Posts Tagged ‘Les Biederman’

The Lone Star Years of Román Mejías

Friday, February 24th, 2017

During the Colt .45s’ inaugural season—1962—Houstonians could point to few bright spots in the team’s 64-96 record.  Román Mejías was one of them.

Mejías played in 146 games, swatted 162 hits, and finished the season with a .286 batting average.  Initially a product of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, the Cuban outfielder broke into the major leagues in 1955.  A year prior, he noticed a 55-game hitting streak for the Pirates’ minor league team in Waco, Texas.

In his article “Mejías of Waco Batting .345 of Pirate Farm Club” in the August 11, 1954 edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald, Oscar Larnce spotlighted the phenom’s talent.  “I don’t see how Mejías can miss.  He can do everything and is improving every day.  He was in Class D last year, then jumped into a tough Class B league and still gets better,” said Buster Chatham, the Pirates’ business manager, as quoted by Larnce.

Mejías spent six seasons with Pittsburgh, never playing in more than 96 games.  In 1960 and 1961, he played a total of seven games.

On Opening Day in 1962, Mejías clocked two home runs and notched six RBI to help the Colt .45s start Houston’s major league status with a victory over the Cubs. Mejías’s ability did not, however, result in selecting for the first All-Star game of 1962.  In an article for the Pittsburgh Press about Mejías’s All-Star situation, Les Biederman noted that Mejías led the Houston ball club at the plate—.317 batting average, 20 home runs, 54 RBI.

Little by little, Mejías learned English.  “New man.  I disgusted last year when Pirates send me to Columbus,” he explained in the Biederman article.  “I feel I can play in majors and never have real chance.  Figure no more chances but Houston take me and now new man.

“No swing bad balls anymore.  Not always strikes but no way to reach for ball can’t hit.  No more wait for ball over middle of plate.  Can’t get hit with bat on shoulder.”

Houston’s baseball fans embraced the slugger.  In his article “Mejías’ Season of Milk, Honey?” in the May 30, 1962 edition of the Houston Chronicle, Zarko Franks wrote, “Few will argue with Mejías’ popularity with the fans back home.  The roar of their voices when he comes to bat is sufficient testimony.”

Because of political strife in Cuba during the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, Mejías suffered a separation from his wife, son, daughter, and two sisters for 14 months.

After the ’62 season, the Colt .45s traded Mejías to the Red Sox for Pete Runnels.  Fenway Park’s brain trust commenced brainstorming to bring the Mejías clan into the United States.  Boston Globe sports writer Hy Hurwitz reported, “The Red Sox very quietly went about assisting Mejías in his plight.  There was no publicity on the Mejías predicament by request of certain officials who felt that any publicity might endanger the family’s chance for release from the Castro-dominated island.

“Exactly how much the Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey did for this 31-year-old man will never be told.  Yawkey won’t let it be told.”

However it was accomplished, the Red Sox organization did its legacy proud in securing safe transport for Mejías’s family in March 1963.

Mejías ended his career in a Red Sox uniform after the 1964 season.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 17, 2016.

The Great Groat

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Dick Groat does not have the fame of Bill Mazeroski, the immortality of Roberto Clemente, or the legend of Willie Stargell.  Nevertheless, he was a mainstay of the Pittsburgh Pirates for a majority of his major league career, which spanned 1952 to 1967.

In the October 1, 1952 edition of the Sporting News, Les Biederman honored the rookie shortstop’s special relationship with the city.  “Of all the bonus babies the Pirates scouted, signed and put into major league uniforms during the first two years of the Branch Rickey regime, the one standout has been Dick Groat, Pittsburgh native who leaped from the Duke University campus right to the Big Time in June,” wrote Biderman.  “Groat had a choice of many teams when he completed his baseball curriculum at the North Carolina breeding grounds, but now admits he chose well when he picked the Bucs.”

Groat’s best year was 1960, the year that the Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series; with a .325 batting average, Groat won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.  In his career, Groat compiled 2,138 hits and achieved a .268 batting average.

Though Groat displayed solidity in baseball, he might have had a career in basketball; at Duke, Groat was an All-American in both sports.  In a 2014 article for the magazine GoDuke, Groat explained, “Baseball was always like work for me.  Basketball was the sport that I loved, but it was baseball, where I knew I would make a living.  I made a deal with Mr. Rickey (Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates at that time).  I was a junior at Duke.  I went home and worked out for the Pirates in the summer before I went back to Duke.  After I had worked out he invited my mother and father to come to a game at Forbes Field where the Pirates played.  I was sitting in his booth and he turned to me, remember I am only 20, I’m still a minor, he says to me, ‘Young man, if you will sign a contract tonight, I’m going [to] start you against the Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night.’

“I said, ‘Mr. Rickey that’s not even fair.  You know I want to play major league baseball [sic], but I owe my senior year to Duke and I am going back to play basketball and baseball.  But I promise you, you make the same offer to me next spring and I will sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates.'”

Rickey relented.

After the 1962 season, the Pirates traded Groat to the Cardinals, where he became a vital part of the team’s infield.  In a 1963 Sports Illustrated article, Walter Bingham wrote, “Groat, still the same deadly opposite-field hitter he was when he won the National League batting title in 1960, uses a log for a bat and merely slaps the ball wherever it is pitched.  While [Cardinals manager Johnny] Keane admires Groat’s uncanny ability at performing the hit-and-run, he feels that Groat too often gives himself up to protect the runner.  ‘He’s too good a hitter to be sacrificing himself.'”

Groat added another World Series championship to his résumé in 1964, when the Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games.

After three season with the Cardinals, Groat played for the Phillies and the Giants—1967 was his last season.

In 2007, the College Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Groat.  Four years later, the College Baseball Hall of Fame followed suit.  Groat, like many athletes, pursued a broadcasting career after his playing days, but he did not join the ranks of Bill White, Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez et al.  Rather, Groat went back to his first love—he provides the color commentary for the radio broadcasts of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball games.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 25, 2015.