Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #43

This is the forty-third in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, learn whether Don Drysdale and Robert Redford played high school baseball together, whether a Hall of Famer really wrote a letter to be read only after his death that revealed whether he made a famous catch and whether a top pitcher’s career was nearly ruined due to a freak accident showing off his ability to dunk!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball urban legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: Robert Redford played high school baseball with Don Drysdale on the Van Nuys high school team.

STATUS: False

In his entertaining memoir, Bob Broeg: Memories of a Hall of Fame Sportswriter, the late, great St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg related the following story:

I broke away one weekend to watch Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley in “Barefoot in the Park.” Two nights later, I attended an unusual Sunday night preview of an ill-ated Burt Lahr venture, “Foxy.” At intermission, I rose, turned, stretched, and looked into the blue eyes of – Robert Redford. Impulsively, I introduced myself, mentioned his show, and said, “You’re goin to be a great success…” Redford, pleased, wondered what I did. When I told him, he arched his brows. “Then,” he said, “I guess you know my high-school teammate, Don Drysdale?” Redford told me he had played the outfield behind Drysdale when Van Nuys was a fruit-and-vegetable farm area. “I hope,” said the actor, “that Drysdale makes the Hall of Fame one day.” When I later related the story to Drysdale, he assured me, “Redford was a pretty good ball player.”

So you can certainly understand that a story that cool has been passed around many times over the years. You can find in many different books the fact that Robert Redford and Don Drysdale played high school baseball with each other and that Redford then attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship.

But is it true?

The first time I had any reason to doubt the story (which I had seen a few times over the years) came when Lee Barnathan did an article at the end of last year about the late Drysdale, specifically about his former classmates remembering the Hall of Fame Dodger pitcher. Here is Barnathan’s article. While working on the article, Barnathan had a couple of former classmates of Drysdale’s cast some doubt about whether Redford actually played for the Van Nuys team. One particularly good friend of Drysdale’s specifically stated that he did not think that Redford was on the high school baseball team. So Barnathan contacted me and I began to look into it.

One thing was for certain – Redford and Drysdale definitely did both attend Van Nuys high school at the same time. So they certainly were familiar with each other. Barnathan helped with another aspect of the story when he scanned Van Nuys yearbooks from 1952-1954 (Redford and Drysdale both graduated in 1954) to note that there are no references to Redford as being on the baseball team, although there was a mention of Redford being on the tennis team.

The fact that Redford was not mentioned as being on the team in the yearbook was a major piece of the puzzle, but I was not prepared to fully discount the story because of the existence of the baseball college scholarship. It certainly is not impossible to get a baseball college scholarship without playing varsity baseball in high school, but it is fairly unlikely. That part of the story kept holding me up from just discounting this as a false story.

However, a few months back, Michael Feeney Callan released his highly-anticipated Redford biography, appropriately titled Robert Redford: The Biography. In it, Callan refutes the idea that Redford ever played high school baseball, but even better, he settles the college aspect of the story, and he does it in such a way that matches up perfectly with past stories I have seen about Redford being “kicked off” the University of Colorado baseball team. As Callan notes, Redford (although Redford was clearly a bright guy, traditional schooling was not his forte, so his grades made his college options somewhat limited) was recruited by University of Colorado at Boulder under the notion that if he performed well, he would get a sports scholarship after the fact (which is not that uncommon – David Eckstein, for instance, was a walk-on at the University of Florida as a freshman but then received a baseball scholarship for his sophomore year). Soon into his time there, though, Redford became disinterested in baseball and left the team (he might technically have been kicked off of the team for missing practices and for partying too much, but either way, it was only a matter of time before he was off of the team, as he had lost all interest in playing the sport at school). Redford became interested in art and he eventually left school before graduating and ended up in New York, first studying art and then, much more famously, working as an actor.

Now Redford definitely had skills as a baseball player, so I think there are ways of accepting Broeg’s story in such a way that doesn’t leave the take as “Redford was making things up.” Perhaps he and Drysdale played baseball with each other outside of school? Again, Redford was a talented enough athlete to be offered the promise of a scholarship, so the notion that Redford played non-high school baseball is quite easy to believe. Similarly, it is very believable that Drysdale would play baseball outside of school, as well (especially over the summer). So the two teens could easily have played baseball together, leaving the mistake only that Redford said “teammate” instead of “classmate” (and even then – if they played together during the summer, they would, in a way, be “teammates”). Thus, Drysdale could have been speaking honestly when asked about Redford’s skills, as opposed to some takes on the situation I have read where people feel as though Drysdale was just trying not to embarrass Redford by pointing out the falsehood. In fact, since I first wrote this piece, a few people have written to me to suggest that yes, Drysdale and Redford DID, in fact, play summer ball together.

Thanks to Bill Broeg, Lee Barnathan and Michael Feeney Callan for the information needed for this piece.

EDITED TO ADD: Bill Ford, son of the late William Ford, baseball coach at Van Nuys during Drysdale’s time at the school, made a very informative comment that you can read below. Very cool stuff. Thanks, Bill!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A Hall of Famer revealed the truth behind a famous catch in a letter only to be read after his death.

STATUS: True

On October 13, 1974, Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Sam Rice passed away at the age of 84. His death came almost exactly 49 years after Game Three of the 1925 World Series (October 10, 1925). In that game, Rice made one of the most famous catches in World Series history. It was also one of the most controversial catches. The controversy surrounded whether Rice ACTUALLY made the catch. Since the play involved Rice being out of everyone’s field of vision for at least ten seconds, only Rice knew the answer for sure. Rice always actively avoided telling people the truth (not even his own wife and children), and legend had it that Rice had written a letter for the Baseball Hall of Fame containing the truth that was not to be opened until his death.

Well, two weeks after Rice died, there was no such letter. Cliff Kachline, the official historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame, said “That Sam Rice letter has been a rumor for a long time, but we never had any solid evidence there was one.”

Was there a letter?

Sam Rice began his Major League career in 1915 as a 25-year-old relief pitcher for the Washington Senators. He would on to play a remarkable 18 seasons as a member of the Senators. However, his fame came not as a pitcher but as an outfielder. In 1916 he was converted to the outfield and he spent the rest of his career as a speedy outfielder. He had range like you wouldn’t believe and he was one of the best defensive outfielders in the American League during the early 1920s. He was a very similar hitter to Rod Carew – mostly a singles hitter but his speed would often turn those singles into doubles. His career batting average was .322. He ended his career in 1934 with a one-year stint with the Cleveland Indians. The 44-year-old Rice finished just 13 hits shy of 3,000, a fact that he later revealed was unknown to him at the time or else he would have stuck around to get those hits. In fact, a year or so later, Clark Griffith (owner of the Senators) offered to bring Rice back to the Senators just to get the hits. Rice thanked him for the generous offer but noted that he was out of shape and did not feel it worth it. Rice has the most hits of any player not to reach 3,000 hits.

Rice won a World Series championship with the Washington Senators in 1924 (defeating the New York Giants in seven games with the great Walter Johnson winning Game 7). The following year, the Senators were in the Series again, this time matched up against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Senators would lose this series in seven games, as well (with Johnson this time taking the loss in one of the worst playing conditions the World Series has ever been played in – there were so many delays due to bad weather that Game 7 was “forced” to be played in a foggy downpour). However, the Senators had a classic victory in Game 3. The Senators took a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning with a single by the slow-moving rightfielder Joe “Moon” Harris. The Senators player-manager Bucky Harris then removed Harris for a defensive replacement in the eighth inning. Harris had Rice move from center to right and had Earl McNeely come in to play centerfield. After two outs in the top of the eighth inning, the Pirates’ catcher, Earl Brown, seemed like he was about the tie the game up with a booming drive to right field. Harris’ defensive change looked brilliant, though, as Rice raced to right field (where temporary bleachers had been set up) and managed to dive for the ball, falling behind the bleachers. At least ten seconds passed before McNeely pulled Rice out of the stands – with the ball clutched firmly in Rice’s glove. The umpires ruled that it was a catch and the Washington fans were elated while the Pittsburgh bench was irate. Pittsburgh manager Bill McKechnie insisted that the ball had to have fallen out of Rice’s glove when he hit the fence and that someone (Rice even) must have just put the ball into his glove from behind the stands when he was out of sight. The umpires still kept it as an out. And obviously, this being 1925, there were no replays to prove it either way.

Rice was besieged by requests for the truth of the matter. Magazines, newspapers, he could have made a good deal of money out of telling his story. Instead, he went with “the umpire said I caught it.” This was his only statement on the topic for decades. Again, he would not even tell his wife or kids the truth. Once Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1963, though, the demand for the answer increased. Every time he would attend a Hall of Fame event, Lee Allen, then-historian of the Hall of Fame, would pester Rice to at least write a letter that the Hall could keep when Rice passed away. By this point in time, by the way, fellow Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie had changed his tune and now thought Rice HAD made the catch (winning the 1925 World Series probably made McKechnie a good deal more magnanimous about the catch). Rice gave McKechnie the impression that he would go along with Allen’s recommendation. In addition, Rice’s wife recalled that Rice told her he was going to do what Allen asked of him.

The problem came in 1974 when Rice passed away and no one could find the darned thing! Some felt that Allen must have had it, but Allen had died a few years earlier, as well. Things looked bleak and, as I stated earlier, the Hall of Fame itself was ready to chalk it up to an urban legend (despite Rice’s widow insisting that her husband HAD written the letter in question). Luckily, as it turned out, the letter was not with the Hall of Fame but at the Manhattan office of Hall of Fame president Paul S. Kerr, who somehow had not realized that people were looking for the letter that was in his possession (which is weird, since he attended Rice’s funeral). Kerr made a bit of a ceremony out of the opening of the letter at his Wall Street office. It was like the reading of a will!

The letter was dated Monday, July 26, 1965 and it read:

It was a cold and windy day; the right field bleachers were crowded with people in overcoats and wrapped in blankets, the ball was a line drive headed for the bleachers towards right center, I turned slightly to my right and had the ball in view all the way. Going at top speed and about 15 feet from [the] bleachers jumped as high as I could and back handed and the ball hit the center of pocket in glove (I had a death grip on it). I hit the ground above five feet from a barrier about four feet high in front of the bleachers with all my breaks on but couldn’t stop so I tried to jump it to land in the crowd but my feet hit the barrier about a foot from top and I toppled over on my stomach into first row of bleachers, I hit my Adams apple on something which sort of knocked me out for a few seconds but [Earl] McNeely arrived about that time and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me out. I remember trotting back toward the infield still carrying the ball for about halfway and then tossed it towards the pticher’s mound. (HOw I have wished many times I had kept it).
At no time did I lose possession of the ball.
Sam Rice.

That certainly answers the question of whether Rice actually left a letter!

Thanks to Jeff Carroll’s neat (and aptly-titled), Sam Rice: A Biography of the Washington Senators Hall of Famer for the information for this piece. And thanks to one of my pals at the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, kronicfatigue, for inspiring me to feature this legend this particular week.

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A top closer had his career de-railed by an attempt to show how he could dunk.

STATUS: True

Cecil Upshaw was a major part of the success of the 1969 Atlanta Braves, who made it to the playoffs in 1969 only to lose to the “Miracle Mets.” The 26-year-old Upshaw was a dominant closer for the Braves, back in the days that a closer was more of a “fireman” than a traditional “enter the game in the ninth inning up three runs” pitcher. He threw 105 innings with a 2.91 ERA and 27 saves. This followed his 1968 campaign where he put up similar numbers (in 1967, he did much of the same, but in limited time as it was his rookie season). He looked to become a major part of the Braves’ future.

Then came 1970.

Upshaw was 6 foot 6 inches tall and an adept basketball player. He also prided himself in his ability to dunk a basketball. Well, during Spring Training in 1970 he was walking with a few fellow Braves pitchers when he talking about his dunking proficiency. I presume someone doubted his abilities (or perhaps he just wanted to demonstrate for the heck of it), so he showed how high he could jump by jumping up to grab a nearby awning. However, what he did not expect was for his wedding ring to catch on a protrusion on the awning – thus when he came down, he almost tore his ring finger off completely.

Luckily, the finger was saved, but Upshaw missed the entire season. Here he is after the fact…

If this sounds familiar, it might be because I did a recent Soccer/Football Urban Legend about a player who suffered a similar injury celebrating a goal that he assisted on (click here to read that legend – noting that I show the actual injury there, in all its graphic beauty).

Upshaw returned in 1971 and was actually pretty decent, but clearly something was missing. He was out of baseball by 1976.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

One Response to “Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #43”

  1. Dear Brian,

    Among the papers of my late father, William J. Ford (baseball coach at Van Nuys High School, 1951-55) is a copy of the 1954 baseball team roster and league game statistics. Robert Redford’s name does not appear on the roster or in the statistics. I’m pretty certain that he didn’t play varsity baseball at Van Nuys. It is possible, though, that he and Don did play some sandlot, maybe even American Legion ball together. I don’t know.

    On that 1954 team Don Drysdale won three games and lost one as a pitcher and hit .556. I believe one of his wins was a no-hitter. In the L.A. City baseball semi-final playoffs that year, he beat tournament favorite Fairfax, 3-1. Dad had to change catchers after the fourth inning because Don’s fastball had turned the starting catcher’s hand into something that looked like pounded round steak. Truly. I was there. One more thing, my father worked with Don’s father, Scott Drysdale, and then Dodger scout Gordy Holt, the previous fall to better Don’s pitching skills. Prior to that time, Don had been a very fine fielding and great hitting second baseman (and a sometime “casual” pitcher) but was very slow afoot. Dad told him and Scott that he, Don, would not make it in the majors on those skills but might because of his great arm. Van Nuys won the Valley HS baseball league all three years Don played (and he was aided by a number of outstanding players, some of whom went on to play college ball, including one at USC and another in the minor leagues). After his years at Van Nuys my father coached at Pierce College and scouted for the Mets and Angels from 1956 until his death in 1968. Don and Scott attended the funeral.

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