Lifelong dream accomplished 50 years ago
I promised myself when I first began writing sports many moons ago that I wouldn’t ever try to bore people by writing my autobiography. It is probably more interesting than a life history of the average Schmoe off the street, but I’m still not going to attempt it.
However, I would like to admit that whenever I was a very young tow-headed lad growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., I wanted to be a professional baseball player. It’s something many boys wish for, but most abandon that dream before their voice changes.
I was fortunate to have a dad who was a good baseball player during his heyday and would always ask me if I wanted to go out in the backyard and “throw some.” It became almost a ritual—dad would get home from work at 3:45 p.m., drink a quick cup of coffee and then ask me if I wanted to “throw some.”
His idea of throwing some was probably a bit different than at most households, because he had a catcher’s mitt and a fairly new baseball with which to “throw some.”
This ritual began when I was about six years old and continued until I was 14, when Dad informed me that my pitches were moving and hopping all over the place and he couldn’t afford to catch one on the wrist and go on the “disabled list.”
In between, our afternoon ritual expanded to him hitting me grounders in the backyard or us going a couple blocks up the hill to Central Park where he threw batting practice. And he made sure I’d see some pitches from him that I would never see during a Little League or Babe Ruth League game.
Being ahead of a majority of the boys my age talent-wise began to pay dividends as I was selected to play on our Little League All-Star team as a 12-year-old in 1954 which had many youngsters who also were fortunate enough to have a dad or older brother or uncle who showed them the finer points of the game.
As a result, we won our way all the way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. and brought home the World Championship.
As a 13-year-old it was somewhat frustrating competing against 14 and 15-year olds in the Babe Ruth League.
But the fundamentals that I learned from my dad and on the Little League team made up for the some of the difference in physical appearance between a 13 and 15 year old.
It didn’t take long to “catch-up” to the “big guys” and contribute to the team I was on. And there wasn’t any difference in physical size once I hit high school, where a freshman was a 10th grader.
When I reached high school I was switched from shortstop to third base because the coach believed in having his strongest arm at the hot corner. And I didn’t dare tell the coach I also pitched, because at a high school the size of Mont Pleasant High, the pitchers rode the bench when they weren’t on the mound.
I had a very successful high school career and during the summer, I chose to play in the semipro Twilight League that consisted mostly of college players, former pros and several of the area coaches who were enjoying their summer away from school.
Playing in that Twilight League helped me get a full baseball scholarship to McNeese State, thanks to a Pittsburgh Pirates’ scout who used to play minor league baseball with the McNeese head coach.
I enjoyed four successful years as a McNeese baseball player both as a third baseman and a pitcher and was ready to try and get to that next level that I was still dreaming of reaching.
I was back at the Schenectady Twilight League in June of 1963 to showcase my talent as a pitcher in front of the many major league scouts who always attended those games.
I worked three Sundays in a row and threw shutout victories in each game. After the third game several scouts talked to me, but one came to my house before I could even change my sweaty uniform named Ralph Di Lullo with the Chicago Cubs.
He talked my parents into letting me go home with him to Patterson, N.J. and he would bring me back home the next day.
What I didn’t know was that the Cubs were in New York playing the Mets in the Polo Grounds and Patterson N.J was right across the river from New York City.
Di Lullo brought me into the Cubs clubhouse a couple of hours before the game and introduced me to several of the players like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Kenny Hubbs, Dick Ellsworth and others I can’t recall, because I was in awe.
“This guy is thinking about signing with SOMEBODY and I’m hoping he’ll become a Cubbie,” Di Lullo announced to anyone who was listening.
A voice came from the training room saying let me talk to him. It was my favorite pitcher Larry Jackson, who had been traded that spring from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Chicago Cubs.
Jackson was getting a rubdown before he was to pitch and he looked me in the eye from his prone position as said, “I played many years with the Cardinals and have been treated better in half a season with the Cubs than I did during my entire career at St. Louis.”
It didn’t take me long to agree to the terms of the contract the Cubs offered me and as a bonus, I got to sit in a box seat right behind home plate next to a former major league player named Dale Mitchell, who is famous for making the final out when Yankee right-hander Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Ralph said we had to leave about half-way through the game because he wanted to take me to the Spalding warehouse and get me fitted for a brand new glove and a pair of baseball shoes with a sewn-on pitching toe.
Then we made the three-hour drive back to Schenectady so I could pack and be ready to fly out of the Albany airport early the next morning for Middlesboro, Kentucky and be ready to play on Wednesday in the Appalachian Rookie League.
Our team was called the Cubs-Sox because it was a mixture of players just signed by both the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox. My manager was Rip Collins of the old St. Louis Cardinals Gashouse Gang and he was a character that I will never forget.
And I will never forget that whirlwind last week of June in 1963—exactly 50 years ago!!!
KWICKIES…Texas duck hunters who enjoy the brief September teal-only season will get a bonus this year after the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s regulation committee approved a recommendation to increase the daily bag limit of teal during the teal-only season from four to six of the small ducks. This is the first change in the teal season bag limits in the almost half-century history of the early-autumn hunting season.
Now that the Houston Astros’ No. 1 draft pick has been signed, sealed and delivered, Houston native and Stanford ace right-hander Mark Appel will begin throwing this week at the Astros’ spring training home in Kissimmee, Fla. after a three-week layoff from pitching. After about 10 days there he will join Class A short-season Tri-City in Troy, N.Y. and probably make his professional debut in early July.
The Boston Celtics made a rare trade that will send their head coach Doc Rivers to assume that position with the Los Angeles Clippers for their first-round draft pick in 2015. Rivers had three years and $21 million left on his contract with the Celtics and must also reach an agreement on a new deal with the Clippers. Rivers had the second-longest tenure of any NBA coach with only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich having more. Rivers compiled a 416-305 record in nine years at Boston, which was the third best in franchise history.
Houston Texans’ head coach Gary Kubiak predicts that this year’s team will be different than last year’s team that made the NFL playoffs for a second straight season. “There’s going to be some different leadership on this team,” Kubiak said. “There is going to be some new guys. Hopefully we stay good and healthy and come together as a group like we did last year.”
JUST BETWEEN US…I couldn’t help pulling for former Port Neches-Groves and Lamar University standout golfer Chris Stroud to win last weekend’s PGA Travelers Championship Tournament at Cromwell, Conn. He certainly came close to getting his first PGA-Tour victory as he chipped in a birdie from 50 feet on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with eventual winner Ken Duke, which really wowed the crowd around the No. 18 green. Stroud and Duke played No. 18 twice in the sudden-death playoff with Stroud make a save from the sand on the first playoff hole and then succumbing to a three-foot birdie putt by Duke on the second playoff hole. This was the best finish for the 33-year-old Stroud, whose previous best finish this year was tying for sixth at the Wells Fargo Championship last month. He’s had 14 Top-10 finishes since joining the PGA Tour in 2004. Stroud, who shot a 12-under-par 268, netted a nifty runners-up check for $658,800, while Duke received $1.098 million for his first Tour win.