Column: Rare gem in a dreary final FSL season for Palatka

The date: Monday, June 11, 1962.

The place: Azalea Bowl.

The event: Miami Marlins-Palatka Cubs baseball.

 

The first half of what would turn out to be the last season of minor league baseball in Palatka was winding down and the Palatka Cubs were not having a good season.

The Cubs were in the middle of a 45-77 season, headed for a dead-last finish in the Class D Florida State League under four different managers, the first being former Major League outfielder and pitcher Hal Jeffcoat. But even in the midst of a dreadful last year, the Cubs would offer gems from players who had the dream of making the big leagues but fell short of those dreams.

One of those players was right-handed pitcher Joseph Potter, a 20-year-old who had been moved down from the Class C St. Cloud Rox, where in two outings he had given up three runs and four hits in just one inning of work. This was an opportunity for Potter to work out what was wrong and move on in a short career.

On this Monday night, the Cubs were hosting the Miami Marlins, the affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and managed by Andy Seminick, the catcher on the 1950 Phillies Whiz Kids team that won the National League pennant.

Going into his start, Potter was starting to get an idea of what to do and sported a 3-3 mark going into this start against the Marlins on the Azalea Bowl hill. Through his first two innings, Potter did not allow a safety.

Then Potter got the support he needed in the second. It came in the form of left fielder Billy Connors. Connors was a pitcher primarily, but a fairly good hitter, so in the ‘62 season, Jeffcoat made the decision to make Connors into an outfielder and part-time catcher when he didn’t pitch. And so in the second inning against opposing pitcher Al Raffo, struggling with an 0-6 record, the 20-year-old Connors found a pitch to his liking and drilled a 340-foot shot over the berm in left field to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead. It would be one of two home runs Connors hit on the season.

Turns out that was all the support Potter needed against the Marlins, who were flailing away at his variety of pitches on the night.

In the fourth inning, the Cubs would add to the lead. Paul Franks, an 18-year-old who had just arrived with the team out of high school, walked against Raffo and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. then to third on a wild pitch. He got home on a sacrifice fly by catcher John Felske.

It remained 2-0 and before anyone knew it, Potter was doing something special for the Cubs – through the first six innings, he was no-hitting the Marlins. But that ended when outfielder Howard Wood got good wood against Potter and lined a single to center field to break up a date with destiny. That would turn out to be the only safety the right-hander would give up on this night . He was, as they say sometimes, “wildly” effective. Potter walked four batters, but struck out nine in going the distance.

Meanwhile, the Cubs would add one more run to the scoresheet in the bottom of the seventh. Bob Davis, who would have two hits on the evening and was new to the team from the Morristown Cubs in Tennessee the year before, stroked a single, then stole second. Connors hit a grounder toward Marlins third baseman Bill Tomaselli, who snared the grounder on a diving stop, but his throw to get Connors was wide of the mark for the Marlins’ only error of the night. That allowed Davis to add an insurance run.

The Cubs came away with a 3-0 win, collecting six hits with the other hit coming from second baseman Gene Etter.

As for the Marlins, they would finish 67-57 and take fourth place in the Florida State League. Outfielder Alex Johnson would go on to a 14-year career with various Major League teams, including three straight .300-plus seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and California Angels. Raffo ended up spending 10 years in the minors in the Phillies’ organization, but in 1969, he had a brief stint with the Phillies’ big-league team, going 1-3 in 17 relief appearances, finishing with a 4.11 earned-run average with 25 walks and 38 strikeouts.

On the other side, Connors, who had already earned notoriety as a key member of the Little League World Series champions from Schenectady, N.Y., in 1954,  would end up hitting .296 with 35 RBI for the Cubs when he wasn’t pitching, which he finished the year 3-4. He would work his way back to being a fulltime pitcher. 

In 1966-68, Connors threw parts of those seasons with the Chicago Cubs and then the New York Mets. Though his playing career was modest, he went on to a successful career as a pitching coach first in the minor leagues in the 1970s, then with various Major League teams, including the 1980 American League champion Kansas City Royals, the 1984 National League East champion Chicago Cubs and three separate stints with the New York Yankees, including an interim role as pitching coach with the 2000 World Champions. Connors worked with the Yankees in various positions from 1996-2012 until he retired. He passed away at 76 years old last June 18.

Felske made the majors himself, playing in 1968 with the Cubs and in 1972-73 with the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1985, he became the Philadelphia Phillies manager, managing them for almost 2 1/2 seasons.

As for Potter, he would end up finishing 6-9 in ‘62 with a 4.70 ERA and 69 walks and 90 strikeouts. Potter moved up to the Pocatello Chiefs in 1963, but after a 1-3 season with a 5.85 ERA with 14 walks and seven strikeouts. He was released after that season and never pitched again.

The last season was a struggle for the Palatka Cubs. But they did give their fans something to be excited about at the Azalea Bowl on some nights.

Joe Potter had one such night.

Mark Blumenthal is a writer for the Palatka Daily News. You can reach him at mblumenthal@palatkadailynews,com or on Twitter @diabolicalmarky.

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