Bill Sharman, one of only three players to be named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, passed away at his home in Redondo Beach, Calif., on October 25, 2013 due to complications from a stroke. He was 87.
For all of the accolades that Sharman received due to his sharpshooting basketball abilities, his prowess on the baseball diamond is often overlooked. Sharman signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 out of the University of Southern California at a time when the NBA was viewed as a fledgling operation. He was a sure-handed outfielder that sought to break in alongside burgeoning Dodgers greats Carl Furillo and Duke Snider.
Immediately upon his entry into professional baseball, Sharman's energies were divided between his two passions. Dick Teed, who later went on to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953, roomed with Sharman in 1950 during his rookie season in Class A Pueblo. Teed stressed Sharman’s desire to shoot every day, a routine he later made famous as an NBA head coach.
“We were roommates; we went to the Y every day and shot baskets,” Teed said in a 2008 interview from his Connecticut home.
Sharman soared up the ranks of Branch Rickey’s vast minor league system, advancing to Class AA Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1951. Another future Dodger, Glenn Mickens, teamed with Sharman that year and spoke of his propensity for ice cream in the Texas heat.
“We'd stop at every other ice cream parlor in the street when the streets were boiling and see who could eat the most ice cream,” Mickens said in a 2009 phone interview from his home in Hawaii.
Playing in only his second year of professional baseball, he hit .286 at Fort Worth, and earned a call-up to the Dodgers in September with the hopes that he could provide Snider with some rest en route to the World Series. Unfortunately for Sharman, the Duke's services were needed for the remainder of the season, as the Dodgers encountered a surging New York Giants club that went 50-12 over their final 62 games. The Giants forced a one-game playoff in the Polo Grounds, and Bobby Thomson infamously took care of the Dodgers with one mighty swing.
Sharman’s tenure with the Dodgers wasn’t without controversy, and that was due to a disputed call by umpire Frank Dascoli in a September 27, 1951 game against the Boston Braves. Braves outfielder Bob Addis tried valiantly to slide under the tag of Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella on an infield hit. Dascoli called Addis safe and immediately Campanella tossed his glove towards the sky in protest. Dascoli ejected Campy, and as the unrest grew louder from the Dodgers bench, he cleared them out too. Sharman went down in history as the only player to be ejected from a major league game without having actually ever appeared in one. Author Rob Neyer disputes that Sharman was ever ejected in his book, “Big Book of Baseball Legends,” as the Dodgers later sent one of the players that was driven from the bench in to the game as a pinch-hitter.
While it makes for good theater that Sharman was ejected before he could ever get his cup of coffee, he was on the Dodgers bench with a front row seat as Thomson sent Ralph Branca’s fastball screaming over the left-field wall a few days later. It was his last taste of the big leagues, as the pounding of his knees on the basketball court eroded whatever speed he had to play the outfield.
“He quit baseball because of the speed,” Teed said. “He said basketball slowed him down to a walk. He had to choose.”
Even though his baseball talents were hampered by his pursuit of an NBA career, he confided to at least one teammate that baseball was his preferred sport.
“He always told me, he liked baseball more than basketball,” Mickens said. “[Even though] he slowed down from all that pounding on that basketball court, obviously he picked the right sport.”
The Dodgers advanced Sharman to St. Paul of the Class AAA American Association in 1952. He hit .294 with 16 home runs, but with the Dodgers en route to another World Series appearance, his services weren’t needed at the major league level. He played for half of the 1953 season with the Dodgers farm team in Mobile, until he was sidelined with a broken hand. His injury put his baseball career on hold, and he turned his full attention to basketball, sitting out the entire 1954 baseball season. He attempted a comeback in 1955 with St. Paul, batting .292 with 11 home runs. Despite his strong showing, there was no space for him on their World Championship team.
Would Sharman have flourished in baseball if he didn’t choose to enter the rough and tumble NBA of the 1950’s, robbing him of the speed necessary to patrol the vast outfields of that era? Would he have been given more of an opportunity to play if he wasn’t behind two legendary outfielders in Furillo and Snider?
I tried to get this information from Sharman after speaking with him on the phone in 2009, but he politely refused as he said he was saving it for a book he was writing. Unfortunately, the book never surfaced. Those that were close to him on the baseball field are dwindling greatly in number, and the ones who are alive remember more of his warm persona than details about his dealings with the Dodgers.
One such teammate was fellow two-sport athlete Gene Conley, who described in Terry Pluto’s, “Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA,” how Sharman’s biggest assist came from their encounters on the baseball diamond.
“Bill Sharman was the reason I ended up with the Celtics,” Conley said. “In the early 1950s, Bill played basketball at Southern Cal, and for one year I played basketball at the University of Washington. Then I ran into Bill again, this time in minor league baseball. I was pitching for Milwaukee, Bill was an outfielder with St. Paul of the Class AAA American Association. Bill told me that he mentioned my name to Red Auerbach, who was looking for guys with size. In 1952, Red made me his last draft pick even though he never saw me play – it was done purely on Sharman’s word.”