Obituary: Don Demeter (1935-2021)

RIP to Don Demeter, who slugged more than 20 home runs in a season on four different occasions in his 11-year career. He died on November 29 at his home in Oklahoma City at the age of 86. Demeter played for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1956, 1958-61), Philadelphia Phillies (1961-63), Detroit Tigers (1964-66), Boston Red Sox (1966-67) and Cleveland Indians (1967).

Donald Lee Demeter was born in Oklahoma City on June 25, 1935. By his own admission, he was “pretty bad” as a youngster. His parents divorced when he was 12, and left to his own devices, he frequently skipped school to steal beer cans off the back of trucks or spend his lunch money on tobacco to roll his own cigarettes. He was sent to live with his grandparents in Oklahoma City and eventually moved in with a classmate’s family, who introduced him to Christianity. It changed the direction of his life. Along with being a regular attendee at his Sunday school, he became a top hitter on Bill Mosier’s Tires of Oklahoma City team, which won the Nebraska-Oklahoma American Legion Junior Invitational Tournament in 1952. He was a part of the Capitol Hill High School baseball team that won 60 straight games and two state titles between 1952 and 1954. One of those titles came in Demeter’s senior year of 1953. When he graduated in the spring, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and was assigned to their Shawnee Hawks team of the Class-D Sooner State League. The Dodgers were impressed by his power and his outfield defense, but he struck out 91 times in his first 62 games, so improving his contact became a priority.

Source: Fort Worth Star & Telegram, July 19, 1956.

Gradually, that strikeout total began to decline. Demeter led the California League with 147 strikeouts in 1954 while with the Bakersfield Indians. He also batted .267 and homered 26 times, on the positive side. The following year, he lowered his whiff total to 116 while playing at the Class-A and Double-A levels. He fanned an even 100 times for the Fort Worth Cats of the Double-A Texas League in 1956, but if anybody complained about it, they were really missing the forest for the trees. He hit .287 and slugged .574 for the Cats, with 22 doubles and 41 home runs. He drove in 128 runs, scored 115 times and was named to the Texas League All-Star team.

By September, Dodgers manager Walt Alston had received glowing reports about Demeter from Fort Worth manager Clay Bryant, scouts Andy High, John Corriden and Tommy Holmes and Dodgers vice president Fresco Thompson. So Demeter was promoted to the majors and made his debut against St. Louis on September 18, 1956. He was sent to pinch-hit against Cardinals southpaw Vinegar Bend Mizell and took a strike three looking — he later said he was too scared to swing. The very next day, with the Dodgers in the process of destroying the Cardinals 17-2, Demeter was part of an eighth-inning double switch that replaced pitcher Don Newcombe and center fielder Duke Snider with Demeter and reliever Don Bessent. Demeter led off the bottom of the eighth and crushed a home run to deep left field off Don Liddle. It was his only hit among the 3 at-bats he had for the Dodgers that year, but it left an impression. When he came into the clubhouse after the Cardinals game, someone had written on a chalkboard, “Demeter… only 59 behind Ruth.”

There was some significance to that home run for the Brooklyn franchise. When Demeter hit it, he was playing center field in place of Snider — on Snider’s 30th birthday. Demeter was nine years younger, and the day certainly felt like a passing of a torch. As columnist Lorin McMullen wrote, “At the end of the inning Don picked up his glove and trotted out to play center field. It may not be permanent for another season. But it’s a good bet that Demeter will be there until they raze Ebbets Field.”

Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, and McMullen got a couple things wrong. Demeter was playing in center field at the time, but he hadn’t supplanted the great Duke Snider. Secondly, he was doing it in Los Angeles, because the Dodgers had left New York for the West Coast after the 1957 season. Demeter spent all of 1957 and most of 1958 with the Saint Paul Saints of the American Association. Even with the tremendous power he showed, the Dodgers still wanted him to cut down on his strikeouts. By the time Demeter saw the majors again, he did it in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.

Source: The Terre Haute Tribune, March 9, 1957.

Demeter played briefly for the Dodgers in 1958 and was sent back to the minors when the rosters went down to 25 men. The Dodgers brought him back to the majors, for good, in August. Both Snider and Carl Furillo were banged up, and Demeter saw regular playing time in the outfield. But he struggled — badly — and didn’t really heat up until the final two weeks of the season. He had 4 of his 5 home runs between September 14 and Sept. 27. The one on the 14th was a 2-run shot in the seventh inning that gave the team a 5-3 win over Milwaukee. His hot finish gave him a .189 batting average on the season.

At least for a year, Demeter did push Snider out of center field. He started 81 games in center field in 1959 and played in 139 games overall. His slash line in his first full major-league season was .256/.294/.437, with 18 homers and 70 RBIs. The free-swinging hadn’t gone away, as he fanned 87 times and took just 16 walks. But with Snider’s knees becoming chronic problems, things looked bright for Demeter. He played every game of the 1959 World Series against the Chicago White Sox, managing 3 hits in 12 at-bats with 2 runs scored. The Dodgers won the Series in six games, making him a world champ.

Demeter, however, was a little upset about his salary. He was still a rookie and only entitled to whatever the Dodgers felt like giving him. When he went back to Oklahoma City, he ran into folks from the oil business who were doing considerably better financially. When asked what he would tell students at Capitol Hill High School if some young player asked about pursuing a baseball career, he said, “I’ll tell them that it’s foolish unless they can get a good bonus to sign; at least $10-$15,000. That’s the only thing that compensates for the waste of time on the way up.” When asked what kind of bonus he got, Demeter replied, “Eight hundred. And I wasn’t worth $800 at the time.” (Fresco Thompson later admitted that they signed Demeter only to sign two of his high school buddies, neither of whom panned out.)

Demeter would have much more successful days in the majors, but they wouldn’t be in Los Angeles. He broke his wrist after colliding with Pirates shortstop Maury Wills on July 3, essentially ending his season. At the time, he was batting .274 with 9 home runs in 64 games. Rookies Tommy Davis and Frank Howard took up the slack, and Demeter went from Duke Snider’s successor to trade bait. He was dealt to the Phillies on May 4, 1961, with infielder Charley Smith for pitcher Turk Farrell and infielder Joe Koppe.

The Phillies were awful in 1961, so Demeter had a chance to play — and he played everywhere. He started games at all three outfield positions as well as first base. He hit .257 for the Phillies with 21 homers. Three of them came against the Dodgers on September 12, as the last-place Phillies pounded L.A. 19-10 and all but killed their pennant hopes. The first home run was a 2-run shot off the great Sandy Koufax. It was part of a hitting spree that saw Demeter homer five times in four games with 14 RBIs.

Demeter had his finest seasons with the Phillies. In 1962, he set career highs in many offensive categories, including batting average (.307), on-base percentage (.359), slugging percentage (.520), home runs (29), RBIs (107) and walks (41). He hit two grand slams, including one that beat the Mets 8-7 on August 30. It was part of a stretch where virtually every Phillies win was due to a clutch Don Demeter hit. A day after his grand slam, he hit a triple off the glove of center fielder Bill Virdon to give Philadelphia a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in 11 innings. He was recognized by baseball writers for his excellent season with a 12th-place finish in the MVP vote.

All of those 1962 heroics, it should be noted, came with him playing third base for the first time in his major-league career. Demeter spent plenty of time in the outfield as well, but the Phils made the most of his versatility. He was a below-average third baseman, with a .937 fielding percentage, but he didn’t embarrass himself. In 1963, Demeter got into a career-high 154 games, but he never had a set position. He played 26 games at first base, 44 at third, 40 in left field and 82 in center, plus a handful of pinch-hitting and pinch-running appearances. His production slipped to a .258 batting average, 22 homers and 83 RBIs, but he still outperformed many of the Phillies regulars.

During the offseason, Demeter acted as a Sunday school teacher and made use of his celebrity in a positive way. Early in his career, he acknowledged that he didn’t like baseball all that much, because he wasn’t sure how the sport fit his convictions. He learned to see the value of it, though. “Being a big leaguer makes you important. I don’t feel that way, mind you, but most people do — and it makes the kids in my Sunday school class look up to me,” he said back in 1960. “It’s easier now to get across what I try to teach them.”

Demeter’s religious beliefs set him apart from some of his teammates. He didn’t smoke or drink, and he spent his money on collecting old bibles instead of sports cars. Wally Moon, a Dodgers teammate, said that it took some time for players to know what to make of him. “When he’d come back in the dugout after striking out he wouldn’t show any emotion. After a while they realized he wanted to do as much as anyone, but he showed it differently,” Moon said.

Demeter and pitcher Jack Hamilton were traded from the Phillies to the Detroit Tigers on December 5, 1963, in exchange for pitcher Jim Bunning and catcher Gus Triandos. Rumors in Philadelphia hinted that the Phillies were cutting ties with him because Demeter was going to retire to join the ministry. “This may have been true five or six years ago, but not anymore,” he assured Detroit fans. “I intend to keep playing ball until they won’t have me anymore or don’t need me.”

The Tigers also took advantage of Demeter’s ability to play all over the field, but they primarily kept him in center field. Detroit had a surplus of good outfielders, and he was part of a mix that included Al Kaline, Gates Brown, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Bill Bruton (who played his final season in 1964). When he did play in the outfield, he was as reliable as they came. In fact, he didn’t commit an error in the outfield from September 1, 1962, through July 9, 1965 — a major-league record streak of 266 games, and 449 chances, without an error. It stood until Darren Lewis of the San Francisco Giants broke the record in 1993.

At the plate, Demeter’s 1964 season was very similar to his 1963 campaign with the Phillies — a .256 average, 22 homers, 80 RBIs in ’64. He improved his slash line in 1965 to .278/.325/.463 in 1965, but he failed to reach 20 home runs for the first time since 1960, thanks to a wrist injury that cost him a month of playing time. He homered 16 times and had 58 RBIs. Seven of them came in one game against Kansas City, on August 12, establishing a Tigers single-game RBI record thanks to a grand slam, a single and a triple.

Demeter’s time with the Tigers ended after 32 games in 1966. He was batting .212 with 5 homers when he and a player to be named later (Julio Navarro) were sent to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Earl Wilson and outfielder Joe Christopher. Demeter spent about a full season in Boston and batted .290 in 93 games. On June 4, 1967, Boston traded him and first baseman Tony Horton to Cleveland for pitcher Gary Bell. Demeter managed a lowly .207 batting average in 51 games. His contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers on September 1 as an extra bat for the stretch run. However, a medical exam for chest pains determined that his arterial circulation was impaired, canceling the deal. Demeter said at the time that the condition would clear up within a few months and that he’d be ready for spring training in 1968. In the meantime, he would spend the offseason in the real estate business in Oklahoma. “I’ll have to make my living with my head for a change,” he joked. However, after a short stay in the training camp in 1968, Demeter elected to retire from baseball to focus on his family.

Source: Detroit Free Press, September 1, 1967.

In 11 seasons in the majors, Demeter had a slash line of .265/.307/.459. He had 912 hits that included 147 doubles, 17 triples and 163 hone runs. He drove in 563 runs and scored 467 times. He had a career .990 fielding percentage in the outfield, including a .989 mark in center field. He also played 764-2/3 innings in left field and never once committed an error. Thanks to his stellar defense, Baseball Reference credits him with 12.8 Wins Above Replacement in his career. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

Demeter owned and operated Spartan Pools, a pool construction company in Oklahoma City, for 30 years. It was a family business that he ran with his sons, Todd and Russ. Todd, a former New York Yankees second-round draft pick, died of cancer in 1996. Russ Demeter still operates Spartan Pools. Demeter is also survived by his wife of 64 years, Betty, and daughter Jill, along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Demeter was a part of the Oklahoma City 89ers executive team for a time and led chapel services for the team for years. Demeter’s faith, a constant throughout his youth and playing career, remained at the forefront of his life after his playing career. He participated in Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings and other religious events. From 2002 until his retirement in 2018, he was the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

“I thought if I played five years, I’d be pleased with that,” Demeter said in a 1999 interview. “And I played 11. I happened to be in the right place at right time, I guess…I was thankful for that era, and I still keep up with baseball. It’s opened a lot of doors. But I know where I’m supposed to be.”

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