George Bjorkman’s First MLB Hit

Correspondence date: Apr. 2012

Most ballplayers hope to make a good impression during their first Major League game, proving that they are worthy to be on a Major League roster. Catcher George Bjorkman wasted no time in showing how productive he can be. Although his Astros team would lose to the New York Mets by a score of 7-5 during his debut on July 10, 1983, it wasn’t from a lack of effort on his part. Serving as Houston’s starting catcher, Mr. Bjorkman would single to left field during the 6th inning, driving in All-Star Jose Cruz in the process. His first Major League hit would yield an RBI that would help put the Astros ahead until being victimized by a Mets rally in the game’s later innings.

I was curious to get Mr. Bjorkman’s insight on how he felt while getting his first Major League hit. When I asked him this question, however, I erroneously mentioned that his hit occurred during his first at-bat, to which Mr. Bjorkman offered a swift correction and explanation.

“Actually, I did get a hit in my first game but not my first at bat. We were playing a Sunday game at Shea- it was an absolutely perfect day and my first at bat I hit a bullet to George Foster in left- it was too bad because had I gotten under it a little I have no doubt it would have gone out- I hit it right on the screws.”

Despite not going yard in his debut at-bat, Mr. Bjorkman would end up belting 2 homers in his limited time as an Astro- both against the Montreal Expos on 2 separate occasions. He made his homers count, with both coming with men on base. His first home run – a 3-run shot on July 13, 1983 – helped Houston beat the Expos 9-4, and was part of Mr. Bjorkman’s 5-RBI onslaught that day.

He may have missed out on a homer during his first at-bat, but Mr. Bjorkman proved that he could come through in the clutch, given the opportunity.

On deck: Mr. Bjorkman tells me what it was like being Nolan Ryan’s batterymate.


George Bjorkman’s Draft Experience

Correspondence date: Apr. 2012

George Bjorkman played pro baseball between 1978 and 1985, serving as a catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos organizations. He would get his big break in 1983 as a mid-season call-up for the Astros. In his only Major League season, Mr. Bjorkman would play in 29 games and hit .227 with 2 homeruns and 14 RBI. He would also throw out 8 baserunners who attempted to steal on him during the season.

Mr. Bjorkman was drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round of the 1978 amateur draft, out of Oral Roberts University. I was curious to know what his draft experience was like coming out of ORU.

“I had never been drafted before, kind of unusual for a college senior. I was shocked when I learned the Cardinals had drafted me…I didn’t know they were interested nor had I ever talked with them. I had talked to a Rangers scout and Dodger scout and often wonder how my career would have been different had I been drafted by either of them.”

It seems as though Mr. Bjorkman must have impressed some scouts during his senior year, which no doubt contributed to him finally being given the attention that most other college prospects experience. Looking back, perhaps it may have been more advantageous (and exciting) for him to be drafted by his hometown Rangers instead of the Cardinals. However, Mr. Bjorkman should not have any regrets about his time in pro ball and his half-season in the Majors- an accomplishment most minor leaguers never get to experience.

On deck: Mr. Bjorkman talks about his first MLB hit.

Joe Cunningham: Cardinals Lifer

Correspondence date: Oct. 2011

Aside from short stints with the Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators, Joe Cunningham’s baseball career can be best defined by the time he spent with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was signed by the Redbirds as an amateur free agent in 1949, experiencing his most productive years with them. After hanging up his spikes following the 1966 season, Mr. Cunningham managed in the Cards’ minor league system before embarking on a career in their front office. Named Director of Sales for the team in 1972, Mr. Cunningham would have a big hand in increasing the team’s attendance over the subsequent 15 years before switching gears to concentrate on a new profession:

“I certainly enjoyed your well-written letter. I am still with Cardinals working with young children- Say No to Drugs. A program I designed 25 years ago- have 3 (e)x Cardinals doing programs too.

Best wishes to you
Joe Cunningham”

Mr. Cunningham included the following handout with his response, which mentions the various aspects of his post-playing career.

He may have been an effective player on the field for the Cardinals, but it can be argued that his best and most important work has been performed off the field.

On deck: George Bjorkman tells me about his draft experience.

Joe Cunningham’s Favorite Ballparks

Correspondence date: Oct. 2011

Joe Cunningham’s career spanned during baseball’s “Golden Age”, allowing him to play in many of the game’s classic ballparks. As a St. Louis Cardinal, his home games were played at historic Sportsman’s Park, which opened in 1902 but was built on a site that saw baseball played as far back as 1866. While with the Chicago White Sox, Mr. Cunningham got to play at Comiskey Park, which was the site of 4 World Series and more than 6,000 games. Would these venues be among Mr. Cunningham’s favorite ballparks?

“Busch Stad. & Crosley Field Cinn.
Just could see better & background was good.”

Busch, of course, was the successor to Sportsman’s Park and, despite being a multi-use cookie-cutter stadium, it featured a nice hitter’s backdrop that made it easy for batters to pick up on the pitched ball. Cincinnati’s Crosley Field just had an openness about it that lent itself very well to a beautiful baseball aesthetic and feel.

On deck: Mr. Cunningham, who is still employed by the Cardinals, tells me about his current career.

Joe Cunningham’s View of Manager Al Lopez

Correspondence date: Oct. 2011

Joe Cunningham spent 12 seasons in the Major Leagues as a first baseman/outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators. Drafted by the Cardinals in 1949, Mr. Cunningham would debut for the team on June 30, 1954 and spend most of his career with the Redbirds. His best season came in 1959, when he would compile a career-high 158 hits while hitting .345 to finish second to Hall of Famer Hank Aaron for the National League batting title. 

Mr. Cunningham would spend 2 more seasons with the Cardinals before being traded to the White Sox for All-Star Minnie Minoso. As a member of the Sox between 1962 and 1964, Mr. Cunningham would have the opportunity to play for Hall of Fame manager Al Lopez. A recent blog entry highlighted former Indian Hal Naragon’s opinion of playing for Lopez, and I sought the same insight from Mr. Cunningham as well.

“Al was a fine strict manager- had a couple of good years for him until I got hurt- he was tough on (pitchers).”

Mr. Cunningham had a successful first season with the Sox- batting .295 with 155 hits, 8 homers and 70 RBI. However, he would suffer a career-altering injury the following season, suffering a broken collarbone in June that would put him out of action for 3 months.

Regardless of his limited time with the White Sox, Mr. Cunningham is quick to point out Lopez’s ability for working with pitchers and handing them with efficiency. This article sheds a little bit more light on the type of manager Lopez was, mentioning the fact that he was fair- if a player did something good, he would compliment him, but if the player struck out or made an error, Lopez wouldn’t say a word as long as the player hustled and worked hard.

On deck: Mr. Cunningham tells me his favorite ballparks to play in during the 1950s and 1960s.

Yankee Rollie Sheldon, on Pitching Against the Red Sox

Correspondence Date: Feb. 2012

Born in Putnam, Connecticut on December 17, 1936, Rollie Sheldon grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox. He got to experience the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry from the fan point of view, but little did he know how much things would change after starting his pro career.
Mr. Sheldon would be signed by the hated Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1960, and would make his Major League debut the following season. Mr. Sheldon would lose his first 2 decisions, but in an ironic twist, he would earn his first Major League victory on May 31, 1961 by defeating his formerly beloved Red Sox 7-6.

I asked Mr. Sheldon how it felt to pitch against the Sox as a member of the Yankees.

“I lived closer to Boston so yes I liked Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, (Vern) Junior Stephens, etc. But as always, we always lost to the Yankees. One year just 1 game out of 3 in a season ending series would have done it.

But I signed with the Yankees and the rest is history. “Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.”
I now call the Red Sox the “Red Flops”

Rollie Sheldon”

With his response, I can’t help but find humor in Mr. Sheldon’s shift from being a Red Sox supporter to becoming a lifelong Yankees backer. It’s not often that a fan of a particular team will change allegiances and align himself with the rival. Then again, not everyone gets to be drafted by said rival, as Mr. Sheldon was.

On deck: Joe Cunningham tells me what it was like to play for Hall of Fame manager Al Lopez as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

Rollie Sheldon and the Roger Maris Homerun Chase

Correspondence date: Feb. 2012

If there’s one thing that perfectly captured the essence of the 1961 baseball season, it’s the Roger Maris homerun chase. Captivating the entire country over the course of the year, the chase- during which Maris would hit 61 homers and break Babe Ruth’s single-season record- would attract a slew of sports reporters and other journalists to the New York Yankees clubhouse. To add an extra element of suspense to the picture, Maris would be joined for most of the season by teammate Mickey Mantle- who would finish 1961 with 54 homers- in the race to break The Babe’s record.

Their other teammates that year- including pitcher Rollie Sheldon- were suddenly met with many more reporters and journalists than they had previously been accustomed to. For many athletes, this increased media presence may likely play a role in their performance on the field, as they may feel extra pressure to be at the top of their game. 

I was curious to get Mr. Sheldon’s input as to whether he and his teammates were influenced by the media presence in the Yankees clubhouse. Were they unfazed by the extra attention placed on the team?

“The pressure was squarely on the shoulders of the M & M Boys. As a pitching staff (pitching ever 4 days as a starter) we went as hard as we could for as long as we could to keep our team in the game. The M&M Boys’ pressure was felt especially at season’s end. Again as pitchers we went hard to get our hitters back on the offense and then just admired their feats.”

It would have been interesting to see the Yankees clubhouse as the 1961 season was winding down. Given Mr. Sheldon’s response, he and his teammates basically escaped unscathed from the wrath and influence of the media, as all the attention was placed on Mantle and Maris. Perhaps this lack of added pressure assisted Mr. Sheldon in achieving an 11-5 that year- his rookie season in the Majors.

On deck: Mr. Sheldon, who grew up a Red Sox fan, tells me how it felt to pitch against them as a member of the Yankees.