Showing posts with label Obituary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Obituary. Show all posts

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.’”



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 SeƱoritas. 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.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Daryl Spencer, hit first major league home run on the West Coast, dies at 88

Daryl Spencer, a major league veteran of ten seasons and a baseball pioneer in Japan, passed away in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas on Monday January 2, 2017. He was 88.

Spencer broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1952 after swatting over 20 home runs in three of his first four minor league seasons. The 24-year-old Spencer continued his power hitting as he manned all three infield positions for the Giants in 1953 while slamming 20 home runs. Just as Spencer’s talents were progressing, he was drafted for military service before the start of the 1954 season.

Daryl Spencer / 2013 BBM
His military tour cost him an opportunity to be a part of the Giants 1954 World Series Championship. His efforts the previous season didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, as they voted him a share of the World Series earnings.

"Even thought I didn’t play, they voted me a $2,000 World Series share,” he said to SABR member Bob Rives. “That doesn’t seem like much now, but each player only got about $5,000.”

Spencer returned in 1956 and remained a fixture in the Giants lineup as they moved to San Francisco. He gained notoriety when he hit the first home run in West Coast major league history, blasting a shot off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale in the fourth inning of the first game of the 1958 season.

He played with the Giants through the end of the 1959 season when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals that offseason. He spent another four years in the majors, seeing action with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds until he was released by Cincinnati on his 35th birthday in 1963.

“Some birthday present, huh?” he asked Rives.

His release opened the door for another opportunity that came from an unlikely place, Japan. The Hankyu Braves offered Spencer a contract for the 1964 season. What he encountered in Japan was a league far behind the caliber he was used to in the major leagues.

“I went over in 1964, it's changed a lot now,” he told me during a 2008 phone interview. “The managers didn't know what they were doing. I've seen better little league coaches than the managers over there. The pitchers would pitch nine innings and the next day they would be in the bullpen pitching relief, and they would be worn out. Five years, most of the good pitchers would be worn out because they pitched them so much.”

Spencer felt that if he was able to apply the strategies that he learned until the tutelage of the likes of teammates Alvin Dark and Bill Rigney, that he would have made a run at the championship annually in Japan.

“If I would have managed the first couple years, we would have breezed in every year,” he said. “Percentage baseball in Japan when I first went was so ridiculous and it took me about almost two-thirds of the season to get to the pitcher.

“I was getting all their signs; I knew their signs and I couldn't get them to pitch out. I knew, when they were stealing, they would pitch inside and the guy would hit the ball to right field. One time I got them to pitch out, the catcher spoke a little English. One time I was playing second base and gave him a sign and we threw the guy out by ten feet. He said, 'Oh that's a good play!' They knew nothing.”

Spencer hit 74 home runs in his first two seasons in Japan in the supposed twilight of his career. He was at a point where his knowledge matched his physical abilities and the combination of the two in Japan allowed him to excel.

“I did real well over there,” he said. “I read most of the pitchers and I hit a lot of home runs. I got so frustrated. It got to the point there would be a runner on first with two outs and I might hit a home run, and the first thing I know, the guys steals and he gets thrown out and now I'm leading off the next inning. It took me about two weeks with an interpreter to tell them, 'When I am batting, I don't want anyone to steal.' They weren't smart. Playing major league baseball and going there was like playing little league, stealing their signs and everything.”

He brought an aggressive style to Japan that went against cultural customs. While major league baseball players were famous for their take out slides, those actions weren’t part of the game in Japan, that is until Spencer broke tradition.

“They never broke up a double play before I went to Japan,” he said. “I'm famous for breaking up the first double play; we won 1-0 because of it. The next night one of our guys slid in and knocked out a second baseman and that changed the whole style of play.”

Spencer took a hiatus from playing after the 1968 season after he hit 142 home runs in five years, well outpacing his production during the decade he spent in the major leagues. He returned as a coach in 1971, fifty pounds over his playing weight. As Spencer began to work out the players, his weight started to melt off and he mulled a return to the diamond.

“I was hitting a lot ground balls to players and the first thing you know I was down to playing weight,” he said. “One day I took batting practice and I hit six of seven out of the park and they signed me to a player contract. I was 43, 44 at the time, but I was so much better than they were, I didn't feel like I was 43. I was in pretty good shape and I was reading the pitchers; it was no challenge at all. I could have stayed a few more years.”

He spent two seasons as a player-coach, mostly as a first baseman. He finally called it quits in 1972, some 23 years after he broke into professional baseball. He returned home to work with the Coors Brewing Company.

“I came back to Wichita and got involved with Coors,” he said. “They have the NBC tournament here and I ran the Coors team here for a few years and we won a few state championships. It was mostly college kids and a few guys that played pro ball. I did that for five years and kind of semi-retired.”

Looking back on his career in 2008, Spencer was proud that the records he set over 50 years ago still persisted.

“I hit the first home run on the West Coast,” he said. “[Willie] Mays and I are the only two players that hit two home runs each in back to back games. For not being such a great player, I have a couple of records.”

Monday, December 26, 2016

John Barfield, former Texas Rangers pitcher murdered at 52

On a day when most are rejoicing in holiday spirits, Christmas Eve turned fateful for former Texas Rangers pitcher John Barfield. The 52-year-old Barfield, who pitched in parts of three seasons for the Rangers from 1989-1991, was murdered at his home in Little Rock, Arkansas after engaging in a dispute with an acquaintance

John Barfield / 1991 Mother's Cookies

Barfield, whose Rangers moundmates included Hall of Famers Goose Gossage and Nolan Ryan, compiled an 8-8 record with a 4.72 ERA in 65 career appearances. According to a statement from the Rangers, Barfield's August 18th, 1990 six-inning relief victory was the last relief victory of 5.1 or more innings, until Diego Moreno accomplished the feat for the Yankees in 2015. 


Friday, December 2, 2016

Melvin Duncan, 87, pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues

Melvin “Buck” Duncan, a former pitcher and outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, passed away November 29, 2016 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He was 87.

Born March 31, 1929 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Duncan joined the Monarchs at the tender age of 20. The watchful eyes of a future Negro League manager steered him towards one of the leagues most powerful franchises.

Melvin Duncan / Author's Collection
“I joined the Monarchs in Monroe, Louisiana,” Duncan wrote in a letter to the author in 2007. “I was scouted by Sherwood Brewer, who was from where I was raised.”

Managing the Monarchs was the legendary Buck O’Neil, who took over the helm in 1948 after Frank Duncan (no relation) retired. With O’Neil serving as a player-manager, the young hurler found that Monarchs’ skipper still took an interest in nuturing the rookies on the club.

“He was strict, gentle, and very nice to be around,” Duncan wrote. “He was like a father to the younger players; full of knowledge and would give to you. I love him very much.”

One teammate he considered a close friend was fellow pitcher Gene Collins. He found Collins special for the camaraderie they built on the road.

“Eugene Collins, he was understanding and like a brother with me, for we were roommates,” he wrote. “Whenever he pitched, he was like the fifth infielder, for he was a good fielder.”



While Collins’ name came to the forefront when recalling his favorite teammate, Duncan hesitated to choose the best player he played with in the Negro Leagues. Instead, he chose to focus on the team aspect of the game.

“It takes nine men to play the game,” he wrote. “Each man has a position to play. I was a pitcher and not a catcher, so [therefore] I was not as good as Elston Howard.”

Duncan played with the Monarchs and Detroit Stars through in 1955 while the league was in decline. Closing his 2007 letter, Duncan had a simple request on how he wanted the memory of his career to survive.

“[I want it to be remembered] that I played in the Negro Leagues and I gave all I had to give.”



* - Video Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Dave 'Boo' Ferriss, 94, twenty-game winner for Boston Red Sox

"Boo Ferriss was a great hitting pitcher. He was ambidextrous; he could throw left handed and right handed. Of course, he was a right handed pitcher. He had two great years, [and] then he hurt his arm. He would have been a great, great pitcher if he hadn’t hurt his arm. And a real class guy, real fine."- Billy Hitchcock to Gene Fehler in, "When Baseball Was Still King: Major League Players Remember the 1950s."

Dave "Boo" Ferris, who started his major league career with two consecutive 20-win seasons that led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series in 1946, passed away on Thanksgiving in Cleveland, Mississippi. He was 94.
Dave "Boo" Ferriss - SportsNola.com

Ferriss won the third game of the 1946 World Series and was left with a no-decision in the deciding seventh game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ferriss watched helplessly as Enos Slaughter made his famous "mad dash," to score the deciding run from first base on Harry Walker's double in the ninth inning. Ferriss indicated that it wasn't the World Series that was his most memorable baseball moment, but his victory in 1948 to force a one-game playoff with the Indians for the American League pennant.

"It was disappointing to lose both the 1948 and 1949 pennants, after coming so close," he said to Fehler. "In 1948 I was pitching against the Yankees on the last day of the season. If we beat the Yankees and Detroit beat the Indians, Cleveland and us would tie for the pennant. I got in trouble in the sixth inning, I believe. The Yankees loaded the bases with Hank Bauer and DiMaggio coming up. I got Bauer on a sacrifice fly to Ted [Williams] in left field and got DiMaggio out and we went on to win the game. I think it was 10-5, and of course Fenway was going wild because the scoreboard showed Detroit was beating Cleveland. We did end in a tie and that brought about the first playoff game in American League history the next day, and sad to say we lost that. Gene Bearden beat us 8-3 there in Fenway. But it was a memorable moment for me, going into that game that had so much riding on it at the time."

Perhaps much greater than his 65-30 career record with the Red Sox, was his impact on the baseball program at Delta State University. With his pitching career cut short due to arm troubles, Ferriss moved on to the collegiate ranks, literally building up Delta State's program from the field level. Six-hundred-thirty-nine victories and three Division II World Series appearances later, Delta Stats acknowledged Ferriss' indelible impact on the program by naming the baseball field after him when he retired in 1988.

Clyde King recalls a mound visit from Fidel Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ralph Branca, 90, legacy reached far beyond iconic baseball moment

Ralph Branca, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher who is most famously remembered for surrendering the home run to Bobby Thomson that catapulted the New York Giants to the 1951 World Series, passed away November 23rd, 2016 in Rye, New York. He was 90.



The Mount Vernon native and New York University grad stayed true to his local roots when he first suited up for the Dodgers in 1944 at the tender age of 18. His debut began a 12-year major league career that included one 20-win season, three All-Star appearances, and spanned 11 of those seasons with the Dodgers, interrupted by stints with the cross town rival New York Yankees, as well as the Detroit Tigers.

Ralph Branca (r.) with Bobby Valentine in 2011 / N. Diunte

While many know him for his involvement in “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Branca didn’t let that moment define the entirety of his career. In his post playing days, Branca immersed himself in charity work, first with the Baseball Assistance Team, helping out former major leaguers who fell on hard times, and later assisting youth sports organizations through his own Sports Angels foundation.

“I was chairman of the board of the Baseball Assistance Team and worked especially with the dinner committee," Branca said in 2009. “When I resigned, they all resigned at BAT. We worked together for 15 years. I said, 'Why don't we continue as another charity?' We decided to organize Sports Angels.”

Branca, who was one of the last surviving players from Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, was featured prominently in the movie, “42,” where Branca often gave a kind hand to Robinson during rough patches in his rookie season. He took every opportunity to stress the cultural and historical significance of that event, something he felt the newspapers at the time overlooked.

"That day, if you read the papers, basically, they didn't mention that he was breaking the color barrier,” Branca said in 2009. “It was a strange new territory; people didn't know how to react or behave and the papers themselves didn't note it as a historic event, just as a write up of the game period. The papers said, ‘Robinson went 0-3, walked, scored a run, and bunted successfully.’ It never mentioned that it was a great event in the history of the world. I say the world because he helped baseball number one, but also as baseball integrated, the country took a different view of blacks. It took the government seven years to pass a civil rights law which was to the benefit of everyone, lessening our country's prejudice.”

In 2011, Branca published his memoir “A Moment in Time,” with David Ritz. In the book, Branca had the opportunity to clear the air one final time about his famous pitch and his place in baseball history.

“They’ll find out who I really am,” Branca said in 2011. “I’m not the goat; the goat is the Giants team. They did the most despicable act in the history of the game by going off the field, using a telescope, using a buzzer system, which nobody else did. Stealing signs on the field is part of the game and that includes the dugouts, but to go in your locker room and hook up a buzzer system … that’s totally despicable.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rinaldo 'Rugger' Ardizoia, 95, pitched one sweet game for the New York Yankees

Rinaldo "Rugger" Ardizoia, a pitcher who played in one game for the New York Yankees in 1947, passed away Sunday evening due to complications from a stroke. He was 95.

The Italian born pitcher gained notoriety in his later years as the oldest living alumni of the New York Yankees. He pitched in one game during the 1947 season against the St. Louis Browns, throwing the final two innings in a 15-5 loss. He gave up two runs, including a home run to one of his former teammates in Iwo Jima during World War II.

Rugger Ardizoia / OOTP Developments
 "The guy that hit the home run off me was one of my boyhood idols, Walter Judnich," he said to Bill Nowlin in Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees. "I more of less slid it in for him because we were so far behind anyway."

Ardizoia played the majority of his career in the Pacific Coast League with the Hollywood Stars, where he had the chance to befriend celebrities such as Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, and a fellow that would later become president of the United States.

“Ronald Reagan — he used to hang out with us,” Ardizoia said to the New York Times in 2015.

At the completion of his professional baseball career in 1951, he went to work selling rental linen for 30 years. Still, his passion for baseball did not dwindle, as he played on the semiprofessional level until he was 61. He continued to attend old-timers reunions well into his 90s, willing to share his stories of playing with the legendary Yankees no matter how brief it was.

*Note - This was originally published July 21, 2015 for the now-defunct Examiner.com.




Friday, November 18, 2016

Bob Addis, 91, infamous play changed the fortunes of Dodgers 1951 season

Even though it was a play that only happened in front of a few thousand fans, a well-timed slide by Boston Braves outfielder Bob Addis led to a decision so impactful on the 1951 pennant race that some have called it, “The Call Heard ‘Round the World.” Barreling towards home plate on teammate Earl Torgeson’s ground ball to Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, Addis deftly slid underneath the tag of Roy Campanella, evoking an emphatic safe call from umpire Frank Dascoli. Chaos of the resulting call ensued, with the results quickly altering the course of the Dodgers season. For the next 65 years, Addis held steadfast to the umpire’s call, never wavering from the outcome. On November 15th, 2016, Addis passed away at the age of 91 in Mentor, Ohio.

Bob Addis / Author's Collection
As quickly as Dascoli ruled on the play, Campanella jumped up to protest the decision; without hesitation, Dascoli tossed Campanella out of the game, leaving the Dodgers without their star catcher after Addis scored the go-ahead run. The loss way a key factor in setting up the Dodgers three-game playoff with the New York Giants that led to Bobby Thomson’s infamous, “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Despite the ensuing fracas that resulted in not only Campanella’s ejection, but also future NBA Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, who was sent packing when the umpiring crew cleared the Dodgers’ bench, Addis remained fond of the Dodgers catcher who was also his former minor league teammate.

“Roy Campanella came down for a very short time [in 1948] and played in St. Paul,” Addis recalled in a 2008 phone interview. “He hit five home runs in a row playing down there. ... He was a great guy too. I was really disappointed when he got into the accident. I talked to him often and he was a very friendly person.”

The Hartland company immortalized Addis’ memorable play with a limited edition statue in 2013. Michael Swank, who helped to bring Addis' statue to reality with Hartland, queried the former Brave about the disputed call while he was signing the collectibles for the company.

"When he came over for the signing of the statues ... we really broke the play down," Swank said. "When we finished I asked him, 'Were you safe?' He looked at me, took a sip of his water, and said, 'The only thing I have ever been more sure of was the fact that I chose the perfect bride.'"

Bob Addis Hartland Statue / Hartland LLC

Addis played for four seasons in the major leagues from 1950-1953 with the Braves, Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh Pirates, compiling a lifetime .281 average in 208 games. Of the three organizations that he played for, he was most fond of the Pirates in retirement for how they reached out to him during his post-playing career.

“I played so briefly with the Pirates, but they treated me better than any team that I played with,” he said. “I could go to Pittsburgh anytime and see a game. They fly me over to do a signing for a few hours, pay me, and put me up in a hotel. They do well by their alumni.”

After his baseball career, Addis went back to school to become a history teacher. He served as a teacher, coach, and Athletic Director at Euclid High School for 34 years before his 1993 retirement. Surveying the landscape of the major leagues during the 1950s, Addis felt that there were so many talented ballplayers that could never fully experience a break through due to the limited amount of roster spots and rules on player movement at the time.

“The big difference between then and now is that there were only 16 major league teams,” he said. “I saw so many good ballplayers in Triple-A that really didn’t make it. They had so many players to choose from. They had players today that were as good as the players back then, but not as many. You could come up now and play 20 games and get two hits; if you did that back then, you were on the bench. They had so many players trying to make it back when we played. A lot of these guys got up only briefly or never at all.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Jim Zapp, Negro League teammate of Willie Mays, dies at 92

Jim Zapp, a star outfielder for the 1948 Negro American League Champion Birmingham Black Barons, died Friday September 30, 2016 in Harker Heights, Texas. He was 92.

Born April 18, 1924 in Nashville, Tennessee, Zapp attended a Catholic school that lacked a baseball team, so ironically his first real exposure to the game wasn't until he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. Stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1943, Zapp played third base for their Black baseball team. His abilities caught the attention of Edgar “Special Delivery” Jones, a former All-American football player at the University of Pittsburgh who was coaching the white team on the base. Zapp made history when Jones selected him to integrate his team.


Jim Zapp with the Birmingham Black Barons / Author's Collection

After returning to the United States in April 1945, Zapp was stationed in Staten Island, New York. Due to the good fortune of a recommendation from a base teammate, Zapp had his first taste of the Negro Leagues when he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants to play on the weekends. His teammates included Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, whom Zapp recalled in Neil Lanctot’s “Campy,” that the catcher used to, “like to sit on the back wheel” during bus rides.

Zapp played with the Elite Giants through 1946 before returning home briefly as a member of the Nashville Cubs. After one season with the Atlanta Black Crackers in 1947, he joined the Black Barons in 1948 off the strength of a recommendation of a player in the league. It was there in Birmingham in 1948 that things came together for Zapp and his teammates. Buoyed by a squad that included an outstanding double play combination in Piper Davis and Artie Wilson, Zapp provided much needed power to a lineup that included a 17-year-old center fielder by the name of Willie Mays. Zapp was one of many mentors to the talented teenager, and the news of his passing greatly touched the now 85-year-old Hall of Famer.

“Willie took it really hard,” his son James Zapp Jr. said in during a phone call Sunday afternoon. “His secretary e-mailed me yesterday; he’s going to write a letter that he wants read at my dad’s funeral.”

Zapp saved one of his greatest performances for the 1948 playoffs. In Game Three of the Negro American League Series against the Kansas City Monarchs, Zapp hit a game-winning ninth-inning home run to lead the Barons to a 3-2 victory. Unfortunately, he could not carry that magic into the World Series, as the Barons succumbed to the Homestead Grays 4-1 in a best of seven series.

At the close of the season, members of the Barons were invited to barnstorm with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars as well as the Indianapolis Clowns. Zapp was offered a spot with the Clowns, which he declined on the basis of a reduced draw. Years later, speaking with author Brent P. Kelley in, “The Negro Leagues Revisited” Zapp lamented about his decision to leave the team.

“I told them to just give me my release,” Zapp said. “That’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in my life.”

He came back to Nashville to play semi-pro ball after parting from Birmingham. Not completely done with the game, he went for another round with the Elite Giants for two years from 1950-51 until he was signed into organized ball.

Zapp with the Big Springs Broncs / Author's Collection

Zapp turned heads immediately with his prodigious power while playing for the Class D Paris Lakers, crushing 20 home runs with a .330 batting average in 1952. His continued to terrorize minor league pitching in 1954, setting a Longhorn League record by swatting 32 blasts in only 90 games for the Big Springs Broncs. He played one more season in 1955 with Port Arthur and Big Springs before hanging it up for good.

Zapp stayed involved in sports after finishing his professional baseball career, serving as an athletic director at multiple military bases until his 1982 retirement. He continued to share his knowledge of the game through coaching and umpiring for an additional 20 years. With the Negro Leagues experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Zapp frequently attended reunions and was honored with multiple baseball cards, including one in 2010 by Topps, as well as his own Hartland statue.

Within the last year, Zapp experienced a renaissance of sorts rarely seen by nonagenarians. In January 2015, Zapp Jr. sent correspondence indicating that due to his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s condition, that his grim prognosis could no longer allow him to accept fan mail. Amazingly, 18 months later, not only was Zapp alive, but Bill Nowlin reported in a July 2016 National Pastime Museum article, that Zapp’s condition had actually improved due to his family stepping in and altering his treatment.

“It’s been a little over a year since I took him off that medication and it worked out great,” Zapp Jr. said. “It got to the point where it was great to come see him because he was back to himself.”

Early in the morning on September 30, 2016, his son received a call from his father’s caregivers that his dad passed away. Sadly, the elder Zapp had premonitions that it was soon to be his time to go.

“He said he wanted to lay down awhile before he had breakfast,” Zapp Jr. said. “They put him back in his bed in his clothes and 20-30 minutes later, he was gone. He made a comment to them the night before that he wasn’t going to be around much longer. He was at peace.”

To be able to have that last year with his father’s improved condition and care meant the world to the Zapp family. They watched in amazement recently as Zapp reconstructed memories 70 years ago about his baseball career.

“He could remember things in the past that I was astonished that he could remember,” Zapp Jr. said. “A great era just came to an end.”

Funeral services will be held at Heritage Funeral Home in Harker Heights at 10AM on October 6, 2016.

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.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

Choo Choo Coleman: Farewell To A Good 'Bub'

Clarence “Choo Choo” Coleman, one of the venerable members of the inaugural 1962 New York Mets team, passed away Monday August 15, 2016 at the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina due to complications from cancer. He was 80.

Of all of the members of the 1962 New York Mets team, the details about the life and career of catcher “Choo Choo” Coleman remained mysterious, as he disappeared from the public spotlight after leaving baseball.
Choo Choo Coleman in 2012 / N. Diunte


Coleman, then 76-years-old, returned to New York in 2012 for the first time in 46 years for a series of appearances at various memorabilia shows and to attend the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner at the Marriott Marquis. 

Getting His Nickname "Choo Choo"

The usually reserved former catcher invited me to meet with him the Friday evening he arrived in New York, giving his first interview ever since his playing days. Greeting me with a, 'Hey bub, nice to meet you,' Coleman broke the ice with a term I quickly discovered he used to refer to almost everyone. Sitting in his hotel room, he explained the origins of his nickname “Choo Choo”. It was something he had long before professional baseball.

“Growing up in Orlando, I was small and fast, like a choo-choo train,” Coleman said.

He cut his teeth in professional baseball during the 1955 season, signing with the Washington Senators Class D affiliate in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

“A friend of mine played for them and told me about it" he said. "I talked to the people, tried out and made the team."

Playing professional baseball in the segregated South, Coleman encountered his share of obstacles while traveling.

“At that time it was hard," he said. "People were different [then]. I don’t know about now, it’s a whole lot different. We lived in different places [from the team]. We lived in private homes; we couldn’t live in the hotels back then."

Joining The Negro Leagues 

After two stints with the Orlando team, Coleman was picked up by Syd Pollock’s Indianapolis Clowns halfway through the 1956 season. By that time, Coleman asserts the Clowns moved on from their Negro League affiliation to one of a traveling ball club. His escapades with the Clowns took him to far reaching parts of the country such as North Dakota.

“We weren’t in the Negro Leagues, we played all over,” he said. “I played two years. We played almost every day. We went everywhere; it was a lot of fun.”

He reveled in discussing some of the antics that made the Clowns popular at the time.

“We’d have the Clowns run down on to the field, hitting people in the crowd in the head, stuff like that,” he said.

A Chance With The Los Angeles Dodgers

By 1958, Coleman returned to Orlando and spent two more seasons there, waiting for an opportunity to climb baseball’s proverbial ladder. This chance came in 1960 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I went to Vero Beach and made the A ball club in Macon,” he recalled. “I played there a month or two and then I went to Montreal (AAA).”
Choo Choo Coleman with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Spring Training

Choo Choo Signs With The Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies liked Coleman’s performance in Montreal enough to draft him from the Dodgers and place him on their opening day roster in 1961.

“I went to the Phillies first,” he said. “Then they sent me to Spokane, Washington. … I didn’t play too much.”

His hot bat in spring training was not enough to force manager Gene Mauch’s hand.

“I went to spring training and hit about .280, but they never played me,” he recalled. “They played Clay Dalrymple; he hit about .215 and played about every night. [Mauch] knew his baseball, but I don’t think he liked me.”

Coleman confirmed his suspicions about Mauch when he was put in to pinch-hit for Ruben Amaro with two strikes in what was only his second plate appearance in the majors.

“There was a man on first base,” Coleman recounted over 60 years later. “Ruben Amaro was supposed to lay the ball down, put him over. He never did. He did it two times and fouled the ball off. I’m on the bench all night and he called me to come take his place with two strikes. My first time in the major leagues [and I pinch-hit] with two strikes! I fouled four balls off and I hit in to the double play that night in Philly. I always remembered that. That’s tough man!” (Note - It was Coleman’s second career plate appearance and he grounded out to first to end the inning.)

The Expansion 1962 New York Mets

The Phillies left Coleman unprotected in the expansion draft and he was signed by the New York Mets for the 1962 season.

“I never knew at that time that I’d be there on the first [team],” he said. “I made the team and I was happy to be there. I did my best. I hit over .250 my first year. I stayed hurt a lot. My shoulder was out of place, nose fractured, fractured my fingers (displaying multiple broken fingers on his right hand). It’s different now. They play now with one hand behind the back; I didn’t do that, I caught with two hands.”

Despite his small size, Coleman remained fearless behind the plate. He wasn’t going to let his stature determine his playing time on the field.

“It didn’t make no difference,” he said. “I weighed 155; I was the smallest one. All of the fellas were over 200. I wasn’t afraid.”

When asked about the legendary Mets manager Casey Stengel, Coleman recalls very limited interactions between the two.

“I didn’t talk to him too much,” he recalled. “Most of the time, he’d be on the bench asleep.”

Coleman played for the Mets their first two seasons and made a return appearance in 1966 for six games. Taking time to reflect on his stay in New York, Coleman enjoyed his time there and its demanding fan base.

“It was nice to play here,” he said. “In order to play here in New York, you had to be good. You can’t be bad or slow; you always had to do your best.”

He had one last hurrah with the Mets organization in 1969 after leaving baseball behind for two years; however, he could not make it back to the majors to be a part of the World Series championship team.

“I took off two years and I stayed home to go fishing at the time,” he said. “I came back two years later after I wrote them a letter and told them I wanted to start back. They sent me to Tidewater. I been out two years, but I still made the team!”

While he was in New York, he looked forward to being able to see teammates such as Al Jackson and Frank Thomas, as well as Willie Mays, whom he regards as the best player he’s ever seen. He also was excited to Citi Field for the first time, a sight he would rather have experienced as a player than a spectator.

“If I was playing, I’d be more excited to see it … it would be a lot different,” he said.

After baseball, he returned to Florida and later owned a Chinese restaurant for 18 years. In retirement, the humble Coleman enjoyed the ample opportunity to go fishing whenever he wanted.

“It’s a lot of fun just to go and relax,” he said.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Clyde Parris, Negro Leaguer and Panamian baseball great passes away at 93

Jonathan “Clyde” Parris, an alum of the Negro Leagues and later a minor league MVP and batting champion in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, passed away Saturday July 9, 2016 due to complications from liver cancer at Franklin General Hospital in Valley Stream, NY. He was 93.

Clyde Parris at his home in 2011 / N. Diunte

Born September 11, 1922 in Panama’s Canal Zone, Parris quickly emerged as a rising star in the country’s rich baseball scene. Following the footsteps of his predecessors Frankie Austin and Pat Scantlebury, Parris came to the United States in 1946 to play for the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues after being recruited by a local talent scout.

“As a kid I played softball, and then I played in the community leagues,” Parris recalled during our 2007 interview. “I played infield; shortstop and third base. I could always hit the ball hard. That's how I came to be recommended to play in the United States. … I can't remember the man who brought me to the Negro Leagues. I played in Panama and he saw me play so well, he recommended me to play with Baltimore.”

His stay with Baltimore was brief, as he was released from the team early in the season to make room for future Hall of Famer Willie Wells. He was quickly signed by the New York Black Yankees, giving him another chance to prove himself in the Negro Leagues.

“We played in Yankee Stadium while the New York Yankees were away,” Parris said. "I remember approaching the stadium, guys said, ’Parris, this is Yankee Stadium!’ I went inside to the lobby to see the pictures of the stars. It was something unreal. The field was just so nice to play on, thinking about all of the greats that played there.”

Despite being on a last place club, Parris still had to compete against all of the league's great talent in 1946, including Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, and Buck Leonard.

“I had to face guys like Satchel Paige, Leon Day, and Bill Byrd,” he recalled. “Byrd only pitched at home. I batted against Day the first and second year and he was hard to hit. It wasn't anything outstanding like [Bob] Gibson or [Don] Drysdale. I played with Drysdale too. I think his [Day] better years were behind him like [Josh] Gibson.”

At the time of our 2007 interview, Parris was one of the few living players to have went up against Gibson, facing him during the famed catcher’s final season in 1946. Even though Gibson was in declining health, Parris remembered Gibson as a threat at the plate.

“I played against Josh Gibson,” he said. “When I played against him, he couldn't even stoop down; he stooped down about halfway. Yet every time we played against him, he hit a home run or two. I remember I was playing back at third base and he hit a dribbler like a bunt, and I'll never forget that. I thought I had to play back! They also had Buck Leonard too. They were on the same team, Homestead Grays. We were the doormat of the league. What were you gonna do? We had no pitching.”

Parris also squared off against Satchel Paige at Yankee Stadium. He clouted a home run off of the famed hurler, though not without controversy.

“We were facing Satchel Paige in Yankee Stadium,” Parris recalled. “They had him pitch there because he brought in huge crowds. It was near the end of the game when I hit one to right field. The right fielder in Yankee Stadium went to field the ball near the fence and it hit off of him to go over the fence. They started arguing about it. The umpire said it didn’t make a difference; it was a home run.”

After getting through his first year in the Negro Leagues, Parris didn’t want to come back. The low pay, the unforgiving schedule and segregated conditions wore greatly on the Panamanian; however without the prospect of a job, he returned to the Black Yankees in 1947.

“After my first year in the black leagues, I didn't want to go back, but I didn't have a job,” he said. “We went barnstorming to make some money, but we didn't make anything substantial. I made $275 per month.”

Just as Parris was getting ready to return to the United States in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were stationed in Panama for spring training, faced a team of Panamanian All-Stars before they headed north. History unfolded right before Parris’ eyes.

“The first time Jackie took that first baseman's glove was against our team in Panama,” he said. “They had Newcombe, Campanella, Robinson, and Partlow.”

Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Roy Partlow in Panama 1947 / Clyde Parris Collection
He stayed in the Negro Leagues through 1949, playing with the Black Yankees and Louisville Buckeyes. He returned home to Panama, starring in their winter league, where he would eventually set most of their career batting records.

Parris made his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1952, signing with by Dodgers scout Joe Cicero after playing for St. Jean of the Canadian Provincial League. By 1954, he earned Class-A league MVP honors with Elmira, besting future New York Yankees World Series MVP Bobby Richardson for the title.
Clyde Parris with Elmira / N. Diunte

The Dodgers promoted Parris to AAA Montreal in 1955, pushing him ever so close to the major leagues. Making good on his promotion, he led the International League with a .321 batting average in 1956. Despite his outstanding performance, the Dodgers didn’t bring him up to get even a taste of major league life.

“I went to AAA after leading Class-A in hitting,” he said. “In 1956, I led AAA in hitting. A lot of people thought I was going to be called up. Deep down inside, I didn't expect to go to the big leagues, I guess because of my age. I was 34, kind of old, right?”

Clyde Parris with the Montreal Royals
For those that played with Parris, they knew that he deserved at a shot in the major leagues. Former teammate Evans Killeen, who played with the Kansas City Athletics, told Lou Hernandez in “Memories of Winter Ball,” Parris was first when he thought of outstanding teammates.

“To me, he was one of the great hitters I have ever seen in my life,” Killeen said. “He would have been a great major leaguer. But he never got the chance. … All Parris hit was line drives, and he was a tough out. … What a hitter. … Could you imagine him today? This guy was some hitter.”

Parris continued playing almost year ‘round in the minors and in the Panamanian Winter League through the age of 37 in 1960. For whatever rigors on the body the extended seasons had on Parris, he said it beat getting a job.

“As far as I thought, it was better than going to work,” he said. “A whole lot of time, I didn't have a house of my own. I stayed with my folks, so I didn't have to pay rent or a mortgage. I just kept playing. A whole lot of times, you only play six-to-seven months out of the year, five-to-six up in the USA, and two months winter ball. I didn't work.”
A custom made card that Parris enjoyed / N. Diunte

During his post-playing days, he moved to Springfield Gardens in Queens. He purchased a home in the 1960s, where along with his wife Eugenia, they raised his three children (two sons and a daughter). He worked various government jobs, eventually retiring from the MTA in 1988.

His playing career went largely unnoticed in retirement, missing the entire Negro League renaissance of the early 1990s. It wasn’t until 2007 when I was put in touch with Parris that he spoke on the record for the first time since his 1960 retirement about his life in baseball.

“I haven’t been asked about my career since I was a player,” he told me during our meeting in 2007.

Clyde Parris (r.) with me during our first meeting in 2007 / N. Diunte
What forged from that interview was a friendship lasting these past nine years, where I would drive out to his home every few months to have lunch and talk baseball. Through our conversations, I was able to get in touch with the Topps Company, who promptly honored him with an official card in their 2009 Allen and Ginter Baseball Card set.

“I felt honored for Topps to give me a baseball card. I thought they could have used a better photo, but it is nice to see one after all of these years,” Parris said. “I had a good run in baseball, I can’t complain.”

Clyde Parris 2009 Topps Baseball Card / Topps

The more we met to talk, the increasingly energized he became about sharing the stories of his playing days. For almost every significant player of the 1940s and 1950s, Parris had an exciting story of either playing with or against them. From some of the aforementioned icons of the Negro Leagues, to minor league Dodgers teammates such as Don Drysdale, Sparky Anderson, and Tommy Lasorda, Parris spun vivid yarns about many in the game.

I will remember the many afternoons spent at his kitchen table listening to him openly share his experiences with his trademark laugh after recalling a lighter baseball moment. I feel fortunate to have shared that special time with him. Checking through some old messages on my phone, I found one saved from Clyde. He kept it short and sweet as usual, saying, “Hey, this is Parris, give me a call back.”

On Saturday, Clyde finally got the call back to the big show in the sky. I’m sure he went there major leagues all the way. Rest in peace my friend, you will be missed.

Ed. Note - Parts of this article are excerpted from a Times-Ledger story I wrote about Parris in 2011, "Batting average? You are thinking about surviving."