I enjoyed Brett Hein’s piece about late Hall-of-Famer Tommy Lasorda’s connections with Ogden (Jan. 8). As someone who attended many Ogden Dodgers’ games in 1966, the year Tommy began his managerial career, I’d like to add an old man’s reminiscences.
The games were at John Affleck Park, a charming dump. Tommy was the manager, but, in a rookie league, he coached third base as well. With only a few hundred fans in the stands, it was easy to make one’s views known. When a friend shouted something about Ebbets Field, where Tommy had begun his short major league pitching career, Tommy jerked to attention — and responded. We could have been watching the game in his living room.
The players in the Pioneer League were talented, and the level of play quite good. But there were also many mistakes (augmented by bad hops in a rocky infield and fly balls disappearing in dim lights). Ten-run leads were no guarantee of victory, which made the games even more fun.
Several players from Lasorda’s 1966 championship team made it to the majors. A couple just had the proverbial cup of coffee, and no time to drink it, but three had long careers. In 1966 pitcher Charlie Hough had a traditional, so-so repertoire — fastball, curve — but he developed a knuckleball and pitched in the big leagues for 25 years, winning 216 games. (He also lost 216. You have to be good to lose that many.) Bill Russell, then a 17-year-old outfielder, became shortstop for Los Angeles, playing for 18 seasons. And Russell managed LA for several years after Lasorda retired. Bob Stinson, a catcher and occasional outfielder, spent part of 12 years in the bigs. The 1966 club didn’t have stars like the 1968 team (Garvey, Buckner, Valentine), but they could play.
We got to see future big-leaguers on other Pioneer League teams as well. For example, the Caldwell Cubs had three pitchers who went on to solid careers: Joe Niekro (brother of Hall-of-Famer Phil Niekro, who recently died), Bill Stoneman, and Rich Nye.
Some former big-leaguers passed through Ogden during the summer. The Caldwell Cubs were managed for a while by Joe Gordon, an all-star second baseman for great Yankees and Indians teams of the 1940s, and Tom (Plowboy) Morgan, a pitcher for the Yankees in the 1950s.
Of course, most Pioneer League players didn’t come close to the show. One memorable player in 1966 was Ogden second baseman Rich Thompson, who seemed to hit nothing but line drives. He batted .322, and, although we didn’t pay attention to this in the 1960s, he had a marvelous on-base percentage of .392. To this observer, Thompson was a cinch for the big time. For some reason, however — too slow? weak arm? shaky hitting the breaking pitch? — Thompson didn’t advance beyond Class A and left baseball after 1970. But at least he had stories to tell his grandchildren.
We geezers who saw Tommy Lasorda’s Ogden Dodgers have stories to tell as well.
Erik M. Jensen, Box Elder High class of 1963, is the Burke Professor Emeritus of Law at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.