The man who would have been the Babe Ruth of Maine: that’s the label generally bestowed upon Del Bissonette. It’s flattering. Yet it’s sad, too. Therein lies the tale of the ballplayer from Winthrop.
Del loved baseball almost from the time he was able to walk. He’d been born on September 6, 1899 in Winthrop. Large in his early years, he was on an athletic par with much older kids in Winthrop from grammar school on. At Winthrop High he did some pitching, played some first base, even caught some (the fact that he was left-handed didn’t deter him in the least)… and excelled at it all. A Yankee scout wanted to sign him as a pitcher while Del was still in high school, but Del turned the offer down, deciding he wanted to finish his education first. He was 5-foot-11 and weighed 180 pounds as a big leaguer.
After two years at Winthrop High, Del went on to do a little prepping at Kents Hill and then at Westbrook Seminary (now Westbrook College) in Portland. While at Westbrook, in 1919, he hit a resounding .600 – going 24 for 40 – to set a state record that still stands. In spite of his hitting prowess, however, Del’s goal was still to be a pitcher. He attended New Hampshire State College (now the University of New Hampshire) for one year, during which time he was given a tryout by the Cleveland Indians. Steve O’Neil, the venerable Indians’ catcher, had warmed up Del and seen what he had. O’Neil reputedly stated that he’d never witnessed a player who could throw as hard as Del. The Tribe, however, was in the midst of a pennant race and manager Tris Speaker really didn’t give the Mainer a worthwhile look-see.
After New Hampshire, Del went on to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. While there, playing in a basketball scrimmage, he was accidentally rammed into a cement wall, badly banging his left shoulder. As he later was to say of the injury that cost him his pitching career: “I had to carry it (his throwing arm) in a sling or in my pocket for a year and a half.”
Following his shoulder injury, Del took up the outfield and then first base. He played semipro around Maine and eastern Canada. In 1924 and 1925, he firstbased for both Binghamton and York in the Eastern League. His performance at York in 1925 – he finished second in the league in batting with a .381 mark -earned him a shot with the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) in 1926. The first day of spring training he lined 11 consecutive balls over the right-field fence. “Bissonette’s Punch Makes Robins Chirp” headlined an article in the March 2 Portland Evening Express, referring to Del as the “Winthrop Walloper.” Although he was a sensation for much of the spring, a bad bout of the flu finally did him in. Del ended up back in the minors for 1926, first with Jersey City and then with Rochester. While with the Red Wings, Del adopted a new batting stance, and then brought it with him to Buffalo in 1927. In that year – while Babe Ruth was tearing up the American League – Del tore up the International League. He led the loop in hits (229), doubles (46), triples (20), home runs (31), runs (168), and runs batted in (167), all while walloping a .365 batting average. Buffalo won the IL pennant, the mayor presented Del with a gold key to the city, and, of far greater important, with numbers such as he’d posted, there no holding Del back any longer.
Del played four complete seasons (plus a part of a fifth) for Brooklyn. All four were good. Two were outstanding. In his rookie year, 1928, Del weighed in with a rather remarkable 25 home runs (fourth in the league, well ahead of fifth-place finisher Rogers Hornsby’s 21), 106 RBIs (sixth best in the league), 13 triples (sixth best), 319 total bases (fourth best), and a .320 batting average. The 25 homers by a rookie is still a Dodger club mark. In their 102 years of existence, no one – not Babe Herman, not Duke Snider, not Roy Campanella, not Jackie Robinson, not Gil Hodges, not Frank Howard, not Steve Garvey – has surpassed it. Del is also but one of four National Leaguers to ever top the 100 RBIs’ mark in his freshman season. An especial highlight that season was the Robins’ victory over Carl Hubbell, also a rookie, the first time they ever faced the man who would become the ace of the arch-rival Giants’ staff. It happened on August 26th. The score was 4-3 . . . and the Robins won it on a tremendous (“It cleared everything in sight”: The New York Times) 10th-inning solo shot over the Ebbets Field right-field wall by Del.
In 1929 Del’s output slipped. It’s understandable. He was hit in the head (later requiring a mastoid operation) by a pitch from Lester Sweetland of the Phillies the first week of the season. He was also hampered by sinus problems for much of the season. Still he produced a .281 average, banging out an even dozen homers and knocking in 75 runs.
In the year the hitters went wild, 1930, Del did, too. He reeled off a .336 batting average, socked 16 circuit clouts, scored 102 runs, and drove in 113.
His last complete season, 1931, gave no hint that Del’s playing days were winding down. In 497 at-bats, he banged out 172 hits for a .290 average, scoring 90 times and knocking in 87. At age 32 the next season, 1932, Del should have been at his peak. He most likely would have been, too, had it not been for a crippling -indeed, almost fatal – accident that occurred during spring training in Clear-water, Florida. He was playing a game of volleyball when teammate Dazzy Vance -all 200 pounds of him – landed on Del’s left ankle. At first Del thought nothing of it. Three weeks of pain later, however, he learned that he’d severed his Achilles tendon. He was operated on and expected to be out of action for two months. A week after the operation, however, he developed blood poisoning. He hovered on the brink of death for days; did not gain strength back for months. It was 1933 before Del recovered sufficiently to try to resume his career. Brooklyn management was doubtful he’d ever be the same. In spite of Del’s assurance that he was ready and raring to go, they obtained veteran Joe Judge from the Senators. When Judge got hurt early in the season Del worked his way back into the lineup . . . but not to stay. With a disappointing .246 average, no home runs, and 10 RBIs after 35 games, the Dodgers packed him off to Baltimore -then in the International League – in exchange for outfielder Ralph Boyle and $12,500 cash.
It would be wonderful to report that Del bounced back after being shipped to Baltimore. But he didn’t. From Baltimore he went to Albany. Then it was on to the Montreal Royals, in the International League. At age 37, Del hung up his playing shoes, trading them in for a managerial role. He managed Des Moines in the Western League in 1937, and then the Glace Bay team in the Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) Colliery Baseball League in 1938. In 1939 Del led Quebec to the championship of the Provincial League. In 1941 he joined the Boston Braves organization, debuting with their Bradford, Pennsylvania entry in the Pony (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York) League. From 1942 through 1944, Del was at the helm of Hartford in the Eastern League, leading his club to a pennant in 1944. For 1945, the Braves brought him up to Boston as their third base coach. The war was still on and the Braves, a perpetually weak club, were even weaker than usual. It was more than Braves’ skipper Bob Coleman -who’d succeeded Casey Stengel after the 1943 season – could take. On July 30th, with the team mired in seventh place with a 42-49 mark, he tossed in the towel. The Braves’ management picked Del to take over. The new manager’s goals – as expressed in an interview shortly after taking over the reins – were to get the team hustling, have it take more chances on the basepaths, and, as much as anything, get the players to have some fun. Sounded good. Actually, though, there really wasn’t much that Del could accomplish with a squad that was fundamentally lacking. Under his tenure the Braves won 25, lost 36, and ended up in sixth place. On November 7th it was announced that Del would not be rehired; that the Braves’ field boss for 1946 would be Billy Southworth, an old Boston favorite who’d starred for the Braves in the early 1920s. Disappointed, Del signed on with the Pirates as a coach for 1946. For 1947 and 1948, he returned to Maine as manager of the Portland Pilots (also often referred to, during Del’s time at the helm, as the “Bissonettemen”) of the New England League. Then it was up to Canada, where he skippered the Phillies’ top farm team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in 1949, and Trois Rivieres in the Canadian Provincial League in 1951. After Trois Rivieres, Del returned to Winthrop, unpacking his suitcase for good. He took up poultry farming, and it appears that the only association he had with the game from there on in was when he came out of “retirement” to coach a Winthrop Little League team in the late 1950s. He quit even that, however, when his team won all the games. As Laura put it: “The other coaches got a little upset.”
In 1954 he was offered the job of once more managing the Braves, this time in Milwaukee. He turned it down. As Laura recalls, “He had retired and he wasn’t going back for anything. He wanted to stay home in Winthrop.”
On June 3, 1972, Del Bissonette was found in a Winthrop apple orchard with a gunshot wound in his abdomen. Police concluded that it was self-inflicted. He died a week later in an Augusta hospital. Brooklyn teammate Lefty O’Doul once called Del “the gamest guy I’ve ever met. Most other people would have quit with all his problems.” During his baseball career, Del had undergone arm surgery, a mastoid operation, a dozen sinus operations, and, finally, the severed Achilles tendon that hastened the end of his playing days and almost killed him, too. It appears that, at age 72, troubled by worsening emphysema and bouts of depression, “The Winthrop Walloper” finally did quit. Yet, even though Del Bissonette was often referred to as “the unluckiest man who ever played baseball,” Del didn’t see himself that way. He once remarked, “In the overall picture, I’ve been pretty lucky just to play in the majors.”
This biography originally appeared in the book Was Baseball Really Invented in Maine? by Will Anderson, published in 1992 by Will Anderson, Publisher. Laura Bissonette offered access to Del’s personal scrapbook as well as her own memories of her late husband.