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Sukeforth, Clyde (1969)

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Sukeforth was a late stage Dodger teammate of Bissonette who had previously toiled from 1926-1931 as Cincinnati cather. Clyde was acknowledged by baseball men to pack the maximum in game savvy. Sukeforth passed up several Brooklyn managerial opportunities for an early hunting fishing jump around his Waldoboro home. A .264 BA for a receiver who quarterbacked his teams puts him far above the banjo hitters. Vern Putney 1/7/1969 PPH

From National Baseball Hall of Fame

Clyde Leroy Sukeforth was born on Nov. 30, 1901 to Pearle and Sarah Sukeforth. He grew up on a farm, and attended a one-room schoolhouse throughout high school. He and his sister, Hazel, would walk to school every morning – three and a half miles, each way – until Clyde transferred to the Colburn Classical Institute in 1916.

Although Washington was hundreds of miles away from the closest big league ballpark, baseball was an integral part of Sukeforth’s childhood.

“As a kid, we played baseball seven days a week, practice or games. In those days, football wasn’t too attractive, basketball didn’t mean much unless you were 7-feet-tall,” he told the Sport Collectors Digest. “When I was a kid I remember standing by the stagecoach, waiting for it to come through with the morning edition of the Boston Post, and the first thing I did was I opened it up to read about the Red Sox.”

His love of the game – and prowess behind the plate – only grew stronger as the years passed, and eventually earned him a spot at Georgetown University.

“After World War I, baseball was at its peak,” Sukeforth told the Hall of Fame in 1995. “All the industries supported ballclubs getting high school and college players and semi-pros. I was playing for the Great Northern Paper Company. The team was mostly Georgetown players. They had a catcher who had signed with the New York Giants and they asked me to play catcher.”

After two years in Washington, “Sukey” signed with the Cincinnati Reds, for $600 and a $1500 bonus. Making only one plate appearance in 1926 – a strikeout – he was sent back down to Double-A for the rest of the season. But the rookie learned quickly, and by 1929 was the Reds’ starting catcher.

Unfortunately for Sukeforth, a tragic shot-gun accident in 1931 would impair his eyesight, prompting a trade in 1932 that would ship future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi to Cincinnati and Sukeforth to the Dodgers. Though he’d only play three seasons for Brooklyn – aside from an astounding 18-game stint at catcher at the age of 43 in 1945, during the player shortages of World War II – the trade marked the beginning of a partnership between Sukeforth and future Hall of Famer Branch Rickey that would shape the course of baseball history in more ways than one.

Sukey would then embark on a seven-year managerial career in the minor leagues, taking over the Dodgers’ Double-A-farm team in Montreal in 1939. His teams never had a losing season, and won better than 55 percent of their games. On March 1, 1943, Rickey brought him back to Brooklyn as a coach, and a couple of years later, as a scout.

He came with “a box of about five dozen smelt which he had caught through the ice along the coast near his home,” Rickey said to The New York Times. “That’s why he got the job.”

Sukeforth, Clyde (69)

Born: November 30, 1901

Washington, Maine

Died: September 3, 2000 (aged 98)

Waldoboro, Maine

Sukeforth soon retired permanently from the playing ranks and resumed his former job as a Brooklyn coach and occasional special-assignment scout. In that capacity, later that season, he would make history. Dodger president Branch Rickey was making secret plans to break organized baseball's six-decades-long "gentleman's agreement" that enforced racial segregation. In August, Rickey sent Sukeforth to Chicago, where Robinson's team, the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, was slated to play the Chicago American Giants. Rickey told Sukeforth to urge Robinson to come back with him to Brooklyn for a meeting with Rickey and the Dodgers. Sukeforth met Robinson again in Toledo, Ohio, and the two men traveled by railway to Brooklyn for the historic meeting at the Dodgers' Montague Street offices on August 28. He was the only other person in the room when Rickey told Robinson of his plans to sign him to a contract to play in Montreal in 1946.

After scouting many players from the Negro Leagues, Branch Rickey met with Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn Dodgers office in August, 1945. Clyde Sukeforth, the Dodgers scout, had told Robinson that Rickey was scouting for players because he was starting his own black team to be called the Brown Dodgers. At the meeting, Rickey revealed that he wanted Robinson to play for the major league Dodgers. Rickey then acted out scenes Robinson might face to see how Robinson would respond. Robinson kept his composure and agreed to a contract with Brooklyn's Triple-A minor league farm club, the Montreal Royals.

Then, in 1947, Sukeforth—functioning in the unwanted role of interim manager of the Dodgers after the suspension of Leo Durocher—wrote Robinson's name into the Dodger lineup on Opening Day on April 15 against the Braves at Ebbets Field.

In addition to serving on Durocher's coaching staff and his scouting assignments for Dodgers president Rickey, he worked behind the scenes in 1946 to help create the new Nashua Dodgers of the Class B New England League. Sukeforth helped the Nashua team forge ties with the New Hampshire community, easing the racial integration of the league when Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were assigned to that club.

Sukeforth remained in the Pirates organization as a scout and occasional minor league manager through 1965. He then worked as a scout for the Atlanta Braves. Sukeforth died at the age of ninety-eight at his home in Waldoboro, Maine.

Rickey and Robinson’s Third Man

He went to Pittsburgh in 1952 as a coach and scout where he was instrumental in the Pirates’ drafting Roberto Clemente in 1954. He stayed with Pittsburgh through 1957, then retired. He was brought back periodically through 1962 as both a scout and minor league manager, then moved to a scouting position with the Braves until he finally retired. He died at age 98 in 2000. According to Wikipedia a fresh baseball “can be found on his gravesite at all times.”

I’ve always thought that Sukeforth never gets enough credit for his role in integrating baseball. I agree that the principles, Rickey and Robinson, deserve the most credit, but I think Sukeforth is significant in that he ultimately recommended Robinson, became a confidant to Robinson during the most troublesome period of the integration, and then served as mentor to other Dodgers black players, while also becoming a leading proponent of bringing in Latin players like Clemente. We all owe Clyde Sukeforth a debt. Hopefully this pays back a small part of it.

Tough Call - Bottom of the Sixth (Three Umpires), April 23, 1949 By Norman Rockwell

Tough Call – also known as Game Called Because of Rain, Bottom of the Sixth, or The Three Umpires – is a 1948 painting by American artist Norman Rockwell, painted for the April 23, 1949, cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine. The original painting is in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It is considered the best known of Rockwell's baseball-themed works

The painting features five people, standing from left to right, who each posed for reference photographs;[17]

base umpire Larry Goetz

home plate umpire Beans Reardon, holding his outside chest protector

base umpire Lou Jorda

Brooklyn coach Clyde Sukeforth, holding his hat and largely obscured by the umpires

Pittsburgh manager Billy Meyer

Tough Call - Bottom of the Sixth (Three Umpires), April 23, 1949 By Norman Rockwell

Maine Baseball Hall of Fame inaugural induction 1969


Part of the GOING DEEP series

Written by: Alex Coffey

Ninety-three-year-old Clyde Sukeforth, donning a plaid blazer and a red baseball cap, slowly walked past an exhibit in Gibbs Library. A 2,500 square foot brick building, Gibbs serves as the focal point of its small but passionate community, bringing authors, performers and others of “local interest” to the coastal town of Washington, Maine.

After 48 years in the big leagues, Sukeforth undoubtedly fell into the “local interest” category. As he gazed up at dozens of black-and-white photographs of himself adorning the walls, he incredulously posited a question: “Why are you bothering with a second-string catcher?”

For anyone who knew Sukeforth, or has listened to his interviews, this reaction shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The former backstop was self-effacing to his core, dodging compliments like they were wild pitches. But whether he thought he deserved an exhibit at Gibbs Library or not, one fact remains indisputable: Clyde Sukeforth was much more than a backup catcher.

If you need further proof, just ask Jackie Robinson. In 1972, the year of his passing, the baseball pioneer wrote to the man who first scouted him:

“Please understand that I do not have any reservations in praise for the role that Clyde Sukeforth played in the growth and development of my beginnings in baseball. I have been very appreciative of the fact that whenever there were problems in the earlier days, I could always go to you, talk with you, and receive the warm and friendly advise that I always did.

“While there has not been enough said of your significant contribution in the Rickey-Robinson experiment, I consider your role, next to Mr. Rickey’s and my wife’s – yes, bigger than any other persons with whom I came in contact. I have always considered you to be one of the true giants in this initial endeavor in baseball, for which I am truly appreciative.”

That letter is now preserved in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, along with Sukeforth’s response to it, years later, in a note to a friend:

“I sincerely appreciate your thoughts about the Robinson letter, but I have no ambitions in that direction. The letter was written (the year of) his death, to thank me again for the part I played in the early days of integration when the going was rough. Actually, I did nothing that anyone in my position, free of prejudice, couldn’t or wouldn’t have done. No big deal.”

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