The Favorite Obscure Baseball Figure Project, Part Two

When the initial post on this subject went over the 5,000-word mark, I figured I’d better start a new post to handle all the input I was getting. The project is described in more depth in the predecessor post, but it’s about asking various baseball fans to pick their favorite obscure baseball figure from the past. As the word “figure” indicates, the person doesn’t have to be a player; it can be anyone employed within the game itself, by a team or by a league, including umpires, coaches, scouts, and front office personnel (but not the media).

The idea is that time and a focus on sabermetrics and efforts to determine who should be in the Hall of Fame have left many uniquely interesting and/or appealing retired/deceased baseball people by the wayside. So, I’m asking for help in bringing to light some old baseball people who are worth remembering.

If you’ve come by this post and have someone in mind, just put his name in the comments. I’m only asking for a name, but if you’ve already written something online about the person (it can be either a man or a woman, of course), I’ll link to that; and if you want to write a few sentences talking about your favorite obscure baseball figure, that would be fine. Most of the links go to the Wikipedia pages for the figures chosen. (I’ve also posed this question to people on the Baseball Fever website, and you can read that message board thread too.)

Here are some from people who responded to a posting on the Seamheads Facebook page:
Jacob Pomrenke:
Great idea, Arne. My pick would be John “Lefty” Sullivan – the popular strikeout king of Chicago’s semipro leagues in the 1920s. Blazing fastball and a great spitball; his only weakness was a heart condition that made him dizzy when he bent over to field a ball, so he was bunted out of the American League after 4 games with the 1919 White Sox. I interviewed his grandsons and wrote about him for the BioProject.

Stephen Keane:
Coco Laboy had an amazing rookie year with the Montreal Expos in their first ever season in 1969 hitting 18 HR and knocking in 83 runs. He never came close to a season like that in the next four seasons of his career. I also like the Mets announcer Bob Murphy used always tell fans how Coco got his nickname from his grandmother for his love of chocolate milk.

Joe Williams:
Boots Day. Love the name. My childhood best friend and I used to joke about him. “He is no Boots Day” we used to say. We discovered him via a Topps baseball card.

Rj Lesch
When I was a kid I liked Horacio Pina (because of his unusual pitching motion) and Dick McAuliffe (unusual batting stance).

Ron Pacak
Doug Ault, who was the first matinee idol of the Toronto Blue Jays. On Apr. 7, 1977 he swatted two home runs on a snowy afternoon at Exhibition Stadium. The Jays won their first ever game 9-5. After a good opening month, reality set in for both Ault and the Blue Jays, and the home runs became rarer, and the struggles with his swing had him finished as a major leaguer by 1980. He wound up with 17 career home runs. Later he became a coach and manager in the Blue Jays farm system. Much beloved by Jays fans for that glorious opening day, he would show up occasionally whenever the old timers were saluted. Tragically, Ault died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2004 at the age of 54.

Steve Timberlake
Moose Stubing. 5 career ABs,, no hits, all pinch-hit appearances with the Angels in 1967. Managed in the PCL for years, wining the title with the Edmonton Trappers once. He’s now a scout, if Wikipedia can be believed. I remember him from the times he brought his teams into Hawai’i to play the Islanders in the early 1980s.

Sean Agranov
not necessarily rare but always liked red ruffings name and bump wills too. wonder what would possess someone to call their kid bump?

Tom Zocco
I was always a fan of Coot Veal.

Here are some from people I’ve emailed:

From Mike Lynch, who runs Seamheads: Smead Jolley, who spent only four years in the majors despite hitting .305 with a 112 OPS+ because he was one of the worst fielders in MLB history.  Jolley committed 44 errors in only 413 games; Andruw Jones has committed 48 in 1,926 games.  So you can see how bad he was, especially when compared to one of the best ever.  But the guy could hit: in 16 minor league seasons, Jolley batted .367 with a .584 SLG and racked up 3,043 hits, 640 doubles and 336 homers.  In 1928, he batted .404 with 52 doubles, 10 triples and 45 homers for San Francisco.  If there had been a DH back then, Jolley might have been one of the great sluggers of his era.  Instead he spent most of his career in the minors.

(Mike adds: “He’s not my favorite but from 1907-1921 Ed Konetchy accumulated 3,080 total bases.  Only Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had more during that span, yet you never hear of Konetchy.  I thought I knew every significant ballplayer until I discovered Konetchy while writing my Black Sox book.  Somehow he landed in the minors after the ’21 season even though he was only 35 and had hit .299 with a career-high 11 home runs.  He hit .345 with 41 dingers for Ft. Worth in 1925 at the age of 39.”)

From Jim Margalus, formerly of Sox Machine, now writing at South Side Sox:
1 – Wilbur Wood, especially with the way Chuck Tanner rode him like a deadball-era pitcher in the ’70s.

2 – Warren Newson, who was probably born 10 years too late.

3 – Joe Horlen, who had the lowest ERA in the AL from 1963-1968. When you look at the ERA leaderboard from that time, he sticks out:

Sandy Koufax
Juan Marichal
Joe Horlen
Luis Tiant
Bob Gibson
Whitey Ford
Don Drysdale

Mario Lanza, Mariners fan:
Mike Schooler. Total representation of the Mariners in the late 80’s/early 90’s.

Erik Lundegaard:
The first one that comes to mind is Cesar Tovar, a utility player and leadoff hitter for that great late ’60s Twins team that would’ve gone to the World Series if not for that great, late ’60s Orioles team.

Ted Leavengood, managing editor at Seamheads:
Joe Cambria is a great curiosity figure.

Michael Clair, who runs Old Time Family Baseball:
There are just so many to choose from–I’m pretty fond of Kevin Rhomberg (I wrote a short piece about him here) and Toad Ramsey, but my personal favorite may be Dave ‘Lefty’ Brown. He was a Negro Leagues pitcher who was signed off of a chain gang, played for a few years, was accused of murder, and had to go on the lam. He ended up playing baseball across the country under a variety of aliases while the FBI searched for him and no one is really sure when he died. That’s an extremely truncated life story, but lot of the info I’ve found on Lefty is here if you’re interested.

Chris Donnelly, author of Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History (read an interview about it, or buy the book):
Randy Velarde. All allegations aside, he endured through some of the worst Yankee clubs ever and was a major part of the team’s comeback in the mid 90s. He never put up big numbers with the Yankees, but you could always expect a good average, an occasional home run and pretty solid defense, whether it was at third, short, second, or somewhere in the outfield. He also hit Randy Johnson like no one else could. Just an all around solid player who nearly got the Yankees to the ALCS in 95.

Duane Harris, who runs the 90 feet of Perfection website:
My pick is Buck O’Neil. His place in Baseball history is forever solidified due to the following:

-1st Baseman of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

-Manager of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

-1st Black coach in MLB history as a member of the Chicago Cubs.

-A Scout for both the Cubs & Royals.

-A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000 (played a role in inducting 6 Negro League players from 1995–2001 when the HOF previously had a policy of inducting 1 Negro League player per year)

-Helped get the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City up and rolling.

-His interview segments in Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary brought recognition of the Negro Leagues to another generation of Baseball fans who in most cases knew very little of the League and it’s stars. As a 13 year old when the documentary came out, he sparked interest in the Negro Leagues that I did not have before therefore setting a life long love affair with learning more….so in a way that’s a personal reason however I have read similar stories more than once like this.

O’Neil fell short of the HOF in 2006 unfortunately and I still have hope that he can make it posthumously. I have written/posted photos of Buck many times on my blog, but back in December I had a post dedicated to just O’Neil.

Paul Francis Sullivan of Sully Baseball:
RED OLDHAM!!!!

Jeff Polman, who has two retro baseball simulation experiments:
Mike De la Hoz.

Shawn Anderson, who runs the Hall of Very Good blog:
It’s Ross Grimsley. I sponsor his page on baseball-reference, use his likeness as my site’s logo (t-shirts are available) and will be dedicating a week in May to him. Did you know that May 16 is the 40th anniversary of his big league debut? I’ve already got some good support…trying to track down Grimsley himself for an interview.

Pat Lackey, who runs Pirates website Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?:
Louis Bierbauer played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1889 and defected to Brooklyn of the Player’s League in 1890. The Player’s League folded and the Athletics were supposed to retain his rights in 1891, but he signed with the Pittsburg Allegheneys instead. In the common parlance of the time, it was said that Pittsburg “pirated” Bierbauer from Philadelphia. Eventually, the name stuck.

Mark Sherrard, who runs the Cubs Billy Goat Blog:
Eddie Gaedel.

Steve Keane of The Eddie Kranepool Society and This Call To The Bullpen Podcast:
How about Effa Manley first female owner of a professional baseball team when she owned the Brooklyn/Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues

(Another good name is John Montgomery Ward who played and managed in the late 1880’s and was voted in to the Hall of Fame went to Columbia Law School and started the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players the first pro sports union.)

Joe Tetrault, whose baseball site is Tetrault Vision:  
My favorite obscure baseball figure is not particularly obscure. No one with as striking a biography as he has can qualify. But he’s not famous. Moe Berg. The Catcher Was a Spy told his story of his duel life as a baseball player and military intelligence gatherer prior to the Second World War. His is just a damn fascinating story.

John Cappello, who runs the Baseball Engineer site:
I hope I don’t break any rules by giving you four names:
Oscar Gamble, because of his hair.

- Dave Cash, because he taught a young Phillies team how to win.

- Ken Brett, George’s brother, because it was fun seeing a pitcher hit that well.

- Willie Montanez, because of his entertaining catches of easy popups and fly balls (okay, coulda used some mustard, but still fun…).

Jason Rosenberg, who runs It’s About The Money:
Despite growing up a Yanks fan, I remember the guys they played, and the oddballs stick out.  Here are a few:

  • John Wockenfuss, because of that odd batting stance, name and facial hair
  • Chet Lemon, because of the batting stance, bat pointed high in the sky
  • Amos Otis, only because when I was just a few years old, I named my stuffed dog “Amos Otis”

Mark Ahrens, who runs Books on Baseball:
Ossie Bluege from the Washington Senators.

Jeff Engels, who runs Jeff’s Mariners Fan Blog:
My Grandfather Gordon “Dusty” Rhodes

Danny Tully:
Vada Pinson

Herman Gilman:
I grew up in Milwaukee during the golden era of the Milwaukee Braves and would like to submit the name of Billy Bruton, who played center field for 7 years alongside Henry Aaron. Aaron makes many mentions of Bruton in his book, “the Hammer”. Bruton was an instrumental player in the Braves success from 1956-59, when they came within a game or two of winning four straight National league pennants (Brooklyn barely beat them out in 1956 and the LA Dodgers won a playoff from them in 1959). Bruton was active in the local NAACP in Milwaukee during that time and was a big social influence on Aaron.

Another player from that era was a teammate of Frank Robinson on the Reds, an outfielder named Vada Pinson. I don’t believe Pinson is in the Hall of Fame, though he was a premier base stealer during that era and hit for high average. Pinson also later coached for many teams, including my now home town Seattle Mariners. Both these players began their careers in the last stages of the Negro Leagues and were part of the large influx of African-American players who played prominent roles on good National League baseball teams of the mid-1950’s to mid-1960’s era.

From freelance writer Kevin Glew, who runs the Cooperstowners in Canada blog:

My favorite obscure player would be James “Tip” O’Neill, who hails from Woodstock, Ontario. Here is a bio I wrote about him for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame:

“Tip” O’Neill honed his baseball skills in the ballroom of his parents’ hotel in Woodstock during his youth. After starring locally, nationally and internationally with barnstorming teams, the gifted youngster was signed by the American Association’s New York Metropolitans.

Sometimes dubbed Canada’s Babe Ruth, the talented Canadian made his major league debut as a pitcher on May 5, 1883. A formidable moundsman (his career ERA was 3.39), O’Neill was hampered by arm problems early in his career. Fortunately, his bat was potent enough to convince the St. Louis Browns to employ him in their outfield.

It was in the Gateway City that O’Neill would become major league baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 1887. In that magical campaign, he set big league marks in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases. His batting average was an astounding .492 (walks were included as hits that season, but even without the walks, his average was .435, the second highest in big league history). Largely due to his hitting heroics, the Browns would capture four consecutive American Association championships from 1885 to 1888.

When his playing days were over, he moved to Montreal where he helped secure an Eastern League franchise for the city. One of the greatest Canadians to play in the big leagues, O’Neill’s legacy lives on. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame hands out the Tip O’Neill Award annually to the player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals.

Rob Nelson, former Portland Maverick and proprietor of Big League Chew:

Steve Collette He was the manager of the 1977 Beavers. A magical guy, brilliant manager; hugely talented. He died way too young. Without him, Big League Chew never would have happened. He had me as his pitching coach in 1977, when we had the idea for the gum. He was the reason the Mavs had a magical last season: we had the best winning percentage in baseball in 1977: 44-22. Several ball fields are named after him in and around Salem, where he was from.

[Collette was a member of Linfield College's 1966 national championship baseball team]

Former Jeopardy champion Rich Lerner, via Ted Leavengood’s Facebook page:

I have three – Julio Becquer, Jackie Reed and Chet Trail.
Julio Becquer was a back-up first baseman for the Senators in
the 50s. Family lore has it that I heard my brothers trying to
trade his baseball card so often that my first words were
“Julio Becquer.”

Jackie Reed was a defensive replacement for Mickey Mantle from
1961-63, getting 129 AB in 222 games. In 1962, he replaced
Mantle in a game that went 24 innings and at the time was (and
may still be) the longest game ever played (in minutes). Reed
ended the game with his only major-league home run.

Chet Trail is the only player that has been on a WS roster
that never played a game in the major leagues. A late-season
call-up by the Yanks in 1964 he never saw any action. With
Tony Kubek injured and unavailable for the World Series, the
Yankees needed someone to back up Bobby Richardson and Phil
Linz (Kubek’s replacement), so they included Trail on the
roster.

(more…)

Remembering Curt Flood After His Death in 1997

A while back I gathered some remembrances of Vada Pinson following his death in October of 1995. His longtime friend, Curt Flood, died not quite a year and a half later, on January 20, 1997. Flood, of course, had a deeper impact on pro baseball, but along with that, he had a more turbulent life than Pinson. The L.A. Times’ obituary noted that Flood, who “made a lasting impact on major league baseball by opening the door to free agency with his unsuccessful challenge of the reserve system, died of throat cancer at the UCLA Medical Center on Monday. Friends said Flood had been ill for more than a year and had contracted pneumonia Friday. He was 59.” Here’s a bit of the L.A. Times coverage of his funeral:

More than 250 people crowded into First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles on Monday to hear Flood – who died of cancer at age 59 on Jan. 20 – remembered as an underappreciated American hero.

The mourners came from the worlds of politics and arts as well as sports. Political opposites, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and George Will, delivered tributes. Brock Peters, the actor, sat next to Lou Brock, the Hall of Famer. Don Fehr, the head of the major-league players’ union, was followed to the pulpit by Bill White, who used to be president of the National League.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) read a statement from President Clinton, lauding Flood as a man “whose achievements on the field were matched only by the strength of his character.”

“Because he came this way,” Jackson said in a stirring eulogy, “baseball is better, America is better and generations unborn are better.”

Mike Eisenbath of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled the man and his character:

Bing Devine, the man who brought Curt Flood to the Cardinals, pointed out the obvious coincidence Monday. It is indeed interesting that Flood had died on Martin Luther King Day. . . .

On Monday night, not so many hours after Flood, 59, had died in California of throat cancer, one of his many fans called him the Abraham Lincoln of players in all pro team sports. He helped pave the way for free agency. Flood is surely one of the most influential figures in American sports history.

He also was an excellent ballplayer during one of the Cardinals’ most successful periods, a proud and strong man who lends a sophistication to a franchise history that includes the Gas House Gang.

He was an artist. A Flood portrait of Martin Luther King hangs in the living room of King’s widow, Coretta.

A quiet man, he rarely displayed resentment. Friends and former teammates recall him as having a delicacy about him, an elegant way of moving about life both on the baseball field and elsewhere. He impressed with his inner toughness, his intelligence, an uncommon motivation. Flood’s gifts reached beyond the sports field. He developed his brush strokes on canvas long before he mastered his big-league batting stroke.

Among the anger he kept to himself involved his first trade. The Cards dealt three players who never would amount to much for him. The Cardinals didn’t necessarily expect great things.

As Bing Devine was mulling, nervously, making his first trade as the Cardinals’ general manager, then Cards manager Fred Hutchinson gave the endorsement: “Make the deal. We’ll fit him in somewhere. We think he can hit. We know he can run. Maybe he can play center field for us.” . . .

Despite all his deft athletic and artistic work, Flood called his suit against baseball the “central fact of my life.”

Flood made $72,500 in 1968. He rejected August Busch Jr.’s offer of a $77,500 pact for the 1969 season. Flood told the owner that if he wanted to sign a player who was the best center fielder in baseball and a .300 hitter, it would coast him $90,000, “which is not $77,500 and is not $89,999.”

Flood got the money he wanted for that season. But Busch remembered helping Flood out of financial problems earlier in his career and considered his salary demand ungrateful.

The next offseason, after a sub-par 1969 performance, Flood asked for $100,000.

Before the 1969 World Series began, the Cardinals traded Flood, Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne to the Phillies for Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Flood was upset. There was the problem of leaving the Cardinals and friends such as Bob Gibson, his 10-year roommate on the road.

He was nearly 32, had been with the team for 12 years and had no desire to leave. Baseball’s rule said he had no choice, if he wanted to continue playing the game.

In a Christmas Eve, 1969, letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood said he was not a piece of property to be bought, sold and traded and would not be going to the Phillies. “I couldn’t stand to be treated that way,” Flood once said. “When I was traded, it drove me up a wall.”

He sued the game. He asked for changes in baseball’s reserve clause and $1.4 million in damages. His lawyers and union chief Marvin Miller warned his chances of winning were slim. “If you go ahead with this, forget any idea of ever being the first black manager,” Miller told him. “Or even a coach or a scout. Forget it!”

He responded: “I want to go out like a man instead of a bottle cap.”

When spring training began in 1970, the case was headed to court and Flood was in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was the beginning of a long, oft-difficult sojourn through the second half of his life.

None of his baseball contemporaries came to his defense. But former big-leaguer and Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg testified for Flood’s side. So did Bill Veeck. And Jackie Robinson.

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the case. The Supreme Court decision came June 19, 1972, and, by 5-3 majority, upheld baseball’s antitrust exemption. But Flood’s courage challenging baseball told the game’s players and leaders that changes would come.

Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free agents when, in 1975, a federal arbitrator upheld the individual bargaining rights of players and granted them free agency. . . .

[In retirement] Flood painted. He wrote. He got away from America’s game and America itself for a while.

“I tried to refresh myself and tried to overcome a lot of the hurt I felt,” Flood once recalled. “I tried to deal with the misunderstanding many people had of what I was attempting to do with my court case, why I was bringing all of it to light. (1970) was a difficult year for several reasons. But as much as anything, I’m a baseball person, and to take that away from me cold turkey like that was not easy for me.”

Flood returned from Copenhagen in 1971, when he signed a $110,000 contract with the Washington Senators. His heart wasn’t in it, and he left after 13 forgettable games. After the Supreme Court decision, Flood moved to Barcelona and then to the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Drinking was one of Flood’s more haunting problems for a while after his return to the States in the late 1970s. Then, it was making a living in a world where he seemed to be blackballed from working at the one thing at which he had excelled, pro baseball.

Eventually, he owned and operated a public relations firm. He worked as a commercial painter and taught guitar. He worked for a year as color man on the Oakland broadcasts. He worked with kids, notably as an American Legion and Connie Mack coach in Oakland, then as little league commissioner for the Oakland Recreation Department.

A remembrance from Lou Brock: “It’s sad. Most of the pioneers wind up with an arrow in their backs. And he certainly was one of those who had an arrow in his back. As a pioneer, he never got his just due.

“God will amend that.”

Shortstop Dal Maxvill from those ’60s Cardinals teams said “besides his being a good ballplayer, [Flood] was a real professional all the way. He did what had to be done. If Brock led off with a single and stole second and if you needed a ground ball to get him to third, Curt would do that, so Roger Maris could hit a 320-foot fly ball and we’d be ahead 1-0.

“He didn’t have the greatest arm in the world but he was feared because he played so shallow and guys didn’t want to take any chances. He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. I don’t know of any enemies he had. I don’t know that Curt Flood had anybody who didn’t like him.

“He was one of the first (players) to rock the boat. But the players playing today ought to owe him a great deal of gratitude for his courage. He changed the system and the system changed forever.”

Bing Devine, the Cardinals’ former general manager, who traded pitchers Marty Kutyna, Willard Schmidt and Ted Wieand to Cincinnati for Flood and outfielder Joe Taylor in December of 1957, remembered: “I made that trade with a great deal of fear and trepidation.

“A lot people refer to the fact that undoubtedly the best trade I ever made was for Lou Brock because he’s in the Hall of Fame and that’s certainly true. But in my mind, the Curt Flood trade was probably equal to that because of it being my first deal. If that hadn’t worked out, I probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did. It’s interesting he died on Martin Luther King Day. In their own way, they probably had the same goal in mind.”

Maury Wills added: “He was a man who dared to live by the strength of his conviction. Most of us were not courageous enough to take that stand. I know I wasn’t.”

In contrast to the general acclaim of Flood, Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a somewhat acidic item gathering his thoughts on the man. Broeg also provided some interesting details on Flood’s career:

Curt Flood as a player was good, very good, but he could have been great. And if he had won that lawsuit, challenging baseball’s reserve clause, he would have been rich. But back then, he didn’t want money. He only wanted to stay in St. Louis.

As a player, that is, not a resident, because he still preferred warmer winter climates. But here, he had a vest-pocket painting agency, truly a love affair with the Cardinals and – until near the end – with the Big Eagle, Gussie Busch.

If you want to assign blame for the problems of the wiry little defensive wonder, blame Curt himself. But also, inferentially, Busch and me, too.

When I left the road with the Cardinals in midseason, 1958, my last word was to josh Flood privately. The little man just had won a 2-1 game at Pittsburgh with a home run, but his trouble was that he swung too often for the fences.

So he was in and out of the lineup too often the next two seasons, when he was roughly a .250 hitter. Meanwhile, with defensive wizardry close to Terry Moore’s in center field, he had impressed Busch.

For one thing, quietly borrowing a passport-sized photo of Gussie in a yachting captain’s getup, Flood displayed his other gift. He was amazing in his ability to copy in oil the likeness of anyone.

Busch, overwhelmed, directed Curt to paint for modest pay all members of the brewery baron’s large family. And then when Johnny Keane relieved Solly Hemus as manager at the Fourth of July in 1961, he gave both Busch and Flood the greatest gift. That is, the chance for the boss’ pet to play every day.

Flood had learned to cut down that big swing. Immediately, he hit .322. Six times he hit over .300 in the next eight years. Hitting behind Lou Brock, he was even better than when leading off. Afield, he made incredible catches. He ran the bases with speed and daring.

By the time the Cardinals won a second world championship in 1967, Flood hit a club-leading .335. Busch lavished his players with the big league’s first $1 million payroll. Flood’s share was a handsome $72,000.

When the Redbirds repeated with a pennant in ’68, yet lost the Series in which Flood made a rare defensive gaffe behind close friend Bob Gibson, Busch had begun to grumble about relations with players, including salaries.

Even though Flood’s average dropped 34 points to .301 in ’68, the Year of the Pitcher, Curt told the Globe-Democrat in an eight-column banner that he “insisted” on $100,000. “And,” he snipped, “I don’t mean $99,999.99.”

For one, I winced. The “Dutchman” Busch wouldn’t like that. He didn’t. Flood settled finally for a handsome hike to $92,000, but he had just become one of the boys in the eyes of the big boss, no longer a favorite son.

In 1969, a subpar season for the Cardinals, Flood nosedived to .285. Harry Walker, a thinking man’s manager at Houston, had bunched his defense up the middle, where Curt often singled past the pitcher. Other clubs followed suit. In addition, the player was living as fast as he ran.

Divorced and away from his family, he spent considerable time in other arms, including Bacchus’ and not Morpheus’. In addition, he put in many of the diminishing waking hours oil-painting photos for a price.

At the batting cage late that season, I scolded him as a friendly Dutch uncle, but I offered a consolation, relative to the tighter up- the-middle defense.

Next year, 1970, Busch Stadium would have artificial turf, quickening ground balls. Many of those balls now being caught would go through as they had in those 200-hit seasons.

Curt shrugged off my criticism of his life style, but smiled over the batting prospects.

They weren’t achieved. Flood was traded to the Phillies at a time when they were futile, part of a multiple-player deal in which another popular player, Tim McCarver, was lost.

When the Cardinals notified Flood of the deal, his first words were, “Oh, no, not Philadelphia.”

The second thought of resistance brought the Flood lawsuit, which he didn’t win, unfortunately. The Phillies had offered to make Flood the first “$100,000 singles’ hitter,” a designation Pete Rose later claimed.

After a fast-track year abroad, he was dealt to Washington in 1971. Flood lasted only several games with the Senators. He quit.
Said a Washington doctor gravely, “The oldest 33-year-old athlete I ever examined.”

As a carrot back there in ’69, I’d suggested to Flood that with a couple more .300 seasons he would be a Hall of Famer in fact as well as in potential. Curtis Charles Flood didn’t make it. He was only 59 when he died.

I’d heard the stories about Flood refusing to go to Philadelphia because of its Southern feelings about black people, so I found a Philadelphia Daily News retrospective on Flood’s life by Mark Kram, from 2002. Kram said of the owners:

By the sheer arrogance with which they conducted their affairs, you get the feeling in retrospect that it was as if they were daring someone like Flood to step forward and take them on. How else could you explain the way that the Cardinals informed him he had been shipped to the Phillies : by form letter, with a box checked that explained that he was no longer their property. He had played for them since 1958 for 12 years and helped them to world championships in 1964 and 1967, and yet no one from the Cardinals even had the courtesy to phone him. While it was assumed then that Flood did not want to come to Philadelphia because the city and organization were racially backward, [Judy] Pace- Flood says he simply rejected the deal because it “violated his dignity as a man.”

So Flood had no special animus toward Philadelphia?

“None whatsoever that I was aware of,” says [Judy] Pace-Flood , a former actress who appeared in the TV series “Peyton Place” and had movie parts in “The Fortune Cookie” (1966) and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), among others. “What it came down to was that he objected to be treated as chattel.”

Pace-Flood married Curt in 1986. Here are two more quotes. Flood told San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Joan Ryan before he died: “I lost money, coaching jobs, a shot at the Hall of Fame. But when you weigh that against all the things that are really and truly important, things that are deep inside you, then I think I’ve succeeded.”

Frank Robinson said of the stance baseball ownership took toward players: “What they were counting on was the fact that you were probably in a position where you had to take it [their contract offer]. You probably had a wife and children to support, and you needed that check every 2 weeks. They would say, ‘Now, do you want to play or not?’ They held every card.”

Finally, here is the story of Flood’s situation when Vada Pinson died: he was already getting treatment for the cancer that would kill him:

So far, he has tolerated the chemotherapy; the second cycle began Monday. But now Curt Flood is to undergo radiation for throat cancer Thursday morning, and the doctors say he cannot skip the treatment.

So Curt Flood hopes his friend of 50 years, Vada Pinson, will understand if he is unable to make it to Oakland for Pinson’s funeral that day.

“Vada would say, `You did what? Get out of here,'” Flood said Tuesday from his home in Los Angeles, where he looks up from the phone and every day sees the same picture on the wall: Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock on a framed cover of the Sporting News.

“I’ve seen that handsome face for many years,” Flood said. “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”

The picture was taken in 1969, when the three were together in the outfield of the St. Louis Cardinals. “The doctors say they caught it in time,” Flood said of the cancer. “The prognosis is good. They say it’s 90 to 95 percent curable. I haven’t been sick. I haven’t lost my hair … or my testiness.

“Yes, it’s scary. It’s something God puts on your shoulders: `Here, handle this.”‘ Last winter, when Flood was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame, his presenter was Vada Pinson, who drove all the way from South Florida. The scheduled inductee this winter: Pinson. Of course, you know who Pinson asked to present him.

“I’m going to ask them to honor his last wish,” Flood said Tuesday.
“My lasting image of Vada: I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”

Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 4:56 am  Comments (1)  
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Remembering Vada Pinson

Vada Pinson spent most of the ’60s starring for the Cincinnati Reds as one of the great center fielders in the game. He was also one of the earliest members of the class of great black players that emerged from Oakland starting in the ’50s and continuing on until today. Here’s his longtime friend Curt Flood talking about Vada: “I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”

Pinson died on October 21, 1995, not quite three weeks after suffering a stroke at 59 and being admitted to the Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He’d returned to Oakland after his baseball coaching career ended, and was scheduled to be inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame early in 1996. At the time, his agent, Ken Solomon said: “He’s showing remarkable strength and determination right now. He’s a fighter and it shows.”

After Pinson’s death, Flood, who was getting chemotheraphy for throat cancer, talked to a reporter, Gordon Edes, about being in Los Angeles and unable to make the funeral in Oakland. Flood: “I still have a message from Vada on my answering machine. Vada Pinson was lying on the floor of his home in Oakland for three days before somebody found him. Perhaps in those first few minutes or hours, if only someone had known he was there, they might have saved his life. We don’t leave messages. We don’t answer messages. Damn.” (But please read the eighth comment below, from a Pinson family member who says Flood was deeply misinformed about this.)

His former Red teammates remembered Pinson’s abilities. Pitcher Jim Brosnan: “I had a shutout going in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs. There were two outs and Ernie Banks hit a ball to what was the deepest part of old Crosley Field, out there in right-center field where the flag pole was next to the light tower.

“I remember Vada running from left-center where he’d been playing Banks. He just seemed to glide across that terrace that ran around the outfield. He caught that ball with almost no effort and he didn’t even have to leap. That’s how fast he was.”

Jerry Lynch, who played left to Pinson’s center for the Reds in the ’60s: “What bothers me is how could a guy have over 2,700 hits and not be in the Hall of Fame? He was a fine gentleman and the neatest person I have ever known.”

Former Reds second baseman Tommy Helms: “His game and practice shoes were shined brighter than my dress shoes. Vada had speed you could not teach. Even two or three years ago, he was in super shape. He did not drink or smoke.”

Earl Lawson, a Reds reporter for the Cincinnati Post: “I always felt Vada had more talent in his little finger than most guys have in their whole body. Vada could run and he had surprising power. I don’t recall anybody getting to 1,500 hits faster than Vada did.

“I voted for Vada for the Hall of Fame. He had Mickey Mantle’s speed. He missed being named rookie of the year in 1960 because he had just a few at-bats over the limit.”

At the time of his death, Pinson ranked among the Reds’ all-time leaders in a stack of offensive categories: hits (fifth, 1,881), doubles (fourth, 342), triples (third, 96), runs (fifth, 978), stolen bases (fifth, 221) at-bats (fifth, 6,335) and games (fifth, 1,565).

As for his cleanliness, Reds pitcher Brooks Lawrence, Pinson’s first roommate in Cincinnati, said: “I never saw a man so clean. He often took five or six showers a day.”

Former Reds manager Sparky Anderson, recalling his hitting coach with the Detroit Tigers from 1985 to 1991: “He’s one of those guys who came up in the deal of the cards from the bottom of the deck. Vada never got the recognition, he never got any recognition at all. But not one time did I ever hear Vada badmouth anybody about it. He never said a bad word about it. . . . He would spit shine those shoes of his every day. And he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. I never heard Vada Pinson bad-mouth anyone.

“He looked like his feet never touched the ground. He was so fast, had so many doubles, all his numbers, 2,800 hits, he was such a player. And a gentleman. If there is one word I’d use to describe him, it’s that: He was a gentleman.

“Vada never got near the recognition he deserved. Whether it was from being on the same team as Robby and Big Klu (Ted Kluszewski), I don’t know.

“But when it comes to retiring numbers, you have to now look at him. It’s too bad we wait until after he’s gone to do these things. But when you talk about what a player does for a city, for a franchise, he’s a Red. He obviously didn’t have the power of a guy like Mantle, but in every other way he was like Mantle. He was idolized by a generation (of kids) in Cincinnati.”

Curt Flood, who was a year ahead of Pinson at McClymonds High School in West Oakland: “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”

Pinson’s Reds teammate, Frank Robinson, also attended McClymonds High and was almost exactly three years older than Pinson. Robby said: “The numbers don’t tell the true story. Vada was underrated and underappreciated as a player. He brought a whole lot more to the game than just cold numbers.

“He was the first guy I saw who consistently put pressure on outfielders with his speed. Not just with balls he hit into the gaps. He’d hit ground balls to straightaway center and turn them into doubles.

“Same thing with a two-hopper to the first baseman. He’d beat it out. The pitcher couldn’t get over there fast enough to cover.”

Vada Pinson’s 2,757 hits, coupled with 256 home runs and 305 stolen bases, made him, as of 1995, one of only four players to amass at least 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 250 stolen bases. The others: Joe Morgan, who came out of West Oakland a few years after Pinson, Willie Mays, and Andre Dawson. Morgan: “You know what was great about Vada? He was content with his accomplishments, with who he was. He was happy with his niche. He knew where he fit in.”

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 8:43 am  Comments (46)  
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