Mel Roach was more a spectator than a player for the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves. He played the first part of the season in the minor leagues before the Braves called him up in July. He spent the rest of the campaign as an occasional pinch-hitter and pinch-runner, batting only seven times and stroking only one hit, a single. However, the seldom-used Roach was being groomed for bigger things. With second baseman Red Schoendienst advancing in age, the Braves expected that Roach would step in and claim Schoendienst’s spot on the infield in due time. He might have done so, too, had not a debilitating knee injury suffered during the heat of the 1958 pennant race derailed his once-promising career.
Melvin Edward Roach was born in Richmond, Virginia, on January 25, 1933. He was the youngest of five children, all boys, born to Leslie Roach, a Richmond police officer, and his wife, Mable, a housewife. Mel, a right-handed batter and thrower, was a gifted athlete at John Marshall High School in Richmond, starring in football, basketball, and baseball, and serving as captain of all three teams. As a first baseman and cleanup hitter, he led his American Legion team to the national finals in 1950. Graduating from high school in 1951, Mel then attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he excelled as a quarterback, defensive back, and place-kicker on a football team that amassed a 16-3 record during the 1951 and 1952 seasons. He kicked 37 extra points in 1952, setting a school record at the time. On the Cavaliers basketball team, Roach averaged 10 points per game. Still, his best sport was baseball, and major-league scouts showed interest after Mel, who played mostly at second base in college, led the state in hitting in 1952 and 1953. He had intended to complete his degree in economics and then enter professional baseball, but when a shoulder injury suffered during football season drove him to the sidelines in 1952, Mel decided to listen to major-league offers.
At least ten teams scouted the young Virginia Cavalier intently, with the Milwaukee Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates expressing the most interest. Reportedly, Pirates scout Rex Bowen called Roach, who stood 6-feet-1 and weighed 190 pounds, the finest prospect he saw at a Forbes Field tryout, but the Pirates had signed too many bonus players to make a serious offer. The Pirates reluctantly passed on the opportunity, and though the Yankees, White Sox, and Indians also courted the young ballplayer, Milwaukee Braves scout Gil English signed Roach to a $40,000 bonus contract in July of 1953.
Because of the “bonus baby” rule in effect at that time, the Braves were required to carry Roach (and a teenage pitcher, Joey Jay, who signed with the club at about the same time) on the major-league roster for two years before allowing him to play in the minors. Roach bided his time on the Milwaukee bench, appearing in five games in 1953 and three in 1954, mostly as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner. The Braves had agreed to pay the rest of his college expenses, so in 1953 and 1954 he reported to the team in June, after the semester at the University of Virginia was finished, and left in September to return to campus. As a result, Roach completed his course work in the usual four years, earning his degree in economics in June of 1955. Still, he regretted his lack of playing time. “The big thing was the confidence I got from playing,” he said a few years later. “As a bonus player I sat around so much that I got discouraged. I had hopes of making it someday, but I’ll have to admit I had serious doubts.”
Roach then spent two years in the US Navy. Because he stood a good chance of being drafted into military service, he had decided to enroll in the Naval ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program while in college, and then go on active duty after graduation to put his military obligation behind him. Gil English, who saw Roach play in a Navy baseball tournament in the fall of 1956, told the Braves that he and Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres were the two best players in the tourney, calling Roach “an outstanding hitter with fine power.” This performance rekindled Milwaukee’s interest in Roach, though the youngster’s baseball skills had stagnated during his Navy hitch. “Service ball did me no good at all,” he told The Sporting News in 1958. “It was a good way to stay in shape but the poor competition tended to make a player lazy.” Discharged from the Navy in March of 1957, he reported to spring training with the Braves, who sent the 24-year-old infielder to Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. He batted .311 in 70 games for Class A Jacksonville, then was promoted to Atlanta of the Double-A Southern Association. He batted .293 for Atlanta in 37 games, and despite his lack of power (only six of his 43 hits went for extra bases), the Milwaukee club recalled him in early August. As a returning serviceman, Roach did not count against the 25-man roster limit, so the Braves were able to carry him as an extra player without removing anyone else from the roster.
While the Braves fought for the pennant, Roach spent most of his time on the sidelines, playing mostly in the late innings of blowout wins. Schoendienst, acquired by the Braves in a trade with the New York Giants in June of that year, took control of the second-base job and left little playing time available for the newcomer. As a result, Roach made only four appearances in August and one on September 2 (in a 23-10 win over the Cubs in Chicago). Bothered by arthritis in his throwing arm, he did not take the field again until September 27, when he played a complete game at second base against the Cincinnati Reds and collected his first major-league hit. In all, he batted seven times for the Braves in 1957, reaching base safely once on a single. He watched from the bench as the Braves defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series, and his teammates voted him a one-third share of the World Series money, which came to $2,974.38. “They must have thought I was a nice guy,” he recalled many year later.
Roach earned a spot on the team during spring training in 1958 and, though he appeared in only five of Milwaukee’s first 24 games, he opened the season on a hot streak. He walloped his first major-league homer, a solo shot off Curt Simmons, in a win over the Phillies on April 19, and belted seven hits in his first 15 times at bat. However, the Braves sent him down to Wichita in early May, leaving many to wonder how a budding star with a .467 batting average could have cleared waivers. Still, Roach did not object. “I’ve asked the Braves to let me go where I can play every day,” he said during spring training. “I don’t care where I play. Just let me play.” Roach spent a month at Wichita before the club recalled him in June. He pinch-hit and played left field for a few weeks, but in mid-July, when Schoendienst left the lineup with a broken finger, Roach took over the second-base position and began to deliver on his early promise. He kept his average near the .300 mark, showed improvement in his infield play, and performed so well that he retained his hold on the second-base job even when Schoendienst rejoined the team.
On Sunday, August 3, 1958, disaster struck. Roach had played the best baseball of his career in a weekend series against the San Francisco Giants in Milwaukee, belting home runs on Friday and Saturday and going 3-for-4 in the first game of the Sunday doubleheader. He had raised his average to .313 and sparked the league-leading Braves to three wins in a row over the Giants. In Sunday’s second game, the thoroughly demoralized Giants fell behind early, and San Francisco shortstop Daryl Spencer, perhaps in an attempt to jolt his teammates to life, took aim at Roach. Spencer, who walked in the top of the fifth inning, advanced to second on a grounder by Valmy Thomas and slid hard into the Milwaukee second baseman. Roach, who took the throw from shortstop Johnny Logan and was airborne when Spencer slammed into him, collapsed in a heap with a severely damaged left knee.
A few weeks before, Braves manager Fred Haney, who selected the reserves for the National League All-Star team that year, bypassed Spencer and chose Milwaukee’s Logan instead. Spencer seethed over the slight; indeed, he told an interviewer that he still harbored bitterness over the rejection more than 50 years later. Many observers believed that Spencer’s rough play was a form of payback to Haney and the Braves, though Spencer himself never said so publicly. “[Spencer] was definitely out of the baseline, and did a rolling block,” Roach told an interviewer in 2012. The Braves were outraged by Spencer’s hard slide, and Milwaukee baserunners made a point of targeting Spencer whenever the opportunity arose during the rest of the game.
Roach was taken to a hospital, where an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Bruce Brewer, performed a two-hour operation to repair a torn ligament in the player’s left knee. Not only was Roach out for the rest of the season, but some feared that his career was over at the age of 25. “It makes me feel plain rotten,” he told a reporter after the surgery. “They tell me it could have been much worse, but this is bad enough.” He wore a heavy cast on the knee for more than a month, then walked with the aid of crutches and a cane for a few months more. Roach ended the 1958 season with a .309 average in 44 games, and though he could not take part in the World Series that fall against the Yankees, he received a full Series share of $5,896.08.
Recovery was a slow and painful process. As Roach recalled to interviewer Brent P. Kelley in 2006, “I was told by the doctor that I'd never play again, that the knee was in pretty bad shape, so I really had resigned myself that it was over.” However, he was determined to rehabilitate the knee, and after sitting out the first part of the 1959 season, he returned to the Braves in June and played in 19 games, though he managed only three singles in 31 at-bats for an .097 average. Still bothered by soreness, he was placed on the disabled list in early August and played no more that season. The Milwaukee club, which lost Schoendienst to a bout of tuberculosis and never found a competent second baseman to replace him, lost the pennant to the Los Angeles Dodgers in two games during a best-of-three playoff.
In 1960 new Braves manager Charlie Dressen used Mel as a utilityman, and Roach, now 27 years old, batted .300 in 48 games. However, he had trouble in the field, probably due to his continuing knee problems, and though he hit well, he could not crack the starting lineup. The Braves finished a distant second to Pittsburgh in the pennant race, and with the second-base situation still unsettled (six different men, including Hank Aaron, saw time at the second sack that season), the club filled the position when it acquired Frank Bolling, a former Gold Glove winner, from Detroit in December of 1960. This move boded ill for Roach’s future in Milwaukee.
Roach began the 1961 season in a hitting slump, and on May 3 he suffered an embarrassing lapse in the outfield. Left-hander Warren Spahn had thrown a no-hitter against the Giants five days before, and in Spahn’s next start, against the Dodgers, Roach, playing left field, misplayed a third-inning fly ball off the bat of Jim Gilliam that fell for a run-scoring double, the first hit of the game for the Dodgers. Spahn finished the game with a two-hit, 4-1 complete-game victory. The only other hit, which came with two out in the ninth, would not have occurred had Roach caught Gilliam’s fly. The miscue cost Spahn the opportunity to match Johnny Vander Meer’s feat of throwing two no-hitters in a row, and Roach was despondent. “Don’t try to make excuses for me,” he said after the game. “It was a fly ball any outfielder should have caught. I just misjudged it.” Spahn not only absolved Roach of blame, but was surprised nearly 30 years later when he played a round of golf with Roach and heard his old teammate apologize once again for the long-ago misplay. “Geez, Mel, that was a lifetime ago. Forget it,” said the old pitcher.
Roach played only four more games in a Milwaukee uniform, for on May 9, 1961, the Braves traded him to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Frank Thomas. Roach, who batted only .147 in 1961, played sparingly for the seventh-place Cubs, and at season’s end Chicago traded him to the Cleveland Indians for two minor leaguers. Despite his fine spring-training performance, the Cleveland club sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies for pitcher Ken Lehman and outfielder Tony Curry on March 20, 1962.
The Phillies finished the 1962 season in seventh place, ahead of only the Cubs and the expansion Mets and Colt .45s, and the atmosphere around the club did not suit Mel. “We had a pretty sad team [in Philadelphia] – it was a very poor team – and nothing happened there,” recalled Roach years later. “… We had Gene Mauch managing, and Gene was more interested in playing golf than managing, in my own opinion, so it was another disaster.” Nearing his 30th birthday, Roach began thinking about life after baseball. “My peer group from my graduating class were all getting ahead of me in business and I started thinking in terms of, well, I think I’ll get a real job.” After the Phillies dropped Mel from their roster and assigned him to the Arkansas Travelers of the Triple-A American Association in October of 1962, the second baseman decided that he had played enough baseball. He retired from the game and entered the banking business.
Mel, who married during the 1962 season, settled in his hometown of Richmond and raised two children with his wife, Marilyn. He eventually became the president of a banking group in Richmond, where he and his wife, both retired, still made their home as of 2013. His only regret, he told Brent P. Kelley in 2006, was the knee injury that shortened his career. “[Daryl Spencer] was a pretty hard-nosed player anyway,” he said. “He prided himself on doing it. I saw him many times after that and he never apologized, never said a word about it.” An avid golfer, Roach is an active supporter of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 1988.
This biography is included in the book Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf.
To download the free e-book or purchase the paperback edition, click here.
Kelley, Brent P., Baseball's Bonus Babies: Conversations with 24 High-Priced Ballplayers Signed from 1953 to 1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2006).
Lamb, David, Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues (New York: Random House, 1991).
Milwaukee Journal, May 4, 1961.
Rives, Bob, “Daryl Spencer,” biography on the SABR BioProject website at sabr.org/bioproj.
The Sporting News, October 31, 1956; December 3, 1958; December 17, 1958.
Telephone interview with Mel Roach, November 18, 2012.
 The Sporting News, December 17, 1958, 8.
 The Sporting News, December 3, 1958, 15.
 The Sporting News, October 31, 1956, 6.
 The Sporting News, December 3, 1958, 15.
 Telephone interview with Mel Roach, November 18, 2012.
 The Sporting News, December 17, 1958, 8.
 Bob Rives, “Daryl Spencer,” biography on the SABR BioProject website at sabr.org/bioproj.
 Telephone interview with Mel Roach, November 18, 2012.
 Associated Press, August 5, 1958.
 Brent P. Kelley, Baseball's Bonus Babies: Conversations with 24 High-Priced Ballplayers Signed from 1953 to 1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2006), 29.
 Milwaukee Journal, May 4, 1961.
 David Lamb, Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues (New York: Random House, 1991), 98.
 Kelley, 29.
 Kelley, 29.
 Kelley, 30.