On hot night in North Carolina, a kid's dream hadn't yet cooled


SALISBURY, N.C. -- Stepping down off the train at the darkest of hours, close to 4 a.m., befogged by a lack of sleep, entering a near-deserted station with suitcase in hand, carrying a favorite Stan Musial-model baseball bat and a head full of dreams meant a kid was about to attempt to fulfill the most important ambition of his then young life. Yes, a long time ago.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had signed him to a contract with their York, Pa., farm club of the Interstate League and, in turn, optioned him to Salisbury of the North Carolina State League. This was the beginning. Everybody has to start someplace.

Salisbury, in the heartland of North Carolina, seemed far from home. The kid was the latest stranger in town as he left the railroad waiting room and took a left on Depot Street, deserted as might be expected, considering the hour. The wall of heat was oppressive. A blast furnace.

Up Council Street, past the Yadkin Hotel, and then a left on Main, across the intersection at Innes, the center of town, while looking for a place to stay. The Empire Hotel had a rate of $4 a night, which meant the price was right. A kid away from home, on his own for the first time, unsure of himself, a role played out since time began.

He wondered if Rollie Hemsley and Del Rice had started this way. A scout named John "Poke" Whalen, a catcher in his playing days, had signed him at age 17 after a game in Baltimore's Carroll Park. The enticement for Whalen was the pursuit of Lou Sleater and Tommy Lind, but he learned, belatedly, that a rival team had beaten him to both prospects.

"Ever think of playing professional ball?" the scout in the Panama hat said to the kid. "You do a lot of things right, but you need to be stronger. That'll come as you get older."

His mother was reluctant to sign the contract he carried home. Her signature was needed. The money didn't matter, $175 a month, which was more than most other untried players were getting at the time. She worried he might be tempted to become a drinker and that wasn't acceptable.

Eventually, realizing what it meant to her oldest son, she agreed to let him leave. But before that happened, he played in high school the next year, 1945, and then, with only close friends aware of what he was doing, spent weekends in camp with York under manager John "Bunny" Griffith.

But here was a whole new world. Salisbury of the North Carolina State League. Farm director Bob Rice, who learned the baseball business from Branch Rickey, said: "The man who signed you believes you can be a right-handed-hitting Bill Dickey. I like your chances."

A false prophecy. Rich praise, but dead wrong. High expectations; poor performance. After games, the kid would sit on a store step in the middle of a Salisbury night and commiserate with outfielder Bart Pavuk, from Jessup, Pa., who said, "I think I'll see your name in a big-league box score."

Again, it never happened. Not even close. Many are called, but so few chosen. A disappointment to himself and others, too. The only player to make it out of the North Carolina State League that year who climbed to the majors was Tom Lasorda, who was 3-11 at Concord. He was just a kid, too.

The uniform issued in Salisbury, recycled from the major-league Pirates and handed down through the organization, had a red name scripted inside. It read: P. Waner.

Waner had been only the seventh player in major-league history to collect 3,000 hits, and here was a raw rookie, who didn't have even one hit, about to put on the shirt and pants Paul Waner had once worn.

Salisbury, clean and impressive, the home of Catawba College, was replete with beautiful residences and gardens. Historical information related that Andrew Jackson, on his way to becoming the seventh president of the United States, studied law here, drank liquor, chased women and went to cockfights.

Salisbury was home for only a month, rooming with a pitcher from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., named Walter Allabaugh. Then York, in an emergency situation, called and the kid moved on, only to find himself deeper in debt when it came to ability. There had been an earlier night in Hickory, N.C., when the batboy ran to the bullpen with a message in the ninth inning and said, "You're pinch-hitting for the pitcher." Bad news.

Duke Makowsky, just back from the army, since the war in Europe had ended and players were starting to return to the game, was pitching and had struck out 14. No. 15 was a foregone conclusion. Makowsky was to change his name to Markell and make it to the majors briefly. He was regarded as one of the hardest throwers in the minors, which, upon reflection, was merely belated solace.

Sunday afternoons in Salisbury meant an open date. Blue laws took precedence, so the team usually went to High Rock Lake to swim. During the week, time was heavy until reporting to Newman Field to get ready to play.

You might talk to the pretty girl selling tickets at the Moroney movie box office or walk through the upscale Oestreicher department store to cool off. It might have been the only place in town with air-conditioning.

Players bragged about their hometowns. George Heller, a left-handed pitcher who got to the International League, talked of Honesdale, Pa., as if were an earthly paradise.

Don Spencer, a late arrival from Hiram College, was the team's best prospect and made it to the American Association and then to a most successful business career in York.

A letter from home was balm for an 0-for-4 effort, such as the one any mother might send a son. It went like this: "Just got your latest letter. I am sorry if you were disappointed or hurt because your disappointments are mine. Your brother Tom says you will do okay and come through with a bang.

"Throw it off and don't let it get you down. That would never do. Stick it out as long as you care. But remember I don't want you unhappy. If you would rather come home, send word and I will wire you railroad fare. Say what you will need.

"If you leave, I know it will be in an honorable way. Your late father would want you to be fair and honest with the men in charge of the team. Be sure to get enough to eat because a full stomach is good for low spirits.

"Henry Hoeckel is expected home from Europe before going to the Pacific. The Sweigers heard from Bill and Tom is going in the Navy. Bill Stetka called to see how you were doing. Comp McLernon and Tex Warfield stopped by. Tex says he wishes he could be down there playing with you. Frank Wheltle called up to ask about you and so did Al Cesky.

"Sorry to tell you the paper had a story that Harry Imhoff was killed in action in the Marines. Your brother says he was a fine catcher. Did you know him well? George Eikenberg is playing at Hartford. Tom says Lou Sleater and Tom Lind were on the same team last year.

"Please do not worry yourself. Try to throw it off and hope for better results next game. You have nothing to lose. You are young and perhaps a better field lies ahead if you don't make good in baseball. Perhaps you could take a night course in college or find work on a newspaper.

"Take care of yourself. Be a good boy and say your prayers. Don't put too much trust in strangers. Good night, son. I am going to bed now and will pray for you. God bless you. Love from Tom, Betty and Mother."

Ultimate failure in baseball opened other doors, like friend Frank Cashen interceding to get a job for the kid on a newspaper. Salisbury welcomed him back the other night at an awards ceremony for sportswriters and sportscasters.

It brought forth a flood of memories sitting there in the same railroad station, now gloriously rehabilitated, where he got off a train and frankly felt the pain as a dream fell apart.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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