Showing posts with label Satchel Paige. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Satchel Paige. 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, eho 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 was something I later discovered that 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 with Cholly being a former major league baseball player, he was swimming in financial riches; however, this was far from the truth. Because of the fact he played 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 was 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 all of that, 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

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Bob Oldis' Missed Opportunity Against Satchel Paige In The Major Leagues


Bob Oldis only played in seven games during his 1953 rookie season with the Washington Senators, yet one almost perfect game stands out in his mind nearly 70 years later. 

On June 25, 1953, Oldis was placed in the starting lineup against the St. Louis Browns. Making only his second major league start, he played flawlessly. He went 3-3 at the plate with an RBI, and threw out the lone baserunner who dared to steal that day. 

Most rookies would have been elated with that type of performance, but something about that game didn't sit right with the young catcher. With the Senators down 3-1 in the bottom of the 9th inning, Oldis was due to bat third in the inning. 

Pitching in relief for the Browns was the ageless Satchel Paige. Undaunted by his presence, the first two batters were able to get on base with a walk and a single. This set the stage for Oldis, who was swinging a hot bat that day, to be the hero ... or so he thought. 

As he approached the top steps of the dugout, Oldis represented the winning run. After battering starter Harry Breechen for three hits, the tap on the shoulder from manager Bucky Harris wasn't what he expected. Instead of words of encouragement, Harris let him know outfielder Carmen Mauro would be taking his place at the plate. 

Dejected, Oldis returned to the dugout to watch Mauro hit a pop-up to third base, and Gil Coan finish the game by hitting into a 4-6-3 double play. He never was able to test himself against Satchel Paige in the majors, as he was sent down a short time afterwards.

When the 93-year-old was reached recently via a letter to his Arizona home, I asked if he was upset with Harris' decision to remove him for a pinch-hitter against Paige.

"Yes!" Oldis wrote. 

Oldis later had his chance to face Paige in the minor leagues during the 1958 season when he played for the Richmond Virginians and Paige hurled for the Miami Marlins; however, seven decades later it is the meeting they didn't have that stands out in his memory. 


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Ted Lepcio Interview

On the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast, we present an interview with the recently deceased Ted Lepcio, an infielder who played primarily with the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s.


During our conversation from 2017, we discuss Lepcio's relationship with his teammate, Jimmy Piersall, as well as his memories of facing Satchel Paige. Lepcio died December 11th, 2019, in Dedham, Massachusettes. He was 90.





Sunday, March 31, 2019

Chuck Harmon tells how a wild week in the Negro Leagues unexpectedly opened his door to the majors in 1947

Chuck Harmon’s name may not resonate with baseball fans when discussing the sport’s color barrier in the same way as trailblazers Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby; however, the talented multi-sport athlete followed his counterparts into baseball in 1947 to ultimately carve out his own niche in baseball’s record books.

The University of Toledo basketball star who became the first African-American player ever for the Cincinnati Reds died March 19, 2019, at his Cincinnati home. He was 94.

1955 Topps Chuck Harmon / Topps
Harmon initial athletic fame came from his achievements not on the baseball diamond, but on the hardwood courts across Indiana. He was a basketball star at Washington High School, leading the team to consecutive Indiana state championships in 1941 and 1942. Upon graduating, he played one year at the University of Toledo before he was whisked off to serve in the Navy during World War II.

University of Toledo Basketball Stardom

Harmon had his first taste of stardom when the All-American helped to lead Toledo to the 1943 NIT championship game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. He scored six points in their 48-27 loss. It was there where he caught the attention of Abe Saperstein, the legendary owner of both the Harlem Globetrotters.

“My freshman year in college basketball we went to the final game in the NIT,” Harmon told Baseball Happenings via telephone in 2008. “St. John’s beat us in the final game. Saperstein was trying to get us. Back then, the NIT was the big tournament.”

While Saperstein’s interest was deferred by Harmon’s military duties, local scouts kept him on their radar. After returning to Toledo in 1947 to star for their basketball and baseball teams, local scout Hank Rigney took notice and offered the collegian a spot with the Indianapolis Clowns.

“I was at the University Toledo and it was summer vacation,” Harmon said. “I was hanging around school and was supposed to get a recreation job with the city. I was waiting on that to come through. Meanwhile, Hank Rigney, an old scout for the Browns, ran the concession stand at the school. He was an all-around go-getter, baseball scout, football scout, and basketball scout. He was scouting the Clowns, so he knew about me playing basketball and baseball at Toledo.

“He asked me one day if I wanted to play with the Clowns. I was still waiting for the job around school. I was tired of waiting around, so I didn’t know if it was going to come through with the playgrounds or recreation, so I told him yeah. He said, ‘I’ll sign you up with the Clowns.’ I said, ‘Anything to get out of here, I’ve been waiting here doing nothing.’”

A Chance in the Negro Leagues

Suddenly, Harmon went from being an unemployed college student to a member of one of the Negro Leagues most storied franchises. Rigney sent him right into the fire as the Clowns prepared to face the formidable Kansas City Monarchs.

“The Clowns were in Indianapolis playing,” he said. “Hank Rigney gave me a letter to give to the manager of the Clowns. I went over there, signed, and started playing with them. I wouldn’t call it playing with them; I signed with them. On a Wednesday, they had a game that night against the Kansas City Monarchs. I got over there that afternoon, dressed, and played that night. Of course, I didn’t play. I was there; you know trying out, whatever they called it. They were picking up guys as they went along. It wasn’t nothing real formal.”

While the tryout process lacked formality, Harmon assumed the name Charlie Fine to preserve his amateur status while playing with the Clowns. Once the travel rigors of Negro League Baseball set in, Harmon quickly discovered the ride was not as glorious as promised.

“It was one of them deals, we climbed in the bus to go to Michigan to play,” Harmon recalled. “We played up there, and after that game, the next day we went to Michigan City, Indiana. We played that night. You get off one bus, get on another bus, and go for 300 miles and play; you don’t sleep. When we got to Fort Wayne to play a team, it got rained out, so we stayed all night there. We stayed in private homes, that’s where we stayed all the time when we [went] to those towns.”

Due to the barnstorming nature that fed the Negro Leagues, teams did not have the luxury of rescheduling rained out contests. Harmon walked right into the middle of one of the miseries of road life that was markedly different from the first class treatment he experienced while playing college basketball.

“We got rained out in Michigan City and Fort Wayne, and when we went to Chicago — that was the first night we stayed in a hotel. I think we had a Sunday doubleheader. I dressed there. To this day, I don’t think I got into a game at all from Wednesday to Sunday. That was too much for me [coming from] playing in college, staying in hotels, and eating in the fine restaurants. Playing in Toledo, we stayed in the best hotels and played in Madison Square Garden.”

Harmon thought that he could parlay his experience with the Clowns to stay on with Saperstein’s Globetrotters. After his miserable week with the Clowns, he decided to pivot and return to Toledo for the summer.

“I don’t remember getting in a game or not because we had four or five games, we played two, the first night and the night in Chicago, and then we got rained out,” Harmon said. “I said to myself, ‘This isn’t for me.’ In my mind, what was going to happen was, the Globetrotters [would take] me and another guy. He had been trying to get us to play with them anyway. The basketball was probably worse traveling than the baseball. Traveling on the bus and sleeping in private homes if you could. I told him no thanks.”

A Door Opens with the St. Louis Browns

Back in Toledo from his brief foray into the Negro Leagues, Harmon waited on the city for his recreation job. By that time, the St. Louis Browns signed both Hank Thompson and Willard Brown to major league contracts. With the organization’s door open, Rigney jumped at the opportunity to get Harmon into the fold.

“A couple weeks later after being back there, the job with the city still hadn’t come through,” Harmon said. “Finally, he came over to school and [told me] they wanted me at the [Toledo] Mud Hens office [because] St. Louis wanted to sign me to a contract. That was like going to the World Series hearing that. Going with a major league team, as they always said, that was ‘organized ball.’”

While Brown and Thompson are often touted as Major League Baseball pioneers, Harmon was part of a select group who quietly pried opened doors at a time when only a few teams embraced integration. Standing in those offices, he saw the hope that was newly available to African-American ballplayers.

“We went to the office there in Toledo,” he said. “I didn’t have any idea of signing a Triple-A contract, but still that was a step to the major leagues. They wanted to send me to upstate New York, to the Canadian-American League, Class C. They sent me up to Gloversville [New York]. It was organized ball, and you could see the footsteps to major league ball if you were good enough.”

During our talk, Harmon chose not to focus on struggles with Jim Crow segregation, but the joy of being paid to play baseball. He thrived in his new environment.

“I did pretty good and finished the season out there,” he said. “I played 50 something games, and I was on cloud nine. You didn’t care [because] you saw them checks! The first time you saw a check, you got paid. Some guys played week to week. They played and spent it. Being in organized ball, we got paid and stayed in hotels. It was a glory road for me.”

Harmon returned to Toledo to play basketball for the 1947-48 school year. He put his minor league dreams on hold to play for the Fort Wayne General Electrics in 1948 while finishing his college basketball eligibility. With his college basketball career behind him, Harmon came back to the Browns, even after they sent him down a level in the minor leagues.

“Gloversville bought my contract and they sent me to Olean, New York in Class D,” he said. “Up there I was hitting about .370-.380 each year. When Gloversville sent me up there, I started hitting, and I got married. My wife was expecting, and I told them that when they sent me down. That’s when I really started wearing the ball out there. I talked to Gloversville and my wife was expecting, so I told them if I was hitting over so-and-so, would [they] bring me back to Gloversville. That incentive helped. Meanwhile, the Browns were having money problems, moving their clubs, and getting rid of players. During the winter, they sold the teams to independent buyers, and Olean bought my contract.”

A Cincinnati Reds Courtship

Unbelievably, it took two years of Harmon hitting .374 and .375 with Olean before the Reds bought his contract in 1952. He jumped to their Double-A team in Tulsa in 1953 and those footsteps he saw in 1947 were finally starting to lead on the right path.

“I went to Tulsa next year and I was leading the team in everything,” he said. “I was driving in all those runs. I had a bad day if I just got three hits. If I got two hits, it was bad.”

Harmon spent that winter sharpening his skills in Puerto Rico by playing for the Ponce team. He tore through the league and finished second in hitting, just below Luis “Canena” Marquez, and three points ahead of a young Hank Aaron. On the cusp of realizing his major league dreams, Harmon sensed that being in the presence of young talent and hardened Negro League and Puerto Rican veterans primed him for the next step.

“They had a lot of great players in winter ball,” he said. “You knew they were going to make it.”

Making History in the Major Leagues

He made the Reds out of spring training, and on April 17, 1954, against Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves, Harmon made history. His seventh-inning pinch-hitting appearance minted him as the first African-American to appear in a game for the Reds. Historians have argued that Nino Escalera, a Puerto Rican who batted right before Harmon, was the first black player for the franchise. Almost 65 years later, Harmon was more concerned with being on the team than being first.

“All that didn’t faze me a bit,” he said. “You knew you were good and that you were one of the best. That’s all you thought about. Not being the first black. It didn’t dawn on me at all. You know, all the players down there, you’re just trying to beat them. You’re trying to be better than them so that you get picked. You didn’t think that you would get picked before this guy or that guy, all you thought about was being on the team.”



Harmon played in the majors for four seasons from 1954-1957, batting .238 in 592 at-bats with the Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies. He continued to play in the minors until 1961. He made one last Negro League connection in 1958 when the Phillies sent him to their Triple-A team in Miami with Satchel Paige.

“He could throw that ball,” Harmon said. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to face him, at 52! ... You just couldn’t believe that old what he could do in there. You were in awe of him more than trying to figure him out.”

He remained in the game for a few years as a scout with the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians before settling in as a clerk for the Hamilton County Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The Reds honored him in 2015 with a statue at their Youth Baseball Academy in Roselawn, Ohio.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How New York Yankee Jim Coates battled both Satchel Paige and Luke Easter

The year was 1957. Jim Coates was a hard-throwing right-hander who just had his first taste of big league ball with the New York Yankees. The 25-year-old was biding his time with the Richmond Virginians in the Triple-A International League, waiting for a permanent spot to open in New York. While Coates was cutting his teeth in preparation to join Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium, the International League had a few Negro League veterans ready to show the youngster that he still had some work to do.

Satchel Paige with the Miami Marlins / Author's Collection
Toiling with Coates in the International League was future Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige. The 50-year-old Paige was pitching for Bill Veeck’s Miami Marlins, fresh off a season where he led the league with a microscopic 1.86 ERA.

“Satch was a guy that in his prime, he could throw the ball really good,” Coates said to the author in 2013.

Once in awhile Paige would reach into his bag of tricks and pull out his famed blooper pitch. More than 50 years later, Coates recalled how Paige dared hitters to swing at his slow one.

“He came up with the blooper pitch and threw it real high,” he said. “Satch was a type of guy that was great to watch. He could do it all, believe me. He’d tell ‘em, ‘Here, hit it.’ He’d throw that ol’ big blooper.”



While Paige managed to stun hitters half his age, Coates sensed that the legend was pitching more off smarts and guile than he was with the trademark speed of his younger days.

“Satch, he knew wanted to do it, but he just couldn’t,” Coates said. “He was at an age and state where he tried but he just couldn’t do it.”

During our talk, Coates brought up how great not only Paige was in the International League, but also his Negro League counterpart Luke Easter. The slugging 6’4” first baseman was a few years removed from his time with the Cleveland Indians; however, his power still rivaled the all-time greats. Coates said that he had the perfect remedy to quell Easter’s powerful stroke.

“I didn’t have any trouble with Luke,” he said. “All I had to do was knock him down first pitch and he didn’t want any part of that plate.”

Luke Easter
Easter was no stranger to being dusted off at the plate. While Coates felt that he had Easter’s number from a few knockdowns earlier in the season, the Negro League veteran patiently waited for the perfect opportunity to let the youngster think he had the upper hand. The two squared off when Easter played for the Buffalo Bisons during the 1957 International League playoffs. This time Easter tipped the scales in his favor.

He sent one of Coates’ offerings soaring over the center-field wall, nearly clearing the scoreboard. Coates admitted that Easter had a knack for making the ball disappear, even off himself.

“He hit ‘em out of there in Richmond in the International League like a golf ball,” he said.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Satchel Paige shows why he was the master of the no-look throw

Flagstaff Films recently released a rare video of Satchel Paige warming up in the infield during the 1953 All-Star Game. During this clip, Paige made two throws by the flick of his wrist, opening a brief window into his hallmark control and flair for the dramatic.



Earl Hunsinger was Paige's teammate with the Miami Marlins in 1956 and 1957. He explained how Paige would routinely make no-look throws during infield practice as his way of staying loose.

"A lot of times he'd show up early at the ballpark during batting practice," Hunsinger said via telephone in 2009 from his Alabama home. "He'd go out and take ground balls and he was a pretty good infielder. He used to take balls and throw to first without looking. That was his way of getting in shape."

Satchel Paige / Topps

During the course of a six-month season, players are apt fool around with trick plays to break the monotony of pre-game practice, but rarely would one dare to improvise during a Major League game. Ol' Satch however, marched to a different drummer as his St. Louis Browns teammate Jim Dyck noted.

"We brought Satch in relief to pitch to one hitter, like with the bases loaded with two outs, and we had to get the hitter out or they were either going to tie or win the game." Dyck told Gene Fehler in "When Baseball Was Still King."

"The guy hit a one-hopper right back to Satch. He fielded the ball, and he never even glanced towards first. He threw it under his left arm and he threw a perfect strike to the first baseman."

Paige, ever the showman, added to the drama by walking off the field as his throw was en route to first base. While his antics certainly captured the crowd's attention, he also grabbed that of his manager Rogers Hornsby. The curmudgeonly Hall of Famer immediately let Satchel know he wasn't happy.

"When he threw the ball, he turned and started walking to the dugout, never looked to see where it went, and of course he threw it right, a perfect throw, without looking," Dyck recalled. "I followed him from third base into the dugout. Hornsby was on the top step and he said, 'That just cost you five hundred dollars. You ever do that again and I'll see that you never play for me again.'"

Most players would have exchanged heated words with their manager over such a significant fine; however, Paige defied convention. Without breaking stride, he continued down his path and let out one of his signature lines.

"Satch never even slowed down," Dyck said. "He just walked on by, and I walked up the runway behind him, and I could hear Satch saying, 'That crazy old man, what'd he think, they's going to move first base? It's been there ever since I've played.'"




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Chuck Stevens, the oldest major league baseball player, dies at 99

Chuck Stevens, a former first baseman with the St. Louis Browns who had the distinction of being the oldest living major league baseball player, passed away Monday in Long Beach, California. He was 99.

Stevens played three seasons with the St. Louis Browns in the 1940s; however, his biggest impact on the sport came from the decades he spent helping former players in need as the director of the Association of Professional Ball Players of America. Serving as the organization’s director from 1960-1988, Stevens helped thousands of players (both major and minor league) as scouts and team personnel get back on their feet in the face of hard times.

Chuck Stevens / Author's Collection
“The situations often were someone having a rough time who just needed a hand up to take care of the necessities of life,” Stevens said in February 2018 to the Long Beach Press Telegram. “One player called us and all he wanted was enough money for a bus ticket home. I never dwelled on how bad some of the situations were, but I was proud we were able to help, and do it quietly.”

Well before Stevens was on a quest to provide for so many that were involved in the game, he etched his place in baseball lore during of the most infamous debuts in major league history. On July 9, 1948, he stepped into the batter’s box as the Cleveland Indians brought Satchel Paige in from the bullpen. A familiar face from their winter ball duels in California, Stevens greeted Paige to the majors with a single to left field.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” Stevens told me in 2012 via telephone from his California home. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch. I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Shortly after the interview, I was able to travel to California to meet Stevens and his wife Maria at his home. He told me about his military service in the Army Air Force during World War II, as well as playing baseball in the service with Joe DiMaggio. While certainly proud of his major league career, he still made it a point during my visit to note the work of the APBPA and invited me to return to their annual dinner.

Mr. & Mrs. Stevens with the author (r.) in 2012 / N. Diunte
While I was not able to make the return trip, Stevens’ generosity was evident from the time I spent with him on both the phone and in-person. Some may look at his 184 career major league hits and assume that he had only a small impact on the game, but those who truly knew Stevens’ behind the scenes work with the APBPA will certainly recognize that his career stats grossly underestimate his footprint within the baseball community.





Friday, July 21, 2017

2017 Topps Series 2 gives a nod to unforgettable moments for baseball fans

With their flagship base series product, Topps gives a nod to unforgettable baseball moments in their 2017 Topps Series 2 release. Focusing on their "Memorable Moments" subset, one groundbreaking debut jumped out of the box of cards provided for this review.

Winding up with a laser-eyed focus, Satchel Paige knew the cameras were on him as he stepped to the mound to deliver the goods for the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948. Topps captured the intensity of this moment in a colorized version of a classic photo of Paige rearing back to pitch for the Indians.

While Topps fills in many missing pieces to their 2017 Series One product, the real catch of this set are the inserts, specifically the aforementioned subset. In honor of Paige's debut, below is a piece that I originally wrote in 2012 about Paige's debut that includes interviews with players who appeared in that game.


Just two days after the record books said he turned 42, Satchel Paige made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 9, 1948 in front of a crowd of 34,780 at Cleveland Stadium. The sheer magnitude of the situation shouldn’t have fazed the legendary hurler, who once pitched in the championship game of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s league in the Dominican Republic under the threat of a machine gun toting militia. Yet, for Paige, toeing the rubber on major league soil brought a sense of high drama, shaking one of baseball’s most experienced moundsmen.

“I felt those nerves … they were jumping every which way,” Paige recalled.

Standing at the plate for the St. Louis Browns was 29-year-old first baseman Chuck Stevens, who entered the game sporting a .252 batting average with one home run, certainly not the type of numbers that would rattle fear into opposing hurlers. While Paige admitted his nerves, Stevens on the other hand saw a familiar target. Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Paige came out to Stevens’ California hometown of Long Beach to play winter ball. The two squared off many times before that fateful day.

“I played against him about ten times before that night. I played against him when he could really smoke it,” said the 94-year-old Stevens from his home in California. “When Satch relieved against us [in Cleveland], he was just spotting the ball around. [It seemed like] he had lost 60 mph off of his fastball. He threw his breaking stuff and he had great control so you knew he was going to be around the plate all the time. He wasn’t going to overpower you like I had seen him in his earlier days.”

Stevens wasted no time getting acquainted with his old friend. He promptly laced Paige’s offering into left field.

“The ballgame in Cleveland was not a big deal for me because I was just hitting off of Satch," he said. "I singled into left field, between [Ken] Keltner and [Lou] Boudreau. … I always had pretty good luck off of him.”

Stevens dates his success against Paige back to a meeting they had a few years prior, just as he returned from his service in World War II.

“One of the longest home runs I had ever hit in my life was off of Paige," he said. "I had just gotten out of close to four years in the service, and we played an exhibition game in Long Beach and Satch pitched against our ball club. The ball I hit, I guess it must have been well over 400 feet. I wondered where all that power came from when I was rounding the bases.”

Stevens’ teammate Ned Garver was a 22-year-old rookie relief pitcher. Only in the major leagues for two months, he found himself right in the middle of this historical event.

“There was never a time when there wasn’t a bunch of hoopla around Satchel because he was such a colorful guy,” said the 85-year-old Garver from his home in Ohio.

Garver pitched two and one-thirds innings of scoreless relief for the save that day, but his clearest memories from that game started before a pitch was even thrown.

“We had a man on our team who hit cleanup and played left field [Whitey Platt]. He was from Florida. He told the manager he wasn’t going to play,” Garver recalled. “Zack Taylor was our manager, and you know back in those days, you didn’t tell somebody you weren’t going to play. You didn’t get away with that kind of crap. [Taylor] said, ‘No, you’re gonnna play.’ So he put him in the lineup.” Platt wasn’t a happy camper to say the least, and when he batted against Paige, he let him know it. “The first pitch Paige threw to him, he threw his bat at Satchel, and it whistled out there about belt high. He just wanted to show that he did not like that situation.”

Paige fooled Platt so badly for strike three with his famed hesitation pitch, that his bat once again took flight, this time flying up the third base line. Looking to extract some sort of revenge for Platt’s first toss of the bat, Garver said Satchel pulled one from his bag of tricks to finish the deal.

“If he threw a bat at Satchel like he did, Satchel was not going to look on that with favor, so he was probably going to give some of his better stuff along the way. To strike him out gave him some satisfaction.”

Paige pitched two scoreless innings that day, quickly shaking whatever nerves he had when Stevens stepped to the plate. He finished the season with a 6-1 record and helped the Indians get to the World Series, where he made one appearance in relief. Even though his best days were behind him, he still had enough left to outsmart major league hitters and give fans a taste of what the major leagues missed in his prime.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Billy Pierce squared off against Satchel Paige in an epic 11 inning showdown

Billy Pierce, the Chicago White Sox pitching legend, passed away Friday July 31, 2015 in Palos Heights, Illinois due to complications from gallbladder cancer. He was 88.

Acquired during a trade in the 1948 off-season from the Detroit Tigers for catcher Aaron Robinson, Pierce started a 13-year run in Chicago where he emerged as one of the most successful pitchers in franchise history. Early in his tenure with the White Sox, Pierce quickly wrote himself into the record books in an epic 11-inning contest against Satchel Paige’s Cleveland Indians.

Billy Pierce / White Sox
On May 29, 1949, the 23-year-old lefty squared off the legendary Paige, who was almost twice Pierce’s age. They met during the second game of a doubleheader at Cleveland Stadium in front of a sizable crowd of 47,769 fans. They eagerly awaited this matchup of the budding star facing one of the game’s most storied pitchers.

In 2010, I spoke with Pierce about this game at the Baseball Assistance Team Dinner in New York City. He excitedly recalled how his wife came with his parents from their home in Detroit to see the game.

“My wife [Gloria] came over with my mother and dad from Detroit to Cleveland to watch the game,” he said in 2010. “We go on, one inning, two innings, three innings — it gets to be about the sixth inning and we’re tied 1-1.”

Gloria, who was shaken by the suspense of the game, was approached by a Cleveland fan. He assured her that the elder Paige would not be able to keep up with her husband.

“A Cleveland fan came up to her and said, ‘Honey, don’t worry, Satchel will collapse and he will quit.’ It ends up in the 11th inning, he beat me 2-1. He didn’t collapse,” Pierce said.

Pierce started the bottom of the 11th against the Indians, but after he loaded the bases to three straight batters, White Sox manager Jack Onslow replaced him with Ed Klieman. After retiring the next batter, Paige was due to bat, but Indians manager Lou Boudreau had one more trick up his sleeve. The player-manager inserted himself as a pinch-hitter for Paige and promptly singled home the winning run. After eleven innings, Paige emerged with a complete game victory.

While Pierce admitted that he was fortunate to even have the opportunity to go up against Paige, he wished he could have been with the White Sox the year prior when the crowds rushed to see the American League’s first African-American pitcher.

“When he first pitched in Chicago, I wasn’t there, that was the year before. They tore the gates down; it was just jammed to see Satchel Paige.”

* - This was originally published for Examiner.com on August 1, 2015. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1952 Minor League Leaders / Sporting News

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

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

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

Art Pennington 2009 Topps Allen and Ginter Baseball Card / Topps

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

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

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

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

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.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cool Papa Bell shares the details of Satchel Paige's tryout with the Cleveland Indians in 1948

Cool Papa Bell, Negro League Hall of Fame speedster, shares in the video below the details of Satchel Paige's tryout with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. The audio of Bell's interview is part of a larger project by the Baseball Hall of Fame to digitize their vast audio library. Paige was signed by Bill Veeck and made an immediate splash with the Indians, debuting to a sellout crowd on his 42nd birthday.

Cool Papa Bell (bottom center) with Satchel Paige (middle row, far right) on the 1937 Ciudad Trujillo team

Paige finished with a 6-1 record, helping to lead the Indians to the 1948 World Series. Due to the dominant pitching performances of the Indians starting rotation, Paige was only called upon to pitch one inning during the series. Despite his limited role in the World Series, Veeck's investment paid dividends through Paige's stellar work in the regular season.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Mahlon Duckett, 92, a Philadelphia Negro League legend dies

Mahlon Duckett, one of the last living members of the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues, passed away Sunday at a Philadelphia area hospital. He was 92.

Duckett was a Philadelphia native who starred in track at Overbrook High School, where he was recruited as an infielder by the Stars after playing semi-pro baseball for a local team. He shored up their infield for a decade from 1940-49 and finished his career in 1950 with the Homestead Grays as the league was on its decline. He was signed with the New York Giants in 1951, but his major league hopes were derailed by a case of rheumatic fever right before he was to head out to training in Arizona. Sidelined for a year by the illness, his career was over.

Mahlon Duckett (center) at the 2008 Judy Johnson Tribute Night / N. Diunte

I first met Mr. Duckett in 2007 at the Wilmington Blue Rocks annual tribute to the Negro Leagues. Gregg Truitt, one of the chairs of the Judy Johnson Foundation, graciously had me as his house guest for a pre-event ceremony with the players and their families. I sat down with him and after being greeted with a smile and handshake, we immediately connected. At the time, I was playing for the Roxborough Bandits, a semi-pro team in Philadelphia’s famed Penn-Del League. Once we started talking about the intricacies of playing the middle infield positions, I knew that I had made a friend.

Mahlon Duckett (r.) with the author in 2007 / N. Diunte

For the rest of the evening, I became Mr. Duckett’s go-to-guy, helping him get around the ballpark and through the on-field ceremonies. After the pre-game honors ended, I accompanied him to the autograph area. I sat with him as he signed autographs for seven innings as a continuous stream of fans approached the table. During breaks in the action, we continued to talk baseball, as Duckett took pauses from signing just so he could finish telling me some of his vast encyclopedia of stories.

We stayed in touch after that evening, exchanging some photos from the event, a few letters in the mail, and subsequent phone calls. When I returned the next year, he told me that people who visited him at his assisted living home would always remark about the young gentleman in the photo with him. He said he was proud to display it.

In the following years, it became more difficult for Duckett to travel and slowly he watched his crew of fellow Philadelphia Stars dwindle with the passings of Bill Cash, Stanley Glenn, and Harold Gould. He made his final public appearance last month at the opening of the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Philadelphia.



We last spoke in 2013 and our talk returned to his career. Only 17-years-old when he joined the Stars, he told me that he was left to figure out most of the game by himself.

“In the Negro Leagues, you just played on your natural ability, that’s all,” he said during our 2013 telephone interview. “A couple of guys told me a lot of things that they thought would help me, but I never had any one individual say, ‘I’m taking you under my wing and teaching you this that and the other thing.’”

Some seventy years later, he chose to share one of his favorite stories that involved the great Satchel Paige. At an age when most ballplayers were trying to figure out graduating high school, an 18-year-old Duckett approached the plate with the game on the line against arguably the best pitcher in baseball history.

“I hit a game-winning home run off of Satchel in Yankee Stadium in 1941,” he said. “I’ll never forget that; it was a great day, Yankee Stadium, about 45,000 people there. There were a lot of great things that happened in the Negro Leagues that a lot of people don’t know about. It was a great league with great ballplayers.”

For an excellent in-depth interview with Duckett, check out Brent P. Kelley's, "Voices From the Negro Leagues."