Norm Larker (TRADING CARD DB)

Norm Larker

This article was written by Marc Z. Aaron

Norm Larker (TRADING CARD DB)Norman Howard John Larker played six seasons (1958-1963) in the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Colt .45’s, Milwaukee Braves, and San Francisco Giants. He had sufficient talent to make the All-Star team and receive votes for the Most Valuable Player Award in 1960. Unfortunately, his well-earned reputation as a hothead on the field of play and elsewhere did nothing to help his career. Indeed, there seems to have been in Norm Larker a fair bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Of Slovak-German descent,1 Larker was born to Lewis Larker and the former Susan Zalaznock on December 27, 1930, in Beaver Meadows, a mining town in the hard coal country of Pennsylvania. Norm was the Larkers’ second child, a year younger than Melvin; Lewis Jr. joined the family six years later. Lewis worked in the local mines, as did many of the men fortunate enough to have jobs in the 1930s. He managed to find the time to play second base and pitch in the county and state semipro leagues.2 And, like many men in the area, he died, in May 1954, in a mine accident.3

The Larker house bordered the right-field foul line of a nearby baseball field. Many of the boys Norm played with were as much as three years older than he. He played right field and first base because he was one of the few with his own glove. One of the boys’ pragmatic local rules was that a ball hit over the right-field fence was an automatic out because the boys did not want to lose the one baseball they had to play with. Accordingly, the left-handed throwing and hitting Norm Larker became a line drive hitter.4

An athlete (Melvin had little interest in sports) at Hazelton High School, Larker graduated in 1948 and went to play for the unaffiliated Hazelton Mountaineers of the Class-D North Atlantic League (NAL). He had a good year at the plate, batting .300 in 109 games, and was voted most popular among Hazelton NAL baseball players by regional fans.5 Toward the end of the season, however, Larker was struck by a thrown ball in the kidney area of his left side. The kidney became infected and had to be removed.6

At the start of the 1950 season the Brooklyn organization purchased Larker’s contract, and assigned him to the Greenwood Dodgers, an affiliate in the Class C Cotton States League. In 1951 Larker moved to the Asheville Tourists of the Class B Tri-State League. He led the Tourists with 17 home runs and finished fourth in the league. The next two seasons he spent with the Mobile Bears of the Double-A Southern Association. The start of the 1954 season found Larker playing for the Montreal Royals of the AAA International League. Despite going 5-for-15 in the early part of the season with Montreal, he would not be with the team beyond the first two weeks of the year.

After losing six pounds on a trip to Buffalo at the end of April, Larker was diagnosed with the mumps.7 In May, recovering from the mumps, he was optioned back to Mobile, but his father’s death delayed his arrival at Mobile.8

Larker spent the rest of the season in Mobile, batting .326 and slugging .586 (fourth in the league). He led the team not only in those two categories but also with 24 home runs and 29 doubles. Larker explained that he had adopted a heavier and longer thick-handled bat and stood closer to the plate. He always choked up on the bat.9

His level of play continued to improve over the next three seasons with the St. Paul Saints of the AAA American Association, where he batted over .300 with double-digit home run totals and 30 or more doubles each season.

So determined and driven was Larker to make it to the majors that he also played winter ball during this time in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. While playing with last-place Magallanes in 1955, Larker led the Venezuela League in batting with a .346 average.10

He was at his most productive for St. Paul in 1957 with 36 doubles, 12 triples, 12 home runs, a .323 batting average, and a .901 OPS. Among those with the requisite number of at-bats to qualify to the batting title, Larker finished second to Norm Siebern. He was ready for The Show.

The aging Gil Hodges was still the Dodgers’ first baseman, but Larker wasn’t deterred. Correspondents of The Sporting News voted him the hardest worker in the Dodgers’ spring training camp.11 During 1958 Larker wound up playing 43 games in the outfield. In 291 plate appearances he put up good numbers, stroking 25 extra-base hits, including16 doubles, en route to a .277 batting average. During a 17-game homestand that ended July 20, Larker appeared in 15 games. He picked up his hitting with 21 hits in 49 at-bats, raising his average from .258 to .333. In 27 games from June 20 through July 27, he strung together 92 plate appearances without a strikeout. The Los Angeles Dodger Baseball Museum chose the line-drive contact hitter the Dodger Player of the Month for July.12

In 1959 Larker improved his batting numbers and played a few more games at first. The Dodgers ended the regular 154-game season tied with the Milwaukee Braves, forcing a best-of-three playoff. In Game One, Larker drove in the first run with a first-inning line-drive single to right field to score Charlie Neal. He picked up two more singles, and the Dodgers won, 3-2. In Game Two of the playoff, the Dodgers were trailing the Braves, 5-2, in the bottom of the ninth. With the bases loaded and none out Larker delivered a line-drive single to the opposite field, scoring Wally Moon and Bob Lillis. The Dodgers tied it up on a Carl Furillo sacrifice fly and won in the bottom of the 12th. With two out and runners on first and second, Furillo hit a ball to replacement shortstop Felix Mantilla’s left. His low throw to first base went past first baseman Frank Torre, and Hodges scored the winning run. Mantilla had moved from second to short during the seventh inning after Johnny Logan was injured when Larker went hard into second base attempting to break up the double play.13 The Dodgers advanced to the World Series; Larker had gone 5-for-8 over the two games.

Larker’s good hitting did not carry over to his only World Series appearance. He batted .188 with no extra-base hits. However, in Game Four, he had a key hit in the third inning off Early Wynn. The game was scoreless at the time. With Moon on first, Larker singled to center, and when center fielder Jim Landis’s throw to third went wild, Moon scored and Larker advanced to second base. He then scored the Dodgers’ second run on a Hodges single. The Dodgers won the game, 5-4, and took the World Series in six games.

In 1960 Larker replaced Hodges as the starting first baseman. His salary was up to $17,000 from $10,000 in 1959. This was to be a very exciting season at the plate for Larker. Following a first-inning strikeout on June 8, he did not strike out in 108 plate appearances (98 at-bats) leading up to the first All-Star game on July 11. He played in 82 of his team’s first 100 games, striking out only eight times in 286 plate appearances. His batting average for the 23 games prior to the break was .390. The high point of his season was a 15-game hitting streak from June 15 through June 30. During this time he batted .455 to lift his average from .302 to .354 and became a factor in the batting race. He went into September with a .339 average, well ahead of his nearest challengers, Willie Mays (.326) and Dick Groat (.323). But his average slid down in the final month and, on September 30, Groat edged ahead. On October 2, the last day of the season, Groat had beaten out Larker for the NL batting crown by just two points (.325 to .323), or one hit.

Larker played in only 97 games in 1961. His average fell to .270, down 53 points from the previous season. Ron Fairly was coming off a 1961 season with an OPS of .956 at the age of 22, so Larker was expendable. Both he and Hodges were chosen in the expansion draft.

On October 10, 1961, Larker was drafted by the Houston Colt .45’s from the Dodgers as the 23 rd pick in the expansion draft. With Houston in 1962, he got more plate appearances (590) than he had in any season with the Dodgers, batting .263.

On November 30, 1962, Houston traded Larker to the Milwaukee Braves for Jim Bolger, Connie Grob, and Don Nottebart. Larker appeared in only 64 of the Braves’ first 115 games, often as a pinch-hitter, and was batting .177 (26-for-147) when he was purchased on August 8, 1963, by the San Francisco Giants. The Giants at the same time obtained pitcher Frank Linzy from Springfield of the Eastern League. They then sent Matty Alou and Gaylord Perry to Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League to make room for Larker and Linzy.14

Larker appeared in 19 games for the Giants, mainly as a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter. He had only one hit in 14 at-bats with San Francisco. At the end of the season the Giants sent him to their El Paso farm team.

Larker spent the 1964 season in the minors playing for Tacoma (.282/8/35) before departing for Japan to play two seasons with the Toei Flyers of the Japan Pacific League, where he hit a combined .267 with 14 homers and 85 RBIs.

Overall, Larker had a solid baseball career, occasionally playing a starring role but serving primarily as a foot soldier, maintaining steady employment and making some fair money. Barely beneath the surface, however, lay a smoldering Mr. Hyde.

Larker had two nicknames, either of which could have served as a catalyst – “Dumbo” and “Mad Dog.” He resented them both. “Dumbo” came from his big ears. “Mad Dog” originated in the minors after a teammate noticed that Larker grunted and groaned whenever he swung at a ball.15

Nicknames aside, Larker’s temper was his most formidable obstacle. Anything, it seemed, could set him off.

On September 23, 1952, playing with Mobile, Larker was fined $25 and set down for three days for a run-in with umpire C.P. Burch during a playoff game in Memphis. The dispute arose when Burch called Larker out on strikes in the eighth inning. He threw his bat to the ground and vehemently argued the call. Manager Ed Head of the Bears had to grab Larker and point him to the dugout bench when he went at the umpire a second time after being ejected for his threatening gestures and bodily contact with the umpire.16 On December 7, 1958, in Puerto Rico, Larker was suspended six games for inappropriate behavior (a brawl).17

Even when not involved directly in a fracas, Larker was ready to argue. On April 11, 1961, manager Leo Durocher was livid towards umpire Jocko Conlan after a foul ball call. Larker was on base at the time and according to reports, got the Dodgers bench to join in the protest.18 On June 15, 1961, he and teammate Maury Wills went at it in the clubhouse. Gil Hodges suffered a punch in the nose trying to break up the belligerents.19 On July 12, 1963, Larker and Milwaukee Braves teammate Bob Shaw fought because Larker was supposedly blocking Shaw’s view of Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson during the fourth inning at Busch Stadium. Shaw threw some half-dozen punches while Larker ducked and covered up. They refused to shake hands after they were pulled apart by teammates. Neither player was in the game at the time of the outbreak. Manager Bobby Bragan resolved the issue by making the two of them roommates on the next road trip to Cincinnati.20 Shaw had earlier in the season lost his cool when he was called for five balks in a game at Milwaukee on May 4, 1963. In that game not only was Shaw thrown out by umpire Al Barlick but so was Larker in the same inning in a separate incident.21

On June 3, 1964, at Honolulu Stadium, playing for Tacoma, Larker struck out looking. He was in the umpire’s face before he dropped his bat and stormed into the dugout. He proceeded to throw onto the field 12 bats, one baseball, and eight batting helmets, before being ejected by home plate umpire Russ Goetz. After the game, manager Charlie Fox fined and suspended Larker for one day.22

Larker was considered the loudest member of the Houston Colt .45’s. On a hot night Larker, having just grounded out, drop-kicked the dugout electric fan about 10 feet and broke it. His teammate and roommate Bob Lillis asked Larker why he did that. Larker responded that he had to kick something. But he did buy the team a new fan. Lillis sat there fuming and perspiring the remainder of the night.23 On another night while with Houston, Larker threw 27 bats onto the field at Milwaukee.24

Mary Page was Larker’s high-school sweetheart. After graduation when he was on the road playing minor-league ball, Mary and Larker would correspond by letter and an occasional phone call. He would frequently get annoyed over something trivial with Mary on the phone.25

No wonder Larker suffered from an ulcer and even had to be hospitalized in Japan while playing for the Toei Flyers in 1965.26 Even though he vented his anger through his temper tantrums, he also swallowed a lot of it. The result was the ulcer. Nine years in the minors, being drafted by the White Sox and not playing a single inning, and sitting on the Dodgers bench while Hodges played first base (despite Larker’s excellent performance while substituting for the injured Hodges in 1959) – all added to the buildup of his internal anger. When the ulcer kicked up, he would go wild in the dugout. Banned from smoking cigarettes, he would light up an occasional cigar.27

On September 4, 1954, Larker married Evelyn Louise Hanks, a Mobile native. They met while Larker was playing minor-league ball in the South. The couple moved to Long Beach, California, when Larker broke into the major leagues. Once out of baseball, Larker seems to have calmed down, perhaps even found some peace. He and Louise raised four sons – Duane, Lewis, Damian, and Collin. He would be remembered as a family man who enjoyed hunting and fly fishing, especially with his family members. He would barbecue ribs and take photographs at backyard and neighborhood parties.28

Larker underwent lung surgery in April 2002 while residing in Southern California. He was employed by Johns Manville, a manufacturer of asbestos.29 He passed away on March 12, 2007, after the reappearance of cancer in 2006. He is buried in All Souls Cemetery, Long Beach, California.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Warren Corbett, Bill Nowlin, and Jan Finkel, and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Sources

In addition to items noted below, Ancestry.com proved useful for Larker family background.

 

Notes

1 Norm Larker player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

2 Dick Gordon, “Winter as Axe-Swinger Helped Larker with His Licks as Batter,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, September 25, 1957.

3 Dick Peebles, “Didn’t Need Crystal Ball,” Houston Chronicle, October 18, 1961.

4 Based on telephone interview and letter from childhood friend Joe Leggo, June 2007. Leggo is an international country singer/writer.

5 Plain Speaker, Hazelton, Pennsylvania (scrapbook of Mary Page – former high school sweetheart).

6 Frank Finch, “Here’s the Pitch,” Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1958: C2.

7 The Sporting News, May 12, 1954: 28.

8 The Sporting News, May 26, 1954: 31.

9 “Larker Finds It Pays to Hustle on Trailing Club,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1954: 29.

10 “Valencia Venezuelan League Champ; Larker Swat Leader,” The Sporting News, February 15, 1956: 34.

11 Oscar Kahan, “Six Rookies Rated Spring ‘Surprises’,” The Sporting News, April 16, 1958: 15.

12 Frank Finch, “Alston’s Confidence Vote Puts New Hop in Limping Dodgers,” The Sporting News, August 27, 1958: 9.

13 Arnold Hano “Larker Never Lets up,” Sport Magazine, June 1961.

14 Jack McDonald, “Party’s Over for Pitchers; Mays Busts Out of Slump,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1963: 5.

15 Hano.

16 “Mobile’s Larker Fined $25, Set Down for Umpire Row,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1952: 48.

17 Database maintained by althetiger@hotmail.com

18 Database maintained byaltheiger@hotmail.com

19 Database maintained byaltheiger@hotmail.com

20 Database maintained byaltheiger@hotmail.com and Bob Wolf, “Kayo Shaw Swings at Stormin’ Norman,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1963: 11.

21 Bob Wolf, “Kayo Shaw Swings at Stormin’ Norman.”

22 “Larker Fined, Banned One Day by Pilot for Tantrum,” The Sporting News, June 20, 1964: 33.

23 Mickey Herskowitz, “Lillis Credits Swat Spurt to ‘Good Deal’,” The Sporting News, February 9, 1963: 3.

24 Mickey Herskowitz, “Temper-Tethered Aspro Feeds Colt .45s New Ammo,” The Sporting News, June 27, 1964: 21.

25 From numerous discussions with Mary Page of Vermont. She has been a long-time client of the author of this article.

26 Bob Hunter, “Frenchy’s Flashing Bat Gives Dodgers That Oo-la-la Feeling,” The Sporting News, September 10, 1966: 7.

27 Hano.

28 “In Memory of Norm Larker,” Long Beach Press Telegram, March 18, 2007.

29 Hazelton Standard-Speaker, July 6, 2003.

Full Name

Norman Howard John Larker

Born

December 27, 1930 at Beaver Meadows, PA (USA)

Died

March 12, 2007 at Long Beach, CA (USA)

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