The wedding of my longtime friend Fred to his new bride Karla (“my first wife,” he jokes) was a joyous event for Stephanie and me to attend last weekend, both for the nuptials of two fine people and the opportunity to spend time with other friends with whom I go back decades. Joel, Adam and I represented Long Beach at Table 6, which made us rather exotic down in Baltimore. It was as if nobody believed Fred knew anybody from his previous, pre-Maryland life.
We all went to high school together, which didn’t make it surprising that talk eventually turned to wondering how many of our teachers were still with us. Not all that many was the consensus estimate, supported by anecdotal evidence of what we’d learned here and there of late.
Back in New York, the timing was definitely a little eerie when I picked up Newsday on Sunday and found out another from the ranks of LBHS teachers had just passed away: Thomas DeLuca, 78. He was one of my gym teachers…I think.
I say “I think,” because when you’re not altogether athletic, chances are you’re not going to have particularly strong memories of your gym teacher, unless that person made your life miserable. From what I can remember, Mr. DeLuca did no such thing to me. I can picture him in his royal blue windbreaker passing out the dodgeballs, but otherwise I have no recollection of any gym class contact with him.
I do vaguely recall interviewing him for the school paper — which is where Fred, Adam, Joel, a couple of others who couldn’t make it to the wedding and I did our original hanging out (with some producing of the school paper thrown in) — but I don’t recall it sharply. Mr. DeLuca was the basketball coach who I’m sure gave me upbeat quotes about the star of the team. He took over as football coach before I graduated, but by then I was no longer covering sports. The only other thing I’m sure I knew was a friend who was on the basketball team mainly because he was tall was never too happy being nailed to the bench and thus blamed Mr. DeLuca for his lack of playing time.
Perhaps because we had just been talking teachers, I was compelled to at least skim Stephen Haynes’s beautifully written obituary, and was gratified to learn a fact included at the end:
“The passion for sports never left DeLuca. He remained an avid Mets (post-Brooklyn Dodgers), Jets and Knicks fan.”
I didn’t know that about Mr. DeLuca. I’m sure we would have enjoyed exchanging a few words about how Lee Mazzilli was tearing up the National League when I was a sophomore or what impact a returning Dave Kingman might have on the lineup when I was a senior. The obit mentioned that he coached baseball, too, something that sounds familiar, but I can’t swear I knew that before reading it (he may have taken it on after I graduated).
Knowing now this was a fellow Mets fan, I went back to the top and read Haynes’s work more closely. Turns out Mr. D — yeah, I kind of remember the basketball players calling him that — was a big-time athlete for Long Beach High School. That sounded familiar, somehow, though where I would have heard that, I don’t know. Starred for LBHS and then NYU as an All-American in the days when NYU was an athletic powerhouse.
NYU? Did I know that? It also sounded familiar, but by now I’m pretty sure I was revising my memory of Mr. D to fit his admirable life story…
He coached my alma mater to a championship while I was in college…
He served in the Army during Korea, same time as my father did…
He’d invite the other teachers and coaches back to his house for pizza…
He received letters through the years from his former players who wanted to thank him for impacting his life…
No, I didn’t know him, but now I was warming to the idea that I should have, even if he didn’t play my awkward tall friend except in blowouts.
This, however, I knew I didn’t know: Mr. DeLuca was a minor league baseball player. At age 23, after college, after the military, he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. Maybe he mentioned it to his players or other students along the way in his 20-year teaching career in Long Beach, but I never heard about it. Nearly a quarter-century had passed since he was in the Redbird chain, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from telling it to everybody I met if I were him. Even if I was handing out dodgeballs, I’d definitely look to slip in a “you know, I was a professional baseball player.”
It was for just one year — or one year longer than any of us has been a professional baseball player. Mr. DeLuca was considered a “slick-fielding shortstop,” but a knee injury ended his career just as it was starting.
Curious, I checked Baseball-Reference, and son of a gun, they have a record for Thomas DeLuca: all of six games accounted for in 1957, four at Class D Albany in the Georgia-Florida League and two more with Winston-Salem in the Carolina League. He collected three hits for each team. There isn’t any indication about power or speed. The numbers are pretty sketchy.
But one of the thousand or so great things about Baseball-Reference is you can see who else played on a given team in a given year, even in the low minors. And way down in Class D Albany, two other 1957 Albany Cardinals — the only ones to make the majors — were two future Mets: Jim Hickman and Gordie Richardson.
Hickman was an Original Met and a mainstay of the franchise for its first five years. It wasn’t until after Jim was traded to the Dodgers that he relinquished his position as the Mets’ all-time hit leader to Eddie Kranepool, who holds it to this day.
Richardson won four games as a member of the 1964 World Champion Cardinals and two more as a Met during the next two seasons. Gordie’s relatively brief New York tenure is nonetheless at least tangentially related to two intertwined central storylines in Mets history:
• He combined with Gary Kroll to pitch a Spring Training no-hitter over the Pirates in 1965, the only no-hitter of any kind ever pitched in a New York Mets uniform, even in an exhibition game.
• He was the last Met to wear 41 before it was donned by George Thomas Seaver in 1967.
Southpaw Gordie Richardson made his Met debut on July 9, 1965, relieving Jack Fisher in the third inning of a game the Mets trailed 6-0 to the Astros at Shea Stadium. He gave Casey Stengel a scoreless inning before being pinch-hit for in what became a 6-2 loss. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for the era.
But exactly four years later, Seaver — Richardson’s Jacksonville Suns teammate in 1966, Gordie’s last year in professional ball — would be pitching from the same mound in the same uniform number and would come within two outs of a perfect game. That, of course, was the Jimmy Qualls game, which came a day after the Don Young game, so named for the Cub center fielder who couldn’t catch the two ninth-inning fly balls that set up the Mets’ winning rally. Young subsequently caught hell from Ron Santo and was benched by Leo Durocher for the next game…giving way to Qualls and his breaking up of Seaver’s masterpiece, though not materially affecting what became one of the Mets’ most memorable wins ever.
In that similarly unforgettable Don Young game of July 8, 1969, incidentally, the Cub right fielder was Jim Hickman, who homered off Jerry Koosman in the eighth to give Chicago a short-lived 3-1 lead before the Mets scored three off Ferguson Jenkins (and Young) in the ninth. Righthanded Hickman, however, would sit against Seaver. Durocher started lefty Al Spangler in his stead — Spanky, as he was known, went 0-for-3 on July 9, 1969, as the Mets won their seventh game in a row overall.
I’m guessing that a dozen years after crossing paths with Hickman and Richardson in Georgia, avid Mets fan Tom DeLuca wasn’t at all displeased.