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A Life Fit for a King
by Rick Cabral, Editor

 Kings_Ring

 

If Frank Capra were alive today, and wanted to remake the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," he may have recast Sacramento native Ronnie King in the lead role.  

For four decades, the dean of area baseball scouts prowled Sacramento's baseball fields in search of talented players and often found prospects where few would look. Not only did he sign some of the more talented players from the Sacramento area, but he also played, worked and rubbed elbows with some of the greatest names in baseball history. Names like Bowa, Clemente, Stargell, Score, Marty, Campanis, Roseboro and Rickey. 

In hindsight, it seems obvious Ronnie King would become a baseball lifer. Yet, growing up in a Portuguese family in Sacramento's Southside area, it wasn't always a lock.  

At age seven, King earned the coveted job of visitor ball boy for the hometown Pacific Coast League club. In 1936, Sacramento had been added to the St. Louis Cardinals' illustrious minor league system. King and pal Norman Greenslate would climb the roof of Cardinal Field in search of foul balls, hang the flags in the outfield, and do various other chores around the ballpark, all for 25 cents a game (35 cents for a Sunday double-header). Big dough for a kid who was always big for his age and often was invited to play catch with the ballplayers.  

"All the kids in the neighborhood wanted my job."  

 CardinalField

During this period, before one game Solons' president Phil Bartelme instructed young King to change his routine, and not bring in the two flags (United States and California)
to the president's office after the game. He didn't tell King at the time, but he had an important meeting scheduled after the game. The game went 12 innings, and the Solons won in a fantastic finish. Maybe due to his elation, King disobeyed and marched into the
president's office with the folded flags. Entering sheepishly, King didn't see Bartelme in the office. Instead, Branch Rickey, the parent club's general manager, was sitting in the chair. 

 Branch_Rickey


"Wasn't that a great finish, young man?" Rickey asked. 

"Yes, sir," King said, wide-eyed at the visage of the great baseball mastermind.

Just then, Bartelme walked in for his meeting with Rickey and spied King holding the flags. Rickey rode to the rescue. "The boy and I were just discussing the game."

The gesture spared Ronnie King—at least temporarily.

Of course, the youngster didn't know that Bartelme and Rickey went way back, when the club president started out his sports career as the University of Michigan's Athletic Director from 1909-1921 . There he hired Rickey to be the team's varsity baseball coach in 1910. Later, Rickey hired Bartelme to run his Sacramento ballclub. 

The next day, when King reported to the president's office to get the flags, he was sure Bartelme would fire him on sight. Instead, King found an empty office, and proceeded down to the field, where he opened the gate on the first base side. Bartelme and Rickey were standing a few paces away. As he headed across the outfield, Ronnie expected to hear Bartelme's loud voice. Instead, Branch Rickey called down the base line: "I hope the game tonight is as good as last night's, young man." 

"I do, too, sir," King replied, and scurried for the flag poles. 

Later that evening, Bartelme berated King for the previous evening's transgression and admitted, "He (Rickey) saved your bacon. I was going to fire you." King could only think of how close he came to losing his prized post with the PCL club. 

King received another valuable lesson one evening in 1937 when San Diego was in town for a series. Kneeling a few feet away from him was a Padre batter in the on-deck circle, cursing like a salty pirate. The batter in waiting, 18-year-old Ted Williams,

 Ted_Williams_Padres

San Diego Padre Ted Williams
in a lighter moment.

looked out at Solons southpaw Tony Freitas, who was dealing on the mound. Williams, who batted a mere .291 with 23 home runs that season, was cussing and threatening to blast one against the Portugee portsider. Williams, however, struck out. As he walked back, he let fly a string of curse words that turned Ronnie's ears red. He tossed his bat, and vowed to get the best of the pitcher next time.

As King placed Williams' bat in the bat rack, he was the happiest kid in Sacramento. His next at bat, Williams made good on the promise, as he clouted a blast over the right field wall that would have landed where the Riverside Club stands today. A mighty poke for the Red Sox future Hall of Famer.  

King was working that fateful final weekend in 1942 when the Los Angeles Angels came in with a two game lead over Sacramento. By Saturday, the lead remained at two games and the Angels only needed one victory to snare the PCL pennant. Arnold "Jigger" Statz, the great Angels outfielder, went out and purchased buckets of champagne in anticipation of their impending championship.

 Jigger_Statz
He gave King money to buy ice, and Ronnie shot up to 4th and R Streets where he purchased several blocks of ice. After the Solons swept the next three games and claimed the crown, King took the champagne over to the home team clubhouse. "I didn't make anything that day," he remembers of the tipless weekend. But he did earn a prize. The 44-year-old Statz, who had just played his final game after 24 years in the pros, handed King his fielder's glove. King noticed the palm had been cut out. He tried the mitt over the winter and the first ball he caught with the palm-less glove stung so bad, he tossed it in the trash, Jigger or no jigger.

During high school the Solons eventually promoted King to be the visitor clubhouse boy. When asked how he managed to perform his duties and still play on the Christian Brothers High varsity, he acknowledged hiring his paper route sub to serve as his backup on game days. A canny move by the teenager. 

King was a standout athlete at Christian Brothers, playing football and baseball. In his sophomore year, Yankee scout Joe Devine knocked on the King door. Devine was known as the man who signed Joe DiMaggio. But that didn't impress Manuel King, who co-owned King's Cafe on K Street with his brother, Joe. To persuade the Portuguese parent, Ronnie remembers Devine laid a bundle of cash on the family table ($10,000) and said the Yankees wanted to sign his son. Mr. King asked where the Yankees planned to send Ronnie for minor league baseball? Told he'd go to Norfolk, Virginia, Mr. King objected. "We're in the middle of a war, and if you send my son clear across the country, and the U.S. loses the war, how would he get back home?"  

After Devine scooped up the money from the table and left, Mr. King turned to his son and asked, "Are you good?" Ron said, "I dunno—I guess so." Mr. King assured him if he improved and became even better, the scouts would pay more bonus money. Disappointed but determined, Ron improved. His Christian Brothers High School teams lost only one game in his final two years (largely due to the fraternal pitching duo of Al and Mel Knezovich). In his senior year King and Mel Knezovich were the only Sacramento players to perform in an East Bay-West Bay All-Star game held at Seals Stadium, San Francisco.  

The summer of 1946 Cleveland Indians signed King to a minor league contract and the

 Ron_King_Camilli

Coach Dolph Camilli with rookie, Ronnie King at
the Indians' spring training camp.

following year he began his professional career with their Class C Bakersfield club in the California League. 

His professional career lasted eight years and was a tale of two halves: prior to and after the Korean War. King's top batting average of .303 came in 1948 with Class C Billings, Montana. In '49 Ron played on the Central League's Class AA Championship team in Dayton, Ohio. In 1950, he was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War.  

After his service was done, in 1953, at age 25, the Indians sent him to Reading, Penn., a Single-A club stocked with future major leaguers: Rocky Colavito, Herb Score, Bud Daley and Joe Altobelli.  After the war, however, he found that things came less easy physically. He also remembers complaining that the ballpark lights were insufficient. Following an eye exam, he was told "the lamps were gone," and needed to wear glasses. At the time his astigmatism could not be completely corrected, even with the glasses.

RonKing_DMcW

(Photo courtesy of
Doug McWilliams Collection)

 

In 1954, King left the Indians' organization and played 30 games for the hometown Solons. He finished his career as the player/coach in Salem, Oregon of the Class A Northwest League. King slipped a disc sliding into second and injured his back, effectively ending his playing career. In eight seasons of minor league ball, King batted .231 in 547 games.

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In 1960, Ron King began the next phase of his professional baseball career when he went to work for the Pittsburgh Pirates as an area scout, covering the greater Sacramento area. In 1967, he was promoted to West Coast Supervisor, covering Northern California (Fresno to Oregon border), Nevada and Utah. King racked up the frequent-flyer miles and went through numerous company-issued cars, driving back and forth across the country in search of talent. Often, his family accompanied him on car trips. King visited every state in the U.S., and traveled as well on business to Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. 

Betty, his wife of 57 years, often traveled with him, and kept score during games. When the Jugs and Ray Guns became tools of the trade, Betty often held the gun clocking the pitchers, thus earning the nickname "Betty Gun" by the other scouts, who often used her results in their reports. In 1971, Ronnie and Betty attended the very first World Series night game when the Pirates hosted the Baltimore Orioles.

"During that time, the Pirates draft was occasionally disappointing," King says. "If the organization's cross-checker didn't agree with my assessment of a player, or thought a player in another area or state was better than the guy I was touting, the other guy got drafted first. I had to sit by and watch while some of my favorite players got drafted by other clubs." 

In 1974, Pirates GM Joe L. Brown (son of the comedian/actor Joey Brown) asked King to become the Scouting Supervisor for the newly-formed Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau. But it would have required a move to the East Coast and Ronnie didn't want to uproot his family, so he declined. 

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When scouting prospects, King subscribed to the old Branch Rickey theory: speed is the number one asset that can be used both offensively and defensively. "Always put pressure on the opposition," went the baseball tenet. 

Once he found a prospect, King liked to personally get to know the kid. He didn't depend on the kid's coach for insight. "Sometimes, the coach might not like the kid and would criticize the player," King reveals. "I had to find out for myself."  

Cleveland Indians scout, Don Lyle, credits King with going where few others dared to go. "Ronnie and Bill Avila (Phillies) were the only scouts who would come into the neighborhood and watch us (at Sacramento High)," Lyle remembers. "Other scouts wouldn't come around at the time, because of all the (racial) issues going on. I can't say enough about him. It just showed the kind of person he was." After his playing days were over, Lyle sought King's advice. "He was the first scout I talked to about how to get into scouting. I take some of my stuff from Ronnie. He's old school." 

In an era where general managers today place an emphasis on SABR-metrics (scientific analysis of statistical trends), King feels today's scouting is "overdone." The key in finding a quality ballplayer is to look for someone who has "ability to do something on the field, a god-given ability. You don't go wrong if you draft 'tools'," King adds. 

The prospect with the best tools to come out of Sacramento, King offers, was Andy Finlay, a star at Burbank High School in the mid-60s. King arranged to work out Finlay in the presence of Danny Murtaugh, who won two World Series in two different stretches managing the Pirates. King set up an audition at McClatchy High School. After warming up, Finlay went to right field for outfield throws. Murtaugh told King to place a cardboard box just about where the first baseman normally stands to field the cutoff throw. Finlay's throws flew in waist high, and hit the box 7 times out of 10 on a fly. "Very impressive," Murtaugh muttered to King.  

Next, they ran him in the 60 yard dash. Murtaugh looked at the stopwatch and said, "What speed!" Finally, King went to the mound to throw batting practice, and Finlay equally impressed with the bat. Then Murtaugh told King to come closer to the plate and throw harder, and directed Finlay to try and pull each pitch foul down the third base line. Finlay looked confused, but Murtaugh assured him, "Just try it." With King firing the ball in, Finlay pulled 9 of 10 foul, as instructed. Murtaugh said, "I've seen enough."  

The purpose of the last drill? "To test his bat speed," King winks. The Pirates didn't get to draft Finlay, as the Braves beat them to it. Finlay, unfortunately, got into a terrible auto accident on his way down to spring training and never recovered well enough to suit up again.  

King left the Pirates and went to work for the Dodgers, who promoted him to National Cross Checker in 1978, during their two-year World Series run. 

 Ron_King_PhotoWall

King points to a photograph of him catching and making an outstanding play at the plate in his first spring training in Tampa, 1947.



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As an example of King's scouting eye, he signed Greg Sims as a free agent out of Sacramento High, who batted ninth in the lineup. King thought Sims could develop into a big leaguer if he'd learn to switch hit. "He could run, throw and turns out he had power from both sides (of the plate). He had the tools." Sims played briefly (1966) for the Houston Astros, but enjoyed a nine-year career in the minor leagues and 12 years in Mexico. 

Similarly, King signed left handed pitcher Rich Rodas as an amateur free agent, after joining the Los Angeles Dodgers' scouting department in 1974. Indicating that pitchers are hardest to project, Rodas pitched for Sac City College and didn't lose a game in two years, yet went undrafted. King eventually saw him play against pros and former major leaguers in a night league game and did well. Ronnie remembered a truism of Dodgers' GM Al Campanis: "Late in the draft, if you see a left-handed pitcher with a good curve, sign him."  

 

When King approached the young pitcher, he offered a $2,000 bonus, a glove and new pair of shoes. Rodas was happy to get that. The next day, when King brought out the contract, he increased the bonus to $5,000 on the idea the kid didn't balk at the lowly bonus; he just wanted an opportunity to pitch in the pros, and the Dodgers gave him the chance. Rodas had a fine minor league career, pitching for four years at Albuquerque of the PCL where in 1983 he went 16 and 4 with a 4.16 ERA. He pitched briefly for Los Angeles over two years but hurt his arm diving into a base, which ended his career.

Perhaps King's finest free agent signing was Rudy Law of Palo Alto. In 1975, Law drew King's attention at a Joe DiMaggio League tournament. "He was a great runner." He timed Law at 3.9 seconds from home to first base (equaling "plus" speed). King remembers Law turning a triple out of a routine single. After Law's team was eliminated from the tournament, King learned that no scouts had talked with the young prospect.  King signed him on the spot and gave him an $8,000 bonus. Law played seven years, batted .272 and stole 228 bases, mainly because "he made contact and seldom struck out." 

In 1978, the Dodgers drafted Steve Sax (Marshall High/West Sacramento) in the 9th Round. The All-Star second baseman (and Rookie of the Year 1981) remembers King working with him and his brother Dave throughout the winter, critiquing their batting practice and having them swing a 48-ounce bat against a rubber tube to build up arm strength in the basement of King's parents home. "Steve just loved to play, and he could flat out fly," Ronnie remembers. "Sax had a good arm, hands and saw the ball well at the plate, plus he used the whole field to hit." Sax returns the compliment: " Ron was the guy who always went the extra mile. I would have never been in the big leagues if not for Ronnie King," Sax recalls. "He even gave me advice with I was in the big leagues. He was more than a scout; he was a great friend." 

King also signed Dave Sax as an undrafted free agent out of Cosumnes River College with the Dodgers, and he played briefly over five seasons in the majors with LA and the Boston Red Sox. "He had an above average arm and really could drive the ball," King recalls.

While with the Dodgers, King came to know Al Campanis very well (vice president and general manager from 1968-1987). "He was the best GM I ever knew," King admits. The super scout feels similarly about Dodger owner, Peter O'Malley. Scouts and their wives were always invited to the World Series games, and if the Dodgers won, scouts received a ring, while the wives were given a World Series pendant (a replica of the winner's rings). One time O'Malley took all Dodger personnel (from coaching staff to parking lot attendants) and their spouses to Hawaii for one week. "Peter was the best owner I ever worked for," King admits. 

In 1987, however, Al Campanis made some unfortunate statements on ABC's Nightline about blacks lacking "the necessities" to be managers and general managers, and was subsequently released. With the resultant shift in the Dodger organization, King left when his contract expired and went to work for three years as the Phillies' National Cross Checker.

In 1991 King rejoined the Pirates, this time as Assistant Scouting Director, and stayed there until 2000. In four decades with four teams, Ron King earned six World Series rings (three as champions {Pirates 1960 and 1971, Dodgers 1981} and three as runners-up). But the award he is most proud of came in 1997 when the scouting community honored him with the "Scout of the Year" award for the West Coast region.  

 Ron's_Ring_Scout

  In hindsight, King is thrilled with his life in baseball. "(Reminiscing) about scouting and playing, makes me realize what an enjoyable life it was," King says fondly. "I really had a good time."  

Frank Capra couldn't have scripted it better. 

 Ron_SouthsidePark

At Southside Park, King stands on Diamond #2,
where he played and excelled
at Christian Brothers High School games.

 

 

u u u u 

Check out the Sidebar on Ron King's Scouting Notes

 Uploaded 04/16/10

 All contents © Rick Cabral, 2010 



 

 

 

 

 

 

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