"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Sam Mele: a stable source of leadership

I remember a Twins yearbook that had a photo of the Sam Mele family around their organ in the living room. They were singing. Such love, joy and wholesomeness projected from the photo.
Sam Mele! His full, formal name was Sabath Anthony Mele. Make note of the initials. Yes, the name "Sam" was created. It was Sam who managed our 1965 Minnesota Twins to the American League pennant. It was a touchstone experience for the boomer youth of Minnesota. Bittersweet, too, as we lost in seven games to the Dodgers in the World Series. The Twins and Dodgers, only a few years previous were in that East Coast corridor that was the hub of sports and media activity. The Dodgers had been one of three teams in New York City.
The West beckoned. The Twins got perched in the Midwest, becoming an institution which today is huge and we take for granted. We have the luxury of complaining about the Twins and their manager if things aren't going well. But we are blessed every day having big league sports franchises. Before 1961? The Gophers football team was the big deal.
Sam Mele and Bud Grant were like honorary fathers for the boomer boys of the 1960s. They were so stable, thoughtful and brimming with wisdom. They set an example. They pushed standards so high and yet they couldn't quite make it to the summit. We wept over the Game 7 loss in the '65 Series. And we most certainly wept and wanted to cuss over the four Super Bowl losses by the Vikings.
Perhaps a sense of defeatism crept in, among my generation?
I was ten years old in 1965. The Twins were mesmerizing. We ushered in a new era with the '65 success, as no longer would the Yankees be a dynastic, dominating force. The Yankees had barely hung on in 1964. In '65 we delivered the knockout punch: specifically it was a dramatic game-winning home run by Harmon Killebrew at mid-season that dealt the punch.
From 1947 to 1964, the Yankees had won all but three pennants. On came the Twins with the likes of Zoilo Versalles, Tony Oliva, Jim "Mudcat" Grant and Killebrew.
 
100-plus wins in '65
Mele was the grand orchestrator of success, overseeing a team that won 102 games. The Yankees finished down in sixth. We won the first two games of the World Series. But the Dodgers' pitching would prove too much.
America is a country that highly emphasizes finishing first. Thus, when the Twins followed up in '66 with an arguably fine season - we won just 13 fewer games - it's barely a blip in Twins' history. It's probably even recorded as a disappointment. We placed second in a ten-team league. Remember, in 1960 all we had for baseball was the Minneapolis Millers. Remember anything about them? Nicollet Park is truly a blip in our history.
Baltimore won the '66 pennant and would become the major nemesis for the Twins of that era. We lost to the Orioles in the playoff series of 1969 and 1970.
Only today do I learn that the Twins of the late '60s, beginning in 1966, were plagued by the kind of internal politics and divisions that we all know about and have experienced at some point in our lives. Mele had some volatile people under him. Like Billy Martin. What? Billy Martin volatile? Billy might have been right when it came to an early skirmish. Twins legend has it that pitching coach Johnny Sain wanted Mele fired.
You'll remember Sain well if you read "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton. Sain was rather a genius. He taught "spin ballistics" to Jim Kaat and Jim Grant prior to the '65 season, according to Roger Angell. The Twins, continuing with that legend, devolved into a team of cliques. I know what that's like. It's not conducive to achieving optimal success.
The Twins had the kind of talent that should have gotten at least one more pennant. Instead, like the Vikings, they were stopped just shy of the summit.
In 1967 we might have expected better. Rod Carew came on the scene to play full-time (when he wasn't fulfilling his National Guard duties, remember?). The Twins acquired Dean Chance. But '67 developed into the ultimate frustration of a season. It may have affected my personality formation. By the time we actually won the World Series in 1987, it might have been too late for me. OK I'm kidding.
How I loved the Twins of the 1960s. The U.S. was enmeshed in Viet Nam but we could escape to the ballpark.
The Twins were just a .500 team, 50 games into the '67 season. Mele was removed. Some thought it was time for Billy Martin to get the call. That would have been interesting. But instead it was the obscure (though I'm sure capable) Cal Ermer, a minor league manager, who got promoted. Ermer could have been famous. If only we had eked out that '67 pennant.
Mele's record as a manager was a fine 524-436 (.546). He had an open invitation to join the Red Sox organization, and he availed himself. He would not manage again. But he remained a fixture in baseball. He was special assignments scout for the Red Sox from mid-season of '67 way until 1994 and his retirement.
What a full and satisfying career "Sabath" had. Mele is the oldest living manager of a pennant-winning team. He probably bought a few years when he escaped the glare and pressure of being manager.
 
A baseball lineage
Mele grew up showing excellence in both baseball and basketball. He was the nephew of two big league baseball players: Tony and Al Cuccinello. He played for the Burlington, Vermont, team of the Northern League in 1941, making an impression and becoming known to the Red Sox.
In 1941 the world was on the cusp of full-fledged war. Mele became a U.S. Marine in '43. He was sent to the Pacific Theater where he found a baseball outlet, playing with the likes of Joe Dimaggio. He joined the Red Sox once the war was over. But he got assigned to minor league duties. Mele won the Eastern League Most Valuable Player honor, leading the league in average (.342). Then, with the Red Sox having uncertainty at right field for the following season, Mele stepped right in. He batted .302. He subbed well in center when Dom Dimaggio was injured.
Mele played with a total of six big league clubs. I'm sort of befuddled by how he bounced around. Did he have some issues being a good teammate? Mele ended his playing career in the minors in 1958. He got on board as scout with the Washington Senators, Calvin Griffith's team. In July of '59 he joined the Senators' coaching staff under manager Cookie Lavagetto. Lavagetto was the Twins' first manager.
The Twins were 19-30 (.388) in early June of 1961. Lavagetto took a leave of absence and Mele filled in. On June 23, Mele got the permanent job, to the extent any manager's job can be considered permanent.
The Twins impressed in '62 and '63, then rather inexplicably stumbled in 1964. There was speculation Mele would get the hook. The Twins were depending too much on their power bats and would have to diversify, trying to employ some speed and finesse. Mele abundantly recognized this. He worked hard doing what needed to be done. Sain was essential.
In '65 the fruits were realized. The rest was history.
Sabath Anthony "Sam" Mele is etched in Minnesota history as a significant leader. He was not able to return for the 50th anniversary celebration recently. It's tough being over 90 years old. I'm happy he has had such a long life. I hope his family enjoyed that organ in the living room for many years. An organ in the living room is a symbol of solitude, so distant from the pressures of big league sports.
Hang in there, Sam. Just hear those soothing organ notes, whether they came from your living room or Metropolitan Stadium!
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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