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Mudville: April 14, 2024 7:45 pm PDT

Eric Soderholm

"They’ll tell me it changed their lives – and that is more powerful than hitting a home run.”

Usually on Spitballin’ we write a brief introduction about our guest before the main interview to provide some background.

This week, we’re going Spitballin’ with nine-year Major League Baseball veteran Eric Soderholm, who is a different kind of cat.

In that spirit, we’re going to use this space to share a poem Soderholm wrote during the 1977 season called A Warm Day in August.

A Warm Day in August

by Eric Soderholm

It was a warm day in August when history was made.

People in the box seats were hunting for shade.

The bases were loaded and it was the last inning.

From the sound of the crowd, you knew we weren’t winning.

 

Then out of the dugout came Richie Zisk,

And everyone knew the ball would be kissed.

Legend here tells of Casey at the bat,

But today it was the Pollack who tipped his hat.

Then cursing and swearing came from the stands,

When Richie was waved back by Bob Lemon’s hand.

An astonishing look came over Zisk’s face,

When Lemon said, “Soderholm’s taking your place.”

 

As Eric stepped from the dugout, came a scream from the fans.

You can’t hit Soderholm, the Big Pollack is our man!

Never before in history have they pinch hit for Zisk,

Especially with a bad-kneed free agent who was a big risk.

 

This has to be a mockery!

A dirty, rotten shame!

To pinch hit for a man,

Who’s sure Hall of Fame.

 

Eric heard not a word as he strolled to the plate,

But he noticed the crowd’s eyes and they were full of hate.

“God help me just this one time,” kept going through my mind.

If I ever get a hit, please let it be this time.

 

Nolan Ryan looked in and thought,

“This oughta be a cinch to throw three strikes by this rider of the bench.”

“Strike one!” Was the call from the man in blue,

And four pitches later, it was now three-and-two.

 

Now everything rode on the very next pitch.

Would Eric stay a poor man?

Or would he suddenly be rich?

 

Then the crack of the bat and a long drive to right.

The back of Joe Rudi’s uniform was the only thing in sight.

The roar from the crowd was a deafening scream!

Then Eric fell out of bed; it was only a dream.


Just beyond fantastic.

Incidentally, Soderholm hit two career home runs off Nolan Ryan.

BallNine has always been a place that links creativity and dreams with reality, so please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Eric Soderholm.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Soderholm! We have a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. Let’s start back at your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?

It all started when my dad threw me his glove. It was one of those old gloves with no laces or wrappings, just the fingers. Then he started throwing me the ball and I had a gift of hand-eye coordination and it seemed fun to me. He got me in the Little League program and my first at bat, I hit a sharp line drive past the second basemen. It kept rolling and I ended up getting a home run. I was hooked from there.

You played for South Georgia and were the first person to make the majors from that school. How did you end up there?

I was like 140 pounds soaking wet in high school and played shortstop. There were maybe a couple of scouts who came to watch me, but nothing big. I ended up getting a work-study scholarship to South Georgia. I had to sweep the gym and line the field and the money that I made working went towards my tuition. I don’t know if it was the Georgia grits, but all of a sudden I started getting bigger. All those line drives that were going over the shortstops heads were now going to the warning track. I was named honorable mention JUCO All-American. Next thing I knew, scouts were asking me if I was interested in going pro.

You were the top overall pick in the 1968 January Draft, Second Phase by the Twins. What was the draft experience for you like?

I didn’t hear anything for a while after the scouts talked to me, but one day I was sitting in my dorm room and I got a call from Sid Hartman from the Minneapolis Tribune. He said, “Did you know that you were the number one overall draft choice of the Minnesota Twins?” They told me if I was interested, they would offer me $23,500 and pay for the rest of my college education. At the time, I was lucky to have $5 a week to go to Dairy Queen on a date. I said, “Well give me the pen before you change your mind!” To me, it was like I was a millionaire. Then I went to Spring Training and I met the second round pick and he told me he got $42,000. We didn’t know. We didn’t have agents. But it was all good. Baseball has been very good to me.

Reggie called me over and said, “Kid, you’re on the Yankees now. It’s not whether it’s good publicity or bad publicity. Just make sure they spell your name right.”

You were called up to the majors in 1971 onto a great Twins team. They had five Hall of Famers on that team—Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Rod Carew. What was it like being a 22-year-old kid around those guys?

I remember walking into the locker room and looking at Killebrew, Oliva, Bobby Allison, and Cesar Tovar and was like, “Wow! Do I put my pants on the same way these guys do? I can’t believe I’m playing at this level.” I had to step back and look at it. I had some of that insecurity and doubt my first year and it showed. I hit .188 my first full year [1972] but I showed some promise hitting ten home runs in limited time. But, I wasn’t comfortable yet. Then I met a hypnotist named Harvey Misel out of Minnesota who had done work with Rod Carew and some other players. He was instrumental in helping me and so was a guy named Greg Esch, who had a positive thinking course called Success Motivation. Between getting drilled with Greg’s positive stuff and Harvey putting me under hypnosis and trying to build confidence that way, I came out the next year and hit .276 and had some pretty good years after that.

Wow, that’s pretty fascinating. After five seasons with the Twins you signed with the White Sox as a free agent. Can you talk about making that move?

Being a Swede, Minnesota should have been the perfect place for me to play! However, we had an owner named Calvin Griffith and maybe if I was an owner, I would have been the same way, but he was very tight. The minimum salary was $14,000 a year. In 1976, I hit .276 and I went in to see Mr. Griffith to negotiate my contract—there were no agents back then. I said, “Mr. Griffith, I feel comfortable now after my second year in the big leagues. I feel like I did pretty well last year and am looking for about $25,000 a year.” You would have thought I shot him.

He reached in the drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. He said, “Look here! On April 15, you popped out with the bases loaded. On May 12, you hit into a double play to end the game. On this date you did this, on this date you did that.” He said, “Quite honestly, you should be at the minimum salary again. I held out and after about two weeks, I got a call from his secretary asking me to come in to talk about a raise. I came in and he gave me a contract with a $2,000 raise to $16,000. He said, “If you don’t take it, you can go sell fish in Miami. We don’t need you.”

The Blue Jays' Roy Howell slides safely into third base as Eric Soderholm waits for the throw. (Photo by Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

It’s amazing to think how far the economics of the game have come in really not that long of a time.

That’s what you were dealing with back then. The owners had complete control. I had no choice but to take it. The next year was up to $18,000 and then up to $25,000. Five years in the big leagues and I was making $25,000. Now, the minimum salary is $720,000, even if you’re just sitting on the bench. Think about what the guys before me were making! They all had to have second jobs. I was in the dugout when Harmon Killebrew signed the first $100,000 contract. There were cameras all over and people saying, “Can you believe a ballplayer is making that much money!” With that said, I love baseball and got paid to do what I loved doing. Now I have a pension program where I get $55,000 a year. Between that and social security, the bills are all covered and I can genuinely retire, play golf or cards with my buddies, and do whatever I want to do. It’s a nice feeling of freedom and I am very thankful for my baseball career.

You had a really serious knee injury and you missed the entire 1976 season. A couple of questions with that. First, how did you injure your knee?

There was about three weeks left in the season. It was a freak accident. My wife Ginny and I were looking to buy a home in Minnesota. We were looking at a property that was under construction and I had a couple of friends with me. The car got stuck in the sand and the wheels were spinning like crazy. I went looking for a piece of wood to put under the tire. I found a board just lying on the ground. I grabbed both sides of the board, took one step forward and went straight down into an open storm sewer. I broke four ribs, could barely breathe and was barely hanging on. They pulled me out and called an ambulance. I had also torn cartilage in my knee. Because it was a half tear, the doctor trimmed it instead of repairing it. When Spring Training came and I started pounding on the knee, it turned out that method didn’t work. They redid my knee and sent me off to rehab.

Infielder Eric Soderholm of the New York Yankees, during pregame warmups prior to a game in August, 1980 against the California Angels in Anaheim, California. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

That’s where I wanted to go next. I read about your rehab and being a pioneer with Nautilus. I thought that was really interesting. Could you talk about your rehab?

Nautilus contacted me and said they were a new company who needed an athlete to use as an example using their equipment. They were going to do my rehab, free of charge, but they wanted to film it for promotional videos. They were doing it with Dick Butkus and myself. Calvin Griffith was very upset I wasn’t going to do my rehab with the Twins people. I went down to Florida and lived in a pop-up trailer with my wife and two kids to begin a rehab program that was unbelievable. They trained me so hard that I would throw up some days. But I was never in better shape. I couldn’t even support my own weight on my bad knee when I started and by the end of eight months, I was doing 400-500 pound squats.

Did you see a change in your production being in that great shape?

The doctors said I might not ever come back from the injury, but I came back better than ever. I went from hitting 10-15 home runs to 25. I won the Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1977 with the White Sox. After the [1976] season, there was a note from [White Sox owner] Bill Veeck in my locker to come see him. When I signed with them he said, “We’re looking for someone like you who could play multiple positions.” I told him that with all due respect, I was going to be his everyday third baseman and have a big year. He told me if that happened to come see him and he’d take care of me. He offered me $55,000 to sign with the White Sox when Calvin Griffith was offering $25,000. If there was a different owner in Minnesota, I would have stayed for sure, but I left for Chicago instead.

I always like asking people what it was like playing for Bill Veeck. What was your relationship like with him?

He was like a second father to me. I was coming off knee surgery and people didn’t know if I could play or not, but he doubled my salary. It wasn’t expensive to go to games back then, but he wanted people to get their money’s worth. We’d come to the stadium and not be able to take batting practice because there was a trapeze act or midgets or something crazy happening. He wanted fans to have a lot of fun and I respected that. He also promised he’d take care of me if I had the season I said I was gonna have – and he was true to his word. After the season, he called me into his office and gave me a two-year, $300,000 contract. I was like, “Whoa, OK, I like this guy!” I have nothing but great things to say about Bill Veeck. He had some enemies and he didn’t always have a lot of money to work with, but he did pretty good for the amount of money he had to work with.

Photo via Soderworld.com

That 1977 White Sox team was such an awesome squad. The South Side Hitmen. It’s probably hard to summarize, but can you talk about that fantastic season?

We were very exciting. We set a record for the most home runs hit by a team by that point. We didn’t win it though, Kansas City went 25-6 the last month of the season and we went 15-15. They went by us like we were standing still. But in August we had a five-game lead and the city was going nuts. We had 40,000 at Comiskey Park every night. It was such a fun year. To this day, people still come up to me and say that 1977, 1983, and 2005 were the top seasons they ever saw with the White Sox. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. I had 25 home runs, Oscar Gamble had 31, Richie Zisk hit 30, Chet Lemon hit 19. We were like the Bad News Bears. Las Vegas had us at 100-1 to win it at the start of the season.

 

You’re right, looking at that team there were a lot of solid ballplayers, but nobody really even close to a Hall of Famer. Zisk was the only All Star that year. It’s amazing a team like that could be so historical.

People couldn’t believe it. It was a magical year that didn’t end the way we would have liked. But it helped me make a name for myself in the Chicagoland area and that’s why I still live here. We were a blue-collar team. I played third and with a bad knee, I was basically a step-and-a-dive player. Alan Bannister was our shortstop. He had rotator cuff surgery, so he had to sling the ball to first. Jorge Orta played second. He was a great hitter, but couldn’t turn a double play. Lamar Johnson played first and he was just a big target. We had to bring in Jim Spencer in the late innings to back him up. Ralph Garr played left; every ball hit out there we had to hold our breath. Richie Zisk was in right and his range was limited. Chet Lemon was the only legitimate all-around player we had, in center. He had to cover left and right and hit at the top of the lineup. You wouldn’t look at that team and say, “Oh yeah, this team has a chance!”

A few years later you were on another really good team, the 1980 Yankees. Four Hall of Famers on that team plus Tiant, Nettles, Randolph, Guidry and so many great names. What was that year like for you?

There’s not many people in the world who can say they played for the New York Yankees, and I am glad to say that I did. It was a whole different energy. You had to have a big ego to play for the Yankees back then. Here’s a story to illustrate that. Reggie Jackson had 399 home runs and 400 was a huge deal. Yankee Stadium was packed in anticipation. He banged a line drive into right center field for his monumental 400th home run. I was batting behind him, so I was the first person to greet him at home plate. Now, you don’t just high-five a guy who hit his 400th home run, so I grabbed him and was jumping up and down. His face was to my right and because of the angle of the photo, the caption in the paper the next day said, “Reggie hits 400th home run and receives kiss from Soderholm at home plate.” I was so hot, man. I was out there yelling at the newspaper guy the next day. Reggie called me over and said, “Kid, you’re on the Yankees now. It’s not whether it’s good publicity or bad publicity. Just make sure they spell your name right.”

This has been really awesome and I thank you for spending your time with us. One last question on the way out about what you are currently doing. You and your family have a really interesting endeavor called SoderWorld. Reading up on it, I thought it was absolutely great. Could you talk to our readers about SoderWorld?

Well, if Walt Disney could call his place Disney World, I felt like I could call our place SoderWorld. It’s a healing arts center where we offer all kinds of modalities from professional massage [to] chiropractic care, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation. We offer all kinds of classes where we teach people to go within to find peace and joy. We created a Garden of Eden, which is out back. I played nine years in the big leagues and I am very proud of that, but I am more proud of creating SoderWorld with my family than I am of playing in the big leagues. In the majors, everyone can join in when you’re winning and losing, but that’s all surface stuff. What we do at SoderWorld is we teach people to look deep within and look at some of the issues keeping them from having peace, joy, and happiness in their lives. That’s so powerful. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of people have come through here. They’ll come up to me at my office out by the Koi pond and thank me for creating this place. They’ll tell me it changed their lives – and that is more powerful than hitting a home run.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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