SABR

Ralph LaPointe

This article was written by Dominick Denaro.

A few-hundred yards from the Winooski exit of Interstate 89 is a street called Lapointe Avenue. Until his untimely death of cancer at the age of 45, Ralph Lapointe, one of the most remembered and beloved of the Green Mountain Boys of Summer, lived in a suburban-style ranchhouse at 3 Lapointe Avenue. Though his major-league career was unremarkable, Lapointe's achievements in coaching and civic affairs, coupled with his outgoing personality, made him a legend in his hometown. He was president of the little league and a member of the park commission and the committee responsible for building the current Winooski High School.

Raoul Robert Lapointe was born in Winooski on January 8, 1922. The old mill town on the banks of the Winooski River was the home of a sizable French-Canadian population, and the young Lapointe grew up speaking both French and English. He preferred the anglicized Ralph to Raoul, however, and the former name is listed on both his wedding license and passport (though army documents and his UVM diploma both use the latter name). As a kid he was just as often called "Chick." His brother George, who longtime Winooski residents claim was an even better athlete than Ralph, was better known as "Zum." Former Northern Leaguer Lennie Merullo remembers that when he and Zum played for the Burlington Cardinals in 1938, Ralph Lapointe served as the team's batboy.

A speedy infielder whose best position was shortstop, Ralph starred in baseball, football and basketball at Winooski High School and Vermont Junior College. After playing baseball during the summer of 1941 for the St. Johnsbury Senators of the Twin-State League, Lapointe enrolled at the University of Vermont that fall and played halfback on UVM's freshman football team. That year he also played freshman basketball and baseball, batting third in the order and covering shortstop.

Ralph and Zum Lapointe spent the summer of 1942 playing for the South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation in the Western Maine League. Returning to campus in the fall, Ralph enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in UVM football history. With the "Gold Dust Twins," Lapointe and Norm Beaulieu, in the backfield, Vermont went 4-3 and Lapointe scored 67 of the team's 127 points, setting a new school record for scoring and finishing third in the East in that category. After receiving honorable mention on the Boston Post and Associated Press Little All-America teams, Ralph capped off a memorable fall by marrying Cathryn Maroney on Thanksgiving Day, with backfield-mate Beaulieu serving as best man.

Lapointe also used his extraordinary athleticism to make the varsity basketball team as a sophomore. Ironically, he never got a chance to play varsity baseball for Vermont. With the outbreak of World War II, the army inducted 55 UVM students who were members of the enlisted reserve corps. One of them was Lapointe, who was ordered to report to Fort Devens on February 19, 1943. After basic training, PFC Raoul Lapointe was sent to Haverford College in Pennsylvania for specialized training as a linguist. For the next three years he served in that capacity, also playing baseball and basketball under the alias of "Joe Moss" while at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Meanwhile, Norm Beaulieu was shot down over Belgium and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. He managed to survive the ordeal but lost touch with Lapointe over the ensuing years.

On February 23, 1946, the day of his discharge from the army, Ralph Lapointe signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies. He chose the Phillies over the Boston Braves and Detroit Tigers, and also turned down an offer to play football for the San Francisco 49ers of the All America Football Conference. The Phillies sent Lapointe to the Wilmington of the Interstate League where he batted .320, helped the Blue Rocks to a first-place finish and earned a spot as a first team All-Star.

After spending the offseason as a UVM student and assistant to head football coach Fuzzy Evans, Ralph impressed Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman with his hustling, hardnosed style of play. Lapointe made the Phillies out of spring training in 1947, which is best remembered, of course, for Jackie Robinson breaking the major leagues' color barrier. But on May 14, 1947, the Phillies demoted him to the International League's Baltimore Orioles, for whom he hit a home run in his first at-bat. In another game he committed six errors (believed to be a league record) before homering with two outs in the ninth inning to give Baltimore a 6-5 victory over Rochester. In Montreal on June 22, 150 Vermonters attended Ralph Lapointe Day and presented him with a watch and money. Ralph received a big hand from the Montreal fans when he accepted the gifts in French.

On August 12 Lapointe was recalled to Philadelphia and hit .340 for the remainder of the 1947 season, raising his average for the season to .308, good enough for a berth on The Sporting News Rookie All-Star Team. Lapointe shared the honor with future Hall of Famers Robinson and Yogi Berra, and two ex-Northern Leaguers -- Sam Mele, a former Burlington Cardinal, and Bill McCahan, formerly of the Bennington Generals.

The future looked promising for the 26-year-old Lapointe, but in spring training 1948 Philadelphia acquired slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Miller from the Cincinnati Reds. With Lapointe suddenly expendable, the Phillies sent him and $20,000 to the St. Louis Cardinals on April 7, 1948, for first baseman Dick Sisler. The son of Hall of Famer George Sisler, Dick paid dividends for the Phillies two seasons later when his dramatic, 10th-inning home run at Ebbets Field on the final day of the season clinched the 1950 pennant for the Whiz Kids. (Sisler received a measure of literary fame, incidentally, when he was mentioned by Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man And The Sea.)

The move from the cellar-dwelling Phillies to the perenially-contending Cards was far less appealing than it sounded. Ralph found himself trapped behind All-Star shortstop Marty Marion and Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst. Relegated to a utility role, Lapointe appeared in 87 games in 1948 and batted just .225. In 1949 the Cardinals sent him to Rochester of the International League, where he moved to third base and batted .273 as the Red Wings' leadoff hitter. Just before the 1950 season Lapointe was sold to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Phillies farm club. Though his combativeness made him popular with teammates and fans alike, he knew his days as a ballplayer were numbered. After finishing out the 1951 season with the Tulsa Oilers, Lapointe retired from professional baseball.

For many ballplayers forced to give up early on once-bright major league aspirations, life is all downhill from then on. Not so for Lapointe. His best years lay ahead, as his native Vermont proved the perfect place for his talents of leadership, personality and character to blossom. Returning to the University of Vermont where he had received his bachelors degree in February, Lapointe accepted a job as backfield coach for the UVM football team. He was destined not to remain out of baseball for long. On December 15, 1951, athletic director Larry Gardner selected Lapointe as his successor as UVM baseball coach. Gardner's decision proved to be one of his most inspired. Lapointe's enthusiasm, competitiveness and unique ability to inspire others made him one of the top college coaches in the country.

Lapointe was an immediate success as coach. His first squad enjoyed Vermont's winningest season in 11 years, and in 1953 he guided the Catamounts to their first state championship since World War II. The 1953 state title was the first of 11 consecutive Vermont championships Lapointe brought to UVM. In 1955 the Cats won 13 of their 23 games, their most wins to that point under Lapointe and their winningest season in 18 years. Vermont fans looked forward to even greater success in 1956. Before that happened, however, they were finally treated to a chance to see Ralph Lapointe play baseball.

Burlington's new professional team, the Athletics, was the city's first entry into the organized minor leagues. The team joined Quebec's Class C Provincial League in 1955 largely due to the efforts of Dr. Clarence H. Beecher, a former mayor of Bur-lington and dean of the UVM College of Medicine. Dr. Beecher had been president of the Burlington Cardinals during the Northern League's final season and assumed the same position with the new club when a Provincial League opening became available in the fall of 1954.

The new team quickly established a working agreement with the major league Kansas City Athletics, who stocked the roster with players and also sent longtime minor league executive George MacDonald to serve as Burlington's general manager. The A's started their debut season poorly and spent most of the spring in the second division. A series of personnel changes strengthened the team and they slowly climbed back into contention. Most popular of the roster moves was the June signing of Ralph Lapointe, who thrilled the local fans by joining the A's after UVM's season ended. Lapointe provided the club with consistent play at third base and strong leadership in the clubhouse and dugout, where he assisted player-manager Vince Plumbo as a coach.

Burlington finished the season one game over .500 and earned a spot in the Provincial League playoffs. After shocking the first-place St. John Cardinals in the first round of the play-offs, the A's lost the championship to the Quebec Braves, four games to one. Burlington also finished second to Quebec in attendance, but the league as a whole was not as healthy and disbanded just days before the 1956 season opener. Kansas City transferred the A's roster to a farm club in Pocatello, Idaho, and Ralph Lapointe's career as a player was over.

At the same time Burlington was losing its minor league team, however, the local college squad was enjoying its most successful season in decades. Lapointe's Catamounts were a New England powerhouse in 1956, posting an 18-6 record that was the best in the region. UVM came into the regular season finale at Centennial Field needing a win against Boston University to secure the school's first-ever berth in the NCAA District I Playoffs. Lapointe selected staff ace Jack Lamabe to start on the mound. Lamabe, a hard-throwing sophomore who went on to a seven-year major league career, responded brilliantly, throwing 5.2 innings of no-hit ball and surrendering just one unearned run through eight. Unfortunately, Vermont was having just as hard a time with BU's pitcher and ended up losing a 2-1 heartbreaker on a broken-bat single in the ninth inning.

That memorable contest would have been the end of UVM's season, but the Catamounts received a second chance when Colby College withdrew from the District tournament due to conflicts with final exams (a decision that ignited violent protests on the Colby campus). Determined to make the most of the opportunity, the Catamounts easily disposed of UMass, 8-1, to advance to the title game. Just one win away from the College World Series, Vermont suffered a second heartbreaking season closer, losing a rain-shortened, five-inning contest to New Hampshire, 2-0.

Ralph Lapointe led the Catamounts for 11 more wonderful seasons. His 1962 squad won 21 games and earned Ralph another trip to the NCAA District Playoffs, where Vermont again finished an agonizing second. In 1967, his final year at the helm, the Vermont Sportscasters & Sportswriters Association awarded him an engraved silver bowl for "outstanding contribution to Vermont sports through the years," and he was named NCAA Region I college baseball coach of the year. In 16 years, his teams posted a 216-127 record, never suffered a losing season and won 13 State Championships and two Yankee Conference crowns. Over the years Lapointe sent eight players into professional baseball. More importantly, he had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds.

After an agonizing two-year battle with cancer, Ralph Lapointe died on September 13, 1967. "Ralph loved people and people loved him," the Burlington Free Press editorialized the next day. "There was nothing false about him at all. Everything was straight, honest and sincere." Less than two months after Lapointe's untimely death, Centennial Field's clubhouse and locker-room facilities were dedicated to the memory of the beloved Vermont coach.

The years following Ralph Lapointe's death were lean ones at Centennial Field. Faced with serious budgetary problems, UVM discontinued its varsity baseball program after the 1971 season, ending an 84-year association with the sport and leaving the 66-year-old ballpark without its home team. The field rapidly fell into disrepair and the Ralph Lapointe Field House was taken over by the school's plumbing department.

Baseball returned as a club sport in 1976 and was reinstated to varsity status two years later, but the plumbing department maintained control over the facility. Over the years, the exterior sign identifying the building as the Ralph Lapointe Field House was removed, and the bronze plaque honoring Ralph's accomplishments was covered with a punch clock and time cards. Nearly a decade passed without anything being done to return the building to its original purpose.

In 1987 Ralph's wife, Kit, enlisted the aid of one of his former players, Martin Johnson, to have the Field House restored to its proper place of honor. A massive letter-writing campaign followed, and the University was inundated with emotional demands that Ralph's memory be properly observed. UVM responded fittingly and the Lapointe Field House was re-dedicated on June 4, 1988. It stands today as a proud tribute not only to the man whose name it bares, but also to the loyal ballplayers who insisted that his memory never be forgotten.

Sources

A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).

In researching this article, the author made use of the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.

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