I have been researching the Hearst Sandlot Classic and interviewing several participants.
Hobie Landrith played in the game in 1948. He is best known, perhaps, as being the first round draft pick of the New York Mets in the expansion draft after the 1961 season. But his career started much earlier.
As Hobie told me, as a young man, he was highly touted, and his first national exposure had been in the Esquire Game in Chicago in 1946. I had never heard of the Esquire Game.
So I looked it up and found that it had started at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1944, a full two years before the Journal-American had its first Hearst Sandlot Classic.
Esquire’s All-American Boys Baseball Game: 1944-1946
For three years starting in 1944, Esquire Magazine sponsored All-Star games for 16-17 year old players, using an East-West format with players representing each of the 48 states. The first two Esquire All-American Boys Baseball Games were held at the Polo Grounds, before that game was moved to Chicago in 1946. Esquire dropped its sponsorship in 1947.
The 1944 Esquire All-American Boys Baseball Game in New York was won 6-0 by the East squad. The game featured a young man from Tilden, Nebraska at the catching position for the West Squad. He would return to the Polo Grounds often during his major league career, covering the expansive center field at the old ballpark. The managers in the game were none other than Connie Mack (East) and Mel Ott (West). Mack’s coaches were Al Simmons and Roy Mack. Ott’s coaches were Carl Hubbell and Bubber Jonard.
The young catcher from Nebraska wore number 1, and was somewhat frustrated that Ott did not include him in the starting lineup, especially as The New York Times had announced that he would be starting. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and never caught a game in the majors. His father Neal encouraged his becoming a catcher so as to facilitate his move to the big leagues. He also encouraged him to hit from the left side so as to take advantage of his speed. At the Esquire Game, East manager Connie Mack suggested that the young man become an outfielder. Not long thereafter, the youngster was moved to the outfield, and Richie Ashburn finished his Hall-of-Fame playing career back at the Polo Grounds with the 1962 New York Mets. However, his performance in the Esquire game was not particularly good. He went hitless in two at-bats and grounded out with two on in the ninth to end the game.
During his time in the majors Ashburn was notorious for hitting foul balls. On one occasion, as legend has it, he was playing with the Chicago Cubs. This was in 1960. Cubs’ pitcher Jim Brewer saw his wife walking in the stands towards to concession stands for a hot dog. Brewer pointed his wife out in the stands and asked Ashburn to slap a foul fall in her direction. Sure enough, the foul ball landed directly on Mrs. Brewer’s derriere.
Prior to the first Esquire game, there were festivities that kept the large crowd entertained. Featured were Abbott and Costello, actors Dana Andrews and Jay C. Flippen, baseball clown-prince Al Schacht, and the Gene Krupa Band. The umpires for the game were George Barr of the National League and Bill Grieve of the American League. Red Barber and Harry Wismer broadcast the game over a national radio network.
World War II was still very much going on and 500 persons were allowed to see the game free of charge for their efforts in a city-wide drive to collect waste paper. Also participation in the game was limited to 16 and 17-year old boys who had yet to reach the draft age.
Both Ott and Mack shared comments that were included in the scorecards sold for the game.
Ott stated, “The All-American Boys Baseball game is a great contribution in the nation in wartime. This game takes me right back to the days when I was a youngster playing baseball on the corner sandlot. I am very proud that Esquire has invited me to be a manager of one of the All American Boys Baseball teams.”
Mack added, “Please accept my sincere thanks for the appointment to manage the Eastern team in the All American Boys Baseball game sponsored by Esquire. I deem it a privilege to aid such a worthy cause as the “living memorial” fund and will contribute what I can to help the boys and baseball as a whole.”
In the pregame festivities, Babe Ruth said that it mattered little which team won the All-American contest so long as it was played cleanly and hard.
Proceeds went to the Community War Memorials Commission that built community recreation facilities with the funds.
Before the game, a photographer snapped a picture of the starting pitchers with the managers. A glance at the picture shows the East team’s pitcher wearing number 19. A crowd of 17,803 watched as the East team shut out the West team 6-0. The pitching star of the East team, that number 19, known as “Mr. Zero”, due to his numerous shutouts, pitched six scoreless innings for the win, and was named the game’s MVP. He signed with the Tigers and pitched for them in parts of the 1945 (he pitched ten innings over five games during the season and got a World Series ring) and 1948 seasons before being traded to the White Sox, where he blossomed. In 13 years with Chicago, he went 186-152 with a 3.19 ERA. He was named to seven All-Star teams, and led his league in wins (20 in 1957), strikeouts (186 in 1953) and ERA (1.97 in 1955). At age 35, when it looked like he was slowing down, Billy Pierce was traded to the Giants and his 16-6 record was vital as the Giants won the 1962 National League pennant. As for his number 19, it is one of ten numbers retired by the Chicago White Sox.
Pierce was a Detroit native and played on the sandlots with a team known as the Owls. His father, a druggist, was one of the team’s sponsors. Billy overcame wildness to become a successful high school pitcher. The school team received a great deal of coverage in the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News, and before long, the scouts took notice. “In 1944, I went to New York for the Esquire amateur all-star game. I had never thought about being a major leaguer – I was taking Latin and physics in anticipation of becoming a doctor – but after going to the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, I got more of a feeling of what it would be like. The Tigers were my favorite team and I signed with their head scout, Wish Egan, when I was still 17. I finished classes on March 15, joined the Tigers (for spring training), and then came back in June and got my diploma.”
In addition to Ashburn and Pierce, Ervin Palica and Virgil Jester made it to the majors, and 19 of the 29 participants in the game went on to play professionally.
Palica hailed from Los Angeles and was the son of Austrian immigrants. Indeed, the family name was Pavliecivich. He had completed his sophomore year of high school in 1944 when he was selected to play in the game at the Polo Grounds. He was signed by Tom Downey of the Dodgers in 1945 and played professional ball through 1963. His best season was 1950, when he went 13-8 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After baseball, he became a longshoreman and died in 1982.
Jester never strayed far from his Colorado home, and signed with the Braves organization in 1947. Most of his career was spent in the minor leagues, where his record was 70-60 in nine seasons, including a career best of 13-6 in 1951 with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. He reached the majors in 1952 and went 3-5 in 19 games for the Braves. His final win, a complete game 11-3 triumph over Brooklyn was the last game ever played by the Boston Braves. He was with the Braves briefly in 1953, appearing in only two games without a decision before being sent back to the minors.
One of the West team players, shortstop Jack Lindsey, made his way from Dallas, Texas to New York by rail, accompanied by Lewis Cox of the Dallas Times-Herald. Lindsey, according to The New York Times game day edition was the first player selected. During their week in New York, the players met with former New York Governor Al Smith, saw “Oklahoma”, and appeared on Babe Ruth’s radio program that was sponsored by A. G. Spaulding. Each of the players received a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. Lindsey, after the game, was taken on a road trip by the New York Giants. The Giants made him an offer, but he decided to go to the University of Texas. He was scouted by Wid Matthews of the Dodgers while playing at the University of Texas. After a year of college, he signed with the Dodgers’ Montreal farm club, but before joining the Dodgers went into the Navy. He was released from the Navy late in 1946 and went to his first training camp was in 1947. The team was training in Havana that year and he played on a squad with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Chuck Connors, Gene Mauch, and George Shuba. His path to the majors was blocked by Pee Wee Reese, and he played in the minors through 1954, getting as far as Class AAA. His best AAA season was at Montreal in 1950 when he batted .263. Jack remembers there being 26 farm clubs in the Dodger organization at the time. He was a part of a Fort Worth team in 1951 that set an outfield assist record with Gino Cimoli, Frank Brown, and Bill Sharman gunning down runners. After his playing days, Lindsey went into the insurance business. At age 87 in 2014, he is “still golfing, still dancing, and having a good time.”
The 1945 Esquire game at the Polo Grounds produced Curt Simmons who would go on to star with the Phillies and Cardinals. Managers were Babe Ruth (East) and Ty Cobb (West). Simmons emulated Ruth in the game. At the time, Simmons had just completed his sophomore year of high school and was 16-years-old. That summer, he pitched the Coplay American Legion team to the first of two consecutive Pennsylvania state junior crowns. His mound prowess earned him selection to an American Legion all-star game in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, where he struck out seven of the nine hitters he faced in three innings. From there it was on to the game in New York. He pitched the first four innings, allowing one earned run. He switched to the outfield for the final five innings, tripling and driving in a run during a three-run ninth inning rally as his East team came from behind to win 5-4.
Six players in addition to Simmons made it to the major leagues. They included Davey Williams, Bob DiPietro, Jack Dittmer, Vern Morgan, Herbert Plews, and John Thomas.
DiPietro was days shy of his 18th birthday when the game was played in New York. After graduating high school, with the draft approaching, he had met with a Navy recruiter. However, he elected to go to the game in New York. The military would wait until he returned from New York. And then, he enlisted in the Army.
In New York, DiPietro was selected as captain of the West team, and got a hit off Simmons in the game. He remembered a scene during practice when Babe Ruth was frustrated with one of his players in the batting cage.
“He (Ruth) grabbed the bat from one of the players and told the kid, ‘Get the hell out of the batting cage. You aren’t worth shit as a hitter.’ He said, ‘Carl (Hubbell), groove a few of ‘em here. Let me show them how to hit.’ Carl Hubbell was pitching! I look back. Cobb, Ruth, Hubbell, and what did I get? Zip (autographs)! Ruth hit six balls into the stands. It was the damnedest exhibition I’d seen. And he was in a sweat suit. But he had that great swing. Of course, the Polo Grounds, it was very short down both lines, but he hit a good drive to center field. He put on a show; it was great.”
DiPietro played 13 seasons in the minor leagues, batting .282 but only had a cup of coffee in the majors, playing in four games with the Boston Red Sox in 1951.
Davey Williams, after the Esquire’s game, signed with the Atlanta Crackers and went on to play six seasons at second base for the New York Giants and was in two World Series. In 1953, his best season, he batted .297 as was named to the national League All-Star team.
Jack Dittmer signed with the Boston Braves in 1950 and made it to the majors in 1952. He played in the majors for six seasons, batting .232. His best season was 1953 when he had a career high 134 hits, clubbed 23 doubles, and batted .266 for Milwaukee.
Vern Morgan signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1948 and finally made it to the majors in 1954. In parts of two seasons with the Cubs, he played in 31 games and batted .225. After his playing days, he managed in the minor leagues for eight seasons.
The last Esquire game was held at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1946 and six of the 16 players on the East team eventually made it to the majors. The group included Hobie Landrith, Chuck Stobbs, Harry Agganis, Pete Whisenant, John Powers, and Harold “Tookie” Gilbert. Gilbert’s father, Larry, was a former major leaguer, having played for the Miracle Braves of 1914. At the time of the game, Larry was managing at Nashville and took the day off to travel to Chicago and watch his son play. That final game was a slugfest with the West prevailing 10-4.
Harry Agganis was the top ranking player in the Eastern Massachusetts School league, and was sent to the game by Ernie Dalton of the Boston Globe. He was only a sophomore at the time. The following year, he would be in the Hearst Classic in New York.
Tookie Gilbert, representing New Orleans, was sent to the game by Fred Digby of the New Orleans Item. He was seen as the outstanding prospect of those playing in the game, having never hit below .600 in his school and sandlot play. He signed with the New York Giants and made his way to Nashville in 1949, batting .334 with 33 homers in 154 games. Manager Leo Durocher of the Giants thought he was ready for the big leagues and, after an exceptional spring training, Gilbert made his debut on May 8, 1950 with the Giants, the heir to the first place job open since Johnny Mize had been traded to the Yankees late in the 1949 season. Gilbert played 111 games in 1950, but his .220 batting average showed that he had been called up too soon. He was sent back to the minors, returning to the Giants for an unproductive 70 games, batting only .189, in 1953. That was the end of his major league career.
Pete Whisenant hailed from Charlotte, North Carolina and was selected for the game by Wilton Garrison of the Charlotte Observer. He made it to the major leagues with the Boston Braves in 1952 and played parts of eight seasons for six different teams.
Chuck Stobbs was a hard hitting, hard throwing first baseman and pitcher from Norfolk, Virginia, starring at Granby High School. He had starred in the Eastern Virginia-Western Virginia All Star game, pitching his squad to a 7-1 win and earning a trip to the game in Chicago. In Chicago, he was selected the game’s MVP. He signed with George “Specs” Toporcer of the Boston Red Sox and was with the Red Sox organization through 1951, posting a 33-23 record in Boston. Later on, he pitched with the Washington Senators for nine years. He is perhaps best known for one pitch. On April 17, 1953 at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC, Mickey Mantle sent one of Stobbs’ offerings far and long. The tape-measure shot was said to have gone 565 feet before coming to a rest. Stobbs went on to win 107 games in the majors (with 130 losses), but that one pitch will never be forgotten.
Hobie Landrith of Detroit was selected for the game by Lyall Smith of the Detroit Free Press. In 1948, he played in the Hearst game.
John Powers hailed from Birmingham, Alabama. He was selected for the game after starring in the Alabama All-Star game sponsored by the Birmingham News. In that game, his three doubles impressed the judges, one of whom was Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler. He had 304 homers as a professional, all but six in the minor leagues. He slammed 298 homers in 13 seasons. Twice, with Class B Waco in 1950 and with Class AA New Orleans, he banged out 39 dingers. He played in parts of six seasons in the major leagues but only batted .195 with six homers and 14 RBIs in 215 at-bats.
Esquire had hoped to take the game to a different city each year, but these hopes were dashed and there would be no further games after 1946.