Chapter 15

The Hearst Sandlot Classic – 1951

  1. U. S. All-Stars 9; Journal-American All-Stars 2

The Kid from Baltimore

The 1951 Hearst game included Jersey Joe Walcott giving a two-round boxing exhibition against actor Jeff Chandler as part of the pre-game festivities.  Not only did Walcott appear, but he donated $500 to the cause after winning the money on a television quiz show, “Break the Bank.”  His donation was matched by Yankee great Phil Rizzuto, and Walcott, himself, purchased 1,000 tickets to the game, to be used by area youngsters.[1]

The U. S. Stars were managed by a trio of veterans including Oscar Vitt, Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, and Charlie Gehringer.  Gomez, always the jokester, treated his attentive audience to a couple of gems.  “’Why wasn’t I a good hitter?’ Can’t say I was a bad hitter.  I was just in a batting slump that lasted 18 years.”  And “For the first time in my baseball career, I broke a bat the other day.  I backed my car over a Louisville Slugger getting out of the garage.”  Young Ronald Keller from San Antonio listened to every word.[2]

Keller earned his trip to New York by pitching three innings of one-hit ball as his South Texas team defeated San Antonio in the annual All-Star game in San Antonio. Keller and his fellow San Antonian Glenn Uecker, who went two-for-two with three RBIs in the Texas game, also got to meet with Dizzy Dean when they attended a Yankee-Senators game.  Keller never played organized baseball.   Glenn Uecker never signed with a major-league organization.  In 1952, he signed on with the Abbeville (LA) Athletics of the Evangeline League.  He was a no-name on a squad of no-names, batting just .118 in 18 games.  However, Keller and Uecker’s signatures appear on the 1951 Hearst Classic game ball along with those of Albert Kaline, Charlie Gehringer, and Rabbit Maranville – not bad company.

Also, the players got to participate in two games that had importance far beyond the field of play.  As war was raging in Korea, the Wrambling Wrecks once again sponsored the Texas game.  One of their own, Sergeant Werner Reininger, a Korean War victim, was honored and presented a check in the sum of $11,453.[3] And funds raised in the New York game benefited sandlot ball in the New York area.

Prior to the game in New York, there was also a softball contest between the Grumman Yankees from Long Island and the Fort Wayne Zollners from Michigan.  Fort Wayne came out on top by a 3-0 score.

The U. S. All-Stars won the main event by a score of 9-2 to give them their fifth consecutive win in the classic. Their attack featured two home runs.  One was by Harold Holland from Pittsburgh.  Holland signed with the New York Giants for an estimated $15,000, but spent most of his time in professional baseball in the low minor leagues, batting .279 in eight seasons. In his last season, 1961, he batted .332 in 78 games with Olean (NY) in the Class-D New York-Penn League.

The other home run was hit by one of the three players from the 1951 Hearst Game who made it to the major leagues. The young man from Baltimore was selected the game’s MVP.  He had just completed his sophomore year of high school, and at age 16 years, 7 months, and 20 days was one of the youngest players ever to play in the Hearst Classic.  He was accompanied to New York by Baltimore News-Post writer Frank Cashen, who would go on to work with the Orioles as General Manager. Cashen later orchestrated the ascendancy of the New York Mets during the 1980’s, and had the unique distinction of firing one Hearst alum as a Met manager, and ultimately replacing him with another Hearst alum.

The Baltimore kid’s performance in the Hearst game came as no surprise.  As a high school freshman in 1950, he had been named to the Maryland All-State team.  At the start of his American Legion season in 1951, he had gone 14-for-17.  He went 2-for-4 in the Hearst Classic with a single and an inside-the-park homer that sailed over the center fielder’s head.  In the field, he was equally adept, making five good plays and gunning down a runner at third base.[4]

In 1960, long time U. S. All-Star manager Ossie Vitt remembered, “I could tell he was one of the best prospects I’d ever seen the first time I saw him.  He had those wrists with a snap in them, the poise, hustle, and attitude, and how he could throw and run.”[5]  The kid became the standard against which all future Hearst players would be measured.

Tigers scout Ed Katalinas first laid eyes on the player when he was a high school freshman in 1950 and just a skinny kid.  It wasn’t long before scouts from each of the 16 major league teams were eying the kid, especially after he appeared on the big stage in New York. He was signed to a bonus when he completed high school in 1953 and, due to the bonus rule in effect at the time, went straight to the Tigers. Al Kaline played 22 years with the Tigers and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.

Looking back at his experience in New York in 1951, Kaline remembered, “Our All-Star Game was at the Polo Grounds, but they took us to Yankee Stadium to see a big-league game. Before the game, they took us downstairs to the Yankees’ locker room. They paraded us through in one door and out the next. That (1951) was Joe DiMaggio’s last year. Joe was sitting there in front of his locker, getting ready for the game. They told us to keep moving, but everyone kept stumbling over one another because everyone wanted to stop and stare at him. Just to get a chance to see Joe DiMaggio, we kept bumping into one another, stepping on each other’s feet.”[6]

Kaline was one of five Hearst alumni to sign bonuses and go directly to the major leagues.  His success far exceeded that of each of the other “Bonus Babies” who had played in the Hearst game.

Although many kids who signed bonuses during this time were given hostile receptions (they were taking up a roster spot and sitting on the bench), Kaline was embraced by his teammates and the Tiger organization. From Day One, it was obvious that he was a superlative fielder, and his hitting came around. Actually, like with so many others, fate intervened and gave Kaline his big chance. An off-season injury to regular right fielder Steve Souchock kept him out of the lineup and Kaline was the only right fielder left. The Tigers were going no place and manager Fred Hutchinson played Kaline.

Prior to the 1954 season, manager Hutchinson in a newspaper article said that Kaline “is definitely a fine prospect and should be one of the real good bonus players in baseball.  He could be our center fielder because of his terrific arm.  I hope he can help us this season.”[7]   As Don Lund said, “Although he started slowly, he gained confidence, enhanced his skills, and finished with a fine year. Al used the bonus rule to his advantage and had a minor-league experience in the major leagues. The rest is history.”[8]

That history included a batting championship in 1955 at age 20, 16 All-Star Game appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, and election to the Hall of Fame.

A second player of note used the 1951 game to launch his career. John “Tito” Francona, had just completed his junior year of high school when he represented New Brighton High School and Pittsburgh in the Hearst Classic. He returned to high school excelling not only in baseball, but in football as well. His football accomplishments did not go unnoticed and he had offers to play collegiately. However, his first love was baseball.  He signed with Jim Weaver of the St. Louis Browns for a modest bonus of $5,000 in 1952, and went on to play fifteen years in the major leagues. After signing, he spent his first two years in the lower echelons of the Browns far system before being drafted and missing the 1954 and 1955 seasons as he was in the Army. He came out of the Army in time to play winter ball prior to the 1956 season and slugged 17 home runs playing in Colombia.[9]

In spring training prior to the 1956 season, he was assigned to the Vancouver Mounties of the Pacific Coast League and was slotted to play first base for Lefty O’Doul.  However, a solid spring performance resulted in his going north with the Orioles (who had moved from St. Louis to Baltimore in 1954) making his debut, in center field, on April 17, 1956.  Manager Richards, who still wasn’t fully convinced that Tito could handle big league pitching once it really counted, said of Tito, “I’m going to keep him with us now, though.  He can’t hurt us with his fielding, and he’s got the nerve to battle his way back if he gets off to a bad start.”[10]  Richards was proven right.  After the Memorial Day doubleheader, Francona’s average stood at .146, but Richards had not given up, playing Tito in 32 of his team’s first 39 games.  And Tito responded.  Appearing in 107 games after Memorial Day, he batted .284 with seven home runs and 47 RBIs to lift his season’s average to .255 and finish second in the rookie-of the-year voting. His most successful season in the big leagues was 1959, when he batted .363 with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs for the Cleveland Indians, finishing fifth in the MVP balloting. The following season, he led the American League in doubles, and in 1961, he was named to the All-Star team for the first and only time in his career.

In 2016, 65 years after appearing in the Hearst Classic, Tito Francona threw out the first ball of the Opening Game of the American League Divisional Series between the Indians and the Red Sox.  Standing by hi side was his son Terry who, in 2004, managed the Red Sox to their first World Championship since 1918 and who, in 2016 was the manager of Tito’s former team, the Indians.

A third player from the U. S. squad also made it to the big leagues. Pitcher Gerald Davie was sent east by the Detroit Times and on the eve of his selection for the All-Star game in Detroit, had won both ends of a doubleheader, 2-0 and 4-1, pitching for the Daisy Air Rifle team in Plymouth, Michigan. He had gone to Canada with the Plymouth team, and was notified when in Canada, that he had been selected to play in the Detroit Times All-Star game. After excelling in the game in Detroit, he along with outfielder Kel Roberts, was selected to play in the game in New York.  The players went overnight by train to New York, and Davie remembers not getting much sleep. After returning from New York, one of his sandlot teams, which included future major leaguer Jim Gentile, went on to play in the Federation League Championship in Louisville. Roberts signed with the Phillies and played four minor league seasons. In his best season, 1954, he batted .331 at Tifton in the Class-D Georgia-Florida League.  Unfortunately, he was not able to maintain that level when promoted to Class-C and he was out of baseball at age 22.

For Davie, the trip to New York was a chance for him to be reunited with U. S. All Star coach Charlie Gehringer for whom he had played in the American Legion in 1950.  Davie signed with Louie DiNunzio of the Tigers in 1952 and went 17-3 for Class-D Jamestown in his first minor league season.  After two years in the military and another four years in the minors, he started the 1959 season with the Tigers.  He went 2-2 with a 4.17 ERA in 11 games and was sent back to the minors in June.  He would never return to the majors.  In his retirement, he managed American Legion Ball in the Detroit Area.  In recent years, he and his wife have managed a mobile home park in Florida.

And then there was Bob Spier.  Spier, a pitcher, attended Bushwick High School in Brooklyn and signed with the Dodgers. He spent four seasons in their minor-league system, compiling an overall record of 52-29, but Class-B was as far as he got.

Bob Honor also hailed from the sandlots of Brooklyn. According to those that observed him in his days with the Brooklyn Royals, he might have been the finest hitter ever seen at the Parade Grounds.  He led the Kiwanis League in batting with averages of .355 (1949) and .432 (1950), the latter when he was all of 16 years old.  Rabbit Maranville chimed in stating that Honor was “one of the best hitters I’ve seen anywhere for a youngster.”[11]  He signed with the Pirates organization.  In 1953, he hit .328 at Class B Burlington-Graham in the Carolina League, and moved on to New Orleans in the Class-AA Southern Association batting .331 and .293.  His next stop was Hollywood in the Pacific Coast League.  He got into only 28 games, batting .258 in 1956.  The next stop was the military. He played briefly with Salt Lake City in the PCL in 1958, but his baseball days were over.

Seattle sent Chuck Rabung to the game. Rabung had pitched a no-hitter in the annual All-Star boys’ doubleheader at Sick’s Stadium, duplicating the feat of Don Rosburg a year earlier.  Rabung, who hailed from Yakima, Washington, signed with the Chicago White Sox for a $40,000 bonus, but only made it as far as Class-A.

[1] “Walcott to Box on Benefit Show for Sandlot Kids,” The Syracuse Post-Standard, July 27, 1951, 25

[2] San Antonio Light, August 6, 1951, 12-A

[3] San Antonio Light, July 11, 1951, 9-B

[4] “U. S. Stars Defeat New York Team in Sandlot Classic,” Al Jonas, The Sporting News, August 15, 1951, 28.

[5] Morrey Rokeach, New York Journal American, August 14, 1960, 29

[6] Jim Hawkins Al Kaline: The Biography of a Tigers Icon, (Chicago, Triumph Books, 2010)

[7] The Evening Sun (Hanover, Pennsylvania), March 27, 1954, 10

[8] Brent P. Kelley, Baseball’s Biggest Blunder: The Bonus Rule of 1953-57. (Lanham, Maryland. Scarecrow Press, 1997): 34-37

[9] Jim Ellis, “Francona Power Cheers Richards,” The Sporting News, March 28, 1956, 15

[10] Jesse Lithicum, “Journeyman and Kid Give lift to Birds,” The Sporting News,” July 25, 1956, 8

[11] Andrew Paul Mele. The Boys of Brooklyn: Brooklyn’s Parade Grounds: Brooklyn’s Field of Dreams, (Bloomington, Indiana, Author House, 2008): 302