Young Orioles first basemen in the late 1970s faced mighty obstacles. It even took Hall of Famer Eddie Murray a year to make the job his own – but once he did, there were only crumbs left on the table. Lee May became the primary designated hitter after Murray replaced him at first, and with so many other veteran bats around, even a good-hitting prospect like Tom Chism made it up to the majors for just six games and three at-bats. “Baseball is tough,” said Chism in 2010. “It’s one of the hardest things there is, making it in pro baseball. It’s one of them things, you get lucky, you spent a few days at the top.”
Thomas Raymond Chism was born on May 9, 1954, in Chester, Pennsylvania. He was one of three sons born to Charles and Eleanor Subers Chism. Charles “did a little bit of everything, from mailman to milkman.” The couple divorced when Tom was about 13 years old, and the boys remained with their mother.
The baseball culture is strong in Chester. This Philadelphia suburb is known as the hometown of Danny Murtaugh, the popular Pittsburgh Pirates manager of the 1960s and ’70s. “We knew about him,” said Tom. “Anyone who knew anything about baseball around here did. One of his sons went to Chester High School before me.” Tom also mentioned another famous big-leaguer from Delaware County, Mickey Vernon. “I met him many times over the years.”
Chism grew up a Phillies fan. “Always! I still am. Richie Allen was my favorite. I grew up idolizing him and still do. I have every baseball card ever of him. But my other idol was Mickey Mantle. I always wanted to wear number 7 because of him, but Mark Belanger had it when I was with the Orioles.”
Tom played Little League and then Babe Ruth ball. He remembered that his Babe Ruth team came in fourth in the nation – “We should have won!” From the ages of 12 to 17, however, he played only sandlot ball. He benefited from activities run by Chester’s “patron saint of sports,” a man named Willie DeJarnette.1 Chism did not play baseball at Chester High “because of what he termed a ‘personality conflict’ with his coach.” 2
Instead, he concentrated on football and basketball. One of his basketball highlights came in March 1972, when he was playing in the Catholic Youth Organization. In the Class B regional semifinal against St. Francis of Norristown, Tom scored 47 points and his twin brother, Tim, added 32 for Our Lady of Charity. (That church stands in the town of Brookhaven, about three miles from Chester, and the town where Tom and Tim both lived at the time the writer spoke with him.)
As a senior in 1972 Tom was invited to play baseball in a semipro league in Wilmington, Delaware. (Some years later, rock ’n’ roller George Thorogood was also part of that scene, wielding both bat and slide guitar.) With the Parkway team, Chism was two-time batting champ of the Wilmington league.
Chism attended Brandywine Junior College (which later merged with Widener College) on a basketball scholarship.3 “Trust me, I wasn’t smart!” he said with a modest chuckle. “I figured I’d go there for two years, then maybe I’d transfer to Notre Dame. Digger Phelps, their basketball coach, was calling the house. But I really wasn’t big enough for basketball.”
The Milwaukee Brewers selected Tom in the second round of the January phase of the 1974 amateur draft, but he did not sign. “I was finishing up my second year at Brandywine, and I decided I would stay in. I figured they wouldn’t give me enough money. My mom didn’t like their scout, and I didn’t like him that much either.”
The Orioles then picked him in the fourth round of the June draft that year, as scout Jocko Collins was impressed with what he’d seen in Wilmington. He did caution young Chism, though: “Jocko told me he had no doubts about my batting ability, but that I was too slow to play in the outfield and would have to learn to play first base in the minors. I told him that was fine.”4
In 1975, his first pro season, Chism led the Florida State League in hitting at .314. He also had 9 home runs and 64 RBIs and was the All-Star first baseman. Miami won the FSL’s Southern Division, and Chism hoped for a quick win in the playoffs before going to the Instructional League, so he could spend some time back in Chester. He said, “I’m not used to being away from home so long, or playing so much baseball. Playing every day like this takes a toll. You begin to know why you’re tired.”5
Asked about returning to Miami for 1976, Chism said, “I hope not.” Citing financial pressure, however, the Orioles terminated their working agreement with Lodi in the high A California League for 1976. That forced promising players like Chism and Nicaraguan pitcher Tony Chévez to return to Miami. Tom said, “It didn’t really bother me. . . . I kind of expected to play in Class A again because of my limited experience at first base.”6
The extra year of apprenticeship was productive; even if Tom’s batting fell off, manager Len Johnston said, “Believe me, the kid is doing the job. He’s come a long way . . . and it’s because he’s been willing to pay the price in long hours of practice.”7 Chism moved up to Charlotte in the Southern League for 1977, and had a very good year (.298/17/72). He tied for the league lead in homers and was named a league All-Star. Topps also selected Tom as the first baseman on its Double-A All-Star team.
For 1978, Chism advanced again to Triple-A Rochester. Early that season, he was brimming with confidence. He said, “If they let me play every day, I’ll bat at least .300 with 25 home runs.” Again, he wanted to wear number 7 and bat cleanup, like Mickey Mantle. He said, “I enjoy batting fourth because I love knocking in runs with two outs.”8
Tom’s production wasn’t quite what he projected (.317/10/62), but it was still strong. He was leading the International League in hitting for much of the year before he suffered a hand injury in August. Clyde Kluttz, Baltimore’s director of player development, said, “His bat will get him to the big leagues, but the problem is finding a spot for him to play.”9
Chism spent part of that winter with Caguas in the Puerto Rican League. “That was enough. Mark Corey and I went down, but he got hurt, and I left around Christmastime. It was a heck of a team, with the Cruz brothers and Willie Hernández. Johnnie LeMaster from the Giants was there too. The atmosphere was great, but the travel was tough, it was crazy.”
Tom then followed up with another almost identical season for the Red Wings in 1979 (11/60/.312). He was the IL’s All-Star first baseman and finished second in the league in batting, although he missed time with a broken thumb. With Eddie Murray in place, however, he recognized the obvious. “Until I get traded, my job is to keep hitting and bring up my value.”10
Chism’s reward was a big-league call-up that September. His debut on September 13 came in one of Earl Weaver’s strategic quirks, implemented only when the rosters expanded.11 In the lineup as the starting shortstop, lefty Chism flied out against Toronto southpaw Phil Huffman (one wonders why Earl chose this matchup). Kiko García then replaced Tom in the field. Weaver did the same thing in Detroit on the 19th, except this time Chism was nominally the catcher before coming out after one at-bat.
Tom got only one other at-bat, against the Indians on the 23rd, as he entered the game late for Eddie Murray. He replaced Murray three other times, but his turn in the batting order didn’t come up. “I thought Weaver would give me a better chance – he kept saying he would give me more at-bats, but he never did. I hit the ball hard every time up. I know every guy I ever faced and what I did against him.”
The expected trade took place that December, as Baltimore dealt Chism to the Minnesota Twins for lefty-swinging catcher Dan Graham (who gave the O’s one highly productive season in platoon in 1980). The following spring, Chism said, “At first I was a little disappointed when they gave up on me. But after that I sat down and thought about it and decided it was good for my career. They sure do have a lot of talent and depth everywhere. Now I just wish it had happened a year earlier because there might be the opportunity to go up with the Twins.”12
“All he does is crush the ball almost every time,” said Dave Engle, a fellow Toledo Mud Hen. “I can’t believe him, he’s such a good hitter.” Tom said, “I’m basically a line-drive hitter. I’ll hit 12 to 14 home runs this year but that’s by accident. I pride myself on not striking out, not leaving the important run stranded on the bases. If someone told me to start swinging for the fences I’d do it . . . [but] I think I’d be less valuable that way.”13
Things didn’t work out well for Chism, though. He started 1980 with Toledo because “Minnesota manager Gene Mauch wanted to test [him] out still another year in Triple-A ball.”14 The Twins’ first baseman at that time was Ron Jackson, who was coming off the best season of his modestly successful ten years in the majors. Mike Cubbage also played a good bit of first that year.
“I had an unbelievable spring training,” said Chism in 2010. “I did everything I could. I was the last cut, and Gene Mauch told me, ‘We’re sending you to Toledo.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ I went home. I spent about two weeks there. The Twins kept calling me and calling me, and finally I went back.”
After that, he spent another chunk of the early season on the disabled list with an injured elbow, sustained while diving for a ball. Then the Mud Hens traded him in June for Dave Machemer, who’d played 29 big-league games in 1978 and 1979 for the Angels and Tigers. Manager Cal Ermer said that Chism was unhappy because he was playing DH while Jesús Vega was in the field. The trade followed a heated phone conversation with farm director George Brophy15
“It was a disaster. Their organization was the worst in baseball at that time. And Toledo. . . . All you have to do is mention the word to me. They have a nice park now, but back then you had to look at the park. I hated it, I hated the town. It was maybe the only place I felt that way about.”
Then, although Tom was the leading hitter for Evansville, Detroit’s top farm club, he knocked heads with Triplets manager Jim Leyland. “He was released July 28. Chism ignored instructions to bunt in a game the night before against Springfield. After the inning was over, Chism went to the bullpen instead of the dugout.”16
“I was hitting cleanup,” Chism recalled. “I gave him [Leyland] a look. I did bunt the ball, but then I went to the bullpen. After the game I got the call, and I said, ‘Thank you!’ I was gone.”
In August Rochester picked up Tom for the remainder of the 1980 season. He spent his last summer as a player there in 1981, serving mainly as DH (.255/12/44). By that time, Chism had become a player-coach, “since they had a lot of young players coming up.” One of those young teammates was Cal Ripken, Jr. Years later, when Chism’s 14-year-old son, TJ, was playing in a tournament, Ripken pulled up in a limo. The boys clamored for Cal’s autograph, and when TJ called out to tell the Orioles hero who his father was, Ripken signed hats for the whole team.
Among other things in 1981, Chism pinch-hit in the longest game in Organized Baseball history, the marathon between Rochester and Pawtucket that started on April 18. He reached on an error in the 18th inning . . . but little did pinch-runner Floyd “Sugar Bear” Rayford know that there were still 15 more frames to go.
Tom even pitched four times that year, including three times in four days that July when Rochester got pounded and used up its bullpen. “I was one of them kind of guys, if you needed me, I’d give it a shot – what the heck. I walked some guys, I struck out some, I got hit.”
Chism went out on a high note. In late August, after his second homer of the game against Toledo proved to be the winner, manager Doc Edwards said, “He’s only played part-time. . . . We’ve got some prospects who have to play. I decided yesterday it was time to get his bat in the lineup so he wouldn’t get stale.”17 He stung the Mud Hens for another two-homer game in the playoffs on September 4. “I never looked at it as revenge. With Rochester, I was happy! When I was happy, I played better. I loved and respected Doc Edwards.”
Chism served as Rochester’s first base coach in 1982. He then became a Baltimore scout. “I did a little in the Rochester area at first, then I covered Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.” When the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, they rewarded Tom with a ring for his service to the organization.
“I did just the one year as a scout, possibly two. Then I went back to Rochester and coached a little more. They wanted to groom me as a manager. But I packed up at the end of 1985. I’d had enough of the travel.”
After getting out of the baseball world, Chism spent 20 years working security at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. He enjoyed playing softball in a local men’s over-30 league with his brothers Tim and Ted, but eventually a bad back landed him on disability (and cost him two inches of his former 6-foot-1 height).
In November 2008 Chism was dealt a blow when a 17-year-old thief broke into his Brookhaven apartment and stole several items – including his “biggest reward as a player,” the ’83 World Series ring. “I’ve been devastated since it happened,” said Tom in July 2009. “This is something you cherish and show off all your life. Everywhere you went people wanted to see it.”
Although the thief confessed the following summer, he had thrown the ring down a storm drain because it was traceable. A police search with a hazmat suit came up empty. Friends, including Tom’s Babe Ruth League coach, asked the Orioles if they would be willing to replace the ring. They were – at a price.18
“As soon as that kid turned 18, I was in court,” said Chism in 2010. “He did get a year. He was on drugs, he needed the money. He robbed about seven other people too. It was my own fault for not putting the ring in my safe. I don’t want a replacement, though – it’s not the same as having the original one.”
In the June 2009 draft, the New York Mets selected TJ (Thomas Joshua) Chism in the 32nd round. TJ, a first baseman and pitcher at La Salle University in Pennsylvania, focused on the mound in the minors. In 2011 the 5-foot-10 lefty was pitching for the Mets’ New York-Pennsylvania League farm team in Brooklyn, New York. “He was always a hitter in college,” said Tom. “He was hurt a year and didn’t pitch much. I told him, he’s got to learn pitching.”
Chism also had a daughter named Kristi with his ex-wife, Donna Zimarino (whom he met in Rochester, married in 1980, and divorced in 1986). Tom said, “We’re better friends now than we ever were.” Despite some tough breaks, Chism is a relaxed and cheerful personality. Although he’s one of the several hundred big-league vets who remain frozen out of the pension system, he was philosophical about it. “They’ve tried, but there were lawyers and court fees. It’d be nice, but what are you going to do? I can’t control it.”
“I enjoyed every second of being a major leaguer. Everyone always treated me good.”
Grateful acknowledgment to Tom Chism for his memories (telephone interview, May 18, 2010).
Bennett, Brian. On a Silver Diamond: The Story of Rochester Community Baseball from 1956-1996. Scottsville, New York: Triphammer Publishing, 1997.
1 “Program recalls Chester’s patron saint of sports.” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 10, 2001: MD01.
2 Polkowski, Chris. “Another Summer in Florida for Batting Champ Chism.” The Sporting News, July 24, 1976: 41.
5 Seiden, Henry. “Pitchers and other strangers: their party will be over soon.” Miami News, August 29, 1975: C1. Miami was knocked out of the playoffs in two games by Tampa.
8 “Confident Chism.” The Sporting News, May 13, 1978: 38.
9 Henneman, Jim. “Orioles Ponder Future of Kid Chism.” The Sporting News, November 11, 1978: 50.
10 “Chism Increases Value.” The Sporting News, August 11, 1979: 40.
11 Weaver on Strategy. New York: Collier Books, 1984: 60.
12 Loomis, Tom. “Chism Solidifies Mud Hens At First.” Toledo Blade, April 4, 1980: 14.
15 “Hens Deal Unhappy Chism for Machemer, Get Randall.” Toledo Blade, June 18, 1980: 33.
16 “Trips’ Top Hitter Released.” The Sporting News, August 23, 1980: 39.
17 Goode, Mike. “Hens Close Home Season with 2 Losses.” Toledo Blade, August 31, 1981: 17.
18 Dolente, Pat. “Thieves Steal Prized World Series Ring.” http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/sports/Man-Loses-World-Series-Ring-in-Robbery.html; “Delco man hopes for return of World Series ring.” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15, 2009: A1; “He can get a new World Series ring -- for a price.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 6, 2009: B1.