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The Dodgers’ Yankee: A Maine man

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By Karl Lindholm

Where’s Waldoboro?

Only about 50 miles from Lewiston, where I was staying with family for the holidays. So the morning after Christmas I headed down the coast to Waldoboro, Maine.

My first stop was at Moody’s Diner right on Coastal Route 1 in Waldoboro. It’s as modest as advertised. It’s famous for its pies, but I just had eggs over easy, bacon, and wheat toast, and a little time with the Bangor Daily News.

My destination in Waldoboro was 197 Deaver Road. I knew it was off Route 220, the Friendship Road (it’s the road to Friendship, a neighboring town, 12 miles away).

I stopped at Flippers Market (Flippa’s Mahket) on 220 and got directions: “Just take a right at Back Cove Road, go ’bout a mile till you get to the water (wattah), then take a right at the second dirt road, green house on the corner (connah).“

About a quarter-mile down, at a bend in the second dirt road, I found 197 Deaver, a small yellow Cape in a copse of birch trees with the Medomak River at Muscongas Bay backing right up to the yard behind the house. Really nice spot. Quintessential Maine.

This is the house of Clyde Sukeforth, or was — he died in 2000 at age 98, and Clyde Sukeforth was a quintessential Maine man. He was born in Washington, Maine, and died in Waldoboro, only seven miles away. He lived the last 30 years of his life, after retiring from baseball, in Waldoboro.

In the long history of the game, Clyde Sukeforth is my favorite baseball figure. As a fellow Mainer, I am thrilled by his story, his life in the game. He spent over four decades as a player (an undersized catcher, ten years in the majors), a scout, coach, and manager.

I wanted to get a feel for Waldoboro, because I’m working on a conference paper on Sukeforth for the annual NINE Baseball Conference in Tucson in March, a gathering of baseball scholars (no, it’s not an oxymoron) I love joining each spring.

Though the Kennebec Journal called him a “minor baseball hero” in its obituary, Clyde Sukeforth is hardly obscure. As Branch Rickey’s arch collaborator and confidante, his role in the Jackie Robinson integration saga is well known.

He was the Dodger scout who met with Robinson in Chicago and accompanied him to Brooklyn for the historic meeting with Branch Rickey, when Rickey informed Robinson he wanted a “man with guts enough not to fight back.” He was in the room that day, and on the bench as manager of the Dodgers for Robinson’s first game as a major leaguer, after six decades of segregated play.

Sukeforth was there when it mattered and he did the job. Rachel Robinson said, “(Clyde) was very kind to both of us, probably one of the most influential people in my husband’s life. He cared about Jackie and our entire family.”

He represents competence and dependability in the workplace. Lee Lowenfish in his recent biography of Branch Rickey refers to the “taciturn native of Maine” as “one of the most trusted members of Rickey’s inner circle.”

As such, he was not the star, the boss, one of the principals — it was Rickey and Robinson’s show. He was the consummate team player, happier in the shadows than the limelight. Sukeforth was crucial but not central — and that’s just the way he liked it.

“I got a lot of credit I don’t deserve,” he said later. “I treated (Robinson) just like any other human being ... See, coming from Maine, I never thought about color. I don’t feel I did anything special. I was just there.”

Sukeforth was reticent, prone to understatement, utterly lacking in self-promotion. He reflects the Yankee archetype. He was a man of his region, Maine, Northern New England, a territory of distinctive cultural expression.

Mainers are practical; they want to be of use; they are diligent workers, proud and industrious. They are used to rugged times, hardship, bad weather, tough choices. They live a hardscrabble life, or at least they did when Clyde Sukeforth was growing up there and adopting the values of his place.

His narrative is an American story: the young man from the provinces who goes to the city and participates in a mythical drama, and then, after an extraordinary career full of high adventure, returns to his Ithaka, Waldoboro, Maine, to live out his long life, a sage in the tranquility of old age in familiar and reassuring surroundings.

I have been able to connect with Sukeforth’s only living relative, his daughter Helen Zimmerman, who lives in Dallas. She writes:

“My father would have never lived anywhere but Maine. He was a true Mainer, thru and thru. He loved the outdoors, even in the winter, especially in the winter. He liked to hunt and fish, and always had dogs — hounds in the earlier years and bird dogs in later years.

“He always found something to do in the winter. He would never have been happy in Florida or Texas.”

Clyde Sukeforth: Branch Rickey’s Maine man, the Dodgers’ Yankee.

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