Monday, 13 October 2014

A STAR AMONG HALL OF FAMERS



1954 Bowman card of Carl Furillo
(United States Public Domain)
That’s exactly what the strong, talented, handsome Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Carl Furillo was--the overlooked man on a team that has seen Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider each achieve Cooperstown Hall of Fame status. Pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax also made it to the Hall, but more in relation to their years once the Dodgers fled west to Los Angeles than their terms in Flatbush.

But what about Furillo, a .299 lifetime hitter with some pop, a batting champion in 1953, and the most feared outfield arm in the game during the 1950s? Dodger fans used to arrive at Brooklyn’s bandbox Ebbets Field an hour or two before game time just to see him throw pin-point bullets from right field. To them, Furillo was “The Arm.”

Why isn’t he enshrined at Cooperstown? Was he a star on the fringe or…was it because he tried to sue his own ball team after they released him in 1960?

Carl Furillo was born 8 March 1922 in Stony Creek Mills, Pennsylvania to Italian parents. He left school after completing the eighth grade, working at various jobs. Growing up, he always loved baseball. At 18, he turned pro with the independent Pocomoke City Chicks of the Class D Eastern Shore League, where he played center field and even pitched in eight games. He ended the season playing for the Reading Chicks  of the Class B Interstate League. The Brooklyn Dodgers were so impressed with Furillo that they purchased the entire Reading team, including the bus and all the equipment just to get him.

With Reading in 1941, Furillo didn’t disappoint his Dodger superiors by batting .313 and throwing out 25 base runners. Now known as the “The Reading Rifle,” he also acquired another nickname--“Skoonj,” short for scungilli, an Italian dish containing large snails, a Furillo culinary favorite. However, some baseball people attributed the latter nickname to his cautious base running--at a snail’s pace. In 1942, the Dodgers sent Furillo to the AA Montreal Royals where he hit .281. For the next three years, Furillo faced combat conditions with the US Army in the Pacific Theatre and received 3 battle stars for bravery.

By 1946, with the war over, the 6-foot, 190-pound right-hander was ready for the Dodgers. With the cantankerous Leo “The Lip” Durocher managing, Furillo appeared in 117 games and hit .284, playing center field. But from the start, he and Leo were at odds. The manager preferred to platoon the right-hand hitting Furillo and told him to “take or leave” his first major league contract of $3,750. It was not until Durocher left the team in mid-1948 that Furillo turned into a star.

In 1949, he became the full-time right fielder in order to make room for Duke Snider in center. Furillo responded with 18 homers, 106 RBIs, a .322 average, 13 outfield assists, and a trip to his second World Series. He followed up with years of 18 homers, 106 RBIs, .305 average, and 18 assists in 1950; and 16 homers, 91 RBIs and .295 average with a whopping 24 outfield assists in 1951. One of those assists occurring 27 August 1951, when he threw out Pirates pitcher Mel Queen at first base by two feet on a line drive bounce to right field.

Furillo owned right field at Ebbets Field, playing it as if it were a work of art. While opposing outfielders found it a hell on earth, Furillo faced it as a challenge for his unmatched work ethic. He had teammates Billy Cox and Preacher Roe hit fly balls off the wall, and Furillo would watch carefully. The right field wall was 19 feet of concrete with a 19-foot screen on top. And, it sloped at an angle starting half-way up the concrete, then went straight up the rest of the way. Towards the power alley, in between this concrete-screen combination, stood the flat scoreboard with the Schaefer beer sign and a small section of screen on top of that to complete the near 40 feet of wall height. There were dozens of angles that a ball could carom off all the different sections.

With practice, Furillo knew them all, from the 297 feet down the foul line out to the 376-foot power alley, where he approached Duke Snider’s territory. If the ball hit the screen, Furillo knew he’d have to  run  like mad towards it because the ball would drop dead. If the ball went off the concrete wall, Furillo would run towards the infield because the ball would come shooting out like a rocket. 

In 1952, Furillo started off slow at the plate. Dropping from the top of the order to the eighth spot, he struggled around .220 for most of the year, before finishing the season at .247, his lowest batting average since joining the Dodgers. In the off-season, he was diagnosed with cataracts, and went under the knife. As a result, in 1953, Furillo saw the ball “as big as a balloon” and he never let up on opposing pitchers, hitting 21 homers, 38 doubles, and a league-leading .344. The only year he won a National League batting championship, Furillo had the highest average by a Dodger righty in nearly 60 years.

Ever since 1948, when Durocher left the Dodgers to manage the crosstown rival New York Giants, Furillo and Durocher had developed a dislike for each other that over time became an all-out feud similar to the Hatfields and the McCoys. On several occasions, Furillo was deliberately thrown at by Giants pitchers. In 1949, Sheldon Jones decked Furillo, sending him off the field on a stretcher and to the hospital with a concussion. In 1950, Sal Maglie threw two pitches a little too close to Furillo. In response, Furillo chucked his bat at the mound, barely missing Maglie who had to do a dance step to get out of the way.

Early 1950s postcard of Ebbets Field, Brooklyn (United States Public Domain)

The feud reached a climax on 6 September 1953 when Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez had orders to “stick it” in Furillo’s ear in the second inning. Hit on the wrist by a Gomez pitch, Furillo jogged to first, glaring all the way at Durocher in the New York dugout. A few pitches later, with Billy Cox at bat, Furillo charged the dugout, made a B-line for the manager and grabbed him in a headlock. Within seconds, Durocher’s face and bald head were starting to turn blue. One of the infield umpires was heard uttering, “Kill him, Carl!” Furillo might have chocked Durocher to death, if not for the two falling to the dugout floor, where a player--some claim it was New York’s Monte Irvin--“accidentally on purpose” stepped on Furillo’s hand, breaking  his little finger. Furillo didn’t play again until the October World Series.

Two years later, in 1955, the Dodgers won their one and only World Series championship in Brooklyn. Furillo contributed with 26 homers, 95 RBIs and .314 average, plus .296 in the World Series against New York Yankee pitching. Furillo remained consistent the final two years the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, hitting .289 and .306. Even the first year in Los Angeles, 1958, while the team aged and fell to seventh place, Furillo remained a rock at the plate with a .290 average, 18 homers and 83 RBIs in only 122 games. It would be his last year as a regular. Early in 1959, he tore a calf muscle running to first base on a ground ball. After that he played in constant pain.

He was used sparingly in the 1959 World Series championship year, appearing in only 25 games in right field, and for 25 pinch hits. But he did come through with a 12th-inning single that scored Gil Hodges from second base in the second and last game of the National League playoff against the Milwaukee Braves. In Game Three of the World Series that the Dodgers won over the Chicago White Sox in five games, Furillo stroked a pinch-hit single in the seventh inning with the bases loaded to put his team in the lead to stay at 3-1.

In May 1960, while on the injury list, Furillo was released by Dodgers GM Buzzy Bavasi to make way for power-hitting outfielder Frank Howard. Furillo, a man of principle and the fighter that he was, read his contract and found a clause that stated should a team release a player while injured, they would have to pay the player for the entire season. When he was let go in May, Furillo had received only $12,000 of his $33,000 seasonal contract. He also felt they released him to avoid the full 15-year pension had he completed the season. He sued the Dodgers and won $21,000 as compensation in 1961, but was blackballed from the game, never able to get a job in baseball. He tried, though. Every team. Even the minors.

Furillo did various jobs for the rest of his life. He owned a butcher shop in Queens, New York, then installed Otis elevators during construction of the original World Trade Centers in New York City. For years, he stayed away from Old Timer’s Games, but eventually softened enough to be an instructor at adult fantasy baseball camps in Vero Beach, Florida, the spring training home of the Dodgers. His last job was a security guard in Stony Creek Mills, his Pennsylvania hometown. He died there in 1989, a heart attack victim at age 66.

In his 15-year MLB career, Furillo was only one hit away from technically hitting an even .300. He actually finished one point better than Mickey Mantle lifetime. In 1,806 regular-season games, Furillo hit 324 doubles, 56 triples, 192 homers, and 1,058 RBIs. A .300 hitter five times, and at least a .290 hitter twelve times, he was a major part of seven pennant winners and two World Championships. Defensively, he threw out 151 base runners foolish enough to run on him.

Although he was an outstanding hitter, he’ll always be known for that arm. It was a howitzer.

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