DEE FONDY: REMEMBERED BY BUD SELIG AND WILLIE MAYS

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

In memory of the 1973 World Series.

Dee Fondy, an ex-major league baseball player who lived in Redlands for years, never seemed to show up in the spotlight. He was completely without fanfare. His son, Jon, said his late father never sought the publicity of local newspapers, preferring a low-key existence. A war hero and a local product (though he was born in Texas) from San Bernardino, Fondy was a golf-playing member at Redlands Country Club during his retirement years.

It wasn’t all that well-known, however, that Fondy was a premiere advance scout for the New York Mets — a spot that is most likely among baseball’s under-appreciated roles. A year after nearly producing a scouting report that nearly helped win the 1973 World Series, Fondy landed a spot with the Milwaukee Brewers.

It was Fondy who scouted the defending champion Oakland A’s for the Mets in its 1973 showdown against a Hall of Fame-led team, namely Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, “Catfish” Hunter and manager Dick Williams.

The Mets, injured and suffering throughout the season, managed to package an 83-79 season together. It was good enough to win the National League Eastern Division.

In the National League playoffs, New York outlasted a 99-win Reds’ teams loaded with Hall of Famers — Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Sparky Anderson, plus the likely Cooperstown inductee Pete Rose — in five games.

The A’s were baseball’s defending champions, having beaten the Reds one season earlier. This time, it was Oakland taking on the Mets, whose Hall of Fame talent included Tom Seaver and Willie Mays, playing his final season.

The Mets had a 3-2 lead in the Series, based off 10-7, 6-1 and 2-0 wins over the A’s in Games 2, 4 and 5. Hunter outdueled Seaver in Game 6, 3-1, before Kenny Holtzman beat Jon Matlack in Game 7, 5-2.

Fingers, the loser in Game 3, saved three of those games. It took Oakland’s best efforts.

“Dad’s scouting report was in Yogi Berra’s back pocket,” said Jon Fondy, Dee’s son, who had produced the report. “They almost pulled it off and beat the A’s.”

Berra, a Hall of Famer, was New York’s manager. Part of Fondy’s scouting report had to be data that led to Mets’ pitchers holding A’s hitters to a .212 Series average with just two HRs.

The comparative rosters of both teams should have left Oakland in position to sweep the Mets, or at least take them in five games. Fondy’s notes on the A’s, however, gave New York’s pitchers a strong advantage.

One season later, Fondy was off to Milwaukee.

Dee_Fondy_1953
Virgil Dee Fondy spent four decades in major league baseball, notably as a first baseman over eight seasons, later as an advance scout (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Fondy, a lefty during his playing days, wound up with the young, expansionist Brewers – eventually heading a scouting department that signed Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. In the Brewers’ only World Series appearance, 1982, those future Hall of Famers were paramount in the teams’ success.

CONSTRUCTING AN OBITUARY

Upon Fondy’s death – Commissioner Bud Selig responded to a call from a local newspaper – to laud the career and life of the onetime Pirates, Cubs and Reds first baseman. Fondy had once been traded with Chuck Connors, who went on to fame as television’s “The Rifleman,” a CBS production.

Selig, of course, knew Fondy from his days as Brewers’ owner. Fondy had worked for Selig.

In August of 1999, Dee Fondy died at a retirement home in Redlands.

In his obituary, I wrote: “He had played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds and was the last player to bat in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, died of cancer. He was 74.

“Fondy, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier, died at Plymouth Village.”

His death reverberated through baseball.

While working on Fondy’s obituary, I’d placed a call to the MLB offices in New York City, seeking comment — a standard procedure. Baseball usually responded quickly. In this case, it was the commissioner, Bud Selig, who had placed the return call.

Bud_Selig_on_October_31,_2010
Alan “Bud” Selig, a Hall of Famer as onetime Commissioner of Baseball, weighed in personally on Dee Fondy’s 1999 death (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

I was out of the office when Selig called. Mike Brown, the news editor, took the call, jotted down Selig’s comments, and forwarded them to me. I must’ve missed the commissioner’s call by just minutes in August 1999.

“Dee Fondy was one of my favorite people,” Selig told Brown. “He had a great sense of humor. He and I used to kid each other a lot.”

FONDY’S MAJOR LEAGUE CAREER 1951-58

Fondy hit .286 with exactly 1,000 hits (69 HRs) over eight seasons in the majors, having batted .300 over four full seasons. His debut, in April 1951, came just a month before Willie Mays’ legendary MLB entry.

Signed originally by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, Fondy came to spring training in 1949 and competed with Gil Hodges and Connors for the starting job at first base. Dodger lore shows, of course, that the spot was won by Hodges.

Fondy played in the Dodgers’ farm system until being traded, along with Connors, to the Cubs for outfielder Hank Edwards. It was a golden era of Dodger baseball that included Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, plus Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and a host of highly popular Dodger players.

He won a spot on Chicago’s roster. His first major-league hit was a bases-loaded triple off St. Louis pitcher Ken Raffsenberger. It was opening day, April 17, 1951, at Wrigley Field.

By 1957, Fondy was traded to Pittsburgh. In that deal, the Cubs sent Gene Baker and Fondy for the Pirates’ Dale Long and Lee Walls. Midway through that ’57 season, Fondy was leading the National League with a .365 average, finishing at .313.

Traded to Cincinnati for Ted Kluszewski, a transaction mentioned by Tom Cruise’s character in the 1988 movie “Rainman,” his career concluding in that 1958 season.

Fondy grounded out for the last out at Ebbets Field in Pittsburgh’s 2-0 loss to the Dodgers on Sept. 24, 1957. That grounder went to Don Zimmer, whose throw to first baseman Jim Gentile ended an era.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles the following year.

Jon Fondy had some fun memories.

“I ran into Willie Mays once and he said, ‘I’ve still got the bruises from the tags your dad used to give me. He was a hard-nosed player,’ ” said Jon, a freelance cameraman who has covered major league games.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays once told Dee Fondy’s son, Jon, that he laid some pretty hard tags on him. “I’ve still got bruises,” said the inimitable Mays (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

It was off to work, eventually, as a scout for the Mets and in Milwaukee, where he signed Molitor, who went on to collect over 3,000 hits.

Fondy retired from baseball in 1995 after serving as a special assistant to the Milwaukee general manager.

“He was as good a judge of talent as I’ve ever known,” Selig said. “He played a great role in the development of the Brewers. I had as much faith in his baseball knowledge as anyone I know.’”

FONDY’S FUNERAL: ONE FINAL HURRAH

It was at Fondy’s funeral that several ex-players – Ray Boone and Sal Bando included – had shown up to pay final respects. Another funeral-goer was a man named Fred Long. For years, Long coached local baseball, eventually rising to becoming a major league baseball scout.

Fondy’s influence had been felt in Long’s scouting life.

Long, who was nearing 80 at the time of Fondy’s funeral, had plenty of stories to share, sporting World Series ring — Florida Marlins, 1997.

Fondy, said Long, was one of the best guys he’d ever known. “And the guy knew baseball, too. You should’ve heard him.”

His minor league career included stops at Santa Barbara (California League), Fort Worth (Texas League) and Mobile (Southern League), each a Brooklyn Dodger farm club.

Before his climb into the major leagues, Fondy racked up 863 minor league hits, whacking out 130 doubles and 52 triples.

His career as a minor leaguer, major leaguer, scout and scouting director covered exactly 40 years — 1946-1995.

Isn’t it interesting that Fondy worked as a scout for the same organization in which Hodges — who edged him for Brooklyn’s first base job — was the manager?

Born on Halloween in 1924, Dee Virgil Fondy’s death took place on Aug. 19, 1999 in Redlands. Fondy, a native of Slaton, Texas, served in the Army during World War II and was part of the forces that landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in 1944, three months after D-Day. He received the Purple Heart.

Fondy had also been survived by twins, Jon Fondy and Jan Cornell of Las Vegas. His wife, Jacquelyn, had died a year earlier. Fondy’s funeral was in nearby San Bernardino, almost directly next door to Perris Hill Park’s Fiscalini Field.

Growing up in San Bernardino, Fiscalini Park was where Fondy had played plenty of baseball.

 

 

 

A CHANCE TO ASK FERGUSON JENKINS ABOUT DUROCHER — IN REDLANDS!

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: Former Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Ferguson Jenkins.

Here’s where being a media member has its advantages:

Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins had appeared in Redlands to conduct a youth clinic at Community Field and, perhaps, sign a few autographs.

Chicago Cubs’ fans were plentiful throughout the country.

One venerable veterinarian, who lived in Redlands, could recite all the Cubs’ doctrine from those Jenkins years.

Here are the guys that fans instantly thought about when recalling those Cubs’ teams from the 1960s: Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks were the headliners. Jenkins, of course, was the ace pitcher.

Leo Durocher was Cubs’ manager, a fact that wasn’t enthusiastically accepted by the local vet.

“Durocher ruined Jenkins’ career,” said the vet. “He used him too much. Ruined his arm.”

He was adamant. Mind couldn’t be changed on that.

ferguson Jenkins
Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins spent a few hours in Redlands, teaching baseball to youths and answering questions about former manager Leo Durocher (photo by Wikipedia).

This, of course, was years later — after baseball had starting dedicating a full core of relief pitchers to win games. In Jenkins’ days, legendary pitchers like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Mickey Lolich, Don Drysdale, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, you name it, would pitch 300-plus innings each year.

Bullpens weren’t quite as deep.

So here was Jenkins in my sight line: “Tell me about Leo Durocher.”

Jenkins took it from there.

“Leo helped make my career. If it weren’t for him … I’ll tell you, he taught me a lot. I owe him a lot. I owe a lot of my career to him.”

Under Durocher, Jenkins became one of baseball’s top hurlers.

“When I got traded to the Cubs,” he said, referring to the 1966 deal in which Philadelphia traded away a future Hall of Famer to the Cubs, “we were the worst team in baseball.”

Durocher had just been named Cubs’ manager. Jenkins, under Durocher, won 20 games in six straight seasons — all seasons that Durocher had managed him, incidentally.

“He worked you, no question about that,” said Jenkins.

The Cubs never won a pennant, a division championship, or made it to the World Series.

“Some of those years we came to spring training,” said Jenkins, “and we knew we’d have a chance to win … because of Leo. He turned that team around in Chicago.”

Where was that vet, that so-called Cubs’ fan? He needed to be listening to all this.

The guy who’d been teammates with Ruth & Gehrig, turned the Brooklyn Dodgers into pennant winners, managed Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, among others, he was, perhaps, baseball’s greatest connection to multiple generations.

“I never had any trouble with Leo,” said Jenkins. “I know what people say about him, what they try to insinuate.”

If there was a criticism of Durocher from that 1969 season, said Jenkins, “it’s probably that he never gave our regular guys a break.”

It was Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Jim Hickman, Randy Hundley and Don Young. The Cubs took second to the Miracle Mets.

Jenkins finished 21-15 with a 3.21 ERA over 311 1/3 innings that season.

I still have no idea how someone from Redlands had lured the fabulous Jenkins (284-226 over 19 seasons) to Community Field in the early 1990s.

It was almost an afterthought that Julio Cruz, a onetime Redlands High player, and Rudy Law, a former Dodger and White Sox player, had also showed up. Infield play, outfield play, a little hitting.

Later, I was told that ex-Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis had shown up — too late to be noticed. Ellis, it’s likely remembered, is the pitcher who surrendered the tape measure home run hit by Reggie Jackson out of Tiger Stadium at the 1971 All-Star game.

Jenkins, incidentally, was one of just four N.L. pitchers in that 6-4 loss to the A.L. Giants’ pitcher Juan Marichal pitched in his final mid-summer classic and so did Houston’s Don Wilson.

Imagine, two of the N.L.’s four all-star pitchers had shown up in Redlands a couple decades later.

Jenkins had arrived at Community Field in a white limousine. Dressed in his Cubs’ uniform. Showed kids his style of pitching.

“Show ’em your wallet,” he said, demonstrating his high-leg kick, twisting his torso with his left buttock toward the hitter, “and let it fly.”

That’s how a Hall of Famer did it.

Fans might not remember this, Jenkins said, “but Leo converted me into a starting pitcher. I’d been a reliever. He turned my career around. I became a Hall of Famer.”

Jenkins left Redlands like he’d arrived — in that white limo.