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He trod the same base paths as the best players in baseball walked to get to the major leagues.
He listened as Ted Williams, a legend in the game, complimented his swing.
He wore the famous New York Yankee pinstripes in spring training and the minor leagues.
Many baseball observers felt he had the stuff that would allow him to wear the uniform in the major leagues.
But good fortune never did find Bob Deakin on the baseball diamond. With a little bit of luck, the Londoner could have played in the lineup with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and Tony Kubek.
Instead Deakin came home to London with his wife Dannie, raised two sons and made a career as a firefighter.
“You say the name Bobby Deakin to anyone who watched him play and they’ll tell you he was the top prospect in Canada in his time,” said Barry Boughner, a former London Majors player.
Boughner is one of the organizers of the London Majors Alumni Day scheduled for July 22. Getting recognition for Deakin and the many other Majors alumni is one reason the event was organized.
Deakin’s story is now more than 60 years old. While it covered the 1950s and early ’60s, it’s been buried under the layers of years and disinterest.
Deakin will be 83 in December. He’s healthy now — a state he had trouble finding when he was playing the game — lives in London and plans to be at Labatt Park for Alumni Day.
While he has a scrapbook and plenty of pictures of his time with the Yankees organization, he doesn’t have any of them hanging in his home.
“He just doesn’t like blowing his own horn,” said Dannie.
Deakin could be doing a lot of blowing. In the 1950s it was rare to see a Canadian in either Major League Baseball or the minors. Canada was not yet a spawning ground for baseball players.
But Deakin was a special player and a special athlete.
He was on the 1952 Central High School senior football team that won the first WOSSAA championship for the city. They defeated a highly-favoured Windsor Patterson team 17-1 with Deakin scoring all three majors. He could also play hockey.
Baseball was his game, though. He was an infielder and played for Kensington Park in the Eager Beaver Baseball Association. He was a member of the London all-star teams picked from the EBBA and those teams won the peewee, bantam and midget Ontario championships.
In 1951 at 16, he made the jump to theLondon Majors’ senior team of the Intercounty Baseball League. That team won the IBL title. He played until with them until he turned 19 in 1954, the year he led the IBL in playoff hitting.
By that time he had quit Central.
“The scouts were calling, wanting me to sign,” Deakin said. “They were coming to the door. It was a lot of pressure.”
So in 1953 Deakin signed with the Boston Red Sox organization. What neither the Red Sox nor Deakin knew was that high school players couldn’t be signed, even if they had left school. The contract was voided by baseball’s commissioner. The Red Sox had to wait two years before they could sign Deakin again.
In stepped the Yankees. On the day he turned 20 in 1954, Deakin signed with the Yankees even though he was being chased by other teams as well as Jack Kent Cooke.
Cooke was a Canadian entrepreneur who at one time owned the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Redskins. The Maple Leafs were a AAA team in the International League and considered one of the best independent minor league franchises anywhere.
“But we’re talking the Yankees,” Deakin said.
So began Deakin’s adventure in the minor leagues. The Yankees had teams in AAA, AA, A, B, C level. The Yankees sent him to AA ball. He was off to a good start when he was flattened with a ruptured appendix.
In 1956 he was rehabbing at B ball, hitting .326 and impressing the Yankees. While he was fielding a ground ball, a runner landed on his back with both knees.
“The first baseman came over and I said, ‘I haven’t got any feeling in my legs. I can’t move,’ ” Deakin said. “My back was broken. The doctors came in and said, ‘It looks like you’re not going to walk again.’ I was in the hospital a month and a half. They were sticking needles in me and I couldn’t feel it. Finally, the feeling started to come back to my legs.”
The long process of getting better started again. When spring training came around, Deakin was placed in A ball. He hit .292 and was rewarded with a call from then Yankees’ general manager Lee MacPhail.
“He told me that me, Deron Johnson and Clete Boyer (Deakin’s roommate) would be going right to AAA,” Deakin said. “I had a lot of self-confidence then. People would say, ‘There’s a lot of pressure on you because you’re a Canadian,’ but I never thought that and they didn’t treat me that way. You either know how to play or can’t play.”
Johnson would go on to a 17-year Major League career with 245 home runs, while Boyer played 16 years and hit 162 home runs.
Deakin was named a first-team Eastern League all-star that year. He beat out players like Felipe Alou.
But the injury bug would hit him again. He was hit by a pitch, which damaged the ligaments in his elbow. In 1959 when he was diving for a ball behind second base, he dislocated his thumb so badly it was near the back of his hand instead of at the side.
“They put pins in it and I finished the season,” he said. “I was in and out of the lineup, but I couldn’t hit.”
He gave it one last shot and went to spring training in 1960.
“I went down with my wife and little boy,” Deakin recalls. “I’d take a couple of swings and up the hand would come. It would go down and I’d take a couple of swings and up it would come. So I went to the general manager and said, ‘I have to make a very difficult decision. I can continue on and just hang around. But no, I have a lot of responsibility now.’ So I went home.”
Deakin was 24. He played from 1955 to 1959 — 509 games, 457 hits, including 87 doubles, 23 triples and 14 home runs with a .284 batting average.
The Yankees kept him on their protected roster for 15 years before releasing him.
“When I got back, Roy McKay, the manager of the Majors, asked me to play for them, but I told them I was done,” he said. “I said, ‘Roy, I’d still be down there if I could play.’ ”
Deakin said despite the frustration of having injuries end his career at such a young age Deakin said he made the right decision.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he said.
Deakin went on to be a firefighter. He also mentored young baseball players like Boughner and scouted for the Toronto Blue Jays.
He has his memories. During a Yankee spring training game against Boston, he was taking batting practice. When he stepped out of the cage, Williams, the last man to hit .400 in a major league season, called him over.
“He said, ‘You keep swinging like that and you’ll be up here pretty quick,’ ” Deakin said.
Deakin remembers watching the Yankees trying to turn outfielder Mickey Mantle into a shortstop.
“He kicked the ball all over the diamond,” Deakin said.
The Yankees left Mantle in the outfield “and the rest is history,” Deakin said.
Deakin doesn’t dwell on the memories of being with the most famous baseball organization in baseball history, but they are a special thing to have.
“Just to remember being with those guys,” Deakin said. “You remember having met some of the greatest players that ever played the game. That was the highlight for me. I was so close, but that’s how it is.”
— — —
London Majors Alumni Day
When: July 22, 7:30 p.m. during Majors vs. Brantford Red Sox game
Where: Labatt Park
Details: Includes tour of Roy McKay Clubhouse, displays and ceremonies, return of San Diego Chicken
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