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19 February, 2016

IN SPRING MY FANCY TURNS TO THOUGHTS OF A BASEBALL SCHOOL(ING)

Exactly 60 years ago I was exposed to a baseball era that is long gone, but every year at this time memories of attending a baseball school in Cocoa, Florida, come flooding back.  I am sure that it is the same for old Dresden high school chum and baseball teammate Bob Peters who followed a similar route to mine.
Jack Rossiter, left, welcomed Canadian Willie
Walasko of Hillcrest, Alberta, to his baseball
school in 1959.  Willie's dad and sister were 
along for the ride.

To the best of my knowledge, baseball training schools can be traced back to the 1930s and a character by the name of Ray L. Doan whose name was synonymous with the phrase “sports promoter” in those days. His clients included Olympian and pro golfer Babe Didrikson, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues, and miscellaneous House of David teams known for mixing their version of the national pastime with beards and a fun-to-watch activity called pepper. He was also the self-proclaimed “father of donkey baseball.”

It should be explained that during this time in history, major league clubs commonly held mass tryouts, hundreds of potential players venturing onto the “apple yards” to vie for spots in a given team’s organization. The shotgun strategy was less cruel than it sounds, as professional baseball could not yet rely on the dynamo of intercollegiate athletics to generate prospects. Some minor league teams were quick to stuff their rosters with green youngsters from open-to-anybody combines or from the baseball "factories" like the one pioneered by Doan.

The colorful Doan’s undertaking, however, meant the most to raw hopefuls who made the pilgrimage to his “All-Star Baseball School” at Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the 1930s. Adolescent males came there from practically every U.S. state and several Canadian provinces, the majority of boys no doubt imagining stardom. The stars in their eyes had names, too: Doan recruited a slew of major leaguers to serve as instructors at his school. Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander, Clyde “Deerfoot” Milan, Urban “Red” Faber, and many more taught eager prospects over the six years of the Hot Springs incarnation.

The school operated between 1933 and 1938. In 1939 Doan shifted the enterprise to Jackson, Mississippi, where enrollment flagged. In 1940 and 1941, winding down, the Doan school was lodged at Palatka, Florida. He also tried setting up a traveling baseball school for the summer of 1940, but it seems not to have caught fire. By then, a veritable thicket of schools for budding rookies had sprung up, so Doan’s educational institution was hardly unique. There was, in fact, another such nursery in Arkansas in 1937, in Little Rock under Bobby Harper, who caught for numerous minor league aggregations during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1938 yet another baseball school would arise in El Dorado under Frank “Blackie” O’Rourke, an infielder for six major league clubs over 14 seasons.

Soon thereafter a charismatic Jack Rossiter of Springfield, Illinois, saw merit in starting up his own baseball school in Cocoa, Florida, 
as a way to help find recruits for the major leagues. Rossiter operated an industrial baseball league in Springfield and had ties to the Washington Senators.  He was a member of a Senators scouting staff that included such lofty names as Joseph Cambria, Michael Martin, Spencer Abbott, Zinn Beck, Edward Holly, Leo Lentz, Cecil Travis, Horace Milan, Russell Herrick and Wilfred Lefebvre.

As fate would have it, in the fall of 1955 I received a letter from Rossiter inviting me to attend his 1956 edition of the school which was to run for two sessions in the first 10 weeks of the following year. There was only one catch...I had to pay my own way -- $25 a week, plus travel and room and board. At 17-years of age, several major league scouts had already started to pay attention to me during the baseball season of that past summer but I had yet to receive any official overtures from them.  

A high school dropout whose only ambition was to be a major league baseball player, I was all too ready to leave my $22.00-a-week clothing store job in Dresden to jump at any 
chance to launch a career on a far away field of dreams. My widowed mother, realizing that I was ready to spread my wings at such an early age and that I would never achieve the academic excellence that she had expected of me, she reluctantly gave me her blessing and helped me scrape together the necessary financial wherewithal to make my way to Cocoa, Florida on New Years eve of that year.  In a nutshell, that was the beginning of the rest of my life!
Me at the Jack Rossiter Baseball School
 in 1956.

A 48-hour Greyhound Bus ride later, I arrived at the white-stuccoed Seminole Hotel in Cocoa and was greeted by a rather rotund, smiling Jack Rossiter who emerged from a group of young fellows standing on the sidewalk and looking very much like the baseball players that they were.  After introductions, I was told that I would be billeted in a private home along with three others, all of whom proved to be Americans -- Ronnie Franjello of Boston, Star Todd of Quincey and Art Brizzi of New Jersey.

Baseball workouts and instructional drills were held each day, 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at the local baseball field which was the summer home of the Cocoa Indians, a AA club in the Florida Baseball League. Rossiter was a bit of a philosopher who thought outside of the baseball box.  His aim was to not only develop baseball talent, but to build character in the young men under his tutelage. Each day he would gather us together in the outfield for some words of wisdom and exchanges on life in general.  He instructed us on how to conduct ourselves as we blended in to the Cocoa community as representatives of the baseball school.

Included in his lectures were advice on relationships that were inevitable with young ladies of the town and company that we might otherwise keep during our stay in Cocoa.  Borrowing or loaning money was a no-no..."Neither a borrower nor a lender be!" he repeated countless times.  He talked a lot about "focusing" and "extending" ourselves, not only in baseball but in the jobs that we might have as we progressed in life.  A staunch Catholic, Jack conducted prayers at the start of each day's training session.

One day he asked for a volunteer to talk about the person who was most responsible for us attending the camp and I talked about the sacrifices and support that my mother had made in order for me to be there. My verbal presentation sufficiently impressed Jack enough that he awarded me with a $10 bill and a trophy that I was later to give to my mother.

The aforementioned Bob Peters who followed me to Rossiter's school the next year, took copious notes during the group meetings convened by Rossiter.  One of the typically profound statements notarized by Bob had Jack stating emphatically: "Any fool can learn from his own mistakes but a wise man learns from the mistakes of others."

Bob attended the school in 1957 to better learn the art of catching but unfortunately suffered a health setback only a few months before his departure. "I probably should not have attended the school because I had been quarantined in the Wallaceburg hospital in November with suspected meningitis which necessitated a spinal tap," he explained recently.  "The baseball experience was great though and the coaching exceeded anything I had received before," he added.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Writer Paul Hemphill, in his book "Lost In The Lights" had a rather humorous and less glowing take on attending the Rossiter school the year before me (1955):  "I was deposited before 8 A.M. in front of the shabby Seminole Hotel where all players were told to report.  Lugging a new cardboard suitcase in one hand and my bat and glove in another, I checked into a room with only wooden floors and a creaking overhead fan," he writes.

..."I went to the end of the hall on the first floor and knocked lightly on the door.  'It's open,' a voice rasped, and I stepped inside.  Jack Rossiter -- a fat, garrulous man with bronze skin and blond wavy hair mindful of Liberace -- was sitting at a desk in his shorts and undershirt...

...'Checked in yet?' he said after introductions  'Yeah, I got something down the hall.'

'That's strange.'

'What?  Sir.'

'You don't look like the type.'

"Hunh?'

'Blonde, brunette or readhead?'

'A room!' I said.  'I got a room down the hall.'

"Jack Rossiter, the major league scout, was laughing uncontrollably now, his raucous howl pounding away at me while I wondered what to do with my hands.

"If Roger Kahn's postwar Brooklyn Dodgers were The Boys of Summer, then we were The Boys of Spring:  the culls, the dreamers, the ones who now had to pay someone to look at us...

..."A half dozen (players) had real ability and were quickly signed by Rossiter for the Senators' farm system, but the rest of us had little more than desire.  As the weeks passed working out and playing games under an ex-shortstop named Eddie Miller and an old pitcher named Pete Appleton, a frantic dread set in with those who remained unsigned.

"Where do you go from the Jack Rosseter baseball School?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the field we learned about all aspects of the game of baseball and positional execution, in particular.  Ninety percent of which was completely new to me and very much an eye opener for kids like Bob and I who, unlike our American counterparts, attended with virtually no background of formal coaching. 

The school was very much like spring training with conditioning drills and exercises eventually followed by actual mock games.  Special instructors were former major league veteran players in the persons of Andy Seminick, Walter "Boom Boom" Beck and Pete Appleton, assisted by promising Washington Senators rookies of that year, Lyle Luttrell and John Schaive. Washington catcher Bob Oldis and outfielder Ernie Oravetz, both graduates of the Rossiter School from former years, dropped in for several guest coaching appearances.

As the camp wore on, minor league coaches, managers and scouts began appearing on the scene in the hopes of picking up some raw talent for the 1956 season.  One highly regarded prospect among us was a behemoth by the name of Blair Chapel, an outfielder/infielder.  I was asked to throw some batting practice for Blair so that he could show off his hitting prowess.  

I threw a half dozen soft pitches to Blair so that he could get good wood on the ball, but was subsequently chastised by Instructor Beck who was standing behind me on the mound.  "Those scouts in the stands are looking at you every bit as much as they are at him (Blair)," said a booming Boom Boom.  "Throw the sonofabitch ball past him!"  

With mixed feelings, I turned up the speed a notch or two on poor Blair as he flailed away in the batter's box.  He only managed to foul off several of the next couple of dozen balls I hurled at him and he was promptly instructed to take a seat in the dugout.  I felt bad, but what was I supposed to do?  Ironically, I would later sign a pro contract...Blair did not.  He would eventually go on however to have a respectable career with the Kansas City Monarchs and Satchel Paige's All Stars before ending up in the semi-pro Western Canada Baseball League.

It was customary each year for a select team from Rossiter's school to meet a team from the Sid Gordon Baseball School in neighboring Orlando and I was more than taken aback to be picked as the starting pitcher.  Before the game Rossiter came up to me in the dressing room to say that there was a guy outside who wanted to say hello.  Much to my surprise, it was Art Houle from Wallaceburg who just happened to be attending the Gordon camp.  Art, a lefthanded pitcher, did not play in the game but we had a good chat afterward...Small world!

I had one more trip to Tinkers Field in Orlando as part of a Senators "B"squad playing in a Grapefruit League exhibition game against a New York Yankees "B" team before heading to Donalsonville, Georgia and the lowly Class "D" Florida-Alabama League.  From the 250 players attending the Rossiter school that season, only five were successful in signing contracts -- and two of us were Canadians.  The other Canuck was Bob Crawford, a pitcher from Kenora.  The Americans -- Sammy Hernandez, Rip Sewell and Oddie James -- were older guys with at least one year of minor professional experience under their belts.

Before we broke camp in Cocoa, Rossiter and the other coaching staff invited me into their quarters under the bleachers and surprised me with a cake, complete with 18 candles, on the occasion of my birthday on March 1st. To my knowledge, it was unheard of them to recognize a player in that way and I was not only extremely honored but completely stunned.  To this day I cannot really account for why they singled me out in that special way.  

I have written previously about the "cup of coffee" I had in professional baseball with the Donalsonville Seminole Indians, but it was pretty heady stuff for a kid in his teens and still slightly damp behind the ears.  While it was all too brief, I got to play on my field of dreams and the memories were enough to last a life time.  Paul Hemphill was left slightly depressed by his experience, but his memories were sufficient to devote a chapter to it in his book.  Like me, he discovered another field of dreams as a sports writer.  Bob Peters found a niche in the automotive sales business and became a dealership executive.  All three of us still love the game of baseball and would play it today...If old bodies permitted.
Jack Rossiter with another
prospect.


I honestly feel that I took a major step towards being a man that summer of 1956, thanks to Jack Rossiter who I never had the privilege of meeting again.  I know that he continued running his baseball school well into the 1960s, but it is like he fell off the face of the earth after that.  He was a confirmed bachelor and outside of baseball a private man.  There is very little mention of him in baseball records and my research has yet to uncover even so much as an obituary for him.  Too bad!

Some people come and go in your life, others remain fondly in the far reaches of your mind, only to emerge nostalgically from time to time.  Like when you write a story about them.

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