Ed Stevens was the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, finishing second on the team in home runs and was looking forward to cementing his feet in the first base position for years to come. Leaving spring training in Havana in 1947, Leo Durocher had penciled him in as their opening day starter, beating out five other first baseman in the process. Left with little time to glow in the fruits of his hard work, Stevens’ jubilee would quickly turn sour as the day before the season opener, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey announced that Jackie Robinson, not Stevens would be their opening day first baseman. Not only was Stevens about to witness Robinson break baseball’s color line, he also saw his position wither away right in front of his eyes. “I would like to say that I realized the magnitude of the situation and happily stepped aside, accepting my role as the sacrifice in this incredibly significant moment in history. But the truth is, I was a competitor, and I was agitated. The fact remained coming out of spring training the starting first base job was mine, and the rug had been ripped out from under me,” said Stevens in his 2009 autobiography, “Big” Ed Stevens – The Other Side of the Jackie Robinson Story.
Stevens, who passed away last week at the age of 87 in Galveston, Texas, was more than a mere footnote in baseball’s most significant event. He survived a near fatal infection to have a 19-year professional career as a player that included six in the majors with the Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates from 1945-1950.
“It wasn’t the fact that I lost my job [in Pittsburgh], I couldn’t handle my job because my health went bad on me. I had a poison in my body that was affecting every joint in my body. It took me four years and 29 doctors to find out,” said Stevens in a 2008 interview from his home in Galveston. “I had my nose broken two different times. I couldn’t breathe out of my left side. My doctor in Shreveport, La., said, ‘I don’t know what the problem is with all of the pains you have, but I’m going to straighten your nose out so you can breathe a lot better.’ When he had the nose broken down, he could see up in my head and that’s where he found the poison. As soon as he finished my nose and let it rest, he went back with a long curved knife, a mirror and a light to get up in there and cut all that out. He filled a whiskey glass with it. It was all poisonous puss, and he said if would have hit me all at once, it would have killed me.” Stevens regained his strength and within a few years, he was among the home run leaders in Triple-A, yet he wondered why nobody would take a flyer on him. “I put in about five years in Toronto in Triple-A, and had good years every year, drove in about 100 runs, hit 25-30 home runs, and played in every ball game. The scouts coming through said I could still play big league ball, but they were afraid to recommend me because I left [the majors] as a cripple. They were afraid that all of that would come back on me. That’s what kept me out,” he said.
Stevens played in the minor leagues until 1961 and became a scout for various organizations from 1962-1989. Once he was on the other side of the table, it was clearer to him why he didn’t get another shot at the big leagues. “I went into scouting as soon as I left baseball. When I started scouting, then I realized what the scouts were up against. You have to be sure a fellow is good and healthy before you make a deal for him or sign him. That’s what it boiled down to. I forgave all of the scouts,” he said.
Despite playing six seasons in the majors, Stevens was ironically 42 days short of his major league pension. While scouting for the San Diego Padres, general manager Jack McKeon caught wind of this and asked Stevens in 1981 to join his team as a bench coach. “In order for me to be the fifth [coach], one had to take himself off the pension plan. Eddie Brinkman, one of the finest people I have ever met, volunteered. I will always respect that man as a gentleman and a friend. … After thirty years, I finally had the major league pension plan,” said Stevens in his book.
With the publishing of his memoirs, Stevens wanted to make it clear that he didn’t harbor ill will towards Robinson, but towards management for removing Stevens after promising him the position a few days prior. “I had no animosity towards Jackie; Branch Rickey was my object of anger. … I’m proud of Jackie, but I still wish we could have truly competed for that spot.”
In retirement, Stevens continued to receive large amounts of fan mail, something that brought him much joy and satisfaction. “If you’re a good enough fan and think enough of me to request this, I’m glad to do it,” said Stevens. “We’re still being remembered, [and] I appreciate every one of those people that takes the time to write and remember.”