Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Tom Seaver: Always at home on the mound

Some additional quotes and thoughts from Tom Seaver’s Oct. 25 appearance at Fresno High School:

* The phrase heard most often was “one more.” As in, “one more picture, Tom” or “one more autograph, Tom.” Seaver never said no.

* Fresno Unified School District Trustee Carol Mills (who represents the Fresno High neighborhood) wore an orange coat — one of the New York Mets’ team colors. Mills also knew how many home runs Seaver hit in his 20-year Big League career — 12.

* Well-wishers surrounded Seaver as soon as he arrived. “Thank you for having me, for crying out loud,” Seaver said.

* Referring to Fresno High, Seaver said, “In the journey to Cooperstown, this is one of my favorite spots.” Cooperstown, of course, refers to the Hall of Fame.

* Seaver on some of his contemporaries: Dick Ellsworth “was a cerebral pitcher.” Jim Maloney “had a great fastball.” Wade Blasingame: “The ol’ Blazer. I don’t know if pitched against him. When I was here as a junior, I played JV baseball. I wasn’t even good enough to play varsity.” (Blasingame, a lefty and one of the greatest prep pitchers in Valley history, was a senior at Roosevelt High when Seaver was a junior at FHS.)

* Seaver on Ellsworth, Tom Sommers and the late Pete Mehas, who pushed hard for the “Tom Seaver Lane” designation: “They should be patted on the back. They’ve done one hell of a good job to help this city.”

* Seaver on following in the footsteps at Fresno High of future Major-Leaguers Ellsworth, Maloney and catcher Pat Corrales: “I knew all about them. It gave you something to shoot for.”

* Fresno City Council President Blong Xiong and his staff played a key role in getting a quarter-mile-long piece of Echo Avenue renamed (on an honorary basis) “Tom Seaver Lane.”

Here’s a review from Kyle Loreto (Xiong’s chief of staff) of how the renaming process unfolded, including a tip of the hat to the man who designed the beautiful street signs:

“We were initially contacted by Dick Ellsworth. His group that included Pete Mehas had already spoken with Carol Mills and Fresno High School about a name change. At that meeting, Blong gave them his full support. We provided Dick with the information needed for an official name change and then put him in touch with the City Manager’s office. Along the way, the decision was made to make it an Honorary Naming. My thought is that the process and finances involved may have been too much. Changing the address on forms, documents, websites, business cards, etc. for the high school and businesses on Echo street could add up to quite a bit of money.

“Linda Cunha in the City Manager’s office worked closely with Dick to prepare the resolution…. Our City street sign staff worked with Mark at Signmax on the sign. He designed and printed the large ones installed on the street as well as the replicas. The replica signs can still be purchased from Signmax. Mark can be contacted at 299-7446. Linda and I got the resolution put on the agenda for Council to vote on. Once it was approved, Dick arranged a date for Tom to be in town and I set up the press conference with FUSD and Fresno High’s assistance.”

* “Mark” is Signmax designer Mark Niehoff here in Fresno. Niehoff said he got brief instructions from city officials. The sign had to say “Tom Seaver Lane.” Blue and orange (team colors of the New York Mets, Seaver’s first Big League team) had to be in there somewhere.

“I just ran with that,” Niehoff said.

The sign shows Seaver in full windup. He’s wearing his No. 41 Mets home uniform. The sign adds that Tom Terrific is a member of the baseball Hall of Fame and a 1962 graduate of Fresno High.

The signs going up at Fresno High are two different sizes — 36” by 30” and 48” by 18”. Niehoff said souvenir signs — 18” by 15” — are for sale to the general public. Cost: $27.50 each.

You can order one by calling Signmax or writing Niehoff at mark@signmax.biz.

Niehoff said Council Member Clint Olivier bought two. The council member, signs in hand, rushed past me as I left the Oct. 25 ceremony. He was headed toward Seaver. I think I saw an autograph pen in the legislator’s hand.

* Seaver mentioned his father, Charles Seaver, just once.

Charles Seaver died in 2004 at age 93. He was a world-class amateur golfer. He lost a U.S. Amateur semifinal match to Gene Homans 1-up in 1930. Homans lost the next day to Bobby Jones as Jones completed his historic Grand Slam.

A good case can be made that Bobby Jones was the best golfer ever. Charles Seaver played Jones three times.

Tom Seaver has often said that he got his will to win from his father.

Tom Seaver at the Oct. 25 ceremony got to talking about his grades at Fresno High.

“I was a decent student — B-minus, C-plus,” Seaver said. “But (academics) never pushed my buttons. Then I got in the Marine Corps. Sgt. Yoder taught me in one day what took my dad a year-and-a-half and failed to do.”

What did Sgt. Yoder do for Seaver? “I grew up.”

* Seaver made his major-league debut on April 13, 1967, the Met’s second game of the season. He started at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates’ starting lineup: Matty Alou (CF), Maury Wills (3B) , Roberto Clemente (RF), Willie Stargell (LF), Donn Clendenon (1B), Bill Mazeroski (2B), Gene Alley (SS), Jesse Gonder (C), Woodie Fryman (P).

Alou won the 1966 National League batting title with a .342 average. Wills (then with the Dodgers) was the 1962 National League most valuable player. Clemente, Stargell and Mazeroski would be elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Mets’ starting lineup: Don Bosch (CF), Cleon Jones (RF), Ken Boyer (3B), Ron Swoboda (1B), Tommie Reynolds (LF), Jerry Buchek (2B), Jerry Grote (C), Bud Harrelson (SS), Seaver (P).

Boyer, the 1964 NL most valuable player, was at the end of his career; he would hit a total of seven home runs in 1967 playing for the Mets and Chicago White Sox. The Mets’ best hitter in 1967 was Tommy Davis, the NL batting champion in 1962 and 1963 with the Dodgers, but he didn’t play in this game.

The Mets beat the Pirates 3-2 on April 13, 1967, but Seaver didn’t get the decision. He went 5-and-a-third innings, gave up six hits and two earned runs, walked four and struck-out eight. Alou twice got hit with a pitch by Seaver.

In his first Major League at-bat, Seaver walked. (The Bee didn’t make a big deal out of Seaver’s debut in the next day’s paper. The big sports news in the Valley on April 13, 1967 was the perfect game thrown by Selma High School’s Lloyd Allen. Allen struck out the first 19 Tulare Western batters in the seven-inning game.)

The Mets would finish 61-101 in 1967. They were 10th in a 10-team league. Seaver, the NL rookie of the year, went 16-13 with a 2.76 earned run average. He had 18 complete games in 34 starts.

No pitcher in the Mets’ previous five-year history had ever won more than 13 games in a season.

* Among Seaver’s friends to attend Friday’s event was George Sappenfield, Fresno High Class of 1963.

Seaver and Sappenfield in their teens were neighbors. Big baseball fans, too. Sappenfield told the crowd about an article (New York Times or Sports Illustrated, he couldn’t remember which) from about 1960 that infuriated the two friends.

The author had gone on a rant about how Major League baseball was going to the dogs, never to return to its former glory. I thought to myself as Sappenfield spoke — “This was the era of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Banks, Don Drysdale, Roberto Clemente, Jim Bunning. What did this writer want?”

Seaver and Sappenfield felt the same way. Sappenfield showed the crowd a copy of the letter the two of them wrote to the wayward scribe, then read a few lines. The letter’s theme: Baseball will always thrive, and no ink-stained wretch can shake its foundations.

* Sappenfield also read a few lines from a letter that Seaver wrote to him in 1966. Sappenfield gave me a copy of the letter.

The postmark is April 25, 1966. Seaver was playing for Jacksonville in the Mets’ farm system. The team was staying at the Roosevelt Motor Hotel in Jacksonville, Fla. (Roosevelt High and Fresno High are historic rivals, as Sappenfield noted with relish to the Oct. 25 crowd.)

The envelope is addressed to “Mr. George Sappenfield, 1575 Vagedes, Fresno, California.” The return address reads “Tom Seaver, (Ace).” The name is underlined.

Here’s the letter (on Roosevelt Hotel stationary) in its entirety:

“Mon —

“Hi Big George

“This letter may be a little messy & at times things might not mean too much but you’ll have to put up with it because tonight I make my first professional appearance, as a Jacksonville Sun. Our record is 4-0 & we play Rochester who is 3-0. I was so nervous I almost threw up at breakfast. I guess you have to come to the brilliant deduction that I made the AAA team — boy are you sharp!

“Are you married yet?

“How’s the golf game? Do I ever miss that!

“Anyway — back to Jacksonville. We are here for about 8 more days & then we go north for about 17 days — to Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester where the weather is so cold they can’t play golf. That’s pretty damn cold. I think we charter a 2 engine DC-8 to fly our road trips. The only place you can find DC-8’s now are in dime stores in the flying model section, listed under ancient relics. I think I’ll drive. That reminds me — I’m going down to buy a Porsche today. Can’t wait. I’ll give you & your wife a ride when I get home. Study hard for those finals & keep a good thought (what the hell does that mean?) Give your folks my best & drop me a line if you find time between nines — c/o Jacksonville Suns, Jacksonvills, Fla.

“My best — Tom”

Seaver was 21 at the time. He pitched a six-hitter that night, striking out nine as Jacksonville beat the Rochester Red Wings 4-2. The Red Wings’ manager was Earl Weaver, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as the Baltimore Orioles manager.

Weaver managed the Orioles in 1969 when Seaver and Mets beat them in five games in the World Series.

* Seaver at the Oct. 25 ceremony mentioned his first appearance in a Major League All-Star Game. It was his rookie season. The game was played on July 11, 1967 at Anaheim Stadium.

The National League won 2-1 in 15 innings.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Tony Perez hit a solo home run in the top of the 15th to give the National League its 2-1 lead. NL Manager Walter Alston brought in Seaver to pitch the bottom of the 15th.

Seaver on Oct. 25 told the crowd that he was “absolutely scared to death” as he made his way from the bullpen to the mound. Seaver said he passed the NL shortstop on the journey. Seaver on Oct. 25 said he couldn’t recall the shortstop’s name. It was the Pirates’ Gene Alley, who played all 15 innings.

Seaver said the shortstop whispered, “You look a little nervous, kid.”

If so, the nerves didn’t last long.

Seaver got Tony Conigliaro on a fly to left field, walked Carl Yastrzemski (who had three of the American League’s eight hits and would win the Triple Crown that year), got Bill Freehan on a fly to center field and struck out Ken Berry to save the game for the National Leaguers.

“I got to the mound and I said, ‘I can do this,’” Seaver said. “Part of that comes from Fresno High School. Part of that comes from the Marine Corps. Part of it comes from the love of baseball.

“I put them into play in 1967 and it never left.”

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