Darryl Strawberry & The Boys of Crenshaw
Posted by athomeatfenway on January 2, 2010
40 years ago, Roger Kahn dropped upon the reading public a book for the ages, The Boys of Summer. It was special. It traced the roots, playing days, and aftermath of a collection of Brooklyn Dodgers that were held close by an entire borough. They were heroic, working class guys. They were mostly white, with the notable inclusion of Jackie Robinson, Joe Black and Roy Campanella. Frustrated and cheated by fate repeatedly, those Dodgers finally won a World Series in 1955.
3 years later, there were no more Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Dodger fairyland had not been Brooklyn after all. It was Camelot. Poof. Gone. A memory.
In more recent time, Michael Sokolove has chronicled the roots, playing days and aftermath of the 1979 Crenshaw High School Baseball team in another book for the ages, titled, The Ticket Out, Daryl Strawberry and The Boys of Crenshaw.”. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Both books offer hard messages about growing older and returning to civilian life after one’s baseball career is over.
Kahn’s timeless book recounts how some of the old Dodgers worked in construction and tended bar, some hanging on in Baseball by coaching or managing.
Mr. Sokolove’s book sees the Crenshaw boys in their lives after baseball in various levels of personal and professional crisis and pain.
Drugs, divorce, and children born to various partners are common to some of the Crenshaw boys. Others of them found stability, discipline and responsibility, some remaining in South Central, some in San Diego, Houston and the Nevada desert.
One of the boys, Carl Jones, committed three non-violent burglaries, in the last of which he stole nothing because he was too drunk or high to think straight. California’s inflexible 3-strikes law combined with some poorly timed courtroom attitude from Carl to land him in Prison for 25 years.
Another of the boys, Reggie Dymally, is a successful chef specializing in Kosher trendy gourmet. He has prepared Shabat dinner for Madonna, among others.
Former NL All Star, Chris Brown, was, after Baseball, a solid family man, making good money operating a $7 Million construction crane in the Lonestar State.
And Daryl Strawberry, gifted like Ted Williams or Willie Mays, emerged with permanent damage from years besotted with home runs, money, drugs and women. Addiction, cancer, tax troubles and financial losses are his millstones. Like Denny McLain, he intended to do right but always gave himself one more pass to misbehave at a crucial moment.
Darryl’s teammates aren’t surprised that he squandered the opportunity of a life time. To hear them tell it, Darryl was always messed up in the head.
Darryl himself said, “I was always good at Baseball. It was Living I had trouble with.”
The Boys of Crenshaw were the greatest collection of high school baseball talent in history. No other team ever produced as many pro draft choices.
In 1979, the Crenshaw Cougars rose through the playoffs to battle Granada Hills at Dodger Stadium for the Los Angeles City Championship. The star of the other team, John Elway, would rake at the plate and shut down the Cougars from the mound, locking up the title for the Hills.
The competition that year was singular.
John Elway, Bret Saberhagen, Jay Schroeder and Eric Davis all played against Crenshaw that year and all later rose to the elite level of athletics that produced Super Bowl victories, All Star Game appearances, World Series Championships and Cy Young Awards.
The Crenshaw players had high expectations themselves. Cordie Dillard, Chris Brown, Carl Jones, Darryl and Derwin McNealy were all expected to be drafted and to have major league careers.
It was said that Cordie could fall out of bed, pick up a bat, and get a hit. He was so confident at the plate that he would yell “Curveball !” when one was coming, and than whack it on a line into the gap.
Chris Brown was hard headed, gifted and focused. He twice won the National Punt, Pass & Kick Championship. His team mates considered him the best overall player on the team.
Catcher Carl Jones and the McNealy twins could hit at will and played the field with grit. They were simply unstoppable.
Darryl Strawberry was tall, fast, hit moon shots, and was a smooth athlete.
His team mates considered Strawberry the 3rd or 4th best player on the team.
Nine of the Crenshaw Cougars were drafted by the Giants, Yankees, Baltimore and Mets.
Two made it to the Bigs. Strawberry rode the roller coaster of a 17 year career, winning a World Series but failing to play a full season for the last 9 years.
Chris Brown played 6 MLB seasons, mostly for the Giants, was a 1x All Star, earned ROY votes in 1985, and was held up as a complaining malingerer, once ridiculed for not playing because he had “slept on his eye wrong”.
On a team with 9 potential pro players, Darryl and Chris got the furthest.
The Crenshaw boys all feel the pain of missing their individual dream.
They came from inner city L.A., where black folk live in a dangerous place and fervently believe that Sports is a passport to a better life.
L.A. itself represents hope to black people, thus the 50 year migration from the South that populated so many Spanish cottages where fig, apricots and orange trees grow in little backyards.
Baseball was going to be the path to a better life, the ticket out.
Booze, drugs, divorce was what followed their individual exits from Baseball.
Some of their lives stabilized. Some spun permanently out of control. All of them felt the deep loss of a pursuit to which they were completely devoted.
Cordie Dilliard, best hitter on the team, had a most poignant departure from the game.
He was drop kicked out.
Chosen by the Giants in the 12th round (Orel Hershiser would go 130 picks later.), Cordie had company. Chris Brown and Darryl McNealy were also Giant draftees. The three went off together to play rookie ball for the Great Falls (MT.) Giants.
Things went pretty well in Great Falls for Cordie. He was batting .295 and he was obviously much better than most of the other players, according to Chris Brown. But both Cordie and Darryl McNealy would get only 95 at bats in pro ball. One day while shopping in a Department Store, someone left a wallet on the counter. Darryl took it and exited. There were credit cards in the wallet. Darryl and Cordie charged some items, mostly clothes and a camera. They were soon 253 miles from Great Falls, playing away at Medicine Hat, Alberta, when Darryl was arrested while making a camera purchase with one of the credit cards. Although the FBI and local authorities put the cuffs on Darryl, no charges were made. In the interrogation, Darryl implicated Cordie. They were put on the first available flight back to L.A. and later received letters of unconditional released.
These inner city kids were persona non grata in the overwhelmingly white world of Pro Baseball. Their careers were over.
Cordie Dilliard describes the abrupt change and the aftermath….
“…I let something get away from me in life that I really wanted…the thing in Great Falls never, never should have happened…I should have known better…but it happened so fast. One day, you know, I was a baseball player, and I was pretty sure I had a legitimate future in that…next thing you know, I’m sitting back here in L.A. and I’m a plumber. It was automatic when I came back here that I would deal with my family and get into this business, but I wasn’t prepared for it….emotionally.”
Maybe Cordie Dilliard would have made it. Maybe he would have washed out in the Minors. Or maybe he would have been like Derwin McNealy, Darryl’s twin brother.
Derwin McNealy held down a job in pro ball for 8 years, mostly in the Yankee organization. He ran down balls in Centerfield with the best of them, got on base and stole 40+ bases twice. At the end of each satisfying day of play he settled in with a six pack and a pizza. He was invited to Yankees Camp one Spring and rubbed elbows with Winfield and Henderson. He loved the baseball life.
Derwin has fewer regrets than his brother Darryl. He received a chance to play the game and made the most of it. That’s all he could have expected.
Darryl Strawberry’s story is the saddest of all. He had the talent to be Willie Mays. He was paid $30 Million to play the game. All that money gave him unlimited opportunity to have sex and do drugs. In the final analysis, he was too weak to say No to all of it.
Like Kahn’s Boys of Summer, the Boys of Crenshaw go back to where they came, or find something similar, after Baseball. In some cases, they end up slightly better.
But the Boys of Crenshaw miss the brass ring. They do not get the individual or collective prize.
And that says a lot about where they came from, and what they were up against.
The Dodgers created and temporarily maintained an idyllic dream.
Crenshaw never quite got there. What a shame.
If you are interested in getting inside Darryl Strawberry’s head, this book is for you. If you want to better understand what aspiring black players face in pro Baseball, ditto. It is simply one of the best that I have read in a long time.
Had Darryl Strawberry not played for Crenshaw, it is doubtful that this book would have been written. Darryl certainly makes the subject of general interest.
As the reader gets deeply into it, the book pulls you in like a detective story. It takes you to a different place, one that is very real.
And then, like Brooklyn, 1979 Crenshaw is gone. Poof. A memory.
And that, I think, is a sign of a very good book. Enjoy.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Brown
“Chris Brown lived in Houston, Texas, with his wife Lisa and their two children, Paris and Chris Jr., after retirement. In 2004, Brown worked in Iraq, driving an 18-wheel truck delivering diesel fuel for Halliburton. He took fire on numerous occasions, including in a convoy that was attacked on April 9, 2004, in which six Halliburton drivers and one soldier were killed and another driver kidnapped and later released. By 2006, Brown had returned to the United States.
Brown died at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston on December 26, 2006, nearly a month after he suffered burns in a fire on November 30 at a vacant house he owned in Sugar Land, Texas. He was 45 years of age. Police have never determined if his death was a homicide, suicide, or an accident.”