Sunday, November 1, 2015

A long time ago, Wickersham was a good Sport

     In researching the Internet for a project concerning professional baseball in Shreveport, this item got our attention: Dave Wickersham is the oldest living former Kansas City Royals player.
     That is pertinent because of the current World Series, although his name might not resonate with current fans. But for those of us who were teenagers and baseball fans in Shreveport, La., as the 1960s began, the name -- Dave Wickersham -- is a familiar one.
     In 1960 and 1961, he arguably was the Shreveport Sports' best pitcher and one of the best in the old Southern Association.
Baseball card photos from
     At the end of each of those seasons, he was called up by the parent Kansas City Athletics. The next year, 1962, he stayed in the big leagues. He was a major-league pitcher in each year of the 1960s.
      He was a star for a season or two, decent and consistent in other seasons, and by 1969, when he somewhat surprisingly made the roster of the KC Royals (one of the American League's two expansion teams), just grateful for one last season.
      By then, he also had established a second career -- in insurance sales -- and he had a life -- a wife, a family, and a city/area he had come to love.
      And a baseball team -- the Royals -- he could root for forever.
      So, because I've written frequently about Shreveport baseball over five decades, the question was -- in the tradition of the old Shreveport Journal series that produced many of our sports staff's best features in the 1980s -- "Whatever happened to Dave Wickersham?"
     Reaching the man took several contact attempts -- through Facebook, the White Pages, his insurance-business address/phone and his daughter Carey's work connection at the KC FOX-4 television station.
     Bottom line: He got the message.
     We had a nice chat about his life and career, about today's game and the Royals, and we took a virtual trip back to Shreveport in 1960-61.
     His is the classic humble beginnings-to-good life story -- with two successful careers and two nice pensions and, more importantly, a family to cherish. A devout Christian, he turned 80 on Sept. 27, and his four children have given him eight grandchildren to care for (and a ninth due soon).
     But there is loss. Carol Sue, the beautiful girl he met while he pitched for the KC Athletics and married in 1964, died in December 2012. She was a KC girl, seven years younger, and the reason the young man from northern Pennsylvania (East Springfield) became a Midwest resident. They were married for 48 years and 10 months.
     Before Carol Sue and KC and MLB, there was Shreveport.
     Dave was 24 and 25 the two seasons he pitched for the Sports. He was, as I recall, one of the most popular players and one of the best prospects on those teams. Although the KC Athletics were always woeful, there were -- I counted -- 28 players on the 1960-61 Shreveport teams that had some time in the major leagues (before or after). 
     (One of those was the player/manager, a thickly built catcher and ex-Texas Aggie named Les Peden, who was in nine games for the Washington Senators in 1953 and played for the Mel McGaha-managed Shreveport Sports in 1955-56.)
     Wickersham was one of the most successful Sports to advance (in the majors, he had a 68-57 record, 3.66 ERA, 1,123 innings and 19 saves). For Shreveport, he was a workhorse. What he remember mostly was the fun -- and a bit of agony.
     "I loved it, I loved Les, loved the guys on the team," he responded to my question about his memories of the Sports. And then we talked about 1960 -- one of the great baseball years in Shreveport history.
     True, it's ancient history. But for some of us, it was a never-forgotten year. I listened to practically every game on radio, with occasional trip to home games at SPAR Stadium. Those players were heroes.
     It was a so-so team (61-63 record) through mid-August. Then for a month, it was practically unbeatable. Talk about a great stretch pennant run ...
     Far back in the pennant race (the Southern Association was one eight-team league, no divisions), the Sports almost won the regular-season championship. Almost.
     They won 21 of 22 games at one point, winning streaks of eight and 13 games, and 24 of 27. But two losses in the last three games -- by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 -- left them a half-game behind the champion Atlanta Crackers.
     If they had won the final game, the second game of a doubleheader in Nashville (at the old Sulphur Dell ballpark, where the very short right field -- 262 feet -- had a steep incline that ran from along the wall in center field to the right-field line), they would have been champions.
     It was a bitter, and cruel, loss -- and Wickersham remembered details. He was the losing pitcher.
     He was the guy they wanted out there. As a starter and mostly a reliever, he pitched in 69 games (close to half the games), with a 10-7 record and a 2.65 earned-run average. In the stretch run, he won three games in four days.
     But late in a 1-1 game, Nashville's winning run scored on a fluke hit by  Johnny Edwards (who went on to 14 years in the majors as a catcher).
     "John Edwards hit a slider about two inches off his fists," Wickersham recalled, "and it fell in about 20 feet out of the infield. If we'd had faster guys playing second base and first base, it would have been caught. But we didn't. They were great guys and good players, but they didn't run well. In the majors, that would have been an easy out. ... It hit about 3 feet fair. He didn't hit it for diddly squat."
     Shreveport settled for second place, but made the league playoffs, only to lose a best-of-five series with Little Rock in four games. The finale was a 6-5 loss, and the tough-luck losing pitcher again was ... Wickersham.
     We loved that team, though. The first baseman was Jim McManus, a big guy who wore sweatshirts with the sleeves practically cut off to show off his big arms that produced a league-best 32 home runs and also 117 RBI. But the league RBI champ was outfielder Leo Posada (yes, uncle of the nephew Jorge), with 122. And the shortstop was out of Florida State, a Class B call-up who played half a season with the Sports and batted .338. His name: Dick Howser.
     The next year Howser was the rookie shortstop of the KC Athletics, and was an All-Star player, second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He never was as good again in a journeyman career, but he became a third-base coach (Yankees) and then a manager (Yankees, Royals).
     Twenty-five years after his season in Shreveport, Howser was the manager of the first Royals team to win a World Series. It's also the only Royals team to win the Series (but as I post this, that could change tonight).
     "Dick was a fine guy, a good competitor," Wickersham said. "He didn't hit well enough to stay in the majors, but he was there a long time as a coach and manager."
     When I asked him about the old ballpark in Shreveport, he answered with a pitcher's perspective.
     "I remember the outfield fence had two decks, two sets of [advertising] signs," he said, "and it was a symmetrical ballpark, same distances down each line." (Almost true; it actually was 320 feet down one line, 321 to the other, 398 to straightaway center.)
     In 1961, on a lesser Sports team, Wickersham was in 57 games with a 14-11 record and a 2.45 ERA. But he was on his way to bigger and better.
     He was a good size (6-foot-3, 188 pounds) in his baseball prime, with a strong, sound arm and athletic ability. But his baseball development came slowly.

     Growing up in a small place on the banks of Lake Erie, and not far from Erie, Pa., he was like so many -- "as a little boy, like all little boys, I dreamed of playing in the majors," he said.
     But there no kids' programs then -- "not like now, like my kids and my grandkids have" -- and so "I didn't play in a [team] game until I was 14." His high school was small; only 16 were in his graduating class. Still, playing on town teams, "I knew I was pretty good because we played against men while I was in high school."
     He showed enough that Ohio University offered him its only baseball scholarship -- this was the mid-1950s -- but he was there only a little while until he attended a tryout camp with the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
     He was offered, and signed, a pro contract. He was not yet 20. He saw opportunity to leave his northern Pennsylvania roots ("the work was too hard," he said, laughing. "I knew I didn't want to go back there."
     The men who signed him: Pirates' general manager Branch Rickey -- one of baseball's greatest men -- and George Sisler (Shreveport connection; he was manager of the 1932 Sports, whose season ended with home games in Tyler, Texas, when their ballpark, Biedenharn Park, burned to the ground. Same grounds where what would become SPAR Stadium was opened six years later.)
     The Pirates gave him "the biggest bonus you could get then" without being what was known as a "bonus baby" (which means a mandatory spot on the 25-man major-league roster; Sandy Koufax, in Brooklyn, was the best example of that rule.)
     "My coach at Ohio advised me to sign," he said. "He was a scout for the [Cincinnati] Reds, so he wanted me to sign with them." But Branch Rickey was a spellbinding and convincing talker.
     "The most intelligent man I've ever spoken with," Wickersham recalled. "I could not believe his mind."
     He related a story that while he was in Rickey's office talking contract, Rickey received a call from the general manager of the Pirates' struggling Class AA farm team in New Orleans. "He talked for 20, 30 minutes; they were asking for help to improve their team," he said, "and when he hung up, he picked up our conversation in mid-sentence, right where he'd stopped before. It was amazing."
     Dave was a consistent and often big winner in five minor-league seasons, but not a top-level prospect and the Pirates didn't protect him in the minor-league draft. That's how he came to the Kansas City farm system in 1960, and to Shreveport.
     In his first full big-league season, 1962, broken ribs kept him out for 2 1/2 months. But mostly as a reliever and with nine starts, he had an 11-4 record for the less-than-mediocre Athletics. The next year he made 34 starts and was 12-15 ... and then was traded.
     The Detroit Tigers wanted him, and the big name acquired by Kansas City in the deal was outfielder Rocky Colavito.
     His first Tigers season was his career year -- most wins (19), most innings (254), most complete games (11). And his chance to be a 20-game winner was marred by a strange incident and ejection at Yankee Stadium (see links below).
     Three more seasons in Detroit followed, but they were only fair for him, although he came close to making the World Series with the 1967 Tigers. Between two short stints back in Triple-A came a 1968 trade to Pittsburgh, then a route back to a new Kansas City team.
Carey Wickersham  interviewing her father, Dave
     In a television interview that Carey Wickersham did with her favorite player ever, her Dad, on Kansas City TV two years ago, Dave tells about making the 1969 Royals as a -- to use a football term -- walk-on.
     He was 33, and fellow pitcher Moe Drabowsky was the only player older on the first-year team. None of MLB's 14 expansion teams -- since 1961 -- had a winning record, so it was a tough year.
     But one star emerged. Lou Piniella was a 25-year-old rookie, an outfielder (sort of) and designated hitter whose .282 average led the team. He was an All-Star Game player and AL Rookie of the Year.
     "He was a good hitter, but not a good fielder at all," Wickersham recalled. "When he went to the Yankees (in 1974), they worked with him on his defense and he improved a lot. That's what we (KC) should have done. But Lou used to take his bat to bed with him."
     When I laughed at that last notion, Dave said, "No, really. That's true."
     Wickersham pitched in 34 games, all in relief, and 50 innings and had a 2-3 record with five saves.
     And that was it. The insurance business was set, the family was growing, and Kansas City was home ... for good.
     He is one of four players to pitch for both Kansas City teams (Athletics, Royals). He keeps up with baseball, still very interested. The game, he says when asked, "has much more speed than when I played." And, "They've done everything to help the hitters, brought the fences in in a lot of parks (including KC's Kauffman Stadium, which once was considered a pitcher's park "but is more like a regular park now."
     Plus, the designated hitter "makes ERAs much higher in the American League than the National; it's tougher on AL pitchers."
     He bought four tickets to each AL playoff game and World Series game in Kansas City, and the children and grandchildren are using them. 
     As I write this, they might not need them for Games 6 and 7. That's fine with Dave.
     "This club has a lot of tenacity," he says of the Royals, and all of baseball has learned that the last two postseasons. "It's spread around the ballclub; they have this 'We're going to get this done' attitude. They're better at that than any team I've ever seen.
     "We don't have big-name players, but we've got a lot of really good players."
     His days are filled with caring for the grandchildren. As we talked, he tried to settle down a rambunctious 4-year-old grandson (we have that in common; I know that challenge.)
     How devoted to the Royals is he, how proud is he to have played for them?
     His gravestone, he tells me, will be inscribed on one side with his favorite Bible scripture --  Colossians 3:17, which as has been noted in several references I saw, he always included when he signed his baseball card.
     The other side of the gravestone? A Royals logo.
     But before that ... "I am a young 80," he says with a laugh. "I get along good. I've never been a drinker or smoker; that's always helped me, I believe. 
      "God still has a purpose for me."


  1. From Frank Bright: I remember the "players" in this good piece. The reference to the scarcity of college baseball scholarships in that era reminds me that I once saw the then-LSU coach's file carbon copy of a letter he sent to Rusty Staub in the early sixties. He said that he was sorry, but he had only one scholarship to give and needed a pitcher.

  2. From Dick Hicks: Wow -- I had forgotten about Dave Wickersham, Les Peden and Al Grunwald. Boy, how many times did Dad, Roger and I go to SPAR Stadium and watch the Shreveport Sports play. Good memories.

  3. From Jim Pruett: Sounds like he is as good a guy as I thought he was. He is right-on regarding the Royals. They are very tenacious. Mets just couldn't put them away. Solid, even fierce, lineup, top to bottom. No easy outs. Good pitching and good defense -- and fearless on the bases. I wish I could watch them the whole year.
    Colossians 3:17 is a classic: And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
    Thanks for blog.

  4. From Jimmy Russell: I remember Dave Wickersham very well and knew he went to the big leagues. I remember following him as well as a guy named Lou Klimchock and others who played for the Sports. I enjoyed reading this.

  5. From Vince Langford: I really liked the Dave Wickersham piece, and I remember him as a Kansas City hero. I always sort of hoped Kansas City would get good in the early 1960s and seems like Wickersham was one of their stalwarts. And I had forgotten or didn’t realize he was with the 1969 Royals.
    That piece was a really fun read, read really fast. You know 1960 was a long time ago in that Shreveport and Atlanta were in the Southern Association together.

  6. From John Leydon: Thanks for posting. The man had a decent MLB career, despite no postseason appearances. In addition, he probably earns a nice MLB pension now with his 10 years of service.

  7. From Leo Leon: Great article. I remember my dad taking me to see these guys. Brought back some fond memories.

  8. From Dave Moormann: Wonderful piece. Love reading about ballplayers from the 1960s -- the last group of players before free agency crept in and changed the game forever.

  9. From David Lee: I remember him. Nice update on his life. Sounds like his health is good also.