Gus Stathos, spring training in 1947, and Jackie Robinson

I went to the Old Timers Lunch on Friday in Sacramento, to do interviews for my book on Joe Marty. It was a good day in my life. I did a couple of key interviews and also got to talk to a former Sacramento Solon named Gus Stathos.

Stathos, who I interviewed at the estate sale of former Solons owner Fred David in February, never played with Marty and was a career minor leaguer. The closest he came to making the show was when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947. Stathos played that spring with Jackie Robinson, who was weeks away from becoming the first black man in 83 years to play professional ball.

Stathos gave me a few minutes of his time on Friday, and I’ve provided excerpts from our talk below:

On how Robinson cleaned up at ping pong and horse shoes between workouts and games: “What he did, he used to sit around there with a bunch of guys and play horse shoes. You’d turn around, he beat everybody. Ping bong, he beat everybody. Basketball, he was great. Goodhearted guy, very nice, always spoke real good about everybody.”

On a story Robinson told that spring about treatment he got at a hotel in New Orleans: “He went in to check into the room. There was about fifty or sixty guys there, and the young kid who was behind the counter, he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘We don’t take black people here for our hotel.’ So Pee Wee Reese says– he came forward, Pee Wee Reese– and Eddie Stanky came forward says, ‘Well, if he can’t stay here, we’re not going to stay here.’ So Jackie Robinson heard that, he came up, and he said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t worry about it, I’ll go to a black town and get a room, and I’ll see you guys at the ballpark.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

On if he had a good idea if Robinson would break the color barrier that year: “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. I thought he was great, I really did, I really liked him. Everybody loved him.”

On whether he had other conversations with Robinson: “Well, as soon as he knew I was from California, cause he was from LA you know….”

On whether Robinson had an opinion on Stathos’s hometown, Sacramento: “I don’t think he even knew where Sacramento was, to be honest with you.”

On Robinson as a player: “I just loved the way he ran. He was pigeon-toed, you know, and he could run– and he could run. He had a lot of guts. He’d steal every base there was and… I thought he was a great ballplayer, I really did. And I’m glad that he made the Hall of Fame, I’m glad he did what he did, and I can say that I was at spring training with him.”

News on the baseball writing front

A couple of cool things happened for me baseball writing-wise this week.

First, as regular readers may know, I joined the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America on Wednesday. Since then, I have been talking with the head of the group, and he has invited me to write for a Where Are They Now section on his Web site. It sounds perfect for me, since I love talking to old ballplayers. I have a tentative first assignment to interview Gino Cimoli, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the first man to come to bat on the West Coast, after the Giants and Dodgers moved west.

While perusing the “Where Are They Now” section to see what the articles look like and who’s already been written about, I noticed a feature on one of the three former teammates of Joe Marty that are still living. As faithful readers here will know, I began research in January for a book on Marty, who played in the majors from 1937-41, and I interviewed another of the ex-teammates in February. I haven’t had any luck getting the other two men on the phone, but seeing the “Where Are They Now” feature gave me some hope to try again.

Thus, I called and spoke with this man’s son, asked about arranging a phone interview, and offered to send questions for preparation as I did with the other player. I wouldn’t normally do this as a journalist, but I’m willing to make exceptions if my interview subject is over 90, as all three of these players are. The son was fine with this and said he and his dad would do what they could for me. I put a list of 30 questions in the mail yesterday along with my callback number and am keeping my fingers crossed that this comes off.

I am deliberately not posting the names of these players for search engine purposes, but this particular player is somewhat well-known and is the last living person to have played in a game with a man who hit 714 home runs (again, I word it that way for search engine purposes, please don’t leave an “Aha” type comment.) Basically, it would be awesome if I get this interview.

As I’ve said before here, I feel like I’m getting to take part in something greater than myself with this project. I’m also starting to feel it has historical importance. I typically use a 90-minute digital recorder for interviews and wind up having to delete old interviews when I need space for new ones. It’s unfortunate– in the last couple of years, some of the interviews I’ve deleted include Oliver Stone and Jose Canseco (a full transcript of my Canseco interview, though, can be found here.) I want to keep a record of everyone I talk to for this project, especially if the book gets published. Thus, I bought a tape recorder, batteries and a ten-pack of tapes yesterday and spent over an hour in the evening getting the interview from February transferred over.

To say the least, I’m excited about what lies ahead.

About five years overdue: I join the Society for American Baseball Research

I did something today that I have wanted to do for the past few years and joined the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who don’t know, it is a research society for people who like to read, write and talk about baseball (I like to do all three.) I attended a lunch meeting in Sacramento on my birthday in 2004 and was home. Never before have I been in a room with so many fellow baseball geeks, intimidating though it was when a trivia quiz was given early in the lunch, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m used to being the guy who amazes my friends and co-workers by knowing things like who won the World Series in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s career batting average. To a SABR member, such knowledge is equivalent to $100 questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Since attending the 2004 meeting, I’ve wanted to become a  SABR member, but for the most part, have been financially constrained or otherwise distracted. I’m starting to get above water with my new job, though, so I decided to take the plunge today. It took five minutes to fill in my credit card info on the SABR Web site, and I am now a SABR member through December 31 of this year. It only cost me $45, since it’s already April and I’m under 30, which qualifies me for some discounts.

The membership should get me connected with other baseball lovers, a good thing since I tend to isolate left to my own devices. I signed up to be in a research group on minor league baseball and elected to be in two chapters: the Lefty O’Doul one in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, as well as the Sacramento group, since I’ve begun research on a book about a player from there, Joe Marty. I will also have access to a wealth of SABR research materials online, which are restricted from non-members, and I’m hoping I might be able to get this blog indexed on the SABR site.

Anyhow, expect more SABR-related posts as I begin to attend meetings.

Baseball coma

I spent much of yesterday transcribing my interview from Saturday with the 96-year-old former big league teammate of Joe Marty, who I’m interested in writing a book on.  While transcribing yesterday, between being held in some kind of spell — a baseball coma, if you will — I got further affirmation of what had already struck me on Saturday: I got some gold.  The old ballplayer’s memory was wonderfully clear, and he was a better quote than some of the managers I talked to in my time covering baseball.  I probably transcribed for 4-5 hours yesterday and got a couple thousand words of quotes between the man and his son, lots of great anecdotes I didn’t even ask for really.  I think there’s definitely a book here.

Two days on, I’m still amazed to have talked to someone who played in the majors with Marty, who was there from 1937 to 1941.  Like I’ve said before, this man is one of three teammates still living, all in their nineties.  I definitely want to turn my attention now to getting the other two men on record, though I know not to expect anything.  The approach of calling a family member, sending a list of written questions and then waiting for a callback seemed to work well, though.  Generally, I’m not the kind of journalist to provide questions prior to an interview, but I’m happy to make an exception here.

A larger task will be tracking down the men Marty played with on the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League, between 1946 and 1952.  Some are still in the Sacramento area and meet for old-timer lunches on a monthly basis.  I’ve interviewed a few of these men in years past, for different projects, and my guess is that, all told, there could be a few dozen ex-Solons from these years still living.  It’s harder to verify than with ex-big leaguers, particularly since Sacramento was something of a way-station then; that being said, I may call on the Sacramento chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research and even contact archives associated with the PCL.

I have no idea of the road I’m embarking on, which will probably be a weekend project for the foreseeable future.  All the same, I feel a sense of purpose, that I’m getting a chance to work on something that’s bigger than me.  That feels good.

It's like Christmas around here today

It’s been an amazing last couple of hours in my life.

I had a visitor scheduled for noon today.  At 11:57, though, I got a call from the son of the 96-year-old former baseball player I have been wanting to interview for a book on one of his teammates on the 1940 Phillies, Joe Marty.  Marty grew up in my hometown of Sacramento and was once thought to be a better prospect than another outfielder of his era, Joe DiMaggio, though that never materialized.  It seems like it would make a good book, and it would be my first book, if I do write it.

I wasn’t sure if and when my visitor would show, but I elected to do the interview anyhow.  I hung up, with my caller’s permission, so I could grab my digital recorder, put fresh batteries in it and call back to reverse the charges (one of the few benefits of having a Metro phone is that I have unlimited minutes, local and long-distance.)  I didn’t know how much time we would have, but we agreed that I could call back later if we got interrupted.  The journalist in me is always willing to drop whatever I’m doing for a good story.

As it turned out, my visitor has thus far no-showed me, and I was able to stay on the phone with the ballplayer and his son for an hour and a half, all told.  The ballplayer didn’t know Marty well, but he was able to offer some insight about him; I’m just thrilled to get to talk to any of Marty’s former teammates, as this man is one of three still living, all in their nineties.  I’m starting to have some faith that this is going to be a good book and that I’m the guy to write it.

For search engine purposes, I am declining to post the name of the player or more details of the interview right now, though I may post a full transcript of the interview here, if and when my book comes out.

That’s not all.  I called my mom just after the interview ended so I could relay the news.  While we were on the phone, I got a knock on the door.  I figured it would be my visitor.  However, it was the mailman with another book for me from University of Nebraska Press.  This time they sent me a new book by a pair of authors, Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg entitled, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. I will happily review this once I finish reading two other books I have from the publisher.

Days like this come along seldom.  I’m 26, but right now I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Questions for the 96-year-old ballplayer

I got some questions mailed off to the daughter of the 96-year-old former baseball player I want to interview.  I’m interested in writing a book on one of his former teammates on the 1940 Philadelphia Phillies, Joe Marty, and this man is one of three people still living, all over 90, who played in the majors with him.  The daughter said she will review my questions with her dad and then call when he’s near the phone.  He sounded lucid when the daughter and I spoke last week and he was in the background.

The questions I wrote primarily centered around what life was like on the last-place Phillies that year, his sole season in the majors and if he had any interactions with Marty.  When his daughter and I spoke, I could hear him in the background, correctly remembering that Marty was an outfielder, and I wonder, in general, how vivid his memories are.  A part of my mind keeps circling back to this thought that he will be like the elderly Rose in Titanic, white hair and wide-eyed, self righteously telling Bill Paxton she can remember what the fresh paint smelled like on the doomed, maiden ship.  I like to think we remember the things that matter to us for a lifetime.

But I also know the realities of Alzheimer’s Disease– something like half of all people over 85 suffer from it.  I recognize there’s a 50-50 chance this man has the disease, though with that said, I’ve heard that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s actually have more intense long-term memories.  They may not remember what they had for lunch yesterday but they can strongly recall details of life from 1924.  The daughter told me her dad had some kind of issue back in August; I suppose I’ll learn more when we talk.

Regardless, I know that old ballplayers love to talk about the past.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from a retired MLB scout from Sacramento who I’ve quoted here before, Ronnie King.  He told me in essence, when I was doing researching for my high school senior project on the Sacramento Solons, that I needn’t worry about getting the old-timers I would be interviewing to talk.  All they needed was the opportunity.  It’s a lesson that’s stayed with me, even if I sometimes have forgotten it.

Anyhow, I mailed the questions Monday evening and am awaiting a call.  The hope is that I’ll enter some sublime time warp with this old man, getting a broad window into his brief life as a ballplayer.  At this point, though, I’m grateful for any insight whatsoever that he can offer.

The question of alcoholism and the ex-player

There is another story from Friday afternoon I have been meaning to tell here.

After covering the Fred David estate sale in downtown Sacramento, I interviewed another old Sacramento Solons player, Sam Kanelos, at his bar across the street from the sale, Old Ironsides.  Kanelos played more than 50 years ago with a Sacramento native I’m interested in writing a book on, Joe Marty.  As I’ve recounted here before, Marty came up on the San Francisco Seals in the 1930s with Joe DiMaggio and was once thought to be a better prospect.  He played with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies from 1937 to 1941, though injuries and World War II shortened his career.  There are rumors he was alcoholic as well.  He ran a couple of bars during his life, and one old-timer told me, when I did my high school senior project on the Solons, that Marty became his own best customer.

I asked Kanelos, while sitting at his bar, if he thought Marty was an alcoholic.  The longtime bartender bristled at this and repeatedly said no.  Kanelos stressed that while Marty liked to go out after games and also would generously sometimes buy $200-300 worth of drinks for friends at social events in later life, he never drank before games during his career.  He said there was a lot of misinformation about Marty floating around.  I tried rephrasing my question, asking Kanelos if he thought Marty was a hard-drinker, and this rankled him too.  He said he couldn’t label another man an alcoholic.

That’s certainly fair.  I knew as much, already, but this question of how to address Marty’s drinking has perturbed me since I first settled on doing research for a book on him a couple months ago.  The journalism school graduate in me wants to tell Marty’s story in all its gritty glory, whatever that may be.  I want to know if his drinking was, indeed, problematic, if he was ashamed of it, if he ever tried to get help. I want to know who he was as a man, for better and for worse.  A mythical, saintly story doesn’t seem like it would do anyone much good.

But — assuming Marty did have a problem — I also know every recovering addict or alcoholic deserves some measure of anonymity, unless they choose to breach it.  Granted, we live in an age where more Americans can probably name what Tiger Woods went to rehab for than the current Secretary of State.  It has been widely reported that Don Newcombe got sober.  Maury Wills and Dennis Eckersley reportedly did too.  And many baseball fans know the story of Paul Waner, an oft-hungover .300 hitter who was escorted back to the bar, after he quit drinking in 1938 and his batting average dropped to .241.  Their stories would seem incomplete without these components.

All this being said, 12-step groups still ask that the full names of their members not be printed in the news.  In addition, a part of me thinks it wouldn’t be fair to level accusations about Marty without him able to defend them, as he died in 1984.  Then again, writing this sort of story now, following someone’s death at least wouldn’t undermine their recovery.

What I’ll probably wind up doing is asking every question I can during the research stage of this process.  Only then can I sort through all the information and determine truth.

Looks like my weekend plans are set

I was just looking at my Google Analytics stats and saw I had a spike yesterday in the number of people who read my obituary on former Sacramento Solons owner Fred David, who died in October at 100.  I wondered if the Sacramento Bee had finally written anything about him.  They declined to do a standard obituary, because their obit writer learned of David’s death more than two weeks after the fact.  I talked with one of their columnists after my post ran, and he said he was interested in writing something, though I’ve yet to see anything.

After seeing the statistical spike, however, I wondered if the column had finally run.  Instead, I did a Google search on David and found this Craigslist ad from January 30:

We will be liquidating the Estate of longtime Sacramento Businessman and owner of the Sacramento Baseball Solons of the Old PCL Thursday – Sunday Feb. 4th – 7th. Many items from the old stadium on Broadway will be for sale. Also, the remaining contents of David Candy, including Signs, displays, office, racks, memoribilia. Get on our email list www.schiffestateservices.com to get more information and photos on Monday.

David had a warehouse at 10th and R Street in Sacramento, where he stored many items that he salvaged from the Solons ballpark after it was torn down in 1964.  I had wondered what would become of the memorabilia and had first heard through David’s niece last fall that there would be a sale.  The Craigslist ad doesn’t make the location of the sale clear, but the estate service company Web site said it will be held at the warehouse.

Anyhow, it looks like I now have my weekend plans set.  I was already kicking around the idea of going to Sacramento to see my folks, do laundry and return some library books.  This pretty much seals it.  I have some stuff in the Bay Area I need to do today, but will probably get on the road for Sacramento tomorrow morning and maybe stay through Saturday.  Expect pictures and a full description by Sunday.

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A footnote: While I was writing this post, I received a phone call.  As I have noted here in the past, I am interested in writing a book on a former Sacramento baseball player named Joe Marty.  Marty played in the 1930s and ’40s with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies and was once thought to be a better prospect than Joe DiMaggio.  That never happened and he wound up running a bar in Sacramento, where he became “his own best customer,” as one old-timer told me.

On a whim last month, I checked the biographies of every one of Marty’s major league teammates (it was a Saturday, I wasn’t doing much, and this totally beats Netflix.)  I found that four of Marty’s teammates were still alive, all in their 90s.  I tried calling all four and didn’t have any luck in getting through and one of the men subsequently died, so I was kind of bummed.  The longer it goes, the greater the likelihood has seemed I won’t get to talk to any of the remaining teammates.

However, I just got a call from the daughter of one of the players.  We talked and I am going to send some written questions which she will review with her dad, who is 96.  She said we could do a follow-up call from there, when her dad is near the phone.  I had called this player’s son a few weeks ago and hadn’t been real encouraged this would lead anywhere, after he gave me the indication his dad is private.  My spirits are lifted now, though.  The daughter asked her dad some questions while we were on the phone, and I could hear him in the background, correctly remembering that Marty was an outfielder.  He sounds lucid.

News on the book front

I got called yesterday to do some freelance corporate writing for a business in Antioch. On my way out to the company’s headquarters to meet with their upper management and get an idea of their needs, I realized I was only about an hour outside of Sacramento, where my parents live. Thus, after I finished up with my client, I called my folks and went to have dinner and stay the night. It proved fortuitous because my mom had just received two library books I requested regarding a baseball book I’m working on.

Faithful readers of this site will know that I have been kicking around the idea of doing a book on Joe Marty, a baseball player from Sacramento. Marty came up in the same outfield with Joe DiMaggio on the San Francisco Seals in the 1930s and later played for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. Injuries and World War II shortened his career, though he was initially considered a better prospect than DiMaggio. I’m not sure if there’s enough for a book, and I’ve never written one, but it seems it has potential.

Thus, I conducted my first interview for the project a couple of weeks ago with Cuno Barragan, another Sacramento native and a former big league player himself.  Barragan caught for the Cubs in the early Sixties and grew up watching Marty play for the Sacramento Solons. Barragan said he didn’t have much interaction with Marty until years after his career, though he suggested a few people I could talk with. He also recommended two books about the Solons, Gold on the Diamond by Alan O’Connor and Sacramento Senators and Solons by John Spalding.

I once had an autographed copy of Spalding’s book that I got while working on my high school senior project on the Solons almost ten years ago, but I let the book go a few years ago when I needed money. I might have gotten a few dollars for it at the used bookstore; I kicked myself recently when I saw copies of it going for around $100 on Amazon. Seems it’s out of print and hard to find. Thankfully, it was available at the library, and I’ve got it and O’Connor’s book until February 12.

I read a little of each book last night and found plenty of good material about Marty. Barragan had told me about being on-hand at the Solons’ ballpark, Edmonds Field when fans presented Marty with a 1950 Buick; O’Connor reported that Marty drove the car for the next 34 years, even appearing with it in a local ad in 1974 attesting to the car’s longevity.

All in all, I’m excited and feel I’m on my way to good things.

On a down note, one of Marty’s four remaining teammates, Bobby Bragan, died Thursday.  I had been excited to see listed numbers for Bragan and two of the other men, though I didn’t have much luck getting through.  Both of Bragan’s numbers in Fort Worth, Texas were out of service, and I went so far as to call several of the listed Bragans in the state, though it led nowhere. It’s too late now for any further effort.

Bragan was the youngest of the four players, having turned 92 in October.  I’m nervous I won’t ultimately get to interview any of them, though I suppose if it’s meant to be, it will happen.

How I spent my Saturday

Today was a good day.

For one thing, my first check from this site arrived today: $147.10, courtesy of a few advertisers.  I’d write here for free, happily, but it’s cool to know I can make a few bucks.  My goal is to eventually pay my Internet bill through proceeds from this site.

I also did some research on Joe Marty, a former player I’m considering writing a book on.  Marty played in the majors from 1937 to 1941, and I have been wondering if any of his former teammates are still alive.  Well, through the magic of Baseball Reference, Baseball Almanac, Wikipedia and the willingness to spend a few hours in front of the computer, I checked the bios of every single one of his teammates and confirmed that four are still alive.  Better, they all have listed phone numbers.  They’re all in their nineties, among the oldest former players still living, but I’m hopeful I can get at least one or two good interviews out of the group.  Old players love to reminisce, I learned early on.  I think it’s one reason many have listed numbers.

Feeling invigorated after getting the first four numbers, I went one step further and checked the biographies of every one of Marty’s teammates from the Pacific Coast League.  He begun with the San Francisco Seals from 1934 to 1936, where he teamed with Joe DiMaggio.  Later, following his career in the big leagues and a few years thereafter serving in World War II, Marty returned to his hometown to play for the Sacramento Solons from 1946 to 1952.  I was unable to confirm if any of his Seals teammates are still alive (the chance of which seems slim), though I found at least 13 former Solon teammates that are still around.  A few of those guys definitely have listed numbers as well.

If possible, I’d like to interview all of Marty’s living teammates.  I’m undecided if this will ultimately be a book or just an awesome post for this site, but I’m hopeful about the road I’m embarking on.

The upshot is that I literally spent nine hours in front of my computer punching in names.  My eyes are weary from the flicker of my laptop.  It was the kind of day where I had something I needed to do in the evening, and I didn’t want to leave my computer and couldn’t wait to return home.  I don’t work this hard at my typical day job.