This article was written by Steven Schmitt
Before signing a $100,000 bonus contract with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, John Stephen DeMerit had been a standout athlete since he was a youngster. In the fifth grade he set a record for the 100-yard dash (12.1 seconds) at the Port Relays, an annual event held in his hometown of Port Washington, Wisconsin, 27 miles north of Milwaukee. In high school DeMerit earned 16 letters in four sports – track, football, basketball, and baseball. His father, Sam DeMerit, was the school’s athletic director and track coach, a position he held from 1926 to 1962. In football, John played offense and defense and led the team in rushing, passing, placekicking, and punting. In basketball, DeMerit led the Braveland conference in scoring at 24 points per game and set a single-season record for points scored. That spring he pitched and lost, 3-2, in the semifinals of the 1953 state baseball tournament to eventual champion Kaukauna, in Port Washington’s first appearance in the tournament.
So how did this versatile but modest athlete get to the major leagues? Born in West Bend, Wisconsin, on January 8, 1936, DeMerit was the youngest of four children, including brothers Samuel Jr. and James and a sister, Nancy. Between high-school years, John played American Legion baseball for the Land O’ Lakes team for two summers (and a summer between high school and college), demonstrating for the first time his skills as a five-tool player who could hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and field. After working out with the transplanted Milwaukee Braves, DeMerit turned down a Class D contract in the Northern League and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1954 on a basketball scholarship.
“My Dad wanted me to be an engineer,” said DeMerit, who soon found that all those mathematical formulas were not for him and switched to physical education and recreation. Playing freshman basketball, DeMerit learned coach Harold E. “Bud” Foster’s pattern, set-shot offense that had won an NCAA championship in 1941 and a Big Ten title and NCAA berth in 1947. By this time, DeMerit said, “Every team had scouted us and knew what we were going to do.” DeMerit played freshman baseball under coach Gene Calhoun. As a sophomore in 1956, he was on the bubble to make the traveling squad for the spring trip to the Florida State tournament after failing to impress varsity baseball coach Arthur “Dynie” Mansfield in indoor workouts. Mansfield flipped a coin to decide whether DeMerit or another player would make the trip. “That’s exactly what happened,” DeMerit recalled. “He says, ‘Neither one of you guys are good enough to go but I have to take another player.’” DeMerit rode the bench until outfielder Walt Nowicki dusted himself off after sliding into second base, failed to call time, and was tagged out. A disgusted Mansfield, who had virtually zero tolerance for mental errors, turned to his would-be blond bomber and barked, “DeMerit, warm up!” DeMerit led Wisconsin with 14 RBIs on the nine-game journey with five home runs, and finished the season with 12 homers, a school record, and a .349 batting average.
“The ball just hopped off his bat,” recalled teammate Wayne “Knobby” Kelliher. “He (also) had an absolute cannon for an arm.” Kelliher recalled a 1956 game in which Michigan State shortstop Earl Morrall – who had a 20-year career as an NFL quarterback – tried to score from second on a single to right field. “John threw a one-hop strike to me at home plate,” Kelliher, the Badger catcher, remembered. Morrall was still eight feet from the plate when he saw the ball in Kelliher’s glove. With his eyes as big as Miami oranges, Morrall was an easy out. “He’s thinking, ‘Where’d that ball come from?,” said Kelliher, laughing. Despite DeMerit’s “rifle shot” home run and another throw that preserved a tie in the tenth inning, the Badgers lost the second-longest game in Wisconsin history on Morrall’s three-run bomb in the top of the 15th inning. Wisconsin finished third in the Big Ten, handing eventual national champion Minnesota its only conference loss, and became the first Wisconsin baseball team to win 20 games.
DeMerit became a “sure-fire prospect” after the team’s trip to Arizona in 1957. He slugged three triples against Arizona State in the first of four wins in five games with the Sun Devils. In Wisconsin’s only defeat, the Sun Devils intentionally walked DeMerit three times in a row after he belted a two-run homer. Wisconsin’s 6-1 record on the road trip (including two wins over the Arizona Wildcats) had scouts buzzing about DeMerit, who batted .553 and drove in 12 runs in ten preseason games.
After the team plane nearly crashed during a severe storm on the way home, the Badgers dropped their first three Big Ten games and finished 3-7. Though DeMerit batted .382 and won his second team MVP award, his home-run production dropped from 12 to 4 and his RBIs from 37 to 17. “The telephone calls, the stands full of scouts – it was just too much for him and the team to handle,” said Wisconsin teammate Walter “Bunk” Holt.
Sportswriters correctly predicted that DeMerit would sign a professional contract by season’s end. On May 26, 1957, the 21-year-old athlete sat down at a table in the living room of his home and signed a contract with the Milwaukee Braves that included a $100,000 bonus spread over five years. Midwest scout Ed Dancisak, general manager John Quinn, farm director John Mullen, and team president Joe Cairnes were on hand. Dancisak had scouted DeMerit at Port Washington and at the University of Wisconsin. “He’s quick with his bat,” said Dancisak, “and takes that short stride we like to see in a ballplayer. He knows the strike zone, too.”
Dancisak and Quinn believed DeMerit could immediately help the Braves, whose committee of left fielders batted .163 in the first month of play. Milwaukee had failed to acquire sluggers Frank Thomas, Del Ennis, or Lee Walls, had sold Chuck Tanner to the Cubs to make room for bonus player Hawk Taylor, and sent Wes Covington back to Wichita. “Everyone connected with the Braves is more than delighted to have DeMerit with us,” said Quinn. “First, because he is an outstanding player; and second, because he is a Wisconsin boy. We would like to develop more home-state boys for the Braves, and are particularly pleased John chose us.” Manager Fred Haney said that DeMerit “takes a good cut at the ball. He’s a big fellow and I like the way he moves.” Wisconsin coach Dynie Mansfield added, “He has good hands and hits for distance to left and center. I think he can definitely step in and help the Braves right now, but the fans shouldn’t expect too much until he has a chance to gain confidence and find himself.” Twenty-four had scouts watched DeMerit at Northwestern a week earlier. Almost every major-league team sought him but the Braves made the best offer. “I gave my Dad $25,000 to buy a house,” said DeMerit, who worked out with the Braves and completed his university exams before playing in his first game on June 18 against the New York Giants at Milwaukee County Stadium.
With some of his Badger teammates watching from the stands, DeMerit debuted as a ninth-inning defensive replacement for left fielder Andy Pafko. Two nights later, pinch-hitting for reliever Dave Jolly, DeMerit singled to center off the glove of Stu Miller, who had given the Braves fits with his Trevor Hoffman-like change-ups. “They fell over on the bench,” DeMerit said of the Braves players’ reaction to his first plate appearance. “Since I hadn’t seen (Miller) before, I probably had an advantage.”
As Milwaukee Journal sports writer Bob Wolf opined, the Big Ten was not the National League “and the chance that DeMerit will be a star overnight is strictly an outside one.” On July 11 center fielder Bill Bruton collided with shortstop Felix Mantilla in the outfield and was lost for the season. Shortly thereafter, the Braves decided to play DeMerit against left-handed pitchers. “He reminds me of Al Kaline,” said coach Connie Ryan. “He’s loose and takes a good cut at the ball.” When Hank Aaron stepped on a drain board chasing a Willie Jones double on July 17 in Philadelphia, DeMerit became the starting center fielder for a week. “DeMerit proved adequate as a center fielder, as was to be expected of a man with his speed and throwing arm,” Wolf wrote. “At the plate, though, he showed understandable signs of being unready for major league pitching.” For the season, DeMerit collected just five singles in 34 at-bats and fanned eight times. In the World Series against the New York Yankees, DeMerit appeared in the Game Three loss at County Stadium as a pinch-runner for backup catcher Del Rice.
Worst of all, the bonus rule required the Braves to keep DeMerit on the 25-player active roster for two seasons, precluding any minor-league development. “(The contract) was hard to turn down but in retrospect I might have been better off somewhere else,” DeMerit said. “You aren’t really working your skills. I should have been on my way up through the minors and working toward a major-league career.”
With the bonus rule changed in 1958 to prevent teams from “hiding” prospects in the minor leagues, DeMerit played regularly in the Braves system for the next three seasons. In May 1958 he hit four consecutive home runs over two games for the Atlanta Crackers and had a .301 average in mid-June. Because of warts on the fingers of his right hand, DeMerit went on the disabled list. On August 13 he hit his first home run in six weeks and finished the season with a “disappointing” .257 average with 13 home runs and 70 RBIs. In 1959 DeMerit had a 13-game hitting streak in spring training but played most of the season for Class A Jacksonville, batting .251 with 14 home runs and 48 RBIs. Atlanta recalled DeMerit but lost in the Southern Association playoffs. The Braves added DeMerit to their roster in early September after Bruton injured an ankle sliding into second base. DeMerit and Al Spangler shared center field and the Braves tied the Los Angeles Dodgers for the league lead, forcing a best-of-three playoff series. In the Dodgers’ second and decisive victory, Spangler batted for DeMerit, who had replaced Pafko in left field.
With one minor-league option left, DeMerit reported early for spring training with the Braves in 1960, with the possibility of platooning with Spangler or Lee Maye at a corner outfield spot for new manager Chuck Dressen. The Braves optioned DeMerit to Louisville, where Ben Geraghty managed the American Association Colonels. “He has all the physical requirements for success,” Geraghty said in February. “DeMerit can hit inside pitches all day. On outside pitches, it’s a matter of learning the spin on the ball, going after the pitch, and getting his body into the swing. He’s strictly an arm-swinger right now.”
Because of illness, Geraghty did not finish the season at Louisville. DeMerit did, calling the 1960 season “the most satisfying of my baseball career.” The Colonels won the Junior World Series over the International League champion Toronto Maple Leafs, who had won 100 games and took their league title by 17 games. Hitting third in the order as new manager Bill Adair’s right fielder, DeMerit batted .268 with 12 home runs and 50 RBIs. His 1957 Milwaukee bonus baby teammate Taylor hit cleanup, batting .270 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs. Adair (later named American Association Manager of the Year) did little more than make out the lineup card. “No hit-and-runs, no steals, no bunt plays,” DeMerit remembered. In the Junior World Series DeMerit homered twice off St. Paul 20-game winner Jim Golden and led the Colonels with a .313 postseason average.
Before the 1961 season began, the Braves traded the popular Bill Bruton to the Detroit Tigers, creating open competition for jobs in left field and center field. DeMerit hit .302 in spring training and beat out Al Spangler for the center-field job. While awaiting delivery of his second daughter, DeMerit started for the Braves in center field on Opening Day, April 11, 1961. The Braves lost to the Cardinals in ten innings, 2-1. Seventeen days later, DeMerit played right field during Warren Spahn’s 1-0 no-hitter over San Francisco at frigid County Stadium. “He knew his craft,” DeMerit said of Spahn. “He really was a pitcher. He could put the ball where he wanted it. He knew how to set up hitters. The only trouble he had was throwing breaking balls to left-handed hitters. He could get right-handed hitters out with a screwball.”
By May 2 DeMerit’s average had fallen to .178. The Braves acquired slugger Frank Thomas from the Chicago Cubs to play left field, moved Maye to right and installed Aaron in center. Dressen was willing to give DeMerit a chance to platoon in right field because of his throwing arm. “He hasn’t been playing anything like he was in spring training but we’ve got to give him a chance,” the manager said. Instead, DeMerit became a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch-hitter, and pinch-runner, batting .162 with two home runs and five RBIs in 80 at-bats. In June he was on general manager John McHale’s alleged “lost worksheet” – a list of players available for immediate trade that a Milwaukee player found in the team’s hotel on a road trip.
On October 10, 1961, the New York Mets picked DeMerit in the National League expansion draft. On the Mets, DeMerit joined 1961 teammate Thomas, whom the Braves had traded to the Mets. DeMerit said manager Casey Stengel sometimes dozed off during a game and recalled that the coaches had to translate Stengelese to the players after team meetings. “He shouldn’t have been managing,” DeMerit said of Stengel. He said the Mets relied on fading veterans to draw fans to the Polo Grounds instead of developing young talent for the future. Thomas hit 34 home runs but ex-Brooklyn Dodgers Gil Hodges, Charlie Neal, and Roger Craig and former batting champion Richie Ashburn were well past their primes. DeMerit reported to camp as one of eight outfielders and did little more than replace Thomas or right fielder Gus Bell in the late innings. Once Stengel had relief pitcher Herb Moford bat for himself in the tenth inning of a tie game on April 17, 1962, with DeMerit available for pinch-hitting.
On May 16, 1962, DeMerit homered and later scored the winning run on ex-Brave Felix Mantilla’s 11th-inning single in a 6-5 win over the Cubs at the Polo Grounds. Four days later DeMerit played his final major-league game during a doubleheader against the Braves in Milwaukee. The Mets sold him to Syracuse of the International League and his salary was cut in half, from $10,000 to $5,000. By this time John Quinn was in his third season as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. DeMerit recalled a promise from Quinn that he would acquire DeMerit if he was ever released but that never happened. DeMerit got permission to return to Milwaukee to have an injured shoulder treated but he refused to report to Syracuse, opting to retire from the game. The Mets suspended him. Eventually, DeMerit returned to Port Washington, where his promising athletic career had begun.
DeMerit graduated in physical education in recreation with the Class of 1960 at the University of Wisconsin, taking courses in the offseason to complete his degree. With his baseball career over, DeMerit unsuccessfully scoured Madison for jobs in his chosen field – taking summer courses at the university, living in a rented room, and trekking home to “Port” on weekends. When an Equitable Life Assurance agent named Larry McDonald of Sheboygan learned DeMerit was back home, he urged him to become an agent for the company, which happened to be the trustee for the major-league baseball pension fund.
While he enjoyed the work and could have become a district manager, DeMerit found that the feast-or-famine, kitchen-table sales career was not the best fit. In 1967 DeMerit was appointed to the city recreation council. Two years later, the city needed a director of recreation and DeMerit was talked into applying for this job. He got it, and for the next 26 years –from 1969 until his retirement in 1995 – DeMerit’s department upgraded facilities, supervised a rapidly growing slow-pitch softball program, and staffed local summer playground sites that offered a variety of activities, from tennis to swimming to baseball.
DeMerit said he had no regrets about his career and was grateful for his baseball opportunity and for taking new directions when his major-league career ended. He came back to Port Washington and raised a family of seven children. One of them, Tom DeMerit, was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ fourth-round pick in the 1987 amateur draft but never rose above Class A as an outfielder with the Vero Beach Dodgers. DeMerit and his wife, Gladys (Heinen) DeMerit, his high-school sweetheart, were married on February 1, 1958, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Port Washington’s most visible landmark. As John became famous for his baseball exploits, Gladys accompanied him to Milwaukee, Louisville, and New York and saw a sure-fire prospect take everything in stride and not blow his own horn. “I have never known him to be any other way,” she said. That’s good enough for John DeMerit and everyone who has known him.
Last revised: July 1, 2014
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.
The Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1979).
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin)
Port Washington (Wisconsin) Pilot
The Sporting News
University of Wisconsin Athletic Department
 Interviews quoting John De Merit took place by telephone on February 26, 2010, and July 31 and August 2, 2012, and in person at Port Washington, Wisconsin on August 2, 2010.
 Personal interview. Wayne “Knobby” Kelliher. June 2, 2010, Madison, Wisconsin.
 Telephone interviews, Bill Rubin, June 11, 2010, and Jim O’Toole, March 10, 2011; personal interview, John Aehl, June 17, 2010.
 Telephone interview. Walter “Bunk” Holt. Glencoe, Illinois, December 29, 2011.
 Tony Ingrassia, “Braves Sign UW’s DeMerit For Reported $50,000 Bonus,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 27, 1957, Part 2, p. 3, 7.
 “Braves Sign UW’s DeMerit.”
 DeMerit Hopes to Help ‘in a Pinch,’ Milwaukee Sentinel. June 3, 1957, Part 2, p. 4.
 The Sporting News. June 5, 1957, 27.
 The Sporting News. June 5, 1957, 10.
 The Sporting News. July 3, 1957, 7.
 The Sporting News. July 31, 1957, 11.
 The Sporting News. November 5, 1958, 13.
 The Sporting News. February 10, 1960, 18.
 The Sporting News. February 17, 1960, 13.
 The Sporting News. May 3, 1961, 8.
 The Sporting News. June 21, 1961, 15.
 The Sporting News. June 16, 1962, 29.
 Personal interview with John and Gladys DeMerit. August 2, 2010.