Sal Maglie: Baseball’s Demon Barber by Judith Testa, Northern Illinois University Press, 2007; 463 pages.
It took an art historian from a midwestern college to give Sal Maglie the biography he deserved. The subject seems like a stretch (accidental pun) for Judith Testa, but the book jacket explained that she grew up in NYC and had “a life-long love of baseball.”
Maglie’s parents had come to the US in the early 1900s from Puglia in southeastern Italy. They settled in Niagara Falls, which was rapidly industrializing, thanks to cheap hydroelectric power, and also getting polluted by heedless manufacturers such as DuPont and Union Carbide (at whose plant Joseph Maglie, ne Giuseppe, worked as a laborer). A childhood friend of Sal’s recalls that in their neighborhood, “There were all kinds of people but we had one thing in common –we were all poor.”
Testa writes, “As a result of growing up in a peacefully mixed neighborhood, Sal Maglie developed into a man without prejudices, remarkable in an era when ethnic tensions in American ran high.”
Sal, who was 6’2”, starred on the Niagara Falls High School basketball team. The school didn’t have a baseball team, but as a teenager he played for an American Legion team and a team sponsored by a local soft-drink company. He graduated in 1937 when the depression was still deep. He was offered a basketball scholarship by Niagara University, a small Catholic institution, but turned it down. After briefly apprenticing at a barbershop, he got a job at Union Carbide to help support his family.
In 1938 some Niagara Falls businessmen launched a semi-pro team called the Cataracts and paid Maglie $25 per game to pitch. Their opponents included the barnstorming Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. According to Testa, the Grays’ catcher Josh Gibson predicted he would hit a homer off the local hero, and did. But Maglie pitched a shutout against the Monarchs, whose pitcher, Satchel Paige, said of Sal after a 1-0 loss, “That guy should be in the majors.” Poignant, coming from a man who himself should have been in the majors since the 1920s. (Whatever age Paige copped to when he signed with the St. Louis Browns in 1949, my dad, who knew him, said he was exactly 10 years older.)
The Cataracts folded in July, but Maglie had been noticed by the manager of the Buffalo Bisons, who offered him a contract. He was used only intermittently, was prone to wildness and got hit hard. Figuring that the jump from semi-pro ball to the class AA International League had been too abrupt, Maglie asked to be sent down. In 1940, with Jamestown (NY) in the class D Pony League, he pitched regularly and regained his confidence. In the spring of ’41 he married his longtime girlfriend, Kay Pileggi. That season, with the Elmira Pioneers in the class-A Eastern League, he won 20 games with an ERA of 2.67. He went to spring training with the Giants in ‘42, but was sent down to their Jersey City farm team, where he was used almost exclusively in relief and compiled a 9-6 record.
So many ballplayers were drafted or enlisted during World War 2 that several minor league teams disbanded and all the big-league teams employed players who never would have made it if rosters hadn’t been depleted. Maglie failed his pre-induction physical due to a serious sinus condition, but went to work as a pipe fitter in a defense plant. Of that two-year stint, Maglie recalled, “Most of my work was on construction jobs and I climbed girders and did heavy work every day. I had harder muscles and was in better condition than I was when I was in baseball.” On weekends he played for a Canadian semi-pro team, the Welland Atlas Steels.
In 1945, with the end of the war in sight, Maglie returned to baseball. After a few lackluster months with Jersey City, he was called up by the New York Giants on August 9 (three days after the US dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima). He won five games (three were shutouts) and lost four, with a 2.35 ERA. And he found a mentor –Adolfo “Dolf” Luque, the Giants pitching coach– who would help him become an ace.
The quality of play had deteriorated so much during the war that as the Cubs were getting ready to face the Tigers in the 1945 World Series, a Chicago sportswriter predicted, “I don’t think either team can win.”
Knowing that he’d be competing for a spot against the real Giants in ‘46, Maglie accepted Dolf Luque’s invitation to sharpen his skills by playing winter ball in Cuba. Luque would be managing the Cienfuegos Elephants. Testa describes him as “a man light-skinned enough to have been among the first accepted on the segregated big-league diamonds of the United States.”
In an 18-year career, Luque won almost 200 games (27 with Cincinnati Reds in 1923) and “developed a formidable reputation for ferocity… Once, believing a teammate had made a derogatory comment about his Latin background, the enraged Luque hurled an ice pick at him… Luque is also reported to have chased teammate Babe Pinelli (later a national league umpire) around the Cincinnati clubhouse, again wielding an ice pick, because he thought Pinelli had been lazy in fielding a ball hit down the third-base line…
“Luque was a skillful pitcher with a well-deserved reputation as a headhunter. He did not have an outstanding fastball. He relied instead on his sharp-breaking curve, pinpoint control, and a reputation for pitching high-inside. His craggy, severe features, including narrow lips and penetrating eyes, enhanced the threatening image that underlined his aggressive pitching. This was the man who would mold Sal Maglie.”
According to Testa, “None before Luque had noticed Sal’s possibility as a mound menace. Luque took a good look at Sal – his unusual height, his black eyes, thick eyebrows and heavy beard, his skin rapidly darkening in the Cuban sun – and saw a man who with a little effort could look thoroughly threatening. Luque showed him how to use his facial muscles to change his own features. He learned to press his lips together to form a thin, cruel, Luque-like line…
“Sal already threw a good curve, but Luque saw a way to improve it… Luque also convinced Sal to throw from a variety of angles, ranging from strict overhand to full sidearm… Luque further insisted that no pitch should ever be ‘wasted.’ When the pitcher was ahead in the count and the batter expected him to ‘waste’ a throw, that was a good time to come with the high hard one, followed by a fastball away or a curve that caught the outside corner.
“Maglie absorbed each of Luque’s lessons and they stayed with him for the rest of his career. He recalled, ‘Luque always insisted that pitchers must throw to exact spots, to batters’ weaknesses, at all times’.” Maglie said he had been “just a thrower till Dolf made me a pitcher.”
Dolf Luque would not be accompanying Maglie to the Giants’ training camp in the spring of 1946. He had been recruited by the multimillionaire Pasquel brothers to manage the Puebla Parrots. The Pasquels, intended to greatly improve the caliber of baseball being played in the Mexican League by luring norteamericano stars with high salaries and signing bonuses. “They hoped to attract Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Stan Musial,” Testa explains, “but they were also willing to settle for obscure players like Sal Maglie.”
(To be continued…)
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