I have updated my earlier post about the progression of the record for the longest baseball throw after getting some more information about a claim that Tony Mullane broke the mark in 1881. As I say, it’s all a work in progress.
I recently learned of a master’s thesis involving the Far West League! Brad Peek, who later was a successful baseball coach in Northern California, wrote “The History of the Redding Browns of the Far West Professional Baseball League” in 1990 as part of his master’s degree in physical education from California State University-Chico, or as it is more commonly known, Chico State. I tracked down Brad and he was kind enough to share a copy of his thesis with me, and from that I learned this story.
Thursday, July 14, 1949, was “Vince DiMaggio Night” in Pittsburg, where the Diamonds hosted the Redding Browns. DiMaggio was in his first year as player-manager of the Diamonds; seems like I’ve read along the way that he was related to the mayor of Pittsburg at the time or one of the owners of the team or both, I’ll document that as the project progresses. At any rate Pittsburg is just up the delta from Martinez, the town where Vince and brother Joe were born (younger brother Dom was born after the family moved to nearby San Francisco).
The festivities for Vince were to include several visiting baseball celebrities (although I haven’t found a confirmed list of who actually showed up) and a postgame dinner at the Los Medanos Hotel. And as part of the celebration, both DiMaggio and his Redding counterpart, player/manager Ray Perry, played all nine positions in that night’s game at City Park. (Some pregame articles I read said they would play all positions but catcher, but apparently they decided to catch as well.)
I found this photo of DiMaggio and Perry together on the front page of the Redding Record-Searchlight newspaper earlier in July 1949, when their teams were playing in Redding. This image is from a scan of a photocopy from the microfilm reader, so the quality is a little shabby. It’s also the first photo I have seen of the FWL’s greatest player, Ray Perry. His nickname was “Little Buffalo,” and this is pretty much what I expected him to look like.
Unfortunately, I have not found a sufficiently detailed account of the game, which Pittsburg won, 11-2. I’ve read the unbylined story in the Redding paper, which may well have been sourced by a phone call; I’ve also looked at the papers from Martinez and Antioch (right next to Pittsburg) and the Oakland Tribune, whose sports editor was one of the pregame speakers. But none have all the details I hoped to find.
Both managers started the game on the mound. DiMaggio held the Browns scoreless (I don’t know if he faced Perry, who batted fourth), while the Diamonds managed one run off Perry (who must have pitched to DiMaggio, who batted third, but I don’t know how that worked out). DiMaggio did strike out a batter, I don’t know who.
Perry and DiMaggio each made one error, but there’s no report of what position they were playing when the error was made. (Each team had four errors in the game.) Perry finished the game 2-for-3 with a walk and drove in both Redding runs; DiMaggio went 1-for-2 with two walks, three runs and an RBI. Neither had an extra-base hit. Looking at the box score, DiMaggio should have had five trips to the plate, but there’s no accounting for the other one. According to the account in the Record-Searchlight, each inning when the managers changed positions, the men they replaced went to right field.
Everette “Rocky” Neal, a 20-year-old righthander, entered to pitch for Redding after Perry’s stint and was lit up for eight runs in the second inning; I wish I knew what position Perry was playing then. The performance was an aberration for Neal. He finished the season with a 4.04 ERA, ranking sixth in the FWL among pitchers who had at least one inning pitched per team game, and he went on to record a pair of 14-win seasons in Class A ball in 1951 and ’52. Either he was hurt or went into the military in 1953 and his career fizzled out.
Bill Carr came on in relief of DiMaggio and pitched the rest of the game to get one of his 21 wins on the season (the Diamonds played only 127 games). The 20th and 21st wins came on the final day of the season, when he pitched both ends of a doubleheader against Willows and won by scores of 7-0 and 10-4. (Niles Jordan, of Klamath Falls, who went on to pitch in the majors, also won both ends of a doubleheader that day, beating Marysville 10-2 and 9-3 for his 18th and 19th wins.)
Carr led the FWL in 1949 with both his 21 wins and a 3.28 ERA. He must have an interesting story. According to his Baseball-Reference.com listing, using the minor league stats they have licensed from SABR, Carr made his debut in Organized Ball at the age of 30…at the highest level of the minors, with the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers. Of course, it was 1945, and available players were scarce because of the war…but that’s still highly unusual. What kind of ball was he playing before that, and where?
Carr pitched in six games for the Beavers, just 6-2/3 innings…then after the war ended, he caught on with Salt Lake City in the Class C Pioneer League in 1946 and pitched 44 innings in 11 games. That left him just short of the cutoff to have his full stats published in The Sporting News Baseball Guide, but he allowed 37 runs in 44 innings. He doesn’t seem to have pitched in the minors in 1947…but he was back in ’48, this time in Class B with Salem (Ore.) of the Western International League, where he pitched 45 innings in 12 games. His record was 1-4, but his 4.00 ERA was better than league average.
And then, in 1949, at the age of 34, still with no real record of success in professional baseball, Carr fell to Class D and dominated the Far West League. He returned to the league the next year, in which he pitched for both Pittsburg and Marysville, went 16-12, and then his career came to an end.
Okay, I’ve got to find out more about this guy.
By the way, DiMaggio got hurt in an unusual incident shortly after the game in which he played all nine positions. From Brad Peek’s thesis: “Vince was severely cut on the hand July 24 when his Pittsburg team volunteered to help fight a fire that destroyed a medical-dental building in Pittsburg. The team was returning from a game in Willows when it came upon the fire.”
There were no published team pitching statistics for the Far West League. In fact, the Sporting News Baseball Guides from those years don’t have team pitching stats for any minor league, and they can’t be accurately recreated from the individual stats because the Guides used a 45-inning minimum for individual stats to be printed. A quick glance through my bookshelf shows team pitching stats don’t show up for the high minors until the 1959 Guide, covering the 1958 season, and not for the low minors until the 1962 Guide, covering the 1961 season. The only team pitching stat published for the FWL was Opponents Runs, as part of the batting table, and for some reason those didn’t appear in the 1949 season stats.
Let’s start with the league-wide stats for each of the FWL’s four seasons:
On-base percentage was not an officially published stat…I calculated it using hits, walks and hit-by-pitches. Sacrifice flies were not published and may not have been kept as a separate category that would result in a plate appearance without a time at-bat. At any rate they are not included in these numbers.
By the way, based on these numbers I feel comfortable saying the quality of play in the FWL was at its highest in 1950, because that season saw the fewest errors per game and the most double plays per game. You wonder what happened in 1951, when the league saw a sharp drop in home runs per game; individual league leader Ray Perry hit only 18, he had at least twice as many in each of the previous three seasons. Willows and Marysville had dropped out of the league after 1950; while I don’t have any home/road breakdowns, Willows had been first or second in the league in HR/G in each of its three seasons, so that may have been a good hitters park. But Marysville was well below average in HR/G in each of its three seasons, so the two parks could well have canceled each other out.
Now let’s take a look at the team records…most of these are on a per-game basis because of the varying lengths of the season, but in some categories I skipped that because the record was held by a team playing in one of the shorter-length seasons.
|RUNS PER GAME|
|Most: 8.38, Klamath Falls, 1949 (1039/124)|
|Fewest: 5.50, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948 (616/112)|
|OPPONENTS RUNS PER GAME (not published for 1949)|
|Fewest: 5.72, Marysville, 1948 (703/123)|
|Most: 7.58, Reno, 1951 (895/118)*|
|* Pittsburg allowed 7.63 R/G in 1951 before dropping
out of the league after 48 games (in first place!)
|HITS PER GAME|
|Most: 10.89, Klamath Falls 1951 (1405/129)|
|Fewest: 7.87, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948 (881/112)|
|HOME RUNS PER GAME|
|Most: 1.15, Redding, 1950 (161/140, the only team
in FWL history with HR/G>1)
|Fewest: 0.17, Oroville, 1948 (21/121)|
|WALKS PER GAME|
|Most: 6.89, Reno, 1951 (813/118)|
|Fewest: 4.56, Willows, 1949 (574/126)|
|STRIKEOUTS PER GAME|
|Fewest: 4.68, Klamath Falls, 1950 (855/140)|
|Most: 6.73, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948 (754/112)|
|STOLEN BASES PER GAME|
|Most: 1.48, Klamath Falls, 1949 (183/124)|
|Fewest: 0.47, Klamath Falls, 1948 (59/126)|
|Highest: .302, Klamath Falls, 1951|
|Lowest: .242, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948|
|Highest: .409, Klamath Falls, 1949|
|Lowest: .362, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948|
|Highest: .448, Redding, 1950|
|Lowest: .318, Pittsburg-Roseville, 1948|
|Most: 250, Klamath Falls, 1948 (126 games)|
|Most: 96, Klamath Falls, 1948 (126 games)|
|Most: 99, Marysville, 1948 (123 games)|
|ERRORS PER GAME|
|Fewest: 1.94, Medford, 1950 (the only team in FWL
history with E/G<2)
|Most: 3.30, Medford, 1948 (one of only two teams in
FWL history with E/G>3)
|DOUBLE PLAYS PER GAME|
|Most: 1.04, Santa Rosa, 1949 (the only team in FWL
history with DP/G>1)
|Fewest: 0.49, Medford, 1949|
Klamath Falls set at least one offensive team record in each of the league’s four seasons! The city’s elevation of 4,105 feet was the highest in the league in 1948 and ’49, and second to Reno (4,498 feet) in 1950 and ’51. The next highest elevation was Medford (1,382 feet), followed by Redding (555 feet). At the other end, Pittsburg is at 26 feet above sea level; Marysville and Vallejo are both below 100 feet.
The Pittsburg-Roseville franchise of 1948 (the team moved on August 5) was clearly the worst offensive team in the FWL history. Based on what’s printed in the 1949 Baseball Guide it appears those stats don’t include 10 games for which official box scores weren’t submitted. Runners-up in the “worst” categories in which Pittsburg-Roseville was the worst: Runs per game, Medford, 1949, 5.78; hits per game, Willows, 1948, 8.45; batting average, Willows, 1948, .251; on-base percentage, Marysville, 1948, .366; slugging percentage, Marysville, 1948, .336.
A couple of notes here…
Games started was tracked only in the FWL’s last season, 1951. Cliff Keeley of Redding led the league that year with 28. I would love to be able to assemble a complete set of newspaper box scores from the league and put together a list of games started from 1949 through 1950.
In listing ERA leaders, I have used as the qualifying standard a minimum of one inning pitched per team game. But according to the 1951 Sporting News Baseball Guide, the FWL’s ERA champion in 1950 was Gene Valentine of Pittsburg. Valentine pitched 109 innings in the team’s 140 games. It’s true he had the most dominant season in league history, completing 12 of his 15 appearances with a record of 12-1 and a 1.82 ERA. He had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than two-to-one in a league that had more walks than strikeouts. And he never pitched in Organized Ball again after that season.
And now for your list of league leaders in the categories for which stats were kept:
|45||Vincent S. DiMaggio||Eugene||1950|
|1948||Larry Guelfo||Klamath Falls||42|
|Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||1950|
|Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||1950|
|19||Niles Jordan||Klamath Falls||1949|
|Clyde DeWitt||Klamath Falls||1950|
|1950||Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||22|
|14||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||1948|
|1948||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||14|
|269||Vincent S. DiMaggio||Eugene||1950|
|Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||1950|
|1950||Vincent S. DiMaggio||Eugene||269|
|AT BATS AGAINST|
|943||Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||1950|
|249||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||1949|
|1948||Edwin Pager||Santa Rosa/Roseville||220|
|1949||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||249|
|167||Vincent S. DiMaggio||Eugene||1950|
|161||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||1949|
|1948||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||142|
|EARNED RUNS ALLOWED|
|135||Vincent S. DiMaggio||Eugene||1950|
|1948||John Lopeman||Klamath Falls||111|
|SACRIFICE HITS ALLOWED|
|20||Edwin Pager||Santa Rosa/Roseville||1948|
|1948||Edwin Pager||Santa Rosa/Roseville||20|
|258||Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||1950|
|188||Niles Jordan||Klamath Falls||1949|
|1950||Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||258|
|18||Joe Nicholas||Klamath Falls||1949|
|1949||Joe Nicholas||Klamath Falls||18|
|EARNED RUN AVERAGE|
|3.34||William LaThorpe||Santa Rosa||1948|
|1950||Andy Sierra||Klamath Falls||3.46|
|4||William LaThorpe||Santa Rosa||1948|
|1948||William LaThorpe||Santa Rosa||4|
|6||Hub Kittle||Klamath Falls||1950|
|5||Russ Foster||Klamath Falls||1951|
|1951||Russ Foster||Klamath Falls||5|
My source material is The Sporting News Official Baseball Guides, 1949-52. The league statistics were done by Howe News Bureau in 1948; a note in the ’49 Guide says, “Averages are incomplete due to the fact that 20 official box scores were not forwarded to league statistician.” The franchise that started the season in Pittsburg and ended in Roseville has 122 games played in the standings but only 112 in the team batting and fielding stats; the other seven teams all have the same number of games in all categories. The final three seasons of FWL play the statistician was William J. Weiss.
The counting stats favor the 1950 season because it had the longest schedule (140 games) of any of the four years. In 1948 teams played from 121 to 126 games; in 1949, the six teams that finished the season played between 123 and 127 games; in 1951, the five teams that played the full season ranged from 114 to 132. In 1950 every team played at least 138 games; Willows played 141.
All right, here are the records in the categories for which the FWL kept stats:
|1948||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||125|
|540||Gerald Merritt||Klamath Falls||1950|
|532||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||1948|
|1948||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||532|
|1949||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||525|
|152||Al Sahlberg||Klamath Falls||1950|
|1949||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||135|
|188||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||1949|
|183||George Triandos||Klamath Falls||1950|
|182||Gordon Hernandez||Klamath Falls||1949|
|1949||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||188|
|1950||George Triandos||Klamath Falls||183|
|1951||William Stumpus||Klamath Falls||171|
|38||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||1948|
|35||James Dykes||Santa Rosa||1948|
|Al Grunwald||Santa Rosa||1948|
|1948||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||38|
|1951||William DeCarlo||Klamath Falls||31|
|21||Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||1951|
|17||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||1948|
|1948||Richard Small||Klamath Falls||17|
|1951||Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||21|
|40||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||1949|
|39||Gordon Hernandez||Klamath Falls||1949|
|Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||1951|
|1949||Ted Hesse||Klamath Falls||40|
|1951||Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||36|
|162||Al Sahlberg||Klamath Falls||1950|
|HIT BY PITCH|
|15||Al Smith||Santa Rosa||1949|
|1949||Al Smith||Santa Rosa||15|
|RUNS BATTED IN|
|142||Chet Ashman||Klamath Falls||1950|
|.409||Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||1951|
|.406||Lou Vezilich||Vallejo/Santa Rosa||1949|
|1949||Lou Vezilich||Vallejo/Santa Rosa||.406|
|1951||Stan Roseboro||Klamath Falls||.409|
Frank Sullivan (pitcher, Oroville, 1948): A huge (6’7-1/2″) righthander, Sullivan started his pro career in Oroville. After missing the 1951 and ’52 seasons for military service, he reached the Red Sox in mid-season 1953 and had a remarkable five-year run from 1954-58, winning at least 13 games and having a record at least three games above .500 each year with an adjusted ERA better than league average, usually much better. He led the AL in wins in 1955 with 18 and was named to the all-star team in ’55 and ’56 (giving up Stan Musial’s game-winning 12th-inning homer in ’55). Sullivan progressed from walking 41 batters in 27 innings at Oroville to issuing the fewest walks per nine innings of any AL pitcher in 1957. He may be the only FWL alum who has written a book.
Gus Suhr (player/manager, Pittsburg, 1948): A San Francisco native, Suhr began his pro career in 1925 and had some great seasons with the San Francisco Seals before reaching the majors with Pittsburgh (the one in Pennsylvania with an h) in 1930. He went on to play 1435 games in the majors, setting the National League record by playing in 822 consecutive games from 1931-37 (a streak that ended when we went to his mother’s funeral). Suhr’s only managing experience was with Pittsburg in 1948; he was replaced on July 9. He also hit .400 in 15 at-bats.
Al Grunwald (first baseman, Santa Rosa, 1948): Grunwald went on to pitch nine games in the big leagues, but in 1948 he was an 18-year-old first baseman. He didn’t start pitching until 1954. I believe he was the only Far West League alum ever to play professionally in Japan, posting a 2-8 record for the Taiyo Whales of the Central League in 1962.
Jim Tyack (player/manager, Willows, 1948): Tyack had spent the 1943 season as a reserve outfielder with the Phillies. In a minor league career that began in 1936 he batted .307 with 1455 hits. Tyack started the 1948 season as manager at Willows; he was replaced on June 12 and finished the season as a player only for Bakersfield in the Class C California League. Bakersfield was Tyack’s hometown and an award for Kern County’s top high school athletes is named after him (the first winner was Johnny Callison).
Hubert “Hub” Kittle (pitcher/manager, Klamath Falls, 1949-50): Kittle never reached the major leagues as a player, but he won 144 games in the minors and started his managing career as a 31-year-old in 1948. The next year he went to Klamath Falls, where he guided the Gems to second place in ’49 and the regular season championship in ’50 and had a pitching record of 17-2 over the two seasons. He managed through 1959, became a minor league general manager in 1960 and won The Sporting News’ Minor League Executive of the Year award that year, went back to managing in 1964, then became a coach for the Houston Astros in 1971 (and pitched a scoreless inning in an exhibition game against the Tigers at age 56 in 1973; he would pitch a scoreless inning in an American Association regular season game when he was 63). Later he was Whitey Herzog’s pitching coach with the Cardinals from 1981-83 (he had managed Herzog in winter ball) and stayed active as a minor league instructor until he was past 80. SABR member Ken Ross has written an extensive, well-researched and -documented online biography of Kittle, who died in 2004.
Glen Gorbous (third baseman, Medford, 1949): An 18-year-old Canadian in his first year of pro ball, Gorbous made 64 errors in 119 games at third base for Medford in 1949. But he hit .345 to earn his way up the ladder and finally reached the majors leagues in 1955 and stayed long enough to play 117 games. After returning to the minors he set a record that still stands for the longest throw in 1957, which I have written about earlier.
Vince DiMaggio (player/manager, Pittsburg, 1949-51): The older brother of Joe and Dom, Vince wasn’t as successful a player as his brothers but still played more than 1100 games in the majors and was a two-time all-star. Vince started his managing career at Stockton in the Class C California League in 1948, then the next season took the job at Pittsburg, closer to his Bay Area home. He had two monster seasons as a player in 1949 and ’50. After the Pittsburg franchise folded due to poor attendance in June 1951 (while leading the league), Vince went on to play for Tacoma in the Class B Western International League, then left baseball after the season. According to his 1986 obituary in The Sporting News, DiMaggio’s jobs after baseball included working as a bartender, a milk truck driver, a liquor salesman and a Fuller brush man. (A different Vincent DiMaggio also played in the FWL from 1949-51.)
Al Heist (outfielder, Redding, 1949): Heist had a terrific season as a first-year pro in 1949 and went on to play 177 games in the majors, starting the majority of games in center field for the Cubs in 1961. He had 1650 hits in a minor league career that lasted until 1965 and stayed in baseball, serving briefly as a major league coach and also as a scout.
Darrell Johnson (catcher, Redding, 1949): Johnson grew up in the Bay Area and started his long career in professional baseball in the FWL. He went on to play 134 games in the majors, appeared in the 1961 World Series for Cincinnati, then later managed all or part of eight seasons in the big leagues and guided the Red Sox to the 1975 American League championship. SABR member Bill Nowlin has an excellent biographical profile of Johnson, who died in 2004.
Tom Seats (pitcher, Eugene, 1950): Seats won 202 games, most of them in the Pacific Coast League, in a minor league career than began in 1934 (when he went 18-8 in the Nebraska State League) and ended in Eugene. He also won two games for the 1940 AL champion Detroit Tigers and went 10-7 for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. Bill James, in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, tells the story of how Leo Durocher decided Seats should drink some brandy before his starts to settle his nerves, and how Branch Rickey was apoplectic when he found out.
Bob Bowman (outfielder, Klamath Falls, 1950-51): Bowman started his pro career in the FWL and went on to play 256 games for the Phillies from 1955-59. He also pitched in five games for the Phillies in 1959 and made a few pitching appearances in the minors in 1960 and ’61.
Tommy Nelson (player/manager, Medford, 1950): Nelson had been a backup infielder for the Boston Braves in 1945. He finished his baseball career in Medford with his only season as a manager; he was replaced on July 8.
Walter “Duster” Mails (manager, Eugene, 1951): Mails became general manager of the Larks in 1951, started the season as the team’s manager and resigned as manager on July 1, admitting he was not qualified for the job. Mails had been the featured speaker at a dinner to welcome Eugene’s first-ever minor league team in April 1950. A pitcher in his playing days, Mails won 224 games in the minors from 1914-36 and 32 more in the majors, including a 7-0 regular season record plus a World Series win for the 1920 champion Cleveland Indians. Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright have quite a bit of biographical information about Mails in an essay about the 1928 San Francisco Seals, for whom he pitched.
Cliff Dapper (player/manager, Eugene, 1951): The Larks acquired Dapper from Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League to catch and succeed Walter Mails as manager in July 1951. Dapper’s major league career consisted of eight games with the Dodgers in 1942 (his career batting average of .471 is the highest in history for anyone with at least 15 at-bats); the Dodgers later traded him for Ernie Harwell. Dapper was a player/manager in the minors for all or part of eight seasons and finished his career with more than 1300 hits. He missed three seasons (1943-45) while serving in the Navy during World War II.
Troy “Dutch” Herriage (pitcher, Klamath Falls, 1951): Herriage made his pro debut with Klamath Falls. He went on to post a 1-13 record in his only season in the majors with the Kansas City A’s in 1956, losing his last 11 decisions after pitching a three-hitter against the Senators on May 22 for his only career win. Since leaving baseball he has worked as an aerospace engineer and as the innkeeper of a bed and breakfast.
Frank Lucchesi (player/manager, Medford, 1951): Lucchesi was just 25 years old when he was named manager of the Rogues for the 1951 season. (Lucchesi’s Wikipedia page says he was born in 1927, as does his Retrosheet page; this 2007 piece on MLB.com says he was 23 when he took over Medford. But the Baseball Registers when he was managing the Phillies give his birth year as 1926. I’ll try to get to the bottom of this.) That was the first of 19 seasons he spent as a minor league manager before the Phillies named him manager in 1970.
Henry “Cotton” Pippen (pitcher/manager, Reno, 1951): Before coming to Reno for his first (and only) managerial job, Pippen had already won 186 games in a minor league career that had run from 1932 to 1948, most of it in the Pacific Coast League. He also pitched in 38 major league games with the Browns, A’s and Tigers. His 10 wins at Reno at the age of 40 gave him a total of 201 professional victories. Pippen was the pitcher in Ted Williams’ first professional at-bat in 1936, when Ted was a 17-year-old with his hometown San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League; Pippen, pitching for Sacramento, struck him out.
Bert Convy (outfielder, Klamath Falls, 1951): Convy joined the FWL right out of high school in 1951, although his stats aren’t available. He played one more year of minor league ball before leaving the game. By spending part of 1952 in the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League he earned a mention in SABR member John Hall’s comprehensive history of that league, “Majoring In The Minors.” Convy went on to gain some degree of fame as an actor and game show host, winning an Emmy for his work on “Tattletales” in 1977. He was an original cast member of both Broadway musicals “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret” and was also a vocalist on a number of records.
In no particular order, here are some of the more prominent players and managers in the four-year life of the Far West League…not including Ray Perry, who’s been discussed previously…
Joe Gantenbein (player/manager, Klamath Falls, 1948): Gantenbein was an infielder with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s in 1939-40. His first managing assignment was in 1948 and he took Klamath Falls to the seventh game of the league championship series. He also hit .368 as a part-time outfielder for the Gems.
Dick Young (outfielder, Klamath Falls, 1948): A first-year pro in the first season of the FWL, Young had a brief career in the major leagues (20 games with the Phillies in 1951-52). He had more than 1400 hits in a minor league career that lasted until 1960.
Don Ferrarese (pitcher, Klamath Falls, 1948): Ferrarese made six appearances in the FWL to begin a career that included 183 games in the majors from 1955-62. He’s become a generous philanthropist in the high desert of southern California.
Niles “Sonny” Jordan (pitcher, Klamath Falls, 1948-49): A World War II vet, Jordan broke into pro ball with six appearances for Klamath Falls in 1948, then returned to go 19-7 for the Gems in 1949. He quickly moved up the ladder, going 17-6 at Terre Haute in 1950 and 21-3 for Wilmington in 1951 to earn a spot with the Phillies late in the ’51 season. Jordan pitched a three-hit shutout against Cincinnati in his major league debut but won only one other game during his brief major league career in 1951-52.
Spence Harris (player/manager, Marysville, 1948): Harris had 3617 hits in a minor league career that began in 1921 and ended in Marysville. He took over as manager of the Braves on August 14, 1948, two days after his 48th birthday, and he hit .361 in 11 games down the stretch. Harris is the all-time minor league leader in hits, runs, doubles and total bases and also played 164 games in the majors between 1925 and 1930.
Ed Wheeler (player/manager, Marysville, 1948): Wheeler had spent the 1945 season with Cleveland. He was Marysville’s first manager before being replaced by James Keller on August 3.
Larry Shepard (pitcher/manager, Medford, 1948): Shepard went 22-3 at Medford and led the FWL in wins and ERA. It was the first of four straight 20-win seasons for Shepard (who had the others for Billings) on the way to 179 career minor league wins. It was also Shepard’s first year as a manager; he managed in the minors every year but one through 1966, then managed the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1968-69. After being fired by the Pirates, he became Sparky Anderson’s pitching coach with the Cincinnati Reds for all of Sparky’s nine full seasons with the Reds.
Nino Bongiovanni (player/manager, Oroville, 1948): Bongiovanni started his career in the Pacific Coast League in 1933 and finished his minor league career with more than 1800 hits. He played 68 games for Cincinnati in 1938-39, serving as a backup outfielder for the Reds’ 1939 National League champs. In 1948, his first year as a manager, he led Oroville to the regular season championship. He lived to be 97.
Jack Littrell (shortstop, Oroville, 1948): Littrell made his pro debut in the FWL and continued playing until 1962 in a career that saw him get almost 1400 hits. He also saw action in 111 major league games with the A’s and the Cubs between 1952 and 1957. Littrell was a railroad brakeman and conductor after his baseball career and died just last year.
I’ll continue posting these as I can. By the way, I finally set up a Far West League category here on the blog to make it easier to find the FWL posts.
I’ve read a lot of baseball books lately, what with the hour I spend on the bus every day commuting between Davis and downtown Sacramento and the fact that my office is two blocks from the big, beautiful central branch of the Sacramento Public Library, which has a great baseball section.
I loved the “Tracers” of the Bill James Baseball Books of 20 years ago, which provided a reality check for the yarns told by old ballplayers. Well, as I’ve been reading I keep coming across stories that make me want to check their veracity…and then I never get around to it. Okay, I did get around to one, and that one was fun to debunk.
But the book I just finished–”Fouled Away: The Baseball Tragedy of Hack Wilson,” by Clifton Blue Parker (McFarland & Co., 2000)–had a tracer candidate I just couldn’t leave unchallenged.
It took place in 1933, when Wilson was with Brooklyn, just three years after his then-National League record 56 home runs and still-major league record 191 RBI for the Cubs. But by this time Wilson was woefully overweight and trying to hang on to a big league job.
The storyteller is Joe Judge, longtime first baseman for the Senators, who in 1933 was 38 years old and just hanging on himself. Parker’s source for the story is an unidentified piece of writing by Washington sportswriter Shirley Povich…the item is not footnoted so I can’t tell you where or when it originally appeared, earlier in the chapter Parker said Povich wrote about Wilson’s 1933 season “years later.” (Judge died in 1963.)
Anyway, here’s what Parker wrote:
Povich reported that once “Joe Judge, with the Dodgers at the sunset of his own baseball career, relates the day Wilson was summoned as a pinch hitter, and was nowhere to be found on the bench. Judge was dispatched to hunt him out in the dressing room and found Wilson swigging beer, surrounded by empty bottles in front of his locker. ‘They want you,’ said Judge. ‘Two out in the ninth inning and we got two on. They want you to hit.’ Wilson dragged himself up the stairs to the playing field.”
While Hack took his warmup swings, Povich noted, “Judge hastily set to work to clear away evidence of the beer drinking session before the game could end and a wrathful manager viewed the telltale scene. ‘I was caught in the act,’ recalled Judge. ‘They came trooping in, with the game over. I was scared for Hack, but everybody else was happy. The game was over, all right. Wilson had just hit one out of the park.’”
This has to be a tall tale, right? I mean, doesn’t it sound like the kind of thing that has just been stretched and embellished over the years, especially given Wilson’s well-founded reputation as a drinker?
Well, it may be embellished, and some of the facts are wrong, but the key element of the story is true, enough to make me think the rest of it could be. This headline is from The New York Times of May 15, 1933:
Retrosheet has the box score of the game here. The two facts that are demonstrably wrong in the Parker/Povich/Judge account are that Wilson’s home run actually came with none out, rather than two, and with the bases loaded, rather than two on. Embellishing the situation to two out makes it a more dramatic story; then again, bases loaded is more dramatic than two on, but maybe over time “two on” got confused with “two down,” which is what the Dodgers were when Wilson went to the plate.
Was there really time to hunt down Wilson in the dressing room? There actually could have been, because the Phillies were changing pitchers, with Ad Liska coming on in relief of Phil Collins to face Brooklyn shortstop Jake Flowers with the bases loaded. (Wilson hit Liska’s first pitch to end the game.) Surely Judge would have had time to look for Wilson while Liska was taking his warm-up tosses.
And why would Wilson be in the dressing room? You could make the case that he didn’t think he would be used. For starters, the pitcher’s spot had come up in the previous inning, when Judge batted for Ray Benge. The number two spot in the batting order led off the ninth for the Dodgers, so the odds were very slight they would get back down to the pitcher. Wilson himself was in a 3-for-31 slump and had yet to hit a home run in 1933; you could see where he might not assume he would be used.
But no, once the bases were loaded Brooklyn manager Max Carey decided to call on the one-time slugging star to bat for his number five hitter. (Why Flowers, a lifetime .256 hitter who never hit more than three home runs in a season, was batting fifth is another story.) And Wilson came through with just the third pinch-hit homer of his career and his first game-ending homer since his first season with the Cubs in 1926.
Sometimes the stories that are too “good” to be true are actually true…and maybe this is one of them.
Baseball players have been lying about their age for almost as long as people have been paid to play. In days of yore players might shave a year off their age; in recent years there have been a number of stories about players from Latin America who took even greater liberties. Miguel Tejada turned out to be two years older than he had said he was, while Rafael Furcal was actually three years older.
But I can’t imagine anyone else ever tried to pull off what Billy Parker did.
You might remember Parker if you were obsessive about baseball in the early ’70s. He played parts of three seasons with the California Angels and had some good years with their Salt Lake City farm club. According to the baseball documents of the time, such as the Baseball Register, Parker was born on January 14, 1947…and that’s the birth date that, until recently, appeared on his Baseball-Reference.com page.
But Billy’s Retrosheet page says he was born in January 14, 1942…and that turns out to be true. Billy Parker passed himself off as FIVE YEARS younger than he actually was. I still have a lot of investigating to do to find out when he started using a different age, and how nobody found out.
When Billy Parker played his first season of minor league baseball, in the Class A Midwest League in 1969, he was actually 27 years old, not 22 as he claimed. And when he made his major league debut in 1971, he was 29, not 24.
Parker was born and raised in the small town of Hayneville, Alabama, the county seat of Lowndes County, just southwest of Montgomery in the southern part of the state. In an article in The Sporting News of August 14, 1971, Parker said, “I was one of 11 sons, and that doesn’t include my sisters.”
He graduated from Central High School in Hayneville; I’ve not yet been able to verify the date. According to Parker’s obituary, he attended what is now known as Alabama State University in Montgomery, on a football scholarship, for one semester; a document in Parker’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library says he attended what was then Tennessee A&I (now known as Tennessee State University) for six months. And a questionnaire that Parker filled out, now in his Hall of Fame file, doesn’t indicate he attended college at all (excerpt below).
Billy Parker would have been 18 in the spring of 1960; perhaps he graduated from high school that spring and attended college that fall. SABR member and Negro Leagues researcher Wayne Stivers tells me he has box scores indicating Parker was an infielder with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1961 to 1964.
The Clowns had been a member of the Negro American League; they are best remembered today as Hank Aaron’s first professional team (1952) and for having three women on their roster at different times later in the ’50s, most notably Toni Stone. By the time Parker joined them, the Clowns were essentially the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball and spent their summers barnstorming; they advertised their availability for fundraisers and offered to bring an opposing team with them (along the lines of the Washington Generals) or play a local team. The item above is from The Sporting News of April 12, 1961, when Parker may have been launching his career with them. The story below is from January 31, 1962:
The Clowns often advertised for players in The Sporting News; the ad at right appeared in the issue of March 28, 1962. I don’t know how Parker got hooked up with the team or why he left them…and right now I don’t know a thing about what Parker was doing from the time he left the Clowns to the time he signed a minor league contract for the 1969 season. So this post is very much a work in progress until these questions are answered. When did Parker start lying about his age? How did Angels scout Kenny Myers find him? What level of baseball could he have been playing to make Myers think he could make it as a professional?
One thing Parker was doing during those years was starting a family. He married Nellie Ann Corbin, and his questionnaire gives their wedding date as March 27, 1962. That would have been shortly after Parker turned 20, but when he changed his age that would have made him 15. Indeed, that 1971 Sporting News story said he married at 15; by the time of the article he had four children, he and Nellie would have a fifth.
While Parker lied about his age, I have no evidence he was lying when he talked about his youth. From that 1971 Sporting News article:
“I was awfully shy and backwards. I couldn’t talk to anyone years ago. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know the right words.
“It was embarrassing…Pretty soon I got to thinking that everybody was laughing at me. How dumb I was. So I decided to do something about it.
“I started a crusade on self-improvement. I wanted to adjust. I would listen to other people talk and then I tried out different speech patterns trying to learn how to be polite and speak effectively.
“Finally, I got confidence in myself. I now feel free and easy with people.”
A story in The Sporting News issue of August 18, 1973, said Parker “grew up in poverty and semi-illiteracy.”
Parker may have had a chance to play in Organized Baseball when he was still a teenager. An item in the Summer 2002 issue of Surprise Progress (published by the city of Surprise, Arizona) told the story this way:
Parker was set to sign with the Detroit Tigers because their farm team was close to his home, but race issues arose. “When I got to the ballpark, they told me no blacks were allowed in the stadium,” he recalled. “So I quit.”
The experience turned him against the organization, but not baseball. Parker kept playing pickup games until 1959 when the Chicago White Socks [sic] signed him as a pitcher. But pitching wasn’t his passion.
The story of Parker signing with the White Sox (as a 5’7-1/2″ pitcher?) must be a complete fabrication. The story about the Tigers? It’s true they had a farm team at Montgomery, in the Class D Alabama-Florida League, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The story as told above doesn’t sound like there was any kind of a contract offer involved, but it’s told a little differently in the Winter 2007 issue of the same publication:
“Billy had an earlier offer to play for a Detroit Tigers farm team in Alabama, but he remembered being turned away from southern ballparks because he was black, and he turned the Tigers down,” said Matt Coronado, Surprise Community and Recreation Services Director and close friend of Parker’s.
At any rate, when Billy Parker finally broke into minor league ball, in 1969, the Angels thought he was 22 years old. He was actually 27, and there’s no way he would have been signed to his first professional contract at that age. He probably couldn’t have caught on if he were thought to be 23.
His 1969 numbers at Quad Cities in the Class A Midwest League don’t look overwhelming at first glance; he hit .274, with 17 homers and 67 RBI in 111 games. But he tied for the league lead in RBI, was second in total bases, missed tying for the home run championship by one, and was seventh in batting average. He was also voted the team’s most popular player, an honor he won several more times in his career.
Parker was primarily a third baseman at Quad Cities. The next year, he was promoted to El Paso in the Class AA Texas League and converted to shortstop. He got off to a fine start; three weeks into June, he was leading the league in home runs and batting cleanup. He finished with 21 homers (tied with future major league all-star Jose Cruz for second in the league) and led the league’s shortstops in double plays. Alas, he also led in errors and strikeouts.
But the performance earned Parker another promotion in 1971, to the Angels’ Class AAA farm club at Salt Lake City, and again he was among the league’s best players–this time at yet another position, second base. He made headlines with three homers on May 29 against Hawaii, in consecutive at-bats, each to a different field: a two-run homer to center to tie the game in the 7th, a three-run homer to right in the 8th, and a two-run walk-off homer to left in the 10th. At that time he was batting eighth in the lineup.
When Parker was profiled in the August 14 issue of The Sporting News, the accompanying league stats showed him with 22 homers: tied with Ron Cey, one behind Dave Kingman and two behind Greg Luzinski. He finished the season with 27 homers, seventh in the league; ranked third in RBI with 115; batted .308; set a modern Pacific Coast League record for double plays by a second baseman and also led the league’s second sackers in putouts and assists. It was a performance that earned him a spot on the postseason Class AAA all-star team, drawn from all 24 AAA teams. And he was voted Salt Lake City’s most popular player.
It was enough to earn him a trip to the majors after Salt Lake City won the PCL playoffs. On September 9, Billy Parker made history, becoming the first player to hit a game-ending homer in his major league debut.
And at age 29 (although the Angels thought he was 24), Parker had reached the pinnacle of his career. He hit only .229 in 20 games for the Angels in 1971, and did not hit any other home runs. Then he broke his wrist playing winter ball.
He went back to Salt Lake City to start the 1972 season and hit well again (.298, 18 HR, 67 RBI in 103 games), but after he was called back up to California in late July he hit just .213 for the Angels the rest of the way. (He did finish second, to Salt Lake native Doug Howard, in Salt Lake City’s most popular player vote.)
Salt Lake City was Parker’s home again in 1973, with more of the same results: 25 homers, 87 RBI and a .298 average in 113 games. (Yes, Coast League hitters tended to put up gaudy stats in those years, with a number of high-altitude parks in the league.) Even though he was recalled to Anaheim with a month to go in the PCL season he still finished tied for third in the league in homers. Despite his small stature, he swung a huge bat…literally: 36 inches long, 38 ounces.
“Undoubtedly, Parker will go down as one of the all-time greats in Salt Lake baseball history,” Ray Herbat wrote in The Sporting News of August 18, 1973.
Parker got his best shot in the big leagues over the final two months of the ’73 season, starting at second base in 30 of California’s last 58 games. But again it didn’t go well; he hit .225 with no homers and just three extra-base hits in 102 at-bats. That lifted his career major league average to .222.
And that’s where it stayed. Parker was drafted by the Yankees in that December’s Rule 5 draft, but he never returned to the majors. He hit .301 in 65 games at Syracuse in 1974, .313 in 39 games there in 1975. His obituary says he had major knee surgery and a broken leg during those years, without giving dates. After he hit .216 in 29 games at Syracuse in 1976, he went to the Mexican League, batting .264 with seven homers in 140 at-bats for Monterrey. After the season he retired as a player at the age of 34.
From his obituary, we pick up the rest of his life…
1976: Went to work for an electrical equipment company in Phoenix.
1981: Married Dortha Groves, whom he had met in 1977.
*1984: Moved to Texas to work in home construction.
(* I have since heard from Billy’s widow, who tells me they were married in January 1981 but never lived in Texas. I see I misunderstood the obituary; it was the company that moved to Texas in 1984, not the Parkers. My apologies.)
1984: Went into the construction business, building custom homes.
1987: Took a job with the city of Surprise as a park-time dial-a-ride driver and part-time parks and recreation supervisor.
1990: Became full-time parks and rec director.
Parker stayed involved in sports in Surprise for the rest of his life. He took over the youth t-ball program, then started baseball programs for older kids, then added other youth sports, then started an adult sports program. He moved from parks and rec director to adults sports coordinator, the job he held when he was forced to retire because of cancer in 2002.
“Billy would tell me that the biggest lift and compliment he could ever receive was to see kids grow up through the city’s sports programs and come back to thank him and tell him how much fun they had,” said his friend and colleague Mark Coronado.
Parker’s cancer was advancing when the city voted in February 2002 to name the baseball field at Surprise Stadium “Billy Parker Field,” in appreciation for his years of dedication to the city. “He didn’t do it for the love of a paycheck,” said mayor Joan Shafer, “but for the love of the job. We wouldn’t have a [recreation] program without him.”
Billy Parker died on February 9, 2003, at age 61, just a few weeks before the first Cactus League game was played on the field that bears his name.
Surprise Stadium today is the spring training home to both the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals.
Parker was the father of 11, although it appears some of them were step-children. There was also a nephew he raised as a foster son. His obituary says he was preceded in death by twin sons. His sons who survived him were William David Marcus Parker, Will Anthony Parker, and William David Parker, Jr. (see a pattern there?). His first great-grandchild was due to be born two months after his death.
Billy Parker led a rich life. “I always tell people that Billy Parker was a major league baseball player and a major league person,” Mark Coronado said in 2007.
Now, if I can find out about his life between his high school graduation and the start of his minor league career…If you beat me to it, please share the story with me.
By the way, while Parker’s shaving five years off his age may be the major league record, Wayne Stivers tells me he learned George “Chappie” Johnson, who played for top-level Negro teams from 1896 to 1914, was actually six years older than he claimed to be. Wayne says he learned that from Johnson’s death certificate.
UPDATE 10/22/13: I’ve since learned that Pat Scantlebury, who pitched six games for Cincinnati in 1956, passed himself off as EIGHT years younger than he actually was. But Scantlebury, unlike Parker, was born outside of the United States and played professional baseball (in the Negro Leagues and Latin America) before entering Organized Baseball. I wrote more about Scantlebury in this post about the oldest major league rookies, which includes information about Scantlebury’s Reds teammate Bob Thurman, who was portraying himself as six years younger than he actually was. Especially in the years before 1950 it was not at all uncommon for players to present themselves as one or two years younger than their true age.
Entertainer Bing Crosby was part of the group that bought the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946 (at about the same time his frequent film partner Bob Hope bought into the Cleveland Indians as part of Bill Veeck’s group; the photo at right is available for purchase from the Owens Archive). Crosby was a vice president of the Pirates and played a key role in the team’s signing of 18-year-old pitcher Vernon Law in 1948.
The story was often told (and probably embellished somewhat) over the years. Law grew up in Meridian, Idaho, just outside of Boise, and when he graduated from high school in 1948 he was the subject of a bidding war. His older brother, Evan, was a catcher who attended Boise Junior College (which eventually became a four-year school and is now Boise State University).
The story as told in The Sporting News issue of June 21, 1950, was that a lawyer from nearby Payette, Herman Welker, contacted Crosby and told him to have a Pirate scout contact the Laws. (The 1950 story says Welker wired Crosby; another TSN story on February 7, 1951, said Welker called Crosby in Hollywood.) The 1950 TSN story refers to Welker as “a classmate [of Crosby] from their college days at Gonzaga University,” and the story has been repeated that way through the years, but the biographies I’ve seen of Welker say he attended the University of Idaho and mention nothing about Gonzaga. (Welker was elected U.S. Senator from Idaho in 1950 and gained greater baseball fame for his role in helping the Washington Senators sign Harmon Killebrew in 1954.)
The Law brothers both signed with the Pirates after a phone call that was recounted in The Sporting News issue of June 9, 1948:
Crosby telephoned from New York and Mrs. [Jess] Law [Vern and Evan's mother], all aflutter, immediately forgot that she and her husband earlier had said that either Brooklyn or Cleveland would be the choice for their youngsters. “I’d like to come up and sign both boys myself, but business in New York won’t allow it,” Bing said. “So I’ll send Babe Herman, my personal representative, instead.”
Almost three years later, the story was told a little differently in that 1951 Sporting News article.
“I entered the picture late,” Babe Herman relates. “By the time I arrived at the Law home, scouts had been there and gone, but many were still hanging around. I talked to Vernon and his brother, Evan, a catcher, talked to his father and his mother.
“Then I had an idea. I knew Mrs. Law was a Crosby fan and also knew Bing had a ranch not far from the Law home. I put in a call to Bing and told him to phone the family.”
Now Mrs. Law takes up the story.
“We had just about decided that Vernon and his brother should sign with the Pittsburgh organization because Mr. Herman was so nice and didn’t make us any outlandish promises,” Mrs. Law said. “We felt our boys’ futures would be best served with the Pirates, and then came the call from Mr. Crosby.
“I thought it was a joke at first. Imagine Mr. Crosby phoning me! But it was him all right. He talked about the weather, told me he had a ranch near us and said he comes into Idaho quite often.
“Then he said he had heard about Vernon and Evan and he hoped the Pirates would be able to sign them. He promised the boys fine treatment. That just about clinched it. But I want to make it clear that we thought an awful lot of Mr. Babe Herman.”
Vern’s signing bonus was not mentioned in any of these stories. Ray Robinson, in a profile of Law that appeared in the book “Baseball Stars of 1961,” didn’t give a number either but said the Pirates signed the Law brothers for an amount “that wasn’t more than Leo Durocher pays for a good suit.” A 2005 story about Vern Law in the Deseret News, the daily newspaper owned by the Mormon church, said Law got a $2,000 signing bonus and a contract for $175 a month. Brent Kelley, in his book about the bonus rule, “Baseball’s Biggest Blunder,” wrote Law’s bonus was $6,000, the most that could be given at the time without requiring the player to spend time in the majors.
The Laws were Mormons. That didn’t come up in the 1948 story when he signed, but by 1950 Vern’s religious story was told in great detail: a deacon in the church at the age of 12 (his baseball nickname was “Deacon”), ordained to the priesthood at 17, by the age of 20 a church elder who had the authority to marry, baptize and administer the sacraments. (“Nobody knew what an elder was, so they called me the deacon,” Law said in 2004.)
According to a 2004 story on the Brigham Young University website, “Vern Law was his era’s Steve Young [the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback]. He was a big as Steve Young is now, only about 30 years earlier. He was the pioneering Latter-day Saint athlete to make it big.”
That same BYU story adds another element to the signing story that was not mentioned in any of the Sporting News stories at the time…which makes me wonder just how much of this is true. But here’s the way Nathan Morley told it in his story about Vern Law:
Word began to spread about the pitcher from rural Idaho to the point that nine big league teams were interested in signing him. Each team sent representatives to the Law house in Meridian. Upon arrival, the baseball executives would show up smoking cigars, something the Law’s were turned off by.
“My dad, being what he was, said you can come in, but that’s got to stay out,” Vern said.
Every organization showed up with cigars, except the Pirates. The Pirates showed up with chocolates and roses for Vern’s mom and began to make their pitch to the Laws. Then the unexpected happened.
“Halfway through the conversation, the phone rings,” Vern said. “On the other end is Bing Crosby. My mother about fainted.”…
Years later, Vern found out the Pirates had given all the other teams the cigars in a ploy to help the Pirates sign Vern.
A story that good, wouldn’t it have been told at the time if it were true? A similar story was told in a 2000 Sports Illustrated item about Law. There’s also a version of this story in which Welker accompanied Babe Herman at the Laws’ home and was himself involved in the cigar scheme; that appears in a 2003 book. “Tales From The Pirates Dugout.”
When Vern and Evan Law signed, they were assigned to the Pirates’ new Class D farm club, the Santa Rosa Pirates of the first-year Far West League. (In a Nov. 19, 1960, Sporting News article after Vern Law won the Cy Young Award, Hy Hurwitz wrote that Law “agreed to go with the Pirates with the understanding that he would not be called upon to pitch on Sundays” and said Law did not pitch on Sundays in the Far West league. “After that year,” Law told Hurwitz, “I figured that if I were ever to make the big leagues and wanted to pitch in them, I’d have to work on Sundays. It was my own decision to release the Pittsburgh organization from our arrangement which gave me the day off on Sundays.”)
And when Vern Law made his professional debut on June 2, at Santa Rosa’s Doyle Park, Bing Crosby was there.
The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat gave advance notice of Crosby’s appearance to see Law, “a fireballer many say is destined to shoot at the mark of Walter Johnson, another lad captured by the big leagues in the sage-brush end of the Gem state.” As a result the game drew what the Press-Democrat called “an overflow throng” (although no attendance number was printed) that “packed the stands and part of the playing field with fans, many of them women, despite the cool night.”
The singer, whose voice has charmed millions, was a little late but apparently had timed his appearance so that he arrived just as the game was about to begin after spectators craned necks a half hour for a glimpse of the actor.
The game was played on a Wednesday; the Press-Democrat said Crosby had spent the previous weekend taking part in a golf benefit “at the Lake Merced club in San Francisco for the family of Ben Coltrin, golf pro, who died two months ago.”
Crosby saw his new pitcher lose to Redding, 9-6. The Press-Democrat reported “due to his teammates’ mental and physical mistakes [Law] was in a hole in the first inning as Redding scored four runs.” Law was an excellent control pitcher in his major league career, averaging just two walks per nine innings pitched, but he issued three walks in his first inning as a pro, and his teammates committed three errors behind him. One came when shortstop Bill Rush failed to touch second base on a fielder’s choice (one of 30 errors Rush committed in 38 games at shortstop that season); another came when catcher Al Conforti failed to tag a runner at home plate.
But the night got better. “Law, a heavy ball artist, whiffed nine batters and…demonstrated he is a top prospect,” according to the Press-Democrat. He went on to post an 8-5 record for Santa Rosa, with 126 strikeouts in 110 innings, and batted .340. Just over two years after his debut at Doyle Park Law was pitching for Pittsburgh to start a career that saw him win 162 major league games, all with the Pirates. Not a bad use of Bing Crosby’s time on the telephone.
And what of Evan Law, Vern’s brother? He must not have played in ten games for Santa Rosa because he doesn’t appear in the league’s official stats that had a minimum ten game requirement. The only stats I’ve found for the elder Law are 40 at-bats in the Class D Alabama State League in 1949; he hit .125 and was done. As I go through game-by-game accounts during my Far West League project I’ll see if he actually did get in a game for them, and if he ever caught his brother as a pro.
Among the other games in the FWL on June 2, 1948…
Marysville’s Herb Hamilt, who had pitched the first no-hitter in league history a month before, pitched a three-hitter at Medford…but Medford scored eight runs on those three hits, with the help of eight Marysville errors, to win 8-4.
Pittsburg defeated Oroville, 16-14, in a game that featured 23 walks and “three batters beaned,” according to the Associated Press account, which added, “The game was called at the end of six innings when it reached the league time limit.” A league time limit? I’ll have to find out more about that.
Oh, and before we sign off, let’s get a picture of Vern Law with his son Vance, who played more than 1200 games in the major leagues himself as an infielder and is now the head baseball coach at Brigham Young.
Tim Law, at right in the photo above, is Vance’s son; he had played for BYU, as a first baseman, and is no longer on the coaching staff.
Oh, one more thing…one of the things that was widely known about Vernon Law during his playing days was that his wife and all their children all had first names that also began with V. For the record, they were wife VaNita and children Vance, Varlin, Vaughn, Veldon, Veryl and VaLynda.