In mining lode of memories, Liberatore produces spun gold

August 02, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

From an inside, front-row seat. That's where Eddie Liberatore has been the last 55 years, back to when baseball was the game of America's preference and basketball and football were struggling for even a modest nod of acceptability.

The Grand Old Scout. He paid attention to what was going on around him as he made contacts, looked for prospects and offered input on trades. "A scout," he said, "is like a newspaper reporter, only he doesn't publish what he sees and hears. Information is your lifeline."

Liberatore, born in Parkersburg, W.Va., a 1931 graduate of Baltimore City College and a longtime resident of Norristown, Pa., remembers when baseball, recovering from the country's devastating depression, paid kids $60 a month to play in the minors (think of the opportunity, they were told) and Connie Mack -- manager, general manager and owner -- of the Philadelphia A's, had to borrow money on his insurance policy to meet the team payroll.

Liberatore's first job was for $25 a week, working part-time for Joe Cambria, the human dragnet, virtually a one-man scouting staff of the Washington Senators. At the same time, Cambria ran a laundry in Baltimore and operated at old Bugle Field, later the home of the Elite Giants.

"That old wooden fenced-in park in East Baltimore was so big, it was like going on a road trip to go out to play left field," Liberatore says. "Cambria once told me to pick up a Cuban ballplayer at a hotel on Cathedral Street. He gave me 50 cents to take a cab for a round trip. I picked up Roberto Estalella, who couldn't speak a word of English. He went on to do OK in the big leagues. The manager of the hotel wanted me to not only pay Estalella's room rent but complained the grease on his hair stained the back of a chair in the lobby."

Such an insignificant beginning, going to meet Estalella and taking him to Washington, led to more than half a century of memories to be stockpiled while scouting for the Senators, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers. Liberatore is now in retirement, living at Oak Crest Village with his wife of 51 years, the former DeSales Callahan.

Some of his opinions and recollections as he pages the past: The greatest of all players: "Not even a contest. Babe Ruth. He stands alone. I say this with due respect to two good friends, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. In any evaluation, you put Ruth first and argue who to put next."

Best-looking prospect: "When I saw Al Kaline, I was seeing the model of a perfect player. A great arm and fielder. A good hitter and runner. He never spent a day in the minor leagues. A fine boy and now a wonderful man."

Deepest regret: "Never meeting the gentleman pitcher Walter Johnson."

Toughest competitor: "It's hard to pick one. I'll take Jim Bunning. A bulldog. Nothing phony about him. A lot like Robin Roberts. One year, with a fifth-place team, he pitched more than 300 innings with over 250 strikeouts."

Most courageous: "Jackie Robinson. A great talent and wonderful instincts. The best base runner I ever saw. What he was subjected to made it a miracle he lived through it. I do think, though, Larry Doby was the better player."

Regrettable incident: "Al Campanis being labeled a racist for his unfortunate comments about black players. I didn't know anyone less bigoted than Al. Too bad Jackie Robinson had died, or I believe he would have defended Al."

Record keeping: "It's impossible to name an all-time team. You can be more accurate devoting attention to an all-star team for each 10 years. A lot of today's players match the old-timers. Records before 1920 should go into another category. The fields and gloves were inferior. Even the balls."

The emergence of Pete Rose was something Liberatore observed from the rookie's first day at a training camp in Dublin, Ga. "I hit him a lot of ground balls. His glove looked as if it had been made by Bethlehem Steel. His intangibles compensated for what he lacked in ability."

Liberatore was, by mere chance, the middleman in Rose's becoming a manager. He was on an advance scouting trip for the Dodgers and relaxing by the pool at the Town & Country Motel in San Diego.

"The Cincinnati club was checking in when Bob Howsam, the owner, saw me and said, 'Just the man I want to see.' He mentioned he may make a change in Vern Rapp as manager. He wondered if I had any suggestions. I told him he ought to hire a guy from Cincinnati. He said, 'You mean Johnny Bench.' I explained, no, Pete Rose would be a better choice. I told him to call general manager John McHale and see what the Montreal Expos had in mind for Pete, who was just about finished in Montreal."

The next team coming to San Diego after the Reds was the Expos. Rose saw Liberatore and, knowing nothing about the previous conversation, asked him to " 'try to get me a coaching job in the big leagues or a managing job at Triple-A.' I told him to keep his mouth shut, be patient, because the Reds may want him right now."

It worked out that way. Rose, though, on only one public occasion recognized Liberatore for getting him the job. Players have short memories, but the Grand Old Scout never complained. He was just happy to have been there, 55 years of positive baseball involvement.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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