A tall, white-haired great-grandfather, he stood at the plate, under pressure to hit a home run. “I says: ‘That’s not me! I’m not a home run hitter!’ ” Sandlock protested. Nonetheless, he crushed one into the right-field stands, then woke up.
“I have crazy dreams anyway,” Sandlock said dismissively.
About 82 years earlier, when Sandlock lived about three miles from where he does now, he took the train one day to the Bronx with his older brother. It was his first time in Yankee Stadium, and Babe Ruth was in his prime. Sandlock sat in the right-field bleachers, and Ruth hit a towering drive well over the teenager’s head.
“It’s a good thing it wasn’t any lower,” his brother told him, “Your mouth was really wide open.”
Sandlock recalled thinking, “I looked at this big field and said, ‘Oh, I would like to play here.’ ”
But neither of these dreams — an old man’s subconscious, a teenager’s fantasy — was far-fetched. Sandlock is the oldest living Brooklyn Dodger, Boston Brave and Pittsburgh Pirate, according to Baseballreference.com, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and Mark Langill, the historian for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
A switch-hitting catcher who was the Dodgers’ opening day shortstop in 1945, Sandlock is one of the few living athletes who played professional baseball before and during World War II. Only two living former major leaguers — Ace Parker, 100, a Philadelphia Athletics infielder in 1937 and 1938; and Connie Marrero, 101, a Cuban junk-ball pitcher for the Washington Senators from 1950 to 1954 — are older.
Across the room from where he usually sits in his wheelchair, framed photographs of a young Sandlock in long-extinct baseball uniforms decorate the wall. In one picture, he is behind the plate at Ebbets Field; in another, he shares an action shot with Joe DiMaggio. Displayed nearby is a hand-scribbled sign reading, “Didn’t make the Hall of Fame but enjoyed every minute.”
Sandlock played in an era before multimillion dollar salaries, when baseball players were “heroes but regular guys,” said John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian. Many players used public transportation, held off-season jobs and fought in America’s wars. Teams traveled by train and journeyed no farther west than Chicago or St. Louis, where the major league map ended.
There were just 16 clubs — 8 in each league — and 3 in New York City, where baseball on the radio would fill the summer air. When Sandlock played, baseball stood unrivaled as the nation’s most popular team sport. And on a recent Sunday, with the sound of a church organ playing softly from a small television set (he never misses Sunday Mass), Sandlock talked about how, for a while, he was able to play the game he loved for a living.
He learned baseball on the sandlots of Old Greenwich, Conn., then known as Sound Beach, imitating Ruth’s swing. Sandlock never attended high school; instead, he became an electrician during the Depression, earning $200 a month, a job he quit to play baseball for a monthly salary of $75. His parents, Polish immigrants, thought he was crazy, Sandlock said.
Between 1938 and 1942, Sandlock traveled throughout the Northeast and Midwest, playing minor league ball in places like Huntington, W.Va., and Bradford, N.Y. One Indiana evening in September 1942, Sandlock recalled, he was jarred awake by banging at his door. The culprits: his Evansville Bees teammates Warren Spahn and Ducky Detweiler delivering good news. All three had been promoted to the Boston Braves, managed by Casey Stengel.
In his first big league at-bat, Sandlock singled against New York Giants pitcher Fiddler Bill McGee. Sandlock then missed the 1943 season to serve in the war effort, making ammunition at a Chrysler plant.
He was back with the Braves in 1944, and in 1945, his best season, he batted .282 in 195 at-bats for the Dodgers under Manager Leo Durocher. He hit two home runs — one at the Polo Grounds, the other at Ebbets Field — both off Giants pitcher Harry Feldman. They would be the only long balls of his career.
To reach Ebbets Field from Connecticut, Sandlock would take trains into Brooklyn, and then walk to the ballpark, signing autographs for youngsters along the way. He said he remembered Ebbets Field as a cozy park, which it was, a place where the ushers always greeted him with a “Hey, Mike!” and members of the Dodgers Sym-Phony band gave him sandwiches between games of doubleheaders.
On his trip home after games, Sandlock often met Red Barber, then a Dodgers announcer, for a beer at Grand Central Terminal. Barber nicknamed Sandlock the Commuter.
Back in Old Greenwich, at a park near the railway station, Sandlock would hit pop-ups to neighborhood children. “Follow it with your nose, and you’ll get it!” he encouraged them.
Sandlock played in just 19 games for the Dodgers in 1946 and spent 1947 with the Dodgers’ Class AAA team in Montreal. That was the season that Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers and broke the major league color barrier.
Sandlock was not there to witness it, but he was around in spring training, when a short-lived petition circulated in opposition to Robinson’s presence on the team. Sandlock, like many other Dodgers, refused to sign it.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, he found himself teammates with Roy Campanella, who, like Robinson, had come out of the Negro leagues and would join the Dodgers the next season and establish himself as one of the great catchers in baseball history.
Sandlock had little of Campanella’s ability. And yet, according to a 1950 article in Ebony magazine, it was Campanella who attributed much of his defensive success to “a lesson he learned in 1947 from a white teammate, catcher Mike Sandlock.”
Campanella said in the article that Sandlock “had spotted my windmill throwing motion and went to work on me.”
“I learned to get the ball off quickly and without a windup,” Campanella said. “That’s when I started to nail some of those fast fellows.”
As for Sandlock, he never returned to the Dodgers. Instead, he became the starting catcher for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League from 1949 to 1952, at a time when the major leagues had not yet arrived on the West Coast and the Stars’ home games, according to Thorn, attracted a “Hollywood following.”
“Pat O’Brien, Gabby Hayes, Jack Benny, all these people,” Sandlock recalled. “Yeah, they were in there.”
By then, Sandlock had become known as someone who could catch the knuckleball. And when the Pirates acquired the knuckleball specialist Johnny Lindell from Hollywood in 1953, Sandlock, now 37, got a call-up, too, making an unlikely return to the major leagues six years after he left.
He played 64 games in that last go-round, and when he was done, he had a career .240 batting average in 195 games and thousands of memories.
Afterward, he became a handyman who could do anything — “carpenter, plumber, electrician, anything you wanted,” his longtime friend Bill Gardella said.
And now, after all those years gripping a bat and swinging a hammer, he wakes up between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. and prepares himself oatmeal with raisins. He passes time watching detective shows like “N.C.I.S.” and “Law and Order.” (“Anything with action keeps me busy,” he said.) He naps in the afternoon. His son Damon lives upstairs with his family and they bring him dinner.
Sandlock’s oldest son, Michael Jr., who lives in Tennessee and was a batboy on teams his father played on, calls often. Sandlock’s wife, Vicki, who compiled scrapbooks of his memorabilia, died in 1982.
Last summer, Sandlock was honored as the oldest living Dodger during a ceremony at Citi Field. Wearing a blue Brooklyn Dodgers cap, Sandlock navigated the field by cane, chatting with coaches and players, including, who else, the Mets knuckleballer R. A. Dickey.
Sandlock said the modern game irks him. “Bunt, hit and run — they don’t do that anymore!” he said with a groan. “Everything is the long ball.”Sandlock added, “I mean, a guy on first and second, jeez, bunt that guy to third. Get that one run if you can!”
As a player, Sandlock “knew the game very well,” said Jack Paepke, a Hollywood teammate of Sandlock’s who later became a major league coach and scout. When reached at his home in Carlsbad, Calif., Paepke had an anecdote at the ready.
He said that Sandlock was the only catcher he ever saw who, after a strikeout, would fire the ball to first base rather than third. When Paepke asked Sandlock why he did that, Sandlock’s explanation was simple but practical: on live plays, catchers throw more often to first than third. Why not take extra practice?
“I thought that was pretty cool,” Paepke said. “Still to this day I think of that.”
Every Friday, Sandlock meets with friends at a local golf club, a place where he once had a hole in one and is a former club champion. A place that has helped put the finishing touches on what might be described as Sandlock’s low-key approach to life and longevity.
“Win some, walk off,” he said. “Go in, have a beer. That’s it.”
But even as Sandlock noted that he was “not excitable,” his eyes brightened as he recalled an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium when he was with the Dodgers. Playing shortstop, he marveled at the perfectly manicured infield grass, then took in the scene around him.
“It was beautiful,” Sandlock said, chuckling. “You’re on stage, kid. You could see everything. Beautiful.”