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.

 

 

 

REDLANDS’ ED VANDE BERG SPENT SEVEN SEASONS ON MLB MOUNDS

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.

I saw Ed Vande Berg. In Texas. Pitching. He hurled 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief in a 6-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. I was one of 26,526 fans that Thursday night. Arlington Stadium. Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount were in Milwaukee’s lineup. It was July 14, a Thursday night, in the summer of 1988.

Vande Berg, a Redlands baseball-playing product, was playing for enigmatic Bobby Valentine, the Rangers’ manager. It was one of the last appearances of Vande Berg’s seven-year MLB career.

Attended legendary Arizona State, where Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Jim Palmer – not to mention Barry Bonds – played collegiately, among others.

Rarely did Vande Berg ever throw an important pitch in a meaningful game during his MLB career. Who cares? He was a major league pitcher — with promise. It should be noted, however, that Vande Berg’s 1982-88 career span did not include playing for a team that finished at .500.

Ed Vande Berg
Redlands’ Ed Vande Berg spent seven seasons in major league baseball.

He was a left-handed specialist, a long reliever and, at one point, a starter.

Managers like Rene Lachemann, Del Crandall, Chuck Cottier, Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, Pat Corrales or Bobby Valentine might summon him to pitch against the likes of Fred Lynn or Eddie Murray, Don Mattingly or Lou Whitaker, maybe a Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry or Keith Hernandez.

He had surrendered Reggie Jackson’s final career hit. Vande Berg, then with the Rangers, watched a broken bat single off the bat of the Hall of Famer.

Reggie Jackson
Reggie Jackson’s final MLB hit came on a broken back single off Ed Vande Berg in 1987 (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

BASEBALL CARDS APLENTY ON THIS REDLANDS KID

Check out the website on Ed Vande Berg some time. Click on images. When you do, your entire computer screen should light up with baseball cards – Vande Berg with the Seattle Mariners. Or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Or the Cleveland Indians. Or the Rangers.

He was an Alaska Goldpanner.

An Arizona State Sun Devil. Appeared in the College World Series.

Not to mention that Vande Berg was a Redlands Terrier.

Here was the background on Vande Berg, said by plenty of Redlands baseballers not to be much of a prospect while playing for Terrier coach Joe De Maggio.

When he showed up at San Bernardino Valley, Vande Berg took instruction well enough to burnish a slider. It was a new pitch.

The result was an 18-1 record. State Player of the Year.

Fascinating! Movement, plus zip on his fastball, earned his way to Arizona State — a hub for future MLB players.

That got him on the radar of MLB scouts, who drafted him no less than three times before he signed.

He was a Rookie Team All-Star in 1982, the year he finished 9-4 with the Mariners, who had drafted him out of Arizona State. A league-leading 78 games accompanied that 2.37 earned run average over 76 innings pitched.

SAN DIEGO, ST. LOUIS, FINALLY SEATTLE

Vande Berg’s draft history was pretty interesting.

San Diego took him in the third round (1978), but Vande Berg didn’t sign.

A year later, the St. Louis Cardinals took him in the fourth round. Again, he didn’t sign.

In 1980, Seattle waited until the 13th round. This time, he signed.

That ’82 rookie season, though, was something. Only 54 hits were allowed in those 76 innings pitched, including just five HRs. He was 23 when he made his MLB debut with the Mariners.

In 1984, the Mariners made Vande Berg, a 6-foot-2, 175-pounder, a starting pitcher. He logged an 8-12 record (4.76, 130 innings) for a 72-90 team on a pitching staff topped by Mark Langston. Alvin Davis (27 HR, 116 RBI, .284) was American League Rookie of the Year.

Ruben Sierra was clearly the Rangers’ best player. Vande Berg was part of a bullpen backed by closer Mitch Williams. The staff’s ace was likely ex-Dodger knuckleballer Charlie Hough.

It was one season before Nolan Ryan signed with Texas.

By then, Vande Berg was gone. Released. Final season of his career.

Who would remember the trade that sent Vande Berg from Seattle to the Dodgers in 1985? It was a straight-up deal on Dec. 11. Catcher Steve Yeager, who had played in three World Series with L.A., was the player sent back to Seattle.

The Dodgers paid Vande Berg $455,000.

That season, Vande Berg registered a 3.41 ERA over 60 games (71 1/3 innings).

Teammates included Cy Young Award winners Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, both managed by Lasorda, a Hall of Fame manager. Vande Berg had relieved both pitchers during that 1987 season.

Tommy Lasorda
For one season, Dodger Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda summoned Redlands southpaw Ed Vande Berg into a major league game (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Granted free agency in each of the following two seasons, Vande Berg found homes in Cleveland and Arlington, Texas.

Among Vande Berg’s Cleveland teammates was Joe Carter, who hit the game-winning World Series homer for Toronto a few years later. Another teammate was the ageless Julio Franco, who made Cleveland just one of his stops on a seven-team, 23-year career.

For a season and a half, incredibly enough, Vande Berg was teammates with another Redlands product, Julio Cruz. The two spent the entire 1982 season in M’s uniforms, but in 1983 Cruz was sent to the Chicago White Sox in a trade deadline deal.

His final game came at age 29 against, of all teams, the Seattle Mariners – the team he spent four of his seven-year MLB pitching for in the northwest.

The end result was a 25-28 lifetime mark … 413 games … surrendered 52 HRs … 3.92 earned run average … 22 saves … not a bad career.

WINDING DOWN A SEVEN-YEAR MLB CAREER

A couple months after I watched Vande Berg pitch against Milwaukee in Texas, the Redlands product pitched his final game. Against his old team, the Mariners.

On Friday night, Sept. 30. At the Kingdome that night, 7,870 fans watched.

He pitched a full inning. With home plate umpire Rich Garcia calling balls and strikes, Vande Berg surrendered three hits, including a Rey Quinones double.

In Seattle’s lineup that night was Davis, not to mention future MLB Network broadcaster Harold Reynolds. Darnell Coles, from Vande Berg’s former Citrus Belt League rival Rialto Eisenhower, was also in the lineup.

A lowly Rangers’ squad beat the lowly Mariners, 11-6.

Exactly one month earlier, Vande Berg picked up his final career victory In an 8-6 win over Minnesota, Cecil Espy’s bottom-of-the-ninth, two-run HR cracked a 6-6 tie. Vande Berg, who had pitched a scoreless ninth inning in relief of starter Bobby Witt, logged the win.

It was career victory No. 25.

 

PART 2: WILLIE … ALMOST MICKEY … AND THE DUKE

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

Subbing for the Cashman part of the song, “Willie, Almost Mickey and the Duke.”

I never came close to chatting with The Mick. I’d only seen him play in person a couple times. That came in 1968, his final season, but only because the Oakland A’s had moved to the Bay Area. It meant the Yankees had a few stops to make out there.

About a decade later, during the 1977 season in Oakland, I got myself a press pass to a mid-week afternoon game with the visiting Yankees, a team managed by Billy Martin. These were the Reggie Jackson Yankees who, incidentally, wasn’t in the lineup against his old team.

Billymartin1
For some reason, Billy Martin, one of baseball’s fiercest managers, showed up in Redlands sometime in the early 1980s (Photo by Wikipedia Commons).

It was Vida Blue against Ron Guidry.

The world champion A’s had long since been disbanded – trades, free agency, you name it. The Yankees, meanwhile, had picked up Jackson and Catfish Hunter from those old A’s teams.

Guidry, leading 2-0, had tamed the A’s for 8 1/3 innings before he gave up ninth inning home runs to Manny Sanguillan and Dick Allen to knot the score at 2-2. Martin replaced Guidry with Sparkly Lyle, who was the Cy Young Award winner the season before.

The game went 15 innings. Blue lasted 13. Finally, in the 15th, the Yankees broke through for three runs, winning, 5-2. There weren’t even 10,000 fans in the stands that day.

I couldn’t wait for the post-game chat in the clubhouse. I wasn’t really working for anyone. I’d gotten a media credential through my college, Chabot. There was no difficulty getting a pass – not like it is today.

As a budding reporter, I wanted to watch the New York reporters talk about the game with Martin. I wanted to experience the give and take between media and manager. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. I figured that was part of my “education.”

With Martin, the media discussed Guidry’s brilliant game, despite giving up the ninth inning HRs. There was the expected second-guessing: Why didn’t you bring Lyle in to start the ninth. Martin, a little annoyed, told them he felt Guidry had “enough gas left.”

There was some discussion of Jackson not being in the lineup on his return to Oakland. He’d played the day before and struck out three times. Martin said, “We just wanted to give him a day off.”

Vida Blue, he told reporters, looked sharp and strong.

The chat lasted, maybe, 20 to 30 minutes. It started to break up. Guys had deadlines. Martin probably had plans, too, especially since he was a Bay Area guy. I was one of about a dozen guys that circulated in the visitor’s office.

I won’t ever forget how he looked right at me, saying, “Something I can do for you, son?”

In all honesty, I had a couple questions for him. I’d hesitated to ask. After all, I was a nobody.

“That play (Graig) Nettles made on a double play,” I said, “was unbelievable. Went to his left. Sort of a semi dive. That bailed Lyle out of a tough spot.”

It came in the ninth. Sanguillan and Allen had homered. Wayne Gross drew a one-out walk off Lyle. Earl Williams, a home-run hitting catcher, was looking to drive one out, too. But he cracked a shot into the hole toward left field. Nettles, reacting quickly, got the ball to Willie Randolph at second in a hurry.

Double play, ending the threat.

I also asked him about a couple of steal attempts that catcher Thurman Munson had shut down. A’s speedster Bill North was one of those. There was some dispute on the call at second by North, but he was called out.

There were a couple other plays I wanted to ask about, but I didn’t want to press my luck.

Martin took those questions on with a full head of steam. Those N.Y. reporters ready to depart instead hung around. On Nettles and Munson, Martin rhapsodized about how “this game wouldn’t have been won without those plays. Big keys to the game.”

Was I done? He wanted to know. Yeah, I said.

“You know, we’ve got a lot of high-priced talent here from New York that didn’t even pick up on those plays,” said Martin. “You keep asking questions like that, young man, you’re going to go a long way in this business.”

Where was my Mom? My friends? A tape recorder?

I couldn’t believe this.

Billy Martin said that to me? In later years, I wondered if he was just picking away at his regular press corps.

SHOWING UP AT A REDLANDS AMERICAN LEGION

No more than seven or eight years later, I was sitting in my Redlands newsroom office. I got a call from an area baseball-lover, Fred Long. Guy had been a scout for Montreal, maybe Kansas City or Milwaukee. Can’t remember.

“O.B.,” he said, “Billy Martin’s here.”

He was drinking beer at a local American Legion Post.

What the hell was Billy Martin doing in Redlands?

I dropped everything. Rushed over to the legion post. Sure enough, there was Billy Martin, a beer in front of him, four guys sitting around. Talking baseball. I snuck myself into the mix, listening, hearing the chat back and forth.

For nearly three hours, I watched him down one beer after another. He never cracked. Kept talking baseball. There was talk of Mickey Mantle, his good buddy. “No one,” said Martin, “could come close to his power … or speed.”

How he shouldn’t have lost his jobs in Minnesota or Texas or even the Yankees. He’d just gotten finished managing in Oakland, of all places – Billy Ball!

He was in the Redlands area because he’d married a gal who had Yucaipa connections. Yucaipa was the city just east of Redlands. While she was visiting, Billy visited the legion post. He’d had a little military in his background. He felt comfortable in such a place.

Finally, when I felt comfortable enough, I mentioned that Yankees-A’s game in Oakland from a few years earlier. How he’d been real classy to me in the clubhouse after the game. I asked him, despite all the beer he’d downed, if he’d remembered.

He stared right at me. Took a swig of beer. He even grabbed a pretzel and stuck it into his mouth, kind of smiling as he thought. I figured he was getting ready to say he’d remembered.

“No,” he finally said, “I can’t quite remember anything like that. It’s been a few years, right?”

Oh, yeah.

Said Martin: “A lot’s happened since then.”

To this day, I still wonder if he remembered me.

Part 3 of Willie, Almost Mickey and The Duke next week.