As most fans know, the quickest way to attain fame and fortune in the baseball world comes with the ability to throw a ball with one's left hand a distance of exactly sixty feet, six inches. High rates of speed are advantageous but not essential. The inability to throw the ball over home plate is not a knockout factor. Being left-handed, at this point in baseball history, is all that is required. Historically, however, that has not always been the case.
During baseball's "golden era", however one wishes to define it, being left-handed was simply not enough. In addition to that biological gift, the talent to retire major league batters on a regular basis was also required. And, as many young pitchers of that era found out, being a successful left-handed pitcher in the minors did not guarantee a place on a major league roster, let alone a large and lengthy contract.
Such was the case with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950's. The names still trip off the tongue - Roe and Podres in the starting rotation dominating the opposition; Koufax biding his time and honing the skills that would bring greatness in the following decade; a couple of lefties providing extra starter and bullpen help including journeymen such as Jackie Collum and Johnny Schmitz.
As the pennants were being won in Flatbush, another group was winning games, pennants, and awards while toiling in the minors. Each season, the Dodger farm system did exactly what Branch Rickey had planned by signing hundreds of young athletes, placing them on the twenty-odd teams in the organization, and letting the cream rise to the surface. Those who prospered became Dodgers, the rest were used as trade bait for other organizations or, if they were "organization men", were kept as veteran role models for the kids and possibly as coaches and managers of the future.
Of the dozens of lefties with dreams of wearing Dodger white and blue, eight names stand out from those years by merit of their having had at least one outstanding season at the double-A or triple-A level. They are, in alphabetical order:
Wade Browning, who led the 1952 Southern Association with a 2.80 ERA while winning 14 games for the Mobile Bears.
Bob Giallombardo, whose 12-9, 2.74 season helped the Montreal Royals to the 1958 International League pennant.
Fred Kipp, the Tri-State League ERA champion in 1953 and a 20-game winner with Montreal in 1956.
Tommy Lasorda, a perennial minor league star whose 18 wins led the International League in 1958.
Ken Lehman, who led the International League in wins with 18 in 1954 and 22 in 1955.
Mal Mallette, with Roe-like numbers of 10-2 in 1951 and 13-2 in 1952 for Montreal.
Dick McCoy, a Fort Worth reliever with a 1.82 ERA in 1952.
Karl Spooner, whose 21 wins and 262 strikeouts led the Texas League in 1954.
These eight pitchers combined for a 615-514 minor league record and numerous awards and honors. In 2001 terms, the numbers qualified each one of them for a lengthy and rewarding stay in the majors. However, with only sixteen big-league teams offering employment to 400 players and with the Dodgers' fielding a championship quality team each season, those same eight pitchers were able to win a total of only 31 major league games. Some left the game after only a few seasons, some stayed until the hitters told them they were too old, and each one has a story.
If there is one player who typifies this group, it is Fred Kipp. A ten-year professional player, Fred achieved early success in the minors, spent several years in the majors, and left baseball to raise a family and thrive in the business world.
Born and raised in the small Kansas town of Piqua (pronounced pick-way), a ninety-minute drive southwest of Kansas City, Fred established himself early as a basketball star and all-around collegiate athlete at Kansas State University and Emporia Teachers' College. Following graduation, he took a train to the Dodgers' 1953 spring training camp in Vero Beach and was signed to a contract by long-time scout Bert Wells. Success came early as Fred won 15 games and the Tri-State League-leading 2.23 Earned Run Average leadership in 1953. He also achieved a career high .343 batting average, including his only two professional home runs.
Describing his batting abilities, he says "I was a good hitter for a pitcher, but I was not a good hitter". A lifetime .281 minor league and .243 major league batting average provides evidence to the contrary.
All of 1954 and most of the 1955 season were spent at various U.S. Army posts, but enough was left of 1955 for him to help the Southern Association's Mobile Bears win the league's playoffs and then the Dixie Series over the Texas League's Shreveport Sports. His ten late-season games with Mobile produced another impressive record featuring an ERA of 2.34.
Assigned the following spring to Double-A Fort Worth, Kipp asked for the opportunity to make the International League's Montreal Royals. Given the chance, he made good by winning 20 games and the International League Rookie of the Year Award. That performance earned him the honor of pitching batting practice to the Dodgers during the World Series and the thrill of watching Don Larsen's perfect game.
The following spring, a roster vacancy opened due to the off-season trade of Preacher Roe to Baltimore, the return of a rusty Johnny Podres from two years in the Army, and the frustrating process of teaching Sandy Koufax the art of location (then known as control). However, another young lefty named Danny McDevitt, the owner of a less impressive record but a hard-breaking curve, won out and Kipp returned to Montreal.
The Royals of 1957 were a far less imposing team than the pennant winner of the previous season. Walter O'Malley had set his franchise sights westward, dividing his minor league prospects among Montreal, St. Paul, and his new affiliate in Los Angeles. The result for the Royals was a last-place finish and for Kipp the disappointment of a league-leading 17 losses. However, consolation arrived for him in the form of a late-season recall by the Dodgers. It was only one game, and the result was four runs in four innings, but it put Fred Kipp on that list of distinction - a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
1958 brought a new day as well as a new year, with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants becoming history. A member of the Los Angeles Dodgers roster was Kipp who, at 26, had taken the roles of spot starter and reliever. He appeared in 40 games, starting nine, and finished with a 6-6 record and an ERA of 5.01. The team struggled to cope with a new city and a stadium designed for football, and they finished only two games ahead of the last-place Phillies. However, the Dodgers' future was turning bright as young Mr. Koufax began to reward the Dodgers for their faith in him by winning eleven games, two more than he had won in his first three seasons combined.
While many of the "bonus babies" of the 1950's were resented by their teammates for denying a more talented player a roster spot, Koufax was recognized by his fellow players even in those early days as a special talent. Kipp states, "He was the epitome of a left-handed pitcher" and recalls similar opinions of other Dodgers.
After a full season with Los Angeles, Kipp found himself again behind McDevitt, and he requested a trade from the Dodgers. Rumors of interest by the Phillies came and went, and after brief appearances in two games, a move was made in the form of a demotion to Triple-A St. Paul of the American Association. At 28 and what he felt was his peak, he led the staff with a 14-11, 3.21 record. Once more, a late-season call came in time for an appearance in the post-season playoffs against Milwaukee but too late for a spot on the World Series roster.
That winter the desired trade took place as Kipp was traded to the Yankees for minor leaguers Dick Sanders and Gordon Windhorn. But things would not change, as another spring season, another few innings, and another trip to the minors resulted. But his stayed there was long enough to observe the great Casey Stengel as his final year with the Yankees began. Expecting to watch the Old Perfessor thinking deep strategy and leading his team to victory, Fred remembers that "He'd be sitting on the bench asleep most of the time".
One last trip to the minors was Fred's future, this time with the Richmond Virginians of the International League. Three seasons produced three different results:
1961, in forty-seven relief appearances, a yield of only 57 hits in 81 innings resulted in a 1.56 ERA.
1962, in a combined starter-reliever role, produced eight wins and a league-leading sixteen losses.
1963, again exclusively in relief, a return to success with a 4-5, 3.39 record.
Following that season, with a growing family, diminishing enthusiasm and concentration, and little hope for a return to the majors, ("I'd have had to do something spectacular to get back up there"), Fred chose to call it a career.
Returning to the Kansas City area, he eventually founded his own heavy construction firm in rapidly growing Johnson County, Kansas. Today, after thirty years, the business still calls for his daily attention except for a few months off in deference to the cold of winter.
His fellow Dodgers of fifty years ago?
Preacher Roe lasted a few more years and retired to run a grocery store.
Johnny Podres stayed in baseball, won 148 games, and retired to teach the art of pitching to a generation of youngsters.
Sandy Koufax harnessed his fastball and used his magnificent skills to a rightful spot in Cooperstown.
Wade Browning never made the majors; an outfielder-turned-pitcher, he ended his playing days with Montreal in 1960.
Bob Giallombardo developed arm trouble and left the game before his 24th birthday.
Tommy Lasorda won 136 minor league games, zero major league games as a player, and 1,558 games, two World Series rings and one Olympic championship as a manager.
Ken Lehman won thirteen major league games with the Dodgers, Orioles, and Phillies before retiring after the 1962 season.
Mal Mallette, "a prince of a fellow" in Fred Kipp's words, retired at thirty to become a sports writer.
Dick McCoy played a few games with St. Paul and retired at twenty-six.
Karl Spooner enjoyed a spectacular breakthrough with the Dodgers in 1954, developed arm trouble the next year, retired in 1958, and died in 1984.
Many others of the Dodgers of the 1950's, the boys of summer, are also disappearing. The starting regulars, with the exception of Duke Snider and Andy Pafko, are gone. Some of the part-timers and pitchers remain, but almost all are over 70. One wonders who will be the last of the Brooklyn Dodgers to go.
Fred Kipp, long, lean, and healthy, has aged gracefully. Still operating the business and active in his church, he is proud of his grown family and his careers. The memories of his baseball days are still sharp, and the mention of a name from fifty years ago brings an almost instant recollection of a particular play or skill, as well as the home town and post-baseball activities of the player mentioned.
There are many memories...
Being inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame; playing for two Hall of Fame managers, Stengel and Alston; counting as teammates Hall of Famers Robinson, Reese, Snider, Campanella, Koufax, and Anderson (always "George", never "Sparky"); being a part of pennant-winning teams at the major and minor league levels. But one memory and one distinction stand above the others, those of being known as a Brooklyn Dodger.