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It’s the wee hours of the morning at the Fredericton Motor Inn two decades ago in early June of 1989.
Russell (Mert) McClenaghan, who passed away Saturday, Aug. 8 of a heart attack in Long Island, N.Y., and a group of teammates from the 1950s Maritime junior baseball champion Lewisville Keefe Cubs, who had been inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame the night before, are reminiscing about the good old days.
I wrote in my column afterwards that McClenaghan’s situation was different than his teammates’ experience — he played both professional baseball and semi-pro hockey in the same calendar year.
“I’m really kind of sorry I didn’t concentrate on just baseball and give it a better shot,” said the barrel- chested, bullet-like throwing former catcher and outfielder who played with both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Braves organizations in the 1950s.
“There were so many people in baseball who said I had a good chance of making the Major Leagues — my teammates would have in my opinion — but it was one of those things. I was young and liked to play both baseball and hockey. However, the two seasons overlapped. If you made the playoffs in hockey, it meant you arrived at the tail-end of spring training (in baseball), which hindered your chances,” said McClenaghan, a carpentry supervisor in Long Island, N.Y., at the time.
“I was in shape for hockey when I reported to spring training, but I had to start all over when I got there. The co-ordination is a bit similar, but you use different muscles and it takes time to get adapted. Having a bat in your hand and a hockey stick in your hand is an entire different story.”
* Al Kubski, who managed the Grand Forks, N.D., Chiefs in the Northern League when McClenaghan played there, pleaded with him to stick to baseball only. “He wanted me to play winter ball in San Juan where he was managing,” recalled McClenaghan. “I probably should have and forgotten about hockey, but it’s like I said before...I really enjoyed playing both hockey and baseball.” His older brother Murray, a pitcher with the Keefe Cubs, had suggested he stick to baseball as well, but Mert told him the money was better in hockey at the time.
McClenaghan was signed off the Keefe Cubs by the late Clyde Sukeforth in 1953. That was the same season the Lewisville team won their first of two consecutive Maritime junior baseball titles.
They won when McClenaghan tripled home Keith Bourgeois from first with one out in the bottom of the ninth, with the Cubs beating Reserve St. Joseph of Cape Breton 4-3 to sweep the best-of-five series at Lewisville, 3-0.
* Meanwhile, Sukeforth had joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization from the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he had played catcher and later coached and scouted with the National League team. Sukeforth, who had done the scouting, was the only other person in the room when Dodgers president Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson of his plans to sign him to a contract to play in Montreal (the Triple A Royals) in 1946. Robinson became the first black to play in the Majors in 1947.
Sukeforth, coaching in the Dodgers’ bullpen, passed over Carl Erskine and sent in Ralph Branca, who served up the famous three-run homer (the one heard around the world) in the bottom of the ninth to Bobby Thompson. The homer gave the New York Giants (now San Francisco) a come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Dodgers in the third and deciding game of a best-of-three playoff series and the 1951 National League pennant.
Sukeforth also played a role in drafting Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn organization in the 1954 Rule V draft. He died at age 98.
* The Philadelphia Phillies were also interested in McClenaghan, but Sukeforth really impressed the Ormstown, Que.-born/Monctonraised athlete, so he signed with the Pirates. “He came to my house and talked to my parents. He went that extra mile and really convinced my folks to have me sign with the Pirates,” recalled McClenaghan.
* I recall Sukeforth taking a ferry trip to P.E.I. to watch Mert play against Summerside Curran and Briggs. After we won the series and later the Maritime title, Mert signed with the Pirates (he received a modest bonus) and worked out in their bullpen before joining Brunswick, Ga., of the Class D Georgia Florida for the end of their season.
* By the late 1950s, more than half a dozen baseball and hockey combined seasons were behind McClenaghan, The injuries on the diamond had piled up, so Mert decided to hang up his spikes and concentrate on semi-pro hockey, but unfortunately, he suffered more injuries.
He played hockey until the 1970s in the Eastern and International Leagues with such teams as Philadelphia Ramblers, Long Island Ducks, New Haven Blades, Omaha Knights and Toledo Blades.
McClenaghan, who played with Moncton High Purple Knights, was also a top junior player with Sussex Rangers and North Sydney Franklins and attended the Detroit Red Wings training camp one season.
* Notes: McClenaghan’s death brought the number of former Junior Keefe Cubs players who are deceased to 11. Others from the N.B, Sports Hall of Fame, N.B. Baseball and Moncton sport shrines teams (1951-54) who have passed away include — Eddie Belliveau, Eddie Booth, Val Caissie, Frank Cleveland, Paul Goguen, Jim Hopper, Allie Maddison, Don Mitchell, Don Simmons and Keith Nelson. Also deceased are team sponsor Jack Keefe; head coach Gene (Foggy) Boudreau and assistant coaches Art Mellish and Johnny Gordon. The Keefe Cubs won the N.B. title 1951- 54; the N.B.-P.E.I crown 1952, ‘53 and ‘54 and the Maritime crown in 1953 and ‘54.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Russ McClenaghan Links:
* Baseball Stats at Baseball-Reference.com
* Hockey stats at Hockeydb.com
* New Haven Blades Team Photo from "Hockey in New Haven"* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Russ McClenaghan Ramblers Photo Courtesy: Mike Hersh's "UniWatch" Flickr Photostream