Who was the first player to walk to the plate in a major league game on the West Coast?
The answer is Gino Cimoli, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound San Francisco native who was selected to bat leadoff for the Dodgers in their first regular season contest representing the city of Los Angeles.
With his friends and family amongst the 23,448 in attendance, Cimoli strode to the plate at Seals Stadium in San Francisco to face Giants right-hander Ruben Gomez on April 15, 1958. Unfortunately, Cimoli struck out, but he could take some solace in the fact that he’d be forever remembered as the answer to what would become a very popular trivia question.
But Cimoli’s baseball career was much more than that one historic at bat. In his 17 years in the professional ranks, the headstrong outfielder was named a big league all-star, won a World Series, topped the American League in triples in 1962 and suited up alongside legends like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Roberto Clemente.
What some may not know is that when Cimoli and Clemente shared the dugout on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960 World Series-winning squad, it was actually a reunion for the two outfielders. They had played together with the Montreal Royals in 1954 – in one of the parts of six seasons that Cimoli toiled in Montreal.
All of this is pretty impressive when you consider that Cimoli didn’t even play high school baseball until his senior year. Born on December 18, 1929, Cimoli was an only child who grew up in the Italian-American North Beach area of San Francisco. According to an excellent biography about Cimoli written by Alan Cohen, Cimoli’s father, Abramo, worked as a night supervisor at Pacific Gas & Electric, while his mom, Stella, was employed at a coffee company.
Cimoli played baseball outside of high school, but it wasn’t until his senior year at Galileo High School that he discovered just how far his skills on the diamond might take him. According to Cohen, Cimoli hit an eye-popping .607 in his last year of high school and was selected to man left field for a team of U.S. amateur all-stars – that also included future big leaguers Moose Skowron and Dick Groat – at the Hearst Sandlot Classic at the Polo Grounds in New York on August 13, 1947.
In 1948, the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers were competing to sign Cimoli. The talented teen, who was also offered a basketball scholarship to the University of San Francisco, eventually inked a deal with the Dodgers that included a $15,000 signing bonus.
He reported to the Dodgers’ Class-B affiliate in Nashua in 1949, before he was promoted to Montreal (Triple-A) for the first time. Cohen reports that in Cimoli’s sixth game with the Royals, however, the young outfielder crashed into a wall and injured his knee and was played sparingly the rest of the season.
Over the next four seasons, he split time, for the most part, between the Dodgers’ Triple-A clubs in Montreal and St. Paul, Minn. He participated in 85 games for the Royals in 1950, but only briefly with the Canadian squad in 1951 and 1952, before suiting up for 121 contests for Montreal in 1954. The 25-year-old Cimoli had to his earn his playing time on that formidable Montreal team, which was stockpiled with outfielders – including Clemente, Sandy Amoros, Jack Cassini, Don Thompson and Dick Whitman. The right-handed hitting Cimoli hit .306 and belted seven homers to claim an everyday role.
The talented youngster also made his only two professional pitching appearances that season. Cohen reports that Cimoli tossed three shutout innings in his mound debut, but his second experience was a disaster. The “rookie” right-hander faced five batters and walked the first three, hit the fourth with a pitch and then surrendered a bases clearing triple.
With one of his finest minor league seasons under his belt, Cimoli headed to big league spring training feeling confident in 1955. But despite an impressive preseason, he lost the battle for the Dodgers’ left-field position to Amoros and was returned to Montreal. Initially discouraged, Cimoli had difficulty motivating himself, but early that season, his wife and two daughters were involved in a serious traffic accident while traveling to Montreal from San Francisco. According to Cohen, Cimoli left the Royals to be with his family and once they recovered, he came back with a new perspective on life. Cimoli decided he was going to give everything he had to make it to the big leagues because he didn’t know how many more chances he’d get.
His inspired play caught the attention of Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi.
“He’s (Cimoli) really hustling, and he can just about cover the whole outfield by himself,” Bavasi told the Montreal Gazette of Cimoli’s performance at the time.
Cimoli proceeded to hit .306 and knock in 85 runs to help the Royals to the International League’s best record. His performance went a long way to helping him finally crack the Dodgers’ big league roster in 1956.
He made his major league debut on April 19, 1956. That was one of the 73 contests he saw action in for the Dodgers that season. Serving primarily as a defensive replacement, he was sent to the plate just 36 times and registered only four hits. He was disappointed not to be playing more and was apparently not shy about sharing his frustration. It took some wisdom and encouragement from legendary Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella during the off-season, while the Dodgers toured Japan, to change his attitude.
“Stop popping off,” Campanella reportedly told Cimoli. “Stay out of trouble and play.”
Cimoli, soon to be 27, took Campanella’s words to heart and showed up the following spring prepared to work harder and his efforts paid off. He won an everyday role with the Dodgers, shifting between the three outfield positions, and was selected to participate in the all-star game. In all, Cimoli hit .293 and slammed 10 homers in 142 games in 1957.
Unfortunately, he’d take a step backward the following campaign and reportedly clashed with manager Walter Alston. Yes, he would make history by becoming the first player to walk to the plate in a big league game on the West Coast, but that was one of the only highlights in an otherwise dismal campaign that saw him hit just .246 in 93 games. His drop-off in production led to him being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals after the season.
From there, Cimoli evolved into a journeyman outfielder. After a solid year with the Cardinals (.279 in 143 games) in 1959, he was dealt to the Pirates, where he was reunited with Clemente. A fourth outfielder for much of the season, Cimoli turned out to be an important player in the Pirates’ upset of the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In Game 1 of the Fall Classic, Pirates left fielder Bill Skinner injured his thumb and Cimoli started in his place in Games 2 through 6. Skinner returned for Game 7, but Cimoli pinch hit for Pirates pitcher Elroy Face in the eighth inning of that contest and singled to start a five-run rally. The well-traveled outfielder was one of the first off the bench to celebrate when Bill Mazeroski homered in the bottom of the ninth to clinch the World Series for the Bucs.
On June 15, 1961, Cimoli was dealt to the Milwaukee Braves for Johnny Logan. He spent half a season in Milwaukee before he was selected by the Kansas City A’s in the Rule 5 draft that November. He played in a career-high 152 games with the A’s in 1962 and topped the American League in triples (15). He suited up for 145 more contests the ensuing campaign and registered 11 triples.
He began the 1964 season with the A’s, before he was released on May 29 and signed by the Baltimore Orioles. He registered eight hits in 58 at bats for the O’s, before being demoted to their Triple-A club in Rochester. His final big league action was a four-game stint with the California Angels in 1965.
During the off-seasons near the end of his playing career, Cimoli returned to San Francisco and began making deliveries for United Parcel Service (UPS). This helped ease his transition into life after baseball. He would drive a delivery truck for UPS for more than 20 years after he hung up spikes. When he retired from UPS in 1989, he was honoured by the company for never having an accident.
Also in his post-baseball life, Cimoli could be frequently found at San Francisco’s Italian Athletic Club playing cards and organizing activities. He served as the president of the organization in 2001 and 2002. Cimoli was also one of the most popular former players at Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camps.
Cimoli passed away from heart and kidney complications on February 12, 2011 at the age of 81. He left behind his wife, Irene, two daughters, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
**I can’t recommend Alan Cohen’s biography of Gino Cimoli enough. This bio served as a key resource for this blog entry.