Friday, March 29, 2013

R.I.P. Lou Sleater, Pitched for Browns & Orioles: Knuckleballer called 'Epitome of the 1950's Journeyman-lefthander'

Lou Sleater whose seven-year major league pitching career started with the Browns in 1950 and ended with the Baltimore Orioles in 1958, died on March 25. He was 86.  A left-handed knuckleballer, in addition to his three years with the Browns (1950-53), Sleater pitched for the old Washington Senators, Kansas City Athletics, Milwaukee Braves and Detroit Tigers before finally joining the Orioles.
"He was the epitome of the journeyman left-hand pitcher in the 1950s," said Phil Wood, a Mid-Atlantic Sports Network broadcaster. "He was with different teams every year ... usually bad teams."
He died at home in Baltimore.  The cause of death was reported as lung disease.
Louis Mortimer Sleater Jr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Louis M. and Anna Sleater. The family, which included an older sister Rita Rose and younger brother Gerald (both deceased), lived at 8538 Church Rd. in the heavily-German Baden neighborhood.  Louis Sr. was an insurance adjustor for the American Credit Indemnity Company which had been sold in 1936 to a Baltimore-based company, the Commercial Credit Co. (present-day Traveler's Group).  The elder Sleater moved the family to Maryland sometime in the 1940s when Lou was still in his teens.  
Returning Home with the Browns
At age 19, in 1946, Lou was signed to a minor league contract with the Boston Braves. He then moved through several major league farm organizations after being signed by the Chicago Cubs. His contract was bought by the New York Giants, but he was selected off waivers by the St. Louis Browns at age 23 in 1950.
Sleater made his major league debut on April 25, 1950 at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, less than three miles as the crow flies from the home where he and his family had lived only a few short years before.  The Detroit Tigers, behind Virgil Trucks, a 1949 All-Star, held a 5-1 lead over the Browns heading into the bottom of the eighth.  Manager Zack Taylor pulled starting pitcher Dick Starr for pinch-hitter Hank Arft (another St. Louis native).  Arft hit a solo home run.  Heading in to the top of the ninth, Taylor tapped the rookie Sleater with the task of holding George Kell and the Tigers close so that the Brownies could have a chance in the bottom of the ninth. That Lou did: he struck out a batter and allowed no hits, walks or runs.
The Brownies rallied in the bottom of the ninth to chase Trucks (ouch - Ed.), but could only manage one run, and lost the game 5-3.
It would be Sleater's only game that season.  With his major-league jitters dispelled, Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt decided it would be best for young Lou to get some work in the minors and optioned him to the Brown's top farm club in San Antonio.  Sleater responded by posting a 12-5 record with a 2.82 ERA, leading the Missions in wins.
The next season he was with the big-league club for good, pitching 81 innings in a swing-role and garnering 8 starts from manager Taylor.  However, in some usual Bill Veeck craziness, he was sold to the New York Yankees July 31, 1951, and assigned to pitch with the Yankees American Association  (A.A.) farm club, the Kansas City Blues, and then returned to the Browns after the Blues season ended on September 16, but inexplicably not activated by the Browns for the remainder of the season.
"When he was property of the Yankees that year, he was living in the same rooming house in Kansas City with Mickey Mantle," said Wood, a friend of many years. "He had a font of information of the game in the 1950s and Lou could remember observing Mickey Mantle having a bad stretch and of how his father, Mutt Mantle, came to Kansas City and said, 'If you are going to quit baseball, I can get you a job in the coal mines.'"
Forever-linked with Walt Dropo
Mr. Sleater remained with the Browns in 1952, but was used sparingly by new manager Rogers Hornsby.  He was traded in May to the Washington Senators. Baseball record books note that while at Washington he stopped Walt Dropo's record-tying hitting streak of 12 consecutive hits.
"The actual baseball he used to stop his streak is at Cooperstown," said his son, Raymond. "There was a ceremony in 1986 at the Baseball Hall of Fame with Walt and my father when the ball was presented."
His major league career took him to the Milwaukee Braves. He pitched in 25 games in 1956. He was a teammate of Warren Spahn and remained a friend of the fellow left-hander.
The Braves released him in April 1957 and Mr. Sleater wound up in Detroit. Signed by the Tigers, he became a reliever and had 41 appearances. On May 30, he hit a walk-off home run.
In his final season, 1958, he began with the Tigers and his contract was bought by the Orioles in June, returning to the franchise where he began his major-league career and being reunited with former Brownie teammate Bob Nieman who was the O's starting leftfielder in 1958.  His final game was Sept. 28, 1958, thus ending his career in his long-time hometown.  In his major league career, he had 12 wins and 18 losses and a 4.70 ERA. In 1959, he remained on the Orioles roster but was on the disabled list because of an injury.
"The Orioles offered him the opportunity to be a scout or a minor league coach, but he declined and went on with his life," said Wood. "He had seen enough of the road at that point."
~Emmett McAuliffe with Bill Rogers

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