When Lou Brock passed more than a week ago, my friend Jerry Rosenthal flashed back to a summer evening in St. Cloud, Minn, in 1961.
Jerry was playing for the Eau Claire Braves, on a road trip to play the St. Cloud Rox, in the old Northern League.
Jerry was a college guy, all-conference shortstop at Hofstra, where I was a student publicist. I saw him take a fastball over the left eye in 1959 but he willed himself back for two more seasons before signing with the Milwaukee Braves.
Lou Brock was also a college guy, out of Southern University, academic scholarship, latecomer to baseball, and 1961 was his first season in the minors.
“Lou was a great guy!,” Jerry recalled in an e-mail the other day. “Very personable and smart! I ran into Lou after a night game near our hotel in St. Cloud. He was reading ‘The Long Season’ by Jim Brosnan. Lou was surprised that an active major leaguer would write such a controversial book."
Switched to second base in the Milwaukee Braves’ chain, Jerry got to see Brock up close in six games: “Not a big man, he was very muscular and had good power and blinding speed! Lou was at full speed on his second step, putting great pressure on infielders to getting rid of the ball as fast as possible! Needless to say, Brock turned singles into doubles and doubles into triples!”
The next year, Jerry moved up to Yakima in the Class B Northwest League. He recalls how warm and welcoming that town was, how fans would recognize him and ask for his autograph. He treasures his memories of teammates like Rico Carty and Bill Robinson who had so much talent it was clear they were heading for the major leagues. He says that Robinson, my late-blooming friend, “had the best arm I ever saw from right field" -- how he stung Jerry's glove hand when Jerry was the cutoff man.
Jerry also talks about his minor-league batting instructors, baseball lifers like Birdie Tebbetts, major-league catcher and manager, then a roving batting instructor at Wellsville. Tebbetts told him to go with the outside pitch to the opposite field -- and Jerry surprised himself with a game-winning home run to right, his second homer of the game.
Jerry also met major-league stalwarts who loved talking Brooklyn Dodger baseball with him -- Dixie Walker, once The Peepul's Cherce in Brooklyn, and Andy Pafko, the old Cub who was standing at the wall as Bobby Thomson's legendary homer soared over his head.
“In my rookie year at Eau Claire. I’m wearing uniform number 25, Bobby Thomson’s hand me down! How ironic is that? Pafko gave me his first-hand description of ‘the shot heard round the world’ and I was assigned to wear Bobby’s uniform! As a true-blue Dodgers fan, as a kid, that’s an occurrence that I could never have dreamt!”
At Yakima, Jerry was steamrollered by one Spencer Scott at second base and was on the bench a day later. But Rico Carty, the regular catcher, was hurt, and the backup catcher was injured during a game, so Jerry hit for him -- and slugged a homer. Jerry had never caught in his life, but he caught that game, and another, until the Braves could send another catcher.
The players were always competing against others in the Braves system. A brash kid from Missouri, Ron Hunt, informed Jerry in spring training that, as a former shortstop, Jerry did not know squat about the double play from second base, and Hunt, who loves the game as much as Jerry does, demonstrated the proper pivot steps -- then moved past Jerry in the chain.
By 1963, Hunt hustled himself into a regular job with the Mets, and a great career. By then, Jerry was out of baseball, teaching school, playing semi-pro ball and taking care of his Irish mom. However, he kept up with his old minor-league colleagues. In Shea Stadium, he said hello to Bobby Cox, who had played against him in the Northwest League and was now a successful manager with the Braves. Cox warmly greeted him and recalled the entire Yakima infield, including "Rosey."
Jerry never ran into Lou Brock until he went to a baseball dinner in New York many years later. In a crowd, he greeted Brock, who said he remembered him from the Northern League, but other people interrupted and they never got to chat.
Still, there is a bond between players who “made it” and those who did not: they all played the game. The backdrop is the minor leagues – the cruel classroom where a difficult sport is taught, where most dreams were destroyed.
Jerry, in retirement, lives in the city, is close to his sisters and many friends, catches good movies and knows restaurants all over town, reads a lot, and has traveled all over the world, usually by himself. He played in a senior hardball league, finally getting his Spencer Scott knee replaced. As a fan, Jerry adopted Jeff McNeil, the scrappy Everyman late bloomer who had fought to become a .300 hitter the Mets never expected.
Jerry is barely following this weird “season.” He has a raging contempt for the short-sighted proprietors of baseball and their still unproven commissioner, Rob Manfred, who are scheming to devour a number of minor leagues to save a few dollars. That rash move would be an insult to the history, the soul, of the sport -- fans who used to say they saw a rag-armed lefty named Musial pitching in the low minors, or fans in Trenton could say they saw a comet named Mays heading straight for the 1951 World Series.
That hallowed system allows old minor-leaguers like Jerry Rosenthal to display ancient box scores and mourn stars like Lou Brock, and sometimes able to say, with all due respect, "Back in 1961, I out-hit Lou in our six games."
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COMMENTS PREFERRED ON THIS SITE RATHER THAN MY EMAILS--THANKS, GV
COMMENT FROM JERRY:
George, here are my comments regarding your fine piece.
George, it was an honor being the subject of your great piece, “My Friend Out Hit Lou Brock....in Six Games.”
I will always treasure my minor league memories ; the highlights as well as the lowlights. Your superb writing brought out how important the institution of minor league baseball is to the development of young prospects and to the small towns they play in! For over one-hundred years, the minor leagues and major leagues have had a mutually beneficial relationship. Sadly, that relationship no longer exists!
MLB ‘s arbitrary decision to “contract” 42 minor league, owner-operated, clubs could be the “beginning of the end “of the minor leagues! Clearly, the commissioner and the thirty MLB owners are only interested in increasing revenue, not preserving the traditions of the game!
George, you were right on target when you described the minor leagues as -“ the cruel classroom where a difficult sport is taught, where most dreams were destroyed.”
I played for three great managers: Jim Fanning, Bill Steinecke and Buddy Hicks. These “baseball lifers” taught me facets of the game that I was completely unaware of coming out of college!
Just as important, these fine men told us to view “self-doubt” and “failure” as just part of the game! They all emphasized the idea that mental toughness was as important as physical skill! My managers were very aware of how you dealt with adversity!
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were being taught “ valuable “life lessons”!
I will never forget their words of support and encouragement! These are just the kind of mentors organized baseball needs today! I’m sure MLB’s
response to that idea would be: “We are going in a different direction”!
George, thanks again for this wonderful piece!
Thanks for being a good friend for these many years!
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Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.