Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Original Sunshine Boys

They were the “Sunshine Boys” long before there was a Broadway play and movie by the same name. By day, Bob Anderson and Dick Drott put a smile on the faces of Los Angeles Angels fans by mowing down batters like gunslingers in a Western movie. By night, they shared an efficiency apartment near Hollywood and with their youthful, good looks fit right in with others from the Midwest looking to be discovered.

Bob Anderson, right, was the Pacific Coast League’s top rookie in 1956 while Steve Bilko, left, won most valuable player honors.  (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives
Bob Anderson, right, was the Pacific Coast League’s top rookie in 1956 while Steve Bilko, left, won most valuable player honors. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives

Anderson, 20, and Drott, 19, already were in the baseball limelight. A month into the 1956 season, they were being called “can’t missers – destined for stardom in the majors.”

The Indiana-born Anderson, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound right hander, inspired comparisons with two of the best relief pitchers of all time. “He was not quite like Mariano Rivera but at least as good as Troy Percival,” said Gene Mauch, the Angels second baseman who went on to manage 26 years in the big leagues. “We knew one thing. If we had a lead going into the eighth inning, the game was over. Everybody in the league was scared to death of Anderson –scared to death of him. He was just wild enough.”

Charlie Silvera, a former major league catcher, likened the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Drott, a native of Ohio, to the New York Yankees’ Allie Reynolds, a six-time all-star, because “he murders those hitters with a fastball, curve and guts.”

Anderson was used only in relief in ‘56, posting a 12-4 won-loss record, team-best 2.65 earned run average (ERA) and 28 saves.

“He was like a machine,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the team’s veteran pitchers. “He could throw strikes. He could overpower you. He just went in there and nailed them to the wall.”

Drott had a 13-10 record and led the league in strike outs with 184. He won six of his first seven decisions, prompting the Los Angeles Herald & Express to report: “His curveball snarls up and bows like a head waiter and his lively fastball exposes every batter to a siege of pneumonia.”

“Dick Drott had the best curveball I ever saw in a 19-year-old kid,” Mauch said.

“I was always amazed by his curveball,” said Jim Brosnan, a teammate of Drott’s with the Chicago Cubs. “It was a beautiful pitch. It reminded me of Sandy Koufax’s curveball and Koufax, in my opinion, was the best pitcher of all time.”

Drott referred to his fastball as a “hummer.”

“In the first inning he’s fast, the next time you’re up he’s real fast and the third time around he throws bullets at you,” marveled Jim Westlake, a former major leaguer playing for the Vancouver Mounties in ‘56.

Dick Drott won 15 games as a rookie for the Cubs in 1957. (Author’s collection)
Dick Drott won 15 games as a rookie for the Cubs in 1957. (Author’s collection)

“Dick has the killer instinct of a tiger and the friendliness of a lamb,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing explained.

“Dick did not like to be beaten,” Anderson said. “He knew that he had good stuff and he was extremely confident in his ability to strike people out. So he was a tiger in that sense. His demeanor off the field was very much like a lamb.”

Anderson added: “Had he not hurt his arm with the Cubs, he probably would’ve been one of the outstanding pitchers of that era.”

The same could be said for Anderson.

“I thought Anderson and Drott would have big, big careers,” Mauch said. “For various reasons, they didn’t quite make it as big as I thought they would in the big leagues.”

Anderson was 36-46 in the majors and Drott 27-46.

Anderson’s best season was 1959 when he won 12 games and was the workhorse of the Cubs pitching staff, starting 36 games and pitching 235 innings.

Over the next three years, Anderson played for seven different managers and head coaches. In 1960, he won nine games as a starter. He pitched primarily in relief in 1961-62 as the Cubs operated without a manager, rotating its so-called college of coaches.

“There was no rhyme or reason as to the way we were used,” Anderson said.  “I remember warming up and pitching six games in a row.  There was no concern for what could happen to the pitchers.”

In late August 1961, Anderson appeared in three straight games against Pittsburgh, recording two saves and a win. He pitched one inning in the first game; two and one-third innings in the second and three innings in the third. On the last pitch of the third game Anderson hurt his arm.

“I remember vividly when I hurt my arm. It was against Roberto Clemente and it was a pitch that didn’t need to be thrown because I had struck him out on the previous pitch but the umpire called it ball two.  Even Clemente dropped the bat and started to walk away from the plate. I threw him a fastball that moved in on him. But when I threw it, I felt something in my shoulder.  The day after that I warmed up to go into a ballgame and I couldn’t throw.”

Anderson and Drott talk hitting with Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs’ batting instructor, in this 1958 photo. (Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/51435/rec/4 )
Anderson and Drott talk hitting with Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs’ batting instructor, in this 1958 photo. (Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/51435/rec/4 )

Anderson appeared in nine more games in ‘61, finishing with a 7-10 record, eight saves and 4.26 ERA.

“The year after that, 1962, why, it was dog crap,” Bob said, referring to his 2-7 record and 5.02 ERA.

Anderson hung on for two more years before calling it quits in 1964 at the age of 28.

Drott’s rookie season in 1957 was amazingly like another first-year Cub pitching sensation – Kerry Wood in 1998.

Dick, who turned 21 during the ‘57 season, had a 15-11 won-loss record, 3.58 ERA and his 170 strikeouts ranked second in the National League. Kerry, also 21, was 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts, third in the league.

When Wood fanned 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field May 6, 1998, it brought back memories of Drott whiffing 15 Milwaukee Braves on the same field May 27, 1957.

“That boy,” future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts said of Drott, “is as good a pitcher at his age as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Dick’s 15 strikeouts were just three shy of the major league record at the time. He had Henry Aaron, the Braves’ legendary slugger, so confused that he was called out on strikes three times – twice on fastballs and once on a curve.

The similarity in the careers of the two Cubs pitchers doesn’t stop there.

Wood hurt his arm and spent the following season on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery. Over his 14-year career, he was on the disabled list 16 times, never fulfilling the potential he showed as a rookie.

After a 7-11 record and 5.43 ERA his second year, Drott served six months active duty with the Army Reserve. In the spring of ‘59, he returned to the Cubs out of condition and some 20 pounds under his playing weight. He hurt his arm when he tried to throw too hard too soon.

Drott spent the next three years on and off the disabled list before ending his career in 1963 with a 2-12 record for the Houston Colt 45s.

For one shining moment that last season Drott was as good as he ever was and almost as good as one of the all-time greats – Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.

He had a one-hit shutout going into the bottom of the eighth inning of a classic pitching duel with Marichal. He gave up a bloop double, struck out the next batter and got Marichal to fly out before another double gave the Giants their only run of the game. Drott struck out seven and allowed three hits. Marichal fanned five and pitched a no-hitter.

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Anderson says the Cubs “used everybody wildly and people got hurt.”  He ticks off the names of other promising pitchers who injured their arms – Myron “Moe” Drabowsky, Glenn Hobbie and Don Elston. “Drott hurt his arm. I hurt mine. Dick Ellsworth came along a little bit later during that era and he hurt his arm. The Cubs had some good arms in their farm system that they destroyed after they got to the majors.”

Drott was 28 when he quit at the end of the 1964 season – the same age as Anderson.

It was not the kind of ending anybody expected in ’56 when Anderson and Drott were the “Sunshine Boys” and destined for stardom.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Like Father, Like Daughter

“I miss my daddy,” Faye Davis said as we stepped into her office at the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I miss my daddy.”

A life-sized photo of Piper in a Birmingham Black Barons uniform is prominently displayed in a breezeway at Hoover Stadium, home of the Birmingham Barons until they moved to a downtown ballpark in 2013  (Photo by author)
A life-sized photo of Piper in a Birmingham Black Barons uniform is prominently displayed in a breezeway at Hoover Stadium, home of the Birmingham Barons until they moved to a downtown ballpark in 2013 (Photo by author)

Faye had just attended a Negro League Conference presentation on her father, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis. He played seven years in the Negro Leagues (1942-48), mostly for the Birmingham Black Barons. As player-manager in 1948, he guided the Black Barons to the Negro American League title. The centerfielder was Willie Mays, a 16-year-old at the time.  “He was a warm man, fatherly, and all the players respected him,” the Hall of Famer wrote in his autobiography, Say Hey.

Photos of Piper as well as his Negro League baseball card were on a table in the corner of her office. Nearby was a copy of Willie’s Boys, the excellent book about Piper and the 1948 Black Barons.  The screensaver on Faye’s computer showed a distinguished-looking Piper in a suit and tie. And on the wall in a large picture frame above Faye’s desk was the Birmingham News article, Born too soon, published on Piper’s death in 1997 at the age of 79. “Lorenzo “Piper” Davis “came along too late for the major leagues, but just in time to become one of Birmingham’s most respected names in baseball,” the story began.

Piper was the only black player on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels team. Some of the veterans such as Gene Mauch and Dwight “Red” Adams, knew of his exploits in the Negro Leagues and with the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League prior to joining the Angels in 1955. A few of the players had heard Piper talk about playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. But, for the most part, they had no idea their teammate was a legend in the making.

Piper, pictured in lower right corner, was a regular for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1943-46. He played part-time during the 1947-48 and 1950-51 seasons. He returned in 1957 to become the team’s traveling secretary, road manager and part-time coach.   (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)
Piper, pictured in lower right corner, was a regular for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1943-46. He played part-time during the 1947-48 and 1950-51 seasons.  (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)

 

In December 1999 he was selected one of Alabama’s 50 Greatest Sports Performers of the Century along with some of the greatest athletes of our times — Jesse Owens, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Louis, Bo Jackson, Joe Namath, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Mays. Displays at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, in which he was inducted in 1993, pay tribute to Piper. Birmingham’s Piper Davis Youth Baseball League is named in his honor.

At Hoover Stadium where the current Barons played until moving to a new downtown ballpark in 2013, a life-sized photo of a young Piper graces one of the breezeways leading into the stands. Go to Rickwood Field, the well-preserved ballpark that was home to both the Black Barons and the all-white Barons team in the Southern Association, and images of him are everywhere.

“I have yet to be able to walk into Rickwood without crying,” Faye said.

When Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Piper was nearly 30 – about 17 months older than Robinson. This was too old for the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox who flirted with bringing him up to the Big Show.

Piper was 39 when he played for the ’56 Angels. He was a pinch-hitter deluxe, batting .448, and a super sub, playing every position in the field except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher. Overall, he hit .316.

Mauch likened the 6-foot-3, 188-pound Piper to George Hendrick, a similarly built outfielder who hit 267 homers in the majors during the 1970s and 1980s. “With a bat, he was just like George Hendrick. The day didn’t come that they could throw a fastball that Piper couldn’t get around on.”

Two of Piper’s six home runs in ‘56 came as a pinch-hitter.

“Oh, man, he could crank up on a fastball,” recalled pitcher Gene Fodge. “He was strong – even at 38-39, whatever he was at that time.”

Piper was a super-sub for the ’56 Angels, leading the league in pinch-hitting. (Author’s collection)
Piper was a super-sub for the ’56 Angels, leading the league in pinch-hitting. (Author’s collection)

Piper’s contributions as a player went far beyond what he did with a bat.

“Piper Davis was the most consummate professional player that I ever played with,” said Mauch. “I’m not saying that he was the best player. Hell, I played with Ted Williams, Stan Musial – a bunch of great players. I’m talking about consummate professionalism. He said all the right things at the right time. He was very, very astute.”

“The biggest catalyst on the ball club was Piper Davis,” said Bob Speake, the Angels’ left-fielder. “He spent most of his time in the bullpen, warming up the pitchers. He helped the young pitchers, sharing all of his wisdom gathered when he was in the Negro Leagues.”

Before the Angels released Buzz Clarkson in ‘56, manager Bob Scheffing checked with Piper to make sure he was all right with being the lone black on the team.

“It won’t bother me at all,” Piper said.

“Dad was a pretty solitary type,” Faye explained. “If you didn’t mention baseball, you wouldn’t get 15 words out of him. But if you ever got him started…”

One story Piper liked to tell was the time he was catching for the Oaks and called for three straight fastballs to strike out the batter, Mauch. When they became teammates in L.A., Mauch asked Piper why he had the pitcher throw three successive fastballs, defying all baseball logic.

Piper grinned and said proudly, “Element of surprise, my dear brother!”

Piper was a man of few, carefully selected words.

Asked about the segregation that kept baseball white, Piper said, “Wasn’t the game’s fault.” On playing in the Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson: “Hit everywhere from .275 up. Be a million-dollar ball player today.”

He verbally flagged something important by saying “put it in the computer” long before there were computers. Piper referred to a hard-hit ball as “tattooed” or “buggy whipped.”

“Daddy liked to say, ‘Hold your point.’ And then he’d say, ‘Come back to your point.’”

Standing next to Piper, far right, is jazz great Lionel Hampton. Satchel Paige is pictured far left with an unidentified woman.  (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research
Standing next to Piper, far right, is jazz great Lionel Hampton. Satchel Paige is pictured far left with an unidentified woman. (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)

Davis was known as “Piper Colina” when he moved in with relatives in Birmingham so he could attend Fairfield High and stay out of the coal mines near Colina and Piper, Alabama, where he grew up.  “Somewhere along the line they dropped the Colina and it just got to be Piper,” Faye said.

“Dad gets here and they’ve got their starting five at basketball. They kind of kept him out.”

 During one particularly close game, Fairfield students started chanting, “We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina!”

Fairfield’s coach leaned over to the equipment manager and asked, “Spates, is that Piper Colina boy any good?”

“Yes, sir, he can play.”

Piper Colina entered the game, Fairfield won and the legend of Piper Davis was born.

“I’ll tell you one of the most interesting experiences I ever had,” Faye said. “When my grandmother died, all of the old guys from Piper came to the house one evening. And their visit went on through the night. It was the best history anybody could’ve had in the life of a coal mine –racial relationships in a coal mine – and how daddy was deadly with a slingshot.”

Faye was reminded of the time a plumber came to their house in Birmingham. On seeing Piper, he exclaimed, “Knocks?”

“Yeah,” Piper said, confirming the nickname he picked up as a kid in Piper because of his ability to “knock your eyes out” with a slingshot.

As the different gloves and catcher’s mask in this Oakland Tribune photo attests, Piper was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of most. (Author’s collection)
As the different gloves and catcher’s mask in this Oakland Tribune photo attests, Piper was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of most. (Author’s collection)

The plumber pointed to a spot on his head and said to Faye, “Look, I got the biggest hickey on my head from your daddy’s slingshot.”

Faye was browsing through photographs from her father’s playing days. Piper was “all-everything” for the Oakland Oaks from 1952-55.  When Oaks manager Mel Ott proposed playing Piper at all nine positions during a single nine-inning game, someone suggested, “Let’s make it a ten-inning game – and have Piper sell beer in the tenth.”

“There was a guy in our neighborhood who called daddy Mr. Piker,” Faye said. “’How ya doin’, Mr. Piker?’ So daddy called mom Mrs. Piker.”

“Mom was going to pick up Dad in front of the ballpark at Emeryville in Oakland. She wanted to surprise him. Now don’t ask me how she got that car across the intersection and flooded it.  Traffic is stopped. My brother and I are on the floor in the back of the car so nobody could see us. People are all around.”

Piper showed up. “Dad just stood there, hands on hips: ‘Mrs. Piker, what are you trying to do?’”

Faye was asked what she missed most about her daddy.

Faye Davis is a spitting image of her daddy shown on her computer screen. (Photo by author)
Faye Davis is a spitting image of her daddy shown on her computer screen. (Photo by author)

“The smell of his pipe – smelled like bourbon. The seeds popped. He always yelled when he was driving and he couldn’t get to it right away.  He had little holes in his shirt from when the tobacco popped.

“I called him Sugar Sharp,” Faye added. “He was a nice dresser. After he finished playing, we bought his clothes for him. Every Sunday he’d get dressed and he’d come in and say, ‘Do I meet your approval?’”

Faye looks just like her daddy.

“There was no mistake whose child we were,” she said, also referring to her brother, Lorenzo.

“The older I get, the more people tell me that I look like my dad. I walk down 4th Avenue and 17th Street, ‘How ya doin’, Little Piper?  How ya doin’, Little Piper? How ya doin’, Little Piper?”

Faye Davis shows how her father napped in front of the TV. (Photo by author)
Faye Davis shows how her father napped in front of the TV. (Photo by author)

Faye leaned back in her office chair to demonstrate how her daddy napped while watching television. She described what happened when television became popular in the early 1950s.

“We wanted a TV. Daddy said: ‘Wait until they get the bugs out. Let them get the bugs out.’ When they announced the World Series was going to be televised, we got a TV the same day. All he watched was baseball games until momma got him hooked on a soap opera.”

“Does your wife watch Edge of Night?” people would ask.

“Yeah,” Piper said, “and her husband, too.”

“That was typical dad: ‘Yeah, and her husband, too.’”

Faye turned to her computer to pull up comments she made saluting Negro League players at Rickwood Field to commemorate Birmingham’s 125th anniversary in October 1997.

 “They played the game so well,” Faye told the crowd. “Many of the men whose names have echoed during this event and are synonymous with the glory days of the Negro League are no longer in our midst.  But they left us with unmatched memories – memories of baseball brilliance, of unparalleled talent and savvy. Most never played in the major leagues but most major leaguers would have a hard time carrying their gloves to the ballpark….”

One of the stories Faye tells is when her father gave his glove to Mauch near the end of the ’56 season when Gene was leaving the Angels to join the Boston Red Sox. “Take that glove with you,” Piper said. “That’s the only way it’s getting to the big leagues.”

Faye concluded her tribute to Negro League players by saying:

“They rode the bus all night, laced spikes on swollen feet, entered the field of play and proceeded to tattoo and buggy whip the ball while stopping the opponent with dazzling defense. And when their playing days were over each went on his way, making it hard, at times, to know who was still around.  Yes, many have gone on – so in the name of many we call but a few who played the game so well: Winfield Welch; Lloyd  “Pepper” Bassett; Mr. Rudd, the bus driver; Nathaniel Pollard; Alonzo Perry; Ed Steele; Wiley Griggs; Harry Barnes; Johnny Cowan; Roosevelt Atkins;  “Cap” Brown; and Lorenzo  “Piper” Davis.”*

* Davis, Faye J, They Played the Game So Well! Copyright 1997.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Raccoon River Revisited

Nobody has written a song about the Raccoon River that flows through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, but Bob Speake, left-fielder for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, spins a good yarn about it.

Speake played first base for the Des Moines Bruins of the A Western League in 1954. The Bruins were the Class A farm club of the Chicago Cubs. Besides Speake, six other ’54 Bruins played for the ’56 Angels: Raymond “Moe” Bauer; Hy Cohen; Gene Fodge; Don Lauters; Elvin Tappe and Casey Wise.

Bob Speake was the toast of Chicago in 1955, socking 10 homers in the month of May. (George Brace Photos)
Bob Speake was the toast of Chicago in 1955, socking 10 homers in the month of May. (George Brace Photos)

The Missouri-born Speake was dubbed “Wonder Boy of the Ozarks” in 1955 when he clubbed 10 home runs in the month of May. “I never saw anybody have a greater single month than Speake did,” said Cubs manager Stan Hack. “Whenever we needed a run to win he came through for us.”

Speake hit only two more homers the rest of the season, finishing with 12. At L.A. the next year, he batted .300 with 25 home runs and 111 runs batted in to earn another shot in 1957 with the Cubs.

In 1954, the Des Moines Bruins played at Sec Taylor Stadium near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Today, Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs, sits on the same site.

The Bruins and Cubs were playing an exhibition game in Des Moines. Speake was batting. “Bob,” the Cub catcher said, “this one is straight down the middle.”

“And I hit that thing, as we say, into the Raccoon River,” Speake recalled.

Several years later Bob was executive vice president of a Topeka, Kansas, insurance company. Two business colleagues were headed to Des Moines for a meeting. “When you get there,” Bob told them, “get a cab driver to take you to the Raccoon River side of the ballpark and you’ll see a statue where I hit the ball. It was the longest ball ever hit out of that ballpark.”

After their dinner meeting, the executives asked a cab driver if he remembered a guy named Bob Speake. “He played ball here and hit a home run into the river by the ballpark.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember Bob Speake,” the driver replied.

“You know,” Speake explained, “a cabbie is going to remember everybody because he’s working on a tip. So he drives them out there, looking for this thing.”

Of course, there’s no statue. Finally, they realized Speake set them up.

“When they got back to Topeka, boy, they were letting me have it. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Back off. Had it been raining?’”

“Yeah,” they said.

“Well,” Speake said, “the river was high and it just overflowed.”

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Fodge as in Fudge


The name is Gene Fodge. But Ernie Banks, widely known as Mr. Cub, called Gene “Fudgie” as in fudge.  The word “fudge” took on a whole new meaning in the movie classic, Christmas Story, when Ralphie said, “Oooh fuuudge!”  Of course, Ralphie didn’t say fudge; he said “THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!”

In 1956 Fodge had a lot of hitters talking like Ralphie. He won 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels, including the one that clinched the Pacific Coast League pennant. “I can still feel the champagne in my eyes,” Fodge said 44 years later. “That will go to the grave with me.”

Gene Fodge appeared in 16 games for the Cubs in 1958.
Gene Fodge appeared in 16 games for the Cubs in 1958.

At age 24, Fodge was the oldest member of the Angels’ prized “Kiddy Corp.” He didn’t throw as hard as Bob Anderson and Johnny Briggs and he didn’t have the baffling curveball of Dick Drott and Bob Thorpe. All Fodge did was pile up more wins than any of the other kid phenoms, reeling off nine straight in July and August when the Angels pulled away from the pack. He tossed two shutouts and completed 11 of the 25 games he started.

“Gene was a worker that didn’t have outstanding stuff but was capable of getting the job done,” said Raymond “Moe” Bauer, the team’s left-handed relief specialist. “He had the kind of thing that you can’t measure.”

“I had the feeling that they underestimated him,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the Angels’ veteran pitchers. “No one said it. But just the way they handled him. I wondered why they weren’t higher on Gene because I thought he was a very good prospect.”

Even Fodge downplayed his accomplishments. “When I can 19 games and still have a 4.31 earned run average, you know what kind of scoring they’re doing,” he said. “It doesn’t say a whole lot for my pitching, but it does say a lot for their hitting.”

Fodge pitched briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1958, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 15-2 for his first and only major league victory. What made it even more special was that he got the best of two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history – Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.

Drysdale, 22, and Koufax, 23, were just starting their careers at the time but so was Fodge, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from South Bend, Indiana.

“I couldn’t believe all of the telegrams I got from South Bend when I won that game,” Fodge said, laughing. “My parents, my teachers in school, coaches around town, even the mayor sent me a telegram. I’m glad they did it then because they didn’t get another chance.”

Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers, followed by two other pitchers before Koufax appeared. Meanwhile, Fodge pitched a complete game, scattering 10 hits and striking out three.

Gene Fodge was still believing in miracles when this photo was taken in 2000
Gene Fodge was still believing in miracles when this photo was taken in 2000

After beating the Dodgers, Gene started three more games. He was 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA when the Cubs sent him to Fort Worth in July where he finished the year and his career with an 8-3 record.

“Gene was a real competitor,” Anderson said. “He did not have overpowering stuff but he had a good fastball, a good slider and he could spot his pitches pretty well. I thought the Cubs gave him very, very little opportunity. For some reason, they didn’t smile on Gene.”

 

Fodge was 27 when he went back to South Bend to stay.

In 2000 at the age of 69, Gene was sitting in a South Bend restaurant, reflecting on his career. He arrived in a Ford Ranger with a front license plate reading: CUBS FAN – I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES.

Fodge signed with the Cubs because his father was a diehard Cubs fan, and he believed the opportunity was greater in Chicago because “the club was down and in the process of rebuilding.” “I’m still a live-and-die Cub fan,” he said. “Most of the time you’re dying.”

He was wearing a Sammy Sosa watch and his PCL championship ring. “Every day was ‘Happy Days’,” he said of the 1956 season.

Fodge appeared in only 16 games in the majors but, as he quickly pointed out, “It’s 16 games I’ll never forget.”

“It has been what, 42 years since I was in the majors? I’m still getting stuff in the mail from fans. I can’t wait to open it. I get some of the most interesting letters from people saying, ‘We’re fans from your era and baseball has never been the same.’ I always answer them. My wife says, ‘You’ve never been out of baseball.’ I haven’t really because people have kept me in it.”

Gene died in 2010 at the age of 79.

Family and friends showed up at his funeral wearing baseball uniforms and Cubs shirts. At one point, they sang along with a recording of Harry Caray warbling Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It was a fitting tribute to the only Cubs pitcher to beat Drysdale and Koufax in the same game.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan: