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Cuomo boosted Brunswick in '5203/03/2006 2:29 PM ET
By Tim Leonard / Special to MLB.com
The scouting report, written in 1951, was glowing in its praise. It told of a ballplayer who had the ability to reach the highest level, someone who was smart and would do whatever it took to help his team.
Mario Cuomo did just that for the Brunswick Pirates in 1952. He'd do the same years later as the governor of New York. Long before he was a governor, Cuomo was a ballplayer. What was thought to be a promising career lasted just one season because of a beaning that closed the locker room door, but opened a political one.
"Potentially best prospect. Could go all the way," the scout wrote of Cuomo. "Aggressive and intelligent. Very well liked by those who succeed in penetrating the exterior shell. Will run over you if you get in his way."
Though he was describing a center fielder in his report, the scout could very well have been describing a politician. Cuomo may not have made it to the Major Leagues, but he did manage to make something out of his life. He was a well-regarded politician, serving three terms as the governor of New York, and was considered a presidential candidate, though he never went "all the way" to the White House.
"I never thought I was good enough, but the scout did. The report had to be favorable to get me $2,000," Cuomo said, referring to the amount of the bonus the Pirates gave him to sign. "I never thought I'd make it. It never occurred to me that I would be good enough to play in the Minor Leagues. I was a good baseball player. I had made the All-Star team and batted fourth for the freshman team at St. John's. But I saw Joe DiMaggio and [Roberto] Clemente. I never saw myself as good enough to play that way."
Talk about lofty aspirations.
Back in 1952, he was Matt Cuomo to the people who supported the Brunswick Pirates in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. Cuomo didn't start the season with the team because his father refused to sign off on the deal if it meant his son would miss his finals at St. John's. Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey agreed and Cuomo reported to Minor League camp for two weeks after he had taken his final exam.
Cuomo grew up in South Queens among a melting pot of races and nationalities. He was an altar boy at St. Monica's Church and grew stronger from lifting cases of canned tomatoes and olive oil in his family's grocery store, where it was an everyday occurrence to see people who were different from him in what was a poor neighborhood.
Cuomo was floored when he discovered that only 100 blacks were allowed in to watch the games in Brunswick. He was shagging balls in right field before his first game and started chatting with some of those 100 fans in the bleachers who called out to the new player and wanted to know where he was from. Cuomo was told shortly thereafter by the team's general manager not to interact with the black fans.
Cuomo gave the Pirates a boost with his speed and strong arm in center field. He was batting over .300 a few weeks into the season in what was known as a pitchers' league. Then the heat started to get to him. As if that wasn't bad enough, Cuomo injured his right wrist when he slammed into a fence made of cinderblock while chasing a fly ball. His batting average was .353 at that point.
His right wrist was throbbing and he was having trouble throwing and swinging the bat, but the team told him to play. He went hitless in his next 25 at-bats. He wound up with a .244 batting average, one home run and 26 RBIs in 81 games, but his on-base percentage was well over .300 thanks to 55 walks.
"I hit a home run the first week and threw two guys out at home. Nobody throws guys out at home anymore unless it's a short fly, maybe because the balls are livelier," Cuomo said. "Gradually, things went downhill because I injured my wrist in an accident."
That wasn't the worst injury he would suffer. Cuomo was beaned by a pitch that August. He wound up being hospitalized for two weeks and never did play another game. Doctors diagnosed him with a hematoma, but since there was no such thing as an MRI or CAT scan back then, the only way to assess his medical condition would be to perform brain surgery.
"I was unconscious, which rarely happens. Most times you get hit, it doesn't form a blood clot. It hits you in the head, hurts like hell and goes away. This one left a hematoma," Cuomo said. "The Pittsburgh doctors said 'We can't tell anything, except it's a blood clot. We'll have to open you up to be able to look and see what it is.' I said 'No, thank you.' That was the end of the season, anyway. There wasn't much left, so they sent me home. They couldn't tell how serious it was. I never did get any sicker, but they did send me a contract."
The contract was for a promotion, but it also stipulated that Cuomo would have to have a physical, and if the hematoma was detected that he would have to undergo the brain surgery. He never signed the contract.
"I decided I'd had my baseball career and was going to get married," said Cuomo, whose marriage to Matilda has lasted more than 50 years.
The memories come flooding back when Cuomo recalls those days. He remembers the streets of Brunswick, living in a room in Mrs. Barclay's house, and the sights and smells of the town. He can't forget the heavy wool uniforms. He also remembers the weather and a kind of heat he had never experienced while growing up in New York. The heat got to him one day while he was in center field. Cuomo actually collapsed during a game.
"I was too dumb to take a salt tablet. No one ever took a salt tablet in South Queens. What the hell was a salt tablet? You took a glass of beer if you were thirsty, or water," Cuomo said. "Georgia in mid-August was like 1,000 degrees. It was the heaviest heat I ever felt. It laid on you like a wet, heavy blanket."
The Brunswick players did get some relief from the heat during those dog days of summer. The Pirates had experimented with a new style of uniform for their Pacific Coast League team. The new gear consisted of what looked like a sleeveless T-shirt with shorts instead of pants.
"It said 'Pirates' on it with black and gold, and [had] Bermuda shorts. We wore stockings up to our knees and rolled them over and had spikes and a hat," Cuomo said. "They got so derided in the PCL that they sent those uniforms to the lowest level they could find and we wore them. I have great pictures of us in Bermuda shorts. But it felt like this load had been lifted. It was like you were carrying a sack in the other uniform, after you'd been sweating. We took a lot of abuse from the rest of the league, but they got used to it and the girls loved it."
Ah, yes, the girls. Female fans were plentiful down south. Cuomo and some of his teammates went to the King and Prince Hotel, which was a posh resort, on a day off. Cuomo can still see the light tan seersucker suit and straw hat he wore while he taught the hotel owner's daughter how to do the rumba and the box step.
"For the guys who were inclined, there was no problem finding girlfriends -- as many as you wanted. There was a whole society that was enamored with the ballplayers," Cuomo said. "You could have a good time if you [were] a young guy. I was kind of serious about it. My scouting report was that, 'He's a very serious guy. ... He'll leave cleat marks in your chest on the way to second base.'"
Ironically, that scouting report was later used against him in a political campaign. So was an incident with the baseball coach at St. John's, who wanted to convert Cuomo into a catcher.
The coach was Frank McGuire, who was really the basketball coach making a few extra bucks handling the baseball team, as well. His assistant would become another St. John's basketball legend, Lou Carnesecca. Cuomo had earned a scholarship to St. John's, but it was for academics, not sports. He didn't have any formal baseball training. What he knew about the game was learned in the sandlots, not in any organized league. After proving himself on the freshman team, he went to a tryout for the varsity, determined to make the team as a center fielder.
With his regular catchers injured, McGuire had Cuomo get behind the plate for batting practice. The coach noticed his strong arm and told him to throw a ball down to second. Cuomo fired a strike. McGuire figured he had just found his new catcher, but Cuomo thought otherwise.
"I told him 'I'm not a catcher. I'll pitch, play center field or play first base,'" Cuomo said. "He said, 'If you don't catch, I'm going to take your scholarship away.' That infuriated me. I said, 'Coach, you can't take my scholarship away.' Then I told him where he could stick that glove. Carnesecca was the assistant baseball coach. He loves to tell that story."
Cuomo signed with the Pirates a couple of months later, leaving some at St. John's to wonder how the player McGuire had "fired" was now playing professional baseball.
"McGuire used to say, 'I may be the only coach alive who was told by a governor to shove a catcher's glove up his tush,'" Cuomo added. "That also made a campaign. That didn't help me much, my baseball career."
Cuomo was known as a gifted public speaker and was mentioned as a presidential candidate after an enthralling keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Cuomo never did make a run for president. In the ensuing years, Cuomo was mentioned as a possible Supreme Court Justice and also as a potential commissioner for Major League Baseball. These days, he is, as he put it, "a very busy lawyer" for the firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the same firm that once employed former Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn.
While Cuomo may not have had the baseball career he'd hoped for, he'll always be able to say he got a bigger signing bonus than Mickey Mantle. The legendary Yankees center fielder once called the man who signed Cuomo one of the two dumbest scouts in baseball history. The other, of course, was the scout who signed Mantle.
The two men were at the opening of Pilot Field in Buffalo in 1985. The state had helped with funding to the tune of $25 million so Governor Cuomo was on hand for the opening. Mantle was there to promote a book and just to be himself. When Cuomo's original Minor League contract was unveiled and Mantle found out Cuomo got a $2,000 bonus -- $900 more than The Mick got -- his reaction was priceless.
"I know all about Coomo," Cuomo recalls Mantle saying, mispronouncing his last name as Mantle did. "The two dumbest scouts in baseball were the one who signed me and the one who signed him. The one who signed me gave me $1,100 and I went to the Hall of Fame. The one who signed him gave him $2,000 and he never got out of D league."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.