EXCERPT: Playing with Tigers

9780803276819An excerpt from Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties (February 2016) by George Gmelch.

Chapter 3: Wearing Al Kaline’s Pants

Although the distance from Duluth to Jamestown is just over seven hundred miles, it took us seven hours to fly there because of stops in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Exhausted by the time we arrived, Felber and I headed straight to our Main Street hotel and crashed without unpacking, hardly undressing. After breakfast the next morning we walked around town to get a sense of our new home and learned that Jamestown was a furniture-making center, that it was located on the southern tip of Lake Chautauqua, that it had a population of thirty-two thousand, and that Lucille Ball had been raised there.

Then we walked to College Stadium to sign our new contracts and pick up our uniforms and gear, both of us still in shock over the suddenness of our departure from Duluth and me unconvinced that the move really represented a “promotion.”1 In the clubhouse we met Jerry Klein, who was sweeping the locker-room floor while chomping on a cigar. Short and rotund, with suspenders hiking his pants up so high that his white socks showed, Jerry seemed out of place in this athletic setting. But he was the team’s clubbie as well as its trainer and driver. Sometimes he even helped out in the concession stand.

Jerry pointed to a large cardboard box filled with uniforms and growled, “Take your pick.” It probably didn’t matter which uniform we took since baseball uniforms in the 1960s were baggy affairs made of heavy wool flannel. Those in Jerry’s box were also wrinkled, and a few had grass stains and repaired rips in the seat. We hardly noticed. They were Major League uniforms with the names of the Detroit Tigers who had worn them the previous season still stitched into their shirttails and waistbands. I got Al Kaline’s pants, which seemed like a good omen. When I signed with Detroit, a sportswriter for a nearby town newspaper, the Redwood City Tribune, quoted my college coach, John Noce, as saying, “If Gmelch keeps hitting the way he has, he will make Detroit fans forget Al Kaline.” It was an over-the-top remark that embarrassed Noce, who swiftly denied having said it. But here I was wearing Al Kaline’s pants.

When Felber and I arrived, the Jamestown Tigers were playing in Auburn, about two hundred miles east. Jerry Klein had stayed behind in order to drive us there in one of the team’s station wagons. Though still tired from multiple plane rides the day before, Jerry kept us awake with gossip about our new teammates and crass jokes . . .

Jerry talked the entire way. It was his fifth year working for the Tigers, and we would soon discover that he was a beloved character. Besides performing the typical clubhouse duties such as washing our uniforms and polishing our spikes, Jerry kept everyone loose through ridicule and raunchy jokes.

I found a copy of the morning paper, the Jamestown Post-Journal, in the car and came across an article about our joining the club. It also named the three players who had been released to make room for us: utility man Gene Smith, pitcher Hugh Hardin, and outfielder Barry Williamson. Any addition to a team roster meant somebody else had to go, but until that moment this fact had been an abstraction. Smith, Hardin, and Williamson, like friends of mine in Duluth who had been released, were real people who had now lost their jobs and their dreams. Someday I might be on the other end, being sent home to make room for some other newcomer, I wrote in my journal that night.

. . .

We rendezvoused with our new teammates in the cramped clubhouse of Geneva’s McDonough Park. Jerry gruffly introduced us to our new skipper, thirty-seven-year-old Gail Henley, as the team was changing into their uniforms. At five-foot-nine, Gail was shorter than I had expected based on Jerry’s large description of him. He had played center field for the 1954 Pittsburgh Pirates when he ran into the outfield wall, smashing an eye socket and his left wrist. After these injuries Gail bounced around AAA teams in the Pacific Coast League and Mexico until Detroit offered him a Minor League managing job. Gail made me feel welcome with a firm handshake and a smile. Nonetheless, I was nervous. Many of my new teammates were veteran ballplayers who had already played a full season. They had already formed friendships, and some of these might have been with the three guys who’d been released. Looking around the small clubhouse at them, I didn’t think it was going to be easy to join the team midseason.

As I suited up, Gail asked where I had played college ball. The clubhouse was fairly silent as I began to answer. “College of San Mateo,” I said, and then added that besides its having an excellent baseball program, the school also had its own TV station. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how stupid and defensive they sounded. Big deal. I didn’t hear much of Gail’s pregame talk after that because I was busy trying to calculate just how badly I had embarrassed myself. In Duluth I had been part of the group, one of the regular guys. Now, only a month later, I had to break in all over again, and I didn’t like it.

 

NOTES

1. In 1997 the stadium was renamed Russell Diethrick Park, after our general manager.