Obituary: Billy DeMars (1925-2020)

RIP to Billy DeMars, who was one of the last surviving members of two defunct teams and a former big-league coach for nearly two decades. He died on December 10 at the age of 95 in Clearwater, Fla. DeMars played for the Philadelphia Athletics (1948) and St. Louis Browns (1950-51). After a few years of managing in the minors, he coached in the majors from 1969 until 1987.

William Lester DeMars was born in Brooklyn on August 26, 1925. His father was a fireman for more than 40 years, with most of that time spent on a Brooklyn fireboat. His brother Robert was a captain in the Army who won a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and the Croix de Guerre in World War II.

In his youth, DeMars was a pretty excellent basketball player and made headlines for his abilities in that sport. After graduating from New Utrecht High School, though, he chose to follow a baseball path, as a shortstop. He attempted to get a basketball scholarship at St. Johns, but when that met with no success, he tried out for the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers instead. He signed with the Dodgers in 1943, when he was 17 years old. His signing bonus was a pair of spikes. “They gave me the shoes because I didn’t have any of my own,” he said years later. “They signed Ralph Branca the same day, and all he got was a glove.”

He started with the Class-D Olean Oilers of the Pony League but moved up to the Class-B Lancaster White Roses after just a few weeks of pro ball. DeMars was supposed to go to the Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League, but the business manager of the Roses called the Dodgers front office and snatched him away from the Bulls, because they were in desperate need of infield help. His strong arm was impressive, and his hitting came around to a .270 batting average by the time the Roses’ season was over. His time in Lancaster was short, but he was so popular there that the local papers followed his career for years afterwards.

DeMars was out of baseball for the next two seasons due to military service. He kept in shape by playing on the the Jacksonville Navel Air Station’s basketball team. When DeMars got out of the Navy, he was assigned to the 1946 Nashua Dodgers. It was one of the first racially integrated minor league teams in the country — he had Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe as teammates. Having been away from pro ball for a couple of years, DeMars was rusty and hit just .237. The team, however, won the New England League championship over Lynn, thanks to some clutch hits from Campanella. DeMars set a league record in the championship-clinching game by recording 12 putouts as a shortstop. It was an otherwise pretty painful series for DeMars — literally. He hurt his ankle making a diving stop and fouled a bunt attempt off his own face. He was knocked for a loop but stayed in the game. He was then hit by the very next pitch, which was one of two HBPs he had in the series.

There wasn’t a trace of rust on DeMars in 1957, when he hit .329 with 5 homers with the Asheville Tourists of the Tri-State League. Not only did he finish ninth in the league in hitting, but he also set career highs for hits (140) and RBIs (88). The season was enough to give the shortstop a shot in the major leagues, though it wouldn’t be with the Dodgers. The Philadelphia Athletics acquired his contract in the November minor-league draft, and DeMars made his major league debut in 1948.

Connie Mack praised the youngster in spring training, but that didn’t guarantee that he would play at all. The A’s were an 84-70 team that finished in fourth place in the AL, and one of the more productive hitters was shortstop Eddie Joost. As a consequence, DeMars got into a whopping 18 games, with 5 singles and 5 walks in 35 plate appearances for a .172 batting average and .294 on-base percentage. He played a little at second and third base and started 5 games at shortstop. His first major-league hit came on July 4, 1948. As the Boston Red Sox were destroying the A’s 19-5, DeMars was brought into the game as a replacement for Joost and singled off Boston pitcher Ellis Kinder.

DeMars was sent to AAA Buffalo in 1949. One report stated that the A’s were giving DeMars some more experience in order to replace Joost. The 23-year-old batted .278 with 6 homers and improved his fielding at shortstop. That December, he was part of a deal that sent him to the St. Louis Browns along with third baseman Frank Gustine, outfielders Ray Coleman and Rocco Ippolitto and $100,000 for third baseman Bob Dillinger and outfielder Paul Lehner.

DeMars was one of the top hitters in the Grapefruit League in 1950, batting well over .400. He was just happy to not have to spend another season sitting on the bench and watching Eddie Joost play shortstop. “I got in just 18 games, 16 relieving Joost when the cause was lost and one each at second and third base. That hurt far more than it helped,” he said. He admitted that he knew he wasn’t ready to play every day, though. “Now, though, I believe I’m strong enough at bat to get by, especially because I’ve been improving steadily.”

DeMars went 0-for-4 with a walk in the Browns Opening Day loss to the White Sox before missing some time with a bruised hand. After he had 3 singles and an RBI against Detroit on April 26, he started to get more playing time at shortstop. By the end of May, DeMars was batting .240, which wasn’t a great mark. However, considering the overall weakness of the Browns infield (with the exception of powerful first baseman Don Lenhardt), that probably would have been enough to keep him in the starting lineup had he not torn ligaments in his ankle while sliding into third base.

The Browns had a trainer, Bob Bauman, who seemed to have a wealth of “new age” remedies for 1950s injuries. For “traumatic arthritis that sometimes accompanies sprains,” Bauman had an electrical device that administered a treatment called iontophoresis. It is, according to Wikipedia, the “process of transdermal drug delivery by use of a voltage gradient on the skin.” Basically, the device uses electricity to shock medicine into your skin. Today, it seems to be a popular treatment for excessive sweating. I have no idea how well it works on torn ligaments, but DeMars was out of action for two months. While he was getting shocked back to health, rookie Tom Upton filled in at shortstop.

DeMars returned to the field in August and split time with Upton until the end of the season. He ended 1950 with a .247/.330/.287 slash line in 61 games. He had 13 RBIs and scored 25 runs. His fielding at shortstop didn’t quite live up to the hype, as he had a .933 fielding percentage that was a good bit below the league average. He failed to make the Browns out of spring training in 1951 and spent pretty much the whole season with the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League. He rejoined the Browns at the end of the season and went 1-for-4 with a walk on September 28, 1951. That was his last game in the majors.

DeMars played in parts of three seasons and had a slash line of .237/.326/.270 in 80 games. He had 50 hits, including 5 doubles and 1 triple. He had 14 RBIs and 29 runs scored, and he walked 28 times against just 16 strikeouts.

Though his time in the majors was over, DeMars’ minor-league career was just getting started. He was released to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1952 and stayed there for the next four seasons. He was a very good hitter there, with batting averages mostly in the .280s or higher. An elbow injury scuttled what looked to be his best season ever in 1954, as he was hitting over .340 when he was hurt. He still finished the season at .299.

By 1956, DeMars was 30 years old and had become more of a utility infielder. He was sold to Buffalo for ’56 and then spent a few years on the West Coast, first with Portland for 1957-58 and then Vancouver in 1958. In May of 1958, DeMars moved all the way down to the Aberdeen Pheasants, a Class-C team that was part of the Baltimore Orioles’ organization. He had good reason, though. He was hired as a player/manager. The team finished in last place, and DeMars made himself a utility infielder/outfielder because of the lack of offense. The pitching staff had a couple of future big-leaguers in Steve Barber and Bo Belinsky, as well as wild-armed phenom Steve Dalkowski in his second professional season. Dalkowski was on several of DeMars’ teams, and the manager did everything he could to instill confidence in the flamethrower, but he never could get his fastball under control.

DeMars managed in the Orioles’ system through 1968, managing in Stockton, Leesburg, Aberdeen, Appleton, Fox City, Miami, Elmira and Rochester. He developed a reputation as a disciplinarian, but his role as a stern but caring father figure had a good effect on his young ballplayers, many of whom were on their own for the first time in their lives. “I get all the problem children,” he once said.

Source: The Gazette (Montreal, QC), April 13, 1982.

DeMars was given a chance to return to the majors in 1969 — this time as a coach on the Philadelphia Phillies. Manager Bob Skinner chose him to be his bench coach. “I like to operate with someone of DeMars’ all-around baseball intelligence right-handy,” Skinner said. “Billy gives me another pair of eyes, to watch for things like maybe moving an infielder or an outfielder.”

DeMars stayed with the Phillies until 1981, working as a first base coach, third base coach and hitting coach along the way. He once gave a tip to Deron Johnson to go to right field with the outside pitches. Johnson promptly homered three times in a win over the Expos. He spent weeks working with Larry Bowa on every facet of his game, futning him from one of the easiest outs in baseball to a competitive hitter. Pretty much all of the great Phillies hitters of the era, including Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Greg Luzinski and Pete Rose, paid close attention to DeMars’ instruction. From his position at third base, he could give them a visual cue if he ever saw they were slipping into a bad habit with their swing, and they could correct it immediately.

“I could spend a whole day, a week, talking about the ways Billy helped me,” said Schmidt.

DeMars also hurt the Phillies, and the rest of the National League teams, too. While managing in Puerto Rico in the winter in the 1972-73 season, he had a terrible pitcher named Steve Rogers on the team. DeMars could have easily asked the team owner to send him home. Instead, DeMars talked the owner into keeping Rogers on the Caguas. That was when Rogers developed a slider, started winning some ballgames and turned into a future All-Star for the Expos.

DeMars was a candidate for the Kansas City Royals’ manager’s job in 1980. The job eventually went to Jim Frey, who had been an Orioles coach and thus was more familiar with the American League than DeMars. Ironically, Frey and DeMars, who were good friends, met in the 1980 World Series, with DeMars coming out ahead as the Phillies won in six games.

DeMars and the Phillies parted ways after the 1981 season, and he moved to the Montreal Expos to serve as a third base and hitting coach from 1982 to 1984. He found success with a new group of talented hitters who listened to his advice, including Gary Carter and Tim Wallach. He then finished his coaching career with the Cincinnati Reds from 1985 until 1987. He was hired to be a part of Pete Rose’s coaching staff with the Reds, and the two had a special relationship that went back to the Phillies. When Rose got his 4,000th hit as a member of the Expos, he gave the ball to DeMars.

“He’s my man,” Rose said. “I know that he has helped me more than anybody knows. There have been times when I’ve gotten down and Billy has helped me back up.”

DeMars’ biggest project with the Reds might have been Eric Davis, who had all the talent in the world but wasn’t willing to listen. It took a demotion to the minor leagues to get him to come to DeMars one spring training day and say, “Help me.”

“I never give up on a player. Never,” DeMars said. “If I get discouraged, the player senses it and quits on himself.

“Paul Richards once said, ‘Tell a guy what you want 1,000 times. Then tell him 1,001 because that might be the time that it sinks in,” he added.

DeMars resigned at the end of the 1987 season, due to a rift with Reds owner Marge Schott. DeMars was among the best-paid coaches in baseball, and it was apparently too much for the penny-pinching owner. Just a couple of months later, DeMars retired from baseball altogether when doctors removed a cancerous tumor behind his left ear. He returned back to his home in Pennsylvania before eventually moving to Florida.

“I’ve decided to enjoy the rest of my life,” he said about his decision to leave baseball. “I gave up 7-1/2 months of every year to baseball. Now it’s time to devote that time to myself.” He still visited the Phillies spring training site in Clearwater, Fla., to work with young Phillies hitters from time to time.

DeMars and his wife, Catherine, were married for 70 years until her death in 2017. They met during World War II, where they both served in the Navy. At the time of her death, she was the oldest female WWII Navy veteran at the age of 93. They had two children, William and Judith.

For more information: Hubbell Funeral Home
Philadelphia Inquirer

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