Mike Sandlock: Oldest Living Pirates Player

With the help of a friend of mine named Al Simeone, Pirates Prospects was fortunate enough to get an interview(and some pictures) with a Pirates legend. Mike Sandlock played for the 1953 Pirates, his last season in the majors. His professional career began back in 1938 for the Huntington Bees of the Mountain State League, a league that hasn’t been in operation for 70 years now. He spent fourteen years in the minors, played parts of five seasons in the majors and now at 96 years old(if you ask his age, he has been 69 years old for quite some time now), he is still living in his hometown of Greenwich, CT, and he is the oldest living former Pittsburgh Pirates player.

Mike Sandlock in 1953 with the Pirates

In this two part story, we will go over memories he has of his playing days, the teams he was with, the players he knew then and the ones he still knows now. Mr Sandlock is still active at his age and his memories of those days is still sharp. He plays golf at least once a week, although he said the hills now are rough on his knees and he plays his five or six holes then goes home. He has scrapbooks from every team he played with that were put together by his wife and as you will see in the pictures, he has what he calls, his “wall of memories” with photos and some items from his playing days.

I want to thank Al for taking a list of questions to Mr Sandlock and recording his answers so we could share the story here. We started off by asking about his memorable moments with the Pirates and it might surprise you that the first one that came to his mind was a hit he didn’t get. Talking about a game against the New York Giants, with Monte Irvin in right field ” I thought I hit it solid to right field. I thought I was gonna get to run around the bases, so he scrambled and made a very, very nice catch out there.”

You might get a hint of the type of players Sandlock was by his answer to the question about his first game in a Pirates uniform. On that April 15th day, he was playing against his former team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He went 3-3 that day, threw out Jim Gilliam trying to steal second base and he picked Pee Wee Reese off of third base to kill a Dodgers first inning rally. When asked about it all he said was “I don’t remember the game, you just go out there and play the ball game and try to win.” It’s possible he didn’t remember the game because the Pirates lost 4-2 that day.

Mike had first played in the majors in 1942 with the Boston Braves. He made his major league debut as a September call-up, getting into his first game on September 19th as a shortstop. He came in late in the game and collected his first big league hit, a single off of Giants reliever Bill McGee. If he had come in a couple innings sooner, Sandlock would’ve faced Hall of Famer Carl Hubell that day. Other names of note that day were the Braves starting catcher Ernie Lombardi, as well as Johnny Mize at first base for the Giants, both Hall of Fame players. Another Hall of Famer that played that day in right field for Boston, is a name familiar to most Pirates fans, Paul Waner, one of the greatest players in team history. When asked about that big league debut, Sandlock became very modest of his skills ” I was surprised I made it to the majors as a shortstop. I was a catcher but after two years there(shortstop) I made the majors.”

While in the minors for the Braves he once caught Warren Spahn and didn’t hesitate to name him first when asked about great players during his time in Boston. Mike said “He was a great pitcher who had a great move to first base. I caught him in the Three-I League(Illinois-Indiana-Iowa) but then I became an infielder.”  He had high praise for Lombardi and also Tommy Holmes, a slugging lefty outfielder who had some big years in the 1940’s for the Braves. Sandlock said of his times there “I ran into some great ballplayers there, Ernie Lombardi was there, Tommy Holmes was there, easy man to get along with, always talking to you.”

Mike Sandlock today, standing proudly in front of his "wall of memories"

In 1943 Mike spent the season touring with the USO, going to the islands and putting on a show for the troops. He applied for reinstatement into organized ball in March of 1944 and returned to the majors with the Braves shortly there after. Sandlock was still an infielder at this time and playing sparingly. From mid-May until mid-August he got into just thirty games and came to the plate only 37 times. On August 12, 1944, the Braves traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for minor league second baseman Frank Drews. For Sandlock, it was back to the minors, while Drew made his debut and played everyday for the Braves. He was given the chance that Mike wasn’t but it wouldn’t be long until he was putting in time with Brooklyn, and soon he was back at his regular position.

Mike got to room with veteran outfielder Dixie Walker while in Brooklyn, the 1944 NL batting champ with a .357 average and in 1945, Walker would lead the NL in RBI’s. His manager while with Brooklyn was Leo Durocher and their catcher was all-star Mickey Owen. Sandlock was a shortstop early in the season, Pee Wee Reese was still a year away from returning from military service. When Owen joined the service in May, the Dodgers were forced to use their backup catchers, but it wasn’t until July that they moved Sandlock back behind the plate and gave him regular playing time.

That 1945 season would end up being his best season in the majors. He played a career high 80 games, hitting .282 with 17 RBI’s in 195 at-bats. The funny thing is, that 1945 season almost never happened. Mike enlisted to go into the service and he wasn’t admitted in, an injury kept him out so he had to ask permission from the draft board to attend Spring Training with the Dodgers in Bear Mountain, New York. After a short wait, he was permitted to rejoin the team.

His 1946 season would be his last in the majors for awhile, seven seasons to be exact. He lasted with the Dodgers until July before he was sent to St Paul of the American Association. Despite the fact he barely played and hit just .147 in 19 games, Sandlock has a funny story about that year. The Dodgers had a young hard-throwing pitcher named Rex Barney at this time. He threw hard but it was anyone’s guess where the ball would go once it left his hands. Long after their retirement, Sandlock kidded Barney about how wild he was and Barney came back with “The reason the Dodgers got rid of you was because you couldn’t catch me.” Mike said that he couldn’t catch him because he never threw anything close to the plate. Yogi Berra once asked Mike what Barney threw, knowing he was his catcher for one season and Mike said ” I don’t know because I was never able to catch anything from him. I’ll let you know when I do.”

During his time in the Dodgers minor league system, Sandlock was able to meet some pretty famous baseball players. In 1947 he was the backup catcher for a young Roy Campanella, while playing for the Montreal Royals of the International League. He also met Jackie Robinson, which led the another meeting later in life and the two men shared another passion that day.  On a chance meeting with Jackie “We were retired and I happened to run into Jackie, we got together(for golf). He was a good golfer, he was an athlete from the day he was born, he was good at any sport he played.” As you will see throughout the talk with Mr Sandlock, he always had a love for golf and many of his stories came back to that subject.

With his time in Brooklyn done, although not knowing it at the time, Mike embarked on a career in the minor leagues that brought him to Hollywood, California for four years and many great memories. Prior to going to Hollywood in 1949 though, he had a run-in with a star and didn’t even know it at the time. Flipping through his scrapbook he points out Chuck Connors, a baseball player in the Dodgers system and his teammate with Montreal during the 1948 season. Connors didn’t go far in baseball but his acting career went far, highlighted by the lead role in the TV series The Rifleman.

Part two can be found here.

 

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