Marcel Proust once said, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” That line describes this fellow to a “T.” One of the perks of having a sports talk radio show and being able to attend many of my favorite sporting events has been to allow me to meet and converse with many of the best athletes in all of sports. Occasionally, these interviews would lead me to meeting another of my favorite players. Believe me, it’s the best part of this gig. Being a writer and writing well is hard work. As a sports enthusiast, we all have pockets full of stories to share. Writing requires constant thinking and there’s an added difficulty with writing about sports or athletes. You see, the writer ages but the players do not. They remain young and are constantly replaced with younger versions of themselves. In my case, I followed Mickey Mantle until Derek Jeter came along. But every once in a while, I meet an athlete who becomes a true friend, a guy I can trust and one I feel comfortable with. That’s when the stories really start to flow. Bart Shirley is one of those guys. My favorite sports writer, Jim Murray, once wrote in jest, “When you think everything is hopeless, just remember Yogi Berra.” That’s how I feel around Bart, ten years old with a bat in my hands. He has a way of serving as the rainbow in everybody’s cloud. I believe that man makes his destiny through his choices and values, and so does Bart. In my opinion, Bart Shirley was born with a heart three sizes too large. There is nothing this man would not do for you, and that’s a good thing. Bart is humble, God-fearing and snail quiet. I proudly refer to him in public as a “Corpus Christi Treasure.”
Barton Arvin “Bart” Shirley was born on January 4, 1940, in “The Sparkling City by the Sea,” Corpus Christi, Texas. As an athlete, this guy was electric, pure energy. Bart was fast; some said he could catch a cold in the desert. Bart played and starred as a shortstop in baseball for Head Coach A.J. Luquette and left halfback in football for Head Coach Bill Stages, for Ray High School in Corpus. Bart Shirley was what we call a two-play guy. You turn on the projector and watch him field two ground balls and then turn it off. His play was such that Bart was inducted into the Ray Texans’
Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995, as part of their inaugural class. After graduating from Ray in 1958, Bart, along with his close friend and teammate, Bobby Oliver, signed athletic scholarships and headed to Austin, Texas, to play for the Longhorns. After his freshman year, Bart would line up as a halfback for legendary football coach, Darrell Royal, in the 1959 Longhorn backfield. Bart would complete four of ten passes for two touchdowns, while executing the halfback-run option. One of those touchdown passes came against the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for a Texas win. Bart also rushed for 90 yards on 25 carries and caught two passes for sixteen yards. In 1959, the star quarterback, Bobby Lackey, and the 9-2 Longhorns, would finish 4 in the final Associated Press Poll and would take on Ernie Davis from Syracuse, in the Cotton Bowl. The Orangemen from Syracuse won that day, 23-14.
Bart’s star shined even brighter on the baseball diamond for the 1960 Longhorns, as Bart started at shortstop for Head Coach “Bibb” Falk and was voted to the All-Southwest Conference team. Later that same year, Bart was signed as an amateur free agent by celebrated scout, Hugh Alexander, of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Alexander, who was referred to as “Uncle Hughie” by the players, had pitched and played outfield briefly for the Cleveland Indians before an oil field accident in Oklahoma took his left hand. Uncle Hughie became a scout and signed many great players like Allie Reynolds, Steve Garvey, Dale Mitchell, Don Sutton, Frank Howard, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and our very own Bart Shirley. “Once I signed the contract I lost my amateur status at Texas,” said Bart. “I went to Spring Training in 1960 and sent my signing bonus home to my mother.”
In 1961, Bart Shirley reported to the Atlanta Crackers, the Dodgers’ Double-A team, of the Southern Association. Bart later joined the U.S. Army Reserves and attended basic training, in 1961. He would fulfill a six-year obligation to his country. By 1962, you could find Bart playing shortstop for the Triple-A Omaha Dodgers of the American Association.
In 1963, he would hone his skills for the Triple-A Spokane Indians of the Pacific Coast League, before being called up to the Los Angeles Dodgers on September 14, 1964. On Tuesday September 15, while wearing #11, Bart collected 3 hits in 4 at-bats including a double, with one RBI and a run scored against pitchers, Bob Friend and Joe Gibbon, of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Dodgers beat the Pirates 5-3 that day. Bart also turned two double plays, from the shortstop position, that day, with Nate Oliver and Ron Fairly. Interestingly, Bart’s teammate, Willie Davis, and opponent, Roberto Clemente, also had three hits each in that game.
“My greatest memory in professional baseball was when I got the game winning hit against pitcher, Jack Baldschum, of the Philadelphia Phillies, while playing with the Dodgers in 1964,” said Bart. “We won 4-3 and I was extremely excited.” That hit came three days later on September 18; Bart had collected two more hits with his last hit driving in the winning run against the Phillies.
By the end of 1964, Bart had played in 18 games while hitting a respectable .274. He scored six runs with one double, one triple, and recorded seven RBI’s. Bart struck out eight times and walked six times. He remained on the big club until the end of that season.
In 1965, Bart suffered a terribly sprained ankle in Spring Training. It also didn’t help that Maury Wills was playing shortstop for the Dodgers. “I was sent home for a week to recover,” said Bart. “I had a real shot at making the club before my injury.” After healing, Bart found himself back in Spokane for the season. At the beginning of the 1966 season, Bart was called up again to the big club on April 19th. Shirley would stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers until June 25, and was then drafted on November 28, 1966, by the New York Mets in the Rule 5 baseball draft. Walter Alston and the Dodgers continued to play well and won the 1966 National League pennant with a 95-67 win-loss record. With stars like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Willie Davis, John Roseboro and Don Sutton, winning was made easy, but it was not enough. Bart was proud to be a part of that team. The Dodgers were swept by the Baltimore Orioles for the 1966 World Series title. Bart received his share of the 1966 World Series money.
Bart Shirley opened the 1967 season with the Mets, while wearing the # 6, before being sent back to the Minors on April 29 of that same year. Bart was traded back to the Dodgers on May 18, 1967, by the Mets. At the beginning of 1968, Bart finally joined the Dodgers for the last time on July 31st. Bart wore the #2 in 1968. His final game occurred on September 29, 1968. He was 28 years old. Bart headed back to Spokane for the 1969 and 1970 seasons, but the writing was on the wall. In his four years in the Major Leagues, Bart had played in 75 games, while hitting .204. He scored 15 runs on 33 hits with 11 RBI’s and recorded no home runs.
In 1971, Bart decided he was not yet through playing baseball and did what many American players have done before him. He headed to Japan. There he signed with the Chunich Dragons of the Japan Central League. Bart would play there for two years. I asked Bart if he could change anything about his baseball career, what it would be. He thought for a minute and said, “I was blessed with a great arm and could cover a lot of ground with the best, but I wish I had applied myself more to the art of hitting sooner than I did. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I really started to understand hitting. The Dodgers wanted me to hit more to right field, but when I got to Japan they pitched me inside so I became more aggressive and began to pull the ball to left field. I began to look more at location instead of the spin of the ball. When I learned to bend my knees, while swinging, which in turn kept my bat level and in the hitting zone longer, I became a better hitter with more power.” That explains why Bart made better contact in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” During his two years in Japan, Bart played in 246 games, hit 15 home runs and drove in 79 RBI’s, in a short period of time. I asked Bart what the major difference was in Japanese baseball versus the Major Leagues. “The pitching is not consistently as good,” responded Bart. Other American Major League players that played in Japan while Bart was there include Clete Boyer, Davey Johnson, John Miller and his close friend Jim Lefebvre.
Bart Shirley returned to the States in 1973 to manage in the Dodgers’ Minor League system. He would get his start in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1974, you could find him managing in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and in Danville, Illinois, during the 1975 season. Bart would manage a total of 401 games in three years, while winning 199 for a .496 winning percentage.
Pastor Mark Salmon introduced me to Bart Shirley. Mark had met Bart in August of 2001 when Mark became the Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. Mark Salmon, being a diehard baseball fan of the Yankees, and his friend Bart spent hours talking baseball. “We had many great conversations about the Yankees and his career with the Dodgers and Mets. We even talked about his college career at the University of Texas,” exclaimed Mark. “I also heard many stories of his days at Ray High School.” Bart is an Elder and very active member at Grace and I was surprised to find out he sang in the choir. “I felt especially close to Bart when his wife, Bette, got sick and passed away. His Ray High School friends embraced him with such love and I heard over and over again how much Bart had meant to them over the years.” Mark continued, “Bart also subbed for me several times at Whataburger Field and led Baseball Chapel with the visiting and hometown Hooks teams. His greatest days were not when he was a professional baseball player, but as a true and devoted friend.”
One of those devoted friends was a fellow by the name of Garron Dean. Garron has been a Bart Shirley fan for sixty-plus years. “We went to junior high and high school together and participated in sports together all those years,” exclaimed Garron. “Upon graduation, he went to Texas and I went to LSU and we lost each other until he returned to Corpus Christi. Bart had been in Japan playing baseball.” Dean continues, “Bart was a born sportsman and to this very day he is an avid and accomplished golfer.” I myself have never played golf with Bart. I do admit that the only compliment I’ve ever received on the golf course was, “Hey I think we can find that one.” Bart would always smile when I mentioned that. “Bart is one of the most honest individuals I have ever known and a devout Christian who spends a lot of hours devoting his life to Christ,” said Dean.
“When Bart returned to Corpus, he joined Tommy Wright at Citizens Bank, where he learned the ropes on how to become a banker,” said Garron Dean. “Then he had the opportunity to go to work in the Real Estate business and began working with my firm for about five years before he chose the insurance business, where he has been ever since.”
Interestingly, Bart’s high school relationships with teammates stand as strong today as ever. They continue to move in and out of each others’ lives to this very day and gather occasionally to remember and celebrate their past. Bart and his current wife, Victoria, make their home here in Corpus Christi. Bart Shirley is not so much a religious man as he is a spiritual man. Calm but intense, Bart makes difficult look easy. He understands that real toughness is finding strength in something other than yourself. Faith is about living in the unknown, and suffering occurs when we lose part of our identity. The loss of a job, a child, spouse or home can be painful.
George Orwell once said, “At a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” What I would want to leave with Bart and others is the realization that whoever you are, there is some younger person who thinks you are perfect. I would count myself as one of those who feel that way about Bart Shirley. Both Mark Salmon and Bart Shirley wrote some very kind words about my earlier books, In the Company of Greatness and Remembered Greatness which I decided to use at the beginning of my newest book, Greatness Continued. Bart also joined me during one of my book-signing events this year and quickly became the star. The fact is we need our heroes more than they need us.