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SABR 41: Final panel! Tommy Davis & Al Ferrara story time

July 10, 2011 By: Cecilia Tan Category: SABR

The final event of the SABR convention was the player panel with Tommy Davis and Al Ferrara. (Del Crandall was unable to make it, because his wife fell ill.) This was one of the best “story time with former players” I can remember. Each of them had great stories to tell, and was very personable and.

The moderator opened the event by giving each of them the gift of some old scorecards that a SABR member had left for them, in which each of them had hit a home run. Both men were born in Brooklyn in 1938, and both played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (as well as other teams).

Both of them talked fast, and I only got down maybe half of what they said, but they told some great stories. Read on:

Al Ferrara: I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. I can remember Jackie Robinson breaking the color line, and Red Barber announcing they had a new third announcer here, Vin Scully, but the thing that stays with me is the sandlots of Brooklyn. It was highly competitive. Major leaguers came out of these sandlots. Mike Napoli, Fred Wilpon. Bobby G. Lombardo, and people came from all over to see them play. Sandy Koufax, Joe Torre, TOmmy Davis, one of the five best right-handed hitters I ever saw, Joe Pepitone, Bob Astromonte. Through the years they went on to become great players and All Star in the major leagues. Then there was the sixth guy nobody came to see him play. In his senior year in high school he hit 8th, and he had 4 hits in 48 times at bat… that was me. (laughter) You can see here what happens. You can have the great talent who become great players and then you can have the guy who isn’t supposed to make it, make it. I’m very very proud of the championships we won and I became Dodger of the Year in 1967. When Paul Hirsch wrote my biography for SABR he stopped me when I got to that point and said “How did that happen?” And I said “I don’t know!” (laughter) Well, last year I played in a gold tournament with the son of Al Campanis who was the scouting director, and he got me a copy of my original scouting report. Remember I was hitting .083 in high school, and it says “Hot hot hot! Hot prospect. His arm is good enough, we ought to follow him.” It also says “Needs help with his hitting.” (laughter)

Tommy Davis: Do you know who was the best pitcher in the city at that time? Fred Wilpon. And he didn’t sign. I don’t know why.

Al: He wanted to grow up to buy the Mets.

Tommy: The other guy I remember was Jerry Boxer. I was very fortunate to come up, and play with a group called the Brooklyn Bisons. It was owned by the only black organizer in the city at that time. We had three divisions, and he’s still living, CLarence Evans. We used to have meetings in the winter time and he gave us homework on baseball! It really helped me when I went to the minor leagues, knowing how to hit the cutoff man and so on. We were the 1955 senior champs of the Kiwanis League and we played our championship game in Cooperstown. (audible “wows” from the audience).

Mod: Tommy, you had multiple offers, right?

Tommy: It came down to the Yankees. Cleveland was in, also. But what the Yankees did to make it interesting is they let me work out at Yankee Stadium any time I wanted. Here’s a 17 year old guy working out with Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron—I loved him–and all the big guys. But Al Campanis kept coming to the house and saying they were still interested. And he had Jackie RObinson call me the Tuesday before the weekend I was supposed to sign. He called the house and I thought it was one f my friends playing a joke. “Who the hell is this?” And you remember he had that kind of high voice, and he said “It’s Jackie Robinson.” I told my mother, “It’s really Jackie Robinson!” She said, “Well, you better talk to him!” And the result was I signed with the Dodgers that Tuesday.

Al: I was a classical pianist, I played in Carnegie Hall. I wanted to play baseball, but I played the piano and I would play Bach and Beethoven, as they wrote it on the music, but I could not play Happy Birthday by ear. I would play for my grandmother though and she would say oh that’s beautiful beautiful, and I would say thanks grandma, can I have fifty cents to go to the batting cage? And she would give me the money for my practice. Now there were rankings of the music students in the city and at age 12 I was number 10. And I said to her, grandma, if I become the number one student in the whole city, then I want to concentrate on baseball. And she said if you become the number one music student in the city, then you can become a baseball player. Well, by age 16 I had worked my way up to number one. I played my final concert and she hugged me and told me how wonderful it was, and I kissed her, and walked away from the piano and I never touched a piano again.

(Tommy reels off the many names of players on his old Brooklyn team which were International, Italian, Irish, hispanic, etc.)

Tommy: I had a problem when I was trying to win the batting championship. I had lost my basketball coach, he was like 54 years old, and then I lost my father, and my mother in law, all in one year. And I put a lot of pressure on myself, and didn’t do it. The next year my bat was getting better, but I hurt my ankle, catching it in the Georgia clay on the infield. Doctor told me it was bad and maybe it would take two years to come back. But they traded me to the Mets, which was great since that was my hometown. And Wes Western was the manager and I told him I want to play as much as I can without hurting the team. And he allowed me to play. It was the greatest year of my life when I was with the Mets. I got up over 500 times and almost 80 runs batted in. I figure, well, I got a shot. I thought, I’m going to be there. I contributed to the World Series team in 1969, because they traded me! For Tommy Agee who came to the Mets. But how I hit .302 for a last place club. THe last day of the season, they’re playing the Dodgers, and Drysdale is on the mound. And I was 0 for 2, and the count was 0 and 2, and I say to Johnny Roseboro behind the plate, help me out here, I’m at .299 or .300, and I’m oh for two. And he sauys to me “What you want?” and I said “Give me something I can handle.” Now with Drysdale at 0-2 you didn’t usually get something good to hit. But he gave me one right here (gestures like a nice fat pitch is hanging) and I hit it. THat’s how I ended up hitting .302.

Mod: How would you compare Walter Alston to Earl Weaver?

Tommy: Walter Alston was real quiet and he didn’t demand respect, he didn’t have to. We were an experienced team and he let us solve our own problems. Although if we couldn’t solve our own problems, he would step in. But there was one time in Pittsburgh, he stopped the bus, we were complaining and stuff, there was no air conditioning on the bus, and he said “You got a complaint? You come outside with me right now.” And not a single person got up. Not even big Frank Howard. Now Earl Weaver he was kind of different. (laughter) You remember he was real short. One time he came into the clubhouse wearing those what are they called elevator shoes? Platform shoes. With the biggest heels he could find. And he was leaning like this, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There was one night when Paul Blair was between marriages, and he went out on a date, and was out kinda late. And when he came in Earl Weaver was also coming in. And Blair hid behind the post so he wouldn’t see him. But the next morning he calls him over and he says “You thought I didn’t see you last night. But I did. And you’re only playing today because you’re the best center fielder in the league. But you better do well today or tonight I’m fining you a thousand dollars. Now Gaylord was pitching. And Blair got three hits including a game-winning home run. And after the game Earl calls him over and he’s like “What is it now, Skip?” and Weaver says “Tonight, I want you to go to the same place, and come in at the same time” and all that. (laughter)

Questions from the audience:
What was it like when Jackie Robinson came along for you as young Brooklynites?

Al: I was only seven at the time.

Tom: Eight.

Al: No, seven, my birthday wasn’t until December. I didn’t know anything about the color line or the social implications. All I knew was that there was this wonderful wonderful player. Brooklyn loved him, not white or black, all of Brooklyn loved him.

Tommy: You know baseball wasn’t even my best sport? In college at UCLA, baseball was his weakest sport, they said. And I remember when he came in in ’47, at that time the Dodgers were on TV all the time, all the home games were on TV. And I remember his hair was black. In 1953 he came to my junior high school, only six year later, and his hair was white. Totally white. He was special. He wasn’t the best player on his negro league team. But he was picked out. And that’s history, right? He died early, he was 54 years old, and Newcombe had me crying. He was a great golfer, did you know that? He hit in the 70s. And Newcombe took him out and got him on a golf tee, and you know he was losing his sight because of the diabetes at that time. And he had said I just want to hit the ball one more time. So Newcombe lined him up on the tee, put the ball down and showed him where it was, and Jackie hit the ball one more time.

Al, you had Sparky Anderson as a third base coach, did you think he would become a major league manager for 25 years?

Al: Sparky was all baseball. He would just live and die baseball. Yes, I could ienvision him going on to be a fine manager. I do have a story about Sparky for you. They traded me to Cincinatti when he was there, and this was just before the Big Red Machine became Big Red Machine, and they traded me for an outfielder named Angel Bravo, who was hitting about .145 and I was hitting about .185 so it wasn’t a great trade but it was a trade. And of couse Sparky wanted to see what he had, so he put me in left field. It looked like a monkey jumping around out there, and I butchered the ball. No run scored but I looked pretty bad out there. And as I ran in from left field at the end of the inning Sparky was standing there at the top of the dugout step and I thought what am I going to say to him? And what I said was, “What did you expect for Angel Bravo? Willie Mays?”

Tommy: If you want to talk about hitting, we’ll be here all day. I realized early if I wanted to make some money, I had to make it off the other three pitchers. The first two guys are going to be twenty game winners and all this. But the other guys, you know they want to throw you a fastball first pitch. And then I would also remember what they wanted to throw with two strikes. I said I’d accept ten percent strikeouts. The one year I hit .346, I got up about 600 times and struck out about 60 times. I was a contact hitter, a Bible hitter, “Though shall not pass.” I was not a long ball hitter, but the pitchers would fear you if you were a contact guy.

Al: Another guy who was tough was Pete Rose. He would be reading the box scores weeks in advance knowing he was going to play Pittsburgh, and all this.

Tommy: I used to be able to do my own hit and runs. Paul Blair was usually ahead of me and I would give him the sign. But one night we were playing the Yankees, and I did it three times. And one time he looked at me like I was crazy, because it was 0 and 2. But I put it on and I did it.

AL, Ginger or Mary Ann? (Al had appeared on Gilligan’s Island.)

Al: Well, I guess my teammate Bo Belinsky dated Ginger, so I guess that leaves me with Mary Ann.

Tommy also told stories about his Seattle Pilots teammates, Al Ferrara talked about being in the movies with Tallulah Bankhead, there was a lot I couldn’t get down! Tommy Davis on situational hitting and the current Dodgers hitting .134 with men in scoring position this year and living with Vida Blue in 1971. And more.

Full audio of most of the panels from this convention are available online at sabr.org.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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