Baseball weather is finally upon us. Life is good.
For New Franklin resident Ron Negray, this is the 86th spring — and the 58th since he pitched in the major leagues.
Right in our midst, virtually anonymous, hanging out at places like Hacker’s Bar & Grill at the Firestone public golf course, is a fellow who once suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers and played alongside baseball legends Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella.
Negray also was involved in a minor-league game in Cuba when Fidel Castro was coming to power — a contest that ended prematurely when about 1,000 of Castro’s soldiers started firing their
weapons into the air to honor the nascent dictator.
If you’re guessing this Garfield High graduate has some excellent tales to tell, correctamundo.
Still as sharp as Ty Cobb’s spikes, Negray welcomes a couple of visitors into the living room of the brick ranch he has lived in since hanging up his uniform.
Laying across the arms of an unoccupied chair is a panoramic photograph of the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers, given to him just a couple of weeks ago by a friend he met at Hacker’s. There’s Negray, No. 34, standing just down the line from the immortal Jackie Robinson.
The Akron native not only had a ringside seat to history, but also got to know Robinson well and considered him one of his closest friends on the team.
“I really liked him,” Negray says. “He was a really nice guy. He would do anything for you.”
Here’s something he did, something you’ve never read about.
When a team wins the World Series, the players get rings. In those days, before multiple divisions made regular-season championships almost irrelevant, the players also were given fancy wristwatches for winning the pennant.
“We were playing in Philadelphia when we clinched the pennant,” Negray says. “After the game was over, they gave out watches. I was one of the last ones [to join the team that year, having been called up from the minor leagues], and they forgot to give me a watch.
“So Jackie Robinson came over and he says, ‘Here, Ron, you can have my watch.’?”
Negray later gave the priceless souvenir to his father, who cherished it for life.
For all of Robinson’s incredible courage in blazing racial trails (documented in a superb Ken Burns series about him currently airing on PBS), he had no interest in blazing any in the air.
Teams rarely flew in those days, mainly taking trains. But one day Negray was sitting directly across the aisle from Robinson during a flight leaving Pittsburgh in a thunderstorm.
“Jackie Robinson hated to fly,” he says. “We’re a couple hundred miles out and smoke started coming out of the ventilator, and the lights went out.”
The problem was in an air-conditioning unit, but nobody knew at the time.
“When the lights went out, he went underneath the seat,” Negray says, laughing. “That’s how scared he was. He almost turned white.”
Although Robinson was in his sixth season in the majors, his skin color was still an ongoing issue.
“You’d go on the road, especially to Boston, the Braves, and they’d throw black cats out and they’d yell at him,” Negray says.
“He took an awful verbal beating. It was just a shame he had to go through that. ...
“I tell you what — he was a tough guy. He was a good guy. He was.
“That whole Dodger team was super guys.”
Well, at least after you got to know them. They didn’t seem all that super the day Negray made his major-league debut.
SEPT. 14, 1952
The 1952 Dodgers were a powerhouse, fielding seven all-stars and four future hall of famers. They reached the seventh game of the World Series before falling to a New York Yankees team that was winning its fourth straight title.
Sixty-four years later, Negray still remembers every detail of his major-league debut. Who wouldn’t?
Dashing to Ebbets Field from the minors, he arrived several innings after the game started. The clubhouse boy handed him a uniform so oversized that “it looked like a potato sack.”
The manager sent him out to the bullpen, where his new teammates merely stared. Nobody said a word.
Starting pitcher Carl Erskine was getting hit hard, and soon the bullpen phone rang. A coach said, “Negray, get up. You’re going in.”
“I warm up and go into the ballgame,” he says. “Campanella is the catcher. He comes out to the mound and says, ‘Who are you?’?”
Negray pitched well, holding the Reds scoreless for three innings, thanks in large part to his speciality, an overhand curve.
He continued to pitch well in limited action — missing out on the World Series because he hadn’t been with Brooklyn long enough to qualify — but spent the next two seasons in the minors.
Traded to Philadelphia in 1955, he pitched for the Phillies for two years before being traded back to the Dodgers, who in 1958 moved to Los Angeles, where Negray took the mound in the first major-league game ever played on the West Coast.
The following year, however, he was back in the minors, never to return. Signed after briefly attending Kent State, Negray spent at least part of 14 seasons in the bushes. When asked whether he became frustrated bouncing up and down between the minors and the bigs, he says he didn’t mind; he was still getting paid to play baseball.
Negray liked winter ball even more, because in two months he could make what he made during an entire major-league season — $5,500 (roughly $50,000 today).
In 1959, the Cincinnati Reds’ top minor-league team was based in Cuba. Negray was playing for Montreal, the Dodgers’ top affiliate.
On Montreal’s second trip to Cuba, the revolution was heating up. Armed guards met the team at the airport and led them to their hotel, which they were not permitted to leave.
The next afternoon was Castro Day at the ballpark. A local official warned, “You guys better wear your baseball helmets because they’re going to start firing their rifles about the third or fourth inning to honor Fidel Castro.”
Sure enough, in the fourth inning, Castro’s soldiers started blasting wildly into the air.
“When a bullet goes up,” Negray says with a smile, “it has to come down.”
None of the players was hurt, but “it was something to see. The stadium held 20,000, and about 90 percent of them were soldiers. There must have been 1,000 rifles.”
Montreal immediately hightailed it back to the hotel under heavy guard and took the first plane out the next day.
I don’t have enough space to tell you about Negray’s wild encounters during winter ball in revolutionary Venezuela and the Dominican — “I played for some good dictators,” he jokes — but if you see him around town, I bet he’d fill you in.
Negray walked away from the game in 1963 after five straight seasons in the minors, walking into what he views as a marvelous career: selling uniforms, athletic equipment and supplies to high school, college and pro teams throughout the region.
His old house is nearly empty now. His son died 15 years ago. His wife of 57 years, Shelly, died in 2013.
The spry 85-year-old doesn’t spend much time watching baseball. He says he has grown weary of seeing managers yank pitchers prematurely.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising coming from a man who once pitched both ends of a minor-league doubleheader — surrendering a single run.
How many pitches?
“About 500,” he says, laughing, eyes twinkling through his glasses.
Fun guy. Fun stories.
Happy baseball season.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31