Friday, April 15, 2016

Living Former Brooklyn Dodgers


April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson makes his major league debut, for the Brooklyn Dodgers, against the Boston Braves, at Ebbets Field. He wears Number 42, plays 1st base, and bats 2nd.

In the 1st inning, batting against Johnny Sain, he grounded out to 3rd baseman Bob Elliott, who would go on to be named the National League's Most Valuable Player that season. In the 3rd, he flew out to left fielder Danny Litwhiler. In the 5th, he grounded into a double play, shortstop Dick Culler to 2nd baseman Connie Ryan to 1st baseman Earl Torgeson.

In the 7th, he bunted. Torgeson ran over to field it, and threw to Sain covering 1st, but the throw was wild, sending him to 2nd and Eddie Stanky, who had walked to lead off the inning, to 3rd. Both scored when Pete Reiser doubled to right, turning a 3-2 Braves lead into a 4-3 Dodger advantage.

He didn't get to bat again, and didn't get a hit, but his bunt was instrumental in the win. He also handled 11 chances without an error, despite never having played 1st base in a regular-season game at any level. There has never been a report of any racist remarks made by anyone in the Braves dugout that day. The Dodgers beat the Braves 5-3.

September 24, 1957: The last game is played at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-0, as Danny MacFayden pitches a 5-hit shutout. The losing pitcher was Bennie Daniels, who, 4 years later, would be the losing pitcher for the Washington Senators in the last game at Griffith Stadium. Elmer Valo doubles home Jim Gillian in the 1st inning, and Gil Hodges singles home Gino Cimoli in the 3rd.

Contrary to what was said in Ken Burns' Baseball, the Dodgers did win this game, although the New York Giants lost to the Pirates in their last game at the Polo Grounds 5 days later, and the Mets lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the last regular-season baseball game at the Polo Grounds 6 years later.

With the recent death of Mike Sandlock at age 100, there are 28 living former Brooklyn Dodgers. (UPDATE: As of the death of Johnny Rutherford on December 25, 2016, they're down to 24.) Here they are:

* Chris Haughey, 90, from Astoria, Queens. A pitcher, he made 1 major league appearance, in the last game of the season, on October 3, 1943, his 18th birthday. As you might guess, he wouldn't have appeared in the majors if not for The War. He got hit hard by the Cincinnati Reds, and took the loss. Baseball would get even with the Reds, though: The next year, they'd pitch Joe Nuxhall, not yet 16, and the youngest player in MLB history, and he'd give up nearly as much in only 2/3rds of an inning, and not return to the majors for 8 years.

But return he did, for 14 years; Haughey never did. He graduated from St. John's, then pitched in the Dodgers' and Cardinals' minor-league systems, but threw his last professional pitch at age 24.

* Lee Pfund, 86, from the Chicago suburbs. A pitcher, he made 15 appearances in the majors, all for the Dodgers in the last war year of 1945.

UPDATE: Pfund died on June 2, 2016.

* Eddie Basinski, 93, from Buffalo. A 2nd baseman and shortstop, he played a few games for the Dodgers in 1944 and a few more in 1945, then returned to the majors in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He is the last living player whose name is mentioned in jazz singer Dave Frishberg's ode to ballplayers of his youth, "Van Lingle Mungo."

* Marv Rackley, 94, from South Carolina. An outfielder, he made his major league debut for the Dodgers the same day as Jackie Robinson, April 15, 1947, as a pinch-runner for catcher Bruce Edwards in the 6th inning. He is the last living man who played in that game. He never caught on, was traded to Pittsburgh in 1949, and last played in 1950.

* Luis Olmo, 96, from Puerto Rico. Outfielder, he debuted with the Dodgers in 1943, and stayed with them through World War II. He then jumped to the Mexican League for a higher salary, and was banned from "organized ball." Reinstated, he returned to the Dodgers, appeared in the 1949 World Series, then wrapped up his U.S. big-league career with the Braves in 1950 and '51, before returning to the Caribbean, where he led teams to more titles. He is the oldest living former Dodger.

* Tommy Brown, 88, from Brooklyn. One of several high school players called up to big-league clubs in the conditions brought about by the manpower shortage of World War II, "Buckshot" debuted on August 3, 1944, aged 16 years, 241 days, and is still the 2nd-youngest player in MLB history. On August 20, 1945, aged 17 years, 258 days, he became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in an MLB game, off future Dodger Preacher Roe, then with the Pirates.

Although he remained with the Dodgers until 1951, played in 2 games in the 1949 World Series, and remained in the major leagues until 1953 with the Cubs, he never made more than 243 plate appearances in a season, probably because his main position was the one played in Brooklyn by Pee Wee Reese. He was also one of several players tried in left field, a position on which the Dodgers could never seem to settle. Although he had played his 1st big league game 9 years earlier, he played his last when he was not yet 26. He did, however, continue to play in the high minors until he was 31.

* Wayne Terwilliger, about to turn 91, from Clare, Michigan. A 2nd baseman, he served in the Marines in World War II. He debuted with the Cubs in 1949, and in 1951 was traded to the Dodgers along with Andy Pafko. The Dodgers sent him to the minors for the 1952 season, and he was claimed off waivers in 1953. After being traded from the Cubs, he spent the rest of his career with teams that no longer exist in those forms: The Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Washington Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, with whom he played his last game, in 1960.

He became a longtime minor league manager and major league coach, and was on Tom Kelly's staff when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. He won an independent league's Pennant as manager of the revived Fort Worth Cats in 2005.

* Joe Landrum, 87, from Columbia, South Carolina. A pitcher, he made 16 appearances in 1950 and '52 (but not in '51), and that was it.

* Johnny Rutherford, about to turn 91, from Belleville, Ontario, also the hometown of Hockey Hall-of-Famer Bobby Hull. A pitcher, he made 22 appearances in the major leagues, all with the 1952 Dodgers, going 7-7, with 2 saves.

UPDATE: Rutherford died on Christmas Day, December 25, 2016.

* Ron Negray, 86, from Akron, Ohio. A pitcher, he was a September callup in 1952, but never appeared for Brooklyn again. He was traded to the Phillies, but come back to the Dodgers, the L.A. edition, and finished with them in 1958.

* Glenn Mickens, 85, from Los Angeles. A pitcher, he appeared in 4 games in July 1953, and never saw the light of the majors again.

* Bobby Morgan, about to turn 90, from Oklahoma City. An infielder, he debuted with the Dodgers in 1950, and frequently filled in for Billy Cox at 3rd base. He appeared for the Dodgers in the 1952 and '53 World Series. He was traded to the Phillies, and was mainly a 2nd baseman for the rest of his career, which ran through 1958.

* Tim Thompson, 92, from Coalport, Pennsylvania. A catcher, he had a cup of coffee with the Dodgers in 1954, and also appeared with the A's in '56 and '57, and the Tigers in '58.

* Bob Borkowski, 90, from Dayton, Ohio. An outfielder, he played for the Chicago Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds, before moving to the Dodgers in 1955. He played his last major league game on July 10, and did not get a World Series ring.

* Tommy Lasorda, 88, from the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown, Pennsylvania. A lefthanded pitcher, he made 4 appearances with the Dodgers in 1954 and 4 more in '55, with no decisions, did not make the World Series roster, and was traded to the Kansas City Athletics.

With the A's, he made 18 appearances, all in 1956, and had the only 4 decisions of his career -- all losses. One of those losses included a nasty brawl with the Yankees, including trading blows with Billy Martin. In 1977, 21 years later, Lasorda and Martin would shake hands as opposing managers in the World Series.

He was the Los Angeles Dodgers' 3rd base coach in their 1974 Pennant season, and managed them to 9 postseasons, losing the World Series in 1977 and '78 and winning it in 1981 and '88.

* Humberto "Chico" Fernandez, 84, from Havana, Cuba. Perhaps the last in a long line of shortstops that got stuck behind Pee Wee Reese, he was a midseason callup for the Dodgers in 1956, then played for several more teams in the majors and the Caribbean leagues, including the Mets in 1963.

UPDATE: Fernandez died on June 11, 2016.

* Ralph Branca, 90, from Mount Vernon, Westchester County, New York. He debuted in the majors with the Dodgers in 1944, and is the last remaining teammate of Jackie Robinson in his 1st season of 1947. That year, Branca won 21 games at age 21, and another in the World Series, despite giving up the 1st pinch-hit home run in Series history, to fellow rookie Italian-American Yogi Berra. He led the National League in winning percentage in 1949, his 3rd straight All-Star season.

UPDATE: Branca died on November 23, 2016.

* Jim Gentile, about to turn 82, from San Francisco. A 1st baseman, he was a callup in Brooklyn in the last month, September 1957, and briefly played in L.A. in 1958. He became a 3-time All-Star with the Baltimore Orioles, and is in their team Hall of Fame.

He finished 2nd to his Oriole teammate Ron Hansen in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year in 1960, and 3rd for Most Valuable Player behind Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961, when he hit 46 home runs and led the AL with 142 RBIs, despite playing his home games at Baltimore's then-spacious Memorial Stadium. An injury ended his career in 1966, when he was just 32, and he didn't last with the O's long enough to appear on their World Champions that year.

But key late-season performances doomed the Dodgers to not win Pennants in 1946, 1950 and, most notably, 1951. The Dodgers traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 1953, he pitched 5 games for the Yankees in 1954, and pitched 1 more game for the Dodgers on September 7, 1956. His career record was 88-68 -- 76 by his 26th birthday, only 12 thereafter.

* Don Newcombe, about to turn 90, from Madison Borough, Morris County, New Jersey. A pitcher, he starred for the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues, then began with the Dodgers in 1949, and was named NL Rookie of the Year. A 4-time All-Star, he appeared in the 1949, '55 and '56 World Series, missing '52 and '53 because he was in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, costing him 2 prime seasons.

In the World Championship year of 1955, he won 20 games and hit 7 home runs, a feat matched in baseball history only by Wes Ferrell. In 1956, he won the MVP and the 1st-ever Cy Young Award, winning 27 games, a total only matched by 3 pitchers since, none of them in New York. In those 2 years, he was 47-12 -- with 9 homers and 39 RBIs, astounding totals for a pitcher.

Injuries and alcoholism would end his tenure with the Dodgers right after the move, and his career in 1960, only 34 years old. He later beat his addiction and became a rehab counselor. For his career, he batted .271, hit 15 home runs and had 108 RBIs, decent totals despite missing 2 prime seasons and leaving at 34. As for his pitching, he was 149-90. His time in the Army meant that he was not profiled in Roger Kahn's book The Boys of Summer, which focused on 1952 and '53.

* Randy Jackson, 90, from Little Rock. A 3rd baseman, he was a 2-time All-Star for the Cubs, before coming to the Dodgers in 1956. He appeared in the World Series that year, made the move with them, and went back to the Cubs to close his career in 1959.

* Joe Pignatano, 86, from Brooklyn. A catcher, he was a September callup in 1957, and was behind the plate for the last 5 innings of the Ebbets Field finale. Because of this, his name and that of pitcher Danny McDevitt (who died in 2010) are on a wall of honor at MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. He moved with the Dodgers, won a ring in 1959, stayed in L.A. through 1960, and was a member of the hapless 1962 Mets, grounding into a triple play on the last swing of his career.

He was the Mets' bullpen coach from 1968 to 1981, including the 1969 World Championship and the 1973 Pennant. He coached under Dodger legend Gil Hodges there, and before that in Washington; and under fellow Brooklynite Joe Torre at Shea and later in Atlanta, his last uniformed job with the 1984 Braves. He is a cousin of 2 Met pitchers, Pete Falcone and John Franco. He still makes personal appearances at Cyclones games.

* Don Demeter, about to turn 81, from Oklahoma City. A center fielder, he made 3 appearances for Brooklyn as a September callup in 1956. He was sent back to the minors, and was called back up in Los Angeles in 1958, winning a ring in 1959. He was traded to the Phillies in 1961, and remained in the majors until 1967, being traded away from the Red Sox before they could win their "Impossible Dream" Pennant that year.

* Carl Erskine, 89, from Anderson, Indiana. A pitcher, he debuted with the Dodgers in 1948, and was the other man in the bullpen when Branca was called on to face Bobby Thomson in the 1951 Playoff. He came into his own in 1952, developing perhaps the best curveball of the 1950s, pitching a no-hitter against the Cubs. He pitched another against the Giants in 1956. In Game 4 of the 1953 World Series, he struck out 14 Yankees, setting a new Series record.

He was named to the All-Star Team in 1954, and won the Series with the Dodgers in 1955. He made the move, but an injury ended his career in 1959, before that year's Series. He finished with a fine record of 122-78. He returned to his hometown, where he became a college coach and a bank president. He is the last living Dodger to have been profiled in Roger Kahn's book The Boys of Summer. (As I said, Newcombe was in the Army during the seasons chronicled in the book.)

* Fred Kipp, 84, from Kansas. A pitcher, called up in September 1957, remained through 1959 but didn't get a ring, and last appeared in 1960 but didn't make the World Series roster.

* Bob Aspromonte, 77, from Brooklyn. A utility player, he graduated from Brooklyn's Lafayette High School, made 1 plate appearance (a strikeout) on September 19, 1956, and then did not return to the majors until 1960, by which point the Dodgers were in Los Angeles.

He was an original Houston Colt .45/Astro from 1962 to 1968, played for the Atlanta Braves in the 1st NL Championship Series in 1969, and closed his career back in his hometown, with the 1971 Mets. It made him the last active former Brooklyn Dodger.

* Roger Craig, 86, from Durham, North Carolina. A pitcher, he won a ring as a rookie with the 1955 Dodgers, winning Game 5 of the World Series. He remained with them after the move, winning another ring in 1959. The Dodgers lost him in the 1961-62 expansion draft. He was the ace of the early Mets, taking a lot of hard-luck losses. The baseball gods made it up to him by letting him get another ring with the 1964 Cardinals, again beating the Yankees, as the winning pitcher in Game 4.

His career record was 74-98, but it would have been 59-52 without those 2 awful years with the Mets. He later served as Sparky Anderson's pitching coach on the 1984 World Champion Tigers, and managed the San Francisco Giants to an NL West title in 1987 and the Pennant in 1989.

* Ed Roebuck, 84, from the Pittsburgh suburbs. A pitcher, he was a Dodger from 1955 to 1963, winning rings in '55 and '59, but was traded before the '63 postseason roster was set. He was a member of the Phillies' Phlop in '64, retired with them in '66, and went 52-31 for his career.

* Sandy Koufax, 80, from Brooklyn. A graduate of Lafayette High, he debuted with the Dodgers in 1955, and was kept on the roster as a "bonus baby." He didn't get a ring then, but did get one when the L.A. edition of the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959.

Then, in 1961, he figured out how to control his pitches, and the rest is history. From then until 1966, he might have been the best pitcher who ever lived. But he developed arthritis, and the pain in his elbow led him to quit at age 31. At 36, he became the youngest man ever elected to the Hall of Fame. He was later elected to the MLB All-Century Team.

Branca, Newcombe and Erskine were interviewed for Ken Burns' new documentary Jackie Robinson, which also included interviews he did 25 years ago for his film Baseball with the now-deceased broadcaster Red Barber and scout Clyde Sukeforth.

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