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How Red Adams turned a devastating injury into a five decade journey in baseball

Looking at Red Adams’ career Major League stats, one might assume that he was washed up at age 24, pitching only 12 innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1946 with a bloated 8.25 ERA. Lost in the translation of his  cup of coffee was a 19-year minor league career that spanned over 3,000 innings and opened the door for another three decades as a scout, pitching coach, and instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Adams died Wednesday January 18, 2017 at the age of 95 in California. He left behind a lifetime of memories that came from a half-decade association with a game that he admits he wasn’t ready to play when he signed his first professional contract in 1939.

“I didn’t play any baseball before I went into pro baseball,” he told me during a 2009 phone interview from his home in California. “I grew up in a small town. There was a guy named Charlie Moncrief who took me to a tryout camp. He saw me play in high school. I played seven or eight games in high school. He took me to Los Angeles to a tryout camp and I was signed. I didn’t even know pitchers were supposed to cover first base.”

While Adams was learning the finer points of the game playing at the lowest rung of the minor leagues in Bisbee, Arizona, he suffered a severe injury that threatened to cut short a career that was just starting. An evening of horseplay with his roommates left him with an injury that would have stopped his career dead in its tracks if he played any other position besides pitcher.

“I had gotten into an accident in Bisbee, Arizona when I first started playing ball,” he recalled. “A bunch of damn fools we were! We were staying in a big rooming house; a bunch of players with nobody in charge. I was up there and a couple of us got into a damn water fight. I wound up getting hurt badly. I was chasing this kid down the damn hall to get even with him to throw water on him. He runs in this door and closes it behind him. It was a glass door and I was right behind him, I stick out my left arm and I cut myself real bad. If you get cut by glass like that, it was like no pain, but suddenly I was bleeding all over. I cut my left arm at the ulnar nerve just above my elbow. It’s like midnight and they take me to the hospital nearby. They just sewed it up. The main nerves were cut. It cripples my hand to where I can’t even straighten my fingers.”

His arm injury was so debilitating, that when he went to register to serve in World War II, he was declared unfit for participation. It was a label that he despised having.

“It kept me out of the Army,” he said. “I took my physical but the guy looked at my hand and said I’d be taken in for limited service. He told me I’d be called any time. I stayed out of baseball; I was married and my wife was expecting a baby. The next year, they didn’t call me. I was working on a farm not making any money, so I thought I’d go and play ball and make a little money. Eventually, they put me 4F which was ‘unfit,’ which I hated calling myself that because I was fit except for my arm. Had I been an everyday player, it would have been the end of me.”

A few years later after his devastating injury, Adams ascended his way to the major leagues, pitching with the Cubs in 1946 after posting a 9-4 record with a 2.68 ERA for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. It was in that league where Adams truly built his career, playing the next 12 seasons in the PCL while the league earned an Open classification from professional baseball.

He experienced a breakout season in 1952 with Portland after returning invigorated from an appearance in the Caribbean Series with the San Juan Senadores from Puerto Rico. At age 30, he found a new lease on his pitching life.

“I came back and was a different pitcher in the Coast League,” he said. “In the past I was struggling, I was going downhill; I started to wonder what I was going to do after baseball. In those years, I’d come on pretty good the last half of the season and keep my job. That winter, I came into spring training in shape and I led the coast league in ERA that year even though I lost more games than I won.”

Modern-era executives might now recognize his low earned run average as a sign of his effectiveness and discount his hard luck losses, but in 1952, management was quick to pin full responsibility of the ledger on their pitchers, no matter the ineptitude of their offense or defense.

“The general manager there cut my salary a couple hundred dollars per month,” he said. “I was pitched the opening game in San Francisco and lost 1-0; the other guy pitched a one-hitter. I lost my first five games and didn’t give up more than three runs per game. He [the general manager] called me in after the fifth loss and gave me the $200 cut. He said, ‘The way you’re pitching, if you don’t win a game, you deserve to have your salary cut.’ His name was Bill Mulligan. I ended up winning 15 games.”

Adams said that the scenario he described was common in the minor leagues, as players had little choice in their movement due to the reserve clause. Despite the salary cut against what he felt was effective performance, he still felt that playing in the Pacific Coast League had many benefits in the 1950s.

“Those were the struggling minor league days,” he said. “The Coast League was a good league to play in; we had good conditions, it was a very comfortable league to play in. A lot of the players came from the big leagues, fringe guys, or guys that had a couple of years left. The conditions were hard to beat. Not too many players made a lot of money in the major leagues. There were players happy to be playing there.”

After finishing up as a player in 1958, Adams was asked to become a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He worked in that position until 1969 when Walter Alston brought him as a pitching coach. He stayed with the Dodgers in that role through the transition to Tommy Lasorda’s regime until his retirement as a coach in 1980. Although he stepped down from his coaching duties, he continued with the organization as an instructor through the mid 1980s. Among his many prized pupils was Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who called Adams, “the standard by which all pitching coaches should be measured.”

During our 2009 conversation, Adams reflected on how fortunate he was to work with the Dodgers for such a lengthy period a time. After considering how his career was almost truncated due to a careless injury away from the field, he marveled at the fortune that turned it into an almost 50-year journey in the sport.

“It was a damn good organization,” he said. “I lucked out; I was pretty lucky.”

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