Showing posts with label World War II. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World War II. Show all posts

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Remembering Negro League pitching ace Ross 'Satchel' Davis, 94

I had the opportunity to speak with Ross "Satchel" Davis in 2008 for an hour about baseball. I wish that I had recorded the interview, as it was extremely spirited and informative. Around the same time I spoke with him, another writer went and visited him at his home in Garwood, Texas, and posted a wonderful article about their meeting.

This tribute below captures the essence of what I remember about Ross "Satchel" Davis from the encounter I had with him on the phone. He was kind enough to send a bunch of photos and custom baseball cards with a stamped signature, as he couldn't sign his name at that time.

Ross “Satchel” Davis, former pitcher for the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro Leagues, passed away at the age of 94 from complications due to pneumonia early in the morning on January 1st, 2013 at the DeBakey VA hospital in Houston, Texas according to his close friend Sarah Perry. Perry is the daughter of Melinda Ramsey, the family whom Davis lived with during the past few years in the Houston suburb of Garwood.

Ross 'Satchel' Davis signed photo
Davis was born on July 28, 1918 in Greenville, Mississippi. He pitched in the Negro Leagues from 1940-47 with the Baltimore Elite Giants, Cleveland Buckeyes, New York Black Yankees, and Boston Blues. His career highlights included pitching a no-hitter with Roy Campanella as his catcher as a member of the Baltimore Elite Giants against a potent Newark Eagles lineup that included Hall of Famers Biz Mackey, Monte Irvin, and Willie Wells in 1940, and pitching in the 1947 Negro World Series as a member of the Negro American League champion Cleveland Buckeyes.

His career was interrupted due to his military service in World War II from November 1943 through the end of the 1945 season. During his Army service, he was awarded a Bronze Star. Despite receiving a discharge that forbade him from playing baseball due to a bout with hepatitis in the service, Davis signed with Boston Blues of Branch Rickey’s United States League in 1946. Eventually he made his way back to the Buckeyes the following year, posting a 5-1 record during their run to the Negro World Series. At the end of the season due to persistent health problems, he called it quits at the age of 29. Despite his early exit from the game, in a 2006 interview with the Long Beach Telegram, he looked back with fond admiration at his playing days.

"No doubt those seasons were some of the best times of my life," he said. "Of course, like I said, those also were hard years, and when it became a job rather than a game I quit. I can thank the good Lord that all that segregation we faced is past now. Still, I think I'd rather have played then because even with all we had to deal with, the game was only about the game. We didn't do all the posturing you see now. If we hit a home run, we'd run around the bases like we were trying to turn a single into a double, not stand there and look at the ball like some guys do now. We'd call that showboating, and that just wasn't done in our day.”

Davis’ signature pitch was his fastball, which earned him the respect of the mighty Josh Gibson, and praise from the man whom he shared the same nickname, Satchel Paige. In an interview with author Brent P. Kelley in the 2003 book, “I Will Never Forget,” he explained how he earned his moniker.
“Satchel gave me that name when he came through St. Louis,” he said. “I was warming up getting’ ready to go in the fourth, and he came down and wanted to know who was this young fella throwin’ these salt tablets. They said, ‘That’s Ross Davis.’ He [Satchel] said, ‘Well, he throws the ball harder’n me.’ Of course, the guys didn’t have any idea they were gonna hit Satchel, so they knew that we were comin’ behind Satchel. They started grittin’ their teeth, taking their vicious practice swings, and Satchel with his big mouth said, ‘No need for you so-and-so’s diggin’ in. That’s my son out there. He throws the ball harder’n I do.’ The news papers took it up, started to call me ‘Satchel Paige’ Davis, and then they reduced it to ‘Satchel’ Davis.”
Davis was living in Long Beach, Calif., when he met Melinda Ramsey and her husband through the Internet. They formed a special bond, and invited him to live in an apartment in their home. Davis accepted, and Perry said his presence was more than they ever imagined.

“He took us in,” Perry said. “He was the best friend you could ever have. He had lots of stories, lots of advice ... just a perfect friend.” 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Boyd Bartley, former Brooklyn Dodgers shorstop passes away at 92

The roster of the living former Brooklyn Dodgers is now one player lighter. Boyd Bartley, former shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers passed away Friday evening in Hurst, Texas. He was 92.

The Dodgers signed Bartley from the University of Illinois in 1943 after a bonus steered him away from his hometown Chicago Cubs. The young shortstop was heralded for his defensive prowess, receiving comparisons to Lou Boudreau. The Dodgers wasted little time in testing Bartley’s skills, inserting him into the lineup a day after he signed, starting both games of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds.
Boyd Bartley

Sadly, Bartley never lived up to the comparison to the future Hall of Famer. Bartley made three errors in his first three games, shaking manager Leo Durocher's confidence. He lasted nine games in a week-and-a-half, batting 1-21, with his only hit coming ironically against the Chicago Cubs. The club sent Bartley down to Montreal due to his lack of production, as the 37-year-old Durocher inserted himself into the shortstop role.

Bartley played in Montreal for about a month before being ordered to report to Camp Grant, Illinois on July 12, 1943. Like many of his era, his World War II service greatly affected his baseball career path. While serving with the Army in the Pacific, Bartley was operating a jeep when he encountered a Japanese patrol. In his attempt to escape the patrol, his vehicle flipped over and he injured his shoulder. His arm never fully recovered.

He returned to baseball in 1947, and spent a few more years as a player-manager in the Brooklyn Dodger system with the Ponca City (Oklahoma) Dodgers of the Class D KOM League, guiding them to two division titles between 1947 and 1952. He missed the 1951 season as he was recalled to active duty, serving as an athletic director in Fort Chafee, Arkansas. When the KOM league folded after the 1952 season, Bartley managed an additional four seasons for their various Class D affiliates.

Starting in 1968, he became a scout for the Dodgers, holding the position for 23 years before retiring in 1990. His most prized signing was Orel Hershiser. The prized Dodger pitcher fondly recalled Bartley’s courtship in his 2001 biography, “Between the Lines.”

“In a few weeks Boyd Bartley, a Dodger scout, came to our home in Detroit to present their offer. Because I wasn't going to turn twenty–one for three more months, my dad had to be in the meeting. Mr. Bartley offered me ten thousand dollars, an assignment, and a dream. ‘We'll send you to our Class A team in Clinton, Iowa. You'll have the chance to grow and develop and work your way up the ladder to play in the big leagues. We want you to pitch in Dodger Stadium some day.’ I was awestruck by his words. My dream was about to come true. I was going to turn pro. After a short meeting in the kitchen with my dad and mom, I took the offer.”

Bartley's death leaves only 42 living players who donned the Dodgers uniform in Brooklyn. He is survived by his wife Aletha, to whom he was married for 69 years, as well as his three sons, his daughter, and numerous grandchildren.

Editor's Note - Bartley's place of death has been corrected to Hurst, Texas, as per the Ponca City News.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Les Mueller, 93, played with Detroit Tigers in 1945 World Series

Les Mueller, one of the last remaining players from the Detroit Tigers 1945 World Series championship team, died Thursday in Belleville, Ill. He was 93.

Mueller signed with the Tigers in 1937, and made his major league debut in 1941, pitching in four games before enlisting in the Army midway through the 1942 season. He went to the Jefferson Barracks Reception Center in St. Louis where his baseball skills kept him stateside.

Les Mueller
“I was 23 years old when I went into the service" Mueller said in a 2008 interview via telephone from his home. "I was in St. Louis and I stayed there. I was very fortunate. The first year I played quite a bit. We had several major leaguers and played about 70 games that summer."

Muller continued to keep his skills sharp during his service, playing semi-pro ball during his breaks. Just as he was preparing to go overseas in 1944, doctors found a hernia during a physical and gave him a medical discharge.

He joined the Tigers in 1945 eager to prove himself to the Detroit brass. He took whatever role the club needed, winning six games as both a starter and reliever, with two shutouts and a save. During that season, he set a major league record by pitching 19 2/3 innings against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 21st. Amazingly, he received a no-decision when the game ended in a tie after being called after 24 innings due to darkness.

"I always kept hoping we'd get a run, and I'd get a win, but it didn't work out that way," he said to SABR member Jim Sargent.

The Tigers won the American League pennant in 1945 to advance to the World Series. They faced the Chicago Cubs in an epic seven-game battle of the Great Lakes. Mueller was provided an immediate opportunity to contribute when was summoned in the eighth inning of the first game of the series by manager Steve O'Neill to stop the onslaught of the Chicago lineup.

"It was the first game of the series that Hal Newhouser started," Mueller recalled. "He really got clobbered that day by the Cubs. I remember one or two other pitchers got in that game. I was the only pitcher that day that shut them out. I pitched the 8th and 9th innings. I walked a man and had a strikeout, but I didn't give up any hits; I felt pretty good about that."

Mueller's clean slate in Game 1 was his only appearance during the series. The experience of being on the mound in that atmosphere is something he held close over 60 years later.

"It was an experience I will never forget," he said. "It was a boyhood dream come true, getting to pitch in the World Series and getting a ring."

Riding high off of his performance in the World Series, Mueller was confident that he would return with the Tigers in 1946. Right before the season opener, he pitched four innings of shutout ball in an exhibition game against the Boston Braves. Feeling good about his showing, he went north with the team to Detroit, eager to suit up for the season opener; however, in a cruel twist of fate, Mueller was called into the manager's office prior to the start of the National Anthem. He was completely unaware about the devastating news he was about to receive.

"I go up there and George Trautman, who was the general manager at the time, said, 'We're going to send you to Buffalo.' … It was a shocker," he recalled.

After a few days of contemplating his decision, he went to Buffalo where he developed a sore arm. Despite receiving expert medical care for his arm, his career was finished by 1948. He returned to Belleville and took over the family business Mueller Furniture from his dad, managing it until his retirement in 1984.

Despite his relatively quick exit from baseball after his World War II service, Mueller never lost his love for the game.

"I've been a continued fan," he said. "I've had season tickets to the St. Louis Cardinals since 1968."

As someone who started his professional career over 70 years earlier, Mueller had his musings on the major changes he's seen in the sport. 

"The hitters dig in a lot more, and if they almost get hit, everybody blows up and the umpire runs outs and warns the clubs," Mueller lamented. "That's been kind of exaggerated and takes something away from the pitchers. The biggest thing that has made the home run so prevalent is the thin handle bat. Hank Greenberg's and Rudy York's bats were like wagon tongues. Now they get more bat speed with these bats. I picked up some of the bats the guys they used in our days, [and they] were heavy and big. I don't think a lot of guys who hit home runs now could swing those bats."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Frank Saucier's promising career derailed by more than Veeck's midget intervention

Frank Saucier once batted an astonishing .446 in 1949 while playing with the Wichita Falls team of the Big State League; a total that to this day stands as one of the highest ever for a single professional season. Yet over 60 years later, Saucier’s claim to fame is not his towering feats at the plate, rather it is the distinction of being the only player in Major League Baseball’s history to be replaced by a midget.

On August 19, 1951, Saucier returned from right field to the bench of the St. Louis Browns at the bottom of the first inning after helping to hold the Detroit Tigers to a scoreless first frame. The events that transpired after Saucier went to grab a bat from the rack to face Tigers’ hurler Bob Cain permanently engrained Saucier’s name in the depths of baseball’s annals.
Frank Saucier Portrait / N. Diunte
Before revealing the details of Saucier’s historical moment, let’s go back a few months to the beginning of the 1951 season. He began the season on the suspended list when he held out for a bonus and refused to sign his contract. Saucier turned his attention to managing oil fields in Okmulgee, Okla., content with the money he was making away from baseball. With the season marching along and no attempt from management to make amends on his contract demands, Saucier donning a major league uniform in 1951 seemed almost as absurd as a midget taking the field. The thought of either happening at the time might have been a foregone conclusion, unless your name was Bill Veeck.

Veeck led a group of investors that bought the Browns midway through the 1951 season, and one of the first moves he made was to personally visit Saucier to persuade him to join the club. After an hour of discussions, Saucier penned his name on a major league contract worth $10,000. Veeck hoped that the popular Saucier would energize the fan base and get the turnstiles moving. Slightly over two weeks after he was signed, Saucier made his major league debut on July 22, 1951. Rusty after taking a three month break from playing, Saucier developed bloody blisters on his hands that made it hard for him to swing a bat, and acute bursitis that made it hard for him to throw. The World War II veteran soldiered on for the rest of the season, with most of his appearances coming as a pinch runner. So why was Saucier in the lineup on July 19th?

A week prior to the game, Veeck alerted the newspapers in Saucier's hometown of Washington, Mo., that he would be playing. The news of his appearance brought a few extra thousand people to the game, something the Browns desperately needed. Saucier hoped Cain didn’t have his best stuff that day because he was in no shape to take a hack.

"I go over to the bat rack and pick up my Louisville Slugger, model K44, and I step up to the plate. And I hope (Tigers pitcher) Bob Cain walks me because I sure can't swing the bat," Saucier said to

He didn’t even get the opportunity to dig his cleats in the batter’s box when his at-bat was interrupted by a stark announcement that boomed across the stadium.

"When the announcer called Eddie, I was thinking this is both the greatest act of show business I've ever seen, plus it's the easiest money I've ever made," Saucier said.

Three-foot-seven-inch midget Eddie Gaedel waddled up to the plate, and true to Saucier’s hopes, Cain couldn’t find the plate. Thoroughly distracted by Gaedel’s miniscule strike zone, he walked him on four pitches. After a few waves to the crowd, Gaedel eventually made it to first base and was replaced by Jim Delsing. Gaedel walked off the field, never to be heard from again by his baseball teammates. He died at 36 in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

As for Saucier, he finished the season with a .073 average (1-14); limited by the nagging injuries that plagued him all season. He was recalled to active duty by the United States Navy in April, 1952 to serve in the Korean War. Four years after starting his baseball career, it was over. He spent two years in the service, receiving his release from active duty in April, 1954. He returned to the oil business, and then became a financial consultant in Amarillo, Texas before his retirement. The baseball fields at his alma mater, Westminster College are named in his honor. At the age of 86, Saucier is living in Amarillo, the last living player from the St. Louis Browns that participated in the July 19th affair. Saucier has embraced his role in baseball history, generously sending out numerous articles about his career after recent correspondence with him via mail (pictured below).

A tip of the cap goes to Bob Lemke's article, Frank Saucier's brief but memorable career now commemorated, which provided valuable background information for this piece.

Frank Saucier Autographed Photo and Card / N. Diunte

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tom Saffell, former MLB outfielder and WWII veteran dies at 91

Tom Saffell, an outfielder who played parts of four big league seasons from 1949-1955 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Athletics, passed away last week. He was 91.

Saffell was the president of the Gulf Coast Rookie League for 30 years from 1979-2009, working until he was 89 years old. That capped a career in baseball that started almost 70 years prior in 1941 in the Class D Newport Canners of the Appalachian League.
Tom Saffell / Author's Collection
His playing career was interrupted in 1942 when he signed up for the Army Air Corps in World War II. He served until 1946, getting out right in time for the baseball season. During his service, he flew 61 missions over Europe, without being wounded or shot down.

Saffell’s breakout year came in 1947 when he batted .370 for Class B Selma Cloverleafs. He started out the season with the Atlanta Crackers, but he was displaced upon the arrival of a future Hall of Famer.

“I played part of the season for one month until they signed Charley Trippi," Saffell said in a 2008 interview from his home in Florida. “That’s when they sent me out to Selma, Alabama.”

His outstanding performance earned him a promotion to AAA Indianapolis, where he hit .299 in 1948. The next season, he was in the big leagues.

“I had a good year my first year up there, I hit .322,” he said.

It would be the only year in the major leagues that Saffell would see consistent playing time.

"That's the only year I played regularly for Pittsburgh," he said to SABR member Jim Sargent. "I played against both right-hand pitchers and left-handers. After that first season, they usually put me in for defensive purposes or against right-handed pitchers.”

He shuttled between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis during the 1950-51 seasons but didn’t see the majors again until 1955. When he returned, there was a fresh face in Pittsburgh outfield, Roberto Clemente.

“One of the greatest ballplayers that put on a uniform,” he said. “You could see that Clemente had great talent. Anyone could see that. He was one of the better-coordinated ballplayers I ever saw. He could throw off-balance and get himself in position to throw quickly.”

Saffell was released by the Pirates toward the end of the season and latched on with Kansas City to finish out the year. He remained in the minors as a full-time player until 1959. In 1960, he was offered a managing job with the Dodgers Class C team in Reno and began a 13-year career as a minor league coach and manager.

It was then in 1978 when he was approached by Murray Cook to become the president of the Gulf Coast League. Saffell gladly accepted and held the position until 2009. He was honored in 1999 as the "King of Baseball," at the baseball winter meetings in Anaheim, Calif.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Negro Leaguer Bill Greason returns to Oklahoma City 60 years after barrier breaking debut

Bill Greason throwing out the first pitch in Oklahoma - Facebook
Rev. Bill Greason, former pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, (where he mentored a 16-year old Willie Mays) and later the St. Louis Cardinals, spoke during a tribute in his honor in Oklahoma City with about becoming the first black player for the Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League in 1952.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Greason in 2008 about his historical 1952 season in Oklahoma City. He was sold directly from the Black Barons to Oklahoma City shortly after returning from his service in the Korean War. He spoke frankly about the hardships he faced and how he handled them.

"They gave you a hard time, even from the stands. A couple of places especially. When you know who you are and you have talent, you don’t worry about what people say. Sometimes it encourages you to do better and work harder. ... When people call you names, and you know who you are, you don’t worry about what they say. It gives you more determination to succeed."

The 87-year-old Greason was honored on August 30th by the Oklahoma City Redhawks, commemorating the 60th anniversary of his debut. Berry Tramel of provides an excellent video interview with Greason about his barrier breaking entry into baseball, his military service, and career in the ministry.

His appearance was heavily covered by local media outlets, spearheaded by Tramel's coverage.
Celebrating a Deserving Pioneer in OKC - Jenni Carlson
The Reverend Returns - Brendan Hoover
Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson returns - Berry Tramel 
Bill Greason: Owner Jimmie Humphries paved the way - Berry Tramel
Reverend Bill Greason: A memorable night at the ballpark - Berry Tramel


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bob DiPietro, former Boston Red Sox outfielder, dies at 85

Bob DiPietro, a former outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who earned the nickname The Rigatoni Rifle because of his tremendous throwing arm, died two days after his 85th birthday in Yakima, Wash., on September 3, 2012.

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview DiPietro for his SABR biography. Even though DiPietro only made it to the plate 12 times (all in 1951) during his major league career, it was one that included brushes with Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In addition to being linked to some of the biggest stars that baseball has ever known, he proudly served the country in World War II, and went on to run a successful advertising business in Yakima.

He is survived by his wife Bertie, sons Bob and Mark and their wives Sheryl and Marcy, grandchildren Kiley, Joe, Lexi and Paul.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Strincevich, 3rd oldest major league player, dies at 96

While our country was celebrating the merits of our military veterans this Friday, the baseball family was mourning the loss of World War II era pitcher Nick Strincevich. He passed away November 11th in Valparaiso, Ind. At 96, he was the third oldest living major leaguer at the time of his death.

Nick Strincevich

The first player to make the majors from Gary, Indiana, his path started on the local sandlots. In 1934, “Jumbo” caught the attention of a local bird-dog scout in Indiana while playing semi-pro ball that led to him pitching batting practice for the New York Yankees in Chicago against the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. By the time he arrived home from his big day at the park, he received a telegram notifying him that he was now property of the Yankees.

Entering their organization in 1935, Strincevich advanced quickly through the Yankees minor league rank, closely following his manager Johnny Neun as they climbed their way to the major leagues. Strincevich was part of the dominant 1938 Newark Bears team that had almost exclusively a future major leaguer roster including Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Despite his 11-4 record, the Yankees did not bring him up. With their pitching rich farm system, they saw Strincevich as expendable and sold him to the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League the following season. He pitched sparingly and was purchased by the Boston Bees at the end of the 1939 season.

Strincevich found a home in Boston under manager Casey Stengel, figuring prominently in their starting rotation, pitching in 32 games during his rookie season in the National League. “Casey liked me. He used to kid me up all the time,” said Strincevich in 2003 to Craig Allen Cleve's Hardball on the Home Front.
Even though he finished the season 4-8, he showed promise for the next season, going 3-1 in his last four decisions. This anticipation for an improved 1941; however, was quickly cut short when early in the season, Strincevich was hit in the face by a thrown ball during practice. He suffered headaches that would plague him the next two seasons.

Fortunately, during the aftermath of this injury, there was a silver lining for Strincevich. It came in the form of a trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sent to the Pirates for Hall of Famer Lloyd Waner, his move to Pittsburgh would earn him 40 wins from 1944-46.

So popular was Strincevich in his hometown of Gary, that he was given a day in his honor in 1947 at Wrigley Field. It would be one of the last bright spots of his career. He would only earn one more victory in the majors and was back to the minors for good the following season. He walked away from baseball in 1950 with a record of 46-49 for Boston (NL), Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He worked as a union steward in an auto parts factory for 30 years before his 1980 retirement.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ernie Johnson, 87, Braves pitcher, announcer and World War II veteran

Earlier this evening, it was reported during the Atlanta Braves telecast that their legendary announcer Ernie Johnson Sr. died Friday after spending time in hospice care. He was 87.

One of the friendliest voices in baseball, Johnson spent over 50 years with the organization as a player, executive, and broadcaster. Johnson was one of a handful of players who were left from the Braves’ playing days in Boston. After getting a cup of coffee in 1950, his 15-4 record at AAA Milwaukee the next season paved the way for his full-time role with the Braves pitching staff in 1952.

Ernie Johnson / Topps
Johnson was a key factor in the Braves 1957 World Series victory over the New York Yankees, pitching effectively in relief for three games. He stayed with the Braves through the end of the 1958 season, playing one more year for the Baltimore Orioles after being released.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Johnson via a telephone call from his home in Cummings, Georgia. He spoke with an unparalleled level of clarity and familiarity about his experiences in baseball and his service in World War II.

For a rookie like me, it was like speaking to a sage of baseball, but he held no pretenses about himself. His voice was as inviting as I remembered it from the countless evenings I watched the Braves on TBS.

As the number of living major league players who served in World War II continues to dwindle, Johnson’s experiences serving his country speak highly to his character. He happily shared his journey during his time in the military.

Signed in 1942 by the Boston Braves, Johnson pitched briefly at Class A Hartford before entering World War II. Johnson spent three years in the Marines, seeing action in Japan during the Okinawa invasion. Unlike some ballplayers who did not want to go overseas, Johnson saw the call of duty as his opportunity to help lead the country to victory.

“I could have stayed in this country," Johnson said. "The captain called me in the office and asked me if I wanted to play baseball here. The captain told me, ‘We'll keep you from going overseas, and you can play for the base team.'"

Mulling over the decision of whether to stay or leave, Johnson decided to go to Japan. He just could not desert the troops he trained with for so long.

“I don't want to sound gung-ho, but I got through spending a year or two with these guys and we were prepped and ready to go overseas," he said. "I just thought to myself, ‘I didn't want to play baseball; I joined to help win the war. I'm gonna stick with these guys.’ We went overseas, and I was in the Okinawa invasion.”

He returned for the 1946 season suiting up with Class B Pawtucket. Luckily for Johnson, his best years were ahead of him; however, others returning from service weren’t as fortunate.

“I didn't take me too long to get ready," he said. "I was young in the service. I missed three years and I was still only 21, 22. I got back in shape pretty fast. I felt sorry for guys that went in when they were 25, 26, and now they're 28 and you could see they lost it. They would say, ‘I can't do it anymore.’ The guys I was with in Pawtucket, they couldn't play like they used to and they didn't last very long. It was sad, they missed three to four years and it really affected their careers.” 

As a pitcher, he felt that he had an easier road back from World War II than a position player. He felt it was a lot easier to recover your arm strength than it was your overall feel for the game in the batter's box.

“Pitchers are more apt to not lose it," he said. "They get back in shape and on the mound, it's not different. [The] hardest thing is hitting; you lose your timing and your bat speed, and that's when you lose your career.” 

Fortunately for baseball, Johnson’s career blossomed after his service and led him into our homes for many years as the unmistakable voice of the Atlanta Braves. The legacy he left behind from his entire career as a baseball player, father, broadcaster, and veteran has left an indelible mark on everyone that was able to know him.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Al Federoff's lasting impact on the Detroit Tigers organization

“He was the best manager I ever had,” said current Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland in the Detroit News. Al Federoff was Leyland’s manager during his 1964 rookie campaign in Lakeland, Fla. It was also Federoff who rescued Leyland a few years later when the Tigers weren’t sure what to do with him while filling out their minor league rosters.

“Leyland was my good luck charm. I took him everywhere I could,” said Federoff during a 2008 interview I conducted with him from his home in Taylor, Mich.

While Federoff has received notoriety for mentoring Leyland, many are unaware that he was a sure-handed, light-hitting second baseman for the Tigers in the early 1950s. He died in Glibert, Ariz. last week at the age of 87.

Al Federoff / Author's Collection
Federoff was one of the fastest players in major league baseball in the 1950s, clocking a 3.8 second time from home to first batting right handed, placing him sixth in major league baseball according to the September 3rd, 1952 issue of The Sporting News.

He entered professional baseball in 1946 with the Jamestown Falcons of the Class-D PONY League after serving in the Air Force in World War II. After a few years of climbing the rungs of the minor league ladder, he was a late season call-up with the Detroit Tigers in 1951.

Inspired by his taste of the big league action, Federoff hit a solid .288 at AAA Buffalo in 1952 and was recalled in July when second baseman Jerry Priddy went down with a leg injury. It was during this time that he would bear witness to two of Virgil Trucks’ greatest pitching performances ever.

The first one happened August 6, 1952 against the ageless Satchel Paige and the St. Louis Browns. Trucks and Paige battled to a scoreless tie in the ninth inning when Trucks was lifted for a pinch-hitter. The 46-year old Paige pitched the entire 12 innings for the victory. Federoff took the collar twice against Paige in his five trips to the plate. Federoff insisted age wasn’t a factor in Paige’s performance.

“You can’t take nothing away from him [Paige]; if you’re good, you’re good,” said Federoff of the Hall of Fame hurler.

Federoff had a more involved role in Trucks’ August 25th masterpiece at Yankee Stadium. Hank Bauer, the Yankees strong left-fielder, stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth. Bauer squared up one of Trucks’ fastballs right in the direction of Federoff.

“I get my name mentioned in the paper every now and then when Trucks pitched that no-hitter against the Yankees," told Federoff. "I made the last put-out on a hard smash by Hank Bauer for the final out; I saved the no-hitter!”

He finished the season with a .242 average and did what he was expected to do, play good defense at second base. His sure hands attracted the attention of another Hall of Famer, Tigers GM Charlie Gehringer.

“He came to me personally and told me, ‘You did damn good, your fielding was terrific,’” recalled Federoff.

While his fielding impressed Gehringer, his overall play did not do enough to sway manager Fred Hutchinson to give him an extension for the 1953 season.
“I was disappointed when they sold me to San Diego in 1953,” said Federoff, who thought he could add some youth to an aging ballclub. “Johnny Pesky was a good ballplayer, but he was already in his mid 30s, [Billy] Hitchcock was in his mid 30s and [Jerry] Priddy couldn’t run after that broken leg. Hutchinson kept him and he couldn’t even run; I hadn’t even hit my prime!”

Federoff was caught in a numbers game that was typical of his era, one that was prior to expansion and free agency.

“Another thing people don’t consider is that each league only had eight teams," he said. "Now they have an additional 320 40-man roster spots in each league. In our day, they sent you down to AAA and you would get lost down there because they had so many good players. Who was going to replace Jackie Robinson or Pee Wee Reese? If you were a SS or 2B [behind them], you were out of luck!”

Detroit wanted to send him to Buffalo, but he didn’t want to go back up north again after playing there the previous season.

“They tried to send me to Buffalo, but I wouldn’t go. I stuck around for a few days and they sold me to San Diego,” he said.

Federoff enjoyed four solid years with the Padres, helping to lead them to the 1954 PCL championship, walking 108 times against only 34 strikeouts.  During that championship season, he enjoyed the company of yet another mystical baseball figure, Luke Easter.

“He was my buddy; I liked him very much," Federoff recalled. "He protected me at second base. Any time he stepped up to the plate, the other teams were hoping he didn’t hit the long one."

Even though he was no longer in the major leagues, Federoff, like many other veterans enjoyed the comforts of playing on the West Coast. The warmer weather and improved travel were attractive propositions for ballplayers that endured the long bus rides that came with years of beating the bushes.

“In the PCL at that time, the playing conditions were better," he said. "We had a lot of good older players coming from the big leagues because the conditions were wonderful. A lot of great ballplayers finished their careers there and they were paid better than the big leagues. We played a week at home and a week at each city. We flew by airplane, and the weather was wonderful, especially in San Diego."

The same door that opened the opportunity for him to enter the big leagues is also the same one that closed his career. Bit by the injury bug, Federoff was robbed one of of the key elements of his game, speed.

“During my last year in San Diego, I was over the hill," he said. "San Diego traded me to Seattle. I played a year there. Then they sent me to Louisville, I played a half year there. I was sold to Atlanta and that was the end of my career. At the end I was overcoming a broken leg; I lost a lot of my speed. They had me there to fill in and just to work with the kids. They were interested in playing kids that had a chance to get up to the big leagues. You seem to know when you’ve had enough.”

After he hung up his cleats as a player, he entered the Tigers minor league system as a manager in 1960. He managed ten seasons, ending his career in 1970 ironically in the PCL, the place where he spent the bulk of his minor league time.

Despite never returning to the majors after the 1952 season as a player or a coach, Federoff was satisfied with his baseball career.

“I enjoyed it. I had some good days and bad ones like everybody else.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Roy Hartsfield, 85, first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, 1925-2011

Roy Hartsfield, the first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and former second baseman for the Boston Braves passed away January 15, 2011 in Ball Ground, GA. He was 85.

Hartsfield played second base for the Braves from 1950-52 while maintaining a .273 batting average. He was traded after the 1952 season to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Andy Pafko. He would not return to the major leagues as a player after the trade.

The rugged second sacker entered organized baseball in 1943, playing for the Atlanta Crackers before entering World War II. Hartsfield served in the Navy at the famed Great Lakes Naval Base. In a 2008 interview with Hartsfield, he described the baseball legends that awaited him at Great Lakes.

"I played my first year in the Navy," he said. "I was the only minor league player on the ball club. All of the others were major leaguers. We had Virgil Trucks, Schoolboy Rowe, Clyde McCullough, and Billy Herman. We played a 50 game schedule, we won 48 and lost 2; I guess we did pretty good. Billy [Herman] helped me quite a bit with my fielding ability. He treated me very good. In fact, they all treated me like I was their son because I was so much younger than them. I was only 18 years old!"

After a year, he was sent out to finish his service. He detailed his service upon leaving the Naval Base.

"I spent 10 months riding a banana boat between Mobile, AL and Central America (Honduras and Guatemala). I was riding that boat when the war was over."

After returning from his military service, he floated between Single-A and Double-A before catching a big break in 1949. He was signed by Braves organization from Dallas in the Texas League that year and had a standout season at their Triple-A affiliate in Milwaukee.

"It was a little tougher, but probably that year, I had the best year in my life," Hartsfield said.

That career year catapulted him to the major leagues the following spring.

Hartsfield was the regular second baseman for the Boston Braves in 1950 and 1951. Looking at Hartsfield's stats, one might wonder how a second baseman who hit .273 suddenly disappeared from the majors without a downturn in performance. Hartsfield revealed why he didn't have a longer career with the Braves.
"I had a severe case of heat exhaustion before I went to the big leagues. I played in a double header in Savannah, GA and I became completely dehydrated. I didn't realize what was happening to me. Nothing like that had happened to me ever before. They took me to the hospital like it was all over. The second game of a doubleheader was when it hit me, got cramps like football players. The doctor told my wife, 'He'll never be the same in the heat anymore.' And he was absolutely right. I couldn't play doubleheaders. I played as long as I could but then I had to walk off the field. I realized at the same time, I was losing the job. They didn't pay two salaries for one job in those days. I have nothing against the Braves, they did everything they could to help me, sent me to every doctor you could think of. That was the reason. I have a lot of people ask me to this day why I didn't play longer. They didn't know that because I didn't tell anyone that. It didn't come out until later on."

Hartsfield would not return to the majors after being traded to the Dodgers, spending five seasons at the Triple-A level, including one as a player-manager before managing full time in 1958. He saw the writing on the wall after being traded away from Boston.

"When I was traded from the Braves to the Dodgers, I knew I wasn't going to go back to the big leagues as a player because of my reputation of not being able to play in the heat," he said. "I knew that. I told my wife, 'If we're going to stay in this game we've got to go in another direction instead of playing.'"

Luckily for Hartsfield, the Dodgers opened the door to managing that would make him part of the family.

"They gave me my first managerial job," he said. "I was very appreciative of that. They treated me very very well. I was fortunate in that the Dodgers gave me a job managing to begin with. In those days, they had started losing teams every year. The first year I managed was Class-A ball in Des Moines. I was told by Fresco Thompson that he couldn't promise me anything past the first year, because they were losing clubs. They not only lost the team, the whole league folded up."

For a 32-year-old, the prospect of being unemployed after spending their whole career in professional baseball was daunting. Hartsfield described how Fresco Thompson saved his career.

"Here I am sitting in November without a job after my first year. My phone rang and it was Fresco. He said because of leagues folding, the only opening was in Class-D ball."

Faced with the choice of a demotion or not knowing where the next check was going to come from, the choice was simplified for Hartsfield.

"I realize there is more prestige in managing Class-A ball then Class-D ball, however, I told him, 'I've yet to go to the grocery store and buy any groceries with prestige, so just run it on out here and work.' I did that two times for him. I stepped down twice. He told me I would be considered if anything opened above. I moved every year until I got the top job, managing  Spokane for three years before I got a job with the big club."

True to his word, Thompson moved Hartsfield up the ladder where he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as coach from 1969-1972.

In 1977, he was named the manager of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays during their inaugural season. The Jays struggled with young talent as they matured at the major league level. Hartsfield knew that he would have to build from within as the other teams weren't going to make their top-level talent available in the expansion draft.

"We developed our own because nobody was going to give you anything in this racket," he said. "We agreed to have the right type of veterans mentally that would fit into our scheme of things."

While managing the Blue Jays, Hartsfield had a lanky rookie that would go on to have an All-Star career, albeit in another sport, basketball. Danny Ainge was a 20-year-old rookie out of Brigham Young University when he showed up for the Jays in 1979. Hartsfield had experience playing with another dual sports star, sharing the field with Hall of Famer Bill Sharman in St. Paul. Hartsfield related the situations of both Sharman and Ainge, as both chose basketball as their main careers.

"Sharman was a pretty good player on the Triple-A level," he recalled. "At the time, I wasn't judging Bill because he was a good teammate and friend. He made the right decision [with basketball], same as Danny Ainge, who played for me in Toronto. When you have an expansion ball club, you don't have full fledged major leaguers at every position. Bobby Doerr was my hitting coach and he was the one who signed Danny. He told me when he signed that his sport was basketball. Bobby was right. Ainge was a fierce competitor. He could have used a few years on the minor league level that he did not have. Who knows, maybe it would have helped, maybe it wouldn't?"

After being replaced as the Blue Jays manager to start the 1980 season, Hartsfield cited family responsibilities as the reason he retired after a short stint thereafter as a minor league manager. 

"I left Toronto and managed a few years in the minors," he said. "I was vested in the pension plan. I had 10 years on the major league level, so I didn't want to just manage for the sake of managing anywhere they offered me a job. I had a family that I didn't get to spend too much time with, so that determined my quitting."

In retirement, Hartsfield didn't follow baseball as closely as he did when he was playing and managing. He would visit the Braves annually, where for a day; he was back in the spotlight.

"Bobby Cox is a close personal friend of mine. The Braves invite me every year for an autograph session one night. They treat me royally and I get to visit with Bobby a little bit."

Somewhere in Heaven, the red carpet has been rolled out and the spotlight again is on Roy Hartsfield. 


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Recent MLB passings (Bob Shaw, Ray Coleman, Al Pilarcik)

This past week was a sad week for old-time baseball fans as a few more legends have passed on. It is said that celebrity deaths happen in triplicate and three baseball greats passed on this week, each with their link to baseball's history.

Ray Coleman
Former outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago White Sox, Ray Coleman passed away September 19th at the age of 88. Coleman served valiantly in World War II from 1943-45 traveling all over the Pacific in the Navy. He would make his debut with the Browns in 1947 and would be witness to both Willard Brown and Hank Thompson joining the team that year, making them only the second and third African-Americans to play in the majors. I had the opportunity to speak with Coleman a few years ago and he spoke proudly of his World War II service.

Al Pilarcik

  Al Pilarcik was an outfielder for the Kansas City Athletic, Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox from 1956-1961. He passed away Monday September 20th at the age of 80. 50 years prior to his passing, on September 28, 1960, he caught the last out Ted Williams made in his career. Pilarcik later gladly handed it over to the Hall of Fame. After his playing career was finished, he had tremendous success as a high school teacher and baseball coach at Lake Central High School, earning an induction into the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.

Bob Shaw

Bob Shaw, a famed member of the 1959 "Go-Go" White Sox, who led the league that year with an astounding .750 win percentage passed away Thursday September 23, 2010 at the age of 77. Shaw pitched a legendary battle in Game 5 of the 1959 World Series where he triumphed over Sandy Koufax in front of 92,000 fans. He would go on to pitch for seven teams during his 11-year major league career, including being traded for the aforementioned Al Pilarcik to the Kansas City Athletics in 1961. He would find success after his baseball career as a real estate investor and an American Legion baseball coach.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hardball on the Home Front: Major League Replacement Players of World War II

Hardball on the Home Front: Major League Replacement Players of World War II
Craig Allen Cleve
McFarland, 2004
213 pp.

At the onset of World War II, with many resources diverted, President Roosevelt courageously declared, "I want Major League Baseball to keep playing." Recognizing the morale boost and inexpensive entertainment that it provided to citizens around the United States, professional baseball continued to march along during one of the most trying times in our country's history.

Craig Allen Cleve's "Hardball on the Home Front: Major League Replacement Players of World War II" tells the glorious stories of nine players breaking into the Major Leagues during World War II. Click here to read a complete review of Cleve's book about baseball during World War II.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Eddie Carnett: At 93 memories of a baseball player and soldier in World War II are as clear as ever

World War II veteran and retired major league baseball player Eddie Carnett holds the unique distinction of being one of only a handful of players to make their debut as a pitcher and later return to play full time as a position player. Others on this short list include Smokey Joe Wood, Lefty O'Doul, and someone named Babe Ruth. While Carnett did not put up Ruthian-like numbers, he was an excellent mentor, teaching Warren Spahn his pick-off move and tutoring Bob Feller on how to throw a slider.
Eddie Carnett / Author's Collection
Carnett is one of the few living members of the legendary Great Lakes Naval baseball team. On this Memorial Day in 2010, he recalled his entrance into the Navy 65 years ago.

"I'm pretty old, I'll be 94 pretty soon," Carnett said via telephone. "I went to Great Lakes in 1945, 65 years ago today. I was 28, heck I was an old man in the service! It was very interesting. Bob Feller was our manager, Walker Cooper was our catcher, I played first base, and Johnny Groth was in center field. Pinky Higgins was there too. We were all big league ballplayers."

A few days into his service, Carnett played in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. He recalled an entertaining exchange between Hall of Fame manager Mickey Cochrane and pitcher Schoolboy Rowe over the decision to pitch that day.

"In fact, on June 6th we had an exhibition game; the Detroit Tigers came into Great Lakes and I hadn't been there too long," he recalled. "I remember Mickey Cochrane was the manager, and before the game, Schoolboy said [to Cochrane], 'Skip, it's kinda cold out there today.' Cochrane shot him a look and said, 'It's pretty warm over in the South Pacific.' Rowe quickly said, 'Give me the damn ball skip!' Rowe and Virgil Trucks pitched and we beat them. In fact, we beat every big league club we played."

In 1944 while playing with the Chicago White Sox, a visit to a Philadelphia area hospital proved to be a sobering experience for Carnett about the realities of war.

"We went around and played quite a few exhibition games across the country," he said. "We went into the Valley Forge Hospital in Philadelphia with all of the guys from the White Sox. All of the guys from Normandy were sent back shot up. I never seen such a bloody mess in my life. That was when they went across the channel and got shot up.

"One big kid, his idol was Hal Trosky. The nurse told me he had both eyes shot out, he had a bandage over his face so I didn't know that. Trosky was in a batting slump, and the kid got up and said, 'I can see ol' Hal Trosky now.' He just stood there perfect in Trosky's stance, and Trosky got white as a sheet. Trosky then said, 'It takes a blind kid to tell me what I was doing wrong.' There wasn't a dry eye in the room; he wasn't worried about his eyes, he was worried about his buddy Trosky, his baseball idol. I'll tell ya, I would have rather been over there than see what I seen coming back at Valley Forge Hospital. Those guys that came back, I'm telling you, they were shot up."

Carnett explained why many of these horror stories never reached the public consciousness.

"The public never sees any of this stuff," he said. "And I can understand why the government hides this stuff from them. I don't know whether the public can take it or not. War is hell! There ain't nothing fair about war. If I know you are going to try to shoot me, I am going to shoot you first and ask questions later."

He also acknowledged that some of the players took heat from their fellow servicemen because they were shielded from combat duty as they traveled the country playing exhibition games for the troops. A vast majority of the armed forces appreciated what they were doing.

"I was fortunate," he said. "I was in the Navy, scheduled to go out in a bunker hill and [instead] the Commodore of our Naval District wanted us to go around. We went to Fort Dix and played some exhibition games. There were a couple of soldiers that called me a draft dodger because I was playing ball. The guys over there in the Army told me not to worry and they picked those guys up and threw them out of the ballpark."

Far removed from his military service, Carnett suggested enlisting the services of the retired veterans to help put an end to battle.

"I'll tell you how to stop war," he said. "Take guys like me, 80-90 years old and put us in the service, on the front lines, and after four or five shots, you know what we're going to say, 'What in the hell are we doing here?'"

While the current administration may not be knocking down his door anytime soon, Carnett is glad to be around to continue to tell his story.

"I had a lot of good friends in baseball and I miss them," he lamented. "I love the fans. A lot of my buddies lost their lives, the only thing I lost was money and my big league career. That was fine; I came back alive."

Carnett is featured in the following books about World War II and baseball:

Hardball on the Home Front: Major League Replacement Players of World War II - Craig Allen Cleve

Bluejackets of Summer: The History of the Great Lakes Naval Baseball Team 1942-1945 - Roger Gogan

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 14, 2010

Gene Hermanski turns 90, the former Brooklyn Dodger recalls his time with the Bushwicks

Former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Gene Hermanski, now residing in Homosassa, Florida, celebrated his 90th birthday this past week. A WWII veteran, Hermanski made his debut with Brooklyn in 1943, after receiving two months of leave from the Coast Guard. He would continue to serve with the Coast Guard after a failed stint in the Navy until 1945.

While in the Coast Guard, Hermanski had the opportunity to play for another famous Brooklyn ballclub, the semipro Brooklyn Bushwicks. During a 2009 interview, Hermanski recalled that he used an assumed name to avoid being shipped out to combat in Europe.

"I played a few years with the Bushwicks," he said. "I was in the service then, stationed at Fort Bennett Field with the Coast Guard. I played under the name of Gene Walsh. I had to change it [my name]. It was the smartest thing I ever did in my life. If my commanding officer ever found out that I was playing ball in some ball park, he'd ship me overseas."

Gene Hermanski (2nd from left front row) with Brooklyn Bushwicks / Author's Collection

At the time he was playing for the Bushwicks, Hermanski encountered some of the greats of the Negro Leagues prior to playing with Jackie Robinson.

"We used to play teams like the Black Yankees, Philadelphia Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, and Homestead Grays," he recalled. "I played against Josh Gibson, as well as Satchel Paige. I got a hit or two off of Paige. I may have faced him seven or eight times and got two hits. He wasn't easy to hit, but it just so happened that I swung the bat and something happened and it was a base hit.

"We played all the black teams and we were all white. We were the home team from Brooklyn at Dexter Park, and the fans would root for the black [visiting] teams! Listen to this, we used to draw 10,000 on a Sunday for a doubleheader. It was inexpensive. They charged a buck to get in. ... We had a good reputation and we won. We played about .700 ball."

As we discussed his experiences playing against the likes of the famed Gibson and Paige, the conversation turned to Robinson. Hermanski was in the lineup the day that Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers. While Hermanski was a supporter of Robinson, having once proclaimed that the whole team wear number 42 after Robinson began to receive death threats, he recalled that there were dissenters in the Dodger clubhouse.

"Most of the ballplayers took to liking him," he said. "There were a few guys, the rednecks, who didn't care for blacks. It was only natural though the more I thought about it. These kids from the South were brought up to dislike the blacks, so they continued to do so. Some of them asked to be traded, Dixie Walker, Kirby Higbe, and Hugh Casey."

After helping the Dodgers to two National League pennants in 1947 and 1949, Hermanski was traded to the Cubs during the 1951 season. He went on to play with the Pittsburgh Pirates before finishing his career in 1954 with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League where he was reunited with Charlie Dressen.

"Buzzie Bavasi fixed me up with Oakland," he said. "I called him and he said, 'I could get you a job with Oakland, but the big leagues, forget it!' It was in spring training, so I said, 'I'll take it'. When he told me Charlie was the manager, I decided to go out there."

After his playing career was over, he worked as a sales representative for Tose Incorporated. At the age of 90, he still receives about ten autograph requests per week from fans across the country and enjoys the contact with those that still remember him. At the end of the interview, he inquired about my age. Sensing the significant age gap, hefelt that recalling his memories of playing with the Bushwicks for a short time allowed him to feel like he was playing again. It seems no matter what our age is, baseball is the true fountain of youth.