Ringolsby: All-Time Assist Leader
After a 20-year playing and coaching career in pro ball, interrupted by three years of active duty in the Pacific during World War II, Chuck Stevens decided it was time to move on. So in 1959, he took a job with an oil company in Long Beach, where he grew up.
It didn’t last long.
A year later, the Association of Professional Ball Players of America (APBPA), came calling. It needed a new director, and Stevens was considered the perfect fit.
“It wasn’t a job I was looking for,” Stevens said.
But it was a job that fit so well he would spend the next 28 years running the organization that was designed to provide assistance for former players, umpires, scouts and others in the game, both at the minor league and big league levels.
The APBPA would lend assistance for those facing major financial or medical issues or even just a minor league player unable to come up with bus fare home at season’s end.
“He was an angel,’’ the late Bob Lemon, who grew up in Long Beach with Stevens, would frequently say.
Stevens, who had been the oldest living former major league player, died on May 28, just 43 days shy of what would have been his 100th birthday.
The distinction of oldest living major leaguer now belongs to former pitcher Fred Caligiuri, whose 100th birthday is Oct. 22. His career consisted of 18 appearances for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1941 and ’42.
Stevens debuted with the St. Louis Browns in 1941, appearing in four games, then spent the 1942 season in the minor leagues and then had a three-year hiatus from baseball to serve in the U.S. Air Force during WWII.
He would continue to play professionally through 1957, but he saw big league time only in 1947 and ’48 with the Browns. He opted to play for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in 1949 instead of the Browns because the money was comparable, even if it was a minor league team—and he would be closer to home.
Even in Stevens’ brief big league career—211 games spent exclusively at first base—he enjoyed significant events. His first hit came off Hall of Famer Early Wynn in 1941. His first home run was hit at Yankee Stadium in 1946. Eight of his 184 career hits came off Hall of Famer Bob Feller. That was the most hits he had against any pitcher.
And it was Stevens who on July 9, 1948, not only singled off Lemon, his childhood buddy and Hall of Famer, but also later in that game singled for the first major league hit ever allowed by Satchel Paige.
He even had a role in film “The Stratton Story,” featuring James Stewart, as well as other baseball-related films, an outgrowth of relationships he made in Hollywood during his tenure with the Stars from 1948-54.
In Stevens’ later years, however, his focus always returned to the APBPA.
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Earlier this year, in a conversation with the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Bob Keisser, Stevens spoke of compiling “the most career saves” in reference to his 38 years with the APBAPA. He told Keisser about different situations in which the association was able to help. Examples included a player left paralyzed and also a player with terminal cancer who was about to be evicted from his home.
“There was a tax lien on his home and the IRS was going to take it,” Stevens said, his memory still strong at age 99. “They didn’t care that he was so ill. We were able to take care of the taxes, so he could pass away in his home and not die in a parking lot.”
To help raise funds, Stevens even organized an old-timers’ game that was a stand-alone event not tied into a pregame festivity for a major league game. It debuted as the Cracker Jack All-Star Game at RFK Stadium in Washington in 1982. Stevens managed the American League team and made players on both teams play the positions they played during their careers. The event moved between RFK Stadium and Memorial Stadium in Buffalo.
“We weren’t giving great amounts out to anyone, except in the worst cases,” Stevens said. “The situations often were someone having a rough time who just needed a hand up to take care of the necessities of life. One player called us and all he wanted was enough money for a bus ticket home.
“I never dwelled on how bad some of the situations were, but I was proud we were able to help, and do it quietly.”
Stevens is survived by Maria, his wife of 77 years, whom he met in the fourth grade.