Showing posts with label Tommy Lasorda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tommy Lasorda. Show all posts

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Why Tommy Lasorda Once Used A Rifle To Protect His Cuban Teammates

Tommy Lasorda celebrating the 1958-59 Almendares championship

Tommy Lasorda’s mighty curveball took him many places during his 14-year playing career, including Canada, Panama, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The tenacious southpaw’s fiery personality played right into the spirit of the Caribbean Winter League, making him a popular choice among the fans. 

During the 1958-59 Cuban Winter League season, Lasorda’s 8-3 record helped propel Almendares to the championship. They dominated in the Caribbean Series, going 5-1 with their pitching staff completing five of the six games. Lasorda was the lone starter not to go the distance, throwing 3.1 scoreless innings against Panama. 

While Almendares’ near-flawless championship would have been the highlight of any baseball season, another event during the 1958-59 campaign dominated anything that happened on the baseball field. 


On New Year’s Eve in 1958, one American baseball player noticed there was an uncomfortable quiet during the day. As John Goryl rode to the ballpark with Cienfuegos teammate Bob Will, there was an eerie silence on the road. 

“We were driving into Havana,” Goryl said during a 2011 interview. “We lived eight or nine miles outside of the city. We were driving down this main thoroughfare, and it was New Year’s Day. We were driving down the highway and not a soul in site. No traffic. All the windows when we got close to town were boarded up, curtains were down, and shutters were down.” 

When they arrived at the stadium, his Cuban teammates quickly updated Goryl on what was happening. There was a drastic change coming. 

“When we got to the ballpark, all of the Cuban ballplayers were gathered in one corner in the ballpark,” he said. “I took Pedro [Ramos] aside and he told me, ‘They think Batista left the country, and Castro will be coming in.’ I asked, ‘Are we gonna play?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t look like it, but they haven’t made that announcement.’ About 30 minutes later, an announcement was made, and we would be told when we would be able to play again.” 

With the inevitable change of power from Fulgencio Batista to Fidel Castro, chaos ensued. It was a long ride back to their protected beach compound at Club NĂ¡utico where the foreign players stayed. 

“All hell broke loose when we left that ballpark,” he said. “People tore down parking meters to get money, looting, and everything else.” 

Goryl thought his family was safe at the compound; however, one American player thought otherwise. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked out his window and saw Tommy Lasorda out front armed with a rifle. 

“We were living in a compound that was completely surrounded by water with guards,” he said. “I had a wife who had a small baby and was pregnant. I looked out the window one morning down to the street and there was Tommy walking around with a .22 rifle trying to protect everybody. It was the damndest thing I'd ever seen.”

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017 Topps Archives weathers a storm of controversy to shine for collectors

Imagine opening a pack of baseball cards and pulling mint specimens of Hank Aaron, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout one after another. While this sounds like a fantasy lineup, 2017 Topps Archives provides a wonderful array of fresh faces mixed in with veterans and legends in the design of vintage Topps cards from yesteryear.


Focusing on the themes of the 1960, 1982, and 1992 sets, this year’s Topps Archives set is one of the most exciting and controversial releases to hit the market this season. While collectors are attracted to seeing their heroes fixed on classic Topps motifs, much attention has been given to who Topps chose to be signers for their Fan Favorites autograph insert cards.

Baseball chaser Zack Hample, who gained notoriety for catching Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit, was nabbed by Topps to be part of the series, which includes other debated aficionados such as Skip Bayless and Bald Vinny. Once fans got wind of his appearance in the set, they reacted with disdain to the possibility of landing his card as one of the two guaranteed autographs in each box. Some even resorted to having bids on ways to destroy the card with the proceeds going to charity.






Fortunately, the box provided for this review yielded spectacular autographs of Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda and Kansas City Royals star Kevin Seitzer. These cards are crisp in the both their styles and signatures.





Going past the base set, the 1959 Bazooka Gum and 1960 Rookie Card designs have tremendous eye appeal that further an even greater reason to pursue Topps Archives. While on their chase, consumers will also find a career retrospective to Derek Jeter as another way to get on the bandwagon.



Despite the chatter surrounding the desirability of a few of Topps’ choices on autographs, collectors have found excitement in seeing the tremendous history of past and present stars distributed in classic Topps styles. With the opportunity to pull a future Hall of Famer alongside one already enshrined in Cooperstown, it makes 2017 Topps Archives a release that can weather all seasons.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Clem Labine: 'Always A Dodger' by Richard Elliott


Clem Labine was a fixture on the Dodgers pitching staff during the entire 1950s decade. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Labine stabilized a legendary bullpen as one of the game’s earliest relief specialists. Yet 65 years after his debut, his career achievements remained overshadowed by virtue of being on the same team with Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. His fellow bullpen-mate Tommy Lasorda, who made the Hall of Fame as a manager, acknowledge how underrated Labine was amongst his teammates.

“He was a great pitcher, but he was surrounded by too many stars,” Lasorda said. “He played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”

Richard Elliott, a close friend of Labine’s from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, has finally given the Dodger hurler the spotlight he deserves by authoring a very personal biography, “Clem Labine: Always A Dodger.” They first met well before he was a baseball star, while Labine was a part-time employee during high school at Elliott’s father’s apparel company, Jacob Finkelstein & Sons. A relationship that was forged in the late 1940s between a young kid, his father, and one of Brooklyn’s most beloved pitchers, remained bonded for sixty years until Labine’s 2007 death.

Always A Dodger / Richard Elliott

Elliott takes us on an unparalleled look inside Labine’s life that could only come from one with such close access to the Dodger great. From the opening of the book, it is evident that this work is much more about relationships than baseball.

“Long before he was a major league pitcher, Clem Labine was my dad’s best friend,” Elliot wrote in “Always A Dodger.”

Labine worked for Elliott’s family throughout the off-seasons of his major league career and well after he threw his final pitcher for the Mets in 1962. With the major league minimum salary currently exceeding $500,000 per year, the type of kinship that Labine and Elliott experienced from the jobs necessitated to supplement the low ballplayer wages of that era may never again be duplicated.

Filled with Labine and Elliott’s personal family photos, the images contained give “Always A Dodger,” a feel of looking inside someone’s scrapbook with a rich narrative of the life events surrounding each scene. Along the way, Elliott not only details Labine’s greatest triumphs, but also his toughest tragedies.

On the field, Labine was celebrated for his role on two World Series Championship teams, taking home Brooklyn’s only pennant in 1955, and pitching in 1960 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yet away from the field, Labine experienced two tremendous losses in a short period of time that haunted him for the rest of his life. His son Jay lost a leg in Vietnam and his wife Barbara passed away from cancer in 1976, only seven years after his son’s terrible injury.

Elliot explores the inner struggle that Labine dealt with from being away from his family as a ballplayer. While living the life of a major leaguer on the road seems exciting, these players leave their families behind for a half-year, relying on the strength of a strong wife to carry the household. It was a choice that pulled at Labine well after he retired from baseball.

“It troubles me remembering how tortured Clem seemed when he would speak of the compromises to family life which had resulted from his seventeen-year career in professional sports,” Elliott said.

While Labine was lauded for his role as the closer in the Dodgers bullpen, two of the greatest games he ever pitched came as a starter for “Dem Bums.” October 3, 1951 is widely recognized in baseball circles for Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” off of Ralph Branca, but the primary reason that game even had a chance to be played was due to Labine’s masterful performance the day prior. With the Dodgers’ season on the line, he went nine shutout innings to lead the Dodgers to a 10-0 victory. This clutch feat has been historically overlooked due to Thomson’s aforementioned home run the next day.

When the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers squared off in the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen gave the Yankees a 3-2 series edge when he threw the only perfect game in World Series history. With the Dodgers season on the line, Walter Alston gave the ball to Labine, who was nothing short of spectacular, besting Bob Turley for 10 innings to secure the Dodgers 1-0 victory and a chance to play in Game 7. Overshadowed by Larsen's performance, Labine’s extra inning effort is rarely discussed regarding the 1956 World Series.

By penning “Always A Dodger,” Elliot ensures that Labine’s career is not only celebrated, but remembered. In the eight years since Labine’s death, Elliott acknowledges that not a day goes by that Labine is not missed. Many baseball fans hope to share just a few moments with a major leaguer at the ballpark or an autograph show, but Elliott had the fortune of spending a lifetime with Labine by his side. The illustration of their relationship in the book captured the essence of the life that he touched.

“His childhood hero had become his business associate, close friend, and confident,” he said.
 Clem had become, in many ways, a second father.”

* - This article was originally published on Examiner.com October 4, 2015. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

How Red Adams turned a devastating injury into a five decade journey in baseball

Looking at Red Adams’ career Major League stats, one might assume that he was washed up at age 24, pitching only 12 innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1946 with a bloated 8.25 ERA. Lost in the translation of his  cup of coffee was a 19-year minor league career that spanned over 3,000 innings and opened the door for another three decades as a scout, pitching coach, and instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Red Adams / Author's Collection

Adams died Wednesday January 18, 2017 at the age of 95 in California. He left behind a lifetime of memories that came from a half-decade association with a game that he admits he wasn’t ready to play when he signed his first professional contract in 1939.

“I didn’t play any baseball before I went into pro baseball,” he told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in California. “I grew up in a small town. There was a guy named Charlie Moncrief who took me to a tryout camp. He saw me play in high school. I played seven or eight games in high school. He took me to Los Angeles to a tryout camp and I was signed. I didn’t even know pitchers were supposed to cover first base.”

While Adams was learning the finer points of the game playing at the lowest rung of the minor leagues in Bisbee, Arizona, he suffered a severe injury that threatened to cut short a career that was just starting. An evening of horseplay with his roommates left him with an injury that would have stopped his career dead in its tracks if he played any other position besides pitcher.

“I had gotten into an accident in Bisbee, Arizona when I first started playing ball,” he recalled. “A bunch of damn fools we were! We were staying in a big rooming house; a bunch of players with nobody in charge. I was up there and a couple of us got into a damn water fight. I wound up getting hurt badly. I was chasing this kid down the damn hall to get even with him to throw water on him. He runs in this door and closes it behind him. It was a glass door and I was right behind him, I stick out my left arm and I cut myself real bad. If you get cut by glass like that, it was like no pain, but suddenly I was bleeding all over. I cut my left arm at the ulnar nerve just above my elbow. It’s like midnight and they take me to the hospital nearby. They just sewed it up. The main nerves were cut. It cripples my hand to where I can’t even straighten my fingers.”

His arm injury was so debilitating, that when he went to register to serve in World War II, he was declared unfit for participation. It was a label that he despised having.

“It kept me out of the Army,” he said. “I took my physical but the guy looked at my hand and said I’d be taken in for limited service. He told me I’d be called any time. I stayed out of baseball; I was married and my wife was expecting a baby. The next year, they didn’t call me. I was working on a farm not making any money, so I thought I’d go and play ball and make a little money. Eventually, they put me 4F which was ‘unfit,’ which I hated calling myself that because I was fit except for my arm. Had I been an everyday player, it would have been the end of me.”

A few years later after his devastating injury, Adams ascended his way to the major leagues, pitching with the Cubs in 1946 after posting a 9-4 record with a 2.68 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. It was in that league where Adams truly built his career, playing the next 12 seasons in the PCL while the league earned an Open classification from professional baseball.

He experienced a breakout season in 1952 with Portland after returning invigorated from an appearance in the Caribbean Series with the San Juan Senadores from Puerto Rico. At age 30, he found a new lease on his pitching life.

“I came back and was a different pitcher in the Coast League,” he said. “In the past I was struggling, I was going downhill; I started to wonder what I was going to do after baseball. In those years, I’d come on pretty good the last half of the season and keep my job. That winter, I came into spring training in shape and I led the coast league in ERA that year even though I lost more games than I won.”

Modern-era executives might now recognize his low earned run average as a sign of his effectiveness and discount his hard luck losses, but in 1952, management was quick to pin full responsibility of the ledger on their pitchers, no matter the ineptitude of their offense or defense.

“The general manager there cut my salary a couple hundred dollars per month,” he said. “I was pitched the opening game in San Francisco and lost 1-0; the other guy pitched a one-hitter. I lost my first five games and didn’t give up more than three runs per game. He [the general manager] called me in after the fifth loss and gave me the $200 cut. He said, ‘The way you’re pitching, if you don’t win a game, you deserve to have your salary cut.’ His name was Bill Mulligan. I ended up winning 15 games.”

Adams said that the scenario he described was common in the minor leagues, as players had little choice in their movement due to the reserve clause. Despite the salary cut against what he felt was effective performance, he still felt that playing in the Pacific Coast League had many benefits in the 1950s.

“Those were the struggling minor league days,” he said. "The Coast League was a good league to play in; we had good conditions, it was a very comfortable league to play in. A lot of the players came from the big leagues, fringe guys, or guys that had a couple of years left. The conditions were hard to beat. Not too many players made a lot of money in the major leagues. There were players happy to be playing there.”

After finishing up as a player in 1958, Adams was asked to become a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He worked in that position until 1969 when Walter Alston brought him as a pitching coach. He stayed with the Dodgers in that role through the transition to Tommy Lasorda's regime until his retirement as a coach in 1980. Although he stepped down from his coaching duties, he continued with the organization as an instructor through the mid 1980s. Among his many prized pupils was Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who called Adams, “the standard by which all pitching coaches should be measured.”

During our 2009 conversation, Adams reflected on how fortunate he was to work with the Dodgers for such a lengthy period a time. After considering how his career was almost truncated due to a careless injury away from the field, he marveled at the fortune that turned it into an almost 50-year journey in the sport.

“It was a damn good organization,” he said. “I lucked out; I was pretty lucky.”

Thursday, July 14, 2016

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

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

Clyde Parris at his home in 2011 / N. Diunte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clyde Parris 2009 Topps Baseball Card / Topps

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Catching up with Brooklyn Dodger Don Demeter

Don Demeter was just 21 years old when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Called up in September after hitting 41 home runs at Fort Worth in the Texas League, Walter Alston sent Demeter to the plate as a pinch hitter on September 18th. Overwhelmed by the experience, Demeter went right back to the dugout after three pitches.

"I didn't even take a swing," he said in Jonathan Arnold's SABR biography.

Determined not to repeat his statuesque figure at the plate, he told himself that he would swing at the first offering the next time he was up. The next day, the Dodgers were routing the St. Louis Cardinals 15-2 by the 8th inning. Alston went to his bench and inserted him in center field. At the bottom of the inning, he led off against Don Liddle. With the count 2-1, Demeter took a mighty swing at a fastball and deposited it in the stands. 

"The next night I got to pinch hit again and the first swing I took, I hit a home run," he said. "They put me in the Ebbets Hall of Fame because I have a .500 average in Ebbets Field."

Demeter made one more appearance for Brooklyn as a pinch hitter against the Pirates. It would be his last in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. He had another stellar season in the minors in 1957, but with his St. Paul club going deep in the playoffs, there were only a few days left in the major league season when he finished. There would not be enough time for Demeter to play again in Brooklyn before they headed to California.

Starting in 1958, Demeter played the next 10 seasons in the majors, also spending time with the Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox, and Indians. He retired in 1967 with 163 home runs in 1109 games. Upon his return to Oklahoma City, Demeter entered the ministry, where he is now a pastor at the Grace Community Baptist Church.

Don Demeter (l.) with Tommy Lasorda (r.) in 2014 - David Greenwell
In 2014, he appeared with Tommy Lasorda to announce the Los Angeles Dodgers moving their Triple-A team to Oklahoma City. At the time of this writing, he's the third youngest living Brooklyn Dodger, with only Brooklyn natives Sandy Koufax and Bob Aspromonte (who ironically debuted in Demeter's home run game) as his juniors.

Below is a video with Demeter from grandson Kendrick, where he discusses his major league career and his transition to a man of the faith.




Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt once again speaks out about autographs

Mike Schmidt signed card - Baseball Almanac
Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt is back again, complaining about autographs, this time about the awful scrawl of modern athletes. In 2010, we spotlighted a Sports Illustrated article by Schmidt entitled, "The autograph craze is out of whack," where Schmidt takes to task all of those who try to get his autograph in public for free by covert methods.

Schmidt has followed that up with, "Perfect penmanship becoming a thing of the past with autographs," where he calls out modern players for having illegible autographs, and again takes the time to go after collectors who try to get players outside team hotels and other places they frequent. This is coming from someone who purposely signs in a much sloppier fashion the rare times he signs for free in public, to make sure he protects the value of his autograph. One can understand that as a Hall of  Famer, a big asset is your signature, but when you are getting paid tens of thousands of dollars per public appearance, do you really care if a few people somewhere down the line make a few bucks from your signature because they couldn't afford the $75 the promoter is asking at a show?

The quality of modern autographs have seriously deteriorated, as players try to meet the increased demand at games, spring training, etc., but yet a few great examples remain, such as those of Michael Cuddyer, Huston Street, and Pat Neshek. If Schmidt is so concerned about the quality of current signatures, he should take a few players under his wing, just as the late Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew did with Cuddyer, and fellow Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda did with Street. A word from this Hall of Famer might just carry enough weight to make a difference.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reggie Jackson and Tommy Lasorda ignite Yankee - Dodger rivalry

At last week's Yankee - Dodger game, with the aid of announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, the legendary Yankee - Dodger rivalry from the late 1970's was ignited between Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Reggie Jackson. Click here to read commentary and see the exchange of barbs between the two legends.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tommy Lasorda inducted into Cuban Sports Hall of Fame

MLB Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda was inducted into the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday in Miami. This makes for the 16th Hall of Fame of which Lasorda has been enshrined. To read the details on Lasorda's induction, click here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Brooklyn Dodger who didn't make it - Hampton Coleman's journey with the Dodgers of the 1950s

The future Brooklyn Dodgers of 1952? Look hard in the bottom left-hand corner and you'll see Solomon "Hampton" Coleman. The righty "curveball artist" is the only player pictured that didn't make the major leagues.



His close cut with the Brooklyn Dodgers involved a meteoric rise from the low minors to Triple-A early in his career that crossed paths with some of the finest players in baseball's history.

The 81-year-old Coleman, explained via telephone from his Florida residence in July 2008, how he came so close to becoming a Brooklyn Dodger.

He was first signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1947 and was sent to Roanoke of the Class B Piedmont League. After posting a record of 13-5 with a 3.17 ERA, he was given an invite to major league spring training. What a jump for the young rookie from Red Springs, N.C., to go from the bushes to the big leagues in two years!

The 1948 spring training season allowed Coleman rub elbows with baseball's elite.

"I was in spring training with the Red Sox when I was 20 with Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio. I threw batting practice to Williams," Coleman said.

One of his highlights was facing Joe DiMaggio. The Hall of Famer proved to be a tall task for the rookie.

"I pitched against Joe DiMaggio," he said. "There were a few men on base and he hit a home run off of me to win it. The Red Sox had a pitcher Boo Ferriss, and he said, 'Don't worry about it, he's hit home runs off of better pitchers than you!' That picked me up a little bit."

DiMaggio's home run off of Coleman was chronicled in the March 15, 1948 edition of the Prescott Evening Courier.

In only his second professional season, Coleman wasn't flustered by his encounter with DiMaggio. He was sent to Triple-A to play with Louisville of the American Association. After playing the 1948-1950 seasons with Louisville (with a short loan to Seattle of the PCL in 1949), Coleman's next break came courtesy of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I was playing in Louisville, and St. Paul was the Dodger team in the American Association," he said. "When Boston was on the verge of winning the pennant that year (1950), they were looking for a pitcher by the name of Harry Taylor to buy. They purchased him from the Dodgers, and the Red Sox gave them any choice of a Triple-A pitcher in their system, so they selected me. That's how I got to the Dodgers. I played with Montreal for a couple of years. Walter Alston was the manager, and when he went to Brooklyn, he took four of us to the Dodgers."

Hampton Coleman 1953 Canadian Exhibit / Author's Collection

Alston was hired as the Dodgers manager in 1954 and it was the break that Coleman needed. During the winter, Coleman chose to go to Cuba to sharpen his skills in preparation for his big break.

He pitched the 1951-52 winter season with Almendares and 1952-53 winter season with Marianao in Cuba. Many veterans reached out to help, including pitching tips from a future Hall of Famer.

"Do you remember Hoyt Wilhelm?" he asked. "He was down there. I was trying to get another pitch, and he was helping me with a knuckleball to use as an out pitch. He helped me a lot."

Discussing Cuba evoked the memories of some of his legendary teammates. Another Hall of Fame teammate he prominently recalled was Ray Dandridge,

"I played with him in the Cuban winter leagues," Coleman recalled. "The first time I saw him was with Louisville against Minneapolis in the American Association. He was a great third baseman; he was like a vacuum cleaner, anything that came his way, he scooped up. He was a terrific fielder and good hitter. I absolutely thought he should have been a major league player. He was a tough man to get out."

The Dodgers sent many of their prospects including a left-hander who later became the club's greatest ambassador. Coleman explained how Tommy Lasorda displayed the makings of a future manager while he was an active player.

"The years I was in Cuba, I played with him, as well as two-and-a-half years in Montreal," he said. "Lasorda was managing the whole time he was playing. He was a motivator from day one. He didn't like to see anybody loafing. He'd get on your case if you were losing. Nobody loses more than a player that is loafing. I spent a lot of time with Tommy."

Despite the legendary connections he made, a car accident towards the end of the 1953-54 winter season in Cuba derailed his chances of making the Dodgers club.

"I had my wreck at the end of the season on my way to Cuba for the third year down there," he said. "I had a car accident and almost got killed. I fell out of the car on my shoulder. I was a right-handed pitcher and I could never gain any momentum again. The doctors said I would never pitch again. Later on, when technology improved, they said they could have fixed my shoulder in two hours!"

The doctors were wrong about Coleman pitching again. He returned in time for spring training, and Alston held to his word, giving Coleman a shot in February 1954. Unfortunately, Coleman knew he was at the end of the line.

"It was pretty much the end of my career. I had nothing left on the ball."

He was there long enough to be included in the Dodgers 1954 spring training team photo but lasted only 10 games at Montreal. His final season came in 1955 with Double-A Fort Worth and Mobile, where he posted a combined record of 4-11 in 20 appearances.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Book Review: Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls by Bill Kirkland

Although published in 1993, Bill Kirkland's, "Eddie Neville of the Durham Bulls," serves as a primer to all major league hopefuls in their quest to make it from the bushes to the big leagues.

Recommended to me by former Eddie Neville teammate Emil Restaino, Kirkland chronicles Neville's playing career from his days toiling in the sandlots of Baltimore, through the shores of the Canal Zone, to his jumping among the rungs of the Detroit Tigers minor league system. Along the way, Neville hangs on to the dream of donning the Tiger uniform, while enduring long bus rides, thrifty owners, and steady doses of winter ball in the off season.

You ride with Neville, as he makes steady progress under the watchful eye Al Kubski in Panama, leading you to believe that he is on the path to the Major Leagues. After posting 28 and 25 win seasons in Tarboro and Durham respectively, he ascends to the highest rank of the Tigers minor league organization, their AAA affiliate in Toledo. Neville struggles at AAA that season, posting a 6-15 record while battling a sore arm. It was as close as Neville would get to the Major Leagues.

Even with a sore arm, Neville displayed tremendous guile that would be his calling card throughout his career. Neville would often will his way to victory, relying on his junk as he slowly began to lose his fastball due to prolonged arm problems. During the 1950 season against first-place Indianapolis, he pitched a 16-inning victory in 90 degree heat, scoring the winning run after hitting a triple at the top of the inning. Neville would add to his legend in Durham, pitching an 18 inning victory in 1952. Such performances are rarely ever seen or heard in modern baseball. His bulldog approach drew praise from fans and sportswriters alike. Neville's reputation would earn him multiple starting day honors for Durham as he rose to the top of the class of the Carolina League. Crowds would flock to Durham Athletic Park every fifth day to see him pitch.

While Neville's stats may recommend that he was due for a promotion, there were questions about his velocity and being difficult to manage. Neville was also passed over to replace his former Durham Bulls manager, NFL Hall of Famer Clarence "Ace" Parker, when Parker took the helm at Duke University. Ironically, Neville would go on to work for 20 years as a buyer in the purchasing department at Duke. He would suffer in his later years from multi-infarct dementia.

Much of the information gathered is courtesy of Neville's diary that he kept while he was playing, and from the vast collection of his wife Janet. Kirkland meticulously combed small-town newspaper articles and conducted interviews with Neville's former teammates to accurately depict the career of Neville. The rare photos of Neville and his teammates from the 1940's and 1950's, including a young Tommy Lasorda from the Canal Zone take you back to when baseball was a reflection of close knit atmosphere of minor league baseball before the era of expansion.

Neville's grandson, Kenneth Villines was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 2008. Here is the News Observer article that mentions Neville's legacy as a Durham Bull in relation to his grandson being drafted.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Danny Ozark, 85, Phillies Manager, WWII vet and Dodgers farmhand

Death is never a timely thing, especially when there are questions that are left unanswered. I was left with many when the news broke of Danny Ozark's passing on May 7, 2009. A few months earlier, I had interviewed a spry Ozark on his cell phone for almost an hour about his baseball career and his attempts to ascend through the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Ozark, like many others of his era, was whisked away from professional baseball to serve in World War II, only to return to a crowded minor league system that was about to experience the effects of integration.

Danny Ozark / Topps
Ozark entered professional baseball in 1942, starting out as a second baseman for Brooklyn's Class D team in Olean. It was there where he was teammates with a future Brooklyn Dodger, Cal Abrams. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Army.

"I was in the Army, and we landed in Europe on D-Day," Ozark said in 2008. "I received the Purple Heart in St. Laurent, France and got out in 1945. I spent three years in WWII, all of them in Europe. I never saw a baseball during WWII. I wasn't even sure I was going to go back [to baseball]."

Ozark described just what it was like to be there on D-Day.

"Well, it was I guess, the way alot of people ask me, and the best thing I probably said was, 'My underwear was very dirty and I didn't have a chance to change it for two weeks.' We were scared like everyone else, but we were young kids and alot of that stuff didn't bother us. Once you've seen death and people dying slowly, things like that stay in your memory. I can still visualize guys drowning after getting out of LCT's (landing craft tanks), because the water was deeper than they anticipated. Some of the guys that went down with the 60 lb. tanks drowned and we never saw them again." 

He was wounded in combat and later received a Purple Heart for his bravery.

"I received a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds off of an artillery shell," he said. "The other battle we were in was the Battle of the Bulge. I spent time in Antwerp while the bulge was coming towards us because of the shipping they had in the docks where all of our equipment came in."

Returning from WWII in the winter gave Ozark very little time to prepare himself for spring training.

"When I got home in December 1945, my brother didn't go into the service and I played basketball with him until spring training," he said. "I got my legs in better shape than I had them before, but I never got to throw or anything like living in Buffalo [in the winter]."

Ozark, as well as many others returning from the war found themselves behind the curve entering Florida in February of 1946. They were also walking into history unfolding before their eyes.

"I didn't even pick up a baseball you know. Brooklyn sent me a contract to report to Spring Training in February. They brought us down to Sanford, Florida. That's where Jackie [Robinson] came in, right near Daytona Beach. It was the first time I got to meet him too. We were in spring training together in '46. Heck, the first week we started playing exhibition games. I got a sore arm like everyone else. We couldn't throw the ball, yet they kept pushing us. It took time to get our arms in shape, our bats to hit the ball, and for us catch the ball because we never played baseball [during the war]."

There was immediate competition from the players that lived on the West Coast and those that spent their military service playing baseball.

"Guys in the service, especially in the Navy, some of them played with teams in exhibition games where the war was going on, guys like [Bob] Feller, Virgil Trucks, etc. We had so many guys coming from California where they can play year round. They were so far ahead of us in spring training, fielding, hitting, throwing, as far as baseball was concerned. It took us a whole month to catch up, sometimes longer because so many players in the service came out and reported. Pitchers hurt their arms because they threw too soon. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see how hard you could throw. We didn't have the doctors like they have today where you could mend in a short time and bring it back like it used to be."

At one point during that 1946 spring training, there were over 600 players in camp. Ozark marveled at the talent that was there.

"There were so many guys that could have surely made it," he said. "It wasn't that there was a shortage of talented players, there was a shortage of roster spots for them in the majors."

The problem with having so many players in camp was due to the reserve clause; you weren't free to leave for another team that could use your services.

"We were in there like a bunch of slaves," he recalled. "That was for every major league team. We had farm system, and you couldn't leave them unless they released or traded you. [Brooklyn] wouldn't listen to you. They said, 'Hang on and you'll get your opportunity'."

For Ozark, that opportunity never came. After returning from WWII, the Dodgers converted him from a second baseman to a first baseman. Not only was he behind Robinson at first base [in 1947], when Robinson moved over to second base, he was stuck behind another Dodger mainstay, Gil Hodges. He looked back at what was a hopeless situation.

"Every year, I was stuck behind Gil Hodges. Where could I go?"

He felt like he had at least one supporter in the long time Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson.

"Fresco Thompson did the most for me," he said. "He helped me along quite a bit. He gave me a rule book. He said, 'You read this thing, and as your career goes on this thing will come in as handy as you can imagine.' He admired my family. He liked me and kept visiting me wherever I managed. I felt like I was going to get a shot to going up there [to Brooklyn]."

He did the best he could playing out the string in the Dodgers farm system, experiencing a few brushes when he thought he was going to get called up.

"The closest I thought I was going to get was in 1953. I always played against the big club in exhibitions, but they never took me though if they had an A or B game. Brooklyn needed a third baseman at that time, as they had [Don] Hoak and [Don] Zimmer [in Montreal]. I think finally they picked up Billy Cox and he was struggling too that year. I was hitting really well and Fresco came to the ballpark to watch me. I asked Tommy Holmes, 'Why did you put me at third base? I had no time there.' He said, 'Just to give you a change, we had Clint Weaver at first base, he was left-handed'. I wondered after all of these years if Fresco Thompson was looking at me to play third base." 

A few years later, Ozark thought that opportunity was once again knocking on his door.

"In '55, the same thing happened," he said. "I was sure I was going to go in '55. Hodges was having a tough year and they needed a third baseman and a first baseman. Thompson came again [to see me], but Frank Kellert took my place in '55. I'm almost 100% sure that is what happened."

Ozark batted over .300 in both AA and AAA. He was also among the league leaders in home runs every season. At times he felt like he was getting used to shore up the farm teams of the Dodgers instead of getting a shot at the big league club.

"You take the Kansas City team of the Yankees," he said. "[Lew] Burdette was there. I used to wear those guys out. They had [Moose] Skowron and [Bob] Cerv on their way up. These guys looked at me like, 'What is this guy doing down here?' You could have said, 'I guess I'll never make it,' but I never gave up. I just played to win."

He seemingly played for every farm club in the Dodgers organization, moving around so much that he almost hung it up in 1950.

"They sent me from AAA to Class B [Newport News] and then I went to Elmira [Class A]. It seemed like every time they sent me somewhere, it was a losing proposition. They sent me there to build up the team. We won the pennant in Neport News, I was the most valuable and popular player. In Elmira in 1950, I went back to St Paul, made two-to-three trips out of St. Paul [to Ft. Worth]. We really liked it there [St. Paul]. Our first child was born there in 1949. In 1950, they sent me to Elmira. That was when I was close to saying goodbye. They called me back to St. Paul though, and I kept going."

As we returned to discuss Jackie Robinson and the topic of baseball's integration, Ozark brought up two pioneers in their own rights, Hall of Famer Willard Brown and Clinton "Butch" McCord. Both were alumni of the Negro Leagues, and Brown holds the distinction of being the first African-American to hit a homerun in the American League. While Brown sputtered in his short trial with the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Ozark saw flashes of greatness from the 40 year-old player in the Texas League that Puerto Ricans labeled "Ese Hombre".

"I was in a home run contest with Willard Brown," Ozark recalled. "They gave us 10 swings, he beat me 9-8. He was kind of a hot dog. He could run, but never energized himself. He had a good arm and good power."

He explained how McCord's inspired play in heavily segregated Macon, Georgia mesmerized the fans.

"I had Butch McCord in Macon," he said. "He was a super guy. A good contact hitter, he didn't strike out much. He hit over .300. He became the most popular player on the team and the MVP. He was pretty close to 30 years old when I had him, and wasn't the one the organization was watching to replace Hodges at first base."

Towards the end of our discussion Ozark reflected on his coaching and managerial days in baseball.

"I retired in 1984 from managing after getting 20 years in the pension for being a major league coach and manager. I still worked for the Giants as a scout, reporting to Tom Haller who was the GM at the time. I worked for the Dodgers all my life until '72. I went back with them from '80-'82, coaching in the World Series versus the Yankees which we won in 1981. I was in three World Series with them. As I look back, five of us from the 1955 Fort Worth team, Sparky [Anderson], Dick Williams, Norm Sherry, Maury Wills, and myself all went into managing. Talk about a lineup!"

Ozark, as many others from his generation shook his head about how modern pitchers rarely throw a complete game.

"Alot of guys that are pitchers now can't finish games because the pitching coaches are counting clickers all games. The only person that knows when it is time to come out is the man upstairs. How can you apply the same rule [100 pitches] to each pitcher? We have two different bodies, you live differently, you have different eating habits, take different vitamins, etc. How can you tell whose arm can last longer?"

He cited changes in the height of the pitching mound, as well as increases in strength training as reasons for pitchers being injured more frequently.
 
"Today, guys like Clemens lift 300 lbs. In my day, you couldn't lift a feather. You had to have loose limbs. They can throw harder, yet they are tearing muscles more, due to the extra strength training. The big factor in pitching came when they changed the dimensions of the mound, when they flattened it out. They're using more of their arm instead of their legs and back, going downhill. Who would have thought that someone like Spahn would pitch the way he did for that many years? Now these relievers can't go more than one inning and get hurt. The mound has an effect and the baseball itself. They'll never raise the mound again because people want to see action."


Living in Vero Beach in 2008 gave him the opportunity to visit Dodgertown for the last time before the Dodgers moved to Arizona. The thought of the Dodgers moving signaled an end of an era to Ozark.

"It was sad to see the Dodgers leave Dodgertown, as I spent alot of time there with the organization," he said. "I went to Dodgertown the last year to watch a few games, and to visit Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Larry Bowa."

Ozark spent over 40 years in baseball as a player, coach, manager and scout. A baseball lifer and World War II veteran, he was a true hero and gentleman in every sense of the word. Some reporters had commented that Ozark was "too nice," when he managed the Phillies in the 1970s, but after speaking with him I couldn't imagine Ozark any other way. We could have kept on going that afternoon, but I felt that I had already occupied enough of his time. Upon ending the interview, Ozark left me with these final words.

"Anytime you need me, you give me a buzz,"  he said.

I wrote him three days before his death to see how he was doing. I can only wonder if he received my letter before he passed.

Rest in peace Danny Ozark. The man upstairs might need some good counsel on when that pitcher needs to come out.

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