Showing posts with label Philadelphia Athletics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philadelphia Athletics. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bill Oster | Former Philadelphia Athletics Pitcher Dies At 87

Bill Oster, one of the last surviving Philadelphia Athletics players, died June 6, 2020 in Centerport, New York. He was 87.

Bill Oster / Author's Collection

Oster made his major league debut in 1954 with the Philadelphia Athletics after they pulled him from the Long Island sandlots.

“Two nights later I was down in Philadelphia,” he said in my Forbes column earlier this year. “I threw to one of the coaches [Augie Galan]. He said, ‘Take your time, and throw easy.’ After 15 minutes he told me to throw harder. I threw a little harder, and he said, ‘Okay, let's see what you got!’ I threw a fastball to him and he fell on his back. He came up laughing like hell. I can still see it. He said, ‘Let's have that once more.’ He called [manager] Eddie Joost and said, ‘Eddie, you have to see this!’ They signed me right there and put me on the roster.”

The 21-year-old lefty spent the remainder of the season with the A's, his only one in the big leagues. You can click here to read the entire story, which was the last public interview he did he before he died. He discusses his brief, but excting career, including how he struck out Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Neal Watlington | Former Philadelphia Athletics Catcher Dies At 97

Neal Watlington, one of the few remaining former Philadelphia Athletics baseball players, died December 29, 2019, at his home in Yanceyville, North Carolina. He turned 97 just a few days earlier.

Neal Watlington / 1952 Parkhurst
In 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Watlington about his lengthy baseball career and World War II service which included a Purple Heart. Click here to read the entire interview.

During the conversation, Watlington explained how his break came in 1952 when the New York Giants sold his contract, along with three other players to Philadelphia. The Athletics brought Watlington to spring training in 1953, where he made it to the final cutdown day.

“We got back to Philadelphia,” he said, “and the manager Jimmie Dykes told me, ‘You’ve had a good spring training, but I’m sorry we’ve got to let you go back, we can’t carry three catchers. I feel real surely we’ll call you back, and if you do, you’re going to be number one.’”

Dykes stayed true to his word, and after an injury to catcher Joe Astroth during the middle of the season, Watlington was finally a major leaguer at the age of 30.

“It was great to be there; there’s nothing like the big leagues,” he said.

Watlington played the waiting game for almost a week before he had the chance to play. He made his debut on July 10, 1953, against the Boston Red Sox, getting a hit in his first time at bat off of Greensboro native, Hal ‘Skinny’ Brown. He started the next few games but was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the season when Astroth returned. With three catchers on the club, there was little room for Watlington to get an opportunity.

“Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he said. “Both of them had good years, and there wasn’t just any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”

He finished the season batting .159 (7-for-44), and never returned to the major leagues, spending the next five seasons at Triple-A until he hung up his cleats in 1958.

After his playing days were over, he was a tobacco farmer in his hometown of Yanceyville and owned Watlington's Inc., a department store, and the Watlington farm store before retiring in 1999.

Despite his short stay in the majors, Watlington remained proud of his accomplishments.

“I played in every ballpark,” he said. “I hit in Yankee Stadium against Vic Raschi, I hit against Bob Feller. It was just quite an experience for me.”


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Carl Scheib, 91, was a two-way phenom long before Shohei Ohtani

Carl Scheib, the youngest player ever in the history of the American League, passed away March 24, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. He was 91.

Scheib first tried out with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1942 at age 15 and the legendary Connie Mack told him to come back the next spring for another look. With the encouragement of his father, Scheib left high school after spring break in 1943 to sign with the A’s as a batting practice pitcher.

Carl Scheib batting / Sunbury Press

As the World War II draft started to deplete the Athletics roster, Scheib’s prospects for being a major leaguer looked brighter. He started to travel with the team in the summer to away contests and after pitching well in an August exhibition game, Mack was ready to make history.

“Don't you think it's about time?” Mack asked Scheib.

On Monday September 6th, 1943, Mack signed Scheib to a contract right before they were to play a doubleheader against the New York Yankees. In the final inning of the second game, Scheib relieved with one out in the ninth, pitching two-thirds of an inning to close the contest. At the age of 16 years, 8 months, and 5 days, Scheib made history as the youngest player in the major leagues, a record he held until Joe Nuxhall took the mound for the Cincinnati Reds in 1944.

Scheib proved he was not a publicity stunt, pitching respectably in five more games with a 4.34 ERA to finish off 1943. Mack decided to make good on his investment and brought Scheib along slowly in 1944, pitching him exclusively in relief for all 15 of his appearances. As 1945 approached, he hoped for an expanded role, but now that he was 18, Uncle Sam had different plans for the young hurler.

“I was drafted,” Scheib told me during a 2009 interview from his home in San Antonio. “We had started the season in 1945 in Washington. A couple of guys came up from the Air Base there in Pennsylvania and picked me up in an airplane. They wanted me to [be] stationed with the Air Force. Evidently, I didn't have enough education to stick with them so I went in the Army. I did my basic training in Macon, Georgia.”

Once his base commander discovered he pitched in the majors, Scheib was put on the base team. He continued to pitch with the 60th Reigment when he went overseas.

“We played quite a bit after we got overseas,” he said. “The war was over and we were kind of occupation troops. There were was one guy who tried to get a baseball team together. I was in a good position there; I didn't want to get transferred. We won the European Theater championships over there. … Baseball was big there overseas. We had 50,000 people at one game. The Germans didn't play much baseball, but when we were done they were playing in the streets.”

When he returned to Philadelphia in 1947, he started an eight-year run as one of the most reliable pitchers on the A’s staff, appearing in 239 games as both a starter and reliever. As much as Mack valued Schieb on the mound, he also sparkled at the plate, batting a robust .298 in 1948 and a team leading .396 in 1951.

As Mack tinkered with his pitching rotation and the A’s struggled at the hit, he looked to Scheib to boost the team’s offensive production. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter when he wasn’t pitching, Scheib had two game-winning pinch hits in 1948, giving Mack the idea to try him in the outfield. During the last two games in 1948, Scheib started in the outfield, plating one runner in six at-bats.

While the A’s continued to use Scheib as a pinch hitter, he never made another outfield appearance in the major leagues. He relished the opportunity to get another chance, but with pitching at a premium, the A’s could not afford to sacrifice his arm for his bat.

“I wanted to play the outfield so bad,” he said. “I done very good pinch hitting and I did play a couple of games in the outfield, but they always needed pitchers. [It was] back to the pitching mound. It was tough to get a good [rotation] of pitchers.”

In his 11 big league seasons, Scheib put up a 45-65 record in 267 games primarily for the A’s from 1943-1954, save for three games with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Carl Scheib (7th from left) at Bobby Shantz's field dedication in 2007 / N. Diunte

After his baseball career, he ran a car wash for 12 years and then worked in sales and installations for the same car wash owner according to his SABR bio until his retirement at age sixty-two.

In retirement, he was a fixture at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society reunions, and in 2016 he published his memoirs, “Wonder Boy - The Story of Carl Scheib” with author Lawrence Knorr.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Trying to hit Bob Feller - 'All you saw was a leg, a face, and an arm!'

For any major league hitter, facing Bob Feller was never an easy task. Armed with a fastball that hovered around 100 miles per hour, Feller made even the most dangerous hitters just another notch in his rising strikeout totals.

Philadelphia Athletics shortstop Al Brancato was barely 19 years old when he first squared off against Feller during 1939 spring training. During a visit to the late Brancato's Upper Darby, Pennsylvania home in 2007, he shared just how difficult it was to hit Feller, who was then a grizzled veteran of three major league seasons at the ripe age of 20.

Bob Feller at the 2009 MLBPAA Dinner / N. Diunte

"With Feller you never knew where the ball was going to be," Brancato recalled. "He hid the ball behind his body and all you saw was a leg and an arm coming. His ball moved a lot and he threw very hard; he had everything. ... The first time I faced him, I was on the bench and Mr. Mack called me to pinch hit. I went up, he threw three balls past me and I’m standing like a statue. You saw a leg, a face, and an arm. ... You didn’t see it until the last minute. He hid the ball and you never saw it until the last moment, and then boom!" 

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.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

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

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

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

Bill Renna, 1955 A's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 2, 2014

Johnny Gray, 87, fond teammate of Roger Maris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Neal Watlington | An unlikely baseball sojourn for a Christmas birth

Christmas is universally known as a holiday where families get together to exchange gifts and celebrate each other’s presence. For Neal Watlington, the date of December 25th holds an extra special meaning, as it marks the 91st birthday for the son of Julius and Laura Watlington.

Watlington, who was a catcher for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1953, is one of 67 major league players born on December 25th, which includes Hall of Famers Nellie Fox, Pud Galvin, and Rickey Henderson. At 91, he is one of the oldest living alumni of Philadelphia’s American League team.

Speaking via telephone from his home in Yanceyville, N.C. earlier this week, Watlington reflected on the auspicious start to his professional baseball career in 1941 with the Mayodan Millers of the Class D Bi-State League.

“I played with them for only about a week to ten days,” Watlington said.

Just as quickly as his professional career started, it abruptly ended when the team folded. It was the beginning of a long journey to an improbable major league career.

Watlington waited an additional six years before had the opportunity to play again professionally, a lay-off that would be unheard of in today’s era of baseball. World War II intervened, and as a member of the United States Army, he quickly found himself wearing a different set of protective gear.

“I served three years in the Army,” he said. “I put in six months on the front lines in France, Belgium and Germany.”

Watlington earned a Purple Heart for his service, and like many young ballplayers coming out of the military, he returned home looking for a place to play baseball. At 23, he was now considered old for a prospect and with the staggering amount of players suddenly available, Watlington quickly discovered teams were looking for younger talent.

“It’s quite a story,” he said. “I came home and I contacted George Ferrell who was a scout for the Detroit Tigers. I played against him [when] he was managing Martinsville. I asked him about the possibility of playing and he said he would send me to Winston Salem (St. Louis Cardinals affiliate) to talk to the general manager. They said they would take me to spring training. A week before spring training, they called me up and said, ‘You’re 23 years old and we’re not going to sign anyone over 21.’” 

He was deeply disappointed by the news. “It broke my heart,” he said.

Not one to be discouraged, Watlington kept on playing with the hope that he would create another opportunity for himself. It came at an unlikely time, after a single-game elimination in a state tournament.

“I was working in Yanceyville, and they had a pretty good baseball team,” he said. “We went to the state tournament in Asheboro, N.C. We played just one game and got beat 2-1. After the game, there were three scouts at my car. It was the Cardinals, Giants and the Cubs. It was a big surprise to me.”

This scout for the Cardinals was less concerned with Watlington’s age, and offered him a contract on the spot. He declined.

“He offered me a contract for $500 and [told me] that I would be playing the next night in Valdosta, Ga.,” Watlington said. “I told him I wasn’t going to sign for that amount of money.”

Most players would have jumped at the opportunity, but Watlington was confident that the other teams were going to make stronger offers.

“I probably would have signed later, but I didn’t want to sign for that kind of money,” he said. “I came on home and about three days after that, the Giants scout Bill Harris was there. He wanted to sign me for $1,500.”

Watlington once again held out, knowing deep down that he was worth more than the bonus that they were offering.

“I told him, ‘No, I would like more than that,’” Watlington said. “He suggested that I go to Danville, try out over there, and talk to the manager. If they thought I was worth it, they probably would sign me. So I went.”

Danville manager Duke Brett only needed a half-hour to size up Watlington. They quickly made him an offer.

“I worked out about 30 minutes,” he said. “I hit about 4-5 balls over the fence, ran around the bases, and threw down to second. He told me to come back tomorrow and that he would call the Giants that night. I told him what I wanted, $3,000. The next day, they gave me the $3,000. That’s how I got started.”

He impressed right away, batting .328 in 111 games in 1947. The Giants organization moved him to Knoxville in 1948, where he followed up with a .302 average in 134 games. After two seasons in the minor leagues, the Giants decided he was ready to be a lot closer to the major leagues, elevating him to Triple-A with the Jersey City Giants in 1949. Watlington didn’t find much difficulty with the extreme jump within their minor league system.

“It wasn’t too bad, I hit pretty good in the lineup,” he said.

Watlington responded by hitting .270 while splitting his duties between catching and the outfield. While patrolling the outfield, he was flanked by a future Hall of Famer, Monte Irvin. Irvin was biding his time until the Giants were ready to call him up, which Watlington said was a mere formality.

“Monte was quite a ballplayer,” he said. “He could throw the ball from deep right field to home plate and he didn’t even bounce it in.”

While Watlington was in Triple-A proving that he could handle high level pitching on both offense and defense, he was behind Giants mainstay Wes Westrum at the catching position, as well as Ray Noble and Sal Yvars.

Just like earlier in his career after returning from the war, Watlington waited patiently for another break. This one came when Watlington’s contract, along with three other players from the Giants organization was sold to Philadelphia in 1952. The Athletics brought Watlington to spring training in 1953, where he made it to the final cutdown day.

“We got back to Philadelphia,” he said, “and the manager Jimmie Dykes told me, ‘You’ve had a good spring training, but I’m sorry we’ve got to let you go back, we can’t carry three catchers. I feel real surely we’ll call you back, and if you do, you’re going to be number one.’”

Dykes stayed true to his word, and after an injury to catcher Joe Astroth during the middle of the season, Watlington was a finally a major leaguer at the age of 30.

“It was great to be there; there’s nothing like the big leagues,” he said.

Watlington played the waiting game for almost a week before he had the chance to play. He made his debut on July 10, 1953, against the Boston Red Sox, getting a hit in his first time at bat off of Greensboro native, Hal ‘Skinny’ Brown. He started the next few games but was relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the remainder of the season when Astroth returned. With three catchers on the club, there was little room for Watlington to get an opportunity.

“Both [Ray] Murray and Astroth only hit .250 in the big leagues, but both of them hit in the .290s that season,” he said. “Both of them had good years, and there wasn’t just any place for me. You can’t get a better batting average by pinch-hitting.”

He finished the season batting .159 (7-for-44), and didn’t get another opportunity to return to the major leagues, spending the next five seasons at Triple-A until he hung up his cleats in 1958.

After his playing days were over, he was a tobacco farmer in his hometown of Yanceyville and owned Watlington's Inc., a department store, and the Watlington farm store before retiring in 1999.

Despite his short stay in the majors, Watlington remained proud of his accomplishments.

“I played in every ballpark,” he said. “I hit in Yankee Stadium against Vic Raschi, I hit against Bob Feller. It was just quite an experience for me.”




Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lou Brissie - A soldier's courageous journey to take the mound

Lou Brissie is an exemplary measure of courage, strength and perseverance. Just as he graduated from Ware Shoals High School in 1941, Brissie signed with the Philadelphia Athletics on the condition he would join the club after finishing three years at Presbyterian College.


The Athletics were ready to bring Brissie to spring training in 1943, but the draw of representing his country was too strong, as Brissie enlisted in December 1942.

To call Brissie's experience in the war remarkable would be an understatement. Life changed drastically for Brissie on December 7, 1944. While serving in Italy, an artillery shell exploded on his squad leaving him for dead with his left leg tattered from the explosion. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Brissie pleaded with them to save his injured appendage.

Dr. Wilbur Brubaker believed he could repair Brissie's leg, and after 23 surgeries, he was able to return to the field in 1947. Connie Mack held a spot for the left-hander through his recovery, encouraging him every step along the way.

Wearing a heavy brace on his weakened leg, Brissie battled through pain filled nights trying to find the strength that made him a fireballing prospect. Mack rewarded him with a late-season appearance in 1947 with the Philadelphia Athletics after posting a 23-5 record with Class A Savannah. He spent the next six seasons in the major leagues, making the 1949 American League All-Star team en route to a 44-48 career record.

Every time Brissie took the field, he brought hope and inspiration to the veterans recovering from injuries even more devastating than what he faced. His career became a shining example of the resiliency of Americans in the face of extreme adversity.

Some sixty years later, Brissie went through the arduous task of reliving the details of his war experiences in his 2009 autobiography, "The Corporal Was a Pitcher." The book is a must read not only for all baseball fans, but those who are interested in discovering a first-person experience illuminating the true meaning of the American spirit.



Monday, January 21, 2013

Charlie 'Bubba" Harris, 86, pitched for Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians

Charlie “Bubba” Harris Jr., 86, former pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians, passed away January 12, 2013 in Nobleton, Florida.

Harris was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Jones Valley High School in Birmingham, Ala., prior to the 1943 season. He spent two seasons in their minor league organization before his entry in to the United States Navy in 1945 during World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater for a year before returning to baseball in 1946.

Charlie Harris
His path to the majors was accelerated after being acquired by the Athletics in 1947. After one season in their minor league system, Harris made the major league club in 1948. He posted a 5-2 record and led the team in appearances with 45.

In May, 2011, I was contacted a relative of Harris’ regarding his inclusion in the deal by the MLBPAA to grant non-vested players from 1947-1979 with annuity payments. His relative put me in touch with “Bubba” and his wife Doris, to help them receive the benefits they were due. During that process, I spent a few minutes talking with Harris about his time playing under the guidance of the legendary Connie Mack.

“He was the grand old man of baseball. He deserved everything that he had. … I enjoyed playing with him,” he said.

Mack, impressed by Harris’ performance, brought him back in 1949. Harris, once again was the featured man out of the bullpen, leading the team in relief appearances with 37.

He then spent the 1950 season at AAA, and returned to the majors in 1951 briefly with the Athletics before being traded to the Indians a month in to the season. Even though Harris only lasted 10 days in Cleveland before being sent to the minors (due to the May 16th deadline of teams only being able to carry a 25-man roster), his memories of that legendary pitching staff remained fresh in his mind 60 years later.

“We had a great pitching staff over there," he said. "Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn … it was a pleasure to play with them.” 

Harris continued to pitch in the minors through 1956, mostly at the AAA level with the Havana Sugar Kings. After baseball, he worked as the commissioner of the Florida Unemployment Appeals Commission.

Playing in what many call the golden era of baseball, Harris was grateful to have the opportunity to share the field with so many stars.

“I enjoyed all of it," he said. "I was in that era where I had an opportunity to play with all those big name players, and play against them. I was blessed to have that privilege.”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Al Brancato, 93, one of the last links to the major leagues in the 1930s

Al Brancato, shortstop for Philadelphia Athletics in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, passed away Thursday June 14, 2012, at the age of 93 at an assisted-living facility in Granite Run, Pennsylvania. In 2008, I visited Brancato at his home in Upper Darby, where he graciously shared the details of his career over lunch at his dining room table.

Al Brancato
Growing up in South Philadelphia, it was on the sandlots where he cut his teeth playing against other professionals.

“I would play semi-pro with all of the local players who would come back from playing pro ball who couldn’t make any money there,” Brancato said. “I played for [a team] at 58th and Elmwood. That’s how I honed my skills, playing with the older guys and playing against the black teams in Chester. You learned from being around those guys. The talk, how they played, you watched all of this. The leagues around Philadelphia were very good.”

Bolstered by his experience against these veteran players, Brancato caught the attention of the legendary Connie Mack and fulfilled every child’s dream of playing for their hometown team, when he signed with the Philadelphia Athletics for a $1,000 bonus while still a senior at Southern High School.

“I started in 1938 with Mr. Mack" he said. "He took me right out of high school and to spring training before I finished high school.” 

Eager to make an impression during spring training, Brancato’s career was quickly derailed after a battle with the foul line.

“I didn’t even have much of a spring training," he said. "In those days, the white lines were made out of powder with lye. I got some powder in my eyes after diving for a ball so I was out for a few weeks.”

After recovering from his injury, he was sent to Class A in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but the competition for the rookie proved too stiff. He only batted .160 in 25 at-bats and they sent him down to Class B Greenville, where he finished the 1938 season with a respectable .281 average.

Ready to tackle a full year of competition in A ball, Brancato entered 1939 hoping to make good on last season’s failure. He stayed with the team all season, and responded by hitting .279 as their full-time third baseman. In an unexpected move, Brancato was called in September by Mack to join the team in Philadelphia.

“He brought me up at the end of the season in 1939," he said. "I was just about 20. That was a big deal to be a hometown boy up that quick."

Brancato played third base for the month of September while Mack tried out a variety of youngsters in the infield. He put up a .206 average which included his first major league home run during the last game of the season against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Haynes.

He stuck with the club the next two years and emerged as their starting shortstop in 1941. Given the chance to play regularly, Brancato had his best season at the plate, batting .234 in 530 at-bats. His fielding, however, needed work, as he committed 61 errors at shortstop. It is a single-season record that still stands today. Despite his troubles in the field, Brancato felt that he could match up with any other fielder in the majors.

“I thought as an infielder, I threw as well as anyone in the league. I had that kind of an arm.”

Nineteen-forty-one was also memorable for two other reasons, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Ted Williams’ batting record of .406. Williams entered the last day of the season with a .3995 average, which would have rounded up to .400 if he chose sit out the forthcoming doubleheader against Brancato’s Athletics. Williams wanted the mark with no questions asked and played in both games of the doubleheader. He responded by going six-for-eight in both games. Brancato was the starting third baseman in the second contest.

“In 1941, I played the second game where he hit the .400 mark,” he said. "It was the last day of the season. He swung the bat and hit the scoreboard in Philadelphia. You didn’t need a third baseman when he was hitting, he never bunted. They played half the field for him. Nobody had the shift we did with Williams. Not that I remember. … Ted Williams knew what ball was coming and how it was coming. If I was playing third base against him, I was [really] playing short stop with him. He hit that scoreboard like [it was] nothing.”

Just as the 22-year-old Brancato was getting a toe-hold in the major leagues, his career was interrupted when he enlisted in the Navy shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Rumors swirled that Brancato had a special deal that he would be assigned to a Navy supply store in Philadelphia so that he could continue to play for the Athletics. The Naval office in Philadelphia quickly refuted this idea, stating, "Brancato is going into the Navy to fight."

Brancato saw active duty in the Pacific and was later part of a Navy baseball team that included Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese. and Phil Rizzuto. He spent almost four years in the military and returned in time to join the Athletics at the end of the 1945 season.

“I was broke coming out from the Navy for four years," he said. "I didn’t have any money; I had no place to go, so I went back without even thinking. They had a rule that they had to keep you a whole year, which he [Mack] didn’t keep. I should have squawked, but I went back just to make a paycheck for the last [few] weeks that the season was ending. I was up the creek with that deal. During the winter he sold me to Toronto.” 

Brancato walked right into another historical occurrence during the 1946 season. Just as he was at the intersection of Ted Williams' record setting efforts a few years prior, his 1946 campaign put him up close with the tribulations Jackie Robinson faced in the minor leagues.

“They shipped me to Toronto, and then to Louisville where we were in the Little World Series against Jackie Robinson,” he said. “When I was with Louisville and Montreal came into town for the Little World Series, they wouldn’t let him stay at the hotel. That was a big problem. They were going to go back to Canada because he didn’t have a place to stay. That was a big ‘to do.’ The two hotels we stayed at wouldn’t allow them in there. … He didn’t do much during the series. He was a bit upset over the hotel situation, and he was a big deal in Montreal.”

Ironically, Brancato was traded in 1947 to the Dodgers AAA team in St. Paul. Robinson and his former teammate Reese would block whatever shot he had at returning to the major leagues. Despite putting up solid numbers, the call never came.

“I never got a good chance to get back up even though I had a few good years at St. Paul,” Brancato lamented. “It was a case of too many young guys coming too fast from all over the place. I was a good guy to have around. That’s what it seemed like. If they needed someone to play, I was there and could do a good job of playing. I don’t know why I got that reputation, because I played well in St. Paul.”

He played eight more seasons in the minor leagues. His career came to an abrupt end in 1953 while serving as a player-manager in Elmira.
“That was a mistake," Brancato said. "I got hurt when one of the guys from the Philadelphia teams banged into me while sliding. I had to try to manage from the bench, hurt on crutches. I just faded out the next year. That was my big mistake, trying to play and manage. It didn’t go to well. You had to think too much. I was more of a player. I liked to play and make the plays.” Looking back in 2008, Brancato wondered if he had missed an opportunity. “That was a good chance for me. That’s how the Dodgers got all of their managers, through the system that way. I didn’t acclimate myself that well. I had 14 years of playing; I didn’t fall apart, I just gave it up. They wanted me to go down and manage in the D league, which maybe I should have done. I was married with three kids. I had a tough time deciding what to do.”
Returning to Philadelphia, Brancato couldn’t shake his love for baseball. He worked at St. Josephs University as an assistant baseball coach under Jack Ramsay, who later was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame for his basketball coaching exploits. After two seasons as an assistant, he took over the program for six years as the head coach.

“I coached at St. Joe’s for six years, and then I gave it up," he said. "College guys now are getting a lot of money coaching a team. When I was coaching at St. Joe’s that was the last year they had their field on City Line Avenue. They gave that up. We had to practice in the park; we never had a field to play with. We had to go all over the place to play games. And I was working too. I had to make a living. If my company knew I was doing both and taking time out, I would have been up the creek. It was a tough job trying to juggle both. You can’t work, hold a family and run a ball club. I would have had to be a full-time coach, but the money wasn’t there; you were making $2,000 for the season. If we had to travel, I had to take a full day off from work. It was tough after awhile.”

Brancato eventually settled into a quiet life in Delaware County and was a favorite at card shows, especially with the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. He remained a fan of the game, but acknowledged there are clear differences in game he played 70 years after his debut.

“I still watch here and there," he said. "It’s a different kind of a game. Look at the size of them; they’re all 200-250. When I played, you had a few 6’2”- 6’3” guys, now everyone is. I was 180 when I played. I never saw so many big guys. Little guys like me wouldn’t have a chance today."

While he acknowledged that some might dismiss his opinion as another disgruntled old timer, what he couldn't deny was the decline in fundamentals he saw on the field.
“When I played, you had all of the guys who knew how to play," he said. "From the late 1930s and up, they came up the long way. If we complain, they say, ‘You’re old-time, you don’t know what you are talking about.’ Defensively, I’ve never saw so many one-handed catches. How often do you see a two-handed outfield catch? They say baseball is baseball, but it’s different; it’s changed. … They say, 'You’re an old-timer.' Well, it’s the truth. We are old-timers. They can’t say it’s the same. There are more teams. How many of these guys would be there if there were still 16 teams?”
Brancato’s passing represents a rapidly closing window of an era, as now only four major leaguers remain that played in the 1930s. The time spent with Brancato provided a peek into the major leagues prior to World War II. With the absence of an abundance of video footage from this era, only the stories remain to illustrate what baseball was like at the time.

“You would really have to be back in my time to see the difference," he said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Eddie Joost, 94, last manager of the Philadelphia Athletics dies

Two-time All-Star shortstop and the last manager of the Philadelphia Athletics franchise Eddie Joost passed away Tuesday in Fair Oaks, CA. He was 94.

Joost began his major league career in 1936 with the Cincinnati Reds after starting only three seasons prior with the San Francisco Missions of the Pacific Coast League. Quickly disregarded by manager Charlie Dressen, who said Joost, "will never be a major league player," he became the starting second baseman for the Reds when they won the World Series in 1940.

Eddie Joost with the author @ Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society 8/2008
After his World Series victory, his career was derailed as he committed 45 errors at shortstop for the next two consecutive seasons. Joost was jettisoned to the Boston Braves in 1943 where he hit .185 in 496 at-bats. He skipped the 1944 season to work for a meat packer that was an essential service to the war efforts. Returning to Boston in 1945 rested and refreshed, Joost was off to a strong start when his wrist was broken by Billy Jurges sliding into second base.

The Braves suspended Joost after they claimed he deserted the club once they let him go home following his injury. With his career stalled on the suspended list, Joost thought his days were over. Rescued by the Rochester Red Wings of the AAA International League, Joost flourished. In 1946, he had career highs in home runs and RBIs. This tremendous showing piqued the interest of the legendary Connie Mack.

The 84-year-old Mack was looking for a shortstop after a dismal finish to the 1946 season. When Mack contacted Joost, he reassured the veteran that he wasn't concerned with his rocky past.

"You can play. That's all I care about," Mack said.

Nineteen-forty-seven began a eight-year stay with the Athletics where Joost earned MVP considerations five times along with two All-Star selections. Between 1947 and 1952, Joost slugged 109 home runs, while walking over 100 times in each of the six seasons.

At the end of the 1953 season with Joost now 37 and the Athletics in financial disarray, he was offered the position of player-manager in a cost-cutting move. Once again, Joost was unsure of his abilities. New to managing, Joost expressed his concerns to Mr. Mack. Mack reassured his faith in Joost.

"You've been a great player for me," Mack said. "I know you'll do well."

The Athletics, who had only one starter that hit over .300 that season, finished in last place in the American League with 103 losses. When the Athletics moved to Kansas City following the 1954 season, Joost was not asked to go west with the team.

Seeking a large bonus to continue his career, Joost signed with the Boston Red Sox for $10,000 in 1955. Joost suffered a broken hand early in the season and never effectively recovered to regain his old form. He briefly managed in the Red Sox farm system the following season with the San Francisco Seals, but quit the team quickly when he was turned off by the individualistic nature of their young bonus players.

"They were all individual players, all great, but we kept losing. I quit, and walked away from baseball," Joost said.

After his baseball career had ended, Joost moved to Hawaii, where he worked for Wilson Sporting Goods before retiring. I had the opportunity to meet Joost in 2008 (pictured above) at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society Museum. Joost was a frequent supporter of the society and at the time was extremely lucid and pleasant. I was impressed by the vigor and firm handshake he displayed at the age of 92 that represented a man much younger than his years. It was this youthful spirit he exuded that kept him going much longer when many others would have perished.

More Info -
Big-leaguer Eddie Joost dies at 94 - SFGate.com
Eddie Joost recalls how Connie Mack revived his big league career - Baseball Digest
Baseball History Podcast: Eddie Joost - Baseball History Podcast

Monday, April 11, 2011

Eddie Robinson: "Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball"

Anyone who is involved in the game of professional baseball for sixty-five years is more than lucky; they’re blessed. Eddie Robinson, now 90, recounts his lengthy career as a player, coach and executive in his autobiography, “Lucky Me: My Sixty-Five Years in Baseball,” which is currently available via SMU Press.

Eddie Robinson - Lucky Me / SMU Press
Robinson, along with help from co-author C. Paul Rogers III, speaks eloquently about his six-plus decades in baseball. Growing up in Paris, TX, Robinson had his start from humble beginnings in the farming community during the Great Depression. Signed into professional ball in 1939, he began a career that saw Robinson make stops with seven different American League ball clubs from 1942-1957, as well as three years of World War II Service that almost stopped his playing days dead in its tracks.

Recovering from a botched surgery to remove a bone tumor during World War II, Robinson endured a long and hard road to return to baseball in 1946. Not only did Robinson come back, he excelled. Robinson had a banner year that season, winning the MVP of the Triple-A International League, beating out an upstart Jackie Robinson, who was on his quest to make baseball history. This wouldn’t be the first time that the Indians farmhand would have a brush with baseball’s integration, as he was involved in some controversy surrounding the debut of Larry Doby the following season.

Robinson was the only right-handed first baseman on the club, and was asked to defer to Doby by lending the rookie his glove to play the position. Only days before, manager Lou Boudreau has assured Robinson that he was the team’s primary first baseman. A flummoxed Robinson threatened to quit after lending Doby his glove; however, he explained his reasoning was not due to Doby’s race.

“I threatened to quit because of my anger at Boudreau, not because he was a black guy coming in,” he said.

After winning the World Series with the Indians in 1948, he was traded to the Washington Senators for Mickey Vernon. This would begin the merry-go-round that would see him visit seven teams in the next nine seasons. It is through these travels where the book takes shape.

Robinson adds colorful tidbits about his career at the end of extra chapter entitled, “Extra Innings,” which are anecdotes that enliven the stories of his career. Through his play with seven different franchises, Robinson details many innings that illustrate the depth of his career. Robinson has a story for seemingly every “name” player from the 1940s and 1950s and tells them in a manner that keeps the pages turning.

For the New York fans, Robinson expertly details his time as a member of the New York Yankees from 1954-56, where he helped man first base under Casey Stengel’s platoon. Robinson would later return to the Yankees in the early 1980s as a scout.

While not a Hall of Famer, Robinson merits a lot of credit for his long relationship with the national pastime. Whether it was as a player, coach or executive, Robinson put his best foot forward and reaped the rewards of a long-time association with the sport. “Lucky Me,” allows the reader to ride along with Robinson through his sixty years in baseball, taking in the scenery every stop of the way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spook Jacobs: 'He's worth $30,000 in the minor leagues!'

Former Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey scoffed at the possibility of losing fomer farmhand Spook Jacobs to another franchise. Jacobs was signed by the Dodgers in 1946 and quickly ascended the ranks of Brooklyn’s farm system, moving from Class-D Thomasville to Class-AA Mobile by 1949. After batting .304 for Mobile in 1950, the White Sox made a run for Jacobs.
Spook Jacobs / 1955 Topps
The recently deceased Jacobs discussed in a 2009 interview how Rickey would not sell Jacobs to the White Sox even though he was blocked at the major league level by Jackie Robinson.

“If you are behind Jackie Robinson, you don’t have much of a chance,” Jacobs lamented. “We had 28 farm teams; that’s 28 other second baseman and with two in the big leagues, that’s 30 second baseman. You don’t have much of a chance when they won’t let you go and you have to stay. The White Sox offered $30,000 for me and Branch Rickey said, ‘He’s worth that much in the minor leagues!’ Unbelievable!”

Bound by the reserve clause, there wasn’t much Jacobs could do except continue to play hard and hope for an injury at the big league level or a trade. After the 1953 season, the Dodgers left Jacobs unprotected and the Philadelphia A’s drafted him in what we now know as the Rule 5 draft. Jacobs started at second base for A’s the entire 1954 season, and continued with them for parts of the 1955 and 1956 seasons before being traded during the 1956 season to Pittsburgh where he appeared with them for 11 games. He finished with a career .247 batting average in 188 games played.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Morrie Martin | Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher and World War II hero dies at 87

Morris "Morrie" Martin, a left-handed pitcher and World War II veteran died May 24, 2010, at the age of 87 due to complications from cancer. Martin made his debut in 1949 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and compiled a career record of 38-34 over the course of ten major league seasons with the seven different teams.


A World War II hero, Martin nearly lost the use of one of his legs and was buried alive in Germany after a bombing. In an interview I conducted with Martin in 2008, he explained how his intuition helped him escape death.

"We were in a house and the house was bombed," Martin said. "We were in the basement, two other guys and myself. This bomb hit at night and just flattened the house upstairs. Just flattened it! We had no contact with nobody. It was just us three down there. They had been bombing the town all day and I said, 'I'm going in this basement to sleep tonight because it has steel reinforcement bars.' They went with me and that's what happened. We finally dug ourselves out in the daylight. We could follow a little pin light and it kept getting bigger and bigger and finally, we dug ourselves out. Two or three days later we caught up with the outfit and they wondered where the hell we came from."

At the Battle of the Bulge, he suffered a bullet wound to his thigh where gangrene set in. It would take 150 shots of penicillin to save the leg from amputation. Martin persevered after the potential career and life ending injury to make a quick return to baseball.

"The injury made it take longer to get in shape," he said. "I just had to work harder to get that leg in shape. I did a lot of running and it finally came around. I played no baseball during World War II. Coming back [in 1946], I won 14 and lost six, and made the All-Star team. My arm was fine, it came naturally; I just needed to get that leg to catch up."

Now with his legs firmly under him, Martin made a rapid ascent to the big show. His budding stardom began by earning the Cuban Winter League MVP for the 1948-49 season, putting him in the same company as Martin Dihigo, Willie Wells, and Minnie Minoso. That spring, Martin cracked Brooklyn's roster and embarked on a ten-year major league career that ended in 1959 with the Chicago Cubs.



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spook Jacobs steals the show at the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society Cuban Baseball celebration

Forrest "Spook" Jacobs is back stealing again; this time it's not bases, but the spotlight from two prominent former major leaguers. Nine-time All-Star Minnie Minoso, 19-year veteran Tony Taylor, as well as former Pirate Cholly Naranjo spoke the highest praises of "Spook" Jacobs at the recent Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society tribute to these former stars of the Cuban League. While Jacobs only played parts of three seasons from 1954-1956 with the A's and Pirates, his play south of the border left an indelible impression on those that watched him.

Spook Jacobs
"[Jacobs] was a guy I've known for many years from when I was a young man in Cuba," Taylor said. "He played baseball in Cuba many years there. I remember watching him and I used to say, 'Someday I wish I could play baseball like that man.' I remember him playing in Cuba as a good hitter, a good second baseman with a lot of speed. One thing I liked about him, he hustled. He played baseball how you're supposed to play baseball. I enjoyed watching him play. When I signed into professional baseball, I was a reserve in Havana. I got traded to the same team where he played second base, and I finally got to practice with him to learn how to play second base."
Tony Taylor
Minoso cited Jacobs as his reason for attending the event. A friendship made over 50 years ago lured the Cuban great to the reunion.

"It's beautiful to be here," Minoso said. "I didn't come here for money, not for anything. [I came for] a good friend, Spook Jacobs, the second baseman. I remember him very well because I used to hate the way he hit us! He used to be a crazy hitter in Cuba. I used to hit .260, .280, he used to hit .300 easy! [It amazed me] he wasn't in the big leagues. I used to say, 'Geez this guy is a hell of a hitter. How does nobody take him in the big leagues?' Finally, he made it. He's a good person. That's the reason I am here."

Minnie Minoso
Naranjo had the opportunity to host Jacobs while he was in Florida for the recent Cuban Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Naranjo recounted how he reunited with Jacobs.

"I had a call from some time back that Spook Jacobs was coming to Miami because he was being nominated into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame," Naranjo said. "Bobby Bragan called me and let me know he was coming to Florida, for me to give him a call. Bob, Spook and I met for the first time 1952. Spook went to play second base for us, Bobby was our manager and it was my first year in winter ball in Cuba. I told Spook he was welcome to stay with me for this occasion. Spook was kind enough to visit. In response to that, Spook called to invite me to come to Philadelphia, and here I am."

Cholly Naranjo
For these players, this event was an opportunity to reconnect with men whom they shared a special bond from playing in Cuba together over 50 years ago. Jacobs was delighted to spend precious time the other three players over the reunion weekend.

"I was very happy they could come up from Florida and Chicago for me," Jacobs said. "I was excited to see Minnie. We played against each other in Havana for six winters. We battled back and forth, good-naturedly of course. Being in Havana, most of the American players stayed with each other and didn't associate with the Cuban players, not because we didn't want to, but that is where we were supposed to stay. The only time we got to talk with the Cuban players was either during the ballgame or at the ballpark. I thought it was a shame that we didn't associate with the Cuban players while we were there. It was very nice to be able to spend time with the Cuban players here today."

Minoso relished his recent encounter in Miami with Jacobs for the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame induction. They spent many hours reminiscing about their playing days and their lives after baseball.

"We met again in Miami for the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame Banquet," Minoso said. "It was the first time through all of those years that we were together. We ate dinner together with Naranjo. We played dominoes and I cooked chicken and rice. It was great to have the opportunity to talk so long with Jacobs. He has a great family, his wife and his son."

The event, which was sponsored by the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society served to not only celebrate the merits of their efforts in Cuba over a half-century ago, but to raise funds for the volunteer organization. The Historical Society is a tremendous resource for the fan and researcher alike, with a wonderful museum in Hatboro that showcases the history of the Philadelphia Athletics as well as the baseball from that time period. The members of the society went through great efforts to organize the event and should be commended for a job well done. The atmosphere was friendly and inviting. One could gain a sense that they were surrounded by many others who shared the same love for the national pastime. Naranjo summed up his feelings for the event, which were also shared by the other three former Major Leaguers in attendance.

"I've been away so long, it's like coming back again to the old times when people really know about you, and you find out that you are still welcome."


Bobby Shantz, Minnie Minoso, Tony Taylor

Friday, April 17, 2009

Minnie Minoso And Others To Be Honored In Philadelphia April 25, 2009 For Their Cuban Sports Hall of Fame Induction

Pioneering baseball legend Minnie Minoso will be appearing in Horsham, PA alongside Cholly Naranjo, Forrest "Spook" Jacobs and Tony Taylor starting at 10AM on Saturday April 25, 2009 to be honored for their recent induction into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame. Minoso is a legendary figure in both Cuban and American professional baseball, and was a finalist for the 2006 Negro League inductees for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Taylor was an All-Star in 1960, playing 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. Jacobs, one of the last surviving members of the Philadelphia Athletics, played 11 years in the Cuban Winter Leagues. Naranjo was a curveball specialist who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and 9 seasons in the Cuban Winter Leagues.

Admission is free and the festivities are sponsored by the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society. There will be an autograph signing and silent auction will follow the festivities. You can register online for the auction via the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society website.

The proceeds from the auction and silent auction will benefit the Historical Society which is composed entirely of volunteers. They maintain an excellent museum in Horsham, PA which chronicles Philadelphia's vast baseball history.

Stay tuned to Baseball Happenings, as we will bring you photos from the event and interviews with the legends who are being honored.

Autograph Session Details
April 25, 2009 10AM-2PM - FREE Admission
In-Person Prices
Minnie Minoso (Only 7 decade player in baseball) - $20 any item
Tony Taylor (1958-76 Cubs, Phillies, Tigers) - $20 any item
Spook Jacobs - (1954-56 Philadelphia / KC's A's, Pirates) $10 any item
Cholly Naranjo - (1956 Pirates) One free item, $6 extras

Mail Order (Orders accepted until April 24th) - For mail order inquries, contact the Philadelphia A's historical society
Phone: (215)323-9901 Toll Free Phone: 1-800-318-0483
Email - yorkroad6@aol.com

Minnie Minoso:
Our signed baseball - $35, Our signed photo - $25, Your signed item - $25
Tony Taylor:
Our signed ball - $35, Our signed photo -$25, Your signed item - $20
Spook Jacobs:
Our baseball signed - $25, Our signed photo - $12, Your signed item -$10
Cholly Naranjo:
Our baseball signed - $15, Our signed photo - $8, Your signed item -$6