John Poff

This article was written by Rory Costello

After graduating from Duke University in 1974, John Poff made it to the majors for 31 games in 1979 and 1980. He hit .218 in 91 plate appearances. The first baseman-outfielder retired after the winter of 1981-82. “My career in baseball was frustrating,” he later said. “I wanted and felt I deserved a lot more time in the big leagues.”1

Poff went on, however, to leave a mark as a writer – something he always wanted to be. A friend named Tom Drake said, “During John’s extended minor-league career, I often pictured him on those long bus rides, writing poetry or reading Chaucer while everyone else was playing cards or reading comic books or Playboy.”2 Poff offered numerous insights on the game and American society as a contributor to the literary journal Elysian Fields Quarterly. His most eloquent piece – “Donnie Moore: A Racial Memoir” – was the cover story of the Spring 1995 issue. Looking back, the editors called it “arguably the best writing we’ve ever published.”3

John William Poff was born on October 23, 1952 in Chillicothe, Ohio, a small city roughly 50 miles south of the state capital, Columbus. It’s a little-known fact – except to Buckeyes – that Chillicothe was Ohio’s first capital, from 1803 until 1810. In 1958, the Poff family moved to Findlay, Ohio, another small city, in the northwestern part of the state, about 50 miles south of Toledo.4

“I lived in Chillicothe till I was five,” Poff said in 2015. “In relation to baseball it’s such a clear-cut chapter of my life. My brother James was nine years older than me and a good athlete, and my dad had played at Ohio State. So it’s no accident that I loved the game and the big leagues at a very early age.”5 Decades later, the theme of children’s joy in baseball still resonated with Poff.

John’s father, Glen E. Poff, was director of the Findlay YMCA from 1958 through 1972. He then served as local coordinator of the Kettering Foundation, based in Dayton, Ohio.6 Glen’s wife, Mary Ellen (née Kraner), taught American history at Findlay High School. John was the youngest of her three children, following James and a daughter named Jane. Sad to relate, Mary Ellen Poff died in March 1968 following a stroke. She was just 48.7

In 2002, Poff wrote, “In the late ’50s and early ’60s I curled up nightly with Big Time Baseball, a collection of baseball anecdotes which was my actual bible.”8 In 2015, he added, “I played Little League, of course, and still remember my batting averages each year.”

Tom Drake (whose grandfather, Delos Drake, played with Ty Cobb in 1911) remembered those days. “I’ve known John since we were both nine years old, when baseball was probably the most important thing in our lives. We were both ‘phenoms’ in the Little League version of Findlay Youth Baseball, which had nine-, 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds competing together for 15 spots per team in an eight-team league. We were both starters as nine-year-olds.

“John was the smartest player I ever played against, and the best. While everyone else was throwing heat on nearly every pitch at age 12, John was masterfully changing speeds to the best hitters to throw them off balance. Not changeups – every pitch at a little different speed so that the batter never saw the same speed twice.

“As good a hitter as he was, John was an even better fielder. I never saw him make an error, throw to the wrong base, or make a mental mistake. He was fundamentally sound from the beginning.”9

The summer that Poff was 12 became a crucial juncture – in his baseball career and life as a whole. “I became friends with and played ball every morning with a great high school baseball player from Findlay named Clay Bryson. He was in my mother’s American history class, and one night I was helping her grade tests and wrote ‘Hi Clay’ on his. He wrote back on the next one, wound up coming to one of my Little League games, and then invited me over to play around the next morning, and most mornings after.

“I tagged along with Clay at workouts organized by the Phillies’ great scout, Tony Lucadello, from nearby Fostoria. I once got a chance to hit at the end. Tony liked my swing. I have a ball he autographed – ‘To Johnny, a future big leaguer.’ It was a great summer.

“Clay – who died in 2000 – was drafted in the second round by the Cubs in 1966 (25th player selected overall), but never signed and didn’t play much after high school.

“I was back in Findlay last winter to talk with old friends about my idea to do a trial week for fun of free old-time baseball for kids, at one of the fields I grew up on. One was Tom Drake and the other was an old teammate, Chuck Rogers, who made it to Triple-A with the Cubs. We played several years against each other in the American Association.

“One night we went to a basketball game at my old high school. I had been back only once or twice since I graduated in 1970 and was surprised and flattered to see a nice photo and baseball card of me in the trophy case. But I realized the school and community had forgotten Clay ever existed, unlike others in the town’s sports past – I was amazed at the history on the walls of guys from my era and before.

“At the game I spoke with a local sportswriter, Dave Hanneman, who had written a book about Tony Lucadello.10 Unbelievably to me, he had never heard of Clay. This is because Clay was black, I feel certain. But the upshot is I got the new young athletic director to hang a photo of Clay in the trophy case with a short bio.

“It became really important to me, and it connects to the one thing about baseball that has been most important to me over the last year. All this also connects in a roundabout way to how I got signed by the Phillies.”11

Clay BrysonClay Bryson (pictured at right) also predicted whom Poff would marry. Patti Ann Lawrence’s father was a Pony League coach in Findlay. Her older brother was a friend of Clay’s, and she was a bat girl for their team. In addition, her mother was a good friend of Clay’s mother, and their fathers worked together. Clay was the first person ever to mention the name of John Poff to Patti. Two years after that, John and Patti met at the drinking fountain at the Findlay YMCA. After flirting for several years, they became a couple during Poff’s first summer in pro baseball after he graduated from Duke.12

Poff too attended Findlay High, which has produced one other big-leaguer, Tot Pressnell, who pitched in the majors from 1938 through 1942. Several NFL football players have also come from this school, the most notable being quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Poff gave up football early on, though – “after junior high (then ninth grade). I was the quarterback in eighth and ninth grade but didn’t enjoy it much. In ninth grade especially, I was small for my age – at team weigh-in I was 111 pounds, the second-lightest guy. I quit playing after that and never regretted it, although I remember my senior year in high school, when I had caught up a little physically, thinking maybe it could be fun after all.

“One year the team doctor in Oklahoma City gave us simple physical exams. He checked my knees and said it was great seeing a non-high-school football player for a change, someone whose knee cartilage was nice and tight.”13

In high school, Poff was also a star basketball player. His position was guard; when full-grown, the lefty stood 6-feet-2 and weighed 190 pounds. Yet as Chuck Rogers said, “He was always an exceptional athlete, but hitting a baseball was his top accomplishment.”14 In 1970, Poff (a senior) and Rogers (a sophomore) carried the team to the semifinal game in the state high school baseball championship in Class AA, the division for larger schools. Poff was voted team MVP that year and hit safely in every single game during the season. During those years, he also played American Legion baseball.

Poff was a strong student too. Tom Drake remembered, “He was at the very top of our high school class of 594 graduates. I did well enough to get into Notre Dame, but he was much better than I was. He had no weaknesses.”15

After graduating, Poff went to Duke. It’s tempting to think that his choice was sparked by another Ohio native, Tom Butters, the former Pittsburgh Pirates reliever who was then the Blue Devils’ baseball coach. That was not the case, though – “I sort of slid into it,” Poff said (it’s also noteworthy that Duke did not offer baseball scholarships).16

“I had excellent board scores, I was a National Merit Scholar, etc. But without using it as any kind of excuse, my mother’s sudden death in the spring of my sophomore year had a pretty big impact on everything from my grades – just one mediocre semester really, but no Ivy League for me – to getting wrapped up in choosing a place.

“To be honest, I sort of wanted to go to St. John’s in Maryland – the school based around a classic reading curriculum – and read great books. My dad and I took a trip to Duke in January and it was really a pretty wonderful place then. I mean that in the sense of not such an elite go-go kind of atmosphere, but still, I think, an authentic national university.

“I had an excellent senior season in baseball and did call Tom Butters in the spring – I guess to tell him how great I was. But he certainly didn’t know anything about me coming in, nor I about him. I grew the summer after high school and was very much a better athlete as a result.

“Butters was only with the program through fall practice, but he did take me aside early on and tell me I had a great swing – not a good one, but in major league terms, a great one. That was more than cool, of course, but also I’ve learned in the long run, things like that don’t always rest easily on my shoulders. It didn’t matter in this case because he left the program a few weeks later.”17

In the fall of 1970, Poff made Duke’s freshman basketball team as a walk-on. Duke had been a national college hoops contender during much of the 1960s, but had not yet developed into a major power. It began to do so in the 1970s thanks to the fundraising prowess of Tom Butters, who also hired the great coach Mike Krzyzewski in 1980.18 Though Duke basketball was less prominent while Poff was there, it was still a good program.

At the end of the season, the coach of the freshman squad, Jack Schalow, suggested trying out for the varsity, but Poff did not. “To really do it I would have had to practice all summer. Already I was working a summer job and playing baseball, so something would have had to give. But if head [basketball] coach Bucky Waters had encouraged me, I think I would have tried to do it.

“I also had a very strong sense that unlike Schalow’s team, the varsity was scholarship guys, right or wrong. Accurate or not, nothing I saw or heard changed that perception.

“It’s like first round draft choices in baseball: it often feels like they’re given every opportunity to succeed because so many people in the organization are invested personally in their success. Another reason is that all those people involved in deciding on the first pick are often pretty good judges of talent. So college programs could be just like that, I believe, in their philosophy about walk-ons. And nothing is quite so flawed as the judgment of walk-ons themselves about their relative level of talent.” 19

In February 1971, Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter became Duke’s baseball coach, succeeding Butters.20 The Fall 1999 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly includes Poff’s poem “Baseball Sestina,” which is dedicated to Slaughter. “I loved him,” said Poff. “He routinely said, ‘nigger.’ I still haven’t come to grips with that.”21

“Use of the n-word was routine for a lot of people in the ’70s, even among my generation – especially, I would say, among guys I played sports with. I was frustrated with it but never felt I was particularly effective doing anything about it. A certain meaningful silence doesn’t always register with people as the kind of statement you might hope. And reasoned, calm discussion didn’t change minds much – big surprise there, since racism is essentially irrational, I think. So I’m certainly not singling out Enos.”22

This was a continuation of something that struck Poff during his freshman basketball season. “Probably the most physically gifted player, Sam May, went home at Christmas and didn’t come back. He was the third black player at Duke. One thing I’ve always remembered – we made one trip outside North Carolina with the varsity, as I recall, to UVA.

“So we’re at training table dinner in Charlottesville. One of my fellow walk-ons, a friend and a good player (who routinely used to say nigger), says to Sam May, ‘Pass me the salt, boy.’ Sam replied in a very angry voice, ‘BOY!?’ I thought my friend probably said it unintentionally, the way we used to say, ‘Boy, that was really something,’ but the way he blushed made me realize he didn’t. I always wondered about that moment’s impact on Sam – he sounded not just mad, but really incredulous.” 23

The freshman basketball season ended in early March, so Poff got a late jump on baseball that spring. He became a starter, however, and remained one in each of the four years he played under Slaughter.24

After his freshman year in college, Poff went back to Findlay. “I was still young enough to play American Legion and was also playing in an open adult league. One day the Legion traveled to Radnor, a small town on the way to Columbus. My grandparents lived in small towns east of Columbus, a trip I made a thousand times. But there was something about this little town from the get-go – a sign on a blackboard at the main intersection saying there was a Legion game that night, the field at the school at the edge of town with cornfields surrounding. Then too, it was just the way some summer midwestern nights felt. I remember joking, this was the kind of place I wanted to raise a family. But it really was a pleasant evening.

“That night I hit a home run to right. The next day, Tony Lucadello – who I didn’t even know had been at the game – called the coach and asked if I hit the ball like that very often.”25

His baseball talent notwithstanding, Poff didn’t totally give up on the idea of basketball. In October 1971, “I still went over to Cameron [Indoor Stadium] to talk with the assistant varsity coach about it. It was Hubie Brown [who became a successful pro coach in the ABA and NBA]. He was pretty nice about it – he gave me the distinct impression I could be on the team, but certainly didn’t beg me to come out. I liked toying with the idea, but again it would have been pretty stupid without having committed to practicing for some time before.”26

Poff was not a big college baseball star. “I had mediocre stats my freshman and sophomore years (.250 and .260, I think), although I remember a couple of good stretches in each season.” He then had a good junior year, voted as a first-team all-star in the Atlantic Coast Conference – “deservedly, I think.”27 He made the All-ACC second team in his senior year, 1974. He was also Duke’s co-captain.

“I was always hoping Enos would teach me techniques and advanced secrets about hitting,” Poff wrote in 2008. “Instead, he simply said, time and again around the batting cage: ‘Men, ain’t but two things you got to do when you get to the ball park – first, check which way the wind is blowing and then get yourself a good ball to hit.’ This frankly used to irritate the hell out of me when I was in college, and then one windy spring afternoon as the team bus was pulling up to the parking lot of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, I caught myself looking for a glimpse of the flag, understanding that it would in a way set the tone for the whole game, and I realized at the same time that most of what I knew about hitting boiled down to not swinging at bad pitches.”28

A visit from a Blue Devils athletic hero also tied in with Poff’s views on racism. “Sometime in the early ’70s, Enos invited Dick Groat in to speak with the baseball team. Jerry Lynch [Groat’s partner in operating the Champion Lakes Golf Club in Pittsburgh] came along. I won’t forget Groat’s beginning remarks: that ballplayers today are bigger, faster, stronger, and (I think we all knew what was coming) dumber than the players of his era.

“Now I’m not speaking to Groat’s inner heart about this, about which I know nothing, because the fact is we were bigger than the previous generation by a lot. That alone did make some old guys uneasy, which I can understand.

“But my point is that ‘dumber’ was also and often used by old-timers as a catchword for race, just like people from northern Michigan to where I grew up in northwestern Ohio now say ‘Detroit’ or make Detroit jokes when they’re really just saying nigger. This supposedly less venal kind of racism is to me perhaps even worse or at least just as bad in the long run.”29

Poff graduated from Duke with a degree in English. Tom Drake noted, “He scored a 710 (out of 800) on the Law School Admissions Test as a senior at Duke. I always thought that he would have made a great lawyer or agent after his playing days ended, since he’s so smart and was such a great competitor.”30

Instead, he pursued baseball, even though he was not selected in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft that June. Instead, the Philadelphia Phillies signed him as a free agent on July 2. A 1979 report said that he was “something of a sleeper.”31 Poff connected the dots in the story of his signing in 2016.

“In hindsight my college career seems pretty blah. I look back on it this way: it’s not that I wasn’t serious about baseball, it’s that I didn’t know yet how to be serious.

“I was scouted by Wes Livengood, a Phillies scout in North Carolina, my senior year in college. He gave me a card, which I fortunately held onto. I didn’t have a very good game that day, or a very good senior season, even though I was voted second team All-ACC.

“So after the season was over, at the end of the school year at Duke and before the draft, I called Wes Livengood. I remember this well – I was at the apartment of my then-girlfriend (our three-year relationship coming to an end, although I wasn’t sure of that at the time) when I called him, said I knew my senior year hadn’t been so great, but that I still felt I could play. He actually responded with some enthusiasm, said that he would add my name to his list.

“Right after the draft, I was back in Findlay, falling in love pretty quickly with Patti, now my wife of nearly 40 years, when I got a call from the Phillies saying they needed a first baseman in Pulaski [Virginia], Rookie League. I signed as a free agent for $500 bonus and reported to a team already pretty well set.

“I was pretty sure some other organizations looked at me, although you really couldn’t be too sure about any of that then. I had been All-ACC, and gotten some exposure, I suppose, with a couple of decent summers in the Cape Cod League [Wareham, 1972 and 1973]. But Wes Livengood was the only guy to introduce himself and give me a card, and I’m not so sure that really wasn’t because of Tony Lucadello, who may or may not have remembered me from the summer I was 12, or just the night in Radnor.

“But if it went back to the summer I was 12, as I suspect, then Clay Bryson was the starting point. And I’m quite certain that if I hadn’t called Livengood that day, I never would have been signed.”32

When Poff arrived at Pulaski, he saw Granny Hamner, the shortstop from the 1950 Phillies “Whiz Kids,” throwing batting practice. Hamner was one of the figures Poff had read about in Big Time Baseball. The new pro thought, “This is the real thing.”33

Poff’s meager bonus “was always funny to me. Later in Oklahoma City I played with Bobby Brown, a funny, nonstop talker, who had already been released by the Orioles. Some guys didn’t like him very much, but Lonnie Smith was also on that team, a first-round draft choice. I always remembered Bobby trash-talking one day, saying he wasn’t some bonus baby, that when he signed he got $500 and a pair of shoes and was told, ‘Here, nigger, go play.’

“I got a kick out of that because I never got the shoes (or of course the racial epithet.) In fact, when I showed up in Pulaski, I realized that in a rush I had forgotten to pack my baseball shoes. It was embarrassing to walk out on the field and tell guys like Granny Hamner and Bob Tiefenauer I didn’t have any shoes. I borrowed some from a guy named Bob Wilson, who at a season-ending party did a pretty funny kind of pre-rap review – “The man didn’t have no shoes!” – of my first appearance in Pulaski.”34

Poff made a very strong impression in his first pro season, hitting .344 with 16 homers and driving in 61 in 68 games. Topps announced an all-star team for the short-season rookie and two-month Class A Leagues, and Poff was the first baseman.35

“I played great at Pulaski and very well in Instructional League – a pretty fast rise from ultimate suspect to pretty hot prospect, when the Phillies’ scouts all converged on Carpenter Complex in Clearwater for a meeting. Tony Lucadello arrived in the parking lot at the same time as I did, and greeted me effusively – ‘Hey, Johnny Poff, I’m the guy that recommended you, but I didn’t sign you because I couldn’t have got you any money,’ etc.

“To be honest, I thought he was bulls****ing me – that I was kind of hot at the time and he wanted some credit, but I mentioned this to one of the instructors there, Cal Emery, who told me Tony was probably the most respected scout in the organization and almost legendary for his degree of organization. That was news to me – frankly, the conventional wisdom when I first got to know him a little was that he was basically an old blowhard from Fostoria, not one of the great scouts in baseball history.”36

That winter, after Instructional League, Poff went to play ball in Mazatlán, Mexico. He wrote about the experience for Elysian Fields Quarterly, in “Amphetamine Story” (Spring 2000 issue) and “Mazatlan ’74” (Spring 2003 issue). Poff traveled down by van with Patti – it was the first week that they lived together. He also met Jack Pierce, who went on to hit more homers in Mexico than any other U.S.-born player, but who gave Poff “that momentary frozen look of concern – the Wally Pipp look” when he heard that Poff was also a first baseman. The fear of being replaced, as Pipp was by Lou Gehrig, is never far from any ballplayer’s mind.

In 1975, Poff moved up to Class A. With Rocky Mount in the Carolina League, he posted a .267-8-62 batting line. He then progressed to Reading in the Double-A Eastern League in 1976. He played mainly first base in 1975, but was shifted to the outfield in Reading. His batting stats (.260-9-51) were similar to those from 1975, but not what one would hope for at the crucial Double-A level. Poff later called it “a bad year, a prospect-to-suspect year.” However, his manager – Granny Hamner – gave him a boost. In a hotel room, Poff asked him if he still had a chance. Hamner responded, “I’m a John Poff fan.”37

In 1976, Poff also played for the first time with John Vukovich – “one of the two players who had the biggest impact on me, and were also two of my closest friends in baseball.” When Vukovich died on March 8, 2007, Poff remembered it “because it was coincidentally the day my mother died some 39 years before. I hadn’t spoken to him in years, didn’t even know he had been ill, and was lying around watching CNN when it came on the crawl.”

The death of Vukovich – “the most intense player I was ever around” – inspired another of Poff’s stories for Elysian Fields Quarterly. In “Four-Cornered God” (which drew its title from a Sylvia Plath poem), he wrote, “Our personalities couldn’t have been more dissimilar in some ways, [but] he taught me most of what I ever learned about how to approach the game. Let me state that more simply: I flat out copied his pre-game routine.

“Nevertheless, the main lesson I learned was that every at-bat, every swing, mattered and you were cheating something, yourself or the game, if you didn’t bring whatever level of intensity and focus you could muster to every moment you were at the plate.”38

Poff’s largely unheralded advance continued in 1977 – he went back from “suspect” to “prospect.” “In the winter of ’76,” he recalled, “I changed my career by lifting weights and gaining weight, committing to playing ball. But I also realized ’77 was a make or break year – I prepared the law school option. I still remember getting the law board results in the mail and rushing back to get inside, spraining my ankle in the process, tearing open the envelope while rolling around in pain, seeing the high score, and laughing in relief – I could go to a good law school if all else failed.

“The temporary pain somehow made the whole thing more satisfying and memorable. Anyhow, I applied to a bunch of good law schools, was accepted at Cornell and Vanderbilt, sent a deposit in to Cornell, and didn’t walk away from that till near the end of the season.” Yet looking back, despite what Tom Drake said, Poff was happy that he never went to law school.39

Poff started the 1977 season with Reading but was promoted to the Phillies’ top farm club, Oklahoma City, in mid-June. He upped his offensive production, hitting .295-16-67 in 125 games overall. That fall Philadelphia placed him on the 40-man major-league roster for the first time. Oklahoma City manager Mike Ryan called him a sleeper.40

In July 1977, Poff met his other prime influence in baseball, veteran pitcher Fred Beene. Beene came over from the Cleveland Indians’ top farm club, Toledo. “Our lockers were next to each other for the next couple years. Aside from getting along personally, it was talking over baseball. There would be little things each game that were interesting in themselves, qualifiers, refinements, new dimensions or aspects. It was fun. One of the saddest things I read about the new era in baseball was that guys don’t sit around the clubhouse after games anymore and just talk things over, maybe over a few beers.”41

On October 14, 1977, Poff married Patti Lawrence. They had two children: Clay – named for Clay Bryson – and Jama. “I also played winter ball in the Dominican Republic in ’77. I never did play very well there [in Latin America] and have always regretted that.”42

Poff put up strong and consistent numbers for the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1978 (.300-20-79) and 1979 (.293-20-90). He later called this period “the real heart of my eight-season career.”43 The presence of Vukovich and Beene helped. “It took some hard times in the minor leagues and the influence of Vukovich before I really got how to compete every day with no regrets.”44

Chuck Rogers, who was then with the Cubs’ farm team in Wichita, remembered Poff at the top of his game. “Lefties always gave me trouble (I was a right-handed pitcher) and John was the toughest out for me when we finally met up again. It’s weird when you face a guy who you were great friends with, something changes and all sorts of different thoughts get into your head. I actually felt embarrassment at times because of his dominance over me in those days. At least I wasn’t as bad as a guy named Byron Wilkerson, another pitcher for Wichita. I’m not sure of the exact number, but John had something like 15 straight hits off of him over several games, and they weren’t ‘chinks’ – I think every hit was a line shot and a few were home runs.”45

Of note, Poff was switched back to first base. When Philadelphia signed Pete Rose as a free agent in December 1978, Rose was coming off nearly four seasons as the regular third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. Though the Phillies toyed with the idea of moving Mike Schmidt from third base to second, Schmidt stayed at the hot corner. As GM Paul Owens had envisaged, Rose took over first base – blocking Poff’s way. “I always felt John got the shaft with the Phillies,” said Chuck Rogers. “He was not a high draft pick and had to earn every promotion through the ranks over time, but when they acquired Pete Rose, John got buried.”46

In “Mazatlan ’74”, Poff wrote about backing up Rose during spring training 1979 and “the Wally Pipp thing. One day in St. Petersburg against the Cardinals, Pete took an oh-fer for six or seven innings and I came in and ripped a double off the right field wall. When I came back to the dugout, Pete picked up his stuff, walked toward the clubhouse, and said jokingly, ‘Man, you’re going to drive me to the American League.’ That, I always thought, was very good, making a joke that both conveyed respect and dealt openly with the Wally Pipp demon.”

That was the closest that Poff came to breaking camp with a major-league team. He hit well but still admitted then, “I really don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” He was mentioned during trade talks – specifically, the deal in late March that brought pitcher Nino Espinosa to the Phillies. In exchange, Richie Hebner (whom Rose had displaced at first base) went to the New York Mets, along with José Moreno, not Poff.47 An experienced lefty outfielder, Del Unser, had been invited to camp as an unsigned free agent. Unser, who also played first, won a role on Philadelphia’s bench. Poff was ticketed back to Oklahoma City.

In September 1979, Poff – then aged 26 – made it to the majors for the first time when rosters expanded. First, however, he took part in the American Association’s championship series, which the Evansville Triplets clinched on September 6. Two days later, Poff made his big-league debut at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Pinch-hitting for Lonnie Smith in the sixth inning, he drew a walk off Dick Tidrow and later scored on a double by Schmidt. It was part of a four-run rally that tied the game at 8-8. The Phillies eventually won, 9-8.

An anecdote from that month about Pete Rose and his mentality also expressed what it meant to Poff to be a ballplayer. “One day in New York [September 11], John Vukovich told me that Pete’s wife had filed that day for divorce. His marital problems had been well-covered in the media. The thing Vuk stressed to me was Pete’s reaction: ‘Just got to have a good season. A good season makes everything all right.’ I knew that appealed to Vuk, even though he was a devoted husband with a very happy marriage. It appealed to me also, even though I was deeply in love with the woman who is still my wife.”48

Toward the end of September, Poff got three starts in left field in place of Greg Luzinski. On September 25, at Veterans Stadium, he got his first base hit in the majors, off John Fulgham of the Cardinals. It drove in a run.49

Overall, in 12 games with the Phillies, Poff was 2-for-19 with a walk in 20 plate appearances. “Dallas Green took over as manager [that] September,” he recalled in 1981. “I think that was my shot with Dallas.” The impression carried over to spring training 1980. “I didn’t play much my last 10 days,” he said the following spring. “I just sat around waiting for something to happen. I got sent down with about a week to go.”50

Poff returned to Oklahoma City once more. Although his homers fell off to 13 and his average dipped a bit to .282, he still drove in 90. He split his time almost evenly between first base and the outfield. A very similar first-base prospect, Len Matuszek, had reached Triple A in 1979. Poff also pitched twice – without allowing a run – when injuries depleted the 89ers’ staff.51

In 1980 the Phillies won the World Series for the first time in their history – but Poff wasn’t around for it. On September 1, 1980, the Milwaukee Brewers obtained him in a waiver deal. “I was really surprised because of the timing,” he said that October. “It was the last day of our season [in Oklahoma City]. I had heard that I wasn’t being called up by the Phillies. I was ready to go home for the winter.”52

The Brewers needed help because outfielder Sixto Lezcano was out for the season with a broken wrist after getting hit by a pitch on August 31.53 Poff got into 19 games for the Brewers, starting 17 – every one of the team’s remaining games against a right-handed pitcher. The following spring, he remarked, “I got more of a chance to play in one month with the Brewers than I did in three years with the Phillies.”54

With Milwaukee, Poff played designated hitter, right field, and first base. In 71 plate appearances, he was 17-for-68 (.250) with a homer – his only one in the majors – and 7 RBIs. The homer came off Rick Langford of the Oakland A’s at the Oakland Coliseum. The solo shot gave the Brewers a 2-0 lead; they eventually lost, 7-4.

“It may sound funny,” said Poff, “but that home run doesn’t loom all that large in my memory. I had a good series there, 6-for-13, against an Oakland staff that had good years. I believe Langford hung a changeup; I can’t think of it any other way.

“I remember other home runs more vividly for one reason or another. Maybe because I’d hit a bunch of home runs in Triple-A off guys who had success before or after in the big leagues – I don’t know. I think I just felt that if I got enough at bats, it was gonna happen. I do still have the ball, and am happy to have it – retrieved by our bullpen guys, I think.

“Also, the guys gave me the silent treatment when I got back to the dugout. Without trying to sound cool, I was pretty cool with that.”55

Poff earned consideration for a platoon/pinch-hitting role with Milwaukee in 1981. He said, “I’ve had four good years in the minor leagues. Any time you have a good season, you’re batting against lefthanders and righthanders. Now I’m in the situation where I’ll play against lefthanders after I prove I can hit righthanders.”56

In spring training 1981, Poff competed with Marshall Edwards. Manager Buck Rodgers said, “Edwards’ biggest asset is his speed, plus he can play all three outfield positions. Poff’s biggest asset is he can play first base. He also can hit with power.” Poff said, “I felt for the last couple of years I was ready to play in the big leagues. Now, coming here and trying to make this club in a utility role, it’s probably better that I played every day in Triple A instead of sitting on the bench in the big leagues. Still, it’s frustrating. I thought I could help someone.”57

Edwards was with Milwaukee on Opening Day 1981. On April 1, the Brewers traded Poff to the Chicago White Sox for Thad Bosley.58 Chicago assigned Poff to Edmonton in the Pacific Coast League, and he never made it back to the majors after a “last mediocre season in Triple A.

“In the middle of that season, the White Sox contacted me about a chance to play in Japan – Osaka, I think. That was the year of a long strike, my career was heading south regardless, and I jumped at it. I talked with a rep from the team, Fukui was his last name, and was ready to go.

“Two things happened. I talked with my agent, Jim Bunning, about it. He said (in his typically dismissive fashion) that it wasn’t a realistic offer. I can’t remember if he actually jumped in negotiations – pretty sure he didn’t, but Fukui bristled over the phone when I brought up Bunning’s concerns and the idea of his getting involved.

“The other complication was that the minor league director, Dave Dombrowski, misquoted my salary – the offer was to double my salary then, which, when we got to actual numbers, didn’t compute. The whole thing fell apart pretty quickly. I had an unfortunate last conversation with Mr. Fukui. I really pretty much despised Dombrowski, by the way – he was a young financial guy, not a baseball guy, and it seemed clear to me at least that he was trying to make his way by shortchanging minor league teams on the most basic stuff – bats and balls and so forth.

“I remember Dombrowski calling me early in my hotel room on a road trip to communicate about the failed deal. This really set me off (and I don’t have much of a temper) for two reasons – he had screwed up my salary number, and I thought it was the cheapest little managerial ploy to call a ballplayer at seven in the morning.

“So it was sort of fun, with my also awakened roommate listening in, to cut him off and tell him with some vigor how I felt about the whole thing. I remember my pretty comical signoff – something like, ‘Next time you want to talk to me, call my agent.’ That was telling him, eh? But it is the only time I yelled at anybody in the front office.

“It’s also another feather in my cap as a perfect reverse success story – Dombrowski goes on to great front office success, like the Phillies the year after I was there win a World Series, the Brewers go on the next year to be in a World Series, and finally the White Sox merely made the playoffs, as I recall – my powers clearly fading each year.

“I did get a chance to play in Mexico that winter. I think Bunning, through Ruben Amaro Sr., set that up for me. As I’ve said, it didn’t go very well, or last very long. I was actually playing for Navojoa. My last game was in Hermosillo, and I thought it might be just that, my last game. I played with Orlando González in Oklahoma City and one year he had a great hitting streak, a really good season overall, and wound up in Oakland in September. But he was always around the batting cage that year joking ‘¡Último año!’ (last year) for him, and damn if it wasn’t.

“My last at bat in Hermosillo I was facing Ray Murillo, who I’d played with in Edmonton. I hit a gapper to left center. All my life, from Little League, this was my signature hit. I thought of it as like the left hand of the fighter in Hemingway’s story ‘Fifty Grand’ – just automatically in the other guy’s face.

“I could go on and on about that – but anyhow, I launched one that last at-bat, pretty sure it would go for extra bases, but the centerfielder caught up with it. I ran back to the dugout and as I passed Murillo said, ‘Último juego,’ last game, which it turned out to be, although I hadn’t known for sure at the time. I flew back to Phoenix, where Patti was, on my 29th birthday.

“The White Sox dropped me from the 40-man roster, nobody picked me up, and I got a big pay cut. It was still respectable for Triple-A, though, and as the winter went on I realized playing [in 1982] was my best option financially. Also, I thought it would be fun to try to have one more good Triple-A season. We spent that winter in northern Washington state, right on the Canadian border , on the east (dry) side of the mountains.

“But as I was packing up my stuff to head out the next day for the airport in Spokane, something just didn’t feel right. We’re driving the three hours or so to Spokane and about halfway there, I just had the clearest thought – ‘So what if you have one more fun year, this is not something you want to do.’ I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but it just so happened, we immediately came upon the Grand Coulee Dam. It was on the north side of the highway.

“Pulled into the parking lot, said it was time to quit, took a quick tour of the dam, turned right coming out of the parking lot, and I just wasn’t a ballplayer any more. I never revisited that decision, and I’m a guy who will do just that in many circumstances.”59

For several winters, starting in 1978, the Poffs had spent the off-season living in New Mexico. As noted in “Amphetamine Story,” they had been “overpowered by the sunsets and the beauty of the landscape.” John worked for 10 years as an acupuncturist. “I studied acupuncture and the Kototama Principle (a sound meditation practice) with Sensei M. Nakazono in Santa Fe, and it is still important to me.”60 Patti worked in dental offices in addition to raising Clay and Jama.

Poff resumed writing while practicing acupuncture in Boulder, Colorado. “I saw an ad for Elysian Fields Quarterly and tracked down a phone number. I talked with Steve Lehman, the editor then, and asked about submissions. I sent off an essay called ‘Casey Revisited’ – after that I went pretty much to straight old personal narrative – and a poem, ‘Baseball Enlightenment.’

“I heard nothing for probably six months, gave up, and was truly and pleasantly surprised to hear back with acceptance of both. I was realizing I probably wasn’t going to be able to raise a family with acupuncture, and so I went back to the University of Colorado for my master’s and teaching certificate. One of my professors at CU, Jim Studholme, was also a high-school teacher who became very important to me as a friend and mentor, encouraging my writing and really being a role model for the teacher I wanted to be. I always wanted to be a writer but without his practical encouragement, I doubt I ever would have gotten started.”61 Poff took his first teaching job in Silver City, New Mexico.

“Donnie Moore: A Racial Memoir” was rooted in personal knowledge of its subject. Poff had played against and bantered with Moore in the minors. Their interaction – and the shock of Moore’s subsequent suicide in 1989 – led Poff to ponder his “small participation in an overwhelmingly large evil”: racism. He viewed Moore’s tragic death as the catharsis that he’d been awaiting to understand or reconcile with his frustrations in baseball – but he wrote that it came “in a terrible, helpless, bitter way. All this struggle for personal success and understanding was being waged in a meaningless ocean, meaningless because the larger evil was being so inadequately addressed.”

In his introduction to the Fall 2008 issue, EFQ editor Tom Goldstein called the Moore essay “arguably the best thing ever published on the impact of racism in baseball, and what it says about racism in general is equally brilliant.” Goldstein added his suspicion that nobody prominent in the baseball world ever read it, which he thought was a loss for everyone.62

Twenty years after the Moore essay was published, Poff was still pondering its central theme. “The whole idea of separating myself from ‘the racists’ seems to me now not all that unrelated to the basic sentiment that creates racism in the first place – making a group of people the bad guys.

“Harold Bloom seems always to be saying the Gnostics believed that first Jesus was resurrected, and then he died. I don’t know exactly what that means – but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. Now I am thinking that in those days in ’89, first I realized just how deeply consciousness of race, or racism, went in me, and then Donnie Moore died.

“It packed a punch. I came to think that silence in the face of racism, or subtle racism, or any of various forms of racism were just as destructive as the blatant kinds.

“So two or three years later I first tried to write about Donnie Moore. At the same time I started a quixotic attempt to change the way white people talked among themselves. I tried to form a little group, and I made a flier for it – now, after more than 20 years, it seems a kind of artifact.

“It was an unsuccessful effort, but the stupidity of the level of much of the conversation about Obama today (at least among people where I live) demonstrates the need.”63

In 1995, for family reasons, the Poffs moved from Silver City to Mio, Michigan (in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula). John continued to teach English at the secondary-school level until retiring after the 2014 school year. He also made ongoing contributions to EFQ until the journal went on hiatus in 2009.

Poff thought the best thing he wrote that didn’t come out in EFQ (Tom Goldstein was going to publish it at some point) was a short essay called “Thucydides and Baseball.” Harking back to his own youth, he sought to explain baseball’s greater popularity with American children in the first several decades of the 20th century. He did so by drawing a parallel with the Greek historian’s insight on how Athens rose to prominence. “The poverty of its soil made it unattractive to raiding populations. . .the poor soil [for kids] was boredom, or a lack of things to do in the summer. And out of that boredom grew a real culture of baseball.”64

Another literary baseball magazine, Spitball, became an outlet for Poff’s writing. He’s also enjoyed a little songwriting (three numbers, to be exact).

In 2015, Poff discussed “things about baseball I’ve been doing and thinking about for the last couple years. Last September, I unleashed my ‘Plan to Save Baseball’ – first on the Minnesota Twins front office and then on Commissioner (at the time) Bud Selig. This was a notable and total failure, but my letter to Selig contains the heart of how I felt about playing ball as a kid.”

Poff started off writing to his old Duke teammate Wayne Krivsky, who returned to the Twins in 2011 as special assistant to general manager Terry Ryan. Poff said that two things were troubling him: first, baseball’s astonishing salaries, and how ballpark prices affect kids coming out to the game; second, how kids don’t grow up playing ball for fun much anymore. He called his plan “The 26th Man” – so called for the modest budget he envisioned, equal to the minimum big-league salary of $500,000. The aim was to get a handful of old ballplayers to tour Minnesota and South Dakota, winding up on Indian reservations, and simply to give away baseball, playing games for fun, donating equipment, and sharing memories. Poff saw the potential for a film project.

He followed up by asking Krivsky to forward a letter to Ryan expressing his thought that Major League Baseball “was exactly the right outfit to commemorate and solemnly remember the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II – and the first and hopefully last times atomic bombs were dropped on human populations.” Several years before, Poff had been greatly impressed by the traditional powwow celebrating V-J Day on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the village of Bullhead, South Dakota. He thought that it could translate well to the Twins’ stadium, Target Field, with a tie-in to the significant presence of the Lakota people in Minnesota.

Ryan did not reply, and neither did Selig (who owned the Brewers when Poff played with them in 1980). All Poff got was a terse reply from Selig’s assistant: “Your message and attachment have been printed for review by the Commissioner.”65

With regard to his own time as a professional ballplayer, Poff said in 2015, “I’ve sometimes thought the story of my career was a pitch I was looking for one day in Milwaukee, that I knew I could hit out of the park, that I got, that I took a good swing at – and popped up. An interesting, frankly painful memory I never discussed with anyone till I included it in something I wrote for EFQ (but which never appeared).

“I don’t think I’m rationalizing or looking for a happy ending when I say focusing on that moment alone is forgetting all the moments along the way where I might have been on a razor’s edge and hit the damn thing. I was a pretty unlikely guy to make the big leagues all along. Unrecruited out of high school, undrafted out of college, etc.

“I’m getting to a poem that came out in Spitball a few years ago. I still like a few things about it, but I’m referring to the moment stepping off my deck in Santa Fe in the’78-79 off-season. I’d had a fine year in Oklahoma City – after missing a couple weeks early, I hit .300 with 20 home runs – but didn’t get called up. People I respected, and trusted to tell me the truth, felt I really got screwed.

“So I’m taking that off-season moment at that point in my career as the heart of the thing. Somewhere in that time I remember saying to a Phillies instructor that I liked and respected, in the heat of a game, after an important at-bat where I again took a good rip and failed, that ‘The next best thing to doing good is doing bad.’ Same deal.”66

This is the passage Poff cites from his 2011 poem “On an Old Ballplayer Getting Back in Shape”:

I watched the sun set from my back porch in Santa Fe,
transfixed, “sealed in eternity” as I put it once in a poem
and on one of those nights
I stepped off the deck and walked down
among the piñon trees, and I was surprised,
bowled over, to feel inside myself,
deeply, just how much I loved to play ball –
the whole life – and how much I would miss it
if it ever ended

Last revised: April 5, 2016

 

Acknowledgments

Grateful acknowledgment to John Poff and Patti Lawrence Poff for contributing their thoughts and memories in a series of e-mails over late 2015 and early 2016, plus a telephone interview on January 20, 2016. Thanks also to Bill Mallon for the introduction, to SABR member Tom Drake, and to Chuck Rogers.

 

Sources

Audio

In the early 1990s, John Poff made a series of tapes – approximately 20 hours’ worth – in which he reminisced about his experiences in professional baseball in the 1970s. He described that effort as “sort of a compulsion.”

Internet resources

efqreview.com

goduke.com

findagrave.com

capecodbaseball.org

Photo Credits

John Poff with Milwaukee Brewers: 25th anniversary team set, Miller Brewing, 1994

John Poff with Philadelphia Phillies: John Poff collection

Clay Bryson: Courtesy of Findlay High School and Nate Weihrauch, Athletic Director

 

Notes

1 John Poff, “Donnie Moore – A Racial Memoir,” Elysian Fields Quarterly, Volume 14, No. 1 (Spring 1995), 12.

2 E-mail from Tom Drake to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016.

4 Mary Ellen Kraner Poff obituary, Findlay Republican-Courier, March 9, 1968, B2.

5 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, November 23, 2015.

6 Glen Edward Poff obituary, Findlay Courier, August 30, 1999, 5. “Findlay Selected For Test Program On Awareness Of Foreign Affairs,” Toledo Blade, March 15, 1973, 41.

7 Mary Ellen Kraner Poff obituary

8 John Poff, “Granny Hamner,” Elysian Fields Quarterly, Volume 19, No. 3 (Fall 2002)

9 E-mail from Tom Drake to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016.

10 That book was Diamonds in the Rough (1989). Another book about Lucadello, Prophet of the Sandlots, by Mark Winegardner, followed in in 1990.

11 E-mails from John Poff to Rory Costello, November 23, 2015 and January 13, 2016.

12 Telephone interview, John Poff and Patti awrence Poff with Rory Costello, January 20, 2016.

13 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016.

14 E-mail from Chuck Rogers to Rory Costello, January 21, 2016.

15 E-mail from Tom Drake to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016.

16 Poff’s story in an e-mail to Rory Costello on December 5, 2015 expanded on what Butters told Costello in a telephone interview on February 21, 2007. As Poff told it, “Tom in whatever way had gotten a full ride for a pitcher a year older than me – Alan Schwartz. As often happened in those days, he got his rep, presumably nailed down the scholarship, by taking his high school to a state championship (in this case in New York), but in the process pitching so many innings he hurt his arm. He struggled through four years at Duke – Duke of course honoring the scholarship, always, I thought sort of an awkward situation for him. Alan went on to great success at Bear Stearns and when I returned to the campus for a visit in maybe 2003, there was the Schwartz-Butters complex next to Cameron. Alan also had just recently been appointed CEO at Bear Stearns when the bubble burst in 2008.”

17 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 5, 2015.

18 After leaving his post as Duke’s baseball coach, Butters then devoted full time to his role as executive secretary of the newly founded Duke Athletic Fund. He was named assistant director of athletics in 1972, associate director of athletics in 1976, and got the top job in 1977.

19 E-mails from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 10, 2015, February 3, 2015.

20 “Enos Slaughter to Coach Duke,” Associated Press, February 16, 1971.

21 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 5, 2015.

22 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 9, 2015.

23 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 10, 2015.

24 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

25 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

26 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 10, 2015.

27 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

28 John Poff, “Four-Cornered God,” Elysian Fields Quarterly, Volume 25, No. 3 (Fall 2008)

29 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 9, 2015.

30 E-mail from Tom Drake to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016.

31 Tom Loomis, “Espinosa Seen As The Stopper For Philly’s Crunch Bunch,” Toledo Blade, March 29, 1979, 45.

32 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

33 Poff, “Granny Hamner.”

34 E-mails from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016 and March 13, 2016.

35 “Caloop Dominates Class-A All-Stars.” The Sporting News, November 16, 1974, 55.

36 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

37 Poff, “Granny Hamner.”

38 Poff, “Four-Cornered God.”

39 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, February 10, 2016.

40 Ray Kelly, “Speedy Brown Gets Top-Notch Billing in Phils’ Future Book.” The Sporting News, December 3, 1977, 65.

41 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 24, 2016.

42 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 17, 2016. In nine games for the Escogido Leones, Poff went 2-for-21 (.095).

43 Poff, “Donnie Moore – A Racial Memoir.”

44 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 13, 2016.

45 E-mail from Chuck Rogers to Rory Costello, January 21, 2016.

46 E-mail from Chuck Rogers to Rory Costello, January 21, 2016.

47 Loomis, “Espinosa Seen As The Stopper For Philly’s Crunch Bunch.”

48 Poff, “Four-Cornered God.” Pete Rose went 9-for-13 in the three-game series against the Mets that started on the night of September 11, 1979.

49 Retrosheet records this hit as a single, but newspaper accounts of the game show it to be a double.

50 Tom Flaherty “2 rookies hope it’s their turn,” Milwaukee Journal, March 5, 1981, Part 3, page 2.

51 “Sterling Hurling”, The Sporting News, July 12, 1980, 50.

52 Tom Flaherty, “Poff Pokes Way Into Brewer Plans,” The Sporting News, October 18, 1980, 61.

53 “Lezcano out for season.” Milwaukee Journal, September 2, 1980, Part 2, page 11.

54 Flaherty “2 rookies hope it’s their turn”

55 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, January 24, 2016.

56 Flaherty, “Poff Pokes Way Into Brewer Plans”

57 Flaherty, “2 rookies hope it’s their turn.”

58 Bob Markus, “Sox Yarns,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1981, 35. Bosley, who was just 24, had not been expected to make the White Sox roster. He got into 42 games for Milwaukee that year from June onward, and played in the majors as late as 1990.

59 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, February 2, 2016.

60 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 9, 2015. For an overview of the life and work of martial artist and healer Mikoto Masahilo Nakazono (1918-1994) and the Kototama Principle, visit www.kototamabooks.com.

61 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, February 3, 2016.

62 Tom Goldstein, “Almost Perfect,” Elysian Fields Quarterly, Volume 25, No. 3 (Fall 2008)

63 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, December 9, 2015.

64 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, November 23, 2015, which included the unpublished essay “Thucydides and Baseball.”

65 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, November 23, 2015, which included the letters to Krivsky and Ryan/Selig.

66 E-mail from John Poff to Rory Costello, October 16, 2015.