Major League Baseball is riddled with legends from the game's long-standing history. Oklahoma native and former Shawnee Hawks outfielder Don Demeter had the opportunity to play with some of those greats.
Major League Baseball is riddled with legends from the game’s long-standing history. Oklahoma native and former Shawnee Hawks outfielder Don Demeter had the opportunity to play with some of those greats.
During an 11-year career, Demeter was a member of the 1959 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, hit 20 or more home runs five times, and for 29 years had the Major League record of consecutive errorless games as an outfielder.
As a high school player at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City, Demeter was not considered a top prospect.
“There were 11 kids off that team who signed professional contracts,” Demeter said. “The Dodgers signed nine and the Yankees signed two of them. It was at a time when all the major league clubs had 24 farm clubs so they needed players.”
He said, “I probably wouldn’t have been signed today. I wasn’t mature enough when I was in high school to be drafted or signed. I gained some height and strength after I got out of high school. I think I batted seventh or eighth and I was the only guy on the team that didn’t make the All-City team. Everybody but the center fielder. As it turns out, I was the only guy off that team who made it to the major leagues.”
During a high school tournament played at the University of Oklahoma field, Demeter was discovered by Dodgers scouts. All because he could hit a ball far, in foul territory.
“I hit a couple of foul balls over into the football field,” Demeter said. “The scout that signed me [Burt Wells] said I had some power and I could hit it a long way, but foul. From that premise they signed me. I could run okay, throw the ball, field the ball decent, but hitting wasn’t my strong point.”
After signing with the Dodgers for an $800 bonus and a $150 per-month salary, Demeter was assigned to the Shawnee Hawks of the Sooner State League.
“A few players lived on the campus near Oklahoma Baptist University,” Demeter said. “A lady owned a house where the campus is now. We lived in the basement. We just slept there and we ate out. There was a place called City Cafe, they would give you a steak dinner if you hit a home run. We ate there quite often.”
He said, “Baseball was about the only thing to do. A lot of people didn’t have television at the time so they would come to the ballpark. It drew pretty well, as I remember.”
As one of the Dodgers’ top prospects, Demeter was assigned to play winter ball in Venezuela to help elevate his game.
“There was really good competition there,” Demeter said. “You’d play against guys that had major league experience. I played on a team where Luis Aparicio was a native. You could put five Americans on a field at one time so the Dodgers sent seven or eight guys down during the winter.”
He said, “John Roseboro, catcher for the Dodgers after Roy Campanella got hurt, and [MVP of the 1959 World Series] Larry Sherry were down there with me.”
Demeter found success during his minor league career. He attributes that to the close mentorship he received from his coaches.
“Back then, the managers of the minor league clubs were like your dad. They signed those guys that wanted to elevate the players. Now, the managers themselves are climbers. The year in Shawnee, [Hawks manager] Boyd Bartley told me, ‘I don’t care if you don’t get another hit, you’re going to be the center fielder.’ I think that elevated me. I hit .223 and hit 9 home runs.”
He said, “In 1954 at Bakersfield, I roomed with Don Drysdale. Don had just graduated from high school. The manager [Ray Perry] had played in the Pacific Coast League and he was a playing manager. Ray had injured his ankle so he couldn’t run, but he could still play in the minor leagues. Ray hit behind me and would watch my swing. Every time I would swing at the ball, even if I missed it, he would encourage me.”
During the 1954 season at Bakersfield, Demeter displayed power that moved him up to the major league level.
“That year at Bakersfield I played in 141 games,” Demeter said. “I had 144 hits and I think I struck out about 140 times, but I hit 26 home runs and had 89 runs driven in. That success told me I could do this. That year they sent me back to winter ball and I led the league in winter ball that year.”
After adding a few pounds of muscle and playing a few years in the Dodgers organization, Demeter tore through the Texas League as a member of the Fort Worth Cats.
“Playing at Fort Worth in 1956 was my breakout year,” Demeter said. “I hit 41 home runs and at the end of the year Brooklyn called me up.”
On Sept. 18, 1956, Demeter’s first big league at-bat came against the St. Louis Cardinals as the Dodgers trailed 0-4 in the bottom of the third. He was sent in to pinch hit for starting pitcher Roger Craig. Demeter struck out without ever taking a swing.
“I was so thrilled to have a Brooklyn uniform on,” Demeter said. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself by swinging and missing the ball. The guy that pitched that night was Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. He could really throw the ball.”
He said, “I stayed up most of that night thinking that if I ever get to hit again, I’m going to swing.”
In the very next game on Sept. 19, with Brooklyn leading the Cardinals 15-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Demeter got his second chance to swing the bat. On a 2-1 count, Cardinals left-hander Don Liddle offered up a pitch that Demeter sent deep to the left field bleachers of Ebbets Field for his first career home run.
“Stan Musial was playing first base and I remember him saying, ‘nice going kid,’” Demeter said. “I thought I was in heaven already. After I hit the home run they let me finish playing the game in center field.”
As a member of the 1956 Dodgers, even though his stint with the team was a short one, Demeter had a chance to play with several of the games’ all-time greats.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I put that Brooklyn uniform on, that team had seven hall of famers on it. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Duke Snyder, and Pee Wee Reese and manager Walter Alston,” Demeter said. “When you have a couple guys like that on your team, you don’t lose many games. I can’t remember ever losing three or four games in a row.”
He said, “It was really surprising to me that they took me under their wing. The guy that really liked me and promoted me was Roy Campanella.”
During Demeter’s short stint with the Dodgers in 1956, he had the opportunity to play with Robinson during Robinson’s last year in the league.
“Jackie was a quiet guy who stayed to himself,” Demeter said. “He was quite the athlete. He didn’t give you the appearance that he was very natural, but he got the job done.”
For Demeter, being a member of the Dodgers was like being a part of a close-knit family. Then Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley took care of his players and their families.
“When I was with the Dodgers, Mr. O’Malley would fly the wives out to the games,” Demeter said. “I don’t know if they’d watch the games. I’d look up and see the wives talking. I’m glad I played when I did. I met some of the greatest guys.”
He said, “One year during spring training, Mr. O’Malley let me take his car at night and I’d drive around Vero Beach [Florida]. He really treated us like family.”
Demeter never got a chance to play in the 1956 World Series with the Dodgers. He did join them on a exhibition tour in Japan during the offseason.
Demeter’s next at-bat as a big leaguer came in 1958, the first year the organization played in Los Angeles. He played sparingly that year, only appearing in 43 games.
With Duke Snyder showing signs of slowing down, and the Dodgers moving Snyder over to right field, Demeter got his chance to be a full-time player in 1959. In 143 games that year, he hit for a .256 average while belting 18 home runs and driving in 70, proving he belonged at the big league level.
In limited action during the 1959 World Series, Demeter hit for a .250 average with two runs scored during the six-game series as the Dodgers beat the Chicago White Sox in six games.
“We didn’t have any guy that had a career year,” Demeter said. “We had four or five guys that hit 18 to 20 home runs. [Duke] Snyder was beyond his career. Gill Hodges was still productive. Wally Moon did about what I did. It was a club that really liked each other and we had a good time.”
During a March 11, 1960, intrasquad scrimmage, Demeter hit a home run off legendary teammate, Sandy Koufax.
“I knew Sandy didn’t have it that night,” he said. “As a matter of fact, the first series I played the Dodgers as a member of Philadelphia, I hit a home run off Koufax again. It was the first of three that night. Otherwise I couldn’t hit him; he was so good.”
A few games into the 1961 season, Demeter was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, along with Charlie Smith, for Turk Farrell and Joe Koppe. His first year with the Phillies was fairly productive. Demeter finished the season with a .256 average and hit 21 home runs between the two teams.
The following year Demeter was moved to third base.
“Gene Mauch was the manager. He could see that I had pretty decent hands. The Phillies had a young kid coming up who played outfield. There was no place for him to play and we needed a third baseman, so Gene moved me to third.”
With the move to infield in 1962, Demeter’s defensive numbers suffered dramatically. He committed a career high 21 errors, 18 of which came at third base. At the plate, Demeter had a career year hitting for a .307 average, 29 home runs and driving in 107 runs, all career marks.
“That year was probably the only year I could’ve made the All-Star team,” Demeter said. “I think I had 15 home runs at the break. The perennial All-Star was a guy from St. Louis named Kenny Boyer and Kenny was hitting a little over .200 and he was voted in.”
During his tenure as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Demeter had the opportunity to play under fiery skipper, Mauch.
“Gene was probably the most inventive manager I played for,” Demeter said. “He knew the game and expected you to know how to play it. He was a very intense guy and it ate him up when we lost a game. He really loved the game.”
On July 31, 1964, Demeter set the major league record for consecutive errorless games in the outfield after passing Phillies teammate Tony Gonzalez. The streak started when Demeter was a member of the Phillies and carried over into his tenure with the Detroit Tigers.
His flawless streak came to an end at 266 games on July 9, 1965.
“In Kansas City they had some dogs that were trained to run out with the base in their mouths between innings. A line drive was hit to me and they thought I caught it, so the infield crew let the dogs loose on the field. I scooped the ball up and threw into second base to hold the runner, and when I threw into second, the dog ran through our shortstop, Dick McAuliffe’s legs.”
He said, “Dick looked down at the dog and missed the ball I threw him, advancing the runner and they gave me the error.”
Demeter said he was accustomed to strange on-field events. As a member of the Phillies, and trailing the San Francisco Giants, a fan threw a sack lunch on the field during a pitching change.
“Willie Mayes had just hit a ball passed me between my legs. They [San Francisco Giants] were beating us pretty bad. Gene [Mauch] came out to make a pitching change and somebody from the upper deck threw their sack lunch down. It hit around the coaches box by third base. Out of the sack rolled this old apple. It rolled over by the base so I went over and picked it up.”
He said, “It was the second game of a doubleheader and I was a little hungry, so I turned my back and wiped it off and took a bite out of it. When I did, the bunch in the upper deck that had thrown it out gave me a standing ovation.”
After getting traded to the Cleveland Indians via the Boston Red Sox during the middle of the 1967 season, Demeter knew the end was in sight.
“There were balls that I used to get to and I couldn’t get to them anymore,” Demeter said. “At the time, Cleveland was such a terrible team that when you got there, guys went on home from there. We had two boys in grade school and having to move them from school to school wasn’t fair. I felt like I was making a living rather than a life. I played 11 years in the league. My goal was to play five years. I ended up with more time than I thought I would spend. Those were some good years. I enjoyed the travel and the life.”
In the years following his retirement, Demeter, who currently resides in Oklahoma City, has been content with his decision to retire from baseball when he did.
“I thank the Lord that a lot of doors have opened because of baseball,” Demeter said.
When it was all said and done, Demeter hit 163 home runs at the big league level and played alongside some of the greatest to ever play the game. Not bad for a guy who batted near the bottom of the order on his high school team.