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.
Francis Joseph O’Doul began his pro baseball career as a southpaw pitcher with the New York Yankees in 1919. He failed to win or lose a game in three partial seasons with New York and then hurt his left arm, pitching for the Red Sox in 1923. He spent the next five years in the minors converting himself into an every day player. He resurfaced with the New York Giants in 1928, hitting .319 as a 31-year old second-time rookie. Unfortunately, O’Doul’s defensive skills in the outfield did not match his hitting prowess and New York traded him to Philadelphia after that season. What a mistake that turned out to be for the Giants. All O’Doul did for the Phillies in 1929 was win the NL batting title with an incredible .398 average and a league-leading 254 hits. He belted 32 home runs, drove in 122 and scored 152 times himself and finished second in that year’s MVP voting to the immortal Rogers Hornsby. O’Doul had another great year in 1930, averaging .383 but the Phillies finished 40 games out of first place. Lefty’s defense was still dreadful however, and the Phillies needed pitching so they dealt O’Doul to Brooklyn for a couple of hurlers, a replacement outfielder and some much needed cash. During O’Douls three years with Brooklyn, he averaged .340 and won his second NL batting title with a .368 average in 1932. During the 33 season, he was traded back to the Giants and got the opportunity to play in the only World Series of his career. By then he was 36-years old and losing his hitting skills. He retired the following year and went back to his native San Francisco to manage the Seals, in the Pacific Coast League.
Lefty died in 1969. He shares a birthday with this other star from the 1920s and ’30s who like O’Doul, was known by his nickname and made brief appearances as a Yankee, early in his career.
I guarantee you that very few Yankee fans have ever heard of Steve Souchok. That’s too bad because the guy was a genuine hero, not on the baseball field but on the battlefield. Souchok’s story begins in a town called Yatesboro, Pennsylvania, in the heart of coal-mining country, where he was born on March 3, 1919. He became a great high school athlete but he couldn’t think about college because with the country in the midst of a depression, his coal-miner Dad became ill and Souchok needed to find a job. He went to Detroit, hoping to work in the auto industry but grew homesick and returned to Yatesboro. He got a tryout with a Washington Senator farm team in nearby Greensberg. They offered him $65 a month to play for the team but within a year, the club went bankrupt and Souchok became the property of the New York Yankees. During the next three seasons he developed rapidly as a ballplayer but America’s entry into WWII changed his career path. He turned in his bat for a gun. Souchok enlisted in the army and was sent to France where he was made part of a tank destroyer battalion. He eventually became commander of his own gun crew. He would take that crew all the way to Germany during the final two years of the War, fighting so valiantly along the way that he was awarded both a silver and a bronze star. If you know any military veterans ask them what it takes to win either of these medals. Better yet, Google these commendations and find out for yourself. It will help you better understand the sort of exceptional soldier Steve Souchok actually was.
By the time the war ended and he got back to baseball, Souchok was already 27-years-old. To accommodate all the ballplayers returning from service to their country, Major League Baseball expanded the big league rosters from 25-to-30 players. Those five extra slots made it possible for Souchok to make his big league debut in pinstripes during the 1946 season and it was a pretty decent opening act for the returning war hero. He appeared in 46 games that season, mostly as a backup first baseman. He got 26 hits in 86 at bats to average .302 and hit his first two big league home runs. The following year, Souchok’s batting average fell 100 points and the well-stocked Yankees gave up on him, trading him to the White Sox. Souchok would spend just one season in the Windy City before returning to Detroit, where he was once a homesick auto worker. He would remain with the Tigers as a utility player for the final five years of his big league career, never earning a starting position during that time. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 83.
This Brooklyn-born Hall-of-Fame, former Yankee outfielder and this former Yankee starting pitcher also celebrate birthdays today.