March 5 – Happy Birthday Elmer Valo
I believe it was my dear departed friend Nick Fusella, who first told me about Elmer Valo. We were probably sitting at our favorite bar drinking draft beer and watching a Yankee game during which one outfielder or another crashed into an outfield wall while trying to make a catch. Some other old-timer sitting at the bar shouted out Pete Reiser’s name, the one-time Brooklyn Dodger phee-nom who made crashing into outfield walls an art form in the early forties. That’s probably when my seventy-something-old-at-the-time buddy Nick “educated” me about Valo. The story stuck with me because of the player’s name, “Elmer Valo.” Its one of those monikers that’s almost impossible for a baseball history buff like myself to forget. Valo was born in Czechoslovakia on today’s date in 1921. Six years later, his family migrated to a town in northeastern Pennsylvania called Palmerton. Elmer got involved in sports and developed into an outstanding high school athlete. He was signed to a minor league contract by the old Philadelphia A’s in 1939 while he was still in high school and only a year later, he played in his first big league game for Philadelphia when he was just ninteen-years-old.
From everything I’ve read about this guy, he was one of the hardest working players in baseball during his era. He didn’t have a lot of natural ability but he could run really fast and had a never-quit work ethic. After returning from military service in 1945, Valo became a fixture in the A’s outfield for the next decade. In the first six of those years, he topped the .300 average mark four times and with efficient applications of his great speed and hustle, became a great defensive outfielder. Unfortunately, he was a star player for one of baseball’s worst teams so pretty much the only people paying attention to Valo’s all-around game was the A’s rather tiny fan base.
The Philadelphia sports pages from back in Valo’s playing days were loaded with written accounts of the outfielder’s great catches and his frequent jarring outfield wall collisions. During one game against the Yankees in 1948, he made three home-run saving catches and on the final one, he knocked himself unconscious when he jumped into the stands managing to hold onto the ball anyway. Simply put, he did not know how to stop trying to make a catch. He’d be running at top speed, knowing he was inches away from hitting immovable brick barriers and just keep on running or leaping toward the baseball he happened to be pursuing at the moment. After colliding with one to many walls, Valo’s baseball skills began declining. After averaging close to .300 during the first half of his big league career, he became a struggling, oft-injured part-time player during the second-half. His last great season was 1954, when the A’s relocated to Kansas City. Valo was healthy enough to appear in 112 games that season and hit .364. By the following May, however the A’s had released him and he returned to Philly to play with the Phillies. He would then play for eight different teams during the next eight seasons including the Yankees for a short eight-game stretch in 1960.
Another Yankee who celebrates his birthday on March 5th is this former relief pitcher.