Ask American sports fans about Al Unser, and they’ll probably think of the four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 or his son Al Jr., who won twice in his own right. Yet decades before, another Al Unser – no kin to the race car drivers – played parts of four seasons in the major leagues during World War II.
Those 120 games were just one facet of a career – as player, minor-league manager, and scout – that began in 1933 and ended in the late 1970s. And whereas four generations of driving Unsers have been in the public eye since 1916, the baseball Unsers established a family legacy of their own. One of Al’s sons, Del Unser, played 15 years in the majors from 1968 through 1982. After several years as a coach and several more as a farm director, he too went into scouting and remained active in that role as of 2014.
Albert1 Bernard Unser was born on October 12, 1912, in Morrisonville, Illinois. This small town is roughly 30 miles southeast of the state capital, Springfield, in the south-central part of the state. It’s also about 80 miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri. Al was the third of eight children born to Adolph and Catherine (Nagle) Unser. He had four brothers (Leo, Leslie, Francis, and Loren) and three sisters (Josephine, Elizabeth and Margaret).
Adolph Unser was a farmer. He emigrated from Steinmauern, Germany, to the United States in 1890. (Louis Unser, whose sons made up the first generation of the racing clan, came from Switzerland in 1909 and first settled in Colorado.) According to the 1930 census, Catherine was born in Illinois to a father who came from Ireland and a Kentuckian mother. The family farm was in Harvel Township, an even smaller village southwest of Morrisonville.
Young Al worked on the farm all through his childhood, high school, and up until the time he became a professional ballplayer. He and his siblings all had chores, including hand-picking and shucking corn. Al played baseball on weekends in Harvel and Morrisonville.
When Unser first turned pro in 1933, he was a pitcher. He hitchhiked to his first spring training camp. That year he got into 12 games in Class C ball (with Dayton of the Middle Atlantic League) and two more in Class A (with Scranton of the New York-Pennsylvania League). He apparently also spent some time with Buffalo in the International League (Double-A, which was then the highest classification).
Unser remained a pitcher in 1934 with Paris/Lufkin, a Cardinals affiliate in the West Dixie League (Class C). He was both wild and hittable, though, giving up 111 walks and 236 hits in 188 innings. Already he was starting to play other positions – his conversion began with outfield duty. Unser continued to pitch on occasion, but his days as a mound prospect were effectively over.
Unser played five more seasons in the Cardinals chain from 1935 through 1939, at catcher and third base as well as the outfield. Though he dropped back down to Class D in 1939, it was for a good reason – at age 26, he became a manager for the first time, with Gastonia of the Tar Heel League. A news snippet that July called him “Superman,” saying, “He is batting over .400. He also pitches, catches, and plays either the infield or the outfield. He is a utility man, a relief pitcher, a pinch hitter, and the busy manager. He earns his pay.”2
On October 18, 1939, Unser married Ruth Marten from Farmersville, Illinois, south of Springfield. The couple remained together for nearly 56 years until Al’s death. They had eight children: four boys (Albert Joseph, Delbert, Jerry, and Larry) and four girls (Janet, Colleen, Elaine, and Annette).
Unser played the 1940 season as an outfielder with Winston-Salem, an unaffiliated team in the Piedmont League (Class B). He then joined the Detroit Tigers organization, where he began to focus on being a catcher, the position he liked best. In 1941, he was with Beaumont of the Texas League.
After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II. As a married man with dependents, Unser’s draft status was 3-A. He made the Detroit roster to start the 1942 season; he was promoted from Beaumont to replace holdout Billy Sullivan, who was sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. As The Sporting News wrote that April, though, “Assigned to bullpen duty, Unser will probably get slight chance to work behind the plate. Birdie Tebbetts, assisted by Dixon Parsons, will take care of that.”3 In May, without having gotten into a game with the big club, he traded places with Jack Tighe, player-manager of Winston-Salem, which had become a Tigers farm club. Tighe had a bad back, which couldn’t take the rigors of game duty behind the plate.4
Once the Twins’ season ended, the Tigers recalled Unser. That September, at the age of 29, he finally appeared in a major-league game. He got into four contests with Detroit, going 3-for-8.
Unser spent the early part of the 1943 season with Buffalo in the International League. He was called up in mid-June because Dixie Parsons had a sore arm and was relegated to bullpen duty.5 During the remainder of the season, he got into 38 games as backup to Paul Richards, hitting .248 with no homers and 4 RBIs in 101 at-bats.
Unser started the 1944 season in Detroit, in large part because he was a handyman. An Associated Press article that April wrote, “The Tigers figure he will be especially valuable when they start patching the holes in their lineup resulting from injuries or departures to the service.” It added that he had accomplished the feat of playing all nine positions in a game, one each inning (at Winston-Salem in 1940, when the fans staged a night in his honor). Al himself said, “Being a yes-man has wrecked my chances of playing much ball in the majors. I could never say ‘No’ when asked to play different positions; as a result I’m master of none.”6
Unser got into just 11 games for Detroit – five of them at second base, where he made 3 errors in just 22 chances – before going back to Buffalo in July. He was just 3-for-25 with the bat as a Tiger in 1944. However, he enjoyed a career highlight on May 31 – his first career homer in the majors, a game-ending grand slam against the Yankees. It came as a pinch-hitter after manager Steve O’Neill summoned him from bullpen catching duty with the score tied 2-2. A surprised Al – the third-string catcher behind Richards and Bob Swift – belted Monk Dubiel’s first pitch into the left-field stands at Briggs Stadium.7
Unser was accepted for general military service in May 1944, 8 but was never called to active duty. The year 1945 was the only one in his career in which he did not play at all in the minor leagues. As the season opened, he was working at a war plant job in Decatur.9 He was also serving as baseball coach at St. Teresa High School, which his children would later attend.10 On May 29, he went to the Cincinnati Reds on waivers; the Reds needed another catcher because Ray Mueller had been called to service.11 Unser started 59 games behind the plate, second only to Al Lakeman on the club, and hit .265-3-21 in 204 at-bats.
That was the end of Unser’s major-league experience. In November 1945, the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League acquired him from Cincinnati for an undisclosed sum of cash.12 He was with Hollywood through 1949, although he went to Tulsa in the Texas League for the bulk of 1948. The Stars’ staff in 1949 included knuckleballer Willie Ramsdell. Unser remarked, “When Ramsdell pitches, it’s a three-way guessing game among the batter, the umpire, and me.”13
In 1950, Unser joined Baltimore in the International League, a St. Louis Browns farm club. Then in 1951, the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, the top affiliate of the Boston Braves, obtained his contract for a mere $2,500 or as little as $1,500 (reports varied). Originally seen as a backup who would help the pitching staff with his experience, the 38-year-old Unser became a most pleasant surprise, having the best year of his career. He was league MVP, hitting .293 with 17 homers (a career high) and 62 RBIs in 122 games.14
That May, manager Charlie Grimm said, “Al has helped tremendously – far beyond what we had hoped even though we knew he knows this catching business from all angles. His handling of pitchers has been just about perfect. He runs the team as a real catcher should and he’s up there swinging, too, and getting his share of blows even though hitting isn’t his long suit.”15 The Brewers won the AA’s regular-season pennant and playoff championship. They then took the Little World Series as well, defeating International League champion Montreal.
Yet Unser’s age and doubts that he could still be a full-time receiver prompted the Brewers to look into trading him that winter. The rumors reached Al in Cuba, where he had gone to play winter ball. “I’ll be in better shape this spring than I would have been if I had worked around my home all winter,” he said.16 In 43 games for the Marianao Tigres, he hit .243-0-16 in 111 at-bats. As Del Unser recalled, that was probably Al’s only winter-ball experience, though he was on a couple of barnstorming teams.
Unser returned to Milwaukee, which won the AA pennant again in 1952 but lost in the playoffs. That off-season season marked Al’s transition into managing on a regular basis. A December report from the winter meetings said, “Unser doesn’t figure in the 1953 Brewer plans at all. . .[he] is here hoping to land a managerial job and there is an excellent chance he will end up with Austin, Tex., of the Big State League. The Brews trained at Austin for four years. Unser is still under Brewer contract and hopes the Milwaukee club will give him a break before all the better jobs are filled.”17
The very next day, Milwaukee released Unser. Braves general manager John Quinn offered him a spot managing in Modesto, California, but he turned that and a playing job in Seattle down because of distance and travel expenses for his family.18 He wound up getting the Austin job and also took part in 69 games for the Pioneers in 1953 (he continued to play on occasion in subsequent years).
Austin released Unser the day after the season ended in 1953; despite winning seven of their last eight games, the Pioneers finished in seventh place.19 That December, he signed to manage Augusta in the Sally League (Class A) for the 1954 season. Things did not go well there, though, and he was released on June 14.20 He played (without managing) for two other teams after that, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids.
An especially intriguing chapter in Unser’s career then ensued. On December 2, he joined a group that purchased the minor-league franchise in his home city of Decatur, serving as general manager and field manager.21 Shortly thereafter, he signed a working agreement for the Commodores with the Cardinals.22 Unser held his dual role for three seasons, 1955 through 1957.
“It was great to have him home for three straight summers,” Del Unser recalled in 2014. “I was bat boy and brother A.J. was clubhouse boy. Sister Janet (16-17 years old) ran the business side!”23
During 1958 and 1959, Unser managed two Class C affiliates of the Cardinals: Winnipeg in the Northern League and Winston-Salem in the Carolina League. He was then assigned to Keokuk, a Class D outpost, in 1960 and ’61. The latter year, at age 48, he appeared in his last game as a player (he pitched). Perhaps the most interesting issue he faced that year was the presence of a 15-year-old schoolboy named Mike Jones on his roster. Jones, touted as the “hottest pitching prospect since Bobby Feller” by Ebony magazine, had gotten a $10,000 bonus from the Cardinals. Unser said, “Figuring out what to do with Mike was a problem and no matter what happened he had to suffer.” Jones was out of baseball before the age of 19.24
The Keokuk franchise was struggling both on the field and at the gate. The working agreement with the Cardinals was severed after the 1961 season.25 Meanwhile, Unser too parted ways with the Cards. For his last season as a manager, 1962, he joined the Milwaukee Braves organization. He led the Boise club in the Class C Pioneer League.
In February 1963, the Braves made Unser a scout, assigning him to cover Illinois, Indiana, and northern Kentucky.26 In the June 1966 draft (secondary phase), he tried to convince the team, by then based in Atlanta, to pick his son Del. The Braves passed, though; Al said, “It’s something when you can’t even sign your own son.”27 In that draft, however, he did get the Braves to take a flyer (47th round, primary phase) on a young man from Decatur named Roe Skidmore, who had gone to Millikin University in that city. Skidmore made it to the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1970, appearing in one game and singling in his only at-bat.
“Al Unser was one of the nicest men I met during my baseball days,” said Skidmore in 2014. “When I was a youngster growing up in Decatur, I remember going to Commodores games during the middle 1950s. I used to shag balls in the outfield when I was 8-10 years old along with several of Al’s sons. Del and I have been friends all these years and remain good friends today.
“Al was well known for his generosity and love for the game. I spent many hours with Al watching me and Del in the batting cage which Al constructed in his backyard in Decatur. Then later, we spent time together during the winter at ‘Hot Stove League’ gatherings in the Decatur area. Al was very supportive and encouraging to me even after I left the Braves organization and throughout my career.”28
Unser moved to the Cleveland Indians as a scout for the Midwest in January 197229 and remained with them for several more years. He is credited with scouting Duane Kuiper, whom the Indians made their first-round choice in the January 1972 secondary draft. Al’s son Larry played two seasons, 1972 and 1973, in Class A after Cleveland drafted him.
In addition to scouting, Al was the main sales representative in the Midwest for Dudley Sporting Goods, the softball company.30 “When he left scouting in the late ’70s,” said Del Unser, “he worked full time with Dudley, then was part-time with them and some with Westar Sporting Goods through 1983.”31
For 32 years Unser coached basketball teams for St. Thomas Elementary School in Decatur. He also officiated high school baseball and basketball games in the Decatur area, as well as some college basketball. In his leisure time, he loved to hunt pheasant, rabbits, and quail.
In addition, Unser farmed and raised livestock. He bought his parents’ property eventually and owned it outright, after owning a couple of other farms. One amusing anecdote about Unser the farmer came from 1951. At Charlie Grimm’s birthday party on August 29 that year, “Jolly Cholly” received a pig as a present. He had no place to keep it, so “two days later Unser hired a trailer, drove the pig to his farm near Decatur, and completed the 450-mile round trip in time to suit up for that night’s game.”32
Al Unser died of natural causes on July 7, 1995 in Decatur. He was 82 years old. His wife Ruth survived him until 2004.33 “When Al passed, we lost a great baseball man and an even better person,” said Roe Skidmore. “It was my privilege to have been acquainted with him both personally and on a professional baseball level.”34
Grateful acknowledgment to Del Unser (handwritten responses on a draft of this biography, received April 9, 2014) and Roe Skidmore (letter received March 8, 2014) for their memories of Al Unser.
Jorge S. Figueredo, Cuban Baseball: A Statistical History, 1878-1961, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Press, 2003.
1 The driving Als’ Christian name is Alfred.
2 “Superman,” Long Island Daily Press, July 8, 1939, 13.
3 Sam Greene, “No. 1 Tiger Hill Tag Tied on Al Benton,” The Sporting News, April 9, 1942, 2.
4 Furman Bisher, “Unser Takes Tighe’s Place as Winston-Salem Skipper,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1942, 5.
5 Sam Greene, “Twilight Test Proves Tiger Fans Like It Best,” The Sporting News, June 17, 1943, 5.
6 “Al Unser Claims Handy-Man Title,” Associated Press, April 4, 1944. “Versatile Young Man,” Associated Press, April 21, 1942.
7 “Who Called This an Ordinary Season?” The Sporting News, June 8, 1944, 10. For the first several weeks of the season, Unser was actually fourth-string receiver because Hack Miller was also on the roster.
8 “Tigers Lose Fielder,” Associated Press, May 27, 1944.
9 The Sporting News, April 26, 1945.
10 “Unser to Join Cincinnati,” Buffalo Courier-Express, May 31, 1945, 19.
11 Tom Swope, “Rallying Reds Snap Up Gait, Threaten Bucs,” The Sporting News, June 7, 1945, 9. “Unser to Join Cincinnati”.
12 “Unser to Hollywood,” United Press, November 16, 1945.
13 Frank Finch, “Stars’ Goose-Egg Diet Behind Ramsdell Slenderizes Hill Ace’s Winning Record,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1949.
14 “Brewers Unser and Crowe Cop Association Awards,” The Sporting News, September 5, 1951, 28. The $1,500 figure was cited by Bob Wolf, “Bring 7th Flag to Milwaukee,” The Sporting News, September 12, 1951, 25.
15 Lloyd Larson, “Grimm High on Brewer Spirit and Hustle,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 1, 1951, Part 2, Page 3.
16 Sam Levy, “Al Unser,” Milwaukee Journal, January 21, 1952, 5.
17 Red Thisted, “Unser Eyes Manager’s Job; Braves Draft Jolly,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 2, 1952, Part 2, Page 3.
18 Red Thisted, “Unser Given His Release,” Milwaukee Sentinel, December 3, 1952, Part 2, Page 2.
19 “Al Unser Released by Austin,” The Sporting News, September 23, 1953, 17.
20 The Sporting News, June 23, 1954, 41.
21 “Al Unser Buys Decatur club,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1954, 29.
22 The Sporting News, December 15, 1954, 28.
23 Letter from Del Unser to Rory Costello, received April 9, 2014.
24 Steve Smith, “The Keokuk Cardinals, 1958-1961,” part of the Iowa Baseball Project on the website of SABR’s Field of Dreams Chapter (http://chapters.sabr.org/fieldofdreams/iowa-baseball-project/14-the-keok...)
25 Smith, “The Keokuk Cardinals, 1958-1961”. The Keokuk franchise folded in August 1962, and minor-league baseball has not returned to the city since.
26 “Milwaukee Braves Name Pafko Scout,” Associated Press, February 3, 1963.
27 Addie, “Nats Sweeten Pot to Grab Unser, Picket Who Spurned Twins’ Bid”
28 Letter from Roe Skidmore to Rory Costello, received March 8, 2014.
29 Wire service reports, January 6, 1972.
31 Letter from Del Unser to Rory Costello, received April 9, 2014.
32 The Sporting News, September 12, 1951, 32.
33 Bob Fallstrom, “Del Unser isn’t content to sit on the sidelines,” Decatur Herald-Review, April 18, 2011.
34 Letter from Roe Skidmore to Rory Costello, received March 8, 2014.