Tommy Martinez will forever be a boy of summer

Longtime Escondido resident Tommy Martinez is now 86 years old. But neither does he look, sound or act like it.

His eyes are still bright and seem to sparkle whenever he discusses something that interests him. His personality remains pleasant and appealing. He’s the sort of guy you can quickly connect with because he gives off such a genuine, unpretentious and humble vibe.

And in some ways, there is a perpetual sense of youth about him, a feeling that the years can never dampen an innate enthusiasm that he possesses. This undiminished youthful attitude is never more in evidence than when Martinez begins talking and rhapsodizing about something that has long been close to his heart – the national pastime of baseball.

After being introduced to the game by his father who could throw with both hands, and an extremely gifted older brother named Fred, Tommy took to it as easily as he could scoop up grounders and soon became a standout.

So just how good was Martinez? Good enough to be awarded an Athlete of the Century Award from San Diego High, arguably the most iconic sports school in the city’s history.

And had he not torn his Achilles tendon at the outset of a promising pro career and at a time when the medical remedies for such an injury were virtually non-existent, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Tommy could have ascended quite high in the ranks and possibly made it all the way to the ultimate destination of the major leagues.

Martinez grew up in the Barrio Logan section of east San Diego (hard by 33rd Street) where neighboring groups would occasionally get into mischief and confront one another. On one occasion a young Martinez, while helping to defend his turf, got involved in a rock fight. Seemingly always blessed with an accurate arm, he plunked one of his adversaries right in the noggin, knocking him down. But in the process, Martinez experienced a sharp pain in his right arm and subsequently could never again completely straighten it out. From then on, he was forced to always throw with a sidearm motion.

While growing up, Tommy would often grab an available stick and begin whacking any inanimate object he could find, all the while developing and nurturing what would become a remarkable hand-eye coordination.  He would also play on hardscrabble playgrounds and ballfields that were littered with rocks, pebbles and other assorted obstacles. Quickly learning how to adjust to tricky bounces, it’s no wonder that he became quite adept at handling any sort of a bad hop.

When he finally got to SD High, his array of baseball skills was undeniable and he became a backbone for two of the most powerful clubs that the Cavemen ever produced. Though he wasn’t physically imposing at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Tommy loomed large with his slick fielding (he was a master at turning the double play) and his consistent line-drive hitting. Martinez could also really scoot on the basepaths and he turned stealing home into a particular specialty.

The years 1948 and ‘49 proved to be halcyon days for Martinez and his mates. The Cavemen captured consecutive Southern California titles during Tommy’s upperclassmen seasons and won an astounding 55 out of 61 games. During his junior season, in playoff competition against the best teams from the lower half of the state, SD High won their four games by impressive counts of 19-1, 12-0, 5-1 and 20-1.

Tommy really put it all together during his senior campaign when he raked like nobody’s business, spraying the ball all over the place to the tune of a sparkling .421 average. Spearheaded by their sweet-swinging second sacker, the Cavemen rolled to another title, in the process downing a powerhouse Santa Barbara team that featured future great and Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews.

Always the splendid player, Tommy was even a better person who took his team captaincy seriously and always made it a point to look out for the other guy. No other anecdote better illustrates this concern than what he did for a senior teammate named Chuck Hiller. Having not played at all during the course of the year, Hiller was told by Martinez to grab his glove and get ready to take the field in the top half of the ninth inning of the final game of the year.

Unbeknownst to Hiller, Martinez had gone to renowned SD High coach Mike Morrow and asked that the never used reserve be permitted to play. Morrow was to give his approval. And wouldn’t you know it? Hiller became a hero when he made a nifty shoestring catch and then doubled off a runner from first with a terrific throw. The entire SD bench rose to its feet and clapped and cheered enthusiastically after Hiller’s standout double play.

Thanks to the touching consideration of the thoughtful Martinez, Hiller was able to experience something he would forever cherish and remember. And what’s even more revealing, when Tommy relates this story, he’s much more animated than when recalling any of his own notable exploits.

In addition to being a major contributor to the SD High dynasty, Tommy also competed in American Legion ball for some legendary Post 6 clubs, played winter ball and also toiled at San Diego Junior (now City) College.

During the course of being a member of these various teams, his path crossed, either as a teammate or foe, with eventual big leaguers such as the hard-throwing pitcher Vernon Law, San Diego standout Bob Skinner, Del Crandall, Ed Wolfe, Solly Hemus and Bob Usher.

And though playing ball was always Martinez’s true joy, it nonetheless did introduce him to some harsh and disturbing realities that existed in the America of that era. While traveling to places such as Yuma, Tucson and Denver to participate in tournament play, Tommy witnessed firsthand the cruelty of racism. He was dismayed when black teammates he had befriended and greatly admired were denied access to certain restaurants and lodging.

On one occasion he encountered these buddies camped out on sidewalk around lunchtime. After being told that they weren’t going to be allowed to eat at a local diner, Martinez immediately took it upon himself to purchase enough food that all of them could share somewhere outside. Yes, Tommy had momentarily saved the day but discriminatory acts like this deeply troubled both those directly affected and others compelled to watch it happen.

But being a stellar ballplayer was almost always an uplifting experience and there were occasions that brought about a memorable perk or two. Like the time Martinez accompanied some San Diego teammates to downtown Los Angeles to be a part of a ceremony that involved baseball’s most legendary and arguably its greatest player ever, Babe Ruth.

At the time, Ruth was not in the best of health, battling throat cancer and did not cut the same robust figure as when he was a physically imposing athlete. Yet his greatness hadn’t diminished in the slightest — Ruth remained a transcendent figure — and now here he was in the flesh. As the aging titan made his way along, heading in Tommy’s direction, the blown away kid just couldn’t find it within himself to look Ruth in the face—the experience proved to be just too overwhelming.

And yet soon after, there was the frail but smiling Bambino grasping Tommy’s left hand in a sincere exchange as other players and onlookers took in the scene with keen interest. In that brief but treasured moment, Martinez had been touched by and interacted with the game’s most defining immortal and had a memory that went beyond anything words can express.

And to this day, Tommy possesses something that not only has deep personal meaning to him but carries with it enormous historical significance. A ball autographed by the incomparable Babe.

Tommy’s playing days came to an abrupt end at a time when his prospects were clearly trending up. Playing Class C ball with an independent team in Globe, Arizona, Martinez was fielding well and making plenty of contact, his batting average over .300. He was also generating some genuine buzz, with Boston Braves’ scout Johnny Moore expressing real interest in the young infielder.

But alas, a future in the game he so fervently adored just wasn’t meant to be. While covering first base, he took a misstep and felt as if he’d been shot, his Achilles tendon giving way. In those days, that was an injury that really couldn’t be rectified and though Tommy tried to tape it, exercise it and then finally just forget it, nothing really worked.

Definitely impaired and with the injury affecting nearly every part of his game, the competitive Martinez wasn’t about to be satisfied with what he considered to be subpar play from himself. It wasn’t long before he realized he couldn’t seriously continue to chase his baseball dream. “I knew that was it,” Tommy shares of the ending of his diamond career. “But my attitude was that certain things take place and that just happened to be one of them.”

Not inclined to look back, Tommy moved on, immersing himself in a devoted marriage to wife Peggy, raising three children and having successful work-related stints at the original Escondido Village Mall as the man in charge of security and maintenance and as a longtime employee of the May Company Centers.

But Tommy Martinez’s story would be incomplete without relating the lasting impact his elder brother Fred had on his kid sibling.

Some of Tommy’s fondest memories involve his time spent as a bat boy for a couple of Fred’s earlier teams. And it was Fred who helped spark Tommy’s interest in the sport that would forever forge an unbreakable bond between the two of them.

Though they shared the same blood, the brothers were decidedly different types of ballplayers. Bigger and stronger, the quiet Fred was a power hitter who played the hot corner at third and flashed some serious leather while doing so. Meanwhile, Tommy was more into line drives and was less spectacular though no less gifted at handling things at second.

Sadly, a heart-wrenching tragedy prematurely ended this deep and abiding relationship. In late June of 1946, the 24-year-old Fred, a wartime vet, was toiling for the Spokane Indians, a Class B team in the Western International League. And was he ever tearing the cover off the ball, rapping out hits at a spectacular .353 clip.

Manning both infield and outfield positions, the older Martinez was considered to be one of the three bona fide major league prospects on the club. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have made it,” says Tommy softly. “He was just one of those guys that never seemed to get rattled.”

But misfortune overtook Fred while riding on a team bus headed for Bremerton, Washington. After bursting through a guardrail, the bus plummeted an estimated 350 feet at the Snoqualmie Pass, 50 miles east of Seattle. Nine players eventually died as a result of the fiery crash, six of them instantly. Fred Martinez was one of them. This accident remains the worst ever in terms of loss of life in the history of professional baseball.

Even to this day, Tommy can’t speak of the brother he so dearly loved and idolized without choking up, the tears welling up in his eyes. Perhaps that’s why this Martinez was somewhat accepting of the bad break that curtailed his career. Yeah, he got shortchanged but Fred lost so much more. Not only was he robbed of a bright future but something inordinately more precious was taken from him, his very life. That realization continues to grieve Tommy.

In his retirement, Tommy stays busy by helping around the house and looking after Peggy. He’s also quite the gardener and has turned his knack for nurturing bonsai trees into a full-blown hobby.

And he also continues to follow the national pastime although he’s isn’t exactly crazy about some of directions in which it’s headed. He’s not all that sold on current San Diego Padre manager Andy Green and feels that the organization did prior skipper Pat Murphy a real disservice by not giving him more of a chance.

But, on balance, the game will always be sweet to him. It provided Martinez with a forum from which he could excel and demonstrate his athletic aptitude. It also allowed him to experience some real thrills and created countless memories that can never be wrested from him. In many ways, it has been one of the best friends he has ever known.

Plus, it has helped keep him young. Whenever he recalls baseball-related events from the past or talks about those players and coaches that he has encountered, he becomes animated and enthused. It’s obvious the impact that the grand old game has had on him.

And it’s a beautiful thing for an observer like this reporter to realize that in his heart of hearts, Tommy Martinez will forever be a boy of summer.

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