STARDUST MEMORIES : 31 Years After Failing to Stick With the Dodgers, Ralph Mauriello Is Still Pitching--and Pondering What Might Have Been
Like Bob Uecker, who has raised self-deprecation to an art, former Dodger right-hander Ralph Mauriello of West Hills enjoys poking fun at his major league career, which spanned 12 innings at the tail end of the 1958 season. Displayed beneath a glass top on his homemade bar are a dozen inscribed baseballs, on one of which is scrawled: “First major league win. Dodgers 5, Cubs 1.”
“I guess I should have changed it to only major league win,” Mauriello says, giving a gravelly laugh.
Mauriello, 54, likes to point out that he was around long enough to be victimized by Dodger nemesis Bobby Thomson, who hit a home run off the rookie pitcher. Other highlights, he says, include his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He lasted four batters, giving up three singles and striking out Dick Stuart, which was no big deal, he says, because “everybody struck Stuart out.”
Joking aside, there is a bittersweet side to Mauriello’s baseball career. A $35,000 bonus baby--"reportedly more than Koufax got"--Mauriello is still frustrated by his failure to stick with the big club during eight seasons in professional baseball, blaming his unfulfilled dreams on the Dodgers’ wealth of pitching talent rather than any deficiency of his.
When Mauriello signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in August, 1952, they had what was considered the best staff of pitchers in the National League: Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Johnny Podres, Clem Labine, Billy Loes and a few years later, Koufax and Don Drysdale. Mauriello was caught in a squeeze, not good enough to go north after spring training, too valuable to trade.
In 1956, the Philadelphia Phillies offered star pitcher Robin Roberts to the Dodgers for five minor league players, including Mauriello and future major leaguers Don Demeter and Jim Gentile, but, as a newspaper headline announced, “Bums turn down deal for Roberts.” In 1957, Mauriello says, the Cincinnati Reds offered the Dodgers $50,000 for him.
Mauriello often asked the Dodgers to give him the chance to play elsewhere, but “Buzzie Bavasi (then the Dodger general manager) always told me, ‘You’re going to be one of our starting pitchers one day.’ ”
At North Hollywood Park, the 6-foot-3 Mauriello is on the mound for the Outlaws, a team of weekend warriors in the Municipal League. With graying hair and a fastball that’s now slower than a freight train crossing Winnetka Boulevard, he is an easy target for the bench jockeys on the opposing team.
“They call me Old Man,” Mauriello says. “As in, ‘Hey, Old Man, get that junk over the plate.’ ”
But Mauriello doesn’t get mad, he gets nostalgic. “When I was a kid and played in the Municipal League on those same diamonds, I used to say the same things to older players,” he says.
That was nearly 40 years ago, when Mauriello was a blossoming teen-age pitching star whose “crowning achievement back then was losing, 1-0, in 12 innings to the Glendale Police Department.”
Mauriello’s dissatisfaction with the direction of his baseball career is a direct result of the promise with which it began. At 15, he was good enough to beat men in the Municipal League. In high school, he won his first 23 games for North Hollywood. When he was a senior, Rod Dedeaux offered him a baseball scholarship to USC.
“The major league scouting report on me,” Mauriello says, “read ‘above average curve, above average fastball.’ ”
In the summer of 1952, Mauriello was among several graduating high school seniors picked to play on a national all-star prep team against a squad from New York City. He started, pitched two innings and gave up only a single. Both the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers invited him to workouts.
Although Mauriello had offers to sign with other major league teams, he picked the Dodgers for sentimental reasons: He was born in Brooklyn, moving to North Hollywood with his parents when he was 14. Looking back, he regrets not having enough business sense to realize that his best chance of reaching the majors was with almost any organization but the Dodgers.
“I was 22-8 for Mobile in 1955, but I was only sent to St. Paul,” he says. “If I had been owned by a pitching-poor team like Cleveland, I would have been called up. But I just was not dispassionate enough when I signed with the Dodgers to know what a mistake I was making.”
Dividing time between double-A and triple-A teams, Mauriello won about 85 games in the minors and lost about 60. After his brief visit to the big time in 1958--the Dodgers’ first year in Los Angeles--Mauriello, then only 24, reasoned that he had his best chance to make the big-league team the following season. His expectations grew when he didn’t allow an earned run in 13 innings in spring training. But the Dodgers sent him to Victoria in the Texas League.
“I went into Buzzie’s office and he showed me a list with the names of 11 pitchers,” Mauriello says. “They were going to keep 10. At the bottom of the list it said ‘Erskine or Mauriello.’ They kept Erskine.”
Mauriello theorizes that the Dodgers really wanted to keep a young pitcher named Gene Snyder because he was a left-hander. But midway through the ’59 season, when Snyder turned out to be a bust, Mauriello called Bavasi from Texas and suggested that the Dodgers needed someone who wasn’t merely taking up space on the bench. Bavasi agreed and demoted Snyder, but--surprise--instead of promoting Mauriello, he called up a hitter named Chuck Essegian.
“The next year I introduced myself to Essegian as ‘the guy who got you in the major leagues,’ ” Mauriello says.
That turn of events was the final blow, crushing Mauriello’s resolve and his will to continue enduring the life style of a minor leaguer. After spending a season with the Dodgers’ Montreal farm team in 1960, he quit baseball. “To have a spring training like I had in ’59 and not make the team, and for them to keep Snyder, I just didn’t understand,” he says.
Bavasi, now retired and living in La Jolla, points out that the Dodgers had 27 minor league teams in the ‘50s. “Don Zimmer hit over .345 at spring training three years in a row and didn’t get called up,” Bavasi says. “We had so many players. It was a numbers game.”
Bavasi also thinks that Mauriello quit too soon and may have been “too bright for the game.”
“He had great ability, the same kind of ability as Ralph Branca,” Bavasi says, “but I don’t think his heart and mind were in baseball.”
By 1960, Mauriello was supporting a wife and the first of three daughters. In his best years in baseball, he made about $10,000 a season. A lot of the $35,000 bonus had gone for a house for his parents, a new barbershop in North Hollywood for his father and a new Oldsmobile he kept for himself. But Mauriello wasn’t caught short. Always goal-oriented, he had planned for the day when he would retire from baseball.
“When I was a kid living in Brooklyn, Dolph Camilli was my hero,” Mauriello says. “One day, right after World War II, when Camilli was about 31 or 32, I remember my dad saying, ‘He’s getting pretty old. He’s got to retire soon.’ I wanted to be a pro, too, so that stuck with me. I knew I had to have another career.”
An A student at North Hollywood with an aptitude for math and science, Mauriello attended USC when he wasn’t playing baseball, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1961. Four years later, he received a master’s degree in computer design from UCLA. Within a few years of quitting baseball, he was making as much money at a Van Nuys computer company as a good player made in the majors.
Today, Mauriello, self-employed, designs computer systems in a converted upstairs bedroom in his two-story home. Downstairs, June, his wife of 30 years, sews on a machine in the pool room and watches baseball--college and pro--on cable. They lead a comfortable life, one that would not have been better monetarily even if Mauriello had pitched a few years in the majors. In those days, with good players getting perhaps $25,000 a year, money was not an incentive to play.
“You played for the love of the game,” says Mauriello, who nevertheless admits that he would have stayed in baseball longer had players been getting the million-dollar salaries of today.
As he gets older, Mauriello appreciates his status as a “former major leaguer,” but he also realizes what might have been if the timing was different and he had established himself in the majors. As it is, he has little if any remaining clout with the Dodgers. They won’t let him in the clubhouse after games and he’s been unable to buy “good season tickets.” But he still has his memories--and stories that have grown more anecdotal over the years.
“I was at spring training about 1955 or ’56,” he says, “and Walter O’Malley comes over to me and steers the conversation to Los Angeles. He wants to know if it’s a sports-minded city, if the people like baseball or football. It didn’t register with me at the time, but he was doing an informal poll.
“I told him L. A. was very football-minded. With USC, UCLA and the Rams, football was king. I guess if he had listened to me, he wouldn’t have moved the team here.”
Mauriello still plays baseball for love, not money. “Having never lost the curve,” he pitches “irregularly” in the Municipal League. Denis Robinson, a lawyer who runs the Outlaws, even has Mauriello throw batting practice because “he does what few pitchers do in this league,” Robinson says. “He gets the ball over the plate.”
Mauriello used to be wild in his pro career, averaging about four walks a game, but he became more accurate later in life. In the mid-80s, the Outlaws won the Valley Municipal League championship and during a stretch of 36 innings Mauriello walked only one batter. He ran into Bavasi a short time afterward and mentioned his new-found control.
“Buzzie told me, ‘I think you learned too late,’ ” Mauriello says.