RIP to Eddie Basinski, who was the second-oldest living ballplayer and one of the last surviving members of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He died on January 8 in Gladstone, Ore., at the age of 99. He had lived in a care facility there for the last seven years after being diagnosed with dementia. Basinski played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1944-45) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1947).
Edwin Frank Basinski was born in Buffalo on November 4, 1922. A lot of ballplayers come up through high school and college baseball fields. Basinski’s baseball career came up through the sandlots and orchestra halls of New York. In other words, when Basinski made his major-league debut at Crosley Field in Cincinnati on May 20, 1944, he had never set foot on anything remotely resembling a professional ballfield. Let’s back it up a bit, though.
Parents Walter and Sophie Basinski had, per the 1940 census, seven children. They lived in a heavily Polish-American neighborhood, and Walter worked as a machinist. Edwin was the second-oldest child and middle son — the Basinskis had three sons and then four daughters in succession. His mother was a talented pianist, and Eddie inherited a love for music. He started taking lessons on his grandfather’s violin when he was six years old and trained for 16 years, playing as much as 6 hours a day. He became so talented that he was later the first chair for the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra from 1944-46 — in the offseasons only, of course.
Music wasn’t his only talent; Basinski became a very good baseball player. He had to, actually. “I grew up in a tough Polish neighborhood in Buffalo,” he said in a 1954 interview. “On my street, you either played baseball — or else. So I played.”
While playing baseball saved him from a beating in his Buffalo neighborhood, it earned him one at home whenever he ditched his violin in favor of the local sandlots. Walter Basinski wanted his son to have money, and he had been told that his son had the talent to be a full-time violinist. The 1947 article in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph kind of laughs off the story — if only the father knew how much money a baseball player could make, and all is forgiven now! But if there is truth to the story, then Basinski faced more risks to play baseball than the usual pulled hamstrings and sore arms.
When he reached high school, Basinski tried out for the baseball team. The coach told him to stick with music or take up tennis. “I really did make the track team and had a record of ten seconds for the 100-yard dash,” Basinski later recalled. His baseball career got a jump-start from Johnny Mokan, a Buffalo native who played for the Pirates and Phillies in the 1920s. He saw the neighborhood kids play ball and thought there was something special in Basinski, so he helped him find a spot with the Niagara Falls team of the Canadian-American League, a semipro league. During this time, Basinski, still passionate about music, began doing a little writing. Nothing much — just a symphony.
“It is a very big job, but I feel sure I will be able to finish it,” Basinski said in that 1947 interview. “As you probably know, when you have finished writing the melody for each of the instruments you then have to make them all harmonize… My ambition goes beyond writing an ordinary symphony. A fellow might as well try for the big-time stuff when he gets into any game, so I hope to compose one that will carry contrasting melodies, all of which must harmonize in the score. Bach was very good at this, but it is quite difficult and requires a lot of time and study. That is what they call counterpoint.”
He turned down a scholarship at Eastman School of Music in Rochester to study mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo. He wanted to help pay the mortgage on his parents’ new farm, and engineering paid more than music. It turned out that baseball could pay more than engineering, and his play on semipro teams began to attract area scouts.
“I don’t know which I like the best, music or baseball,” he once said. “But I do know that baseball pays better.”
Basinski earned his engineering degree, graduating in 1944. Meanwhile, Mokan wrote to Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, about this “natural” player he had uncovered. Rickey traveled to Buffalo and sat down with the aspiring composer to talk about his baseball pursuits. Basinski was a shortstop, but the 1944 Dodgers had a big hole at second base. They started with Luis Olmo, a converted outfielder. He was a very good hitter, but he played second base very much like a converted outfielder — he had 12 errors in 42 games at second base. Then the Dodgers tried moving Pat Ankenman and Gil English over from third base. Ankenman was fair, but he was a 31-year-old who played in a total of two major-league games prior to 1944. English couldn’t hit .200, was 34 years old and in his final major-league season. Catcher Mickey Owen started 1 game at second base and had a total of 1 putout and no assists. Even 38-year-old manager Leo Durocher tried to play it during spring training before it was deemed a really bad idea.
By May, Rickey and Durocher were ready to take a chance on a thin, violin-playing, 21-year-old college graduate who played semipro ball. He was signed on May 4 and started traveling and working out with the team. At first, the players didn’t take much notice of the wiry, glasses-wearing young man who, in all honesty, didn’t look like a ballplayer. Then he made his first start against the Reds on the 20th. Basinski grounded out to first base against starter Bob Katz in his first professional at-bat. In the fifth inning, he hit a line drive to center field that took a bad bounce and rolled away from Gee Walker. By the time the ball reached the infield, Basinski was standing on third base with a triple for his first major-league hit. He later scored on a single by Frenchy Bordagary. The Dodgers won the game 6-1. Basinski had the one hit and grounded into a double play. He also had 2 putouts and 7 assists in the game and was the middle man in a 6-4-3 double play.
Basinski stuck around, with Durocher’s blessing. And he hit the ball very well over his first few weeks. He had a 6-game hitting streak between May 27 and May 30 (there were a couple of doubleheaders included), and by the end of May, he was hitting .342 with a couple of doubles, 5 runs driven and 5 runs scored. “I can not figure it out, but perhaps it was because I appeared light… the pitchers all kept throwing me fastballs and I kept making hits,” Basinski said. Then pitchers started throwing him a curveball. Basinski blamed Paul Derringer, then pitching for the Cubs, as the one who discovered his weakness, but Basinski actually managed an RBI single off Derringer the first time they faced each other. Whichever pitcher was involved, Basinski’s batting average started to drop, and the Dodgers sent him to the Triple-A Montreal Royals for a couple of months. But Basinski’s first season was pretty decent, considering his inexperience. He batted .257 with 13 runs scored and walked 6 times for a .310 on-base percentage. His .960 fielding percentage was a little under league average, but he held his own at second base.
“My biggest thrill was the feeling of playing ground balls in such beautiful parks,” he said. “I wondered how a fellow missed one, after those sandlot hops.”
By 1945, Eddie Stanky had at least temporarily filled the hole at second base for Brooklyn, and Basinski spent most of the season at shortstop, his natural position. Though his arm impressed many who saw him, he committed 34 errors at the position for a .926 fielding percentage. He remained a pretty good hitter, even racking up an 18-game hitting streak in June that bumped his batting average above .300. He slumped a little in the fall to finish with a .262 mark for the season, with 30 runs scored and 33 runs driven in.
The return of Pee Wee Reese from military service in 1946 marked the end of Basinski’s time in the Dodgers’ infield. His time in spring training that season wasn’t inconsequential. Philadelphia manager (and future villain in the Jackie Robinson story) Ben Chapman was accused of tampering when he allegedly talked with Basinski about try to join his team. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler came to Daytona Beach to speak to Basinski about it before ultimately clearing Chapman. The infielder was sent to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association and batted .252, with 17 doubles, 5 triples and 5 home runs. He was named as a second baseman in the AA All-Star Game.
The Dodgers traded Basinski to Pittsburgh in December of 1946 for pitcher Al Gerheauser. The Pirates started the season with veteran Billy Herman at second base, but that experiment lasted all of two games. Herman, 37, was pretty much at the end of his career, so Basinski stepped in. He hit his first major-league home run on April 23, and it was a 2-run homer off Cardinals reliever Ken Burkhart that scored Wally Westlake from second and gave the Bucs a 7-5 lead. He later drove in another run with a squeeze bunt, scoring Hank Greenburg from third base and making the final score 8-5. He also came back to haunt his old Dodgers team in May when he handled 14 chances at second base without an error. By July 4, though, his batting average had fallen to .199, and Pittsburgh sent him to the minor leagues. He would not return to the majors.
In parts of three seasons, Basinski played in 203 games and had a .244/292/.319 slash line. He had 147 hits that included 19 doubles, 7 triples and 4 homers — all 4 with the Pirates in his last season. He drove in 59 runs and scored 58 times.
While Basinski’s major-league career was over at the age of 24, he was just getting started in baseball. After a stop in Newark after being demoted by Pittsburgh, he ended up with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. He found a home in Portland and stayed there as their everyday second baseman for most of the next decade. And “everyday” is not hyperbole. The PCL had unusually long seasons, and he never took a day off. He played in all 202 games on Portland’s schedule in 1950 while hitting .240 with 39 doubles and 15 home runs. By the time that the team honored him with an “Eddie Basinski Night” on June 24, 1952, the second baseman had played in 524 straight games. He was presented with a series of gifts, from frozen salmon to a brand-new golf cart. A broken toe would end the streak at 557 games.
It almost didn’t work out that way. Basinski’s rights were held by Newark after the 1947 season, and the team traded him to Kansas City of the American Association. The infielder flatly refused to report to the Blues, and his career was able to continue only when the Beavers purchased his contract in April of 1948. He reportedly loved Portland so much that he refused a chance to return to the majors with Pittsburgh. The longer he stayed in Portland, the more he grew into his power. His 15 homers in 1950 were a career best until he hit 16 round-trippers the very next season. While he was used as a No. 8 hitter for most of his time in the majors, he started driving in 70+ runs a season with the Beavers, and he scored 109 times in 1951. Though never a .300 hitter with the team — the best he ever hit was .277 in 1948 — he was a valuable presence. He remained the team’s starting second baseman for more than 7 years — an unheard-of accomplishment in the minor leagues. He moved to a backup infielder role in 1955 when Portland acquired former Negro Leagues star Artie Wilson. After a final season as a starter in 1956, Portland unceremoniously sold his contract to the Seattle Rainiers at the start of 1957. He finished his playing career with two seasons in Seattle — he batted .301 for them in 1958 — and one in Vancouver.
Basinski played for 15 years in the minor leagues, the vast majority of which was in the PCL. He had 1,629 minor-league hits, including 106 home runs, and a .258 batting average. He was inducted into the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 2006. He also was a member of the 1945 National League All-Star Team — in 1965. The original game was canceled due to wartime travel restrictions without rosters ever being formally announced, and Baltimore decided to hold the game 20 years later, using stars from that season. Basinski was part of an NL roster that included Derringer, Phil Masi, Bob Elliott, Tommy Holmes and Bill “Swish” Nicholson. The NL won 1-0 on a couple of wild pitches by AL pitcher Hal Newhouser. Basinski singled in the second (and final) inning off Steve Gromek and tried to extend it into a double. He was tagged out by AL shortstop Mark Christman — who had an extra ball in his hip pocket, just in case. As you could tell from that play, the game was played for laughs.
Basinski remained in Portland after his playing career, and he was very much a local celebrity. He worked as an account manager for Consolidated Freightways for 31 years, according to his obituary in The Oregonian. He was also a popular banquet speaker, known for his storytelling. Basinski was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame in 1987 and was name-checked in David Frishberg’s famous song, “Van Lingle Mungo.” He was the last surviving player among the 33 players whose names made up the lyrics.
For those wondering: How did Eddie Basinski play baseball for so long without injuring his fingers or knuckles, thereby hurting his violinist career? “I never worry about my hands in baseball,” he said in 1947. “I always try to have them in such a position that my fingers can’t be hurt regardless of how the ball bounds or the throw comes in. I’ve practiced this so long I do it unconsciously.”
Basinski is survived by two sons.
For more information: The Oregonian