Obituary: Foster Castleman (1931-2020)

RIP to Foster Castleman, an infielder for five seasons in the National League and a part of the 1954 World Champion Giants. He died on November 9 at Freedom Pointe in The Villages, Fla. He was 89 years old. Castleman played for the New York Giants (1954-57) and Baltimore Orioles (1958).

Foster Ephraim Castleman Jr. was born on January 1, 1931, in Nashville, Tenn. According to his SABR biography, his father was a cousin of Clydell “Slick” Castleman, a 15-game winner for the Giants who played in the 1930s. Foster Sr. was himself a sandlot star in Nashville. The family moved to Florida in 1938, and the younger Castleman grew up playing American Legion baseball for a team in Jacksonville. He was the shortstop on the Jacksonville Post No. 9 team that won the state championship in 1947.

Castleman attended Robert E. Lee High School, and the school’s baseball team won the Florida state championship in 1948. Upon his graduation in ’49, he signed a contract with the New York Giants and was assigned to a Class-C team in Fort Smith, Ark. Originally, the team was going to send him to a Class-D team in St. Cloud, but he asked the Giants farm director, Clarence “Bubber” Jonnard, to watch him at a spring training game in Sanford. That day, Castleman had two hits, started two double plays and ranged all over the infield to track down ground balls. That performance was enough to change Jonnard’s mind.

Source: Star Tribune, June 22, 1957.

Castleman’s first season was pretty successful, as he batted .280 and slugged .356. Manager Burl Storie of the Hutchinson team believed he was the Western Association’s top major-league prospect. “He’s a 17-year-old rookie who played junior ball in Jacksonville, Fla., last year, but he’s got baseball sense,” Storie said. “He can run, throw and hit and he’s a hustler. Keep an eye on him.”

Castleman continued to hit with the Knoxville Smokies of the Tri-State League, with a .274 batting average, 29 doubles and 6 home runs. He also demonstrated his cannon of an arm by handily winning a throwing contest, held before a Knoxville-Charlotte game. Apparently throwing from the outfield, two of his throws bounced off the grandstand screen, and one would have cleared the screen entirely except it bounced off a wire that protected the press box. No other player could even reach the screen.

Before he could advance further, he was called off to serve in the Navy during the Korean War and missed the entire 1951 and ’52 seasons. He did win a spot as the second baseman and leadoff hitter on the Navy baseball team in San Diego. One of his teammates was Eddie Mathews, who played third base. He won the 1951 MVP Award at the California State Semi-Pro Baseball Tournament in California while playing for the Navy Training Center team.

Castleman returned to baseball in 1953 but missed most of the season to recover from a knee surgery. When he was well enough to play, he joined the AAA Minneapolis Millers. He appeared in just 20 games, but he hit a scorching .368. The Giants, who liked him as a prospect, nearly put him on the big-league roster at the start of 1954. Instead, he went back to the Millers and batted .317 while awaiting a call to the majors.

That call finally came in August of 1954. Giants second baseman Davey Williams was hitting in the .220s, and Castleman was given the chance to show what he could do. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated his bad knee right before his promotion, so he was relegated to the role of pinch-hitter and bench warmer for most of the season. His first appearance was to pinch-hit against the Cubs on August 4; he promptly grounded into a double play. He got his first MLB hit a few days later, singling off the Braves’ Warren Spahn on August 8. He was given one chance to start a game on August 10 against Pittsburgh. While playing third base, Castleman ran to field a sacrifice bunt, and his left knee buckled out from under him. He was out of action for about 10 days and played sparingly for the rest of the season. He ended up with 3 hits in 12 at-bats with an RBI. Due to the injury, he wasn’t a part of the Giants’ roster that beat the Cleveland Indians in the ’54 World Series.

By 1955, Castleman was 24 years and had had surgery on both of his knees. He was understandably a little hesitant about working them too hard, and that only frustrated Giants manager Leo Durocher.

“If Foster Castleman misses as a major league ballplayer, only Foster Castleman will be to blame,” Leo the Lip said in the spring of 1955. “Foster is a cinch as a major leaguer. But he’s afraid of his knees and it’s going to work against him.”

Castleman was a part of the Giants’ Opening Day roster, but he was still unable to do much more than pinch-hit and make occasional starts. He was sent down to the Millers at the end of May, having appeared in just 15 games with 6 hits in 28 at-bats. He did manage his first two MLB home runs on back-to-back starts against the Cubs on May 4 and 5. When he returned to the Millers, Castleman only played in 43 more games before undergoing another operation to have cartilage removed from his left knee.

Giants farm director Carl Hubbell explained that Castleman spent the offseason with a… creative training regimen. “Castleman is carrying mail in a suburb of Minneapolis to strengthen his knees,” Hubbell said. “Foster tells us that steady walking has convinced him that his knees are now as sound as ever.”

In Castleman’s five-year career, he only had one season where he was able to avoid injuries and spend an entire season in the majors. It came in 1956, when he was healthy enough to appear in 124 games for the Giants as a third baseman. Maybe all that mail delivery did improve his durability. He slashed .226/.256/.392, but he whacked 16 doubles and 14 home runs while driving in 45 runs. He also had a .947 fielding average, a shade below league average.

The Giants’ crop of young starters: Jackie Brandt, Bill White, Foster Castleman and Darryl Spencer. Source: Press & Sun Bulletin, June 29, 1956.

In one of the first games of the season against the Pirates, Castleman hit a pop foul that Pirates’ third baseman Gene Freese dropped. He made Freese pay by smashing the very next pitch for a home run in an eventual 5-4 Giants win. Castleman was the difference in a September 1 sweep of the Dodgers, as he scored the winning run on a Don Mueller single in the first game and then had 3 hits in the second game, driving in 3 runs with a home run and a bases-loaded double.

The ’56 Giants finished 20 games under .500 at 67-87, and Castleman’s contribution was less than the team’s management had hoped. He admitted he was disappointed with his low average and cited the pressure of being one of a host of rookie regulars, including first baseman Bill White, shortstop Darryl Spencer and left fielder Jackie Brandt. “If one young fellow goes up with veterans, they can carry him a while and there’s not so much pressure. But we were trying too hard with the club losing,” he explained. “I’m sure the added year of experience will help.”

The Giants didn’t see it that way. They loaded the club with veteran players, which didn’t help the team in the standings at all. Castleman was reduced to a part-time infielder and pinch-hitter. He came off the bench on April 28 to deliver a home run off the Phillies’ Jim Hearn, but he had just 6 hits in 37 at-bats for a .162 average when he was sent back to Minneapolis in mid-June. It ended up being his swan song with the Giants.

The Baltimore Orioles purchased Castleman’s contract in late March, 1958. By then, he was three years removed from his knee surgeries, and he had shed some weight to reduce further wear and tear.”I’m ready to play regular or as a utility man, whichever capacity will best serve the Orioles,” he said upon joining his new team. “But I went it known that I’ll never quit trying to be a regular. I’m always as my best when I’m playing every day.”

Castleman was among the top Caldwell-Banker agents in Cincinnati. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 19, 1991.

The ’58 Orioles had 21-year-old Brooks Robinson establishing himself at third base, so Castleman wasn’t getting any playing time there. He primarily filled in at shortstop, though he also played a handful of innings at second, third and left field for the only time in his career. He hit .170 in 98 games, hitting 3 home runs and driving in 14. After the season, the Orioles sold his contract to the Miami Marlins of the International League. Castleman hit a solid .313 for them in 1959 but was bothered by leg woes toward the end of the season. He was acquired by the White Sox in 1960 for insurance purposes, but they never brought him to the majors, and Castleman finished his last pro season splitting time between San Diego of the Pacific Coast League and Charleston of the American Association.

In 5 seasons in the major leagues, Castleman slashed .205/.250/.341 in 268 games. He had 136 hits, including 24 doubles, 3 triples and 20 home runs. He had 65 RBIs as well. He also batted .286 across eight seasons in the minor leagues.

Source: Villages News

In his retirement, Castleman worked for Arrow Shirt Co. and Munsingwear, and he was also a real estate agent for Caldwell-Banker in Cincinnati. He said in a post-career interview that he was never a huge fan of baseball and hadn’t been keeping up with the pennant races. Unbeknownst to him, most likely, he gained fame in some baseball circles — not for his statistics, but for his fabulous name. “Foster Castleman” was a perfect name for, depending on who you’d ask, an orthodontist, a polo player or perhaps a junior high English teacher in some New England village. As vintage baseball cards came into vogue, Castleman probably gained more name recognition than he ever had in his playing days.

According to his obituary, Castleman had some struggles in his personal life. After his first marriage ended, he married again, and he and his wife, Thelma, spent much of the last 25 years of his life in Florida. He is also survived by five children.

For more information: Villages News

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