Former Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan spent eleven springs preparing to pitch in the big leagues. Frank looks back on a time when a crowd of 500 was a good turnout for an exhibition game, when teams “barnstormed their way north playing exhibition games along the way, and when players of color had to deal with segregation in the South.
Herb Crehan: Did you look forward to spring training every year once you made it to the big leagues?
Frank Sullivan: I did! I even liked going to minor league spring training. After being in combat in Korea it was utopia. All you have to do is play the game you love! Hello? Is this OK or what?
Herb Crehan: Did you work out at all before training camp?
Frank Sullivan: No, I didn’t but I played a lot of basketball and handball in the winter. I also never had a weight problem. I wish I could say that now! I pitched my best at 218 pounds and it made me look pretty skinny with my height of 6’7″ but any thickness across my chest restricted my delivery to the plate for some reason.
Herb Crehan: How long did it take you to get your arm in shape to pitch against major leaguers?
Frank Sullivan: About two and a half weeks. And I could have amped that up if it was required. I threw to have hitters get themselves out. I wanted them to hit the ball. I did it by using a lot of change of speed pitches and sinkers looking for ground balls. But two and a half weeks would allow me to muscle up and blow the ball by the hitter when necessary. I must say that when I needed a strike out it was a matter of getting ahead of the hitter and then throwing a very hard slider low and away.
Herb Crehan: The old saying is that the pitchers are ahead of the hitters in spring training, did you feel that way?
Frank Sullivan: To a certain extent, yes. Remember some of the people you were up against had just come from winter ball in Mexico and beyond and were ready to go at full speed so it was a piece of information you might want to know.
Herb Crehan: What was your objective in your first outing in an exhibition game?
Frank Sullivan: Get nine guys out fast. There was no inter-league then and pitching against the National League teams was always easier because they were strangers to my motion and my surprising fastball when needed. The first year Billy Jurges was named manager, I got nine guys out in a row in my first outing. He called me over and said with a frown, “Do you always pitch like that?” I looked at him and said, “Hey! I just got nine outs in a row!” He then said to me, and I’m not kidding, “I know but it looked bad.”
Herb Crehan: The Red Sox draw 10,000 fans to their games at JetBluePark. What was a typical crowd when you trained in Sarasota?
Frank Sullivan: I would say 500 was a hell of good crowd.
Herb Crehan: Players often say spring training is too long? Did you feel that way?
Frank Sullivan: In my case it could have been shorter once I became a starter, but there had to be time for the management to see who they wanted to take north. And to be on the train going north after spring training meant you had a chance of making the team. But it was a blast if you knew your job was safe.
Here is how it went. The Red Sox with all the reporters following them commanded three Pullmans. And let’s say the Phillies would add their two Pullmans making it a five-car deal. Then a train going north would hitch up to take them and their own regular cars northward with all the stops along the way. If a game was scheduled in one of those towns the train would stop and the five Pullmans would be put on a siding and then that train would continue north.
We would then play a game and come back to the Pullmans where the lodging was as good as it got in those days. Each player had a roomate or in the case of a super star like Williams, his own compartment. The food was outstanding and as you stepped up the ladder of an extra nickel, you could make sure the wonderful porters were rewarded for their ability to come up with a beverage not otherwise available as you went through a dry state.
But what I liked the most when going north was seeing all the places we stopped to play. For instance in Bluefield, West Virginia, there was the sight of a teenage girl barefoot and in overalls smoking a corn pipe up on the hill behind center field avoiding the ticket to the game. It was like Lil’ Abner was alive and well.
And some of the playing fields were brutal to say the least. Once I pitched off of a two by four piece of wood set up on a mound of loose dirt.
Herb Crehan: Did any of your teammates have an unusual way of preparing during spring training?
Frank Sullivan: Robin Roberts was the ace of the Phillies and a well-deserved Hall of Famer. But in spring training and the ride north he threw four seamed straight balls just a little over batting practice speed. Each game he pitched looked like Cape Canaveral because guys launched shot after shot of long balls. As pitchers, we begged to oppose him then because we too wanted to hit and could hit him. I remember some conversations with young guys who had never faced him before wondering what was wrong with him.
But when the “Bell Rang” to start the season, Robin Roberts would be in the headlines with a 2-hit shutout and he would be on his way to another 20-game win season. When I joined the Phillies I asked him about this. He said he just wanting to throw strikes in spring training and he held back a special thing he did with his wrist for the regular season.
Herb Crehan: You trained mostly is Sarasota but later in Scottsdale, AZ. Which did you prefer?
Frank Sullivan: I loved Sarasota and hated Scottsdale.
Herb Crehan: When you were with the Phillies you trained in Clearwater, FL. How did you like Clearwater?
Frank Sullivan: It was somewhere in-between Sarasota and Scottsdale for me, but as usual I was able to rent a place there with Sam White and stay out of the hotel provided.
I also spring trained in Orlando with the Twins and I stayed in the hotel they provided. It was there I first realized the brutal segregation still being imposed on skin color. Anyone on the bus back to the hotel that had dark skin was let off at a lesser place. It had nothing to do with race — just the color of your skin. And the year was 1963!
To order an autographed copy of Frank Sullivan’s book “LIFE IS MORE THAN NINE INNINGS” make a check out to Frank Sullivan for $23—includes postage—and sent it along with your signing instructions to:
P.O. Box 1873
Lihue, HI 96766
Great interview, Herb. Thanks for adding to all the stories in his book.