September 1, 2010
The man behind the accordion: Far West League outfielder Don Napoli
When Dave Eskenazi sent me the photo below, all he could tell me was that the players were from the Klamath Falls Gems of the Far West League and the man in the middle was pitcher/manager Hub Kittle.
Thanks to a stroke of luck, I can now tell you the man with the accordion is Don Napoli, and the man with the birthday cake is Chet Ashman, and the photo is from 1950.
Here’s how I found out. The Chico Outlaws of the independent professional Golden Baseball League are now California’s only professional baseball team north of Interstate 80. When Jason Matlock came on as the Outlaws’ sales director earlier this year, he decided to reach out to the Redding market, 75 miles away, by staging a tribute to Redding’s former professional team, the Browns, who were in the Far West League all four seasons of its existence. Jason learned a former Browns player lives in Chico–Don Napoli–and invited him to attend the game and throw out the first pitch. Jason called me to get some more information about Don to share with the fans.
One of the things I did was look through Brad Peek’s history of the Browns that he wrote for his master’s thesis at Chico State to see if he had interviewed Napoli for that. Sure enough he had, and one of the things Don was quoted as saying was: “I played the accordion and would take it on the bus trips and entertain the boys. Had a lot of fun!”
Whoa…had I found the man in the photo? It turned out Don had started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls, so how could it not be him?
As soon as I meet Don before the Browns tribute game August 27 at Chico’s Nettleton Stadium, I showed him the photo, which he said he’d never seen before…and he said yes, that was him holding the accordion. Don told me he started out at Salinas Junior College (now Hartnell College) after World War II as a music major and played accordion in a symphonic band. Later in life he had his own accordion studio and taught lessons and also played different jobs at dances and parties with various bands.
Before we get more of Don’s story…the other player he recognized in the photo was Chet Ashman, his teammate holding the birthday cake. Unfortunately I don’t know what Chet’s birthday is so I can’t pin down the date, although it had to be before July 16 when Napoli went to Redding. (Chet must still be alive, as I don’t find him listed on the Social Security Death Index, which would have told me his birthdate.)
(ADDED 1/30/12: Alas I now know the date must have been June 11, as I found Chet’s birthday in his obituary…he passed away at age 84 on January 24, 2012.)
Here’s what little I’ve learned about Ashman…he was a member of the undefeated and untied 1947 football team at Everett Junior College (now Everett Community College) outside Seattle. That team was declared Washington state junior college champions and has been enshrined in both the college’s athletic hall of fame (inducted the same year as current Minnesota Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson) and the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges hall of fame.
Ashman made his pro baseball debut in 1948 in the Class D Ohio-Indiana League, playing for both Zanesville and Lima; he hit .229 with just two homers in 56 games. It doesn’t appear he played in Organized Baseball in 1949 but I have seen an account of him playing for the traveling House of David baseball team that year.
In 1950 he came to Klamath Falls and ripped up the Far West League, finishing third in the league in batting average (.365) and tied for second in runs batted in (142) despite playing in only 102 of the Gems’ 140 games. Had he played the full season at the same per-game pace he would have led the league in home runs, doubles and RBI. And he hit 20 home runs while striking out only 24 times. According to a 1953 story I’ve found, he missed games after he “accidentally cut his arm in midseason.” So that’s an excuse to do some research in Klamath Falls to find out what that’s all about.
Chet missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons because he was in the service–something that seems to have been the case for a lot of FWL alums–and returned to pro ball in 1953. He wasn’t able to recapture his success at Klamath Falls and did not play in Organized Baseball after the 1954 season.
But back to Don Napoli…he graduated from Balboa High School in San Francisco in 1945, when a war was on, so he volunteered for the Navy. After basic training at the San Diego training center he was assigned to the naval repair base in Chula Vista, then honorably discharged after the war with Japan ended. From there he enrolled at Salinas Junior College, where he eventually switched majors to business. In 1948 he was playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula near Salinas, when he was signed by the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks.
The 1948 Oaks were managed by Casey Stengel and went on to win the PCL pennant; known as the “Nine Old Men,” their roster included former major leaguers on the other side of 30 such as Ernie Lombardi, Nick Etten and Cookie Lavagetto, as well as 20-year-old second baseman Billy Martin. Stengel was enthusiastic about Napoli, quoted in the Oakland Post-Inquirer as saying, “He’s a very great prospect and is ready to play a lot of baseball with us RIGHT NOW!”
But Napoli’s stay with the Oaks would be brief. On July 1, two days after Napoli signed, Oakland bought 37-year-old pitcher Lou Tost from Sacramento. Tost had a fine 3.35 ERA with the Solons, but his record was just 4-10; 27% of the runs scored against him were unearned, pitching for a team that would finish deep in the PCL cellar. Perhaps the thinking was Tost would be a useful pitcher with better teammates, and while his ERA was higher as an Oak (4.03), his runs allowed were nine innings was actually lower because of a reduction in unearned runs allowed, and his record in Oakland was 8-5.
At any rate, according to the July 2 Oakland Tribune, “The purchase of Tost will automatically send Don Napoli, 20-year-old flychaser, to Stockton,” where the Oaks had a relationship with a team in the Class C California League. And sure enough, the July 3 Tribune reported, “To keep within the 25-man player limit, the Oaks today sent Don Napoli, classy looking rookie outfielder, to Stockton.”
At the time the Oaks were involved in a torrid pennant race; they were tied with Los Angeles for second place, just one game behind San Francisco. The Angels would eventually fall back, but the race stayed tight and the Oaks’ final margin of victory over the Seals was just two games. Thus Stengel must have come to the conclusion it wasn’t a great time to be breaking a young man, no matter how promising, into professional baseball.
(Tost wasn’t the only aging pitcher Stengel acquired at this time. The Oaks also signed 41-year-old lefty Thornton Lee, just been let go by the New York Giants. Lee had won 117 major league games and pitched in an All-Star Game, but he would pitch in just seven games for Oakland with an 0-3 record.)
Vince DiMaggio was at Stockton, in his first year as manager (and still playing). (Napoli and DiMaggio would later play against each other in the Far West League.) Napoli told me DiMaggio worked with him on his fielding and was a very good instructor.
In August Napoli was optioned again, this time to Las Vegas of the Class C Sunset League, and he finished the season strong, batting .327 in 35 games, with 13 extra-base hits in 110 at-bats.
In 1949 the Oaks optioned Napoli to Stockton again, and he struggled, batting .220 in 25 games before being released at the end of May. A week later he signed with Salt Lake City of the Class C Pioneer League and finished the season with the Bees, batting .276 in 95 games, then in December he was released again.
Napoli started the 1950 season with Klamath Falls and played well; according to the Redding Record-Searchlight, he hit better than .290 with the Gems and had 82 hits and 71 RBI in 70 games. But the Gems released him on July 16–between games of a doubleheader against Redding in Klamath Falls. The Browns signed him and put him in their lineup in center field, batting third, in the second game!
And what a Redding debut that would be for Napoli. After he hit two singles earlier in the game, he came to the plate in the top of the ninth with the Browns trailing 7-6–and hit a home run to tie the game! Napoli had hit only two home runs with the Gems and had just six home runs in his pro career to this point.
To make the story even better, the pitcher who gave up the home run was the Gems’ manager, Hub Kittle! But the Gems scored in the bottom of the ninth to make Hubble the winning pitcher. (Pitching exclusively in relief that year, Kittle had a 10-0 record.)
The Record-Searchlight did not have a reporter covering the games in Klamath Falls, and looking through the papers through the following week I saw not a word about why the Gems would have released a productive player such as Napoli. All I know is he had not played in the first game of the doubleheader and had not been in the Klamath Falls lineup the night before either.
Napoli’s first appearance before his new home fans was also memorable, as he stroked three hits and scored five runs in a rout of Medford on July 21. He finished the season with a .270 batting average and 92 runs. He also ranked second among FWL outfielders in putouts and second among those who played at least 50 games in the outfield in fielding percentage.
And at the end of the season, Napoli had the last laugh against his old team. Klamath Falls won the regular season pennant, finishing a game and a half ahead of Redding, but the Browns beat the Gems in the championship series of a four-team playoff, three games to one.
It turned out 1950 would be the end of Don Napoli’s career in professional baseball, but just the beginning of his life in Redding. He spent more than four years at a Redding lumber company, working the chain at a sawmill; that job left him with permanent disfigurement of a finger. He says he spent some time selling Studebakers and Packards as well as selling advertising for a radio station, then caught on selling business machines for National Cash Register (now NCR). In the early 1960s NCR transferred him to Chico, and soon after that he went to work selling office equipment for Pitney Bowes and remained with them for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1991.
Don and his wife Barbara have been married for 61 years and have known each other since childhood; they met when he was 8 and she was 3! Today Don is a fit and vigorous-looking 83 years old. I’m glad I got to meet the man behind the accordion.