The enduring bond between Jackie Robinson and the man who guided him to the majors
- Senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Around long enough to have written about athletes from Hank Aaron to Ben Zobrist and Super Bowls from VII to XLVI.
- Joined ESPN The Magazine as a founding editor in 1998.
- Also wrote for Time, Sports Illustrated, the Fort Lauderdale News and The Evening Sun in Norwich, NY.
CLYDE SUKEFORTH IS SMILING. He’s holding a Brooklyn Dodgers cap in one hand and pointing to the sky with the other.
He’s one of the characters in the Norman Rockwell painting “Tough Call,” although you can barely see him poking out behind the three umpires at home. The men in black are deciding whether to call off the game at Ebbets Field, and Sukeforth is representing optimism, while his counterpart, Pittsburgh manager Billy Meyer, is playing up the foreboding conditions. Painted by Rockwell for the April 23, 1949, cover of The Saturday Evening Post, this masterpiece of Americana now hangs in the art gallery of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
There’s a certain magic to the painting, and also to the notion that Sukeforth is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, per se, but he certainly belongs in Cooperstown.
For one thing, his father was once an actual cooper. More important, this humble, athletic, smart, thoughtful and resolute man from Lincoln County, Maine, changed the course of baseball history in many ways — most of them good, one not so much if you were a Dodgers fan in 1951. Sukeforth was, in the words of the great writer Jimmy Breslin, the “third-base coach of history.”
The proof of his reach in the game is in the sacred enclave adjacent to the Hall of Fame’s gallery. That’s where the plaques are, and Sukeforth would have been a wonderful guide for the folks strolling among them. He saw Babe Ruth pitch for the Red Sox in the 1918 World Series. He caught Eppa Rixey, Waite Hoyt and Dazzy Vance. He played with Edd Roush, Harry Heilmann, Hack Wilson, Al Lopez and Leo Durocher. He played for Casey Stengel and Max Carey and against Hall of Famers too numerous to mention. He was traded for one (Ernie Lombardi), replaced by another (Billy Herman) and took a job away from Rogers Hornsby.
Heck, he could have even corrected one of the plaques. It’s the one that says Hack Wilson hit 56 homers for the Cubs in 1930. “Hack really hit 57,” Sukeforth once recalled. “He hit one up in the Crosley Field seats so hard that it bounced right back. The umpires figured it must have hit the screen. I was in the Reds’ bullpen and we didn’t say a word.” Or he could have pointed to the plaque for Dennis Eckersley and admitted he might have been wrong about him.
But there are three plaques in particular that speak for Sukeforth. If not for him, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente might never have been waved home to Cooperstown. And then there’s Branch Rickey, who always wanted “Sukey” by his side.
This year, and this season of the year, seems an appropriate time to point skyward toward Sukeforth. After all, the iconic script of the Dodgers is still fresh in our minds. What’s more, it was 75 years ago that Rickey dispatched his most trusted adviser to Chicago to ask a young shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs to come to Brooklyn to discuss his future … and the future of baseball. “Had it not been for Clyde,” says Branch Barrett Rickey III, Rickey’s grandson, “it might have been a whole different scenario. He planted the seeds of trust.”
On Oct. 23, 1945, the Dodgers announced in Montreal that Jackie Robinson would be playing the next season for the Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club. That paved the way for the breaking of baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, when the Dodgers manager wrote the name ROBINSON into the lineup — playing first, batting second. The manager that day was Clyde Sukeforth.
The two men were inextricably linked by history, but there was a stronger connection than that — friendship. In a letter he sent to Sukeforth in 1972, Robinson wrote, “Whenever there were problems in the earlier days, I could always go to you, talk with you, and receive the warm and friendly advice that I always did.”
This fall also marked the 60th anniversary of the Pirates’ victory over the heavily favored Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Yes, Bill Mazeroski won Game 7 on Oct. 13 with his walk-off homer off Ralph Terry, but the Pirates’ first championship in 35 years owed much more to the shared vision of Rickey and Sukeforth.
Baseball is full of improbable stories, but there are few as unlikely and lovely as Sukeforth’s. Who could make this up? He was a small catcher (5-foot-10, 155 pounds) from Washington (pop. 800) in Lincoln County, Maine, who found his way to the majors by chance and ended up batting .354 for the Reds in 1929. He overcame a hunting accident that left him with diminished vision in his right eye, and he suffered a personal tragedy that he took with him to his grave.
In 1945, when he was a 43-year-old Dodgers coach and the team was hurting for players because of the war, he strapped on his gear once again … and hit .294 in 18 games. It was later that very summer when Rickey sent Sukeforth on his top-secret mission.
What else? He could claim that no manager ever had a higher winning percentage in the history of baseball — he was 2-0. (“Quite a record,” he said.) He was the man who had to decide who was the better choice to face Bobby Thomson before the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
When he got the blame for that, he went to Pittsburgh and took revenge by stealing a young Dodgers minor leaguer named Clemente. And had the Pirates been a little less stingy, he might also have signed a Brooklyn kid named Koufax.
Sukeforth wasn’t just a baseball man either. Temporarily retired, he was asked to serve as one of Maine’s delegates to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The convention nominated John F. Kennedy for president, which means that JFK was elected 26 days after Mazeroski, another favorite son, danced down the third-base line at Forbes Field. That’s one more Hall of Famer he could tell you about.
Fortune just seemed to follow Sukey around. When he was 75 years old and still doing a little scouting, his second wife, Grethel, won the Maine Lottery. He led a charmed life, all right, but it wasn’t just a matter of happenstance. As Rickey famously said, “Luck is the residue of design.”
By the way, he first said that to Sukeforth.
IF YOU’RE DRIVING east on Main Street in Waldoboro, turn right on Route 220. That’s Friendship Road. Hidden in the oak trees a few miles down on the left is Brookland Cemetery. According to the sign, it’s “a place of serenity and beauty for quiet reminiscence and meditation.”
In the far right corner of the cemetery, about where first base would be, there’s a granite tombstone partially obscured by a flowering hosta plant. Etched at the top is the name SUKEFORTH, and at the bottom are two names:
CLYDE L. 1901-2000
HELEN M. 1901-1938
The tombstone says nothing else. But it also says a lot. Clyde was alive for every year of the 20th century, and Helen died much too young. The only hints that an important person is buried there are on the ground in front of the tombstone: a weathered baseball inside a cup and a clay sculpture of a locker room.
I happened to be there by chance. My twin daughters were nice enough to invite me on an early-September vacation to Maine, and the Airbnb they chose was in Waldoboro. Once I saw on Google that it was the hometown of Clyde Sukeforth, I was intrigued. I could still recall his Maine accent in the compelling interview Ken Burns did with him for his “Baseball” documentary series, but I really didn’t know all that much about him. That’s when I willingly fell down the rabbit hole.
Waldoboro is right along U.S. Route 1, 63 miles up the coast from Portland. Bisected by the Medomak River, which flows into the Atlantic, and named for Gen. Samuel Waldo, it began life in the 1700s as a port and shipbuilding center and subsequently attracted a variety of mills and factories. Most of those are gone now, but it’s still a vibrant community of 5,000 that’s popular with all sorts of artisans and all kinds of fishermen.
In his later years, Sukeforth was one of the latter. He lived a little farther down Friendship Road in the Back Cove area of Waldoboro, in a yellow Cape Cod cottage on the eastern shore of Muscongus Bay. “I came up to visit him in the ’90s,” says his grandson Branch, who’s now the president of the Pacific Coast League. “He had this wonderful contraption with which he could pull in his lobster traps. I ate so many lobsters on his picnic table that it was years before I had another one.”
The North Star of Waldoboro is Moody’s Diner on Route 1. Famous for its pies and celebrated by Maine humorist Tim Sample, Moody’s has been serving comfort food since 1927 — the year after Sukeforth broke into the majors with the Reds. One of its more famous patrons was Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who ate here on his hunting and fishing trips with Maine sportswriter Bud Leavitt Jr. There’s an old photo of Sukeforth in his Dodgers uniform hanging on the wall next to an article about him — “The Godfather of New England Baseball,” written by Bud Leavitt. You can easily imagine Ted, Bud and Clyde sitting in a booth after a day in the woods.
For all the restaurants, dugouts, train cars and ballparks Sukeforth sat in, this is where he belongs. Clyde Leroy Sukeforth was actually born a few miles north of Moody’s, straight up Route 220, in Washington on Nov. 30, 1901. His father, Perl, was a farmer and a cooper who shoveled snow to make extra money and played baseball in what little spare time he had. The time and the place were such that Clyde and his sister, Hazel, would walk 3½ miles, each way, to a one-room schoolhouse that also served as a one-teacher high school. He once told an interviewer, “There were two things you could do. You could take your ball and glove and play catch with the neighbor’s kids, or you could dig a can full of worms and go fishing on the trout brook. That was it!”
He followed the Red Sox not on the radio but by stagecoach — that’s how the Boston Post arrived at sunset every evening. He got to see the Babe in person when his uncle took him to Game 4 of the 1918 World Series — Ruth pitched eight innings and hit a two-RBI triple as the Red Sox beat the Cubs 3-2 to take a 3-1 lead in a Series they won in six games.
Sukeforth abandoned school for a while to work for a lumber company, but he was a good enough player to dream of one day playing in the majors and a good enough catcher to be recruited by semipro teams despite his diminutive frame. “I wasn’t big enough to be too good,” he once told Brent Kelley of Sports Collectors Digest, “but I thought what there was of me was pretty good.”
One of the teams was sponsored by the Great Northern Paper Company, and its roster was supplemented by college players. A few of them were from Georgetown University, and they took a liking to Sukeforth. Then they took him back with them when the summer ended.
In a way, friendship is how he got from Washington, Maine, to Washington, D.C.
ONE OF THE highlights of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory is the Great Wall, a vast array of the signatures of players who have used the Louisville Slugger bats made by Hillerich & Bradsby since Honus Wagner signed a deal with the company in 1905.
The signatures are burned into wood panels, just as they would be on the barrel of a bat, and the names are arranged in alphabetical order by decades, so CLYDE SUKEFORTH 1927 is right between WILLIAM G. STYLES 1921 and ERNIE SULK 1930. Even in that sea of names, Sukeforth’s signature stands out because of its graceful precision. He signed it as a member of the Reds, but it seems to presage the style of script on the uniform he wore for close to 20 years.
PJ Shelley no longer works for the museum, but when he was the director of programming there, he would conduct a tour called “The Signature Wall Spotlight” to tell the stories behind names visitors might not recognize. One of them was Clyde Sukeforth, whom he called the “Forrest Gump of baseball.”
“Just like Forrest, Clyde was a small-town kid who was there when it happened,” Shelley says. “He was in the room for the fateful meeting between Rickey and Robinson. He wrote Jackie’s name on the lineup card on April 15, 1947. He was on the field when Norman Rockwell was taking in a game at Ebbets Field. He chose Ralph Branca because Carl Erskine bounced a curve. He was scouting for the Pirates when he noticed a Dodger minor leaguer with a really good arm.
“It is a beautiful signature, but what makes it even more beautiful is that he could sign it to attest that he was a witness to so much of baseball history.”
Just as Gump found his calling at Alabama, Sukeforth found his at Georgetown. “I loved the school,” he said years later. He was a catcher and a left fielder, and he got a chance to see Walter Johnson of the Senators beat the Giants in the seventh game of the 1924 World Series. But he left after two years thanks to the old-boy network — Tommy Whelan, a former Georgetown athlete (and Canton Bulldogs teammate of Jim Thorpe), scouted for the Reds, who signed him in the fall of ’25 for $1,500 and $600 a month. “I wanted to play ball,” Sukeforth once said. “That’s all I wanted to do.”
The Reds sent him to Nashua, New Hampshire, in the New England League for the 1926 season, though they did call him up to Cincinnati for one at-bat in late May. Even though he struck out, Sukeforth said, “The highlight of my career was the first day I put on a big league uniform.” He also inspired the mascot for the Nashua Millionaires to become a catcher. That mascot was Birdie Tebbetts, who caught for 14 seasons in the big leagues and managed for another 11.
The Reds called Sukeforth up for good in 1927, the year he signed his Louisville Slugger contract, but he spent ’27 and ’28 as the backup to Bubbles Hargrave. “We had good pitchers, but we didn’t score many runs,” he said. “We had bad hitters like me.”
But then, out of the blue and with a little more playing time in ’29, Sukeforth hit .354 in 84 games, striking out just six times. He choked up on his big, heavy Louisville Slugger, and, in typical Maine fashion, on his own accomplishments. “I legged a few,” he once told an interviewer who asked about that season.
Modesty aside, he was a good hitter and a better catcher, and for the next two seasons, Sukeforth was the Reds’ regular backstop. The Reds were pretty bad — Rixey and Roush were at the end of the line — but at 30, Sukeforth still had a few good years left.
That rabbit hole I fell into led me to Bill Francis, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame who was kind enough to send me clippings from Sukeforth’s biographical folder in the extensive library there. It’s usually a delight going through the old newspaper clippings, but every once in a while, a little item can take your breath away. This one is from The Washington Post on Nov. 18, 1931:
Clyde Sukeforth Shot In Eye While Hunting
Cincinnati, Ohio, Nov. 17 (A.P.) – Surgeons believed today there was a chance to save the sight of the right eye of Clyde L. Sukeforth, 29, Cincinnati Reds first-string catcher, accidentally shot yesterday while hunting rabbits near here. One of the shotgun pellets penetrated Sukeforth’s eye, the physicians said. Surgical dressings will be removed Friday.
Actually, he and some friends were hunting birds, not rabbits. As Sukeforth later put it, “The bird jumped up before one of our fellows expected it and he took a quick shot at it. He got the wrong bird.” Sukeforth was hospitalized for several weeks because some of the pellets were lodged in his brain, and one of them had gone through his right eye. For the rest of his life, he would have trouble reading newspapers with the eye, but he seldom complained. In his usual fashion, he said, “I wasn’t a world-beater before then, and the accident didn’t help any.”
Just before the 1932 season, the Reds sent Sukeforth, Tony Cuccinello and Joe Stripp to the Dodgers for Wally Gilbert, Babe Herman and Ernie Lombardi, which might rank among the worst Dodgers trades in history, except for one thing: It brought Sukeforth into the fold.
When he married Helen Miller of Cincinnati on Dec. 8, 1933, Sukeforth was coming off a season in which he hit just .056 in 39 plate appearances. He had only one RBI in ’34, and the Dodgers optioned him to Toledo before the ’35 season. He decided to hang ’em up and return to Maine with Helen. But then in 1936, the Dodgers offered him a player-manager’s job with their Class D team in North Carolina — the Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets. Even with one good eye, Sukeforth hit .365 with seven home runs as the Triplets finished third in the Bi-State League.
From there, he went to Clinton, Iowa, to lead the Owls to a first-place finish, and in 1938, his Elmira Pioneers won the Class A Eastern League championship. At least, that’s what Baseball Reference says.
The clips tell a much different story. This is from the Elmira Star-Gazette on July 16, 1938:
Pioneer Pilot Proud Papa of Daughter
Mrs. Clyde Sukeforth, wife of the manager of the Pioneers, gave birth to a daughter Thursday at Waldoboro, Me., by Caesarian operation.
Manager Sukeforth, who was at her side, reported that mother and baby are doing nicely. Clyde will join the Pioneers here Sunday in time for the double bill with Wilkes-Barre. Pitcher Lew Krausse had been in charge of the team during his absence.
Seventeen days later, the Star-Gazette had to print this:
In respect to the memory of Mrs. Clyde Sukeforth, wife of the Elmira manager who died Saturday at their Waldoboro, Me., home the flag at Dunn Field was at half-staff during Monday’s game with Hartford. Flowers were sent by the Elmira club and a group of Elmira fans.
A more complete story of that 1938 season is buried in another, somewhat later, clip. It seems that the Elmira Pioneers had won the pennant in 1937 but had gotten off to a slow start because of a few bad apples. When Sukeforth threw them out, a delegation of Elmira fans went to Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail and demanded that Sukeforth be fired. MacPhail told them, “If I yank Sukey out of Elmira, I’ll yank the ballclub with it.”
After the midseason birth of his daughter, and secure in the belief that Helen and the baby would be fine, Sukeforth rejoined the team. But within a few hours of his arrival, he received a telegram that said his wife had died of complications from the cesarean.
Imagine taking the train back to Maine, making the funeral arrangements, cradling a baby who had just lost her mother, your wife. Helen’s own mother would take care of the child for the time being, which was the rest of what looked to be a disappointing season.
Somehow, though, Sukeforth turned the team around. The Pioneers finished in third place, then surprised their doubters by winning the Eastern League championship. He even hit .348 in 12 games that year. How did he do it? Maybe it was being a catcher — you’re accustomed to shaking off the pain. Maybe it was being a Mainer — you’re accustomed to shaking in the cold dark of night. Or maybe it was the forging of the two roles into someone willing to bear an enormous responsibility.
Sukey had always been a great teammate. Now he was about to become the right man in the right place at the right time.
CLYDE SUKEFORTH TAKES off his fedora and breaks into a smile. In one of the opening scenes of the 2013 movie “42,” Sukeforth, played by Toby Huss, has just been informed by Branch Rickey, inhabited by Harrison Ford, “I’m going to bring a Negro ballplayer to the Brooklyn Dodgers.” They are sitting in the Dodgers’ offices in the spring of 1945. “I don’t know who he is,” says Rickey, “or where he is, but he’s coming.”
In real life, Rickey was in his third season as the Dodgers’ general manager. He had left the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the ’42 season to take the reins from Larry MacPhail, who had gone off to work in the War Department. “The Mahatma” inherited a team that was, in his own words, “dangerously veteranized,” and they proved him right by finishing seventh in 1944. But among his assets were two former Cincinnati teammates, Leo Durocher and Clyde Sukeforth — Leo was managing the Dodgers and Sukeforth the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm team.
After spending one more year (1939) in Elmira, Sukeforth had beaten out Rogers Hornsby for the Royals job. He’d also won over fans and journalists. As A.W. O’Brien wrote in a Feb. 15, 1941, profile for the Montreal Standard, “Sukey is a rugged battler himself — although you’d never think it to look at the quiet-mannered, parson-like figure who walks to the third base coaching line in a semi-apologetic fashion.”
In that piece, O’Brien drops in on Sukeforth at his farm on Blueberry Hill, a knoll overlooking Waldoboro. We meet his hunting dog, Martha, and his neighbor, former teammate and fellow catcher Val Picinich. There’s plenty to do — Sukeforth rises at 6 every morning and calls it a day at 10 p.m. — and plenty to talk about: hunting, fishing, blueberries, the weather and baseball. But the passage that brings a smile is this one:
As might be expected, much of Sukey’s life is wrapped up in his small, dark-haired daughter, Helen, now two-and-one-half years old. She is unusually intelligent, full of pep and already keenly interested in her dad’s work.
Her dad’s Montreal team would win the International League championship in 1941 and finish with the league’s second-best record in ’42. When Rickey took over, he asked Sukeforth to serve on the Dodgers staff.
Rickey too had been a marginal catcher from a small town, and he liked having Sukeforth around. He also liked the smelt fish that Sukeforth had brought him from Maine. “They understood each other,” says Branch III. “That’s why they were often bridge partners. That’s why they worked so well together.”
While the opening scene in “42” rings true, Rickey had actually been thinking about integrating baseball for quite some time, and the Dodgers provided him with the opportunity. As Lee Lowenfish points out in his magnificent biography “Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman,” Rickey set about restocking the minor league system by staging tryouts all over the land under the watchful eyes of scouts like George Sisler, Rex Bowen, Tom Greenwade, Wid Matthews, Lee MacPhail and Sukeforth. Out of those tryouts would come Duke Snider, George Shuba, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca. Rickey also asked them to surreptitiously scout the wartime exhibitions between Negro League players and major leaguers who were in the armed forces.
It was mid-August of ’45 when Rickey called Sukeforth into his office. Here’s how Sukeforth remembered the meeting 50 years later in an interview for the Hall of Fame:
“He called me in and he said, ‘I want you to go to Chicago on Friday and see a game between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Lincoln Giants. Pay particular attention to a shortstop named Robinson, especially his arm.’ He also said, ‘I want you to identify yourself and tell him who sent you.’
“I got to the ballpark very early, picked up a scorecard and I noticed Robinson’s number was 8. So I sat down and was waiting. He came out with a couple of the boys and I hailed him … and I delivered my message. He was thunderstruck. He couldn’t conceive of why Mr. Rickey was interested in him.”
One slight problem: Robinson had hurt his arm and wasn’t playing. Here’s how Robinson described the same encounter in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made”:
“Sukeforth said he’d like to talk with me anyhow. He asked me to come see him after the game at the Stevens Hotel. Here we go again, I thought. Another time-wasting experience. But Sukeforth looked like a sincere person, and I thought I might as well listen.”
Before Robinson arrived, Sukeforth slipped the bellman $2 so that he and Jackie could ride up in the elevator together. Once up in his room, Sukeforth told him that Mr. Rickey wanted to talk to him in Brooklyn and that if Jackie could meet Clyde in Toledo, where he had another scouting assignment, they could take the overnight train to New York together. Robinson agreed, even though he still wasn’t sure what the invitation was about — the Dodgers did have a Negro League team, the Brown Dodgers, that played at Ebbets Field.
They sat together in the same Pullman car, eliciting any number of stares. “The more we talked,” Sukeforth said, “the better I liked him. There was something about that man that just gripped you. He was tough, he was intelligent and he was proud.”
Upon arrival, they spent the night in separate hotels and then met at the Dodgers’ offices at 215 Montague St. at 10 a.m. on Aug. 28. Sukeforth took Robinson up to Rickey’s fourth-floor office and introduced him: “Mr. Rickey, this is Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. I think he is the Brooklyn kind of player.”
There were only the three of them in the room, not counting the fish in Rickey’s aquarium. “Oh, they were a pair, those two!” Sukeforth would later relate to Jules Tygiel for his book “Baseball’s Great Experiment.” “I tell you the air in that office was electric.”
According to Sukeforth, “Mr. Rickey opened the conversation by saying, ‘All my life I’ve been looking for a great colored ballplayer. I have reason to think you may be that man. But I need more than a great ballplayer. I need a man that will turn the other cheek and take the worst possible abuse that a person can be exposed to. If some guy slides into you and calls you a black so-and-so, you could come up swinging and you would be justified. But you would set the cause back 20 years.'”
Robinson promised Rickey that there would be no such incident. “Well, I thought the old man was going to kiss him,” Sukeforth said. Robinson signed a contract right then and there to play for Montreal — $600 a month with a $3,500 signing bonus. That was large by Rickey’s thrifty standards, but then again, it wasn’t just to play baseball. Said Sukeforth, “Robinson was carrying the whole colored race on his shoulders, the next generation maybe. That’s quite a lot to put on one man’s shoulders.”
Rickey also asked Robinson and Sukeforth to keep quiet about it until the time was right. That came nearly two months later, on Oct. 23, when the press corps in Montreal was alerted that there would be a major announcement. Some of the writers were hoping it would be the news that Babe Ruth was going to be the next Royals manager. But then in walked Jackie Robinson.
In his very first game for the Royals, in Jersey City, Robinson had four hits, one of them a three-run homer, and two stolen bases. Things weren’t nearly that easy for him in the ’46 season — manager Clay Hopper, a Mississippian, hated the idea of integration in the beginning, and the fans in Louisville treated him brutally. But after the Royals won the pennant and then beat Louisville for the International League championship because of Robinson’s heroics, the fans in Montreal carried him around on their shoulders. In the clubhouse afterward, Hopper pulled him aside, shook his hand and said, “You’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. It’s been wonderful having you on the team.”
Sukeforth, meanwhile, was serving as Rickey’s aide-de-camp. In that 1946 season, he took turns coaching for Durocher, scouting for Rickey and organizing the Dodgers’ new Class B club in Nashua. Rickey took a special interest in that team because that’s where he sent two other Black players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, to start their careers. Sukeforth was the scout who discovered Newcombe when he was pitching for the Newark Eagles, and he had his trust as well. Newcombe came up with a sore arm in an October 1945 exhibition at Ebbets Field, and Sukeforth had come to his rescue. “I’ll never forget,” said Newcombe. “This man walked in, this white man, and I was in there crying because I thought my baseball career was over.” Sukeforth soothed his pain by telling him the Dodgers still wanted to sign him.
The Dodgers began their 1947 spring training in Havana with one big question mark and a smaller one. If the answer to the first was, Yes, Robinson was ready for the majors, then the next question was, Where do we put him? He had played shortstop for the Monarchs and second base for the Royals, but the Dodgers already had Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky at those positions. “I was told I must learn to play first base,” he wrote. “This disturbed me because I felt it might mean a delay in reaching the majors.”
There is a wonderful scene in “42” in which Toby Huss as Sukeforth is hitting ground balls to the late Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, at first base. As Sukeforth twirls the bat and hits fungo after fungo to test Robinson at first, he carries on a running monologue:
“You know, Mr. Rickey wants you to play ‘conspicuous’ baseball … to be so good that the Dodgers demand to have you on their team … that’s it! … So I thought about it for a while … and I looked up ‘conspicuous’ in the dictionary. … It means to attract notice or attention.”
At which point, Boseman makes a diving stop to his right, and Huss says to himself, “Conspicuous.”
Huss, a versatile character actor who can do a wicked impression of Durocher’s good friend Frank Sinatra, laughs when he’s asked about the scene. “All credit to our coaches,” he says. “I think I hit .067 in Little League. As for Chadwick, he was a beautiful person and a wonderful actor, but he could hardly throw a baseball when they began filming. Somehow, we pulled it off.”
That they did. “That’s my favorite part of the movie,” says Dennis Zimmerman, a sales associate for Past & Present Motor Cars in Winter Garden, Florida. His word should count for something — he’s one of Sukeforth’s four grandchildren.
CLYDE AND JACKIE ARE SHAKING HANDS and smiling in the dugout, each with a foot on the field. The photograph was taken on Opening Day at Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947, and they look as though they’re sharing a secret. Flanking them are four men who aren’t smiling: Ed Stevens and Howie Schultz, two first basemen who aren’t playing because Jackie is, and Jake Pitler and Ray Blades, two coaches who aren’t managing because Clyde is. In the background, leaning over the dugout, are a phalanx of Brooklyn kids who want to get a closer look at history.
Durocher was supposed to be the manager. He had quelled a player revolt over Robinson in spring training and had Rickey’s full confidence. But he also had a messy personal life that offended some righteous and powerful people who prevailed upon commissioner Happy Chandler to do something. Which he did, suspending Durocher for a year — on April 9. When the commissioner gave the news to Rickey, the general manager responded by shouting, “You son of a bitch!” Rickey, who never swore, said it again.
After mulling over possible choices and consulting with Sukeforth and Blades, Rickey decided to ask Dodgers scout Burt Shotton if he wanted the job. Shotton was a curious choice for the grand experiment — he hadn’t managed full-time since 1933, when he led the Phillies to a seventh-place finish, and he was so old-school that he managed in street clothes like Connie Mack. And because he lived in Florida, he was going to be late for the Opening Day game in Brooklyn against the Boston Braves, so Rickey asked the coaches to choose an interim manager from among themselves. They chose Sukeforth.
That’s why it was Sukeforth who wrote ROBINSON 1B between STANKY 2B and REISER CF on the lineup card. In a 1987 interview with C. Eric Lincoln for the Baseball Research Journal, Sukeforth recalled, “I took the lineup card up to home plate that day, handed it to the umpires and to the Braves manager, [Billy] Southworth. Nothing was said that I can remember. So much noise. That’s what I remember. I handed them the cards and walked back to the dugout. The Dodgers took the field and that was it. The season started. Simple as that. At least for me.”
In his first three at-bats against Johnny Sain, Robinson grounded out to third, flied out to left to end the third and hit into a double play to end the fifth. But then, with the Dodgers trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Stanky led off with a walk and Robinson laid down a sacrifice bunt that turned into a two-base error that started a three-run rally. Final score: Dodgers 5, Braves 3, Skeptics 0.
After a day off, the Dodgers trounced the Braves 12-6, and Sukeforth turned over the reins to Shotton. That little interlude between Durocher and Shotton was too complicated to work into the script of “42,” so the poetic justice of Sukeforth writing Robinson’s name on the first lineup card is lost in the film. Art can’t always imitate life.
But life can sometimes imitate art. “I actually tested for the Leo Durocher part,” Huss says. “They gave it to Chris Meloni, but then the director, Brian Helgeland, said they might have another part for me — Clyde Sukeforth. I read the script and thought, ‘This looks interesting.'”
Huss also fell down the rabbit hole. “I started reading about him and realized he was like the Zelig of baseball. So I decided I had to fly to Maine. I started at the library in Washington, and they put me in touch with the Waldoboro fire chief, who knew Sukeforth because the chief was involved in the Little League. He said that Sukeforth would come to their games with a lawn chair and a stopwatch. He’d also bring them all sorts of equipment that was sent to him because of who he was.
“The fire chief — Bill Maxwell was his name — told me that one time he was going through some of the baseballs that Clyde had given him, and there were autographs on them. He said he went up to him and said, ‘Clyde, Reggie Jackson signed this ball!’ And you know what Clyde told him? He said, ‘Ah, that’s OK, the kids won’t mind.'”
Huss, who happened to grow up in Marshalltown, Iowa, the home of the notoriously bigoted Hall of Famer Cap Anson, also visited Sukeforth’s house on the water and the Brookland Cemetery.
“I came to love the dude,” Huss says. “When I went to his gravesite, there were three baseballs there — one pretty old, one that had been there for a while and one that was relatively new. When I left, there were four baseballs.”
THEY’RE ALL SMILING, Clyde Sukeforth in his Dodgers uniform, 9-year-old Helen Sukeforth in her pigtails and Burt Shotton in his bow tie. It’s 1947, and they had every reason to be happy. The Dodgers would take the pennant, and Robinson would hit .297 with a league-leading 29 stolen bases and win the Rookie of the Year Award. They’d lose the World Series in seven games to Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees, but they won over America.
Sukeforth described his arrangement with Shotton this way: “I was Mr. Shotton’s legs and he had the brains. What a combination. He did a marvelous job leading us to a pennant that year.”
But the season was not without incident. In “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Jules Tygiel describes a September game when Cardinals catcher Joe Garagiola spiked Robinson in the second inning. When Robinson came to bat in the third, he said something to the catcher, Garagiola said something back, and that led to an “angry teeth-to-teeth exchange.” Sukeforth came out of the dugout to restrain Robinson and calm things down.
Durocher returned to start the ’48 season, but he was figuratively traded to the Giants after 72 games, and Shotton was brought back. Which is why Sukeforth ended up in one of Rockwell’s most famous paintings. The artist and a photographer showed up at Ebbets Field on Sept. 14 to do their research, and because Shotton couldn’t go onto the field in his street clothes, Sukey was the Dodgers’ field representative. In the painting, Rockwell accentuated his features, making him look more like Ichabod Crane than Clyde Sukeforth, but it’s him all right. In the background, you can see that 42 was now playing second base and that the Pirates second baseman is Danny Murtaugh. (More about him later.)
The scoreboard says the score is PITTS 1 and BKLYN 0 in the bottom of the sixth. While the tableau is open to interpretation, The Saturday Evening Post actually provided an explanation: “In the picture, Clyde Sukeforth, a Brooklyn coach, could well be saying, ‘You may be all wet, but it ain’t raining a drop!’ The huddled Pittsburgher — Bill Meyer, Pirate manager — is doubtless retorting, ‘For the love of Abner Doubleday, how can we play in this cloudburst?'”
Apparently, the Dodgers felt they should keep playing, while the Pirates wanted to go home with a 1-0 victory.
Shotton managed the Dodgers to another pennant in 1949, but again, they lost to the Yankees. Sukeforth, Rickey’s jack-of-all-trades, continued to help with the scouting. Sometime during the 1950 season, the Dodgers reached out to the Baltimore Elite Giants to inquire about second baseman Jim Gilliam. Because the Negro League team needed a new bus, a deal was made: $4,000, plus $1,000 for the bus, in exchange for Gilliam and a pitcher named Joe Black.
According to Jimmy Breslin, “There would come a day when Sukeforth told Rickey that he had the greatest luck imaginable: He got two World Series players for $5,000.
“Rickey answered, ‘Luck is the residue of design.'”
The Wait-‘Til-Next-Year Dodgers needed all the luck they could get. They were 0-7 in World Series, the last two under Rickey, who left for Pittsburgh at the end of the 1950 season after a power struggle with owner Walter O’Malley. But hope springs eternal, and on Oct. 3, 1951, Dem Bums faced Durocher and the Giants in a playoff game at the Polo Grounds for the right to meet the Yankees in the World Series. Charlie Dressen was now the Dodgers’ manager, and Sukeforth was his bullpen coach.
You could fill a library with the literature written about the game. But it came down to this: Don Newcombe took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth but then gave up two singles and a one-out double. With first base open, Bobby Thomson due up and Willie Mays on deck, Dressen called Sukeforth in the bullpen to see which of his two relievers was the better choice, Erskine or Branca. Erskine had just bounced a curve, so Clyde told him, “Branca.”
Dressen might have ordered an intentional walk, but he didn’t. Thomson swung at Branca’s 0-1 pitch, and the ball landed in the lower deck of the left-field seats. New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith ended his game story with, “Ralph Branca turned and started for the clubhouse. The number on his uniform looked huge. Thirteen.”
At least that’s the way the story of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World goes. Sukeforth called it something different in his interview with Eric Lincoln: “The guy hits this popup — I swear it was a popup — that lands in the front row of the grandstand and that’s all she wrote.”
In the days following the loss, Dressen, who maybe should have walked Thomson, hung Sukeforth out to dry. Asked why he had brought in Branca, Dressen replied, “Sukey said he was ready to go.” After all that Sukeforth had done for the Dodgers, he was left with no other choice than to fall on his sword. “Had I stayed in Brooklyn, I would have had to live it down,” he would come to say. His resignation was announced on Dec. 5, 1951, and Billy Herman was hired in his place.
Sukeforth wasn’t too upset, though. He had already put in a call to Branch Rickey. And he had just married Grethel Winchenbach, a 35-year-old widow from Waldoboro. Seemed only natural for the ex-catcher. Her maiden name was Pitcher.
CARD NO. 364 in the Topps 1952 collection belongs to Pittsburgh Pirates coach Clyde Sukeforth, who’s wearing a kind of Where-am-I? smile. That card set is probably the most valuable one in history, partly because it has beautiful portrait-like images of 407 players, but mostly because No. 311 is Mickey Mantle’s first card for Topps, which went for $2.8 million in 2018. In pristine condition, Sukeforth goes for about $1,500.
On the back of the card, it says, “”When he isn’t busy on the playing field, Sukey is used as a trouble-shooter for Pirates farm clubs.”
Actually, the Pirates’ manager, Billy Meyer, thought his “Tough Call” partner was trying to take his job. Asked in spring training what responsibilities Sukey would have, Meyer said, “Why, that’s easy to answer. Isn’t he supposed to be my successor?”
Since the Pirates were coming off two horrendous seasons, that would have been a reasonable assumption but for two things. One, Sukeforth wanted no part of being a major league manager — too much bother. Two, Rickey wasn’t looking for any quick fixes. He needed to find players, and he called Sukeforth “a keen judge of baseball talent, one of the best.”
The 1952 Pirates were one of the worst teams in baseball history, finishing 42-112, 54½ games behind the Dodgers. Meyer resigned and was replaced by Fred Haney, but the Pirates still couldn’t escape last place in ’53 or ’54. In the middle of that ’54 season, Rickey sent Sukeforth, who was still a coach, to Richmond to check out Montreal pitcher Joe Black to see if he might be worth acquiring. Sukeforth dutifully showed up for pitchers’ batting practice to chat with Black. His attention, though, was drawn to another player taking BP.
In Bruce Markusen’s biography of Roberto Clemente, “The Great One,” Black recalls, “[Clyde] came to me and said, ‘Who’s that pitcher who hits all the balls out?’ I said, ‘What pitcher?'”
It turns out that the Dodgers were trying to hide Clemente because the size of his signing bonus made him eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 draft at the end of the season. In his 1994 interview with Sports Collectors Digest, Sukeforth picks up the story:
“They were having their infield and outfield practice and there was this kid out there — real great arm. You couldn’t help noticing him. He wasn’t playing, though. … The next four nights I was out there watching him in batting practice and his form was a little bit unorthodox, but he had a good power stroke. … So I wrote Mr. Rickey. I said, ‘Joe Black hasn’t pitched but I have you a draft choice.'”
When the scouts all met at Rickey’s farm outside of Pittsburgh toward the end of the season to decide who the first pick in the draft should be, everyone seemed to have his own choice. Rickey then asked, “Do you have a candidate, Clyde?” And Sukeforth answered, “Clemente is definitely our man.” Rickey trusted Sukey, but he also wanted verification. So the 72-year-old Rickey flew to Puerto Rico to watch Clemente play for Santurce in the winter league, where he was locked in a race for the batting title with one of his teammates, center fielder Willie Mays. On Nov. 22, 1954, the Pirates stole Clemente from the Dodgers for $4,000.
With the blessings of Bing Crosby, a part-owner of the team, Rickey had already begun a youth movement. In that same year, the Pirates signed a 17-year-old shortstop from Tiltonsville, Ohio, named Bill Mazeroski. Pittsburgh had just given the shortstop job to former Duke basketball star Dick Groat, so Rickey had Mazeroski switch to second base. The Pirates were nurturing outfielder Bob Skinner and pitchers Bob Friend and Vern Law. (Law, from Idaho, had signed with the Pirates because Crosby made a phone call to his mother.) They also picked pitcher Elroy Face off the scrapheap and suggested he learn how to throw a forkball.
But there was a pitching prospect from Brooklyn they missed out on, someone Branch Rickey Jr. and Sukeforth were especially high on: Sandy Koufax. For her definitive, eponymous biography of Koufax (subtitled “A Lefty’s Legacy”), Jane Leavy talked to Sukeforth in the last year of his life. “How hard did he throw?” said Sukeforth. “Harder than anybody we had. He has what you look for in qualities. I mean, the good Lord was good to him.”
In the summer of ’54, Sukeforth arranged for Koufax to have a private audition at Forbes Field. Groat was a witness. “As I walked through the gate,” he told Leavy, “I saw all the Pittsburgh brass — Branch Rickey Sr., Clyde Sukeforth, Rex Bowen, George Sisler, Fred Haney — and there’s a young boy throwing, great body, a marvelous delivery.”
Catching Koufax that day was Pirates coach Sam Narron. Here’s how author Roger Kahn described the session:
“Koufax threw harder and harder until a fastball finally broke Sam Narron’s thumb — a thumb that was protected by a catcher’s mitt. Rickey said quietly to Sukeforth, ‘This is the finest arm I’ve ever seen.'”
Alas, Rickey’s nemesis, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, was more generous with his money than Pirates owner John Galbreath, and Koufax signed with Brooklyn. The Pirates again finished last in 1955, and Rickey and Sukey had to watch as the Dodgers, who had Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, Gilliam, Black and Koufax, finally won a World Series, in seven games over the hated Yankees.
Because of health problems, Rickey turned over the GM reins to Joe L. Brown at the end of that season. Still, the old man remained on the board until August of 1959.
When the Pirates fired Bobby Bragan as the skipper after 103 games in 1957, Clyde was offered the job. Once again, he turned down a chance to become a major league manager. “I don’t ask for a great deal out of life,” he once told Les Biederman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “but I do want contentment. I could never find it as a manager. I have a happy home life, own a farm in Waldoboro, and among the things I grow are Christmas trees.”
But he did leave the Pirates a present to put under their tree. He convinced Brown and a reluctant Rickey that coach Danny Murtaugh, another guy from that Rockwell painting, was the right man for the job. (World Series titles in 1960 and 1971 would prove him right.)
At the end of the ’57 season, Sukeforth announced his retirement. “I started in baseball in 1926,” he told Biederman, “and I feel it’s about time I retire to my family and my farm. … I made a promise to my wife and daughter and I intend to keep it.”
So he took some time off and watched from afar as the Pirates turned things around. He became involved in Democratic Party politics, which was ironic given that Jackie Robinson had become a backer of the Republican Party. Then the Pirates won their first championship in 35 years, and JFK began his New Frontier. Sukeforth’s daughter became an adult and moved to Texas, his wife was now the postmistress of Waldoboro … and Sukeforth got the itch again.
After visiting some baseball pals in Florida, he agreed to help out with the Pirates’ minor leaguers, which is how he found himself managing their Class A affiliate in Gastonia of the Western Carolinas League in 1965. One of his players was an infielder from Sackville, New Brunswick, named Murray Cook. “What a grand old man he was,” says Cook, who went on to become the general manager of the New York Yankees, Montreal Expos and Cincinnati Reds. “There he was in his 60s, catching the pitchers, throwing batting practice, passing on his wisdom to us. I learned so much from Clyde.
“One day, though, one of our pitchers, Billy Queen, let loose with a wild pitch during a throwing session, and it conked Clyde in the head. Very frightening. He was lying on the ground, and the team doctor, who was a neurosurgeon, went over to look at him. When Clyde came to, the doctor told him he was taking him to the hospital because they might have to operate. Clyde told him that he couldn’t do that for religious reasons. He was a Christian Scientist, I guess.
“So he gathers himself and then the team, and he tells us, ‘Look, fellas, I’m going back to Maine to recuperate. If I’m not back here in three weeks, that means I’m dead.’ Well, a few weeks later, he shows up, rarin’ to go.”
To PJ Shelley, Sukeforth was Forrest Gump. To Toby Huss, he was Zelig. To baseball historian and Maine native Karl Lindholm, Clyde was Odysseus. This is what Lindholm, who has taught a course on the Negro Leagues at Middlebury College, wrote for the spring 2014 edition of the Baseball Research Journal:
“He was the mythical young man from the provinces who went to the city and participated in an epic drama, and then, after an extraordinary career full of high adventure, repaired to his Ithaka — Waldoboro — to live out his long life, a sage in the tranquility of old age in familiar and reassuring surroundings.”
When Sukeforth finally realized he was too old for a uniform, he became a scout for the Braves, covering New England and the Atlantic provinces. In 1972, Sukeforth ventured down to New York City to catch up with one of his old prospects.
It seems that the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands was having a special luncheon at Mama Leone’s to honor Jackie Robinson. Ralph Branca, Bobby Thomson and Joe Black were there. Sukeforth was asked to speak but declined. He did pose with Robinson, though. By the looks on their smiling faces, they picked up where they left off.
A few days later, Sukeforth received a letter from Robinson on the letterhead of the Jackie Robinson Construction Corp. of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Dated July 21, 1972, it read in part:
“While there has not been enough said of your significant contribution in the Rickey-Robinson experiment, I consider your role, next to Mr. Rickey’s and my wife’s — yes, bigger than any other person with whom I came in contact. I have always considered you to be one of the true giants in this initial endeavor in baseball, for which I am truly appreciative.”
Three months later, on Oct. 24, Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53. And on the last day of ’72, Clemente perished in an airplane accident while flying to Nicaragua to help earthquake survivors there.
SAME BEAUTIFUL HANDWRITING as on the bat. Dated Nov. 11, 1980, it’s a letter Clyde wrote on Braves stationery to another Rickey disciple, Rex Bowen. (In a very considerate gesture, Rex’s son Jack passed it along.)
In the letter, Clyde writes about going down to Texas to visit Helen and the grandchildren and the possibility of moving to someplace warmer, but Grethel isn’t keen on it, and besides, he’s got a dozen lobster traps and a Brittany Spaniel who’s becoming a really good bird dog. And then, from one bird dog to another, he gets around to baseball:
“I saw the two pitchers you mentioned on T.V., and they sure were impressive, especially so after watching the three millionaires on the Red Sox staff, namely Eckersley, Campbell and Torrez. Eckersley brings the stepping foot shoulder high even with men on base, and all three have the stiff front leg and fall all over the place.” (Note: Eckersley was coming off a 12-14 season and was still a few years away from refining his delivery and becoming a full-time reliever.)
Clyde and Grethel were comfortably settled in their house by the water. Clyde had invested wisely, and then, in 1977, came a windfall — Grethel won $150,000 in the Maine Lottery. There she is, holding up a number in a photo from the June 9 Biddeford Journal Tribune. With apologies to Red Smith, the number looks huge. Thirteen.
Now fully retired and a member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, he resumed his boyhood allegiance to the Red Sox, tended to his lobster pots and tomatoes, and took his stopwatch to local baseball games, be they college, high school or Little League. Bill Maxwell, the firefighter who showed Toby Huss around Waldoboro, says, “I’d known Mr. Sukeforth most of my life. And because I was involved in baseball, I saw him a lot — it’s like it wasn’t a real game unless he was there in his lawn chair with his stopwatch, like he was still looking for a Hall of Famer. It meant something to be able to tell kids, ‘See that old guy over there? He discovered Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.’
“One time, though, at an American Legion game, he was sitting in his chair on the first-base side when a foul ball hit him on the wrist. We all rushed over there, but he shooed us away. ‘Don’t make a fuss,’ he said. ‘I’ve been hit before.'”
Sukeforth might have lived his life out in footnote obscurity had not Ken Burns driven the four hours from Walpole, New Hampshire, to Waldoboro with his crew in 1992. He could not have told the story of the national pastime without Jackie Robinson, and he could not have told the story of Jackie without Clyde Sukeforth.
“It was a rainy day,” Burns recalls, “and we drove down a dirt road to his house on the water. We talked to a lot of people, obviously, for “Baseball,” but Clyde stands out in my memory because he was so modest and decent and sweet. Here we were, interviewing one of the seminal figures in the game, and it was like we were talking to a Maine fisherman. He gave us 4½ hours, which is a lot, and he gave us a much clearer picture of what Rickey and Jackie were like.”
There were other guests. Murray Cook stopped by on his way up to New Brunswick. Helen had four children and 11 grandchildren, so there were games of catch and picnics when the family came to visit during the summer. Brian O’Gara, who’s now Major League Baseball’s vice president for events, dropped by in October of ’94: “I’m from Westbrook, Maine, and Frank Slocum, who knew Clyde from his days with the Dodgers and was then in charge of the Baseball Assistance Team, thought I should meet him. I met Clyde at the cottage, and it was like reliving baseball history through the eyes of your grandfather. The All-Star Game that year had been in Pittsburgh, so he was especially excited talking about his days with the Pirates.”
In October of 1995, the year after “Baseball” premiered, the Gibbs Library in Washington, Maine, mounted an exhibition dedicated to Sukeforth. As he looked at all the black-and-white photos covering the walls at the opening, he asked, “Why are you bothering with a second-string catcher?” At a later question-and-answer attended by local Little Leaguers, he was asked what the favorite moment of his career was.
“I liked every day of it.”
Because 1997 was the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s rookie year, Sukeforth was especially busy. The late, great Dave Anderson of The New York Times, who had known Sukeforth when he worked for the Brooklyn Eagle, came up to visit him that March at the Camden Health Care Center — he was recovering from a fractured pelvis suffered when he slipped on the frost on his front step. “I could be better, but I could be worse,” Clyde told Anderson. “That’s true of all of us, I suppose.” When Anderson asked him for the secret to his longevity, he said, “Getting up at 5 every morning and eating an apple every day. … My grandfather grew some of the finest apples. He had about 20 different types, but some of them faded out. There’s competition in that league too.”
Branch Rickey III also visited to film a piece for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “Seeing him brought back so many memories, of my grandfather and father, of Ebbets Field and Forbes Field, of the way Clyde would lean in, of how soft his voice was.
“I remember ending our interview with three questions. The first one was, ‘What do you think the legacy of my grandfather is?’ Clyde answered, kind of in a monotone, ‘The Robinson thing.’
“The second one was, ‘What do you think his legacy should be?’ Clyde gave it some thought and said, ‘How far out in front of everybody he was, and not just in baseball.’
“And the third was, ‘What will you remember about him?’ His answer both stunned and thrilled me. ‘His compassion,’ he said.”
AS IF HIS accent isn’t enough to tell you he’s from Maine, Clyde Sukeforth is wearing a lumberjack shirt over a lumberjack shirt. It’s 1996, and he’s talking to the camera. The Hall of Fame had come calling.
As he rocks back and forth, Sukeforth recalls Robinson’s professional debut in Jersey City in ’46: “The day before, Frank Shaughnessy, the president of the International League, pleaded with Mr. Rickey, ‘Don’t bring that fellow over there — you’re going to have a race riot.’ Mr. Rickey never cut anybody off because he wanted to get the full complaint. He says, ‘Frank, Robinson’s going to play, and I’ll bet you everything I own or could borrow that when the game is over, he will be the most popular man in the ballpark.’ Well, that was an understatement.”
Ted Spencer, who was then the chief curator, and Bruce Markusen, the researcher who would conduct the interview, had driven up to Waldoboro from Cooperstown. Sukeforth was home at the cottage with Grethel.
“Cold as hell, but it turned out to be a wonderful day,” Spencer says. “We stopped off at Moody’s — I had the cheddar sausage. Clyde gave us a great interview, but what sticks with me is his reaction when we brought up Rachel — he asked about her with genuine affection. I also remember this: After our interview, he was going to hunt some birds.”
“There he was,” Markusen says, “living at what seemed like the end of the earth, toward the end of an extraordinary life. But as significant as his role in baseball history was, you never got the sense that he thought he was significant. He was happy living off a dirt road, out of the spotlight.”
Lanny Winchenbach is a fisherman who lived next door to the Sukeforths at the time, and for a long time. “We were neighbors for 30 years,” he says. “I loved the guy. I’d look out my window and see him watching his grandkids playing catch with his great-grandkids, or splitting wood, or pulling in his lobsters, and I’d smile. I still laugh about the time he reached into the pocket of his hunting jacket to get some tobacco, only to discover that his dog had s— in it.
“There was one time my truck spun out on the ice going downhill, and I was sideways, afraid I was going to be T-boned by someone coming over the rise. I ran over to Clyde’s house, and he pulled out his four-wheel truck and towed me to safety.
“He was the definition of a good neighbor. I’d come home late at night, and he’d be looking out his kitchen window as if to make sure I got home OK. For a few weeks after he died, I kept looking at the window, half expecting to see him.”
Sukeforth left Winchenbach with something more than memories. “I have his stopwatch,” Winchenbach says.
ON A LATE-SUMMER afternoon, three softball players are getting in some swings at Clyde L. Sukeforth Memorial Field at the Waldoboro Recreation Complex. The left-handed batter has a nice stroke as he hits ball after ball from the pitcher into right field, where a woman deftly fields them and tosses them back toward the mound. Softball, yes, and just the three of them, but Sukeforth would appreciate the scene.
Grethel died on Sept. 30, 1999, at the age of 82. She was, by all accounts, a very nice woman who provided companionship to Clyde for 48 years. She knew, though, that when he died, he would be buried with Helen.
After Sukeforth died on Sept. 3, 2000, Anderson wrote his obituary for the Times, calling him “the Brooklyn scout and manager who accompanied Jackie Robinson through two of the Hall of Fame player’s milestones as the first African-American in modern baseball.” He would have chuckled at the “and manager” part.
Far from being forgotten, Sukeforth continued to be celebrated in the years after his death. The Washington General Store dedicated a pizza, The Number 11, for his Dodgers uniform number — meatball crumble, pepperoni, bacon, pickles, onion, tangy ketchup, mustard sauce, provolone and mozzarella. The Waldoboro Board of Selectmen made plans to dedicate the new field at the complex to Sukeforth. When it opened on May 1, 2010, Derek Zimmerman, one of his grandsons, threw out the first ball. Five years later, the state Little League tournament was held there.
Toby Huss remembers the time Rachel Robinson visited the set of “42.” “When I was introduced to her as the man who was playing Clyde Sukeforth, she gave me just the warmest hug.”
Ken Burns also resurrected Sukeforth when he converted the footage he shot in 1992 for his 2016 documentary, “Jackie Robinson.” Both “Baseball” — the “Sixth Inning” is Sukeforth’s moment — and the later documentary are well worth the time, especially at this crucial juncture in history.
It’s kind of nice that Sukeforth keeps picking up acolytes. Tiger Cumming, a high school senior who does a sports column for The Lincoln County News, recently wrote about the man his Little League field is named after, quoting Sukeforth as saying that he “was not a good scout” and that he “could just pick out Hall of Famers.” Cumming added, “That sounds like good scouting to me.”
Another one is Alex Coffey, who covers the Oakland A’s for The Athletic. She first wrote about Sukeforth when she worked at the Hall of Fame in 2016 and then revisited him in Waldoboro in a touching piece she wrote for The Athletic this past spring.
“That part of Maine is a sacred place for me and my family,” she says. “We summered in Round Pond, right down the road. And because my dad, Wayne Coffey, was a sportswriter who loved and covered baseball, writing about Clyde was a dream assignment.”
For her piece, Coffey reached out to Helen Zimmerman, Clyde’s daughter. Now 82, and just like her father, Helen didn’t want to make a big deal about his links to baseball history. But she did recall him talking about his initial meeting with Robinson: “Jackie told him that white scouts didn’t hang around the Negro Leagues much. He assumed somebody was trying to be funny and was pulling a prank. Dad had a hard time convincing him it was legitimate.”
When I contacted Zimmerman, I discovered that the apple did not fall far from the tree, even though her Texas accent is about as thick as Sukeforth’s Maine accent. She has memories of going to Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, and seeing Robinson play. “But I’m a die-hard Rangers fan now,” she says. “Ever since Dad took us to the first Rangers game in Arlington.” Asked who her favorite Ranger is, she replied, “Isiah, of course.”
Sukeforth would have liked that too. A player known as “The Hawaiian Hustle,” Isiah Kiner-Falefa can play four positions, including catcher. He’s also proof that Jackie Robinson opened a world of possibilities — Isiah is of Samoan, Hawaiian and Japanese descent.
Dennis Zimmerman also remembers that first Rangers game in 1972. “Clyde took us down to the field and introduced us to the manager,” he says. “Ted Williams.” In later years, Dennis watched his own son, Dillan, become an elite pitcher. “I’m sorry my grandfather didn’t get to see him pitch. He played for the Perfect Game Baseball Academy in Orlando with Dante Bichette Jr., who was drafted by the Yankees.”
Let’s see. Sukeforth’s great-grandson played with the son of Dante Bichette, who played in Milwaukee with Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who played for Del Crandall, who caught Johnny Sain, who was the first major league pitcher to face Jackie Robinson.
All roads lead to Friendship Road.
“I still remember driving with him through Waldoboro,” Dennis says. “He would wave at everybody. He never wanted to move south. He was a true Mainiac.”
He never wanted people to make a fuss over him either, and his tombstone reflects that. But as it turns out, his epitaph was written way back on Nov. 17, 1957, when Bob Cooke, the sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote this upon Sukeforth’s retirement:
“Ball players, from one dugout to another, called him Sukey, and there was lots of affection in the nickname. Clyde would never talk about it, but he had a reputation for being everybody’s coach. Many a big leaguer, whether he was on the same team as Sukeforth or not, would come to him for advice and counsel. And there never was a player, who, having visited Sukey, didn’t come away the better for it.”
Clyde Leroy Sukeforth was a fortunate man, and baseball was fortunate to have him. As it turns out, luck can also be the residue of decency.
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