Salerno experienced odyssey in baseball’s minor leagues
PORT HENRY, N.Y. — In 1950, Major League baseball fans across the nation watched the New York Yankees capture their second of five consecutive world championships, Boston’s Ted Williams become the highest paid player in history at $125,000, and Cleveland’s Bob Feller capture his 200th victory.
Meanwhile, baseball fans in eastern New York saw a historic battle — the first night game ever at Mineville High, a bout between unbeaten rivals Mineville and Port Henry.
For Mineville, the star was Johnny Podres, a future Hall of Famer and World Series champion, while Port Henry was led by power-hitting center fielder Pat Salerno.
On that night, one career bound for greatness officially began, while another career that teetered on the edge of glory was also just beginning.
Attending the game was Alex Isabelle, a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, present to watch Podres, a hard-throwing lefthander. For the entire night, Podres was nearly unhittable, that is unless you were Salerno. Podres scattered three hits in a Mineville victory, but Salerno finished with two of those hits.
And while Podres took off on a path toward baseball immortality, Salerno’s path led to more bumps, pain and heartbreak.
Salerno, still a Port Henry resident who for 24 years has been a familiar face at Ferrisburgh’s Basin Harbor Club as a golf course worker, grew up with his parents and six siblings in his hometown on Kennedy Row, a dangerous neighborhood there at the time.
“It was a tough street,” recalled Salerno, now 81. “In fact, it was so bad that our priest, when he got up on the altar, he told all the families in Port Henry to keep their kids off that street.”
His father, an Italian immigrant who left Italy alone at the age of 16, worked at Republic Steel, a mining company in Port Henry, to support his family.
Salerno, the third youngest child, was brought up tough, experiencing many a fight and playing tackle football with the other 150 kids that lived on the 300-yard-long street.
“Us kids on the street, we used to fight all the time,” Salerno recalls. “We would have rock fights … apple fights, tomato fights. We used to have fights with boxing gloves.”
That hard-nosed lifestyle was always present when Salerno stepped between the white lines.
“When I went out and played baseball, I went 100 percent. If I hit the ball two inches in front of the plate, I ran as hard as I could to first base,” he said.
Salerno always worked on his speed, a trait that helped him be one of the fastest runners on any team he played for; once he was timed making it around the bases in 13 seconds.
“I always used to practice running. Pitchers, they would practice running in the outfield. I would go run with them too, I wanted to be the best I could,” he said.
In 1945, Salerno and his family moved from Kennedy Row into a house right next to the high school and its fields.
“That’s when I really got into sports,” noted Salerno. “I was over on the field all the time … Our coach, in fourth grade, every Saturday would bring in all the kids and we used to play basketball … Sports was everything back then.”
PROS COME CALLING
In high school, Salerno made the varsity baseball team as a freshman, playing with his older brother. Salerno erupted in his junior season, but was still overshadowed by Podres, the gunslinger from Mineville.
When the two teams met up for the historic night game, Brooklyn had sent Isabelle to scout and sign Podres. But Salerno put on a show of his own with his pair of hits.
“It was something,” said Salerno. “I remember the first time I got up against Johnny I fouled off a couple pitches … Johnny had two strikes on me and I just fouled them off trying to hang in there, and I eventually got a base hit.”
Podres’ performance was good enough to earn a contract, and Salerno also attracted Isabelle’s attention.
“He told my coach after the game that he was interested in me, too. He said that if he was going to sign me, he was going to wait for me to graduate,” Salerno said. “A year later when I graduated, all of a sudden he popped up at the house and we signed the contract.”
As a senior, Salerno led Port Henry to a state title before signing with Brooklyn for a bonus of $1,000, double that of Yankee great Mickey Mantle.
Although Salerno wanted to play for the Dodgers that summer, Isabelle advised against it.
“(Isabelle) said, ‘Pat I’d like to send you off to the professionals right now but if you do go, I’ve seen a ton of guys go out of high school, they don’t play good ball and the manager wasn’t interested, and they either released him or he was finished with baseball,’” Salerno recalled.
Salerno instead stayed in Port Henry and played high-level town-team baseball before 1,000 fans a game.
In the summer of 1952, Salerno shipped out to Georgia to play for the Valdosta Dodgers in the Florida-Georgia league, the Class D affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Salerno struggled out of the gate, beginning the season 0-for-17. He was nervous his bat wouldn’t come around.
“The catcher on the team, his name was Yogi, and I said ‘Yogi, here I’ve played my first three or four games, and I haven’t got a base hit,’” Salerno said. “And he says, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, you’ll break out in a rash.’”
He slowly worked his batting average up and finished his first professional campaign hitting .201.
Despite a low average, an incredibly strong arm kept Salerno on the squad; he recorded 18 outfield assists.
“Once, we were working out, and my manager said, ‘Pat, I want to see how far you can throw a baseball.’ So I just stood on home plate, picked my leg up, and threw it over the left field fence … 330 feet away,” Salerno recalled.
At the end of the season, Valdosta found itself in a tie for first place, prompting a one-game playoff in Valdosta before a packed house. Salerno bunted the eventual winning run into scoring position in a 0-0 game.
With a championship season under his belt, Salerno anxiously anticipated the next leg of his professional journey, only to have it derailed by military service during the Korean War era.
“After my first professional season, I got drafted in the Army,” says Salerno.
Stationed in France, before too long, Salerno was moved to the special service by the sports director of his contingent and spent his days in the Army working in the gym and playing sports.
After serving his country for two years, Salerno returned home expecting a hefty pay increase, but in 1955 the Dodgers offered him a raise of just $15.
“That pissed me off,” recalls Salerno. “We were on a pennant-winning team, $15 raise, so I turned them down. Never went to spring training.”
UPS AND DOWNS
After returning home for a couple months, Salerno once again felt the draw of baseball, and contacted the Dodgers asking them to play again. He was rewarded with a plane ticket to Thomasville, Ga.
“They could’ve sent me to Cucamonga. I wanted to play baseball,” he said.
For the first week, Salerno just worked out with manager “Pistol” Pete Reiser, a former National League batting champion with the Dodgers.
Finally, when Thomasville hit the road, Salerno got his first opportunity to play, and made the most of it, blasting a game-winning home run.
“I always remember rounding the bases,” recalls Salerno. “I had just hit the home run over the left field fence, and I’m rounding third and I’m shaking Pete Reiser’s hand.”
Salerno finished the season sixth in the league with a .306 average and seven home runs, and was rewarded with a AA contract with a Dodgers affiliate in Texas, getting a raise from around $160 dollars to $400.
With the opportunity to advance in the system in 1956, Salerno instead experienced arm problems and played in only 16 games for the Cedar Rapids Raiders of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa league, a Class B affiliate of Brooklyn.
Salerno was instead sent to Nevada to play for the Reno Silver Sox of the California League. Healthy again, Salerno found his groove, hitting .292 with a pair of homers and eight triples in 111 games.
That positive season was rewarded in 1957 with an AAA contract and a chance to go to AAA spring training with the St. Paul Dodgers. After spending spring training with St. Paul, Salerno was sent to Victoria, Texas, to play for the Victoria Rosebuds, a Class B affiliate of Brooklyn. Through the first 50 games, Salerno was hitting .247 with six homers while playing flawless defense in centerfield. But before he knew it, Salerno was on the move to Shawnee, Okla.
“For some reason, the manager didn’t like me,” said Salerno. “I think some guy from AAA was coming down that the manager played with, so they shipped me out to get a different guy in.”
While spending 68 games in Shawnee, Salerno continued his power hitting, blasting nine home runs to go with his .254 average, finishing the 1957 season with a combined .251 average with 15 home runs, eight triples, and 12 doubles.
In 1958, Salerno returned to AAA spring training with St. Paul, only to be confronted head on with another shocking turn of events.
“I get to the board and it says I’m going to Great Falls, Montana,” remembers Salerno. “I thought I was going to stay with them (St. Paul). I hit .292 in Class C, they want to send me back to C again. I thought it was nothing but a screw over.”
Salerno walked into the manager’s office and requested a train ticket back home, finished with Brooklyn.
“They tried to convince me to go to Great Falls, but I went home, that was the last time I played baseball (professionally),” he said.
Salerno returned home and played a couple more seasons of town ball before a dwindling fan base forced the team to fold.
“It was a letdown when they wanted to ship me to Great Falls,” Salerno says. “I proved myself in C ball and B ball … It looked like they didn’t want to move me up. It was kind of sad that day.”
Although the sting was ever present when Salerno decided to call it a career, the fact that he made it to the professional ranks still rings true.
“I’m happy that I played professional, I always wanted to play professional baseball. I loved baseball, I wanted to get to play professional, hoping that if I played good enough I could play in the majors,” he said.
Salerno finished his four-year professional career with a .262 average, 24 home runs, 45 doubles, 26 triples and 54 stolen bases and an outstanding on-base percentage of .398, numbers good enough for enshrinement in the Albany Capital District Baseball Hall of Fame and the Glens Falls Baseball Society Hall of Fame.
Salerno’s statistics were compiled in the days when Major League baseball had only 16 teams, and baseball was the nation’s premier sport; competition in the highest levels was fierce. Now there are 30 teams, and many athletes choose instead to pursue other sports.
And although Salerno never reached the heights of his friend and competitor Podres, he always enjoyed playing the game he loved at whatever the level.
“I never let baseball leave my mind,” says Salerno. “Whether it was professional or town team, I didn’t give a damn.”
Marshall Hastings is an intern at the Addison Independent this summer.
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