Ike Futch on Life in the 1960s Minor Leagues
Two years ago, I interviewed Ike Futch, who played second base, mostly, for a variety of Yankee minor league teams from 1959 through 1964, about his experiences as a minor leaguer in the Yankee organization at the tail end of its long dynasty. Ike, after graduating high school in Louisiana, always hit .300+ while playing for Class D through Class AA teams in the Yankees’ system. He was never called up to play at Yankee Stadium; nonetheless, in the 1960s he made his name as a hitter who very rarely struck out and was typically a tough out for the opposition. In 1965, Ike went to the Cardinals’ AA team in Tulsa, and then played in several other farm systems in 1966 and 67, when he retired from baseball at age 26.
This follow-up interview goes into more depth about what the minor leagues were like in Futch’s day. The talk is not so much of things specific to life as a Yankees’ minor leaguer, but of the general nature of the minor leagues, 1959-1967, a period after they had for the most part become farm systems for the MLB teams, but before the amateur draft was having much impact on the minors.
For you, a prospect coming from Louisiana in 1959, there were no nearby MLB teams, and I guess you might not have ever been to an MLB game. But, there were some MLB players living close by, and some minor league teams in the area. Considering those things and your position as just having graduated high school, was it hard to adjust to pro ball?
1959 was a life changing experience for me. I’ll take you through that year hopefully in the order things happened as it pertains to my pro baseball career.
I played on the varsity baseball team at Spearsville and American Legion ball at nearby Farmerville, starting in the eighth grade. That helped my confidence knowing I could play with guys 4 and 5 years older than me. We won the 1959 class B state baseball Championship played at Alex Box Stadium (LSU). This gave me experience playing at a large venue in front of eight to ten Major League scouts. I signed a letter of intent with Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe to play baseball and basketball before graduation but those plans changed when Yankee scout Atley Donald showed up on my door steps the morning after graduation.
The decision to sign with the Yankees was a hard one to make. I only had my mother there with me at the time Atley was there and I had just turned 18 in January. She raised me and my eight siblings in a four room house with no heat, air or running water. I was glad I made the decision to play pro ball because I was able to buy her and my siblings a house with four bedrooms, kitchen, den, and most of all a bathroom with running water. Also had heat and A/C. Outhouses get cold in the winter, even in Louisiana! Also continued my college education during baseball off season.
My transition from high school to pro ball in 1959 was successful in many ways. The article “1959 First Year Draft – Senators Eye Futch” could have changed my career significantly had the Senators drafted me. I would have been playing in the Major Leagues at age 19 and possibly had a long successful career. Baseball is like a lot of things, being in the right place at the right time and politics.
Could you describe your experience of changes between the different levels of the minors, in terms of quality of play, stadiums, accommodations, travel, etc? For example, how did the mentality of players in AAA or AA contrast with that of players in the sub-A leagues?
If anyone could answer this question it should be me. I played in every level of the Minor Leagues that existed at that time (D, C, B, A, AA, AAA – the Yankee way!!). The quality of play had more to do with maturity and experience more than anything. There was no draft and scouts were signing players (so called free agents) at a younger age, smaller bonuses, and salaries than say, even the ’70s. The 16 Major League teams signed lots of players every year and let the managers, scouts and Minor League coordinator weed them out. For example the Brooklyn Dodgers had 16 Minor League teams in 1959.
Stadiums, accommodations, and travel depended more on what league you played in and what cities were in the league than what classification you played in. For example Kearney, NB (class D) had a nicer stadium and travel arrangements than Augusta, GA (AA) did. We traveled in vans in Kearney, Modesto (class C) California League and Greensboro (class B) Carolina League. The cities were nice and close enough most road trips didn’t require over night stay. Compare that with Augusta, GA (class AA) in the South Atlantic League riding in a diesel bus, breathing fumes for eight to twelve hours, through the Smokey Mountains for a four night road trip to Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC. AAA was a different story. Charted planes to cities like San Diego and Honolulu. More like the Big Show.
Similarly, I’ve heard that maybe the biggest change in quality as you go up levels is that the players make fewer mistakes: Pitchers have consistent control of more than one pitch, fielding is less error-prone, and so on. Did the quality of the umpires, managers and coaches improve as well?
For the most part all of the above qualities for players is true. The biggest change is confidence and a comfort zone that you can play with the best of the best. The same is true for the umpires and coaches. I played for some good managers and bad managers. Rube Walker and Mel McGaha were two of the best. Rube was catching for the Dodgers and called the pitch that Bobby Thompson (Giants) hit for a home run to win the National League pennant in 1951. He went on to be a successful manager and coach in the Major Leagues. Mel lettered in three sports at Arkansas and played and managed in the Major Leagues. He also played basketball in the NBA. Bruce Froemming was the best example of an umpire going from bad to one of the best. He was the worst umpire I had ever seen when I played in the Texas League. He went on to umpire more than 5,000 games in the Major Leagues.
Did you have much common feeling with your teammates, in terms of trying to win games and win a pennant? Or was the overriding sense that it was every man for himself, especially with those who might be competing with you to get called up to the next level?
I always played to win ball games regardless of what level or sport I was playing. I would hope that my teammates did the same but know that was not the case with some of them. I had rather go 0 for 4 and win than go 4 for 4 and lose. That’s just the way I have always played the game and advancing to the next level was out of my control anyway. Also that attitude helped me have a lot more 4 for 4’s than 0 for 4’s.
What approach did the parent MLB teams have toward you and other prospects? Did they coach you very much, talk with you, advise you? Or was their attitude more one of “we’ll see how the prospects do, how they sort themselves out, and call up the best players”?
Most of the coaching, talking and advising you was done in Spring training when all the front office big wigs, managers, coaches, GM’s and former players in the organization would be there to help. Former players were the most help because you had guys like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial (talking hitting in front of entire Cardinal organization), “Where’s that guy named Ike Futch that never strikes out? You need to talk to him about hitting with two strikes.”
The best advice and coaching I got was 1959, my first year in the Yankee organization, when they sent Eddie Lopat to work with pitchers and Jerry Coleman to work with hitting and fielding. The only position I played was shortstop in high school and that ’59 season at Kearney. Coleman was a former second baseman for fifteen or so years with the Yankees and worked with me all spring teaching me to play second base. “I’ll get you to Yankee Stadium a lot quicker playing second base.” I didn’t get to Yankee stadium but I won the batting title and played a pretty good second base the rest of my career. And answering the last part of your question, they sure didn’t always call up the best players.
Your stats indicate that you were a fairly light-hitting, but high average, middle infielder. Did you work hard on defense, hustle a lot, and try to draw a lot of walks, in an effort to make up for your lack of power? Did you figure that hard work and smarts was your best chance of getting to the bigs?
The game was played a lot different in the dead ball era. Lineups had lead off and number two hitters to get on base, move runners over, bunt, and middle of lineup to hit home runs and drive them in. In high school I hit third or fourth in the lineup, swung from the end of the bat, drove in a lot of runs and hit home runs. That’s another thing Jerry Coleman taught me to advance my career, chock up on the bat, make a lot of contact and get on base. That was my job to help the team. That’s why I got 177 hits playing a one hundred forty game season and striking out four times in 560 at bats. Today’s players all through the lineup try to hit home runs and strike out 100 times. That’s a hundred at bats with no chance to help the team. And yes I always hustled and played good defense. None of that would have happened if not for hard work (and I’ll give my Mom credit for that).