Sabath Anthony “Sam” Mele was born in Astoria, New York on January 21, 1922 and passed away in his home in Quincy, Massachusetts this past Monday at the age of 95. Sam Mele‘s parents were born in Avellino, Italy although they met in America. Mele’s mother was sister to big league brothers Al and Tony Cuccinello. Sam Mele was a natural all-around athlete and a Queens Park baseball legend and went on to attend New York University where he excelled as a basketball and baseball player before serving his country in the Marines during World War II. But Mele wanted to play pro baseball and was signed as a free agent by the Boston Red Sox in 1946. In his first year of organized ball, Mele played 119 games for Scranton (A ball in the Eastern League) hitting .342 with 18 home runs before being moved up to Louisville in the AAA American Association where he played all of 15 games. Mele made his major league debut with the Red Sox the following year against the Washington Senators on April 15, 1947. His rookie season may have been one of the best of his career as Sam hit 12 home runs and knocked in 73 runs in 123 games while hitting .302. Mele would never hit over .300 again in his 10 year major league career. During his playing career spanning 1947 to 1956, Mele, who batted and threw right-handed, saw duty with six major league clubs: the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians, batting .267 with 80 home runs in 1,046 games. Sam Mele played his final major league game as a Cleveland Indian on September 16, 1956. Mele played AAA ball with for the White Sox and Athletics in 1957 and 1958 but never returned to the majors as a player.
Mele turned to coaching and served under manager Cookie Lavagetto in 1959 and 1960 for the Washington Senators before the team moved to Minnesota in 1961 and became known as the Twins. With the ‘61 Twins struggling, Calvin Griffith asked Lavagetto to take a week off in early June and during this period Mele filled in as manager. When Cookie Lavagetto was fired on June 23, 1961, Sam Mele stepped in as manager full-time and became the Minnesota Twins second manager. The Twins moved up two places in the standings under Mele, finishing seventh.
But the Twins, building with young home-grown players like future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, Jim Kaat, Zoilo Versalles and Bob Allison, challenged the powerful New York Yankees in 1962 before finishing second. After finishing third in 1963, the team suffered through a poor season in 1964, leading to speculation that Mele would be replaced by his new third base coach, Billy Martin.
Finally, in 1965 the Twins broke the Yankees’ string of five World Series appearances by winning their first ever American League pennant and sent the Bronx Bombers on a tailspin where the New York Yankees would not appear in another World Series for 12 years. During the 1965 season Mele was involved in a an incident with home plate umpire Bill Valentine. The usually mild-mannered Mele’s hand apparently hit Valentine’s jaw and he was fined $500 and suspended five days. Led by Versalles, who was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player, batting champ Tony Oliva, and pitcher Mudcat Grant, who won 21 games, Minnesota won 102 games and coasted to the league title. The Yankees finished sixth, 25 games out. No Twins team has ever won 102 games since and Mele was named as the 1965 Sporting News Manager of the Year and back then there was only one manager of the year named for both the AL and NL. Minnesota took a two-game lead in the 1965 World Series, but the superior pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen took its toll, and Los Angeles won in seven games.
The 1966 Twins won 13 fewer games, and ended up as runners-up to the Baltimore Orioles. Mele had clashed publicly with two of his coaches, Hal Naragon and pitching tutor Johnny Sain and both were fired after the 1966 season much to the dismay of star pitcher Jim Kaat who wrote an “open letter” to Twins fans voicing his displeasure on the Sain firing. The “letter” made national news and caused a ruckus during the 1966 World Series when major league baseball wanted the World Series front and center. The club swung a major trade for pitcher Dean Chance during the offseason and unveiled star rookie Rod Carew in 1967. Hopes and expectations were high in Minnesota, but when the Twins were only .500 after 50 games, Mele was fired. His successor was not Martin, as had been anticipated, but long time minor league manager Cal Ermer. Mele’s record as a manager was 524-436 (.546). He never managed again, but returned to the Red Sox as a scout for 25 years.
Sam Mele is survived by his sons Steven and Scott; his daughters Sherry Ann Mele, Marcia Mele and Marilyn McCabe; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His wife, Connie, died in 2011.
I was lucky enough to interview Sam Mele back in May of 2009 and the interview is about a 1/2 hour-long. Sam Mele interview
The Sam Mele SABR Baseball Biography is available here.