Whammy Douglas spent this weekend at Bear Trail Golf Club near Jacksonville, N.C., doing what he’s done on every busy weekend for the last five years. The former scratch golfer and Dunlop golf salesman works as the club’s starter, shepherding groups to the first tee and greeting club members before they embark on their 18-hole odyssey.
Douglas, 79, whose story The Carrboro Commons told in this article, didn’t have time to speak in time for the story’s deadline: The golf course beckoned. But the former right-handed pitcher spoke at length Tuesday afternoon about his self-described “interesting” baseball career, featuring a compliment from Ted Williams, his hasty call-up to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957, a lifelong friendship with a Hall-of-Famer and his largely straightforward approach to pitching, blindness in his right eye notwithstanding.
As for golf?
“Well, if you’ve got good people to play with, you enjoy it,” he said.
Whammy Douglas has, evidently, as much use for a handicap in golf as he did in baseball and life: Not much at all.
The Carrboro Commons: Branch Rickey, the Pirates’ general manager, expressed some concern when he signed you to an amateur contract in 1953. He told you that your compromised eyesight would affect your ability to field your position. What do you remember about your conversation with him?
Whammy Douglas: “He was mostly talking about if I had a guy on second base because I was blind in my right eye. I told him, ‘Look. You have one hitter. He’s got one bat. And I have one ball.’
“When I did go to Pittsburgh in 1957, he apologized to me. I led pickoffs to second base in every league I played in. I was glad to hear it come out of his mouth. But Branch Jr. (Rickey’s son and Pittsburgh’s vice president and farm system director) was my backup man. Oh, yeah: Me and Branch was 100 percent. He said, ‘If you need anything, just call me.’”
The Commons: You made your MLB debut on Monday, July 29, 1957 in St. Louis against the Cardinals after the Pirates called you up from the Triple-A Columbus Jets. How were you told about your promotion?
Douglas: “I pitched in Columbus on Saturday night. It was almost midnight when they told me I was going to Pittsburgh. I had to pack and all that stuff, and the plane left at 7 o’clock that morning. Needless to say, I got no sleep, no rest. The first game of a doubleheader was just about over when I got into Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
“I took off my junk and put it in the clubhouse. I went back up in the stands before the game ended. Before the second game started, I went back to the clubhouse and my manager, Bobby Bragan, says, ‘Just go back up in the stands and watch the second ballgame. Me and you will get together when the game’s over.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ Bobby was a good guy, and I had known him before then.
“We went in and we had a chat. He said, ‘You know something?’ And I said, ‘Well, I know a little something.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re pitching tomorrow night in St. Louis.’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t even had a day’s rest.’ He said, ‘I don’t have anybody. I just do not have anybody that can pitch.’
“I don’t know what their problem was with pitching. Some of the players on that ball club were just not too interested in baseball, as far as I’m concerned. They’d have binoculars in the dugouts looking to see what kind of women they could find in the stands.”
The Commons: Your time with the Pirates overlapped with the careers of Hall-of-Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who would hit a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and Hall-of-Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente. Did you get to know them at all?
Douglas: “Me and Bill came up together in the minors. He was one of the best second basemen in baseball, if not the best. We hung out together quite a bit because we didn’t like to be with the crowd. He was my best friend on the team. We stayed in touch long after our careers ended.
“I dated this girl there in Pittsburgh, and he dated a girl in the Pirates’ front office. We’d hang out together sometimes, the four of us. He married that girl, Milene, and he’s still married to her. And they’ve got four kids. Maz is one of the best guys in the world.
“Clemente, sometimes he was a little iffy. When we were there in Pittsburgh, he spent more time in the hospital than he did anywhere else because of a bad back. He came to spring training in 1955, and he could not even swing a club when they bought him from the Dodgers. He played very little baseball that whole year. He couldn’t do anything with his back. After that, he was a terror. When he did get well, he got well. He was a good ballplayer. I never hung around with him — I didn’t hang around with none of them, anyway. I just went about my business.”
The Commons: You once allowed a home run to Hank Aaron, who finished with 755 career homers (second only to suspected performance-enhancing drug user Barry Bonds in MLB history). What was it like facing him?
Douglas: “He hit line drives. I mean, he’d hit the ball and it would hit the fence — that’s how hard he hit the ball. I’ve never seen anybody hit the ball any harder than Hank Aaron.
“But I got a raw deal pitching against him. I was throwing pitches right down the middle of the plate, and the umpire kept calling balls, balls, balls. And Hardy Peterson, my catcher, just threw his mitt up in the middle of the air because he was so disgusted with the calls.
“The good hitters never really bothered me. It was those .220 hitters, like those little second basemen: I couldn’t get them out to save my life. They gave me a fit. I don’t know why. I was throwing the same way. They’d just get these little-bitty hits.”
The Commons: Your former minor-league teammates said Willie Mays, the Giants’ Hall-of-Fame center fielder, once refused to hit against you because of your erratic control and your limited eyesight. Is there any truth to this?
Douglas: “No. Willie Mays is one of the best guys I have ever met in my life. He used to come over before the ballgame started and sit in our dugout. We’d sit there and talk, and so forth and so long. But when he walked to that plate, he was business. That’s right.
“The first pitch I threw him was right under his chin. My catcher, Hardy Peterson, helped out a little bit, too: He’d throw dirt on his shoes.
“He was one super person, Willie Mays was. He was a super guy. You couldn’t beat him. But one of the best compliments I ever got in baseball was from Ted Williams.”
The Commons: You once received a compliment from arguably the greatest hitter in the history of baseball?
Douglas: “Oh, yes. We were playing in an exhibition game down in spring training in 1957. He came to bat, and I struck him out twice. He called me over — and he called me kid. He said, ‘Come here, kid.’ I went over. He was very nice when he was with me, but with most people, he wasn’t.
“He says, ‘I don’t care what you’re throwing — you keep throwing it, because if I can’t hit you, nobody can hit you.
“He invited me to come down to Florida during the offseason to go fishing with him and stuff like that. The only thing he hated in baseball was the sportswriters. He did not like the media at all. He wouldn’t even talk to them. As far as I’m concerned, he was a heckuva good guy. I had some pretty good times with him.
“We had broken camp in 1959, and we were playing our two exhibition games coming back north. Me and Ted and [Pirates first baseman Ted] Kluszewski and Kluszewski’s wife got on the elevator at the same time. They knew each other, and Ted looks over at Kluszewski — and Kluszewski’s a huge, big man, 6’2” and 225 pounds.
“He says, ‘Is that the call girl?’
“I thought I was going to drop to the floor.”
The Commons: Fidel Castro’s ascent to power in 1959 forced you to flee Cuba while you played for the Havana Sugar Canes of the International League. What do you remember from that experience?
Douglas: “It started getting a little bit rough, and we had to get out of dodge. Bobby Maduro, he was the owner, and he was a peach of a guy. I had all my stuff packed up. The apartment I lived in, there was a casino right across the riverfront. They had planes bombing them little ‘ol ships in the bay, and the concussion was taking the windows out of that casino. I told Bobby Maduro, ‘Look: Get me to the airport and get me out of here.’ I was out of there. I tell you what — it wasn’t pretty down there.”
The Commons: Your baseball career seemed prettier than the bombardment of Havana, no?
Douglas: “Everything was interesting. I loved to play baseball, anyway.”