Showing posts with label Kansas City Athletics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kansas City Athletics. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How Jack Crimian mystified Mickey Mantle in his major league odyssey

John “Jack” Crimian, a former major league pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Athletics, and Detroit Tigers in the 1950s, died just days short of his 92nd birthday on February 11, 2019, in Middletown, Delaware.

Jack Crimian 1956 Topps / Topps
The righty hurler signed his first professional baseball contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 out of Olney High School where he was teammates with another future major leaguer, Del Ennis.

“I went to high school with Del Ennis,” he said in a phone interview from his Delaware home in 2009. “We used to hit from the football field. He once hit one out on Duncannon Avenue, past the football fields and the tennis courts. I got signed out on the sandlots on C Street and Roosevelt Boulevard. There is a park down the street and the Phillies scout (Jocko Collins) signed me from out there.”

He played the 1944 season Wilmington and Bradford before being drafted into the Army. He served as a paratrooper until 1946 when he had to return home after his father’s sudden death.

Jack Crimian 1951 Minor League Bio / Author's Collection
After the Cardinals drafted Crimian from the Phillies at the end of the 1946 season, he toiled patiently in their minor league system until his midseason 1951 call-up. The Cardinals wasted no time putting his services to use.

“I got into a ballgame in the major leagues the first day that I got there,” he recalled. “I got off the plane, went to the hotel, and they were leaving for the ballpark. I went right along to the ballpark with them.”

He pitched sparingly for the Cardinals but stayed long enough to earn his first major league win, which came in a relief effort ironically against the Phillies. He ended his first campaign with a 1-0 record with a 9.00 ERA in 11 games.

The Cardinals gave Crimian another look in 1952, but the fierce National League lineups served him a quick return to the minor leagues. He spent the next three seasons in Triple-A honing his craft in preparation for another shot at major league glory.

His bumpy ride included a 1953 offseason trade to the Cincinnati Reds who then sold his contract to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Now a veteran of almost a decade of professional experience, the team had Crimian help Elston Howard make the transition from outfielder to catcher.

“We taught him to catch in Toronto,” he said. “We got him on loan from the Yankees, and they wanted to make a catcher out of him. We had a veteran staff, and they let us have him so he could catch every day. He caught on real quick.

“I still think he was one of the best hitters ever in the American League, definitely on that Yankees club. He hit all over. You could not pitch him one way; he would hit to right and left-center. He hit behind Mantle and Maris, and you could not walk either one of them to get to Howard because he would hurt you just as much as they would. It is no wonder why they got all of those RBIs. You had to pitch to them. He was hard to strike out.”

The Kansas City Athletics looked to bolster their pitching staff when they traded for Crimian after he posted a 19-6 record and 2.10 ERA with Toronto in 1955. Finally, he had a full season ahead in the major leagues. Pitching mostly in relief, he finished second in the American League in appearances, seeing mound time in 54 contests. While he could not recapture his dominance from Toronto in the American League, he was proud that he held Mickey Mantle to a paltry .182 batting average (2 for 11 with 5 Ks).

“I had no problem with him, I really didn't,” Crimian said. “I was fortunate I guess. He might have got a bunt single, but that was about all. I never threw him a strike.

"He wanted to hit all of the time so he would chase pitches. I would throw sliders way in on him and sinkers away from him all day long. He used to bunt against us. We were the first ones to put the shift on him. A couple times, he bunted and he got a base hit. At least we knew where we were at; that's why we did it.”

Despite his reliability with Kansas City, Crimian was on the move once again, this time the Athletics traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 1957 as part of an eight-player deal. He only lasted four games with the Tigers; however, he was still able to get his name in the record books.

A Cleveland Indians rookie named Roger Maris stepped to the plate in the 11th inning looking to battle the well-traveled veteran. He ran the count full, and Crimian thought he could sneak a high fastball by the youngster. Maris swung mightily and connected for his first major league home run.

“It was a 3-2 count and I pitched him up and away,” Crimian said to Bob Yearick in 2017. “The ball went up and away, and it still hasn’t come down. But it was Jim Bunning’s fault. He struck out Maris earlier in the game, so he told me how to pitch to him.”

Detroit sent Crimian to the minor leagues a few weeks later, ending his major league career. He pitched two more seasons in the minors before retiring in 1959. While Crimian was out of professional baseball, he had not completely abandoned the game. He pitched with them from 1963-65, and even though his fastball no longer had the zip it once did, he used his guile and smarts en route to a perfect 26-0 record.

He spent 34 years as an auto body specialist in Wilmington, Delaware before his retirement. He was inducted into the Delaware Professional Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Rance Pless | Kansas City Athletics infielder dies at 91

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

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

Rance Pless / Author's Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953-54 Caugas Team Photo

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

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

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

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

Ed Charles at the 2015 QBC / N. Diunte

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bill Renna, 89, played with Yankees, Athletics and Red Sox 1924-2014

Bill Renna, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Philadelphia / Kansas City Athletics, and Boston Red Sox from 1953-1959, passed away June 19, 2014 in San Jose, California. He was 89.

Renna returned from military service in World War II to become a two-sport star at the University of Santa Clara, playing outfield for the baseball team, and both fullback and center on the football team. His play on the gridiron earned him a spot in the East-West game in 1949, drawing the attention of the Los Angeles Rams; however, he chose to stick with baseball, learning under the guidance of Santa Clara’s legendary coach, Paddy Cottrell.

Bill Renna, 1955 A's

“Paddy Cottrell my coach at Santa Clara was a bird dog [scout] for the Yankees,” Renna said to me in a 2008 interview. “He used to teach us everything that was taught in spring training by the Yankees.”

Cottrell tipped Yankees scout Joe Devine to his prized outfielder who signed Renna in 1949 to a contract for $5,000. His signing paid immediate dividends, as he hit an eye-opening .385 with 21 home runs for Twin Falls in the Pioneer League. His play impressed his Twin Falls manager Charlie Metro, who was a former major leaguer himself.

“He hit like heck up there, and they called him “Bull,” because he was a big guy,” Metro said in his autobiography “Safe by a Mile.” “He was a delight to have on the team.”

The Yankees were so impressed with Renna’s 1949 season that they sent him to their AAA team in Kansas City. Renna was hit with the injury bug injuries in 1950 and could not duplicate his torrid start from the year prior. The Yankees sent him down to Class B Norfolk, where he hit .291 with 26 home runs.

“Bull” worked his way back to AAA in 1952 and played well enough to earn a promotion to the big leagues with the Yankees in 1953.

“I went to spring training with the Yankees in 1953 and there was an outfielder spot available, so I grabbed it and held onto it,” Renna said to Ed Attanasio of This Great Game. “Stengel platooned me with Gene Woodling in left field, alongside (Mickey) Mantle in center and with (Hank) Bauer and (Irv) Noren in right field.”
Bill Renna - 1953 Yankees

Renna hit .314 in 61 games, filling in at all three outfield spots to spell Mantle and Woodling while they recovered from various ailments. While he was on the roster for their World Series championship, he did not see any action during the series.

“I did not get to play, but I was on deck to pinch hit a couple times,” Renna said. “It was a little frustrating to get that close and not even get an at-bat.”

Despite being shut out during the World Series, one of Renna’s fondest memories from his rookie season with the Yankees was witnessing Mantle’s monstrous shot off of Chuck Stobbs in Griffith’s Stadium.

“I saw him hit the 565-foot homer out of Griffith’s Stadium in 1953 against Chuck Stobbs,” Renna said to John McCarthy of the Old Timers Baseball Association in 2008. “Mickey was batting right-handed against the lefty Stobbs who threw him an off-speed pitch that almost fooled him, but he stayed back and waited on the pitch. When it left the bat we all stood up in the dugout and watched the flight of the ball as it kept on going, and when it cleared the clock at the top of the stadium in left-center field, we were all in total amazement.”

Renna’s glory days with the Yankees would be unfortunately short-lived. In the 1953 off-season, he was part of an 11-player deal that sent Vic Power to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first-baseman Eddie Robinson and pitcher Harry Byrd. Going from the perennial champs to the perennial cellar dwellers would have fazed most players, but not Renna.

“I have no complaint about that deal,” Renna said in 1958 to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “In fact, the trade was a benefit for me because I got the chance to be the regular right fielder with the A’s.”

Now with the opportunity to play full-time, Renna had his best major league season in 1954. In 123 games, he hit 13 home runs while gunning out 13 runners from the outfield. He played two more seasons with the Athletics, staying with them through their move to familiar territory, Kansas City.

“Moving back to Kansas City was kind of neat being I played there for awhile,” he said to me in his 2008 interview. “Kansas City received the A’s very well. They were excited about it. … They had a great fan base that liked the game of baseball.”

During the 1956 season, Renna was essentially traded for himself, returning to the Yankees in exchange for Eddie Robinson.

“The Yanks had a plan in mind for me, which probably boiled down to giving me another crack at making the grade,” Renna said in 1958. “I admit that I didn’t do the job at Richmond that either the Yankees or I expected that I would do. That’s why they traded me when I told them that I either stay in the majors or be traded.”

Renna got his wish, as the Yankees traded him to the Boston Red Sox for Eli Grba and Gordie Windhorn. After a monster 1957 season with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League where he slugged 29 home runs and drove in 105 runs, the Red Sox gave him another chance at the major league life.

He made the Red Sox in 1958 and spent the entire season as a backup to Ted Williams.

“I was Ted Williams’ caddy in Boston,” he said in our 2008 interview. “[Gene] Stephens and myself; he was a lefty and I was a righty. We’d play left field whenever Ted didn’t play.”

Williams tried to impart sage hitting advice to Renna one day during batting practice, but as many that Williams attempted to council would find out, what came naturally for Williams was a struggle for most.

“One day we were in the outfield during batting practice and Ted said to crowd the plate a little more. I said, ‘I can’t handle that, just like you do, you have a quick bat and you hit that inside pitch really well’. He said, ‘You want them to pitch you tight.’ I said, ‘I don’t want that, I can’t hit on that part, that hard fastball gives me trouble. I have plate coverage; I go over the plate and tap the outside. I’m not going to crowd the plate; I can’t flip the bat like you do.’”

The Red Sox sent Renna back to the minor leagues during the 1959 season and he retired after finishing out the year with San Diego. While he felt he could physically play a few more years, family responsibilities trumped his desires to continue.

“I retired in 1959 from San Diego, came here to San Jose, and got a job with Central Concrete Supplies selling ready mix concrete,” he said. “I had three children to worry about; I didn’t want to follow a minor league club around as a coach with three kids that were getting ready to start school. I didn’t think it was fair to them.”

Renna worked with Central Concrete for over 26 years retiring in 1990, retiring to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren. Very much a student of the game, Renna looked at the current state of play in Major League Baseball with a critical eye.

“When I was playing,” he said, “there were only 16 teams, as opposed to 30 now. Half of the league wouldn’t have had a shot. There are a lot of more opportunities to play in the majors now. It’s a different situation completely. It was more difficult then to make it to the majors then it is now. There were a lot more kids playing professional baseball, as there were so many leagues.

“If you watch the game the way it is played in the majors now there are a lot of things that are done that shouldn’t be done because if they have been taught to play the game, they would know to do these things the proper way. For example, people running into each other, infielders and outfielders. Its communication, I learned it in college. When we went into the pros, we were taught it again in the minors. Evidently, these poor kids aren’t taught a lot of this stuff. It’s unfortunate.”

Monday, June 2, 2014

Johnny Gray, 87, fond teammate of Roger Maris

Johnny Gray, a veteran of four major league seasons with the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s, passed away May 21, 2014 in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 87.
 
Gray starred in three sports at West Palm Beach High School before he entered the United Stated Army during World War II. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Rollins College, where his play for their baseball team eventually earned him entry into their Hall of Fame in 1979.

Johnny Gray / Baseball-Almanac.com
The New York Yankees signed Gray in 1950 and it immediately paid dividends, as he posted a 10-4 record for their Class C team in Amsterdam, N.Y. Gray reached as high as Triple-A with the Yankees in 1953, before he was included in a massive 11-player deal at the end of the 1953 season with the Athletics. The major chip in that exchange was Gray’s Kansas City Blues teammate, first baseman Vic Power.

“Vic was always a happy-go-lucky guy,” Gray said in a 2010 interview. “He was easy to get along with. He was a great club man; there were no two ways about that.”

Leaving the crowded Yankees system opened the door for Gray to the major leagues. He made his major debut on July 18, 1954, pitching 4.1 innings in a loss to the Chicago White Sox. He struggled with his control during the season, finishing with a 3-12 record in 18 games.

Gray stayed with the Athletics in 1955, making the move with the club from Philadelphia to Kansas City, returning him to familiar grounds from his minor league days.

“I didn’t mind it much because I had been with the [Kansas City] Blues before,” he said.

The Athletics sold Gray to the Cleveland Indians in 1956, where they sent him to their Triple-A team in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis club breezed through the entire American Association with a 92-62 record, assisted by Gray’s 10 wins as both a starter and reliever. Continuing their dominance, they swept the Rochester Red Wings in the 1956 Junior World Series, 4-0.

As much as winning the championship was an exhilarating experience for Gray, his most cherished memory of that 1956 minor league season was the relationship he developed with a rookie outfielder named Roger Maris.

“One of the best ballplayers I ever played with in my life,” he said. “I can tell you this in all honesty, if you owned a business and you have to go out of town … and you couldn’t get back for three or four months, the guy that you would want is Roger Maris.

“If you left that business with him and came back, it would be twice the size. That was his attitude. I roomed with him in Indianapolis. He came to the ballpark to play. If you had nine guys that took the same attitude, you would have a club that would have never lost.”

The well-traveled Gray played winter ball in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Not only did the wide exposure allow him to fine tune his pitching, it allowed him to develop an appreciation for the passion the fans had for the game.

“They take baseball much more serious in Latin America than they do here,” he said. “They love it. I can remember when I was in Cuba they would sing and have a band for one team. I loved it because they had the name for baseball fans in South America and it sure fit, ‘fan├íticos.’”

Gray made it back to the major leagues in 1957 with the Indians, and played a handful of games with the Phillies in 1958. He continued to play at the Triple-A level until hanging it up for good in 1960. He finished his major league career with a 4-18 record with a 6.18 ERA in 48 games.

In his post-baseball playing days, Gray became an avid golfer and managed an apartment complex in Florida.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Tough Guy, Gentle Heart' by Felix Millan - Book Review

Tough Guy, Gentle Heart
Felix Millan’s choked-up batting stance and dazzling glovework at second base are deeply entrenched in the minds of baseball fans that saw him play in the 1960s and 1970s. Now well removed from his final play on the field, Millan has partnered with author Jane Allen Quevedo to pen his memoirs in “Tough Guy, Gentle Heart.” (Infinity Publishing, 2013).

The book weighs in at a lithe 129 pages, similar to the stature of Millan; and like the play of the All-Star second baseman, is as much about perseverance as it is about baseball. The young Puerto Rican infielder came from extremely humble beginnings in his hometown of Yabucoa, where he attended school barefoot, dreaming of his daily dismissal so he could go and play baseball. Using a glove made from canvas stuffed with newspaper, Millan devoted countless hours to developing the soft hands that made him a Gold Glove infielder.

As he grew in skill and size, Millan became widely known for his prowess on the diamond, enough that his high school English teacher let him sleep in class. She saw potential in Millan that would someday allow him to leave his town of Yabucoa.

Upon graduating from high school, Millan joined the United States Army, where he tried to navigate his way through his commands armed with only a little English. Luckily for Millan, after a transfer to Fort Gordon, he made his way on to the baseball team and rode out the rest of his time in the Special Services. Waiting back for him in Puerto Rico was a young girl named Mercy, someone he only knew through trading letters in the mail.

With Mercy by his side, Millan signed with the Kansas City Athletics in 1964 and blissfully entered the career he had envisioned ever since his elementary school days. His dream didn’t quite match up with the realities of the South in the early 1960s. Being a man of color who wasn’t fluent in English did not bode well for Millan during his rookie campaign in Daytona Beach. The harsh treatment he endured both on and off the field was enough for Millan to want to turn his back on the game he loved so dearly; that is until Mercy stepped in. With the encouragement of his wife, Millan chose to follow his faith and continue to pursue his career in baseball.

His strong faith, whether it came from baseball, his family, or his religion, is a consistent theme throughout the book. His perseverance in many situations reveals his strong character, one that further qualifies the title, “Tough Guy, Gentile Heart.

Millan shares choice details about his baseball career from start to finish, starting in Puerto Rico, progressing to the major leagues with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, to his travels in Japan and Mexico at the end of his playing days. It is told in a way that does not turn his story into one of self-aggrandizement. Particularly touching is the story of how Hall of Famer Hank Aaron took the rookie under his wing when he was first called up to the Braves.

Diehard baseball fans may find “Tough Guy, Gentle Heart,” a bit short on winding tales inside the lines; however, those gaps are neatly filled with the rich life experiences that helped to shape one of the sport’s finest gentleman.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dodgers and Yankees upstarts Miller and Bella shared a taste of the big leagues in September 1957

Rod Miller
September call-ups in baseball often signal hope and excitement for the fan base, as they get to take a look at the future talents of the organization. Lost amidst the chaos of the 1957 baseball season in New York were the debuts of two rookies, Rod Miller of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and John "Zeke" Bella of the New York Yankees. One team was on the verge of moving 3,000 miles to the West, the other convincingly won the American League pennant.

Both of these youngsters shared not only their major league debuts within a few days of each other, but also sadly, their deaths. Miller passed away November 8, 2013 in Cascade, Idaho, and Bella passed away November 17, 2013 in Greenwich, Ct.

Miller was a 17-year-old outfielder from Lynwood High School in California. He was signed by scout Lefty Phillips for a $4,000 bonus, which meant he had to be kept on the MLB roster for the year and couldn't be sent below Class B. He played with Cedar Rapids after signing, batting .183, an unlikely total for someone who would receive a call to the major leagues at the end of the season. Despite his paltry batting average, the Dodgers brought him up in September, biding his time on the bench while in the presence of the legendary figures on the club.

"The biggest thrill of my career," Miller said to Richard Tellis in Once Around the Bases, "was going into the Dodger clubhouse the next day, seeing all these legends, and putting the major-league uniform on."

On September 28, 1957, the Dodgers were playing the Philadelphia Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium in front of barely 5,800 people. It was an otherwise unforgettable game, except for the young Miller. In the top of the 9th inning, manager Walter Alston summoned the 17-year-old from the bench to pinch hit for Randy Jackson.

"I didn't believe him at first. I thought he was kidding," he said.

Standing in the on-deck circle, Miller thought about the generosity of his manager, who also had only a singular at-bat in the major leagues.

"I thought about the compassion Walter Alston had for me, letting me get to bat. He was the classiest human being I've ever known," he said.

Miller faced Phillies right-hander Jack Meyer, and after working the count to 2-2, he struck out swinging. Alston replaced Miller with Pee Wee Reese to play third base in the bottom of the 9th; it would be the last time Miller's feet touched major league soil.

"You can't imagine the residual benefits I've had in my life from that one time at-bat. It's opened more doors than I ever have imagined," he said.

John "Zeke" Bella
On the other side of town, Bella was a 26-year-old Korean War veteran, hitting his stride after serving three years in the United States Army. He batted .317 with the Denver Bears of the American Association in Triple-A, his third consecutive .300 season in the Yankees farm system. During that September, with the Yankees having a comfortable lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League standings, they recalled Bella for a look in the outfield alongside Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Bauer.

Speaking with the New York Daily News in October, 2013 after being inducted into the Greenwich High School Hall of Fame, Bella said one of his clearest memories of Mantle was the on the first day he reported to the team.

"I walked into the clubhouse," remembered Bella, "and Mickey yells across the room, 'Hey Yogi, Zeke’s here. You’re not the ugliest one here now!'"

Bella went 1-10 in his rookie campaign, earning his first major league hit off of Rudy Minarcin of the Boston Red Sox on September, 27, 1957. Despite another season of hitting over .300 at the Triple-A level, there was no room on the roster for him on their World Series Championship team in 1958. With the Yankees looking to bolster their pitching staff for the stretch run of the 1958 season, Bella was part of a late-season trade to the Kansas City Athletics for pitcher Murray Dickson.

His trade to Kansas City provided the opportunity for greater playing time, as he appeared in 47 games, batting .207 with one home run. His time in Kansas City was highlighted by a race with a teammate to the dugout from the outfield that had gone awry, resulting with Bella knocking himself unconscious on the dugout roof.

Bella played one more season in the minor leagues in 1960, before returning to Connecticut where he embarked on a long career with the United States Postal Service. He continued to stay involved in youth sports, serving as an umpire and referee at many levels. One of the local youths he inspired was future Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young.

"I remember Zeke Bella and how he umpired," Young said to the Greenwich Time in October, 2013. "He's a tough guy, and I learned about fairness from him."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tom Saffell, former MLB outfielder and WWII veteran dies at 91

Tom Saffell, an outfielder who played parts of four big league seasons from 1949-1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Athletics, passed away last week. He was 91.

Saffell was the president of the Gulf Coast Rookie League for 30 years from 1979-2009, working until he was 89 years old. That capped a career in baseball that started almost 70 years prior in 1941 in the Class D Newport Canners of the Appalachian League.
Tom Saffell / Author's Collection
His playing career was interrupted in 1942 when he signed up for the Army Air Corps in World War II. He served until 1946, getting out right in time for the baseball season. During his service, he flew 61 missions over Europe, without being wounded or shot down.

Saffell’s breakout year came in 1947 when he batted .370 for Class B Selma Cloverleafs. He started out the season with the Atlanta Crackers, but he was displaced upon the arrival of a future Hall of Famer.

“I played part of the season for one month until they signed Charley Trippi," Saffell said in a 2008 interview from his home in Florida. “That’s when they sent me out to Selma, Alabama.”

His outstanding performance earned him a promotion to AAA Indianapolis, where he hit .299 in 1948. The next season, he was in the big leagues.

“I had a good year my first year up there, I hit .322,” he said.

It would be the only year in the major leagues that Saffell would see consistent playing time.

"That's the only year I played regularly for Pittsburgh," he said to SABR member Jim Sargent. "I played against both right-hand pitchers and left-handers. After that first season, they usually put me in for defensive purposes or against right-handed pitchers.”

He shuttled between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis during the 1950-51 seasons but didn’t see the majors again until 1955. When he returned, there was a fresh face in Pittsburgh outfield, Roberto Clemente.

“One of the greatest ballplayers that put on a uniform,” he said. “You could see that Clemente had great talent. Anyone could see that. He was one of the better-coordinated ballplayers I ever saw. He could throw off-balance and get himself in position to throw quickly.”

Saffell was released by the Pirates toward the end of the season and latched on with Kansas City to finish out the year. He remained in the minors as a full-time player until 1959. In 1960, he was offered a managing job with the Dodgers Class C team in Reno and began a 13-year career as a minor league coach and manager.

It was then in 1978 when he was approached by Murray Cook to become the president of the Gulf Coast League. Saffell gladly accepted and held the position until 2009. He was honored in 1999 as the "King of Baseball," at the baseball winter meetings in Anaheim, Calif.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Long Island native Evans Killeen was a Casey Stengel favorite in New York Mets first spring training

Fifty years ago in February, the New York Mets opened spring training with a hodgepodge of players cast off by their respective organizations, some looking to prolong their careers, others searching for a new opportunity.

One of those upstarts was 26-year-old Evans Killeen; right-handed pitcher from Elmont, New York. Killeen played in four games with the Kansas City Athletics in 1959, and then in Mexico before the Mets gave him another lease on his baseball career after pitching in a local semi-pro league.

Evans Killeen
“I had been with Kansas City in the AL in 1959,” Killeen said from his home in Long Island. “I hurt my leg in my fourth game in the major leagues; I stepped on a catcher’s mask backing up a play in home plate in Cleveland. In 1960, I played in the Mexican League, just going through the motions. In 1961, I was home and people talked me into playing semi-pro baseball again. I guess I dazzled them out there. St. Johns coach Jack Kaiser saw me pitch against his team and recommended me to the Mets.”

Killeen was part of a group of pitchers that arrived early to spring training that included high-priced signings such as Jay Hook and Bob “Righty” Miller. Despite not being one of the Mets prized recruits, manager Casey Stengel liked what he saw in Killeen.

“It’s got at least five promising youngsters … who will make it big in the future. When we started I didn’t think we had a single prospect. But I liked what I saw in Evans Killeen,” Stengel said to the New York Times.

He quickly gained the favor of Stengel by combining with Roger Craig to throw the first shutout in Mets history, when they blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on March 13th. Killeen threw four no-hit shutout innings in relief. His performance not only earned him a headline in the New York Times, but more importantly, his 72-year-old manager's praise.

“Wasn’t he great? He was fast, all right, but I was particularly pleased with his slow curve. Yes, sir, that young fellow’s got a chance around here,” Stengel said.

Just as Killeen’s stock was rising, he encountered a cruel twist of fate the day after his sparkling performance. A wayward foray into his grooming supplies gave a sudden u-turn to his spring training hopes.

“I had a freak accident; God must have wanted me not to be a ballplayer,” Killeen laughed. “I reached in my shaving bag and cut my right thumb. I cut it pretty good and was bandaged most of spring training.”

Killeen was relegated to short relief after his injury, pitching well enough to stay with the club until they broke camp. Just as they were to travel north, he was notified he was going to Syracuse.

“The handwriting was on the wall.” he said. “You knew they weren’t pitching you. … It was a money thing. … I had a minor league contract and they had a lot of money invested in all of those players they got in other organizations. I got caught in a numbers game.”

Killeen spent the 1962 season between Syracuse and Quincy before calling it quits. His frustrations after his ambitious spring training were mounting from the pressures of his family for him to move on.

“I didn’t even want to play after I left spring training," he said. "I asked myself, “What am I doing here?’ I was 26 years old, making no money. You couldn’t ask a girl to marry you. It’s terrible. All my friends were becoming doctors and lawyers. With all of these things, how can you hang in there? What kind of confidence do you have to want to play ball?”

The final straw came at the end of the 1962 season courtesy of general manager George Weiss.

“What kicked me in the face, George Weiss offered me to come back the next year with a contract for $700 [a $100 reduction from the prior season]," he recalled. "[After that] I said to myself, ‘I’m done, that’s it.’”

Despite leaving the Mets organization soured by Weiss’ offer, his fond memories of that inaugural spring training season have persisted five decades later.

“It was phenomenal, just the people that were there, from Gil Hodges, to Richie Ashburn, Gus Bell, Casey Stengel, Rogers Hornsby, etc. The whole fanfare was so exciting, so tremendous.”

As the Mets dedicate the 2012 season to celebrating the 50-year history of the franchise, Killeen would welcome the opportunity to get together with his teammates.

“It would be nice, [even though] I didn’t play on the main team, to be invited to a Met reunion for their 50 years. They forgot about guys like me. We’re forgotten people. I would love to see the guys again.”

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ed Blake, Former Reds and Athletics Pitcher, 83, 1925-2009

Former Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Athletics pitcher Ed Blake passed away at age 83 on April 15, 2009 in Swansea, IL after battling an extended illness. While only pitching 8 innings in the Major Leagues, Blake carved out a 15 year minor league career that included a stint as batting practice pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1943 World Series. Blake would later go on to say that experience was the most memorable of his career. Blake was fortunate enough to have a baseball card in arguably the most popular baseball card set ever, the famed 1952 Topps set. Up until his death, Blake still received many requests for his autograph on the eminent card. In addition to his baseball career, Blake proudly served in the United States Army during World War II. His son Eddie Blake Jr. was a minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles system in the early 1970's.