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The find

Going door to door looking for followers, one man found a baseball treasure

Posted: January 29, 2009 9:50 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Bob Dillinger, top, poses with Joe DiMaggio, below center, in the mid-1940s. Dillinger and DiMaggio both played on military teams during World War II.

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Tom Barber’s goal is to spread Jesus’ word.

So he goes on foot and tries to spread that message.

He encounters all kinds of people — the mildly interested, those who dismiss Jehovah’s Witnesses and those who listen.

Then there was the old man.

Barber found the old man by going door to door on the outer edge of Canyon Country in 2006.

Talk began about the Bible. It soon turned to baseball.

And something Barber long considered lost, was found.

The old man’s memory goes in and out, but the stories he tells have brought Barber to his Canyon Country home for the past three years.

Barber was intrigued by the slender, bespectacled old man’s memories so he dug further into the trove that is Dillinger’s mind.

A retired postman, Barber grew up sneaking a transistor radio into bed and listening to Red Barber’s protégé Vin Scully calling the games of Koufax and Drysdale.

Tom Barber played baseball as a youth at Sun Valley’s little league. He later went on to play for a short period of time at Francis H. Polytechnic High in Sun Valley. He was very average, by his own accounts.

His passion for baseball slowly dissipated as 39 years of marriage and the responsibility of work and a daughter took greater significance.

Salaries of the current-age baseball players and ticket prices also had their effect on Barber.

The old man, though, told barber modestly that he was a ball player.

One day, the old man brought Barber into his garage.

The back wall had framed pictures of the old man when he was young. He was wearing his signature spectacles and a baseball uniform.

In one picture, he stood next to legendary baseball manager Connie Mack.

There was another with Joe DiMaggio.

Barber went home and searched the Internet for the old man’s name: “Bob Dillinger.”

The name “Dillinger” is synonymous with thievery.

John Dillinger was a notorious, Depression-era bank robber who gained the nickname “The Jackrabbit.”

It’s apropos that in the late 1940s, a thieving baseball player would come along with the same last name.

Bob Dillinger made his Major League debut as a member of the St. Louis Browns on April 16, 1946.

For the next three years, he led the American League in stolen bases.

“I’ve been a thief all my life,” jokes the 90-year-old. “I used to cheat playing bridge.”

The old man has lived in the same modest Canyon Country home since 1969.

He has lost his speed, some vision, some memory, but not his wit.

Dillinger is one of the last living St. Louis Browns.

The Browns were a franchise that originally started as the Milwaukee Brewers. They moved to St. Louis in 1902 and played in Sportsman’s Park until 1953. They moved the next season and have since been known as the Baltimore Orioles.

The Browns go down in history as a notorious franchise — notorious for losing and gimmicks.

They brought in one-armed outfielder Pete Gray in 1945, 3-foot-7-inch  Eddie Gaedel  in 1951 and 45-year-old Satchel Paige the same season.

Dillinger’s memory of Sportsman’s Park and his days with the team tells you even more about the franchise.

“We drew nothing but flies,” he says, sounding a bit like Jimmy Stewart.

Dillinger played six years in the Major Leagues — four with the Browns.

He led the American League in hits in 1948 with 207 and was an All-Star the following season.

The significance of that All-Star Game, held at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, was that it was the first in Major League history where black players played.

The year before, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

The game also featured future Hall of Famers like Robinson, Ted Williams, DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Stan Musial and Warren Spahn.

Dillinger entered the game in the top of the sixth inning as a pinch runner for George Kell, who had walked.

He came around to score on a double by DiMaggio. It proved to be the game’s winning run.

The following inning, Dillinger swatted a single to left field off St. Louis Cardinal Howie Pollet that scored Joe’s brother, Dom DiMaggio.

The A.L. won 11-7.

Dillinger’s memories of the game are nearly gone.

“I got a hit,” he recalls.

But other baseball memories are crisp.

“Ted Williams, to me, was the best left-handed hitter I ever saw,” Dillinger says. “Joe DiMaggio would say, ‘Good morning to you,’ one day and, ‘See ya,’ the next day.”

Dillinger played for the Air Force’s team in Hawaii between 1943 and 1945.

DiMaggio was stationed in Hawaii in 1944 during World War II, serving as a physical education instructor.

Dillinger was voted Player of the Pacific and was given koa wood bowls as a trophy during his stint.

He was a line-drive hitter, not a home-run hitter.

His game was simple and revolved around his speed.

Dillinger says he even ran an exhibition race against legendary track-and-field star Jesse Owens, the man who agitated Adolf Hitler by winning four Olympic gold medals in Berlin in 1936.

Owens, wearing a track suit, defeated Dillinger, wearing a baseball uniform, in Youngstown, Ohio, the old man remembers.

“I got beat,” Dillinger says. Then he kids, “I didn’t want to rub it in.”

The old man says he honed his skills while playing in the streets of Glendale.

Dillinger says he developed his quickness by running from cops who tried to chase him and his friends out of traffic.

His career never surpassed the greatness he achieved in the 1948 and 1949 seasons, when he batted .321 and .324, respectively.

Yet he played during what some deemed a golden age.

Dillinger was around when Major League Baseball’s color barrier was broken. In fact, the old man says Satchel Paige, despite his advanced age when he made it to the big leagues, was the greatest pitcher he ever saw.

Yet Dillinger couldn’t explain way. Despite his fading memories, Paige made a lasting impression.

Known as one of the greatest Negro League pitchers of all time, Paige was kept away from the Major Leagues in his prime because of its exclusion of black players. At 42, he made his Major League debut in 1948 for the Cleveland Indians in a game against Dillinger’s Browns.

Dillinger didn’t face him that game.

On Dec. 13, 1949, Dillinger was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics.

It was Mack’s 49th season as A’s manager. He was also the team’s owner. The Hall of Famer and five-time World Series champion was known to be tight-fisted due to a history of financial problems.

Midway through 1950 season, he approached Dillinger.

“He’s the only man who said, ‘Bob, I have to sell you,’” Dillinger recalls. “But he was a nice man.”
On July 19, 1950, Dillinger was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

He finished off the 1950 season with the Pirates and began the next also in Pittsburgh.

He even made an appearance in the original “Angels in the Outfield” film, starring Janet Leigh. Dillinger has a picture of himself standing with Leigh with her signature on it.

It’s also in his garage.

Dillinger was then sold to the Chicago White Sox during the 1951 season, his final in Major League Baseball.

He played in 89 games for the White Sox, hitting .301.

His speed, though, at age 33 started to dissipate, as did his fielding.

Though he kept trying to play ball, he realized he’d never make it out of the minor leagues and finally gave up as he approached 40 years old.

For Tom Barber, religion brought him to Bob Dillinger’s house. Baseball brought him back. But his admiration for Bob and his wife, Eleanor, has kept him around.

Religion and baseball, what some diehards would say have become synonymous, have continued to be points of conversation between the two men.

But Barber started to see the way Dillinger interacted with Eleanor and that interaction became more interesting.

He’d see how Eleanor was the Bud Abbott to Dillinger’s Lou Costello.

And he became charmed.

“It was a really cute, old, elderly couple,” Barber says. “They complemented each other.”

Bob and Eleanor met on a tennis court in La Crescenta.

“One hundred years,” Dillinger jokes about how long they’ve been married.

It will actually be 69 years in 2009.

In 1945, Dillinger came back from war on the U.S.S. Cecil.

Eleanor finagled her way onto a lift and greeted Dillinger with a kiss, high above the ground.
That picture is inside the house.

“Her, I couldn’t live without,” he says. “She’s a good kid.”

She calls him “Daddy.”

Eleanor’s hearing is fading.

But she is sharp.

She fills in the gaps of Dillinger’s memories.

“What am I trying to say?” he asks in the middle of a thought.

“Give me a hint,” Eleanor says.

Eleanor worked at a bank before Dillinger’s playing career. Once his career was over, she worked for the state employment office.

Dillinger became a construction inspector for the city of Los Angeles after his baseball days. He retired after 22 years.

Barber, married for 40 years, is also retired.

He worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Some of his time now is spent going door-to-door talking to people.

He never knew that talks about Jesus would lead him to a talk with a baseball player.

Koufax and Drysdale weren’t tangible.

Dillinger is.

Barber last visited Dillinger in November.

He is sensitive to Dillinger’s health.

Because of Dillinger’s continued loss of memory, Barber feels that time is running out, and he’s not as comfortable visiting.

During that meeting in November, Barber asked Dillinger if he remembered him.

“I don’t like to remember,” Dillinger joked.

Then he said, “He’s a nice fellow. I like him.”

Barber feels that Dillinger deserves some acclaim.

He’s one of the last men from a forgotten era.

An era Barber became reacquainted with.

Barber says he doesn’t watch much baseball anymore — just the World Series.

He says baseball isn’t even the reason the relationship remains.

Nonetheless, Dillinger represents something to him.

Maybe something that was lost.

A time, he says, when baseball wasn’t as business-oriented.

Even Dillinger acknowledges it.

“Too much money,” he scoffs about present-day Major League baseball. “Sometimes I watch it on the boob tube, and it scares me. They make too much money.”

Dillinger says the most money he made in one season was $25,000.

The Dillinger family hasn’t sought acclaim.

They live a quiet life.

Their home is unassuming until you enter the garage.

A 34-ounce Louisville Slugger bat is bolted onto a shed.

There’s a script on the head that bears the name Bob Dillinger.

Further back are the photos of Mack and DiMaggio.

And Bob Dillinger.

A St. Louis Brown.

One of the last of a few.

A find.


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