When Glenn Mickens raved to a baseball acquaintance about a promising, young outfielder that was playing behind him on the 1954 Montreal Royals, he may have inadvertently inspired a transaction that would change Pittsburgh Pirates history.
“Ironically, one of the other scouts that helped sign me, Howie Haak, was now with the Pirates and came to see me while in Montreal,” explained Mickens, now 83, in an interview for the The Baseball Historian blog in 2012. “I told him we had this kid [Roberto] Clemente that could do it all and that he should watch him play.”
Signed to a contract that exceeded $10,000 by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, Clemente was assigned to their International League affiliate in Montreal. With a rule in place that stipulated that any team signing a rookie to a contract over $4,000 must keep that player on their major league roster for the season or risk losing him in an off-season draft, sending the talented youngster to the minors was a gamble.
So rather than trumpet their prized prospect’s talents, the Dodgers – or so the common theory goes – tried to hide Clemente in Montreal. The 19-year-old outfielder was played sporadically and was regularly removed from games early. In all, Clemente had only 148 at bats in the Royals’ 154-game season.
“I had no idea about the draft rule or why they were taking ‘Bert’ [Clemente] out of the lineup early, but it was obvious that he had all the tools to play in the bigs,” Mickens said in the The Baseball Historian interview. “Haak followed us everywhere and since the Pirates had first pick in the draft [The Senators actually had the first pick] they got him for I believe the same ten grand that the Dodgers signed him for and the rest is history. Maybe my heads up to Haak was one of the reasons the Dodgers never really liked me again?”
Mickens could be onto something there, because despite evolving into a reliable spot starter and reliever in the Dodgers’ minor league ranks, the right-hander would pitch in just four big league games with the club. And all of those appearances came in 1953, the year prior to him playing with Clemente.
Born in Wilmer, Calif., in 1930, Mickens starred on the diamond at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. After he completed high school, he impressed the Dodgers at an instructional camp in Anaheim. Though he was 5-foot-11, Mickens weighed just 155 pounds.
“They [the Dodgers] wanted to see me get bigger and stronger and said they would be following me,” Mickens told The Baseball Historian. “They asked me how much I had spent for gas and food driving back and forth to Anaheim for the week (about 50 miles round trip from my home) and I said about $20, which they gave me.”
The Dodgers encouraged Mickens to go to UCLA and when he reported to the college in the fall of 1948, he was required to fill out a form that asked if he had ever received money from Major League Baseball. Innocently, Mickens mentioned that $20 the Dodgers gave him for food and gas on the form – a pittance really, but enough to render him ineligible to play college ball.
Mickens was eventually signed by the Dodgers in 1950 and they immediately assigned him to their Class-C affiliate in Billings where he posted a 2.67 ERA in 19 games. He was promoted to Double-A Fort Worth the following campaign, where he appeared in seven games, before leaving to fulfill his military service for the remainder of that year and in 1952.
He returned to Fort Worth in 1953 and dominated, registering a 1.79 ERA in 15 games, before being called up by the Dodgers that July. In four big league appearances – two as a starter and two as a reliever – he was hit hard (11.37 ERA) and was sent down to the Triple-A Montreal Royals for their 1953 playoff run.
“I went to Montreal, played for Walt Alston, was 2-0, and we won the Little [Junior] World Series against Kansas City,” recounted Mickens. “In the playoffs, [Tommy] Lasorda lost the first game and I won the second game, 1-0, going all but one out from a complete game.”
Mickens started the following campaign in Double-A with Fort Worth, before returning to Montreal to pitch in front of a young Clemente and Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Rocky Nelson.
“One of the best players who ever played behind me was Glen ‘Rocky’ Nelson – a first baseman who I played with at Montreal,” said Mickens in 2012. “I believe he won the Triple Crown two or three years in the International League, and that was a tough league. He could flat out hit, and hit with power- left-handers or right-handers – it didn’t matter to Rocky. He hit from the left side, but hit lefties as good as righties.”
Mickens enjoyed his best minor league season with Montreal in 1955.
“In 1955, we (Montreal) won the pennant by half a game over Toronto,” recounted Mickens. “We had Charlie Neal and Chico Fernandez at second and shortstop, and as the Richmond paper said, they were worth the price of admission to watch play – a truly great double-play combo. I was a relief pitcher with an 8-3 record going into the last month. I roomed with [Don] Drysdale, and when he broke his hand [He was 11-11 at the time] . . . I had to take Don’s place as the starter in the last four games. I started, finished and won all four to end the year 12-3 with a 2.18 ERA.”
He pitched in Montreal again in 1956, but his ERA increased by nearly two runs to 4.14. The majority of his 1957 season was spent with his hometown Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, before he split his final professional season in North America between the Dodgers’ Double-A Victoria Rosebuds and Triple-A St. Paul Saints in 1958.
Frustrated at his inability to advance in the Dodgers system, the-then 28-year-old Mickens became one of the first players to jump to Japan. He signed with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League in 1959. He spent the next five seasons with Kintetsu and was an all-star three times.
After his five-year tenure in Japan, Mickens returned to UCLA, his alma mater, to coach their baseball team for more than 25 years.
As of August 2012, Mickens was living in Hawaii but was still traveling with the UCLA alumni baseball team, who were competing in tournaments all over the world.
“Baseball has been my life and at 82 I am still in the game as the official scorer and arbitrator for the high school league here on Kauai [Hawaii] – have been for 18 years,” he said in 2012.
*This is the 16th article in my series about members of the 1954 Montreal Royals. You can read my articles about Roberto Clemente, Billy Harris, Don Thompson, Gino Cimoli,Chico Fernandez, Glenn Cox , Joe Black, Ed Roebuck, Jack Cassini , Bobby Wilson, Ken Lehman, Charlie Thompson, Dick Whitman, Max Macon and Dixie Howell by clicking on their names.