Interview with the Baseball Undertaker: Part II
A few weeks ago, we posted Part I of our interview with a man named Bill Lee, who wrote The Baseball Necrology, a book profiling the lives of deceased pro baseball players, and concurrently runs The Baseball Necrology Live, an Internet update of the same premise.
During the course of our interview with Bill, we learned that he lived on the West Coast when professional baseball out there was strictly a minor league outfit, and that he retained some crystal-clear memories of the low minors and the old Pacific Coast League. Not only that, but he’d stuck around for the cross-country relocation of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and the arrival of the expansion Los Angeles Angels, who at one time actually played their home games in Los Angeles.
Bill was gracious enough to give us extra time to share his memories of a unique bygone era of baseball history.
Jason Miller for Books On Baseball: When did you first become a baseball fan?
Bill Lee, the Baseball Undertaker: I was raised in Brawley, California in the Imperial Valley in the southeastern part of the state. From as far back as I can remember, in the late 1940s, I listened to baseball games on the radio, then watched them on television in the early 1950s, at every chance I could. Baseball was my number one sport. I really enjoyed it at the time.
JM: What teams did you follow?
BL: There were the El Centro Imperials, a team in the Class C Sunset League (later Southwest International League that included teams from El Paso TX and Phoenix AZ, plus some teams from Mexico). El Centro was a town about 30 miles from where I lived, and I got to go see the Imperials play once or twice a year. I listened to most of their games on the radio, which were broadcast live when the team was home and by delayed re-creation when they were on the road. The announcer was a young guy just home from the service, starting his career in broadcasting, by the name of Bob Blum. He went on to broadcast for the San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco Giants, and since 1973 has been broadcasting sporting events for UNLV in Las Vegas. Blum was honored in 1998 at the All-American Football Foundation banquet as its recipient of the Lindsay Nelson Sportscaster Award honoring individuals for lifetime achievement in the field of sports broadcasting. In 2003 he was named Nevada Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and in 2000 was inducted into UNLV’s Athletic Hall of Fame. And to think that I listened to him way back when he was just beginning his career!
Then, once a year, on my dad’s vacation, I got to see big-time baseball in San Diego when saw the Padres from the “old” Pacific Coast League. That was always the highlight event of my young life.
JM: Did any of the minor-league players that you followed ever achieve Major League success?
BL: There was Minnie Minoso who went on to stardom with the Indians and White Sox;
Ed Bailey, a catcher for the Reds and Giants; and Sam Jones, a pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the Cubs and played for several teams including the Indians, Cardinals and Giants. There was also Harry Simpson and Luke Easter of the Cleveland Indians.
The Padres had a working agreement with the Indians – most of those players went up to Cleveland. A little bit later they had a working agreement with the Reds – Ed Bailey and Ray Jablonski went up to the Reds. The Pacific Coast League was the place players both started and finished their careers. Some of my favorites that were in the twilight of their careers were Max West, Bob Elliott, Jack Graham, Earl Rapp and Larry Jansen. At that time the pay difference between the major leagues and the Pacific Coast League was not that big, and many players preferred to play on the coast, close to home and where the weather was not that extreme. Because of the better weather the season was 200 games, which helped make up any pay difference.
Very few players from the Sunset League made it to the majors – either coming or going. Felipe Montemayor, an outfielder for the Mexicali Eagles had a couple of cups-of-coffee with the Pirates and played for several years in the higher minor leagues in the Pirate organization. He lives in Monterey Mexico now, and writes a sports column there. He was a supporter for major league baseball in Monterey when they were looking for a home for the Expos. Red Kress, who had a lengthy major league career as both a player and coach, managed the Imperials for a while. One of the Imperials, Frank Stinson, had some time in the Pacific Coast League, and World War II may have cost Pete Hughes a major league career. He was a prolific hitting outfielder who played in the lower minors for a number of years. Many of his minor league hitting records are still on the books. Most of the other Imperials were youngsters looking for that elusive dream of being a big-time baseball player, and they disappeared from the game after a year or two. One of those youngsters was Johnny Moore, the son of Johnny Moore, the major league player and scout. The young Johnny Moore had a couple of cups-of-coffee with Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, but left baseball a short time later.
The one big claim of greatness for the Sunset League was the umpire Emmett Ashford, the first black umpire in the American League.
On one of my infrequent trips to the ballpark in El Centro I had the opportunity to see him call a game. He was every bit as colorful and flamboyant then as he was later in the majors. He was worth the price of admission. While on the subject of umpires, Doug Harvey, the recent Hall of Fame inductee, officiated our high school football games when I played football at Brawley.
JM: What Major League teams did you follow at the time?
BL: I was a big Cleveland fan, maybe because of the Padres and their working agreement with Cleveland. I didn’t care much for the Yankees and still don’t. 1948 was a big battle, a three-way race for the pennant, the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees. The Indians and Red Sox ended up tied and the Indians won a single-game playoff.
JM: That was the game where Denny Galehouse started for Boston and gave up all those big hits to Lou Boudreau?
BL: Boudreau was a big hero of mine as were Joe Gordon, Ken Keltner, and pitchers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia. Joe Gordon was manager of the Seals in 1957. They won the PCL pennant that year. I was at the last game the Seals played in 1957, before the Giants were to move there the next year. It was announced that Joe Gordon would play in that last game and I went with high expectations of seeing him play. That was quite a disappointment. It was no more than an exhibition – a bunch of old guys clowning around. It was such a farce. They were just having a good time, but I was really let down.
JM: The biographical information on your website says you also used to listen to Gordon McLendon.
I think he’s best-remembered today, at least baseball-wise, as having the only surviving broadcast tape of the 1951 National League playoff finale — the “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”. What was he like to listen to?
BL: His baseball broadcasts were only around a few years – late 1940s and early 1950s. He ran into difficulties with Major League Baseball over broadcasting rights or something of that sort. They was all re-creations. He recreated current games – a game every day. On off-days, travel days for the teams, he would go back to the 1920s and 1930s and recreate games of note from an earlier era, so he had a ballgame every day. He had the crowd noise, and the sound of the ball hitting the bat, and the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt. He even had the hawkers running around selling peanuts, cold beer, etc.
The conclusion of our series with the Baseball Undertaker will take us through the arrival of Major League Baseball on the West Coast. Stay tuned!