"When we were down there, Ed Figueroa told me he’d trade Nolan Ryan for me."
Sometimes, people are just ahead of their time.
Imagine a pitcher growing up on Long Island and developing into such a fireballer on the mound, that the Yankees would spend their #7 pick on him despite having just popped onto their radar three weeks prior.
A pitcher like that might be called a hidden gem or a high-upside project now, and it’s probable the Yankees thought of him that way.
However, with today’s knowledge on arm health, that pitcher would have been given a proper path of development in order to maximize his God-given ability. Fifty years ago, not so much.
Don DeMola was just that pitcher and he joins me for this week’s Spitballin’.
DeMola was so dominant as a senior at Commack South High School that he was named the Carl Yastrzemski Award Winner as the top pitcher in Suffolk County. The reason he was a hidden gem was because his first two high school seasons, he attended Commack North because South wasn’t built until his junior year. DeMola’s residence forced him to attend Commack South, but because it was a new school, they didn’t compete in varsity league sports that first year.
That left DeMola one year as a senior to make an impression and he most certainly did.
DeMola entered professional baseball as a Rookie Ball pitcher for the Yankees at the age of 17 and if that was the case today, the best care would have been taken to develop his arm naturally as he progressed through the minors.
Instead, the Yankees, and eventually the Expos organizations didn’t quite do that. Nobody did back then.
DeMola spent time bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving, excelling in both roles. He pitched during the regular season, in the Instructional League and in Winter Ball. He would work in relief in the Majors, then be sent to the minors to start, only to come back up and work in relief. Then there were the countless “dry humps” in the bullpen. Despite his success, Gene Mauch and the Expos organization still had him pitch in Winter Ball, taxing his powerful right arm further.
The inconsistent structure of his development and the amount of innings on his arm at a young age from pitching year-round was a recipe for disaster. DeMola went from being the youngest pitcher in the National League at one point in 1974 to out of baseball due to injury by 1976.
Today, a pitcher of DeMola’s ability would have been nursed along and developed cautiously. He would have fit perfectly in the game the way it is played today either as a starter or hard-throwing, back-end reliever.
But he was ahead of his time.
He may have had a short stint in the Majors, but he is a certainly a character and has fantastic stories to share, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Don DeMola.
“You know how many times I pitched six innings and got nothing for it? Today you throw six innings and you’re a multi-millionaire.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. DeMola. Looking forward to hearing your baseball stories! Let’s start back when you were a kid. What was baseball like for you growing up?
Growing up, I was a Yankees fan and Mickey Mantle was the man. When I was a Yankees fan in the 1960s, they sucked, but it didn’t matter. I wish I had one-tenth of the Mickey Mantle baseball cards I put in my bike spokes. That was the thing back then though.
I played Little League starting when I was young. It’s a lot different than it is today. I have two grandsons; one is nine and one is gonna be eight. The nine-year-old is better than me when I was that age. I wasn’t always the greatest guy on the team when I was young. I played every position but was never a great hitter. I just wanted to play baseball. We played baseball until it was too cold to play, then we switched to football and basketball.
You mentioned playing every position, but you made it to the Majors as a pitcher with a big-time arm. When did you start focusing on pitching?
I didn’t start pitching until I was 12. I coach kids now on teams and with different academies and I get kids who are nine years old. I’ll work with him for a half hour and then have the father come over and say, “What do you think?” I laugh in their face. “What are you, kidding? Your son is nine! Let him just go play the game and have fun!”
Don Demola, Denver Bears; (Photo By Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
When did you start getting recognized by Major League scouts?
When I was in high school, I was a victim of splitting schools. My first two years I was on Commack North on Long Island. Then in 1969, Commack South opened, and I switched schools. In ’68, I was on the JV team and they needed a pitcher for a varsity game. They took another pitcher instead of me. When I switched schools, there were no seniors, so we just played a non-league schedule my junior year. I literally had no exposure. My senior year was the first year I was playing varsity. As a senior I went 9-2 and had 145 strikeouts in 75 innings and a 1.01 ERA. Three weeks before the June draft, I struck out 15 batters for the second time against the same school.
The umpire went over to my coach and said, “How come there aren’t scouts here for this kid? He’s got the best arm I’ve seen on Long Island since John Curtis.” Curtis was a bonus baby for the Red Sox from Smithtown. He was drafted #1 by the Red Sox and was a polished lefty. After that, there were scouts in the stands when I pitched. I had little exposure, but the Yankees picked me in the seventh round and that’s with nobody seeing me until about three weeks before the draft.
That’s awesome, sounds like you had a memorable senior year for sure.
Yes, I won the Yastrzemski Award, which is given to the best high school baseball player in Suffolk County. I beat out a guy from East Northport who hit .650. The Daily News had a high school All-Star team every year. My coach called the writer, Dick Young, and asked, “Are you putting DeMola on your All-Star team.” He said he didn’t know. There was a three-letter guy from Brentwood named Charlie King. My coach told Dick Young, “If you leave DeMola off, you’re gonna look like the biggest fool when DeMola gets drafted, and King doesn’t.” When the All-Star Team came out in the Daily News, I was the top photo on the back page. King went 10-2 and he made the team too. But my coach was right, I got drafted, but King didn’t.
You said you grew up a Yankees fan, so what was it like getting your start in pro ball in the Yankees organization?
The first-round pick in 1970 was Dave Cheadle, he was a pitcher. Their second-round pick was Richard Earle, another pitcher. I remember he bought a brand-new Oldsmobile Cutlass, but he didn’t want air conditioning because he said it gave him a headache. You believe that shit? Anyway, at number four was this tall, lanky pitcher from Pennsylvania named Dave Lawson. Then I was seventh.
You don’t realize how hard you throw until you start going against other professionals. It turned out, every league I played in, I was the hardest thrower in the league. I remember pitching against the Marion Mets. I was warming up and on the bench was those pitchers who were drafted ahead of me. I heard Cheadle say, “Man, I wish I could face him.” The Mets trainer walked by. They had a guy named Michael Kowalski on their team. The trainer stopped and said to those guys, “I thought Kowalski was the hardest thrower in the league until DeMola pitched against us last week.”
I believe it. Looking at your stats, you averaged over a strikeout per inning your first two years in the minors and you weren’t even 19 years old yet. How did you end up going from the Yankees to the Expos?
That second year I got invited to the Big League Spring Training. That’s where I first met Mickey Mantle, Yogi, Whitey, Mel Stottlemyre and all those guys. I had a kink in my shoulder, and that made me afraid to really throw it. I never got to show what I could do. Back then, CBS owned the team, and it was all business. Corporate bullshit. I was a victim of the first player strike. They co-opted some of the teams and released me. I was really hurt and didn’t want to play. I went home, worked as an auto glass mechanic and started playing softball. But I got a bug up my ass to play again, so I called my coach and said I wanted to play. He called up a guy named Tom Giordano. He was Athletic Director at Amityville High School, but he was also a part-time scout with Milwaukee. My coach got me a tryout, but I couldn’t find anybody who could catch me. I ended up just throwing against the wall to warm up. I threw well and he asked me if I could throw tomorrow, so I said I could. He wanted to make sure my arm wasn’t hurt. Next day he came back with the minor league pitching coach for the Expos, Larry Bearnarth. They told my coach that I threw harder than anybody they had in the organization.
What was your first Spring Training like with the Expos?
It was in Daytona and there were four guys in a room. Jack Scalia was my roommate. He was an actor on Dallas and All My Children, but he got his start playing baseball. We had a great time. He was from Brentwood, which was 10 minutes from where I was from. I had a good spring and they sent me to West Palm Beach for A ball and then I got moved up to AA in Quebec City. I was the hardest thrower in both leagues.
I read that you were close friends with Gary Carter at that young age. What was it like being young kids together in the Expos organization?
I had met him that Spring Training and played with him in Quebec City. After the season, Gary and I went to the Instructional League in St. Pete. We went down together and got an offer to go to Puerto Rico for Winter Ball. We were making about $1,500 a month in Puerto Rico. Back then, the minor leagues paid dogshit. When you first signed, no matter who you were, the maximum you could get was $500 a month. After that, it was all you could get. I was making about $800 a month in AA. There was no money in the minors, you played because you wanted to play. Gary and I figured, “Fuck, for $1,500 a month to go play with all those guys down there, it’s a no brainer.” They were like Big League teams down there. Just listen to our team:
We had Mike Schmidt at third base. At second base was Felix Millan and Willie Montanez played first. Barry Foote caught for us with Gary Carter and Jim Essian. Jay Johnstone was on the team. Some of the pitchers were Larry Christenson, Ed Figueroa, Bob Apodaca and Craig Swan. We won the Caribbean World Series. Gary and I got down there about two weeks after the season started.
That’s an incredible team no matter what league it was in. What was your experience like playing with them?
When I signed, I pitched in A Ball and AA. Nobody knew who the fuck I was in the higher leagues. Joe Liscio was the trainer for the Expos and Bobby Wine was our manager in Puerto Rico. They were very close friends. Liscio picked me and Gary up at the airport and put us up in a hotel. The next day, we had to find our own place. We stayed in Santurce on the water, across the bay from San Juan. We played for Caguas, which was about 30 minutes inland. Liscio picked us up and drove us to the game. Guys from the Expos on that team were Foote, John Montague, Dale Murray and Chuck Taylor. They were all in AAA the same year Gary and I were in AA. Christenson started the game and in the top of the fourth he hurt his elbow. Wine-o put me in the game in his place. We were playing against Santurce, who was managed by Frank Robinson. They had Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda, Dave Kingman, Elrod Hendricks, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers. It was Big League fucking lineup! I pitched 5 1/3 innings and struck out ten. I walked one, gave up one hit and allowed no runs.
After the game, I was walking off the mound and Barry Foote and Wine-o were walking out. I hear Foote yell, “This fucking guy is in our organization?!” Then he yelled it again! Basically, he was saying, “Where the hell did we get this guy from?” Wine-o said, “Yea, he’s in AA with Carter.” I wound up going 4-2 with nine saves in Puerto Rico while missing the first 15 games of a 60-game schedule. I had 60 strikeouts in 48 innings with a 1.90 ERA and we won the Caribbean World Series. I firmly say, without me they weren’t winning that fucking thing! I firmly believe that. When we were down there, Ed Figueroa told me he’d trade Nolan Ryan for me.
(Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
That’s a pretty incredible compliment. Looks like you made a good impression playing against some great competition.
I became real good friends with Jim Essian. He caught for 12 years in the Big Leagues. I saw him 20 years later in Memphis. I was in the fur business, and he was managing in the minors. He was walking in with his team, and I was at the ticket booth. He sees me there and I hadn’t seen him since Puerto Rico. He just looks at me and says, “Don DeMola. You could fucking bring it!” They played a doubleheader and he said to meet him at the hotel later. We went out and he was with their trainer. He said, “Don, I caught a long time in the Big Leagues, and you threw as hard as anyone who played the game.”
You ended up having success as a reliever in the Majors, especially that first year. Can you talk to us about your time in the Majors?
I should have been a starter. The reason they didn’t put me in the rotation was that I could throw 95-plus after just ten warmup pitches. I got ready fast and could pitch a lot. I would pitch seven days in a row, and not just one-inning. Now a guy gets four outs, and he needs two days off. Are you kidding? You know how many times I pitched six innings and got nothing for it? Today you throw six innings and you’re a multi-millionaire.
My first year I had a streak of 23 straight scoreless innings. They gave me a spot start against the Pirates after that streak ended. I was in the sixth inning tied 1-1 when I felt this little muscle twinge in my shoulder, so they took me out. I was supposed to face the Dodgers five days later. When I went to warm up, I felt that twinge again. It wasn’t that bad, but I was 21 years old, and I didn’t want to take a chance. They never gave me another opportunity. They ended up making a trade for Larry Biittner and needed a roster spot, so they sent me to Memphis to get some starts. I went 5-0 in a month with three complete game shutouts in a row. Yet after that year, Gene Mauch sent me to Puerto Rico to keep starting. They always put me in the pen because of how fast I got ready, how fast I threw and until I hurt my arm, I had really good control. My second year though, my elbow was hurt bad. I had to put my arm in my belt loop when walking down the street because I couldn’t let hit hang. That’s how bad it hurt, but back then you couldn’t tell anybody shit because they’d get rid of you.
You were with the Expos at a time when Duke Snider was involved in the organization. Can you talk about your experience with the Duke?
Duke one of the greatest human beings I ever met. When I first met him, Tim Foli said to me, “Hey, that’s Duke Snider!” I said, “Who’s that? What the fuck do I know, I was a Yankees fan.” He said, “The man is a Hall of Famer!” Duke ended up becoming close with me, Gary Carter and Dennis Blair. Gary, Dennis and Duke were from Southern California. Dennis actually ended up going out with a Playboy Bunny and married her. The Duke was great, he took me to my first hockey game. I lived four blocks from the Montreal Forum. I didn’t even know that because I wasn’t a big hockey guy. Duke took me to see the Canadiens play Toronto in the playoffs. We had center ice about 12 rows up, really good seats. Middle of the second period, I said, “Duke, I can’t take any more of this shit.” I got up and left and he never let me forget that I walked out of a hockey playoff game. Duke was the classiest guy I ever met. It was a pleasure for me to know that man how much he liked me. We got along very well.
This has been awesome, Mr. DeMola. You’re the best and I loved hearing your stories as always. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and sharing your stories with our readers. Take care!