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Elmer Sexauer found his field of dreams, then lost it

Elmer Sexauer, in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, pitched in two games in 1948, then hurt his shoulder.

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Elmer Sexauer, in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, pitched in two games in 1948, then hurt his shoulder.

TAMPA — Elmer Sexauer lived a quintessentially American dream, one packed with history and nostalgia. A big, overpowering pitcher, he played on one of the best teams in baseball history in the middle of the sport's "golden age."

A member of the 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 22-year-old rookie shared a dugout with future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese.

He lasted a week.

After a career-ending shoulder injury, Mr. Sexauer sold food and raised a family. His wife stashed his newspaper clippings away, agreeing to his request for secrecy.

He encouraged a son to play catcher, and pitched to him easy. As far as Matt Sexauer knew, his father had played at Wake Forest University, then a little minor league ball.

Nothing more.

"He just wasn't the type to talk about himself or what he did or what he accomplished," said Matt Sexauer, 55, who went on to play college baseball himself. "Perhaps in his mind because he didn't stay longer, he wasn't the success that he wanted to be."

Mr. Sexauer, a country boy who briefly tasted the big leagues with the Boys of Summer, died June 27, of cardiac arrest. He was 85 and had been living in University Village for seven years.

His story is reminiscent of that of Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, who played a single game for the New York Giants in 1905 before beginning a career as a physician. Unlike Graham's character portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Mr. Sexauer would not likely have described the experience as something "like coming this close to your dreams, and then watch them brush past you like a stranger in the crowd."

He simply filed the dream away and said nothing.

But for a while, his promise gleamed. Team scouts liked what they saw in the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander. He was pitching for the Dodgers' minor league team in Danville, Ill., when they called him up in September 1948.

"He was one of those bright young hard-throwing pitchers in the Dodger organization," said former teammate and fellow pitcher Carl Erskine, reached by phone at his home in Anderson, Ind. "That whole organization had 800 players. Two hundred of them were pitchers, so to come out of that organization to the top was just amazing."

New York, with the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers all playing there, was the "biggest and brightest stage in those days," said Erskine, 84.

Fans routinely packed Ebbets Field in 1948, many to boo or cheer Robinson, who had broken baseball's color barrier a year earlier.

"Rookies didn't say much," Erskine said. "You've got to prove yourself and shut up."

Mr. Sexauer was trying to do just that, but was ejected his first game, an away game against the Boston Braves.

"It was his first day on the bench," said Erskine, who wrote about the incident in Carl Erskine's Tales from the Dodgers Dugout: Extra Innings. "He was green and young."

In a moment of levity, someone tossed a towel at the umpire. The ump demanded that the manager eject someone —anyone, he didn't care who. Manager Burt Shotton considered the order.

"He looks down the bench and sees Elmer. Says, 'You, kid,' " recalled Erskine. "Elmer was dumbfounded."

To exit, Mr. Sexauer had to cross the field to the opposite dugout under a shower of boos from the crowd.

But the same week, he got his chance to shine.

Mr. Sexauer pitched in two games. He gave up a run, walked two and recorded two outs. Then he hurt his shoulder.

He never took the mound again in a game.

"Doctors wouldn't touch an arm in those days with a scalpel," Erskine said. "They didn't know anything about it."

He finished out the season with the Dodgers, then was picked up by the Phillies. Then it was over.

Mr. Sexauer married Marilyn Mansfield, a physical education teacher. The family lived quietly in St. Louis and Indianapolis. He worked as a salesman for Sawyer Biscuit, and the Kraft and Dean food companies.

In the early 1970s, Erskine was attending a high school baseball camp when he heard a familiar last name: Sexauer.

"You don't hear too many people with that name," Erskine said. So he asked young Matt Sexauer if he was any relation to Elmer. Then he told the boy about his father's history with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Father and son chatted.

"He was kind of embarrassed," said Matt Sexauer, 55.

The secret out, Mr. Sexauer let his son look at the clippings he had stashed away all those years.

Now that his family knew about his playing days, he let others know, too.

Mr. Sexauer retired in 1988. Eventually, he and his wife settled in University Village, where Mr. Sexauer organized events for the men's club, scheduling field trips and guest lectures.

Even then he remained low-key about his shining moment.

"There are people who carry their professions like that's who they are," said Jim Petrone, 80, a neighbor at University Village. "They still like to be called doctor and professor and so on. Elmer never liked to be associated with being a professional baseball player."

Still, his son said, his father finally allowed himself to be proud.

"He had something that the rest of those retirees didn't," Matt Sexauer said. "I don't think he realized how special that was all these years."

CORRECTION: Mr. Sexauer died June 27. An earlier version of this story cited another date.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]

. Biography

Elmer G. Sexauer

Born: May 21, 1926

Died: June 27, 2011

Survivors: son Matthew Sexauer, daughter Sally Logan.

Memorial gathering: 1 p.m. July 23; University Village, 12401 North 22nd St., Tampa.

Baseball record

First game: Sept. 6, 1948

Last game: Sept. 12, 1948

Innings pitched: 0.2

Earned runs: 1

Walks: 2

Elmer Sexauer found his field of dreams, then lost it 07/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 9:38am]
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