October 22, 2014

Reflections on Ron Piché

February 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Ron Piché, the man they called “Monsieur Baseball,” passed away a few days ago. Ron Piché was one of only a very few Quebecers to have enjoyed a career in major league baseball. Born in the Montreal suburb of Verdun, he was a hard-throwing right-hander who toiled with the Milwaukee Braves from 1960-1964 and later enjoyed stints with the California Angels and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Taken all together, his career in organized baseball at both the major and minor league levels covered more than fifteen years. He finally wound down in Quebec City in 1972, pitching for the Carnaval, a Montreal Expos farm team He remained in the Expos organization for years, eventually becoming a scouting director and team ambassador.

In 2008 Ron Piché participated in a meeting of SABR’s Quebec chapter. A gracious guest, he generously shared stories about his years in baseball, all cloaked in the wonder he felt at his own good fortune. Throughout the meeting and in the report which followed we referred to him as Monsieur Piché (M. Piché, for short). Much of what follows is drawn from that account.

A right-handed pitcher, Ron Piché was something of a baseball prodigy in Montreal baseball circles. After several strong years of junior ball, he was signed to a Milwaukee Braves minor league contract by Quebec baseball legend and super-scout, Roland Gladu. By 1955 M. Piché was pitching for Lawton in the Class D Sooner State League (Oklahoma) where he put together a 13-6 record. He was on his way. (Photo is Claude Raymond, Piché, and George Miranda of 1959 Louisville Cardinals)

It is interesting to note that Gladu also recruited another Quebec pitcher, Claude Raymond, at the same time. And he had already signed Georges Maranda from Levis, Quebec, a few years earlier.  Remarkably, all three made it to the roster of the American Association Louisville Colonels in 1959: all three eventually went on to play in the major leagues.

M. Piché’s introduction to organized baseball took place formally in Waycross, Georgia, then the spring training home of the Braves. A stranger in a strange land, he was a unilingual Francophone away from home for the first time. Fortunately, among the first people to greet him in Waycross were Roland Hemond, a Franco-American who was just starting out on his own journey through the ranks of baseball’s upper management, and Doc Gautreau, a one-time Brave who had played for the Montreal Royals for much of the 1930s. Both spoke French enough to make him feel welcome.

He claimed his initial training camp experience was the toughest he ever had to face in baseball. Merritt Clifton, a baseball historian who has written extensively about the game in Quebec, tells a tale, apocryphal no doubt, which illustrates the confusion that language barriers can unexpectedly produce. According to his story, Gladu had originally signed M. Piché as an infielder. However, when the young man received his assignment to Lawton and sought to introduce himself to manager Travis Jackson, and having virtually no English, he stretched out his hand and said “I Piché.” Jackson misunderstood – and placed him on the mound. The rest is history!

Progress through the minor leagues was steady and successful. M. Piché had stops with all the Braves farm-teams, Eau Claire, Evansville, Jacksonville and Louisville, and in 1960 finally made it all the way to the top.

At the time, the Milwaukee Braves were almost a mythic team. Consider their nucleus: Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Johnny Logan, and of course Henry Aaron – names that still resonate today.

In 1957 the Braves had defeated the Yankees in six games to win the World Series, thereby removing that distinction from the boroughs of New York City for the first time since 1948. The Braves met the Yankees again the following year, this time losing out in seven games, and then finished second in the National League for the two years following.

When M. Piché made the leap in 1960 his salary was pegged at $7500. He was awestruck, repeatedly asking himself, “Where am I? What am I doing here, a Quebecer from Verdun, beside some of the greatest names in baseball?”

Like with most rookies, his awakening was somewhat rude. Eddie Mathews, among the first to speak to him, announced, “Here’s your locker. Talk to us only when we talk you.” Whatever comfort zone he could find lay with fellow hurlers Ken Mackenzie, another Canadian who had been a teammate in Louisville, and Maine-native Carlton Willey: he had broken into baseball with the Quebec Braves in 1951. M. Piché also formed a close friendship with pitcher Don McMahon. They remained in touch until McMahon passed away in 1987.

Warren Spahn did have some measured words of solace to offer, and in fact was quite friendly.  “What’s that written on your shirt?” he challenged a downcast M. Piché one day. Then answering his own question, Spahn declared, “Braves. Look at it and remember; you are a member of the Braves. This is where you belong!”

M. Piché says that the Braves veterans taught him how to be a major-leaguer, how to dress, how to act. “Remember,” they would say, “you represent baseball; you represent your city.” In 1961, almost one year to the day after he joined the team, Spahn, Mathews and others ushered him into a limousine and took him to a party in his honour. “You have been on the team for a year,” they told him. “You are now one of us.” He returned home at 5 AM

Playing with the Braves was a remarkable learning experience. M. Piché spoke of watching Spahn pitch against Stan Musial – “it was a joy to see” – and of Spahn’s approach to Ernie Banks – “If I could get two balls on him I knew I had him where I wanted!”

“Study the other pitchers,” advised McMahon, “that’s where you learn.” Mr. Piché was impressed with how seriously his teammates approached the game. Their concentration would start as soon as they arrived at the ball park, checking the flags for wind speed and direction.

Pitchers had a book on every player and would sit around the clubhouse discussing each one. Catcher Del Crandall was a great leader in this regard, a wonder at handling pitchers.

On the bench they were always trying to steal signs or looking for those unconscious tip-offs that might signal the next pitch. For example, M. Piché recalled that catcher Joe Torre was easy to read – heat or breaking ball – by the way he held his mitt.

Then came the tall tales, like the day Junior Gilliam approached the plate for the fourth time, have hit safely all afternoon. Catcher Ed Bailey looked up at him and asked, dryly: “What would you like this time?”

Or an afternoon when Leo Durocher showed up with a vicious hangover and did everything he could to get thrown out so he could go home and sleep.  Unfortunately for him the umpire, Augie Donatelli, was in equally bad shape that day. “I don’t care what you do Durocher, I ain’t tossin’ you,” he said. “If I have to stay here until the end, so do you!”

M. Piché spoke about baseball in Quebec during the 1950s and the remarkable fact that a proportionately large number of Quebecers had made it to the big leagues during his years. In addition to his cohort of three pitchers there were also pitcher Raymond Daviault and infielder Tim Harkness.

M. Piché always considered himself fortunate to have been present at a time when the game was still enjoying its golden era. He was a member of the first franchise to change cities in 50 years. He played with legends of the game, in old parks now all gone or going; he was a teammate with Henry Aaron, “the best hitter I ever saw” and he can claim “I had pretty good luck with Willie Mays.”

When M. Piché broke in with the Braves, segregation was still a fact. He was there when many of the last barriers tumbled, when black players were no longer excluded from the hotels which housed white players. He was a teammate of Curt Flood and saw the rise of the players’ union and the ascendancy of Marvin Miller. He got to know Gene Autry with the Angels, a man who loved baseball and respected his employees…And there was Bob Uecker, baseball’s funny man who was even funnier back then, when they first met in 1955.

Ron Piché made his mark in baseball and, in so doing, left us with a legacy of memories. He was a modest man, forever awed by all he did and saw. The folks at SABR-Quebec were honoured to consider him a friend.

Ron Piché was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. He was a strong supporter of the Hall and the work it does. It was while on his way to a Hall function two years ago that he suffered a terrible automobile accident from which he never really recovered. His cause of death was given as complications arising from a lengthy battle with cancer.

Ron Piché is survived by Hélene, his partner of 20 years, his daughter Christine, his son Luke and his grandson Jonathan.

Somewhere, someone is calling out “Play Ball’’ and our friend is about to make his opening pitch. Ron, may nothing but scoreless innings follow you home.

Comments

One Response to “Reflections on Ron Piché”
  1. CLAY MARSTON says:

    This is a truly well put together tribute to one of the nicest and most popular Canadian-born players to ever achieve some marked success in both the Majors and Minors …

    This piece really hits all the marks and shows another side of his career few would know of …

    One only needs to see his overall career record over his 16 seasons to realize that if there had been more Major League teams in his era his time in the bigs would have stretched out much farther …

    Lastly, in this day, 75 years is most definitely too soon a departure age …

    Ron will be fondly remembered forever by all those of us who knew him and respected him for what he accomplished over these last more than 55 years …

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!