Boys of summers past: King of Diamonds, Part 4
Wednesday, April 5, 2017 6:12 PM
“It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.”
Clyde King, as presented to Steve Roush.
– Branch Rickey (1881-1965)
Ladies and gentlemen, as I sat in the home of the late Clyde King more than a decade ago, I could almost picture the then-83-year-old as a young man in 1944 getting a tryout in front of Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher, the team’s manager.
King was never a star pitcher in the big leagues but was a favorite of Mr. Rickey, who signed the Goldsboro, N.C. native right after the 50-pitch workout, gave him a $5,000 signing bonus and started him out with the big club in Brooklyn.
“Young man, your head is two years ahead of your arm,” King recalled Mr. Rickey saying to him decades ago. “And it never caught up.”
After a seven-season pitching career with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, King went on to spend more than a half-century in baseball using his head. One story King told me ended up on the cutting room floor 10 years ago, but I found it fascinating. Back in 1959, King had been working as a coach for the Reds and was hired to be the manager of the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. The team was in Cuba for spring training
in 1960, before the U.S. put an embargo on travel to the nation.
Fidel Castro was Cuba’s prime minister, and the Red Wings were going to play a game against the University of Havana, just as King and the Dodgers did during spring training in 1947. King told me he was the team’s pitcher that afternoon in ’47 and posted the win as the Dodgers beat the Havana team.
Before the 1960 contest, King and the Havana manager were called to the mound as part of an opening pitch ceremony, and Castro tossed the ceremonial first pitch.
Before Castro delivered the pitch, he told King that he remembered King pitching against him back in ’47.
“Can you believe that?” King laughed. “I beat Fidel Castro.”
King spent the majority of his life in baseball as a player, coach, manager, scout and executive and was trusted adviser of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
“I’d sit in my office at Yankee Stadium when I was general manager and look out the big picture window and see the whole field,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Here’s a little ol’ guy from Goldsboro (and there is) Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra. I was in awe every time I went into that stadium, and it’s going to really tear me up when it’s gone.”
When King was hired as the Yankees’ GM, Steinbrenner said, “Over the years, Clyde has been my closest confidant. When I get upset, I can talk to Clyde. He understands me. He has always stood up and told me when I’m full of it.”
In his later years, in addition to his duties with the Yankees, King traveled all over the country, delivering speeches about his career and the experiences he had. Most of those speeches started the same way – with stories about people and baseball.
“I always start off all my talks with several of those Yogi-isms and get everybody loosened up,” King told me. “Like when he said to his wife, ‘Carmen, if we don’t start going to our friends’ funerals, they’re not coming to ours.’ Or when he was standing on the tee box with Mickey (Mantle) one day. Mickey teed off and Yogi said, ‘This one’s going in the water.’ And Mickey said, ‘Don’t be like that, be positive.’ And Yogi said, ‘OK, I’m positive it’s going in the water.’ Yogi’s quite a guy.”
He talked about how baseball has changed.
“A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) makes more in one game than I made my entire big league playing career,” he laughed.
Occasionally, he talked about home. And he talked about what’s important to him – faith, family and striving to be the best you can be. “A strong faith in God has been a major force in my life since I became a Christian at age 12,” King said.
While King’s mind was still razor sharp when I talked with him, age was beginning to catch up with him. He had had three surgeries on his back, and while still recovering from his most recent operation, King fell during a speaking engagement and cracked some ribs.
“I really don’t consider myself as famous or a celebrity,” he told me.
“But you wouldn’t believe how many requests across the country I get to come speak, I can’t handle that. I’ve spoken at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I’ve spoken at West Point. I’ve spoken at Columbia University. Those things are going to have to slow down a little now.”
As he looked over some photos of himself in baseball uniforms, he paused and smiled. “I’m blessed and I have no complaints,” King said. “Even in my condition. I’ve had back surgery three times, and I’ve got these cracked ribs. The suffering I’ve been through sometimes has been excruciating, but how can I complain? I’ve had a great life.”
As we concluded a lengthy walk down memory lane that day a decade ago, Clyde King looked down and reached for a pen.
“Best wishes to Steve Roush! Nice meeting you! – Clyde King, Phil. 4:13.”
When Clyde King passed away Nov. 2, 2010 at the age of 86, Yankees Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner, the son of George Steinbrenner, said the following: “Clyde was a loyal and dedicated friend and adviser to my father, our family and the Yankees organization.
Although his baseball achievements were impressive and deserving, he also lived a rich and fulfilling life away from the game. Clyde was a man of great faith who cared deeply about his friends and family, and he served as a role model to so many of us who had the great opportunity to spend time with him.”
Godspeed, Clyde King.
Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.