Posts Tagged ‘St. Louis Cardinals’

Watty Watkins: Houston Sandlotter Made It Big

July 1, 2010

George "Watty" Watkins, OF, BL/TR HT: 6'1" WT: 175 Lbs

Born in Freestone County, Texas on June 4, 1900, but mostly raised on the sandlots of Houston, George “Watty” Watkins turned out to be one of our local boys who really made good.

Breaking in with Marshall and Houston in 1925, Watty played for Austin, Houston, and Beaumont over the next couple of years before earning the starting job as center fielder for the 1928 Houston Buffs in that very special year. The Buffs took the Texas League pennant and Dixie Series championship in 1928 and, even more importantly, it all took place in the first season of their splendid new home in the East End – in the place we Houstonians all came to know and love as Buff Stadium.

Watkins hit .306 with 177 hits, 32 doubles, 21 triples, and 14 homers for the 1928 Buffs, as he also established himself as a killer defensive player in the large central pasture of old Buff Stadium. An even more powerful year with Rochester in 1929 (,337 BA, 20 HR) earned Watty a promotion to the 1930 parent St. Louis Cardinals.

Watkins went “lights on bright” in 1930, hitting .373 and playing  a big role in the St. Louis pennant victory. The Cards went on to a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia A’s in the 1930 World Series, but talent would rematch the clubs in the 1931 Classic. It would be the bat of Watty Watkins, including a home run, that fired a Game Seven victory for all the marbles this time. Watty Watkins was King of the World when he came home to Houston that winter.

After hitting .312 with the 1932 Cardinals, Watty dropped to .278 in 1933 and was dealt to the New York Giants prior t the 1934 season, thus, sadly missing the cardinal emergence as the Gashouse Gang.

Faltering offensive production for  the Giants in 1934, the Phillies in 1935, and the Phillies-Dodgers in 1936 ended the big league career of Watty Watkins. In spite of the fact that his last four big league seasons played out like the post-midnight segment of Cinderella’s big evening, questions about Watty’s playing health over that period of time may possibly explain his sudden offensive drop off the cliff. It was an era of poor diagnostics and few good choices on medical corrections. Combine that state of medical science in what passed back then for sports medicine – and mix that again with a “shut-up-and-play” personality like George “Watty” Watkins – and we have a formula for an unexplained flat tire on the highway to baseball greatness.

Watty wasn’t quite ready to hang ’em up after the 1936 season. He came back to play 100 games for his hometown Houston Buffs. He batted a most respectable .273, but here’s the more telling story of his lost power ability. Of his 105 Buff hits in 1937, Watkins collected only 21 double doubles and 4 triples with 0 (nada) homers. By the time I was born on December 31, 1937, Watty Watkins was about three months past the date of his last trip to the plate as a professional baseball player.

As a kid growing up in Houston, the echo of his name from the writings and words of the men who witnessed his play as fans or covered his play as reporters reached my ears long before I ever had the presence of mind to look into this background on my own.

George Watkins stayed active in the Houston baseball community until his death in Houston on June 1, 1970, just three days short of his 70th birthday. He was buried at the Broyles Chapel Cemetery in Palestine, Texas.

The rest of the story goes on from here. The other day, I received a wonderful e-mail message from a fellow named John Watkins, who introduced himself to me as the great-nephew of George “Watty” Watkins. John also sent me a scanned copy of the original program from the opening of the initial Houston Sports Museum back in the 1960s. Watkins had learned about me from one of my Pecan Park Eagle articles on the reopening of the museum at Finger’s.

I would especially like to invite John Watkins to comment further here on his great-uncle. Watty Watkins was one of the best all-time Buffs and he had one of the hottest starts in major league history. I’m sure we could all benefit from John’s family view on this great former Buff and Cardinal.

Stand for Stan!

June 10, 2010

Back Stan Musial for the Medal of Freedom Award!

St. Louis people and the St. Louis Cardinals have organized a campaign that many others of us could stand to support just as well. “Stand for Stan” is all about getting President Obama to recognize the great Hall of Fame former Cardinal Stan Musial for all of his off-the-field financial and quiet service contributions over the years to so many worthy causes of aid to people, especially to children. The whole effort is best summarized in this open letter from Cardinal President William O. DeWitt, Jr.  to President Barack Obama:

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the St. Louis Cardinals, I would like to strongly endorse Stan Musial for the Presidential Medal of Freedom to honor his lifetime of achievement and service.

Not only is Stan Musial one of the greatest players to play the game of baseball, he is also an extraordinary American deserving of the nation’s highest civilian honor. Attached you will find a document that we have prepared that thoroughly makes the case for why Stan Musial is deserving of a Medal of Freedom, as well as support letters from both our United States Senators and the Governor of Missouri. In the coming days, you should also be receiving additional support letters from various members of our regional Congressional delegation.

Stan Musial’s baseball accomplishments are legendary. Stan compiled a .331 lifetime batting average, with 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, and 1,951 RBIs during his twenty-two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Stan held 17 Major-League records, 29 National League records and nine All-Star Game records at the time of his retirement in 1963. Stan is one of only three players to amass over 6,000 total bases in his career (the other two are Hank Aaron and Willie Mays). During his entire playing career, including 3,026 regular-season, 23 World Series and 24 All-Star Games, Stan was never ejected from a game by an umpire – a mark of his great sportsmanship and self-discipline.

While Stan’s baseball accomplishments are enough to make him worthy of joining his contemporary baseball Medal of Freedom winners Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, his off the field heroics over a lifetime make him especially deserving.

Stan served in the Navy during World War II, was chairman of President Lyndon Johnson’s Presidents’ Council on Physical Fitness from 1964 to 1967, acted as an unofficial emissary to Poland and for generations he has quietly donated his money and his time to thousands of charitable and community causes, particularly those dealing with children.

Throughout his life, Stan has never sought recognition for his good works. His happiness comes from doing the right thing and bringing joy to others. While Stan does not know of our efforts to nominate him for this honor, we respectfully request your consideration as Stan has been a true role model – exemplifying the humility, grace and generosity we so desperately need to see in our American sports heroes. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this request.


William O. DeWitt Jr.

For years I was an annual attendee of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society's banquets in St. Louis and got to see Stan Musial there on several occasions. He was as gentle and friendly to us ordinary people as he was to his pals on the old Browns clubs.

Stan Musial possessed a modest self-effacing sense of humor about the things he did for others, never bringing them up on his own except to make light of his actual contributions. Over the years, Stan did a lot for older people in nursing homes, but he used these real morale-boosting services to the elderly to make fun of himself. Here’s what I mean:

Stan played the harmonica. He even organized his own harmonica trio to go with him as performers at nursing homes in the St. Louis area.

“We all loved playing the harmonica,” Stan said. “Unfortunately for the older people and other shut-ins, we decided to take our talents out on them,” he added with a great big Musial smile.

“On these musical occasions at the nursing homes,” Stan said, “the staff would usually gather the residents in a large room; line ’em up in chairs and wheel chairs in front of us; and let us play”

“That was fine with us,” Stan added, “except I had this habit of closing my eyes while I played. I just got so involved in my music that I wanted to just close my eyes while we were performing and just hear the sounds myself.”

“The old folks cured me of that habit,” Stan concluded. “One time we finished a long number and I then opened my eyes to see if I could conclude from the people’s expressions if they liked our music.”

“They all had their eyes closed.”

If you were a fan of Stan Musial years ago, check out the “Stand for Stan” campaign and sign the petition of support for presidential action on the Medal of Freedom Award. I can’t think of any other previously overlooked person from the world of baseball that is more deserving. Besides, if the great Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio were both deserving of this signature award, which they were, so is fellow Hall of famer and military service veteran Stan Musial.

Here’s the link. Simply copy, cut, and paste it to your address line – or else, go to Cardinals.Com at MLB.Com for further information on the Stand for Stan campaign.:

Have a nice day, folks, and remember too: You don’t have to be a Cardinal fan to be a Stan Musial admirer. When it came down to who this man really was as an exceptional player, an outstanding  person, and a genuine American spirit, the man from Donora, Pennsylvania was right up there with the very best, just quiet on the need for public recognition that some others campaign to receive.

Stand for Stan. –  It’s time that America duly and fully honored the Quiet Man of Baseball.

Eddie Kazak, 3B, ’42-’51 Houston Buffs.

March 30, 2010

Eddie Kazak, 3B, '42, '51 Buffs

He came here young and left here old. In between his two years of service as a third baseman for the 1942 and 1951 Houston Buffs, Eddie Kazak (6’0″, 175 lbs., BR/TR) of Steubenville, Ohio carved out a pretty fair mostly minor league career for himself in the St. Louis Cardinal system. Born July 18, 1920, Kazak began his first tour with the ’42 Buffs at age 21; he was 32 with three seasons of major league experience at St. Louis behind him by the time he returned to the Lone Star State.

I remember Eddie Kazak as a far superior hitter and fielder at third base than Tommy Glaviano, our column subject yesterday. He was slashing, line drive hitting without a lot of home run power, but the kind of guy that Buff fans trusted in those pinch moments when Kazak came to bat.

Eddie Kazak hit .304 with 13 homers and a slugging average of .474 in 104 games for the ’51 Buffs. His offensive numbers earned him a late season call up to the parents Cardinals. In 1942, Eddie batted only .257 with 5 HR for the Buffs. In 17 seasons as a minor leaguer (1940-42, 1946-60), Eddie Kazak batted pretty darn well. He registered a batting average of .307 with 153 home runs and  slugging average of .445. His best minor league season came after his last gasp as an MLB prospect when he batted .344 with 104 RBI, 19 HR, and a slugging average of .532 for the 1954 Beaumont Exporters as a farm club property of the Chicago Cubs.

Kazak’s major league numbers offensively were adequate to less than inspiring. In five seasons and 238 games (all but the last 13 games were spent with the Cardinals; the final quiet MLB hurrah for Eddie came as a Cincinnati Red), Eddie Kazak batted .273 with 11 HR 71 RBI, and a slug(gish)ging average of .383.

In 1949, Eddie helped compound the Cardinal frustration in their search for an adequate replacement for Whitey Kurowski at third base by chipping in 19 errors in 258 total chances at the hot corner. Tommy Glaviano, the other former Buff Cardinal third base suspect/prospect contributed another 19 errors in 267 total chances that same 1949 season. Cardinal ownership and the fans were tearing their hearts out in frustration – and Ken Boyer, who wasn’t even on the radar screen in 1949, wouldn’t get there as a solution until 1955.

Eddie Kazak was a fun-loving buddy of first baseman Jerry Witte while the two played together on the 1951 Buffs Texas League championship club and it’s easy to see why. They shared a Polish Catholic background and they both grew up in blue-collar families in northern cities. Witte hailed from the St. Louis area. Both men liked working with their hands and both loved hunting.

“We didn’t have much time to hunt and it was the off-season for hunting when we played for the Buffs,” Jerry Witte used to say, “but we made life pretty miserable for the turtles of Sims Bayou near Kazak’s place.” The two Buffs used to quell their appetites for shooting by taking aim with a .22 caliber rifle at turtle heads that surfaced on the Sims Bayou in the Houston’s East End. Back in the day, most people around here didn’t see this little recreation as cruelty to animals. In fact, for two Polish guys who liked to hunt, it was just “something to do.”

Eddie Kazak remained in Texas after his baseball career concluded. He died in Austin, Texas on December 15, 1999 at the age of 79.

Tommy Glaviano, 3B, 1947 Houston Buffs.

March 29, 2010

Tommy Glaviano, 3B, 1947 Houston Buffs

Tommy Glaviano may not have been the greatest stick and glove man who ever rounded the bend, but he held down the third base job pretty well for the 1947 Texas League-Dixie Series Champion Houston Buffs. On his way up for a brief career with parent St. Louis Cardinals, the 23-year old Glaviano batted .245 with 13 home runs and a .405 slugging average for the ’47 Buffs.

Tommy Glaviano (BR/TR) was born in Sacramento, California on October 26, 1923. At 5’9″ and 175 lbs, Tommy wasn’t exactly big enough to offer a wall of protection against slashing grounders and twisting cannon ball shot liners, but he was fast enough to have earned the nickname “Rabbit” for his speed and reflexive quickness. Tommy’s errors often came on the mental part of the throw that had to follow the great stop, but he wasn’t the first third baseman to suffer from that issue.

After signing with the Cardinals as a very young free agent, Glaviano broke in as a 17-year old 53-game rookie for the 1941 Class C Fresno club, batting .253 with 1 HR. The following full season, Tommy batted a combined .223 with Fresno and another Class C Cardinal farm team at Springfield, Ohio, where he played for future Hall of Fame manager Walt Alston.

1943-45 took Tommy Glaviano into the service of his country in World II. He returned to baseball in 1946, again on assignment to Fresno. This time it would be for an appointment with his greatest year in baseball, bar none. In 1946, Glaviano batted .338 in 126 games. He collected 29 doubles, 13 triples, and 22 home runs for a lights-out slugging average of .616 on the season.

A season like that at age 22 is enough to buy you at least a cup of coffee in the big leagues on the road ahead, even in the players-controlled-like-cattle era of the reserve clause and heavy club investment by some in their farm systems. In spite of Tommy’s down and disappointing statistical dive with the ’47 Buffs, he would get his run at the majors after an improving year with AAA Columbus, Ohio of the American Association in 1948. Glaviano batted .285 for Columbus, collecting 17 doubles, 7 triples, and 18 homers that bounced his slugging average up to .30 on the season.

Tommy Glaviano began a five season (1949-53) big league career the following spring. He never quite found the brass ring. In fact, he missed it by a country mile. In his five seasons (four with the Cardinals and one with the Philadelphia Phillies), Tommy Glaviano batted .257 in 1,008 official times at bat. He recorded 55 career doubles, 6 triples, 24 triples and a sluggish .395 slugging average.

After 1953, Glaviano played for two more full seasons (1954-55) and a doughnut-dunk at San Antonio in 1957, finishing with an eight-season minor league career batting average of .257 (same as majors) with 69 homers.

Tommy Glaviano passed away in retirement at his home in Sacramento on January 19, 2004. He was 80 years old. Tommy may not have lived up to his hoped-for potential, but he was old school. His death was another loss to our living remembrance of that golden earlier era in the game’s history. It will be up to the rest of us who also remember to make sure that Tommy and his baseball pals are never forgotten.

Long Live the Houston Buffs. Long Live the memory of the game.

Little Joe Presko: Second Look.

March 13, 2010

Presko Went 16-16 for the Last Place '50 Houston Buffs.

It’s Saturday morning and I’m a little short on time today. As a result, here’s a second look at a subject I wrote about a while back, this time with a little more reporting on his actual major league career. I’m talkng about the fellow we 1950 Houston Buff fans called Little Joe Presko.

Little Joe Presko. Baseball Almanac lists him at 6″0″ and 170 lbs., but Baseball Reference hits it a lot closer at 5’9″ and 165 lbs. Macmillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia gives Joe an extra half-inch at 5′ 9 1/2″ and 165 dead weight lbs. Today Presko is 81 and probably closer to the 5’7″ or 5’8″ we thought he was back in 1950, when Presko (BR/TR) won 16 and lost 16 for one of the worst Houston Buff clubs on record. He was “Little Joe” to us then; he’s “Little Joe” to me now, but remember too – that was a title we put on Presko in great admiration for him as one of our few Houston hopes of the season.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri on October 7, 1928, Joe Presko signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948 at the age of 19. He went 16-8 with Class C St. Joseph in ’48, before moving up to go 14-9 with Class A Omaha in 1949. Those nice ladder stops elevated Little Joe to Class AA Houston and his 16-16 banner achievement for what turned out to be a pretty bad club.

Joe Presko made his big league debut on May 3, 1951 as a spot starter/reliever for the Cardinals. He went 7-4 on the year with a 3.45 earned run average. In a six-season career that was limited by appearance, but pretty evenly divided between starting and relieving, Joe Presko won 25 and lost 37 with a 4.61 ERA thrown in to boot for the Cardinals (1951-54) and Detroit Tigers (1957-58). Joe spent 1955 back in Omaha and 1956-57 and parts of 1958-59 with Charleston, ending up with Toronto in 1959 and a closed-door on his baseball playing days. He wrapped up with a minor league career record of 77-68 and an ERA of 3.46.

Joe Presko had some memorable big league moments, the kind a pitcher doesn’t get today with pitching role specialization and pitch count limitations. The following examples are referenced to reports in Baseball Library.Com:

August 24, 1952. In a game played before 34‚709‚ the largest single-game crowd at Sportsman’s Park since 1937‚ Preacher Roe and the Brooklyn Dodgers stopped the Cards’ 8-game win streak‚ 10-4. Roe registered his 10th straight win over the 2nd-place Red Birds going back to May 7‚ 195. Joe Presko took the loss‚ exiting in the 2nd inning.

April 29, 1953. An 11th inning double by Billy Johnson, along with an error‚ allowed the Cardinals to beat the first-place Phillies‚ 1-0. Curt Simmons was the loser‚ despite allowing just three hits. Joe Presko pitched 9.1 scoreless innings‚ with Al Brazle coming in late for the winner credit.

May 20, 1953. Paced by Red Schoendienst’s 6 RBIs‚ on a HR‚ two doubles‚ and a single‚ the Cardinals planked the Pirates, 11-6. Solly Hemus scored 5 runs for St. Louis‚ as Joe Presko got the best of Bob Friend.

In 128 MLB games, Joe started 61, relieved in 67.

June 17, 1954. Starter Robin Roberts scored the winning run in the 15th inning to give the Phillies a 3-2 win over the Cardinals. The loss fell to Joe Presko who took over after Gerry Staley worked the first 12 innings.

The end of Joe Presko’s playing career due to arm trouble at age 29 did not end his involvement in the game. Little Joe went home to Kansas City and got involved as an American Legion baseball coach for quite a few years thereafter. David “Prefect Game” Cone was Joe’s most successful student, but many others also grew up learning baseball the right way under Joe Presko’s skilled, experienced, and caring  guidance.

We called him Little joe Presko, but he stood tall in our youthful eyes back in 1950. The guy was a terrific role model to all of us minions out there trying to learn the game on our own through the great leveling field that was sandlot baseball after World War II prior to Little League.

Thank you, Little Joe!

Solly Hemus: “Little Pepper Pot” of the ’47 Buffs.

March 11, 2010

Happy Days at Buff Stadium Ignited from the Energy of Solly Hemus.

Back in 1947, Houston Buff fans, writers, and broadcasters referred to second baseman Solly Hemus as “The Little Pepper Pot” because of his fiery field leadership of the club. It was a fire  that went on to ignite the Buffs’ capture of first place in  the Texas League on the last day of the season by narrow half game margin. The Buffs went on from there to capture the playoff pennant and then to defeat the Mobile Bears in the Dixie Series. As a nine-year old kid, the 1947 Buffs were my first conscious club of heroes – and Solly Hemus was my first baseball hero.

How lucky can a kid be?

Born April 17, 1923 in Phoenix, Arizona, might have missed a stop in Houston altogether, except for the intervention of untempered hunger and fate. Then I’d likely be writing about someone else today, but that’s apparently not how these things work. I only learned these facts in a hotel lobby conversation with good friend and late major league catcher Red Hayworth in the late 1990’s. Red Hayworth was a scout for the Houston Astros for a period of time in the murky past.

Here’s the story s Red Hayworth told it to me. Red’s brother, Ray Hayworth, was set to manage Solly Hemus for the Brooklyn Dodgers at their 1946 Fort Worth Cats club. Young Hemus originally signed with the Dodgers after the conclusion of World War II.

On the bus trip back to Fort Worth, the team vehicle stopped for gas somewhere on the highway near the team’s destination of LaGrave Field, the Fort Worth home venue. Manager Hayworth supposedly told all players to stay on board during the “short stop” for fuel, but 23-year old Solly Hemus got off the bus in spite of his manager’s warning and started heading into the little attached gas station cafe.

“Where are you going, kid?” Ray Hayworth called out to his rookie. “I told you to stay in the bus.”

“I don’t give a s*** what you say,” Solly supposedly yelled back to his manager. “I’m hungry and I’m going to get  me a sandwich.”

What Solly got for his sandwich decision was a one-way ticket to Pocatello, Idaho and the sale of his playing contract to the St. Louis Cardinals. Solly proceeded to hit .363 in 120 games as a middle infielder for Pocatello in preparation for his promotion to the 1947 Houston Buffs and a faster track to the big leagues as a future shortstop for the Cardinals. With Pee Reese and Jackie Robinson entrenched in the middle infield with the help of Junior Gilliam during this same era, Solly’s punitive sale to the Cardinals was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Hemus hit .277 with 0 homers in 1947, following that up in with two more seasons as a Buff and averages of .288 and .328. One more season at .297 with the Little World Series champion Columbus Redbirds in 1950 and Solly Hemus was ready for his eleven season major league career (1949-59) with the Cardinals and Phillies and a batting average of .273 with 51 homers. As a five-year minor leaguer (1946-50), Hemus batted .308 with 16 home runs.

Billy Costa & Solly Hemus are 4th & 5th from the left on the front row.

Solly took over as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959, but wasn’t too successful in the standings, or with getting along with star pitcher Bob Gibson. After two and one half seasons, Hemus was replaced by Johnny Keane, his former manager in Houston in 1947.

Hemus and Gibson both had fiery dispositions, but I do not believe their core problems with each other were racial, as some writers would have you believe. I’ve never heard Solly Hemus make an off-the-cuff statement that smelled of racism in any of my conversations with him. In my experience, he seems as color-blind as you could hope a man to be. On the other hand, I have no problem seeing how he and Gibson probably clashed from the start. They are both strong-willed men.

One of my favorite stories about Solly happened in St. Louis during his managerial period. An overweight field umpire on the other side of the diamond seemed to be calling everything the other team’s way. By the fifth inning, Solly had suffered enough. He marched out of the dugout to make this request of the Oliver Hardy-sized arbiter:

“Sir, would you mind calling the rest of the game from our side of the field? Your weight seems to be tilting the ground the other team’s way?”

Solly got to watch the rest of the game from the level confines of the Cardinal clubhouse.

Solly Hemus turns 87 next month. He still operates his successful oil business from offices in Bellaire, but a serious fall on a trip to Alaska a couple of years ago left him with some ongoing damage to his mobility. Even that kind of thing doesn’t hold this good man down. Look for Solly Hemus to be back at Minute Maid Park again this season as a fan of the Astros. The ties that bind Solly Hemus to Houston as a result of his long ago sandwich decision apparently are forever.

Johnny Grodzicki: Another Buffs Might-Have-Been!

January 21, 2010

For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ''It might have been.'' - John Greenleaf Whittier.

At 6’2″ and 200 pounds, Johnny Grodicki (BR/TR) was another of those young Houston Buff arms from the 1930s who might have been something had fate broken a little differently. It just wasn’t to be.

Grodzicki arrived in Houston late in 1936 at age 19 after registering a 16-12 record for New Iberia of the Evangeline League, a place that saw the start of many future great Cardinal pitchers. Howie Pollet and ed Munger both got their starts there.

Grodzicki got into three games for ten innings of work with the Buffs in 1936, picking up a single loss as his only Texas League mark in that first year, but hopes were high in St. Louis for his success at Houston in 1937.

Grodzicki’s fastball had good heat and his curve was decent enough. As often happened, his problem was control. In 244 innings of work for the 1937 Buffs, Grodzicki walked 174 batters. He still finished the season with a great record of 18 wins against only 11 losses and he complied an attention-getting earned run average of only 2.88 for a Houston club that finished in 7th place with a 67-91 record.

Young Grodzicki also starred in the 1937 Texas League All Star Game at Buff Stadium. In only the second game of its kind in league history, an overlow crowd of over 8,000 Houston fans showed up that day to watch the North and South All Stars square off against each other. Grodzicki came into the game in the fourth inning, bringing form and focus with him. He proceeded to imitate the earlier accomplishments of major league great Carl Hubbell by striking out six of the best hitters in the North lineup as his first item of business. The hitters, all of whom carrying .300+ batting averages with them into the game, included Homer Peel, Red Harvel, Joe Bilgere, Lou Brower, Norman McKaskill, and Ed “Bear Tracks” Greer.

1938 saw Grodzicki post a 12-21 record for a 5th place Houston Buffs (74-84) club. His innings of work increased to 269 and his walks dropped to 169, but his ERA ballooned to 4,25.

1939-1940 saw Grodzicki moving up the Cardinal chain for two seasons at Rochester where he compiled a total record for two seasons of 11 wins and 10 losses. In 1941, “Grod” moved over to Columbus for a record of 19-5, 2.58 ERA and his best season record in professional baseball. His success at Columbus earned Grodzicki a late season call-up to the parent St. Louis Cardinals where he posted a 2-1 record and a drop-dead gorgeous ERA of only 1.35 in 13.1 innings of work.

Then came World War II and a hiatus from the game that finished the future of Johnny Grodzicki. In his first season back, 1946, “Grod” worked only four innings, recording no record, but posting a 9.00 ERA for the Cardinals. In 1947, Johnny worked only 23.1 innings for the Cards, posting a record of 0-1 with an ERA of 5.40. Aging, injury, and ineffectiveness, plus four years of war rust wouldn’t go away. They were collectively the end of Johnny  Grodicki’s stock as a prospect. After 1947, he would never again darken the doorway of an MLB clubhouse.

Twelve years after his first arrival, Johnny Grodzicki returned to the Houston Buffs in 1948 as a an old 31-year old minor league veteran. “Grod” did OK in limited action as a 6-5, 2.05 ERA starter/reliever in 88 innings. Coming off their 1947 Dixie Series championship year, the ’48 Buffs under manager Johnny Keane were only an 82-71 3rd place club. “Grod” was starting to be a fit for mediocrity.

1949 saw Grodzicki go 4-5 for the Buffs before moving up to Rochester again for a 2-1 mediocre finish. Johnny Grodzicki continued to plod his way through the minors for three extra seasons of unremarkable achievement before hanging it all up after 1952 at the age of 36. He finished with a career minor league record of 108 wins, 83 losses and an ERA of 3.65

Johnny Grodzicki passed away in retirement at the age of 83 on May 2, 1998 in Daytona Beach, Florida. As a faded away former minor league prospect, he was the living embodiment of “what might have been.” With a little more control, a tad bit more of good luck contact with the right mentor who never showed up in reality, and with a lot less wear and tear from World War II, who knows what might otherwise have become of Johnny Grodzicki?

Johnny, we hardly knew you.

The Phold of ’64!

November 22, 2009

It’s not a new story. It’s also not one that those us who were around in those days will ever forget. The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies had the world on a string late in the season. With 12 games to go, they held a 6 1/2 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds and they were moving into a seven-game home stand that surely would allow them to finish the job and prepare for the World Series, most probably against the New York Yankees. It was to be the year that the Phillies got back at the Yankees for that four-game sweep in the 1950 World Series.

It was not to be. Something happened to turn destiny on its tail and send it the other way, shooting up the halls of heartache in eastern Pennsylvania and forever altering the course of baseball history.

The easiest, incomplete way to summarize it is simple. Manager Gene Mauch made a fatal decision going into the seven-game home stand to basically go with a two-man rotation the rest of the way. As a result, starters Jim Bunning and Chris Short got the nod to start 7 of the next 10 games, 6 of which resulted in starts on 2 days rest. The Phillies lost all ten games while the Cardinals and Reds both heated up.

The Phillies finally won their last two games of the season, but that only left them tied with Cincinnati for 2nd place. Philly fans had hoped for more. Didn’t happen. The Cardinals won on the last day of 1964, giving them a one-game championship advantage over Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

The “Philadelphia Phold” was complete. The New York Yankees-Philadelphia Phillies World Series Reunion would have to wait until 2009 while the ’64 St. Louis Cardinals renewed their 1926-1928, 1942-1943 World Series rivalry with the Bronx Bombers.

Because of The Phold, the Cardinals had a chance to beat the Yankees in a thrilling seven-game Series in 1964. The Cardinals win cost Yogi Berra his job as manager of the Yankees and handed it to Johnny Keane, the manager of the Miracle Cards, who himself was in line to be fired by St. Louis until his club pulled this incredible comeback and capture of the 1964 World Series Championship.

Who can ever know how far The Phold rippled? Maybe if the Phillies had made it to the 1964 World Series and lost to the Yankees, just maybe it would have been good enough for Mickey Mantle to retire then in contentment, sparing himself and the rest of us  those four extra final seasons (1965-68) that tore his career average down below .300 and exposed him to living decay as a ballplayer in the field.

Maybe this. Maybe that.

And who knows how the absence of The Phold might have affected the future careers of Yogi Berra, Johnny Keane, and Gene Mauch differently? When a team blows a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 games left to play, it simply changes everything for everybody for all time.

What’s impossible to recapture here is how it felt daily to watch this steady slide into ignominy that the Phillies made so desperately. Short of writing a whole book that awakens all the five senses, including special horror movie sound effects on the subject, the best a writer can hope for in this short space is to show you how the Phold Phound Philly over that dark period through a daily look at changes in the standings:

9/20/64: The Phillies (90-60) led the Cardinals (83-66) & the Reds (83-66) by 6.5 games with 12 games to go for the Phillies.

9/21/64: Reds 1 – Phillies 0; Cardinals idle.

Phillies (90-61) led the Reds (84-66)  by 5.5 games & the Cardinals (83-66) by 6 with 11 games to go for the Phillies.

9/22/64: Reds 9 – Phillies 2; Cardinals 2 – Mets 0.

Phillies (90-62) led the Reds (85-66) by 4.5 games & the Cardinals (84-66) by 5 games with 10 games to go for the Phillies.

9/23/64: Reds 6 – Phillies 4; Mets 2 – Cardinals 1.

Phillies (90-63) led the Reds (86-66) by 3.5 games & the Cardinals (84-67) by 5 games with 9 games to go for the Phillies.

9/24/64: Braves 5 – Phillies 3; Cardinals 4-4 – Pirates 2-0; Reds idle.

Phillies (90-64) led the Reds (86-66) by 3 games & the Cardinals (86-67) by 3.5 games with 8 games to go for the Phillies.

9/25/64: Braves 7 – Phillies 5; Reds 3-4 – Mets 0-1; Cardinals 5 – Pirates 3.

Phillies (90-65) led the Reds (88-66) by 1.5 games & the Cardinals (87-67) by 2.5 games with 7 games to go for the Phillies.

9/26/64: Braves 6 – Phillies 4; Reds 6 – Mets 1; Cardinals 6 – Pirates 3.

Phillies (90-66) led the Reds (89-66) by 0.5 games & the Cardinals (88-67) by 1.5 games with 6 games to go for the Phillies.

9/27/64: Braves 14 – Phillies 8; Reds 9-3 – Mets 1-1; Cardinals 5 – Pirates 0.

Reds (91-66) now led the Phillies (90-67) by 1 game & the Cardinals (89-67) by 1.5 games with 5 games to go for the Phillies.

9/28/64: Reds idle; Cardinals 5 – Phillies 1.

Reds (91-66) now led the Cardinals (90-67) by 1 game & the Phillies (90-68) by 1.5 games with 4 games to go for the Phillies.

9/29/64: Pirates 2 – Reds 0; Cardinals 4 – Phillies 2.

Cardinals (91-67) & the Reds (91-67) are now tied for 1st; the Phillies (90-69) now trail by 1.5 games with 3 games to go.

9/30/64: Cardinals 8 – Phillies 5; Pirates 1 – Reds 0.

Cardinals (92-67) now led the Reds (91-68) by 1 game & the Phillies (90-70) by 2.5 games with 2 games to go for the Phillies.

10/01/64: Cardinals & Phillies idle; Reds 5 – Pirates 4.

Cardinals (92-67) now led the Reds (92-68) by 1 game & the Phillies (90-70) by 2.5 games with 2 games to go for the Phillies.

10/02/64: Mets 1 – Cardinals 0; Phillies 4 – Reds 3.

Cardinals (92-68) now led the Reds (92-69) by 0.5 games & the Phillies (91-70) by 1.5 games with 1 game to go for the Phillies.

10/03/64: Mets 15 – Cardinals 5; Reds & Phillies idle.

Cardinals (92-69) now tied with the Reds (92-69) for 1st; the Phillies (91-70) are 1 game back with 1 game to go for all three contending clubs.

10/04/64: Cardinals 11 – Mets 5; Phillies 10 – Reds 0.

Cardinals (93-69) win the NL pennant by 1 game over the Reds (92-70) and Phillies (92-70).

The Phillies came back with a death rattle run in their last two games, but it was far too little and way too late. Forty-five years later, 1964 still hangs in my mind as the most exciting pennant race in personal memory. Some of you will understand exactly what I’m saying here, as will those fans outside Philadelphia who didn’t cut their throats in funereal sympathy for the Phillies.

Houston Buffs: Ted Wilks.

November 17, 2009

Right hander Ted Wilks broke into baseball with the 1938 Houston Buffs. His 3-5 record with an ERA of  2.74. He pitched well enough that rookie season to earn a promotion that same year to Rochester, where he posted a 4-2 mark with an ERA of 3.94. A subtle difference in how he was used at Houston and Rochester was nothing less than a career harbinger on things to come. Here in Houston, Ted was primarily a starting pitcher; at Rochester, Wilks saw most of his mound action in relief.

The following three seasons saw Ted Wilks back in Houston for more seasoning. He went 14-15 with a 2.60 ERA in 1939; 13-10 with a 2.51 ERA in 1940; and 20-10 with a 2.50 ERA for the 1941 Buffs. All three Buff clubs (1939-41) finished in first place; the ’40 club also won the league pennant playoffs; and Ted Wilks was a big part of that Buff era of success.

After going 12-9, 2.41, for the ’42 Columbus Redbirds and 16-8, 2.66, for the same club in ’43, Ted Wilks finally joined the big club in St. Louis in time to help the 1944 Cardinals take another world Series crown with the streetcar series win over the same hometown Brown of the American League. Wilks was used pretty evenly in 1944 as a starter and reliever (21/15), going 17-4 with another sub-three ERA of 2.64 on the season.

In his eight seasons as a Cardinal (1944-51), Ted Wilks won 54 games against only 20 losses, posting a sub-three ERA on three separate occasions. It was early during this period that he moved from split duty as a starter-reliever to recognition and exclusive use as one of the top relief pitchers in the game.

On June 15, 1951, the Cardinals traded Ted Wilks, Bill Howerton, Howie Pollet, Joe Garagiola, and Dick Cole to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for pitcher Cliff Chambers and outfielder Wally Westlake.

Wilks went 8-10 in two seasons with the Pirates (1951-52) before he was again dealt away, this time  to the Cleveland Indians on August 18, 1952, along with shortstop George Strickland for infielder Johnny (General Hospital) Berardino, minor league pitcher Charlie Sipple, and $50,000 cash. By this time, Wilks was was pretty much out of gas for major league ball. He posted no decisions in his two partial seasons with Cleveland (1952-53) and he finished his major league career working only 15 1/3 innings in the American League city.

Ted Wilks finished his total career working four poor seasons of minor league ball (1953-55: Indianapolis; 1956: Austin) before retiring for good. He finished up with a career minor league record of 91-65, 2.70 for 10 seasons – and a career major league record of 59-30, 3.26. Ted wilks posted 46 saves as a major leaguer. The “save” stat for his minor league work is not readily available.

Like a number of ballplayers whose careers passed through Houston, upstate New Yorker Ted Wilks adopted Houston as his post-career home town. He died here in Houston in 1989 at the age of 73 and he is buried in the East End at Forest Park Cemetery on Lawndale. His final resting place is only two miles from where he first took the mound as a Houston Buff in 1938.

Rest in Peace, Prince Ted, but stay ready to come into the game whenever old St. Peter dials your number.

Houston Buffs: Danny Murtaugh.

November 16, 2009

Murtaugh (L) & Mazeroski were all smiles after Game 7 in 1960!

Danny Murtaugh started out his baseball career as a tough-nosed 20-year old infielder from Chester, PA for the 1937 Cambridge Cardinals of the Class D Eastern Shore league. He batted .297 in his rookie season, following that year with a .312 mark in his second round with the ’39 Cambridge club in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system. He played shortstop his first season; second base his second year. At 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Danny had the right body type and low center of gravity for a middle infielder. More importantly, he had the right kind of aggressive attitude as a critical playmaker.
After batting .255 and .326 in a split-season performance for Columbus and Rochester in 1939, Murtaugh joined the 1940 Texas League Champion Houston Buffs of the Texas League. This time around, Danny played third base, batting .299. The following season, Danny Murtaugh returned to the 1941 Buffs as a second baseman and batted .317 in 69 games. His performance was good enough to get him dealt to Philadelphia (NL), where Danny broke into the big leagues with as a “good field, seldom hit” second baseman (.219) who also reached base often enough to lead the National League in stolen bases with 18.
Murtaugh then improved steadily with the Phils, batting .241 in 1942 and .273 in 1943. Military service got the call in 1944-45. Danny returned in 1946, but, after a handful of at bats with the Phils, he was dealt back to the Cardinals and assigned again to Rochester. This time he excelled, hitting .322 over the road of a whole season.
Dealt next to Boston (NL) in the off-season, Danny again picked up a hand scoop of at bats with the Braves before he was assigned to AAA Milwaukee, where he again did well, batting a “Punch and Judy” .302 in 119 games.
Then Danny Murtaugh acquired his lasting identity. He was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played second base for four seasons (1948-51). In the two seasons he played over 100 games for the Pirates, Murtaugh batted .290 in 1948 and .294 in 1950. He finished his nine major league season career in 1951 with a total batting average of .254 and a strong reputation for tough, heads up baseball savvy.
Danny Murtaugh’s ability earned him a four-year assignment by the Pirates as a minor league manager for New Orleans (1952-54) and Charleston (1955). He continued to play ball a little in 1952-53, wrapping up his nine season, 901-game minor league career with an impressive .297 batting average.
Danny Murtaugh began the memorable phase of his career when he took over as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957. For eight consecutive years (1957-64), Danny Murtaugh steadied the Pirates and led them in 1960 to their first pennant since 1927 and first World Series title since 1925. Who among us fans with blood flowing in our veins will ever forget Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic and iconic home run that gave the Pirates a freak-out, walk off victory over the New York Yankees in extra innings at Forbes Field in Game Seven back in 1960?
Pittsburgh’s administration never forgot the moment either. They brought Danny Murtaugh back three additional times as manager in 1967, in 1970-71, and one more time in 1973-76. He guided the Pirates to a second World Series title on his watch in 1971.
I’ve never read anything from anyone in the Pittsburgh organization back in those days that ever reflected badly on Danny Murtaugh as a manager. He really comes across as a never-give-up winner who believed in the value of solid fundamentally sound baseball and the importance of players psychologically leaning into the game with an attitude toward winning as the only acceptable outcome. It was the same attitude that some of us in Houston got to see in person through one of his former players who became a manager here and elsewhere. In his own quiet way, Bill Virdon exuded that same winning Murtaugh attitude. One doesn’t have to be a loudmouth screamer to be totally dedicated to winning.
Sadly, we lost Danny Murtaugh early. He passed away at his home in Chester, PA in 1976 at age 59. Happily, Danny spent most of his last year on earth doing the thing he did best: managing the Pittsburgh Pirates.