By Bill Young
Canadian Baseball Network
Bizarre as this might sound, Dr. George Gmelch, PhD, University of California at Santa Barbara, a professor of anthropology at both the University of San Francisco and Union College in Schenectady, New York, highly regarded as a prolific author whose books cover a broad range of anthropological topics, including baseball, began his adult life as a baseball player.
A true lefty, Gmelch both threw and batted from the left side and with sufficient skill that by his late teens he had begun drawing the attention of professional scouts.
He was barely 20 when in 1965 he signed with the Detroit Tigers and began his professional career playing for the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League. It ended in unexpected fashion some five years later on the rough-hewn diamond that the Drummondville Royals of the Quebec Provincial League called home.
Gmelch moved quickly through the lower ranks of the Tigers system, wrapping up his rookie year in Jamestown of the New York Penn State League. In 1966 he opened the season with Daytona in the Florida State League, was soon promoted to Rocky Point, North Carolina, of the Carolina League, where he fared badly, resulting in his season ending somewhat ingloriously in lowly Statesville of the Western Carolinas League.
The following spring was by all accounts his year to blossom. From spring training he was sent back to Rocky Point and this time, playing with flair and confidence, he was enjoying a great start and already anticipating his next climb up the ladder to the big leagues. And stardom.
It was never to be.
Despite Gmelch’s prowess on the diamond, he soon found himself on the wrong side of the law and in serious trouble. He had arranged with his hometown newspaper in San Mateo, California to write a weekly column on life in the South, and the more he produced, the more inflammatory each one became. He was appalled at the community’s entrenched approach to segregation, presenting his views in the starkest of terms.
Somehow these stories found their way back to the authorities and on May 22 he was pulled off the team bus and ordered back to Rocky Point. There he faced red-faced town officials, including the police chief, ready to charge him will all sorts of misbehavior, even threatening jail-time. Their anger was such that Gmelch feared he was soon to be prison bound.
Fortunately he escaped that fate but the consequences were almost as severe. Detroit readily agreed to move him out of town, never to return: and then on June 14 they handed him his outright release. When other clubs showed no interest in him, he knew he was done, out of baseball for good – at least out of the organized game.
Deeply discouraged, but not ready to call it quits, Gmelch contacted ball player friends toiling in the Quebec Provincial League and almost immediately he was offered a contract by the Drummondville Royals. He played his first game, an away match against the Quebec City Indians.
The QPL - La Provincial as the locals called it - was an independent, some would say outlaw, league based in the central sector of the province. Apart from the Royals and the Indians, the loop hosted six other teams: Coaticook Canadians, Granby Cardinals, Lachine Mets, Plessisville Braves, Sherbrooke Alouettes and Thetford Mines Miners.
Considered more or less the equivalent of AA-level ball (one wag suggested, “it all depends on who’s pitching.”), the players embraced the full spectrum of the human condition – local players, Canadians, Americans, Hispanic, and Black. Most were older, more relaxed, many having had their shot at the big leagues. They played exciting baseball and drew good-sized crowds.
By his second week, Gmelch had settled in, enjoying the baseball and appreciating the local scenery, especially a certain Monique, (a pseudonym). Considering he had just broken up with his very steady girlfriend, his dejection was remarkably short-lived.
The Royals finished third in the league and came up against Granby in the quarter-finals.
Gmelch had kept a journal during his Quebec days and in one entry he described the enthusiasm that overlay the series. Calling the fans “feverish,” he went on to say: “You can’t buy yourself a beer because everyone wants to treat you. The Stadium in Granby was packed ... with loud, enthusiastic fans from both Granby and Drummondville.”
He later added the following reflection upon the social climate that embraced those days, now remembered by only a few of us. “The sixties was a time when small-town fans could still worship and identify with local entities – like Minor League Baseball teams. For Provincial League fans, we were their major leaguers.”
Drummondville bowed out quickly, losing three straight, closely fought games. Gmelch hit five homeruns over those three games, thought to be a league record, and bringing his total for the year to 13. It had been a very satisfying season, a welcome antidote to the horrors of the spring.
As he wrote in his final journal entry for the year: “While I am still enjoying playing and like the status of being a professional it’s not leading anywhere. This is it. This is all there is going to be.”
Gmelch returned to Drummondville in 1968 and while he had a satisfactory year his numbers were down. He was beginning to take his university studies more seriously. And he had met the woman who would shortly become his wife and professional colleague, Sharon Bohn. What between the extra time he put in on studies, and the wooing, Gmelch missed all of spring training.
When he finally made it to Drummondville it took him a week or so to catch up to the others, perhaps because he had become engaged to Ms. Bohn, who joined him in Drummondville in mid-June.
The Royals ended in second place and once again met up with Granby in the quarter –finals, and once again Granby swept them, on its way to the league championship.
He skipped baseball in 1969, devoting his energies to his anthropology studies instead. He did return in 1970, but only briefly, quickly realizing that both the game and his joy in playing it were on the wane. “Although I still felt fortunate in being paid to play the game that was the dream of so many young men,” he wrote, “a few weeks into the season I left Drummondville and baseball for good.”
Throughout the fifty or so pages he devotes to his Quebec adventure he is nothing but positive. He was well-paid, put up the numbers, discovered a fresh and fascinating corner of the world (including the wonder of Expo 67), made new friends, was celebrated by local fans, and grew into the man and brilliant scholar he was destined to become.
And best of all, he had overcome the dark days of his Rocky Point experience. He declares toward the end of the book: “At least in Quebec, I was able to leave the game on my own terms.”
I hope you get a chance to read this book – especially those among us who remember firsthand where baseball was in the 1960s. A word of caution, the book is a memoir and the language can be salty at time, not to mention description of certain of his off-field experiences.
George Gmelch, Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties: University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2016. Playing with Tigers is available from Amazon and Indigo-Chapters.
Some of the players mentioned by Gmelch who played in the Quebec Provincial League in the late 1960s whose names might be familiar.
Norm Angelini: he eventually made it to big leagues in 1972.
Fred Bourbeau: Manager, 1967, mound mate of Sal Maglie in D’ville, 1949
Claude Coté: QPL Veteran,
Bob “Shifty” Gear: Following baseball joined Domtar in St. Catherine’s.
Rafael Gonzales: centre fielder...kissed his bat after each base hit!
Chuck Hughes: Remained in Drummondville coaching baseball for ten years.
Rich Jeffries: Third Base, eye-catching wife; son Greg, of the Mets and five otherMLB teams
John Noce: Managed Drummondville in 1968/69.
Steve Oleschuk: became major league scout.
Simon Perez: Dominican pitcher with a dead arm.
Frank Pignataro: played one year in D’Ville, got married and went back to school.
Jim Ridley, An icon in Canadian Baseball History...teaching and scouting...
Mike Sawyer: D’ville native, outstanding ball player, skipped Phillies’ spring training as he spoke only French
Norm Timmins: Following baseball served as a platoon commander in Viet Nam.
Bob Wolfarth: Catcher in 1967
Mike Young: Quiet, aka Coyote
Maddy Alston, Granby
Reggie Grenald, Granby
John Mentis, Granby
John Self, Granby
Nick Testa, Granby, Manager
Ray Daviault, Lachine; MLB-Mets
Jack “Fitz” Fitzpatrick: Lachine
Tim Harkness, Lachine: MLB-Mets
Fred Hopki, Quebec, power hitter