By: Deryck Kissoondath
In the movie Field of Dreams, Moonlight Graham gave up his passion for playing baseball, choosing instead to save lives and follow his dream of becoming a doctor. Chatham’’s own Eugene (Gene) Dziadura has in much the same way followed a parallel a path, by working with young minds and creating opportunties for serious young Canadian ball players to find their way into the world of baseball.
Considered by some to be the heir apparent to the great Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, Gene began his career in baseball after a track meet was cancelled, and he was encouraged to try out for a baseball team. According to Gene ” I didn’’t play organized baseball in Windsor until I was 14. Most of the baseball we played at that time was at the parks. I’’d come home and my mother would say be back by 9:00 pm. We didn’’t have peewee and atom.”
Gene added “There was a track meet in Michigan and I was on the track team at Patterson Collegiate. Somehow the track meet got cancelled and someone said there was a try out for Blondie’s Cleaners at Stogell Park.” At that point Gene never even owned a good ball glove and had to borrow one from one of his buddies. At Stogell Park he had a very “square-jawed and terrifically gray haired ” scout hit about 200 ground balls at him and eventually offer him a chance to play baseball. Gene played in a league whose players ranged in age from 14 to 18 years and according to him he had to “grow up fast.”
The time passed by quickly and he found himself playing on a varsity team for the Air Force Club in Windsor. At this point he truly found himself enjoying baseball and had a great year.
The following year would certainly prove to be an important turning point in his baseball career, as Gene played for Central Park. Playing on this team would pit him against Assumption High School, which was coached by the famous Father Roy Cullen, an inductee to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame who recently passed away in Toronto at age 94. Father Cullen had a reputation for discovering raw talent, and for coaching and giving kids a chance at making it to the major ranks in a number of sports including hockey, football, and baseball. Each year Assumption High School would draft three players on campus to play for their team. Gene clearly remembers being introduced to Father Cullen by Jerry Schiller, and the words “Son, would you like to come and play baseball at Assumption?!”
For Gene this could mean following in the footsteps of Reno Bertoia, the Italian Canadian, who had just left Assumption High School and was on the way to Class D League in Detroit. Class D meant that players would play at the North Western fields where there were seven baseball fields and at least 20 scouts every night watching the promising players who were playing their hearts out on the diamonds. It was evident that success was possible from the trials of Bertoia, who had played over there and signed a baby bonus, meaning that if he signed a contract over $4000 he would have to stay with that Major League team for a minimum of two years. As Bertoia’’s luck increased so did Gene’’s and soon he became the starting short stop for Assumption High School.
Gene then found himself playing for RG Moulder, a team in Detroit. He was still in school and would travel to Detroit six times per week to play. Often this would mean a ride to the Ambassador Bridge, for the sixteen year old, and then a thumbs up to hitch a ride to the games. He played there for two years and it all culminated with his team winning the National Championship in Elkhart, Indiana. Eleven of the fifteen players on this team would eventually sign professional contracts with major league teams.
Gene’’s play on the diamond was observed by a Phillies head scout Tony Lucadello who very quickly approached his family and offered Gene a contract. He was offered and accepted a bonus of $4000, meaning that he could go to a minor league team and actually play baseball, unlike Reno Bertoia who would not be guaranteed playing a full year of baseball with the Detroit Tigers. This would also mean that he should get to finish playing out his year with the RG Moulder team, and would be an invitee to Spring Training with the Class A minor league team in the Phillies organization.
It was at this point in Gene’’s life that he met the scout who would take a personal interest in him, give him an opportunity to play in the major leagues, and eventually fulfill his destiny of becoming a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Tony Lucadello was a baseball guru and scout from the Chicago Cub’s organization. He would take a personal interest in Gene and continue to be an influence throughout his life. Tony worked very hard to get Gene down to Spring training early in his first year in the Cub’s organization. As a result Gene found himself in Lafayette, Louisiana, three weeks early, with the Cub’s “A minor” team. It was a real eye-opener for Gene, who finally saw professional baseball at its best. He saw pitchers “zipping the baseball in there” and learned quite a lot. It was a lonely time for Gene but he smiled when recalling how his scout pulled him through by writing the young Polish-Canadian shortstop up to four letters a week. Tony made sure that Gene continued his eye-training exercises, swung the bat, and stayed focussed.
For a young Canadian to move to the southern United States in the late 1950’s, there was another obstacle besides loneliness to face: the colour barrier. Gene recalled several incidents that truly illustrated what life was like under those conditions. When Gene got hurt and went in to see the club doctor he was led into a huge waiting room. While he was there a young African-American child came running around the corner and asked Gene if it was okay to have a drink from the fountain. Gene responded “Sure go ahead kid” but before the youngster could get his lips to the water, someone yelled “Get over here!” There was only one fountain in the room, and despite the extremely hot weather, it was reserved for the white people only.
Gene also recalled getting on a public bus in Louisiana. He always felt that the best fans were in the right field corner, which happened to be filled with black fans. The fans had taken to Gene, as he was considered somewhat of a foreigner, coming from Canada. He was known to the fans as “Gino” and had become a cult hero. When entering a bus he immediately had a number of black fans call out to him and he made his way to the back of the bus to say hello to them. Everyone at the front of the bus turned staring at him as he crossed the line on the floor which divided the sections between blacks and whites.
The colour barrier was also very visible on the baseball field and once directly affected the game that Gene was playing in. Gene had the pleasure of playing with Sammy Drake who was the younger brother of Solomon Drake, both African American, who would later they would make baseball history as being the first African American siblings to both make it to the Major Leagues. Sammy would break the colour barrier by playing in Macon, Georgia, in 1955 for the affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Later in 1962, he would play under Casey Stengel with the New York Mets, in their inaugural season. His brother Solomon would also play for the Cubs, Dodgers, and Phillies from 1956 – 1959.
Gene recalls that “Sammy played second base and I was the shortstop, and I followed him in the batting order. I was on deck with Sammy batting and I said “Come on Sammy!” Suddenly three white spectators yelled at me “Hey you, we don’’t want you to talk anymore to that ******” Later on in about the fifth inning we were batting and Sammy was at bat again and I said “Let’s go Sammy!” and I heard “Hey you short stop, you keep talking to that ****** and we’’ll stab you.” In the ninth inning of the game a ground ball was hit to the centre of the diamond and I made a spectacular play in gloving the ball and throwing it back to Sammy to end the game. Our clubhouse was in centre field and normally the players would walk around with the fans to their respective clubhouses, but on this day I ran across the field and jumped the fence and ran into the clubhouse, it was that bad.”
It was in Class C ball in the Evangeline League that Gene’’s professional career came to a halt. He was having a great season with the Lafayette Oilers and had gained much confidence at the plate. The early part of the season saw him batting about 0.385. It was then, facing Dan Gorondona, that he was hit flush in the head with a fastball. The helmet was cracked and down went Gene. Gene heard bells and was dazed but didn’’t realize at that point that he had whiplash and a concussion. Today, with the progress of medical technology, a diagnosis would have been made and steps taken to treat the injury. Unfortunately, back in 1956, the treatment and diagnosis were not that advanced.
To add insult to injury, the Lafayette Oilers were in first place by nine games by June of that year; however, they were not as successful at the gate. The team was going to fold unless they got more money. It was determined to have a merchant’s’ night as a fundraiser for the team. As fate would have it, that night it rained very hard, and as Gene recalls “it seemed to rain just over the diamond.” The merchant’s’ night had to be cancelled and the team struggled with the idea of cancelling the game. As a last ditch effort to dry the field, the idea of pouring gasoline over the wet infield and lighting it was put to the test. The gasoline did not dry the infield but instead created a mud bowl. It was a disaster and the team had to fold. The team was broken up and players sent all over to other teams.
Gene found himself promoted to the “B League” and was eventually playing with the Burlington Bees in 1958, in Iowa. In a game in Burlington, he came in as a pinch runner and was set to steal second base when it happened. As he took off his whole back seized up and management had to put him in the hospital. The result was devastating, as Gene found out that he had lost the natural curvature in his spine, compressed cervical vertebra, and then in the lumbar region, he had a disc that was ajar. The immediate treatment was to put him in a chair with weights strapped on him. He would take this treatment two hours per day both in the morning and in the afternoon. He remained hospitalized for two weeks on a complete fracture mattress. After his hospitalization Gene made his way back home to be examined by a neurosurgeon and have a myelogram completed on his back. This procedure was in the experimental stage and turned out to be very scary and painful for Gene, though not as painful as the results.
There was both good news and bad news for the aspiring shortstop. The good news, which was taken first, cleared him of having to have any kind of back surgery. The devastating news was that playing any kind of professional ball could mean paralysis and loss of his legs. Gene’’s baseball career was over. He asked for his release and officially received it about two years later from the Chicago Cubs.
Tony Lucadello remained true to his word of taking an interest in Gene and very quickly contacted Gene to act as a scout for his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1959 Gene would begin his job and was required to cover the areas around Owen Sound, Toronto, Windsor, and Niagara. By this time Gene had finished the requirements for high school teaching, and now held a scouting job and was actively seeking a teaching job too.
As quickly as he had found himself out of playing baseball, Gene found himself in the midst of other challenges. Equipped with his History background he went to see Doctor Tanzer of the Chatham/Kent Board of Education for a job at Chatham Collegiate Institute. He filled out his application before the meeting and when asked if he could coach rugby was given the job. This was his introduction into a career in education.
In 1959, while supply teaching at John MacGregor High School, Gene was asked to take a look at two prospects by Physical Education teacher, Gerry McCaffery. They were a young Fergie Jenkins and Mel Wakabayashi. Mel would later become an All-American hockey player at the University of Michigan, while Fergie … well, baseball fans all know what became of him. Gene went to Turner Park and observed the young lanky 165 lb kid. He noticed quickly “In Fergie everything was fluid, he ran well and swung the bat okay.” The personal care and attention that both Gene and Tony Lucadello gave to Fergie was later revealed by Fergie as the reason that he signed with the Phillies, in June 1962.
On that evening in June, Tony Lucadello sat down with Fergie’’s family at their home, and waited until midnight when he could officially sign Fergie with the Phillies. In the three years prior to signing Fergie, Tony came up about six to seven times to check on his status. Between Tony and Gene, and the way they treated the Jenkins family, there was no question in Jenkins’ mind who he would sign with. Jenkins later said “I signed with the Phillies because Gene was my friend and he was genuine to my family.” The friendship and respect never ended with the signing and Fergie acknowledged this upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame by mentioning both Gene and wife, Marie, in his speech.
Gene’’s transition to being a scout came at an opportune time in his life. With his own professional baseball career ended due to injury, he could vicariously live his baseball dream through Ferguson Jenkins. According to Gene “I regret that I couldn’’t play ball but getting into scouting right away was my outlet. I could talk to kids, do clinics and it filled the gap.” In August 1962 Gene had another surprise while scouting a young shortstop from Michigan. After watching Gene give pointers to the young player, Tony approached Gene about rooming with Fergie and signing a minor league contract that would take him to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The longtime scout was willing to give Gene a short three week contract to go and play ball and room with Fergie. At this point in time, though, Gene had another contract in progress: his wedding to future wife Marie was set for August 11, 1962. There were all the lingering thoughts of “maybe getting hurt” and “finalizing his career.” For Gene it was an easy decision to look back on. He was 25 and had been teaching already for three years, with another direction and set of challenges ahead of him.
The knowledge and experience that Gene had gained in his time playing baseball would be imparted to Fergie Jenkins, who became not only Gene’’s project, but a lifelong friend. Gene recalled telling Fergie about going to the United States to play baseball. “See this skin, it’’s white and if I played behind you, if I make an error they won’’t get on me too much. If you make too may errors you’’ll experience much more criticism.” To this point in his life Fergie would not have experienced the amount of racism that he would later face in going down south. As a teenager growing up in Chatham, Fergie and his friends would often play poker with Fergie’’s mother Delores. The players would have backgrounds of British, Dutch, and Japanese heritage. Gene’s experience and advice would toughen the fresh teenager for later times in his life.
Baseball has been very good to Gene. It has been a way of life and, whether playing or scouting, he has always represented the game well. The skill and pride has never really waned in him, as is evident from his donning a uniform and playing in St. Mary’’s at the charity softball game. His own experiences and the valuable lessons that he was taught have been passed on to future generations in innumerable ways, through his scouting career, during which he guided and advised many aspiring young ball players. Equally significant has been his distinguished career as a high school teacher and football coach in Chatham, where for more than a quarter-century he would hone the minds, inspire the hearts, and enhance the lives of thousands of young people, who can never forget what Gene Dziadura has meant to them.