PART 3: 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

That was Jordan Snider out in center field, wearing jersey No. 44. The site was The Yard, which is the home field for the University of Redlands. Snider was a senior Bulldog.

Temecula Chaparral High, located about an hour’s drive from the University of Redlands, was where this right-handed ballplayer had come from only a few years earlier.

Batted .295 in 2008, .361 as a sophomore in 2007, .252 in his frosh season right out of the Pumas’ Varsity program, where he’d hit .305 with two HRs in Temecula.

Starting all 36 games as a Bulldog senior in 2009, he’d played four straight seasons with winning teams, hitting .321 with 4 HRs.

His grandfather watched him play a plus number of games.

I’d shown up to chat with University of Redlands baseball coach Scott Laverty. Game still taking place. I’d have to wait. Sitting on the first base side of the bleachers, I took a seat near an older gentleman, wearing a hat to keep the sun off his head.

Seemed to be a nice guy. You run into that occasionally at ball games. Nice guys. Friendly. Talkative. It’s always fun to talk a little baseball, right?

After the game, I approached Laverty for a little post-game chat.

We talked a little about the game. At one point, he said, “I saw you out there talking to Duke.”

Duke?

There was no need to explain. The second he said that, I knew he’d meant Duke Snider. Something told me. I was a little tongue-tied, though. I’d been talking to a baseball Hall of Famer and didn’t even know it. I was a little ashamed.

Duke Snider (Photo by Wikipidia Commons)
Duke Snider, from his Brooklyn Dodgers days, wound up in Fallbrook, where he drove from to watch his grandson play at the University of Redlands.

“That’s his grandson out there in center field,” said Laverty.

Well, that adds up, doesn’t it?

It was a Snider from Temecula.

Edwin “Duke” Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, lived a little south of there. The kid was all-conference one year. A good fly-chaser out in center – just like his grandpa.

There might’ve been something symbolic about Jordan wearing No. 44, especially since his grandfather wore No. 4 in Brooklyn for the Dodgers. A tribute, most likely.

DUKE OF FLATBUSH ORIGINALLY FROM COMPTON

The Duke of Flatbush really came from Compton, Calif. At the end of his life, he lived near Temecula in the San Diego County city of Fallbrook – a nice retirement area.

A couple games later, I showed up … looking for Duke. Sure enough, he was there.

“Do you have a minute?” I asked him.

You always hesitate when asking someone – a Hall of Famer, celebrity, well-known, you know – if they’d mind an interview. He was there to watch his grandson who, at that moment, was playing in the same part of the field he’d played in 45 years earlier.

“For crying out loud,” I could just hear anyone say, “I’m here to watch my grandson play. Maybe later.”

But he didn’t say that.

Brooklyn, L.A., New York Mets and, finally, the Giants in San Francisco.

I’ve got to say it. There was nothing all that special about the interview. My questions would’ve been stale and useless. What do you ask a guy like that? Nothing that hasn’t been asked a hundred times before, right?

I settled on an angle about how he finished his career in a Giants’ uniform, 1964. Sold to San Francisco by the Mets. I tried to have a conversation rather than an interview.

“I can’t say I was all that upset at the trade,” he said at Redlands’ The Yard with a few people listening to the chat. “I was friends with a lot of those guys, anyway, Willie (Mays), Al Dark (Giants’ manager), Don Larsen …”

Besides, he said, “I lived out here on the West Coast.”

Oh, man – Don Larsen! The guy who’d pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series?

How many times must he’d have been asked about Larsen?

I skipped the topic.

Did he remember his last home run?

“I do,” he said. “Candlestick Park. San Francisco. Jim Bunning, a very good pitcher. Yeah, that was my last one. Only hit four that year. Fourth of July game, I think, pretty sure. I never hit another one.”

That was his 407th.

You play much center field?

Duke laughed. “For the Giants? Not quite. Somebody named Willie Mays was already playing there.”

Though he was mostly a pinch-hitter, he said, “I played either left or right.

“I remember being in the lineup one day … can’t remember where we were playing, though. Dark had me leading off. Mays was second. McCovey was third and Cepeda was hitting clean-up. What’s that? A couple thousand home runs between us, or something like that?”

Mays at 660, McCovey’s 521, Duke’s 407 and Cepeda’s 379 equals 1,967 lifetime bombs. There may not have ever been another quartet in major league baseball hitting back-to-back like that with those kinds of impressive numbers.

Said Snider: “I can’t remember anything about the game, though – who won, nothing.”

Upon reflection, I should’ve asked him about Jackie Robinson.

Or Leo Durocher. Roy Campanella. Gil Hodges. Don Newcombe. Sandy Koufax, mystery man.

That would’ve been a nice tack. What was it like to have Koufax on the Dodgers for those six or seven years before he started blazing away?

Never got another chance, either.

A couple years later, the Duke died in Escondido.

We’d talked baseball in Redlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART 1: “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

Talkin’ baseball. Terry Cashman. His song, released in 1981, seemed to summarize a special part of baseball. A musical contribution to baseball history. It surrounded the great center fielders in three New York boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Cashman wrote about … “Willlieeeeee … Mickey … and The Duke.”

Duke Snider came to Redlands.

Mickey Mantle came to … well, as far as anyone knows, he didn’t come to Redlands. But his longtime friend, Billy Martin, showed up here at least once.

Then there was Willie Mays. I can’t honestly say that the “Say Hey Kid” ever set foot on Redlands soil. But the sports editor from Redlands took part in a rare discussion that probably never came up in baseball circles.

It would’ve made a nice little change in Cashman’s song, “Willie … Almost Mickey … and the Duke …”

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Willie_Mays_cropped
Willie Mays talked about a “trade” that could’ve happened regarding a Dodger pitcher named Koufax? (Wikipedia Commons photo)

It was in the early 1980s. Bob Hope Desert Classic. Coachella Valley. Willie Mays, a golf lover, was playing in the celebrity Pro-Am, along with plenty of others from music, film and sports.

There we were in the VIP tent. Food was being served. It was the middle of the day. Willie had played his round. I was talking a break. Other than the serving staff, no one else seemed to be around.

Sitting at a table near him, I could just feel the opportunity. I grew up in the Bay Area watching this guy play in the twilight of his career in the late 1960s.

What should I ask him?

“Willie,” I said, “tell me something about your career that didn’t get much attention.”

He responded crudely, which shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. In sports, you often run into replies like that. In the clubhouse. In a locker room. On a field or court. Willie had probably been approached by thousands of media guys looking for something – stories, opinions, recollections, you name it.

He wouldn’t be talking – at least to me. It’s okay. I tried. No big deal.

Suddenly, out of the blue, he blurted, “We almost got Koufax.”

Huh? What? Say that again!

Yeah, he said. A year, or two, before Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax really hit his Hall of Fame stride, the fireballing southpaw was stewing about how the Dodgers were using him.

Translation: Or not using him.

Apparently in Willie’s presence in San Francisco – likely at Seals Stadium – Koufax approached team general manager Buzzie Bavasi to request a trade.

Said Willie: “He told Bavasi, ‘you’re not using me. Why even keep me? It’s better to let me go. Trade me somewhere so I can pitch.’ ”

Willie said he jumped right into the discussion. “Trade him to the Giants,” he remembers telling Bavasi. “Trade him to us.”

There was some discussion. Wow! The Giants’ star player was discussing a trade with the GM of their chief rival, the Dodgers.

Willie was told by Bavasi to tell Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner who made all deals for the San Francisco-based team.

“Did you do it?” I asked him.

He nodded. “I talked to Mr. Stoneham. Didn’t hear much about it for awhile.”

Willie was chewing his food. Some guys were entering the VIP tent. Hoping that it wasn’t people looking for Willie – which would interrupt our chat – I prodded him a little.

“Any discussions take place about Koufax going to the Giants?”

Willie Mays nodded again. He was chewing. Swallowing. Didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to answer.

“They wanted Cepeda.”

Orlando Cepeda, one of baseball’s younger star sluggers, was a San Francisco favorite. He was an established star.

Koufax had yet to reach that portion of his career that would get everyone’s attention. At that time, Cepeda-for- Koufax might not have seemed logical for San Francisco.

(Funny thing, though, was in 1966, the Giants sent Cepeda to St. Louis for southpaw Ray Sadecki – not quite the same caliber of pitcher that Koufax had been. At least Sadecki had won 20 games a couple years earlier.)

Koufax had a little success in his early years, but had yet to really hit his consistently great stride. In his mind, apparently, the Dodgers weren’t treating him respectfully.

Between 1961 and his final season, 1966, Koufax was unhittable, unforgettable and, evidently, untradeable.

I summarized this for Willie Mays.

“Are you telling me that you guys almost had Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry on the same pitching staff?” It would have been a couple of years before Perry joined the Giants’ staff.

Wow!

Willie didn’t answer. Just kept chewing. I wasn’t all that much of an interest to him. At the moment, though, I was the only one sitting near him to chat about this remarkable trade possibility.

“How close do you think this came to happening?”

I should mention this: During this entire chat, Willie Mays never looked at me. Not once. Didn’t have to, though. This was more than I’d bargained for. I don’t even know if he had even heard that last question.

At that point, more people started entering the tent. Food was being served. Willie Mays acknowledged some of the people he’d played golf with that day. My time with him was apparently over.

It was exciting, to say the least. I was practically finished with my sandwich and potato salad. I was nursing my drink when Willie Mays got up to leave. My heart kind of sank. I’d have really liked to get more conversation with him.

I watched him shake hands with a few guys.

“Nice to see you again, Willie.”

“Thanks, Willie.”

“Let’s get together soon, Willie.”

You know, typical sendoff lines.

Willie Mays was leaving. He’d walk right behind where I was sitting. When he walked past me, he said into my good ear (I only hear out of one ear), “Stoneham would’ve never traded Cepeda.”

One-third of the Cashman song – done.

Part 2 of Willie … Almost Mickey … and The Duke next week.