SABR

Al Lakeman

This article was written by Bob Brady.

The 1967 season marked the return of Al "Moose" Lakeman to the major league coaching ranks for a final three years with the Boston Red Sox. He coached for Boston throughout the Dick Williams years, from 1967-1969. It was his second stint with the Sox. Lakeman had also coached under manager Johnny Pesky in 1963 and 1964.

Al Lakeman was born on December 31, 1918 in Cincinnati, Ohio and raised in a large family of six boys and five girls. Lakeman achieved high school fame in football, swimming, and boxing but his first attempts to make the baseball squad were thwarted by his relatively small size. Enjoying a late adolescent growth spurt that ultimately produced a 6'2", 195 lbs. physique, Lakeman was also able to significantly improve his baseball skills.

As a young athlete, he was pulled in two directions: toward boxing and toward baseball.
In the ring, he won a Cincinnati Times-Star tourney in 1936 and was runner-up for a Golden Gloves heavyweight title. The following year, Lakeman retained the newspaper's crown and became the area's American Legion champion as well.

Meanwhile, his performance on the sandlots of Cincinnati drew the attention of big league bird dogs. The pull of both sports reached a breaking point in 1938. Lakeman won the Ohio A.A.U. district boxing championship, qualifying for the national competition in Boston. In the meanwhile, baseball scout Ed Daly, a former minor league shortstop, recommended Lakeman to Cincinnati farm director Frank Lane.1 The Reds appreciated the extra value of having a hometown prospect. Forced to choose between boxing and baseball, Lakeman chose the latter and became a professional at age 19.

Lakeman's first assignment was with the Union City Greyhounds in the Kitty League. In his first year as a right-handed hitting catcher, he caught 103 games and led the league at his position both in assists but also in errors, batting .275. During his sophomore season, his Erie Sailors (Middle Atlantic League) manager Jocko Munch, reflecting upon the hulking stature of his durable receiver, forever branded him "Moose." Lakeman had another solid season.

In 1940, Lakeman played with the Columbia (SC) Reds of the Sally League; it was the first time he hit above .300 (he posted a .314 mark). The other milestone of the year was his August 6th marriage to Margaret Merrill. Lakeman met his future wife during his South Carolina stay. She was a waitress at the lunch counter of the local Walgreen's where he and teammate Ray Lamanno would frequently stop by to eat and flirt. His wife's dislike of cold weather and homesickness led to Lakeman's relocation from Cincinnati to Spartanburg, South Carolina.2 The following year, Lakeman headed north, promoted to Indianapolis in the American Association, where he batted .286 in more limited action.

The native son returned home a relatively short four years after his signing. He began the season with the parent Cincinnati Reds and pinch-hit uneventfully in the game on April 19. Two days later, he was optioned back to Syracuse, but on July 17, 1942, he rejoined the big league club.

Cincinnati had sold Ernie Lombardi to the Boston Braves over the winter, and had been trying to fill the void behind home plate. Making the major league club, Lakeman inherited the Schnozz's uniform number (4). However, his former minor league buddy and fellow Reds rookie Ray Lamanno had preceded him to the big league club and had already staked out the regular catching position. Moose replaced veteran backstop Rollie Hemsley, whose feeble hitting had led the Reds to jettison him in favor of the hometown recruit. Hemsley was given his unconditional release and Al Lakeman was a major leaguer.

The launch of Lakeman's big league career began with what would become a familiar pattern. His path was often blocked by entrenched incumbents, leaving him with second- or third-string roster duty. To a certain extent, though, Lakeman's active player experiences prepared him well for his post-playing responsibilities with the Red Sox.
When Ray Lamanno departed Redsland for military service, Ray Mueller arrived on the scene in 1943 and commenced an "Iron Man" stint by eventually catching 233 consecutive games. Rather than have him rust on the bench, Reds manager Bill McKechnie sent Lakeman down to the International League Syracuse Chiefs for the 1944 season to spend his time at a new position -- first base. The Reds' lack of backstop depth rather than his new first sacker skills led to Lakeman's return to the majors in 1945.

Mueller's accomplishments as a catcher, though, [were] insufficiently impressive to warrant exemption from Uncle Sam's call to military duty, and Lakeman was called upon to lead a 1945 catching triumvirate that included Al Unser and Johnny Riddle, both at the tail ends of relatively undistinguished years of big league service. Lakeman handled the bulk of the receiving duties, appearing in a career-high 76 games. This, his most notable season, finished with a flourish before the hometown fans at Crosley Field when he drove in the winning run in both games of a doubleheader against Brooklyn on September 9, followed just a week later by his September 16 single in the 11th-inning of a game to defeat the visiting Boston Braves.

That winter, Lakeman joined an entourage of ballplayers skippered by Brooklyn Dodgers coach Chuck Dressen that played exhibition games for servicemen in the Pacific Theater.

In 1946, both Mueller and Lamanno returned from the service and Lakeman was relegated to third-string work. Prompted by a lack of depth both at first base and behind the plate, the Phillies picked up Lakeman in the middle of the 1947 season. In turn, Cincinnati acquired Hugh Poland as a catching replacement and portside pitcher Ken Raffensberger. The latter went on to post double-figure victory totals for the Reds over the course of the next several years, ultimately rendering this deal a lopsided one in favor of the Rhinelanders. While backing up catcher Andy Seminick and first baseman Howie Schultz in the City of Brotherly Love, though, Lakeman was unable to hit his own weight, an anemic performance that he repeated the next year.

Lakeman's 1948 campaign was notable only to the extent that it marked his brief debut as a pitcher. Taking to the mound during batting practice drills, Lakeman impressed teammates Dick Sisler, Del Ennis, and Harry Walker with his live fastball and sharp control.3 His pre-game performances led manager Ben Chapman to provide opportunities for his backstop to gain game experience. On July 12, Lakeman took to the mound for the Phillies at Cooperstown's Abner Doubleday Field for the annual Hall of Fame exhibition game. Facing the St. Louis Browns, he proceeded to yield 13 hits, including five home runs, over eight innings. Dismaying as this may have been, it did not discourage a regular-season trek to the mound eight days later in Pittsburgh, mopping up in a losing effort to record the final two Pirates outs in an 11-2 intrastate crushing. Abandoning the tools of ignorance to make his first and only big league pitching appearance, Lakeman found himself confronted by reminders of his usual craft. Buc's catcher Eddie Fitz Gerald stood at the plate and umpire Butch Henline, a former Phillies receiver, was calling balls and strikes. Fitz Gerald promptly hit Lakeman's first pitch over Forbes Field's left field wall for a three-run homer, putting the kibosh on any further thoughts of converting positions. He would only toe the pitching rubber a few more times, while managing in the minors. Lakeman's overall lackluster performance in 1948 resulted in a demotion to the minors. The Phils sold him to the American Association Milwaukee Brewers the following January.

His contract was purchased by the Boston Braves in April 1949 but Lakeman's first stay in the Hub resulted in only three game appearances. He never appeared on a major league baseball card while logging more substantial playing time both with Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but his abbreviated stop with the Braves resulted in his inclusion in the Eureka Sports Stamp Company's 1949 full-color stamp set of National League ballplayers. Lakeman knew that his days in Boston were numbered as he witnessed first-hand the emergence of 19-year-old rookie receiver Del Crandall, who the veteran wisely described as "the best catching prospect I've ever seen."4 Despite his brief stay with the Tribe, Lakeman made a lasting impression on the club's batboy, Charlie "The Greek" Chronopoulos. Over a half century later, the now retired former Tyngsborough, MA police chief recalls that Lakeman's tall, rugged appearance contrasted with a very pleasant personality and an ability to get along well with everyone.5 Several years later, the bat boy and backstop would cross paths on the dusty minor league diamonds of the Pioneer League.

After another season in Milwaukee, Lakeman drifted over the next couple of years to the Pacific Coast League and then to the International League, eventually landing in 1953 in Buffalo with the Bisons. After his midseason acquisition from the IL Baltimore Orioles, Lakeman went on a hitting tear, collecting 10 hits in 16 trips to the plate, including a string of seven successive safeties. His uncharacteristic success with the bat continued throughout the season despite a six-week layoff to recuperate from a fractured right cheek bone. He finished with a career high .322 batting average. Behind the plate, Lakeman turned a rare feat in an August 14 game against Syracuse. On three occasions, he completed double plays by gunning down runners caught off second base after third strikes. However, his greater value to the team was in his ability to counsel young pitching prospects. With the Tigers' top farm club, he caught Frank Lary and Paul Foytack, soon to become the mainstays of Detroit's starting rotation, and corrected flaws in their deliveries.

Lakeman's swan song occurred during the spring of 1954 when he appeared in five games for the Bengals before being sold to Buffalo on June 2. Before commencing his minor league managerial career, he returned to his home state of Ohio in 1955 for one last season on the active player roster with the Columbus Jets. In an unintentional tribute to his final fling, the club included his portrait in its commemorative team souvenir postcard set, Lakeman's only contemporary appearance in a minor league collectible offering.

Appearing in 239 major league contests over the course of his nine year career, Lakeman batted .203, a number only slightly above his usual playing weight of 195 pounds. In 646 career at-bats, he collected 131 hits, connected for home runs 15 times, and drove in 66. His one official trip to the mound in relief resulted in a lifetime ERA of 13.50. His fielding average of .981 reflected an 84% - 16% split in playing time behind home plate and at first base.

Lakeman's minor league statistics were a bit more robust. Over the course of all or parts of 16 [seasons] and some 1,177 games, he batted .262. Ninety-three of Lakeman's 985 hits were circuit clouts and he drove in 561 runs. As a playing manager in 1956-57, he pitched in four games, losing two while never claiming a victory.

In 1963, Lakeman re-entered major league ball. When Johnny Pesky was named Red Sox manager after the 1962 season, he chose to replace former skipper Mike "Pinky" Higgins' bullpen coach, Len Okrie, with a colleague from the Detroit Tigers' farm system. Pesky and Lakeman had worked together in several Detroit spring training camps while the two both toiled as managers in the Tigers chain. They were briefly teammates in early 1954 with the Tigers. Both ended their big league playing days that year, and both started their managerial careers in the Motor City club's bushes in 1956.

While Pesky was advancing in the ranks, ultimately earning a big league managerial shot in Boston, Lakeman perpetually drew assignments in the Class C and D low minors, with stops in the Alabama-Florida, Pioneer, New York-Pennsylvania, Carolina and Northern Leagues. Over the course of 881 games through seven seasons (1956-62), he recorded a .472 winning percentage.

At Idaho Falls in 1957, Lakeman extended a helping hand to his 1949 Boston Braves "teammate" Charlie Chronopoulos. The ex-bat boy had been signed as an outfielder-first baseman by the Tribe but met with limited success and was attempting a transition to the mound when he was let go by the Boise Braves. Having experienced the difficulties of trying to convert positions himself, Lakeman added his former chum to the Russets' roster and gave the lad an opportunity to attempt to hone his pitching skills. Chronopoulos still has vivid memories of that season and the admiration he and his mates had for their skipper. During a game in Salt Lake City, Chronopoulos caused a near riot when he twice knocked down his opponent's slugging first baseman. As expected, a fight ensued and fans barraged the field with anything they could lay their hands on. Lakeman led the charge to come to the aid of his beleaguered pitcher. Notwithstanding his dominating presence and ring experience, Lakeman ultimately needed a police escort to safely remove his team from the ballpark.6

Despite his lowly position, Lakeman tutored such prospective major leaguers as catcher and future manager Bob "Buck" Rodgers, outfielders Gates Brown, Purnal Goldy and Mickey Stanley, infielder Jake Wood, and pitchers Mickey Lolich and Howie Koplitz. Leading the Montgomery Rebels in 1960, he mentored an eventual successor to his Williamsburg outpost, 1974-76 Bosox bullpen coach Don Bryant.

Lakeman's initial coaching foray in Boston started in spring training 1963 but ended abruptly near the finish of the 1964 season, when general manager Higgins, with just two games left in the season, replaced Pesky with third base coach and Higgins crony Billy Herman - later a Hall of Famer based on his playing rather than managing prowess. Herman restored Okrie to his previous bullpen position until both were deposed in a shake-up that led to the appointment of Dick Williams as Red Sox skipper in 1967.

Prior to Williams' invitation to resume his former duties, Lakeman had gone back to the Tigers organization as a minor league manager and scout. He led the Rocky Mount Leafs of the Carolina League (A) in 1965 and the Statesville Tigers of the Western Carolina League (A) in 1966. Lakeman was credited with one notable signing: Tim Hosley, who eventually became a back-up big league catcher for parts of nine seasons, ironically mimicking his recruiter's playing experience. Upon rejoining the Red Sox, Lakeman and Okrie would flip-flop positions. Lakeman took over Okrie's big league job as well as his uniform number (34) and Okrie succeeded Lakeman as Statesville's pilot. Lakeman would remain a member of the coaching staff through to the conclusion of Dick Williams' reign in Boston.

One of Lakeman's major projects while with the Sox was to work with catcher Bob Tillman on the latter's throwing and fielding mechanics. After home games, Lakeman would tote a screen out to second base and have the young backstop practice throwing to it.7 Tillman improved enough under Lakeman's tireless direction to follow in his mentor's footsteps and perform in the majors for nine years. Lakeman generously shared his knowledge at both ends of the battery. Former Bosox southpaw pitching prospect and Gloucester MA native Bill MacLeod recalled that Lakeman helped him add a palm ball to his pitching repertoire.8

During the 1967 World Series, Lakeman worked with a sportswriter from the Spartanburg Herald Journal to provide a local's perspective of the unfolding Impossible Dream Fall Classic. The reporter conducted telephone interviews with the bullpen coach after games and prepared columns for the subsequent day's editions. For his contributions, Lakeman received the by-line on the newspaper's World Series insider reports.9

After departing the Red Sox, Lakeman reestablished his ties to the National Pastime by once again returning to the Tigers organization as a rookie ball manager with the Appalachian League Bristol Tigers in 1970. He filled the void left by Bill Lajoie, who was beginning his ascent in the Tigers front office and who eventually became a key member of Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein's World Series Championship brain trust. Lakeman later scouted for the 1972-73 American League Milwaukee Brewers to conclude a 36-year association with professional baseball.

Lakeman and his wife raised four children, equally divided between boys and girls. Over the years, as soon as the school year ended, the family would join Lakeman at the latest stop in his baseball odyssey. Their journeys took them across the country by car three times and to Cuba in 1953 where Lakeman was playing winter league ball.10

Outside of baseball, he worked for the Pickens Sheet Metal and Roofing Company in Spartanburg, South Carolina using skills he acquired as a sheet metal worker during the off-seasons in Cincinnati, back in his early days with the Reds. Lakeman personally built the family home in Spartanburg and taught Sunday school at the local Baptist Church. His eldest son Charlie was named after Al's brother, a Bronze Star recipient killed in World War II. Lakeman would bequeath his 1967 Championship ring to Charlie, a high school baseball star who briefly pursued a professional career as a pitcher in the low minors.11

Lakeman unexpectedly passed away at age 57 on May 25, 1976 in Spartanburg, succumbing to a sudden heart attack. He was buried at Roselawn Memorial Gardens in Inman, South Carolina. A daughter, Margaret Ann Splawn, maintains a website devoted to her dad, replete with photographs taken during his career and accompanied by a heartfelt personal tribute.12 One of her most cherished mementos is a ring that her father had made up for her with a diamond that had been removed from a bejeweled championship belt the he had been awarded during his boxing days.

Note

This biography originally appeared in the book The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium On The Field, edited by Bill Nowlin, and published by Rounder Books in 2007.

Sources

1 1942 National League Green Book, page 43.

2 Interviews with Margaret Ann Splawn (Al Lakeman's daughter), March-April, 2006.

3 The Sporting News, July 7, 1948, page 13.

4 The Sporting News, July 6, 1949, page 9.

5 Interview with Charles Chronopoulos, January 18, 2006.

6 Chronopoulos, January 18, 2006 interview.

7 The Sporting News, April 4, 1964, page 31.

8 The Sporting News, August 21, 1965, page 35.

9 Splawn, March-April 2006 interviews.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 For Margaret Ann Splawn's website tribute, see http://springerbiz.com/dad.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.