Irish ace

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Notre Dame alum recalls his time playing professional baseball with the likes of Tommy John, Luis Tiant and Norm Cash. Also talks about his 60th high-school reunion.

Of the roughly 500,000 kids who play high school baseball in the U.S. today, only 5.6 percent wind up playing on a collegiate team. Of those players, only 10 percent are drafted by a major league organization to play on their minor league teams. And of all minor leaguers, only about 10 percent will ever make it to the major leagues. 

All of which means the odds of making an MLB roster today are very long.

That also was the stark reality back in the late 50s and early 60s. Just ask Notre Dame alum George Denyer ('58), one of the best pitchers to ever play for the Irish. After a stellar career at Notre Dame High School, Denyer received scholarships to Michigan State University and the University of Detroit. He decided on U-D, but after one semester, received offers from both the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians to join their organizations.

"I had the offer from Detroit, but I got a little more money from Cleveland, so I ended up signing with them," he said during a recent interview. 

However, when you're talking baseball money back then — especially in the minors, according to Denyer, it wasn't even in the same solar system as today's baseball money.

"The first year I played for Cleveland, which was on their Batavia Indians squad, I got $50 a month," said Denyer, 78, a current Warren, Mich., resident. The last year I played for Cleveland, when we won the Eastern League championship with the Charleston Indians in AA ball, I was making $550 a month."

But back then, he said, players didn't get paid for spring training, they didn't get paid during the off season, so they had to get a regular job when they weren't playing ball. 

Pitching baseballs and insurance 

"For me, it was one year working for Household Finance, one year for Eaton Spring, then I worked two years for Thompson Products," he recalled. "And then, in 1963, after we won the Eastern League championship, I walked around downtown Detroit with a suit on looking for work and got a job offer from AAA insurance.

Denyer said that at that time he was married with two kids, and with AAA, he saw a possible future that didn't involve dragging his family all over the country, so he decided to hang up his spikes for good.

"Actually, I couldn't get a release from Cleveland (until I turned 30), so after leaving the organization, I was prevented from playing with anybody else if I decided to get back into it, which also kind of helped my final decision," he said. "I eventually retired from AAA insurance when I was 55, then went to work for for another insurance company for seven more years. Unfortunately, I had a stroke when I was 62, so I decided it was time to fully retire from insurance as well."

Denyer's says he's had a good life so far even though he may have taken what he says is "the wrong fork in the road" when he decided on signing a professional baseball contract instead of finishing college at U-D or MSU. He and his wife, Carole, live comfortably in Warren and he's got a lot of great memories of his nine years in professional baseball.

"I actually roomed for a bit with pitcher Tommy John and played with or against the likes of Luis Tiant, Gates Brown, Mickey Lolich and Jim Price to name a few," he said. "I remember Price hit a home run off of me in Burlington." 

Denyer said he didn't play with Rocky Colavito, however, because Colavito left the Cleveland organization for Detroit before Denyer signed.  

"Norm Cash also was with Cleveland for a while if I remember correctly, and I also remember Sam McDowell, who later was one of only two major leaguers to record a 300-strikeout season," he said.

DeBusschere matchups

In his nine years in the Cleveland organization, Denyer compiled a 48-45 record. His 1960 season was his best when he went 16-4 and had an ERA under 2. 

Denyer also recalls baseball at Notre Dame as well as sandlot ball when he played for the Lundquist Insurance team at the famed Northwestern Field, which was located at Grand River and Grand Boulevard in Detroit.

"I pitched against Dave DeBusschere many times at the Northwestern field and even going back to my time at St. Veronica (DeBusschere played for St. Clare of Monefalco), where I played for coach Tom Kelly, who also was my coach at NDHS," he said. "I actually beat DeBusschere and Austin High School once and he beat me once during my senior year at Notre Dame." 

Denyer also has fond Notre Dame memories off the field: Fr. Champagne ("tough, but fair") and Fr. Ouellette, who taught him drafting.

He remembers that as a Notre Dame senior, it came down to a choice he had between making an afternoon baseball game and finishing up a couple of drawings for Fr. Ouellette that were due the same day. 

"Father told me I wasn't going to pass the class if I didn't turn in my drawings," Denyer said. "I told him, sorry, Father, but I have to get to my game. Turns out, Father eventually let me make up the work and I ended up passing the class. He was a good guy."

60th reunion

Denyer was able to trade that memory and many more with nearly 50 of his classmates last month when they got together for their 60th high school reunion at the Capital Banquet Center in Washington, Mich. 

"We were the first graduating class at NDHS," he said. "Many of us remain pretty close after all these years. We had a good turnout and a good time at the reunion."

Denyer worked with a number of fellow '58 grads, such as Bob Bendzinski and Vic Battani, to make the reunion a success.

"We worked hard to make it happen," he said. "I would tell a lot of my classmates, 'you know what, we may not be around for the next reunion. So it might be a good idea to make this one!' That seemed to do the trick."


Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org.
 
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org

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