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From Medina and Newfane, Niagara Falls and the Tonawandas they came, dreaming their dreams of fame and fortune, the perfect game or the walk-off grand slam.
A couple of their names are familiar to everyone, and die-hard baseball fans may know a couple more. But over the years, more than a dozen area ballplayers made it to the big leagues, including no fewer than four who saw post-season action.
Most saw only limited play, a season or two in the sun before going off to sell used cars or manage health clubs. Still, as the snakebit 2002 season continues its nosedive toward what looks like an inevitable work stoppage, and just to forget for a moment about the odious Bud Selig and his aborted All-Star frameup, August seems like a good time to look back at their lives and careers.
They're our boys of summer, presented here in alphabetical order. In the interest of not promoting regionalism, players from Buffalo have been excluded from this, the Greater Niagara Baseball Hall of Fame.
First baseman Mike Bell made it to The Show with Atlanta on May 2, 1990, another lefty stick in a world-class lineup. Over parts of two seasons, he got 75 at-bats, drove in six runs and stole one base, perhaps in order to make up for the one time he was caught stealing.
Despite a sub-Mendoza Line .200 career batting average, Bell provided some pop, posting a .373 slugging percentage with five doubles, a triple and a pair of dingers. That's eight extra baggers on just 15 hits.
But Bell's most impressive career numbers came with a dollar sign attached. The Braves ponied up $100,000 a season for his services, roughly $13,300 a hit. Paltry by today's standards, but good money in those days.
The Lewiston native's career took a nosedive in 1991, when his average fell off by more than 100 points.
Perhaps he succumbed to the pressure of trying to rookie in on those pennant-winning Atlanta clubs. Or maybe some nagging injury forced a change in his swing. He might have just needed glasses.
In any event, by 1992, Mike Bell was baseball history.
He walked more than he struck out, once hit a season high of .381 in limited at-bats and could call a game with the best of them. But Niagara Falls' own Benny Bengough is remembered by most as a part of the 1927 Yankees, arguably the best team ever to take the field.
In baseball's primitive days, when pay was based almost strictly on seniority, Bengough made $8,000 in 1927, $500 more than Hall-of-Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig.
Bengough rookied in with the Bombers in 1923 at age 24. A backup catcher, he played eight seasons in the Bronx before being traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1931.
A .255 lifetime hitter, Bengough drove in 108 runs in 1,125 at-bats, but went through his entire career without belting a home run. He also appeared in both the 1928 and 1929 Fall Classics. But like many another backstop, it was Benny's prowess behind the plate that kept him in the bigs for 10 seasons.
His knowledge of the game earned him an even longer career as a coach, mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies. He taught a young right-hander named Robin Roberts to slow down his delivery with an ornate windup that became the pitcher's trademark en route to that other Hall of Fame.
Sadly, Benny Bengough passed away in 1968 at the age of 70.
A North Tonawanda native, Big Jim Britton made his debut with Atlanta during the final days of the 1967 season. The rangy right-handed reliever stood an impressive 6-foot-5 and weighed in at 225 pounds. Those who saw him pitch say that, if control hadn't been such a problem, Britton's wicked fastball would surely have kept him in the majors for longer than the four seasons he lasted.
With a lifetime record of 13-16, Britton pitched 237 innings overall, giving up 214 hits and walking another 112. Britton's best year came in 1969, when he went 7-5 with a 3.78 ERA.
That was enough to earn him a spot on the Braves' postseason roster, where he faced one batter in the sixth inning of the second game during the National League Championship Series against the Miracle Mets.
Britton walked his man, the Mets swept Atlanta in four games and went on to defeat Baltimore in the World Series.
Britton was traded to the hapless Montreal club in 1971, and the handwriting was on the wall. His ERA ballooned to 5.72 that year, his last in the majors.
When the talk turns to crafty southpaws of days gone by, the names of Wade Blasingame, Cliff Chambers and John Whitehead are rarely mentioned. Much the same can be said of the Medina Mauler, Carl Fischer, the only Major Leaguer the town ever produced.
Debuting with the old Washington Senators in July 1930, the well-traveled port-side went on to play for five different teams during a seven-year career in the bigs. He couldn't get along with anybody. A half a season was all that the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox were willing to put up with Fischer, while Detroit endured him for two-and-a-half seasons and he stuck with the Senators for a total of three in two different stints.
Fischer's sophomore 1931 season was his best, as he posted a record of 13-9 with three saves and a 4.38 ERA. The experts at Baseball-Reference.com rank him among the top 1,000 pitchers of all time.
With a lifetime record of 46-50, Carl Fischer retired from baseball following the 1937 campaign and returned to Medina, where he died in 1963.
When World War II broke out and pitching legends like Bob Feller went off to do their bit for God and Country, guys like the wooden-legged Monty Stratton, one-armed Pete Gray and Niagara Falls native Hank Gornicki finally got their chance. A 30-year-old rookie, Gornicki got to The Show in April 1941, with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Skinny almost to the point of sickliness, Gornicki packed just 145 pounds on his lanky 6-1 frame. After splitting his rookie season between St. Louis and the Chicago Cubs, the righthander landed in Pittsburgh in time for his memorable 1943 campaign, which saw him go 9-13 with a 3.98 ERA.
That year, he finished sixth in games pitched with 42, seventh in saves with four and sixth in home runs allowed with 10.
The Axis' capitulation spelled doom for Gornicki's war-fueled career, and he left the game with a lifetime 15-19 record in 1946.
Like many Falls oldsters, he retired to Florida, where he died in 1996.
What can you say about Ben Hayes? How about the fact the righty hurled 115 innings of Major League Baseball without committing a single error? Or the fact that his lifetime record, 6-6, makes him one of just three hurlers listed here who managed to meet or beat a .500 win-loss percentage?
Born and bred in Niagara Falls, Hayes was first trotted out in June 1982 by the Cincinnati Reds. He showed great promise that rookie season, posting a stellar ERA of 1.97 and a record of 2-0 in 45 2/3 innings of work.
But there is nothing more delicate than a pitcher's arm, and Hayes' sophomore campaign in 1983 proved disastrous. He lost six and won four, but his ERA shot up to a nauseating 6.49 as he gave up 50 earned runs in just 69 innings.
Sent packing by the Reds, Hayes failed to catch on anywhere else and his big league career ended as suddenly as it had begun.
The Tonawanda Terror, Bert Lewis, played just one season in the Majors, making his debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on April 19, 1924. He survived just 18 innings in 12 games, getting shelled for 23 hits and 12 earned runs while walking seven and striking out three for an ERA of 6.00. It was bye bye, Bert.
You might think that would be the end of the story but the real finale came March 24, 1950, when Lewis died too young in Tonawanda at age 55.
Sal Maglie's career was as stellar as Bert Lewis' was mediocre. Starting out with the New York Giants on Aug. 9, 1945, Sal "The Barber" terrorized batters for 10 seasons, winning 119 and losing just 62 for an amazing career win-loss percentage of .657.
Sal threw them high and tight. Brushbacks. A little chin music, he said. Testimony to the effectiveness of this delivery comes from the fact that Maglie gave up just 169 home runs over his career, fewer than one for every 10 innings he tossed.
A two-time All Star who finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting three times, Maglie led the league in ERA, shutouts and win-loss percentage in 1950. He won 18 games that year, a league-leading 23 the next and 18 again the year after that. He pitched for the Giants in the 1951 and 1954 World Series and for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Fall Classic of 1956, putting together a post-season record of 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA.
Following the 1956 campaign, he finished second in Cy Young voting.
Maglie retired from baseball in 1959, the only man ever to have played with all three New York teams of the era, the Giants, Dodgers and Yankees. Brief stints with St. Louis and Cleveland rounded out his career.
Returning to Niagara Falls, Maglie became a beloved local celebrity and a familiar face on Pine Avenue. He died here Dec. 28, 1992.
And then there's Rick Manning, remembered by the fans in Cleveland -- and in Terry Pluto's excellent book, "The Curse of Rocky Colavito" -- primarily for stealing future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley's wife and hastening the great pitcher's departure from the hapless Indians organization of the late 1970s.
A .257 lifetime hitter, centerfielder Manning managed just 56 home runs over the 13 seasons after his May 1975 debut.
He won a Gold Glove in 1976, and to the hero-deprived Tribe faithful it was an event of almost biblical proportion. Manning's picture graced the covers of "Cleveland" magazine and the TV guides put out by the two Cleveland newspapers.
Very few clubs would have had Manning, who made up for his lack of power with a mediocre on-base percentage, as a starting centerfielder. When Cleveland traded him to Milwaukee in 1983, a creaky Gorman Thomas was all that came in return.
Newfane's own Del Mason first saw action with the Washington Senators on April 23, 1904. It was the start of a career that could charitably be called inauspicious, although it did have its moments.
Mason's rookie season went badly. The hard-throwing righty gave up 45 hits and 13 walks over 33 innings to post an ERA of 6.00. Disgusted with himself, he sat out the 1905 campaign, returning the next year as part of Cincinnati's rotation.
He was used sparingly, pitching no more than a dozen innings, but he brought his ERA down to a somewhat more respectable 4.50 and earned a callback from the Redlegs for the 1907 season.
It was to be his greatest campaign ever. Mason pitched 13 complete games, including a memorable shutout. He posted a sterling 3.14 ERA but received little run support and finished with an appalling 5-12 record.
Disgusted again, he left baseball for good, choosing quiet anonymity over the boos and catcalls of the irate Cincinnati fans. He died in Florida, obscure and forgotten, in 1962.
Maybe it's something in the water, but the Greater Niagara region has turned out far more pitchers than all position players combined. Vince Molyneaux broke in with the St. Louis Browns on July 5, 1917, and never looked back.
The right-hander gave up 18 hits and 20 walks with just four strikeouts in 22 innings that year, but vowed not to let an utter lack of talent deter his baseball dream. The next season, he found himself pitching for the Boston Red Sox, where, despite walking eight and giving up four earned runs in a little more than 10 innings, he managed to eke out a win, the only one of his career.
Unfortunately, the men of baseball finally got wise to Molyneaux's unfortunate propensity to put a lot of guys on base, and his career came to an end, despite his perfect 1-0 record. He died in Connecticut in 1950.
Interestingly, catcher Johnny Pasek finished his career with a lifetime average of .257, exactly the same as another Niagara Falls native, Rick Manning.
Unlike Manning, however, mediocrity was not enough to keep him in the game for more than a couple of seasons.
In parts of two seasons with the Detroit and the Chicago White Sox following his debut with the Tigers on July 28, 1933, Pasek made 70 plate appearances, hit safely 18 times and got another eight bases on balls.
After his painfully brief diamond career, he returned to his beloved Niagara Falls, where he died in 1976.
Although the war gave Stan Rojek the opportunity to play, the versatile utilityman was better than most of the crop of wartime ballplayers and parlayed his chance into a career that lasted eight seasons.
Following his Sept. 22, 1942 debut with Brooklyn, Rojek quickly became known for his ability to play shortstop, second or third base with equal aplomb. His greatest season came following his trade to Pittsburgh in 1948, when he hit .290 with 186 hits and 66 walks, stole 24 bases and hit all four of his career home runs.
He came in 10th that year in voting for the Most Valuable Player award, led the league in games played and at-bats and finished in the top 10 in a number of categories, including hits, doubles, stolen bases and times on base.
Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1951, he finished his career the next season, after making five appearances with the St. Louis Browns.
Rojek returned to North Tonawanda, where he ran a popular bowling alley until his death on July 9, 1997.
Last, but certainly not least -- that would be pretty tough on this ballclub -- is Tonawanda native Bill Scherrer, who made his debut with Cincinnati on Sept. 7, 1982, and spent the next seven years bouncing around the bigs on his way to posting an 8-10 lifetime record.
The big southpaw pitched in as many as 73 games in a season as he made his way from Cincinnati to Detroit, back to Cincinnati again and then to Baltimore and Philadelphia.
The highlight of Scherrer's career came in the 1984 World Series, when he tossed three innings over three games in Detroit's five-game triumph over San Diego. He gave up five hits and an earned run.
And there you have it, boys and girls. Baseball, Niagara style.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||August 6 2002|