Monday, February 14, 2011

Gino Cimoli

Gino Cimoli, Pirate outfielder for the 1960 world champions, died this weekend of kidney and heart complications, John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle reported Sunday. He was 81 years old.

The outfielder played ten seasons in the show from 1956-65, spending all of 1960 and a bit of 1961 with the Buccos. He also wore the uniform of the Brooklyn and LA Dodgers, St. Louis Cards, Milwaukee Braves, Kansas City A's, Baltimore O's and California Angels.

His MLB career slash was .265/44/321 in 969 games and 3,054 at-bats.

Cimoli was an only child born on December 18, 1929 in San Francisco to an Italian immigrant father and an Italian-American mother. He went to Galileo High School in San Francisco where basketball was his main claim to fame; he didn't play baseball until his senior year.

But he was good enough to be a prep All-Star, and at 6'2" didn't believe that he was tall enough to go much further in hoops. Howie Haak of the Dodgers signed him for $15K in 1949 as a free agent, beating out the Yankees for his services.

Before reaching the majors, he played for the Nashua Dodgers, Montreal Royals, Fort Worth Cats, St. Paul Saints and then back to Montreal in the minors. Cimoli had a career .292 average on the farm and a rep that he was a hot head and chronic complainer who didn't put enough sweat into mastering the game.

That changed in 1955 when Cimoli’s wife and two young daughters, driving from San Francisco to Montreal to join him for the season, wrecked in Wyoming. All three recovered completely, and Cimoli matured quickly after that reality check.

He would make his MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 19th, 1956 at the age of 26. As a defensive replacement for Walter Alston's club, Cimoli appeared in 73 games and had 36 at-bats, hitting .111. He appeared once in the World Series, as a sub for Sandy Amoros during Don Larsen's perfect game, but didn't get an at-bat.

In 1957, he became the regular center fielder, stationed between Duke Snider and Carl Furillo. In the season's opener against the Phillies, he smacked the game-winning homer off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts in the 12th inning. Cimoli hit .293 with 10 home runs and scored 88 times. He was named to the All-Star team for the first and only time in his career.

The Dodgers moved to la-la land in 1958, and Cimoli was the leadoff hitter on opening day against the San Francisco Giants at Seals Stadium in his home town. Alston gave Cimoli the nod because of his North Beach roots and high school legend status.

He became not only the first LA Dodger to ever bat, but the first ever batter in a West Coast big league game. For the record, he was struck out by pitcher Ruben Gomez, adding to his list of firsts that day. (Cimoli was also the last Dodger to score a run at Ebbet's Field.)

His baseball card became a collector's item, too. Cimoli's Topps card #286 of 1958 has the background was painted out, a common practice in the pre-Photo Shop era. It shows him swinging a bat in the foreground, without the bat, which was also accidentally painted out.

That summer, he hit just .246. But the fans didn't care; Cimoli was one of the first big-leaguers to have a bleacher fan club, started in Brooklyn. In his case, his movie star looks enchanted the female fans of Flatbush and they showed up at Ebbet’s Field to root for their hero.

The Dodgers, however, did care and after the season Cimoli was sent packing to the St. Louis Cardinals for Wally Moon. He was a starting outfielder for the Redbirds, and hit .279, with 40 doubles and 7 triples, both in the top ten in the league.

The Cardinals were rebuilding after their seventh place finish, and had traded for the 20 year-old Curt Flood to roam center field. So Cimoli found himself in a Pirates uniform in 1960, traded for pitcher Ronnie Kline. It helped that the scout who originally signed him, Howie Haak, was then with Pittsburgh.

Joe Brown got Cimoli to play as a fourth outfielder behind Roberto Clemente, Bob Skinner, and Bill Virdon. The hope was that he would push Virdon, and he did share considerable time with him during the season, getting 77 starts, mainly in center. Cimoli hit .267 with 28 RBI in 307 at-bats.

Though a regular season part-timer, he played in all seven games of the World Series against the Yankees, thanks primarily to a thumb injury suffered by Skinner. Cimoli batted a pedestrian .250 with one RBI in 20 at-bats. But he came up big when it counted.

Skinner was back in the starting lineup for game seven, and Cimoli came off the bench in the eighth inning to pinch-hit for Elroy Face with the Pirates down 7-4. His Texas-League single off Bobby Shantz started a rally that was capped by Hal Smith's three-run homer that put the Pirates ahead, 9-7. We know how that one finished, hey?

Cimoli had the quote of the Series after the game when he told the plaid clad Gunner, Bob Prince, on live national television, that "They (the Yankees) broke all the records, and we won the game."

Fame is fleeting and fickle, though. Cimoli only appeared in 21 games for the Pirates in 1961, batting .299, when he was dealt to the Milwaukee Braves in June for Johnny Logan. He was the first player from the 1960 World Series team to be traded.

The Braves were set in the outfield with Hank Aaron, Lee Maye, and the former Pirate Frank Thomas, so Cimoli found himself a third wheel again. Used as a defensive sub, he hit just .197 in 37 games, and was headed out of another town.

The Kansas City Athletics drafted him as a Rule 5 player, and he was a regular for the club in both 1962 and 1963. During the first campaign, he hit .275 with 10 home runs and a league-leading 15 triples. The following season, he hit .263 with 11 triples, which was fourth in the league. But he faded quickly after those two solid years.

The A's released Cimoli early in the 1964 season, and he caught on with the Baltimore Orioles. The next year was his last, spent with with the California Angels. He played sparingly those two years and appeared in his final game on May 7th, 1965.

After retiring from baseball, Cimoli worked as a driver for United Parcel Service. In 1990, the company honored him for 21 years of service without an accident, calling him "The Lou Gehrig of UPS." After hearing his new title, he told the people at his presentation that "If I could hit like Gehrig, I wouldn't be here now."

He spent his off hours as a North Beach regular, playing cards at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club and telling old war stories while chewing on a stogie. And he had a lot of tales to share; stories of his exploits were even included in Carl Erksine and Jim Brosnan books

Gino Cimoli was never a star, and only one team, the Dodgers, even rostered him for as long as three full campaigns. But he was a key part of the Pirates iconic 1960 World Series team during both the season and championship run, and he'll always be remembered for the part he played in bringing the title to Pittsburgh.

No comments: