s color line, he also saw his position wither away right in front of his eyes.

“I would like to say that I realized the magnitude of the situation and happily stepped aside, accepting my role as the sacrifice in this incredibly significant moment in history. But the truth is, I was a competitor, and I was agitated. The fact remained coming out of spring training the starting first base job was mine, and the rug had been ripped out from under me,” Stevens said in his 2009 autobiography, “Big” Ed Stevens - The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story.

Stevens, who passed away last week at the age of 87 in Galveston, Texas, was more than a mere footnote in baseball’s most significant event. He survived a near-fatal infection to have a 19-year professional career as a player that included six in the majors with the Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1945-1950.

“It wasn't the fact that I lost my job [in Pittsburgh], I couldn't handle my job because my health went bad on me. I had a poison in my body that was affecting every joint in my body. It took me four years and 29 doctors to find out,” Stevens said during a 2008 interview from his home in Galveston. “I had my nose broken two different times. I couldn't breathe out of my left side. My doctor in Shreveport, La., said, 'I don't know what the problem is with all of the pains you have, but I'm going to straighten your nose out so you can breathe a lot better.’ When he had the nose broken down, he could see up in my head and that's where he found the poison. As soon as he finished my nose and let it rest, he went back with a long curved knife, a mirror and a light to get up in there and cut all that out. He filled a whiskey glass with it. It was all poisonous puss, and he said if it would have hit me all at once, it would have killed me.”

Stevens regained his strength and within a few years, he was among the home run leaders in Triple-A, yet he wondered why nobody would take a flyer on him.

“I put in about five years in Toronto in Triple-A, and had good years every year, drove in about 100 runs, hit 25-30 home runs, and played in every ball game," he said. "The scouts coming through said I could still play big league ball, but they were afraid to recommend me because I left [the majors] as a cripple. They were afraid that all of that would come back on me. That's what kept me out.”

Stevens played in the minor leagues until 1961 and became a scout for various organizations from 1962-1989. Once he was on the other side of the table, it was clearer to him why he didn’t get another shot at the big leagues.

“I went into scouting as soon as I left baseball," he said. "When I started scouting, then I realized what the scouts were up against. You have to be sure a fellow is good and healthy before you make a deal for him or sign him. That's what it boiled down to. I forgave all of the scouts.”

Despite playing six seasons in the majors, Stevens was ironically 42 days short of his major league pension. While scouting for the San Diego Padres, general manager Jack McKeon caught wind of this and asked Stevens in 1981 to join his team as a bench coach.

“In order for me to be the fifth [coach], one had to take himself off the pension plan," Stevens said in his autobiography. "Eddie Brinkman, one of the finest people I have ever met, volunteered. I will always respect that man as a gentleman and a friend. … After thirty years, I finally had the major league pension plan.”

With the publishing of his memoirs, Stevens wanted to make it clear that he didn’t harbor ill will towards Robinson, but towards management for removing Stevens after promising him the position a few days prior.

“I had no animosity towards Jackie; Branch Rickey was my object of anger. ... I’m proud of Jackie, but I still wish we could have truly competed for that spot.”

In retirement, Stevens continued to receive large amounts of fan mail, something that brought him much joy and satisfaction.

“If you’re a good enough fan and think enough of me to request this, I’m glad to do it,” he said. “We’re still being remembered, [and] I appreciate every one of those people that takes the time to write and remember.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

James 'Bus' Clarkson | A Negro League superstar's unheralded major league journey

Beyond the barriers Jackie Robinson tore down; lay the truncated major league careers of Negro League veterans. They fought for the opportunity to prove their great league's talents that fans missed during the segregation era. Past their prime, these baseball lifers persisted well into their late 30s and early 40s, playing out the string of their careers before teammates and crowds that never had the opportunity to see them play in their true glory.


Satchel Paige's well-documented exploits of finally reaching the majors in his 40s and Sam Jethroe winning Rookie of the Year at 33 are the more prominent stories from this group. There were other less-heralded Negro League vets who had smaller major league cups of coffee, thirty-somethings like Ray Noble, Pat Scantlebury, Quincy Trouppe, Bob Thurman, Artie Wilson, and one overlooked fence buster, James "Bus" Clarkson.

Long before he reached the majors, Clarkson was a power-hitting shortstop and third baseman in the Negro Leagues. Debuting in 1937, Clarkson terrorized pitching wherever he went, whether it was in the United States or the Caribbean, finishing second to Josh Gibson in home runs in the 1941 Mexican League. As Major League Baseball turned to younger Negro League prospects, Clarkson headed north to Canada in 1948. There he blasted 31 homers while batting .408 for St. Jean of the Provincial League. Despite his monstrous numbers, Clarkson returned to the Negro Leagues with no offers from major league organizations.

Clarkson refuses to be ignored

By 1950, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore Clarkson's talents. He signed with the Boston Braves and they immediately assigned him to their Triple-A team in Milwaukee. Immediately, Clarkson lived up to his reputation as a dangerous hitter, batting .302 while playing third base. Holding down the left side of the infield with Clarkson was a young Johnny Logan, who would later become a fixture with the Braves.

“He happened to be an outstanding hitter," Logan said of Clarkson. "When you can hit, you play someplace. He was a tremendous guy. As a young ballplayer, we looked up to him.”

With Logan spending most of the 1951 season in Boston, a 36-year-old Clarkson handled the bulk of the shortstop duties, batting .343 while leading the Brewers to the 1951 Junior World Series championship over the Montreal Royals. Among his teammates was Charlie Gorin, a 22-year-old rookie pitcher fresh from the University of Texas. Speaking with Gorin in 2008, his memories of Clarkson willing his throws across the diamond from shortstop were clear.

“I could remember pitching, and when they hit a groundball to Bus, he'd field it and just throw it," Gorin said. "He didn't have a burning arm because he was up in age. His arm wasn't that good, and it would tail off, or go in the dirt. He'd make the throw to George Crowe and he'd say, 'Do something with it George!'”

A 37-year-old major league rookie

While Clarkson proved to be a capable fielder, his superior hitting abilities gave him a chance with the Boston Braves in 1952. With Boston faltering in the National League and Clarkson batting .385 at Milwaukee, the Braves made Clarkson a 37-year-old rookie. Clarkson played immediately, entering four of the first six games that he was with Boston. He went 2-for-11 with zero extra-base hits and the Braves quickly relegated him to pinch-hitting duties for the next month-and-a-half. Clarkson finished his campaign at the end of June with a batting average of .200, with five hits in 25 total at-bats.

Boston teammate Virgil Jester, who also played with Clarkson in Milwaukee, felt that Clarkson did not have a fair chance during his time in the majors.

“I thought he was a great, great player," Jester said. "He was one of the strongest hitters that I ever saw. I don't think the Braves gave Clarkson a good break to play there.”

George Crowe, when interviewed in 2008, echoed Jester's sentiments, saying that Clarkson had difficulty going from playing full-time his entire career, to coming off the bench every few games.

“He didn't play that much in Boston as I recall, like I didn't play that much when I was there either," Crowe said. "It's hard for a guy that's used to playing every day that gets in there once every one-to-two weeks.”

It did not help that Boston had young Eddie Mathews stationed at third base and had stock in upstarts Logan and Jack Cusick at shortstop. When Charlie Grimm took the managerial reigns from Tommy Holmes in June 1952, one of his first moves was to option Clarkson to the minor leagues and recall Logan. Even though Clarkson was recalled a few days after being sent down, he sat the bench for the rest of June except for a few pinch-hitting opportunities along the way. He last played June 22 before the Braves ended their foray with Clarkson.

Building a minor league legend

His career, however, did not end after the Braves sent him down for the last time. Clarkson signed with the Texas League's Dallas Eagles in 1953 and terrorized the circuit's pitching for the next two years. At 39 in 1954, Clarkson led the league with 42 home runs while batting .324. Ed Mickelson, who was playing with the Shreveport Oilers, remembered one of Clarkson's legendary home run blasts.

“He hit a line drive at our shortstop at Joe Koppe," Mickelson said in 2009. "Joe wasn't very big; he was 5'8” or 5'9”. He went up and jumped for the ball; I don't think he put a glove on it — it was only a few inches above his glove. The ball kept rising and went out of the ballpark in left-center field. Still rising, it went out of the field, a line drive out of the park.”

Leading the Santurce Crabbers to winter league immortality

Clarkson carried his tremendous 1954 season into the winter when he played with the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. His team, which has been dubbed the greatest winter league team ever assembled, featured an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the aforementioned Bob Thurman. Clarkson anchored the infield at third base, while Don Zimmer was at shortstop, Ron Samford at second base and George Crowe at first base. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti held down the catching duties while Ruben Gomez, Sam “Toothpick” Jones, and Bill Greason handled the majority of the pitching. They easily captured the Caribbean Series.

Greason spent many years facing Clarkson in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Texas League and Puerto Rico. He said the majors missed an extremely talented ballplayer.

“Clarkson would have made it no doubt in the majors if he was younger," Greason said in 2009. "He could hit and field. He was like Raymond Dandridge. People would have seen something that they don't see too much now. The fielding, throwing and hitting in one player like Clarkson and Dandridge. Those guys were tremendous … 'phenoms' as we called them.”

* Ed Note. - This was originally published at Baseball Past and Present - "A long ride to the majors: The story of James 'Bus' Clarkson."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Carl Erskine explains how Roy Campanella helped to stabilize the Brooklyn Dodgers pitching staff

Carl Erskine and Roy Campanella were battery mates for Campanella’s entire ten-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. If anyone should know a thing or two about how Campanella handled the pitching staff, it’s Erskine.

Roy Campanella and Carl Erskine
This is Part 4 of a series of interviews with Brooklyn Dodger great Carl Erskine about his experiences playing with the storied franchise. Erskine appeared recently in New York on behalf of the Bob Feller Museum and was kind enough to grant us access to produce this series of vignettes regarding his career.

Campanella wasn’t exactly a rookie when he joined the Dodgers; he had been playing nine years in the Negro Leagues, learning from Hall of Famer Raleigh “Biz” Mackey. For those familiar with Campanella's lineage, it was of little surprise then that Campanella skillfully handled his pitching staff.

“What Campy did more than anything else with the pitching staff, was how he made you pace yourself,” Erskine said. “Pitchers are always overanxious, especially if you have a bad pitch or you throw a home run or something.  You want the ball back, you want to go again; he wouldn’t let you do that, he made you stay within yourself.”
Although Campanella should have worn a sign saying, “Thou Shalt Not Steal”, because he threw out 51% of would-be base stealers during his career, it was his mental approach to the game that set him apart from other receivers at the time.

“His savvy ... that’s something you can’t describe; he just had a feel for the game,” Erskine said.


Erskine described how Campanella's "feel" helped to mold on one of the mainstays of Brooklyn’s rotation, Don Newcombe.

“Campy … was great at the mind game,” he said. “What to throw, when to throw it. … He was an easy personality. He helped [Don] Newcombe a lot because Newk was a little volatile and he was one of the early blacks. He had to face a lot of the indignities, same as Jackie [Robinson] did. He wasn’t handling that as well as Jackie probably, so Campy was a real soothing influence on Newcombe.”
Campanella’s ability to handle the pitchers was so esteemed, that the coaching staff gave Campanella wide latitude with his charges.

“The manager would basically say to the pitching staff … ‘If you shake Campy off, you better have a good reason,” he said. “He’s been around, he knows what to do; you kinda follow Roy.’ So Roy used to say to the young pitchers. ‘Now you young pitchers, you just throw what ‘Ol Campy calls and I’ll make you a winner!’"
Sometimes, Campanella would lead them down a path that was not always victorious. Erskine took the opportunity to remind him that the loss went next to his name, not the catcher after a loss.
“So I’d lose a game and I’d bring him a box score,” Erskine said. “His locker was right next to mine. I’d say, 'Hey Campy, look at this! It says Erskine losing pitcher. Shouldn’t that say Campanella, losing catcher?'"

Campanella gave a quick-witted reply.

“Well you would always shake me off!”



Monday, June 13, 2011

Hiram Bithorn created a path for Puerto Ricans to enter major league baseball

As thousands of Puerto Ricans rejoiced in New York City this weekend for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, many flocked to stadiums across the country to watch professional baseball games. The Commonwealth that has produced such greats as Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Roberto Alomar, should offer a tip of the cap to a pioneer that opened the door for these talented names to follow.

Five years before Jackie Robinson, Hiram Bithorn blazed new pathways in major league baseball. Suiting up with the Chicago Cubs on April 15, 1942, he became the first Puerto Rican in MLB history.

Born March 18, 1916 in Santurce, Bithorn excelled in athletics from a young age despite missing his right big toe. In addition to starring in baseball, he represented Puerto Rico in basketball and volleyball at the Juegos Centroamericanos y del Caribe (Central American and Caribbean Games) in 1935.

Bithorn made his 1936 debut in organized baseball with the Class-B Norfolk Tars of the New York Yankees organization. He moved up the ranks playing for Norfolk and Binghamton before moving to the Yankees AA Newark club in 1938. This season proved to be an important one for Bithorn in more ways than one.

Already a star in the Puerto Rican winter leagues with the San Juan Senadores, Bithorn created history of his own there, making his mark as the youngest manager in league history at the age of 22 that winter. Returning with the confidence of managing his own club, Bithorn moved to the veteran laced Pacific Coast League in 1939, playing with the Oakland Oaks. He had a 13-14 record and spent the following two seasons playing with Hollywood, posting 27 wins during that span and drawing the attention of the Chicago Cubs scouts.

He was purchased from Hollywood at the end of the 1941 season and was quickly inserted into the Cubs pitching rotation at the start of 1942. He went 9-14 pitching in 38 games, starting 16 of them. Lennie Merullo, the shortstop on the 1942 team, had clear memories of Bithorn’s acquisition.

“I can remember that Hiram was brought along in the Yankee organization and the Cubs got him in some sort of a deal," Merullo said in a 2009 interview from his Massachusetts home. "Boy he was a big help in our organization!”

Bithorn’s value would manifest the following season when he was 18-12 with a league leading seven shutouts in 249 innings. Merullo explained how Bithorn's control was the key to his success that season.

“He was a hard thrower and had a great curveball," he said. "He had a natural sinker that he would throw from a low three-quarter position. When he pitched, we knew as infielders we were going to get a lot of work. He was always good, but you knew you were going to be busy.”

As a Latin player on the Cubs, "Hi" as he was nicknamed by reporters, wasn’t alone in his journey. The Cubs brought in Cuban catcher Chico Hernandez to work with Bithorn. Hernandez played both the 1942 and 1943 seasons alongside the trailblazing Puerto Rican. They were only the second Latino battery in major league history. The duo was well-liked in the clubhouse.

“They were both very popular with the rest of the ballplayers," Merullo said. "We got along great with them. We kidded them quite a bit, because they were both big handsome guys and spoke with mostly broken English. They took it gracefully.”

Bithorn’s playful nature allowed him to roll with the ribbing he received from his teammates.

“He was kind of a happy guy," he said. "He took a lot of kidding from the rest of his teammates over and over again, him and Chico,” acknowledged Merullo, adding that Bithorn and Hernandez had their own way of turning the tides on their teammates. “They would gang up on us. They were always happy to do it.”

Just as Bithorn’s career was beginning to take off, he was summoned by Uncle Sam to serve in the United States Navy. He served at the San Juan Naval Air Station beginning in 1943, where he was player-manager of the base team. Discharged just short of two full years of service, Bithorn eagerly anticipated his return to the Cubs.

Just before returning to the United States, Bithorn injured his hand during a winter league game. This delayed his return to the Cubs, and when he got back, he couldn’t recapture the enchantment that made him so special before entering the service.

He went 6-5 in 1946, primarily in relief, suffering from what was believed to be arm problems, weight gain and a possible nervous breakdown. He would pitch two more innings in the major leagues in 1947 with the Chicago White Sox and then never return to the big leagues. He unsuccessfully tried a comeback at the AA level in 1949, and retired as a player following the completion of that season.

Bithorn’s history is sealed in as much as his debut, as his tragic death. On December 30, 1951, Bithorn was shot by a police officer in Mexico after a dispute over selling his car. The officer, Ambrosio Castillo shot Bithorn and then drove him 84 miles away to the Ciudad Victoria hospital. Bithorn died shortly thereafter. Doctors claimed that if Bithorn had been treated earlier that he might have lived.

Castillo was convicted on homicide charges after his version of the dispute didn’t hold up in court. At age 35, one of Puerto Rico’s heroes was laid to rest in his hometown only after his body was exhumed from an improper burial in Mexico.

Ten years later after his burial in Puerto Rico, their largest baseball stadium was renamed Estadio Hiram Bithorn in his honor. The stadium, which is home to the Senadores, was also the home of the Montreal Expos for the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jackie Robinson discusses morality from 1958 TV program

Via PingNews
Excellent footage was discovered recently of Jackie Robinson from a 1958 TV program discussing the morality of firing workers. This is of special interest due to Robinson's position at the time as vice president of personnel at Chock Full o’ Nuts, where he often had to make employment decisions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gene Hermanski, 90, Brooklyn Dodger outfielder 1920-2010

Gene Hermanski, the former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder who suggested that they all wear number 42 to confuse the alleged snipers threatening Jackie Robinson, died Monday afternoon in Florida. He was 90.

Gene Hermanski pictured on his 1951 Bowman Baseball Card
His death was confirmed by his wife Carol, after a brief phone interview from their home in Homosassa.

Hermanski was born May 11, 1920 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but spent his formative years in Newark, New Jersey where he would become a standout at East Side High School. After graduating, he signed in 1939 with the Philadelphia Athletics and later moved on to the Brooklyn Dodger organization in 1941 after his Pocomoke City team disbanded.

He served in the Navy and the Coast Guard during World War II, spending most of his time stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. During his military service, he was granted a two-month leave in 1943 which allowed him to make his major league debut with the Dodgers. He hit .300 in 60 at-bats before returning to the Navy.

While stationed at Floyd Bennett Field, Hermanski would play with the legendary semi-pro Brooklyn Bushwicks. Hermanski explained in a 2009 interview why he had to play under the name "Gene Walsh."

 "I had to change it [my name]," he said. "It was the smartest thing I ever did in my life. If my commanding officer ever found out that I was playing ball in some ball park, he'd ship me overseas."

Upon his return to the Dodgers in 1946, Hermanski made the club as a reserve outfielder. It was there with the Dodgers that he witnessed baseball's integration happen before his eyes. Hermanski was the starting left fielder on April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson made his major league debut. Ralph Branca, along with Hermanski, went over that day to greet Robinson with a handshake while Robinson was largely ignored by the rest of his teammates.

He played in two of the Dodgers' World Series appearances (1947 and 1949), batting .308 in their loss to the Yankees in the 1949 classic. He played with Brooklyn until 1951 when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for Andy Pafko. He would spend two more seasons with the Cubs before becoming part of the exchange between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates that sent Ralph Kiner to Chicago. Hermanski would play one more season in 1954 with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, reuniting with former Dodger manager Charlie Dressen before retiring from baseball. He finished with a lifetime batting average of .272 over nine major league seasons.

After his playing career was over, he worked as a sales representative for Tose Incorporated. At the time of his passing, he was the last living player from the Brooklyn starting lineup for Robinson's debut. Marv Rackley and Ed Stevens are currently the last surviving Dodger players that participated in that game.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gene Hermanski turns 90, the former Brooklyn Dodger recalls his time with the Bushwicks

Former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Gene Hermanski, now residing in Homosassa, Florida, celebrated his 90th birthday this past week. A WWII veteran, Hermanski made his debut with Brooklyn in 1943, after receiving two months of leave from the Coast Guard. He would continue to serve with the Coast Guard after a failed stint in the Navy until 1945.

While in the Coast Guard, Hermanski had the opportunity to play for another famous Brooklyn ballclub, the semipro Brooklyn Bushwicks. During a 2009 interview, Hermanski recalled that he used an assumed name to avoid being shipped out to combat in Europe.

"I played a few years with the Bushwicks," he said. "I was in the service then, stationed at Fort Bennett Field with the Coast Guard. I played under the name of Gene Walsh. I had to change it [my name]. It was the smartest thing I ever did in my life. If my commanding officer ever found out that I was playing ball in some ball park, he'd ship me overseas."

Gene Hermanski (2nd from left front row) with Brooklyn Bushwicks / Author's Collection

At the time he was playing for the Bushwicks, Hermanski encountered some of the greats of the Negro Leagues prior to playing with Jackie Robinson.

"We used to play teams like the Black Yankees, Philadelphia Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, and Homestead Grays," he recalled. "I played against Josh Gibson, as well as Satchel Paige. I got a hit or two off of Paige. I may have faced him seven or eight times and got two hits. He wasn't easy to hit, but it just so happened that I swung the bat and something happened and it was a base hit.

"We played all the black teams and we were all white. We were the home team from Brooklyn at Dexter Park, and the fans would root for the black [visiting] teams! Listen to this, we used to draw 10,000 on a Sunday for a doubleheader. It was inexpensive. They charged a buck to get in. ... We had a good reputation and we won. We played about .700 ball."

As we discussed his experiences playing against the likes of the famed Gibson and Paige, the conversation turned to Robinson. Hermanski was in the lineup the day that Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers. While Hermanski was a supporter of Robinson, having once proclaimed that the whole team wear number 42 after Robinson began to receive death threats, he recalled that there were dissenters in the Dodger clubhouse.

"Most of the ballplayers took to liking him," he said. "There were a few guys, the rednecks, who didn't care for blacks. It was only natural though the more I thought about it. These kids from the South were brought up to dislike the blacks, so they continued to do so. Some of them asked to be traded, Dixie Walker, Kirby Higbe, and Hugh Casey."

After helping the Dodgers to two National League pennants in 1947 and 1949, Hermanski was traded to the Cubs during the 1951 season. He went on to play with the Pittsburgh Pirates before finishing his career in 1954 with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League where he was reunited with Charlie Dressen.

"Buzzie Bavasi fixed me up with Oakland," he said. "I called him and he said, 'I could get you a job with Oakland, but the big leagues, forget it!' It was in spring training, so I said, 'I'll take it'. When he told me Charlie was the manager, I decided to go out there."

After his playing career was over, he worked as a sales representative for Tose Incorporated. At the age of 90, he still receives about ten autograph requests per week from fans across the country and enjoys the contact with those that still remember him. At the end of the interview, he inquired about my age. Sensing the significant age gap, hefelt that recalling his memories of playing with the Bushwicks for a short time allowed him to feel like he was playing again. It seems no matter what our age is, baseball is the true fountain of youth.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

New York sports legends help give Sports Angels its wings

April 15th saw the fourth annual Sports Angels Spring Fundraiser take place at the Pig and Whistle on 36th Street. The dinner and auction served to support and raise awareness for Sports Angels' campaign to assist local youth sports organizations. Sports Angels is headed by former Baseball Hall of Fame president Ed Stack, Brooklyn Dodger great Ralph Branca and Joseph Salerno. Bobby Hoffman was honored at the event with the Community Service Award for his dedication to the Manhattan Youth Baseball program.

In attendance were a variety of New York sports legends including Branca, Bud Harrelson, Jeff Nelson, Roberto Clemente Jr., Howard Cross, and Greg Buttle. On the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut, Branca conveyed sentiments that were echoed by many in attendance, tonight was about helping children to play sports.


"I enjoy that we can help others, and that's what we really look forward to," Branca said. "We see some new and old friends and we want to build up an entourage of people that support us to help raise enough money to help the kids."

Stack added that the organization has seen it's greatest impact on the local level.

"We're reaching out to grassroots organizations that need help," Stack said. "They may not need a lot of money, but need uniforms and equipment and we're there to give them help so they can charge ahead."

Nelson, the former Yankee reliever and current XM radio host, saw the event as a chance to use his stature to give back to legions of kids that admire the pro athletes from afar.

"Anytime you deal with kids and sports, and you are an athlete, it's a great opportunity to help," Nelson said. "It's nice that athletes give back. The kids look up to athletes on the field and there are a lot of them here tonight. They're giving back to a good cause; I know it touches all of their hearts."

Clemente Jr. felt that the charitable nature of Sports Angels compelled him to be there. He said he was following his family legacy by supporting the event.

"Anytime you have the opportunity to help an organization like Sports Angels, you have to be present," he said. "It's a natural thing to do [help others]. If you take a look at my life and my parents lives, it's something that we do, since I was a kid. To say no to a kid or an organization that is doing well, I can't say no. It's what we do."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book Review: Ed Stevens: The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story

With Major League Baseball's celebration of Jackie Robinson's debut earlier this month, a lesser known version of that historical day has been illuminated by the voice of Ed Stevens.

Ed Stevens - The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story / Tate Publishing
Who is Stevens, and why should you care about his story? He is the man who faced the following question for the past 60 years, "How did you let a black man take your job?"

Stevens was the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1946 season, placing second on the team in home runs. He rightfully bested a handful of Dodger hopefuls during their 1947 spring training to earn the starting nod at first base. Stevens was ready to go on Opening Day, until a last minute decision by Branch Rickey to insert Jackie Robinson befuddled the upstart from Galveston, Texas.

"The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story," details the never before told story of the man who was displaced by Robinson. Stevens is one of the last living Dodgers who was there for Robinson's debut, and gives an excellent behind the scenes look from the perspective of a talented ballplayer who was pushed aside by the Brooklyn Dodger organization so that Robinson could take the field.

Bitter Stevens is not; he shows no ill will or animosity towards Robinson. "The Other Side," presents the unheard emotions of a man who returned home to the heavily segregated South to face the snickers and sneers of people who could not understand how a white man "let" a "ni--er" take his job.