He struck out Willie McCovey with the bases loaded in the 1959 Pacific Coast League All-Star Game. He went toe-to-toe against Ernie Banks in a spring training game. And, he walked Mickey Mantle and gave up a hit to Yogi Berra.
Fred Besana (Lincoln, Placer JC) stared down some of the best players in history. His confrontations against Hall of Fame members are just a smidgen of the treasured memories of one of the finest left-handed pitchers in Sacramento-area folklore.
Besana made his major league debut April 18, 1956 with the Baltimore Orioles, pitching two scoreless innings of relief against the Boston Red Sox.
Orioles’ manager Paul Richards originally planned to use his lefty strictly in relief. But with left-hander Bill Wight hit hard in spring training and in two regular-season starts, Richards decided to give his rookie a start. Besana allowed three runs in the first inning, worked into the seventh inning and beat the Washington Senators 7-3.
In the Monday April 23rd edition of the Sarasota Journal, the headlines read: “Besana May Be Pitcher Orioles Need so Badly.” The article said, “Richards was so impressed, he planned on giving Besana more starting assignments along with Don Ferrarese, another young lefty with promise.”
Even with Richards’ backing, Besana’s stay in Baltimore was short. He made two starts and five relief appearances and compiled a 1-0 record and 5.29 ERA in 17 and two-thirds innings of work. No reason was given for his re-assignment to the minor leagues.
“They didn’t have to,” Besana told The Sacramento Bee. “I knew. I was so damn wild I couldn’t get the ball over the plate.”
When asked about his time in the big leagues, Besana, “I can’t tell you much. I wasn’t there very long.”
He can, however, tell us plenty about how he got there.
Besana was a tall, lanky left-hander who grew up in the rural California farming town of Lincoln. He learned to pitch throwing stones at the family barn. As a senior at Lincoln High School in 1947, he dominated opponents, striking out 107 batters in 65 innings and leading the Zebras to the Sacramento County League Championship.
The 17-year-old twice shut out his team’s major threat Elk Grove High School, and in doing so, out-dueled Richie Myers, who signed professionally with the Chicago Cubs as a shortstop and broke into the major leagues three days after Besana. In their first encounter, both pitchers threw no-hitters. Besana prevailed 1-0.
“When we played Elk Grove at home, it was such a big deal that the whole town shut down and all the grammar school kids were let out of class for the day to go to the game,” Besana said.
Placer Junior College, now Sierra College, was Besana’s next destination. In his second season, he led the Spartans to a league title and a berth in the Northern California best-of-three championship series against San Mateo, whose top pitcher was former Sacramento Solons right-hander Bud Watkins.
Besana won the opener 1-0, only to see his club lose 4-2 in Game 2. He was called upon to pitch the championship game and squared off against Watkins, who became a minor-league teammate of Besana’s with the Vancouver Mounties in 1958. San Mateo won the game 3-2 in 16 innings.
The first 13 innings were thrown by Besana, who hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning and appeared to have the title in hand but a two-out ninth inning blooper to right field dropped in to tie the game 2-2.
In the summer of 1949, Besana joined the Sacramento Solons as a batting practice pitcher. Though he was a non-roster player, he accompanied the team on the road.
On one five-game road trip, the 18-year-old youngster roomed with an ex-New York Yankees pitcher and got an eye-opening look at the off-the-field side of professional baseball he had only heard about.
“I saw this guy maybe once the entire trip,” Besana recalled. “He was always out drinking and running with the girls. The one time I did see him, I asked him if he was married. He said he was but when you’re drunk it doesn’t count.”
In 1950, Besana signed with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League for $5,000 with the stipulation he would collect an additional $5,000 if his contract was sold to a major-league team.
After attending spring training with the Oaks, he was assigned to the Sweetwater Swatters of the D-Level Longhorn League. He made five starts, went 3-1 with a 4.64 ERA and was promoted to the Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas-New Mexico League. At C-Level Albuquerque, he was 15-11 with a 5.23 ERA. He combined that season to pitch 205 innings.
After that 18-win season, Besana spent the next four years in the Air Force. His military hitch could not have come at a worse time. Though his patriotic duty kept him off the professional diamond, it didn’t keep him off the mound.
“I joined the Air Force instead of getting drafted into the Army,” Besana said. “I spent most of my four-year military service in the Midwest. I spent my first two years at Clarksville Base in Tennessee, right there on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, and my final two years on the West Coast at Travis AFB. All I ever did was play baseball and basketball.”
Clarksville Base was the second of 13 national stockpile storage sites. It was established during the Cold War by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project on the 5,000-acre compound at Fort Campbell, Ky. Called “The Birdcage” by locals, it housed part of the United States nuclear arsenal in a well-sealed tunnel system carved into the side of a hill.
When one of the area’s semi-pro baseball teams discovered there was a pro pitcher on the base, it didn’t take long for the Hartsville Sun’s owner to approach the base commander and ask, even to the point of suggesting, that a regular weekend pass for Besana would be good for both the base and the town. The commander agreed and Besana joined the Sun.
However, not everyone agreed with the base commander.
“Once, a young, snot-nosed lieutenant put me in for being AWOL, citing I missed guard duty,” Besana said. “He told everyone when I got back from playing ball he was going to throw me in the brig. The lieutenant was called into the commander’s office. After that, I never had a problem with him again.”
Once the local ballclubs got a look at the hard-throwing Besana, the bidding war began.
“I was getting 10 bucks a game to pitch for Hartsville,” Besana said. “When we played the Clarksville Moose, I was approached by one of their team’s representatives and offered 10 bucks not to pitch that day, and if I’d pitch for them, they’d pay me $25 a game. I couldn’t pass on that deal. So, the next day I became a Moose.”
Besana said there was never a dull moment on the weekends, playing in some of the most out-of-the way places imaginable.
“We played a game in Harlem, Ky., once,” Besana recalled. “I mean this place was way, way back in the woods. There were moonshine stills all over the place. And, the ballpark wasn’t much to speak of either. I remember rounding third, heading for home and plowing over the catcher. When I sat down in the dugout, this hillbilly in farmer’s overalls walks up to me and said, ‘That’s my son you knocked down boy, and I don’t want to see that happen again.’ As he walked away, he pulled back his coat to show me he was packing a pistol.”
While at Travis AFB in 1953 and 1954, Besana pitched for the Marysville Giants of the semi-pro Valley League. Games were played on Wednesday nights and a weekend afternoon. He twice struck out 18 batters in a game.
When his four-year hitch in the Air Force was up, Besana rejoined the Oaks at the end of the 1954 season. His absence from the professional game showed. He just couldn’t shake the rust from not pitching regularly. In 27 and two-thirds innings, he was 0-4 with 6.83 ERA. His 1955 season with the Oaks was much better. He pitched 146 innings, went 6-10 with a respectable 3.75 ERA and had his contract bought by Baltimore.
Besana started the 1956 season with the Orioles. After 25 days in the big leagues, the Orioles sent him to Triple-A Vancouver. With the Mounties, he struggled, posting a 1-13 record and 6.62 ERA. As a result, he found himself searching for a new employer in 1957.
In 1958, Besana joined the unaffiliated Amarillo Gold Sox of the Western League. He went 10-3 and re-established himself as a major-league pitcher. Once again, the Orioles purchased his contract and assigned him to Knoxville of the South Atlantic League to finish the season.
Though Besana accumulated a 31-27 record from 1957 to 1959, he never reached the major leagues again.
Besana retired from baseball in 1960 because, “I had enough, baseball just wasn’t fun anymore.” Instead, he completed his college courses and earned his teaching credential at Sacramento State.
The itch to play again returned in 1961. Besana played for the Spokane Indians/Montreal Royals, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A club in the PCL. After the season, he called it quits for good. In an eight-year minor-league career, he had a 58-63 record and 4.33 ERA in 1,051 and two-thirds innings.
After his professional career, Besana taught and coached junior varsity basketball and baseball at Roseville High School from 1962-64. During the fall of 1965, he became Oakmont High School’s first baseball coach. He joined the American River College teaching staff in 1966 and was named the baseball coach. He coached until 1985 and taught until his retirement in 1990.
Besana said his only baseball regret was never facing his Hall of Fame idol Ted Williams, a 14-time American League All-Star and two-time Most Valuable Player with the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1960.
He came close once.
“During that 1956 season with Baltimore, I was pitching against Boston and Williams was coming up,” Besana said. “I was doing everything I could to stay in the game. Finally, Williams was due up, but while on his way to the plate, he got called back to the dugout for a pinch hitter. Something about a heel injury, so it was said. I always thought it was because I was so wild Boston was afraid that I’d hit him. All I ever wanted was to be able to tell my son and grandson Ted Williams hit one off me that’s still going.”
Besana passed away on November 7, 2015. He was 85.
FRED BESANA’S MAJOR-LEAGUE STATISTICS
FRED BESANA’S MINOR-LEAGUE STATISTICS