When They Were Just Boys: Chicago and Youth Baseball Take Center Stage

By Alan Cohen

This article was published in the 2015 The National Pastime.

Not long after D-Day in June 1944, Esquire magazine summoned 16- and 17-year-old boys from all over the country to New York for the first Esquire All-American Boys Baseball Game.

Chicago was one of 29 cities to send players to this game. A local newspaper would select a deserving local player and pay their travel expenses. In 1944, the Windy City’s rep was first baseman Charlie Perchak, who had three hits in the game.1 Perchak’s eye-popping fielding in a practice game caught everyone’s attention, and manager Connie Mack was impressed enough to name him team captain. He later signed with the Cubs, but in four minor league seasons, interrupted by two years in the military, rose only to Class B. His dream of stardom ended in 1950.

This is a story of Chicago’s relationship with youth all-star games many years ago. Nearly 30 players represented Chicago in these games and three made it to the majors. Most, like Charlie Perchak, did not. But these games also launched the careers of two dozen players, from other locales, who went on to play with the Cubs and White Sox.

Before the 1944 Esquire game, a photographer snapped a picture of the day’s starting pitchers with the managers. The pitcher for the East team, number 19, was known as “Mr. Zero” due to his numerous shutouts. He pitched six scoreless innings for the win, striking out seven and allowing only three hits. He was named the game’s MVP.2

Pitcher from suburban Chicago played in the Hearst Sandlot Classic and in the major leagues with the Cubs from 1957-63.Along with the award came a four-year college scholarship. Rather than attend school, however, Billy Pierce signed with the Detroit Tigers and pitched for them in parts of the 1945 and 1948 seasons before being traded to the White Sox, where he blossomed. In 13 years with Chicago, Pierce fashioned a 186–152 mark with a 3.19 ERA. He was named to seven All-Star teams and led his league with 20 wins in 1957, 186 strikeouts in 1953, and a 1.97 ERA in 1955). At age 35, when it looked like he was slowing down, Pierce was traded to the Giants and his 16–6 record sparked the Giants’ 1962 National League pennant run. As for his #19, it is one of ten numbers the White Sox have retired.

The selection process for the Chicago representative to the 1945 Esquire game emerged from a youth All-Star contest at Comiskey Park on July 28. In the event, sponsored by the Peoria Journal, the CYO All-Stars defeated the American Legion All-Stars 1–0 in seven innings. Bloomington High School’s sophomore pitching star John Neal, a two-way player, started the game in the outfield, getting two hits and then pitched a hitless last inning in the seven inning contest. He was selected to go to New York.3 In batting practice before the game in New York, Neal turned heads, depositing balls into the outfield stands. The hitting display impressed team manager Babe Ruth so much that the Bambino elected Neal to play outfield in the game.

Neal, batting cleanup, did not disappoint. He went 2-for-4 with a single and a double and was right in the middle of a rally that resulted in his team scoring its first two runs in the fourth inning en route to a 5–4 win.

In 1945, Jim Crosset took over promotion of the game for Esquire and was instrumental in moving it to Chicago for 1946. What was to be the last Esquire game was played before 28,211 at Wrigley Field in Chicago on August 10, 1946. Six of the 16 players on the East team eventually made the majors.

In the days prior to the game, the young players got to see two games between the White Sox and the Indians, attended a performance of the Ringling Brothers Circus, took a two-and-a-half hour boat ride on Lake Michigan, and attended a practice of the College All-Stars football team.

Ty Cobb, manager of the West squad, applauded the game. “When any event makes it possible for boys from all sections of the country to meet on common ground, and where all have a common interest, it is a big step forward in making this country a better place for our coming generation to live in.”4 Honus Wagner managed the East Squad, assisted by coaches Luke Appling and Mike Tresh.

Cobb’s squad exploded for five runs in the sixth inning and coasted to a 10–4 victory. Walter Pocekay went 4-for-5 with a double and two RBIs and was named the game’s MVP.5 Pocekay played in parts of nine minor league seasons, mostly on the West Coast, and batted .308 overall, but never reached the majors.

Chicago’s representative in the game, Pete Pantos, played for the West squad. He signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, but only got as far as Class C in his one minor league season.

A skinny kid from Pittsburgh, he got experience in the Hearst Sandlot Classic before playing pro ball.Those players from this game who did make the majors include Hobie Landrith, Chuck Stobbs, Harry Agganis, Pete Whisenant, John Powers, and Harold “Tookie” Gilbert.

Esquire had hoped to take the game to a different city each year, but these hopes were dashed in December 1946 when the magazine officially pulled the plug on the project. 

Two other youth tournaments, however, had their inaugural contests in 1946.

“Brooklyn Against the World,” a yearly three-game series held at Ebbets Field in both 1946 and 1947, featured players from all over the United States (including the territory of Hawaii) and Canada facing Brooklyn’s finest. The Chicago Daily News sent Art Sepke in 1946. Sepke was selected for the game by Rogers Hornsby, the director of the Chicago Daily News Free Baseball School.

Sepke had batted .405 in his senior year of high school and hurled his team to five wins. At the end of the season, when his squad was depleted by injury, he even stepped behind the plate for a couple of games. Sepke played for parts of two seasons in the Class D Sooner State League, but his pro career ended in 1949.

The Chicago Daily News sent Joe Naples to the 1947 game. Naples, a shortstop, had batted .455 in his senior year at Chicago Vocational High School.6 Although not signed by a major league team, he pursued his baseball dream to Class D in 1949, playing in the Alabama State League and the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. Over the course of the season, he batted .234, and it became clear that he would not be the next Marty Marion.

In 1946, the Brooklyn team had so much good pitching that one of its hurlers only saw action in one game, playing right field. Despite not seeing mound action in Brooklyn Against the World, the young man was not fazed. Within two months he signed with the New York Yankees, and within four years, Edward “Whitey” Ford had reached the majors.

The Hearst Sandlot Classic was the most enduring of these youth games. Each season from 1946 through 1958, Hearst Newspapers from around the country sent players to New York’s Polo Grounds to face a New York contingent sponsored by the Journal-American. Chicago’s Hearst paper, the Chicago Herald-American, sent two players to the game each year. In 1959, the Classic was moved to Yankee Stadium where it was contested through 1965, as the New York Journal-American ceased publication in early 1966.

Chicago’s Herb Adams was the starting pitcher for the U.S. All-Stars in the first Hearst game. Adams, who had earned his way on to the squad by virtue of his performance in an All-Star game at Wrigley Field on July 1, signed with his hometown White Sox in 1947 as an outfielder and batted .405 in his first minor league season with Class D Madisonville, Kentucky. That opened a few eyes and he was promoted to the White Sox in 1948. He played parts of three seasons with the Sox before his major league career concluded in 1950 at age 24. After two years in the military, he returned to the minors and played through 1959. Over 11 minor league seasons, he batted .312.

Another Chicago player sent East in 1947 really made the headlines. The Weber High School senior earned his way to New York by winning the Herald-American’s “Home-Run King” Contest in March 1947. He became the first person to homer in the Hearst Classic, banging a ball to deepest center field and circling the bases for an inside-the-park homer as the U.S. All-Stars defeated the Journal-American All-Stars 13–2 before more than 31,000 spectators, including the game’s honorary chairman, Babe Ruth.

Who was this kid? None other than Bill “Moose” Skowron, who signed with the Yankees in 1950 and tore things up on the farm. In 1952, at Kansas City, he hit 31 homers and drove in 134 runs, adding a .341 batting average. He eventually joined the Yankees and played with them for nine seasons. Over the course of his 14-year career in the majors, he hit 211 homers.

In the ensuing seasons, Chicago continued to send players to New York. Their 1949 representative, Bobby (later “Bob”) Will, took a while to get to the majors. He was the game’s Most Valuable Player, driving in three runs with a single and a double. His bases-loaded single in the seventh inning plated two more and tied the game 5–5. The next batter, Ralph Felton, plated the game’s final two runs with a single.

There wasn’t much big money in baseball in those days, so Will elected to pursue his education at Mankato Teachers College in Minnesota and Northwestern University. He signed with the Cubs in 1954 and first reached the majors in 1957, appearing in 70 games. In 1959, he played 162 games at Triple-A Fort Worth, batting .336 and winning American Association MVP honors. He spent the next three full seasons with the Cubs.

Will was the last of the Hearst Game players from Chicago to reach the majors, but the annual contest launched the careers of other Cubs and White Sox. In 1954, Los Angeles was represented by Barry Latman and Jim McAnany. Both signed with the White Sox. Latman pitched six years in the majors and compiled a 59–68 record, fashioning an 8–5 mark for the pennant-winning 1959 White Sox. McAnany had the best year of his career for those same Sox, batting .276 in 67 games.

But the real bonanza for the Windy City was 1958. In that year, Boston was represented by Len Merullo Jr. (His father, former Cub Lennie Merullo, had committed a record four errors in one inning the day Len Jr. was born.) The young Merullo was the youngest player on the U.S. All-Stars that year, as the game was played a month prior to his sixteenth birthday. The senior Merullo accompanied his son to New York, and the younger Merullo’s teammates—particularly a kid from Seattle named Ron Santo—were thrilled to be around the former big leaguer.

Prior to the trip East, Santo was not considering signing with the Cubs, but the influence of the senior Merullo was such that the Cubs’ West Coast scouts had little trouble convincing him. Not only did the Cubs ink Santo, they also signed Paul Popovich and John Boccabella.

Glenn Beckert first played in the 1958 game in Pittsburgh, and in 1959 was selected to play in New York. Originally signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1962, he was taken by the Cubs in the first-year draft after the season. He joined the Cubs in 1965. In nine seasons with the Cubs, “Bruno” was named to four All-Star teams, won one Gold Glove, and batted .283.

The most Hearst alums to appear in a big-league game appears to be eight, and this happened on two occasions: April 29, 1971 and August 9, 1972. Both games involved the Cubs and Expos. In the latter contest, the Cubs hosted the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field, and each team was represented by four former Hearst Sandlot Classic players. Santo, Beckert, Popovich, and Tommy Davis took the field that day for the Cubs, while the Expos featured Ron Fairly, Mike Jorgensen, Boccabella, and Mike Marshall. Four of them started the game: Fairly, Santo, Beckert, and Jorgensen.

When it comes to players from kids’ All-Star games showing up at the same place, however, nothing quite tops the 1957 World Series. Tony Kubek, Gene Conley, Frank Torre, Bill Skowron, and Bob Grim had played in the Hearst Games, while Whitey Ford and Don McMahon had played in “Brooklyn Against the World.”

Yet another player from the 1958 Pittsburgh All-Star game which produced Popovich and Beckert wound up in Chicago. An outfielder chosen as an alternate for the 1958 Hearst Sandlot Classic, he went on to play football at the University of Pittsburgh. As noted in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, he was “easily the biggest man on the field…the 6'3" 215-pounder, who’ll probably play an end at Pitt this fall, showed speed and a healthy swing. He couldn’t get hold of one in the game but demonstrated his power in batting drills. He sent two over the wall to the right of the scoreboard in left.”7

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Mike Ditka went on to a very successful career that did not include baseball.

The games in New York continued through 1965, but the Journal-American ceased publication in early 1966. In New York, annual games between the Yankees Juniors and the Mets Juniors were played through 1970. In Boston, the Hearst program continued through 1971. 

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in sandlot baseball. In New York, the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Alliance sponsors kids’ programs as well as an annual dinner at which young players receive scholarship awards and old-timers swap stories of the Journal-American days.

We shall close this brief history with a story of the 1971 game in Boston. The experience of a youngster from Everett, Massachusetts in that contest is the stuff from which miracles are made.

Picked for the 90-man squad was a 16-year-old infielder who would not be denied his place. He went to tryout after tryout before being selected as one of the 90 semi-finalists.8 In a game the morning of July 29, the youngster went 1-for-2, scored the winning run, made the best fielding play of the game, and was selected as one of the 30 young men to play in the finals.9

The personification of persistence, he eventually became far better known for his ice hockey skills, and Mike Eruzione captained the United States Olympic team to the Gold Medal in the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980.

Do you believe in miracles? For hundreds of Esquire, Brooklyn Against the World, and Hearst participants in games from 1944 through 1971, the answer is a loud, resounding, “YES!”

ALAN COHEN, a retired insurance underwriter, has been a member of SABR since 2011. He has written more than 20 biographies for SABR’s BioProject. His article about the Hearst Sandlot Classic, which launched the careers of 88 major leaguers, appeared in the Fall 2013 "Baseball Research Journal." A Long Island native, he now resides in West Hartford, Connecticut with his wife Frances, two cats, and two dogs.

 

 

Sources

Books

Peary, Danny. We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era—1947–1964, New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Articles

Royal Brougham, “Western Club Wins Esquire Boys Classic,” The Sporting News, August 21, 1946, 32.

Cohen, Leonard. “Bill Pierce: Pro Ball or Medicine? Esquire Ace Undecided,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1944, 8.

Dugo, Andrew. “Popovich, Kuntzler Picked for Hearst All-Star Game,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, August 8, 1958, 15.

Martin, Whitney. “Baseball World Against Brooklyn,” Altoona Tribune, August 7, 1946.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The New York Journal-American

The New York Times

The Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner

The Pentagraph (Bloomington, Illinois)

The Sporting News

Other

Baseball-Reference.com

Interviews

Len Merullo Jr., October 21, 2014

  • 1. New Orleans Picayune, August 8, 1944, 8.
  • 2. Louis Effrat, The New York Times, August 8, 1944, 12.
  • 3. Fred Young, “Neal Rates Job on Esquire Nine,” The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), August 5, 1945, 8.
  • 4. The Ogden Standard Examiner, May 9, 1946.
  • 5. Royal Brougham, The Sporting News, August 21, 1946, 3.2
  • 6. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 3, 1947, 23.
  • 7. Dugo, Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, August 8, 1958, 15.
  • 8. Boston Record-American, July 17, 1971, 13.
  • 9. Kevin Mannix, Boston Record-American, August 1, 1971, 21.