Recently, I was researching to write a story about former Royal manager Bob Lemon (which will be out in a few weeks) and came across another colorful baseball character whose story resonated with me. I normally try to stick to stories about current and former Royals, but when I started reading about Rocky Bridges, I just had to dig further.
First his name. Rocky. Bridges. How great is that? Baseball history is littered with great names. Names like John Boccabella, Dick Pole, Stubby Clapp, Razor Shines, Dizzy Trout and a couple of former Royals: Pete LaCock and the immortal Rusty Kuntz, just to name a few. I’d always thought the baseball character Rusty Bridges, in the movie Meet the Fockers, was based off Dusty Rhodes (another of the great baseball names). Now I’m thinking the character might have been based off Rocky Bridges. Dusty Rhodes the ballplayer (not to be confused with Dusty Rhodes the professional wrestler) gained fame by almost single-handedly eviscerated the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. Rhodes went four for six with two home runs and seven RBI in helping lead the New York Giants to a four-game sweep over the heavily favored Indians. Recall, this was the Cleveland team that went 111-43 and had four Hall of Famers (Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Hal Newhouser) on its pitching staff along with Larry Doby, their Hall of Fame centerfielder.
Rocky Bridges never attained the success of Dusty Rhodes, but he did have one of the more colorful careers of anyone I’ve read about. Born Everett Lamar Bridges, in Refugio, Texas and raised in Long Beach, California, Rocky enjoyed an 11-year career as an outfielder and utility infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Angels. He also had a reputation for being one of the funniest guys to ever play in the big leagues. After being dealt to Detroit, he remarked “I’m in the twilight of a mediocre career…I’ve had more numbers on my back than a bingo board.”
Almost every picture I found of Bridges shows him with an enormous chaw of tobacco in his right cheek. Jim Bouton once said that “Bridges looked like a ballplayer. In fact, he may have looked more like a ballplayer than any other ballplayer who ever lived.” Bouton said that Bridges was his favorite manager, even though he never played for him.
Bridges found a way to stretch his talent to last 11 seasons. He got 2,537 plate appearances and collected 562 hits. He only clubbed 16 home runs in his career. Two of those dingers came in his final season with the Angels, including a July 4th game-winner off the Kansas City Athletics Bill Kunkel, which ended Bridges personal 738-day home run drought. After the game he quipped, “I’m still behind Babe Ruth’s record, but I’ve been sick. It wasn’t very dramatic. No little boy in the hospital asked me to hit one. I didn’t promise it to my kid for his birthday and my wife will be too shocked to appreciate it. I hit it for me.”
Over his career, he played with a slew of Hall of Famers, such as Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Tommy Lasorda, Harmon Killebrew, Larry Doby, Jim Bunning, Bob Gibson and Stan Musial. He was quick to point out that Lasorda went in as a manager, not a player. “Tommy Lasorda’s curve has as much hang time as a Ray Guy punt.”
Bridges enjoyed his best season in 1958 with the Senators. He went into the All-Star break hitting .307 and was chosen to the American League All-Star team by manager Casey Stengel. Of the selection, Bridges said, “that surprised everybody. They were close to launching an investigation.”
Bridges unfortunately never got into the game. “I sat on the bench with Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. I gave ‘em instruction in how to sit.” Bridges dream season took a hit, literally. “I decided to check out Frank Lary’s fast ball on my jaw. The trouble with having a wired jaw is you can never tell when you’re sleepy…you can’t yawn.” He still ended the 1958 season with a .263/.315/.355 slash line.
“I got a big charge out of seeing Ted Williams hit. Once in a while they let me try to field some of them, which sort of dimmed my enthusiasm.” I would imagine there were many first and second basemen who broke into cold sweats when the Splinter stepped into the box.
Once when asked about his time with the Reds, Bridges unleashed this pearl: “It’s a good thing I played in Cincinnati for four seasons. It took me that long to learn how to spell it.”
Once his playing career wrapped up after the 1961 season, Bridges embarked on a 21-year minor league coaching career that saw him win over 1,300 games. Many players remarked that Bridges was their all-time favorite manager. He also coached third base at the major league level for seven years. Former Pittsburgh Pirate skipper Jim Leyland said, “he is one of those guys who had a reputation more for being a character than his baseball knowledge, but he knew the game. He was sharp as a tack. When I asked him about a player, I could go to the bank with his answer. If he said a guy couldn’t play, he couldn’t. If he said a guy could play, he could. There was no debate.”
Bridges was responsible for reviving the career of former Royal pitcher Tom Burgmeier. Burgmeier, toiling for Modesto, a farm club of the Houston Colt 45’s, had been released after the 1964 season. Bridges, who was managing the Los Angeles Angels affiliate in San Jose, recommended that the Angels sign Burgmeier. They did and Burgy went on to post a 79-55 record with 102 saves and 18 WAR over a 17 year career.
Bridges once declared that he’d invented a new diet drink. “You mix two jiggers of scotch with one jigger of Metrecal. So far, I’ve lost five pounds and my driver’s license.”
Bridges spent most of his playing time at short and second. He became a third baseman almost out of desperation. Dodger manager Charlie Dressen once ask him if he could play third. Bridges said, “Hell yes. I’ll mow your lawn for you if you’d like. I want to stay up here.”
In retirement, Bridges and his wife Mary moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Even though he was out of baseball, the one-liners kept coming. “Up here, they didn’t know a damn thing about me, so I could tell them how great I was.”
In retirement, Rocky’s major diversion was golf. “I play at it. I know that people who have seen me out on the course find it mighty hard to believe that golf’s my hobby. Actually, it’s not a hobby. It’s an ordeal. I’d do much better if they’d build golf courses in a circle. You see, I have this slice…”
Bridges was 87 when he passed away on January 28, 2015 from natural causes.