By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
You wouldn’t believe the stories this retired cabinetmaker can tell you.
Like how he hated throwing batting practice to Roberto Clemente, because almost everything the free-swinging outfielder hit went right back “through the box.”
Or about how he shared a spring training complex with Jackie Robinson.
“Vero Beach (the Dodgers’ former spring training complex) was a big naval air base during World War II and the Dodgers took it over and built ball fields around there, so everybody lived in it,” he recalled. “And you ate cafeteria style and everybody ate there, whether you were a major leaguer or a Class-D player. Guys like Jackie Robinson would be playing pool in the lobby and Branch Rickey would be playing chess with Pepper Martin. It was really a lot of fun.”
“A lot of fun” is the way Joe Carbonaro, the 84-year-old ex-player turned cabinetmaker, describes many of his experiences during his four seasons as a pitcher in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. He spent his final season with the Montreal Royals in 1954.
Most of Carbonaro’s customers during his more than five decades as a cabinetmaker in Palo Alto, Calif., didn’t know that he had once shared a dugout with Clemente and was part of the same organization as Hall of Famers like Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella. And in listening to the upbeat Carbonaro reflect upon his career, you get the impression that there are days when he can’t believe he rubbed elbows with those legends either.
Born in Beverly, Mass., in 1930, Carbonaro was the youngest of six children (He had two sisters and three brothers). His family moved to San Jose, Calif., when he was four years old and he learned how to play baseball from his brothers, particularly his brother, Sal.
“We were up at 6 o’clock in the morning and we’d start playing,” recalled Carbonaro, who now resides in Monterey, Calif.
It should be noted that Sal also played professionally in Canada with the Quebec Athletics of the Canadian American League in 1942 and because Carbonaro was often at his big brother’s side, he honed his skills against kids older than him.
The young Carbonaro pitched and played infield, but there were no big league teams in California when he was a kid, so he followed clubs like the San Francisco Seals and Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.
“You read it in the paper if you wanted to hear about the major leagues,” said Carbonaro.
By the time he started his high school career, Carbonaro was throwing the ball pretty hard and he began to capture the attention of scouts.
“I think in my last game in high school I pitched a no-hitter and then I got to play semi-pro ball in the summer,” he said. “The first [semi-pro] game I played, I think I struck out 13 or 14, so I started getting a lot of recognition.”
The Dodgers were the most interested major league team. It was Bob Fontaine, who later became the general manager of the San Diego Padres, who encouraged the Dodgers to take a closer look at him.
“Bob had gone to school with my brother and they had played ball together and he was kind of a bird dog at the time for the Brooklyn Dodgers,” explained Carbonaro. “So he got into contact with a scout from Sacramento named Bill Sivilich and Bill came down and took me out to a diamond in Palo Alto and had me throw and they ended up signing me.”
The 5-foot-10 right-hander was assigned to the Dodgers’ Class-C California League affiliate in Santa Barbara in 1949, where he would win 13 games and post a 3.98 ERA in 199 innings.
“I got to pitch the second game of the season and lost it 1-0 and I think I gave up a home run,” he recalled. “The Dodgers were very happy with the way I was performing, and I was too, because I was just a kid out of high school at the time.”
Carbonaro was sent to Class-A Pueblo the following season and after impressing there, he was promoted to the Triple-A Hollywood Stars. In total, he tossed 255 innings and won 11 games in 1950.
He was supposed to pitch with the Triple-A St. Paul Saints the ensuing campaign, but he was also scheduled for his military service.
“I’d taken a physical and I said, ‘Well, how long will it be until I go into the army?’ And they said, ‘You’ll be in the army inside of four weeks.’ So I stayed home and I didn’t go to spring training,” remembered Carbonaro.
He was still at home in May when he was convinced to rejoin the Dodgers’ Class-C affiliate in Santa Barbara. The then 20-year-old hurler would post an 8-4 record in 17 games before being drafted in the army that August. Carbonaro was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, Calif., for just over a year prior to being relocated to Camp Drake just outside of Tokyo for eight months, where he served as a cook. He continued to play baseball while he was in the military.
Unfortunately, it was while at Fort Ord that he hurt his throwing shoulder.
“We had worked out for about three days and we went down to play Stanford University,” recalled Carbonaro. “I was pitching and I pitched about four or five innings and I felt alright, but boy, being that I had only worked out for about four days, I was a little wild at the time, so I threw a lot more than I normally would. Then the next day I couldn’t raise my arm. . . Then the following year when I went overseas, it just seemed like between innings, my arm would just freeze up and I couldn’t get it loose again.”
Carbonaro later discovered it was a rotator cuff injury.
When Carbonaro was discharged from the army, he was assigned to the Montreal Royals in 1954, but he only got into 11 games as a reliever.
“I had gotten out of the service the year before and at that time, after the Korean War, each club was allowed to carry two veterans that didn’t count against the roster,” he said. “I hurt my arm in the service, so I didn’t really pitch much that year. I didn’t count against their roster, so they could do anything they wanted with me. So they had me pitching batting practice and all that kind of stuff.”
Carbonaro, nevertheless, has fond memories of Montreal.
“It was a very colourful town,” he said. “We had good players there. Clemente was there, Tommy Lasorda, Sandy Amoros, Gino Cimoli – all the guys that made it to the majors later on. Ed Roebuck, Ken Lehman, Chico Fernandez, they were all good ballplayers. It was a good time.”
Carbonaro recalls living in an apartment above a grocery store on Belanger Street with his wife.
“It was like being in Little France because the papers were in French and the people spoke French,” he said. “I went to church there and the church was done in French. It was a whole different experience.”
He vividly remembers playing with a 19-year-old Clemente. Inked to a $15,000 contract by the Dodgers in 1954, Clemente was assigned to the Royals despite a rule stipulating that any team signing a rookie to a contract that exceeded $4,000 must keep that player on their major league roster for the season or risk losing them in an off-season draft. Clemente had just 148 at bats in Montreal that season and his lack of playing time left many believing that the Dodgers tried to hide him from other teams so that they wouldn’t lose him in the draft after the season. Carbonaro dismisses this theory.
“Clemente developed into a very good ballplayer, but when he was in Montreal, he was very temperamental,” he recalled. “He just wanted to play. To him, it was very bad that he couldn’t play. Well, the manager [Max Macon] said, ‘Well, if I’ve got a right-handed pitcher, I’m going to put in my veteran left-handed hitter and when there’s a left-handed pitcher, I’ll put in the kid [Clemente]. So Clemente didn’t play in that many games in the season.”
He recalls one incident when Clemente was outraged after being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the first inning.
“Toronto was leading the league and we had a big game there one series,” recalled Carbonaro. “It was funny because in the first inning we had a big rally going and Clemente was supposed to come up and the manager was down in the third base [coaching] box and he motions to [left-handed hitting outfielder Dick] Whitman to pinch hit for Clemente. Well, Clemente was ticked off and when he was coming back to the dugout, the box seats were right there and there was about a two-inch pipe across there [just in front of the box seats]. . . and Clemente is coming into the dugout and he hits that with the bat and the poor people in the seats must have jumped 10 feet in the air. He went right to the shower and he wouldn’t even come out and watch the rest of the game.”
Much has been written about Clemente’s arm, but Carbonaro said the young Puerto Rican didn’t even possess the best arm on the Royals that season.
“Clemente had a lot of good raw talent, but the guy who had the best arm on our club was Gino Cimoli,” said Carbonaro. “Cimoli probably had the best arm I ever saw in baseball. He threw a rope. You could hang your clothes on the damn thing when he threw it.”
After spending 1954 in Montreal, Carbonaro returned home to San Jose.
“I came home and tried playing semi-pro ball and I’d just find that after an inning or two that my arm would just stiffen up and when I went back out there I could never get loose again and I could never get the same velocity,” he said. “I just didn’t want to play semi-pro ball. I wanted to play pro or I didn’t want to play at all. I decided that it was the end of the line and it was time to do something else.”
Fortunately, his brother-in-law, Tony, a commercial contractor, put him in touch with a cabinetmaker and Carbonaro had found his second career. He worked in that trade until he was 79.
These days Carbonaro spends time with his wife, Irene, in Monterey, Calif. He also has three daughters and a son.
He isn’t able to watch the Dodgers on TV in his area, but does catch Giants and A’s games.
“You see the way they play baseball today, and the pitchers throw 100 pitches and then they’re out of the game. They go seven innings and it’s see you later,” he said.
But don’t mistake Carbonaro for one of those curmudgeonly old-timers who’s bitter about how much today’s players make or about how his career was derailed by a shoulder injury when he was only 24. No, Carbonaro is an enthusiastic and engaging ex-player that seems to truly cherish his memories of his four years in professional baseball.
“I was doing what I wanted to do all my life,” he said of his stint in the pros. “It was a lot of fun.”
*A special thank you to Joe Carbonaro’s daughter, Jane, for helping to arrange the interview and for supplying the photos.
*This is the 18th 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, Dixie Howell Glenn Mickens and Wally Fiala by clicking on their names.