SABR

Sam Mele

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Sam Mele managed the Minnesota Twins to the American League pennant in 1965, but just a year and a half later was fired by the team. Subsequently, his former team rallied to finish the 1967 season tied with the Tigers, just one game out of first place in the American League.

The record books show Sam Mele was born on January 21, 1923, in Astoria, in the New York City Borough of Queens. He was really born a year earlier, in 1922. “I’ll tell you why,” he confided. ”I had two uncles in the major leagues [Tony and Al Cuccinello]. They told me cheat a year on your age because you’ll last a year longer in the big leagues. So I did.” The tradition is a venerable one. The Cuccinellos were his only major-league relatives; Sam was well aware of Dutch Mele, but there was no relation. Sam’s mother, Anna, was a Cuccinello and the two were her brothers; Anna herself was born in Avellino, Italy, as was Sam’s father, Antonio. They met in America.

Antonio worked for Consolidated Edison but had an accident early on, and the utility company made him a maintenance man so he didn’t have to do anything too strenuous. Anna Mele was enterprising and borrowed “something like $2,200 or $3,200 – she bought an apartment house. What did she know about real estate, coming from Italy, you know? It was a thriving place; it was a six-family house and that was where I was born and lived almost all my life.” She kept busy managing the house, and the couple’s seven children.

The house was in the city, but there was a dirt road in front as young Sabath Anthony Mele1 grew up. ”Completely dirt. We used to play stickball with a rubber ball and a broom handle. We played all the time until they paved the road. We used to have to hide the goddam stick because the cops would come and break it. The neighbors, I guess, would complain. You could break some windows. Then we’d have to get another broom handle. If you could hit on a dirt road, you could hit in the damn major leagues, the way the ball bounced. Up and down, all directions.”

Sam played high-school baseball his sophomore year, but Bryant High School stopped offering it after his first season. The story he heard at the time was that the principal’s son had been hit and killed by a baseball, but he didn’t know if that ever truly occurred. There was, however, a boy on the team that year who played for a team out on Long Island called Louona Park, in the Queens Alliance League. Sam and his brother played for them one Sunday, a doubleheader. His brother Al got about seven hits and Sam got six. ”Oh Christ, I thought I was something. The following weekend I went out again, didn’t get a base hit. Come home, threw my uniform on the floor, and my mother chewed my ass out. About being a quitter. Now of course, she tells her brothers, Tony and Al. Major leaguers. And one by one, they chewed my ass out about you don’t ever quit. And my uncle Tony, I’ll never forget, he said he had gone, I forget, I think, 8-for-30 in the big leagues, but there’s always another day, you’re going to play again and again and again. As you went in our apartment, there’s a transom. So I come home one day and there’s a goddam noose hanging down, and they said, well, if you’re going to quit, why don’t you just hang yourself?” Tough love?

There was a lot of baseball talk around the house. Sam remembered Al Lopez in particular, who came by for years. ”I used to listen to them talk baseball. Christ, it was amazing. When I went away to play ball, I knew more than the damn managers that I played for because of those guys. My uncle was very friendly with Babe Ruth. I’ll never forget, I met him at Bayside Country Club, and he was so big – or maybe I was so small – I was looking up to him like he was God. I didn’t realize how great a player he was. I was too damn young.”

Growing up in New York at the time, one would think, Sam would have been a Dodgers fan or a Giants fan, or a Yankees fan with all the great Italian players they had. No, Sam was a Tigers fan. “When I played in ’46, when I went to play for Cronin – I went to spring training with Cronin – he said, ‘Did you ever see Lazzeri play?’ I said no. ‘He was one of the smartest and greatest ballplayers you’d ever meet in your life. Being Italian, you’re Italian. Yankee Stadium wasn’t that far from where you lived, and you never went to see him play?’ Oh Christ, he told me off. I never did see Lazzeri. But he couldn’t tell me enough about him.”

Sam’s oldest brother Dominick played first base for Erie, but was the only other one in the family to play baseball. Dominick also played for Bradford in the PONY League and Charleston in the Middle Atlantic League. “We had four boys and three of us would sleep in one bed, my older brother in the other because he had a job. My mother would want him to get his rest. So we three guys had to sleep in the one bed. He ended up as a mailman in the office.”

Because both of his uncles played second base, Sam saw himself as a second baseman, too. That’s not what his uncles saw. “When they saw me play they said, ‘Get the hell in the outfield.’” In fact, basketball was more his sport than baseball and he attended New York University on a basketball scholarship. He’d played professionally when still a high-school student “and they caught me. They banned me for a year in high school. But then I went on a basketball scholarship.” NYU’s baseball coach, Bill McCarthy, was friendly with Red Sox scout Neil Mahoney. McCarthy drove Sam up to Fenway Park more than once and he had the opportunity to work out with the Red Sox before regular batting practice. He was batting against the likes of Herb Pennock and Bump Hadley.2

“I remember one day taking batting practice, and they said, ‘Take five swings.’ I had about three swings, and then I took a pitch. This voice behind the cage asks, ‘Why’d you take that?’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought it was outside.’ And the voice says, ‘You’re right, but it was high enough for a strike.’ So when I got out, finished hitting, I walked around and this guy called me over and it was Ted Williams. He explained to me about batting, and from that day on, whenever I’d see him … he took a great liking to me for some reason. In spring training in ’46, I’d take my batting practice and run to left field and talk to him about hitting.

“Then I asked him about fielding – one question – and he said, ‘No. You go to center field. Ask that guy.’ Which was Dom DiMaggio.”

This was during his first year at NYU. The Red Sox were accommodating, putting Mele up at a “nice hotel” in Boston. After two or three visits, there was some real interest. The Washington Senators made him an offer, but for very little money. The Cubs offered him $1,000. Al Cuccinello acted more or less as his agent, and Neil Mahoney had told them, “Don’t sign with anybody until I talk to you.” Mahoney brought Sam and Uncle Al to the Hotel Commodore in New York and introduced him to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. Sam was about to go into military service, and Yawkey told him, “We’ll give you $5,000. We’ll give you $2,500 now and we’ll give you the rest when you come out.” That was too good a deal to pass up.

Mele entered the Navy’s V-12 program, signing up as a Marine. He was sent to train at Yale, and played baseball there under Red Rolfe. He remembers the club having a 14-1 record, though one can’t find such a record, but as far as going to classes … that wasn’t his strong suit. “Finally the teachers said to me, ‘Look, you’re either going to play ball or you’re going to go to class.’ I was there about four months and they shipped me out to California, and I played on the Marine Corps team out there. We had no-name guys on the team, and we used to play against DiMaggio, Walter Judnich, and against the Navy with Barney McCosky, Rizzuto, all those big-name guys.” He served from July 1943 to very early 1946.

Mele was formally signed by the Red Sox in 1946, watched their first homestand from the press box and was sent out to Louisville. “I think my first game in Minneapolis, I went 4-for-6, but being a young player in that league – Triple-A – I guess I had a lot to learn about the pitchers. [He hit .226 in 53 at-bats.] Then they sent me to Scranton, and I got the Most Valuable Player award in that league. I had a hell of a year down there. There must have been about seven of us that went to the big leagues that year.” Mele hit .342 with Scranton, leading the league, ranking second with 154 hits, and with 226 total bases, including 18 triples.

In 1947 Mele made the Boston ballclub and played 123 games – 119 as an outfielder, and one game at first base, with only two errors all year long. Playing for Joe Cronin in his last year as skipper, Sam hit for a very strong .302 average with 12 homers and 73 RBIs. His debut came on Opening Day; batting seventh, he was 2-for-2 at the plate. It was a very good first year. One of Sam’s favorite memories came during his first game in Yankee Stadium. His parents had never seen him play ball, and he got them box seats. “And I hit a damn home run off of Floyd Bevens [April 22, 1947]. As I’m rounding second, I can see the box seats. And they’re smiling. Never got up, never clapped or anything. Just smiling. As I’m rounding third, I take a look again over there. I’ll never forget the look on their faces. Two Italian immigrants. Yankee Stadium. Never saw a game. Oh, brother!”

In December 1947 the Sox traded for left-handed batter Stan Spence and it was thought that he and Mele might platoon. Joe McCarthy took over as manager in 1948, and his relationship with Mele got off to a difficult beginning in spring training. “I’m taking batting practice and I had a style like Joe DiMaggio – not that I hit like him, but a wide stance, short stride … and this voice behind the cage – I’d never met McCarthy – says, ‘How’re you going to hit like that?’ I’m saying to myself, well, shit, I just hit .302. I get out and he calls me over and says, ‘You have to have your feet closer together, and take a long stride.’ Well, you know, Joe McCarthy, with all those winning teams, he must know what he’s saying. So I tried that and goddammit, I could never get back to my old style. I went to New York after that to play and Tommy Henrich – I’ll never forget it – says, ‘What the hell are you doing with your batting style?’ And I told him what had happened. He says, ‘Goddammit, you were a good-looking hitter. I don’t know why the hell they would change you.’”

“McCarthy didn’t play me, hardly. I don’t know why and I’m thinking it could have been Opening Day in Fenway Park. I lost a ball in the sun and the Athletics beat us. I don’t know if he ever held that against me, although he told a writer – a New York writer, and it’s in a book – he said Henrich would have stuck that ball in his ass. Now I called that writer and then wrote him, and he never answered me. It was a line drive in right field. I had my glasses down, shielded my eyes, and the next thing I know, the ball went right by my head – pshooooo – and I said, that’s the real story. Never mind about Henrich sticking it. … He couldn’t have caught it either. If a ball is in the sun, you don’t have a chance. Well, anyway, I’m not playing hardly at all in ’48.”

Mele found himself in the doghouse for another reason, too. In early July, on the train to Philadelphia, he and Ted Williams were playing around mock-sparring with each other. A few hours later it was discovered that Ted’s cartilage had become separated from a rib; Williams missed two full weeks. Then, on September 17 in St. Louis, Mele tore up his foot trying to steal third in the fourth inning and was out for the rest of the year.

The story of Mele’s injury requires a little delicacy. Joe McCarthy was known to have imbibed to excess. “He’s riding the horse,” folks would say. White Horse scotch. It got so bad that they locked him in his room and coach Del Baker managed the game. Mele doubled in three runs in the first inning, then got on base in the fourth. Birdie Tebbetts got a hit, too. By now McCarthy had appeared in the dugout and Baker was in the coach’s box. Joe Dobson was up and Baker conveyed the sign for a double steal. Mele was hurt, badly, sliding into third base. Mickey Harris called for a stretcher, and when McCarthy came across the field, he looked down at Mele and said, “Since when do they have to take ballplayers off on a stretcher?” Mele, angered, fired back, “F--- you, you son of a bitch, I’ll walk.” McCarthy then blustered at Baker, “Why would you go for a double steal with a pitcher hitting?” and so forth. As Mele tells it, “Del Baker was good enough to say, ‘Hey, you gave me the sign, whether you know it or not.’” The players insisted Mele take the stretcher, but he was out for the season. “I couldn’t even put a shoe on.”

Mele had far fewer plate appearances in 1948 and performed poorly, batting just .233. Stan Spence didn’t do much better, batting .235. All the Red Sox needed was one more win that year and they wouldn’t have had to face the Indians in the one-game playoff that cost them the pennant.

In 1949, two months into the season, Mele had been in just 18 games for Boston, batting just .196. On June 13 he was traded to Washington, with pitcher Mickey Harris for pitcher Walt Masterson. In 78 games for the Senators, Mele batted .242. He got in a fairly full year for Washington in 1950, accumulating 435 at-bats, and hit for a .274 average, driving in 86 runs. The 1951 season was equally good, with the very same .274 batting average, a league-leading 36 doubles, and 94 runs batted in. Early in 1952, despite batting .429 at the time (in 28 at-bats), he was traded to the White Sox (on May 3) for outfielder Jim Busby and infielder Mel Hoderlein. For the White Sox he hit .248 the rest of the year, driving in 59 runs. Six of those RBIs came in one inning of one game, when he hit a three-run homer and a three-run triple in the fourth inning on June 10 against Philadelphia.

Chicago had Sam Mele for a full year in 1953 and, for the third time in four years, he batted .274. He drove in another 82 runs. Shortly before spring training of 1954, the White Sox traded him to the Orioles (with infielder Neil Berry) for outfielder Johnny Groth and infielder Johnny Lipon. He was batting .239 in limited action, and finally was offered on waivers in late July. The Red Sox claimed him, and Mele rejoined his original team. Lou Boudreau was managing the Red Sox and found a role for Mele, who responded by hitting .318 over 132 at-bats in 42 games.

He had a hard time getting going in 1955, though, and was hitting only .129 in his first 31 at-bats. The Red Sox sold him to Cincinnati on June 23. For the Reds, he hit just .210. Released by them in mid-January 1956, he was signed a couple of months later by the Cleveland Indians. He appeared in 57 games (114 at-bats) and batted .254. He also drove in 20 runs, the last runs he would drive in as a major-league ballplayer. He was released by the Indians on Opening Day of 1957.

Sam spent a couple of years playing minor-league ball – .265 for Indianapolis in the American Association, in 370 at-bats, and more limited action in 1958 (.322 in 59 at-bats for Indianapolis, then .216 in 134 at-bats for the International League team in Buffalo).

After 1958 Mele turned to coaching, working for Washington in 1959 and 1960, and moved with the Senators to Minnesota beginning in 1961. On June 6 the Twins asked him to temporarily replace manager Cookie Lavagetto, who took a leave of absence and was ultimately fired 2½ weeks later. Mele became manager and served the Twins for six years. In his first full year managing the Twins, he had tremendous success, bringing the 1962 Twins to a second-place finish in the ten-team American League, just five games behind the New York Yankees. The Twins won 91 games in 1963 – the same total as in 1962 – but the Yankees won eight more games, so the third-place Twins finished 13 games out of first. After a significant dip to sixth place in 1964, the Twins took the American League pennant in 1965, winning 102 games and coming in seven games ahead of the second-place White Sox.

The “usually mild-mannered Mele” (Associated Press) was involved in one unfortunate incident during the ’65 campaign. During a July 18 doubleheader with the Los Angeles Angels, he got into it with umpire Bill Valentine and his left hand connected – or nearly so – with Valentine’s jaw. There was clearly some pushing and shoving. Mele said he didn’t remember hitting the umpire, but news reports quoted him as saying, “He had his finger stuck in my face. I know that.” He later said, with a wink, “I tripped, I stumbled into him. I guess I stumbled into him first.” Mele was fined $500 and suspended for five days.

The 1965 World Series pitted the pitching and speed of the Los Angeles Dodgers against the pitching and power of the Minnesota Twins. On paper the Twins had the edge offensively and took the first two games at home, 8-2 and 5-1, defeating the Dodgers’ duo of Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Los Angeles took three games in a row in their home park, as Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and AL MVP Zoilo Versalles arguably underproduced; the Dodgers pitched around Killebrew; he drove in only two runs. Ron Fairly drove in six runs in the Series for the Dodgers, but Mele was able to take the Twins all the way to Game Seven, in Minnesota. The final blow was Lou Johnson’s solo home run off Jim Kaat, while Sandy Koufax threw a complete game, three-hit shutout.

The 1966 Twins won 89 games, good enough for second place, nine games behind Baltimore, but when the team seemed to struggle in the first part of 1967, Mele was fired and Cal Ermer was named manager. The Twins were an even 25-25 on June 9 when Mele was shown the door. They finished up in second place, just one game behind the Red Sox.

Boston owner Tom Yawkey had remained friendly with Mele over the years, and had often told him, ”If anything happens to you in Minnesota, you call me, immediately.” After returning to his home in Boston, he called on Yawkey, who hired him on the spot. Mele worked in the Red Sox system for 25 years.

“I was an instructor in the minor leagues, ran the minor-league camp, hitting instructor, baserunning, bunting, and then when the spring training was over, they sent me all over the damn country doublechecking players that the scouts had recommended. I did that for a long time. Then in the fall, they had like an instructional league, and I used to run that.” Working as a cross-checker, he first met Jim Rice. Sox scout Mace Brown took him to Anderson, South Carolina, to look at Rice.

“Now there’s a Detroit scout in the stands,” Sam remembered, “and Rice didn’t show up for three innings. So the scout said, ‘Christ, he don’t want to play’ – so he left. Mace Brown and I talked to Rice after the game. He had worked at a variety store. His replacement didn’t show up, so he stayed on to help the owner. We called the owner; he said, ‘That’s exactly true.’ Houston was after Rice, too, but when they took a pitcher, the Red Sox pounced and signed up Jim Rice. He was a driven pupil in the instructional league. “You know how, as an instructor, you’ve got to get the kid and say, ‘Let’s go, we’ve got extra work to do’? He used to grab me, every day. Every day. I didn’t get him; he got me. And we became great, great friends.

“He went to Winter Haven in that league. I’d go down to watch him. He had power to all fields. All fields. Now watching these few games, he’s trying to pull everything. Pull everything. Pull everything. So I talked to him after the game. The general manager was a pitcher, who thought he was a hitter. He’d try to tell the kid, you’ve got to pull the ball for Fenway Park, the Wall. I told him after the game, I said, ‘You don’t have to worry. You’re not a dead pull hitter. You can hit balls to right center, right field, center field, left center, left field. Your power is all over.’ That’s what he did his whole career.”

Sam Mele’s time with the Red Sox ended on a sour note, when GM Dan Duquette said he’d been telling Cleveland how to pitch to Boston’s hitters. Far-fetched as that might seem, it apparently led to the Red Sox parting ways with a longtime scout. As of 2007, physical ailments began to afflict him. He’s had his hip socket go out twice, suffered a ruptured disc in his back, and has macular degeneration in his right eye. The only contact he’d had with new ownership at the time was to have received a Red Sox watch after the team won the 2004 World Series. “What the hell. I gave it to one of my kids.”

 

 An earlier version of this biography originally appeared in the book "Spahn, Sain, and Teddy Ballgame: Boston's (almost) Perfect Baseball Summer of 1948," edited by Bill Nowlin and published by Rounder Books in 2008.

 

Source

Interview with Sam Mele, April 15, 2006.

 

Notes

1 His surname is pronounced MEE-lee.

2 Interview with Sam Mele, April 15, 2006.

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