Camilli, an MVP, is forgettable in eyes of modern-day players

November 24, 1996|By John Steadman

SAN MATEO, Calif. -- It's beyond being a personal matter for Dolph Camilli, who was a major-league baseball standout during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, a time when the game presented its most competitive demands and players were devoid of bargaining rights. If they couldn't live with second-class citizenship and instances in which the club owners had all the authority, there was only one option: quitting.

Camilli is one of 77 former players who have been ignored in the baseball pension plan, simply because they had the misfortune to play before the retirement system was established in 1947. "No, make that 76 survivors," he said. "Babe Dahlgren just died." That's the way it is with the forgotten warriors from long-ago yesteryear.

They are slipping away with almost the tick of the clock. Their names are found in obituary notices, not box scores. But, living or dead, they aren't eligible for pension benefits, which is a great injustice that somehow needs to be corrected. Camilli and his wife, Molly, live on Social Security and resent the fact the Major League Baseball Players Association hasn't attempted to include them in its coverage.

In fact, Mrs. Camilli requested an old, posed baseball picture of her husband and said she was told by the properties division there would be a charge of $50.

Outside Camilli's well-maintained house on Hacienda Street, in a middle-class neighborhood of San Mateo, there was this 89-year-old marvel raking the front lawn with all the vigor of a young boy. How do you account for the vibrancy, the longevity and the good looks, a head full of thick gray hair and a facial resemblance to singer Tony Bennett? He gave a quick answer: "Genes."

Camilli, a 5-foot-10 first baseman, helped carry the Brooklyn Dodgers to the 1941 National League pennant and won the Most Valuable Player award. His MVP counterpart in the American League that year was Joe DiMaggio, which meant two kids from Italian-American families, born in the same city, San Francisco, had earned baseball's most cherished individual honors.

"That will never happen again," says Camilli, "not in a million years. Think of the odds. After a great season in '41 [when he led the league in home runs with 34 and had 120 RBIs], I asked for $25,000. But the contract was for $24,500. That was from owner Larry MacPhail. It was his way of telling me he was in control, even if it was only a difference of $500. That's how the owners were."

As to the superb quality of play, Camilli also remembers how many outstanding prospects were caught in the minors, since the majors had only 16 clubs with rosters limited to 23 players. "The St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees had more than 30 farm teams and some first-rate players never even got a chance to go to spring training with a big-league team."

From a 12-year career, spent mostly with the Dodgers and

Philadelphia Phillies, he has some historic memories. He was there the day Chuck Klein hit four home runs in a game with the Phillies and "I saw how close he came to getting an earlier home run on a ball that fell a few feet short of the fence," and of facing Johnny Vander Meer when he pitched his second consecutive no-hitter. And, of course, he'll never forget being hit in the head twice.

"We didn't wear helmets," he says. "Cincinnati had a reputation then of throwing at batters. Elmer Riddle hit me in the head with an overhand curveball. It knocked my hat off, and I caught the cap before it reached the ground. Later, Paul Erickson of the Cubs beaned me and when I got to first base, the umpire, Larry Goetz, said, 'You're slowing up.' I wanted to know what he meant. Then he smiled and told me, 'Well, the last time you caught your cap.' "

The recall of those eventful days makes for pleasing nostalgia. The longest home run Camilli ever hit came off Cliff Melton and the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds, a drive he says a policeman measured at 510 feet. Speaking of the Giants, he believes Bill Terry's .401 average in 1930, the last time a National League player eclipsed .400, was even more astonishing than it seems.

"From a player's perspective, the Polo Grounds was difficult because of the short fences in right and left field. So the right and left fielders crowded toward center field to bunch it up. This meant Terry didn't have much territory to work with. The area up the middle was narrow, but he still hit safely because that's where he drove the ball."

Camilli says when players became ill or injured, there was only once place to go -- to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital and an appointment with noted orthopedist George Bennett. "What a great man. He took care of me. And now a granddaughter, Valina, and her husband, Ted Dawson, are both doctors involved in research at Johns Hopkins. I'm proud of them. How do you like that for coincidence? They are both back there at the same hospital over 50 years later."

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