Don’t Forget Baseball’s Team Trainers!

Kyle Smego’s hobby legwork
yielded a return letter filled with
impressive baseball memories.

Don’t “he never” yourself out of a great collection.

For instance:

He never starred anywhere.

He never played in the majors.

He never played ANYWHERE.

Never say never. Behind that little-known name might be some classic baseball tales.

Kyle Smego, the driving force behind the “Autograph Addict” website, found that out when he acquired some vintage minor league cards. Being a true collector, he contacted EVERYONE in the set.

One of the classiest responses came from a 1980 El Paso Diablos team trainer.

Don Smelser was in the right place at the right time. He saw Tom Brunansky flirt with an epic five homers in one game. Smelser watched “The Famous Chicken” make his minor league debut, being a part of some now-classic routines. For days off, Smelser found a Hall of Famer for a golf buddy, pitcher-turned-coach Warren Spahn.

Kyle reaped this history bonanza through kindness. He began his letter offering to snare an extra card for Smelser, if the former trainer didn’t have one. A good lesson for us all: think about what you’re giving, not just what you hope to be getting.

Well done, Kyle!

Coming Wednesday: Remember the short-lived Senior League? One collector is getting tough autographs for a “song.”

Baseball Sculptor Lou Cella Reveals His Game Plan For Ernie Banks Wrigley Field Statue



Mr. Cub at the 2008
Wrigley Field unveiling.
(Photo courtesy Lou Cella)

 Baseball has a Lone Ranger. Maybe a whole team of hard-to-spot superheroes!

I remember the masked man who saves the day and rides away quickly, while us grateful townsfolk mutter, “We didn’t have time to thank him.”

Fast-forward to sculptor Lou Cella. Outside ballparks, he’s creating great baseball bronze artworks. He works with The Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany, often teaming with fellow artistic talents like Oscar Leon. Just when it’s time to take bows, the sculptors are off to the next opportunity to three-dimensionalize baseball’s past.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to attempt to thank these creators this week.

I received a wondrous letter from Cella. I wrote to him to praise his understanding and appreciation of baseball. He began by explaining his vision for the Ernie Banks statue, writing:

“While working on any ball player, I am always trying to focus on a particular period in their career. I am usually narrowing this down to a specific year, and, on occasion, an exact date.

Case in point: The Cubs wanted to depict Ernie Banks as he looked in one of his MVP years (1958 or 1959). The uniform changed a bit in 1959 to what it more traditionally looks like today. The Cubs also asked to have Ernie shown smiling at bat. This is not normal, of course, but as much of a purist as I am when it comes to baseball, I still consider capturing the essence and personality of the person a critical part of the total presentation. This is, after all, a piece of art, and certain ‘licenses’ are going to be taken.

Ernie loved the game was always seen as a man who was having fun playing the game. He comes across as a happy man all the time. Therefore, I was very pleased that the Cubs wanted to go this route. Would Ernie be smiling at bat? No, of course not. But it still works. I think it works better than if we had been strictly realistic. I would never have considered this with Carlton Fisk or Ty Cobb. So you consider the pose and the person as you do this.

Another element I added to the history of this piece is exactly when the moment in time was. Upon telling a close friend of mine, Gary Colobuono, what I was doing he became very excited and told me this story.

August 29, 1959 was the first time Gary went to a baseball game. His father brought Gary and his brother to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs take on the greatest left-handed pitcher ever, Warren Spahn (respects to Koufax) and the Milwaukee Braves. At a certain point, the Cubs were losing, 2-0, with two runners on base. With Ernie Banks on deck, Spahn walked the bases full. So, on August 29, 1959, with Warren Spahn on the mound, the Cubs down by two, the bases loaded, and Gary Colobuono in the stands with his Dad, Ernie Banks hit a Grand Slam.

When Gary told me this story, I immediately decided that any time I was asked when this statue was supposed to be taking place, it would be right before Ernie hit that Grand Slam off Warren Spahn. That is one example of my understanding of baseball. A father, a son, and for them, a moment that will live forever.”

Enjoy this 2009 feature detailing Cella’s college days and his Illinois connections.

(Thanks to http://www.retrosheet.org/ for the Banks grand slam report.)

Coming Wednesday: Sculptor Cella’s views on collectibles.

When Norm Sherry Topped Warren Spahn

Debuted at age 27

Although Norm Sherry owns just 18 career home runs, he nicked a future Hall of Famer for two of the dingers.

“Hitting homers off [Warren] Spahn was something for ME. [His upper-case emphasis!] The first one came late into a game at home in L.A. and tied the game up. We went on and played 11 innings before we won. Second came in New York as a Met. Both came off fastballs over the middle of the plate.”

Sherry’s comeback as a major leaguer came in 1976, when he became manager of the California Angels. Although his stint as skipper didn’t last two years, he found a lengthy assignment as a San Francisco Giants coach. His assessment of three big league bosses intrigued me.

“Gene Autry was a real baseball fan and was ever present. Always in the clubhouse before the game and after. A real super man.

The owners that I played for? Walter O’Malley was a very nice man. They just didn’t pay well in those days.

At S.F., Bob Lurie was the best. Very serious.”

Tomorrow: a letter from the heart and soul of the 1960s California Angels, Jim Fregosi

What Did Willie Mays and Ernie Fazio Share?

Ernie Fazio is remembered as a steady infielder of the 1960s. However, on August 18, 1963, he shared the same path of a future Hall of Famer.

 “I will never forget my first major league home run off Warren Spahn. It was a great thrill and an accomplishment by another great ballplayer, Willie Mays.”

(Thanks to the fine folks at http://www.retrosheet.org/, you can remember Fazio’s historic dinger here!)

In a sense, Fazio began the Houston franchise. The team signed Fazio first, hours before they made a deal with Rusty Staub. I asked Fazio about a seldom-mentioned topic in the pre-Astrodome days.

“The humidity and mosquitoes in Houston in 1962 was unbearable. The mosquitoes ate you alive. what I did try was to eat a lot of peanut butter to keep the mosquitoes away. It helped a little. Johnny temple supplied the peanut butter.”

Just as Curt Flood stood up for free agency, Fazio is on the front line in the battle for pension rights. He’s one of the slighted major leaguers who, prior to 1980, needed four full seasons to qualify for a pension. Baseball signed a new contract granting pensions to anyone with only 43 days of service, but never provided retroactive acknowledgement of the hundreds who deserved the same benefit from seasons past.

“As for the pension plan, I still represent about 1,000 players who played in the major leagues but are not vested in the pension. We are finally making some progress. It is not about money. We are part of history.”

Despite baseball’s unwillingness to recognize Fazio’s service, he harbors no bitterness.

“Baseball was great. I do not think I was ready for the big leagues, going straight from college and playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a matter of five days. I wish I was still connected to baseball in some way. The pension is a problem. But I would not change anything. I love the game and always will.”

Playing in Houston and Kansas City, Fazio flew under the radar of most baseball media. I found but one account of his Houston toiling at this fun Astros history website.

For the whole picture of the pension fight Fazio and his compatriots are waging, be sure to read Douglas Gladstone’s A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve

Bobby Shantz: Gold Gloves and "Mister" Mack



Pitcher Bobby Shantz’s career spanned 1949-64. His credits are eye-popping:

8 Gold Gloves
3-time All-Star
1952 MVP Award

Shantz reinvented himself from starter to reliever. In addition to his 119 career wins, 78 complete games and 15 shutouts, Shantz threw in 48 saves.

Two books pay special tribute to Shantz, Athletics Album: A Photo History of the Philadelphia Athletics and The Story of Bobby Shantz..

The Pennsylvania-born moundsman’s career began under the care of Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack. Shantz described the grand old man of the game:

“I only played two years under Mr. Mack and enough to tell you he was a very special person. Very quiet most of the time and never wore a baseball uniform as far as I know, while managing.

A lot of players said he was tough getting money from when it came to contract time. Maybe so, because when I won 24 games in 1952, I was making $12,000 and I thought I was overpaid. He did double my salary for 1953, so that was pretty nice.”

Shantz hedged on describing his defensive artistry. Why did glove work come easy?

“I really can’t compare my fielding with other pitchers. Because I was only 5-foot-6 tall, I maybe was a little quicker getting to bunts down the line. there were quite a few good fielding pitchers when I played, namely Bob Gibson, Bob Lemon, Warren Spahn and Harvey Haddix.”

Shantz may believe he was “only” 5-foot-6. I believe he was, and is, a giant in the eyes of fans and collectors.

%d bloggers like this: