Editor’s note: This piece originally ran without proper attribution, which has been since fixed.
My wife and I recently spent a week in the Los Angeles area visiting her sister, our brother in law and dodging fires. One day trip took us to Solvang, California. The town is in the Santa Ynez Valley and is known for its Danish style architecture, windmills and wineries. It’s a beautiful and interesting little town. While taking a break while my wife shopped, I read about the town and discovered that former Brooklyn Dodger Al Gionfriddo called Solvang home until his death in 2003.
Normally I use this space to write about the history of the Royals but occasionally, a baseball story comes along that deserves retelling and this is one. Last year I wrote about another Californian with a colorful history, Rocky Bridges. Older readers will recall the Gionfriddo name, if for no other reason than his name. He was the only Gionfriddo to ever play Major League Baseball.
According to a SABR biography by Rory Costello, Al Gionfriddo was born on March 22, 1922 in Dysart, Pennsylvania. This part of Pennsylvania was coal country and Al’s father Paul was a miner. The family’s roots were Sicilian. Paul, originally named Paolo, emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. Paul married the daughter of another Sicilian immigrant, Rose Rametto, and together they had 13 children. Al was the middle of these 13 children. The Gionfriddo’s spoke Italian at home, but insisted their children learn and use the English language and the athletic family adopted American sports.
As a young man, Al was a standout in baseball and football. He was a good enough running back to earn a football scholarship to St. Francis University, but his first love was baseball. He was scouted by Pittsburgh Pirates regional scout Patsy O’Rourke, who signed him to a contract at the age of 19.
Al viewed baseball as a ticket out of the mines. His first stop was with the Oil City Oilers of the Class D Pennsylvania league. He enjoyed a terrific debut season: .334 with 7 home runs and 58 RBI.
He was back with the Oilers in 1942 and was even better: .348 with 11 home runs and 82 RBI, good enough to be named to the league’s All-Star team.
Gionfriddo was small in stature, 5’6 and 160 pounds but was fast. His nickname in those days was the Dysart Deer. World War II was in full swing at the time and Gionfriddo was drafted for duty. He joined the army in February of 1943 but received an honorable discharge (due to injury) in January of 1944.
He resumed his baseball career with Class A Albany of the Eastern League and had another banner season, hitting .329. He led the league in runs scored (130), walks (108), stolen bases (51) and triples (28). The triples number is still an Eastern League record.
After the Albany season ended, the Pirates called up Gionfriddo. He made his Major League debut on September 23, 1944 at the Polo Grounds. He got to bat six times that season and collected his first major league hit on September 27, a single off Al Javery of the Boston Braves in a game at Braves Field.
Gionfriddo enjoyed his only season as a regular in 1945, seeing action in 122 games with a slash line of: .284/.377/.386. In 476 plate appearances, Gionfriddo collected 116 hits and drew another 60 walks while only striking out 22 times.
Unfortunately for Al, the end of World War II also meant that ballplayers in the service were returning home, one of which was Pirate outfielder Ralph Kiner, a future Hall of Famer who led the National League in home runs seven times.
In May of 1947, the Pirates sent Gionfriddo and $100,000 (some reports claim it was $300,000) to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Hank Behrman, Dixie Howell, Gene Mauch, Cal McLish and Kirby Higbe. Higbe’s refusal to play with Jackie Robinson triggered the trade. Legend has it that Gionfriddo carried the cash to Brooklyn in a satchel. Gionfriddo only hit .177 for Brooklyn over 37 games, but more importantly he forged a close friendship with Robinson.
Gionfriddo was initially disappointed in the trade, as he was building a successful tire business in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania was home. There’s always a silver lining and for Gionfriddo that lining was joining the powerful Dodgers, who won the National League and faced their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees in the first World Series to ever be televised. NBC got Games 1 and 5. CBS won the rights for Games 3 and 4, while the long defunct Dumont Network had the rights to Games 2, 6 and 7.
Gionfriddo appeared as a pinch hitter in Game Two. His next appearance was in Game Four and he played a large part in World Series lore. With two outs in the ninth, Gionfriddo was sent in as a pinch runner for Carl Furillo. The Yankees were leading 2-1 and their pitcher, Bill Bevens, was working on the first no-hitter in World Series history.
With Pete Reiser at the plate, Gionfriddo stole second. Yogi Berra’s throw was high and Gionfriddo slid under Phil Rizzuto’s tag. New York then elected to walk the gimpy but dangerous Reiser (who was playing on a broken ankle) to face pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto. The walk to Reiser was the 10th given up by Bevens that day. Eddie Miksis came in to run for the broken down Reiser. On the second pitch from Bevens, Lavagetto laced a ball high off the right field wall. Gionfriddo scored the tying run while Miksis steamed around the bases with the winning run, ending the game and the no-hit bid. The Dodgers were my father’s favorite team, so I heard many stories of this series growing up. As a young teenager, I owned a 33 LP record that had the all-time greatest sports radio calls. Red Barbers’ call of this play was on that record. I must have listened to it a million times. Here is Barber’s call:
“Wait a minute ... Stanky is being called back from the plate and Lavagetto goes up to hit ... Gionfriddo walks off second ... Miksis off first ... They’re both ready to go on anything ... Two men out, last of the ninth ... the pitch ... swung on, there’s a drive hit out toward the right field corner. Henrich is going back. He can’t get it! It’s off the wall for a base hit! Here comes the tying run, and here comes the winning run! ... Friends, they’re killin’ Lavagetto... his own teammates... they’re beatin’ him to pieces and it’s taking a police escort to get Lavagetto away from the Dodgers! ... Well, I’ll be a suck-egg mule!”
Game Six of the Series drew a then record World Series crowd of 74,065 to Yankee Stadium. The Dodgers led 8-to-5 going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Gionfriddo was sent to left field as a defensive replacement for Miksis. With two outs and Snuffy Stirnweiss and Yogi Berra on base, Joe DiMaggio strolled to the plate. Once again, the call from Barber.
“Joe DiMaggio up, holding that club down at the end. Big fellow sets, Hatten pitches — a curveball, high outside for ball one. Sooo, the Dodgers are ahead, 8-5. And the crowd well knows that with one swing of his bat this fellow’s capable of making it a brand-new game again. Outfield deep, around toward left, the infield overshifted. Here’s the pitch, swung on — belted! It’s a long one deep into left center — back goes Gionfriddo! Back- back-back-back-back-back. . .he makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Ohhh-hooo, Doctor!”
Perhaps you’ve seen the grainy black and white video of the catch. Gionfriddo had a few things going for him. One, he had room to run and besides being fast, he was also an excellent fielder. Two, since he was left-handed, he didn’t have to make a back handed catch. There is still debate to whether the ball would have been a home run or just a base hit (most likely a triple) for the Yankee Clipper. DiMaggio famously kicked at the dirt as he approached second. Jackie Robinson was one of the first to congratulate Gionfriddo when he returned to the dugout.
Hall of Famer Bill Terry called it the greatest catch he’d ever seen. It saved the game for the Bums, but no matter, the Yanks won Game seven and the Series the next day.
When the 1948 season rolled around, second year man, and star to be, Duke Snider was earning more playing time. The Dodgers were loaded with outfielders and despite his heroics in the ’47 series, Gionfriddo soon found his way to the Dodgers AAA team in Montreal. Al didn’t complain though and put up another terrific season: .294 with 25 home runs and 79 RBI. Gionfriddo never did make it back to the majors, which left him 60 days short of qualifying for a major league pension. Two other marquee figures of the 1947 series, Bevens and Lavagetto, never played in the majors again either. Gionfriddo stayed in the Brooklyn system until early in the 1953 season.
Gionfriddo ended his five-year major-league career with a slash of .266/.366/.355. In today’s game, a player like Gionfriddo would be a hot commodity. A left-handed bat, he was fast, had an excellent glove and could draw a walk. He’d have been an excellent fourth outfielder and would most likely have had a 10 to 12-year career and made millions. In 1947, there were only 16 teams and the competition for roster spots was intense.
Al stayed in the game in his later years as a player/manager and in 1954 moved his family to Van Nuys, California on the advice of former teammate Chuck Conners (he of TV Rifleman fame). Al joined the Channel Cities club of the Class C California League. The club, which represented Ventura and Santa Barbara was managed by former Philadelphia Athletic (and childhood friend of Joe DiMaggio) Dario Lodigiani. Gionfriddo played in the California League until the age of 35, when he finally hung up the spikes for good.
The Gionfriddo family stayed in California where Al embarked on several ventures. At various times he worked for the Visalia Juvenile Hall, sold insurance, operated a restaurant and was athletic trainer and equipment manager for San Marcos High in Santa Barbara. In 1962, Gionfriddo became General Manager of the Santa Barbara Rancheros, which became a Dodger affiliate. The Dodgers wanted Al to move to Pocatello to manage their minor league team. He elected to stay in California. A guy named Tommy LaSorda took the Pocatello job instead, the beginning of what would become a Hall of Fame managerial career.
In 1995, Gionfriddo and his second wife, Sue, moved to Solvang. In 1996, Al joined four other major league players – Seymour Brock, Pete Coscarart, Dolph Camilli and Frank Crosetti – in a class action suit against major league baseball, contending that MLB used their “names, voices, signatures, photographs and/or likenesses” which violated their rights under California common law. Since the players played prior to 1947, they had given up their publicity rights to the clubs that employed them. In 2001, California’s state court of appeals denied the claims, thus dashing the hope of over 800 other major league veterans to receive some financial benefit from their time in the big leagues.
Al was very disappointed,” said Sue. “He was passionate about his beliefs. The old guys were cut out, he said — they were part of the history, but not part of the solution. I remember Pete Coscarart telling Al, ‘You know, they’re just going to wait for us to die. Then it’ll go away.’”
Six days after his 81st birthday, on March 14, 2003, Al was enjoying his favorite pastime — a round of golf at the beautiful Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang. On the fifth green, he was stricken by a fatal heart attack. “There were no pre-existing health issues,” Sue notes. “He’d just had a thorough cardio workup, and everything was fine. In fact, the day before he shot a 76. He hadn’t been feeling well that morning, but he was out there again — ‘maybe I’ll shoot a 75 today,’ he said. His friends suggested he use the cart, but he didn’t want to. He missed his birdie putt, made par, and then it came. It was massive and sudden. His friends tried to revive him, but they couldn’t.”
Former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, who had been Al’s roommate in Montreal, commented, “He was an outstanding ballplayer and friend. He wore the Dodger uniform proudly, and we’re losing a great Dodger.”
“There was nothing like the passionate fans in New York; Al loved that atmosphere and felt very fortunate to participate in that era of baseball history.” recalls Sue Gionfriddo.
In addition to the record of the greatest sports calls, which is long gone, I also at one time owned a baseball card from the Fleer 1970 World Series set. This card, #44, showed Gionfriddo making his famous catch in front of the 415 sign. I’ll have to dig through my boxes and see if I still have it. Al Gionfriddo, gone at the age of 81. A proud man and terrific ball player who had his day in the sun on the grandest stage. A man, like many of his peers, who should have been treated better by Major League Baseball.