SABR

Erv Palica

This article was written by Mark Stewart.

Erv Palica, a laconic Californian, was little more than a bit player during the 1947 season, but four years later he was at the epicenter of a midseason controversy that may have cost the Dodgers the 1951 pennant.

Palica was born on February 9, 1928, in Lomita, California, a small town west of Long Beach. His parents, Ambrose and Phyllis (Marzurana) Pavliecivich, were German speaking native Austrians who immigrated to the US before the beginning of World War I. As the family moved to California from Michigan, around 1920, the surname was shortened to Palica. The youngest of six athletic brothers, Erv honed his skills on the diamond by competing with his siblings. Four of the Palica boys found their way into pro ball during the 1940s. The fifth (and eldest), Christy, was killed in the Philippines during World War II.

There was little mistaking who the real talent in the family was. Even as a skinny adolescent (he ultimately filled out to six feet one and a half inches and 180 pounds), Erv Palica displayed a quick bat, live right arm, strong legs, quick feet, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for baseball knowledge. He was introspective and polite, rarely speaking unless spoken to; over the years, his demeanor remained essentially unchanged.

After his sophomore season at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, he was chosen to the all-Los Angeles schoolboy team. Palica was among those honored as high school All-Americans in 1944 by Esquire magazine, and was invited to play in the magazine’s East-West All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds.

Brooklyn Dodgers scout Tom Downey signed Palica on January 25, 1945. The sixteen-year-old high-school junior reported to spring training at the team’s wartime camp in Bear Mountain, New York. Palica considered himself a pitcher, but general manager Branch Rickey had other plans. Rickey took a liking to Palica’s skills and, with Pee Wee Reese still in the service, thought he might have discovered a short-term answer to the team’s shortstop needs.

Palica broke camp with the club and saw action in two games as a pinch-runner before being farmed out. His first major-league appearance came against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on April 21, making Palica (seventeen years, two months, twelve days) the youngest player in the league. His first minor-league stop was with the Mobile (Alabama) Bears of the Class A Southern Association. He was the youngest player on the Mobile club by a good three years. Manager Clay Hopper pointed Palica toward third base, where he toiled for several weeks before getting a chance to pitch in a mop-up role.

This one outing convinced Brooklyn’s minor-league brass that Palica had a future on the mound. They sent him to Newport News of the Class B Piedmont League to hone his craft under manager Jake Pitler. In twenty-three mound appearances, Palica went 11-8. He also made twenty non-pitching appearances, filling a utility role for the team and batting .308.

In 1946 the Dodgers trained in Daytona Beach, Florida. When Rickey saw Palica, he recalled having wanted him to play shortstop. To the eighteen-year-old’s dismay, he found himself fielding grounders off the bat of coach Charlie Dressen. Dressen informed Rickey the teenager had no future in the infield.

Nevertheless, Palica was assigned to the Asheville Travelers of the Class B Tri-State League to relearn the shortstop position. The experiment officially ended on May 8, when he threw away eight balls in a game against the Anderson (South Carolina) Athletics. Erv returned to the mound where he won fifteen games, lost only six, and turned in a nifty 2.51 earned run average.

Palica was optioned to the Class AAA Montreal Royals in 1947, reuniting him with manager Clay Hopper. In twenty-five starts, Palica went 12-10 with a 4.18 ERA. He was recalled to Brooklyn on September 14, and had one loss in three games in the waning days of the season. His late call-up made him ineligible for the World Series, which Brooklyn lost to the Yankees in seven games.

Palica’s debut as a major-league pitcher came on September 18 in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Though he had appeared in the majors as a base runner in 1945, standing on the mound was a very different and terrifying new experience—and he got a case of the shakes. After throwing four straight balls to the only batter he faced, forcing home a run, manager Burt Shotton replaced him.

Palica made the Dodgers out of spring training in 1948, earning a spot in Leo Durocher’s bullpen. Durocher had been the manager when the youngster played for Brooklyn in 1945, but Leo was in the midst of serving a one-year suspension in 1947 during Palica’s return to the club. The fiery manager was impressed by Palica’s poise in tight spots. There was none of the shakiness from the previous September. He went right after hitters, using his darting fastball to set up the curve when it was working, and occasionally employing a knuckleball. Durocher appreciated a hard-throwing kid who dared to fool hitters with soft stuff. Palica would not be as lucky with the skippers who followed Durocher.

Palica was among Brooklyn’s most dependable relievers in 1948. On April 24 he sparkled in a six-inning relief effort against the Phillies, claiming his first major-league win. This earned him a spot in the starting rotation when Harry Taylor was felled by appendicitis. Palica went 6-6 in ten starts and thirty-one relief appearances in 1948.

The 1949 season was something of a breakthrough for Palica. He claimed the top spot in the Brooklyn bullpen, leading the club with forty-nine appearances (forty-eight in relief). Still the youngest player on the club, he notched eight wins and six saves in 1949, while lowering his ERA to 3.62. He was so good that throughout the season, fans and beat writers continually questioned why Shotton kept him in the bullpen. (Shotton was again the manager, having replaced Durocher midway through the 1948 season.) Palica had the poise and arm of a first-rate starter, but the manager did not seem to trust him in that role. During the September stretch, as the Dodgers nailed down their second pennant in three seasons, Erv saw little in the way of meaningful action.

The Dodgers moved on to face the Yankees in the World Series. Palica, still out of favor with Shotton, did not make his first postseason appearance until Game Five after New York had already scored ten runs.

The Dodgers entered 1950 favored to repeat as National League champions. They had a splendid everyday lineup and two superb starters in Don Newcombe and Preacher Roe. Their only weakness was the back end of the starting staff, and Shotton spent much of the year shuttling pitchers in and out of the bullpen. Among them was Palica, who responded the best, making nineteen starts, completing ten, throwing two shutouts, making two dozen relief appearances while winning thirteen games, and keeping his ERA under 4.00. He fanned 131 batters to edge Newcombe for the team high, despite the fact that Newcombe logged sixty-six additional innings.

In retrospect, it is inexplicable that Shotton kept Palica in the bullpen for the better part of three months. Erv didn’t win his first game until July; all of his production came in the second half. The lack of confidence in him Shotton displayed at the end of 1949 had clearly carried over to 1950.

After the Dodgers dropped briefly into fourth place in July, Palica joined the rotation and the team surged in the second half, closing in on the front-running Phillies. They never caught the Whiz Kids, but came tantalizingly close in the final week. Palica was one of the stars during this run. From September 19 to 24, he won three games, including an 11–0 two-hitter against the Phillies. During that contest, Palica hammered a ball over the fence in Shibe Park with the bases loaded. The grand slam off rookie Bubba Church was his only major-league home run.

On the next-to-last day of the season, Palica pitched a marvelous 7–3 victory against Philadelphia, extending the Phillies’ free-fall to five straight games and pulling the Dodgers within one game of the lead with one to play. The season finale, however, went to the Phillies on Dick Sisler’s tenth-inning three-run homer.

In November 1950 Palica flunked his army physical because of high blood pressure. The army kept him at Fort Jay in Brooklyn and re-examined him two weeks later, only to find that the condition persisted. During spring training the following March, Palica was summoned to California by his local draft board. This time he was deemed fit to serve, but soon after was given a deferment because of his wife Florence’s difficult pregnancy. (Palica had married Florence Biondi, a Brooklyn native, on August 6, 1950.) Their baby was due late in the summer, so he would be able to remain a Dodger at least until then.

The 1951 season was also a bitter disappointment for the Dodgers and especially for Palica. Some were predicting a twenty-win campaign, but new manager Charlie Dressen—who had once been assigned to transform him into a shortstop—was not an Erv Palica fan. Dressen had come to view the young hurler as a hypochondriac. He also thought of him as a player who was always ready with a quick excuse. But what irritated Dressen most was Palica’s refusal to make greater use of his fastball. Catcher Roy Campanella said Palica’s heater had more life than that of any other Dodgers’ pitcher. So why, Dressen wondered, did he prefer to trick hitters instead of overwhelming them? In the manager’s mind, it was a question of courage.

The situation came to a head during a July game against the Pirates at Ebbets Field. Palica had been complaining about a stiff arm and a sore right hip—a painful condition that seemed to afflict his push-off leg for a week or two almost every season. This time it had “popped” while he was on the mound in the tenth inning of a July 8 game against the Phillies. He was pitching to Tommy Brown when it happened, and Clyde King had to hustle in from the bullpen to preserve a 6–4 victory. The other Dodgers recognized that their teammate never quite felt 100 percent and ribbed him about it from time to time; still, they admired his talent and valued his self-effacing humor.

On July 18 Palica was tabbed for mop-up duty after the Pirates took a 10–2 lead. But the Dodgers came back to go ahead 12–11, at which point Palica yielded an eighth-inning home run to Ralph Kiner and a run-scoring single to Pete Reiser. The Pirates won, 13–12. Dressen was livid in the clubhouse. When asked to comment on Palica, he grabbed his throat in a choking gesture and ordered reporters to put it in print. He then launched into a tirade: “He’s got more alibis than Carter’s has liver pills! If it isn’t his fanny it’s his arm! If it’s not that, it’s his groin! If it’s not that, he’s worried about his wife! If it’s not that, he can’t run with his high blood pressure! If it’s not that, the Army is going to get him!”

“The guy is a joke around the team,” Dressen continued. “The players laugh at him. One day when he said he was ready, they gave him a big hand of applause in the clubhouse.”

When asked about Palica’s stuff, Dressen claimed he had yet to see Palica throw a real fastball all season. Finally, he called Palica “a gutless kid who doesn’t belong in the majors.” Brooklyn general manager Buzzy Bavasi backed up his manager, announcing that he would cut Palica’s salary the following season—quite a proclamation considering there was still a half-season left to play.

Dressen was criticized by players and fans for his outburst. Billy Meyer, the Pirates’ manager, added he had felt the same way as Dressen about many players, but on principle alone had kept those thoughts out of reporters’ notebooks. “You don’t go and put it in the papers that you think a man is gutless,” he admonished. “It isn’t ethical.”

Bavasi was also openly questioned by his peers. Palica would have fetched six figures in a straight sale to almost any team in baseball. Now that the Dodgers had tipped their hand, they would receive little more than his waiver price if they put him on the market. Branch Rickey Jr., an executive with Pittsburgh, estimated that Dressen and Bavasi had cost Brooklyn $150,000.

Two days later, Bavasi engaged in some ham-handed damage control. He told columnist Dan Daniel that Dressen meant no harm—“he merely wanted to light a fire under Palica”—but that the manager probably should have asked the writers to keep his outburst out of the papers. Bavasi then offered that Shotton had voiced the same frustration about Palica, but had “always enjoined the reporters to secrecy.”

Erv Palica was never the same after the Pittsburgh incident. The team left him behind on the next road trip, partly as punishment but also to deal with his physical problems. When he rejoined the club, he was banished to the back of the bullpen during a critical time in the pennant race. Palica’s record stood at 2-6 and his ERA had ballooned to 4.75 when his season ended prematurely in mid-September, five weeks after the birth of his first child, Joanne. With mother and baby doing well, the army told him it was time to report.

Palica spent all of 1952 and most of the 1953 season in the service, staying in shape by pitching for the base team at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Although his discharge wasn’t scheduled until the end of the ’53 season, Palica received approval from Commissioner Ford Frick to pitch for the Dodgers on days when he wasn’t otherwise engaged. He was in uniform for an early August series with the Braves and Dressen, perhaps hoping to prove there were no hard feelings, inserted him into a tight game. Palica faced six batters and five of them reached base.

Dressen used Palica just four times that year, as the Dodgers cruised to the pennant. Erv watched as a noncombatant while his teammates dropped another Fall Classic to the Yankees.

Palica was back in shape for spring training in 1954. He was delighted to return to a clubhouse devoid of Dressen, who had been replaced by Walter Alston. Palica made twenty-two relief appearances and three starts in ‘54, but failed to show his old form.

After the season the Dodgers traded Preacher Roe and Billy Cox to the Baltimore Orioles. When Roe chose to retire, the Dodgers sent Palica to the Orioles instead. Erv was handed a starting role by Baltimore manager Paul Richards. He went 5–11 with a 4.13 ERA for the seventh-place Orioles.

Palica returned to Baltimore for the 1956 season, serving as a spot starter and reliever during another losing year. From 1957 through 1959, he pitched for the Orioles’ Pacific Coast League team, the Vancouver Mounties, posting records of 15–12, 15–13, and 13–10.

In 1960 Palica was offered a job in the Boston Red Sox organization, but did not make the big club. He pitched in one game for the Minneapolis Millers before returning to the West Coast, this time with the Seattle Rainiers, a Cincinnati farm team.

After several more seasons in the minors, Palica called it a career at the age of thirty-five. He finished with a minor-league record of 115-83. As a major leaguer, his record was 41-55 in 246 appearances.

Palica then returned to Southern California and found work as a longshoreman. In 1971 the Mets flew him in for an old-timers game at Shea Stadium. The Dodgers, just a stone’s throw away from his Huntington Beach home, never asked him back.

Palica stayed in touch with Duke Snider and a handful of other former Brooklyn teammates, including Wayne Belardi, a fellow Californian. His home was uncluttered by baseball keepsakes. He had a Schaefer beer mug from some long-forgotten postgame TV guest appearance. And there was the 1949 team ring, according to Florence his only prize possession.

Palica was toiling on the docks near his home in Huntington Beach when he suffered a heart attack. He died on May 29, 1982, at age fifty-four. He was survived by his wife, Florence, and all five of his children—daughters Joanne, Dianne, and Suzanne, and sons Daniel and Wayne.

 

Sources

All quotes are from various editions of the New York World Telegram.

James, Bill, and Rob Neyer. Guide to Pitchers. New York: Fireside, 2004.

Kelley, Brent P. The Pastime in Turbulence: Interviews with Baseball Players of the 1940s. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001

McNeil, William. The Dodgers Encyclopedia: Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2003.

Shatzkin, Mike, and Jim Charlton. The Ballplayers: Baseball's Ultimate Biographical Reference. New York: Arbor House, William Morrow, 1990.

Snider, Duke, with Bill Gilbert. The Duke of Flatbush. New York: Zebra Books, 1989.

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Special thanks to Bruce W. Belcher, Edison High School, Huntington Beach, California; Bill Nowlin, SABR; Robert Plapinger Baseball Books; the Atlanta Braves.

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