Thursday, May 4, 2017

Luis Olmo, 1919-2017; Sam Mele, 1922-2017

Between the enjoyable (the Yankees' recent success) and the deplorable (Donald Trump and his supporters), I missed the deaths of a pair of baseball legends.

Luis Francisco Rodríguez Olmo was born on August 11, 1919, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. An outfielder, he made his professional debut in 1938, at age 18, with a team in Caguas. He was nickamed El Jíbaro -- The Hillbilly.

He made his American professional debut in 1939, for the Wilson Tobs (short for "Tobacconists") in the Coastal Plain League, which was then classified as Class D, the era's equivalent of today's "Rookie Leagues." He was the only player on this team who went on to make the major leagues, although a teammate, John Schuerholz Sr., would become the father of a Baseball Hall-of-Famer, the longtime Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz Jr.

The Tobs would win the Pennant in 1941, after Olmo had moved on, a later version would be a stop on the way up for Rod Carew, and since 1997 a new version has played in a "collegiate summer league."

Olmo did not quite become the 1st Puerto Rican native to play in Major League Baseball. That was Hiram Bithorn, a pitcher who debuted with the Chicago Cubs on April 15, 1942. But, like Bithorn, for whom the ballpark in the capital of San Juan is named, he was considered "white" enough to play in the major leagues at a time when black players were unofficially ineligible.

On July 18, 1943, he made his major league debut, for the Brooklyn Dodgers, wearing Number 21, at Braves Field in Boston. In the top of the 6th inning, manager Leo Durocher made 7 defensive changes in the middle of an inning that saw the Boston Braves go from 4-1 down to 6-4 up. One of these was inserting Olmo in center field, in place of Augie Galan. He singled in his 1st at-bat, in the 7th inning, and was subsequently driven in. He also popped up to the catcher in the 9th, and made 2 putouts in center field, but the Braves won, 7-6.

It was World War II, and the manpower shortage meant that guys who wouldn't ordinarily get a chance to play, or would have played but wouldn't have been regulars, got their chance. Olmo batted .303 in 1943, and in 1945, batted .313, hit 10 home runs, had 110 RBIs, and led the National League in triples with 13. On May 18 of that year, he hit both a home run and a triple with the bases loaded in the same game. Only Del Bissonette in 1930 had done that int he major leagues before him.

"I still remember the Dodger fans," he would later say. "Lots of Puerto Ricans, even in those days. They would talk to me in Spanish. Almost always nice things, except when you struck out."

He was 26 as the season ended, and if any player who excelled during The War looked like he could make it after the boys came back, Luis Olmo seemed like the one.

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But before the 1946 season began, he made a mistake. The Mexican League, not bound by MLB's reserve clause and willing to pay higher salaries, offered contracts to several players, including Olmo. As a Spanish-first speaker, this certainly appealed to him, and so he "jumped."

"I batted .313 in 1945, and I was making $6,000," he told The New York Times at a 1983 event honoring the Dodgers. At the time, $6,000 was the major league minimum. "I asked Branch Rickey for $10,000. He offered me $6,500. I went to Mexico for $25,000 and expense."

To put that in perspective, with inflation factored in, those 1945 amounts come to this in 2017 dollars: $6,000, $80,000; $6,500, $86,500; $10,000, $133,000; and $25,000, $333,000. Quite a bit more than the average person makes today, but under the current major league minimum. That shows you want a strong labor union can do. MLB didn't have one in 1946.

The Commissioner of Baseball, Albert B. "Happy" Chandler, suspended all the "Mexican Jumping Beans" indefinitely. A court case against this was settled 2 years later, and the players were allowed to return.

But it was too late for Olmo: Duke Snider had already become entrenched as not just the Dodgers' center fielder, but as one of the best players in the game. He was a reserve that year, getting into only 38 games, and now wearing Number 37. It was only the Dodgers' legendary inability to find a long-term left fielder that gave him any chance to play. He did, however, bat .305, and help the Dodgers win the Pennant.

This allowed him to become the 1st Puerto Rican to play in the World Series. He played in 4 of the 5 games, and in Game 3, he hit a home run in the 9th inning, off Joe Page, to put the game into doubt, and also made him the 1st non-Anglo player to hit a home run in World Series play. But the Yankees hung on to win, 4-3, and won the Series.

After the season, knowing that they had Snider ensconced in center field, Carl Furillo in right, and a bunch of guys ready to step into left -- including Tommy "Buckshot" Brown, Gene Hermanski, George "Shotgun" Shuba and Cal Abrams -- the Dodgers traded Olmo to the Boston Braves. He played the 1950 and '51 seasons as a utility player, and left the U.S. with a .281 batting average.

He continued to play in Latin America, winning the 1951 Caribbean Series with the Cangrejeros de Santurce (a San Juan-area team, translated as "Crabbers"). The following year, he as traded to the Senadores de San Juan (Senators), and returned to the Crabbers, becoming a teammate of the teenage Roberto Clemente, a Santurce native. He won another Caribbean Series with Santurce in 1955.

Luis Olmo went on to work for AT&T, manage in Puerto Rico's baseball league, and scout for the Milwaukee Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago White Sox. He married a woman named Emma Paradis, and became the father of Lusito Olmo, who predeceased him, and Ana Lucy Rodriguez. He had 4 grandchildren.

In 2004, Luis Olmo was elected to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame. The ballpark in Arecibo was named for him.
At the dedication ceremony

He died last Friday, April 28, 2017, at the age of 97. He was the 4th-oldest living former Major League Baseball player, and the oldest living former player for a New York baseball team. That title now goes to the oldest living Yankee, Eddie Robinson, 96, 1st base 1954-56, and also the last surviving member of the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians.

With the death of Luis Olmo, there are now 23 living former Brooklyn Dodgers: 1st baseman Jim Gentile; 2nd basemen Eddie Basinski; and Wayne Terwilliger; shortstop Tommy Brown; 3rd basemen Bobby Morgan and Randy Jackson; utility infielder Bob Aspromonte; outfielders Marv Rackley, Bob Borkowski and Don Demeter; catchers Tim Thompson and Joe Pignatano; and pitchers Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Chris Haughey, Joe Landrum, Ron Negray, Glenn Mickens, Fred Kipp, Ed Roebuck, Roger Craig, Tommy Lasorda and Sandy Koufax.

His death also leaves 6 living former Boston Braves: Outfielder Clint Conatser, catcher Del Crandall, and pitchers Johnny Antonelli, Dick Manville, Bert Thiel and Gene Conley.

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This past week, we lost another big baseball figure, a New Yorker: Sam Mele.

Sabath Anthony Mele -- pronounced MEE-lee, not MAY-lay, as I had long believed -- was born on January 21, 1922 in Astoria, Queens. A nephew of big-leaguers Tony and Al Cuccinello, he graduated from William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. It is also the alma mater of actresses Ethel Merman and Susan Anspach, Three's Company actor Richard Kline, artist and author (and Bob Dylan ex-girlfriend and album cover go-gracer) Suze Rotolo, political scientist David Horowitz, and former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Billy Loes.

On a 1982 episode of Archie Bunker's Place, Archie said he graduated from Bryant. Since a 1975 episode of its predecessor series, All In the Family, established that Archie was born in 1924, that would have meant he was 2 years behind Mele. But on a 1973 episode, Archie got his GED, indicating that he had dropped out of high school. (TV shows were not sticklers for continuity in those days: The 1971 pilot episode said that Archie's parents were still alive, but the 1975 episode in question said that his father died at age 57, which would have been well before that.)

Mele played both baseball and basketball at New York University, at a time when, under head coach Howard Cann, NYU hoops was a very big deal. Cann called Mele one of the finest players he ever coached.
But he chose baseball instead, and signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1941. His career was delayed by serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, but he played on service teams to stay fresh. In 1946, with the Scranton Red Sox, he was named Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League.

Sam made his major league debut on the same day (but, obviously, not in the same game) as Jackie Robinson: April 15, 1947. Batting 7th against Hall-of-Famer Early Wynn, in a lineup that included Johnny Pesky (2nd), Dom DiMaggio (3rd), Ted Williams (4th), Bobby Doerr (5th) and Rudy York (6th), wearing Number 14, and playing right field, he walked in the 2nd inning, singled in the 4th, hit a leadoff double in the 6th, and walked again in the 7th, part of a rally that saw the Red Sox beat the Washington Senators, 7-6 at Fenway Park.
Ted Williams and Sam Mele

He batted .302 as a rookie, but was injured for much of 1948, and was not in the lineup when the Sox lost a Playoff for the American League Pennant to the Cleveland Indians. In mid-1949, he was traded to the Washington Senators, and was their regular right fielder, leading the AL with 36 doubles in 1951, until early in the 1952 season, when he as traded to the Chicago White Sox, and was their regular right fielder in 1952 and '53.

In 1954, he was traded again, and became an original member of the Baltimore Orioles following their move from being the St. Louis Browns. He was their starting left fielder in both their 1st game and their 1st home game. But he was waived in mid-season, and the Red Sox reclaimed him. They sold him to the Cincinnati Reds in mid-1955, signed with the Cleveland Indians just before the 1956 season, and was released by the Indians just before the 1957 season. He was signed by the White Sox, but they kept him at Triple-A Indianapolis, and he retired as a player after the 1958 season.

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He was signed as a scout for the Senators, and was quickly promoted to the major league coaching staff. In 1961, the franchise's 1st season as the Minnesota Twins, manager Cookie Lavagetto resigned due to illness, and Mele got the job. He got them to 2nd place in 1962, the franchise's highest finish in 17 years, and 3rd in 1963. They tailed off in 1964, and throughout Spring Training in 1965, there was a rumor that he would be fired and replaced by his 3rd base coach -- Billy Martin.

But 1965 marked the end of the long Yankee Dynasty, and the Twins stepped into the breach. The smashed into it, with power hitters like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison. They slashed into it, with contact-hitting, speedy, good-defense players like batting champion Tony Oliva and MVP winner Zoilo Versalles. And they threw into it, with pitchers like Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Jim Perry and Jim Kaat. (The pitchers weren't all named Jim.)

"Sam was perfect for us at that time," Kaat said at a 50th Anniversary celebration for the team in 2015. "There wasn't a lot of overmanaging in those days. They just threw the ball out and let you play, and Sam did that, and it was the best thing for us."
The Twins won 102 games, still a franchise record, and won their 1st Pennant in 32 years, since the 1933 Washington Senators. They took a 2-games-to-none lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, but dropped the next 3, and took Game 6 at home, before being shut out by Sandy Koufax in Game 7.

(That Game 7 is the only home game the Twins have ever lost in World Series play. In home games in 1965, 1987 and 1991, they are 11-1; in away games, they are 0-9. It's not quite as pronounced if you count their Washington days, but still noticeable: 17-5 at home, 2-16 on the road.)

But the Twins didn't do nearly as well in 1966, and Mele feuded with Martin and pitching coach Johnny Sain. Halfway through the 1967 season, with the Twins hovering around .500, Mele was fired, and replaced not with Martin, but with Cal Ermer, who got them to the last day of the season before losing the Pennant to, ironically, Mele's 1st major league team, the Red Sox.

Mele never managed again at any level, leaving his major league record at 524-436, .546. Right after being fired by the Twins, the Red Sox hired him as a scout, and he remained with them until retiring in 1994.
At the Fenway Park memorial service for Williams, 2002

The Both the Red Sox and the Twins have retired his Number 14, but not for him. The Sox did it for 1970s-80s left field Jim Rice; the Twins, for 1980s 1st baseman Kent Hrbek.

He was predeceased by his wife Connie, with whom he had sons Steven and Scott, and daughters Sherry Ann Mele, Marcia Mele and Marilyn McCabe. He had 7 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

He died this past Monday, May 1, 2017, at his home in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts. He was 95.

With the death of Sam Mele, the earliest living manager of a Pennant-winning team is Red Schoendienst of the 1967 and 1968 St. Louis Cardinals. In the American League, it's the considerably more recent Jim Frey of the 1980 Kansas City Royals.

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