Tuesday, August 2, 2016

220. Ollie Carnegie: Still Shut Out of the Big Show

My wife and I just returned from a spectacular trip to Italy. It was my first time in the country, and seeing in person all the great masterpieces by Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Botticelli and the other fellas was very exciting and humbling for an artist like myself. Besides the 14-16th Century masters I was lucky to catch a superb exhibit in Rome of one of my favorite poster designers, Alphonse Mucha, as well as a stunning exhibit of 20th Century modern pieces from the Guggenheim collection in Florence. 

Among the wonders of Italy I was fortunate to see first hand was the Coliseum in Rome. Sure, you see it in books and movies, but in real life it truly is amazing - but besides the miracle that it still stands after hundreds of centuries is the fact that it is remarkably similar to modern baseball stadium design! The whole set up and plan of the Coliseum is still used today in modern sporting facilities, from the box seats and entry gates to the vending areas for souvenirs. And despite all the art and history that surrounded me as I toured the former gladiator palace, I of course, thought of baseball and the contributions to the game by descendants of that rich culture. Besides the original engineering ideas that inspired the very stadium that the sport is played in, men of Italian descent have left an indelible mark on the game. Imagine the history of baseball without seeing the names DiMaggio, Berra, Rizzuto, Piazza, Lasorda, Campanella, LaRussa - do I need to go on?

So anyway, on the long flight back home to Kentucky I got to thinking about the Italian-American ballplayers I have in my book and on this website. Off hand I recalled there was Billy Martin, Roy Campanella, the DiMaggio boys and lesser known figures like Marius Russo and Ollie Carnegie. When I got back in the studio I looked up what I had written about the last guy, Ollie Carnegie. He was one of the 50 or so fellas I had to cut from The League of Outsider Baseball when I ran over by about 100 pages. I always felt bad about cutting Ollie, his career was marked by being left out and passed over and to do that to him yet again seemed really cruel. From time to time I've posted some of the leftovers from the book and felt for sure I had done the same with Ollie - but when I looked on my website he was not there! 

Well, now he is...

A late start to his career and appendicitis kept Ollie Carnegie a minor league Babe Ruth. The son of Italian immigrants, Carnegie was a semi-pro superstar on the sandlots of his native Pittsburgh. The young slugger turned down contracts from the Pirates and Senators, preferring to keep his steady job in a steel mill. When he did give pro ball a shot in 1922, appendicitis ended his baseball dreams after just seven games. It wasn’t until Carnegie lost his job to The Depression and was well into his 30’s that he decided to give the game another try.
After a summer in the low minors, Carnegie joined the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, just one rung below the big leagues. He finished in the top five in home runs four out his first five seasons with the Bisons, and though he seemed perpetually on the verge of being signed by a Major League team, his age and a 1936 ankle injury kept him in Buffalo.
Just when the 39 year-old was being written off as over the hill, Carnegie finished first in home runs (54), RBI (136) and total bases (358) and was second in slugging percentage (.649) and third in hits (182). He was voted the 1938 International League’s Most Valuable Player but astonishingly, no Major League contract materialized. 

By then Carnegie had accepted that he’d never be a big leaguer and spent the next few years cementing his reputation as the greatest and most beloved ball player to ever play in Buffalo. After he hung up his spikes “The Bambino of Buffalo” tried his hand at managing the Bisons before becoming a scout, riding around in a personalized station wagon given to him by his grateful Buffalo fans.