Apocalypse Then: Life Before Canada

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Apocalypse Then: Life Before Canada

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Length: 227 pages3 hours

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The other scout from the Pirate organization who hung around the team was Dick Probola. “Pro” was a lovable little imp with very little hair and an infectious smile dancing on his face. His mouth was a perpetual fountain of wisecracks, bubbling out around the stub of an unlit cigar. He had come to the Pirate organization from Cleveland where his claim to fame was signing “Sudden” Sam McDowell in 1960 for $70,000. The “bonus baby” era was just dawning in MLB. McDowell had a successful career mostly in Cleveland, but after bouncing around a bit toward the end of it, he finished up with the Pirates in 1975.

Sudden Sam is said to be the model for the bartender in the 1980’s sitcom, Cheers. Pro would have been a great character on that show. “It's a great day for squeezing grapes!” He would sing as a manic mantra while hitting pepper with the young prospects. Everyone else picked it up, too, and the chanted phrase echoed all over the field in four part harmony. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. Now, I can imagine Rex Bowen telling the Little Pirate staff one day that their job was to field test the boys. “Give their little grape nuts a squeeze,” Bowen must have said, “and see if these young guys got anything.”

The Little Pirates would meet to take the bus to away games down at Forbes Field in Oakland, and one day Pro got on the team bus in a fit of giggles. He'd just been talking to Roberto Clemente about the progress of his contract negotiations. “I'm not going to kiss Joe Brown's ass and other things,” Clemente had said. Brown was the successor to Branch Rickey as Pirate GM.

Clemente was a Hall of Famer, but he broke all the traditional unwritten rules of the game. He didn’t plant his back foot at the plate, and his body parts flew in all directions when he swung at the ball. He would occasionally lose his hat after a ferocious cut at a fat looking pitch. He was a fantastic right fielder, but his basket catches offended old school sensibilities. After a routine catch, he would sometimes flip the ball underhanded back to the infield. Clemente’s showboat mannerisms were all forgiven, though, because he had the wonderful habit of coming through with the bat in critical game situations.

Mr. Clutch, which eventually became his nickname, was also an exemplary human being like Willie Stargell. Clemente spent most of his time in the off-season doing charity work. He died in a plane crash in 1972 trying to get relief supplies through to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. His oldest son Roberto Jr. spent a brief time at Leech Farm playing with the Little Pirates, but his baseball career was cut short by a serious back injury.

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