Grave Story: Cliff Dapper (1920-2011)

Here lies Cliff Dapper, who had a sensational career with the Dodgers — but that career lasted just 8 games. The long-time minor-league catcher and manager was also once traded for a future Hall of Famer, but you’d probably never guess which Hall of Famer unless you already know the story. Dapper’s brief career came with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942.

Clifford Roland Dapper was born in Los Angeles on January 2, 1920. His father, Mike Dapper, came from Austria and worked in L.A. as a moulder for a manufacturer of building materials. His mother, Caroline, was a New Jersey native. Cliff Dapper had a sister, Henrietta, who was a year younger than him.

Dapper started making a name for himself with the Leonard Wood Post baseball team in Los Angeles. They won the state’s American Legion junior baseball championship in 1936, knocking off a Stockton team 19-4 in the second game of a doubleheader. Dapper had 6 hits in the two games, including two doubles in the deciding game. The California team then defeated Tucson to take the California-Arizona championship and traveled across the country to face Spartanburg in a “Little World Series.” The Spartans won the title in what was the biggest sporting event held in South Carolina at the time. A crowd of more than 20,000 people showed up for the championship game.

Source: Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1939.

Dapper and many of his Legion teammates also played for Washington High School in Los Angeles. They were one of the best baseball teams in the city, and Dapper was one of its best players. He was named to the All-Los Angeles First Team in his senior year of 1938, the year Washington won the city championship. He was signed by the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, and the team assigned the 18-year-old catcher to Bellingham of the Western International League. He was one of two teenagers on the club, with the other being Italian pitcher Rugger Aridizoia. Dapper batted .217 in 46 games, but he did contribute some postseason heroics. It was the teenagers who pushed Bellingham into the finals, as Aridizoia threw a 3-hitter against Yakima and Dapper erased a 2-0 deficit with his 3-run blast in the deciding game of the semifinals. After the season, Dapper returned to Los Angeles to finish his high school education – he was still a half semester shy of graduating when he turned professional.

See Cliff Dapper at Baseball Almanac

Dapper developed so quickly that the Stars kept him on their roster in 1939, even though he was much younger than the rest of his teammates. Manager Red Killefer used him as a backup to veteran catcher Bill Brenzel, but the kid still batted .316 in 88 games. He was good behind the plate and showed a lot of plate discipline, uncommon for a teenager. By the end of the season, he was one of the top prospects of the PCL, and teams were calling Hollywood to inquire about his availability. He was frequently compared to Yankees catching great Bill Dickey.

“The kid does everything well, and I am not the only one who is predicting he will be one of the coming great catchers of baseball,” said Hollywood business manager Oscar Reichow, in between evaluating offers for his services.

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2011.

While it was a common practice for minor-league teams to sell off players to the big-league clubs as soon as a good offer comes, the Hollywood Stars held onto Dapper for three seasons. He filled out to around 200 pounds and 6-feet-2 inches, which earned him the descriptor of “husky” in newspaper reports for years to come. He would just as frequently be referred to as “handsome,” and occasionally “grouchy.” He broke his thumb early in the 1940 season and batted a disappointing .249 with 2 homers. Dapper got back on track in 1941 and took over the starting catching duties. He hit a solid .277 with 26 doubles and 8 home runs. He scored 76 times and drove in 63 runs. That September, Brooklyn matched the high price tag that the Stars had set for Dapper (reportedly $50,000), and the young catcher became a Dodger. Before he left Hollywood, though, he played a small part in the Lou Gehrig bio “Pride of the Yankees.” He played a Cardinals shortstop in the movie.

The Dodgers probably had no intention of bringing Dapper to the majors as early as they did in ‘42. Mickey Owen was their starting catcher, even though his costly dropped third strike in the previous year’s World Series helped doom the Dodgers to a defeat against the Yankees. Herman Franks was set to be Owen’s backup until he was drafted by the U.S. Army. Dodger boss Larry MacPhail quickly signed Billy Sullivan, but Dapper’s performance in spring training was just too good to ignore. He made the Opening Day roster as the third-string catcher. He had all the characteristics that manager Leo Durocher liked in a ballplayer – he took orders and treated everybody but the umpires nicely.

“I tell him something and he just nods his head or says ‘Yeah.’ Quietest guy off the field I ever saw. The other players have been framing up, trying to make him talk, but no go,” said Durocher. “But you should hear him give those umpires hell. I believe he’d jump right down [Bill] Klem’s throat. Great kid, good hitter, can throw and receive. All the pepper in the world. You bet I’m going to use him. He’s ready.”

The 22-year-old Dapper debuted on April 19 as a replacement for Sullivan against the Phillies. In his second major-league at-bat, he hit an RBI single off Phillies pitcher Paul Masterson to pad the lead in a 6-2 Brooklyn win. The very next day, he again pinch-hit for Sullivan, this time against Boston ace Warren Spahn with the bases loaded. He singled in two runs in a 9-2 win and later drew a walk off Spahn. Dapper finally had a chance to start a game on April 26 in the first game of a doubleheader against Philadelphia and homered in his first at-bat off Ike Pearson. He added an RBI single to finish the day 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs in a 3-1 win.

Source: Daily News, April 27, 1942.

Owen, perhaps still in Durocher’s doghouse over the 1941 World Series loss, didn’t see much playing time in the first few weeks of the season, and Sullivan and Dapper played very well. He eventually worked his way back into the starting lineup, and Dapper’s playtime dropped. He started back-to-back games on May 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh and was 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs in each of them. Finally, in the second game of a doubleheader on May 3, Dapper went hitless against St. Louis. It was the only game of his MLB career that Dapper didn’t get a hit when he had a plate appearance. (He had appeared as a defensive replacement a couple of times and did not bat in those games.)

In those days, teams started the season with a larger roster and had to cut them down by early May. Dapper was an unfortunate victim of the roster crunch. With Owen and Sullivan as a good tandem, Dapper was sent to the Montreal Royals, where he finished the season with a low .224 batting average. Dapper’s time in the major leagues consisted of 8 games and 8 hits in 17 at-bats for a .471/.525/.706 slash line. He had a double and home run with 9 RBIs. He was also perfect behind the plate, with a 1.000 fielding percentage over 42 innings. He threw out one of two runners trying to steal.

Though Dapper’s 1942 season ended with a poor showing in the minors, his play with Brooklyn should have earned him another chance with the Dodgers or another team. Before he could capitalize upon his success, he was drafted into the military, where he spent the next three years. He spent 1942 catching for the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station baseball team, which included future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon – though he was still a third baseman in the Cleveland organization at the time.

Dapper was discharged from the Navy in November of 1945, and the Dodger fans were thrilled, because the draft had been particularly hard on their catching ranks. Dapper, now 26 years old and no longer the next Bill Dickey, needed to get back into facing real competition, and he struggled with the Triple-A St. Paul Saints in 1946. He hit a little better at the Double-A Mobile Bears and spent all of 1947 with them. He drove in a career-best 105 runs and hit .291, with 32 doubles and 9 homers. The managers of the Southern League voted him as the league’s Most Valuable Player, ahead of Al Flair and Gil Coan, who finished as the Top Three. Dapper was rewarded for his MVP season with a return to Triple-A Montreal. He slashed .239/.366/.349 in 112 games and had the distinction of catching Don Newcombe in his debut with the Montreal Royals that year.

Here’s where Dapper’s story takes an unusual turn, as he was traded to the Atlanta Crackers… for Ernie Harwell. Harwell was a rising broadcaster in 1948 and was calling games on the radio for the Crackers. The Brooklyn Dodgers had a sudden need for a replacement announcer after Red Barber fell ill with ulcers. Dodgers boss Branch Rickey had heard of Harwell and asked to hire him away from the Crackers. Crackers owner Earl Mann agreed, but he wanted a little something in return – Cliff Dapper. The Dodgers agreed to send Dapper to the Crackers in 1949 in exchange for getting Harwell to finish off the ’48 season. Harwell spent the next 55 years in a broadcast booth, mainly with the Detroit Tigers. He was honored with the Ford C. Frick Award in 1981 in recognition of his play-by-play career, and he may be the only broadcaster in baseball history to be traded for a ballplayer.

Dapper, along with his wife Stanna and daughter Cristin. He’s holding his contract with the Hollywood Stars, which is signed on the day Cristin was born. Source: The Whittier News, June 21, 1950.

The Crackers, meanwhile, named Dapper as their manager for the 1949 season. He was the youngest manager in the Southern Association at the age of 29, and he had one of the youngest teams in the league.

“I realize I face a difficult task starting out as manager in the Southern, but I’m going to give it all I’ve got,” he said. As a catcher, Dapper batted .281 with 6 home runs and struck out just 26 times in 115 games. As manager, he led the team to a 71-82 record, but Dapper knew his days were numbered after the first day of the job. The Crackers jumped out to an 11-0 lead – and lost 12-11. “I don’t think the front office or the fans ever quite got over it,” he later said. After the season, his contract was sold to the Hollywood Stars, pausing his managerial career for a couple of years.

“I learned a lot more about baseball in that one season of managing than in all my previous years put together,” Dapper said of his managing experience. “But I still don’t see how managers sleep nights or stave off nervous breakdowns. [Stars manager Fred] Haney doesn’t have to worry about me making suggestions or second-guessing him. He can have that end of it. I’ll just catch.”

Dapper’s return to the Stars after an eight-year absence didn’t go as well as he would have liked. Used as a backup to veteran Mike Sandlock, he hit .245 in 1950 and then .219 in ’51. That July, he left the Stars to act as the payer-manager of the Eugene Larks of the Class-D Far West League. The team didn’t fare well under any of their three managers, finishing with a 51-70 record. The veteran Dapper feasted on inexperienced pitching, batting almost .400. Following the season, he was named as player-manager of the Billings Mustangs, of the Class-C Pioneer League.

In his three years with Billings, Dapper hit over or close to .300, including career highs with a .346 batting average and 19 home runs in 1952. The Mustangs also finished well above .500 each season, though they never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. They did it without a wealth of future big-league talent, too. Nineteen-year-old Dick Stuart from the 1952 squad was one of the few Mustangs to reach the big leagues. Dapper was named the Pioneer League’s Manager of the Year in 1954. He was a fiery manager, and sometimes that intensity exploded into fights with the opposing ballclub. But Billings loved the Mustangs, and the team drew more than 100,000 fans per season during Dapper’s tenure. When the Mustangs held a Cliff Dapper Night, he was presented with a pickup truck, a tractor and a substantial cash gift.

Dapper left the Mustangs in 1955 to become the first-ever manager of the Eugene Emeralds of the newly formed Northwest League. He hit .300 for the team and led the Emeralds to the first Northwest League championship, too. After finishing the regular season with a 79-45 record, Eugene mowed down the Salem Senators in six games to win the inaugural title. Dapper had intended to retire as an active player after the season, but he was pressed into duty in 1956 as a backup catcher for Eugene. The sore-legged 36-year-old hit .167, and the Emeralds played as poorly, finishing sixth in a seven-team league. He was released at the end of the season.

Dapper, center, poses with a couple of his unidentified players after the Eugene Emeralds won the first Northwest League championship in 1955. Source: The Capitol Journal, September 13, 1955.

Dapper returned to his home in Fallbrook, Calif., where he and his wife, Stanna, had four children. He ran an avocado business there with Dodgers great Duke Snider. The two had been roommates with the Montreal Royals and became lifelong friends. Dapper’s last go-round in baseball was as player-manager for the Salt Lake Bees, a Phillies affiliate in the Pioneer League, in 1957. He succeeded Frank Lucchesi, who was reassigned to High Point-Thomasville of the Carolina League. Dapper batted .189 in his final season as a player and had a 61-64 in his final year as a manager.

After leaving professional baseball, Dapper returned in 1958 to his avocado orchard in California. They planted 4,700 avocado and lemon trees on the 60-acre orchard. “Duke worked like a Trojan, too, and took off 15 pounds,” Dapper noted. Of course, 1958 was also the year that Snider’s power began to ebb – which was probably a coincidence.

Dapper held numerous jobs in Southern California. He worked at a golf course and helped run a bowling alley that Snider owned. But the avocado business took up much of his time. Though Snider and Dapper’s partnership in the farm ended, Dapper became highly successful and was elected president of the Avocado Growers Council in the late 1960s. The two ballplayers remained friends, and Snider was godfather to one of Dapper’s sons, named Duker.

Dapper was left with many memories of his time in baseball, and he had a particular fondness for his stint in Billings. “I thought that was the greatest baseball town that I’d ever played in,” he said in a 1998 interview in the Billings Gazette. As for his major-league career, he described it as, “I made one swing around the National League and then had to go into the service.”

Dapper’s name lived on in the newspapers for decades, whenever a story was written about Ernie Harwell’s career. However, the two never met until September 15, 2002, when Harwell was honored in Detroit’s Comerica Park on Ernie Harwell Day. The announcer was at the end of his legendary career, and the story of that infamous trade was mentioned during an hour-long celebration. Dapper then took to the stage and presented Harwell with a videotape of tributes from around the baseball world. The two had been kept separate all day to make it a surprise for Harwell.

“It was the biggest thrill I have ever had in baseball,” Dapper told the North County Times when he returned to California. “I still feel honored that I was traded for a great radio announcer. I’m just some rinky-dink.

“He said to me, ‘I really appreciate you coming back here, Cliff.’ He is such a gracious man,” Dapper said of Harwell.

Cliff Dapper died in his sleep on February 8, 2011, at an assisted care facility in Fallbrook. He was 91 years old. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif.

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball

2 thoughts on “Grave Story: Cliff Dapper (1920-2011)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s