Showing posts with label Walter Alston. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Walter Alston. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Don Newcombe's memory celebrated by Nashua teammate Billy DeMars

Don Newcombe was instrumental in breaking down barriers when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1946. Instead of sending him to join Jackie Robinson in Montreal, they sent him along with Roy Campanella to play for the Nashua Dodgers where they integrated the Class B New England League. In the wake of Newcombe’s recent passing, I reached out to the 93-year-old Billy DeMars for the latest Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss the experience of playing with his pioneering teammate.

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“The one thing I remember about Don was he was a helluva great pitcher,” DeMars said from his Florida home. “We were playing in Manchester New Hampshire one night, and Walter Alston was our manager that year. He brought him in the ninth inning. ... He didn’t hold anything back, he struck out all three batters. Just to watch him throw, he let the air out. He was tremendous!”

Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Nashua, 1946 
DeMars also noted that in addition to being lights out on the mound, Newcombe was a force at the plate. He led the team in with a .311 batting average, even besting his future Hall of Fame teammate Campanella.

Branch Rickey sent both of Negro League talents north to New Hampshire, as he could not place them in the hostile cities of his other southern minor league affiliates. DeMars said the Nashua team readily accepted both players and treated them like family.

“We had absolutely no problems whatsoever on the team," he said. "They were just other players. We got along absolutely great with Don [Newcombe] and [Roy] Campanella. In fact, Campanella had a little boy who was five or six. We used to put him on an iron crate and let him play on the pinball machine.”

The Brooklyn native wound up on the Nashua team after returning from his World War II service, where he played with Ted Williams and Charlie Gehringer at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The trio of future major leaguers, as well as player-manager Walter Alston, helped guide the team to the championship. Some seven decades later, DeMars chuckled at the reward.

“Another funny thing about that season, we lost the pennant on the last day of the season,” he said. “We went into the playoffs, and we won that to [become] the champions and our winning share was ten bucks apiece!”

Long removed from his playing and coaching days, DeMars marveled at the amount of money, or lack thereof, he made while in the minor leagues.

“I signed and went up to Olean New York in 1943 just before I went in the Navy,” he said. “I tell everybody I made $3.50 a day. It was $100 a month — $25 a week, which came out to $3.50 a day. It is a little bit different than today.”

He cited a broken current minor league system that continues to underpay both the players and coaches. He explained with record-setting major league contracts, baseball needs to reach down into the minor leagues and improve salary conditions.

“That’s what’s wrong with the game,” he said. “I just saw [Manny Machado] signed for $300 million and the guys who have to take cuts in salary are the minor league managers and the players. They are not paid as much as they should be [making]. The scouts and minor league managers need to make good money too. They are developing the players, and they have to work hard as hell down there.

"I spent 11 years as a minor league manager, and I was married and I had children at the time. You had to write up the whole league twice a year, the players once a month. At that time, I used to drive the team. We used to have cars; me and two other players would drive the club around. It wasn’t easy but we made it.”

DeMars played parts of three major league seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns. After 11 years as a minor league manager, he spent the next 19 as a major league coach with the Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Cincinnati Reds. He has managed to outlive most of his peers, with Newcombe’s death serving as a mortal reminder of his place in history.

“In August, I will be 94,” he said. “Now with Newcombe gone, I moved up to 22 [he is currently the 23rd oldest living former major league baseball player]. It’s a helluva a list isn’t it?”

Still, the nonagenarian is popular with the fans due to his status as one of the few remaining St. Louis Browns alumni.

“I get a hell of a lot of mail,” he said. “I think there are 12 of us left from the St. Louis Browns. St. Louis was great, everything about St. Louis was great.”

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.”

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dodgers and Yankees upstarts Miller and Bella shared a taste of the big leagues in September 1957

Rod Miller
September call-ups in baseball often signal hope and excitement for the fan base, as they get to take a look at the future talents of the organization. Lost amidst the chaos of the 1957 baseball season in New York were the debuts of two rookies, Rod Miller of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and John "Zeke" Bella of the New York Yankees. One team was on the verge of moving 3,000 miles to the West, the other convincingly won the American League pennant.

Both of these youngsters shared not only their major league debuts within a few days of each other, but also sadly, their deaths. Miller passed away November 8, 2013 in Cascade, Idaho, and Bella passed away November 17, 2013 in Greenwich, Ct.

Miller was a 17-year-old outfielder from Lynwood High School in California. He was signed by scout Lefty Phillips for a $4,000 bonus, which meant he had to be kept on the MLB roster for the year and couldn't be sent below Class B. He played with Cedar Rapids after signing, batting .183, an unlikely total for someone who would receive a call to the major leagues at the end of the season. Despite his paltry batting average, the Dodgers brought him up in September, biding his time on the bench while in the presence of the legendary figures on the club.

"The biggest thrill of my career," Miller said to Richard Tellis in Once Around the Bases, "was going into the Dodger clubhouse the next day, seeing all these legends, and putting the major-league uniform on."

On September 28, 1957, the Dodgers were playing the Philadelphia Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium in front of barely 5,800 people. It was an otherwise unforgettable game, except for the young Miller. In the top of the 9th inning, manager Walter Alston summoned the 17-year-old from the bench to pinch hit for Randy Jackson.

"I didn't believe him at first. I thought he was kidding," he said.

Standing in the on-deck circle, Miller thought about the generosity of his manager, who also had only a singular at-bat in the major leagues.

"I thought about the compassion Walter Alston had for me, letting me get to bat. He was the classiest human being I've ever known," he said.

Miller faced Phillies right-hander Jack Meyer, and after working the count to 2-2, he struck out swinging. Alston replaced Miller with Pee Wee Reese to play third base in the bottom of the 9th; it would be the last time Miller's feet touched major league soil.

"You can't imagine the residual benefits I've had in my life from that one time at-bat. It's opened more doors than I ever have imagined," he said.

John "Zeke" Bella
On the other side of town, Bella was a 26-year-old Korean War veteran, hitting his stride after serving three years in the United States Army. He batted .317 with the Denver Bears of the American Association in Triple-A, his third consecutive .300 season in the Yankees farm system. During that September, with the Yankees having a comfortable lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League standings, they recalled Bella for a look in the outfield alongside Elston Howard, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Bauer.

Speaking with the New York Daily News in October, 2013 after being inducted into the Greenwich High School Hall of Fame, Bella said one of his clearest memories of Mantle was the on the first day he reported to the team.

"I walked into the clubhouse," remembered Bella, "and Mickey yells across the room, 'Hey Yogi, Zeke’s here. You’re not the ugliest one here now!'"

Bella went 1-10 in his rookie campaign, earning his first major league hit off of Rudy Minarcin of the Boston Red Sox on September, 27, 1957. Despite another season of hitting over .300 at the Triple-A level, there was no room on the roster for him on their World Series Championship team in 1958. With the Yankees looking to bolster their pitching staff for the stretch run of the 1958 season, Bella was part of a late-season trade to the Kansas City Athletics for pitcher Murray Dickson.

His trade to Kansas City provided the opportunity for greater playing time, as he appeared in 47 games, batting .207 with one home run. His time in Kansas City was highlighted by a race with a teammate to the dugout from the outfield that had gone awry, resulting with Bella knocking himself unconscious on the dugout roof.

Bella played one more season in the minor leagues in 1960, before returning to Connecticut where he embarked on a long career with the United States Postal Service. He continued to stay involved in youth sports, serving as an umpire and referee at many levels. One of the local youths he inspired was future Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young.

"I remember Zeke Bella and how he umpired," Young said to the Greenwich Time in October, 2013. "He's a tough guy, and I learned about fairness from him."