ND to MLB: Shaun Fitzmaurice

When I began this project, I really had no idea — or even expectations — of where it would go. I simply hoped to learn more about each of the players to go from South Bend to the big leagues and give myself a unique subset to my vast collection of baseball cards, photos and memorabilia. As a reporter, it only felt natural to try to contact each of the living alumni for an interview — no matter how brief — and to make an effort to expand those entries beyond the results of a Google search.

What I maybe should’ve anticipated, though, was that one thing might lead to another, that one door might open another — that one player might turn out to be the key that opens those other doors. That person has turned out to be Frank Carpin, who has offered insight not just on his career, but on that of others and has urged some of them to get back to me.

One of those assists came on Friday, when my cell phone started ringing. I was out running errands and didn’t recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. When I checked it later, I heard the voice of Shaun Fitzmaurice, Notre Dame Class of ’65, Met for nine games in ’66. He was calling to get my mailing address. “I put together a some thoughts as to my days on the baseball team,” he said. “I was gonna mail it to you, but I don’t have your mailing address.”

He left his number in Virginia, so I called him back. “Frank Carpin was getting on my case,” he said with a chuckle, his Massachusetts accent dropping the “R” in Carpin’s name all these years later. On Monday, I received Fitz’s letter, with his thoughts written out in a hand I recognized from the autographed photo I picked up on eBay.

Fitzmaurice  — pronounced “Fitzmorris” — graduated from high school in 1961 and earned a spot on the United States all-star squad that faced a team of New York all-stars in the annual Hearst Newspapers charity game at Yankee Stadium. In the fall, he landed in South Bend.

“I came to ND in the fall of ’61 without a scholarship,” he said. “Freshman year I played against the varsity because you couldn’t play on the varsity until your sophomore year. In that game I hit a home run and two doubles, after which I was offered a half-scholarship.”

With speed to go with his strong outfield arm and powerful bat, Fitzmaurice was soon faced with a decision.

“My sophomore year I ran track, running the 60-yard dash two-tenths of a second off the world record,” he said. “I was offered a track scholarship not to play baseball. But my sophomore year in baseball I set the school record for consecutive-game hitting streak.”

He earned a letter in track that spring, but if he had taken that scholarship, it’s doubtful I’m writing this post 48 years later. It’s not like he didn’t have a chance to run on the diamond, tough, playing the outfield and setting Notre Dame records for triples. His 10 three-baggers in 1964 are the most by a junior in Irish history and remain second overall, topped only by Scott Sollmann‘s 11 in ’95. In 2010, the entire Irish team had just nine three-base hits. Fitzmaurice averaged 0.34 triples per game that year to lead the nation, one of seven Irish players who have led the country in a statistic. The others are: Dan Peltier (32 doubles, 1989), Sollmann (11 triples, 1995), Aaron Heilman (1.61 ERA, 1998), Steve Stanley (“hardest to strikeout,” 24.64 at-bats per strikeout, 2002), Craig Cooper (79 runs, 2006) and Brett Lilly (31 HBPs, 0.56 per game, 2008).

“My junior year, I led the nation in triples, had the fifth-best slugging average in the nation, broke my consecutive game hitting streak and was captain elect,” Fitzmaurice wrote to me.

Fitz’s 14 career triples — in two seasons — are tied for third all-time in Irish history. He’s the only player in the top 10 who entered school before 1992 and the only one to play fewer than three years. Only Sollmann, who hit 24 triples in three seasons for an average of eight per year, had a better average per campaign than Fitz’s seven.

In 248 college at-bats over two seasons, Fitzmaurice hit .355 with nine home runs and 55 RBIs. He led the Irish in RBIs in each of his two seasons, with 27 in ’63 and 28 in ’64.

The Irish were just one of four teams Fitz played for in ’64. After the college season, he spent the summer playing for Sturgis in the Basin League, a semi-pro circuit loaded with college players (certainly making up the “semi-” part of that designation) with teams based in South Dakota and Nebraska. He opened the season with a 19-game hitting streak, believed to be a league record at the time, and drove in 33 runs, scored 26, launched seven home runs, rapped six doubles, hustled for five triples and hit .455 over that stretch. Batting .431 through the first 36 games (the Irish played just 29 that spring), he was one of four Sturgis players to make the league’s all-star team. Seven games later, he was still above .400 at .404 and making a run at Frank Howard‘s league-record .390, set in 1957. Fitz was also tied for the league lead with 11 home runs, equalling the total of Ball State’s Merv Rettenmund, who was playing for a team based in the town of Winner.

Fitzmaurice tied the Basin League record of nine triples in a game in August but was overshadowed by the opposing pitcher, Valentine’s Al Closter, who earned a complete-game, 18-inning victory, allowing 11 hits and striking out 24. Those two-dozen Ks stood as a league record only until the next August when Scott Morton — like Closter a product of Iowa State — fanned 25 in 16 1/3 innings of relief. I wonder what the Iowa State coach thought of those stat lines.

Fitz helped Sturgis win the Basin League title that summer with a 31-19 record after the club had never even posted a non-losing mark in previous summers. In the title-clincher, a 10-8 victory over Rapid City on Aug. 10, Fitzmaurice hit a grand slam to give him 54 RBIs, topping the record of 53 set by Hal Holland in 1960. It was the fourth record set by the league MVP in two nights; the night before, Fitz passed the previous league record for hits (finishing with 77), total bases (143) and triples (10). His season totals included 10 doubles and 12 homers, second in the league. His league-leading batting average fell to .361 at the season’s conclusion, falling short of Howard’s record that he’d been chasing all summer. Four teams made the Basin League playoffs, and Sturgis was swept in two games by Valentine in the first round. (The Hearts then lost the final series to Sioux Falls in three games.)

Fitzmaurice, standing next to Joe Lewis

That October, Fitzmaurice joined his third team of 1964, the U.S. National Team, which played a one-game exhibition against a team of Japanese all-stars as a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He’s one of four Irish players to play for Team USA, having been joined by Brant Ust in ’98, Heilman in ’99 and Grant Johnson in ’02, though those three played in the World Junior Championships, not at an Olympics. The Tokyo Games marked the last time baseball would appear in any form at the Summer Games until 1984. Playing games in Hawaii and Korea on the trip, the U.S. squad went 14-4-2 under legendary — even at the time — USC coach Rod Dedeaux. Fitzmaurice hit .355 and homered on the first pitch in the Olympic exhibition, as well as in his last at-bat of the tour. A Japanese team offered him a signing bonus to stay and play professionally, but he returned home to another offer.

“I signed when I came back, playing nine years of pro ball,” he said.

Following his eye-opening play in South Dakota and Japan, Fitzmaurice signed a deal with the Mets that November and went straight to their St. Petersburg base for the Florida Instructional League, joining his fourth team of the year. He was among eight of the 20 Olympic players to sign deals upon returning home. His signing bonus was reported to be $25,000 and he was initially assigned to the Mets’ Auburn affiliate in the Class A New York-Penn League.

The Mets’ Instructional League club began that fall losing 28 of its first 36 games, but after Fitzmaurice arrived, the New York prospects won six out of seven, with Fitz starting three of them. In one doubleheader with the Twins, he drove in both runs in a pair of 1-0 victories. He singled in the fourth inning of the first game and had two of the Mets’ five hits, plus a stolen base, in the contest. In the nightcap, his 400-foot homer in the seventh and final inning kept Carl Finafrock from a potential one-hitter. The next day, Fitz nearly played the hero again, but a bid for his third hit of the game in the 10th inning — with the winning run on third base — was snared by the Senators’ diving first baseman, Tony Libertella. (Also of note in the Dec. 12, 1964, Sporting News roundup of Florida action was the play of Orioles prospect Lou Piniella and A’s farmhand Tony LaRussa.)

In 1965, Fitzmaurice went to spring training with the Mets, where Olympian Jesse Owens was a running coach for the club.

“What I want to do,” Owens said, according to a March 3, 1965, New York Times story, “is make the players realize that conditioning is most important in their careers. They all run flat-footed when they come here — it’s an occupational thing with baseball players. But now they’re up on their toes and they’ve got some spring when they run.”

Fitzmaurice, then 22, was cited in the story as having “the springiest steps so far,” along with 20-year-old hurler Frank McGraw and 29-year-old pitcher Al Jackson, who was described as being “quick as a cat.” It’s probably safe to say that Fitz’s track experience helped set him apart from the other ballplayers in camp.

Fitzmaurice’s spring must’ve made an impression on the Mets’ decision-makers, because he never reported to Class A Auburn. Instead, he spent 1965 playing for Williamsport in the Class AA Eastern League, batting .262 with 14 doubles, 10 triples, two home runs, 30 RBIs, 46 runs and nine stolen bases in 131 games. Beginning with Notre Dame’s 1964 season, Fitz played in 284 games from March 1964 to September 1965 — 29 for the Irish, 52 for Sturgis, 20 for Team USA, 52 in the Instructional League and 131 for Williamsport. And that doesn’t count any spring exhibition games in ’65.

Fitz was one of nine Williamsport Mets that year who played Little League ball, joining Jerry Craft, Rob Gardner, Jerry Hinsley, Will Huckle, Dick Martin, Sherwin Minster, Keith Weber and Bob Moorhead.

On May 27, 1965, Fitzmaurice’s speed helped the Will-Mets (not sure that they were ever called that, but I derived it from the current Binghamton Mets’ B-Mets abbreviation) come away with a 5-4 win against Elmira. Fitz was on first base and Minster on third in the 11th inning of 4-4 game against the Pioneers. When Fitzmaurice broke for second on a steal attempt, Elmira catcher Larry Haney threw down to try to nail him. Minster sprinted home, sliding under the high return throw for the game-winner.

Fitz’s name came up on the less-desirable side of a notable play about six weeks later. On July 12, 1965, he lined into a triple play, drilling the ball to Springfield second baseman Tony Eichelberger with runners on first and second. Eichelberger tossed the ball to shorstop Damaso Blanco to force Dick Martin off of second. The relay to first baseman Arlo Engel nabbed Jim Lampe for the third out.

When the 140-game Eastern League season ended, Williamsport (67-73) finished fourth out of six clubs, 18 games behind the Pittsfield Red Sox. Elmira made it a pennant race, finishing a game back, but third-place York was 17 1/2 off the pace. Fitzmaurice ranked in the top 20 in several batting categories, including a tie for second with his 10 triples.

On Oct. 21, 1965, Fitzmaurice and Dick Rusteck, another Domer, were added to the Mets roster, perhaps to protect them from the Rule 5 draft at that year’s winter meetings. But when the 1966 season began, he was once again in the minors, splitting the season nearly evenly between Williamsport and Class AAA Jacksonville, 64 games to 61. In those 125 games, he hit .270 with 13 home runs, 57 RBIs, 51 runs, 11 doubles, four triples, seven stolen bases and a .793 OPS (.364 OBP, .429 SLG).

May 2, 1966, Fitz helped Jacksonville beat the parent Mets, 2-0, despite the Suns going hitless. Jacksonville scored both runs in the third when Fitz walked, moved to second when Jack Tracy’s grounder was booted by Mets third baseman Lou Klimchock, then advanced to third on starting pitcher Galen Cisco‘s sacrifice bunt. Buddy Harrelson grounded out to drive in Fitzmaurice, moving Tracy to third. A passed ball allowed Tracy to score.

In August 1966, Fitzmaurice earned Topps Minor League Player of the Month honors, helping him earn a September promotion to the Mets. He joined the big club on the same day as Nolan Ryan and made his Major League debut on Sept. 9, two days before the future Hall of Famer. Fitz got the start in center field against the Braves that day, batting leadoff. He went 0-for-3 with a walk, striking out in his first two at-bats, popping out to second in the sixth and walking in the seventh. The base on balls prompted Atlanta manager Billy Hitchcock to pull starter Dick Kelley from the game. In the ninth, Mets skipper Wes Westrum sent Johnny Lewis to the plate to pinch-hit for Fitzmaurice with a runner on third and one out, the Braves leading by five. Lewis struck out and Ron Hunt grounded out to end Atlanta’s 8-3 victory.

A day later, Fitzmaurice pinch-ran at second base for catcher Greg Goossen with one out in the seventh and the Braves leading, 3-2, but would be stranded there as the Mets lost by that same score.

Autographed card from Paul’s Random Stuff
It was six more days before Fitzmaurice got back into a game. The Mets were in San Francisco, facing a Giants team that was just three games behind the NL-leading Dodgers coming into the game. The Mets took a 2-1 lead in the fourth before the Giants tied it with a run in the seventh and took the lead on a Willie Mays single in the eighth. But the Mets rallied in the ninth. Chuck Hiller pinch-hit for Ron Swoboda to lead off the inning and drew a walk. Fitz was sent in to run for Hiller and, after Hunt struck out, stole second. Danny Napoleon, pinch-hitting for Ed Kranepool, struck out, and the Mets were down to their last out. But Hawk Taylor — pinch-hitting for pitcher Darrell Sutherland — singled to left field, driving in Fitzmaurice with the tying run. Taylor advanced to second on the throw to the plate and Johnny Lewis trotted out to pinch-run for him. Harrelson then tripled to put the Mets ahead, 4-3, and stole home for an important insurance run before Eddie Bressoud flied out to end the inning. Harrelson’s swipe of home proved to be the winning run after the Giants scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth.

Three days later, in Houston, Fitzmaurice again replaced Goossen on the bases, but after being sacrificed to second in the ninth inning of a scoreless game, was stranded there. The Mets eventually won, 1-0, in 10 innings. On Sept. 23, Fitz pinch-hit for pitcher Ralph Terry in the sixth inning in Cincinnati, striking out in his only at-bat. The Mets lost, 7-0. The next day, he pinch-ran at first base for catcher Hawk Taylor in the ninth with the Mets trailing, 4-3, with two outs and Al Luplow on second. A wild pitch moved the runners up, but Goossen popped out to end the game.

Signed card from The Amazing Shea Stadium Autograph Project
Back at Shea against the Cubs on Sept. 28, Fitzmaurice drew his second start in center field, batting seventh in the first game of a doubleheader. The Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth would go the distance in a 4-1 win, but Fitz featured in some Mets highlights. After grounding out in his first at-bat, he recorded an assist in the fourth when he nailed Cubs shortstop Ron Campbell at the plate trying to score the second run on Ellsworth’s two-out single. Coming to bat in the fifth, Fitz logged his first Major League hit by beating out a grounder to Campbell. In the seventh, Fitzmaurice reached first on an error but was again stranded. In the ninth, he whiffed for the first out of the inning with a runner on first.

On Oct. 2, the final day of the season, the Mets hosted the Astros in a twin bill. In the first game, Fitz pinch-hit for fellow Domer Rusteck leading off the seventh with Houston ahead, 6-0. He singled to center and, two outs later, advanced to second on Hiller’s single. After Luplow walked to load the bases, Cleon Jones walked to forced Fitzmaurice home before Jim Hickman‘s strikeout ended the inning. Fitz finished the game in center field, striking out against Claude Raymond in the eighth.

Westrum gave Fitzmaurice the start in Game 2 that day, slotting him eighth and again playing center. He grounded out in his first at-bat in the third, walked in the fifth and reached on an error in the seventh, getting stranded on the bases each time. His final at-bat came in the ninth of the Mets’ 8-2 loss. With Jerry Grote on first, Raymond again got the better of Fitzmaurice with a strikeout.

On Nov. 23, 1966, the Mets sold Fitzmaurice’s contract back to their Class AAA farm club in Jacksonville, to create room on their roster for the upcoming drafts at the winter meetings. Fitzmaurice was available to other teams at the meetings, but wasn’t taken, spending the ’67 season — his last in the Mets’ farm system — in Jacksonville.

In ’68, Fitzmaurice played for York (Class AA) and Columbus (Class AAA) in the Pirates’ system and Syracuse (Class AAA) in the Yankees’ organization, just missing out on joining the list of players whose entire Major League careers consisted only of games with the Mets and Yankees. In ’69, he again saw time with Columbus, but this time it was split with the Braves’ Class AAA club in Richmond. He spent the 1970-73 seasons with the R-Braves before retiring and settling in the area.

He continued to perform well in Richmond, particularly in ’71 when he batted .309 (good for 16th in the International League) with a .409 OBP (ninth) and .435 SLG. On Aug. 29 that year, he reached base six times, including three hits (among them a homer and a double) and a hit-by-pitch, and scored five runs in a 15-8 win over the Winnipeg Whips.

After batting .199 — though with a career-high-tying 13 home runs — in ’72, he rebounded to .248 in ’73, his final season. There was one final highlight on May 21, 1973, when Fitz’s grand slam provided the only Richmond runs in a 6-4 loss to the Braves in an exhibition game in Virginia. The slam put the farmhands ahead in the sixth, but Ralph Garr‘s three-run triple highlighted a five-run eighth as Atlanta triumphed.

At 30 years old in 1973, seven years removed from his pot of coffee in the Majors and nine years beyond his whirlwind 1964, Fitzmaurice probably realized Richmond was as far as his career would go. That season — with a .248 average, .324 OBP, .374 slugging, 11 doubles, two triples, six homers and 33 RBIs — was his last. His final — though incomplete — minor league numbers show a .257 average, .350 OBP, .384 slugging, 84 doubles, 31 triples, 64 home runs and 327 RBIs in 877 games.

He was the second of three Domers to play for the Mets (Rusteck beat him by three months), and though the photo — likely taken in spring training — shows him wearing No. 50, he was the fifth Met to wear No. 5, according to Mets By The Numbers. And it doesn’t look like anyone else will from this point forward.

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