A Heart of Gold Won More Than Gold Glove Ever Could : Baseball: Ex-Dodger Chuck Essegian’s kindness toward young fan earned him a lifelong friend.
Going back to the Braves and continuing through the Brewers, Mike Pavlovich is about as big a baseball fan as you can find in Milwaukee. But when you walk into Stadium Sports-Stuff, his sports apparel shop near Milwaukee’s County Stadium, he’s likely to be wearing Dodger home whites. No. 29, to be exact.
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, what boy in Milwaukee didn’t love the Braves? Life was simpler, Milwaukee was smaller, autographs were free and ballplayers were more accessible.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 13, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 1990 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 4 Column 2 Sports Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Essegian--Former Dodger Chuck Essegian was not the first man to play in Rose Bowl game and World Series, as was reported in Thursday’s editions. California’s Jackie Jensen played in the 1949 Rose Bowl game against Northwestern and also appeared in the World Series for the New York Yankees in 1950.
You got to the home games early, other kids in school would tell you, and you could actually meet the Braves as they walked into County Stadium. Many kids became regulars, known to the players if not by name then by nickname. To the big leaguers, auburn-haired, freckle-faced Mike Pavlovich was Little Red.
“As kids, we couldn’t believe the people who would come just five minutes before the game,” Pavlovich remembers. “We thought they were nuts. For a night game, we’d get there around 3 in the afternoon, and for a day game we’d get there, oh, about 9:30 in the morning.”
Pretty soon the County Stadium gang learned that the visiting players were just as accessible. And when the bus pulled in one day carrying the Los Angeles Dodgers, Little Red’s life changed forever.
“As the visiting players got off the bus, each of us would pick out a player and ask him to take us into the game for free,” Pavlovich says. “Some would tell us to take a hike, but a lot of guys used to take us in.”
The last two players off the Dodger bus that day were roommates Frank Howard and Chuck Essegian. Pavlovich zeroed in on Essegian.
As the fourth outfielder for the Dodgers, Essegian was not an everyday player, although he certainly distinguished himself in Dodger blue.
In the 1959 Word Series against the Chicago White Sox, Essegian had become the first pinch-hitter to hit two World Series home runs and is generally credited with turning the Series around for the victorious Dodgers. The trivia-minded should also note that he was the first man to play in a World Series and a Rose Bowl game, having played in Stanford’s 40-7 loss to Illinois in 1952.
Essegian’s face, it was acknowledged around the National League, could reflect the entire range of emotions between stern and dour.
“He always looked a little sad or angry to me,” Pavlovich recalls. “Kind of like David Janssen’s Richard Kimble character in ‘The Fugitive.’ ”
Not many 11-year-olds would be brave enough to approach a man who appeared obsessed by a search for a one-armed killer. But the man’s face gave no insight to the man.
Chuck Essegian took Little Red into the game that day. And every time the Dodgers were in town, Little Red--Essegian never knew his real name--was there, waiting for the Dodger outfielder. And always, as Essegian stepped off the Dodger bus, he would grab Pavlovich in the same warm way--placing a hand on each of the boy’s shoulders--and walk him past the usher with an authoritative “He’s with me.”
“Chuck always made you feel that you were pretty important to him, and not just some little kid pestering him,” Pavlovich says.
In the summer of 1960, Little Red’s favorite team was the Braves, but his own personal hero wore No. 29 for the Dodgers, and checking the Dodger box scores in the newspaper became a daily ritual. But then the season ended, and Chuck Essegian--outfielder, bats right, throws right--was traded to Cleveland. And Cleveland was an American League team, a team that didn’t play in Milwaukee in those days.
“When Chuck got traded, my first thought was, ‘I’ll never see him again,’ ” Pavlovich says. “It broke my heart.”
But the loyalty of a small boy knows no bounds. By the time the 1961 season started, Pavlovich had saved every Little Red cent for a 90-mile trip to Chicago. Just 13, he boarded a southbound Greyhound one Saturday, intent on watching the Cleveland Indians play the White Sox.
Arriving at the bus station in Chicago--alone--he asked for directions to Comiskey Park. Once at the ballpark, he stood outside and waited for the bus carrying the Indians. It finally arrived, and Essegian, as usual, was the last one off.
“Red? What are you doing here?” an astonished Essegian said.
“I came to see you, Chuck.”
Essegian, amazed that any kid that young would travel alone to one of the largest cities in the world just to see him, expressed immediate fatherly concern. He took Pavlovich inside the stadium and made sure Cleveland’s traveling secretary found a seat for Little Red.
Essegian went one for four that day, getting a stand-up double off the left-field wall. After the game, he trotted over to the unexpected package delivered by Greyhound and the Chicago Transit Authority.
“I tried to hit one out for you today, Little Red,” the big leaguer said, shaking his head. “I just couldn’t quite do it.”
Says Pavlovich: “I felt like the little kid in the hospital with Babe Ruth.”
Essegian was even more concerned that Little Red make it back safely to Milwaukee. He checked to make sure Pavlovich had a round-trip ticket, and then he and a friend drove Little Red to the bus terminal.
By the mid-60s, Essegian had retired from the game and gone home to California, and Little Red had stopped being so little. The years since their last conversation at Comiskey began to add up.
Baseball continued to be part of Pavlovich’s life, though. He was a ball boy for the Braves in 1965, the last season the team played in Milwaukee. And he stayed with the club its first two seasons in Atlanta, eventually becoming the youngest clubhouse manager in the big leagues. Then came the Army, then marriage, then kids.
But through the years, he never stopped wondering how Essegian was doing.
At a baseball card show in 1981, Pavlovich came across a book that listed the addresses of former major league players. He immediately turned to E, found Essegian’s and, after a couple of months of procrastination, sent a letter to his boyhood hero.
“I wanted to let him know he influenced me as a little kid,” Pavlovich says. “That I didn’t turn out to be some jerk, that I was married and had kids and that maybe he played a small part in all that.”
Home from work one evening a few weeks later, Pavlovich found a letter bearing the return address of an attorney.
“Oh, what now?” he thought. Then he looked at the attorney’s name: Charles A. Essegian Jr., Encino, Calif.
“What a nice surprise,” Essegian wrote, " . . . Of course I remember you. . . . As you can see, I now practice law, and, as was the case in baseball, still struggling along. . . . The world gets smaller every day, so here is hoping our paths cross again someday.”
That was the extent of communication for another eight years--until the 1989 baseball season. Last August, a Milwaukee friend invited Pavlovich along on a quick trip to California to see a Dodger game. Days later, Pavlovich found himself standing in front of the law offices of Charles A. Essegian Jr.
He had not called ahead. He did not even know if Essegian would be in, but there he was, taking the elevator with his friend to the 16th floor. And his heart started to beat a little faster.
The elevator doors parted. Pavlovich asked the woman seated behind the reception desk if Mr. Essegian was in.
“May I say who is calling?” she asked.
Pavlovich told her--and got a funny look from the woman.
She got on her telephone. “Mr. Essegian, there’s a (confused pause) Little Red from Milwaukee out here to see you.”
Within seconds Essegian was in the lobby.
It had been 26 years since they had seen one another but Mike Pavlovich had chosen his hero wisely. There was Essegian, at 58, looking fit and trim enough to still play outfield. And there was Pavlovich, at 40, with sweaty palms and pounding heart, feeling like a kid again.
They talked for nearly an hour that afternoon, and then Essegian walked Pavlovich and his friend down to their car--his hands resting on Pavlovich’s shoulders just as they had all those springs and summers ago at County Stadium.
They continue to stay in touch.
“Is Chuck Essegian in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dad?” Pavlovich’s young son inquired recently.
“No,” Pavlovich said, adding gently, “but he’s in the person hall of fame.”
In a world where every rock star is a genius and every neighbor’s child is gifted, the word hero is thrown around just as loosely. But Chuck Essegian would seem to be the genuine article.
He may be a piece of baseball trivia, but, ultimately, his contribution to baseball is anything but trivial.
He reminds us of something we’ve really known all along: that a heart of gold is more important than a Gold Glove, that simple gestures are more important than grand slams, that human contact is more important than a big league contract. And any ballplayer today who has forgotten that should remember--or turn--a Little Red.