As a new year approaches, it’s a good time to look back and savour the memories of the Canadian baseball legends that we lost in 2011.
In part one of my two-part series, I’ve created obituaries for the legends that we lost during the first half of 2011:
Roy Hartsfield, January 15
After 15 seasons as a dugout boss in the minors, this Chattahoochee, Ga., native was named the first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. The old school, story-telling skipper, who spoke with a deep Southern drawl, guided the Jays’ to a 9-5 victory in snowy conditions in the club’s debut on April 7, 1977, his first game in a three-season tenure in Toronto. In all, Hartsfield spent 43 years in baseball as a player, coach and manager. During his playing career, he suited up with the Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1953 and 1954. In retirement, he resided in Georgia and fittingly passed away in a town called Ball Ground at age 85.
Ron Piche, February 3
Born in Verdun, Que., in 1935, this hard-throwing right-hander was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1955 and would make his big league debut in 1960. Suiting up alongside Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews, Piche finished 27 games and notched nine saves that season. He would also pitch for the California Angels in 1965 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966. In parts of 16 minor league seasons that included stops in Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and Quebec, Piche recorded 130 wins and an impressive 2.96 ERA. After retiring as a player, he became the Montreal Expos director of Canadian scouting from 1977 to 1985. More recently, his public relations work with the Expos earned him the nickname “Monsieur Baseball.” For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. He died in his home province at age 75 after a long battle with cancer.
Woodie Fryman, February 4
The first of three members of the 1981 Montreal Expos to pass away in 2011, Fryman died at his home in Ewing, Ky., at age 70 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. A member of the Expos Hall of Fame, the crafty southpaw enjoyed two stints with the club (1975-76, 1978 to 1983) and was the team’s Player of the Year in 1976. In total, Fryman pitched in 18 big league seasons with the Pirates, Phillies, Tigers, Reds and Expos and won 141 games.
Chuck Tanner, February 11
Tanner, the manager of the 1979 World Series- winning, “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, passed away after lengthy illness at age 82. Though best remembered for his 20 seasons as a big league manager that also included tenures with the White Sox, A’s and Braves, Tanner was also a solid outfielder, who hit .313 in 1,454 minor league games, prior to his coaching career. His minor league resume included 98 games with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1960 and 1961.
Gino Cimoli, February 12
One of the longest tenured Montreal Royals players, Cimoli played 10 seasons in the big leagues and was the first batter in Los Angeles Dodgers history. The versatile outfielder suited up for Montreal from 1949 to 1952 and then again in 1954 and 1955. His finest minor league season came with the Royals in 1955 when he hit .306 and knocked in 85 runs. Cimoli died in Roseville, Calif., of kidney and heart complications at age 81
Duke Snider, February 27
Before he became the “Duke of Flatbush,” Snider was Montreal’s “Duke of Delorimier.” After starting the 1948 season with the big league Dodgers, Snider was assigned to the Montreal Royals in mid-May. Playing his home games at Delorimier Stadium, the young slugger hit .327, belted 17 homers and drove in 77 runs in 77 games, enough to earn him a big league call-up in August. He would proceed to enjoy an 18-year big league career that saw him hit .295 and belt 407 home runs. Snider was also selected to eight all-star teams, was a member of two World Series-winning clubs and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980. Following his playing career, he managed in the Dodgers’ and Padres’ organizations before returning to Montreal to serve as a TV analyst on Expos broadcasts from 1973 to 1986. A diabetic, Snider had been in declining health for several months before he passed away at age 84 in Escondido, California.
Reno Bertoia, April 15
Born in Italy in 1935, Bertoia moved with his family to Windsor when he was just 18 months old. With fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer, Father Ronald Cullen, as his coach and mentor, Bertoia developed into a local baseball star and top big league prospect at Assumption High School. On August 31, 1953, he inked a deal with the Detroit Tigers that included an $11,000 signing bonus. Bertoia, who had never played a game in the minors, enjoyed his best season in 1957, when thanks to a torrid early stretch, he was leading the American League with a .383 batting average on May 16. In 1959, after being dealt to the Washington Senators, Bertoia would club a career-high eight homers. In all, the smooth-fielding Windsor native would play parts of 10 seasons in the majors. After hanging up his spikes, he would teach history in Windsor for 30 years and scout for the Tigers and Blue Jays. He had been diagnosed with lymphoma two months prior to his death at age 75.
Mel Queen, May 11
Born in Johnson City, N.Y., Queen inherited some of his talent from his father, also named Mel, who pitched in the big leagues between 1942 and 1952. Mel Jr. would make his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds as an outfielder in 1964, but was transformed into a pitcher in 1966. He put together his finest major league campaign the following year, when he won 14 games and recorded a 2.76 ERA in 31 contests. Following his playing career, he started coaching with the Indians in 1979 before joining the Jays organization as a pitching instructor in 1986. Queen is best known for his tenure as the Jays’ pitching coach from 1996 to 2000. In his four seasons in that capacity, Jays hurlers won three Cy Young Awards (Pat Hentgen – 1996, Roger Clemens 1997 & 1998). Queen died of lung cancer at age 69.
Billy Harris, May 28
Born in Duguayville, N.B., Harris caught the eye of big league scouts when he led the Dieppe Junior Cardinals to a Maritime championship in 1949 and the Moncton Legionnaires to a senior title the following year. Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951, the Canuck hurler notched 18 wins and recorded a 2.19 ERA for Class-D Valdosta in his inaugural pro campaign. He would top that the next season when he won 25 games, tossed 12 shutouts and registered a miniscule 0.83 ERA for the Class-B Miami Sun Sox. In 1954, he debuted with the Triple-A Montreal Royals. Trapped in the pitching-rich Dodgers system behind legends like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe, Harris had little opportunity to shine at the major league level. After recording 16 wins with Montreal in 1957, the determined Maritimer was called up and made his first –- and only –- big league start on September 27 of that year. In all, Harris pitched for 15 pro seasons and amassed 174 wins. For his efforts, he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Harris had been hospitalized to treat a series of bleeding ulcers just prior to his death. He passed away at his home in Kennewick, Wash., at age 79.