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Can’t-miss kid missed out

Dagres’s career dreams unrealized

Angelo Dagres played his first game for the Orioles on Sept. 11, 1955, the same day he signed his contract. Angelo Dagres played his first game for the Orioles on Sept. 11, 1955, the same day he signed his contract. (Josh Reynolds for The Globe)
By Mike Carraggi
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2011

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It would be impossible to contain the story of Angelo Dagres on the back of one of his old, worn-out baseball cards. It’s a tale that belies the former major leaguer’s lifetime .267 batting average, the three RBIs, the one career walk.

To the untrained eye, it would appear that Dagres was nothing but an emergency call-up who never even had time to finish his cup of coffee with the big boys.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There was a day, albeit a half-century ago, when Dagres was considered one of the can’t-miss prospects in baseball. A kid from Newburyport with all the tools who was going to roam major league outfields for years.

“I was always the best at what I did growing up,’’ said the 76-year-old Dagres at his Rowley home, breaking into a loud cackle. “I just knew I was going to be playing in the majors for a long time.’’

But stories of fantasy and fame rarely escape the pages of children’s books.

Dagres was the Bo Jackson of Essex County during the late ’40s and early ’50s. As a basketball star, the Newburyport High Wall of Famer established a school career mark for points with 1,350, averaging 32 per game as a senior. On the diamond, Dagres was putting up video game numbers, hitting .679 in his senior year.

“The biggest decision that I had to make was whether to go pro in basketball rather than baseball,’’ said the barely 5-foot-11-inch former guard. “The only thing that kept me from that [basketball] money was my size.’’

His athletic excellence would continue at the University of Rhode Island, where he received a basketball scholarship. But it was on the baseball field where he did most of his damage. In his two years as a Ram, he hit over .400 both seasons.

Dagres was on the well-traveled path that nearly all ballplayers end up taking on their way to The Show. After his sophomore season at Rhode Island, he enjoyed a record-breaking season in the Maine-New Brunswick League, where he set the standard with 15 home runs, 52 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases while hitting .422 en route to winning the 1954 MVP award, according to records of the now defunct league.

“I thought that I was pretty good,’’ said Dagres.

He was inching closer to his dream, but he was also inching closer to his heartbreak.

Major league teams wanted Dagres’s golden touch - by his count, 13 of the 16 teams that made up the league offered a contract to the 20-year-old outfielder. Full of enough pride to rival his talent, he refused to sign anything other than a major league deal. In the end, it was the Baltimore Orioles who made the strongest pitch.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1955, Dagres signed an improbable contract with Baltimore that made him an immediate member of the big league roster.

“They knew I could throw and hit,’’ he said. “They wanted me to sign, and the next day after my tryout I signed at 10 in the morning.’’

What happened that afternoon, however, was closer to impossible.

“I saw the lineup, and there I was,’’ he said, with a hint of the shock that still lingers after all this time. “I wasn’t even in the scorebook that day.’’

It was quite the accomplishment. Dagres was the fourth player in the modern era to sign his first contract and start in the field that same day, according to baseball-reference.com.

The lefty went hitless that day, but managed to knock in a run on a fielder’s choice and impressed with a daring catch, crashing into the left-field wall. The Orioles defeated the Kansas City Athletics that day, 4-2. Baltimore was 8-0 in games he played in the rest of the season.

He had it all His storybook path took him to Fenway Park for a doubleheader against the Red Sox, where he would make his biggest mark. But before he knocked in the tying and winning runs with eighth- and 10th-inning sacrifice flies in a 3-2 decision in the matinee, he got some cherished advice from a guy who knew a thing or two about hitting.

“Ted Williams grabbed a couple of us prior to the game, took us out under the center-field bleachers, and gave us some tips,’’ said Dagres. “I remember him telling us that Jesus Christ himself couldn’t throw a fastball by him.

“No one laughed,’’ he recalled.

Dagres could do no wrong, and the Orioles organization was infatuated with him. Whether it was his blistering speed - newspapers of the time quoted his coaches raving about his running the 60 in 6.2 seconds and being clocked at 3.31 down the first base line - or his confidence (some would say cockiness), he had the makings of a star.

Coach Luman Harris brashly quipped that he wouldn’t sell Dagres for $150,000, or $25,000 more than the Splendid Splinter was ever paid in one year.

“He’s really a tiger, isn’t he?’’ gushed Orioles manager Paul Richard in the Baltimore Sun. “He hustles from the time he steps on the field. Just how far he can go from here, you can’t tell - but he’s got an awful lot of ability. He’s got everything a scout looks for.’’

Dagres was climbing the ladder of the American Dream, and skipping some rungs along the way.

In 1956, Dagres was making spring training his own personal Hall of Fame audition, leading the club in home runs. But his impact wasn’t deep enough, and he was left off the roster when Tito Francona, known around these parts for his World Series-winning son Terry, returned from war.

“My first-ever disappointment was when I got sent down,’’ said Dagres. “That should not have been a disappointment. There I was bitching because they wanted me to go down to Triple A to get some more seasoning. Anyone else would have been thrilled.’’

His mixture of skills and hubris was toxic in the minor leagues. When Richards suggested he make a change to his batting stance, Dagres reminded the skipper that a man who never hit over .250 was talking to a man who never hit under .400.

Dagres took out his aggression on minor league pitching, but when two of his teammates got called up before he did, his fairy tale began turning into a nightmare. His production dipped sharply as he grew bitter and turned to alcohol to aid a sleeping problem. He ended his first season in the minors scratching out a .232 average.

His next season was split between struggles at Single A Knoxville and Double A Nashville, and he couldn’t regain his stroke until 1958, when he hit .311 in a full season at Knoxville.

“That’s what really killed me, they only called me up to Double A,’’ said Dagres, who was entering his fourth season of pro ball at the time of the call-up. “I told them I’d lead the league in hitting, and that they’d want me to come back [to Triple A], and I wasn’t going to come.’’

The then-24-year-old actually ended up finishing second in the Texas League, hitting .336 for Amarillo. True to his stubborn ways, he refused to answer the promotion to Vancouver.

“You just don’t do that in baseball,’’ lamented Dagres.

End of the road After realizing he had bottomed out, Dagres began an ascent back to the league. He returned to Triple A the following season, but he was unable to regain his form. He hit .266 with just one homer in 1960, and in 1961, Dagres’s dreams collapsed on him.

While on a road trip in Columbus, Ohio, the hotel ceiling above Dagres caved in, severely injuring his arm and pinching a nerve in his neck. He was hitting just .230 at the time, and his attempt at a comeback as a pinch hitter with Triple A Rochester in 1962 was futile.

“It was killing me, the cortisone shots. I was not built to be a pinch hitter,’’ said Dagres. “I could see the end coming.’’

After nine painful at-bats, the natural from Newburyport officially retired.

“It broke my heart,’’ he said.

Today, Dagres looks back with an appreciative sense of irony. He was, in a sense, too good for his own good. His talent never matched his desire to pay his dues, and when it finally did, it was too late.

In his Rowley home, Dagres thumbs through the old clippings and pictures of a lifetime ago. Give him one minute, and he’ll give you 10 while talking about his grandchildren he coaches whenever he can, one who goes to The Governer’s Academy and another to Colby.

He still offers free clinics for youth hitters, spraying his expertise like he used to spray base hits.

Even in a perfect world, the odds of Dagres being mentioned alongside such Orioles greats as Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, and Eddie Murray, or even local legends such as Tony Conigliaro and Tom Glavine, were always long. But if the Dagres of today could give a few words of wisdom to his 1950s counterpart?

Well, who knows?

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