After my most recent trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown, NY), I was even more convinced that Rhode Island has a very rich and prominent history in the game of baseball. Seeing displays on the Providence Greys and Pawtucket Slaterettes, reading the stats on plaques in the Hall of Fame room with names like Lajoie, Hartnett, and Duffy, and viewing artwork depicting players and stadiums based in Rhode Island – it has invigorated my spirit to learn more and more about the greatest players to have played baseball who are originally from Rhode Island. And with the help of a trusted Rhode Island baseball resource, I was introduced to one of the greatest Rhode Island baseball players and athletes of all time – Westerly’s Dave Stenhouse.
A quick set of crib notes on Dave Stenhouse – Rhode Island sports fans have been aware of the athletic prowess of the Westerly High School multisport star athlete since the 1950s. Stenhouse was the Rhode Island Athlete of the year in 1950/1951. His baseball and basketball skills would carry him to the University of Rhode Island, where he starred in both sports. He signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs, played several years of minor league baseball, then later made his professional baseball career with the Washington Senators. Stenhouse was the first rookie to start an All-Star game (1962) and faced the likes of Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Orlando Cepeda in his multiple innings of work. Here is a YouTube link to Stenhouse’s performance in that 1962 game, interestingly enough it was posted by Dave’s son Mike Stenhouse, a former Major League baseball player himself. I especially like the commentary by the legendary Vin Scully, who along with the legendary Curt Gowdy called the game.
Getting back to my trusted resource, he called me last Friday and after chatting a bit about baseball and North Kingstown, he asked “Hey do you want to interview Dave Stenhouse? I think I can make that happen.” I said ‘of course I want to interview Dave Stenhouse’. So, after a few phone calls, I was lucky enough to speak to Dave on Saturday. Dave told me that Saturday wasn’t going to be a good day for an interview because there was a ton of college basketball on and he didn’t want to miss a minute. I laughed and told him “now that is a true sports fan,” and we agreed on late morning Monday, yesterday to speak.
Dave greeted me with a warm hello and I first asked him about his health. “My health is in good shape, thankfully I haven’t had too many issues,” he stated. “I have a great team of doctors who take care of me. Just some old age stiffness, overall pretty good shape I would say.” I found out through research that Dave shares the same birthday as my oldest son, Spencer – September 12th. And it was refreshing to hear that despite some “old age stiffness,” the 88 year old was doing well. I asked Dave about the beginnings of his baseball journey, specifically about coaches or mentors or leagues he remembered. “When I grew up we did not have any instruction. We picked up a lot on the sandlots, or open field lots. We had plenty of time to learn on our own. If a baseball was worn or ripped, we would just tape it up and play another round. There were no leagues to speak of. There was no instruction or clinics or coaches around to assist us. We played because we wanted to, our own desire to go outside every chance we got, sometimes 5 to 6 hours per day. Friends would come over to play. The ball went into the woods or over the fence somewhere, we would simply play another game – Find the ball.” Dave and I started laughing, perhaps Dave recalling a time when he ran into the woods after a cherished sandlot game ball.
I was curious about Dave’s first experience attending a professional game. Dave started, ” Well my first Major League Baseball game, my father took me to Fenway Park in Boston. See my father was in the ambulance corps and was responsible for special treatment type assignments bringing sick patients to major hospitals in cities like Boston. On a Sunday, we saw the Cleveland Indians vs Boston Red Sox.” My first thought was did he see Ted Williams and then without me asking Dave continued, ” I remember Fenway Park, what a beautiful stadium. Lou Boudreau, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky- all played in that game. My 2nd game was at Braves Field (also in Boston). Once again, I went with my father to “assist” him. It was my first night game and the Boston Braves played the Chicago Cubs. Lennie Merullo was the shortstop in that game for the Cubs. As luck would have it, Lennie Merullo (who was a Boston area native) and I met years later, he was the one who signed me from the MLB scouting bureau.”
In one of the articles by the blog “See Westerly,” there was plenty of mention about Dave’s basketball ability and his eventual playing time at the University of Rhode Island. I asked Dave about where basketball fit into his athletic career. ” Yes, I received a full scholarship to URI. As a basketball player for URI, I scored 1200 points. I was an outside shooter. And a damn good one.” I loved his energy talking about how good he was and Dave even paused to say, “I’m not bragging but there were no 3 pointers back then. 1200 points is a lot of points, huh? Well, I love basketball. I was invited to Minneapolis Lakers camp. But, ultimately, I decided to go with baseball as my future.” I was curious about off season leagues, summer amateur leagues that were around in the 1950s. “We had no fall baseball. We played roughly a 16-18 game schedule at URI baseball. Our field at URI was windy as heck, cold as heck when we played in the early Spring time there on campus. URI played in the Yankee Conference. There wasn’t much baseball in New England at that point. Hardly any leagues to speak of.” Dave continued about playing in the summer, “There was a league in New Brunswick, a summer baseball league that I played in. Also, the Nova Scotia Baseball League was one of the best around, I played in that as well and did really well.”
After four successful years at the University of Rhode Island, Dave Stenhouse was signed by the Chicago Cubs in June of 1955. I asked Dave about his days in Minor league baseball. “There were no scouting reports back then. The coaches had a sense of who their good players were, who their good hitters were but that was about it.” And if he had any favorite minor league ballparks that stood out. “San Diego’s Westgate Park had fences, billboards, electric scoreboard, I really loved playing there. When I played in Seattle, we had a great ball park. I remember Sacramento as well, there were a lot of decent facilities in the Pacific Coast League.” Dave was proud of his minor league career, having pitched very well for teams like the Jersey City Jerseys, the Seattle Rainiers, and the Lafayette Oilers. “My minor league record is something I am proud to share. Over 90 wins for some last place or not so good teams,” said Dave glowingly, “it was a good experience playing in the minors, the competition for fierce for opportunities at the next level.” Dave continued, “Back then, there were only 16 teams, but each team had a ton of minor league teams. You had to really really earn your spot to get to the Majors back then.”
Dave Stenhouse, according to his bio on www.baseball-reference.com, made his professional debut on April 18, 1962. I asked Dave to talk about “the big leagues” scouting reports and how the coaches would help prepare pitchers to face hitters when he played. “Well in the Big leagues, we had team meetings before starting a season, a series, and a game I was pitching in, ” Dave explained. “The coaches would instruct where to play the outfielders? For example guys like Mantle, Skowron, our coaches would expect you to pitch to their weaknesses and then they’d tell the fielders to set up based on the pitching reports. I remember talking to the coaches about Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski) during his 2nd year with Boston. We had a meeting and the coaches would say to play outfielders as if he was a right handed hitter. Then, he started pulling the baseball on our pitches so we had to make adjustments. Ultimately, I was taught to keep the ball down to most batters I faced. I was most successful as a low ball pitcher.” I asked Dave if he were ever in awe of the players he was facing, especially with some of the game’s best having played in that era. Dave went back to Mantle for a second. “The Yankees were loaded with great hitters. Respect, that is what you had. Mantle hit a home run off me the first game I faced him. Maris also hit a home run off me. But just one each, I’m not bragging, they only hit one each. Still, I had to get them out, no matter what kind of star or All Star they were. That was my job.” I finished the thought by asking the age-old generational question ‘Could Mickey Mantle play and be great in today’s game.” Dave had an answer, “Generational gaps are really tough in terms of comparison, today’s players are so much bigger and stronger. 6’1 was big back then. Nowadays, you have giants on the mound, at the plate. Sure we had big hitters and fireballers back when I played, but not like today’s game. I would just point out that it was so hard to get to the big leagues in my playing days. So Mickey Mantle, Clemente, that is an interesting debate. Now, pitchers are a different story. In my days, pitchers had much better control than today’s game. And (Bob) Gibson and (Sandy) Koufax, these guys were tigers on the mound. I think I could pitch very well in today’s game. I think I could make a go at it.” I loved that last statement!!!
In 1962, as previously mentioned, Rookie Dave Stenhouse pitched in the All Star Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, the home field of the club who had signed him some seven years earlier. I wanted to know which ballparks were Dave’s favorites as a Major Leaguer. “My favorite ballpark to pitch in was Yankee Stadium.” Dave noted my answers are my favorite to pitch in and he explained, ” The air moving through that stadium could help a pitcher like me with the stuff I had. Breaking stuff went down, out of the hitting zone. Another great pitcher’s park was Baltimore. Washington was a tough park for my pitching. Air meant a lot in terms of what the ball did. Sinker ball pitchers love ballparks with air movement. Fenway Park was a tough place to pitch because of how the wind carries in the stadium. Amazing ballparks, yet a few select come to mind that helped my breaking ball get outs!”
Dave Stenhouse is also responsible for the creation of the Rhode Island Baseball Institute (RIBI). Since 1992, RIBI has provided quality baseball instruction to Rhode Island and Southern New England baseball families. A 30 year tradition of excellence which continues to thrive in 2022! I asked Dave about its beginnings. “Let me see, in 1989 or 1990, Tony Ponticelli was running a school to train athletes in Cranston on Plainfield Pike. I was in the insurance business with my son Dave. Tony invited us up to his place on Plainfield Pike. We helped out Tony with some baseball lessons and instruction. I couldn’t believe how many parents came by. West Warwick’s Mike Roarke was there coaching as well. So, Dave, Jr and I started to look for our own facility.” Dave continued, “There was a vacant sign on a building across from TF Green Airport. John Mello was called in to help us set it up and get the place fixed up. John Mello is a great baseball instructor, a no nonsense guy, we wanted him to help manage the place, and guess what? He is still there helping to run the operations and coaching there. We got some fishing nets from Galilee, believe it or not, for the cages. We also got some pitching machines. I had a place in Florida and I spent all Fall, 1991 designing the program and business plan. 1992, we opened the doors. The end result, we had lines out to Post Road with kids and parents looking to sign up. Our staff back then included Mark Cahill, my sons Dave and Mike, Peter Slaughter, Joe Impagliazzo, they were all tremendous assets to the program. Brought them all in and the results were incredible.”
I finished up my conversation with Dave asking him about some of the great players to ever come out of Rhode Island. Dave got right into it. “I would say Billy Almon, he could run, hit, field, great player. No wonder why he was drafted #1. My son Mike (Stenhouse) is one of the best hitters to ever come out of here. Dave, my son, was the best of the 3 of us. If not for a serious injury, he would have been in the bigs for a long time. Chris Iannetta, when I first saw him play, I knew he was going to be a great player. Let’s see, Mike King, Tommy Pannone, Jeff Beliveau, Ryan Westmoreland – all great players and hard to really say which one was the best to come out of RI. Along with my sons, those players really stand out.”
It was a really fun hour getting to know one of Rhode Island’s greatest athletes, Westerly’s Dave Stenhouse. His storied high school and collegiate careers as a prolific scorer and top notch pitcher thrilled Rhode Island sports fans in the early 1950s. After being signed by the Chicago Cubs, Stenhouse enjoyed a stellar minor league career before getting his shot in the big leagues with the Washington Senators in the Spring of 1962. The baseball journey of Dave Stenhouse is beyond impressive as it carried him from the sandlots of Westerly to Wrigley Field and other Major League ballparks. And through his involvement as a coach, instructor, and founder of the Rhode Island Baseball Institute, Dave has made an incredible impact on the baseball journeys of so many Rhode island baseball players. It was a real honor to meet Dave and chat baseball with a Rhode island living legend of sports!
Here are some great links to learn more about Dave Stenhouse: