Winding up for the World Series October 18, 2013

With the baseball pennant fights underway, I called up some retired ballplayers for their take on the upcoming World Series. These are the gentlemen I spoke to for my baseball e-book, Contender, out from Star Dispatches. First, Chuck Stevens, formerly of the St. Louis Browns.

At 95, Chuck Stevens is an affable man, a self-described hard-line, tight-right, staunch Republican who keeps his TV tuned to Fox News, the possessor of a razor-sharp memory, and as of today, the 13th oldest living former Major League Baseball player.

Mr. Stevens was a first baseman who enjoyed a professional baseball career that began in 1937 and continued for 20 years, interrupted only by his service in the U.S. Air Force during the Second World War. He led a happy professional life in both the major and minor leagues, and afterwards spent almost 40 years as head of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America, an organization that helps players, umpires, scouts and trainers who fall into need, finally retiring only 15 years ago at 80 years of age.

I first talked to Mr. Stevens about his time as a teammate of Canadian ballplayer Harry Fisher, subject of my e-book, Contender.harryfisher-cover

He’s one of the few people who remembers Harry’s love of cars, his quiet and accommodating nature, and the wildness in his pitching that might have been corrected with patience and better coaching.

Now, with the 2013 baseball season hitting its climax, I decided to catch up with Mr. Stevens at his home in Long Beach, California, thinking he would offer a unique perspective on the latest round of playoffs.

It turns out that Mr. Stevens doesn’t pay rapt attention to modern-day baseball. For more than 60 years, he says, he knew most of the players and coaches and felt embedded in the game. Now, he feels like an outsider, suffering a disconnect that’s hard to get past.

“I’ll watch the World Series, but I would be lying if I said I was a big fan. I respect the game and it was good to me. But I don’t know the guys anymore. They’re just names in the paper, like they are for anyone else.”

Yet the perspective is still there. Mr. Stevens not only knows that the Toronto Blue Jays fell to last place in their division this year, he has a pretty good idea why. “They’re not bad,” he says. “They’re just not getting the breaks, and they will. They just need to plug a few holes.”

In fact, this year’s Blue Jays make him think of the 1940s-era St. Louis Browns, the team that moved east in 1953 and became the Baltimore Orioles. Mr. Stevens spent three years with the Browns and speaks delicately of the experience, saying he was never happy in the organization, feeling “it lacked many things.” In 1946, during his first full year on the Browns, the team ended the season in second place. The next year, they managed only a 59-94 record, ending up in last place.

“When you’re on a losing ball club, it’s like being in prison for five months,” he says. “So when you’re a guy who’s win-oriented and has always been that way, it’s very difficult. I only speak for myself, but I’m sure that many other guys feel the same way. Even when you’re in spring training it’s discouraging, because you know you’re not going to be in the fight.”

In 1948, after his third year on the Browns, Mr. Stevens says he forced the team to sell him to the Hollywood Stars of the old Pacific Coast League, by far his favourite team, and his professional home for much of the rest of his career.

“We won three (Coast League) pennants, and never finished lower than third. There, it was good to go back to spring training,” he says. “We always worked our keisters off, and I never idled the winter away. I got jobs as a labourer, and it only took me about a week in spring training to get in shape. My legs, arms, back—they were already in shape. I only needed to work on my swing, then I was ready to go. As a result, I had some great years in Hollywood.”

In fact, Mr. Stevens swung the bat well for the Stars, hitting .297, .288, .292 and .278 between 1949 and 1952. He was never a power hitter, but was noted for his defence.

“In the old Pacific Coast League, you flew everywhere, everything marvellously done,” he says. “Major league hotels, major league everything. I even made a picture with President Reagan, and another with one of my all-time favourites, Jimmy Stewart.”

Years later, President Reagan hosted Mr. Stevens in the Oval Office, a meeting Mr. Stevens says he’ll never forget. So are the games in Texas toward the end of his career in 1965, when he was a player-manager with the Amarillo Gold Sox of the Western League.

“In small towns in the U.S., when a ballplayer hit a home run, after he rounded the bases and touched home, people would poke dollar bills through the screen. When I managed in Amarillo, they did that. I had one child, a girl, and the first night I played there, I hit a home run. I didn’t take the money, but I noticed that one of the bills was held by a little hand, and it was my daughter.

“The other players could pick up $10 or $15 for a home run, and that was a good supplemental income for them. All sorts of things went together back then to make it a delightful time.”

Chuck  Stevens at the bat

Chuck Stevens at the bat

Yet Mr. Stevens is clear that the most significant moment of his career happened far from both Texas and the White House.

“My legacy,” he says, “is that I was the guy who broke in Satchel Paige.”

Mr. Stevens was the first batter to face the legendary former Negro League pitcher in an integrated big league game, hitting a single before Mr. Paige retired the next three batters.

“Satch and I knew each other well. It wasn’t really a first. We’d played together in a lot of games before then. As a young player, I played against the so-called Coloured All-Stars. At other times, I played with them. I played with Larry Doby in Cleveland. He was an all-around great guy. I used to dress beside a black guy when we played ball in high school.

“When they broke the colour bar in the major leagues, I could never understand what all the yelling was about. A lot of other guys took things out on them, but that was never my bag. Whether people were black, blue or green, I didn’t care.”

Now, he’s happy to see the sport so thoroughly integrated, although he says he generally makes a point of not comparing his generation to the latest players.

“Everything’s so different, the conditions they play in, the conditions we played in. The stadiums are different, the lighting, the equipment. It would have been fun to try that, and sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t done my three years of service (in the air force) at the height of my career.”

A long silence. Then Mr. Stevens tells me that his wife of more than 70 years is signalling him off to get off the phone. His wife’s name?

“Mrs. Stevens,” he replies, saying she’s just taking a pumpkin pie out of the oven for dessert.

“Always something to look forward to,” Chuck Stevens says.

 

For more from Chuck Stevens, Contender is available at Star Dispatches.