Many mornings, I look through a list of baseball players who were born that day and one name stood out for its uniqueness – Elmo Plaskett. Unless you are a Pirates fan dating back to the time when Bill Mazeroski beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series, you probably don’t know who he was either… So, I spent a few hours looking through a bunch of old Sporting News articles, various websites, and found out that Mr. Plaskett is more than a unique name – but rather he is considered the father of current youth baseball programs in his native land.
Born on June 27, 1938 in Frederiksted, St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Plaskett was the fourth child of seventeen. He learned to play baseball with area kids and was invited to participate on an island team playing in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kansas. Howie Haak, a Pittsburgh Pirates scout there, signed another player from the V.I. team – Joe Christopher – and decided then that when he toured the Caribbean, he should include the Virgin Islands when scouting for young talent.
In 1957, Haak signed Plaskett to play for the Pirates as a pitcher, though Plaskett was destined to play nearly every other position in his trek through the minor and major leagues. Haak remembered Plaskett’s arrival in an article for The Sporting News in August, 1958. Pointing to Plaskett at a pregame practice in Lincoln, Nebraska, Haak said, “There’s a kid who really came to play ball. He had his plane ticket, of course,” Haak continued. “When he showed up at camp in Jacksonville, we asked him for his expense report for hotel and meals.
“You know how much he turned in? Seventy cents! Said he only had two meals. I asked him about the hotel bill. Said he didn’t want to go to a hotel the night he arrived. He slept at the airport.
“Breakfast? Said he skipped eating so he could get to the ball park early.”
At the end of the 1958 season, as he would do for much of the next decade, Plaskett joined Ponce in the Puerto Rican winter league. That year, though, he also joined Licey in the Dominican Republic – and helped Licey win the Dominican pennant.
Working his way through the minors, his next notable act was one for the blooper reels. On August 10, 1960, playing for Las Vegas, he hit a home run. However, as he crossed home plate, he realized that he failed to touch first base. So, he circled the bases again and was careful to step on each base. However, when a new ball was put into play, the Fresno pitcher threw to first base where the umpire called Plaskett out. Apparently, if you miss a base, you have to retreat and step on each base in reverse order…
Plaskett was no longer pitching; rather he was playing third base or one of the outfield positions. However, with young stars like Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, as well as bonus baby Bob Bailey, working their way to Pittsburgh stardom, Plaskett was asked to learn a new position. Catcher.
Plaskett was a tall, gangly player – long arms and a beanpole frame – and as he got further into his 20s, he began to find power in his swing as his body filled out. He was among the league leaders in all three triple crown categories with Ponce in the winter league in 1959, and then hit .295 in Columbus, OH followed by a short stint in Columbus, GA where he hit .375. Then, in the 1960/1961 winter season, Plaskett actually WON the triple crown in Puerto Rico. As such, he earned a trip to spring training for the 1961 season where he was listed as a potential backup for starter Smokey Burgess.
Because his catching skills were still rather raw, the Pirates sent him to Asheville, North Carolina where Plaskett’s large, toothy grin and engaging personality made him a fan favorite. Then, he was moved to the Hawaii team in the Pacific Coast league, but before he could get to the islands, he hurt his wrist in a game in Salt Lake City. Eventually, he returned to Asheville, playing there in 1961 and 1962.
In that second season in Asheville, Plaskett went on a tear during the month of May, going 32 of 62 during one stretch of home games at McCormick Field. The Sporting News usually mentioned days when Plaskett’s power – such as the day he swatted two homers over Macon – carried the day. By the end of the season, Plaskett edged Tony Olivo for the South Atlantic League batting crown and was among the league leaders in homers and RBI. This gave Plaskett his first cup of coffee with the parent club.
It was in San Francisco, facing Mike McCormick, where Plaskett nailed a pitch into the left field stands to help beat the Giants. Plaskett’s first home run earned a second memory in the mind of Phillip K. Dick, a science fiction writer. He recalled the San Francisco Chronicle headline and included a discussion of that day in his book Galactic Pot-Healer.
Plaskett made the Pirates roster in 1963 but had a couple of off days and was dispatched back to the minors. He never made it back. In the winter of 1963, he broke his leg – and soon after that he started to gain weight. Elrod Hendricks, another Virgin Islands catcher, recalled that Plaskett didn’t have good enough hands to make it – despite the right attitude and toughness. After five more years going back and forth between Asheville and Ponce, the Pirates moved in a different direction and Plaskett became more of a minor league nomad, playing in Columbus, Dallas, Rochester, Birmingham, and Vancouver. At the end, Plaskett was in the Oakland As chain where he worked with Gene Tenace and Vida Blue, among others.
Always laughing and happy, Plaskett felt fortunate to have played baseball in the United States and when he returned home to the Virgin Islands he was placed in a government position that allowed him to help create and manage youth baseball programs there. He worked hard to get baseball teams added to high school sports, organized and umpired games for the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) programs. In fact, the little league program in St. Croix is STILL named after Plaskett (with east and west divisions bearing his name), and many young kids – like Jerry Browne and Midre Cummings – owe their careers to the leagues run by Plaskett and fellow Islander (and former Yankee), Horace Clarke.
Plaskett took ill in 1998 and died that October at the age of 60. Among the honorary pallbearers at his service were Horace Clarke and Willie Stargell. Since his death, he has been added to the Virgin Islands and Ponce (PR) Halls of Fame not only for his baseball talent, but his work after his active career ended.
The Society for American Baseball Research has an excellent article, written by Rory Costello, that is well worth reading. The Sporting News has several snippet articles that include Plaskett, including notes about his signing and minor league career highlights.