Boys of summers past: King of Diamonds, Part 3
Wednesday, March 29, 2017 6:59 PM
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. … All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
– Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson
Ladies and gentlemen, during an era where starting pitchers saw it as a weakness not to finish ballgames, the late Clyde King was one of the relief pitchers who began to revolutionize the game of baseball. I asked Mr. King more than a decade ago if he considered himself a pioneer of sorts.
He shook his head and said he played with a real pioneer – the late Jackie Robinson.
“I was so fortunate to be on the team in ’47 when Jackie broke in,” he says. “He, my wife and his wife became good friends. Jackie was a great player, and he handled everything beautifully. The first game he played for us in Philadelphia, they threw 13 black cats on the field.”
Sometimes, the abuse Robinson faced was physical, King said.
“Jackie hit a double in Ebbets Field one day and slid safely into second base and the second baseman had the ball in the web of his glove, swung and smacked Jackie right in the side of the face. You could hear the impact in our dugout,” King said with a wince.
“Normally, you come up fighting, but Jackie got up, brushed himself off and two pitches later stole third. That’s the way he answered. And about four or five pitches later, he stole home.”
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound hurler was a part of two World Series teams as a Brooklyn Dodger. Both times, the Dodgers lost in seven games to the Yankees. In 1951, the Dodgers lost a three-game playoff against the New York Giants and missed the playoffs. In the famous “shot heard ’round the world” game, Bobby Thompson hit a three-run homer for the Giants off Ralph Branca in the ninth inning to eliminate the Dodgers.
“I was there, and (pitching to Thompson) would have been my job, but the last three weeks, I had a sore shoulder,” King recalled. “I couldn’t even comb my hair.”
It was the beginning of the end of King’s playing career.
After the 1952 season, King was sold to the Cincinnati Reds. Now 29, King was 3-6 with a 5.21 ERA in 35 games in his final season as a player.
Gabe Paul, the general manager of Reds, was close to Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey.
“My arm was done when I went to Cincinnati,” King recalls. “Giving it up was tough, but that’s when Mr. Rickey got me into managing.”
One era was over, but another was just beginning.
“Mr. Rickey talked to Earl Mann with the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern League, and he told him, ‘You’ve got to take this guy, he’s a student of the game and he gets along well with players.’ So he hired me as manager, and we won the pennant that year in the Southern League.”
Before becoming a big league manager, King led several minor league clubs (including the Columbus Jets in 1958) and served as a coach for the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 1969, King was named manager of the San Francisco Giants. With an offense that featured Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds, and a pitching staff anchored by Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal, San Francisco made a run at the National League West Division title. The Giants eventually finished second, three games behind the Atlanta Braves.
“The first year with the Giants, we almost won the pennant,” King recalled.
“The next year, we had several guys come up with injuries, and they fired me on my birthday.”
King then moved on to manage the Atlanta Braves’ Triple A team in Richmond of the International League in 1971 and 1972. In 1973, he moved to Atlanta as assistant general manager. In the middle of 1974, the Braves fired manager Eddie Mathews. They replaced him with King, who led the team to a 38-25 mark over the final 63 games of the season.
“I replaced Eddie Mathews at the All-Star break, and for the rest of that season, we played better than anybody in the National League,” King said.
“But I knew the team was not really that good, so I asked at the end of the season if I could go back to my old job and look for some players to improve our team. Instead, they talked me into signing a two-year contract as manager, and it didn’t work out.
“We played over our heads, and you can’t do that for a whole season.”
With the Giants, King managed Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. With the Braves, he managed Hank Aaron. He is the only person who can say he managed both Mays and Aaron.
In 1976, he moved on to the Yankees – and stayed with the team for more than three decades. When I interviewed King when he was 82, he was still a Yankee employee.
Specializing as a scout, troubleshooter and adviser, King was the Yankees’ pitching coach in 1978 and 1981 and managed the team for part of the 1982 season. He served as general manager of the Yankees in 1985 and 1986 and was a member of the team’s coaching staff again in 1988. After that, he was owner George Steinbrenner’s special adviser.
He remembers that day in ’82 when Steinbrenner approached him.
“I told Mr. Steinbrenner I really don’t want to manage anymore,” he recalled. “And he said, ‘Will you do me a personal favor?’ So I said yes.”
He took over the next day and finished out the season. At the age of 58, King posted a 29-33 record as Yankees’ skipper in 1982 – he finished his big league managing career with a 234-229 record.
After that, it was back to the front office as general manager.
Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next week with the life and times of Clyde King, followed by other boys of summers past.
Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.