Dierker: Sullivan's stories worth every cent
Former Red Sox pitcher tells tales of a lifetime in book
KAUAI, Hawaii -- "This guy lives down the road from us in Lihui," my brother Rick said, as I opened a book he gave me last Christmas morning in Los Angeles.
I put it aside to read on the way back to Houston, and have never enjoyed three hours on an airplane more. "Life is More Than 9 Innings" is a compendium of short stories about baseball and life by 1950s-era pitcher Frank Sullivan. It had me roaring all the way.
Nearby passengers wanted to know what I was laughing about. I showed them the book with Norman Rockwell's painting "The Rookie" on the cover. Sullivan sits on the bench, his right arm over the shoulders of right fielder Jackie Jensen. The two of them are looking up at the youngster, who stands there with a suitcase and a bat, towering over the guy standing in front of his locker, Ted Williams.
I finished the book on the plane and called Rick when we got home. "I'm coming to Kauai," I said. "This guy has to be pretty old and I'd like to hear some of his stories firsthand."
We did that yesterday, but I could have waited. Sullivan is 80 years old now, but doesn't look like he's going to the happy hunting ground anytime soon. He's 6-foot-7 and hasn't lost an inch to gravity.
Rick and I bombarded him with questions and got more than the price of two beers out of it. In fact, we got a lot of stories that aren't in the book. The book is short and sweet, a series of one-page chapters. "I did it that way because I didn't want to ramble," he said. "I read that Jack London once said that if you are going to be a writer, you have to write every day and throw most of it away."
I don't know what he threw away, but I'd like to read that, too.
If there's one expression that could put Sullivan in a nutshell it's "go for it." As a teenager, he and a few friends went scuba diving at Laguna Beach in Southern California with a modified 10-gallon can for a helmet. It had a window soldered onto it and the air supply came from a bicycle pump. The pump hose was too short, which made it all the more exciting, but fortunately, nobody drowned.
Sullivan didn't start pitching until his junior year at Burbank High School, where the baseball coach saw him throw an orange the entire length of a football field. After high school, he signed with the Red Sox and headed for a Minor League team in San Jose. He developed a sore arm the next year and was designated as "No Prospect." Then came Korea.
"I don't know how it happened, but my arm got better over there. Once they realized how far I could throw a hand grenade, that's about all I did. When I got back from the war, my fastball was great, but it had too much movement and I couldn't get it over the plate. My catcher, Len Okrie, came out to the mound one day and said, 'Stop thinking so much. Just throw what I call,'" Sullivan said.
"Well he started calling for sliders when I needed to throw a strike. He realized what I should have known, which was that I had better control of my slider than my fastball. I could throw it fast or slow and by throwing sliders in fastball counts, I fooled a lot of hitters. I pretty much stayed with that plan for my whole career."
That career spanned 11 years and included 97 wins, 73 of them complete games and 15 of them shutouts. He also made two trips to the All-Star Game.
But life is more than nine innings. One offseason, he agreed to deliver a 42-foot power boat to a friend in Ft. Lauderdale. Sullivan loved boats, but he had never traveled 1,600 miles on one. But, why not? Go for it! The only problem was that his catcher's best friend, Sammy White, came along for the ride. White grounded the boat in shallow water off the coast of South Carolina and only a rising tide got them out of that fix.
Another time, he took his mother and father out for a pleasure cruise in the Florida Keys on a 38-foot ketch with a 46-foot mast. As they approached the Shark River, at the entrance to the Everglades, he informed the crew of the beauty they were about to behold, and also the risk of getting lost or grounded. "Let's go for it," they said. Sully anchored for the evening and swam down 15 feet to make sure he was firmly anchored, which was "no mean feat when you consider the critters that live there."
Another time, he and his father, Leal, were getting tipsy at a resort pool in the Bahamas, when pop (who was 6-foot-9) mounted the spring board. He launched into what seemed like a perfectly practiced dive. "Jesus, Mom, that was really good," Sully said, only to hear her response: "That may be true, Frank, but you better go get that damned fool. He doesn't know how to swim!"
After getting released by the Twins, Sullivan realized that the honeymoon was over. Little did he know, it had just begun. He didn't have a college education and the only thing he knew how to do was build boats. So he got a job with a boat builder in Maine.
But he was a Southern California boy at heart, and the warmer seas in the Caribbean and South Pacific called out to him. There was some unrest in the British West Indies at the time, so he set sail for Kauai. He rented a car and headed for the beach, did a little body surfing, and decided to stay. He got a job in construction with his pal, White, and they did manual labor until he got a better job at a golf course. He sent for his girlfriend, Marilyn, and got married. The second honeymoon started at age 34.
Over the following years, he worked his way up to superintendent of golf at the Kauai Surf Hotel, became an avid fisherman, and despite his hulking frame, a surfer.
One time, Arnold Palmer came to the island to film a commercial for United Airlines. Palmer, Sullivan, and golf pro Bill Schwallie headed for the course. Palmer noticed a red buoy in Nawiliwili Harbor and started hitting balls at it. After 40 or 50 shots, Schwallie turned to Sullivan and said, "I hope we have enough balls for him."
Sadly, I have to leave Kauai this afternoon. I'd like to leave a few more golf balls here, too. One more session with Frank Sullivan and I might be persuaded to stay. He's a much better storyteller than I am, and if you want the rest of the stories, you'll have to order the book. It will be money well spent, especially if you're on a plane, heading for Hawaii.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.