Starkey: The oldest living Pirate
This might be my “Field of Dreams” encounter. Mike Sandlock is my Shoeless Joe Jackson.
By that, I mean Sandlock is my fleeting link to baseball's ancient past. Fleeting because fatigue has set in on Sandlock's end. The phone conversation is fizzling fast. There will be another, but that will fizzle even faster.
“I'm getting a little tired here, kid,” Sandlock says.
Michael Joseph Sandlock once was a wide-eyed boy watching Babe Ruth roam the Yankee Stadium outfield, fantasizing that he would one day do the same. He did. He broke into the big leagues in 1942. He played with the likes of Paul Waner and Pee Wee Reese and against the likes of Stan Musial. He taught the great Roy Campanella the correct throwing motion.
Unlike the pitiable “Moonlight” Graham, who appeared in one big-league game but never stepped to the plate, Sandlock realized his boyhood dream. Got a hit in the first of his 446 career at-bats, too.
I want to ask him about all of that. I want to hear what it was like to play at Ebbets Field, where my Brooklyn-born father would sneak in to watch Dodgers games. I want to hear about Sandlock's barnstorming minor-league career, which included a season with the legendary Almendares of the old Cuban League on a team featuring Monte Irvin and Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors.
But the wheelchair-bound Sandlock understandably is growing weary. He's 98 years old, which makes him the world's oldest living major leaguer, according to Baseball-reference.com.
When former Washington Senators pitcher Connie Marrero (another of Sandlock's Almendares teammates) died April 23 at age 102, Sandlock stepped to the front of the line.
“That's no big deal,” he says. “Is it?”
I think so. I also think it's a big deal to be talking to the oldest living Pirate. Sandlock played catcher here for 63 games in 1953. His teammates included Joe Garagiola and slugger Ralph Kiner (he and Kiner would be life-long friends). That was the year the Pirates traded Kiner after a salary dispute that produced GM Branch Rickey's famous line, “We finished last with you. We can finish last without you.”
Our conversation gets off to a rousing start when I identify myself as a Pittsburgh reporter.
“All the way from Pittsburgh, huh?” Sandlock says. “I remember the old ballpark (Forbes Field). The backstop was 80 feet from home plate (110, actually). After chasing foul balls there I should have called a cab to get back.”
The ravages of old age of have robbed Sandlock of the simple joys. One of his two sons, Michael Jr., will tell me his father was a five-time club champion at the local golf course in Cos Cob, Ct., and held a 2 handicap.
These days, when Sandlock is able to get to the club, friends hold him up so he can putt.
As I ask questions, I hear Sandlock repeat them from the caption phone his daughter-in-law bought him. He lives in a downstairs apartment in Cos Cob, in the home of his other son, Damon, who has two teenage boys.
“Time has caught up with me,” Sandlock says. “I can't do what I used to do.”
Still, he retains a keen sense of humor and a storyteller's flair.
I wonder if he has vivid memories of watching Ruth.
“Oh, do I,” Sandlock says. “I'll tell you a story. My oldest brother took me to a game at Yankee Stadium. I looked at that field and said, ‘Geez boy, would I love to play there.' Sure enough, I did. And I'll tell you, it made my eyes open wide.
“Anyway, Ruth hit one right over my head, and my brother looks at me and says, ‘If you'd opened your mouth any lower, it woulda landed right in there.'”
The conversation winds from the best pitcher Sandlock faced (Warren Spahn), to his post-baseball career as a handyman, to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. Sandlock was with Robinson's Dodgers in spring training that year. According to a recent New York Times piece, he was one of many Dodgers who refused to sign a short-lived petition that opposed Robinson's presence.
“What old Jackie went through,” Sandlock says, “I don't know how he did it.”
There is time for two more questions. First, I ask what springs to mind when Sandlock searches for a standout moment from his baseball life. He laughs, then tells of a sweltering day at Forbes Field when he tried to get kicked out of blowout loss.
Renowned umpire Al Barlick nearly fell for it after Sandlock turned and said, “Al, for chrissake, does the color of the uniform make a difference on balls and strikes?”
“He had his hand up, ready to throw me out,” Sandlock recalls. “And then he says, ‘You ain't going anywhere.' When we got back down, he leans over and says, ‘We're both going to sweat this thing out.'”
Lastly, I have to ask, seeing as Sandlock is approaching his 99th birthday Oct. 17: What is the key to a long life?
He laughs again.
“The man upstairs takes care of that,” he says. “I just lived like other people do.
“Is that it?”
That's it. Thank you for the time, Mr. Sandlock, and take care.
“OK, kid,” he says. “Have a good day.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.