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Baseball 2000
(Spring 2000)

The Orlando Cepeda Story
(Spring 2001)

Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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Making It A Fab Four

At one time, suggestions thatMiguel Tejada deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the "Holy Trinity" of Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez seemed at worst like a desperate reach, and at best a bit premature. Well, the listing of Tejada among the game’s finest shortstops is neither of those things now. Tejada not only has penetrated the elite circle, but may have by-passed one of the shortstops already considered a franchise player. That’s not to say that Tejada is a finished product. He still swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone and still makes a few too many miscues in the field (20 errors through his first 134 games). Yet, he’s increased his propensity to make the spectacular play, bettered his on-base percentage from last year’s .325 to a more respectable .342, and already increased his final home run and RBI totals from last year. He’s continued to enhance a lethal mix of power, speed, and range, a combination that once seemed so rare among major league shortstops. Tejada runs faster than Garciaparra and just as well as Jeter, has more power than Jeter and just as much as Garciaparra, and probably has more range in the field than any of the elite threesome. And according to at least a few scouts, he’s actually moved ahead of Jeter in the overall rankings of American League shortstops. Earlier this season, the Oakland A’s asked for my input regarding the franchise’s all-century team. There was little hesitation when asked to name a starting shortstop; I quickly checked off the box next to the name of Bert "Campy" Campaneris. I’m not ready to change that selection just yet, but if you ask me in another five years, the answer to that question will most likely be Miguel Odalis Tejada.

The Passing Of An Historic Figure

He wasn’t much of a player, didn’t manage in the major leagues except for a few games on an interim basis, and never ran a big league ballclub as a general manager. That may not sound like much of a baseball resume for a man deserving tribute, but in this case, the resume is awfully deceiving. This man deserves a major tribute—and more than just a mention in the agate type of a newspaper. Clyde Sukeforth died last weekend. He was 98 years old, the oldest living major leaguer at the time of his death. He played 10 seasons as a good-field, no-hit catcher, batting a mediocre .264 with only two home runs in 1,237 at-bats. If his baseball career had ended there, he likely would have faded into obscurity. But it was what he did after his playing days—and his involvement in several of baseball’s most memorable moments—that made him such an important historical figure. In 1945, Sukeforth worked for Branch Rickey as a coach and part-time scout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. During the season, Rickey came up with a special assignment for Sukeforth. He wanted his part-time scout, who was known as open-minded and fair when it came to issues of race, to travel to Chicago to observe a young Negro League shortstop named Jackie Robinson, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs. Rickey wanted to know specifically about Robinson’s arm, which As it turned out, Sukeforth never had a chance to evaluate Robinson’s throwing arm; Robinson was bothered by a sore shoulder and was kept out of the Monarchs’ game against the Lincoln Giants. Still, Sukeforth thought something productive could come out of his scouting trip. Sukeforth set up a post-game meeting with Robinson at the Stevens Hotel and essentially interviewed the young man in an effort to learn about his personality and his values. Thoroughly impressed by Robinson’s character, Sukeforth brought Robinson to New York and introduced him to Rickey. Sukeforth also gave Rickey an encouraging endorsement of Robinson. Perhaps Rickey would have signed Robinson anyway, but Sukeforth’s color-blind assessment of Robinson only made it easier for Rickey to seal the deal. Robinson signed a contract with Brooklyn and reported to the Dodgers’ affiliate at Montreal the following season. One year later, Robinson broke the game’s longstanding color barrier, becoming the first African-American major leaguer of the 20th century on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Ironically, Sukeforth would serve as the Dodgers’ manager on the day of Robinson’s debut, as a temporary fill-in for suspended skipper Leo "The Lip" Durocher. Although Sukeforth repeatedly tried to downplay his role in the Robinson signing, others knew better—like Jackie Robinson himself. In a 1972 letter, just a few months before his death, Robinson wrote to Sukeforth thanking him for his help. "While there has not been enough said of your significant contribution in the Rickey-Robinson experiment," Robinson wrote, "I consider your role, next to Mr. Rickey’s and my wife’s—yes, bigger than any other persons with whom I came in contact. I have always considered you to be one of the true giants in this initial endeavour in baseball, for which I am truly appreciative." Still, Sukeforth’s role in the signing and development of Hall of Famer players was just beginning. After the 1951 season, Sukeforth left the Dodgers and rejoined Rickey as a coach and scout in the Pirates’ organization, where "The Mahatma" had become general manager. In July of 1954, Rickey instructed Sukeforth to temporarily leave his coaching duties with the Pirates and scout pitcher Joe Black, who had been demoted to the Dodgers’ affiliate at Montreal after being overworked by Brooklyn the previous summer. Before making a trade for Black, Rickey wanted to know about the condition of the right-hander’s arm. Sukeforth stayed to watch an International League series of games between the Montreal Royals and Richmond Virginias, but Black did not pitch. Prior to one of the games, Sukeforth observed outfield practice and noticed the powerful arm displayed by the Montreal right fielder, who made two particularly outstanding 300-foot throws toward the infield. The right fielder did not play in the game—until the seventh inning. "Max Macon, the Montreal manager, put in a pinch-hitter to hit," Sukeforth recalled in an interview. "Montreal was a run or so behind, and he sent up this right fielder, this black player with the good arm, up to hit. He hit a sharp, routine ground ball to the shortstop, and would you know it, it was a very close play at first base. I said, ‘There’s talent there. There’s two things that he can do super.’ " The player who could throw and run so well was a young Roberto Clemente. Clemente fell into a category of unprotected minor league players who could be drafted after the season. Since the Pirates were playing miserably that summer and seemed destined to complete a last-place finish in 1954, they would almost certainly have the No. 1 pick in the special draft. Smitten by the talents of the previously unknown Clemente, Sukeforth observed the fledgling star in batting practice over the next four days. He liked the power stroke that Clemente displayed, the sound that the ball made as it caromed off his bat. As he prepared to leave Richmond, Sukeforth approached the Royals’ manager and dropped a hint about the Pirates’ intentions. "I told Montreal manager Max Macon to take good care of ‘our boy’ and see that he didn’t get hurt," Sukeforth recalled in a 1955 interview with The Sporting News. Pleasantries exchanged, Sukeforth wrote a letter to Rickey. "Before I signed the letter, I wrote, ‘I haven’t seen Joe Black, but I have seen your draft pick.’ " After the season, Branch Rickey selected Clemente with the first pick of the special draft of unprotected players. Clemente would play 18 seasons in Pittsburgh on his way to becoming arguably the game’s greatest Latin American player—and the first Latino Hall of Famer. Once again, the wisdom of Sukeforth had resulted in a significant alteration to baseball’s historical landscape. Three years ago, I was part of a crew of Hall of Fame staff that visited Sukeforth’s home in Waldoboro, Maine. We interviewed him for several hours, later incorporating some of his comments into the Hall of Fame’s new exhibit on African-Americans in baseball. At the age of 95, Sukeforth amazed us with his recollection of long-ago events and his ability to articulate those memories, all the while showing a genuine sense of humility. Sukeforth may not have wanted to take credit for those accomplishments—for helping Robinson and Clemente become major league stars and important cultural figures—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it to him. He deserves it.

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