Port’s World Series champ

Sixty-one years before the Brewers’ 2018 pennant quest, John DeMerit played on the team that won the World Series

Port Washington’s John DeMerit showed off his World Series ring from the 1957 Milwaukee Braves. DeMerit’s baseball career had him playing with and against some of the game’s legends. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

While the Milwaukee Brewers are propelling their way toward a pennant, Port Washington already has a World Series champion.

John DeMerit, who was raised in Port and still lives on the city’s north side, was a member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves world championship team, and he’s a living treasure trove of baseball stories involving legends even casual fans would remember.

He remembers carpooling to work with teammate Henry Aaron. DeMerit’s wife Gladys drove him to Aaron’s home in Mequon and then picked him up there after practice.
Aaron, DeMerit said, was quiet and could really hit. He wasn’t the celebrity back then that he is today.

“You could see he would be great,” he said.

The bigger stars and vocal leaders on that team were pitcher Warren Spahn and third baseman Eddie Mathews.

DeMerit was a rookie on that team. He was signed after his junior year — there were no agents or a draft — at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received a $100,000 bonus that was paid out over five years. One quarter of it, he said, went to his father for a new house.

Known as one of the league’s first “bonus babies,” DeMerit took the roster spot of Chuck Tanner, who would later manage the Pittsburgh Pirates to a World Series title, and took his number, 18.

DeMerit pinch ran often since he had good speed, and played outfield when Billie Bruton went down with a knee injury.

He was nervous as a rookie, but the team was “reasonably acceptable” of the 21-year-old, he said. Players gave more flack to the team’s other bonus baby, 18-year-old Hawk Taylor from Kentucky, who would do bird calls.

After the Braves took seventh game over the Yankees in New York to win the World Series, DeMerit remembers coming home for a banquet at the Wisconsin Club.

“The celebration was tumultuous,” he said. “We could hardly get off the airplane to the buses, it was so crowded.”

It wouldn’t be DeMerit’s only world title. He went on to play for the Braves’ minor league team in Louisville and helped it win the Little World Series over Toronto in 1960.

DeMerit hit .270 that season, but in all three playoff series he eclipsed .300. The Colonels beat St. Paul in five games and Denver in seven before beating Toronto in six. He remembers the Maple Leafs had a second baseman named Sparky Anderson, who went to manage three World Series champions.

That season, DeMerit hit in the 6 spot, right after Taylor at No. 5. DeMerit remembers Frank Torre, hall-of-famer Joe Torre’s older brother, hit No. 4 and racked up a total of 14 RBI.

DeMerit played a handful of seasons in the major leagues, retiring from the Mets in 1962.

He hit three home runs in his career, with one coming off the legend Sandy Koufax in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“It wasn’t a cheap one,” he said of the shot that cleared the left-center fence.

When he went to bat the following inning, Dodgers’ catcher Johnny Roseboro told him, “Anybody can hit a fastball ball when they know it’s coming.”

One of DeMerit’s fly-outs in Milwaukee involved another legend. Willie Mays “flew through the air and (his cleat) put a scratch on the (unpadded) wall” in Milwaukee, he said.

“I guess it was a great catch. I didn’t see it. I was at second base.”

DeMerit instead saw his manager pointing to the dugout.

The toughest pitcher he ever faced was Don Drysdale.

“He could saw you off easily and laugh about it,” he said.

In college, DeMerit faced a rising star named Bob Gibson in amateur ball in South Dakota.

DeMerit remembers playing with Bob Uecker, who Gladys said was as a “clown.”

DeMerit said Uecker kept people laughing. “He was honing his trade, really,” he said.

Not all memories were as humorous.

During spring training in Florida, DeMerit remembers Aaron had to walk to a boarding house from the bus, unable to stay with his teammates.

“That was atrocious,” he said.

Traveling was sometimes difficult for the entire team. In college, DeMerit remembers his first time flying — on a DC-3 from Purdue University. It only reached 2,000 feet in the air.

“Farmers were waving,” he said.

The team once got stuck in a sandstorm coming home from Arizona. While nearing the runway, the plane banked to a 45-degree angle and revved up to get through the blowing dirt and hay. It had to land 40 miles away ahead of the storm. The airport  shook when the bad weather hit.

“It was one of the most harrowing experiences,” he said.

DeMerit still has some of his baseball cards. Back then, Topps had signed each player to a contract to make a card. Instead of money, DeMerit remembers receiving a couple of chairs, a desk, bookcase and a box of bubble gum.

“Players thought it was a joke,” he said of the cards. “We had no idea it was worth anything.”

For the more vital parts of baseball, many players traveled to Louisville for custom-made bats. DeMerit liked 35-inch, 33-ounce and 34-inch, 34-ounce versions.

On that 1957 team, Lew Burdette asked to use DeMerit’s bat. The pitcher hit a home run in his first at-bat with it, and then hit another later that season.

DeMerit remembers that fans could be fickle, sometimes with just 150 attending, except during promotion nights. Giving everyone a jar of pickles in Louisville drew 8,000, he said.

DeMerit said everyone liked playing in Denver because the cigar company across the street from the stadium gave a box of cigars to players who hit a home run.

Other promotions didn’t go over as well. DeMerit remembers Ertls 97 beer — “they must have bottled it right out of the Ohio River” and Rheingold beer in New York that was almost as bad. Cases filled the clubhouse and players were asked to take bottles of both brews home.

During a short stint with the Mets before retiring, DeMerit said manager Casey Stengel would tell abstract stories to his team that assistant coaches struggled to translate. He once fell asleep during a game in Philadelphia and was awakened by a coach more than an inning later.

DeMerit graduated from UW-Madison while in Louisville through a correspondence course and later took graduate classes there and UW-Milwaukee.

After baseball, he worked as an insurance salesman for seven years and served as Port’s recreation director for 26 years, retiring in 1995.

The DeMerits have seven children and 11 grandchildren. Their son Tom played for Dartmouth University and two years in Dodgers rookie ball before an arm injury cut his career short.

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