Showing posts with label Mickey Mantle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mickey Mantle. 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.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Ruppert Jones tells of his dark year with the New York Yankees

For most baseball players, wearing the New York Yankees uniform is a life-altering experience. One look at the legends in Monument Park can give even the most prolific athlete chills knowing that they are carrying the lineage of the most iconic figures ever to play the sport.

Ruppert Jones came to the Yankees in 1980 after a career-year with the Seattle Mariners where he played all 162 games while swatting 21 home runs and stealing 33 bases. He entered Yankee Stadium with the hopes of World Series victory and visions of patrolling the same center field as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Ruppert Jones / Topps
Two months into the 1980 season, Jones led the team with 28 RBIs; however, his .222 batting average did little to evoke the memories of the aforementioned Hall of Famers. While Jones attributed his weakened average to a string of bad luck, his fortunes quickly changed for the worse on Memorial Day. Returning home after their May 26th game, he immediately knew that something was wrong. Stomach pains from earlier in the day became unbearable.

“When I got home, I started to throw up all night,” the 63-year-old Jones said via telephone from his San Diego home. “I was scheduled to pick up my wife at the airport, but I couldn’t pick her up. When she got in, she was kind of upset that I told her she had to catch a cab home. When she came home, she started to yell and scream, and when she came into the room, she saw the garbage can sitting there, and I’m puking.”

His wife called for an ambulance, recognizing that this was more serious than a stomach virus. After reaching the hospital, doctors resolved that Jones needed immediate surgery to treat complications related to his 1978 appendectomy.

“I had to have an emergency operation,” he said. “I had an appendix operation two years earlier and I had adhesions [that] caused a blockage. I was in a bad way. I was out for a month and a half. I didn’t come back until after the All-Star break.”

During his recovery in the hospital, Jones found inspiration while taking a visit to the pediatric ward. There he saw children battling cancers that were much tougher than any of Nolan Ryan’s fastballs.

''That really woke me up,'' Jones told the New York Times. ''Those kids had so much courage. They would never have the opportunity to do what I had done, so what was I complaining about?''

Jones returned from his abdominal surgery after the All-Star break, determined to deliver the player the Yankees envisioned in their trade. On August 25th, 1980, with the Yankees clawing to a half-game lead in the American League East, Jones took to his spot in center field in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics, focused on making an impact defensively.

With two runners on base, the Athletics power-hitting outfielder Tony Armas drove Tommy John’s offering screaming into the left-center gap. Racing to snare Armas’ blast, Jones connected squarely with Oakland’s cement outfield wall. With Jones lying on the ground motionless, the situation turned grave.

“They asked Gene Monahan what was the worst injury he had, and he said, ‘Ruppert Jones.’ I was the worst injury he ever had because I stopped breathing,” Jones said during his 2018 interview. “He had to get me breathing again before he could get me off the field.”


Jones suffered a severe concussion and separated shoulder that ended his 1980 campaign. The impact was so powerful that he was unable to recall the immediate 24 hours after he was injured.

''People tell me what happened,'' Jones said to the New York Times, ''but there's a whole night of my life I don't remember. Initially, I was just grateful I was still alive. When I woke up feeling somewhat fine and alive, I was relieved.''

Jones watched helplessly as the Yankees battled the Royals for the 1980 American League championship. Even though he could not participate on the field, he empathized as his teammates wrestled with defeat.

“I felt [their] pain; those guys really played hard,” he said. “Kansas City played a little better than we did. That is all you can say, they played a little better than we did, so consequently, they won; they outplayed us.”

As Jones worked his way back into shape, the Yankees traded him to the San Diego Padres during 1981 spring training. The trade marked a sojourn that included a 1982 National League All-Star selection and a World Series victory with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. After his final major league season with the California Angels in 1987, he continued to play in Japan and the minor leagues before hanging it up for good in 1989.

Looking at his post-concussion accolades, most fans would not understand the extent that Jones suffered the rest of his career. His injury came well before the sports community acknowledged the severity of concussions and their proper treatment.

“After my head injury, [my body] couldn’t do what I wanted it to do,” he said. “People don’t understand the damage that a head injury does to a person. Your head is your computer. It works all of the parts of your body. When it is not functioning ... parts of your body suffer.”

For the rest of his baseball playing days, the trauma altered not only his skills but also his life in ways that were never evident in any box score.

“I never got over it,” he said. “My shoulder was not the issue. I never was the same again. Some things happened to me that I didn’t know and that nobody knew. As the years progressed, I started getting an idea … my life was never the same again. Let’s just put it like that … I was never the same.”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

2018 Donruss Baseball Review - How Donruss is creating marvels for the upcoming season

Cracking open a box of 2018 Donruss Baseball, collectors are kept on their toes with the robust assortment of variations and parallels that reside in each pack. While Donruss boasts the inclusion of Shohei Ohtani’s coveted autographs, the depth and historical connections of make a box 2018 Donruss Baseball a marvelous experience even for the most seasoned of collectors.

2018 Donruss Shohei Ohtani Mound Marvels / Donruss

The 270-card base set contains the Donruss Rated Rookie and Diamond Kings staples, combined with a wonderful mix of coveted young stars such as Aaron Judge, Rafael Devers, and Rhys Hoskins, as well as cards of past and present icons in the famed 1984 Donruss design that includes Mickey Mantle.

2018 Donruss Mickey Mantle / Donruss

Donruss added a new twist to the base set in 2018, inserting multi-player cards that feature some of the top pairings in the game. The Houston Astros keystone combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, and Dodgers mainstays Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager make up some of the modern duos featured in the set. Maintaining their bridge across generations, Donruss honors vintage duos such as Montreal Expos Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, and Big Red Machine stalwarts Dave Concepcion and Tony Perez.

2018 Donruss Multiplayer Parallel / Donruss

Drilling down on the base set, collectors will find many curveballs that will force them to keep their eyes on each card. The first are the nickname parallels, with Aaron Judge being cleverly renamed the “NY 12th Judicial District,” teammate Gary Sanchez labeled as “The Kraken,” and Francisco Lindor as, “Mr. Smile.” The second are the image variations, which exist on both the regular base cards and the 1984 designs. A helpful tip for most of the base variations are the black baseball on the top left of reverse side of the card.
2018 Donruss Base and Variations / Donruss
The variations are so plentiful in 2018 Donruss Baseball, that after opening two boxes, I was still over 50 cards shy of a complete base set, while compiling doubles of each variation. Even though the difficulty of building a complete set might be frustrating for some collectors, the ensuing numbered parallels, autographs, and relics more than made up for it.

2018 Donruss Signature Series / Donruss
Each box guaranteed three hits, and between the two boxes, there were a total of three autographs, two Signature Series cards and one autographed relic card. The other three hits were relic cards, including that of New York Mets hopeful and former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.


The serial numbered parallels were plentiful between the two boxes, yielding inserts of Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, and Max Scherzer in a wide color palette that is sure to draw the interest of many collectors.

2018 Donruss Parallels / Donruss
Despite the long odds at a complete set, collectors have a lot to look forward to by opening a box (or two) of 2018 Donruss Baseball. The clean design and exciting inserts, combined with the player selection that is tinted with just the right amount of nostalgia, drive interest in the product that goes well beyond the prospect of landing a Shohei Ohtani autograph.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Rudy Arias, member of the 1959 Go-Go White Sox, dies at 86

Rodolfo “Rudy” Arias, a member of the famed 1959 Go-Go Chicago White Sox, passed away on Friday January 12, 2018 in Miami, Florida according to a family member. The Cuban native was 86.

The lithe left-handed pitcher played only one season in the major leagues, but what a fine one it was. Signed by the White Sox in 1952, Arias fought injuries while working his way up to the American League pennant winners in 1959.

Rudy Arias Personal Photo

“I signed in 1952 and they sent me to Madisonville, Kentucky,” Arias told me in 2012. “My first year I came to the United States, I won 16 games. The owner of the Havana club came to my town in Santa Clara. They wanted me to go to Havana because Mike Gonzalez wanted to see me [pitch].”

While Arias was eager to make an impression for his spot on Cuba’s legendary Havana professional winter league team, his fortune changed quickly before he could even get on the field in front of Gonzalez. A freak accident while arriving at the ballpark derailed his chance for a spot on the Havana club.

“I broke my arm after I slipped on the concrete [at the ballpark] and they sent me home,” he said.

Despite his injury, Arias returned to the White Sox in 1954 and they promoted him to their minor league team in Waterloo, Iowa. He survived by only using his fastball for the next few years until his arm sufficiently healed to feature his signature curveball.

By 1958, he was knocking on the big league door at Triple-A in Havana. He impressed the White Sox brass when he threw a no-hitter against Rochester.

“The last out was a fly ball to the catcher,” he said. “They gave me $1,000 for that.”



In 1959, Arias got his big break with the White Sox, making their team out of spring training. His left-handed arm gave manager Al Lopez versatility in the late innings out of their bullpen. One of his first introductions to the unwritten rules of major league baseball was when Lopez directed the rookie to drill opposing New York Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren.

“Lopez called me on the phone and said, ‘Rudy, warm up real hard and when Duren comes to hit, hit him in the head,’” Arias recalled. ‘¡O dios mio! He had 20 pitchers and he used me, the small guy! When Duren comes to hit, I threw at his head and he moved. The next pitch, I knew he was going to move back, so I hit him right in the back. He came at me with the bat. I told Duren I didn’t mean to hit him. Kluszewski [ed. note - It was Earl Torgeson] stood right in front of me and told me not to run. He was a big guy!”

Rudy Arias with the author in 2012 / N. Diunte
He fondly recalled the rest of the battles that the White Sox had with the Yankees that season, citing them as their toughest competition en route to the American League pennant. He proudly told how he foiled Mickey Mantle on a bet from teammate Jim Rivera.

“Jim Rivera told me, ‘Rudy, when Mickey Mantle comes up, if you throw him a knuckleball, I will give you a six pack of beer.’ I throw it, Mantle waited and waited, and man he got a pop up to second base.”

Arias was on the roster for the 1959 World Series; however, he did not see any action against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He received a full share for his efforts. Over 50 years later, he marveled at both the spectacle of seeing over 90,000 people at the Coliseum, and the amount of his share if he played in the World Series now.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “All around, wow – 93,000 people! There was a lot of noise. It was different pitching there.

“Where’s the money now? Now they get a lot of money for that. They gave me $4,800. I didn’t believe it! That money is different now!”

In the off-season after the World Series, the White Sox traded Arias to the Cincinnati Reds. They sent him to Triple-A in San Diego in 1960. He spent three years in their minor league system and crossed paths with many of the Reds’ future stars including sharing a dugout with Pete Rose in Macon, Georgia.

“They sent me to Macon Georgia and I played with Pete Rose,” Arias said. “He was crazy!”

Arias had one last hurrah in 1961 while pitching for the Mariano team during the final season of the Cuban professional league. He had enough life in his arm to throw an 18-inning gem and lose! On the other side of the hill was a young Luis Tiant.

“Luis Tiant came in the 11th inning,” he said. “I pitched the whole game and lost it in the 18th inning. I do not believe it happened! Nap Reyes the manager, he never came to me and asked, ‘Rudy, how do you feel?’ I was throwing, throwing and throwing and he never told me nothing.”

Struggling with injuries, Arias never returned to his major league form; however, he played in the minor leagues and Mexico until 1967. He settled in Miami working in construction and later as a security guard before retiring.

He passed the family legacy to his son Rudy, who was a minor league catcher and a long-time major league bullpen catcher. One of his highlights included earning a World Series ring in 1996 with the New York Yankees.

In retirement, Arias received fan mail from fans all over the country, which he kept neatly in binders in his home. He marveled how they came from such far off places like Alaska.

“I get a lot of letters now from all over, more than when I played,” he said.



Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tommy John with luminous visions of facing Mickey Mantle

During Sunday’s Old Timer’s Day, tales of the Yankees legends resurface, many paying homage to the great players of their franchise. Tommy John, who pitched eight of his 26 major league seasons with the Yankees, shared how he was given the royal treatment by Mickey Mantle during their first big league encounter.

“The first time I faced him he hit a home run off of me,” John said on Saturday at the DAC Field Day in Bayside, New York. “It was in Cleveland. It was a fly ball to right field that went out; boom, a home run.”


John only lasted one-third of an inning on May 8, 1964, with manager George Strickland pulling the 20-year-old after one more batter. It was certainly a learning experience for the young lefty, but it was not the last time they would meet.

“He hit one by my head in Chicago,” he said. “I have no idea how close it came, but I saw the ball and I could not react to it. That’s how hard it was hit. I could hear the ball zing by my ear and I could feel the air of the ball. I look at first base at Mickey. He looks at me with that little grin he had and he goes like this, (makes a two-inch gap between his thumb and forefinger), two inches; the ball went right off my ear. If that would have been two [inches] over, it hits me and I’m Herb Score or dead. That’s how hard he could hit the ball.”

Fans and players alike speak of Mantle’s prodigious power with the bat, but often overlooked was Mantle’s blazing speed. Plagued by leg injuries throughout his career, Mantle wrapped his legs from his ankles to mid-thigh just to get on the field. Despite his ailments and the advanced stage of his career, John noticed that when the game absolutely necessitated it, Mantle could summon the speed of his youth.

“He hit a ball to our shortstop Ron Hansen, and his buddy Whitey Ford was pitching,” he said. “The game was close and Hansen charged the ball. He threw to first base and it was bang-bang. That’s how fast Mickey ran. He could only do it once, but his buddy needed a base runner and he almost beat it out on a regular ground ball to shortstop.”

* - This article was originally published June 22, 2014 for Examiner.com

Friday, May 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Kuzava signed photo / N. Diunte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



Monday, February 6, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Baseball fortifies their place as the gold standard in baseball cards

With Kris Bryant brazenly fortifying the cover of 2017 Topps Baseball, Topps is making a clear signal of their expectations for their flagship product. Promoting this year’s theme of having fans, “rediscover Topps baseball,” the quality of this set is exhibit A as to why 2017 is a perfect time to fall in love with baseball card collecting.

2017 Topps Series 1 / Topps
The 350-card base set, book-ended by Bryant and David Ortiz, features action-packed photos of key players across the league. Sharp collectors will notice that Topps reinserted card number seven back into the checklist, placing New York Yankees phenom Gary Sanchez in the spot previously skipped or reserved for Mickey Mantle since 1996.

No matter how impressive the clear and crisp layout of the base set appears, 2017 Topps Baseball's true gem is the 1987 Topps 30th anniversary parallels. Designed in the wood motif of the most fashioned set of the 1980s, the glossy updated look and feel of the 30th anniversary parallels are sure to attract collectors for both nostalgic and aesthetic reasons. Some collectors would go as far to argue that Topps could have made the entire base set a throwback to the 1987 design.

Topps keeps tradition by creating a wide array of inserts and parallels to keep collectors interested past compiling the base set. The expansive Topps Salute 100-card insert set presents a beautiful chronology of the past season, and the Five Tool subset highlights the ultra-talented superstars that excel in many facets of the game.

2017 Topps Inserts / Topps

Each box promises one autograph or relic card. The box provided for this review uncovered an autographed Jose Canseco 1987 Topps 30th anniversary card. Canseco’s original 1987 Topps card was one of the most iconic in the set, the card emblazoned with a Topps Rookie Cup picturing the young slugger eagerly sitting in the dugout. The 30th anniversary autographed version featured a Canseco orbiting a trademark moon shot with a bold signature on the card.

Set builders will be happy with the collation, as a box came up only 30 cards short of a 350-card complete set; however, the cards were condition sensitive, as quite a few had dinged corners fresh out of the pack. Buoyed by the stunning 1987 retro cards, collectors will easily overlook a few soft corners as they are quickly reminded why Topps remains the industry gold standard.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jim Bouton reflects on Ball Four as he auctions its recordings and manuscripts

Jim Bouton, the author of the revolutionary baseball book, Ball Four, has placed all of his audio recordings, notes, original manuscripts, and the subsequent letters from Major League Baseball urging him to retract his work, up for auction. The 77-year-old retired pitcher, who spent ten seasons in the major leagues with the New York Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves, entrusted his collection to SCP Auctions, who expects the memorabilia which also includes some of his game-used items, to fetch in the neighborhood of $300,000.

Jim Bouton - 1965 Topps / Topps
Ball Four provided a look inside the major league clubhouse, with Bouton jotting down notes about anything of interest that happened during the season, whether it was on or off the field. In addition to Major League Baseball, Bouton’s work aroused the ire of the New York Yankees, who allegedly banned him after the 1970 publication of Ball Four from attending Old-Timers’ Day for writing about Mickey Mantle’s drinking habits.

In 1998, Bouton’s son Michael wrote a passionate letter to the New York Times to make the case for his father’s return to the annual Yankees Old-Timers’ Day. Published on Father’s Day, his son’s letter tugged at the heart strings of many, including the New York Yankees, who quickly welcomed Bouton back into the fold.

“That was sort of a bittersweet thing,” Bouton said when we spoke at the 2010 BAT Dinner in New York City. “I had been uninvited for 28 years, so the circumstances of me being invited back had to do with the fact that my daughter Lauren had been killed in an automobile accident the year before.

“My son Michael wrote a letter to the New York Times to be published on Father’s Day and said, ‘The Yankees should let bygones be bygones and that Old Timers Day was always a time for families, as he remembered when we had Old Timers Day when I was a player with the Yankees. So Michael ended the letter, ‘My dad can use all the hugs he can get right now.’ It was such a sweet and beautiful letter. The Yankees read it and invited me back.”

Forty years after his landmark work was published Bouton was still excited to discuss its merits. He explained why Ball Four has persisted despite his uncertainties about how it would be received.

“I thought it would cause a little excitement because I knew I was writing some things that hadn’t been written in a sports book,” he said. “I thought after a year or so it would die down, but it hasn’t. It didn’t hurt that I wrote an update in 1980, 1990, and 2000 to keep it alive. I think the characters in the book are so interesting and so funny; I think that [is what] resonates with people.”

While Bouton didn’t set out to revolutionize the world of sports writing, he acknowledged that Ball Four opened up a new world for authors to explore. Capturing the life of an athlete away from the stories told by box scores and game recaps became of greater interest to both sportswriters and fans alike.

“I think probably after the book came out, it was no longer possible for a sportswriter to be an extension of the team’s public relations department, which is what it usually was,” Bouton said. “Now I think reporters said, ‘Ok, people want to know more about these guys and their batting averages; they want to know what kind of people they are.’ I think because the players are attractively interesting with wonderful backgrounds, the more people know about them, the more they’ll become interested in the game.”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Art Pennington, Last Negro League All-Star, Dies At 93

Art Pennington, one of the last true All-Stars from the Negro Leagues, passed away Wednesday, January 4, 2017 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was 93.

With Pennington’s passing, so goes the last living great who made his career primarily in the Negro Leagues. The switch-hitting outfielder made his first All-Star appearance in the Negro Leagues East-West Game in 1942 at 19, surrounded by ten future Hall of Famers including Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige. Speaking with Pennington in 2009, he was in awe of being in the company of such tremendous talent at a young age.

“They had some great players in that game,” he said. “I was very young. … We played at Comiskey Park; it was the first time I ever played in a big park like that.”

Art Pennington Fritsch Negro League Baseball Stars Card / Author's Collection

Nicknamed "Superman" he made his entry into the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old in 1940 with the Chicago American Giants. His place on the club didn’t sit well with some of the veterans, especially those who were benched after he arrived.

“When I first went to that league with the American Giants, Jim Taylor was my manager,” he recalled. “Taylor [first] told me I was going to play shortstop, and then he told me I was going to play first base. One of the guys [Don] Reese didn’t like it because he had to sit. … I took another guy's job. I had a strong arm and I could run.”
Pennington in 1942 with Chicago American Giants teammates / Balt. Afro-American

Pennington exuded confidence every time he stepped into the batter’s box, posting eye popping batting averages of .359 in 1945 and .370 in 1950 for the Chicago American Giants. His cockiness at the plate was even more evident when he’d taunt the opposing pitcher with what became his trademark catchphrase.

“I had a saying, ‘Throw it and duck!’” he laughed. “We barnstormed against Dizzy Dean and I didn’t know who he was. I told him to, ‘Throw it and duck!’ He threw it and ducked, and I hit a homerun off of Dizzy Dean! I was young and goofy at that time and that was my saying.”

Pennington jumped the Negro Leagues in 1946 to join Jorge Pasquel’s Mexican League in search of fairer racial treatment and a higher paying salary.

“I faced some tough guys in the Mexican League,” he said. “They had a tough outfit in Caracas. Chico Carrasquel, said, ‘You’ll be going to the majors. I said, ‘You don’t know how it is up there. You see my wife?’ That’s why I jumped to Mexico. The conditions were better down there.”

In Mexico, Pennington met his future wife Anita. He explained how he courted her despite them both speaking completely different languages.

“She was a fine looking woman, a beautiful red-headed woman,” he recalled. “We were in the same restaurant. They had a lot of fans in the restaurants in those foreign countries. Her and her girlfriend came in the restaurant, and they knew we were ballplayers. So I talked to her, and I gave her and her girlfriend a pass to the game. From then on, they knew where I was eating. They were there all the time. Finally, we got together. In Mexico, you couldn’t take a woman out by themselves. They called them Señoritas. You got to have some kind of brother, sister, a chaperone; that’s how I ran into her.”

Thinking about his wife brought back painful memories of not only her passing, but the struggles they had when they returned from Mexico. The harsh realities of segregation over fifty years later resonated with Pennington.

“I look at my wife’s picture since she’s dead and I think about what she went through — all that we went through,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. We came out of Mexico and we took a train to catch a bus out of Little Rock, Arkansas. They wouldn’t let her go to the colored waiting room to stay with me in the colored waiting room; they wanted her to go to the white waiting room. I said, ‘No way, because she couldn’t speak any English. How is she going to go with me?’ I had to call my mother and father to come pick us up from Hot Springs. He came to pick us up and we’re standing out on the curb; he’s putting my luggage in the car and he said, ‘Where is your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s standing right there.’ She couldn’t speak a word of English. I’m so glad she didn’t because when we got off the plane coming from Cuba, and we got on a sightseeing bus, I had to write her a note for her to get me a sandwich. I said, ‘Ain’t this a shame? I’m American born and she’s got to go and get me a sandwich.’”

Pennington was a pioneer himself as one of the first African-American players in the Pacific Coast League. He played there in 1949 with the Portland Beavers. He experienced rough treatment that affected his play due to his wife’s fair skinned color.

“In Portland, I couldn’t play out there the way they mistreated me,” he said. “Frankie Austin and Luis Marquez were out there with me. They stayed out there longer. I just left there; a fellow from Caracas, Venezuela paid me double the amount of money. Marquez was doing well in Portland; he didn’t have a white wife.”
Art Pennington Signed Ron Lewis Postcard / Author's Collection
When Pennington returned to organized baseball in 1952, he went on a tear, leading the Three-I league with a .349 batting average for Keokuk. He continued to annihilate pitching in that league hitting .345 in 1954. Despite his feats at the plate, no major league team called.

“They didn’t do me good, but I left my records in all of those minor leagues,” he said.

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

He left organized ball in 1955 to play with the highly competitive Bismarck, North Dakota semi-pro team, winning a league championship with fellow Negro Leaguers Ray Dandridge and Bill Cash. He had one last hurrah in pro ball in 1958 with St. Petersburg in the New York Yankees organization, batting .339. Sal Maglie, who pitched with the Yankees in 1958, lobbied for the Yankees to give Pennington a look.

“He was with the Yankees in spring training, and he told them, ‘There’s another Mickey Mantle down there! He can hit!’ he recalled. “They didn’t do nothing.”

Pennington retired in 1985 after working for more than 20 years for Rockwell Collins. He was a fixture at Negro League reunions and traveled the country spreading the word about the league’s history.

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

When we spoke in 2009, Pennington was at the crossroads of history. Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. As someone who faced tremendous discrimination and segregation, Pennington was optimistic about a black man holding the highest office in the country.

“I never thought we’d have a black anything,” he said. “I’m really glad they picked an educated black man, well educated; I’m proud. I’m hoping he does well.”

As excited as he was of the new President, Pennington was trying to put his life back together after his home was destroyed in a devastating flood in Cedar Rapids. We spoke only a few days after he was allowed back in his home. He was grateful for all of the help he received despite many significant baseball artifacts being destroyed by the raging waters.

“I just moved back into my house two days ago,” he said. “I lost one of my cars, I lost my dogs. FEMA put me over in Marion in one of those mobile homes until a couple days ago. They treated me great and gave me a little money. I’ve had help from different ballplayers. My biggest help was from Charley Pride. He sent me $1,000. One fellow in Kansas City, he gave me $750. I get [money] in most of the letters. I just appreciate all of the people that helped me a little bit. I lost everything; I’ll never get it back. I’m in a book, Unforgotten Heroes. Someone sent me a new one. I really appreciate all of the people that helped me.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Irv Noren at 92 recalls his ride from worst to first with the Yankees

Fans of yesteryear will remember Irv Noren as the bridge between Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle roaming center field for the New York Yankees. As much as he is known as an integral part of three World Series championship teams in the Bronx (1952, ’53, and ’56), little do fans know that he was dangerously close to playing for their cross town rivals in Brooklyn.

Signed by the Dodgers in 1946 after serving in World War II, Noren tore up the Dodgers farm system, winning consecutive league MVP awards, first in the Double-A Texas League in 1948, and then in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League the next season (an award ironically DiMaggio had won in 1935). So why wasn’t Noren wearing Dodger Blue instead of Yankee Pinstripes?

Irv Noren at his home in 2012 / N. Diunte
With the Dodgers fielding an outfield that contained Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had other plans for his budding superstar. During a 2012 visit with Noren at his home in Oceanside, California, he explained how he found out just what those plans were.

“I just came out of Hollywood and had a great year there," Noren said. "That winter, I was sitting for dinner one night in Arcadia where we were living and I heard this come over the radio, ‘Irv Noren’s been sold to the Washington Senators by the Brooklyn Dodgers for $70,000 and a player or whatever.’ I dropped my food and went out in the backyard and said, ‘Washington Senators!’”

With the Dodgers’ finances suffering due to their investment in the Brooklyn football franchise of the AAFC, Rickey sold Noren to recover some of the losses they faced. Little did he know that the sale of Noren would haunt him only a few years later.

After two excellent seasons with the Washington Senators, Noren’s sweet left-handed swing and superb defense in the spacious Griffith Stadium attracted the attention of Yankees manager Casey Stengel. Disappointed with the early season play of the replacements for the recently retired DiMaggio, the Yankees acquired Noren in May of 1952 from the Senators in a six-player deal.

“Perhaps we gave up a lot, but we had to in order to get what we wanted. We wanted Noren. We need a center fielder who can hit, run, field, and throw,” said Stengel to the New York Times.

Within a matter of months, Noren went from worst to first, and rode the elevator all the way up to World Series victory.

“It was different going into the Yankees clubhouse instead of the other way," he said. "I said to myself, ‘Jeez, this is where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and everybody was, in this clubhouse.'"

High expectations were omnipresent, as none of the veterans wanted anyone getting in the way of their World Series checks. The team atmosphere was a tremendous shift from playing in Washington.

“It was fun to go to the ballpark because you knew that the guys meant business and policed the game themselves," he said. "Some guys stayed out all night and if they couldn’t play the next day or pitch, they’d let them know. ‘You’re screwing around with my money. In the winter do whatever you want, but right now [don’t do it]. With the Yankees, everybody wanted to beat them, and you couldn’t make a mistake against them. You had to produce over there. In Washington, you could go 0-8, but in New York if you went 0-8, someone else would be in there. They had to win.”

Noren played five seasons with the Yankees from 1952-56, which in addition to the aforementioned World Series championships, included a selection to the 1954 All-Star Game. He continued playing in the majors until 1960, making appearances with the Athletics, Cardinals, Cubs and Dodgers. Upon retiring from his playing career, he was involved with a variety of business ventures that included owning a sporting goods store, a screen printing business, and breeding thoroughbred horses. In between all of that, Hall of Famer Dick Williams recruited Noren to serve as a coach for the Oakland Athletics during their championship seasons in the early 1970s. Now completely retired, Noren enjoys the company of his family and looking after his horses.

“I felt I was a pretty lucky guy," he said. "You never give up and something good is going to happen if you hang out and do your best. It was tough in them days. Most of us spent the best years of our life in the service. I went in from 18 to 21; that’s the best three years of your life. That’s fine, we did it for the country.

"We didn’t make a lot of money, but we played for fun and a bit of money like they say. It made us respect a little bit more about what life was about, what the priorities are in life. I’ve got 15 grandkids. I get up after dinner and my grandson said, ‘Did you really play center field for the Yankees?’ [To them] we were never young; we’re [just] old. I have a few horses that keep me busy with my buddies, as well as my grandkids and great grandkids; that’s what I’m living for.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Joe DeMaestri, All-Star and member of 1961 New York Yankees, passes away at 87

Joe DeMaestri, a major league All-Star and member of the 1961 World Series champion New York Yankees, passed away August 26, 2016 at his home in Novato, California according to his daughter, Donna. He was 87.

Born December 9, 1928 in San Francisco, DeMaestri was a star at Tamalpais High School. He caught the attention many teams, but ultimately signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1946 due to his connection with scout Charlie Walgreen, who was also a family friend.

Joe DeMaestri signed baseball card / Baseball-Almanac.com

His break came when he was signed by the Chicago White Sox in the Rule 5 draft after the 1950 season. He served the 1951 season as a backup infielder, spelling Chico Carrasquel at shortstop and Hall of Famer Nellie Fox at second base. Now christened as a major leaguer, the St. Louis Browns took a chance on the upstart DeMaestri, acquiring him in an eight-player trade prior to the start of the 1952 season.

The lowly Browns were helmed by the curmudgeonly Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who took over the team just as DeMaestri arrived. Speaking with DeMaestri during a 2008 interview from his home, he felt that nothing could have prepared him for the experience of playing for Hornsby.

“He wasn't one of the favorite managers of anybody at the time,” DeMaestri said. “He was really from the old school. Bill Veeck fired him halfway through the season. He was really tough on everybody. What he expected, you just couldn't do. Everybody was supposed to hit like him; he was just a tough old boy.”

Hornsby wasn’t the only colorful character he countered in St. Louis. DeMaestri found himself placed in a surreal position playing defense behind the legendary ageless pitcher Satchel Paige.

“It's been so long that I remember playing with Satch,” he said. “We didn't know how old he was. He certainly could throw; he had tremendous control.”

DeMaestri’s reign in St. Louis was short, as he was on the move once again during the offseason, going to the Philadelphia Athletics in exchange for first baseman Eddie Robinson. This trade finally gave him the opportunity to play full time, learning the nuances of the position from two great shortstops of his era, first with Eddie Joost in Philadelphia and then later under Lou Boudreau when the team moved to Kansas City.

“I had the fortune for playing Marty Marion, Lou Boudreau, and Eddie Joost,” he said. “What else could I ask for? Boudreau taught me the game more than anybody as far as short stop goes. I had a good arm, an accurate arm. Every field was different; some had tall grass and slowed the ball down. [He taught me to] know your hitters and how fast they are. One of the fastest was [Mickey] Mantle down the line, so was [Luis] Aparicio. Batting lefty, Mickey was the toughest. If Mickey hit one towards you and it was a two hopper, you better get it out of your glove and over there because he was gone.”

He played seven seasons for the Athletics, making the American League All-Star team in 1957. His fortunes changed at the end of the 1959 season when he rode the elevator from the cellar to the penthouse, going to the New York Yankees in the trade that brought Roger Maris to the Big Apple. He encountered a locker room full of familiar faces, not only from playing in the same league, but from the trading exchange that the Yankees built with the Athletics, using them as a pseudo farm club during the late 1950s.

“That was a story because nobody else wanted to trade with the Yankees,” he said. “We were struggling in Kansas City. If they needed somebody in a hurry, they got them from Kansas City.

“I knew all those guys; I played against them for seven years. We got to knew each other well. Roger and I were in the same trade and I was in Kansas City with Hector Lopez and Clete Boyer. We were all ex-teammates.”

While DeMaestri was now in a position to experience the thrills of post-season baseball and the riches that came with it, one thing he had to sacrifice was his playing time. While in Kansas City he was the starting shortstop, on the Yankees he was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players. He only appeared in 49 games in 1960, managing a mere 35 at-bats. He quickly learned to change his mind set to be ready when summoned.

“It's a whole different ballgame when you are playing every day instead of sitting there and trying to stay ready,” he said. “It was the toughest thing I had to do, trying to stay ready, especially when I went to New York at the end. Gil McDougald and I were the reserves. It was like spring training every day. You might not get in for two-to-three weeks, and then all of a sudden you get in. Stengel kinda had his defensive club when we got the lead. I'd go to short and Kubek would go to left. Yogi [Berra] was playing left [field] at the time. I got to play more in the second half during that 1960 season.”

DeMaestri in a front row seat to watch teammates Roger Maris and the aforementioned Mantle battle for the single season home run record and a World Series Championship in 1961. Unfortunately for DeMaestri, he spent the majority of the season on the bench, filling a similar reserve role as he did the previous year. Despite his lack of playing time, he enjoyed being a witness to a historical season.

“In 1961 we had Roger and Mickey hitting those home runs,” he said. “That was something that we all looked for everyday we went to the park. It was just a matter of waiting to see who was going to hit the most home runs that day. It was a great season. It was really a lot of fun in New York.”

DeMaestri retired from baseball after the 1961 season, going to work at his beer distributing business for the next 31 years. He sold the company in 1992 to the Eagle Distributing company.

Looking back at his career during our 2008 conversation, DeMaestri, who was known primarily for his defensive abilities, marveled at how the game changed in the field. Infielders now play much deeper than their predecessors, something he attributed to artificial turf.

“I don't think you could play that way today on these artificial fields, the ball comes too fast,” he said. “On the grass fields, nobody played back on the outfield grass. Now with the white line on the artificial fields, you look at where some of these guys are playing, these guys are making plays now in the short outfield. We never saw plays like that.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How Luis Arroyo gave one baseball fan an experience of a lifetime

Luis Arroyo, the great Puerto Rican left-handed reliever for the 1961 New York Yankees World Series championship team, passed away at the age of 88 on Wednesday January 13, 2016 in Puerto Rico after a bout with cancer. As the closer for their team, Arroyo preserved many of their victories, but one of his greatest assists came to a complete stranger well after his playing days ended.

In 2011, while milling around the hotel where the Yankees Old Timers were stationed for the weekend, I encountered Arroyo sitting regally in a chair in the lobby corner. There he was, free from the crowds swarming the other alumni making their way through the hotel's corridor. While the droves of fans and collectors flocked to the younger retired Yankees, I sensed an opportunity to talk with Arroyo about his vast treasure of experiences as a ballplayer in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s with the legendary Negro League and Puerto Rican stars who passed through the famed winter league.

Luis Arroyo (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
As I approached Arroyo to gauge his desire to discuss his early baseball career, he seemed a bit surprised and guarded. As we started to talk, I told him I was a friend of his former teammate Cholly Naranjo. After putting them in touch on the phone as we sat there in the lobby, Arroyo relaxed and opened up his tremendous knowledge of baseball’s unheralded superstars. For thirty minutes, he brought up the names of such greats as Willard Brown, Bus Clarkson, Perucho Cepeda, Ruben Gomez, and Satchel Paige. The more he spoke, the more pride he showed sharing his recollections of being amongst these superstars before he hit the major leagues.

Photo of Arroyo with Ponce in Puerto Rico / N. Diunte
One fellow Puerto Rican he made sure to emphasize was Francisco “Pancho” Coimbre. An early standout with Ponce’s team in Liga de Béisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, as well as in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans, Arroyo insisted Coimbre was the finest hitter on the island.

“I could name you the best hitter ever to come out of winter ball — Frank Coimbre,” Arroyo said in 2011. “He didn’t get a chance to play because he was colored. He was the best hitter in Puerto Rico and I could bet you anything that he could hit in the big leagues. He could run, throw, and hit. He was a hell of a ballplayer.”

As our conversation progressed, the then 84-year-old Arroyo said he was tired from the travel and wouldn’t be attending the team’s evening festivities at a local restaurant. He then proceeded to show me his tickets and to my surprise, he offered me the tickets as he didn’t want them to go to waste. I surely couldn’t turn down an opportunity to have a good meal and meet more Yankees alumni.

Old Timers Day Reception Pass / N. Diunte
Before retiring to his room, Arroyo asked me to meet him in the lobby at 9AM the next morning, as he said he would have something good for me. I thanked him for his generosity and assured him I would be there.
David Wells (l.) and the author at Yankees alumni party / N. Diunte
After waking up from an enjoyable evening mingling with the players at a Times Square restaurant, I sat on the train to the hotel with a child-like excitement for my morning encounter with Mr. Arroyo. When I arrived in the hotel lobby, Arroyo was sitting alone reading the newspaper while the slight bustle of the early risers passed him by. After a friendly greeting, we picked up where we left off yesterday’s conversation, as he started running off stories about his time in the National League with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati. Whether it was colorful anecdotes of seeing Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Sandy Koufax toil in Puerto Rico before hitting superstardom in the majors, or playing with Stan Musial and a young Frank Robinson, Arroyo had seen it all — even the time in Havana when he was playing with the Sugar Kings and shortstop Leo Cardenas was shot by wayward gunfire.

Arroyo (l.) with Fidel Castro (r.) in 1959 as a member of the Havana team / N. Diunte
As the early sunlight penetrated the glass doors of the lobby, Arroyo perked up even more, speaking with wonderful candor about his time with the Yankees. Like an assembly line, the vaunted names of the Yankees championship team rolled off his tongue: Berra, Ford, Howard, Mantle, and Maris. For each of them he had his own colorful bit, each told with a laugh and a smile. We finally got down to his stellar 1961 season, when he appeared in 65 games for the Yankees, saving 29 of them en route to a 15-5 record, an All-Star appearance, and a sixth place finish in the American League MVP voting.

“When I had that good year, [finishing] 15-5, and we won the World Series, I used to pitch all year around,” he said. “When I finished the World Series in 1961, the GM Roy Hamey said to stop pitching all year around. I told him that I pitch winter ball because I wasn’t making any money. He took care of me. He gave me $10,000.”
Photo of Arroyo pitching that is outside of the Yankees suites / N. Diunte
Arroyo’s decision to take the money from the Yankees was one that he regretted later in life. Instead of keeping in shape during the time he would have normally been playing winter baseball, he strayed from his training routine; a decision he felt ultimately shortened his career.

“I made a mistake,” he lamented. “When I wasn’t pitching, instead of going to the ballpark and keep running and doing some throwing, I went out with all the friends, drank, and ate, and when I came to spring training, I was 20 pounds overweight; it was the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t blame him, he did me a favor. When I gained all those pounds, I couldn’t throw at all. In 1963, I hurt my arm. … I went to bed and I felt something to my elbow and that was the end of my career. I had an operation. I tried to play winter ball and I couldn’t do it.”

While his arm injury spelled the end of Arroyo’s playing career with the Yankees, he remained with them as a scout for 20 years. He was instrumental in getting them to sign Ricky Ledee, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, the latter for which he told me how he had to work hard on George Steinbrenner to convince him to go after a skinny 16-year-old outfielder from Puerto Rico.

As he prepared to move on with the rest of his day, he called down his grandson Gustavo from his hotel room. As he emerged from the elevator, he was holding an envelope. Arroyo introduced me to his grandson and proceeded to take a ticket and special pass from the envelope. He wanted me to be their guest at Old Timers Day. He said he thought it was something I would enjoy as a baseball fan. He instructed me to meet them at the hotel at 9AM for breakfast the next morning.

2011 Old Timers Day Suite Ticket / N. Diunte
I went home elated with my ticket and called a few friends with the news. I wasn’t sure what was in store for the next day, but I was excited about the opportunity. I met Gustavo for breakfast at the hotel in the morning and watched at the Old Timers left on the first bus to the stadium. We went on the next bus for the players’ guests, which took us directly into the private entrance to the stadium. We were escorted through the inside of the stadium up to a series of specially connected luxury suites.

A small sampling of the decor in the suites / N. Diunte
What an experience watching the ceremonies and the games from the suites. The food was top notch and as you start to mingle with the players families, you realize that the event is not only an annual highlight for the retired players, but also their families who can experience the cheers of their loved ones once again from the sold out crowd.
Arroyo's entrance on the big screen at Yankee Stadium / N. Diunte
In the sweltering heat, the elder alumni, including Arroyo made their way back up to the suites before those who played in the game. He was accompanied by the likes of Don Larsen, Hector Lopez, and Moose Skowron, as well as Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. As the aforementioned battery entered the room, they were closely guarded by security and escorted to a private area of the suites. Arroyo managed to get over to the private area to say a few words to both Berra and Ford and emerged with a photo in his hands. He handed it to me and it was signed by both Ford and himself. It was another act of generosity by the former Yankee that deepened my appreciation for his time and effort.

Autographed photo of Ford and Arroyo / N. Diunte
After watching the game and returning to the hotel on the bus sitting next to Skowron, (who was telling jokes all along the way) I met with Arroyo and his grandson and once again thanked them for bringing me behind the curtain for Old Timers Day. They extended the baseball opportunity of a lifetime to a total stranger and for their generosity, I am eternally grateful.

Moose Skowron (r.) with the author in 2011 / N. Diunte
I met with both of them in subsequent years during their return trips to Old Timers Day, last seeing Arroyo in 2013. Despite being limited by weakened knees, he made it his priority to attend.

“Even though I have arthritis in my knees, I can’t miss it.”