The Phenom

When I was a kid I had both the good fortune and the good sense to have a brother who was a hell of a baseball player.

Skip (my father was in the Navy in World War II, and a lot of boomer babies were labeled “little skippers” in the tradition of ships’ captains) was three years older than I, and was pretty much a self-made athlete. He didn’t have great speed or strength, or a natural hitting eye; but he was one of those guys whose greatest attribute was his determination. At about 5′ 11 and only 155 pounds he made himself into an All-City receiver, defensive back, and punter for De La Salle Collegiate in the old Catholic Central Division in Detroit.

A shot of my brother Skip DeLisle trying for a pass in the DeLaSalle-Notre Dame High School game of September of 1960. This photo originally appeared in The Detroit News.

During summers in the late 1950s, he applied himself to baseball, and after successful stints with Babe Ruth and American Legion teams at Lipke Field on Van Dyke, he was scouted and handpicked to join a select group of special kids who played high-level baseball at parks and diamonds all ’round the city of Detroit. The Ravens, whose home field was Palmer Park, were a group of outstanding ballplayers put together by legendary baseball and football coach Ron Thompson. The 300-pounds-plus Thompson assembled the only team in the City Federation League that was purposefully half-black and half-white. The teams the Ravens played — at historic old parks likle Manz Field and Butzel and Northwestern Diamond One and Palmer Park — in those wonderful summers of 1959 and 1960 were always all-black or all-white, but Thompson was out to make a statement — and win games — with his Ravens. He shared coaching duties with a white friend, and the athletes they recruited and coached truly represented a cross-section of the city of Detroit. Casual integration was not a hallmark of city life here in the late ’50s, but the players on the Ravens were about as tight-knit a group as you could hope to find on a seasonal team. They reminded me of those great mixed Brooklyn Dodgers clubs that I collected with my baseball cards — black catcher, white starting pitcher, black first baseman, white second baseman, black shortstop, white third baseman, black left fielder, black centerfielder, white right fielder … (with a couple of loopy left-handed relievers tossed in, staples of any baseball contingent worth a damn, amateur or pro.)

Skip was the rightfielder. He was only about a career .240 hitter, but he could field like a sumbitch and had maybe the best schoolboy outfield arm in the city. He could one-hop ropes to any base or the plate from almost anywhere in deep right or right-center, nearly 300 feet on the fly, remindful of another right fielder who played in Detroit back then. But as much fun as it was having a big brother who played for a really special and fascinating local team, it was the Ravens’ catcher who was the star, a lightning rod of attention, wherever the team traveled to play. The Catcher was fairly short and stocky and strong. Stocky? Strong? Maybe like Mike Tyson was stocky and strong. He had muscles in places where other people don’t even have places, and was as intense and driven an athlete as you could hope to see. What made him especially stand out, in his summers as a 15 and 16-year old Raven, was his incredible ability, and stunning power, at the plate.

Thompson and his staff kept exacting statistics and records on the Ravens’ performances each year, issuing them at a team party each winter. And for the two full seasons that my brother and The Catcher were teammates, the latter never hit LESS than … .650 a season. His second season he hit almost .690 against intense competition. AND he averaged well over a homer per game — nearly two — during the Ravens’ long summer schedules. I well recall him cannonading a ball out of Manz Field and over Connor Avenue that I believe is flying still; it disappeared over the centerfield fence at the 400 foot mark and faded high into the night. He regularly reached Grand River Avenue at Northwestern Field, prodigious shots carrying well over 380 feet, astonishing the usual SRO crowds in the small but packed bleacher seats there, and often boinking skidding traffic on the busy highway. Many teams just refused to pitch to The Catcher, regardless of the game situation. He was just too damn dangerous, and impossible to stop over the length of any game. Rival coaches placed their outfielders at the fences when they DID pitch to The Catcher. It didn’t matter. They just got better looks at the departing baseballs. At 16, playing for his city high school team, he hit a home run into the second deck of the right-center bleachers at Briggs Stadium. A true phenom, right out of the best of baseball lore.

Those were magic summers, made especially memorable by The Catcher. The night he disappeared the baseball at Manz, we found we had been sitting in front of a major league scout, who identified himself after the game. Bidding farewell to my family, he said “I’m going to go sign me a home run hitter.” I seem to recall the scout was from the Baltimore Orioles. But no, he never did sign The Catcher. Thankfully, our Detroit Tigers did. Ultimately playing in the same outfield as that other rifle-armed right-fielder, he helped bring a World Series Championship to our town in a later summer, and there is a statue in his honor today where the current Detroit Tigers play that forever recalls the greatest schoolboy athlete I ever saw, and maybe the greatest homegrown power hitter this city ever produced — Willie Horton.

One reply on “The Phenom

  • steve rogin

    I played 2or 3 seasons against”the catcher” in Billy Rogel and possibly class “e”.After the pitcher warmed up he would throw to 2d base from his crouch.
    1 year I believe he hit either 685 or 715. of Course he was 1st.I think i hit either .300 or.333 and was 10th.
    If there are any statisics to show this I would appreciate having them. The year would have been around 1960.

    We knew their squeeze play sign— the rather large coach would hike his crotch.

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