Showing posts with label Roberto Clemente. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Roberto Clemente. Show all posts

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Cholly Naranjo | A Tribute To My Best Friend 1933-2022



It was a call I knew was coming, but I didn’t want to take. A week ago, one of Cholly Naranjo’s family members called to tell me he was hospitalized with COVID and was on a ventilator. I somehow hoped he could summon his mighty curveball to foil the toughest hitter he ever faced; however, at 9PM on January 13, 2022, they came and took Cholly from the mound for the final time.

I often write these memorials for other players I’ve met in my baseball travels, but this one is different. Cholly Naranjo was my best friend. How does someone who is almost 50 years your senior become that close?

It was an innocent meeting at a 2009 Cuban baseball reunion in Philadelphia. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Cuban Winter League, but I was very familiar with Minnie Miñoso. I decided to make the two hour drive from New York to interview the Cuban Comet and meet the others as well.

Sitting quietly at a table with not much fanfare was Cholly Naranjo. I did some scant research about his lone 1956 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn’t know the depths of his career. While the line was quite long for Miñoso, I decided to talk with Cholly. He was so vibrant and excited to share. He told me he lived in South Florida and to visit him the next time I go to see my mother, who also lived there.

First trip to Paul Casanova's home in 2009 / N. Diunte

A few months later, I took him up on his offer, and that’s how our friendship began. At the time, I was still playing competitive baseball. Knowing that, he took me right away to Paul Casanova’s home. Waiting there was Casanova, Jackie Hernandez and Mike Cuellar. Cholly introduced me as his friend and they immediately welcomed me. We spent an hour talking baseball (actually I just mostly listened) and Casanova invited me back for hitting lessons.
 
Soon the wheels started turning. I found there was this corner of baseball I didn’t know; the Cuban Winter League's rich history. Cholly was the key. He knew everybody and had a story for seemingly everyone that played in the 1950s, as well as the decade before. He learned by watching his uncle Ramón Couto, who was a star catcher in Cuban winter league, Negro Leagues and minor leagues in the 1930s and 1940s.
 
Ramón Couto and Luis Tiant Sr. / Couto Family

I leaned into Cholly for his encyclopedic knowledge. On almost a dime he could recall exact instances of players, games, and hilarious stories surrounding them. At the same time, he knew I was good with technology, so he would ask me to retrieve artifacts from his career. I later discovered just how much revisiting these stories kept him energized.

Cholly (l.) in high school with Chico Fernandez (r.)

We would talk weekly, sometimes about baseball, sometimes about life, relationships and everything else in between. As our trust increased, Cholly reached out to me to handle many of his other personal dealings, as he said I had the, “American style of communication.”

Some reading this might think as a former major league baseball player, Cholly was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Due to Cholly being in the majors when baseball players needed four full seasons to earn a pension (now it is 43 days), he didn’t receive one. He figured out how to live his best life on a small social security check with help from some baseball organizations. I was often tasked with organizing the necessary correspondence to make sure everything was running smoothly.

In 2010, I had him at my home in New York for a few days. He was invited his cousin‘s wedding, who was Daniel Boggs' son, the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. It was the first time Cholly visited New York since he returned from Cuba. We took the subway to the MLB offices to visit and personally thank the B.A.T. staff for their help. The trip to the MLB offices gave him so much validation behind his big league career.

2010 Wedding / N. Diunte

The day before the wedding, he told me he wanted to go to the park to have a catch. I thought it was going to be a short session, but he just kept telling me to move back the longer we threw. Eventually, we were throwing from at least 120 feet apart. Mind you, Cholly was 77 at the time and he made the throws with ease! He finally said his arm was loose and as he shortened the distance, he showed me how to throw his famous curveball, the one Branch Rickey courted him for.

Branch Rickey's 1956 Scouting Report

After that trip to New York, I made it a point to visit 2-3 times per year. It was easy to visit my mother and then also spend a day or two with Cholly. I would meet him in Hialeah, and he would drive. It was on these winding card rides through Miami’s back streets where we bonded. He had story after story and told them with such clarity. He would take me to different Cuban restaurants, one’s that he thought I would enjoy. Every meal was “outstanding” in his words, and he was often right.

He had this little black book filled with telephone numbers. He would ask me who I wanted to see, and we would go. Every player he called said yes. They knew Cholly was genuine and took me in as the same. Everyone was relaxed, because as they all said, “it was family.” As I started to look around, I was slowly not only being accepted as part of that family, but his family as well.

Cholly with Almendares 

Cholly’s major league stats don’t tell the whole story. It was deeper than that single season in Pittsburgh. He was a star pitcher in the Cuban Winter League from 1952 until 1961, primarily with Almendares. It’s hard to sit here and write down all the legends he encountered either as teammates or opponents. He loved discussing the 1954-55 Carribbean Series where his team had to face the Puerto Rican Santurce team that had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield (and the fight between Roger Bowman and Earl Rapp after Rapp misplayed a ball)! 

He lit up talking about Jim Bunning who he faced in Cuba and then later welcomed Cholly into his office in Washington D.C., or a young Brooks Robinson who played second base his one year in Cuba. Then there were Tommy Lasorda's hijinks after they won the championship in 1959. He told stories about Martin Dihigo, Satchel Paige, and his good friend Minnie Miñoso, who was also another tremendous gentleman.

He almost made the majors in 1954 with the Washington Senators. He made it through all of spring training and they took him up north for Opening Day; Cholly even made the official team photo. A few hours before the first pitch, manager Bucky Harris informed Cholly they would be sending him to the minors on a 24-hour recall. He was disappointed, but he still stayed with the team for that day.

1954 Washington Senators

President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch, and launched his throw into the crowd of ballplayers. Cholly ended up with the ball and had a historic catch with the President for a photo-op chronicled in Time magazine. The catch also earned him a spot on the TV show, “I’ve Got A Secret” the next morning.

He played with the Hollywood Stars in 1955 and 1956, when his team was the city’s main sports attraction (this was before the Dodgers and Giants moved). Famous entertainers would come to watch them play. Cholly regaled me with stories of his dinners and even dates with these luminaries. I wish I could remember them all, but the names have evaded my memory too.

He finally made the majors in 1956, coming up from Hollywood with his roommate and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. Cholly saved his best performance for his final game, pitching 8 2/3 innings in relief for his first and only MLB victory. He told me how that win also kept Robin Roberts (whom he faced that day) from winning his 20th game of the season.

Cholly Naranjo with Roberto Clemente 1956 Pirates 

Paul Casanova called me one afternoon in 2017, as MLB wanted to honor the Cuban players at the All-Star Game in Miami. He asked me to work as a liason for a group of players to help with the paperwork, negotiations and logistics. Cholly was one of the players in the group selected to be a part of the festivities, and without hesitation, he took me along for the ride.

Cholly (r.) with Dr. Adrian Burgos (l.), Jose Tartabull (center) 2017 All-Star FanFest / N. Diunte

For three days, Cholly was in heaven. MLB rolled out first class treatment, as did his peers. On the day he appeared at the FanFest to sign autographs and speak on a panel, MLB gave us a private SUV ride back and forth from the hotel to the convention center. They provided us both (yes me!) private security detail that followed us through the FanFest. He was so excited to interact with the fans, as well as tell his stories on stage with José Tartabull and Dr. Adrian Burgos.

We spent the extended weekend with Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris and Orlando Cepeda. It didn’t matter that Cholly wasn’t an All-Star or a Hall of Famer; not only was he readily accepted into the group, I found out they all looked up to him, as he was the senior member. Cepeda remarked how tough his curveball was on the rookie in winter ball. Tiant said he was a veteran influence on him as a rookie in the Cuban Winter League, and Oliva went out of his way to talk to B.A.T. to make sure Cholly was taken care of.

Tony Oliva, Cholly Naranjo, Juan Marichal / N. Diunte

We stayed up each night until 2AM talking about the game. The brotherhood was evident. Not only were they all there in the majors, they all faced the same challenges playing through the segregation in the United States. Every night, Cholly insisted at 84, to drive us back to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale. I was amazed how easily he navigated driving that late at night.

Things slowly started to change for Cholly after that wonderful weekend, and unfortunately, not in a good way. Paul Casanova died shortly after the Fan Fest (it was his last public appearance). Cholly worked with Casanova at the batting facility at Casanova’s home. He no longer had a place to go and interact. The young baseball players kept Cholly alive and the money Casanova paid him kept a little something extra in his pocket to enjoy life.

Paul Casanova, myself, Cholly / N. Diunte

Around 2019, Cholly stopped driving. He got into three accidents in a year and as he said, it was God’s way of letting him know he needed to get away from the wheel. I started noticing Cholly's once sharp mind started to show some cracks. He would lose his phone, or start to miss details in our conversations. Despite those missteps, when we sat down for a formal interview in 2019, he was amazed at how good he felt. 

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out. 

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

I saw Cholly early in 2020, right before the pandemic. We met for dinner, and he told me he walked for over 18 hours in a day just to prove to himself he could do it. I was amazed, but also feared for his safety, as the area in Miami where he lived wasn’t a walking city.

Our last meeting July 2021 / N. Diunte

Last year, he moved in with his nephew to be closer to the little family he had. I visited him in July 2021, as the pandemic put a huge wedge in my ability to travel. I could see the early stages of dementia from the time we spent together. A few months ago, Cholly had to be put into a nursing home, as he just couldn’t take care of himself any longer. Physically, he was in good shape, but he needed the care that comes with a nursing facility.

We would still talk on the phone a few times a week. When I called, it was always, “Coño! Nick! I am better than expected!” even as he struggled with recall. We kept the conversations short, but he always asked when I was coming down. I was aiming for the Christmas holiday to visit for a few days, but I came down with COVID on Christmas Eve. By the time I found a possible window to travel, his family let me know he also contracted COVID and wasn’t doing well in the hospital. I thought Cholly would miraculously find a way to pull through, but when the big man comes to get you off the mound, as Cholly would say, “You have to give up the ball.”

I am going to miss my friend. Cholly said he looked at me as a son, as he never had any children. I feel honored I was able to be a part of his life for so long and learn so much about his history, his culture and life story. I hope I can continue to elevate Cholly’s memory, as it was much greater than those 17 games he pitched with Pittsburgh in 1956.

QDEP Lazaro Ramón Gonzalo Naranjo Couto - November 25, 1933 - January 13, 2022.

Books Featuring Cholly Naranjo -

Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso

Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer

Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History by Jorge Figueredo

 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Cholly Naranjo Interview

Starting as a 17-year-old in 1952 with the Washington Senators organization, Gonzalo “Cholly” Naranjo has ties to a unique baseball world from his ten-year career in both the United States and Cuba. The Cuban-born former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher recently appeared on the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the Trump administration canceling the deal between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation, his first meeting with Roberto Clemente, and a host of other wonderful tales from his baseball journey between Cuba and the United States.

Cholly Naranjo / 1956 Hollywood Stars

President Trump's decision to end MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation's relationship

In April 2019, President Donald Trump ended a four-month-old agreement between MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation that allowed Major League teams to sign Cuban players for a 25% fee over their signing bonus to the Federation, as well as paying their Cuban income taxes. In his 85 years, Naranjo has lived through a variety of regimes in Cuba, as he was one of the few ex-Major League players who stayed in Cuba after the laws changed for professional baseball players in 1961. Naranjo returned to the United States full time in 1995 and feels this decision is a repeat version of an old tale.



“You don’t pick where you’re born,” Naranjo said. “You come out wherever you come out, and you’ve gotta go through the rules in the place where you live. You come to the United States, you’ve gotta go by the rules. We come [here] to play baseball, and we don’t pick where we’re born. What can you do?

“Now all of that is kind of juggling between baseball and the places where you live. All we wanted to do is play baseball and make a living. It happened before with us. We had that in 1961. The guys who couldn’t accomplish making the big leagues came back to their home. It’s a new copy of what baseball in Cuba is going through with the ballplayers. You’ve gotta face it because you cannot do anything with the laws of the country.”

Cholly Naranjo's favorite Almendares teammate

Naranjo built his chops playing for Almendares of the famed Cuban Winter League from 1952-1961, serving as a mainstay of their pitching staff for a decade. When asked to choose his favorite teammate, he went out of his way to recognize Willy Miranda. Regarded by many as the premier defensive shortstop of the 1950s, Naranjo told how even Miranda could poke fun at his own light hitting abilities.

“I was right beside Willy Miranda for 10 years and Willy was an outstanding guy,” Naranjo said. “He knew more about baseball than you could ever believe. … He came up one time to hit against Vinegar Bend Mizell with three men on. Dick Rand was the catcher. He turned to Dick and said, ‘Do you want to see a home run with the bases loaded?’ [Rand] said, ‘Are you going to hit it?’ He said, ‘No, the guy that’s coming after me [will hit it].’ That’s what kind of guy he was.

“He was incredible. Paul Richards said a lot about that. He could get rid of the ball faster than anybody he’d ever seen. He could make that play in the hole out on the left field grass and throw you out.”

Naranjo's toughest foes in the Cuban Winter League

On the mound, Naranjo battled established veterans during his Cuban League tenure, even drawing Branch Rickey’s attention for how he improved his curveball in the winter league. Surprisingly, when Naranjo recalled the batters who gave him fits, he pointed to two rookies whom he just could not get out.

“Jose Tartabull and Sandy Valdespino, they could read me like they owned me,” he said. “Everybody was a tough hitter for me. Those two guys, they were rookies. The rest, were day in, day out.”

Cholly's most cherished Roberto Clemente memory

Naranjo eventually reached the majors in 1956 with the Pittsburgh Pirates after narrowly missing the Washington Senators Opening Day roster in 1954. His time in Pittsburgh opened the door for a relationship with Roberto Clemente, a topic Naranjo frequently encounters. He revealed how they built their kinship before they were teammates during a chance February 1954 meeting in Puerto Rico.

“The story about Roberto [was] in 1954,” he said. “We won the pennant in Havana. The year before, I was in Chattanooga and I went to Havana. Manuel Maldonado (Denis), the Puerto Rican pitcher who beat me in Mexico in the Amateur World Series in 1949, he went to Chattanooga when I went to Havana. He was going out with the same girl I was going out with. I came back home after the season ... we won the pennant and we flew out to Puerto Rico because the Caribbean Series was in San Juan.

“He [Maldonado] came up to the hotel and he was going to the University of San Juan. He came to see me as a friend. He said, ‘Come on, I’m going to take you to the university, and I’m going to introduce you to a guy who is going to be a hell of a ballplayer.’ You know who it was, Roberto Clemente. He was sitting in the track and field stands by himself. Branch Rickey just signed him and gave him a $15,000 bonus. Rickey was the general manager of the Dodgers. He sent him to Montreal. He told the Montreal manager not to play him. When he went to Havana, the fans in Havana knew a lot of baseball. They were calling the manager a “racista” because he didn’t play Roberto. They didn’t know that Rickey told him not to play because he didn’t want the scouts to see Roberto [so] they could get him in the draft. He already knew that he had the job with the Pirates and got Roberto for $5,000 in the winter meetings of the draft.”




During our 40-minute talk, Naranjo shared just a sliver of his baseball treasures that spanned his 85 years of playing and observing the game. He was especially proud that both his mind and body were clear enough to lead an active lifestyle.

“I’ve got my health at my age,” he said. “I got this far, and I’m better than when I was playing ball. Can you believe that? Sometimes I think, well, give me the ball; I’m going to get somebody out.

“It makes me feel well that I can be a normal person and do all the things necessary to live in the United States and travel. … To me, it’s like a prize that I have proven that it can happen to anybody. ... I’ve lived over there and over here, and I’m clean in both of them. I have lived long enough to show everybody what is what. I feel proud of that inside. … I say Cholly, how old are you? Well, I’ve got more miles than Pan American Airlines!"

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Has Harold Baines knocked down the doors to the Hall of Fame? | Voting Results and Commentary

In 2019 Harold Baines will have his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, right alongside immortals such as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente. For many baseball fans, his induction will be a tough pill to swallow, as he only garnered 6.1% of the vote when he was eligible with the BBWAA writers.

Well, what changed since Baines fell off the writer's ballot after a 4.8% showing in 2011? Nothing much really, as he certainly didn't add to his 2,866 career hits or his 384 home runs; however, what did turn in his favor was the Hall of Fame's recently established Eras Committee.

Harold Baines / Keith Allison - Flickr
The Baseball Hall of Fame announced in 2016 that there would be a greater emphasis on the modern eras for consideration. Last year's Modern Era committee elected Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. In December 2018, the Today's Game Era committee selected both Lee Smith and Baines for enshrinement. While Smith's selection was of little surprise to baseball fans, many were dumbfounded when they chose Baines.

As soon as Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson announced Baines' name on the MLB Network, many fans and writers immediately took to social media not to celebrate his selection, but to denounce it. Some went as far as to allege that his selection was due to cronyism, with four of the voting members having direct ties to Baines when he was an active player.



Right or wrong, Baines will be a Hall of Famer when he steps on stage during the Cooperstown induction ceremonies in 2019. While many can waste their energies hating on his selection, I think the what baseball fans should ask themselves regarding next year's Eras Committee vote is, "Who's next?"

2019 Modern Era Committee Voting Results




Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ed Roebuck, one of the last 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series champs, dies at 86

Ed Roebuck, one of the last links to the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 World Series championship team, passed away June 14, 2018 in Lakewood, California. He was 86.

The right-handed relief specialist made his major league debut in 1955 after breaking camp with the Dodgers out of spring training. Manager Walt Alston gave him the heavy task of being the team’s closer and for the first few euphoric months in the big leagues, Roebuck answered the call.

“The first half of the season I was in almost every save possibility there was,” Roebuck told me during a 2010 interview in New York. “I think I led the club in saves that year. You could come in the fifth inning or the ninth inning. There wasn’t [a] right or left hander specialist; you’re in the bullpen and you could go in the first or the ninth.”

1956 Ed Roebuck Dodgers Photo / Author's Collection

By the middle of July, Roebuck was firing on all cylinders. He led the team in saves and held an ERA that hovered around two; however, his good fortunes would change quickly. At the end of the month, he had two consecutive rough outings against the Milwaukee Braves and suddenly he went from Alston’s stopper to mop-up duty.

“[Clem] Labine took over and I didn’t get to pitch after that, and when I did, I got racked up,” he said.

Fortunately, for Roebuck, his rocky start did not exclude him from the postseason roster. He made one appearance in the 1955 World Series, pitching two scoreless innings in Game 6.

“I wasn’t expecting to pitch in the series,” he said. “I was just happy to be there.”

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, the thought of Roebuck playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers was a remote one. After starring at Brownsville High School, Boston Red Sox local scout Socko McCary followed Roebuck so closely that most felt he would certainly sign with Boston once he turned 18.

“He moved in with us almost,” Roebuck said. “He would come out there every day and it was sort of a known fact that when I became eligible, that I was going to sign with the Red Sox.”

At the urging of his brother, Roebuck reluctantly attended an open tryout while awaiting his 18th birthday. Little did he know that day would alter the course of his professional baseball career.

“There was a tryout camp, and my brother who was sort of my guiding interest said, ‘Let’s go to the tryout camp,’” Roebuck recalled. “I said, ‘Gee, I don’t know, they want you to throw as hard as you can, run as hard as you can, and nothing ever comes out of it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go anyhow.’ So we go up there and apparently, I did pretty well and then I forgot all about it.”

The venerable Branch Rickey had his spies working to uncover baseball talent from every corner of the country. Unbeknownst to Roebuck, while McCary was cozying up to his family, Rickey’s charges had their eyes on the young righty the entire time.

“In 1948 while pitching for the coal mining team at that workout, the Bowen brothers had scouted me,” Roebuck recalled. “I didn’t even know anything about them. They did the hard scouting on me. I didn’t even know they existed because they were secretive about everything. I [never] talked to them before.”

Once he was on Brooklyn’s radar, nothing was going to get in the way of the Dodgers pursuit. They navigated muddy dirt roads deep into the rural community where Roebuck lived to convince him to go to Brooklyn.

“Jim Murray came over to where we lived,” he said. “We really lived in the boondocks. Most times, you couldn’t get a car back there; it was all lanes and muddy and so forth. One day this big Buick drives up there and the man says, ‘I want to take you to Brooklyn.’ I said, ‘It’s all right with me if you get the okay from my brothers and my mother.’ So he drove me there and I worked out at Ebbets Field. I had a good workout, they took me up to the office, and actually Branch Rickey signed me.”

At the tender age of 17, Roebuck had the intimidating task of sitting across the desk from Branch Rickey during his contract negotiation. He called his trusted brother for backup.

“He [Rickey] was a little scary really,” he said. “Actually, they didn’t want to make me a bonus player. The contract they offered me, I told them I’d have to check with my brother, who was going to have to check with the Red Sox to see if they were offering what [the Dodgers] were offering. My brother called back and said that the Red Sox couldn’t do that and to go ahead and sign with them, so that’s how I started.”

Immediately, the Dodgers placed Roebuck with their Class B team in Newport News, Virginia for the 1949 season. Rickey was so confident in Roebuck’s abilities that he debuted in a league where most of the players had a few years of minor league seasoning under their belts. It proved to be a rocky rookie experience for Roebuck, as he posted an 8-14 record with a 4.64 ERA.

“I think because of being signed in Brooklyn by Rickey, they put me in too high of a league to start,” Roebuck said. “There were 30-year-olds in that league and I was only 17. I had a hard time at Newport News.”

Not to be discouraged, Roebuck rebounded from another losing season in 1950 with 14 wins for Class A Elmira in 1951. His steady performance set him to go to their top farm club in Montreal, only one step away, although it was a big one, from the major leagues. For three seasons, Roebuck toiled with the rest of Brooklyn’s prospects eagerly awaiting his call to the show.

The Brooklyn Dodgers minor league system had a wealth of talent, primarily due to Rickey’s keen baseball eyes. With close to 30 minor league teams, their system was often a breeding ground for the rest of the league’s talent.

“There were just so many players in front of you in that organization,” he said. “When I first went with the Dodgers in spring training, there were 636 players. Many shortstops never made it because of Pee Wee [Reese] — Billy Hunter, Don Zimmer, Bobby Morgan, Chico Fernandez, etc.”

One of Roebuck’s Montreal teammates who was in this cluster of players awaiting one of Brooklyn’s All-Stars to vacate their position was Roberto Clemente. Playing together in 1954 after Clemente signed as a “bonus baby” prospect from Puerto Rico, he recalled the antics the Dodgers went through to try to hide his talents so another club would not draft him.

“He was one helluva good looking prospect,” Roebuck said. “They really messed him around because they didn’t want him to get drafted. The Pirates had their top scout follow us around in Montreal all year, Clyde Sukeforth. You knew it was going to happen.”

It happened for Roebuck too, as the Dodgers gave him his start in the major leagues the next season. From his seat in the dugout, the rookie hurler was thrilled just to be able to watch his future Hall of Fame teammate operate from field level.

“I remember in Ebbets Field sitting in the dugout and you would watch guys like [Gil] Hodges hitting, and you would have to look up,” he recalled. “Usually when you are that close to the action in baseball, it’s not all that glamorous, but it was glamorous for me. All those big guys were doing the ballet. There is so much balance and power at the same time. [Roy Campanella] was something to watch from the dugout. It was something to be associated with that outfit at the time.”

Roebuck solidified the Dodgers bullpen for the next three seasons, helping the team to return to the World Series in 1956 against the New York Yankees. An arm injury during the 1958 season put his career in jeopardy and subsequently caused him to miss the Dodgers 1959 World Series victory. The Dodgers sent him to their Triple-A team in 1959 to pitch and play first base while he recovered.

“The major league rule came in and I couldn’t play winter ball,” he said. “I never had a sore arm in my life. … Johnny Podres and I worked over at the Dodgers place and didn’t do any throwing. It was terrible. My arm was so fine-tuned and I hurt my arm by not pitching. I made a comeback and tore all those adhesions loose. The Dodgers told me I would never pitch again because I had too much scar tissue in there.

“A scout, Kenny Myers (who signed Willie Davis) told me that he thought we could do something, but it was going to be painful. By the time the summer was over, I went back to the big leagues. I would just get against the chain link fence and throw as much as it would let me. Then he would twist my arm and stretch it. He was paralyzed in the service and he had some experience with that. It was he who got me back to the big leagues. In St. Paul in 1959, I hit five home runs and gave up [only] four in 200-something innings.”

Roebuck followed the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, eventually making his home in Lakewood. He welcomed the change while other Brooklyn mainstays resisted.

“We as a family wanted to go, my wife and me, because it was new territory and new fertile ground,” he said. “I know Duke wanted to go. I don’t think guys like Hodges and some of the guys who had homes in Brooklyn wanted to go. I didn’t think O’Malley would do it. … My family was happy to go out there.”

While he found the Los Angeles Coliseum favorable as a pitcher, he lamented the challenge his teammates faced trying to hit there, especially Duke Snider.

“It was much tougher to pitch in Ebbets Field,” he recalled. “You saw some fluke home runs in the Coliseum, but you also saw some line drives hit to the screen that would be home runs somewhere else. You would have to bomb the ball to get it out in right field. It was a shame what Duke Snider had to go through when we went out there.”

Roebuck played with the Dodgers halfway through the 1963 season until he requested that they trade him to the Washington Senators. He wanted to join his old friend Hodges in the nation’s capital.

“In 1963, I didn’t pitch that much,” he recalled. “I went to Fred Patterson to tell Bavasi that I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to go with Hodges. Buzzie calls me in the office, tells me that I will always be part of the Dodgers, and the next day I was traded.”

While Roebuck got what he wanted by moving to the Senators to reunite with Hodges and pitch more often, he faced a clubhouse culture unseen with the Dodgers.

“It was a big disappointment going from the Dodgers to the Senators,” he said. “Almost all of the Dodger teams were winners. It dawned on you when you are there, that those guys are going for me. I’m going to have a good year and I don’t have to worry about winning or losing. We get a couple of hits, grab a couple of beers, and get ‘em tomorrow.

“Some of these young teams have a lot of talent but something always happens. They’ve not matured to where they know how to win. The first thing that you noticed was that the Dodgers or Yankees, they knew how to play the game. It was just a feeling. You know how to win or have been winning and take it for granted. The same thing goes the other way when you’re used to losing; you are going to play your best, but the Yankees are going to win.”

Roebuck's major league career continued through 1966 with the Senators and Philadelphia Phillies, which included being a part of the Phillies ill-fated collapse during the 1964 pennant race. He spent one more season in the Pacific Coast League with the San Diego Padres in 1967 before finally calling it quits.

He stayed in the game as a scout for the next 30 years, citing his most prized pupil as Bert Blyleven. He helped the Hall of Famer develop his legendary curve ball coaching him in a winter scout league.

“We had a winter team for kids in high school,” he said. “I was managing this team. We would invite all these people graduating the next year to play with us in the wintertime. I helped him. He didn’t have a real good spinning curve ball when he played there. It was more of a slider / slurve.”

Ed Roebuck (r.) with the author in 2008 / N. Diunte
Wrapping up our talk at a Westchester, New York hotel on the evening before a 2010 autograph show appearance, Roebuck admitted that this would be the last show he was going to attend. He was growing weary of the cross-country travel and didn’t enjoy it as much now that most of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates were gone. As he further reflected on his place in baseball history, he humbly admitted that even though he spent 11 seasons in the major leagues, he felt he just blended in his entire career.

“I was just holding on most of the time,” he said. “You know, I never really had time to smell the roses because if you don’t do the job, you’re history. After I finished playing baseball, I realized I was one of the 25 people there.”

Saturday, October 7, 2017

2017 Topps Triple Threads Review - An exciting albeit expensive ride through baseball card collecting

Looking at their artistic relics, colorful design, and limited edition autographs, collectors are sure to be tempted to pull a box of 2017 Topps Triple Threads off of the shelves and get busy diving into its array of memorabilia driven baseball cards.

2017 Topps Triple Threads / Topps
Each master box contains two autograph cards and two relic cards, providing for multiple opportunities to walk away with a classic collectible. Exciting inserts for this product include autographed relics, as well as the coveted autographed relic combos, which feature multiple signatures from prominent franchise favorites with embedded game used memorabilia pieces. These combos are rather scarce, ranging from the singular white whale printing plate, to the base issues which are only made in quantities of 36.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Chris Sale Relic / Topps
Digging further into the depths of 2017 Topps Triple Threads uncovers cut autographs of Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams, or even rarer dual cuts of the pairings of Williams and Stan Musial, or Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. The idea of having even the slightest chance of scoring signatures for those who rank among the pinnacle of the sport is enough to tantalize hobbyists into taking a peek behind the Derek Jeter themed boxes.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Base Cards & Parallels / Topps
As for the 100-card base set, the colors pop right off the front, enhanced by the golden tinges in the background. Multiple parallels of the base set will send collectors chasing further for limited versions of their favorite player. Those who are searching for breadth in the base set might wind up dissatisfied, as half of the set honors retired legends, and the lists of current players leans towards the upper echelon of MLB, excluding this year’s hottest rookies, Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Cody Bellinger.

The box provided for this review yielded the Chris Sale relic card, as well this Tyler Austin autographed rookie patch card.

2017 Topps Triple Threads Tyler Austin Autographed Relic Card / Topps
With Topps’ Triple Threads brand legacy firmly established, collectors know the risk they’re taking with this product. At a price point near $200 per master box, a strong leap of faith is needed, as a box could easily yield common rookie autographs and relics; however, one could find their fortunes quickly turned around if they can hit one of the aforementioned coveted inserts.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Why 2017 Topps Museum Collection is the cornerstone of Topps releases for the season

Looking at Sandy Koufax enter his flawless delivery on the cover of 2017 Topps Museum Collection, the elegance that he showed on the mound foreshadows what this product delivers. With on-card autographs that stand out on high-grade thick stock, and radiant jersey relic pieces distributed throughout, this set proves once again that it is worthy of being a cornerstone display of any modern collection.

2017 Topps Museum Mini-Box / Topps
Opening the box, one will find four mini-boxes, which even those are worthy of being collected, as the four together pay a fitting tribute to one of the most beloved Dodgers Hall of Famer. Each mini-box guarantees either an autographed or relic card, giving collectors four exciting chances to pull a big hit.

Sorting through each five-card pack, the four base cards with their high gloss finish and limited edition parallels are in demand, as coveted rookie cards of Aaron Judge, Andrew Benintendi, and Yoan Moncada are being chased by fans across the globe. The additions of iconic legends such as Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams serve as an added bonus to the merits of this 100-card set.

2017 Topps Museum / Topps
While the aforementioned base cards serve as a delightful benefit, those who purchased 2017 Topps Museum Collection are looking to score a rare autograph or relic that justifies the product’s $200 price tag. Primary of interest are the dual and triple signed cards, as combinations of some of the best ever to play the game are together on the same piece of memorabilia. Who wouldn’t want a dual signed card of Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., or a triple signed card of the Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves rotation of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz to add to their collections?

2017 Topps Museum Hank Aaron / Ken Griffey Jr. Dual Auto / Cardboard Connection
For those who are eyeing the next generation of Hall of Famers, 2017 Topps Museum Collection has that covered. In addition to the aforementioned trio of top rookies in their autograph roster, the likes of Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout all appear throughout the variety of signed cards available in this set. The gold signed Museum Framed and Premium Prints autograph variations jump off of the cards, further solidifying their desirability in collections.

2017 Topps Museum Quad Mets Patch / Topps
The box provided for this review stayed true to form, yielding one on-card autograph, one relic autograph, a quad patch and a prime relic, each with the quality that one has come to expect from Topps’ Museum Collection. As the All-Star Game approaches, Topps has once again given collectors a reason to keep their focus on this release without having to look ahead to what is coming in the second half of the season.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An interview with Felipe Montemayor, the Mexican 'Clipper'

Felipe Montemayor, who was one of the first Mexicans in the major leagues, playing as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953 and 1955, gave this excellent interview in 2013 regarding his career in baseball that spanned 20 years in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States.

Felipe Montemayor
Montemayor was a teammate of Roberto Clemente during Clemente's rookie season in 1955, and shares his memories of playing alongside the budding superstar.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Earl Smith, last player to wear 21 on Pirates before Clemente, dies at 87

Pittsburgh Pirates fans can hardly remember a day when number 21 wasn’t worn by Roberto Clemente, but for the first month of Clemente’s 1955 rookie season, the famed number was on the back of another upstart Pirates outfielder, Earl Smith. The Fresno State graduate who challenged for the Pirates center field spot alongside Clemente that season, passed away September 27, 2014 in Fresno, California. He was 87.

Smith signed with the Pirates in 1949 and hit .324 during his first two minor league campaigns, driving in 100 runs with Modesto in 1950; however, it wasn’t until 1954 that he garnered the full attention of the Pirates front office. He hit an astonishing .387 with 32 home runs, 195 RBIs and 42 stolen bases for Phoenix, which earned him an invite to spring training in 1955.

Earl Smith  -  Kevin Baskin
Coming from one of the lowest levels of minor league ball at the time, he was facing an uphill battle going into spring training. Despite the long odds, he was excited to get the chance to compete for a major league roster spot after six seasons in the depths of their minor league system.

“It was something that you strive for,” Smith said during our 2011 phone interview. “You think you deserve a chance after a while. … I don’t know all of the politics of it, but I was real happy to have the opportunity to get the chance to go there.”

Most observers felt that Smith was going to be sent down for more seasoning after a trial in front of the big wigs, but Smith persisted. In an outfield that was only returning one starter in Frank Thomas, Branch Rickey was looking to fill the rest of the lineup with promising young talent. Smith batted over .400 during spring training to earn his place with Pittsburgh when they broke camp.

Smith was pegged to platoon with Tom Saffell in center field to handle the National League's left-handed pitchers. He made his debut in Pittsburgh’s second game of the season against the Philadelphia Phillies, going 0-3 against Herm Wehmeier. The road continued to get rougher for Smith. He played in four of the Pirates first six games, going 1-12 with only a single off of the Giants’ Don Liddle. He sensed his window of opportunity closing faster than expected.

“I was supposedly alternating with Tom Saffell,” Smith said. “He came from the Pacific Coast League. He was left-handed and I was right. I didn’t get too much of a chance; I had 12 [sic] at-bats or something. What I’m telling you is probably speculation; the facts I didn’t know because we weren’t told that much of anything really.”

Pirates manager Fred Haney put him in the lineup only one more time, starting in a 5-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on April 29, 1955. His 0-4 performance left him with a career batting average of .063 (1-16). He never returned to the major leagues.

“When [Branch] Rickey took over, he brought his own fellows in,” he said. “We were the last of the guys to be from the old regime so to speak before he took over Pittsburgh. … He knew what he wanted and we didn’t fit the mold.”

His departure allowed Clemente to drop number 13 in favor of Smith’s 21. It was the last time anyone else in a Pirates uniform wore the number. Even though their time together was brief, Smith could see Clemente’s talent and the backing he had from management.

“Without a doubt, he was one of the better up and coming young guys,” he said. “He had the full support of all the staff and that made the big difference.”

Smith last just one more season in professional baseball, calling it quits at the end of the 1956 season after bouncing around different farm clubs. The toll on his family became too great to bear.

“I look back on it, and that was probably my fault a little bit because they weren’t playing me too much in New Orleans because they had their team set,” he said. “I wanted to play more and I didn’t produce like I should have when I got in, so they moved me to Lincoln and that was sort of the downfall. ... I had a family and we were traveling. One year my wife traveled five or six-thousand miles just to keep up with me. … It was a tough go for the dough in those days so to speak.”

Back home in Fresno after hanging up his spikes, Smith entered a completely different line of work than what he prepared for at Fresno State. He studied to work in the athletic coaching field, but one of his baseball contacts swayed him into running a grocery store.

“When I was here and I played for the Cardinals, one of the backers had a grocery store chain,” he said. “I had gone to college to become a coach, but at that time coaching didn’t pay very much. A grocery job paid more, so that’s what I went into and stayed 40 years.”

Long removed from his playing days, Smith said enjoyed the correspondence from the Pirates semi-annual Black and Gold alumni newsletter, which allowed him to keep up with his former teammates.

“They send me information quite often and schedules for different things,” he said. “I haven’t been one to join up with some of the things they wanted, but I’m still interested in seeing the facts of the guys I played with.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

All Star Game in Minnesota brings back bittersweet memories for Ed Kranepool

The clamor over the 2014 All-Star game at Target Field in Minnesota roused up memories of New York Mets Hall of Famer Ed Kranepool’s selection to the 1965 All-Star Game at Metropolitan Stadium. Only 20 years old, Kranepool was the youngest member of a National League squad that featured Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax.

“That was a tremendous feat for myself, I was only 20 when I made the All-Star team,” Kranepool recalled.

Ed Kranepool
As excited that Kranepool was to be representing the Mets in Minnesota, he would have enjoyed it more if Philadelphia Phillies manager Gene Mauch would have called Kranepool’s number off of the bench.

“I didn’t play in the game. I was disappointed," he said. "It’s kind of frustrating because I never made it again. You want to play. … What’s the sense of sending a guy to the All-Star Game, if he’s not going to play? Not that you want the three days off, you’d rather be in the All-Star Game, but if you’re going there, I want to say I played in the game. Let the country see you play the game.”

Kranepool's ill-feelings towards Mauch lingered well past the All-Star Game. He tried to take it out on Mauch's teams every time they squared off.

"I held a grudge against Gene Mauch my whole career," he said. "Every time I played him, I wanted to beat him, because I didn't play and I wanted to play."

While he acknowledges that the managers of the All-Star teams have been more aware about getting everyone involved in the mid-summer classic; however, he still thinks the game can stand a few minor adjustments.

“They do a better job of managing the players today in the game," he said. "They get everybody in, but I think they should have free substitution with a couple of players. They ought to mark before the game, two-to-three guys who play a lot of positions and keep them around. If you put them in the game, you’re allowed to remove them, [to] get everybody in the game. … They should change certain rules. Baseball in certain ways is trying to make changes and other ways, they’re antiquated in their positioning.”

Kranepool explains in the video below how Casey Stengel notified him of being selected to the 1965 All-Star team, and his thoughts on the All-Star voting process.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How Don Zimmer took the reins from Clemente and Mays in Puerto Rico

With a lineup that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, it was very unlikely that a career .235 major league hitter would steal the spotlight, but for a week during the 1955 Caribbean Series, Don Zimmer reigned supreme.

Don Zimmer crossing home plate with Santurce
Zimmer was the starting shortstop on arguably the greatest winter league team ever assembled, the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers.

“We had a team that I thought that could beat two-to-three of the lesser teams in the National League,” Zimmer said when spoke in 2011 at the MLB offices.

“We had Bus Clarkson at third base, I played short, Ronnie Samford at second, and George Crowe played first. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti caught. Mays, [Bob] Thurman and Clemente played the outfield. People laugh when I tell them that. They say, ‘No!’ I say, ‘Yes, that was our outfield.’ … That was a great club!”

Zimmer almost played his way out of Puerto Rico that winter, but was saved by the last minute due to some quick thinking by Santurce’s manager Herman Franks.

“I was struggling with Mayaguez and they let me go. There was some kind of rule that if I left Puerto Rico, then any other club could bring me back to Puerto Rico to play … went to Miami, and Herman Franks called me to play for Santurce … got on an airplane to Puerto Rico,” Zimmer said in Thomas E. Van Hyning’s "The Santurce Crabbers".

Holding down the middle of the infield, Zimmer helped Santurce breeze through the Puerto Rican Winter League for a spot in the Caribbean Series in Caracas. They were the clear favorites going into the series, much to the chagrin of Bobby Bragan who managed the Cuban entry from Almendares.

“I remember going to Caracas,” he said. “Bobby Bragan was managing the Cuban team. He said, ‘They said you got a good team, huh? You’ll wind up second.’ Ronnie Samford was in a bar that night with us, having a beer. I didn’t want to say nothing to Bragan, but Ronnie said, ‘You couldn’t beat us.’”

Samford was right, the Santurce team ran over the competition, winning their first five games to clinch the championship. Zimmer hit .400 with three home runs, including a leading off Game 2 against Panama with a circuit blast.

Zimmer earned MVP honors for his performance, besting his teammate Mays, who hit .462 after starting the series 0-14.

“I was a cinch to be the Most Valuable Player of the Caribbean Series, except Mays got hot the last two days and took over,” he said in 2011.

While Zimmer couldn’t duplicate the success that he had in Puerto Rico in the major leagues, the experience he gained from playing with all of the veterans from the Negro Leagues and the Caribbean was invaluable in shaping the rest of his career.

“I was just 21 years old,” he said. “Just being around them was good enough for me, learning and watching the way they went about things.”

Monday, December 31, 2012

Roberto Clemente batting video | Last known footage before his death

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's fatal plane crash on December 31st, 1972 in San Juan, Puerto Rico in his attempts to ensure that relief supplies were being delivered to the necessary recipients in Nicaragua. While Clemente was coaching in Leon, he was encouraged by fans to step up to the plate and take some batting practice. Sporting his familiar number 21, Clemente obliged much to the delight of the fans and the opposing players. Hans Norbert Jaeger, a member of the German team that competed in the Amateur World Series in Leon, discovered footage of Clemente during that batting practice session.

Roberto Clemente - 1972 Topps

This video, which shown below, is the last known video of Clemente batting. As we celebrate Clemente heroic efforts, watch closely at one last glimpse of Clemente's effortless swings interspersed between his classic gyrations to loosen himself up to hit.




Monday, June 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Billy Harris, former Brooklyn Dodger passes away at 80

Billy Harris, former pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, passed away Friday night at the age of 80 at his home in Kennewick, Wash.

Billy Harris, 1957 Brooklyn Dodgers
Harris was hospitalized about a month ago for bleeding ulcers after he fainted in his restaurant, Billy’s Bullpen. Discharged from the hospital two weeks ago, Harris never fully recovered from his ailments.

Just a few short months ago in February, I interviewed Harris for a story I authored about his teammate, Clyde Parris. Harris was cheerful and spoke glowingly not only about his Montreal teammate, but his entire career in baseball. Harris drank from the smallest cups of coffee, pitching two games for the Dodgers, one in 1957 and the other in 1959, but for Harris, what a sweet cup it was!

“It was a great feeling to go up there," Harris said during our phone interview in February 2011. "Every time they called me up, I knew the guys from spring training so it was just like meeting old buddies again.”

Harris gained accolades for being one of the early Canadians in the majors. Hailing from Duguayville, N.B., Harris epitomized the pinnacle of achievement for a baseball player from such a small area.

“Billy defined Canadiana. Small town boy makes good,” said Tom Valcke, president & CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in an interview with Kevin Glew of the Canadian Baseball Network.

Harris signed with the Dodgers at the age of 19 in 1951 when he was offered a contract by Bill O’Connor while he was playing hockey. He found immediate success with Class-D Valdosta, posting an 18-9 record with a 2.19 ERA.

He quickly climbed the ladder, skipping two levels to Class-B Miami the following year. During his magical 1952 season, Harris went 25-6 with a minuscule 0.83 ERA, a record for the lowest season ERA for a pitcher in organized ball. 

When asked about his breakout season, Harris remained humble about his achievement.

“I think the record still stands for ERA, 0.83," he said. "I won 25 games and three more in the playoffs which doesn’t count in the standings. I had good defense, but I had good stuff. My fastball was really moving.

“I don’t know it just one of those deals. It was kind of a pitcher’s league but we had a good team behind me. I had Chico Fernandez at short, Dick Gray at third and [Jimmy] Bragan at second base. We had a good outfield that could go get ‘em, so that helped the team. All I had to do was throw the ball over the plate.”

Harris ascended the ranks the following season, playing in AA Fort Worth and Mobile. He spent the next three seasons shuttling between AA and AAA, making brief stops with Montreal in 1954 and 1955 before settling in for good with the Canadian club in 1956.

His previous stops in Montreal while brief, proved to be rather memorable. In 1954, Harris only pitched three games for Montreal, but it gave him enough time to join baseball’s golden child’s Roberto Clemente on the bench for his only season in the Dodger organization. Clemente was being “hidden” by the Dodgers brass that season, being used sparingly with the hopes that another team would not claim him while he waited in AAA.

During one of their conversations on the bench, Clemente revealed to Harris where his next destination would be.

“I remember, we always sat and talked on the bench," he said. "They didn’t play him too much as they tried to hide him as he was up for grabs because he was sent down and made more than a $10,000 bonus. He was sitting there telling me, ‘Billy, next year I go to Pittsburgh.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Look up in the stands.’ It was Clyde Sukeforth up there.”

Harris marveled at the talent that was around him in Montreal. Looking back they had enough talent to make a major league team on their own.

“I think we had a team in Montreal that would beat most of the major league teams," he said. "Sparky Anderson was my second baseman. We also had Rocky Nelson, John Roseboro, Clyde Parris, George Shuba, Dick Williams and Chico Fernandez. Those were some great names.”

During the winters in between his forays with the Dodgers minor league clubs, Harris went to the Caribbean to bolster his income and polish his pitching skills. He played six years in winter ball in both Panama and Venezuela.

“The pay was good," he recalled. "You didn’t want to take a real job. I played two years in Panama and four in Venezuela. For two of those years, I played in the Caribbean Series and then I went right to spring training.”

Finally in 1957, after eight years in the minors, Brooklyn reached down and called for Harris to join the major league club. With the reserve clause, all he could do at the time was wait for the call to the show.

“You belonged to the team," he said. "There was no free agency and no union to protect you. I was called up to the Dodgers and they kept me back because Buffalo was fighting for the pennant. The league owner told me I had to stay to pitch against them. I beat Buffalo, I think it cost them the pennant and the next day I went with the Dodgers.

“I pitched the next to the last game of the season in 1957 against the Phillies in Philadelphia. The last game Roy Campanella caught; I pitched that game. I got to know him quite a lot in spring training. I used to hit grounders to the infielders and he would back me up and we had a ball. He was funnier than hell. He was a great guy. He had a nickname for me; he’d call me 'muscles.' I was built kind of strong in those days. Just think next year he would have played in the Coliseum and he would have popped a whole bunch off the porch there.”

Harris was called up again at the end of the 1959 season to relieve the Dodgers pitching staff as they made a run at the World Series. He hurt his arm the following season and wound up playing for Tri-City a few years later, luring him to his Kennewick residence.

“They had a team in Tri-City where I live now," he said. "I didn’t even know where this place was. They needed a coach, so I pitched and coached. My wife was from Montreal and I was from New Brunswick and we decided to live there. We bought a home and I decided to get into this business,” said Harris.

The business he referred to is his sports bar, Billy’s Bullpen in Kennewick.

“I’ve owned this for 25 years. It’s a sports bar, we have a lot of fun here.”

Harris is survived by his wife, Alice, daughter Gail and sons, Billy Jr. and Rick, as well as seven grand children.