The major league life of Cliff Dapperby Paul Francis Sullivan
November 30, 2010
As baseball fans, we are quick to assign worth to a player based upon his numbers and an ever-evolving system of stats.
And, perhaps subconsciously, we also equate their worth as people with the backs of their baseball cards. We give superstar players standing ovations long after their careers are over, but players who made cameos in the majors could be living in your town without you even knowing it, like the proverbial Moonlight Graham.
One such player would be Cliff Dapper, a catcher who had a spectacular cup of coffee for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942.
If you have ever heard of Dapper, it would be because of his part in an unusual trade. In 1948, six years after his brief big league stint, Dapper was traded from the Dodgers' minor league team in Montreal to the independent Atlanta Crackers of the Double-A Southern Association. Whom was he traded for? Their announcer, Ernie Harwell.
Basically his little fame was being the compensation for a future Hall of Fame broadcaster. And on my blog, I made a crack about how the Dodgers got an immortal in exchange for someone who couldn't make it back to the majors.
However a little research plus an e-mail from one of my readers showed me that Dapper's legacy extended far beyond his footnote in baseball history.
Dapper is a native of Los Angeles who was born on Jan. 2, 1920. He broke in as a minor leaguer for the Bellingham, Wash., team but returned closer to home to play for the PCL Hollywood Stars. He played with former big leaguers like one time MVP candidate Bill Cissell and future major leaguers like Chesty Chet Johnson, whose name is worth a salute in itself.
By 19, he was a .316 hitter (back then they cared about batting averages). By the time he was 22, Cliff was signed by the Dodgers to play for their top team in Montreal. There he was managed by Clyde Sukeforth, the same man who would later scout, sign and manage Jackie Robinson.
He also was teammates with future Dodgers star Carl Furillo and even caught the legendary Schoolboy Rowe, who was putting together a comeback.
His numbers in Montreal weren't eye-popping, but were good enough to get a call up to the big leagues where in April of 1942, he made his big league debut with the defending National League champion Dodgers.
He made the most of it. He collected eight hits in his eight games for 12 total bases. He drove in nine runs, walked twice and posted a .471 average. His OPS? 1.232. For those of you who prefer OPS+, his was 254.
It is safe to say that back then he had no idea what his OPS+ was.
And on April 26, 1942 in Shibe Park, he went 2-for-4 with a home run off Phillies pitcher Ike Pearson.
His manager was Hall of Famer Leo Durocher. Two of his teammates were Hall of Famers Pee Wee Reese and Billy Herman along with defending batting champion Pete Reiser, perennial MVP candidate Dixie Walker. The Phillies played Hall of Famer Lloyd Waner and future Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh.
And it was Dapper who shone brightest in the 3-1 Dodger win.
It was a marvelous coming out game for the young catcher. Unfortunately there would be only five more games in his big league career.
Two factors outside his control derailed any chance of stardom for Dapper.
The Dodgers already had an All-Star catcher in Mickey Owen (He of the dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series fame). Owen would finish fourth in the National League MVP vote in 1942.
And of course, service in the war was inevitable for the 23-year-old Dapper.
He was drafted after the 1942 season and he served the remainder of the war in the South Pacific. He rejoined the Dodgers organization in 1946 as a 26-year-old, no longer a prospect. He played for the Dodgers teams in Mobile, St. Paul and Montreal.
His teammates included future Dodgers legend Don Newcombe, World Series hero Al Gionfriddo, the man who would star in The Rifleman, Chuck Connors and future major leaguer Dick Whitman, whose name should give Mad Men fans a good laugh.
He also became teammates with a 21-year-old outfielder named Duke Snider. He would play a big part in the life of both the Dodgers and Dapper.
Eventually, Dapper was dealt for Harwell, went from minor league team to minor league team and became a player-manager before retiring in 1957.
He retired to Fallbrook, Calif. (about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.) There, he and Snider had about 60 acres of ranch land. He maintained it all, growing avocados and lemons and making a better living than he ever would have in baseball.
A reader of my blog named Mark wrote to me and shared his memories of Dapper, whom he described as a big bear of a man. He seemed like an intimidating fellow with a big voice at first, but he made the kids who came over to his ranch feel at home.
While Cliff, his wife, Stanna, and his four children all worked hard on the ranch, they also had plenty of time for baseball and more specifically the Dodgers. The ranch was practically a museum of Dodger memorabilia with uniforms worn by Carl Furillo, Jim Gilliam, Carl Erskine and his old teammates Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe and of course his fellow rancher and close friend Duke Snider.
Cliff managed a semi pro team in Fallbrook and his connections with Buzzie Bavasi helped supply the team with big league equipment and batting cages.
And over the years he advised and mentored future players and executives. Mike Port, who was the general manager of the 1986 American League West Champion Angels, specifically credits Dapper for helping launch his career.
Dapper is still with us. He is 90 years old and according to my reader, Mark, is still sharp and quick to tell stories about how great Snider was and about his playing days.
I am sure there were people in Fallbrook who saw him every day and maybe even knew his name and did not know what kind of life he has led.
He will not be remembered as a great player. His fame might be from that unusual trade. But when you've played alongside Hall of Famers, served our country in the most important war in our history, raised a strong and loving family and earned a good living based on the sweat of your brow, you have lived a life worth paying tribute to.
And he DID make it to the big leagues. And while it was only eight games, he made the most of them.
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