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17 August, 2011

IT'S A WELL-WORN CLICHE BUT TIMES HAVE CHANGED, JUST ASK THIS OLD BALL PLAYER

ITEM UPDATE:  Major league baseball announced signing of top draft picks following the Monday, Aug 15, deadline for this season.  The total of the 32 first-round bonuses was an unbelievable $94.5 million (U.S.), an average of $2.95 million per player.  Equally astonishing was the fact that Tyler Beebe, the 21st pick overall and one of the top high school pitchers in the U.S., turned down a $2.5 million offer from the Toronto Blue Jays (his family was asking for $3.5 million).  The 18-year-old has announced his intentions to attend Vanderbilt University instead of turning pro and is obviously gambling that he will be worth much more to a big league team after he graduates.
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NO BONUS BABY
...but happy with $60 a week
to play baseball.
St. Thomas Times-Journal
photo, May 15, 1956
News that several top-calibre teenage baseball players have turned down $2 million signing bonuses out of the major league baseball draft this past week, really has me scratching my head.  I can't help but think also about the uncertain futures of two of my grandchildren who are college students and two others who soon will be.  Something is surely out of whack here somewhere.

It is particularly difficult for a kid of the 1940s and '50s to rationalize just how much things have changed over the past six decades.  Personally, it is mind-blowing.  Back in the 1950s I was little better than average as an athlete and below average as a student.  I honestly do not know how I would "make the grade" in today's specialized, technical marketplace.

In the spring of 1956 I was offered a take-it-or-leave-it contract to play professional baseball in the United States.  I had just turned 18 years of age, was extremely wet behind the ears and had stars in my eyes.  After short stops in Florida (Cocoa) and Tennessee (Chattanooga), I ended up on the roster of a Class "D" team in Donalsonville, Georgia, as a pitcher.  My $60.00 a week contract was more money than I had ever made before and a far cry from the $22.00 weekly that I was making in a clothing store back home in Dresden.  I was soon to learn, however, that there was no security in minor pro baseball in those days.  The revolving gate was rarely at rest.

Due to the emergence of what would become a life-time chronic back problem, I was eventually given an outright release from the Donalsonville team and told to stay in shape and to keep in touch for next year.  Sadly, next year would never come.  My departing pay cheque did not completely cover the cost of a bus trip home and I had to use money my mother had wired me a few days earlier to purchase the ticket.

Back home in Dresden, a high school dropout and jobless, I was not ready to give up on my baseball dream.  After a few days of mom's good home cooking and my knapsack full of freshly laundered clothing, I boarded a bus in Chatham destined for St. Thomas where I had been informed the semi-pro "Elgins" were signing players for the upcoming Senior Intercounty Baseball League season.

The bus dropped me off in St. Thomas at the old London and Port Stanley Railway station.  I had never been in the city before but I had noticed the Grand Central Hotel on the way in and felt that would be as good a place as any to check in.  My first night's lodging cost a break-the-bank $35.00 which put a big dint in the $60.00 and change that I had in my wallet.

I dropped my belongings off in the rather sparse hotel room and headed back out to Talbot Street to get a better lay of the land.  I stopped the first person I saw and asked for directions to the ball park.  "Are you here to try out for the Elgins?" asked the middle-aged man in a coarse voice.  He introduced himself as Gerry Drynan, a CNR engineer, and explained that he was a member of the baseball team's executive.

He went on to say that there would not be anyone at the ball park at that time of day (shortly after noon), but that he would take me across the street and introduce me to another member of the executive, Bill Mattis, a bowling lanes operator.  Bill, in turn, offered to set up a meeting for me with Tommy White, the then playing-manager of the Elgins, and very kindly accompanied me on foot further east on Talbot Street to Tommy White's Sport Shop.

Tommy, a cigar-smoking tobacco-chewing jolly sort of guy in his early 40s, immediately made me feel welcome and invited me to a team practice that evening at Pinafore Park.  "I'll pick you up at 6 o'clock,"  he offered with a slap on my back.

Practices with the Elgins went well over the course of the next week and out of necessity I left the Grand Central after that first night and moved to the Empire Hotel for a more moderate rate of $15.00 a night.  I had just enough money left to buy a loaf of bread, Cheese Whiz and a quart of milk, still uncertain as to my status with the baseball club.  Finally, on my sixth day and with my food stash depleted, I signed a contract with the team for an amazing $60 a week.  In addition, thanks to Len Barnes, another member of the team's executive, a full-time job was arranged for me with Jack Fraser Stores which payed me another $45.00 a week.

With my first advance from the baseball club, I ordered a T-bone steak dinner at Gettis Restaurant and when it was placed in front of me by waitress Vivian Kerhoulis I could not eat any of it because my stomach had shrunk so much from my starvation diet of the past week.  From that point on, however, I never again left food on my plate.

Those first five months of 1956 were eventful for me to say the least, complete with highs and lows,  maybe some predestination, but the beginning of my education in the real world -- the school of hard knocks, you might say.

But boy, a kid from the small town of Dresden getting paid to play a game that he loved, with a full-time job to boot?  A first girl friend, a first car (1948 Plymouth coupe) and a wonderful boarding house were to follow.  No question about it, I had arrived!  Or so I thought.

Today, I'd probably have trouble getting a job digging ditches.  Come to think about it, people don't dig ditches today -- machines do, driven by specially licensed operators making at least $40.00 an hour.

"Times have changed," you say?  Tell me about it.

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