FORT MYERS, FLA. – This is Fantasy Camp Week at the Twins’ complex in Florida. I stopped by to talk with Dick Stigman, the veteran among the 20-some ex-Twins who make this a nostalgic and laugh-filled week for the campers.
I wanted to ask him about Lenny Green, the Twins’ first center fielder, and a popular figure in those earliest years when Minnesotans couldn’t believe our good fortune to be blessed with major league baseball.
Green died Sunday on his 86th birthday, in his hometown of Detroit. Green was with Baltimore in 1959 when he was traded to Washington on May 28 – in exchange for Albie Pearson.
Albie also was a center fielder and had been voted the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1958. Pearson was hitting .188 and Green .292 in late May 1959, and I can hear Senators owner Calving Griffith saying: “I don’t care if little Albie was Rookie of Year and fans like him; Green hits better and runs faster.’’
Green had range in center, and he could get on base and score a run, and he would be out there every day, so we forgave Lenny for his subpar throwing arm. Then again, it must be admitted that with original Twins’ fans still around 20 years later, it wasn’t unusual to hear this assessment of an outfielder with modest throwing ability:
“He has an arm like Lenny Green.’’
Stigman became a Twin before the start of the 1962 season and, early this week, he was asked about losing another teammate. He shook his head and said:
“What a sweet man. We were very good friends. Lenny’s daughter lives in the Twin Cities. Our daughters are friends. Our daughter had been following on Facebook and told us Lenny was very ill …
“Just a terrific guy. We would play cards on the bus and the plane: Lenny and Earl [Battey], me and Shorty Pleis or another player. Hearts. Lenny was quiet. He just watched the cards. Earl, he’d get that Queen of Spades, and he’d giggle and go ‘uh, uh, uh,’ in that deep voice, and then slap it on you.’
“Since I heard the news, I’ve been thinking of Lenny and Earl, and Harmon Killebrew, and Minch [Don Mincher], and Johnny Klippstein, and Stinger [Lee Stange], and Frank Quilici … all the guys we’ve lost. It’s life, but you can’t help but miss them and miss those times.’’
Stigman will turn 83 on Jan. 24. He came from Nimrod, a town of under 100 people in northwest Minnesota. He had been a pitcher for Sebeka High School, for the Legion team in Menahga and with varied town teams including Callaway.
“I had graduated from high school three days earlier in 1954 and was working in the lumberyard in Callaway,’’ Stigman said. “I was going to make $185 a month working there.’’
Stigman came out of the lumberyard one day and saw his parents sitting in a Cadillac with a man. It was Cy Slapnicka, a scout for Cleveland -- a legend for signing and stashing Bob Feller for the Indians in the mid-‘30s, and also signing Bob Lemon, Herb Score and, later, Roger Maris.
Marv Nutting was a “bird dog’’ scout in Brainerd working with Slapnicka. He had seen Stigman pitch and told Slapnicka that he should make the trip north from Cy’s home in Iowa to take a look.i
When Marv called, Cy listened, since it was Nutting who was managing the semi-pro Brainerd Braves in 1952, and called Slapnicka and told him to get to Brainerd quick and sign a Braves’ lefthander named Herb Score. And all Score was going to be before getting hitting in the face by a line drive in May 1957 off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil McDougald was the American League’s version of Sandy Koufax.
Without Stigman’s knowledge, Slapnicka had watched Dick pitch an early-season town game for Callaway. Dick went the first seven of a nine-inning game and struck out 21 consecutive batters.
Slapnicka went to visit the folks in Nimrod and asked permission to make an offer to their son. “I was going to make $200 a month as long as I could stay with an Indians farm club,’’ Stigman said. “That was more than $185 a month, and I wanted to play baseball, give it a try,’’
Stigman wss a 6-foot-3 lefthander with a good fastball. A curveball was his second pitch. Later, he developed a changeup that was called a “slip pitch.’’ It was gripped in the hand, a variation of the palm ball.
He had control problems for two minor league seasons and was told by Cleveland’s scouting director in the spring of 1956, “Dick, if you don’t do something this season, I think you should go home and look for a job.’’
Stigman, now 20, went to Vidalia, Ga. in the Class D Georgia State League, and went 17-9 with a 1.44 ERA and 213 innings pitched. That was the breakthrough, and in 1960, he was a rookie with Cleveland, pitching as a fifth starter and reliever, which became a familiar role for him
The numbers for that rookie season weren’t outstanding, but one person the 24-year-old lefthander impressed was Al Lopez, the manager of the Chicago White Sox. Lopez was managing the American League All-Stars and selected Stigman as one of his pitchers.
This was the ridiculous period (1959 to 1962) when two All-Star Games were played in the summer. In 1960, the first was in Kansas City on July 11; the second was two days later in Yankee Stadium. Stigman didn’t get to pitch in either game, but he did meet the game’s greats.
Two years later, on April 2, 1962, the Twins traded pitcher Pedro Ramos to Cleveland for Stigman and first baseman Vic Power. Stigman had four years with the Twins, including being a full-time starter in 1963 and 1964, and a spot starter and reliever with the 1965 World Series team.
Stigman also was sharing an apartment with Stange and Rich Rollins at Sibley Manor on West Seventh in St. Paul. It was well-located to the airport and home to many flight attendants.
“That was a great place,’’ Stigman said. “My wife Patti was flying for United and we met there. Rich Rollins also met his wife Lynn there.’’
Dick and Patti have been married for 55 years and still live in Burnsville. His brothers Al and Dave, two more terrific ballplayers, live in Perham and Wadena. And the Nimrod Gnats of the Lake and Pine League play their games at Stigman Field, named in honor of that baseball family.
“It’s a nice little ballpark,’’ Stigman said. “Nimrod’s still going. I think there are 70 people now.’’
The “Nimrod’’ jokes were endless, of course, as Stigman made his way through a baseball career, since most people considered the word of the dork/dimwit family.
“It comes from a figure in the Bible,’’ Stigman said. “Nimrod was a mighty hunter.’’
That would make Cy Slapnicka a definite Nimrod, I’d say.