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.

One final Fred David post: My interview with him in 2001

I just got an email from a fellow named Matt, regarding my stories on former Sacramento Solons owner Fred David, who died in October at 100 and whose estate was just liquidated.  Matt wanted to know if he could see the interview I did with David in 2001 for my high school senior project.

David gave me a tour of his warehouse, where he stored memorabilia he recovered after the Solons’ ballpark, Edmonds Field, was torn down in 1964.  Prior to the tour, I provided David a list of written questions, which I still have (Editor’s note: It’s not for sale, though I will happily provide photocopies to anyone who sends me a stamped, addressed envelope.)

Thus, here is the interview:

1. For approximately how long were you an owner of the Sacramento Solons?

1944 Stockholder- 1954- President of Sacramento Baseball assn.  1964 Sold Edmonds Field

2. How much did it cost to buy the team?

Started with $1,000.00 to keep baseball in Sacramento.

3. Why did you buy the Solons?

To keep baseball in Sacramento, of course with the help of the directors, associates and fans.

4. You obviously had to sell a lot of players to the major leagues to stay afloat financially.  At the same time, the amount of fans you drew depended on how good your players were (David wrote “Right. Right,” next to both of these lines.)  How did you deal with your financial dilemnas?

Borrow and Sell.  We had good players, good baseball, too much Major League.

5. I understand the Solons have been affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers.  Did you maintain any formal “parental” agreement with any team during your tenure?

No.  We had to sell many good players to the Major Leagues to stay afloat.

6. Describe the working relationship you had with your general manager Dave Kelley.

Very good.

7. How well did you pay your players in comparison to other Coast League owners?

Fairly well, considering the attendance.

8. What was your total payroll for 1954?

N/A

9. How did you get along with other Coast League owners?

Very good.

10. Was there any kind of stigma attached to Sacramento as a baseball town, since it was so small?

Oakland and San Francisco was new Major League out west.  Sacto was too small.

11. Were you apart of any effort to help get the PCL recognized as part of the Major League?

Yes, we were Open Classification shooting for the Majors.  When the Majors came west, we dropped to AAA

12. What were the fans like?  Were attendance figures consistently good, consistently bad or sporadic?

Bad.  We let another group call Solons Inc to operate the team for two years, we rented them the stadium for $15,000.00 per year.  They went bankrupt.

13. How big was the level of public interest in the Solons?

At first fair, then, they wanted Major League.

14. What kind of perks did you enjoy as an owner?

A lot of work– no pay.  But, we kept baseball going & some fun, with good times.

15. Were you friends with any players during your tenure?

Yes managers and players.  Some came to work for me.  Besides other athletes.

16. Was Edmonds Field a fitting place for baseball in Sacramento?

Very much so.  Lots of players were developed here.

17. Did you support or root for the Solons before the time that you owned them?

Yes, also at times I worked in the concession in the lobby when I was fifteen years old.

18. What’s your favorite memory from the time you owned the Solons?

We kept baseball going for 20 years.  1944-1964, good times and bad.

19. When you bought the Solons in 1954, did you think that Major League baseball would make it to the West Coast? (David wrote “Yes” next to this)  On the other hand, did you feel that the Pacific Coast League was a major league in its own right?

Yes, the weak ones were Sacramento & Portland.  As you can see all other 6 teams are Major L. now.

20. Did the Korean War affect the Solons at all?

Yes, it took some of our best players.

21. What drove you out of being an owner?  When did you officially sell?

Poor attendance.  The team in 1960-61.  Stadium 1964.

22. How did you feel in the spring of 1961, when the Solons finally departed for Hawaii, after two years of rumors that they’d leave?  Did you personally try to stop the move?

They sold the team to Hawaii, before we knew it.  Left us an empty stadium.

23. Why do you still have so much memorabilia from Edmonds Field?

After we sold the stadium, I salvaged what I could.  It was a great memory.

24. Why do think it took so long for baseball to return to Sacramento?

Major Leagues out west.  Then after 1965– no stadium.  It took 30 years for someone to decide it was time– including the growth of Sacto.

25. How different is the candy industry from the baseball industry?

Business is business– work.  But I loved baseball.  I guess I was a good fan.

26. Are you a Rivercats fan?

Yes.

More Fred David estate sale pictures

I wanted to post some more pictures that I took at the Fred David estate sale on Friday.  For my initial post here early Saturday morning, I only used the picture I took of Gus Stathos, because I figured it was my best shot of the day, as well as the most original content I could offer, and I didn’t want my entry to get bogged down with too many images.  Most of the other shots I took are similar to what The Sacramento Bee has posted on its Web site.  Still, I offer my selection now for anyone who doesn’t read The Bee.

Continue reading More Fred David estate sale pictures

Day 2 of the estate sale for Sacramento Solons owner Fred David

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SACRAMENTO– It’s as if the old Solon has been transported back more than half a century to his clubhouse at Edmonds Field.

In front of Gus Stathos, in a cavernous warehouse downtown dubbed The Building lie some of the final baseball-related relics from the estate of former Sacramento Solons owner Fred David, who died in October at 100. It’s late on a Friday, the second day of a sale that was busier on its first, with items like the old pitching cage, ticket window and ballpark speakers already long gone.  Not much Solons gear remains: Some orphan field lights, some beat-up folding chairs that served as box seats, tickets from the final exhibition game before the park was torn down in 1964, a ripped stretcher, a heat box and the old whirlpool bath, priced at $200.  The vast majority of the items in stock come from David’s wholesale candy business that he ran for most of his life, up until his final weeks.

As a former Solon outfielder, a replica team hat on his head, the 82-year-old Stathos wants to know if he’s entitled to one of the chairs for free, perhaps so he can have it painted for his grandchildren.  He’ll leave with one within the hour.  First, he surveys the other items that once played a different role in his life as a player.  When asked, he says he remembers being in the whirlpool bath and that he also sat in the red leather heat box “a few times.”  Of the bath, which will sell to another former ballplayer shortly thereafter, Stathos remarks, “Tony Freitas used to say ‘Get in there’,” remembering the words of his former manager.

Memories of this kind are things cherished by Stathos and other Solons old-timers, who still gather frequently and whose ranks thin by the year.  For others who attended the sale, some came out of simple curiosity or to add to collections, others in hopes that the warehouse held their link to a bygone era.

Staff for Schiff Estate Services, who organized and ran the sale, reported their largest first day ever for a sale with the Thursday opening for the event.  The first customers arrived outside the warehouse around 5:30 that morning and lines to the cash register lasted for an hour-and-a-half, Schiff Estate Services owner Gary Schiff said.  Schiff refused to discuss profits from the sale, for the privacy of the David family, though he said this was one of his most-successful sales.

“I’ve done bigger dollar numbers on sales, but it’s been fun,” Schiff said.

Stathos was not the only ex-Solon to partake in the sale, and sales staff said that Alan O’Connor, the author of Solons team history Gold on the Diamond was in and out of the event over the first two days.  Friday, an autographed copy of his book sat on display at the front counter.

Some people left disappointed, though.  Some family members of former Solons players came in hopes they would find personal memorabilia.  Sales staff said, however, that the warehouse had already been picked through by collectors in the four decades since Edmonds Field was torn down, when David salvaged what he could and hauled it back to his storage.  (Editor’s Note: David also seemingly gave freely.  I say this because he gave me an old Solons program when he let me tour the warehouse in 2001.)

“A lot of the sexy baseball stuff wasn’t here,” Schiff said.

No members of David’s family were present either on Friday.  They left the sale to Schiff, who they contacted through a referral.  Only one family member of David’s helped in the planning, and she couldn’t bear to watch it carried out.

“She said this was pretty much his life and this was more emotional than him dying, seeing this get dismantled,” Schiff said.

A couple of waitresses from the Fox & Goose Restaurant, next door to the warehouse, were among the shoppers on Friday.  David owned the building that housed the warehouse and the restaurant.  One of the waitresses, Cindy Baker, said she served David for four years and that he preferred cream of broccoli with cheddar cheese soup.  She could only talk to him through the personal assistant always with him and said he would complain if his dish was wrong.  She said Friday marked the first time she’d been allowed in the warehouse.

Still, she said that people had nice things to say about David at a memorial that was held at the Fox & Goose late last year.

“People were being sincere and acknowledging his efforts for the city, but at the same time, it seemed like a lot of people knew him as a man,” Baker said.

Friday afternoon, in a warehouse due to be sold once finally vacated, the remnants of that life awaited new frontier.

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.

*******************

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.

Let's get a credential

A couple months ago, I decided one of my goals for 2010 would be to get a press pass for a San Francisco Giants or Oakland Athletics game.  I used to get media access all the time as a journalist and have had passes to Arco Arena for a Sacramento Kings game, AT&T Park for a college football All-Star contest and Raley Field in Sacramento for maybe two dozen Triple-A baseball games.  There’s a certain feeling that having a press pass around one’s neck grants, that special knowledge of getting to hold up the plastic shield and go somewhere others aren’t allowed.  It’s been a couple years since I last had a press pass.  Call it ego, but I miss that feeling.

So I decided in December to try for a pass this year, for this Web site.  My thought was that I would get a credential for an A’s game, when they play the Yankees so that I could interview Nick Johnson, who went to my high school in Sacramento, McClatchy and is married to the sister of a woman I grew up with.  Then I got to thinking I may as well request a pass from the Giants too, as they also have a former McClatchy player in their organization, Steve Holm.  I figured I would see about a Cubs-Giants series, when a great baseball player from Sacramento, Derek Lee, would be in town.

Thing is, my search engine ranking wasn’t great at the time I had this idea.  There is a Web site, Alexa, which ranks every site on the Internet according to total number of visitors and page views.  Google is ranked #1, Facebook #2 and Yahoo #3 and so on.  I have an acquaintance that founded a popular guitar Web site that’s ranked 20,000th roughly and that’s awesome– he’s able to make a living with that sort of ranking.  Personally, I’ve been ranked as high as 1.3-millionth (which probably wasn’t accurate, since it came early in the life of this site) but in December, my ranking was maybe 3-millionth.  Now, it’s 7-millionth.

I don’t know what’s going on, because I’ve tripled my number of monthly unique visitors since I quit my job in November and am starting to approach a thousand, but my fear has been that any Giants or A’s employee looking to grant me access would see my ranking and think, “Okay, who the hell is this guy?  Next!”  And I don’t know if I have an especially compelling reason for needing a pass.

Nevertheless, I impulsively picked up the phone a couple of weeks ago and touched base with members of both teams’ credential departments.  Each representative gave me instructions on what to do next.  The Giants employee emailed me some paperwork to fax in and said he hoped to see me at the ballpark.  The A’s rep told me a specific person to contact with the Yankees and gave me his email address, saying the decision would be up to them and that it might be hard to get a pass for the first game of the series.  I haven’t taken any action since then and don’t know where this will lead, but for some reason, I’m feeling slightly hopeful at the moment.

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.