Ever since he picked up a baseball for the first time, the aptly named Fred Cambria from Cambria Heights knew that his future would be in the game he loved.
While baseball took him all the way to the Major Leagues, the stops along the way made him the passionate baseball guru he is. To this day, Cambria has stayed involved in the game in a variety of ways.
It all started at Ebbets Field, where many youngsters in the Diocese of Brooklyn developed a liking for America’s pastime. Cambria attended games often with his father and uncle.
“That was my first inclination of knowing that’s for me,” said Cambria, 63.
He started his baseball career at shortstop as an eight year-old playing in the Sacred Heart parish, Cambria Heights, CYO league. The team practiced almost every day and played their games on weekends.
Unlike kids today, Cambria was outside playing baseball, softball or even stickball every day and in any weather. He believes these experiences helped him learn the fundamentals of the game and gave him a solid foundation for him to grow as a ballplayer.
“Baseball’s a game that you have to practice every day,” Cambria said. “The only way to get better is to keep playing.”
After a brief stint as a catcher, he began pitching at age 12. What started out as him just filling in on the mound led to much success. He played four years of varsity baseball at St. Pascal’s H.S., St. Albans, and for three of those years, he was the team’s primary pitcher.
Interestingly, Cambria was recruited by St. Leo University in Florida as a basketball player. While he first attempted to play both sports, he was forced to choose one due to his focus on education.
“I think I have a better opportunity in baseball to have a better career,” he recalled of a conversation he had with his coach.
Looking back, Cambria is thrilled with his decision to choose hardball. He played three years in college and was contacted by professional scouts during his junior year.
St. Leo’s visited Durham, N.C., to take on Duke University in 1969. Tom Butters, the head coach at Duke, pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1960s. Cambria had a great all-around game, and Butters recommended him to Joe Brown, the Pirates general manager at the time.
The day before the 1969 draft, Cambria attended a tryout at Shea Stadium, Flushing, for the New York Mets. He always wanted to be a Met and was thrilled when the Mets told him they’d make him a high draft choice.
“I’m still waiting for the phone call,” said Cambria of his interaction with the Mets.
The Pirates wound up selecting him in the third round of the draft and assigned him to Double-A. He experienced immediate success and even pitched a perfect game in his fourth professional start. Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh was in the stands for that game.
After getting off to a slow start at Triple-A in 1970, Cambria went on a 12-2 run that earned him a call-up to the big leagues in August. At the age of 22, he outdueled the great Tom Seaver of the Mets in the second game of a doubleheader on Sept. 20 that put the Pirates on the right track to capturing the 1970 NL East Pennant.
Played Ball with the Greats
Cambria made the post-season roster, but he never made an appearance since the Cincinnati Reds swept the Pirates in the playoffs. Still, Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski welcomed him with open arms.
“These guys were great to me and made me a member of the team,” Cambria said.
“I was just fortunate to play with some great ballplayers.”
After an arm injury forced him to throw submarine and a brief stint in the Yankees farm system, Cambria hung up his spikes in 1973. However, after earning a political science degree from St. Leo’s, his alma mater offered him the position as head baseball coach, which he accepted.
He later coached in the San Diego Padres minor leagues where he served as the pitching coach for the new draft picks in High-A ball.
With the recommendation of Heisman Trophy executive director Rudy Riska and St. John’s University, Jamaica, athletic director Jack Kaiser, Cambria was named the commissioner of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League. He was the league’s first MVP in 1967 and became the first player from the league to play in the majors.
These days, Cambria is busy imparting his knowledge to young ballplayers. He stresses the importance of education and that developing as a player is more important than winning or losing.
“Whatever I learned, I hope to pass onto the kids today to make them better people and make them better ballplayers,” said Cambria. “I have no regrets. Baseball was great to me, and I still love it today.”
Follow Jim Mancari on Twitter @ JMMancari.[hr]
St. John’s Alums Play in Benefit Basketball Game
Three St. John’s University basketball alums – Justin Burrell, Malik Boothe and Paris Horne – played in the Malone Mulhall Benefit Game July 30 at Carnesecca Arena.
The game was held to honor the loss of three college students last summer – Jamie and Paige Malone and Michael Mulhall – who died in a car accident on their way to work. The three were counselors at a recreational summer camp for individuals with special needs.
Established to do charitable work in memory of those students, the game featured a high level of basketball talent and raised money for the foundations and scholarships in their names.