It took more than the Ted Williams, Stan Musials, Duke Sniders, Mickey Mantles, and Willie Mays of the world to make the 1950s a golden-era for baseball. “The Show” could not have gone on without the less-talented, the utility guys, the players to be named later. Guys with names like Hobie Landrith, Wayne Terwilliger, Joe Ginsberg, and Sammy Esposito. They too serve who only hit .207 and play in 30 games.
Young fans of the “Game of the Week” with Dizzy Dean and collectors of baseball cards during that idyllic decade remember these C-list spear-carriers. One of my favorites from this lot was Rocky Bridges. Bridges managed to stay in the major leagues for 11 years on minimal talent. He stayed in the game long after his playing days, coaching in the bigs for a few years and managing in the minor leagues for a few decades.
Word has just reached me that Rocky Bridges (and isn’t that a great baseball name?) died January 27 morning of natural causes in his adopted home of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He was 87 and is survived by two sons, a daughter, and a brace of grandchildren. His wife, Mary, died in 2008.
Bridges, a middle infielder, hit only .247 for his Major League career and hit no more than five home runs in any one season. He had only 16 dingers in 11 years. (My guess is he remembered every one of them.) Save for ’53 when he was the Cincinnati Reds’ regular second baseman, and ’57 and ’58 when he was the Washington Senators’ regular shortstop, he was a utility player, sometimes getting into as few as 51 games in a season. His best season was ’58 when at mid-year he was still hitting .300. To the surprise of just about everyone he was chosen as a reserve for the All-Star Game. He didn’t get into the game, and joked that he taught Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle how to sit. The Rock certainly had plenty of practice at sitting during ball games.
Bridges was known as much for his sense of humor as for his baseball talent. The only thing he ever led the league in was one-liners. Like Bob Uecker, who was saluted last week in this space, Rocky understood that baseball, and life, should be fun. He didn’t have the timing of a .330 hitter, but he did have a stand-up comic’s timing.
The Rock joked that he wasn’t that fond of the National Anthem because every time he heard it he had a bad game. In his 11-year career in the bigs he played for seven teams, starting with the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, when Vin Scully was in only his second year as a broadcaster. Rocky said he had more different numbers on his back than a bingo card. He was traded so often that during the season he said his wife had to write him care of the Commissioner of Baseball. The longest the Rock was with one team was four years — ’53 through ’56 — with the Cincinnati Reds. He said he had to stay four years in Cincinnati because it took him that long to learn how to spell it.
Out of high school Bridges was signed to a $150 a month minor league contract with the Dodgers in 1946. He played his minor league career at shortstop. But when he made the big club he found himself behind all-star shortstop Pee Wee Reese on the depth chart (though the unlovely term depth chart had not been foisted on the world yet). “I was about the 33rd shortstop Pee Wee Reese had run out of town,” the Rock said.
Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen asked Rocky one day in ’51 if he could play third. The Rock didn’t hesitate: “Hell yes I can play third. I’ll mow your lawn for you if you like. I want to stay up here.” (A sentiment you don’t have to be a player to understand.) In the bigs Rocky played second, third, and shortstop. He was a late-inning defensive replacement, a pinch runner, less frequently a pinch hitter. He even played an inning and a third in left field for the Senators. He accepted these bit parts cheerfully, considering it a privilege to be in the bigs, even as an understudy. The melancholy alternative was getting a real job. And the Rock, a baseball man from the softball-sized chaw in his jaw to his cleats, wanted none of that.
Some of Rocky’s best material comes from his days as a minor league manager. For a title to his collection of pieces about baseball managers, Jim Bouton chose Rocky’s quote about his first day as a manager: “I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad.” Some fine Rocky wit and wisdom can be found in Gilbert Rogin’s essay in that book. In his first year managing the Rock said, with characteristic and called-for modesty, “I’m back in the California League where I started my slump.” On his club playing against Reno, Rock said, “The last time we were in Reno I lost the bus and two outfielders, but I won a shortstop and a bat.”
Rocky told Rogin his California league bus was air-conditioned, at least if you opened the windows. “I sometimes told the driver to throw another log on the air-conditioner,” he said. Accommodations weren’t plush in the bus-leagues. Rocky said the TV sets in one motel they stayed in only received vertical lines. Another had an artificial plant in the office lobby. “It wasn’t always artificial. It had just been there so long.”
Also minor league ballparks are not the manicured works of art that big league ball yards are. Rocky said the mound in one park in his team’s league was so high that when he pitched batting practice there he had to chew gum. And the budgets for equipment in A-ball are pretty stringent. Rocky tells of having to option a player because the team didn’t have the right size sweatshirt (many of Rocky’s stories are so good you don’t mind a bit if they likely aren’t true).
Even at home the Bridges family was never safe from Rocky’s off-plumb take on life. He claimed he married his wife on her birthday to cut down on expenses. His recipe for a diet cocktail was two jiggers of Scotch and one jigger of Metrical. “So far I’ve lost five pounds and my driver’s license,” he said. He admitted he was so unhandy around the house that he “couldn’t fix a track meet.”
I was never formally introduced to the Rock. But I enjoyed a brush with him and his Cincinnati Reds teammates in the early and mid-fifties when the Reds trained in spring at Plant Field in Tampa. Plant Field was an old pile even then, and very open. So it was easy to mix and mingle with the players in those less formal, less security-conscious days. My pals and I liked Rocky because he was always chattering and would take time to talk with the scrum of pre-teen boys who collected outside the clubhouse. We also liked him because at 5-8, he wasn’t much taller than we were. (On the other end of the spectrum was big Ted Kluszewski. He was also congenial with the kids, and you knew when he was coming up on you if you were between him and the sun because it suddenly got dark.)
I didn’t know back in those carefree baseball card collecting days, when Ike was taking care of things at 1600, that the Rock had more than forty years and thousands of one-liners left in his baseball career. He will be greatly missed. Rocky played in the days before jumbotrons, before players had walk-up music, before incessant commercial pitches and loud music disfigured the nights at the ball yard. He was a part of what made the fifties a golden era for baseball, and for me.
RIP Rocky Bridges.