Ed Fitz Gerald (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Ed Fitz Gerald

This article was written by Paul Hofmann

Ed Fitz Gerald (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Tabbed “the best young catching prospect to try for a major league berth in many years” in the spring of 1948 by Pirates rookie manager Billy Meyer, Ed Fitz Gerald went on to have a 12-year major-league career as a backup catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, and Cleveland Indians.1 The gangly, six-foot, 170-pound right-handed-hitting backstop had a memorable, albeit obscure, career that included catching a no-hitter and hitting a ninth-inning, two-out, pinch-hit double that broke up a bid for a perfect game.

Edward Raymond Fitz Gerald was born on May 21, 1924, in Santa Ynez, California, about 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara. He was the seventh of eight sons born to Frank and Ida (Nevin) Fitz Gerald. Frank worked as a contract laborer on a farm and later as a custodian at the local high school. Ida, a first generation American whose parents had come to this country from Ireland, was a homemaker. The family’s surname was often misspelled as the common spelling Fitzgerald or as FitzGerald. Perhaps the best evidence of the correct spelling of his last name was how the ballplayer signed his name; Fitz Gerald — leaving a space between Fitz and Gerald.

Eddy, as he was known growing up, attended Santa Ynez High School where he starred in both baseball and basketball. After he graduated from high school, he headed north to join his older brother John, a six-foot, four-inch pitcher, at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California.2 While at Saint Mary’s, the brothers played baseball for coach Earl Sheely, a former major-league first baseman.3

Fitz Gerald’s college baseball career abruptly ended when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in April 1943. He served with the Army at Camp Roberts, California, then in the Aleutian Islands with the 597th AAA Battalion of the Arkansas National Guard at Dutch Harbor. With the threat to the Aleutians at an end, Fitz Gerald was sent to Europe, and was responsible for single-handedly capturing two German soldiers on the Rhine.4 After the war he served as a guard on the Germany-Austria border.

Following World War II, Sheely, who managed the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) from 1944-46, remembered the Fitz Geralds and signed the brothers to contracts in 1946. While John never made it back from arm troubles that plagued him following the War, for Eddy it was the beginning of a 21-year career in organized baseball.

Fitz Gerald began his professional baseball career with the Solons farm club, the Wenatchee Chiefs of the Class-B Western International League (WINT).5 Under the tutelage of former Cleveland Indians and long-time PCL outfielder Buddy Ryan, the 22-year old Fitz Gerald batted .338 with 13 home runs in 91 games. After the Chiefs established a healthy lead in late August, Fitz Gerald was called up to the Solons. The Chiefs finished with a record of 89-54 and captured the WINT pennant by nine games. It was the only pennant-winning team Fitz Gerald played on or coached during his career.

Now among the brightest PCL prospects, Fitz Gerald appeared in 11 games with the Solons and hit .263. A Solons game program from that time described the young catcher as “fast and hits the long ball. He handles pitchers in a workmanlike fashion, and the Solons moundsmen are all praises for his work behind the plate.”6

Fitz Gerald got off to a great start with Sacramento in 1947. In his first 22 games of the season he hit .360, prompting the Solons to place a $100,000 price tag on the 22-year-old catcher.7 Fitz Gerald played in 144 games and finished second, behind former Washington Senator Hillis Layne (.367) for the PCL crown with an average of .363. He also had a team-leading 26 stolen bases, third-highest in the circuit.

In 1947, singer Bing Crosby purchased stock in the Pittsburgh Pirates and the following season the team went on a $235,000-spending spree to acquire new talent from the PCL. While details of the Pirates purchase of Fitz Gerald vary, The Sporting News reported that he was acquired for $65,000 and three players.8

As part owner, Crosby served as vice president of the club. Early in the 1948 season, Crosby commented that he believed Fitz Gerald was the most promising of the players the Pirates acquired over the previous winter. The famous crooner added, “He’s good looking, too; will give the ladies a treat.”9 Perhaps unbeknownst to Crosby, the handsome catcher was already spoken for.

On October 11, 1947, Fitz Gerald married Betty Ann (Riedel) in a formal ceremony at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in North Sacramento. Betty Ann had moved with her family to Sacramento from Washington, D.C. a year earlier. John served as his younger brother’s best man. The couple had six children and were married for nearly 37 years before Betty Ann passed away in 1984.

During the spring of 1948, Fitz Gerald and right-hander Bob Chesnes, another PCL import, were the talk of the Pirates training camp in Hollywood. While the team had high hopes Fitz Gerald would develop into a “top ranking receiver,” he was far from a finished product when he joined the Pirates.10

Fitz Gerald made his major-league debut Opening Day, April 19, 1948 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The rookie catcher entered the game in the top of the seventh when he pinch-hit for starting pitcher Hal Gregg. Facing right-hander Ewell Blackwell with fellow backstop Clyde Kluttz on second, the right-handed hitting Fitz Gerald “powered a liner into the right center pocket, but the fleet (Frank) Baumholtz had faded into that area and he ran down what looked like a double.”11 In the bottom of the inning he took over for Kluttz behind the plate. In his second at-bat in the top of the ninth, Fitz Gerald reached on an error by third baseman Grady Hatton. The Pirates lost 4-1.

He collected his first major-league hit at Crosley Field five days later. With two down in the top of the sixth inning and the Pirates leading by a score of 2-1 and runners on first and second, Fitz Gerald singled off right-hander Tommy Hughes to score first baseman Ed Stevens and extend the Pirates lead to 3-1. In the eighth, he gave everyone a glimpse of his speed. After beating out the relay to first on an attempted double play, he stole second, “beating the play with a hook slide.”12 Despite having above average speed, he stole only nine bases in his entire major-league career. The Pirates went on to beat the Cincinnati Reds, 7-1.

On July 20, 1948, Fitz Gerald hit his first major-league home run off Philadelphia’s backup catcher Al Lakeman at Forbes Field. With the Pirates leading 8-2, Fitz Gerald smacked a three-run homer into Greenberg Gardens that scored Eddie Bockman and Danny Murtaugh, and capped the Pirates 11-2 victory. Lakeman, who had been brought in to pitch in a mop-up role, retired the next two batters in the only pitching appearance of his career.

The fact that the rookie catcher was still a work in progress was on full display with his defense. Fitz Gerald led all major-league catchers with 15 passed balls, in part due to his struggles with catching veteran right-handed knuckleballer Kirby Higbe. Fitz Gerald was criticized for being weak on pitches in the dirt, evidenced by his finishing in the top three in the league in passed balls four times.13 He finished his career with a fielding percentage of .975.

Following the season, Fitz Gerald returned to Sacramento with his wife and newborn child and reflected on his rookie season. He felt he could have done much better than he had and shared some of his thoughts with the Sacramento Bee.

“Sure the big league pitching bothered me plenty. The hurlers up there have control. They keep the ball at your weakness all the time. But I think you can learn to hit up there.”14

As for his defensive struggles, Fitz Gerald implied that he was learning on the job. “I had no trouble once I learned how to hang on to Kirby Higbe’s knuckler. What that ball doesn’t do! At first I was chasing it all around, but I caught on.”15

The 1949 season was similar for Fitz Gerald at the plate. He appeared in 75 games and hit .263 with two home runs and 18 RBIs. Defensively he appeared in 56 games behind the plate, backing up Clyde McCullough who came over in an offseason trade with the Chicago Cubs.

Fitz Gerald had a promising start to the 1950 season. He hit at a .440 clip during spring training but was unable to get on track during the regular season, managing a single hit (a double) in 15 at bats before being optioned to the Pirates triple-A American Association Indianapolis Indians.16 The Pirates hope was that he would get the opportunity to play every day and improve his catching under the instruction of manager Al Lopez, a two-time National League All-Star catcher. Fitz Gerald appeared in 103 games for the Indians, batting .313 while driving in 42 runs.

Fitz Gerald earned his way back on to the Pirates roster as a backup catcher in the spring of 1951. At the end of spring training, Meyer told reporters, “Ed Fitz Gerald looks greatly improved as a catcher. He doesn’t drop as many balls as he did at this time last year. Fitz has an authoritative bat and will give Mac (Clyde McCullough) some rest when he needs it.”17

On May 6, 1951, Fitz Gerald had a supporting role in a piece of Pirates history when he caught both ends of a doubleheader against the Boston Braves at Braves Field. Not originally scheduled to catch the nightcap, Fitz Gerald was pressed into action when McCullough was unable to play because of the flu. After the Pirates dropped the opener 6-0, left-hander Cliff Chambers, despite walking eight Braves batters, tossed a no-hitter, the Pirates first no-hitter since Nick Maddox no-hit the Brooklyn Superbas on September 20, 1907.

The Pirate catcher made a spectacular catch in the eighth inning to help Chambers complete the no-hitter. After two Braves reached on walks, third baseman Bob Elliot came to the plate with two outs. He fouled the first pitch off near the stands on the Pirates side of the field. Fitz Gerald made a great catch of the ball as he “dove into the stands” to end the inning.18 Chambers went on to retire the Braves in order in the bottom of the ninth to complete the 3-0 gem.

Following the game, Chambers praised his catcher “for the way he handled his pitches.”19 Fitz Gerald returned the praise when he told reporters that Chambers was as fast as he had ever been. “He had a really good fast ball out there today. Sure he was wild, but when he needed that little extra on the fast ball, boy he had it.”20

That year, Fitz Gerald appeared in only 55 games. In 105 plate appearances he hit .227 and drove in 13 runs. He saw even less action in 1952. In 51 games, 18 behind the plate, he hit .233 with one home run and 17 RBIs. Now 28 years old, it was clear that he was no longer viewed as the Pirates catcher of the future.

Fitz Gerald was used sparingly by the Pirates early in 1953, appearing in only six games, before being purchased by the Washington Senators “for quite a bit above the waiver price.”21 While the departure of Fitz Gerald came as a surprise to some, the catcher was all smiles when he learned he was getting a new lease on life with Bucky Harris and the Senators in the American League.

“I guess I should say I’m sorry to be leaving. But really I’m not. Everyone was fine to me in Pittsburgh and the fellows I played with were great. But when you’re sitting on the bench so much it isn’t very good.” He went on to say, “I know I’ll be getting a lot of work in Washington. They have a good pitching staff and a chance to finish in the first division, too.”22

Fitz Gerald saw considerably more action following the trade. In 88 games with the Senators, 85 as a catcher, he hit .250 with three home runs and 39 RBIs.

He earned the starting catcher position with the Senators in 1954 and was backed up by veteran journeyman Joe Tipton. That year he appeared in a career-high 115 games, 107 as a catcher. He also established major-league career highs in plate appearances (401), at bats (360), hits (104), and home runs (four), while batting .289 and driving in 40 runs, matching his career high established a year earlier.

In 1955, Fitz Gerald shared catching duties with Bruce Edwards and Clint Courtney, who had come over in an early-June trade with the Chicago White Sox. Fitz Gerald enjoyed his finest offensive day of his career on May 1. Entering the game with an anemic .152 average, he slammed a pair of home runs and drove in four runs in the Senators 16-10 slug-fest loss to the Athletics at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. Both home runs came off rookie right-hander Art Ditmar. In the first inning, Fitz Gerald capped the Senators five-run first inning with a three-run home run to left. With the score tied 5-5, Fitz Gerald led off the top of the fourth inning with a solo home run to deep left field. He drew walks in his final three at-bats of the day.

Fitz Gerald hit .295 with four home runs and 17 RBIs in a 45-game span from May 1 to August 14, but went into a late-season slump and hit only .130 with a single RBI during the remainder of the season. He finished the season with an average of .237 with four home runs and 19 RBIs.

Fitz Gerald fell to third on the Senators catching depth chart in 1956, behind Courtney and Lou Berberet whom the Senators acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Yankees. Despite hitting .304 with two home runs and 12 RBIs in the 64 games in which he appeared, the Senators turned more frequently to Berberet, a very solid defensive catcher.

Fitz Gerald’s playing time continued to diminish in 1957. He appeared in only 45 games and hit .272 with one home run and 13 RBIs. He went 4-for-10 as a pinch-hitter and on May 20 cemented his reputation as a clutch bat off the bench with a bottom of the ninth, bases-loaded, walk-off pinch single off reliever Al Aber to give the Senators a 2-1 win over the Tigers.

Clearly on the downside of his career, Fitz Gerald appeared in only 58 games — 21 as a catcher — during the 1958 season. In his limited role, he hit .263 with 11 RBIs. However, it was as a pinch- hitter that he had his greatest impact, batting .375 (12-for-32) with 7 RBIs. It was as a pinch-hitter that he factored into one of baseball’s closest brushes with history.

On June 27, 1958, in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, White Sox left-hander Billy Pierce had retired 26 consecutive Senators and was within one out of becoming only the fifth pitcher in major-league history to throw a perfect game. Washington manager Cookie Lavagetto sent Fitz Gerald in to pinch-hit for pitcher Russ Kemmerer. The Senators hurler also went the distance that evening. Fitz Gerald entered the game with a .313 average (10 for 32), was just five for 29 (.172) against Pierce during his career. On the first pitch, Fitz Gerald swung late and sliced a double down the line in right, just out of the reach of Ray Boone at first base.23 In 1982 Pierce told sportswriter Bob Vanderberg, “Fitz Gerald was a first-ball, fastball hitter. So we threw him a curveball away. And he hit it down right field line for a hit.”24 The next batter, center fielder Albie Pearson, struck out to end the game. The White Sox won, 3-0.

It was not entirely surprising that Fitz Gerald broke up what would have been the first perfect game since 1922. He was a dependable pinch-hitter over the course of his career, batting .261 (37-for-142) with one home run and 24 RBIs.

Fitz Gerald had a somewhat dubious start to the 1959 season when he went 0-for-4 and hit into a triple play. With the Senators leading 5-0, Hoyt Wilhelm relieved Orioles starter Jack Harshman in the bottom of the fifth. Roy Sievers walked and moved to second when Bob Allison beat out a bunt for an infield single. Fitz Gerald followed with a liner to first that resulted in a 3-6-3 triple play. Despite Fitz Gerald’s tough day at the plate, the Senators went on to beat the Orioles, 9-2.

Fitz Gerald was hitting .194 (12 for 68) on May 25 when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for backup catcher Hal Naragon and left-handed pitcher Hal Woodeshick. The Indians were looking for a veteran presence behind the plate as starting catcher Russ Nixon suffered through a slump that had dropped his batting average to .176. The trade allowed Fitz Gerald to move from the Senators, who were 19-21 and tied for fourth place to the first-place Cleveland Indians who were 23-13 and one game ahead of the second-place Chicago White Sox.

On June 9 Fitz Gerald suffered a broken thumb by a foul tip in the seventh inning of the Indians 7-3 loss to the Orioles at Baltimore. The injury kept him sidelined for a month.

In 49 games with the Indians, Fitz Gerald hit .271 with one home run and four RBIs. Unfortunately, the Tribe could not hold on to first place and finished in second with a record of 89-65, five games behind the American League pennant-winning White Sox. It was only the second time in Fitz Gerald’s 12-year major-league career that he played for a team that finished with a winning record.

On April 12, 1960, Fitz Gerald was released by the Cleveland Indians, ending his major-league playing career. While he never reached the potential that some had predicted early on, he enjoyed a lengthy career with a number of memorable moments. In total, he played 807 games, hitting .260 with 19 home runs and 217 RBIs.

Following his release he was offered a coaching job by Indians manager Joe Gordon. Later that year, Gordon was traded to the Tigers for manager Jimmy Dykes. Following the season, Gordon resigned to become manager of the 1961 Kansas City A’s. Fitz Gerald was reunited with his former boss when he was hired to be the A’s bullpen coach. While he and the other coaches were retained for the remainder of the season after Charlie Finley fired Gordon, the former catcher’s coaching days in Kansas City ended when the season concluded.

Fitz Gerald’s next job took him to Minnesota. From 1962-64 he was the bullpen coach for the Twins under manager Sam Mele. It was a homecoming of sorts. Fitz Gerald was returning to the franchise, which recently relocated from Washington, with which he played seven seasons.

Following the 1964 season, Fitz Gerald was given the opportunity to manage in the minor leagues when he was named manager of the San Francisco Giants Class A affiliate Fresno Giants for the 1965 season. He led the team to a 70-69 record and third-place finish in the California League, 12½ games behind the Stockton Ports. He returned to the helm of the Giants in 1966 and the team again finished in third place. This time with a record of 74-66, 13½ games behind the Modesto Reds. During his two years in Fresno, Fitz Gerald managed eight future major-leaguers, most notably Bobby Bonds and pinch-hitter extraordinaire José Morales.

Fitz Gerald left baseball following the 1966 season and returned to his family in Sacramento. He worked for the State of California Office of State Printing. Fitz Gerald retired in 1985, shortly after Betty Ann’s death a year earlier, and married Verda Cerniglia. She had four children of her own from a previous marriage. The couple were married for 35 years and resided in Folsom, California, before Verda passed away on January 21, 2020. She was 85.

Edward Fitz Gerald died on June 8, 2020 in Sacramento, California. He was 96 years old. He is buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Citrus Heights, California, next to Betty Ann. At the time of his passing he was survived by14 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren.25

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Bruce Harris and fact-checked by Chris Rainey. Thanks also to Anne Keene for her input.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also relied on Baseball-reference.com and Retrosheet.org.

 

Notes

1 Tom Kane, “Pirates’ Skipper Lauds FitzGerald As Catching Find,” Sacramento Bee, March 23, 1948: 23.

2 Wilbur Adams, “Between the Lines,” Sacramento Bee, March 2, 1946: 10.

3 Sheely had a nine-year major-league career with the Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Boston Braves that spanned 1921-1931. A career .300 hitter, Sheely hit a career high .320 with the White Sox in 1924.

4 Gary Bodingfield, “Ed Fitz Gerald,” Baseball in Wartime. Retrieved from http://www.baseballinwartime.com/player_biographies/fitz_gerald_ed.htm

5 Alan O’Connor, “Ed Fitz Gerald,” Gold on the Diamond: Sacramento’s Greatest Baseball Players (Sacramento, CA: Big Tomato Press, 2008): 95.

6 Alan O’Connor.

7 Wilbur Adams, “Sacs Tack $100,000 Price Tag on Freshmen Find Fitz Gerald,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1947: 19.

8 Les Biederman, “Pirates’ Big Spending Over, Look to Farms for Players,” The Sporting News, January 14, 1948: 2.

9 Linda Gail George, “2nd Baseman Crosby Just a Pirate Fan Today,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 20, 1948: 3.

10 Tom Kane.

11 Charles Doyle, “Pirates Beaten by Reds, 4-1, Fight Mars Tilt,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 20, 1948: 19.

12 Lester J. Biederman, “Singleton Hurls Bucs to 7-1 Win,” Pittsburgh Press, April 25, 1948: 33.

13 Sam Gazdziak, “Obituary: Ed FitzGerald, 1924-2020,” https://ripbaseball.com/2020/07/11/obituary-ed-fitzgerald-1924-2020/

14 Wilbur Adams, “Eddie FitzGerald, Home, Says. ‘I Could Have Done Better,’” Sacramento Bee, October 12, 1948: 25.

15 Wilbur Adams.

16 “Fitz Gerald to Be Hoosier Regular,” Pittsburgh Press, May 9, 1950: 35.

17 Jack Hernon, “Roamin’ Around: Meyer Sees Improvement in Pirates,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 29, 1951: 15.

18 Charles J. Doyle, “Pirates’ Chambers Crashes No-Hit List: Braves Victims of 3-0 Classic,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 7, 1951: 18.

19 Charles J. Doyle.

20 Charles J. Doyle, “Cliff Chambers Quits Sick Bed to Earn Place in Hall of Fame,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 7, 1951: 20.

21 Lester J. Biederman, “Money May Be The Answer: Hall, Fitz Gerald Cut Baffles Bucs…and Haney,” Pittsburgh Press, May 14, 1953: 25.

22 Jack Hernon, “Roamin’ Around: Fitz Gets the Glad Hand,” Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, May 15, 1953: 23.

23 Richard Dozer, “27th Man Ruins Pierce’s Perfect Game,” Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1958: 43.

24 Bob Vanderberg, Sox: From Lane and Fain to Zisk and Fisk (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1984), 142.

25 “Edward FitzGerald, 1924-2020,” https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sacbee/obituary.aspx?n=edward-fitzgerald&pid=196462327

Full Name

Edward Raymond Fitz Gerald

Born

May 21, 1924 at Santa Ynez, CA (USA)

Died

June 14, 2020 at Folsom, CA (USA)

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