Sunday, May 22, 2011

RIP Mel Queen

            I find that I am saddened when I learn of the death of someone I have
interviewed for my books. Whether we talked as little as half an hour or much longer, I am always appreciative of these former players for taking the time to discuss their careers with me.
            I had the opportunity to interview Mel Queen in 2009 for Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds. Modern fans know Mel Queen, who died last week at 69 due to complications of cancer, as the long-time Blue Jays pitching guru who famously revamped Roy Halladay’s career in 2001, but he was once a very promising outfielder in the Reds system. His rookie season was 1964.
            Mel Queen was the son of a former major league baseball player, Mel Queen, who pitched for the Yankees and Pirates from 1942-1952. The younger Mel was signed to a large bonus (around $80,000 to $90,000) by the Reds after a stellar high school career in San Luis Obispo, California. Queen was a high school teammate and best friend of future major leaguer Jim Lonborg. He later became Lonborg’s brother-in-law when he married his sister. Coming up through the Reds system, Queen showed some power (93 RBIs at AA Macon in 1962 and 25 homers at AAA San Diego in 1963) and was noted to have one of the best outfield arms in the minors. Because of his bonus and the fact that he was out of options, Queen was kept on the major league roster in 1964 even though the Reds were loaded with outfielders--Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson were All-Star fixtures, second-year man Tommie Harper looked to be a future star and veterans Marty Keough and Hal Skinner provided bench-support. There wasn’t much opportunity for the youngster to get playing time and this would ultimately cause the demise of Queen’s hitting as he could not develop properly while sitting on the bench.

I missed Mel Queen when I first called, but I explained the book and interview request to his wife who was very pleasant. She said she would give Mel the message. That night, he returned my call and proceeded to talk my ear off. Mel Queen seemed to be the kind of guy who enjoyed telling a good story. He seemed to be the kind of guy who enjoyed telling a bad story. He seemed to be the kind of guy who just plain enjoyed telling stories. I had fun listening to him talk about his trials as a young rookie, his great respect for manager Fred Hutchinson, the personality and struggles to learn English of young Cuban teammate Tony Perez and the clubhouse humor of teammates Chico Ruiz, Joe Nuxhall and Jim Maloney.

            He also spoke of the great competitiveness of Frank Robinson, whom he called "The most competitive player I ever saw in the major leagues."
“Once, before a game, the other club was still taking batting practice and we were down the line in the outfield,” he said. “I was talking to one of the opposing players who I had known back in California. Frank walked up to me and said, ‘What does it say on the front of your uniform?’
            “I said, ‘Cincinnati.’”
            “And he said, ‘What does it say on the front of that other guy’s uniform?’”
            “And I said, ‘Cubs.’”
            “He said, ‘When we are on the field, you don’t talk to them, you don’t socialize with them, they are the enemy. After the game, out of uniform, you can do whatever you want, but on the field, they’re the enemy.’”
            “Later in the early seventies,” Queen continued, “when Frank was with Baltimore and I was with the Angels, I was walking down the line after BP and Frank came up behind me and said, kind of low, ‘Hey Queenie, how’re you doing?’
            “And I said, ‘Hey Frank, how are you?’ And we kept walking. If you were watching from the stands you wouldn’t have known we said anything.” (Baseball on-field czar Joe Torre would appreciate this story in view of his recent complaints of fraternizing between opponents).

            Queen spoke with appreciation of the compassion manager Hutchinson showed the lowly rookie who made a clubhouse faux pas while being hungry after a tough double header loss. The two losses came on July 12 to the Mets in New York, with the Reds scoring only one run the whole day off the lowly Mets pitching staff. Fred Hutchinson hated dropping games to the Mets, and it provoked one more appearance by The Bear of old. “We went into the clubhouse after the game and all the players were sitting at their locker,” remembered Queen. “I was a stupid, na├»ve rookie. There was a spread of food on a table for after the game. I went up and started making myself a plate. Fred came in, kind of looked at me, then walked by into his office. So I finished making my plate and went over to my locker, not noticing that no one else was eating. He came back out and cleared the whole spread with one swipe of his big arm. ‘I don’t want anybody in here eating,’ he said. ‘There better not be a player in this clubhouse when I come out of my office after I shower.’ All of the sudden you’ve got guys like Pinson, Robinson and Rose flying through their lockers getting out of there. Nobody wanted to take a chance on being caught when he came out. He had seen me and knew I was a rookie and didn’t know any better. So instead of saying something there to embarrass me in front of the whole club, he walked on by and let me get back to my locker, then came back out and had his tirade. I really respected him for that because he could have embarrassed me greatly but he chose not to, knowing I was a rookie.”

While not getting off the bench much in 1964, Queen did have a few bright moments:
Against Houston, July 14, the second game of a double header was notable for the first major league home run off the bat of rookie Mel Queen. The seventh-inning blast put the Reds in front 10-3 and loosened up the Reds bench. When Queen came back to the dugout he witnessed Marty Keough stretched out on his back, apparently fainted from shock. Backup catcher Hal Smith was fanning him with a towel while Joe Nuxhall was administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. “We just had to acknowledge the first one,” a laughing Keough told reporters after the game.
            “Queenie was so excited the second time he went to the plate that he was going to use the lead bat we use for warm-up swings in the on-deck circle,” Pete Rose joked.

            Queen pinch hit a seventh-inning three-run home run off Bob Gibson on August 1 to rally the Reds from a 3-1 deficit and September 2 had a twelfth-inning pinch single to plate the winning run in a 1-0 win over Chicago.

            Unfortunately, Queen’s skills atrophied sitting on the bench in the mid-sixties as the Reds first played power-hitting Deron Johnson in the outfield and then moved Pete Rose there, in addition to bringing in hard-hitting Alex Johnson and Art Shamsky, leaving him little opportunity in the field. After mopping up from the mound a few games late in 1966, Queen switched positions and became a full-time pitcher in 1967—having never pitched in the minor leagues. While several players have switched from pitching to fulltime playing, Queen became the only successful pitcher to have been switched the other way while in the major leagues in the past fifty years. And he pitched brilliantly, going 14-8 with a 2.76 ERA that season. The 1967 season was to be the pinnacle of Mel Queen's career, however, as arm troubles limited his effectiveness over the next five years. Thereafter, he embarked on a coaching career which lasted until recently when he was no longer physically able to show up on the field due to his illness. It is perhaps with a touch of irony that Mel Queen spoke to me in 2009 with such sadness and respect for the way that his manager Fred Hutchinson had faced cancer--the very disease which he would himself face in the very near future.