Oldest living MLB player, Army vet, has story to tell ahead of All-Star game
By CHAPEL FOWLER | The Charlotte Observer | Published: July 17, 2018
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — On Sept. 3, 1941, Fred Caligiuri sat alone in the Philadelphia Athletics’ dugout, ahead of a road game against the Washington Senators.
He was 22 years old, ecstatic about his Major League Baseball call-up and the crisp uniform that came with it.
He’d recently pitched twice for the Class B Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks in a playoff, so he didn’t know when he’d pitch again. But the answer would come quickly.
“That first game, I come out dressed up in that suit,” he said. “I thought I was really something. Here comes a guy down the walk — a big tall fella, with a little hat on. It was Connie Mack, the first time I’ve ever seen him. He got by me, threw me a ball and said, ‘You’re pitching today.’”
Caligiuri didn’t mention those two playoff games to Mack, a future Hall of Fame manager. Instead, he made his major league debut, pitching eight innings and hitting a triple in a 9-8 loss.
Today, Caligiuri lives in a Charlotte assisted living community, and he has reached another milestone.
On May 28, with the death of former St. Louis Browns first baseman Chuck Stevens, Caligiuri became the oldest living former MLB player. He is 99 years old, with his 100th birthday coming up on Oct. 22.
He wears glasses, a white polo shirt neatly tucked into khakis and a pair of Reebok Classics.
He remembers a lot — from working his way up from the minors to the Athletics to that first meeting with Mack, to pitching against Ted Williams. And so much more.
“Well,” he said, “where do you want me to start?”
‘Who ... threw that ball?’
Caligiuri didn’t know how to pitch. Nobody in his 100-person town of West Hickory, Pa., did, he said.
In high school, Caligiuri spent most of his time in the outfield. He might have pitched in two games. And after he graduated from Endeavor High in 1936, he went straight to work at the tannery.
“I worked there about six months,” he said, “and thought, ‘There’s got to be something better than this.’”
He ended up at the Les Mann Baseball School in Miami, trying to jump-start his baseball career. At one practice, Caligiuri and the other outfielders were catching deep fly balls and throwing them back to the catcher.
“One came to me, and I threw that ball clear over the backstop,” Caligiuri said. “And the guy sees that, comes running out there: ‘Who in the hell threw that ball?’ They brought me in, got a catcher and I threw. That’s how I became a pitcher.”
The 6-foot right-hander began his minor-league career in 1937, with the Greenville (N.C.) Greenies of the Coastal Plain League. His steady improvement culminated with a Coastal Plain All-Star selection in 1940. That season, he went 20-6 with a 2.17 ERA in 228 innings.
In 1941, Caligiuri was promoted to the Blue Rocks of the Interstate League. At the Class B level, he impressed again, going 16-7 with a 1.79 ERA in 206 innings. And that fall, the struggling Athletics called him up for the last month of the season.
The Athletics gave him five starts in 1941, including that one on his first day. The next three were standard, but the last one associated Caligiuri’s name with one of the most iconic seasons in major league history.
Caligiuri was on the mound when Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox accomplished something that hasn’t been done since.
“That,” Caligiuri said, “was the year the boy hit .406. And I pitched the last game to him.”
‘The game I’ll always remember’
Before the doubleheader on Sept. 28, Mack gathered Caligiuri and the rest of the Athletics’ pitchers for a meeting.
Williams was going to play in the final two games of the regular season, despite holding a .3995 batting average that would’ve rounded up to a clean .400. And it was up to the Athletics, in last place in the American League standings, to try to contain him.
“Connie Mack told us, the pitchers, ‘Just don’t give him anything. Throw it as hard as you can throw it,’” Caligiuri said. “In other words, he’s going to earn it.”
Williams promptly went 4-5 in the first game, a Red Sox win, and was comfortably over .400 heading into the second game. Caligiuri got the start against a loaded Boston lineup that featured Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Dom DiMaggio. And the Red Sox were giving a final start to 41-year-old Lefty Grove, who had won his 300th game earlier that season.
Caligiuri and Williams first faced each other in the top of the second — Williams singled. Then, in the top of the fourth, he doubled to center field.
But in their third meeting, in the top of the seventh, Caligiuri prevailed. He remembers the out perfectly, from the play (a foul ball) to the direction (sky high into left field) to the Philadelphia teammate who caught it (Elmer Valo).
Caligiuri ended up pitching a complete game that day, allowing six hits and one earned run. The Athletics won 7-1, splitting the doubleheader. Williams went 6-for-8 in the two games, and finished the season hitting .406.
“The game I’ll always remember,” Caligiuri said. “No matter if you only throw one ball in the major leagues, you’ve accomplished something.”
‘I chose Uncle Sam’
Caligiuri split time between the Athletics and the Blue Rocks in 1942, appearing in 13 games at the major-league level. Then, with World War II in full swing, Caligiuri was drafted into the Army in 1943.
“One day, in the mail, I received two contracts — one from Connie Mack and one from Uncle Sam,” he said. “And I chose Uncle Sam.”
He spent three years overseas in an Army boat unit. The group cruised the English Channel, looking for bombs to defuse and running errands for higher-ups. When they moved to the Philippines, they landed at the northernmost point of the islands — about 300 miles from Japan — and began to set up a staging ground for invasion.
The plan was dropped a few weeks later, though, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Caligiuri returned home in 1946. He was 27 years old, and hadn’t pitched at the MLB level in three years.
“I never reached my potential,” he said. “(Mack) took me to spring training. They had to do that — present you with the same job that you had, before you went in the Army. And I knew I couldn’t make the team. I went through spring training in Florida, and I went home.”
‘Quite a feat’
Caligiuri will talk about himself, if you ask him to. What he really loves, though, is gushing about others.
He remembers Johnny, his childhood friend from West Hickory who became a paratrooper. He remembers Bobo Newsom, a pitcher who always took care of him. He’ll never forget Phil Marchildon, a Philadelphia teammate and his best friend at the MLB level.
“The most congenial guy I ever met in my life,” Caligiuri said of Marchildon. “Boy, what a guy he was. He could beat me at pool, too.”
When it comes to his family, he lights up even more. He smiles as he tells the story of seeing his wife, Anne, for the first time.
In the late 1930s, he was walking around downtown Greenville one night with some Greenies teammates. They passed a drug store where four young women were inside, sitting in a booth and drinking soda. One of them, of course, caught Caligiuri’s eye.
“Boy, she was a good-looking gal,” he said. “I told those guys, ‘Hey, there’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ Hell, I didn’t know what I was saying. Turned out, it was. I married that girl.”
Fred and Anne lived in Rimersburg, Pa., through retirement. When Anne began to have serious health issues and Fred broke his hip, their only child, Fred Jr. — now 70 — helped move them to Charlotte, just five minutes from his real estate office.
Anne died on Oct. 11, 2014, at the age of 91. Ask Fred what the greatest part of his life has been so far, and he won’t mention baseball or anything else. Being married to Anne for 72 years has always been at the top.
Fred Jr. visits his father daily at Summit Place of Southpark. Most of their conversations revolve around baseball. Fred has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan since he was a kid; he keeps up with them and the rest of the MLB consistently.
When Caligiuri’s 100th birthday comes on Oct. 22, the celebration will be simple: a nice dinner, cake, a few presents. His son jokes that a gene study should be done on the Caligiuri family. All four of Fred’s sisters, as well as their father, have lived to at least 95. Two of his sisters are still alive, at 101 and 97.
“His vital signs are better than mine,” Fred Jr. says with a laugh.
Caligiuri does take a little pride in his spot atop the list. But it’s not in his nature to dwell on it. He’d rather talk about the great venison his mother would cook, or how Fred Jr. won that 100-yard dash in high school on his first try, or the people he met along the way.
“Right now, I’m the oldest baseball player in the world,” he said. “You know, it’s quite a feat. If you think about everybody playing baseball today, and me, I’m the oldest.
“But when I go, there’ll be some more old folks. So that and a cup of coffee will just about do it.”
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