Friday, March 5, 2010

Bob Chakales, baseball player (1927-2010)

Bob Chakales appears in a 1955 baseball card with the Chicago White Sox. BELOW: Chakales with the Cleveland Indians, as shown on his 1952 Topps card.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 5, 2010

The baseball career of Bob Chakales, so full of promise, seemed jinxed.

After six seasons of toil in the minor leagues, he got called up by the Cleveland Indians, only to find himself as the extra man in a renowned rotation. He wound up exiled to the bullpen.

When he at last got a chance to be a regular starter, he had the great misfortune of being plagued by nagging injuries.

He hurt his arm, developed aches in his elbow, winced from a sore back.

By the time he arrived in Toronto in 1959, reporters knew about his history. “Through adversity may come a star,” reported the Globe. The pitcher is “an antidote for frustration,” pronounced the Star.

Mr. Chakales — his name was pronounced “shackles,” appropriate considering his hard-luck background — pitched for baseball’s Toronto Maple Leafs for three seasons. He had a supporting role in the team’s spectacular 1960 championship season.

Mr. Chakales looked every bit a ballplayer. Tall, handsome and blond-haired, with a crooked nose hinting at an accident in his past, he stood 6-foot-1, weighed 185 pounds. He was known as Chick and, for his fair colouring and ethnic heritage, The Golden Greek.

Born in North Carolina, he was a star athlete at Benedictine High in Richmond, Va. He was named All-State in baseball, basketball, and football.

The Philadelphia Phillies signed him as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 1945, assigning him to the Class B Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks. His signing bonus was $12,500, a generous sum he thought until the Brooklyn Dodgers offered him twice as much too late the following day.

He was drafted and missed a season fulfilling his military obligations with the U.S. Army.
It was during spring training in 1948 that he hurt his arm.

A few years later, Baseball Digest would describe the circumstances, presenting his words in an approximation of his Southern accent.

“Ah was tryin’ to snap a cu’ve an’ Ah snapped mah arm,” he said. “Mah arm was rilly soah. I tol’ em ‘bout it an’ they said, ‘Keep throwin’, it’ll work out.’ Instead it got soah and soah. I culd hahdly lift the ball.”

The pitching prospect fell into some bad habits, indulgences made possible by the dwindling supply of bonus money.

“Ah became a playboy. Ah learned how in the Army. Ah got out of shape.”

The Cleveland Indians selected him in the minor-league draft three years later. He finally got promoted to the parent club in 1951. He recorded three wins and four losses in his rookie campaign, cementing two of those victories with his own timely hitting.

Though delighted with the opportunity, it was his misfortune to join a veteran pitching staff including Bob Feller (22 victories in 1951), Early Wynn (20), Mike Garcia (20) and Bob Lemon (17). The stellar quartet of right-handers forced Mr. Chakales to the bullpen as a relief pitcher, a role which he felt did not allow for a full demonstration of his pitching repertoire. He possessed a decent fastball, an ordinary changeup and a wicked curve. He worked on but never mastered a knuckleball he described as a slip-pitch.

The pitcher was beginning his fourth season with the Indians when traded to the Baltimore Orioles for first baseman Vic Wertz. His old club went on to win the American League pennant with 111 victories. His new club lost 100 games.

Mr. Chakales also pitched for the Washington Senators, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox over parts of seven seasons, compiling a 15-25 record with a 4.54 earned-run average.

He was a welcome presence in the clubhouse and as an easy-going player likely to offer a reporter on deadline a good quotation.

It is said he once promoted himself with the tongue-in-cheek statement, “First came Hercules, then came Socrates, then came Chakales, the greatest Greek of all.”

His career was in decline by the time the Maple Leafs added him to the roster. He undoubtedly was happy to wear the uniform, as Toronto had been responsible for four of his six defeats the previous season.

His first act with his new employer was to hold out and refuse to sign a contract, as he was one of the International League players leading a campaign to improve pension provisions in contract language. “No sign for ’59” was the slogan. As it turned out, Mr. Chakales made holding out for better pay an annual rite of spring training.

In 1960, the Leafs won 100 games thanks to a robust pitching staff fronted by Riverboat Smith and Al Cicotte, who led the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. Mr. Chakales went 9-3 working as both a starter and a reliever.

A sore shoulder limited his action early in the 1961 season. He came off the disabled list in spectacular fashion in May, defeating the Richmond Virginians, his hometown team, 3-0, while also managing to knock in what would be the winning run.

He was traded to Hawaii the following month, a destination the dream of many ball players. Yet, for Mr. Chakales, the assignment meant he would be even farther from his family. So desperate was his new team for pitching that he was ordered to grab a charter flight in San Francisco on which the owner was also flying to the islands a troupe of hula dancers. The hurried departure meant the Leafs did not have an opportunity to hold a night honouring the likable player. He was 20-14 in three seasons with the Maple Leafs.

After 16 professional seasons of baseball, Mr. Chakales worked in insurance before becoming a builder and designer of more than 200 golf courses, many of them in Virginia. He also worked on the famed Sawgrass course at Ponte Vedra, Fla.

Though reporters liked to write about his unlucky progress, the pitcher did not care to indulge the notion he had been an underachiever.

“I don’t believe in complaining about the good things that didn’t happen to me,” he told the Toronto Star’s Milt Dunnell in 1959. “I’m grateful for the things that did come my way. If I ever start getting sorry for myself, I think of my father. He brought up a family of five on $16 a week.”

Robert Edward (Chick) Chakales was born on Aug. 10, 1927, at Asheville, N.C. He died on Feb. 18 at Richmond, Va. His was 82. He leaves his wife, Anne; two sons; three daughters; 10 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and, a brother. He was predeceased by three brothers.

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