Honoring the long standing connection of the Dodgers to Brooklyn, the New York Mets honored 96-year-old Greenwich, Connecticut, native Mike Sandlock at Citi Field Saturday afternoon. Sandlock, a former catcher, is the oldest living Dodger and a link to the franchise’s history that preceded the famed Boys of Summer.
In August 2011, I paid a visit to Sandlock at his home in Greenwich to discuss his life in baseball. Just after finishing a round of golf, Sandlock proudly gave a tour of the baseball shrine located in the basement of his home. Upon entering, I was greeted with beautiful action photos from Sandlock’s personal collection, awards from his career and correspondence from the legendary Branch Rickey. After receiving the grand tour and some of the stories behind it, Sandlock proceeded to bring forward his scrapbooks to peruse while sitting in his backyard.
Sitting down to discuss his career, he spoke of his start with the Boston Braves in 1938. He climbed Boston’s ladder while catching future Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn.
“We went from the Three-I League into the Boston Braves,” Sandlock said. “He had the greatest move to first base I ever saw. He knew how to pitch, he was great.”
Sandlock had cups of coffee with the Braves in 1942 and 1944, missing the entire 1943 season due to his service in World War II. His break with the Dodgers came on August 12th, 1944 when he was traded to Brooklyn for infielder Frank Drews. He finished out the rest of the season with their Triple-A affiliate in St. Paul, batting over .300, due in part to adding switch-hitting to his offensive repertoire.
His performance at the plate and versatility in the field impressed Dodgers manager Leo Durocher enough to earn him a spot on the 1945 club. A few days before the season started, Durocher named Sandlock the starting shortstop. Sandlock played there for the first two months of the season until Mickey Owen’s departure for the Mexican League opened up the catching duties full-time. He put up his best career numbers, batting .282 in 80 games for the Dodgers. At the end of the season, he was asked to accompany a group of teammates on a USO tour representing the National League, visiting the troops and playing against other teams in the Pacific.
“That was when it turned out I had bad knees,” he recalled. “I did travel in the USO with the club. We had [Frank] McCormick, Whitey Kurowski, Al Lakeman, [Ralph] Branca, Clyde King, Red Barrett, and Tommy Brown. We all made that tour.”
Sandlock played sparingly with the Dodgers in 1946 and was sent down to their Triple-A club to mentor their younger players. He was offered a managerial position by Mr. Rickey, but he turned it down.
“He wanted to make me management, but I didn’t want to manage,” he said. “In Montreal, he’d bring in new pitchers and I’d have to catch them. He was trying to develop pitchers and that was my job.”
One of his prized pupils in 1948 was a 22-year-old fireballer in Don Newcombe. Sandlock used his veteran experience to help the young pitcher become more cerebral with his approach.
“The biggest thing once you’ve got him on that mound over there [was] you had to do a little thinking for him because he could throw that hard ball and heavy,” he said, “but you had to remind him to change up every now and then. Sometimes you don’t think of it. Once he had that change up he was tough to hit. He had a nice little slider, not a very big curveball. When he kept it in the right place, he was hitless.”
Sandlock spent six full seasons at AAA after his demotion from Brooklyn. He was given a new lease on major league life by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, brought in for his expertise in catching the knuckleball.
“I had my first experience catching the knuckler in 1945,” he said to the Associated Press. “Caught Kirby Higbe then.”
For Sandlock, it didn’t matter why he was brought there, he was excited to be wearing a major league uniform once again.
“I was just glad to be with Pittsburgh, back in the majors. I was at the end of my time,” he said.
He was able to put together one last full season in the major leagues, sharing the catching duties with Joe Garagiola and Heisman Trophy Winner Vic Janowicz. The following spring, he injured his knee in a collision and never fully recovered. He played out the string with San Diego in the Pacific Coast League and retired.
After baseball, Sandlock became a contractor and was an avid golfer, a sport he still plays until this day. Judging by his large hands, marred by years of foul tips, it is evident his golf swing is still powered from the great strength he carried from his 16-year career in baseball.
Today’s on-field celebration conjured up fond memories of the Brooklyn fans for Sandlock during the 1940’s.
“[It was] very interesting because the fans were great,” he said. “If you made an error, they’d boo you, but if you did something great, they’d rave you and clap [for] you and everything. They were very sociable. If you get through the game, they were all out there talking to you, even Hilda with the cowbell.”