The Emperor of Right Field: Carl Furillo
A Golden Era
In the 1950s, baseball was king. No other professional sport came close to America’s pastime and New York City was its capital. With three pennant contenders between both leagues, the Big Apple was the center of the baseball universe. The New York Yankees, New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers captured headlines on and off the field. In a city with nine major newspapers, including six dailies, the coverage was extensive. The franchises produced 25 Hall of Famers in this era: players, managers, coaches, executives and owners.
The teams spanned three boroughs: the Yankees in the South Bronx, the Giants at the northern tip of Manhattan (across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium) and the Dodgers along Bedford Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. All were a subway ride away.
But in a city with legends like DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Snider and Jackie Robinson, some guys still got overlooked.
One of those forgotten legends was a gritty, WWII veteran named Carl Furillo, the starting right fielder for the Dodgers. Known as the “Reading Rifle” and “SkoonJ,” (in reference to the Italian dish, scungilli), he was a fan favorite in Brooklyn, especially with the Italian-American community. Fighting injuries for much of the time, including having cataract surgery at age 30, he managed to be a 2-time All Star, the 1953 National League Batting Champion (.344) and was part of seven World Series teams, earning a ring twice. He ended up with a career .299 batting average after 15 seasons. Teammates were in awe of his throwing arm and his ability to play the carom off Ebbet Field’s short right field porch.
A Rocky Path
Born the son of Italian immigrants in the Reading suburb of Stony Creek Mills, PA, in 1922, Furillo had a hardscrabble upbringing. The youngest of six, he left school after the 8th grade to pick fruit and work in a mill. It was the depression and he had to help out his family. But his brother encouraged him to keep playing baseball. It was the ticket to a better life.
He started playing for a local recreation league and quickly made a name for himself. His obvious skills led him to be signed by a local businessman who ran two teams in an independent league; one in Reading and one in Maryland. This was not as uncommon a path to the Major Leagues as one might think. The farm system of today was only just taking hold in the 1930s and not many kids could go to college. Independent leagues were a vital source of players. Furillo made the most of his opportunity. After a stint in Maryland, he was promoted to Reading, where he earned his nickname, the Reading Rifle.
The teams were bought by the Brooklyn Dodgers (along with a team bus) in 1941. Furillo was now their property. He was brought up to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ principal farm team. His dream was now within reach. But it had to be put on hold. The 1942 season would be Furillo’s last for quite some time. In November of that year, he was drafted into the Army and would spend 2 years in the Pacific theatre, seeing combat on Guam, The Philippines and Okinawa. Many prominent minor leaguers, like their Major League brethren, got to play on service teams; but not Furillo. Imagine losing three years of prime playing time in your early twenties. That’s what happened to a lot of guys.
Upon his discharge, Carl picked up right where he left off. Returning to Montreal for the 1946 Spring Training, the Dodgers liked what they saw. After a few weeks, it was decided to bring him up to the big leagues for the 1946 regular season. Making the most of his opportunity, he eventually played in over 100 games his rookie year of 1946. Fiery manager Leo Durocher, liked what he saw and in a bit of foresight, played three rookies in the outfield for a time that season.
Furillo's career would parallel tremendous changes, not just in Major League Baseball, but the entire country. Being a single-minded and plain-spoken guy would not be easy as these events swirled around him.
The Polo Grounds
Postwar Brooklyn, like the Dodgers themselves, was a microcosm of America. It was still a tough place with a melting pot of ethnicities. The intimate setting of Ebbets Field personified that culture. Blue collar Italians, Irish and Jews lived in the tenements around the park. Fights in the stands were common and foul language was used in unique ways. The fans were packed in tight and very close to the field. Verbally abusing the visiting team became a contest between fans. Right and left fields were the roughest. The home team was not exempt. Umpires and players were victims of violent attacks too. In 1940, an umpire was beaten up by a fan after a tough extra inning loss, which was blamed on a supposed bad call. Brooklyn’s growing African American community began to buy tickets as well; hoping and waiting patiently. As white flight began in the 1950s, they would start to move into many of those former "white" tenements.
Times Were Changing
The Melting Pot
The Dodgers of this era remain legends for their on field exploits, but their impact went beyond the world of sports. Affectionately known as Dem Bums in Brooklyn parlance, they were the heart and soul of the Borough, whose population numbered nearly 2.7 million. As the first major league team of the 20th century to add an African American to the roster in Jackie Robinson, the organization’s place in American history has been secured. It also put the entire team under the microscope. Writers were always watching to see how the personal relationships were going between teammates.
The benefit of ridding the Major Leagues of segregation was immeasurable. One of the reasons for their decades of success both in Brooklyn and later in Los Angeles, was the addition of so many African Americans and Latinos well into the 1970s: Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam, Joe Black, Sandy Amoros (Cuba), Johnny Roseboro and Willie Davis.
Others on the roster included Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and one of the most famous Jewish athletes of all time, Sandy Koufax. A young Don Drysdale would spend his first year with the Dodgers in Brooklyn. It was a cross section of America. Ethnic whites mixed with white southerners. Catholics, Jews and Baptists all became part of the stew. The sons of coal miners hung out with the sons of tobacco farmers.
The Real Lords of Flatbush
The Bards of Baseball
Being a Dodger meant dealing with the spotlight that shone not just on the field of play, but in the locker room as well. Professional locker rooms are powder kegs just waiting for something to set them alight. It's been that way for almost a 100 years.
In the 1950s, the sports press began to transition, becoming more socially conscious and in many ways, injecting themselves into causes. Muckraking had arrived among the sports press. The brave fight of Furillo’s teammate Jackie Robinson gave them that opportunity. There was also the creeping influence of celebrity culture; a unique facet of American society. Many wanted to become the Walter Winchell of sports reporting.
The poorly educated Furillo had a love-hate relationship with the press, which got worse through the decade; a classic case of the verbally-challenged kid from the other side of the tracks versus the hyper-verbal, sophisticated urbanite gate-keepers. It would be a source of much bitterness later in Furillo's life.
Winds of Change - 1947
The signing of Jackie Robinson by GM Branch Rickey in 1946 to play for the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal was a stunning development. It was a foregone conclusion that Robinson would be brought up to the Major Leagues very shortly. As is commonly known today, not everyone was on board with the idea, particularly those from the South (with the notable exception of Pee Wee Reese). Right fielder Dixie Walker, an Alabama native, was one of Robinson’s chief opponents.
Rumors began to swirl that Walker and some unnamed teammates were circulating a petition to oppose Robinson’s arrival. Walker did draft a document prior to the 1947 season, but it was more a letter to team management stating he could no longer play for the organization. He wasn’t the only Southerner to make that request, but the most notable. No reason was stated in the letter. This was magnified by some writers as a “petition” and unfortunately, Furillo’s name got associated with the spurious rumor. Walker was traded in 1948 to the Pirates, leading to Furillo’s permanent insertion into the lineup.
Ted Reed, author of Carl Furillo: A Biography, also mentioned an incident during Spring Training in 1947, that added to many of the misrepresentations by the New York press corps. The team was in Panama and talk about the so-called “petition” was everywhere. Furillo was being questioned by reporters when he was asked: “Carl, what would you do if someone tried to take your livelihood?” This was a paraphrasing of many of the southerners’ complaints about black ballplayers (“No N-Word is going to take my livelihood.”). The subtlety was lost on Furillo, who just figured it was a typical question with no reference to Jackie. Questions about competition were common in Spring Training. Reed states that the answer went like this: “I’d cut his legs off.” To him, it was the right answer that any major leaguer worth his salt would give. But in true New York fashion, it got blown out of proportion. No one had a direct quote nor was the interview taped. Regardless, Furillo was now lumped in with the racist coalition on the team.
Despite the swirl of accusations, 1947 was a great year for Furillo professionally. Ricky, with the Commissioner’s blessing, fired Leo Duroucher for bunch of reasons, among them gambling. Furillo’s relationship with Duroucher was rocky at best; his platoon system made the young outfielder sit against right-handed pitching. So the change quelled his anger and being inserted into the lineup everyday made him a better player.
The elderly Burt Shotten, a retired major leaguer and friend of Branch Rickey, was hired. Shotten was a fatherly figure, who did not pressure his players. They responded, making the World Series for the first time since 1941. Furillo hit .295 in just under 437 plate appearances. He hit only 8 homers, and he was fine with that effort. The Dodgers wanted him to become a home run hitter and change his stance; he resisted and they let him be. Most importantly to him, he had a fielding percentage of .977 with 9 assists playing all three positions in the outfield. Through all the furor and publicity that was 1947, he had established himself as a Dodger favorite. He got married too. A year later the couple had their first child.
The Game Goes On
Furillo managed to put the controversy behind him and have a great career. Beside his 1953 batting title, he hit over .300 five times. He continued to be a key player throughout the 50s. His legendary defensive prowess grew each year. Along his innate ability to play Ebbets Field’s high right field wall, he had a rocket arm. Many a runner regretted trying to take that extra base. He had 10 or more assists in nine straight seasons; ending his career with a .979 fielding percentage.
Behind the great numbers, there was a lot of physical pain. A broken hand (from a fight with Durocher), torn ligaments, and eye surgery all took their toll. For a man of few words, no one really knew what he was going through day to day just to get out there.
The move to Los Angeles did not affect him immediately. That first year of 1958, he batted .290 in just over 400 at bats. Injuries began to hinder him by spring training of 1959 and continued into the season. Even the warm California sunshine could not heal his wounds. The Dodgers won the World Series again, beating the White Sox 4-2. Furillo only had one hit in the series.
A Different Path
All Glory Is Fleeting
All good things come to an end, and in professional sports, a happy ending is rare. In the days before the implementation of the Designated Hitter, there wasn’t much a player could do once his legs began to slow. Today, a National Leaguer who has lost a step or two can transition over the American League and extend his career. Before the start of the 1960 season, Furillo and the Los Angeles Dodgers were heading to a showdown. Trade rumors were everywhere. Nothing came of them. Already slowed by a torn calf muscle at the start of the season, in May the team released him. It was expected, but still caused much consternation because of the way in which it was done: by wire.
Major league rules stated that a player could not be released who is injured. The Dodgers did it anyway and prepared for legal action. Furillo sued the team; a rare act of defiance at that time. A settlement was reached in the amount of $64,000. Legal fees left him with half of that. The lawsuit caused a backlash. Charges of selfishness were heaped upon him. Stigmas like that didn’t go away in the early 60s. However, Furillo wanted to still be part of the game. He had been an All-Star, a World Champion and started in right field for over a decade. How could he be denied a place in the game? A coaching opportunity was just around the corner, it was just a matter of time.
No offer ever came; not even from former teammates. The Mets seemed like a great place to get back in the game. It was a natural fit. Furillo lived just blocks from Shea Stadium in Flushing for a period in the mid-60s. Mets Manager Wes Westrum, former Giants catcher, approached Furillo at the time about a coaching job. He later told Furillo that the GM said no. Gil Hodges, Brooklyn’s first baseman during the Furillo years, was managing the Mets in the late 60s. The phone never rang. Had he been blacklisted? Draw your own conclusions.
Life Goes On
Furillo and his family moved on with their lives. Furillo’s post-baseball life differs greatly from the players of today. He had a host of careers throughout the 1960s and 70s including installing elevators at the World Trade Center, owning a deli and finally as a security guard. Of course, he continued to farm and hunt. He was also diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-70s, which he fought successfully, although it would recur several times.
Time can heal all wounds, at least emotional ones. After settling back in his hometown of Stony Creek Mills, Carl made some appearances at Old Timers Games and even at the Dodgers’ fantasy camps in Vero Beach. Peter O’Malley, son of the late owner, was the driving force behind Carl becoming involved in the organization once again. When he took over the team in the early 70s, he started reaching out to the guys who played in Brooklyn. He was well aware of the hard feelings engendered in 1960. One day in 1973, he just picked up the phone and invited him to an Old Timer’s Day at Dodger Stadium. O’Malley wanted to bridge the gap between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, making it one legacy. For the most part, his efforts paid off in a renewed look at the Brooklyn teams.
Although the rift was never completely healed, they remained on good terms until Furillo’s death from congestive heart failure in 1989. O’Malley came to the funeral along with many of the old Dodgers such as Joe Black and Johnny Podres. Carl Erskine gave the eulogy. Had he lived into the 1990s, there’s no doubt Carl would have received his just due from both the media and fans.
The image of Furillo making a diving catch and whirling around to gun it home will be forever etched in the memories of Brooklyn’s fans. Sammy Kahn, the man who coined the term, "Emperor of Right Field," wrote an obituary in the New York Times, described him best:
Quite simply, he was a great player. Some write about his arm, the human cannon. He was not the man you'd first ask to join you in a casual game of catch. Or how he played the right-field wall at Ebbets Field. That wall, a mystery of dead spots, bounces, angles and planes, was a wonder of baseball before the dream-destroyers wrecked it. Furillo never attended high school. Plane geometry remained a mystery to him. But he knew every angle, every carom. The way Furillo played the wall describes an art form.
Rest in Peace, Carl.
For many of the Dodgers of that era, tragedy struck during and after their playing careers. Roy Campanella was paralyzed from an auto accident in 1958. Jackie Robinson would die at the age of 53 due to diabetic complications. Jim Gilliam died at the age of 50 due to a brain hemorrhage. Gil Hodges was cut down by a heart attack at the age of 47. Third Baseman Billy Cox would pass at 59 due to cancer. Sandy Amoros struggled financially after baseball, and suffered multiple health problems later in life, finally succumbing in 1992. Dixie Walker, the man who caused so much controversy, lived to regret his actions later in life. He blamed it all on pressure from his hometown business associates in Alabama. He passed away in 1982 at the age of 71.
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