"[Buck O'Neil] knew baseball up and down. I just loved playing for him compared to some of the other managers I played for.”
Today’s edition of Spitballin’ is the 168th we have run at BallNine over the past three years. That works out to over 2,000 questions we have asked to players who have played in each of the past nine decades.
Everyone has great and unique stories – but sometimes, I’m still blown away by the questions I’m asking the people at the other end of my phone.
Questions like, “What was it like playing for the Kansas City Monarchs?”; “What was it like being a teenager in the segregated South watching Jackie Robinson break the color barrier?”; What was it like being teammates with Stan Musial?”, or “What was Buck O’Neil like as a manager?”
You could probably count on one hand the people who could answer those questions today with first-hand knowledge.
George Altman is one of those fellows, and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Now 90 years old, Altman is an absolute baseball treasure.
Born in 1933 when Babe Ruth was still active and Satchel Paige was in his prime for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Altman has had a life and career that is simply astonishing.
Altman’s first professional season came playing for Buck O’Neil and the legendary Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues and continued when he signed with the Cubs in the summer of 1955.
He had a great first season in the minors before taking time away from baseball to serve in the United States Army. After batting .325 with an incredible 78 RBIs in just 89 games in A Ball upon his return in 1958, Altman made the jump up to the majors in 1959.
He had a great first season in the minors before taking time away from baseball to serve in the United State Army. After batting .325 with an incredible 78 RBIs in just 89 games in A Ball upon his return in 1958, Altman made the jump up to the majors in 1959.
By the All-Star break in 1961, Altman was batting cleanup between Ernie Banks and Billy Williams for the Cubs and was on the way to establishing himself as one of the top stars in the National League.
Want proof of that statement?
The National League All-Star outfielders in 1961 were Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, and Altman.
Altman wasn’t just happy to sit at the All-Star Game as a spectator, either. He led off the eighth inning with a solo home run to extend the National League’s lead to 3-1 in what would ultimately become a 5-4 win.
Altman finished 14th in the National League MVP voting in 1961, ahead of Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews, Sandy Koufax, and Joe Torre. He was an All-Star again in 1962, but injuries and a trade to the Cardinals slowed down his production.
After one season in St. Louis, Altman was traded to the Mets and was the starting right fielder for the Mets in the first ever game at Shea Stadium before going back to the Cubs for his final three seasons.
Altman’s career didn’t end after he left the majors, though. He played in Japan for eight seasons where he excelled as a popular power hitter. If you love baseball history and appreciate what players from yesteryear went through, you’ll love Altman’s story, which goes into greater detail in his book, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues and Beyond.
There simply aren’t many folks still with us who can share these kinds of first-hand stories, so please take it all in as we go Spitballin’ with the great George Altman.
Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Altman! What an absolute honor to be able to talk to someone who has the experiences you do. Let’s start by going back to when you were growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
We started off being competitive from a playground where we used to play. We did everything on that playground. I played with a soft pitch team based out of that playground and that’s how I started out. I didn’t really follow baseball as a kid, though. The local cotton mill had a baseball team. It was a white team from the cotton mill and I watched them play. That was about the only organized team around. A little later on when I was 15 or 16, I was able to play a little bit and I played on a team. I played four years with the high school team, too. I played on the basketball team, too, for a couple of years. The gym where I was able to play was on the other side of town, so I didn’t play until my sophomore year of high school. Then I went on to play at Tennessee State University in Nashville.
That’s great! You were 14 years old when Jackie Robinson debuted for the Dodgers in 1947. Do you remember Jackie breaking through and how big of a deal was that for you?
Oh yeah. I really was interested in that at the time. I never got to see him play early in his career, but I did get to watch some of his games later in his career on TV.
He told me that even with the injury, I would still do better than anyone else he could put out there, so he wanted me to play. What are you gonna do when a legend like Casey Stengel tells you that?
I have to say you’re the first person that I’ve ever talked with who played with the Kansas City Monarchs. That’s incredible to me. What was your experience like playing for the Monarchs?
After I played at Tennessee State, one of the coaches suggested that I might have a chance to play professionally. He suggested I try out for the Monarchs. At the time, they were very good. One of the guys at the school had a contact with them and they set up an opportunity for me to sign and work out with them. I had heard about the Monarchs and was really excited to play with them. Just to play on their field gave me chills every day.
Did you ever cross paths with Satchel Paige? Either playing with or against him?
I never played against him, but I was on a team with him. He had retired and came back in 1955. He was still amazing. He had to be 40-something years old. He was still cunning, but the main thing was his terrific control.
It’s amazing he had that control and pitched at the age he did. What a legend. You got to play with and against so many of baseball’s icons. You were even teammates with Stan Musial for a year with the Cardinals in 1963. What was it like playing with Stan Musial?
It was terrific. That was his last season. I was amazed that he was still a threat. He was truly, truly, truly an All Star and Hall of Famer.
You got to play a little bit longer with another one of the greats of the game, Ernie Banks. You played seven seasons in Chicago with Ernie. What was it like being teammates with Ernie Banks?
He was such a great hitter. He had strong, strong hands and wrists. He was one of the guys who could pull an outside pitch and put it in the left field seats. That takes strength. Most guys would hit that ball to right field, but Ernie would pull it and hit it hard.
(L to R.) Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and George Altman in the dugout with their Cubs teammates.
You played in three All-Star Games and actually hit a pinch hit home run in your first All-Star at bat in 1961. Could you tell our readers about that experience?
It was fantastic just to be there. I was familiar with the pitcher I hit my home run off of, [Mike Fornieles]. I had played against him in Cuba. He was in the American League, so I never played against him in the majors; but I knew he threw a lot of curve balls. I went up expecting a curve ball – and that’s what he threw. I had a good year in Cuba and almost broke the record for home runs before I got hurt. He must have decided that he was gonna be careful with me and not throw me fastballs, so I looked for the curve ball.
That’s amazing you still have that memory! I’m looking at that All-Star Game roster. The National League All-Star outfielders in 1961 were Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, and George Altman. What an absolutely incredible group of guys to be included with!
Roberto Clemente was a great talent. He hit the ball hard and hit to the opposite field. He had the strong arm in right field. He was such a great player. Hank Aaron was incredible too. But the number one all-around player I saw was Willie Mays. He could do everything.
Absolutely. There were so many great pitchers, too, in your era. You were actually a rookie in 1959, the same year Bob Gibson was a rookie. What was it like getting in the box against Bob Gibson?
At the time, he was probably the hardest thrower. It was between him and Sandy Koufax. You didn’t want to face either of them. Bob Gibson’s ball was heavy. It was like hitting a metal ball. He could really get inside on your hands and he didn’t mind pitching inside. If you got too close to the plate he was gonna knock you down.
(Original Caption) St. Petersburg, Florida: George Altman of N.Y. Mets during spring training. April 1964.
I read that you also played for Buck O’Neil and of course being with the Cubs, you had a lot of interaction with him. What was your relationship like with Buck O’Neil?
It was great. He was a tremendous manager. Looking at his career, he was a great player too. He was different than the managers I encountered in the major leagues, especially Leo Durocher. Leo would always threaten you. He’d say that if you didn’t do well, he’d back up the truck and get you out of there. But Buck O’Neil was different. He was always supportive and positive. He was very encouraging and a very good baseball man. He knew baseball up and down. I just loved playing for him compared to some of the other managers I played for.
What were your thoughts when you heard Buck was finally being enshrined in Cooperstown?
He deserved that. He should have been in earlier. He worked in [many capacities] in baseball. He did a great job as a scout and as a manager of the Monarchs. He was a coach with the Cubs when they did their “college of coaches,” but he never got an opportunity to manage. They knew if he got the opportunity to manage, they might not [continue with their plan to keep switching coaches]. He was the only coach on the staff that never got a chance to be manager and in my opinion, he was the best of the bunch.
What do you consider some of your own highlights from your playing days?
Just playing in the major leagues was my number one [highlight]. I played in three All-Star Games and that was terrific. Just being with those guys and doing fairly well was great. I actually enjoyed playing winter ball in Cuba too. I had a great year hitting home runs until I got hurt. I could have had a much better career if I didn’t get hurt. At that time, there were no trainers or agents to look out for you.
Catcher John Roseboro #8 of the Los Angeles Dodgers drops the ball as George Altman #26 of the St. Louis Cardinals slides in at home. Umpire Shag Crawford makes the safe call during a game on April 28, 1963 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images)
Were there specific injuries or years that you look back on and wish they had treated you differently?
When I went to the Mets [in 1964], I got hurt. Casey Stengel came to me about a week later and I told him I couldn’t lift my arm that well. He told me that even with the injury, I would still do better than anyone else he could put out there, so he wanted me to play. What are you gonna do when a legend like Casey Stengel tells you that? I played for about a month before I was able to rest and heal up. That happened in St. Louis, too. I started off strong, but I got hurt. The manager, Johnny Keane, was looking at me every day to play – but I should have sat out for a while. When I went to Japan, my injury problems disappeared because they did what I referred to as kamikaze training. We trained real hard so I didn’t run into the injury problems I had in the majors. I played eight years without having any major injuries. I enjoyed playing in Japan because I was able to play every day. In the majors, they would run you out there before you were able to recover from injuries. That happened a lot my last few years in the majors. I didn’t enjoy those years too much.
I certainly believe that. I wanted to ask about your book as well. Your book is called George Altman: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. Can you talk to our readers about your book?
It starts out when I was a kid and follows my career all the way through Japan. I played eight years in Japan after I was done in the major leagues. You could get it on Amazon. I was just reading it the other day again. It covers my college career and everything and has my life story about growing up all the way through the major leagues and Japan, Cuba and everywhere else I played.
Thank you again so much, Mr. Altman. It really is a true honor to be able to help share your story with our readers and hope that a new generation of fans can appreciate what you’ve done.
Altman’s book, George Altman: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond is available through McFarland Books, Amazon, and anywhere books are sold online.