Tuesday, September 30, 2014

George Shuba, RIP: Making History Serenely

By Jeff Kallman

When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson as the first black player to join a major league baseball organization, he assigned Robinson to the Montreal Royals, where his manager Clay Hopper struggled to come to terms with the only such player on his club. One of the white players on those Royals was a Slovakian immigrant's son who batted behind Robinson in the lineup.

On April 18, 1946, in his first regular season minor league game, Robinson cracked a 3-run homer. George Shuba was in the on deck circle when Robinson squared up Jersey City's Warren Sandell's letter-high fastball in the third inning. Shuba trotted to the plate waiting for Robinson to come home. He held out his hand with a large smile, inclining his body back only to accommodate Robinson's basepath. Robinson extended his own to shake it as he crossed the plate with an equal smile.

Shuba had been raised in Youngstown, Ohio, where he spent many an hour meeting and playing baseball and football with assorted black children, and swore to the end of his life — he died at 89 on 29 September, at his longtime Youngstown home — that he had no thought of that handshake or the photograph that happened to be taken having any significance other than catching a teammate congratulating a teammate.

"Our teammate hit a home run," Shuba told longtime New York Times columnist Dave Anderson on the 60th anniversary of that game. "So I shook his hand. It didn't make any difference to me that Jack was black," continued Shuba, who'd befriended Robinson in spring training that season, "I was glad to have him on our team."

The Royals went on to win the International League pennant by a whopping eighteen and a half games and Robinson won the league's batting title. When the Royals' regular season ended, Robinson found himself being pursued by adoring fans as he raced to catch a plane. "Sam Malton in the Pittsburgh Courier," Rachel Robinson would remember years later, "wrote a story saying it was the first time a mob had chased a Negro to love him instead of to kill him."

Shuba wasn't there to join the celebration; he'd been moved to the Dodgers' Southern Association club in Alabama despite 7 of his 11 Royals hits being home runs. A serviceable outfielder with a line drive swing many who saw it envied ("Shuba fields with his bat," writers around the Dodgers believed), Shuba became a Dodger in 1948 but a part-time one, up and down between the minors until 1952, used as a left-handed pinch hitter with the parent club much of the time despite the swing that earned his nickname (Shotgun) because, as an Alabama sportswriter put it, his line drives "went like buckshot."

One of them made history in Game 1 of the 1953 World Series.

The Dodgers and the Yankees opened in Yankee Stadium with the Dodgers behind 5-1 when the Brooks (as Dick Young of the New York Daily News often called them in those years) came up in the top of the sixth against New York's Johnny Sain. (Erstwhile Boston Brave, of "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" fame.) Gil Hodges opened with a long home run and, one out later, Brooklyn third baseman Billy Cox, once fabled for his defensive virtuosity ("That ain't a third baseman," Casey Stengel huffed, "that's a fucking acrobat"), singled to left center field.

Up came Shuba, batting for Jim Hughes, a little known relief pitcher. (Hughes had been brought into the game after the Yankees jumped Dodger starter Carl Erskine for a pair of RBI triples in the first, including Billy Martin's with the bases loaded.) "Reynolds was fast and the fellers were having trouble seeing the ball and he's got a shutout," Shuba remembered to former New York Herald-Tribune writer Roger Kahn, who covered the Dodgers and visited Shuba as part of his lyrical retrospective The Boys of Summer in 1972:

I come up ... and he throws that first pitch. I never saw it. It was a strike. If it had been inside, it would have killed me. Reynolds was in the sun and I was in shadow. I never saw the ball. The next pitch he curved me. I only saw a little better. I was swinging, but I went down on one knee. Now the next pitch. I still wasn't seeing the ball good, but I took my swing. My good swing. I hit it and it went to right field and I knew it would be long but maybe the right fielder could jump and as I trotted to first base I was saying, "Hail Mary, get it up higher, Hail Mary."

Only the second time in history anybody pinch hit a home run in the World Series. But it wasn't me. There was something else guiding the bat. I couldn't see the ball and you can think what you want, but another hand was guiding my bat.

A devout Roman Catholic who said grace before every meal in the Slovak language, in tribute to his parents, Shuba never married while he played professional baseball and came to believe the game was unimportant compared to raising his family after he retired as a player. He married an Italian woman, and raised three children, one of whom became a northern Ohio dentist and married one in the bargain.

"You do something important. Write. But playing ball," Shuba told Kahn as the two shared a drink. "What the hell is that?"

"You might not understand this or believe me," Kahn replied, "but I would have given anything to have your natural swing."

"You could have," Shuba deadpanned, to Kahn's disbelief. And the former outfielder demonstrated his technique for developing that line drive swing, from pouring ten ounces of liquid lead into the barrel of a bat to hanging a rope with a clump of knots about the size of a baseball in one end from the beam of a basement ceiling.

Kahn tried a few swings with one of Shuba's lead-filled training bats. The writer struggled with the proper wrist break point. Shuba told him he was doing "all right," but Kahn demurred: "But you're a natural."

"Ah, you talk like a sportswriter," Shuba needled. Then, he got serious. "In the winters for fifteen years after loading potatoes or anything else, even when I was in the majors, I'd swing at the clump six hundred times. Every night, and after 60 I'd make an X. Ten Xs and I had my six hundred swings. Then I could go to bed. You call that natural? I swung a 44-ounce bat six hundred times a night, 4,720 times a week, 47,200 swings every winter."

Shuba's Series pinch homer yanked the Dodgers to within one of the Yankees. The Yankees went on to win the game thanks to Joe Collins hitting one out off Clem Labine with two out in the seventh, then Sain himself hitting a 2-run double before being scored by Collins on a single in the eighth. The Yankees went on to win that Series in six.

Shuba had recorded a few eye-opening batting marks in the minors but never got a genuine chance to stick as a Dodger for the most part. He'd been sent up and down as part of Rickey's parsimony ("As long as he could option me, you know, send me down but keep me Dodger property, Rickey would do that so's he could keep some other guy who's option ran out, how many guys you know ever hit .389 and never got promoted?") and by the time he became a Dodger to stay in 1952 he tore ligaments in one knee severely. By 1955, despite being only 31, his knee finally compelled him to retire.

He tried working in sporting goods but found it too "up and down" for his liking, so he moved on to the post office and stayed, eventually becoming an inspector himself. He hadn't exactly defied his immigrant parents to become a ballplayer. "My father was 45 when I was born," he said. "He never saw me play. Old country people. What did they care for baseball? He thought I should go and work in the mills like him and I didn't want to. I wanted to play."

In time, Shuba re-embraced his Dodger past. He enjoyed staying in touch with teammates, such as Carl Erskine, Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, and Chuck Connors. (Yes, the actor, who'd been a Dodger in 1949 and had one plate appearance for them that season — and grounded into a double play.)

He turned up at Dodger Stadium when the Dodgers commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of their only Brooklyn pennant. He wrote My Memories as a Brooklyn Dodger. (Well, he told it, to a Cleveland writer.) He even re-enacted the famous Robinson handshake with black children who met him, especially on one occasion before a Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league game. For a very long time, Shuba would sign autographs only if they came from or were intended for children.

He liked meeting schoolchildren and made appearances at schools frequently. Asked about his fee, his son, Michael, told one school no fee but his father liked a bowl of Wendy's chili now and then. The kids Shuba was to meet took up a collection and presented the old Dodger with $50 worth of Wendy's chili coupons.

In his last years Shuba wasn't always comfortable talking about the Robinson photograph, perhaps because he thought it had been said and done often enough and nothing more could be said of it. His son thought otherwise. "Jackie was scared none of his teammates would shake his hand in public," said Michael Shuba, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Marc Bona. "Look at the photo–can you imagine Jackie crossing the plate with no one there? That was a sign America was maturing."

Shuba died as the last man standing who'd played on both the 1946 Royals and the 1955 Dodgers. He also kept only one visible baseball memento in his home, a framed copy of the home plate handshake with Jackie Robinson. "The saints want justice," Shuba told Kahn. "The rest of us want mercy." In some ways Shuba earned and received both.

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