Bill Sharman, who died Friday (Oct. 25) at age 87, had a remarkable career in sports. One of only three men (along with John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens) to be a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, Sharman was named first-team All-NBA four times, played in the NBA All-Star Game eight times (and was MVP in 1955) and starred on four NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics. He went on to coach championship teams in three different professional leagues (the American Basketball League, the American Basketball Association and the NBA) and coached the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA-record 33 consecutive wins in 1971-72. He left coaching to become the Lakers’ general manager and later president, and when the Lakers won the 1980 NBA title Sharman became just the second man, after Red Holzman, to be part of an NBA championship team as a player, coach and general manager.
But this post has to do with another facet of Bill Sharman’s life in athletics: his five seasons as a professional baseball player, including a brief tenure in the major league uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the end of the 1951 season. His time with the Dodgers resulted in this entry on Sharman’s Wikipedia page:
…as a result of a September 27 game in which the entire Brooklyn bench was ejected from the game for arguing with the umpire, Sharman holds the distinction of being the only player to have ever been ejected from a major league game without ever appearing in one.
Similar language is found, at least when this was written, on Sharman’s Baseball-Reference.com Bullpen page and at BaseballLibrary.com, among many other sites. Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo even included the tale in their book “The Baseball Hall of Shame,” but they were smart enough to include this: “Officially, [Sharman and his teammates] weren’t ejected.” So they toned down the language to say he was “kicked out of a game without ever having played in one.”
Sharman may have been kicked out of the dugout, but he wasn’t kicked out of the game. Because he wasn’t “ejected,” as in not being allowed to play. Here’s what happened, according to the game story in the September 28, 1951 New York Times.
The Dodgers entered play on September 27 just one game ahead of the Giants, as their at-one-time-13-1/2-game lead was melting away. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning of Brooklyn’s game at Boston, Dodger second baseman Jackie Robinson fielded a ground ball and threw home in an attempt to retire Bob Addis trying to score from third. Catcher Roy Campanella took the throw and put what he thought was a tag on Addis, but home plate umpire Frank Dascoli ruled Addis safe to give the Braves the lead. Campanella jumped up and down, slammed his mitt on the ground and was ejected — as in, he was done playing for the day. Then Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen, his coaches, pitcher Preacher Roe “and many other players swarmed around Dascoli in protest,” according to Times reporter Roscoe McGowen, with coach Cookie Lavagetto also being ejected.
That was all until the next Braves’ batter, Sid Gordon, grounded into a double play that would have ended the inning had Addis been called out. Apparently that led to audible griping from the Brooklyn bench, and so after Walker Cooper went up to bat for Boston, “Dascoli suddenly wheeled and ordered the Brooklyn bench cleared,” McGowen wrote. “Jocko Conlan, second-base arbiter, went to the bench and herded the players out. The boys took their time, many of them pausing en route to pay their compliments to Dascoli.”
But while the Dodger bench players had to go to the clubhouse, none of them were barred from playing in the game. And in the top of the ninth one of the dismissed players, Wayne Terwilliger, was used as a pinch-hitter (batting for Campanella’s replacement, Rube Walker) before the Dodgers went down to the defeat that cut their lead to one-half game with just three games to play (the Giants had only two remaining).
Sharman had been with the Dodgers for less than a week at the time of his “ejection.” An item in The New York Times of September 9, 1951 said Sharman was one of 13 players the Dodgers had recalled from the minor leagues. “Since their teams are all expected to be involved in the playoffs,” Joseph M. Sheehan wrote, “it is unlikely that any of the recalled players will report to the Brooks until next spring.” But Sharman had spent the season with Fort Worth, which did not make the playoffs in the Class AA Texas League, and according to an Associated Press story dated September 18 he was scheduled to report to the Dodgers on September 21. (I’ve not found a story that confirms he arrived on that date.) Sharman remained with the Dodgers, on the roster, in uniform and eligible to play, through the playoff series against the Giants that ended with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.”
Sharman had signed with the Dodgers for a reported $15,000 bonus in the spring of 1950, after his senior year at the University of Southern California, where he played baseball and was a first-team Sporting News All-America selection in basketball as a senior (along with future Celtics teammate Bob Cousy). The Sporting News story about his All-America selection listed his age as 22, typical for a college senior. But Sharman had spent two years in the Navy between high school and college, and he was actually 24. He went by the younger age through the duration of his pro baseball career and early in his pro basketball career as well. But at some point he came clean; by the time the first Sporting News NBA Guide was published in 1958, his birth date was listed as May 25, 1926, which is correct.
After spending the 1950 season at the Class A level, hitting .288 with 12 home runs between two teams, Sharman was promoted to Fort Worth in 1951. The next year he was advanced to the Dodgers’ Class AAA farm club at St. Paul in the American Association, where he had a solid year, hitting .294 with 16 homers and 77 RBI. That led to a headline on an Associated Press story in the Los Angeles Times in February 1953, “Bill Sharman Hopes To Play With Dodgers.” But in that story Sharman admitted he didn’t think he had much chance of starting the season in the big leagues, because of his late start to spring training due to basketball:
The pitchers will be ahead of the batters when I finally join the Dodgers for spring training and it’ll take a while to get my eyes tuned for some of those curve balls. By that time I may be on my way back to St. Paul. When I reported last season I was so far behind that I asked Buzzy Bavasi (the Dodgers’ vice president) to assign me to whatever club he felt I was ready for.
Bavasi must not have thought Sharman was as ready in ’53 as he was in ’52. The Celtics progressed further in the NBA playoffs than they had the previous season (Sharman was named second team All-NBA and played in his first All-Star Game) and Sharman wasn’t able to report to spring training until March 31. When he arrived the Dodgers immediately assigned him to their Mobile team in the Class AA Southern Association, one level below St. Paul. And Sharman didn’t even start the season with Mobile, as he remained at the Dodgers’ training camp in Vero Beach, Florida “for further batting instruction” (according to an item in The Sporting News) during Mobile’s opening series.
It was a disappointing season for Sharman. On May 8 he broke his left hand sliding into home during a game. He wound up playing in just 90 games, finishing with a .211 batting average, and at the end of the season he announced he was retiring from baseball to concentrate on basketball.
But in 1955 — after missing the entire 1954 season — Sharman returned to the diamond. Shortly after Sharman was named MVP of the NBA All-Star Game in January 1955, Dodger officials persuaded him to give baseball another try with the promise he would be assigned to St. Paul. “He has so much natural ability, hits with power and can run, that we think he has a fine chance,” Buzzie Bavasi said. “So we’re giving it to him.” (Keep in mind the Dodgers thought Sharman was about to turn 27 years old, when he was really about to turn 29.)
And Sharman had a fine year in St. Paul, batting .292 with 11 homers in 133 games — a remarkable performance, when you think about it, for someone who had missed an entire season and returned to the highest level of the minors. “If I honestly didn’t think I could make it in the big leagues, I would not be playing in St. Paul this season,” Sharman told reporter Joe Hennessy in a story that was published in The Sporting News of May 4, 1955. “I’m ready. And if I make it in the majors I’ll give up pro basketball. I have a wife and three youngsters and I know that I could last four or five years longer in baseball than in basketball.”
But the Dodgers weren’t exactly hurting for talent (they won the National League pennant in 1955, for the third time in seven years, and would win again in ’56) and the call to the majors didn’t come for Sharman. In February 1956 — after playing in his fourth straight NBA All-Star Game, during a season in which he would be named first team All-NBA — it was clear that Sharman was frustrated that he couldn’t play major league baseball. He talked to George C. Caerns for a story in the Boston Traveler of February 7, 1956:
I’ve asked the Brooklyn Dodgers for my release, so far as minor league assignments are concerned. I figure it’s now or never for a fling in the majors. I hope the Brooklyn brass will see it my way. I’m figuring that as a free agent I might be able to catch on with the Washington Senators. But it all depends on what Brooklyn decides.
Apparently the Dodgers didn’t go for Sharman’s proposal, and an item in The Sporting News of March 28, 1956 said he had retired from baseball.
Others tried combining careers in pro basketball and baseball in the ’50s; Dick Groat, a college All-America basketball player who won a National league MVP award, did so briefly, and Gene Conley, who had the benefits of being both 6’8″ and a pitcher (so he didn’t play baseball every day), did so for a longer period. Steve Hamilton, another tall pitcher, did it for a couple of years before he reached the majors. Then in the ’60s Dave DeBusschere, Cotton Nash and Ron Reed all combined both sports for a while. But Sharman may be the most intriguing of them all, even though he never played major league baseball. None of the others were NBA all-stars while playing pro baseball, and Sharman did quite well at the highest level of the minors. Had he been in a less talent-laden organization than the Dodgers, he may have had a major league career. But how different things may have been in basketball if baseball had won him away. For instance, would anyone have come up with the game-day shootaround?
SABR member Nick Diunte has also written about Bill Sharman’s baseball career.