June 25, 2013

BASEBALL: Former big leaguers recall playing days to Augusta middle school student

By Gary Hawkins ghawkins@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Larry Eschen played 11 games for the Philadelphia A’s in 1942 and didn’t get a hit in 12 career at-bats. So he must have been surprised when a 13-year-old middle schooler from Augusta recently sent him a questionnaire regarding his memories in the major leagues some 70 years after the fact.

click image to enlarge

SIGN HERE PLEASE: Sean Tenney holds up a baseball card signed by Stan Williams. Tenney sent letters to a number of old-time baseball players, asking them questions about their careers and got a number of responses.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Eschen is 92 and lives in Gainesville, Ga., having long since retired from a career as a teacher, coach and counselor in New York State. He found time for Sean Tenney and his questions, including one about his minor league experiences, of which there were many. Eschen recalled sitting on the bench beside Hall of Famer Al Simmons who was a coach for the A’s that year, and Simmons telling him “I spent $1,000 on (my) wedding but later got ditched.”

Eschen played well in exhibition games against the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Lefty Gomez, but admitted to Tenney he was “not major league caliber.”

Tenney, who will be an eighth grader at Cony Middle School this fall, wrote to over one hundred ex-major league players and received responses from 37. His questions were well researched as in one he wrote to former Mets pitcher Jay Hook.

“How did it feel to secure the first win in the history of the New York Metropolitans,” Tenney asked.
“This was my biggest thrill in baseball,” Hook responded “I pitched a complete game and did well batting as well.”

Tenney began his project over February vacation and it’s by no means complete. He plans to continue to write to ex-major leaguers and hopes to turn his passion into a book. Tenney demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, citing facts and figures from decades long before he was born.

But his project also helped put a face on those facts.

“These men, in their wonderful writeups, really told me to look beyond the statistics,” Tenney said. “There’s more to baseball than statistics. What I want this project to show to people is baseball can take itself too seriously and these men will prove it to you.”

Not all of Tenney’s respondents were as obscure as Hook or Eschen, but there were no Hall of Famers on his list either.

“What he wanted to know was what the average guy felt,” Sean’s father Rob said.

He heard from former Red Sox pitchers Bill Monbouquette, Don Schwall and Boo Ferris, whose career lasted just six years because of injuries. Ferris pitched a two-hit shutout in his major league debut and didn’t allow a run for the first 22 innings of his career, a record that stood until 2008. He was selected to the all-star in 1946, a year in which he won 25 games for the Red Sox. He didn’t get into the game, but he warmed up after Bob Feller loaded the bases.

“(I) couldn’t believe I might have relieved the great Bob Feller,” he said.

Tenney has been a devoted fan since he began to talk, according to his father, who has taken Sean to several minor and major league games as well as Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He played in Little League but his athletic interests have since drifted toward soccer and track and field. He’s no less of a baseball fan, though, and collects memorabilia, including a photo autographed by both Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson.

“When he first started to be able to read he’d have a baseball game on,” Rob said.

There’s a family tie to the game, too. Sean’s great, great, great uncle, Fred Tenney, was signed by the Boston Beaneaters in 1894 and played 17 years in the majors, finishing with 2,231 hits. He went on manage the New York Nationals where he experienced much less success.

“If he had an even decent managerial career, I think he would have gotten into the Hall of Fame,” Sean said.

Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine was another notable player who responded to Tenney’s questionnaire, but it was the one-hit wonders who made an impact with him. Charlie Silvera was a backup catcher for the New York Yankees for nine years in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and scarcely got a chance to play for manager Casey Stengel.

“He played his best players all the time,” Silvera said. “Ask Yogi.”

Jack Damaska was signed to the St. Louis Cardinals by the same scout who signed Stan Musial, but similarities ended there. He was called up for five games in 1963 and got to bat five times. Two of those at-bats stood out.

“My first at-bat was against (Sandy) Koufax in front of 55,000 people in Dodger Stadium,” Damaska wrote. “I struck out like 17 others that day. My first hit was off Denny Lemaster in Milwaukee. I drove in a run and scored the winning run.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638
ghawkins@centralmaine.com

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