Sometimes it just takes a memory jog from something someone else says about life in Houston during the 1950s. Well, at last night’s SABR meeting panel at Minute Maid Park that featured the wise and wonderful 90-year old Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and the simply younger, but also cool as evening icon of Houston baseball Larry Dierker and erstwhile moderator glue and spark man Dave Raymond, there was a whole lot of soul-deep mind-jogging going on.
As I listened to Monte Irvin, images came forward that I have few words to back up. I recall him being here before in the early 1950s. The New York Giants came through Houston on a spring training ‘storm through Buff Stadium playing the Cleveland Indians. I can still see the black and orange in the Giants’ uniforms, the red and blue colors in the Indians’ uniforms. Also detached, but flowing from the talk of the Negro League days, I again see the Indianapolis Clowns all decked out in blousy flannels with some bright red, white, and blue shining forth in a pre-game exhibition of shadow ball at Buff Stadium. This image too floats from some some early long forgotten until now moment in my early baseball game watching career. I don’t even recall who they played, but the Clowns were unforgettable in this little patchy scene.
After the meeting, I asked Monte Irvin if he remembered a pitcher named Octavio Rubert from his days in Cuba as an outfielder for Almendares. Monte’s eye ignited in apparent joy at the question. “Oh yes,” he said, “Octavio Rubert and I played together and grew to be very close friends.” Irvin laughed at how Rubert used that false left eye of his to keep runners close to first. It was Larry Dierker’s mention only moments earlier of what righthanders do to hold runners on first that made me even think of Rubert. Now my mention of Rubert to Monte Irvin was bringing one of Rubert’s notable traits full circle to how it had landed in my mind in the first place. Octavio Rubert had the ability to to position that false left eye so that it appeared to be watching the runner on first. Monte Irvin added Rubert’s other trait, a ball he threw that simply dropped off a cliff as it reached home plate, one of those hard-to-pass-up, but just about impossible-to-hit pitches. I remember that pitch from Rubert’s Buffs days, as did former Buffs teammate Larry Miggins, who walked up to join us in these late night recollections of Cuban-born Rubert.
It was one of those cool, cool evenings that no one could ever count on having, chockful of new memories and observations about the old days of the Negro League, the fall of the color line, winter baseball in Cuba, how players and the game have changed, and what two great former players have learned that they are so feely willing to share. Dierker talked about his fortuitous striking out of Willie Mays when he made his major league mound debut at age 18. “I had a pitch that broke left when it reached the plate, but I was so pumped that I threw it way inside. It probably made Willie think he was going to get hit because it came in right at him,” Dierker said. “It caused Mays to freeze and back off, just as the ball then broke left and crossed the plate for a called strike three.”
Monte Irvin spoke of his early admiration for Yankee greats Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. And, of course, Irvin also spoke of the great catches of Willie Mays, the fluid power of Josh Gibson, and the all-time greatest Negro Leaguer skills of players like Oscar Charleston and Martin Dihigo. Dierker chose Babe Ruth as his greatest player of all time. “There aren’t many people who can become both great hitters and also great pitchers,” Larry explained. “Because he was both, I have to go with the Babe.”
Monte Irvin saved the best story of the evening til nearly the very end: “When I was playing for Almendares in Cuba during the early 50s winter ball season, a young fellow named Fidel Castro tried out with us as a pitcher. He could throw the ball hard, but he was way too wild. He walked too many batters and we had to let him go. Of course, he went from there to the mountains and became a dictator. – As things have turned out, it’s too bad we didn’t know that he wanted to be a dictator. We could’ve kept him with us and made him into an umpire.”
Thanks to Tal Smith from SABR for making our cool, cool evening at Minute Maid Park possible. It turned out to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime nights. I caught the whole thing on digital movie mode with my little hand-held Sony regular camera. If we can determine that I’ve captured something usable, we will try to figure out a way to make it available through SABR for viewing by others. Keep your fingers crossed.