BY JOE RINI
The design of Citi Field, with its Jackie Robinson Rotunda, evokes Ebbets Field but when the Los Angeles Dodgers visited this past weekend, one could almost hear the echoes of Hilda Chester and her famed cowbell as the Mets paid tribute to 96-year old Mike Sandlock, the oldest living Brooklyn Dodger before Saturday’s game on July 21.
A scrapbook of this Old Greenwich, Connecticut native’s career would read like a baseball history book. A minor league teammate of Stan Musial, he debuted in the majors with Casey Stengel’s Boston Braves in 1942, singling and scoring in his first at bat in a game started by Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants. After serving in the military in World War II, Sandlock joined the Dodgers in 1945, batting .282 in 80 games. He subsequently became a valued member of the Dodgers’ minor league system as he served a quiet yet significant role in baseball integration by mentoring the late Hall of Famer Roy Campanella prior to “Campy” joining the team in Brooklyn.
Roy Campanella was openly grateful for the help Sandlock provided him especially considering the open hostility African- American ballplayers faced during this era as well as the fact that they were competitors for the same position on the same team. While there is statue at MCU Park in Brooklyn of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson commemorating racial tolerance, Mike Sandlock is a living monument to racial tolerance.
Interspersed with his time in the major leagues was his tenure in the Pacific Coast League in the late 1940’s and 1950’s where he was the opposing catcher in Joe DiMaggio’s final game in a Yankee uniform in an exhibition game following the 1951 season.
Meeting Sandlock, he has the firm handshake of a former professional athlete and someone who continues to play golf on a regular basis. Recalling his playing days, he said the fans at Ebbets Field were “the best in world” and playing there made you feel like a big leaguer. Accompanied by family and friends at Citi Field, Sandlock swapped stories of Evansville, Indiana, one of his teams in the minor leagues, with Evansville native and Dodger manager/Yankee legend Don Mattingly before the game.
Sandlock, noted for his ability to handle knuckleball pitchers, also had an animated discussion with Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. Watching Sandlock gesture with Dickey, the years between them seemed to disappear and one almost expected him to grab a mitt and catch a bullpen session with the Mets pitcher. Because of his ability to handle the knuckleball, Sandlock was twice traded with Johnny Lindell, a renown knuckleballer of his day, because the acquiring team needed someone to catch him.
A friend of Sandlock said he tells the story of hitting a home run in Brooklyn that broke a clock that was never subsequently fixed at Ebbets Field, which Sandlock jokes may have been why they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.
Television personality Larry King was also on the field prior to the game on Saturday. King, a native of Brooklyn and a life long Dodger fan, said watching the Dodgers play was “like going home,” bringing back memories of their storied battles with their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants.
With Messrs Sandlock and King harkening back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, the current Mets might be content to return to the halcyon days of five weeks ago in June when they had a healthy Johan Santana, Frank Francisco, and Dillon Gee. Weighed down by the loss of their closer and two starting pitchers in addition to some ill-timed batting slumps, the Mets have lost 10 of their first 11 games since returning from the All-Star break.
Three poor performances in a row by Santana after sustaining an ankle injury against the Cubs on July 6 convinced the Mets hierarchy to place the former Cy Young award winner on the 15- day disabled list. To replace Santana in the rotation, the Mets called up pitching prospect Matt Harvey from Triple-A Buffalo