His manager was Burleigh Grimes. He was a teammate of Heinie Manush and Waite Hoyt. He served our country in the Battle of the Bulge and was a friend of Richard M. Nixon when the two attended Whittier College. He is Tony Malinosky, and he is currently the oldest of all ex-Major League Baseball players.
He is someone who has crammed as many experiences into one lifetime as anyone possibly could. I first contacted Tony more than six years ago when I was in the beginning stages of writing my modestly successful book about retired major leaguers: So Many Summer Fields (Authorhouse, 2005). My relationship with the former Brooklyn infielder has grown close and precious over the years, and our friendship was strongly reaffirmed this past fall as he approached his 100th birthday on Oct. 5.
It was the first weekend in September when Malinosky’s nephew, Richard Lango, called me to say that during the previous week, both Fox Sports and the Los Angeles Dodgers had called Tony to speak with him about making special arrangements to commemorate his upcoming special birthday. They were hoping to entice him into granting interviews and urged him to accept the Dodgers’ offer to be honored as a near-centenarian and former Dodger in a special pregame ceremony held at their home ballpark before the end of the regular season.
Malinosky had consistently declined other offers to appear at public events in the Southern California area. He turned down chances to appear at card shows and autograph sessions, modestly citing reasons like his lack of celebrity and the fact that he was nothing more than a journeyman baseball player with a brief uneventful career.
“But for some reason,” Richard explained, “he is open to this idea and he wanted me to call you to invite you to attend this affair with him and accompany him on his big night at Dodger Stadium.”
As a baseball writer, historian and long-time memorabilia collector, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. I jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I arrived at Tony’s home a day in advance of his big event at the stadium. In the intervening weeks, he had relented to all of the offerings made by the Dodgers’ staff and was in the middle of a wave of countless interviews conducted in his living room and over the telephone. First it was Fox Sports, then the Associated Press, the Dodgers’ own film crew, followed by the Los Angeles Times and the Ventura County Star. On and on it went. He even got a special call from a reporter in his hometown, Collinsville, Ill., where he is still held in such high esteem that the town declared Monday Oct. 5, 2009, to be Tony Malinosky Day.
The 99-year-old Malinosky did a great job of handling the various media and the ongoing barrage of questions. Exhausted, of course, but he held up remarkably well under the pressure of reporters, lights, cameras and microphones just as he had done 72 years ago as a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On the afternoon of Saturday Oct. 3, a long, black stretch limousine was dispatched by the Dodgers to Malinosky’s residence to pick up Tony, Richard, Beth, me and two of Tony’s close neighborhood friends. We all settled into the limo for the two-hour ride to L.A., enjoying all of the comforts and luxuries of the rich and famous.
We were met at the Stadium by a team of Dodger employees who did everything for us short of rolling out a red carpet. We were welcomed and then immediately directed to our special seats, with the exception of Tony and his wife, Beth. Those two were quickly whisked away to the field, to a spot behind home plate to prepare for Tony’s ceremonial presentation.
To lead off the on-field proceedings, current Dodger outfielder, Juan Pierre was presented with the 2009 Roy Campanella Award for his unselfish efforts given to his team during the suspension of teammate Manny Ramirez earlier in the season. The award was presented to Pierre by Joni Campanella Roan, daughter of the late Hall of Fame catcher. The program then moved on to Tony’s big moment.
On behalf of the Dodgers, it was none other than Tommy Lasorda who came forward to greet Tony. He was there to bestow a special engraved plaque to Tony, recognizing him as a member of the Dodger family and to deliver Happy Birthday wishes from the entire Dodgers organization. Lasorda stepped toward Tony, and in his typical loud and jovial tone, quizzed him before any part of their exchange went out over the air of the stadium’s PA system.
“Tony Malinosky, what are you doing here? You were never nothing more than just a Punch ’n Judy hitter! Why do they have you here?” he chided.
The old shortstop, who had just had his chops busted by the younger Lasorda, wasted no time in returning fire and he quickly put the Dodgers’ Hall of Famer in his proper place.
“Well, Tommy you may have something there, alright,” Tony retorted. “But that’s all because I didn’t get too many opportunities to hit against pitchers like you!”
Everyone within earshot got a big laugh, especially Lasorda, who was taken aback by the quick wit of the man who was less than 48 hours short of turning 100. The two embraced as the laughter continued. The ceremony was complemented with some old black-and-white photos of Malinosky from his playing days of 1937, which popped up on the huge Diamond Vision Screen in center field.
A collective “Whoa!” rose from the crowd when it was announced that Monday, Oct. 5 would be his 100th birthday and a thunderous applause followed as the sellout audience gave him its best wishes for many more happy birthdays to follow.
Just as the game started, our party continued with a complimentary dinner upstairs in the Press Box Restaurant, where were joined there by more of Tony’s family and special friends. We were treated to some great food, along with a timely visit at our table from baseball broadcaster and former major league utility man, Steve Lyons, who spent a while chatting with some of our group and graciously posing for a few photos.
After desert, we returned to our seats and enjoyed a great pitchers’ duel as the game remained scoreless through six innings. Young southpaw pitcher Clayton Kershaw was turning in a sparkling performance against the stubborn Rockies, but the night was running long for Tony. He was wearing down; he had had enough for one day. Our driver was summoned and we left a little early, with the outcome of the game still up for grabs.
The trip back home to Oxnard was a quiet one. In the darkness inside the limo, we caught some of Vin Scully’s radio broadcast of the game on the car’s high-quality sound system. We even applauded a little when the Dodgers scored five times in the seventh inning to seal the deal on the division title and to secure home field advantage for the playoffs. All the while Tony was quiet.
He seemed thoughtful and reflective. It had been a long, tiring day for him, yet he must have had a lot to think about. Could he have been reliving the special events of this wonderful evening? Or maybe he was comparing the talents of Clayton Kershaw to those of Carl Hubbell or Dizzy Dean who he faced so long ago.
My guess is he was probably thinking about the love of his life, his late wife Vi, and how much he missed her and wanted her to be there. My guess is she probably was.