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.

 

IT WAS TOUGH FOR DAVIDSMEIER TRYING TO GET INTO MILWAUKEE

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, 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

Danny Davidsmeier joked about a pair of Redlands East Valley High School area products, Tyler Chatwood and Matt Andriese, who are current major league players.

Chatwood, who now pitches for the Chicago Cubs, had been drafted by the Angels and traded to Colorado.

Andriese was an original draft pick by the San Diego Padres, eventually traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I’m a hitting coach,” said Davidsmeier, “and they made it to the majors as pitchers.”

If he could list the entire roster of youth-level players that he’s instructed,  that entire collection might be able to fill a full high school league of all-star level talent.

Matt Davidson also comes to mind. A current major league slugger, who was a high school MVP as a freshman at Yucaipa, got drafted by Arizona and traded to the White Sox. Davidsmeier started coaching Davidson at age 11.

It’s Davidsmeier, perhaps, who bridges the gap with a growing number of ballplayers who have taken paid hitting instruction from him for nearly two decades. And why not?

His background is insanely interesting.

Imagine being an All-State player at San Bernardino Valley College in the mid-1970s. It came just before his days as an All-American shortstop at USC.

ddavidsmeier
Danny Davidsmeier, a highly popular batting instructor around Redlands, Yucaipa, Highland, San Bernardino, Colton and beyond, displays his USC medallion. Davidsmeier, a career baseball player for 22 years, was an All-American shortstop for legendary Trojans’ coach Rod Dedeaux (photo by USC).

The Yucaipa High product, who came out of the Thunderbirds’ program one year before Jeff Stout began an unprecedented 42-year run as their coach, was taken in the draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Mention names like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor to Davidsmeier. He laughs.

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear him say it. “Those guys,” he might say, “kept me out of the major leagues.”

Both Yount, a shortstop, and Molitor, a second baseman who later moved to third base, are Hall of Famers. In the early 1980s, the two — along with second baseman Jim Gantner — all but blocked Davidsmeier’s promising pathway to the major leagues.

In those days, they were known as Harvey’s Wall Bangers, a reference to Brewers’ manager Harvey Kuenn, who was quite a hitter in his day.

Imagine hitting .371 with 16 HRs as a USC senior in 1981. It was there Davidsmeier played for legendary coach Rod Dedeaux, a former shortstop in his own playing days.

USC? All-American? That got Milwaukee’s attention — third round selection in 1981, No. 72 overall. That’s the same draft, incidentally, in which first-rounders like Joe Carter, Matt Williams and Ron Darling were selected.

Tony Gwynn was taken in that same third round, too, just 14 picks before Davidsmeier.

As for Davidsmeier, he spent his best years playing minor league baseball, rising to Triple A Vancouver just two years after being drafted.

CRACKING THE BREWERS’ LINEUP

While Yount-Molitor-Gantner were thriving in Milwaukee, Davidsmeier’s hopes might’ve been curtailed by their all-star level play.

Davidsmeier’s most productive season might’ve been in 1982 when he hit .272 with 10 HR as a 22-year-old shortstop.

Led by the MVP season of Yount, the Brewers reached the 1982 World Series, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even playing behind such a talented crop of major leaguers might’ve inspired other organizations to seek out Milwaukee’s prized minor leaguers — like Davidsmeier.

Milwaukee, in those years, was loaded. Besides Molitor and Yount, there were players like first baseman Cecil Cooper (.298, 241 career HR), Gorman Thomas (268 HR), Ben Oglivie (.275, 235 HR), plus catcher Ted Simmons (.285, 245 HR) while Gantner (.274) was as sure-handed an infielder as anyone.

Throw in Hall of Fame numbers from Yount (3,142 hits, 583 doubles, 126 triples, 251 HR, .285) and Molitor (3,319 hits, 605 doubles, 234 HR, 504 stolen bases, .306).

That’s the lineup Davidsmeier was trying to crack.

Doug DeCinces had a hard time becoming Baltimore’s third baseman with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson playing ahead of him in the early 1970s.

In that same era, center fielder Garry Maddox would’ve rotted away in San Francisco if the Giants hadn’t traded Willie Mays to the Mets.

Thank goodness Wally Pipp had a headache one day in New York. Lou Gehrig might’ve never gotten a chance.

Yes, Davidsmeier spent plenty of Arizona-based spring training sessions with the Gantner-Young-Molitor trio ahead of him on the Brewers’ depth chart.

Gantner was considered good enough to drive Molitor from second base to third base.

Davidsmeier, too, had played all three spots.

In 1982, he was hitting .272 with 10 HR with Class AA El Paso.

By age 28, Davidsmeier was ready to head elsewhere — Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, Czechoslavakia, Korea, Japan and Columbia, to name a few stops.

ROAD TRIP COMES TO AN END

Twenty-two years on the international road led Davidsmeier back home — Yucaipa, Loma Linda, Redlands, Highland, the entire area. He became a growingly popular private hitting instructor.

Main base for Davidsmeier these days is Loma Linda. The batting cages there went from Hitter’s Choice Batting Cages to its new name, IE Performance Center & Batting Cages. The re-opening was scheduled for June 2-3.

Davidsmeier says he likes the new layout. The husband-wife ownership of Dr. Alan Herford and Kirilina Herford liked the atmosphere. They took over the place, signing a 14-month lease. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that Davidsmeier’s part of that atmosphere.

If you’re in the cage with Davidsmeier, it’ll be a productive moment.

Name a productive hitter from the area. Chances are decent that Davidsmeier has worked with them in the practice cages.

Current major leaguers Davidson, Chatwood and Andriese come quickly to mind.

Cracked Davidsmeier: “Matt and Tyler lived down the street from each other in Yucaipa. They got a lot of experience just working out with each other.”