RIP to Fred Caligiuri, who pitched in parts of two seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics. He died on November 30 at the age of 100 years and 39 days. Not only does that make him one of a handful of major-leaguers who lived past the century mark, but he was the oldest living ballplayer. Whenever that particular player dies, it closes the book on another little bit of living baseball history.
First of all, it’s worth noting that, as of July of this year, Caligiuri was giving interviews about his baseball career, which is a pretty remarkable achievement in and of itself. His interview in the Charlotte Observer is a fantastic read. Though his MLB career lasted fewer than 100 innings, he interacted with baseball legends. His manager was Connie Mack. He faced off against Lefty Grove and beat him, though he did lose in a matchup against Early Wynn. He gave up the hits that brought Ted Williams’ 1941 average up to .406 on the season.
Caligiuri was born in West Hickory, Pa. on October 22, 1918. He played baseball in high school, though he was primarily an outfielder. After graduation, he spent six months working in a tannery, but he refused to give up on his baseball dreams just yet. So he went to the Les Mann Baseball School in Miami, Fla. and was converted to a pitcher when he threw a ball from the outfield over the backstop.
He started his pro ball career in 1937 with the Greenville Greenies of the Coastal Plain League. He spent four seasons there, and though he lost 15 games in his first season, he would be a 20-game winner by 1941. He moved to the Wilmington Blue Rocks, went 16-7 with a 1.79 ERA and led the team into the playoffs. That was when Mack and the A’s came calling.
On September 3, 1941, Caligiuri arrived in Washington D.C. and was immediately given the starting assignment against the Senators. It wasn’t a great performance — 8 innings, 11 hits, 7 runs, 4 earned and a no-decision in a 9-8 loss — but Mack saw enough to give the 22-year-old four more starts. He’d complete all four of those games and go 2-2 with a 2.93 ERA for the season.
His last start in Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Red Sox on September 28 was notable for two seasons. One, it was the final game of Lefty Grove’s career. He threw the first inning, gave up 3 runs and was the losing pitcher in a 7-1 A’s win. Second, Ted Williams game into the game with a .404 batting average, having gone 4-for-5 in Game One. He singled and doubled off of Caligiuri in three at-bats, and Williams became the last person ever to hit over .400 in a season.
In 1946, Caligiuri spent his time with the A’s in the bullpen, and he struggled in the role. He went 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA in 13 games, only two of which were starts. Most of the season was spent with the Blue Rocks, and he did win 12 games.
Like so many ballplayers, Caligiuri’s career was interrupted by World War II.
“One day, in the mail, I received two contracts — one from Connie Mack and one from Uncle Sam,” he told the Observer. “And I chose Uncle Sam.”
He was in the Army for three years, serving from the English Channel to the Philippines. When the war was ended and he returned stateside, Caligiuri was now in his age 27 season. He did win 14 games for Wilmington in 1946, but he left baseball after that season. His major-league pitching totals included a 2-5 record, 4.52 ERA, 4 complete games and 1 save. He struck out 27 batters and walked 32 in 79-2/3 innings. His lifetime batting average of .156 may not seem that impressive, but 4 of his 5 career hits were for extra bases — 3 doubles and a triple.
Caligiuri worked for his brother-in-law in Rimersburg, Pa. as the Ford Garage. He eventually bought the business and operated it until his retirement in 1980. Caligiuri and his wife, Anne, were married for 72 years and had a son, Fred Jr. He spent his final years in a retirement community in Charlotte, close to his son. He became the oldest living ballplayer when Chuck Stevens died on May 28, 2018.
“Right now, I’m the oldest baseball player in the world,” Caligiuri said about his recognition. “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.”
Fred Caligiuri was the last player who was in the majors before World War II, or at least the United States’ involvement in it. With his passing, the title of Oldest Living Ballplayer goes to Tom Jordan, a catcher for the White Sox, Indians and Browns. He is, as of December 16, 2018, 99 years and 102 days old. The player with the earliest debut is catcher George Yankowski, who played on August 17, 1942 with the Philadelphia Athletics. Thank you to Baseball Almanac for keeping track of these things.