Thursday, March 24, 2022

Leon "Lee" Riley

In the HBO series Winning Time, the actor playing Pat Riley, the ultra-successful coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, walks around with his dad's fire-damaged bat. The implication is that Pat rescued the bat after his dad had tried to burn it. The dad in question was outfielder Leon (Lee) Riley, whose story was really emblematic of an era in American sports that no longer exists. From the 19th century until about the 1960s, it was possible to be a career minor league ballplayer, thrilling small-town fans with athletic heroics in the summer, while working anonymous, pedestrian jobs in the off-season. Lee Riley was such a man.

His career got off to a promising start at age 20, when he found himself in single-A ball in his first year as a professional, by-passing all the lower levels except for a very brief stint (23 games) in class D. In his first full season in the tough Western League, he tore it up at the plate, batting .370 with a plethora of extra base hits.

He performed so well at such a young age that he attracted the attention of baseball's premiere strategist, Connie Mack, whose Philadelphia A's were just about to overtake Babe Ruth's Yankees as the best team in the American League. Mack purchased the young star's contract (see article to the left) on a conditional basis, but ultimately changed his mind. The A's were already deep in talent, and Riley needed more seasoning. He was a gifted natural hitter, but he had a lot to learn about the game. Moreover, his arm was weak, and his fielding was inept. As one observer put it, "He batted .375 but his fielding average was just about the same. He couldn't field pumpkins if they were tied in a sack." 

Riley understood his limitations, and he was willing to put in the time and effort to overcome them. It took longer than expected, but he worked and worked on his fielding until he earned a well-deserved promotion to the Rochester Red Wings, the top farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals, with his major league dream within his grasp. 

And then he ran smack into the Peter Principle, which suggests that each person rises until he reaches his level of incompetence. For Lee Riley that level was the International League. He batted only .276 with no power at Rochester, in an age when just about every major league outfielder batted .300 or better against actual major league pitching. It was especially difficult to break into the St. Louis Cardinals' line-up. The 1930 St. Louis Cardinals were the highest-scoring NL team of the 20th century. They had 13 players with 100 at bats or more, and twelve of them batted in the .300s.

At that point in his career, Lee had had the bad fortune to get his two potential major league opportunities with the two teams that needed him the least! When Leon Riley went to Rochester, the hard-hitting Cardinals were the defending World Series champions, and it was soon obvious that Lee could not fit into their major league plans. 

How did his performance drop so dramatically from class-A ball to AA? Lee himself said that it was because he couldn't hit lefties at that level. That formed the basis for one of Tommy Lasorda's best anecdotes, as recounted in the L.A. Times, July 13, 1988:

When Tom Lasorda was pitching for Schenectady of the Canadian-American League in 1948, the manager was Lee Riley, father of Laker Coach Pat Riley.

"We were playing Gloversville, and I’ve got ‘em beat, 2-1, and it’s in the top of the ninth inning. As I go out to pitch, Riley, who was coaching third, came to the mound, picked up the ball to hand it to me and he says to me, 'You’re in good shape. You’ve got three left-handed hitters in a row.’ And I was a left-handed pitcher, which meant things should be easy.

First left-hander doubles. Next left-hander triples. Next left-hander doubles. And now they’re winning, 3-2. And he comes to take me out, and as he starts to take the ball from my hand, he looks at me and he says, 'Know why I couldn’t hit in the major leagues?' I thought that was a very unusual question, but I said, 'No, Skip. No, why?' And he said, 'Because I couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers. But if you’d been there, I’d have been a star.'"

But an equally cogent explanation was given by sportswriter Whitney Martin: Lee could not hit the curve at that level

Whatever the explanation for Lee's failure, the fact remained that the Cards had sent him to the Rochester Red Wings with high hopes and much fanfare, but were so disappointed with him that they optioned him out even when it left the Rochester club desperately short of outfielders.

The Cards would soon match their offensive juggernaut with some great pitching in the form of the Dean brothers, so the legendary Gas House Gang was formed, and another championship banner would soon be flying in St. Louis. By then, Lee Riley would be languishing in a C league.

That's how his life went. He'd have a couple of good years, earn another promotion, then find himself back at a lower level than when he started. By the time 1938 rolled around, he was a 31-year-old veteran of 12 minor league seasons, but was in D ball with the 19 year olds, playing full-time while also acting as the team's manager. 

His D-league assignment, with a Dodgers farm club in the Nebraska State League, happened to be very close to his own home town, and it could not have been a more popular homecoming, particularly because he once again absolutely tore it up at that low level, batting .365 and .372 in his two years there.

His hot bat had granted him his fondest wish, yet another promotion to the International League as a player, this time with a Dodgers farm club in Baltimore. Unfortunately, that wish had unintended consequences, like the ones in the classic cautionary tale, "The Monkey's Paw." The fulfillment of that wish came with an ironic and crushing twist. Riley had stalled out his evolving managerial career for a pipe dream - the hope that he could now somehow hit International League pitching, despite the harsh lesson of his prior failure. The result was even more disappointing than his first trip through that league. In 38 games he batted .212 with one homer. 

It was back to square one again.

By then he must have understood that a shot at the majors was only a dream, but baseball was his job and he was no quitter, so he accepted another demotion, and resolved to seek a managerial job in earnest. He soon found himself as a player/manager in a C league, where he had his best season to date, batting .391 with a league-leading 32 homers in the obscure Canadian-American League.

Given his track record, a solid performance at such a low level would not normally have led him back on a path to the majors, especially since his subsequent performance was disappointing, but fate intervened, in the form of Adolph Hitler. America needed able-bodied young men to fight in WW2, including young ballplayers. While many of the best and youngest major leaguers went to bat for Uncle Sam, the desperate major league teams were looking for bodies to fill out their depleted squads. 

By 1944 and 1945, after years of war, roster spots had opened for all sorts of players who would not otherwise have been able to qualify for major league squads. There was a one-armed outfielder (Pete Gray, below center), a 15-year-old pitcher (Joe Nuxhall, below right), and a variety of older players who would otherwise have been retired, like Paul Waner, once a great star with the Pirates, hanging on in wartime as a grizzled Brooklyn Dodger (below left). In those segregated, pre-Robinson years, the Cincinnati Reds even snuck a black pitcher onto their roster, and nobody really paid attention.

During the desperate hunt for major league ballplayers in the late war years, the primary beneficiaries were career minor leaguers desperate for a shot at the big show.

Players like Leon Riley.

There have rarely been less likely major leaguers. In 1942 he had batted .204 in a B league. In 1943 he was working in a defense plant. By 1944 he was 37 years old, had been out of pro baseball entirely in the preceding year, had never succeeded at any level higher than single-A ball, and had not even had a good single-A season in about a decade. 

He had, however, the most important qualification any baseball player could have in 1944: he was available. He could not be drafted because he was too old and had a family to support, so at an age when most major leaguers have retired, he became a rookie on the 1944 Phillies.

The popular film Field of Dreams tells the story of a promising young major leaguer called Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. He was more commonly called "Doc" Graham by his teammates, because he mixed baseball with medical school,and eventually became a successful and much-loved doctor. Archie Graham once got the thrill of standing in the outfield as a New York Giant in a major league game, but always regretted that he never got a chance to show what he could do in the big leagues with a bat in his hand. While Graham had to have been disappointed by his career trajectory in baseball, he was always able to maintain the belief that he could have done the job with the Giants, if given the chance. Leon Riley was not so fortunate. After two decades of trying to get a shot at major league pitchers, he found out once and for all that he really couldn't hit them. Despite the fact that he was facing only the diluted wartime pitching of 1944, he batted an embarrassing .083.

The Phils demoted him to the Utica Blue Sox, roughly the American equivalent of exile to Siberia. 

The next year he found himself back in D ball yet again, playing against kids who could be his children, starting from the lowest player-manager level for the third time in his career, hoping once again to move up the managerial ladder. He was not a man who gave up easily, so he stubbornly lasted five more years in the low minors as a player/manager in the Phillies' farm system. As a player, he would never again reach as high as single-A, the level where he had played in his very first year, nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

When he finally stopped playing, he stayed in the Phillies' organization as a full-time minor league manager, and was awarded some promotions until he was finally back in class A, as manager of the Phillies' Eastern League teams in 1950 and 1951. The Phillies did a bit of manager-swapping in 1952, and Riley found himself managing the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who posed a respectable 72-66 record in the Interstate League. Unfortunately, the economics of baseball were changing. The Wilmington Blue Rocks went belly up, and the entire Interstate League collapsed. Facing a dwindling bottom line, the Phillies announced after the 1952 season that they were trimming their farm system from 12 teams to 9. Along with many others, Leon Riley lost his job that day, his baseball odyssey complete after 11 years as a manager, and a playing career that spanned 22 summers. He had accumulated more than 2,400 hits in pro baseball, including about 900 for extra bases, in the process of compiling a .314 lifetime average. At various times he had led minor leagues in doubles, triples, home runs, walks, RBI and batting average. He had once managed a team to a pennant. He had always done what was asked of him, having played D ball at age 20, then again at age 30, and finally at age 39. Despite his loyalty and hard work, he found himself unemployed at 46, with no non-baseball job skills. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, he went up to his attic and discarded all of his memorabilia dating back to the mid-20s, symbolically casting baseball out of his life, as documented by the eyewitness testimony of his son, the future Lakers coach. 

And that brings us back to the scene described at the beginning of this article. As the story goes, Pat Riley rescued his dad's bat that day, preserved it, and treasured what it meant to his family's history.


Two of Leon Riley's children became professional athletes, albeit neither of them in baseball. 

Pat Riley was a solid back-up player on one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who finished the regular season 69-13 and breezed through the playoffs to the championship. Using their peak roster, if all players had been in their primes at the time, their starting five might have been the greatest ever assembled: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston. Pat Riley wasn't about to crack that line-up, but he was a dependable role player who carved out a 10-year career in the NBA

I'm sure that you already know about his coaching career, which is one of the  greatest in history.

Pat's much older brother, Lee Riley, chose football as his primary sport. He was a solid defensive back with a 7-year career in the NFL and AFL, and once led the league in interceptions. He was also used on special teams to return both punts and kickoffs.

After his pro career, he left the sports word and became a corporate vice-president.

No comments:

Post a Comment